How to Find Your Second-In-Command
I met my number one in a line. We'd both queued up in front of a desk in the ballroom of the Montego Bay hotel and casino in Wendover, Nevada, back on Earth. The Rebels were hiring, and they needed a place big enough to handle the traffic. It was nice that they did it inside. The high that day hit 102.
The room was full of the type of guy that populates shaving cream commercials. No one looked more the part than Flint. It was only oh-eight-hundred, but he already had a five o'clock shadow. His dark hair and eyes were the kind that convince women everywhere to buy a new aftershave and hand it to their man with a "Here, try this."
The Rebels were a mechanized infantry outfit with a defense contract at one of the Bonneville salt mines. The want-ad they'd posted said they'd be willing to train the right applicants, no need to have your own mech or any prior experience. You can imagine how people'd jump at such a chance. Aren't many places willing to train, let alone fit you with your own mech. Kids everywhere imagined growing up to be a mech pilot, making enough money to retire their families in outrageous comfort. But an armored mech costs more than your whole village earns in 5 years, so that dream dies pretty green on the vine. When an opportunity comes along like today's, you haul your sorry tail to the recruiter's line. Even if it's going to be a bit toasty outside.
Chewy, the bored guy behind the desk, looked up from his papers at the pair of us. He squinted at Flint and without a second thought asked when could he start. Turning to me he asked, "What can you do?" He obviously saw something in Flint that I'd missed in our 2 hour wait in line. And apparently, I did not stand out in a crowd.
"I can bullseye womp rats in a T-17."1 Chewy didn't get the reference, and told me to beat it. "Next," he called. Flint ignored Chewy, and asked me, "Are you really that good?" I told him, yeah, I was. Flint turned to Chewy. "You at least gotta give this guy a shot. I'd like to have that kinda aim on my side pointing the other direction." Chewy squinted up at Flint again, then turned back to me. "Alright, audition's tomorrow. Oh-500 at the gate of General Amalgamated."
In later years, with as many hours to kill as we now had, Flint and I would've wasted the time by wasting money. That's what casinos are for, and the Wendover resorts had been totally resurrected when the mining companies started bringing in defense contractors. And for a casino in the middle of nowhere having a mech troop or two stationed nearby is a license to print money. But both of us were just starting out. Our first payday a couple weeks later marked the first time either of us had more money than a person would need to survive a month. I knew people who could've made it six months on that first deposit.
Since we couldn't afford Wendover's various entertainments — all of which were typical of the places mercenaries gather — we walked. And talked. I wish I could say that time helped me glean what Chewy did with a squint. Mostly, I could just tell Flint and I'd get along.
Nowadays, I'd pay a year's wages to any recruiter who could find me another Flint as easily and confidently as Chewy did it that day. Years later, I asked Chewy how many others he'd hired on the spot like that, no audition. Flint was the only one. "How'd you know to hire him?" Chewy mumbled something about posture or bearing and looking a man in the eye. I think he was really annoyed that he couldn't actually tell me what made him do it.
The audition was typical of a mercenary company: psychological profiling in the morning, physical endurance (push-ups, running, &tc) in the afternoon, and capabilities (shooting, piloting) tests after dinner. Flint wasn't required to do any of it. Whatever Chewy saw in the orphan from Scipio had guaranteed him a spot with the Rebels. At least I went twenty for twenty shooting the 422, which wiped the bored look off Chewy's face. Flint and I started training the next day.
By the end of our first day of training I realized Chewy was right about Flint.
The drill sergeant, Bixby, had a deep cleft in his chin like a lot of guys wish they had. They're idiots; clefts are just a pain in the tail to shave. Bixby's was smooth as the baby's butt it resembled. Everything about him screamed neatness and order. His uniform was pressed as sharp as the edge of a new sheet of paper, his hair as magnificent as an old-time politician.
Bixby, started out telling us how our mothers should have smothered the sorry lot of us in our sleep. But they didn't and now he had to somehow turn us misbegotten mongrels into a cohesive fighting group, which he didn't see was possible seeing as we only just recently evolved opposable thumbs. Certainly, the most productive thing any of us ever did was convert funnel cakes into feces.
"Any of you chelids stupid enough to challenge me?" Any one of us could pick any contest, and Bixby would beat us at it. He'd humble our finest mind in a game of Go. He'd surpass our fastest sprinter, highest jumper or strongest thrower. He'd mangle our toughest wrestler. We could start a staring contest, a game of darts, a round of bowling. There was not a single skill, mastered by anyone in the group, that Bixby did not own in greater abundance.
"Every one of you flesh-wastes is free to disprove this assertion. We will remain on this scorched patch of salt pan until you're all satisfied that I am your superior in every conceivable way. You will stand at attention until you volunteer as your peers' next object lesson. Who's first?"
No one answered. For sixty seconds, Bixby stared us down, daring us to be so brazen as to actually respond. Standing at attention in the desert, I began to fathom the actual length of a single minute. Bixby would later refer to this moment to remind us how long a minute actually was when we'd complain that two weren't long enough for a man to run the gauntlet.3 In one minute, a properly trained mech could dispatch enough destruction to bring any 21st century nation to utter ruin. Moore's one-minute hesitation at Copper Flats cost the lives of more than 600 men. In letting us boil for those sixty seconds, Bixby taught one of a mech's most important lessons.
In the end Bixby was right. We were worthless. His chess game against a ranked Master lasted thirty minutes; the master, Travis, conceded when he realized checkmate was inevitable in 10 moves. Over the next 3 hours Bixby dispatched every challenge with as much effort as I'd take to wash a cereal bowl. Among those in his wake were a judo black belt, an olympic boxer and a Tour-de-France cyclist. After every contest he'd nod at his dejected opponent, and whisper. Later Travis told me Bixby was encouraging, "There's no disgrace here, son. You took a challenge and did your best."
When the pool of volunteers was exhausted, Bixby simply said, "That's all? OK, follow me. Fall behind, and you're fired." That marked the beginning of a three mile midday desert floor jog.
Many attempts have been made at describing the midday heat of the desert. Calling it an oven is the worst cliché, but it comes closest to a person's everyday experience. It's like when you open the door to check on the chocolate chip cookies, and that rush of air swelters your face. When it hits you, you instinctively back away. In the desert you can't back away.
After standing at attention for the morning, it felt good to stretch my legs. That feeling wore off after about 100 yards. By the half-mile mark I was soaked in sweat and three people had already collapsed, picked up and hauled off by a small group who'd followed. At two miles my vision blurred. Bixby became an indistinct blob I had to follow, but I'd forgotten why. Somehow my legs drove me the rest of the way.
Of the 30 or so of us that started, 12 made it back. Upon our return we were given a couple swallows of water, and Bixby lined us back up at attention and began pacing.
He didn't speak, his measured steps just circled the group in silence. My knees begged me to sit, my mouth for another spoonful of water. Another man collapsed, and instantly the medics put him on a stretcher and hauled him off who knows where. I thought about how my previous life as a serf hadn't really been that bad, how I could stand the hunger and uncertainty more than I'd be able to stand my current utter exhaustion. Bixby continued his vulturous path, no sign he'd stop. My vision swam, my knees sagged, and I tightened my quadriceps to keep from collapsing. I devoted myself entirely to keeping upright.
Suddenly, he stopped and hurled a powerful right hook at Flint's chin. It never landed. What ensued was part rumba and part tornado. In avoiding Bixby's punch, Flint drew himself into a flurry he couldn't have prepared for and which should've landed him in the infirmary.
Both men threw punches and blocked so quickly that all I could make out was a flurry of arms. A blow to the temple caused Flint to stumble back a step and a half, and Bixby used the moment to close the impromptu match with another to the Flint's chin. Except somehow Flint anticipated the punch and stepped closer, cutting off its effective power. In the same motion he delivered Bixby an uppercut that rattled my teeth. The trainer fell to the ground.
There was a stunned moment before Bixby stirred and groaned. He heaved himself to his feet, and I was sure Flint was fired. Bixby smiled, gave Flint a hearty clap on the back and exclaimed to us with a laugh, "Keep an eye on this one, mates."