School’s well underway and we are back on track! Sorry for the momentary disturbance. And for those who dropped a tip in the hat — thank you. It’s well appreciated.
One cool thing about doing flashbacks in these episodes? It’s actually really freaking easy to work out the timestamps for them. Hooray for the metric system!
Well, the decimal time system.
Anyway, here’s Corbett-877 #6.
*** *** *** ***
Interfleet Academy Northeast Campus Indoctrination Facility, Seabrook New Hampshire
Deck Three, Corridor Five, Room 512
It was three minutes before five in the morning that the alarm klaxon had gone off.
The night before had seemed almost quaint. Young men and women from all over Terra saying goodbye to their parents. Putting on their new ‘informal’ cadet uniforms. Standing in a large ampitheater and taking the Oath simultaneously. It was like they were going through the motions — becoming “midshipmen” at the Interfleet Academy, Alliance Naval option. They’d had a meal, were run through their paces, given their official standing (they had all been attached to a ‘ship,’ which did actually exist in orbit but which wouldn’t have much to do with their day to day lives), and then were sent to bed. “Morning comes early around here,” the cheerful upperclassmen had said. “You want to get your sleep! Indoc starts tomorrow!” Indoc stood for ‘indoctrination,’ which sounded ominous enough, if not a bit silly.
Corbett had seen the vids, but that still didn’t mean he was expecting an earsplitting alarm long before the sun came up. He and his roommate — David… Ito? he thought his name was — rolled out of bed. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t know — I—”
“PLEBES!” came a scream from the hallway outside their room. “FRONT AND CENTER, AS YOU ARE! LINE UP THE GANGWAY! MOVE!”
There were an even number of male and female midshipmen in their ‘unit’ — a unit apparently corresponding to the number of rooms in the corridor of their temporary barracks. So, the women were on the ‘port’ side of the hall, and the men were on the ‘starboard’ side, as defined by small red and green lights ‘fore’ and ‘aft’ of the corridor. There was a door on either side, which the upperclassmen called ‘hatches,’ with the locker rooms through the fore hatch. Through the aft hatch was a stairwell, which the upperclassmen called a ‘ladder.’ It had seemed fairly ridiculous the night before.
This morning, nothing seemed ridiculous. Or everything did. Corbett wasn’t sure which.
Corbett and all his fellow students were in the same basic clothing they’d been told to wear to bed. Blue shorts and a matching tee shirt, which seemed like some sort of unusually absorbent cloth — they’d called it ‘sweatcloth’ when they issued it to Corbett, but it didn’t seem like any sweatshirt material he’d ever touched before. It looked and felt like underwear to Corbett, which meant lining up in a hallway wearing nothing but with at least as many girls as boys was awkward. Still, what was there to do?
The two people making all the noise were a man and woman, probably twenty-one each, wearing the actual grey uniforms of midshipmen. looking at the fresh meat with a weather eye.
“This is what we’ve got to work with?” the man said, finally.
“Looks like it,” his counterpart answered.
“Well, let’s see what they can do. Attention! I am Midshipman Second Class Arnold Rance, Cadet Lieutenant Commander of the U.S.S. Donnelly! This is Midshipman Second Class Bonita Tate, Cadet Lieutenant of the Donnelly. And in case you haven’t figured it out, you are all Midshipmen Fourth Class, and the Donnelly is the ship you have all been assigned to.” He clapped his hand against the cinderblock wall. “How do you like your starship?” He looked at a blonde across the hall. “You? How do you like your ship?”
“It…” she looked around, a litle helplessly. “It’s–”
“Wrong!” Rance shouted. “On the floor — thirty pushups! You!” He pointed at a brown haired girl right across the hall from where Corbett and Ito were standing. She was on the slender side, with a yellow hair band and her hair tucked over her ears. It made her look weirdly cute in that setting. “How do you like your ship?”
“It’s outstanding!” she shouted.
“Good answer.” He smirked. “But wrong! Partial credit — fifteen pushups! You!” And now Corbett was under his gaze. “How do you like the Donnelly?”
Corbett took a chance. “It’s outstanding, sir!”
“There we go! It’s outstanding, sir. Get used to that word! The natural punctuation to any answer is sir!” He looked back at Corbett. “But you look a little smug, so take ten pushups anyway!”
Corbett had felt a flush of anger — he’d gotten it right — but he figured this was the game so it had to be played. He dropped and began to do pushups, looking up across the hall.
The brunette was just finishing her fifteen, looking back up at him. She grinned and winked. Corbett smiled quickly, in response.
Rance and Tate found various excuses to get the fourth classes down on the floor doing pushups, clearly taking at least some sadistic pleasure in the exercise. After that, they looked the corridor up and down. “Well. So this is our new crew, Tate,” Rance said.
“Sure is,” Tate said. She didn’t sound impressed.
“I wonder how they look after some proper PT.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“True. True. Tell you what — Tate, count them off, one to four.”
“Yes sir!” Tate walked to the head of one of the lines, and tapped each person on the shoulder, counting. “One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two.” She reached Corbett, tapping his shoulder. “Three!” Which made Corbett’s roommate a Four. And so on. Corbett would have watched her go down the line and back up, but more than one of his fellow fourth classes had been gigged for looking some direction instead of straight forward, and he’d done enough pushups, thank you. So, he didn’t really keep track of who got what numbers until Tate came back up in the other direction, tapping the other side of the hall. “Two! Three! Four! One! Two! Three–” that was the brown haired girl “–Four! One! Two! Three…!”
“You have all been given a number!” Rance shouted once Tate had finished. “That number is now your Squad number! Remember it! It defines you during this initial indoctrination! After these first two weeks, you will be assigned to your academic unit in these same squads, and your school year will begin. For now… welcome to the Donnelly! Tate?”
“Thank you, sir. Plebes! You will proceed through the hatch and down the ladder at the end of the hall! From there, you will proceed out onto the Quad, where you will gather into four groups with your squadmates! We will then organize you into your proper formation, and we will conduct you through a little physical warmup! Do you have any questions?”
Someone took the bait, though Corbett kept his eyes forward (admittedly, largely on his brown haired squadmate’s face) and didn’t see who. “Sir! Do we get dressed or put on shoes?”
“There’s no time, Plebe! You spent all your spare time doing pushups! CompanEEEE! Move!”
It had been pretty chilly that early in the New Hampshire morning, but they didn’t have a lot of time to get cold before the workout. It was barely breaking dawn when they finished — hot and sweaty and kind of miserable, culminating in barefoot laps around the quad. At least it was all on the grass — though Corbett figured barefoot pavement running would be the least of his concerns over the course of these two weeks.
When they were finished, the ‘company’ was put ‘at ease’ and then ‘released,’ which meant they didn’t need to be in formation any more. The four squads kind of collapsed into heaps, sitting on the grass and waiting to be yelled at some more. Years later, Corbett would understand the point — both in terms of helping a bunch of high school civilians understand how the world had changed, and in terms of building a sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps among their fellows.
As for right then? It was just exhausting and painful.
The squad as a whole was close to each other, of course, but Corbett found himself in a group of six — three boys, three girls. “Hey,” the closest guy said, shaking his hand. “Gus Macawber.”
“Lee Corbett,” he answered, then shook the hand of the woman nearest him.
“Kammie Arakaki,” she said, then shook the hand of the brown haired girl who’d been a part of Lee’s entire Academy experience so far.
“Gail Jackson,” she said, turning to shake the hand of the next boy. She was looking at Lee, though, and grinning. “I can already tell you guys are going to be trouble.”
Purgatory District ZGF11.19
Corbett stared as Midshipman Fourth Class Gail Jackson walked past him, straight to where Corbett-699 was setting a freshly synthesized roast beef bagel sandwich. “My God,” he whispered. “It’s… it’s…”
“It’s Gail Jackson,” Corbett-Prime said softly. “I know. I know it’s a shock. Every new Lee Corbett who—”
“You don’t understand,” Corbett said, speaking quietly but with intensity. “Ever since the shuttle crash — ever since that last day….” He shook his head. “I can remember the last time I saw her. We’d made plans to get together after she got back from Lake Ontario. We were going to go out with a couple of squadmates — it was almost summer — we’d both unzipped our cadet uniforms lower than the regulations and we were looking around in case Rance or—”
“I do understand,” Prime said. “I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times. I’ve heard this story more often than you could possibly have told it, Eight Seventy-Seven. And it wasn’t you she made those plans with. It was Corbett-6.”
Corbett shook his head. “I have to talk to her.”
“Eight seventy-seven… Lee. Come on. Of course you’ll talk to the Jacksons, but not like this. Take some time. Get used to the idea—”
Corbett got up, and began walking over to the counter.
Corbett-Prime sighed. “Just once — once I want them to take time and get used to the idea.”
Jackson-2 was eating her sandwich, a large foamed coffee drink next to it. She looked over. “Oh hey there, um…” she glanced at his chest. “Um… whoever you are.” She grinned. “I’m pretty sure you’re missing your badge.”
“Gail… Gail… look. There’s… God, I’ve… I’ve wanted to say so much for so long… I don’t… I don’t know how to….” Corbett felt himself flush, sweat lining his brow. He wasn’t sure if he’d cry or throw up. It was all so real now. All so….
Gail’s eyes grew wide for a second. “What are… oh. Oh.” She took a deep breath. “You’re… new, aren’t you?”
“I… yes. Yes I am. It’s just….
“No… no, I know.” She rubbed her brow. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a really long day. I wasn’t really thinking. I should have checked with the temple for arrivals tonight. Look. Just… I know this is… existentially stunning for you, but please. Just… don’t. Look, I’m not the woman you remember.”
Corbett fought down annoyance. “I know. You’re Gail Jackson-2, not whichever one took the shuttle trip, but—”
“She’s not here. She was mourned, but that’s not even what I mean.” She put her hands on Corbett’s shoulders. “Look. I know. I look like the nineteen year old squadmate who died, but I’m not. I’m not any more than you’re the fourth class Plebe who saw her that day. It’s been twenty five years, Lee. I’ve built a life here. I’m assistant regional chief engineer. I’m married, Lee.”
“Gail — I know, but— wait. Married?”
“Who are you married to?”
Corbett stared. “You married Gus Macawber?”
Jackson-2’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Yes. Happily. And we may be done with this conversation.”
“No! No. No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry — this is all just… so new. And… you and Gus… I’ve… I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re very happy together. I just… it’s not what… I would have expected.”
Jackson-2’s face softened a touch. “I know. I’ve had this conversation before. If it makes you feel any better — he and I were transmitting together, so we ended up going through all these things at the same time.” She laughed slightly. “You know how strange all this has been for you? That’s with a support structure built up that’s custom tailored to you. Now imagine you’re nineteen years old, and this is all just misty ground and a stranger telling you she’s your shepherd. Gus and I came out close enough that we could kind of cling to each other during all of that.” She looked off in the distance, a slight smile on her face. “After a while, we did that by choice. Never underestimate the power of the shared death experience.”
Corbett was still blushing. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. And… it sounds amazing. It really does.”
Jackson-2 grinned. “It is. And I’m sorry I snapped. I’m glad I had that moment to remember how scary this is. Even for a bold starship captain.” She winked.
“Heh — sure. So… I imagine all of the….” he coughed.
“All the Gail Jacksons are married? No, actually. But someone else will explain Jackson Four.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Welcome to Purgatory, Liam Corbett… um….”
“Um… Eight Seventy-Seven.”
“Right.” She grinned more broadly. “You need to start wearing your badge.”
“Right.” Corbett stepped back, and turned away. He slowly walked back to the table. He felt nineteen again, like he were shot down at the Cadet Ball. Or thirteen and shot down at the Junior High Prom. Either way….
“You okay?” Prime asked.
“Yeah,” he said, sliding into his chair. “Thanks for trying to stop me.”
“There’s no good way to figure out there are nine versions of your lost crush, and that they’re almost all spoken for. Heh. Not to make you hate me, but Jackson-Prime married me.”
Corbett blinked. “Really?”
“The… the Gail Jackson in that first squad transmission married you?”
“Yup. Never underestimate the power of—”
“—the shared death experience. I’ve heard that.” Corbett stared at his coffee cup, the coffee now cold in it. “Is it weird that kind of comforts me?”
“Not really. It’s vicarious.”
“Still… all these things I dreamed of telling her, and now it’s all just…” he shook his head.
“Well, there’s always Jackson Four.”
“She said that too. What’s up with Jackson Four?”
Corbett-Prime opened his mouth. “You know what? Later. You’ve had enough shocks. Right now, you should finish your paperwork and—”
“Yeah.” Corbett took the badge out of the box, and slipped it on. “It’s time to finish all this off. After all, you’ve got another arrival scheduled, right?”
“Yeah.” He looked over Corbett’s shoulder — Corbett imagined Prime was looking at Jackson-2. “I’m always unsure how to… you know… break Gail Jackson to new arrivals. Maybe I should ask J-2 to stick around.”
“Why not your wife?”
“She’s across town at a business conference. And… she gets a little weirded out by the whole thing.”
“And you don’t think… J-2… would feel that way too?”
“Heh. Point. Anyway. Let’s get you logging in and scanned. And then… maybe a little more gin?”
“Maybe. Or maybe I should just get used to my new life. Find a job—”
“Yeah.” Prime half-smiled. “In a bit. For right now, you’re the latest Liam Corbett. Enjoy that a little. It doesn’t last forever.”
“Yeah. But what does?”