Chapter II

"Good afternoon. I am flight instructor Boris Lesh and I will be responsible for your education for an interstellar pilot in the service of the People's Republic of Liabeti. This is not the military so you will not be required to salute me or stand in attention while talking to me, but some degree of respect is necessary. You will address me as 'sir' and when talking to third parties, you will refer to me as 'flight instructor Lesh' or 'comrade Lesh'. Is everything clear so far?"

"Yes, sir," I replied.

"Good!" said flight instructor Lesh.

In some other circumstances this would have probably been funny. The whole situation reminded me of films depicting military life in capitalist imperialist regimes. Part one, indoctrination, always consisted of an officer addressing a line of recruits giving them a moral speech about where they were and why they were there, trying to instil into them both a sense of pride and honour and a sense of humility and worthlessness. Of course, I wasn't naive; I knew all armies in the universe were the same and that the Liabetian was no different. But what was disturbing me was the "line of recruits" part. Usually the indoctrinator addressed a whole unit of victims at the same time, a bunch of them being able to blend into the group, feeling a part of something bigger and hoping to avoid punishment by someone else deserving it first. I, however, had no such recourse. I was the sole indoctrinee of this here "flight instructor Lesh", he wasn't addressing a squad or a platoon, this was a private audience, I was standing in the centre of the large room and he was circling around me like a vulture waiting for its future food to die off, knowing all it needed was time. And he had time, that I was sure of.

"First, we should get acquainted," continued flight instructor Lesh. "My job is to make a surviving combateer out of you. To do this, I am given complete freedom in controlling your life. So, regarding your stay in this educational facility, you will be glad to hear that you've acquired a new family member - me. From now on, I will be your father, your mother, brother and sister, aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather. Also any other figure of authority that might pop into your mind, stepmother or stepfather included. I will judge your every move; I will follow your progress and will impose any kind of punishment or grant any kind of reward I deem necessary. This includes denying meals or physical punishment. However, I really don't believe this will be necessary since you are a responsible adult, at least responsible enough to understand your tasks and do them without making deliberate errors. Errors are permitted, we are all human, but sabotage is not. If I get even the slightest impression that you are not doing your best, you will end up in shit so deep you'll need a sonar to determine which way to direct your snorkel to be able to breathe. Am I making myself clear so far?"

"Yes, sir," I repeated.

"Good. Your training during the following three months will consist almost exclusively of flight and combat training. You will learn the basics of handling all types of spacecraft and all kinds of space combat. This will take up most of your waking hours, but there will be some time left for extra activities. Since you've studied astrophysics, you won't have much problem getting a grip on the physics behind all this so I suggest you spend some time getting acquainted with the social aspects of interstellar travelling. Namely, you should read as much as possible about the neighbouring systems, and I mean everything: history, travel stories, political analysis, literature. After those three months have passed, you will begin a series of tests. For every test you take you will be given three days off. This means that after every test you will be allowed to spend three days at home - or anywhere outside the camp - and after that you must return here. You will be allowed to accumulate free days and spend them in any quantities you like, meaning you can take three tests in a week, or even in a day, although that is highly inadvisable, and then spend nine days out. During the non-free period you are allowed to spend your time in absolutely any way you want, but you are strongly encouraged to practice in the simulator or study about the interstellar society. However, if you wish to sleep all day and then fail the next test, that is fine with me. My job is to prevent lousy pilots from leaving this base. If you choose to spend your life confined to this place, it's your business. Are there any questions, cadet?"

"No, sir," I replied.

And so it began. I didn't really understand what was this ten day lockdown about, I presumed it was some kind of a psychological marker, a warning that from that point on life was supposed to be different, that I was no longer in control and free and that from now on someone was watching my every move. I thought this was supposed to instil some respect for people directing our society, but all it did was increase my disliking of them and make me more cautious about my actions. Because, as I saw it, the greatest change of all was that now they were blackmailing me through my family.

I guess there are more subtle and human ways of teaching someone responsibility, but this one was definitely the first one that worked for me.

The ten days actually passed quickly. They were full of Newtonian mechanics, thrust, mass, acceleration, inertia, engines, controls sticks and control pads. I didn't have time to worry about my family, let alone think about being confined to a small area consisting of my room, a long hall, training room with the simulator, a small piece of camp yard I was allowed to move in and the nearby canteen. I got up early in the morning, did some physical exercise, breakfast, training, short rest, lunch, short rest, physical exercise, training, supper, short lecture and daily review, sleep, repeat. Not much free time, obviously.

I wasn't just the only "cadet" under instructor Lesh's supervision; I was also the only cadet at this stage of education. The camp I was in was attached to a bigger military training camp but they were separated so that the only people I met were other, I presumed, civilian interstellar pilot recruits just as me. "I presumed" because I was forced into a tight schedule and didn't have time to talk to the others much, maybe a minute or two a day, but, the thing was, they seemed reluctant to talk to me. Either I was a jarhead for them or they were told not to contact me until ten days elapsed, which would be typical. So the lockdown period was a pretty solitary thing, which hasn't been all that bad; at least I could concentrate on the things I'll need later on. After the initial period things will get more casual, I believed.

By that time I realised this was in no way a military thing. Lesh maybe was ex-military, but he had a healthy sense of humour and responded very liberally to my cautious provocations. Of course I took care not to cross the boundary, but I realised I could even become friends with the man if only I wasn't in the situation I was in. However, he occasionally made jokes, I occasionally made jokes and things were starting to seem almost relaxed.

Then came the simulator practice; after I explained to the instructor that I understood Newtonian mechanics perfectly, he let me do the initial exercise myself. I was supposed to move my ship through a route consisting of rings in space using only manual thrusters, no autopilot. After it took me ten minutes to drive my ship through the first ring his grin was so wide I was afraid the upper half of his head would fall off. When it took me five minutes to pass through the second one his grin narrowed, three minutes later, when I left the third ring behind me he started raising his eyebrows, and when I exit the simulator some twelve minutes later, having passed all ten rings, he nodded and smiled.

"Not bad, especially for a beginner," he said. "No reason we shouldn't speed things up. You go and get some lunch now, physical exercise is off for today, and you will get your next meal after you finish the whole route, all ten rings, in less than ten minutes. After you do that, as a reward, your lockdown ends immediately."

"Yes, sir," I grinned and saluted. It was at that moment I started feeling my old self again, the ruler of the universe, believing nothing can hurt me, but then I remembered my kin and realised it was that feeling of pride and self-confidence that got me into this mess in the first place. So I looked down and hurried up in order to get something to eat. And then, as I was entering the hall, I realised I didn't actually mind the "mess I got into". If it weren't for the constant threat looming over my family, I'd have probably even enjoyed all this. I was learning something new, a useful skill, not a pile of academic knowledge as before, and I could see a purpose in it all. I got out of the tame controlled life I lived since I was born, got off the well known and safe path the rest of society was on and just started entering a strange, undiscovered forest full of promises of excitement, adventure and glory. Hell, the sky was the limit, I thought, all this wasn't so bad at all!

I guess every man's idiotism consists of many layers and every time one is peeled off, he starts off as a new kind of idiot, his ignorance and stupidity simply having a different quality, where all the experience he had gathered before would be useless. At the time I thought it was called "personal development". Later on I realised some people called it "running in circles".

I spent the rest of the day in the flight simulator, going the same path over and over again, and as the evening grew nearer, I approached the magic limit of ten minutes, but somehow every time I was lacking the concentration to make that last effort that would push me over. So I was getting more nervous, the annoyance beefed up by the increasing feeling of hunger. And then I had an especially good run with just a slightest error at the ninth ring, only to realise that my time was 10:01. I cursed and kicked the simulator open. Flight instructor Lesh smiled at me from the outside.

"Giving up already?" he asked. I looked at him, surprised. He was sitting on a bench beside the simulator and chewing some salted stick like he came here for a picnic. It seemed as he'd been here the whole time, watching my attempts at the big screen on the front wall, and even witnessing my last the-nearer-the-success-the-bigger-the-failure failure.

"No way," I replied, although I was planning to go to bed, sleep it off, wake up early and wrap the damn thing up within the half an hour before I usually get hungry. I jumped out of the simulator and turned my back on the instructor. "Just stretching a bit," I said and started waving my arms.

"You know, maybe I was too hard on you," the flight instructor started. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea. You need food to keep in good shape. You can have a light supper, try a few more times and, if it doesn't work, go to bed." He paused. "I allow you to give up," he added in no particular tone of voice, which was a tone in itself.

I thought for a moment, leaning against the simulator. If he hadn't said that last sentence, I'd probably go for it, get something to eat, practice a bit more, then go to sleep. But I wouldn't give the bastard the pleasure.

Of course I knew he was playing me, which made it all the more annoying. So I slowly turned, looked at him and said: "I think you should have my meal, sir. You've lost weight recently; maybe you're worrying too much. Sir." He grinned and I jumped back into the simulator and slammed it shut. Ok, let's go.

The next few tries were a disaster so after the fifth one I just leaned back in the chair and let out a furious roar. Then I opened the simulator cabin determined to kick flight instructor Lesh's butt, but, fortunately, he wasn't there, so I sighed in relief and pulled the lid back down. Now, this time it's going to be perfect.

Of course it wasn't. Neither was the next one, but it was a bit closer. The next one was even closer, while the following two were a step back. Then I got out again and looked at the watch. Fifteen to one. Time to go to bed.

Hell, no!

When I finally made it, it was actually a surprise. I was staring at the display that said 9:49 and at first thought it was a joke, that someone, probably Lesh, hacked the program in order to make me go to sleep, then I checked my watch in panic, fearing that the display was actually showing the local time and that I'd spend the whole night flying through rings, and then I finally recognised the numbers for what they really were: the time it took me to finish the track. I checked the watch again. It was three in the morning. I closed my eyes, opened them again in fear that I'd fall asleep in the simulator, then closed them deciding it wouldn't be such a bad idea, and then finally opened them again, deciding I should pay a visit to someone.

The camp was dark, only a few lights illuminating the field, but it was visible enough so I didn't have trouble finding flight instructor Lesh's quarters. There was a guard in a small room by the entrance so I knocked at his window and said what I wanted.

"I'm sorry, you're not allowed in unless it's really an emergency," he said.

I thought for a moment. "I feel depressed and I want to commit suicide," I replied dully.

He looked at me and blinked. "Are you serious?"

I hesitated. "Give me your gun," I replied, even more dully. "Or let me talk to my instructor."

He looked at his gun, than at his terminal screen, then back at me. "Ok, go in."

I climbed to the first floor and got to the instructor's door. I knew that the doorbells here were particularly annoying so I pressed the button and held it until the door opened - around half a minute has passed - and flight instructor Lesh's sleepy face peered out.

I straightened into a sort-of atten-chut and reported: "Sir, I have completed my task. Permission to go to have something to eat, sir!"

He looked at me for a few seconds, judging by his expression, wondering whether he should strangle me on the spot or wait until morning, because vengeance is a dish best served cold and rested after a good night sleep. Finally he grumbled: "Permission granted," and slammed the door in my face. I slowly counted seconds I presumed he'd need to get to his bed and lie down, and then I pressed the bell switch again. When the door opened again I released the switch, quickly took a step back, saluted, said: "Sir, thank you, sir!" and, before he got an idea of taking a swing at me, turned and marched down the corridor.

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