“I pissed her off? How?”
“Get some breakfast in you, Cadet,” Grisham says, ignoring your question. “You’ve got…”
“Ugh, 42 seconds or something like that, right? What the hell is going on?!”
“Go eat,” Grisham repeats, swatting your butt. “Make it quick. We need to get you trained as quickly as possible. Personal matters are going to have to wait.”
There’s cereal in the kitchen. You end up standing against the counter, shoveling spoonfuls into your mouth, crunching annoyedly. Every day seems to bring something new and unpleasant into your life. Grisham is just following Terra’s orders, you guess. Terra doesn’t seem to be around anymore, nor does Sarah. It’s just you, getting your ass whipped up and down the camp.
“Come on, Cadet,” Grisham says. “Let’s go.”
You leave the bowl on the counter, half full and follow her through the trees to a firing range.
“This is Instructor Credenza,” Grisham says, introducing you to a woman with long burgundy hair and no-nonsense eyes.
You look at the woman warily, estimating her age to be similar to Grisham’s, though she has a lot more wear on her. Her face bears two significant scars, one running just past her left eye down to her chin, the other running from her lower lip up to her right ear. She’s obviously seen action. There’s a certain hardness to her gaze and movements which tells you she’s perpetually alert, her fit frame neat inside her uniform.
“This is Cadet. She needs basic arms training, emphasis on laser weapons and small weaponry.”
“Yes ma’am,” Credenza says with a quick glance at you.
“I’ll be back for you in three hours,” Grisham says before turning and leaving you with the instructor. You stare after her for a second before Credenza speaks up, distracting you.
“Have you ever fired a weapon before?”
“On the farm, ma’am.”
“These are more advanced than projectile weapons,” Credenza explains. “Simpler to use, easier to aim. Try this out.”
She hands you a pistol and directs you toward the targets at the end of the range. You lift the weapon and point the end of it toward the targets. Squeezing the trigger, you shoot a few rounds toward the circles, hitting the center of the targets over and over in quick succession.
You lower the weapon and turn toward Credenza with a smile. “Not bad, huh?”
“Okay, so you can aim and press a trigger button. Good,” she says, seeming unimpressed your accuracy. “Now you’re ready to learn how to shoot.”
“But I am shooting?”
“You’re pointing and pulling,” she says. “Not the same thing at all. The only time you’re going to need to use this skill is when someone else is firing at you. So the trick isn’t being able to hit a target. It’s being able to hit a moving target that’s firing back at you. Come on, Cadet. We have a live simulation you need to get familiar with.”
She leads you into a large empty room next to the range and hands you a very fake pistol with the same weight and size as a real one, and a pair of glasses. The moment they slide on, you’re no longer in a room. You’re in a forest, standing behind a thick tree trunk.
“Can you hear me, Cadet?”
Instructor Credenza’s voice comes through the curling ear pieces of the glasses.
“The simulation is about to begin. There will be three hostiles. You need to hold your ground, stay in cover and pick them off when you have an opening.”
PEW! A laser beam goes whizzing by the tree. Your heart starts pounding in response. It all feels so real.
“Engage the enemy, Cadet!”
You’re frozen in place, just like the last time you were in one of these simulations, failing Terra’s test.
The enemy fire keeps whizzing past your position. You know its not real. You know you could step out and shoot every pixelated enemy without incurring any damage at all to yourself, but something about the sound and the intensity and the fact that your hands are so sweaty you can barely keep hold of the weapon makes you freeze.
PEW! PEW PEW! PEW!
The fire draws closer and still you stay where you are.
When you fail to move, the glasses are pulled from your face and the forest is replaced with a glowering instructor.
“What was wrong, Cadet? You didn’t even raise your weapon.”
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I… can’t do this.”
You hand the practice weapon back to her and turn away, your shoulders slumped. You’re not a fighter. You never have been really.
“Get back here,” Instructor Credenza barks. “You haven’t been dismissed!”
You turn around to face her.
“You can shoot,” she says. “Pretty well. There’s nothing to fear in the simulation. So what’s the problem?”
“Every time I get into one of those things I just… freeze. I’m not… I’m not a good fighter.”
“You don’t know what you are yet,” she says, putting the simulator weapon in your hand. “Try it again.”
You slide the glasses back on and the firefight starts all over again. You can practically smell the burning wood as the supercharged proton beams slam into trees, shattering branches and making smoke curl from their stubs.
“Take a shot, Cadet!”
You reach your arm around your digitally contrived cover and blindly pull the trigger. Ping!
PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW
You’ve only made them angry. Their barrage intensifies and you take cover, crouching low against the ground to avoid fire.
After a few minutes of cowering, the glasses are removed from your face and you see Instructor Credenza trying not to laugh.
“Okay,” she says. “Well. That was interesting.”
“I told you, I’m not good at this. I never meant to get a combat rating…”
“Being reluctant to throw yourself into the path of oncoming fire is not a bad thing, Cadet,” she says, ignoring your excuses. “It’s a good instinct to have. But firing blind isn’t going to get you out of a tight spot. Let’s try something else.”
She takes you back to the range and sets you up with a series of moving targets. You return to using the real weapon, firing at the targets as they move faster and more irregularly over the course of the exercise.
“There’s nothing wrong with your aim,” Credenza notes when the sequence stops. “Moving or stationary, you’ve got the natural skill. You could be quite deadly if you wanted to be.”
You don’t know whether you should feel proud of that or not, but you sort of do. Still, the abject failure in the simulation brings you down.
“It’s not aptitude with you,” she says. “It’s mental. You’ve got to get into a fighter’s mindset.”
“Like I said, I’m not much of a fighter,” you tell her.
“I’m not buying that.”
“Well, you don’t know me,” you say. “So, I guess, I would know better.”
“Not a fighter, but you argue with instructors and refuse direct orders. You’re a fighter, Cadet,” Credenza says with a patient smirk. “It’s just channeled in all the wrong places.”
She hands the glasses back to you. “Something’s got you pissed, I can tell. This time, try using that energy when the simulation starts.”
“I really don’t want to…”
“Cadet, I’m giving you an order,” Credenza says firmly. “You’re going to put those glasses on, and you’re going to complete this simulation before we’re done. That’s how it works with me. Now do it.”
You end up back in the simulation room, holding the fake weapon, readying yourself for a fake battle that scares the hell out of you for reasons you can’t explain. There’s something so uncanny about simulations.
“Let’s go, Cadet.”
You don’t know Credenza, and she doesn’t know you, but you’re starting to get annoyed with her. She’s not Terra. She’s not Grisham. She’s not even Sarah. You start to figure out what’s making you so mad. You’ve been played with and then dumped again. Pushed off on some stranger.
“Get going, Cadet!”
You put the glasses on and this time the simulation barely has time to start before you step out from behind cover and start firing. Three targets go down in three seconds.
“Woah! That’s more like it!” You hear Credenza exclaim in the world outside the simulation. “Good work, Cadet!”
You smile in spite of yourself.
“Whatever you were thinking about just then, keep using it,” she says. “It’s working for you.”
Over the next three hours, you work your butt off training both in simulations and with live weaponry. By the time Grisham returns, you’ve forgotten about how angry you were. You’re starting to feel pride and a sense of strength running through you which you’ve never felt before.
“How’s she doing?” Grisham addresses Credenza before she even looks at you.
“Very well,” Credenza says, slapping you on the back. “We got off to a slow start, but she’s got talent.”
“That’s good to hear,” Grisham says with a simple nod. “Come on, Cadet, we have more work to do.”
“I’d like to stay here.”
“Well, that’s not what’s on the schedule,” she replies. “Come on.”
“No.” You shake your head and take a step back. You’re still holding one of the proton pistols in your right hand. “I’m staying here. I want to keep practicing. This is the first time anyone’s taught me anything worth a damn since I started at the academy.”
Credenza steps up behind you and plucks the weapon out of your hand. “Get on out of here, Cadet,” she says. “The range isn’t going anywhere. You did good work today. Don’t ruin it with insubordination.”
You close your mouth and press your lips together. There’s really no choice.
“Thank you, ma’am,” you say to Credenza before following Grisham back toward the cabin.
“You’ve got some attitude on you today,” Grisham notes.
“I guess I got dragged out of the wrong side of bed,” you mutter at her back.