When the small group of hopeful RIFT recruits arrived at the barracks and training center for the Special Forces candidates, Spunkmeyer felt his heart aching with homesickness for New York. A part of him wished he had found a way to stay in the city but still escape home. Spunkmeyer looked around at his group as they got off the trucks before locking eyes with a girl who had very short mouse-brown hair. She was smiling and had pretty blue eyes. When she looked towards him, Spunkmeyer looked down shyly and tried to act like he hadn’t been looking at her in the first place.
There were two corporals waiting for them as they exited the trucks. One was a tall, thin man with dark blonde hair and the other was an equally thin, muscular woman with close-cut crimson hair peeking out from under her cap and icy blue eyes that seemed to be stuck in a permanent glare.
“Alright,” the male corporal called out, his voice gentle but firm. “I want everyone lined up in two rows for initial orientation.”
The young Marines tried to line up, but after a few moments of them shuffling around and trying to figure out where they were standing relative to everyone else, the female corporal shouted, “How in the fuck did you little shits pass basic when you can’t even form a simple line?!” As everyone tried to move faster and avoid stepping on each other’s duffel bags, she was roughly grabbing people’s shoulders, forcing them to stay still, arranging everyone as she saw fit.
The other corporal shook his head. “Lay off them, Larkins.”
Larkins whirled around to face him, looking like she was going to punch him, and Spunkmeyer flinched.
“Fine. You get them organized. We’re already wasting time here,” Larkins said.
Spunkmeyer caught a glimpse of the male corporal’s nametag as he walked up to the group. Evison. It also was hard to miss the fact that Evison was missing his right pinky finger. Spunkmeyer had learned from talking with the RIFT recruiter that trainers were often former members who couldn’t be returned to combat status due to injury. It was a bit of a surprise that the loss of one finger could cause that. Spunkmeyer couldn’t imagine being forced to leave his combat unit just because he lost something so minor, but it didn’t seem to bother Evison much. He was quick and efficient, but also much gentler with the Marines as he directed them until there were two rows. Spunkmeyer liked the gentleness. Despite being told not to make eye contact with his instructors in boot camp, he made eye contact with Evison. For a moment, Spunkmeyer froze. His heart was in his throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“Relax, son. We do things a bit differently than in boot camp,” Evison said.
Swallowing, Spunkmeyer opened his eyes, struggling to contain his emotions. This small level of kindness was so new to him. It felt almost unreal. But he was beginning to realize that Larkins was just as bad as any of his drill instructors if not worse. What was different was that his drill instructors never argued with each other and they all respected each other. Larkins clearly had no respect for Evison. It was rough watching her berate him and the recruits while Evison tried to introduce them to what they were about to go through.
“Before we get everyone settled, I’d like to introduce ourselves—” Evison started.
“Does this look like fucking summer camp to you?!” Larkins shouted. “They don’t need to know our names! They just need to know what they’re going to do for the next sixteen months and that most of them are going to go home on a bus crying because they failed out!”
“They still need to know how to properly address us,” Evison continued. “Now, my name is RIFT Corporal Asher Evison. I will be one of your instructors. This is RIFT Corporal Skye Larkins. The two of us have spent a combined eighteen years serving in Reconnaissance In Force Teams, so we have first-hand experience of just about everything we’re going to teach you. Make no mistake about this: the next sixteen months of your lives are probably going to be the hardest you’ve ever experienced.”
“What he means,” Larkins interrupted bluntly, “Is that out of you twenty dimwits, at best no more than four of you are going to pass. Maybe none of you will. We’re going to push you until you either break or pass. I can guarantee within a week you’ll be the most miserable excuses for human beings the world has ever seen and you’ll wish you had never even heard of this place. You’re going to be so sore you can’t sleep at night and so tired that you can’t stay awake during the day.”
Evison gave her an annoyed glance. “You’re not helping by scaring them in their first few minutes.”
“Don’t give them unrealistic expectations, Evison. That’s not going to make it easier for any of them,” Larkins muttered.
Evison ignored her. “We’ll go over a full list of what you’re expected to learn during your stay here later, but for now, I’ll give you a quick rundown. Your occupational-related training will be integrated and mixed in with the standard training that all RIFT trainees go through. Remember, as RIFT members you’ll be doing the vast majority of your own work once you get assigned to a team. Ordinary aircraft units have an entire ground crew and support staff. For you, it’s going to be yourself, your pilot or copilot, and maybe your team’s general mechanic. That means that occupational-related training includes airframe inspection and maintenance, powerplant inspection and maintenance, avionics inspection and repair, aviation ordnance, and other topics, as well as the actual flight-related classes: the different roles you’ll be expected fill as either a pilot or copilot, electronic warfare, navigation and radar, procedures for deploying from and returning to a parent spaceship, and so on. You’ll also spend time learning about the maintenance and operation of the Susquehanna-class ships used by RIFTs and we’ll have several hands-on classes that will take place on an operational Susquehanna. Generalized training includes additional small arms and first-aid training, survive-evade-resist-escape classes, survival training, and RIFT logistics and operating procedures, among others.”
Larkins took over from him again, glaring around at all of them. “Maybe before you joined the Corps, you heard some people try to compare RIFTs to Navy SEALs. That’s a close comparison, but there’s a big difference. For you pilots, your role is more focused on a technical specialty than it is on direct action, so you won’t quite be on the same combat-ready level as SEALs or other RIFT occupations, but you have basically the same amount of material to learn. And there’s one thing you do have in common with all other RIFT occupations: SEALS have thirty months to learn what they need to. You don’t get that luxury. You learn what you need in sixteen months or you’re out.
“Now, despite the fact that most of you are going to fail out anyway, the geniuses in charge have decided that just being here earns you some of the privileges that actual RIFT members have. You each will get your own personal quarters in the barracks, and each flight, which is what you twenty fuckers are together, gets their own lounge space. But that doesn’t mean you get to slack off on discipline. You keep your room clean and help keep the lounge and other common areas clean as well. The barracks here are integrated, so the men’s rooms and women’s rooms are in the same hall. You can have any other member of your flight in your room during the day, but the door stays open. If Evison or I catch any of you in someone else’s room with the door shut, or in someone else’s room at all after lights out, you’re dead meat. Lie to either of us or mouth off in any way and you’ll be out on your ass before you can even say ‘sorry’. No second chances. And if you have to separate from the rest of your flight for any reason during training hours, you pair up with someone. If you get caught away from your flight alone, you will be punished even if you had a legitimate reason. If Evison or I need to send one of you somewhere, we’ll assign a buddy to go with you. And if one of you has to leave and not come back, like if I get sick of your shit and send you back to the barracks for the rest of the day, you need two buddies so someone isn’t coming back alone.”
“That doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of interacting with us or any other member of your flight,” Evison pointed out. “You all are expected to bond and work together. This is not a competition. You all are training to become members of the most closely-knit units the Marine Corps has. Make sure that your flight members can depend on you on and off the battlefield.” He smiled at the group. “Any questions?”
“We can do fucking Q-and-A later. Let’s get these kids in the damn barracks,” Larkins snarled before raising her voice to a commanding yell. “Flight face left!”
Spunkmeyer pivoted ninety degrees to his left, as did the other young men and women with him. His nervousness returned as they began marching into the barracks, and he looked down when he passed by Larkins, who was watching them all closely.
“Eyes straight, fucker,” she snarled, turning to look at him.
Spunkmeyer tried, but as they marched through the doors he couldn’t help looking to his left slightly, and he noticed the girl he had seen earlier was right next to him. She must have been standing behind him in formation. He was about to look straight again when she turned her head just enough to notice him.
“Hi,” she said softly.
“Um… uh… h-hi,” Spunkmeyer stuttered. He swallowed hard, looking down again.
“You look nervous.”
“Well, yeah, I’m nervous.” Spunkmeyer checked to make sure Larkins wasn’t paying any attention to them as they came to a stop. “She’s nuts.”
“Certainly seems it. Evison seems really nice, though.”
Spunkmeyer nodded, feeling slightly more comfortable. “I’m Spunkmeyer. Uh… Daniel Spunkmeyer.”
“Colette Ferro. Nice to meet you.”
A small smile crossed Spunkmeyer’s face, but then he heard someone storming up next to him and Ferro.
Larkins grabbed Ferro’s shoulder. “Did you receive permission to talk? Did you?!”
Clearly stunned, Ferro tried to respond, but no words came out.
“Yes or no, Private?!”
“N-No, Corporal,” Ferro stammered.
“You address me as ‘ma’am’, understood?!” Larkins yelled.
“Yes, ma’am!” Ferro nodded.
Something wrenched in Spunkmeyer’s chest. He wanted to help but he was overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness.
“Your number one rule here is to never step outta line,” Larkins snarled. “I catch you disobeying the simplest rule again and you’re getting a one-way ticket back to wherever the fuck you came from, is that clear?”
“Answer me, damn you!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ferro said sharply.
“Good. Now shut the fuck up and don’t so much as twitch until you’ve been given permission.”
Larkins stomped away and Spunkmeyer stared straight ahead again, wanting to comfort Ferro but not daring to as Evison announced, “This building is what you’ll call home for the foreseeable future.”
“Sir?” One of the young men in front of Spunkmeyer raised his hand. “What’s with the doors there?”
He pointed up the wall, and Spunkmeyer realized that the hall they were in, which was about fourteen feet high, had two sets of doors in it on each side. One row was close to the ground, but the other was halfway up the wall and each door had a ladder going up to it.
“Space saving,” Evison explained, and pointed to a closed door at the end of the hall. “There are three other RIFT training units, including one other flight school team, housed on this floor and four more on the floor above us. Keeping the rooms small like this and stacking them in a single hall cuts down on size while still giving you each your own room. Don’t jump too quickly to ask for an upper room. It might look like fun but there are going to be a lot of nights where you’re so tired by the time we get back here you barely have enough energy to climb the ladder to get in.”
“And neither of us are going to shove you in,” Larkins said sarcastically. “That’s not our job. And if I catch anyone fucking around and playing idiot on the ladders, by the time I’m done with them they’ll never even want to look at another ladder again.”
Evison and Larkins began sorting out the trainees and assigning rooms to them. Spunkmeyer was glad when he saw that he was getting one of the lower rooms. As soon as Evison pointed out which one was his, he left the line and entered, looking around. Evison hadn’t been joking when he said the rooms were small. The entire room was only about seven feet square, and the ceiling loomed low overhead. There was more than enough space for him to stand upright, but he could imagine that anyone much over six feet tall might have some problems. The floors, walls, and ceiling were bare metal but there was a window in the outside wall. Just a few feet away, Spunkmeyer could see another metal wall that was either part of another building or an extension of this one and he realized that he wasn’t going to have much of a view, but at least the window let light in. The room had a bed, a small desk, and an upright metal unit that looked to be a combination of a locker and miniature dresser that went from the floor to the ceiling. Between the desk and locker was a narrow door that led to a tiny bathroom.
Spunkmeyer looked around, glad he wasn’t claustrophobic. Although even if he was, the luxury of having his own room after having spent three months sharing space with eleven other males his own age might have been enough to keep the small size from bothering him. As the sounds of Evison and Larkins ushering the other recruits into their rooms filtered in from the hallway, Spunkmeyer closed the door and began emptying his duffel bag. He hung up his dress uniforms in the locker and put his foldable clothing and other possessions in the narrow drawers next to it. He glanced up when he heard faint thumps coming through the ceiling and realized that someone had taken the room above him. At least the thumps sounded like someone setting a heavy object down and not like footsteps, and he hoped the floors were thick enough to muffle softer sounds. It would get annoying quickly if he could hear every time the person above him started moving around.
The last thing in his duffel bag was his father’s cap. Spunkmeyer sat on his bed, turning the cap over in his hands and sighing. Jesse had gotten so close but couldn’t get any answers because of things beyond his control.
He emerged from his thoughts when he heard Larkins yelling at everyone to stop organizing their belongings and get back out into the hallway to go to the mess hall. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, seeing the rest of the trainees either opening their own doors or climbing down their ladders from the upper levels. He looked down the hall and saw Ferro climbing down from one door, but she only looked at him briefly before turning away as if afraid to acknowledge him. Spunkmeyer found his place in line and when the last of the group got into position, they marched down to the mess hall.
Compared to the mess hall at boot camp, the base mess hall was nicer and seemed to have a better selection of food. It was strange listening to Larkins demand everyone stay in line while Evison tried getting everyone to go at their own pace. Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure which one of them to listen to. Nervously, he stayed in line, although he couldn’t help noticing that the other training units that had shown up at the same time seemed much more relaxed and casual as they got their food and went to their tables. At one point, he glanced over to see Evison had turned away from everyone else and was rubbing his face. He stared out one of the windows and Spunkmeyer was tempted to go over to him.
He couldn’t linger and watch Evison, though. He didn’t even know why he wanted to in the first place. Just because Evison was nice didn’t mean they were going to become friends. Spunkmeyer didn’t even think that was possible. That had to be fraternization.
Taking a tray and wandering down the counter, Spunkmeyer absentmindedly picked what he wanted to eat. He noticed Ferro sitting at the other end of their assigned table with some of the other female trainees, looking as if she was incredibly bored with their conversation and trying not to show it. A part of Spunkmeyer felt like talking to her, but he resisted that urge. A moment later, some of the other recruits started introducing themselves. When it was his turn, Spunkmeyer decided to be upfront and honest about his situation without informing them that he was well under the legal age for a Marine.
The topic of being adopted didn’t last very long, which Spunkmeyer appreciated. What followed was the trainees from more rural areas asking what city life was like and vice versa. They were all nice enough, but Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure if any of them would be the person to go to if something was wrong. Of course, it’s too soon to tell. Give it time. You’re not gonna make friends overnight.
The entire base was immediately cloaked with silence after all the lights went out. Spunkmeyer lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. Again, the silence was unbearable. He felt like crying as homesickness crept up on him. Despite everything that had happened, he still considered New York to be home. The familiarity of everything had been stripped away. He had taken it away from himself. If he had just held out for one more year, he would’ve gotten himself a job and stayed in the city.
It just seemed so easy to quit, but he didn’t want to back out of this. He had barely gotten started, and he did pass boot camp. Surely that was a sign that he was meant to do this and continue onward.
Eventually Spunkmeyer drifted into a dreamless sleep. He was jolted awake at six in the morning by someone knocking on the door.
“Everyone up! Let’s go!” Evison called. “Dress and present in five minutes!”
People moved along at their own pace in the mess hall. Just like the day before, Spunkmeyer sat with some of the guys, but he kept glancing at Ferro who had moved all the way down to the far end of the table and was completely ignoring everyone else, giving her food her sole attention. Spunkmeyer looked down at his own plate until he felt someone was staring at him. He switched his gaze upward and saw Ferro looking at him from the corner of his eye. This time, he moved his head in order to make full eye contact with her. Feeling a bit silly, he waved to her, and after a moment, she waved back, a shy expression on her face.
Go talk to her, you dork. She waved back, that means you can initiate a conversation with her, right? Spunkmeyer held back, going back to his breakfast. He noticed he didn’t have much of an appetite anymore.
Spunkmeyer kept thinking about that little wave after breakfast as they were led out of the mess hall and outside to a different building with classrooms inside of it.
“The first few days will be mostly classroom work,” Evison explained as the trainees took their seats and he and Larkins moved to the front of the room. “Just because you’re going to be the Corps’ most elite doesn’t mean we spend all our time on the range and running combat simulations. We’ll begin with classes and a short exercise period each day, and once we move on to more of the outdoors and hands-on work, the physical activity is going to get longer and harder. A lot harder. So don’t tire yourselves out too quickly.”
The first several hours were all spent on safety prep. Spunkmeyer had no idea that there could be so much to learn about safety procedures, but everything he heard made sense and he tried to memorize as much of it as he could.
Lunch was much the same as breakfast, but this time Ferro sat on the same side of the table as he was and still at the opposite end, so he couldn’t see her or wave to her again. After lunch, they were marched back to the classrooms where Evison and Larkins went into detail on their class structure for the next sixteen months and gave everyone an introduction into the history and role of RIFTs in the Marine Corps. When dinner came, Larkins passed out training guides to everyone as they got up to leave. “I expect you all to study these in your free time. You get way too much of that here, so why don’t you use it productively? Tests are given regularly, and if I don’t see passing marks on all of them, I don’t want to see you fucking flying. Read those and study them. We’ll be going over the material tomorrow.”
After dinner, they were taken to an indoor gym in the same building as the barracks and Evison and Larkins began putting them through some routine exercises. Like everything else they had done that day and the evening before, Evison was gentle but firm and authoritative with Spunkmeyer and the other trainees, while Larkins was outright aggressive about everything. Not even growing up in New York had taught Spunkmeyer language as colorful as she used, and as they began their final set of push-ups, Spunkmeyer was horrified when Larkins’ anger focused solely on Ferro, who was clearly struggling to keep up.
“Faster!” Larkins yelled, standing over Ferro. “Come on, little girl, move it! How the fuck did your weak ass make it through the physicals in basic?! Maybe keeping you here is a waste of time and I should just fail you out now! Is that what you want, Private?! Is that what you fucking want?!”
Spunkmeyer’s heart ached for Ferro, but he didn’t dare react, no matter how painful it got. He just kept doing his own repetitions until he was finished, and he looked over just in time to see Larkins put her boot on Ferro’s back and push her down to the floor. “Pitiful,” she said scornfully. “Not bad enough to fail yet, but it’ll happen if you don’t pull yourself together. Get up, Private, and get in that fucking line this instant. And no tears, you whiny piece of shit.”
Ferro wound up two spaces behind Spunkmeyer and he could hear her breathing heavily as if trying to keep from sobbing. When Larkins wasn’t looking, Spunkmeyer gave the red-haired woman a glare of pure hatred, wishing he could hurt her for the way she was treating Ferro. Evison just looked tired, and Spunkmeyer had a feeling he hadn’t said anything because he knew Larkins was right. Ferro hadn’t done well, and Spunkmeyer was worried she wouldn’t make it very far in training unless she was able to improve.
They were marched back to their barracks and instructed to shower before having free time until lights out. Spunkmeyer took his time in the shower, enjoying not only being able to spend as long as he wanted but also having the privacy that came having his own bathroom. When he was finished, he dried himself off, dressed, and was about to sit down at the desk with the training manual he had been given earlier when he heard loud sobbing out in the hall. He dropped the manual on the desk and opened his door just in time to see Ferro swinging herself off the ladder into her room and slamming the door. An awful feeling starting up in his gut, Spunkmeyer stepped out in the hallway and climbed the ladder after her, taking a deep breath before knocking on Ferro’s door.
At first, there was no answer. Her sobbing had subsided a little, but he couldn’t bear to listen to it. His mind kept turning to that morning when they had exchanged waves. He felt like that meant something and he really should talk to her.
“Whoever it is, go away,” Ferro stammered.
Spunkmeyer bit his lip, struggling to come up with a good introduction. “I just want to see if you’re okay.”
“I don’t even know who you-” Ferro threw open the door and leaned out to look at him, stopping when she met his eyes. “Oh. You’re the guy who talked to me yesterday morning. Just go away. I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.” But she didn’t break eye contact with him, and didn’t slam the door in his face
“Can I talk to you? I won’t say anything to anyone-”
“It’s not like it’s a secret that I’m crying, okay? People have ears.”
Spunkmeyer stayed put, hanging on the ladder. He realized they still hadn’t lost eye contact with each other, and he didn’t want to be the one to break it. “You’re sure you don’t wanna talk to me? I kinda… got the feeling you did when you…”
“When I what? Spit it out.”
“Y-You returned my wave this morning.”
“Well, that was before the fucking day started.”
Spunkmeyer hesitated. “Look, I heard you crying. I feel bad and I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“Why… why do you give a fu-?” Ferro stopped in the middle of the word, breaking eye contact and looking down at the hall floor as tears welled up in her blue eyes. “Get in here.”
She grabbed him by the jacket and pulled, helping him swing off the ladder into her room. It was then that Spunkmeyer noticed she was still wearing her day uniform instead of her casual fatigues. Something must have happened that stopped her from showering when everyone else did.
Ferro gestured for him to sit at the desk while she dropped onto her bed, which Spunkmeyer noticed was unmade. “What’s your name?” Ferro asked. “I know you told me yesterday, but I forgot.”
“Spunkmeyer. And you’re Ferro. You told me yesterday too. What… uh, what happened? Did Larkins say something to you?”
“Oh, she said a lot,” Ferro said, looking half-angry and half-heartbroken. “Pulled me into her room down the hall and spent a good five minutes going at me, telling me I’m weak, pathetic, stupid, the whole nine yards.” She looked down at herself. “I feel disgusting and I haven’t even had the chance to shower yet. And I can already tell this is just the start of it. Every day is going to be the same as the one before because of her. She’s going to be on me every moment, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds an excuse to kick me out. I was the first one of our flight to screw up in front of her. I think that’s why she’s painted a target on my back.”
“That’s not your fault. Doesn’t mean you won’t pass and become a pilot like the rest of us. She can’t fail you because you have emotions.”
“She’s certainly threatened to. But seriously, who treats someone like that on their first proper day?”
“Someone who expects perfection and has no heart or sense of compassion, that’s who.”
Ferro offered him a small smile. “Got that right. I think ‘evil’ is too strong a word, but she’s definitely not pleasant.”
“She’s not someone you want around for Christmas dinner.”
“I take it you’ve had experiences like that.”
Spunkmeyer frowned, suddenly feeling blood draining from his face. “Well, I…” He sighed. I’m not ready to tell her. “I’m not ready to talk about it.”
Ferro shrugged, suddenly looking sad again. “Alright, suit yourself.”
Embarrassed, Spunkmeyer stood up, feeling as if that was his signal to leave. “Um, we can talk later.” As he put his hand on the door handle, cringing at the awkwardness of his own words but not sure how to fix it, Ferro spoke up.
“Hey, in case you’re wondering? You can trust me.”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”