At the other end of the base, two incredibly tired cadets sat in a very dark and spacious room a hundred meters below the surface.
Next to them was a mecha that looked substantially different from the training mecha elsewhere in the base. Its lines were curved, and every extremity ended in dangerous edges, including its fingers. It looked as though it was wholly designed to punch through the heaviest of defenses.
They looked menacing and dangerous.
One of the cadets tapped on their datapad, which displayed the schematics and stats for the mecha next to them.
He then opened up a console and started to hack into the mecha’s operating system while his female partner stood watch.
It didn’t take him much time to rewrite what he needed to.
“Alright, this one’s ours now, too,” he said.
The girl replied, “It’s kind of a pain that we have to do this one by one.”
“Nothing we can do about it. It’s just how they were designed. But once they’re all networked...”
He trailed off as he packed up his gear.
They had earlier stolen the base commander’s control module for these mechs. They used it to create their own copies, and then returned the original back where it belonged. If these were all connected, and the two cadets had the control module, then they literally had an army at their disposal.
“Once they’re all networked,” she continued for him, “Father can finally start his revenge.”
He nodded as he picked up his things and moved on to the next mecha. Beyond that one were many dozens more. They all stood in the darkness of their vault, having collected dust for far too long.
Soon, it’ll be their turn to shine once again.
Most of the rest of the cycles and weeks repeated the same pattern as the first, though some things were shifted around to keep the cadets on their toes.
Sometimes the sorties were much longer, sometimes they ran until their feet bled, and sometimes they got no sleep at all.
And every single cycle, Sergeant Akim told his cadets the same thing, without fail.
As the weeks went by, the sergeants added live fire into their training, and that kicked things up a notch. Their simulations also became more complex, and used historical combat scenarios for the cadets to practice in.
Eva and Chengli continued their end-of-cycle sparring, dotted with the occasional watchtower tryst. They also continued to instruct the cadets they were assigned to, who turned out to be among the best cadets of that generation.
They were highly proficient at all of their maneuvers, in and out of atmosphere. They learned to move swiftly, defend instinctively, fight ruthlessly. Under the watchful eyes of their squad leaders, they became truly formidable.
And even the once-jealous cadets now looked at Eva and Chengli protectively. Over time, their jealousies for them had died, and was instead replaced with true respect.
They could have easily snubbed them, and shown them no mercy. And instead, they instructed them, nurtured them, and even let them take their aggression out on them. They had taught them how to live and fight in such a hostile galaxy.
Their hearts choked up when they looked at their past selves, and admonished themselves for their idiocy. The two of them gave them strength, and eradicated their weaknesses. If it wasn’t for either of them, they would have been weak forever.
That was a fact that they etched deep in their hearts.
The rest of the cadets also turned out rather well under the two sergeants’ instruction. They were all incredibly competent and decisive, even while under the stress of battle. Or, at least, simulated battle.
Eva’s suggestion had greatly helped out. Not just with their squadron, but with every squadron that had a player refugee in it. It allowed them to properly learn how to deal with hostile individuals that were stronger than them, and those underlying philosophies wound their way through multiple aspects of their lives.
Their squadron had no fatal training accidents, which was something few squadrons could boast. Most had at least one, usually during live fire exercises. Constant gunfire was stressful, and not everyone stayed cool while under it. 𝒾𝗻𝓃𝐫eα𝚍. 𝒄𝐨m
Another thing they could happily boast about was their low washout count. The dropout rate was roughly ten per squadron of fifty – twenty percent, which seemed a high amount on paper. However, considering how stressful their lengthy training was, it made it seem reasonable.
Their squadron’s dropouts numbered only three. Two of them dropped out midway through the month, when they realized they just weren’t cut out for Eva’s brand of torture. They didn’t have the stamina to keep going. So, the sergeants signed their papers and let them on their way.
Another one dropped out a couple weeks later, but it was due to debilitating injuries he suffered during training. But he was swiftly transferred to the engineering corps, where he could still be of use.
All told, their squadron was among the best that had ever gone through training. They weren’t just strong and capable, but they had hearts of steel and spirits that soared.
And that was even after they had heard about Hell Week.
Back in Eva’s old life, Hell Week designated five days when United States Navy SEALs entered the most brutal point of their training. They spent all five days doing constant drills and exercises, and it pushed their physical and mental limits far beyond the max.
They were exposed to icy waters and cutting winds. They suffered heat exhaustion and dehydration. They were made to move heavy objects over and over until their hands bled. They were deprived of sleep and made to make life-or-death decisions while delirious throughout.
It was a true test of their mettle, top to bottom, and on every level.
The new and improved Hell Week was far worse. In fact, the Federation had taken Hell Week, and simply extended out over nine weeks instead. Those nine weeks were designed to truly extract the limits of human potential.
So, for the tenth week... it became about pushing them all over the edge. Those who made it out of the abyss, out of hell, graduated.
And those that didn’t were often given the full honor of a 21 gun salute.
As was customary during any military funeral.
Hell Week had been traditionally different for every set of graduating squadrons. Usually a group of 300 cadets and their sergeants were formed into a unit and sent into a training battlezone.
The battlezone was operated by the base commander and their staff, who manned drone combatants. The cadets were drawn into a pitched live-fire combat situation for the good majority of the cycle.
There, they were tested on everything they had learned in the previous nine weeks, except dialed to the absolute maximum.
They had very little sleep, very little sustenance, and a great deal of hardships to overcome. They were under constant attack, and had to make critical decisions under harsh duress.
The unit was always given a singular goal to achieve, usually rather simple. Survive One Week, Destroy Enemy Base, Find Key Item, that sort of thing. But the simplicity of the order never reflected the complexity of the task itself.
Any assumption otherwise always resulted in a painful lesson.
Most cadets feared Hell Week, and rightfully so. Simply hearing the words made some quiver in fear. And as the cycles and weeks passed by, Hell Week came closer.
Anxieties overall rose sharply the closer everyone got to the tenth week.
Rumors always floated around the closer things got, and stories about the various ways cadets died would spread rapidly. Ridiculously high casualty rates were also a popular rumor.
The worst ones often surfaced in the ninth week, and were probably responsible for the amount of dropouts the academy saw.
Some didn’t want to die, so they ran.
Eva’s squadron, on the other hand, were heartily looking forward to it. They saw it as a way to actually test themselves, and were rather eager to take on its challenges. They wanted to shove those rumors down everyone’s throats and beat Hell Week without ever looking down.
And it was here, at the end of the last cycle of the ninth week, the squadron gathered together and discussed the strategies they would bring, the victories they would earn. Even Eva was among them, discussing their potential.
Sergeants Akim and Elyn looked on at their cadets with great pride. They had taught them everything they knew with the best of their abilities. They knew that they were going to beat Hell Week.
“Cadets!” yelled Sergeant Akim. “If there is anything that we have taught that you must remember, it is this one simple lesson. It will save you time and again, now and forever!”
He looked around at the cadets before him, their eyes filled with resolute determination.
“Never stop breathing!”
And so, lungs filled with air, they cheered.
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