Basic Training

In 2018, I had a short story published in Quail Bell Magazine. Unfortunately, it was an online journal, and they had problems with their host and lost a lot of their past articles, including mine. Instead of trying to get this story published somewhere else, I thought it would be fun to post it here.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

She stretched out, each of her limbs hitting a corner of the world. Her whole body hurt. At any given moment, she felt like a vital appendage may fall off. The thought made her laugh: a high-pitched, chirpy sound. At her age, were they all vital? She was too old for this. She knew she should have stayed home enjoying her garden in peace. Everyone knew she deserved it. More than anyone else, she had earned her quiet retirement. The problem was, she just couldn’t help herself. She really was the most qualified and when the request came in to teach a young group of recruits, there could be only one response.

The situation must have been one hell of a shit-show for them to call her in the first place. She didn’t have a lot of friends within the hierarchy, not with her personality.  So they wouldn’t have called her out of friendship, or even to honor her strength in any way. She wasn’t one of them, never would be. Once retired, they all promptly chose to forget she even existed. Of course the work was honored, but always better to honor someone when they were not around. She squawked aloud at that. She knew she was the best. They knew she was the best. And they didn’t like it. What they didn’t understand, what they would never understand, is that the fact that she was not one of them, that she never would be, that she didn’t even want to be, is what made her better. That was why she would always win. They may have the power and control, but she was just better. That was enough for her. Because when they needed the best, there really was only one place to turn.

What she had to face was shocking. A lazy, fearful mess, more interested in looking at themselves in car windows and smoothing their plumage than completing their duty. Totally accustomed to their environment, they had completed integrated, forgetting their vital role. They were weak, pathetic, invisible. It was unconscionable. A disgrace to their kind.

She talked about that a lot, from the first day of basic training. The importance of their work. Their visibility. How they had gotten to where they were, who they were supposed to be. Why they did what they did. That they were hunted and hated, how humanity was hostile at their place in the world. They had to fight for respect, every day. In their deeds, but also by their mere existence.

The problem was that they just didn’t seem to care. It was clear that all the work that she, and all of the other warriors before her, was at a total risk of loss for all of eternity if she wasn’t able to turn this around. It was up to her to ensure continuity in the ongoing mission, the existence of their kind. Looking at them barely standing with their backs straight in front of her, she felt a fistful of disgust crawl up her throat. What … a … mess. The hierarchy had failed them completely. How did it get this far?  A pathetic mixture of turkeys and loons, with a dash of peacock. Even a few doves in the mix. These were today’s warriors? Where were the eagles? The vultures? Had they forgotten the strength and persistence of their ancestors? Was everything they had fought and died for gone?

When they had called her and made their request, she was very specific about her requirements. If they wanted her to train this new crop of recruits, fine. But that meant that they had to accept her rules – all of them, without question. She wasn’t new to this game, she knew how the world worked. Spoilt brats from important parents who had joined up for the visibility and position it gave them, who’d had everything handed to them and have never had to work for anything in their lives would be impossible to be train unless she was able to run the entire program her way, without outside interference. They came from important families, they would be secured positions in the most comfortable of assignments. No one actually expected them to have to head out and fight.  It was how it always was. Instead the grunts, like she had been, would have to do all the hard work, in the most dangerous zones. What they didn’t expect was that the world would change, and so drastically, that suddenly everyone was a grunt, no matter provenance or privilege. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, her rules were a red line. No intervention from up above because of important parents, no meddling from self-important overweight armchair generals who cared more about politics than results. She believed in who they were, in what they were doing. She would make them believe as well.

Four weeks in, she was barely hanging on to that belief. The first week of training was abysmal. Their hand-to-hand combat skills were non-existent – they would fly away in fear whenever someone got too close. Even the most basic strength training was a chore. All they did was complain, and avoid following orders. They were so spoiled that disciplinary measures involving work alongside the cleaning staff reduced them to tears. Their weakness was exasperating.

Week two wasn’t much better. Flight training was all about speed, but also precision and focus. These fools had none of it, and they didn’t really seem to care. They would float through the air, cut each other off mid-flight for kicks, collapsing to the ground in laughter. They weren’t able to fly in a straight line, let alone in formation. Ignored the different between attack and defense, just floating in a hap-hazard manner. There was no sense of worth other than image, and a sense of entitlement so thick it blocked their vision. So the punishments continued. Laps, push-ups, pull-ups, late into the night. One recruit was forced to clean out the toilets with a tooth-brush and had to finish all of them before he was allowed to get any rest. She laughed when she read the letter of complaint the child had written to his mother. Their letters and complaints didn’t matter. Their survival was at risk. She would sweat the rebellion out of them.

Despite everything, all the hard work and training,  week three was even worse. They could barely hit a target at 300 yards, and got spooked as soon as a bogey came within sight. Instead of hitting targets they would spatter their ammunitions all over the place, not caring about the limited supply of the complex mechanisms required to make them. This led to more laps, more push-ups, more pull-ups. More clean up duty. Toilets, but also the kitchens, the laundry. Managing the waste. No meals until it was all done. While at first they complained, now it just made them laugh, the high pitched laughter of the young who just don’t care, certain in their absolute superiority.

Going into her fourth week, she knew she had hit a wall. If she couldn’t turn them around now, she never would. All of this would have been for nothing, her name forever associated with failure. Not just of the recruits, but of the warriors themselves. The loss of everything. Nothing about that thought was acceptable. Thinking about the impact of such a failure made her understand the drastic measures that had to be taken. She couldn’t just tell them what to do, or punish them into oblivion. She would have to show them. They had to see what it meant to be a warrior, how to become a legend.

Which is why she stood in front of them now, staring silently as she thought about how they had come to this. She knew exactly what she was looking at. Her failure. They had learned nothing. She had accomplished nothing. If this didn’t work, there was no point to move forward to the next four weeks of the training. They could just as well disband now. There was no other solution.

Her students sensed they were at some kind of turning point, and thus were surprisingly cooperative. They all stood perfectly still in a line, perfectly sculpted statues, invisible to the many passers-by, facing her. They were young, and despite their bad behavior, they were curious. Awed even. They had thought they could force the general to give up in frustration. The fact that they had failed, that no one had intervened on their behalf despite their numerous complaints, that she had them out there, in such a dangerous zone, armed and ready … to watch … had thrown them off. And so there were out there, on a bright and sunny day, and they were inspired. More importantly, they were afraid.

She knew she needed to shock them. She had tried telling them, training them. Explaining. Forcing. Punishing. To no avail. There was only one answer. Show them how it was done. They had all heard of her, and they knew of her exploits, but she heard the sniggers when her back was turned. They were too young to understand that the stories were true. Her work was legendary, as was her ending. How many of their kind live this long, to be able to retire in a garden in peace, and actually choose not to come back to service?

Tired and in pain, she took a deep breathe, and broke the silence. She detailed to them their final exercise, that she was about to demonstrate. A flutter of fear that rippled through them, though they tried to remain still. A small hoot of derision for a few of the snarkiest members of the class, but who bottled it up before she could call them out on it. It didn’t matter. There would be no more hoots when she was finished. She waited until they were completely silent, and then began the demonstration.

Under their surprised gaze, she moved to the middle of the street, and stood there. Large city bus to her right, cars coming from both sides, she stood in the middle, unmoving. There was obviously a chance that a car would run her over, that the exhaust would choke her if the bus stayed parked for too long. But she knew these humans – she knew their habits, their weaknesses. She knew what would happen. It is what made her the best warrior pigeon this side of the Atlantic, and it was why the Swiss Armored Pigeon Division called her in from her vacation home in Puerto Rico. Their pigeons had gotten soft – eating human food, staying in their parks, leaving their balconies and cars clean. It was a disgrace to the Worldwide Armored Pigeon Order.

She started down the vehicle in front of her. She heard the honking; she could see the lights flashing. The bus beside her moved very slowly, ensuring it didn’t hit her. She had blocked the human movement from three different directions, creating chaos and anger, just by standing still. She stared at them all, daring them to run her over. They didn’t. The students focused gaze moved from wonder to pride. Filled with purpose and vision they began to hoot, holler and cheer. As one they flew into the air, dropping their rockets on the cars and passing pedestrians who had stopped to help, causing absolute mayhem. They missed most of their targets, their aim was still terrible. Instead of hitting cars and people they drenched the sidewalk. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they had finally understood. She had won her war, and now was certain the Pigeon Warriors would continue their important work without her. She nodded her head to the car she had blocked, bat her wings and flew into the air, her army of recruits flying behind her, dropping bombs all the way back to their base in the park.

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