Chapter 6: Wakey wakey
A few days went by, which Aly practically couldn't believe. The classes were brutal – there was hardly any free time, and barely a day went by without five or more Jackal Pack Attacks, as Zahira had named them. Aly preferred to think of the mini-Jackals as radar-eared, quadripedal piranhas, a perception that was not improved by one of them eating all the chicken out of her Caesar salad and another taking her waffle at breakfast.
Of course, Conklin was as good as his word – every morning at 4:30 ("the ass-crack of dawn", as Zahira called it) the students were awakened by a different loud and impossibly irritating noise. Aly would have thought that they'd run out after a while, but no. Today, it had been an air raid siren. Then they had to find their Academy-issued gym uniforms; Zahira had taken to sleeping in hers, perhaps trying to make a good impression on the sadistic CIA officer. Then, like clockwork, they had to dash out to be present at Conklin's starting location by 4:40.
And Alexander Conklin did not take kindly to latecomers. One morning Mia had been brushing her hair and arrived to the PT grounds two minutes late. Conklin set her an extra lap of the campus – with Hirsh and Voson the mini-Jackals following to make sure she didn't slack off.
The morning routine had progressed from a simple run, however. Now they were called upon to stretch and do other exercises beforehand; not a bad idea, all things considered. An older man (why was everyone from the books so old, Aly wondered, though not aloud, because she rather liked her limbs), whom Rebecca and Zahira had separately identified as one Admiral Peter Holland, director of the CIA and Vietnam veteran, oversaw their morning PT beginning from the third day.
"How many of you can do one push-up?" Holland had asked the amassed students the first morning he attended. Most of the students, Aly included, raised their hands. "Five?" A few hands went down, but not many. "Ten?" More hands went down. "How about twenty?" Aly's hand practically shot downwards, and Zahira folded her arms crossly.
"Nineteen," she hissed to Aly, "nineteen I can do, but last gym class I had my arms gave out on the twentieth."
"Sucks," Aly murmured back. She had only ever made it to twelve.
"Thirty?" Holland asked. There weren't very many hands up now. "Right. How about fifty? Fifty push-ups in two minutes?" Only about five hands remained, sticking up in the air defiantly. Holland laughed a little. "Great. How's about you five lambs come on up front here and give us a demonstration?"
The students who'd been foolish enough to 'volunteer' all groaned and shuffled up to the front. "Come on, move it, people!" Holland shouted at them in true parade-ground fashion. They smartened up considerably. Aly peered over the heads of her classmates to look at the five unlucky students as they got down on the ground. Four of them were male. One of them was Ray.
Almost immediately Holland started shouting at them. "Is that what you call a push-up? Looks more to me like you're doing the Worm!" He glanced at Conklin. "You're not kidding; they do need work."
"This is why I brought you in," Conklin had said, tweaking the bill of his Mets cap as he watched the five students attempting to do fifty push-ups in two minutes. "I think they've had it easy enough, don't you?"
"Definitely." Holland raised his voice so all the students could hear. "That is not a push-up!"
"It isn't?" Ray asked, straightening his arms with a little difficulty.
"No, Winter. It isn't."
"But my gym teacher said—"
"In case it isn't obvious, I'm not your gym teacher. Allow us to demonstrate proper form. Conklin, if you would…"
"Certainly." The students watched while Conklin got into the starting position, hands firmly planted on the ground beneath his shoulders, back and legs straight.
"One, two, three." Holland said this in cadence; there was a rhythm to it.
At "One," Conklin had dropped to the ground, elbows bent, his chest not quite touching the ground.
At "Two," Conklin had returned to the starting position.
At "Three," Conklin had gotten back close to the ground. He pushed himself back up once more and shouted "One!"
"One, two, three," Holland intoned again.
"One, two, three."
Zahira was gazing at the Treadstone chief with a look that was awfully close to 'I-am-going-to-jump-your-bones-the-first-chance-I-get-and-this-only-makes-me-want-you-more'. Aly nudged her, but she didn't notice. Ew. How can she like him? Especially when there are younger, hotter guys around. Like Bourne.
"That'll be enough, thank you, Conklin," Holland said. "Now students, that is how you do push-ups."
"But that was, like, two push-ups per count!" Ray wailed.
"That's how it's done in the Army, that's how it's done here. And a week's detention for backtalking the staff," Conklin said.
"But this isn't the Army," Ray said, not knowing when to quit.
Conklin looked at him, and smiled. It was scary. "You're right," he said. "It's worse. Worse for you, at least. Two weeks' detention."
Ray groaned, but didn't say anything more.
"Now get back to your squads, all of you." The entire school had been organized into platoons for PT, based on which floor they were rooming in. Squads within platoons were composed of eight – two rooms put together. Ray's squad was directly in front of Aly and Zahira's, and as he slunk back to his position Aly could see his face was bright red, the color going right up to his ears.
After they had all done five push-ups to Holland's satisfaction (which took quite a while, as many of the girls shrieked about breaking nails), Conklin set them all running around the campus in company formation. The mini-Jackals followed, as this was also their morning exercise. Aly wondered where the suits were. She didn't really see them that much. Maybe that was the point.
It was almost 7:00 in the morning by the time they had all finished the run and were allowed to go to breakfast. Since classes began at 7:30 daily ("There is no God," Zahira had groaned), the students had to eat fast and then run to change if they didn't want to go to class in dirty, smelly gym clothes. Mercifully, Aly managed to scarf most of her ham and cheese omelet before the minis got around to her. Zahira ended up stabbing one of them with a fork, which had not ended well for her (being pushed to the ground by something angry and cat-sized was likely to result in the loss of food and dignity).
But things improved. As the days passed, the time they arrived at the cafeteria grew earlier, even though they had no less to do. They had gotten up to 6:55 after a week.
This obviously meant that things were too easy. The routine changed.
The following Monday, the students were awakened by yet another alarm. Today it was the screeching and chattering of a thousand capuchin monkeys. Aly was only too glad to roll out of bed and throw a pair of sneakers on. The noise was too irritating to bear for any length of time.
There were signs up again. That alone was enough to make Aly wary. They're moving PT? Damn, and she'd just gotten used to the other location. The stampede bore her and her roommates along, following the arrows to today's PT grounds. They left the building and followed a path through the forest. Mia stumbled in the woods, tripping over a large stick which Aly only barely managed to avoid.
A gasp went up from the front ranks, and there were many instances of people crashing into other people's backs again, uncomfortably recalling the first day of PT. Grumbling, Aly tried to peer over the amassed ranks – then gawped.
They were at the bank of the Potomac River. The two self-appointed PT supervisors were sitting in separate motorboats, both of which were lashed to a pier. "Hello there, students," Conklin said, seeming not unlike a piranha this morning.
"Damn," Zahira muttered, looking disappointed.
"What?" Aly asked.
"He's not in swim trunks."
"Hey, nothing wrong with hoping for a free show."
"You have problems," Aly mumbled, returning her attention to the instructors.
"Since you seem to be adjusting rather nicely to the morning routine, we figured we'd mix things up a little," Holland said.
"This morning, instead of a run, there's going to be something a little different," Conklin said. "You're going to swim across the Potomac to the Maryland side, and then swim back."
The students were dead silent. Conklin gave them a death glare, which Aly was horrified to find was surprisingly effective. "Oh, relax. We picked a narrow point – it can't be more than four hundred meters across. That's not even a full kilometer when you add up both sides. It's barely half a mile."
"Now don't panic," Holland said, because most of the students seemed to be trending towards doing just that. "There are lane ropes and buoys spaced throughout the course. If for whatever reason you can't keep swimming – if you freeze up, or if you get a cramp in your legs – just make your way to a buoy and you'll be picked up. The two of us will also be patrolling the lanes to make sure nothing goes too terribly amiss. There'll be towels for you when you make it all the way back, guarded by Nikki and Black briar." The two minis sat on either side of the carts full of towels, grinning jackalish grins. "And they can smell if you made it to the other side or not."
"Remember, you can't go back in for breakfast until everybody completes the course, so don't slack off," Conklin warned them. "The faster everyone finishes, the better off you all are. And I'd recommend you all take off your shoes, they'll only weight you down." As the students busied themselves removing their shoes and socks, he and Holland cast off from the dock and motored out about fifty meters. When the students were mostly upright again, Conklin raised the dreaded airhorn. "When this goes off, I expect to see all of you piling into the water." After a few seconds, he pressed the button. The blast was deafening even at that distance, and the students surged forwards into the Potomac.
"Eeew, Potomac," Zahira said as they shuffled forwards. "Pretty sure that it's Powhatan for 'garbage dump'."
Aly was a little curious as to why she had such disdain for the river, but all questions were banished from her mind as soon as feet touched water. "Fancy Christ, that's cold!" she shouted, darting backwards a little. The sun was beginning to think about rising, but the water remained icy. Of course they had planned it that way; why wouldn't they have? And at least it really went towards waking them up more. Aly couldn't go back to sleep now if she tried.
"And awaaaay we go," she muttered, and forced herself to wade in. The cold water eventually numbed her arms and legs, and she flailed herself into deeper water. Zahira, however, seemed to be doing just fine aside from the initial disgust. "H-how are you doing that?" she asked her roommate, who was already a few body-lengths in front of her.
Zahira turned back around. "I'm on swim t-team this year at m-my school. C-c'mon, it's not so b-bad once you get used to it. Don't flail like that."
"I h-h-hate water!" Aly half-shouted.
"You're using energy unnecessarily. Stay with me, I'll show you." Zahira helped her calm down and showed her exactly how to move. "You g-gotta keep kicking your legs. You know how to tread water?"
"A l-little," Aly said.
"Okay. We'll go together. Your arms tired?" Aly nodded, her teeth chattering. "Yeah, mine too. I guess it's the c-cold. Let's swim to that buoy and have a rest." For several of the other students had drifted over to the buoys and were clinging to them in sheer desperation.
It was slow going, but the two of them finally made it to the nearest buoy. "Ooh, look," Zahira said, pointing to the Maryland side of the river. "We're halfway there! Maybe a little more than half, actually."
"Wh-which means a quarter of the way in total," Aly said, hugging the buoy and miserably cold.
A skinny teenage girl swam up to their buoy. "C-can I join you guys?"
"S-sure, room enough for one more," Zahira said.
The girl grasped the buoy, laughing a little in the cold. "Th-this is my p-problem, not m-much insulation against the cold like this. I'm Jicky."
"I'm Zahira, and this is Aly," Zahira said. Aly was grateful she'd done the introductions, since her jaw seemed to be frozen shut.
"Mmmmhi," she managed to get out.
"N-nice to meet you!" Jicky said. "I can't believe they're m-making us swim all th-this."
"Eh, it's only l-like sixteen laps of an Olympic p-pool," Zahira said, trying to sound nonchalant.
Aly managed to unstuck her jaw. "Only?"
The sound of an outboard motor puttered closer, and the girls went quiet as Conklin's boat approached. "Nice to see you ladies having a friendly chat. Does talking preclude you three from swimming?"
"N-n-no, Mr. Conklin sir," Zahira said, trying to grin at him and looking rather like a deranged, waterlogged badger. "Just t-taking a rest."
"So none of you are injured?"
"N-not as such," Jicky piped up.
"So all of you can still swim." As he adjusted his Mets cap, it was clear that what he'd said was a statement rather than a question.
"Y…yeah," Jicky said.
"Right. Get on with it or the minis'll have your breakfast," Conklin said, and powered up the engine again, leaving the three of them in his wake – literally. The wave created by the motor swamped the trio, making them colder, wetter, and more miserable than they had been before.
"N-nothing for it, lessgo," Zahira said after they were sure he was far enough away, and the three of them set out for the Maryland side of the river, where two or three students were already trying to regain their breath before setting out on the way back.
Hell of a wake-up call.
Yes, that was a pun right up there. Who's good at updating on time? Not me! Thanks for sticking with it, though. College is fun, but it's a lot more difficult and time-consuming than I'd thought! I promise there's going to be more hilarity and action in the upcoming chapters; I have a system all planned out. And the push-up formula is actually how the Army does push-ups. (I know from experience.)
Applications are still open if anyone wants to try their luck – just send in the enrolment form from chapter one to bourneofu (at) gmail (dot) com.