Chapter 1 – Final Drill
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Mike squatted atop a rickety wooden folding chair while it squealed objections, watching the uniformed bodies of his fellow soldiers filing past him onto the drill floor. A few of them waved a half-assed good morning to him. He responded with a nod each time, not feeling up to a more social gesture at 0630. At his side, Varanelli scowled her dislike of the world as she imbibed her expensive coffee. Mike took another gulp of his red bull. One last day of this and he was free. Free of the FIrst Sergeant riding his ass. Free of the constant reminders of how his life had gone off the tracks.

Echoing footsteps announced the arrival of the senior NCOs. They marched forward in a tight knot ahead of the officers, their presence enough to signal everyone it was time to start the work day. Mike and Varanelli abandoned their chairs to walk towards the center of the space with the rest of the soldiers. First Sergeant snapped to attention and bellowed "fall in", sending the coalescing bodies into a frenzy to form up into ranks. Mike burrowed into the center of his squad where he couldn't be easily spotted and snapped to attention. In the left-most position, Staff Sergeant Greco snapped his fingers to get their attention and gestured for them to straighten up their line. His eyes rolled and he shook his head. Mike almost cracked a smile. The inability of his company to stand properly in formation was literally more constant than the stars in the sky.

Varanelli whispered "switch me spots" just as the First Sergeant began his "Good Morning, Alpha" routine. Mike noticed he had somehow wound up between Varanelli and pretty-boy Specialist Smith, shrugged, and whispered back "too late now".

"Excuse me, Specialist Dombroski." The First Sergeant's generally cheerful demeanor had vanished. "Do you have something to say to the formation?"

"No, First Sergeant."

"So you didn't have a good reason to interrupt me while I address my company?"

"No, First Sergeant."

"I didn't think so, Dombroski. Tell you what. You get to leave the formation. Go ahead, step out. Walk to the back. Now why don't you burn off some of that energy with some PT? Start pushing. I'll let you know when to stop."

Mike slowly performed a series of pushups while the First Sergeant went through roll call, laid out the schedule for the morning, reminded everyone of overdue administrative tasks, informed them of the lunch menu, checked with the Captain if he had anything to tell the assembled troops, and then dismissed them to their immediate supervisors. The process took longer than it usually did on Sundays, no doubt due to a sadistic pleasure in Mike's punishment. He got back to his feet and approached Sergeant Greco to receive his instructions.

Greco began handing out assignments. Mike was assigned preventative maintenance checks and services on their assigned vehicles and cleanup of their work area, perhaps two hours of work for the entire morning. The military equivalent of Greco instructing him to take it easy his last day. Mike made a point of giving Varanelli the stink eye for her part in the earlier shenanigans, but she either didn't notice or didn't care.

"Excuse me, Specialist Dombroski?" First Sergeant again, standing off to the side and looking pointedly between where Mike stood and the spot on the ground he had been pushing. "I don't remember telling you to stop."

Mike stepped away from his group and dropped back to the ground. He didn't bother counting how many pushups he performed. He just went through the motions while Greco sent his direct reports running in different directions and the FIrst Sergeant glowered down on him like an evil sun. After a while, First Sergeant began to talk. "I'm not going to miss you, Ski. You were never the best soldier, but after the shit-show with Spencer and Susie your performance went to absolute shit. You are a black eye on the honor of this company."

Impeccably polished boots approached. Mike glanced up long enough to spot the Captain. "Have Ski come see me in my office when you are done, FIrst Sergeant." A firm glance between the two men. First Sergeant nodded. "Give me ten good pushups, Specialist, and then go for your sit-down with the Captain."

Most of the sweat had dried by the time he reached the Captain's office, largely due to his lethargic pace. He knocked twice and entered when he was told to do so.

Without preamble, the Captain ordered him to take a seat. When Mike had complied, he continued. “You should consider re-enlisting, Specialist. Having the Angmari in orbit now almost guarantees inactive soldiers are going to be recalled at some point. You might as well get the signing bonus if you're going to be on duty."

Mike swallowed. "Uh, sir, I really don't want to stay in. I would rather take my chances of being reactivated than make it a sure thing."

The Captain's jaw clenched tight. "I stuck my neck out for you after the shit-show with those marines. The only people who didn't want you dishonorably discharged were pushing for a court martial. I sang your praises as a model soldier to anyone who would listen. I blamed it all on grief over your wife's death. I promised favors. I pleaded your case every way I could, and I came through. You might have been busted down a rank, but you could have it back in another year.”

Mike couldn't think of anything to say in his defense. “I am grateful, sir.”

The Captain huffed. “Oh, I know that, soldier. I'm just pissed off that you're throwing away your military career after all the effort I went through to preserve it.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“What is your reason for getting out? Does this place remind you too much of Suzanne?”

Mike shrugged. “I guess. Plus the First Sergeant makes my life hell.”

“A good officer doesn't tell his NCO's how to manage discipline, but I could ask him to lighten up on you. Even if he doesn't, Ralph will be retiring soon. You can hold out a while longer, can't you?"

“With all due respect, sir, I don't want to deal with any of it.”

The Captain stared at him long enough to make him squirm, then nodded. “Very well, then. Thank you for serving under me, Specialist. Dismissed.”

Mike hid the rest of the time before lunch in the arms room, where Varanelli immediately put him to work cleaning the M249. She justified the request by the fact that no one else could put the thing back together again, which he thought a fantastic reason for someone else to try it while he was still there to help. No matter. It made him look busy enough that the First Sergeant did no more than eye him up in passing.

Lunch was burnt chili-mac, then there was another formation where the First Sergeant announced there was more that needed done after they completed the tasks from that morning. Apparently, the armory badly needed some TLC. Mike was assigned to clean the latrines. He swept, mopped, and buffed the floors. He scrubbed the sinks, toilets, and urinals. He polished the mirrors and took out the trash. Then was called to task for not cleaning the locker room and shower. After taking care of those areas, he was told that the supply cage needed straightened up.

The normal quitting time came and went. Mike finally completed his tasks and went outside to wait on final formation. And wait. The First Sergeant did not appear until six thirty, at which point nobody seemed happy. The First Sergeant laid out an agenda for the next drill weekend, asked if the Captain or Lieutenant had anything to add, then dismissed them for the night. No mention was made of Mike's departure or his happy hour.

A gaggle formed around Mike; friends apologizing for not being able to make his happy hour due to the late hour. He forced a smile and shook hands, accepting false promises to grab a drink together at a later date. When the crowd had thinned, Varanelli started acting suspiciously chipper. He slunk off to her car without speaking, silently acknowledging the effectiveness of the First Sergeant's final strike.