After entering the Space Station, they experienced a huge relief, coming probably from the fact they got there and that the surroundings had changed to the familiar design, unified for all orbital military stations: white walls with pictograms and well-known equipment.
Major Milano, a tall grey haired officer with a stern look and polite manners, reserved and not overly talkative, had welcomed them individually with the handshake and words of appreciation, while assigning them to flying squadrons. It took half an hour as he needed to consult his tablet each time he had met a pilot from a different base.
When he did not question the presence of five cadets, Gromov had silently acknowledged him as a competent officer who had been too long in military service to show any surprise.
Nonetheless, he hesitated when Akane told him that Andrey Jerzinski was going to be her gunner, which had caused a disruption in already scheduled assignments, but still, Milano just nodded in approval, rearranging fields on the screen.
“As for you, captain,” he continued, looking at Gromov. “You don’t mind being the leader of the third squadron, do you? Under normal circumstances, given your experience, I would give you the second one, but since they told me you would take a cadet for the gunner, I believe it is safer to have Captain Chi on that position.”
Not recalling such an arrangement, but with the clear idea, who had proposed it, Gromov just shrugged. “Not enough gunners, then?”
“One missing. I apologize for inconvenience.”
Akane seemed outraged. “Makes a perfect sense,” she whispered loudly to Andrey. “The best pilot with the green gunner equals to pretty average crew, right?”
Andrey just gave her a stern look. “Not major’s fault at all, lieutenant. Sava brought the kids here. Of course, the spiteful one will bite even if it means to cripple our performance, or perhaps lose the battle at all. Who cares? That’s the army for you.”
The spiteful one? Andrey sounded bitter and awfully loud stating that. Major Milano stayed silent; however, he had clearly heard sergeant’s words and showed signs of disapproval.
“Good luck,” he wished Gromov instead and went on with the list.
“Andrey,” said Gromov in half-voice. “I told you to stay down there, didn’t I?”
“Sure, I could. And the young tigress would stay without a gunner. Who do you think I am - to let my position be taken by puppies? But of course, there is nothing wrong with them. I’ve trained them personally. Gave them my best advice how to stay alive, even if a pilot or a supreme commander sucks. Can happen, you know.”
Andrey winked at Akane.
“Not important,” Gromov interrupted. What advice, indeed? Andrey was a living proof that gunners were at the mercy of the superior’s competency or incompetency. He beckoned towards cadets: “Andrey, which one?”
“You want me to pick a victim for you, Sava? I’ve already done my part by choosing five of them.”
The sergeant smiled.
“Like two brothers,” mumbled Akane jealously. “Sava is grumpy with me. Never jest with me. All the time being sarcastic. He even ate my dinner!”
Her hurt undertone reminded Gromov she had developed a crush on him. Probably because of lack of better opportunities, similar to a female student fancying a male teacher, something she forgets as soon as they get separated, pursuing a different path later on.
Irritated and feeling guilty, Gromov focused on five waiting cadets, who stood in front of white plastic wall, beside door to the dressing room. Two girls and three boys, all tall with shortcut hair, young, eager, and nervous faces, almost like waiting for result of an exam.
“They have no backup yet,” he thought, “I am responsible for bringing them here; Steiner was right. Their death will be permanent, exactly the same as mine. No annoying duty to explain the tragedy to brokenhearted parents, because I will be no more. Fantastic!”
With rather a cruel grin, he asked: “Who volunteers? I need just one.”
Two boys and one girl stepped forward, while the remaining two avoided the eye contact as if he could blame them for not trying hard.
“You were brave enough to come along,” he placated them, pretending it was their choice - and not the order. “What a hypocrisy,” he mused. “Or perhaps, I’ve improved my socializing skill, telling people what they'd love to hear.”
“Now,” he continued, “recapitulating the danger would be insulting, so let’s skip to the point. I am Captain Gromov from Dolzana base. Having graduated from the Academy about twenty years ago, I’ve been in active duty since then, fighting Plantarians from the very beginning.
There were skirmishes in asteroid rings with bandits on very obsolete machines as well. Nothing spectacular! Thinking about it, encountering an adversary being on a par with our technology is a fresh experience even for me."
Cadets, and not only them, were listening to the words in grave silence, resembling guests on a friend's funeral, contemplating the sermon of the preacher. "Why do I bother with my curriculum vitae," mused Gromov. "Why should they know my personal history? To win their trust? You bastard, haven't you always hate the strangers, pretending they were your friends? Stop the crap already!"
He focused on the female cadet who stood in between two boys; she was slim, with narrow hips and shoulders giving her away. To forty years old Gromov, the three looked almost identical, even their facial features of boys appeared too soft and childish, almost androgynous; still he had to remove her from the shortlist.
"Sorry, you're out," he tapped her shoulder, feeling like a member of the committee from some weird survival show.
"May I know why, sir?"
"You are a female, obviously," he said. For a short moment, Gromov pondered the possibility how to soften his statement, to sound less chauvinistic and avoid troubles with ones like Mrs. Corbin. On the other way, since when he cared for whether people approve his speech or not?
The girl surprisingly stepped back without complaints.
"Shocked, Your mansplaining majesty?" asked Andrey proudly. "Did you expect me to raise idiots? Helga Larsson knows the reasons."
"What reasons?" interrupted Akane, evidently on the never-ending quest to amaze Gromov by her ignorance of basics. And once again, she was not alone. The other pilots around looked as curious as her. Did they really think gunners being solely men is some kind of conspiracy towards women?
"Anybody cares to explain? You, cadet Larsson?"
"Yes, sir. Since female physical constitution is generally weaker, you are probably concerned about my endurance under Q-Field."
"But Q-Field doesn't affect human endurance!" objected Akane.
Gromov rolled his eyes. "Akane, stay quiet," he begged voicelessly.
"I know, lieutenant," the cadet went on, assuming incorrectly the officer was testing her. "Under Q-Field, with a high possibility of supporting systems' failure, gunners have to cope with long-term manual aiming, which requires physical strength and stamina."
Akane was terribly persistent.
"And? I am a woman as well, right? I can do manual pretty well."
"Compared to a pilot, the gunner's position requires more real-time adjustments. But..."
Larsson kept staring to Gromov's eyes: "I can assure you I'll be no hindrance, sir. My physical score don't lack behind guys."
Gromov did not falter.
"Do you want me to bet our lives on it?" he asked. "Trained for different tasks, your gunner drills were rudimentary. Let me tell you one thing: I must eliminate two of you, but I do not doubt your sergeant's judgment. You must've been a suitable candidate to begin with."
"We made a mistake," he thought secretly. "Andrey should've never picked up girls in the first place. Whatever, there is no coming back now."
"Thank you, Helga, but no," he refused and continued addressing the remaining duo: "As for you, listen carefully. I'm going to give you an order. Execute it properly and win. Ready?"
After they nodded, Gromov took a deep breath and roared directly to their shocked faces: "HIT ME HARD! RIGHT NOW!"
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.