It used to be "It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure," then "Accelerate Your Life," and, more recently "America's Navy: A Global Force For Good."
It should be "Steal A Car and Spend The Next Four Years Scooping Barely Identifiable Meatlike Product onto Trays for 14 Hours Every Day!"
OK, so maybe that's a bit long, but that's what happened to me. A lot of other guys, too. I was 16 when I snagged that awesome Mustang in Virginia Beach -- had it out on the road for not even an hour before they caught me. Trial was quick, and they tried me as an adult. They're doing that a lot these days. My sentencing took about a minute, minute and a half. Hell, I read an article a few days back about some redneck judge in Alabama who wanted to try some 9-year-old kid as an adult. Don't know how that one turned out.
"Vazquez, Hunter D.," the judge said without looking up from the file in front of him. The room was packed with guys in orange jumpsuits just like mine.
"Yes, your honor," I answered.
"Navy. Convict Unit. Four Years," was all he said before gesturing to the bailiffs to get me out of the room.
My court-appointed just looked at me and shrugged. Appeals had just gone out the window at that point, a couple of months after the Battle of Neryugn. Guess the government just needed bodies by then. He stuck out his hand, and I shook it before following the officers out of the courtroom.
So, at age 16, I was off to join the war. Didn't take even a day to get my assignment -- the process was getting streamlined by early 2020. I was loaded on a bus just outside the county courthouse -- as soon as the bus was full, it started up and drove off to the Navy Convict Processing Center in Norfolk. Two black-helmeted, jackbooted Civil Protection Force guys with psycho-huge guns corralled us from the bus into a long, low building with two tables set up at one end and told us to form a line.
I've heard the other convict services -- the Army, Air Force, Marines -- they test you to see where they can use you. Not so with the Navy, who seemed to give out assignments at random -- but maybe I'm just saying that because I'm pissed about where I ended up.
"Vasquez, Hunter. You're coded NC-4478 from here on," the guy behind the table said. He was a little guy in a suit -- not Navy or anything that I could tell.
"Uh, OK," I said, accepting the dog tags he handed me, which, indeed, read "NC-4478."
"Duty assignment is kitchen work, CVN-79. Hope you don't get seasick," he chuckled, waving me to the exit door on the far end of the room.
I traded out my prisoner orange for some convict-gray BDUs and black combat boots, got on another bus, then an airplane for a long time, then a big helicopter with a lot of other guys in gray BDUs. When the chopper landed on the deck of a huge aircraft carrier, I couldn't tell you where we were, and no one was particularly forthcoming with any kind of information. Some Marines hustled us into a conference room below decks, and we were coded in, told the rules, and escorted to our duty stations. Mine was, as I think I mentioned, the kitchen, which is where I've been ever since. Total time from arrest to that kitchen -- two days, three hours.
That was four months ago, and I've never been more than a couple hundred feet from the kitchen ever since. My bunk is just behind the kitchen, along with my fellow food-service conscripts. There's only one real Navy guy in the kitchen, and he's our boss -- Petty Officer 3rd Class Stahl. He's all right to us as long as we do our jobs. I can tell just by looking at him that he hates where he ended up just as much as the rest of us.
Enterprise (that's the ship's name) is huge, and we're the main kitchen for all the sailors on the ship, so we're in operation pretty much 24-7. As far as the war goes, it's not too bad -- hours are long, but I'm not getting shot at. My buddy Craig (or NC-4919) tells me horror stories all the time about what happens to other convicts.
"You know, I hear if you go Marines, they put you in something called Mecho. They don't even give you guns, man, they make you fight the Chinks with your bare damn hands," Craig told me, sweating like he always did.
"Uh huh. Sure, man," I nodded.
Craig was a year older than me, and horribly fat. I was a little pudgy when I got sentenced, but that went away quick -- working around that horrible slop all day really killed my appetite, and running around with 85-pound pots or stirring thick stews made for 100 people is quite a workout.
If I'd been able to just stay there for the remainder of my sentence, I would have been just fine with it -- my only war wounds would be some repetitive-stress injury and terminal boredom. Didn't work out that way, though.
One day, I was about halfway through my shift, so it was sometime around two in the afternoon. I'd heard through the grapevine that we were in the Bering Sea, firing planes into Russia and China, but I didn't know for sure. A Marine with a big gun walked into the kitchen and pulled Petty Officer Stahl aside. They talked for a minute, and Stahl pointed over to where Craig and I were serving the day's slop on the line.
"NC-4478," the Marine bellowed.
I turned around and wiped my hands on the towel I'd stuck in my belt.
"That's me, sir."
"You're coming with me," he said. "Tuck in that fucking shirt and grab your uniform jacket."
I nodded, tucked in my shirt, and followed the Marine, shrugging into my uniform jacket and buttoning it up as I went. I knew better than to ask him any questions -- Craig had gotten clocked in the mouth a month or so back for making that mistake. I simply walked where he walked and stopped when he did outside a door up on the top deck.
I hadn't been there before -- in fact, I hadn't been above-decks since the day I arrived -- but I knew it was the Captain's office. The Marine knocked on the door.
"Word of advice -- speak only when directly asked a question," the Marine muttered from the side of his mouth.
"Come in," came a voice from the other side of the door.
The Marine opened the door and nodded for me to go in. I did, keeping my hands behind my back. Couldn't tell you why I did that.
"Right. NC-4478. Vasquez," Captain Christopher Rush said. He was young for a Captain, in his mid-40s, and built like a brick shithouse, as they used to say.
I nodded. He hadn't asked me anything.
"Sit down, kid. I'm just looking at your file now."
I sat in one of the chairs across from Rush's desk as he flipped through a few pages on his e-reader. After a moment, he set the reader aside and leaned back in his chair.
"So, I got a problem, NC-4478. Late last night, we lost a Lightning driver out near the Siberian coastline. He reported contact with a squadron of MIGs, reported he was bailing. That was the last we heard from him, and his locators aren't working."
I nodded, but I couldn't help wondering what this had to do with me shoveling D-grade food down in the kitchen.
"We sent up a CSAR bird -- that's Combat Search and Rescue -- to look for him. Came up against some more hostile contacts, and I lost a spotter in the chopper. Which is why you're here."
Rush picked up the reader again and tapped the screen.
"20/10 vision. That's pretty impressive. Your batteries say you're highly observant, mechanical aptitude."
"Batteries, sir? I don't remember taking any."
The Marine shot daggers at me, but Rush didn't seem to care.
"You wouldn't. They've been slipped into standardized testing in high schools lately. We know what you can do before you're a sophomore. So here's the deal -- you're reassigned to the Reavers. That's my CSAR crew. You'll be taking over for the spotter I lost. Get a shower and get to the flight deck ASAP -- your chopper leaves in half an hour, and you smell like a fryer."
* * *
The Marine showed me to where I'd be living, which was a hell of a lot nicer than where I'd been. First off, there were only six bunks in the space where my old room had 25. I took a shower, put on fresh convict BDUs, and followed the Marine up to the flight deck. There was a big chopper -- an SH-60 Seahawk -- sitting on the deck with mechanics replacing one of the windows. Another mechanic was hosing blood out of the inside of the chopper.
"Hey, Lieutenant. I brought your new spotter," the Marine said, nodding back at me.
"Jesus. How old are you, kid?" the Lieutenant asked. He was dressed in heavy BDUs, and his nametape said "Eastman."
"Sixteen. Jesus. Look, kid, your job's not rocket science. You're here because you're an eagle eye, so just keep an eye out for our man, for wreckage, for anything out of the ordinary. Head on a swivel," Eastman said.
"If our pilot's in the water. . . well, good chance he's frozen to death by now, but he should have deployed green dye. If he went to ground, he's trying his best to stay hidden, so your job gets harder. Questions?"
"None yet, sir."
"Good. Soon as they have this thing ready to fly, you're in the seat next to me. You eat yet today?"
"Good. I expect to be wheels-up in five minutes. You're gonna have to learn as you go, kid. What's your name, anyway?"
"I'm not gonna remember that. What's your real name? Last name?
"Right. Convict Vasquez. That, I can remember. You're gonna need a heavier coat, Vasquez. It's fucking freezing out there. I'll have one of my guys sort you out."
Eastman waved one of his crew over, a guy maybe three years older than me with short, red hair and dark eyes.
"Leary. Get Convict Vasquez here some ECW gear. And some sunglasses -- he's been below-decks for a while."
"You got it, boss," Leary nodded, running off and returning a minute later with a heavy black coat that matched his own and a pair of gold aviator shades. He handed them to me.
"Man, and I thought I was young. You ever been on a chopper before, kid?" Leary asked as he handed me my gear.
"Ever had any weapons training?"
"No, sir. Never even held a gun."
"I'm not a 'sir,' shipmate. I'm an Airman. Just call me Leary. Only 'sir' on our ship is the Lieutenant, there. Rest of us are all working scrubs," Leary said, nodding to two other young guys in heavy black coats and sunglasses. "That's Kessel, he's on comms, and Mancewicz, our PJ."
"What's a PJ?" I asked.
"Parajumper. Air Force combat medic," Mancewicz answered. "Welcome to the Reavers."
"We got another guy, Cooper. Rescue diver like me. He's still getting cleaned up. Lieutenant drives the bus, and that's us in a nutshell," Leary told me.
"Ladies! Load up your shit!" Eastman yelled. "We're wheels up in 60 seconds!"
I could hear the chopper blades spinning up behind me, so I followed Leary over to the helicopter. He told me where to sit, and I sat and strapped myself in. The rest of the unit piled in, followed by one more guy in BDUs and carrying an M4.
"Oh, shit, boys! Looks like we got a Death Dealer riding along!" Kessel yelled as the chopper started to lift off.
"Death dealer?" I asked Leary, who was sitting behind me.
"SEAL," he told me.
"Control, this is 1-1 Vampire. We're outta here," Eastman radioed as we rose up in the air and zoomed away from the Enterprise.
* * *
"Repeat, 1-1 Vampire going down!" I could hear Kessel yelling into the radio. He was trying to keep his voice calm, but he wasn't doing very well.
"Shit! Manc, how's Coop?" Leary shouted from behind me.
"He's gone!" Mancewicz shouted back.
"Strap in, kids! We're about to hit, and hit hard!" Eastman yelled above all of us.
That was the last thing I heard before the chopper slammed into the water and I blacked out.
TO BE CONTINUED