“Cadets Kimura, Navarro, Sachdev, training unit 7,” the disaffected staff sergeant was reading names off a clipboard. “Cadets Devi, Mamane, Susanto, training unit 5.” The cadets seemed no more excited than their commanding officer, trudging to their assigned vehicles. “Last, Cadets Suessen, Santos, and Yamin, training unit 2.”
The officer blinked in surprise when she looked up to find only two cadets remaining, the taller and lighter of the two still saluting. “Cadet Yamin is out ma’am, she decided the soldier’s life wasn’t for her.”
“Fine.” The staff sergeant pinched the bridge of her nose. “Suessen and Santos to training unit 11 please.”
Caelia saluted again and strolled off to find her new partner already sizing up the training unit. “I can’t believe our luck, Ae quit and we’re the ones stuck in this piece of junk.”
Caelia was surprised when the shorter woman turned towards her, not with derision in her eyes but rapturous joy. “Junk? No way! Though the Goblin MP/45 isn’t as heavily armed or armored as her Orc and Gnoll siblings, her high speed, small footprint, and stellar mobility makes her a force to be reckoned with on any battlefield, as both Nochtish and Hanwanese tanks found out in Cissea and Kitan, why if—” The darker woman paused and blushed. “Apologies.” She cleared her throat, her voice shifting half an octave up. “I can get a bit, uh, overexcited about certain things. I’m Cadet Danielle Santos, your partner for this exercise. Hujambo!”
“Cadet Caelia Suessen, hujambo.” Caelia extended her hand to meet Danielle’s, delivering a delicate handshake. “You really know your stuff, don’t you?”
“I’m uh...” Danielle ran a finger through her hair. “something of a tank buff, if you can believe it.”
“I could be convinced.” Caelia turned back to the training vehicle. “Hopefully by you being a crack shot?”
“I’ll do my best?” The implied question mark and nervous grin spoke volumes.
“All I can ask for, I guess.” Caelia did her best to disguise the disappointment in her voice. “Let’s get the precombat checklist done at least.”
“Sure thing ma’am!” The shorter cadet saluted before pacing around the tank, checking for the leaks and cracks that were all too common in training vehicles post-demilitarization. She had nearly completed her circuit when her mousy partner stepped into her path.
“You don’t have to call me ma’am you know.” Caelia appeared suddenly, surprising the shorter girl. “W-we’re both cadets.”
“A-ah yeah.” Danielle blushed and diverted her gaze to the ground. “It’s just a habit when I get nervous. Last week I saluted the cadet handing out rations.”
“Pfft.” Caelia’s hand clapped to her mouth, attempting to stifle her laughter. “Well if there’s anyone who needs a little more respect...”
Danielle’s blush deepened, though Caelia’s laughter was infectious and she felt the edge of her mouth quirk up. “Y-yes, well. I don’t think this tank is going to blow up with us in it so let’s get started.”
“Stork-1? Please respond Stork-1, are you there?” Staff Sergeant Rukhadze’s voice crackled through the headset as Danielle slipped it on.
“Y-yes ma’am!” Danielle squeaked. “Stork-1 is here! Just a few delays with the inspection!”
“Acknowledged. Alright, listen up! Since we have a recon tank we’re changing the training drills.” Danielle frowned as she relayed the information to her driver. “Bear platoon will proceed through the course as normal while Stork-1 will proceed through the side to provide flanking fire. This is not a live fire exercise but please use caution regardless, training rounds can do damage. All units move to position and report.”
“You heard the staff sergeant, let’s roll out!” Danielle banged her hand against the hull; it wasn’t her first time, but she always felt the same girlish glee from being in a tank.
Her silent reverie was broken by the cacophony of grinding gears and her seat doing its level best to throw her into the bulkhead.
“Sorry about that.” A bashful voice called from the driver’s seat. “I’m not very good at managing the clutch.”
“Don’t worry about i—Erk!” Danielle yelped as the tank set into motion, throwing her into the loading mechanism.
“Sorry!” Caelia laughed nervously. “You know how rough these old machines can be. Let’s get to the training course before the Staff Sergeant gets snippy.”
“Yes ma’am.” Danielle shook herself free from her daze and sat down, carefully untangling herself from the cord of her headset. She rechecked the loading rack and slammed her hand into the bulkhead, no longer able to restrain her enthusiasm. “Let’s roll out and show Bear platoon what we can do!”
“Stork you are out of position again, I will not warn you another time.” The Staff Sergeant’s voice was venom pouring from Danielle’s headset.
“Y-yes ma’am!” Danielle replied shakily before she toggled off the radio. Dropping the headset and covering her head with her hands, she started to take a mental catalogue of all the ways she had messed up. She hadn’t hit a single target and her subpar commanding had led her driver to collide with every building and barrier on the course, as well as several close calls on friendly fire. She was going to get reassigned; she was going to get Caelia reassigned too, which was even worse. Caelia didn’t deserve that, Danielle knew she was nothing but a burden, worthless in every way, maybe she should just—
“Are you okay?” Danielle’s head snapped up to see a concerned Caelia turned backward in her seat, hand on Danielle’s knee and the engine left idling. “You looked pretty out of it, I didn’t think my driving was that bad.”
Danielle scrubbed a few errant tears from her cheek. “It’s not your fault, I’m just a bad commander. I keep messing up and I‘m ruining your chance to actually get assigned a tank.” Danielle paused and drew a breath. “Don’t worry, I’ll take the blame afterwards and you can get a better partner.”
“Not a chance.” Caelia said matter-of-factly, never taking her eyes from Danielle’s. “We’re in this together, to the end. Now scoot over.”
Danielle could do nothing but stammer as Caelia climbed over her own seat and took her place on Danielle’s own, the heat of her body distractingly close, even through her jumpsuit.
“Wh-what are you—?” Danielle tried and failed to create space between her and her now-former driver.
“You can’t be any worse of a driver than me, right?” Caelia plucked the headset off the ground where it landed and placed it on her ears with a grin. “And what do we have to lose.”
Danielle shrugged half-heartedly. “Nothing I guess, but I still think you should blame me.”
Caelia grabbed the control sticks and grinned, hearing Danielle behind her explaining the situation to the Staff Sergeant. Though she hadn’t wanted to cause a bother, driving had always been something she loved. The engine veritably purred as she maneuvered quickly, freeing the tank from where Danielle had managed to wedge it.
The rest of the course was a dream, immaculate driving paired with attentive, accurate commanding and gunnery allowed Stork-1 to regain some of its lost honor and Danielle to regain her equally lost self-confidence.
Danielle could barely restrain mirthful giggles while she and Caelia chatted on their way back to the staging ground, but her joy was quickly snuffed as she saw Rukhadze’s stern expression.
“Cadets, do I need to remind you that operational assignments are made for a reason?” Her lips were thin as she drummed fingers on her clipboard.
“No ma’am!” Stork-1 answered in unison.
“Then I hope you both have the wherewithal to never do something like that again.” Her glare had both tankers looking sheepish. “However, with that said, your performance after that little dalliance was superb. Well coordinated light tank teams are a rarity and I think both of you could benefit from the training if you’d like.”
Danielle turned to see a surprisingly expectant Caelia looking at her and gave a short nod. “We’d love to ma’am.”
“Excellent, I’ll see you both have new orders in the morning. Dismissed.”
Danielle smiled again as she turned to Caelia. “Looks like you’re stuck with me a little longer, sorry.”
Caelia grinned as she wrapped an arm around Danielle’s shoulder. “I said to the end and I mean it, nothing’s going to get in our way. If I have to fight off a battalion of Nochtish soldiers with a radio and a fishing pole there’s no one I’d rather have with me than you.” Danielle giggled as she felt her face flush. “Now let’s go get dinner and see if we can avoid saluting any more cadets.”