Authors: Ken McConnell
The newbies all lined up at a table near the bar where they could be seen by everyone. Myself and the leads sat across from them with our bounty laid out before us on the table. There were plenty of pitchers of tap beer and a few wrapped food items. Sweetness even had a racy calendar filled with hunky soldiers. All the women had already examined it and determined the best months of the year. It would likely get passed around long after the year ended.
Choke got a nice bottle of cream liquor from Selene. He was pretty protective of it. The best I had was my whiskey bottle and a slab of fine dark chocolate. I’ve done better, but this was pretty good for the middle of nowhere.
The ceremony began with a few rounds of singing traditional fighter pilot songs. Some of them had some obscene sexual references. The bartenders struggled to keep the libations flowing as the singing slowly became more unintelligible. I took center stage and ordered the three FNG’s (Freaking, New, Guys) front and center.
Henry, Katya and Kelli reluctantly came forward and stood at attention. Henry was the youngest so we did him first.
“Okay, this court of naming is now in session and the judge will now hear potential names from the crowd for Lieutenant Shaun Henry,” I said, waving for suggestions.
“Babyface!” That one drew a round of good natured laughs for being an accurate description of Henry’s youthful face. I could see the look of abject horror on his face and laughed.
One of the women in back hollered, “Hank!”
I turned to face Henry and pretended to look him up and down. He hadn’t done anything particularly stupid since I had arrived. His flying was competent if a bit uninspired and he always had a good deal of enthusiasm for his missions. Failing to come up with anything derogatory, I decided to cut him some slack and went with Hank, a play on his name.
The crowd both cheered and booed as Hank bowed to me and tried not to grin. He was no doubt sweating this out, hoping he didn’t get an embarrassing name. Choke had some patches ready and hastily wrote Hank on one and handed it to me. I proceeded to show it off to the crowd and then slapped it onto his chest. “From hence forth until such time as he leaves our fine company, this pilot’s name is Hank.”
More cheering and a raising of drink in salute. I moved on to Kelli, an orange haired young woman with bright green eyes. The bridge of her nose was covered in freckles the rest of her face smooth and creamy.
“Do I have any suggestions for Lieutenant Ameil Kelli?”
A round of cat calls emanated from the male pilots followed by occasionally rude comments which I immediately called a halt to. There was the usual cries that I’m no fun and we’re not in the world out here. I let them slide.
Someone said something that I didn’t catch and I asked him to repeat it. He stood up, wavered back and forth a bit and was steadied by his mates. “Firecrotch!” he blurted out.
After the snickers and laughs took over again, I shook my head and looked back at poor Kelli. Obviously she had the attentions of many of her male colleagues. Once again, I couldn’t find anything she had done particularly offensive. Her flying was a bit over zealous at times, often overshooting her targets or leading her shots. Nothing so bad as to warrant a name. I liked her attitude so far. She was ambitious and aggressive.
I turned around and shouted for calm before continuing. The crowd settled down.
“Lieutenant Kelli does indeed have red hair and to the uninitiated, that would seem to be her defining characteristic. I say she should stand up and own it. From this day forward until she parts our company, she shall be known as Flame.”
The crowd cheered and raised their glasses to the new call sign.
I took the patch from Choke, who had written the name in red and turned to face Kelli. She had fire in her green eyes as she waited for me to slap it on.
“Flame on!” I said, and slapped the patch into place. She stepped forward with a forced smile and took a bow. When she stepped back I could tell she was going to make the best of that name. Something told me she was going to own it like nobody’s business.
“Last, but by no means least, is Lieutenant Katya,” I said, turning to face the drunken crowd again.
“Let me have ‘em people.”
The names started pouring in with great enthusiasm. Katya was well liked by nearly all the pilots.
That one was extremely popular, and drew the largest applause. Naturally when you sink your bird and survive, it would demand such a name. I was just about to agree to Splash when Choke raised his hand. The crowd hushed as he slowly stood up.
“Katya has already been named by our illustrious blue enemy. I’ve heard their comm chatter and every time she enters a fray, the blueskins call her Karvuk. I had to have that translated. It means White Bitch.”
A few cheers of Karvuk erupted.
I nodded to Choke who sat down and picked up his pen to write on her blank patch. I repeated the name and got a thunderous applause in return. Turning to Katya I could see the shocked look on her face. Very few Alliance pilots earned a name from their enemy. It was a sign of respect and honor that opposing pilots had deemed her worthy enough of a derisive name.
“From this day forward, Lieutenant Katya is now known as Karvuk, the White Bitch. Congratulations!”
I took the patch from Choke and slapped it firmly in place on her flight suit. Karvuk took a bow and the crowd cheered three times, once per pilot.
I held up my hand to quiet the crowd before the music came back on and the party started in earnest.
“We have one last pilot to name. She didn’t make it to the ceremony. Lieutenant Lacy Petra, died defending the base on the day I arrived,” I said.
The crowd hushed out of respect for their fallen comrade.
“From this day forward, Lieutenant Petra will be known as Phoenix. The pilot who rose from the ashes.”
Drinks were raised in silence. Choke handed me the name tag and I handed it to the bartender to place on his wall next to the dozen or so other fallen pilots.
“Three cheers for Phoenix for her bravery under fire and her ultimate sacrifice for her fellow pilots.”
There were three cheers for Phoenix and then the crowd started chanting FNG slowly at first and then gradually it got louder and louder. The three new guys all started to fidget and each of them wore concerned looks as they watched a few veteran pilots come up on stage with necklaces made from local flowers and shells. A necklace was placed on each FNG while behind them, more props were set up for the initiation ceremony.
Hank, Flame and Karvuk were then lined up before a bowl of what looked like very large crustaceans. It was tradition for newly named pilots to have to eat something that normally would not be considered edible as part of their initiation. In this case, it was the indigenous mollusks found in the waters just offshore. They were the main staple for those giant sea birds I had seen earlier. Kellers had powerful beaks with which to open the giant shells. It took a skilled cook with a sharp knife to hack them open. In this case, three were spread out open before the FNGs.
Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were to suck the meat out of the mollusk and eat it before they were allowed to wash it down with a beer. Normally this would not be such a horrible task, especially if the mollusks were from Selene or just about any other Alliance planet with oceans. But the mollusks on Kew were huge and could not be chewed by human teeth alone. Rubbery and hard, they could only be swallowed whole and barely at that. It was quite the suitable chore to get one down.
Hank went first, slurping the meat of the mollusk into his mouth with ease he started to choke a bit realizing what he had gotten inside his mouth. Choke had explained that the mollusks were salty and bitter when uncooked and the juices inside them were equally as foul.
Hank’s first attempt was aborted and he spit out the giant slab of wet meat. The crowd booed and then egged him on for a second try. He spit out the excess juices and steeled himself to try again. On his second attempt he managed to swallow the meat whole. It looked like for a second or two he would hurl it back out and into the crowd, but instead he washed it down with a glass of beer fed to him by Choke.
If you’re thinking this was how Choke got his callsign, forget it. I already asked and he said no.
Next up was Flame. She attacked the slippery meat with a vengeance not seen by anyone in attendance. She downed the huge glob of meat in one try and then smiled like the cat who ate the canary. The crowd went wild with lurid chants and cheers. Flame backed away and let the next victim have the spotlight.
Karvuk stared at the mollusk before her and wrinkled her nose at the horrible smell of it. There was no backing out of the challenge. Flame had set the bar high and now she must swallow or face a possible renaming ceremony. Karvuk glanced ruefully at me and then attacked the slippery meat. It took her two tries to get it in her mouth but she didn’t let it linger there for long. She pulled back her head and forced the slimy glob down her throat. The crowd withheld their cheers until she had swallowed and then they all erupted in jubilant praise for her valiant effort.
Choke jumped up on stage and held up his hands to quiet the crowd.
“Even though you are in command, you are still a Freaking New Girl, Commander,” he taunted as a lei was slipped over my neck and a new plate of mollusk was brought out for me. I shook my head and the crowd booed and jeered me into partaking in the ritual.
Crap. I had to do it or risk losing the respect of my squadron.
They tied my hands back and positioned my face over the giant half shell. It smelled like seawater and urine. I almost puked all over it. I turned my head to inhale a bit of fresh air and then opened my mouth to suck in the slippery, rancid meat. As it passed over my tongue I realized it was not as foul as it smelled. It was very similar to any other raw crustacean. However, it was still an incredibly large hunk of rubber to swallow.
I looked around and saw all the FNG’s looking at me and cheering for me to swallow. Choke was sitting across from me a smug look on his face.
I tilted my head back and choked it down with a hard swallow. Somebody handed me a beer and I guzzled it down as fast as I could. The air was filled with cheering and song as I raised my empty glass.
Following the initiation ceremony the newly named pilots mixed back into the crowd and the celebration kicked into overdrive. Food arrived and a few hearty individuals dug in. I stayed away, preferring to open my chocolate to wash down the slimy taste of the mollusk. I shared some with Choke and Sweetness.
Later that night Choke, Karvuk and I found ourselves laying out on the sand bar that overlooked the beach. We were all looking up at the star filled alien sky and trying to name the stars. Choke was insistent that the brightest yellow star he could see was Selene’s sun, but both Karvuk and I argued that we were too far away for it to be that bright. I guessed it was a star in Votainion held space and Karvuk thought it was one of the nearby Alliance systems.
“I think you’re homesick Choke. That star’s just another empty system in the Outer Rim,” I said.
“Thanks for bursting my bubble Commander,” he said. Then he rolled over and looked at me all serious. His blue eyes were dark in the dim starlight.
“Say, what’s your callsign anyway?”
I shook my head and continued looking up at the flickering stars.
“Rocket One is too generic. It’s more of an honorific. What did you use before you were a squadron commander?” he asked.
“I used to lead a bunch or Rangers on Ocherva before I joined the Fleet. We called ourselves Devon’s Devils. I used Devil One for a long time.”
Choke raised a finger at me. “Hey, you were a Ranger?”
I smiled and looked over at Karvuk who was either resting her eyes or sleeping, I couldn’t tell which. “He’s not too bright, is he?”
She shrugged and said, “Nope. But he’s not bad in the sack.”
I looked back at Choke and he raised his brows at me all suggestive-like. I shook my head and pushed his face. He fell over on his back and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
Karvuk picked up her head and motioned to Choke. “His name is a reference to the size of his joystick. Everybody that’s tried it has choked on it.”
I looked back at Choke as he tried to stand up in the thick sand.
“Where you going buddy?” Karvuk asked.
“For a swim,” Choke said, unzipping his flight suit and stumbling for the shoreline.
I looked back at Karvuk she was watching him strip as he wobbled away.
“You better make sure he doesn’t drown,” I said.
She looked back at me and smiled as she got up and started pulling her sleeveless flight suit off. I watched them both stumble naked into the waves and then decided to leave them alone. I got up and plodded through the sand back to the hooch shack.
The pilots had mostly left and the bartender and a few kitchen staff were clearing out the broken plates and glass from a boisterous party. I thanked the bartender and the staff for their patience and started back to my shack. It was way past midnight and I was feeling drunker than I had been since joining the Fleet. My drinking had been curtailed in space to the point where it took far less alcohol for me to get smashed than it ever had before. That was probably for the best. The older I got the less inclined I was to get wasted like the younger pilots did.
A month after the naming party we were a squadron full of aces. Of the twenty-six pilots assigned to my squadron, two thirds of us had three or more kills. Among the aces nearly all of them were double aces or above. I’ve never flown with a more successful group of pilots in my life and never would again.
They were heady times on our tiny island in the middle of a vast, deep ocean. I grew to really love and appreciate my fellow pilots and I know the feeling was mutual. Not a day went past when one of my pilots didn’t thank me for being there or thank me for helping them get kills. That was a rare and precious thing for a commander to hear. It meant that I was doing things right and that my people appreciated it.