Chapter 4
Class Ranks
EU Air Force Academy at Serentatis, Luna, Earth Sphere
Date: Thu 13 May 112
Time: UST 1027

Although there was still a month left in the third term, the pilot candidates had already taken their final exams for Phase III of JSUPT. Those who passed would be moving on to the qualification course for their aircraft of choice. Even on an accelerated training schedule, a single term was not enough time to be properly trained on most craft, especially when at least half that time was already being used for regular academic courses.
Matt's class was the first to fully integrate both JSUPT and the follow-on training with the regular course load at the Academy, an experiment to more quickly produce the pilots desperately needed for the war effort. Pushing cadets to get their degrees in three years instead of four was challenge enough, but for the pilot candidates, they were cramming in a good 18 months of flight training into that time as well. The attrition rate more than tripled and it remained to be seen whether the washouts that got recycled would make it through on their second go or not.
To call it a struggle was a gross understatement. Even with Matt going for a dual degree, the academic portion was not that difficult in and of itself, but when combined with the physical training, the military discipline, and the full course of flight training, it felt like he could barely keep his head above water. At very least, he did not have to worry about the additional responsibilities of a cadet leadership position on top of everything else. It might hurt his chances for a promotion later on, but getting his first silver was low on the list of Matt's priorities.
At that particular moment, the only thing he was thinking about was the results of his Phase III exams. Phase III had been particularly difficult for him and he was seriously doubting his chances for a future as a combat pilot. The last thing he wanted was to be just another washout.
There was no point in putting it off any longer. He rang the chime for Colonel Kreuger's office.
"Enter," the Colonel's voice said over the speaker.
The door opened and Matt walked in.
Standing at attention in front of the Colonel's desk, Matt saluted and said, "Sir, Cadet Harold reporting as ordered."
The Colonel curtly returned the salute and gestured to one of the nearby chairs.
"At ease, Cadet. Take a seat."
"Yes, sir."
Matt sat down, instinctively sitting at attention. The Colonel gave him a critical look.
"I thought I said, 'At ease.'"
Matt relaxed slightly, but not much. It was enough for the Colonel, though.
"That's better," he said. "You know why you're here, Cadet?"
"I, ah, I believe so, sir," Matt replied, trying not to show his nervousness. "This is about my qualification scores, isn't it?"
"That's right. How do you think you did?"
While the culture in the Academy prized bravado, especially in the 'firsties' who were supposed to set the example for their underclassmen, Matt could not bring himself to lie. Not only did he not like to lie on general principle, but he also figured the Colonel would see right through him if he tried. 'Honesty is the best policy,' right?
Matt sighed. "Honestly, sir, I don't think I made the cut and even if I did, I don't know if I have what it takes to be a combat pilot."
"And what makes you say that?" the Colonel asked.
Matt started to fidget in his chair.
"I know flying is difficult on its own, sir, and I know combat flying is even more difficult. I had to struggle to get through Phase III and if I just scraped by, I don't think that's enough. I don't want to be a liability to my squadron. I don't want any of my wingmates dying because I'm not good enough."
"Bein' good doesn't hurt," Colonel Kreuger replied, "but nothin's gonna stop people from dyin' out there."
Unconvinced by the Colonel's apparent bid to comfort him, Matt shook his head.
"I can't let myself be a danger to my unit, sir, not in good conscience."
The Colonel nodded thoughtfully. "Well, you're puttin' the unit ahead of your own ambition, I'll give you that. I know a lot of cadets would say just about anythin' to get the slot they wanted."
"It's not about what I want, sir," Matt said firmly. "It's about doing what's right. It's about being placed where I can do the most good."
The Colonel chuckled sardonically to himself.
"Well, ain't you just the poster boy for 'service before self'? Listen up, Cadet, I'm gonna clue you in on somethin'."
"You passed, Harold. You passed by a wide damn margin."
A wide margin? There was no way that could be right.
"But, sir," Matt said awkwardly, "I, I don't understand."
"You're a damn good pilot, son," the Colonel replied, "and you've got the makin's to be a great one. I saw you had potential from the start, but I didn't want you gettin' complacent, so I set you two grades ahead of everyone else back in Phase II. You were doin' well, so I upped you an extra grade when it came time for the final exam."
"Sir, that would mean..."
Colonel Kreuger cracked a grin.
"That's right. I had you at Level 8. Yeah, you just barely scraped by, at two levels over what the Air Force is lookin' for after follow-on training. You know, with performance like that, you could get fast-tracked for Special Ops right out of the Academy."
Matt was at a complete loss. All this time he was three levels ahead of the standard pilot candidate. No wonder he had such a hard time of it.
"I don't know what to say, sir."
"You don't have to say anythin'. Just don't let it go to your head."
"I won't, sir."
"Alright then, Cadet, congratulations. You're dismissed."

* * *

Location: Ramon Starbase, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 25 Jul 122
Time: UST 0800

This time it was one of the Air Force personnel who caught Colonel Kreuger walking into the briefing room and shouted, "Room, atten-shun!"
Everyone stood at attention as the Colonel hastily said, "At ease, at ease," as he walked briskly to the front and center. Doffing his aviators, he looked around at everyone with his intense single eye.
"Alright, take seat, people."
When everyone was seated, the Colonel held up the DataPad he was carrying and smacked it with the back of his hand.
"This is what we've all been waitin' for. I've got the results and it's time you know who made the cut and who's been wastin' my time and the taxpayers' money these past four weeks."
He paused again to survey the room. He certainly liked to make people sweat. You would almost think he was back to teaching at the Academy.
"I'm gonna be sayin' the names in alphabetical order by group. Pay attention 'cause I'm only sayin' it once. Primaries. Pilots. Aswani, Gitell, Gonzales, Joachim, Li, Pak, Sen. CSOs. Berensky, Chardonnet, Cussell, Parente, Singh C, Thian, and Yu. No, not you."
The Colonel chuckled at the tired old joke, but quickly moved on as if it never happened.
"Secondaries. Pilots. Figueroa, Han, Harold, Harun, Kosor, Rajput, Oren. CSOs. Dvorov, Khamdamov, Mehta, Nair, Piatelli, Saric, Shirazi.
"Tertiaries. Pilots. Byron, Dvalishvilli, Ma, McCormick. CSOs. Bopana, Raaz, Singh S, Wiseman."
Lowering the DataPad, the Colonel then said contemptuously, "If I did not call your name, I sure as hell hope you fly your designated bird better than you fly Tigerhawks. Otherwise they'd be better off puttin' a goddamned trained monkey in the cockpit."
It was hard for nine individuals who did not make the cut to hide their discomfort. Personally, Matt disagreed with publicly shaming people for unsatisfactory performance, but it was not his place to object to the Colonel's methods. The dread of public humiliation could be a powerful motivator, after all. Then again, it could be even more powerful as a demotivator once it happens.
While this sort of thing would often weigh heavily on Matt's mind, especially as he was charged with more and more responsibility for other airmen, Colonel Kreuger was already moving on.
"Congratulations to the primaries," he said curtly. "Puttin' you in my Tigerhawks is sure to fuck up some Shelly's shit. I expect excellence out there.
"Now, get to outprocessin', pack up your shit and you should be back on the Tico in time for chow. Dismissed."
As everyone stood up and started to file out of the briefing room, Sean mumbled, "Damn, the fuckin' swabbies really kicked our asses. Well, least all us Rittern qualified, huh, Cav?"
Matt nodded. At very least, the 421st did not have to deal with any washouts and as squadron leader, Matt did respectably by placing as a secondary. Not everyone was so fortunate. Matt had to feel sorry for Commander Korgoankar of the 155, an NFO on Team Bravo who failed to make the cut. He was having problems with his reaction time and his performance could easily have repercussions when he got back to his unit. A regular member of the squadron would probably be able to get by with some remedial training, but for a squadron leader to do so poorly, it could be a career killer.
Despite having qualified as a secondary and deciding that he would rather stick with the 421st anyway, Matt could not help but feel a little guilty over falling short of the Colonel's expectations.
Hanging back from everyone else heading for the door, Matt told Sean, "I'll catch up with you, Kodiak."
"Alright, man," Sean said. "Catch ya in out-processin'."
Matt walked up to Colonel Kreuger and stood at attention.
"At ease, Harold," the Colonel said. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to say that I'm sorry I didn't make the standard, sir. No excuse."
"You're damn right there's no excuse," the Colonel growled bitterly. "Lettin' squids and jarheads take ever' damn pilot slot..." He paused for a moment and his expression softened somewhat. "Still, I'll give you this. You're still a pretty good pilot, Harold, a damn good one, but there are better pilots out there."
"There's always someone better, sir."
"Don't let me catch you usin' that as an excuse."
"No, sir."
Colonel Kreuger looked at Matt like there was something he wanted to say but was being held back for one reason or another.
Sounding uncharacteristically awkward, he patted Matt on the shoulder and said, "Alright, well, it was good seein' one of my students made somethin' of himself and ain't a corpse yet." He then offered his hand to Matt. "Try to stay alive out there, hear?"
Shaking the Colonel's hand, Matt managed a bit of a smile and replied, "Yes, sir."