Of Rabbits and Turtles
The lights reflected brightly off the parade ground as the cadets fell in line. They had made it. They were the only ones who did. Flight school. Out of two thousand hopefuls, only fifty made it this far. That simulator was nothing to mess with.
Robert and Turk were at the front of the group. They were always in front. They’d been best friends and functioning rivals since grade school. It was always in good fun, of course, but Robert always had the better grades, barely. He was also quite quick to remind Turk that he was only second best. Turk didn’t mind, though. He just wanted to fly. If that meant he had to be second to his pal, he was content.
“Finally,” Robert sighed with excitement, “We’re finally here, Turk. All that waiting and testing was getting on my nerves!”
“Sure,” Turk agreed indifferently, “but it was worth it, right? Taking the time to make sure it’s done right the first time always pays off in the end.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure…but we’re here now. No more waiting.”
The cadets were called to attention. Standing behind a polished podium were the schools senior flight instructors Major Hannah Byrd and Lieutenant Commander Adam Serpentis. Most academy students regard them as legends, the toughest yet most prestigious instructors in the Terra Nova Flight Academy. It was said they’d each completed three full tours of the known galaxy before retiring to teaching positions.
Byrd was a slender woman of fine stock. Even the lines of age on her face couldn’t mask that. Nearly seventy-years-old, Hannah Byrd didn’t look a day over forty. In her cadet years, Byrd had been the squadron commander of the Humming Birds. Her elegant flight patterns were what earned her squadron their name, and her flight patch depicted a blue hummingbird drinking from a star.
Serpentis had aged just as gracefully as Byrd. His silver hair was brushed back to give his golden-brown eyes a fierce glow. He was a solid tower of lean muscle, perfectly stoic in his uniform which bore the Cotton Mouth Squadron’s flight patch: a crimson snake devouring it’s own tail.
“Congratulations, cadets,” Byrd announced, “on making it this far. It’s not easy getting into the academy’s flight school, and from here on out, it’ll be even harder to stay here. That being said, I want to congratulate our two highest scoring cadets: Robert O’Hare and Turk Terapyn. I foresee great things in your futures here. Dismissed, cadets!”
The cadets dispersed and headed for the barracks. Turk tried to keep pace with Robert. He was both relieved and slightly annoyed that the two of them would be sharing a bunk.
“I bet I can make Cadet Squadron Leader in the first week,” Robert was saying, “All I’ve got to do is breeze past everyone else—which you know I can do—and Major Byrd will have to take notice.”
Robert was a tall young man with a runner’s build and bright blue eyes. He kept his short, dusty brown hair spiked forward but well within regulations. He had a tendency to “clown around,” but he would never deliberately jeopardize his future position in the Armada. He knew he would make it, too, and not just some random pilot. No, he would be a squadron leader like his father and grandfather. This was what he had been training for his whole life. He couldn’t wait. Sometimes, that was his major drawback.
Turk shook his head. “Some things never change,” he chuckled, “Listen, I know you want this really badly, but you can’t just charge in headlong. We’re already the youngest cadets ever allowed into flight school. No one under eighteen has ever made it. Enjoy that honor for a bit, huh? Overdo it and Major might just see it as unnecessary recklessness. She’s not going to promote you just because you’re fast.”
“Ooh, speaking of fast,” Robert’s eyes landed on Rachel Coon, “these dorms are coed, right?”
“Man, don’t do this again,” Turk begged, “Your history with girls is full of nothing but broken hearts and bruised egos.”
Robert stifled a laugh. Turk was a hopeless romantic who believed in lasting relationships, but Robert could never keep a girl longer than a week. Though, if he were being honest, Turk’s luck with women wasn’t much better.
Turk was roughly a half-head shorter than his friend and possessing of a bit more meat on his bones. He preferred to keep his hair buzzed to bring more focus to his soft brown eyes. He wasn’t quite as outgoing as Robert, preferring to keep to himself unless it specifically pertained to flight training. He was less worried about moving up in ranks as long as he could get his own Star Hopper. Or, perhaps if lady luck smiled on him, he’d be able to pilot one of the larger cruisers. Turk was a big dreamer, but he was never in any hurry to fulfill those dreams. If he was going to do it, he wanted to do it right the first time. That required patience, something he’s spent years futilely trying to teach Robert.
“I can’t help it,” Robert said, “Rach’s hot; thick black, wavy hair, green eyes, aesthetically pleasing curves. Plus, she’s a Terra Nova Cadet.”
“As opposed to all the other female cadets here?” Turk asked sarcastically.
“You know what she’d go for?”
“A dozen roses and a macchiato?”
“A squadron leader.”
“You’re not even listening to me anymore, are you?”
“I bet by the end of two weeks, I will make squadron leader and have Rachel Coon.”
“I once lost a kidney in a bet…”
“From there, maybe a ship captain!”
“I slept with your sister…”
“Maybe I’ll also retire to teach at the academy someday.”
Turk sighed in defeat. “I’m going to the mess hall,” he said, “I’ll save you a seat for whenever you’re done daydreaming.”
“No, I could never just reti—Turk?” Robert had finally returned to reality as Turk was walking away, “Did you just say you slept with Rebecca?”
“Oh, sure,” Turk laughed, “that one you heard.”
The two friends laughed all the way to the mess hall.
The next couple of months passed fairly slowly, much to Robert’s dismay. Turk seemed to be enjoying it, though. It was a lot of technical courses and flight simulators that weren’t nearly as difficult as the entry exams. Robert was bored to tears. He completed every written test before his peers could even lift a pencil. He beat his own high score on the simulator five times before most could even make ranks. Turk tried to comfort him, but apparently getting noticed by Major Byrd was no longer a big priority for him. He just wanted to get off of the ground.
“This is ridiculous!” Robert finally snapped one day at mess, “It’s been almost half a year and we haven’t even been assigned to squadrons. I’ve been working my tail off with these stupid tests and simulators; it’s time for some real hands-on training. I can’t take much more of the sitting around listening to lectures.”
“These things don’t happen overnight, Rob,” Turk tried to reason with him, “Where have you ever heard of Terra Nova Cadets making squadron before the first year was over?”
“I haven’t,” Robert admitted harshly, “but they never made scores like mine! I’ve literally blown past Lt. Serpentis’ simulator scores only a month ago. That’s gotta be worth something more than another multiple choice exam.”
“The evaluations are just as important as taking a Hopper into the strat. Dude, you’ll be lucky to make it into the trope without studying the necessary calculations and—”
“Well, excuse me if I’m not an egghead freak like you!”
Turk blinked in confusion, trying to search his friend’s face for the joke. It wasn’t there. Robert was genuinely angry, possibly jealous even, that Turk was more book-smart than him despite having the better grades.
Turk wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d been used to Robert’s jibes, but they were never this serious. The remark had barely registered with Robert until it had left his mouth. The two boys stood staring at each other as an awkward silence fell on the mess hall. Robert had considered apologizing. That’s what he should have done, but he couldn’t stop the flames before they spread.
“Wow,” Turk broke the silence, keeping calm as possible, “is that what you really think? That I’m a freak? I want to be up there, too, bro. Just because I like taking things a little slower, you think—?”
“Yes, I do,” Robert cut him off, fuming, “and I think you’re holding me back, bro. Ever since junior high, you’ve been a weight on me. The faster I try to move, the harder you pull me down. I don’t need that. I don’t need you, Terapyn.”
Turk was stunned again. He stood there in silence with his fists clenched, but never losing the calm in his face.
“What is going on here?” Lt. Adam Serpentis had walked into the mess. His voice was as collected as he was stoic. “Gentlemen?” he continued, “What seems to be the problem?”
“No, sir,” Turk spoke barely above a whisper, “no problem.”
Robert shook his head but kept his gaze on Turk. “Just a misunderstanding, Lt. Serpentis, sir,” he answered, “it won’t happen again. I promise.”
“Good,” Serpentis hissed, “then make your way to the parade ground. Major Byrd has an announcement.”
Turk walked away first, leaving Robert huffing angrily. He suddenly saw red as a slender hand flew across his face. When he came to his senses, he saw Rachel Coon standing a few inches from him.
“I thought about your offer, Rob,” she said, “If that’s how you treat your friends, then I don’t want to stick around to see how you treat your girlfriends.”
“Rach, wait,” Robert tried to call after her, “can’t we talk about this?”
She was long gone. Robert was left alone in the mess hall. I don’t need her either then, he justified, I’ll show ‘em. He departed for the parade ground
“Attention!” Serpentis called out.
The cadets all straightened up and saluted as Serpentis and Byrd took their place at the podium.
“At ease, cadets,” Byrd saluted, “If you haven’t already heard, your first year is almost over, and today is the day you’ve all been waiting for. Some of you won’t like what I have to say while others will find themselves honored. Today you will learn which of you made Squadron.”
There was a shout of excitement from the cadets, though they quickly calmed down to let Byrd speak. She tapped a key on the podium causing a holographic manifest to appear on the haptic display behind her. She and Serpentis then called out the names as they appeared. Before too long, ten students stood in front of Byrd and ten in front of Serpentis. It was no surprise that both Turk and Robert had made it.
The cadets who hadn’t been chosen waited respectfully for the final announcement: squadron leaders. They would be rivals for the remainder of Flight academy and would decide where and if they would be assigned to the Terra Nova Orbital Defense Armada after graduation.
“Congratulations,” Serpentis announced first, “Cadet Robert O’Hare! You will be leading the Swift Rabbit Squadron. You are fearless, quick to act without hesitation, and always find the quickest path to success. So shall you lead your squad mates, swift and cunning as the hare.”
Robert let a smug grin crawl across his face as Serpentis shook his hand and pinned a brass Junior Commander insignia on the boy’s lapel. His smile quickly faded, however, when Byrd continued the ceremony.
“And leading the Steady Turtle Squad,” she said, “Turk Terapyn! Your analyzing of your surroundings and taking time to think allows you the tactical advantage over others. Your squad will learn to think and move as a unit, slow and steady as the tortoise.”
“Congratulations to those who made it,” Serpentis concluded, “for those who didn’t, please join us for the celebration dinner, and we look forward to seeing you at next year’s entrance exams.”
The parade grounds cleared out almost instantly except for Robert and Turk, both newly appointed Junior Commanders. The silence was near unbearable. Turk threw his hand out in congratulations. Robert didn’t even look at it.
“See you in the strat-mo, bro,” Robert said with contempt, “or eat my dust in the tropos.”
Turk sighed and let his hand drop. “If you don’t slow down,” he said softly, “you’re going to make a mistake you won’t be able to fix.”
Robert turned and left the parade ground. Turk waited until he could no longer see his friend before heading the opposite direction to the barracks. He suddenly wasn’t feeling very hungry.