World Apart

By C.J. Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 11

Responsibility is tough,

Risks are taken, loves are waived,

But when one’s wisdom offers life,

In times of death, much can be saved.

Beneath the devious authority of Zuron Troy and the furtive hand of General Kruxor, the amity between the human races decayed and fell apart. The assassinations persisted for five days, intertwining hate in all directions. By the time the spontaneous acts of violence ceased, no two races remained in friendly stance. Of course, the erupting hostility had its birthing in a heap of lies, but this loathing grew as strongly and as rapidly as it would have otherwise—maybe even more so.

What had begun as a peaceful colonization transformed into a territorial war of vengeance, driven not only by contempt, but by something more. The Reticulan shamans played their role and played it well. Through telepathic manipulations—thought insertion and dream distortion—artificial greed was spawned at the highest levels of human command. This avarice, although synthetic, grew within the leaders as if it were their own true sentiment, and they embraced it, and defended it, and began to love it.

Talk of war, in its true form, was extremely new for all three planets. Each, essentially, operated under a single, overarching government in which all land and resources were regarded as federal property, effectively nullifying the motivations that fueled history’s wars. There were different regions, or countries, so-to-speak, but they were managed by leaders whose decisions came through presidential approval. Everything was centralized.

Considering the inherent security of such government models, the human militaries, although more than effective at doing the jobs necessary of them in the past, were severely lacking the numbers necessary to take on two other planets in war. For the three worlds of man, the task of accruing ample soldiers required the travel of many unfamiliar paths. Campaigns of propaganda spread throughout each planet, painting ugliness upon the enemies and glory on the common soldier. Millions of stirred volunteers rose from the masses with passion for their people and eagerness to fight for their cause. Those in law enforcement were taken into the military automatically, and—in a desperate move—those they had imprisoned were given chance to rectify the wrongdoings of their past.

Prisoners were offered freedom in exchange for service, essentially emptying the penitentiaries in a matter of weeks as the despised embarked by bus to military training facilities. Their numbers consisted of street thugs, gang members, thieves, rapists, cold-blooded killers: the entire despicable spectrum of criminality. Without question, it was a risky move to equip these lowlifes with weapons, but it was deemed a necessary risk as it offered a large population of new soldiers and freed up billions of dollars in funds to be allocated toward the war effort.

On Arth, each convict was fastened around the ankle with an unbreakable tracking anklet. With a single click, an overseeing officer could trigger the release of a powerful sedative through mechanical insertion of a hypodermic needle into the posterior tibial artery of any specific individual. Whether the prisoner was attempting to flee or whether they chose to start a fight or turn a weapon on the wrong person, they would, in moments, find themselves face down with a third-class ticket back to jail: no questions, no debate, no second chance. Originally, Fraq and Calri struggled with ideas on how to control their criminal recruits, but eventually, they learned of Arth’s instrument and constructed similar devices themselves.

From the second the violence abated following the last covert attack on the fifth day of the assassination spree, the humans began to plan, and speculate, and seethe. As the weeks drew on, the forces gathered for each side and the tension mounted all the same. A war of great scale loomed, the first shot of which could be fired at any second and from any side.

*****

“Baby, don’t cry,” Raiden said. His voice was hushed and close within his wife’s ear. “You’re gonna scare the girls.”

Kristen and Katie stood at their father’s feet with arms wrapped tightly around his monstrous thighs. They weren’t crying because they didn’t know the gravity of the situation; Victoria was all too aware. “I can’t help it, Raiden. This isn’t right. You have a family who needs you. They shouldn’t be forcing you to fight.”

“We’ve gone over this already. I’m a lieutenant in the Fraquian Army. I’ve been a soldier since you met me, and I will be until I die. I signed up for this, and when you married me,” he sighed, “you did too.”

“But your daughters didn’t sign up for this. They have no control over whether you live to give them hugs, and tuck them into bed, and teach them about boys. They rely on you to make the right decisions, and they trust in you so much that they never worry about you.” She pulled her hands from his grasp to place her palms on the sides of his face, longingly. “They’d be lost without you, and so would I. Look at them. They don’t worry for you because they know that you would never risk losing them.”

Raiden looked down at his daughters’ golden locks. The girls sensed his gaze and removed their faces from their burrows against his leg, peering up with innocent smiles. He didn’t want to leave them. This he knew and had never denied. But war was larger than the individual. It didn’t care about every man and woman it affected; it cared only for groups, and teams, and how well they worked together. If every entity in an army was lost to personal thoughts, it wouldn’t be an army anymore. It would be a crowd. Crowds don’t win wars. History shows it. Crowds are killed. They’re killed by armies.

Raiden released another sigh, attempting to portray the difficulty of his decision in its cadence. “I know, Victoria, and I won’t leave my girls behind. I promise you I’ll be back. I’m good at what I do. That’s why I am where I am. When I leave, I can feel confident that the three of you will be safe here at home. If I stayed, I can’t say the same for the rest of my family, and I do have more family.” Victoria’s confusion displayed upon her face, and Raiden continued.

“My students are like sons to me. They look up to me and respect me. They try to be me. For a lot of them, I’m the only father figure they’ve ever known, and they rely on me to stay by them as a true father would. I refuse to stay here—holding my wife in my warm house and having tea parties with my daughters—while my sons rush into battle without me. If any one of them died up there on Centrum, I’d never be able to forgive myself for abandoning them. I just can’t do it, baby. I just can’t.”

Victoria looked up at him, a delicate whimper escaping from her throat past a quivering lip. Tears rappelled from the corners of her eyes, losing mass to glossy streaks forming pinstripes on her cheeks. Raiden wrapped his fingers behind her neck and used his thumbs to gently wipe away her tears, her heartache. He could only imagine the anxiety she felt.

Her argument had ceased. Victoria knew when her husband had made up his mind. “You’ve always been a stubborn man,” she said, releasing a feeble laugh and an involuntary sob like a restrained hiccup. “And because of that, I know you won’t ever give up. I know you’ll make it back to us. I have to believe that.”

“That’s why I love you so much, baby. You believe in me. I’ve never let you down before, and you can trust that I won’t start now.” He kissed her lips like it was their first, not their last. Her breaths were loud and heavy, the fear within adding delicacy to the sensation. It was a kiss to which she lent her heart and soul and all the hopes and desires she had for them: a kiss she thought, with some ounce of her being, could change his mind if only it were just right.

It didn’t work.

Raiden sped down the street on the treads of his tundra truck, his family’s image shrinking in his rearview mirror until the road rose up to push them out. Saying goodbye to his daughters was hard, but not as complicated as it was with Victoria. They put up no fight, shed no tears, attempted no persuasive maneuvers other than batting their giant eyes and flashing their angelic smiles, but these were inadvertent. Their parents had just made out in front of them as if it were their last time together, and all they gleaned from the picture was “Ewww, Daddy’s eating Mommy’s face.”

He was heading, now, to the airport where he would meet up with a handful of his students from SWUN training. He had been asked to relocate 5,000 miles east to a special facility where Fraquian prisoners were to be trained as soldiers in preparation for deployment to Centrum. His job was to teach them how to use the SWUN and how to exploit all of its features to stay alive on the battlefield. With special permission by his request, Raiden was able to retain five of his best students to aid him with the task, hopefully helping to keep them from combat for a bit longer. Even he had never seen true war—only read about it in books—but he knew well of its horrors and its ability to change a man. The less of it these kids experienced, the better off they’d come out, and as their leader, he intended to ensure that each of them did, in fact, come out.

When he reached the airport, it took him 10 minutes to find a parking place and another 10 to walk all the way from his horrible spot to the entrance. His suitcase bulged with nearly 50 pounds of clothes and belongings, but he carried it effortlessly and tossed it single-handedly onto the conveyer belt at the security checkpoint. There was no line for him, although, in reality, it stretched back some 30 people long. It was the uniform that did it. When he stepped to the back of that line—with his white jacket tight across his broad shoulders, his pants pressed, boots shined, colorful badges and medals decorating his chest and shoulders like war paint—the people noticed, and the people stepped aside.

After retrieving his things past security, Raiden made a move toward a group of outfitted young men huddled near a tall glass window in the distance, looking out across the runway. As he approached, he could hear their chatter like excited little boys around a dirty magazine. Without warning, an exploding grenade suddenly sent their dismembered arms and legs soaring outward in a plume of fire and shrapnel, and Raiden flinched slightly, grimacing at the sight of their scorched corpses, charred and smoking. He quickly regained his wits, recognizing the momentary intrusion for what it was. It wasn’t a premonition of things to come—a possibility he’d considered following his first few hallucinations years before—but simply his repressed violence and fear. Fear of death, of man, of himself.

He approached and set his suitcase on the ground with a thud, and the men broke conversation to turn and investigate. It took a few moments for them to realize who stood before them and what they should do in response, but quickly they straightened up and shed smirks for solemnity.

“Sir,” they said in unison, their right hands rigid in salute above their brows.

Raiden fought a smile and returned the gesture. “At ease soldiers.” His sonorous voice hit them like a mild muscle relaxant, and they loosened their firm postures. “What were you guys giggling about as I was walking over here? You reminded me of a group of teenage girls talking about their crushes.”

Darren Slater spoke on their behalf: “We were actually just discussing whether or not you were going to fit in our plane. Have you seen it yet?”

Raiden raised an eyebrow. “No, I haven’t.”

“Take a look,” Darren said, extending his finger toward a model airplane sitting out upon the runway. It wasn’t really a model, but from where he stood, Raiden could understand their concern.

“What? That rinky dink little thing? Looks like someone pulled it out of a box and threw it together before I got here. What’s it run on? Batteries?”

“Yep,” Darren confirmed. “Two rechargeable triple A’s.”

Raiden grinned. “Well, I suppose we should stop joking around and get our asses moving. It looks like we’re all here, and the pilot’s in the cockpit, so let’s head out.”

The guys nodded and picked up their things, and the six of them pushed through a heavy metal door and down a short flight of stairs to the runway’s concrete surface. As they walked toward the plane, Raiden took his chance to look up and down the enormous grey expanse. The airport runway was easily the largest area around that wasn’t covered with snow. He wondered what it would be like when he set foot on Centrum, where snowy terrain was the minority.

“It’s a bit bigger once you’re next to it, huh professor?” Darren remarked. “Maybe you’ll squeeze in after all.”

Raiden pushed the boy playfully up the stairs leading into the plane. “You’re right, Mr. Slater. I think it’s gonna work out. By the way, gentlemen, you’re not to address me as ‘Professor Whitmore’ any longer. From now on, you’re not students in my class. You’re soldiers in my regiment. As a result, you’ll call me ‘Lieutenant Whitmore.’ Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the men sounded in accord.

The six of them took their seats and buckled in. Raiden’s seatbelt was set too tight for his large body, so he spent five minutes trying to loosen the damn thing up before he could click it into place.

Darren sat to his left and the others in paired seats behind them. “You good, profess . . . I mean lieutenant?”

“Yep, I’m good to go. Stayed up all last night so I could sleep most of the trip away. I hope you did the same, otherwise you’re looking at a long 15 hours.”

“Naw, I figured I’d enjoy the scenery. I’ve only flown once before—when I was too young to remember—so this’ll be cool. Besides, I brought this to read.” Darren held up a white packet of paper that Raiden squinted to identify as a SWUN weapons manual. “I figure it might be useful to get a deeper understanding of the weapon. You know, its parts, how to disassemble them and put ’em back together, all that good stuff.”

“Yeah, we went over that in class a little, but it definitely can’t hurt to read up on more. It makes me proud to see that you’re taking this seriously, Darren.”

“I’ve gotta take it serious. Even though I slept through most of your lectures in military history, I was awake enough to understand the fact that war is something no one ever wants to see in their lifetime. You made that point clear. Now, we’re heading into a war with two different enemies we know nothing about, in a world just as unfamiliar.” As Darren spoke, he didn’t flash that self-assured grin of his or the typical charming glint in his eyes. He was stern and confident with a hint of fear. “If I’m going to be staring Death in the face every day I open my eyes, I want to know everything I can about the one weapon that will bitch slap that asshole and send him on over to the enemy’s side.”

Raiden chuckled, though on the inside he was taken aback by Darren’s new demeanor. This was a new kid—a new man—and this new man was intense. “Wise words, indeed,” he replied. “You’re gonna make it through this.” He reached out to grant Darren’s knee with a reassuring pat. “As sure as the wind is cold, we’re all going to.”

Darren nodded, but Raiden could see, in the young man’s face, a strain of doubt hiding behind pretend poise. He wanted to say the right words that would remove that uncertainty, but he thought better of it. War was filled with uncertainty. It was better for Darren to taste that now, accept it and prepare for it, than to fall hard into combat with a false sense of security.

Darren turned to peer through the small window to his left, his eyes scanning the surroundings but his mind not there to comprehend. He was lost in thought. He was trying to think positively, but negative images continued to force their way in like a virus, their presence attempting to poison him with hopelessness. He pushed them away, knowing the power that visualization had in affecting reality.

While Darren’s battle raged on, Raiden leaned back to rest his eyes. The plane had begun to roll its way to the end of the runway, the humming of its engine and the friction of its wheels on the pavement resonating through its frame and into his seat and body. He sank into the cushions of his chair, their comforting embrace warm and supportive though not nearly so much as his wife’s. Oh Victoria. How he wished she were there by his side. But he musn’t think of her now. Only sadness would come of it, and with sadness would creep weakness and fear. This was his time to be strong, and knowing as much, he cleared his mind to refocus on the mundane. The pattern on the seat in front of him consisted of a number of repeating squares, and so he took to counting them. This proved fruitful, for it allowed the vibrations of the craft to take him, and melt him, and lull him until his thoughts began to cease and his brain to feel as though it was powering down for sleep.

After what seemed like only a moment, a sudden downward acceleration broke his trance, and he opened his eyes, wiping them with the hairy backs of his index fingers. The plane was in the air. He hadn’t noticed takeoff. To his left, Darren was asleep with the SWUN manual open upon his lap. Behind them, the others were sleeping as well. Tenebrous clouds consumed the view through all windows of the cabin, the individual drops of their existence floating and swirling amongst each other in a dismal miasma. He could see nothing but the ominous mist and a faint, red light blinking on the edge of the plane’s wing. Evidently, a storm cloud had engulfed them. It must have been the turbulence of its influence that had stirred him from sleep.

Raiden cast a fleeting look at his watch and then doubled back in shock. It had been 10 hours since he’d closed his eyes. Maybe he had been more tired than he’d thought. He wasn’t anymore. He wanted to do something productive—to burn some energy somehow—but the gloom of the cabin beckoned him to slumber. He gave sleep a shot, but after some time of sitting there, staring at the insides of his eyelids, hearing every creak of the plane’s structure and every snore of his fellow passengers, he realized it wasn’t happening.

The overhead light took a click to activate, and instantly the darkness of the cabin parted in his lap. Carefully, he reached over and lifted the SWUN manual from Darren’s lap. If he was going to sit there for five more hours, he needed some reading material. He flipped the cover, leaned back, and began to read, starting with a page entitled “History of the SWUN.” His name was in there. He smiled. Everyone likes to read their name.

*****

When the wheels struck the pavement, the tug of their safety belts roused the soldiers from their dreams. As the plane taxied to their gate, Darren grabbed the manual from his lap and put it back into his bag. He looked through the window toward the airport where numerous small planes, similar to theirs, were already parked and unloading passengers. The building itself was much smaller than the one from which they’d taken off. It was a military airport, not open for civilian transportation. The Fraquian Army flag fluttered above the building. White camouflage jeeps crowded the pavement between planes, and a hundred uniformed bodies swarmed the remaining tarmac near the gates.

When their craft finally came to a halt, the copilot appeared from the cockpit and slid the door open at Raiden’s right. Almost immediately, a worker in a neon yellow vest rolled a small flight of steps up to the opening and clamped it on to the plane’s frame.

“Good to go, soldiers,” the copilot said, his voice high and lively. “It was a pleasure flying you, today. Stay safe out there.” He threw up a nonchalant salute and then vanished through the curtains leading into the cockpit.

“All right, men, let’s get outta this dollhouse,” Raiden said, unfastening his seatbelt to rise and retrieve his suitcase from the compartment overhead. He ducked through the exit and squinted at the bright sun, standing tall to enjoy the sensation after being cramped for so long. The storm clouds through which they’d passed had yet to catch up, and the blue sky hovered gracefully above, its yellow blemish casting warmth upon him.

He descended the stairs with heavy feet and stared off at a nearby plane whose body cast a shadow on its group of passengers. They were all outfitted with bright red jumpsuits indicative of the blood they’d probably spilled to get there. Their hands were bound by cuffs and their feet linked together by chains that connected every prisoner to the next. A black man, kneeling down to tie his shoe, turned away from the task to meet eyes with Raiden. He was concentrating as he stared, as if trying to send his thoughts through the air.

Raiden cast a stern and unrevealing face. The convict, on the contrary, flashed a toothy smile as white as the snow. Raiden couldn’t tell if it was friendly or taunting, so he remained stoical and burned holes in the man’s corneas with his gaze. He’d seen enough movies to know the rules of prison. The man was probably searching him for weakness, looking for the slightest hint of fear or insecurity on which to prey.

Not this guy, buddy, Raiden thought. Don’t mess with this guy.

He continued walking and glaring, turning his head to maintain eye contact and breaking it only when he was so far that his body would need to turn, as well. If he were to turn, it could reveal insecurity in that he allowed the man to control his own actions by challenging his masculinity with a simple staring contest. Raiden was too sharp for that. He was too cool to waste the energy.

Moving on, he could sense the man’s eyes upon the back of his head, but he didn’t turn to verify the suspicion. Darren and the other four approached from behind, lining up to his left and right to await their next order. Before Raiden could open his mouth, a large man, nearly as big as he, came from behind a nearby jeep with his hand outstretched.

“Lieutenant Whitmore and his five students, I take it?”

“Well, close,” Raiden replied, extending his arm to retrieve the man’s firm handshake. “It’s Lieutenant Whitmore and his five soldiers. I believe the students are wearing red and shackled up behind us as we speak.”

“Ahaha, yes, I do believe you’re right about that. I’m General Harrison. We talked on the phone. President Brownstein appointed me with the duty of turning these ruthless jailbirds into disciplined Fraquian soldiers. Quite possibly an impossible mission, but that’s why I’ve recruited the best teachers to get the job done. I take it these fine young men know their stuff quite well?”

“Yes, sir, they do. I taught them myself, and they’re the brightest of the bunch.”

“We’re the best,” Darren chimed.

The general turned to face him, his expression hard and unimpressed. For a few moments, he just stared at the young soldier, but finally the corners of his mouth curled up, amused. “Well, that’s good to hear, lad. I hope you can support that claim when we get to the training camp.” Darren nodded. “And speaking of the camp, I think now’s a good time to head there. A storm’s coming in from the West, and we don’t want to be caught out here in the hail. Private Jones over there will take you in the jeep.” Harrison pointed to a lanky soldier seated in the driver’s seat with his brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and, on his nose, a thick pair of glasses that made his eyes look big. “It’s only a short drive away. I need to wrap things up here real quick and make sure all the prisoners are set, but I’ll be right behind you.”

“Sounds good, General. I guess we’ll meet you there,” Raiden said. He offered a firm salute, and the five behind him did the same. General Harrison returned the gesture, and the six of them filed off into their waiting, armored chariot. Darren offered to stand through the sunroof and man the machine gun mounted on top of the jeep, but Raiden wasn’t having it. His men packed in the back, and he took the passenger seat next to Private Jones. Jones wasn’t much of a talker. Raiden could tell by the way he avoided eye contact and stared at the road as if the task of driving required all his focus.

The dirt road they traveled cut its way through an endless field of dead grass. For miles to their left and right, a faded brown prairie extended with dirty, flattened blades and patches of melting snow speckling its face. It was rare to find a place on Fraq where the snow didn’t paint every inch of terrain with pallid hues. Raiden admired the color. His breath flowed across the cool windowpane, its touch forming an opaque fog that eclipsed his view of the land. His eyes climbed higher where the sky beyond was slowly darkening with coming storm. The open fields would soon be white again.

Straight ahead, the road entered a dimly-lit tunnel which burrowed passage through the base of a steep mount. When the jeep broke free through the other side, Raiden’s eyes followed the hills as they continued on like walls enclosing them in the pit of a valley. Eventually, the mammoth forms shrank back into the earth, revealing crimson forest far across the plane on both sides. The woodlands wrapped around and merged much farther up ahead, leaving them, now, at the beginnings of a large elliptical clearing.

Here, the snow yet lingered on the field, smooth and glossy on the curves of the land. Gusts of wind swept its surface, lifting powder in swirling ascension and hurling it through the air to pelt rattling branches and whipping pines. The structures of the training facility spread across the clearing until the rising forest pinned them in.

Private Jones brought them toward the center of the camp where a large building sprang from the ground like a solitary flower in a wasting autumn meadow. New brick walls, immaculate glass windows, marble pillars cornering a garish portico about the main entrance: it was all in stark contrast to the decrepit units circling off around it. The decaying wood barracks gave protection from the wind and snow but clearly little more than that. Raiden doubted the rooms were sufficiently heated, and he guessed that they offered nearly as few comforts as the repressing cells the detainees had left behind.

“Please tell me we’re staying here,” Darren said.

“I’m not sure,” Raiden replied.

“Yeah,” Private Jones said. “You all can head on in. I think General Harrison will be here in a minute. I saw the buses behind us.”

Raiden was surprised to hear the man’s voice. It was stronger and less timid than he’d imagined it. “Thanks, Private. Okay soldiers, you heard him. Grab your bags.”

The crew barreled out of the vehicle and set their things on the ground as Private Jones zoomed away to park his ride with the rest of the lot. Raiden inhaled the fresh forest air, its purity only faintly tarnished by the squalid musk of sweating men and broken pride. Around the camp, prisoners were bustling in clusters of 20. The exhausted men ran behind their group’s leading officer, tufts of white exhaust from his ATV slapping them like spit in the face. The drone of ATV engines echoed from every corner of the camp, masking the grunts, and wheezes, and cursing of their tormented victims.

The scene brought back memories that caused Raiden to shudder. The Mommy Marathon, they called it: so named because it could make even the toughest brute collapse in a shameless heap and cry for his mommy. It was a Fraquian Army ritual. A rite of passage. A grueling, 10-mile run in the wake of an insult-spewing prick who thinks he’s the shit because of an extra pin on his jacket. Raiden recalled the torture: how his boots grew unbearably heavy with water and mud, how the noxious fumes of the ATV engulfed his face, forcing him to pant for dear oxygen, how it took every ounce of his fortitude to stay standing and avoid being trampled by the stampede of other men just behind him. It was something they all had to experience and overcome, not as individuals, but as a single unit with the same goal and the same obstacles. The run was meant to break the hardheaded and unify the divided, and obviously it worked since they were still doing it some twenty-odd years later.

More immediate than the buzz of ATV engines, the crunching of dirt and gravel beneath rolling tires caused Raiden and his five to turn as a jeep and two buses approached on the road. The buses stopped a ways back and the jeep continued toward them, halting a few feet away to allow General Harrison to hop from the passenger seat and stroll over to their sides. His mouth didn’t smile, but his face was warm and welcoming. “Gentlemen.”

“Sir,” they responded, straightening up for another salute.

“Lieutenant, you and your cadets are free for the rest of the night. I need to head off to the far side of camp to check in with security and see how things are going.”

“I was meaning to ask you about security, sir,” Raiden said. “As we were pulling in, I noticed that there are no fences or gates surrounding the facility. How do you plan to keep the men from running off in the middle of the night?”

“Ahh, an astute observation,” Harrison replied. “It’s actually pretty simple, really. We just make sure that every newcomer is aware of where they are. We’re in the middle of nowhere, Lieutenant. There’s nothing but frozen forests and barren tundra for miles and miles in all directions. Rest assured, if any of them managed to escape this camp, they’d be popsicles for the bears within a few hours. These men aren’t the sharpest set of knives, but they’re at least smart enough to know the truth in that.” Raiden nodded.

“Furthermore,” Harrison continued, “we’ll keep the doors of their barracks locked from the outside during the night, and we have ample surveillance of the entire facility. These guys are going nowhere but the frontline of our army on Centrum, and to be honest, I think most of them like it that way. Remember, we’re dealing with real antisocial psychopaths here, and we’re offering the chance to go blow people’s brains out with big ass guns and get medals instead of years. This is the kinda stuff they dream about.”

“Hmmm,” Raiden began. “I guess I never thought of it like that.” He smiled and nodded, hiding his disagreement in the name of tact. He knew that most of these prisoners weren’t psychopaths, and most of them didn’t dream about blowing people to pieces. The truth was that many of them were probably vastly different people, now, than the persons they were when they committed the crimes that put them in jail. To them, this opportunity wasn’t the chance for them to live out their twisted fantasies; it was a second chance at leading a normal life with the people they loved. Raiden realized this, and he respected it. Although his colleagues might find humor in treating the convicts like the scum of Fraq, he was going to treat them like human beings and try his hardest to prepare them to fight for their freedom.

“Yes, indeed,” General Harrison said with a laugh. “But I really need to get going. I’d suggest checking in at the front desk to get your room assignments and drop your things off. As I said, the six of you can do with your time what you wish, for now. Just know that your first class starts at 0700 hours. We have the SWUNs. You just be ready with a lesson plan and some balls, because these guys are gonna try you. There’s no doubt about that.”

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