War is death, this is a fact,
And Death is not a patient one,
He will not wait until goodbye,
Or pause till preparation’s done.
“In the case that stealth is demanded, it’s clear that firing your rifle would be out of the question. Most would settle with a knife, but that’s not how we do things in this platoon. The weapons you hold, as you already know, are called SWUNs, and it’s because they’re not only guns, but swords, as well. The discharge button is located here, right beside the trigger. You can easily press it with your thumb while maintaining your trigger finger’s position. Do this now, but keep your weapons pointed forward and away from your neighbor. The blade comes out quick and with force, so it can do some damage.”
Raiden leaned in a corner of the room and watched from a distance as Darren instructed the men. He was speaking confidently, his voice an emulation of Raiden’s own authoritative tenor. He was a great student, but an even greater teacher. Maybe it was his leadership qualities, or maybe it was a love of power and respect that drove him, but whatever it was, Raiden liked the man he saw.
His other four cadets had groups of men of their own in other areas of the camp. They had set up stations that day, rotating groups of 10 through sniping, sword fighting, automatic fire, hand-to-hand combat, and potential white heat applications. These were the five areas that each student needed to master in order to use their SWUN to its fullest potential: the five points of a SWUN “star.”
It had been two weeks since they’d first arrived at the training facility. The first three days were consumed by efforts to turn the unruly convicts into disciplined and willing soldiers. For the most part, they had been successful to this end. One man had to be sent back to prison for shooting his deceased wife’s killer in the eye with a shotgun at pointblank range, but this was the one exception.
The last part of that first week had been devoted to taking these newly-fashioned soldiers and teaching them the basics. They needed to experience every weapon, adapt to each one’s specific feel, learn to reload them, clean them, aim and shoot them. They had to learn the handling of different grenades—smoke, illuminating, fragmentation, chemical—and the strategy behind choosing which one to use and when. They were taught basic tactical formations and the invaluable principles of teamwork and self-control.
The second week, which was coming to an end, involved Raiden’s pride and joy: his bread and butter. It was when he and his assistants first whipped out the SWUNs for those 50 special men that would join his unit. They’d been rotating through the five stations for the last five days, and Raiden, himself, remained at a specific one for the entire day to help with the training and add his important input. Today, he was in the eastern gymnasium with Darren at the sword training station, and they were in the midst of training the final group for the day. Every trainee had experienced each station five times over the last five days, and Raiden could see a drastic improvement.
“Remember men,” he chimed in, “your gun can still shoot while your blade is extended. Considering this, draw it any time you expect potential close-quarter contact with the enemy. It may very well save your life, and for many of you, it will. Unfortunately, some of you may not be so lucky. I see a lot of development, but not all of you are combat-ready. It takes many weeks of training to master the art of the SWUN, not just one.”
The men stood erect as they absorbed their leader’s words, some of them cringing at the thought that they weren’t ready, others remaining stern, unwilling to accept it.
“No matter how powerful you feel with that weapon in your hands, and how confident you are in your ability to use it, never forget to use your brains. That’s your best weapon. Don’t take risks unless they need to be taken. Don’t use ammo unless it serves a purpose. Never expose yourself without a teammate providing cover fire or a smoke grenade screening you from the enemy’s sight. These should all go without saying, but you have no idea how easy such things can be forgotten in the heat of battle. Use what we’ve taught you, and use the brains I know you have, and I’m convinced we’ll all make it out of this.”
Raiden paused to scan the eyes of his men for any signs of worry. He found none. They respected him and trusted his words. Unlike the other officers in the camp, he treated them as humans, and it showed in their attitudes. “Private Slater, you can continue with the lesson.”
“Yes, sir,” Darren said with a nod. He turned to address the men. “Now that your blades are drawn, I want you to place your index fingers behind the trigger so that you don’t accidentally fire. Keep hold of the handle and make sure to hold the forward grip with your other hand. These two handholds will allow you to jab, pivot, and swipe with maximum force and range of motion. Now, step up to your targets and follow this combination.” Darren approached one of the wooden poles they had assembled perpendicular to the ground. With his sword extended, he struck the enemy with three rapidly successive blows. “Left, right, stab. Left, right, stab. Do you see how my feet shift with each movement? Mimic me, now.”
Each soldier had their own wooden foe to fell. With short swooping slices and powerful jabs, they chipped away at their opponents with splintering force.
“Your feet must be versatile or your attacks won’t be,” Darren continued. “Keep them moving, pressing forward, positioning your weight for maximum stability and moving your vulnerable parts before your enemy can identify them.” Darren observed his students as they followed his instructions. He smiled because he knew that they were learning from him, and he glanced to Raiden who gave him a quick wink of approval.
The racket of chopping wood echoed off the plaster walls, blunt and solid. Suddenly, the noise was joined by a piercing alarm that sounded from the command center at the heart of the camp. The soldiers stopped their motions in bewilderment and looked to their lieutenant for elucidation.
“It’s a code green,” Raiden said. “We’re under attack—not here, but on Centrum.”
The men’s faces went cold as if Death himself were breathing bitter breaths on the backs of their necks. The distance of battle had suddenly been cut short, its new intimacy now peeling back the layers of toughness behind which they’d all been hiding. Raiden could see it in their eyes, their confidence waning with thoughts of impending pain and suffering.
A loudspeaker projected General Harrison’s voice throughout the building and the entire camp. “All units are to report to their barracks for roll call, immediately.” He repeated his command multiple times. The whole while, Raiden’s men stood and stared to him as if asking for his permission to follow the order.
“What are you guys waiting for?” he demanded. “He’s the boss. Do what he says. Go!” As they exited the room, the soldiers laid their weapons in the fabric-fashioned rack by the door and then rushed down the hallway. “Darren,” Raiden shot, “fold that rack up and bring it with us. We’re gonna need those weapons.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
Frantically, Darren hurried to roll the cloth frame like a sleeping bag with SWUNs spiraling about its interior. Raiden nodded him on and fled through the doorway, so Darren lugged the mass over his shoulder and quickly followed after. As they burst into the chilled, Fraquian air, their senses were overcome with dissociated sights and sounds, all jumbled in disarray. The camp was a scene of pandemonium as men abandoned their daily routines and scrambled every which way with frenzied strides and cries of irritated uncertainty.
“What the hell’s going on?” Raiden demanded as he ripped into the officer housing unit at the center of camp, the veins in his neck bulging, his trusted student close at heel with a heavy brow of sweat and a cylindrical blob of firepower atop his right shoulder.
The officer nearest him had been in full sprint when the words struck his ear, but the force of Raiden’s baritone query penetrated layers of mental absorption and obliged him to a spasmodic halt. “It’s the Calrians. They’re laying siege to our central Centrumian base in the North. The troops on site are managing the assault for now, but they’re having difficulty and they fear further Calrian reinforcements are on the way. We’re shipping out in 15 minutes—all of us.” His words passed rapidly, and then he was gone, stealing the stair two at a time and disappearing beyond its height in unknown errand.
“My God,” Raiden mumbled, his shock, to Darren, like darkness exuding from his skin. The worried cadet lingered behind his lieutenant with a face of concern and a shut-tight mouth, awaiting command. Raiden stopped his despairing to see Darren in the doorway, the look in his eyes clearly pleading for direction. “Set the weapons down, Private. Stick them in the corner over there and we’ll pick them up on our way back out. For now, we’ve got 15 minutes to grab all our stuff—or what we need of it—and get to wherever we need to be. Move it!”
The two were in and out in less than five minutes, the bulk of their belongings jammed confusedly into duffel bags that hung from their shoulders and bobbed against their backs as they ran. The remaining four cadets had awaited their arrival back by Raiden’s room and, now, joined their ranks as they hustled in V-formation at the backs of soldiers who appeared to know the destination. The ground was a canvas of snow laden with boot prints, the age of which ranged from old weeks to fresh seconds. Only when they’d neared the outskirts of the camp did the chaotic clusters of tracks fade to leave only the newly trodden marks whose toes portrayed their common course.
The tracks which led the soldiers—who led Raiden and his crew—disappeared into the tree line of the surrounding woodland. The foliage was so bright and warm that it appeared a forest of fire, its thick and burning branches letting not a single snowflake strike its roots. The white powder that so helpfully guided their feet dwindled as it broke beneath the outer trees, thinning as it reached only the distance with which the winds could sweep it inward. But a dozen strides was all it took for the snow to give way to crumbled leaves and fallen twigs that snapped and crunched beneath their excited steps.
With no tracks to lead the ones they followed, those farther back simply relied on those farther ahead in hopes that they, too, had in their sight a man who knew the right direction. It seemed, to Raiden, that the consensus was to keep moving straight, and so they followed until the throng of trees stopped abruptly at the zenith of a steep hill. Down from its height sloped the ice-covered decline of a monstrous tree-rimmed depression. In the bed of the crater swarmed a mess of soldiers, their numbers surrounding, and entering, and exiting crafts unlike any Raiden had ever seen. An entire fleet of spaceships spread about the area, their doors open and engines humming in hair-rattling harmony.
“That officer wasn’t bluffing,” Raiden said to Darren at his right. “They’re not planning on sending just some of our men. They’re sending every last one of them.”
“We should get down there,” one of the cadets added.
“You’re right,” Raiden said. “We need to slide down. The slope is slick with ice, so there’s no way in hell we’re making it down that thing in one piece if we try to stay on foot.”
Just as the words escaped his mouth, a soldier from the woods behind them blasted by in full sprint and leapt down the side of the hill with his front foot extended as if he would continue his stride upon contact. The six men looked on as the poor soul’s foot slid forward almost instantly, dropping him into a splitting position that looked like it probably guaranteed his future children some brain damage. The man screamed in agony and quickly slumped over on his stomach to continue his descent as a motionless heap.
The five young men turned to Raiden with a look of disbelief on their faces. “Good call,” they said in near unison.
Raiden laughed and moved to sit at the top of the incline, his feet forward with his bag resting on his thighs. “Let’s go, men. It’s just like the slides you used to go down as children.” He ushered them forward with a waving hand as he spoke, and they came to line up adjacently at the edge. “Now, we’re gonna take this nice and slow, in case there are any sharp nodes on the surface that we may need to avoid.” Before he had finished the first few words of that sentence, his men had already pushed off down the slope with no caution in mind. The sounds of their thrilled screams faded quickly as they plummeted, and Raiden smiled at their youthful recklessness and turned to Darren who, for some reason, remained. “Why didn’t you go with them?”
“Well, other than the fact that you hadn’t finished talking yet, I was also considering this bag of SWUNs I’m carrying. They probably cost a fortune, and I don’t feel like breaking them in a wipeout.”
“Very wise,” Raiden responded.
“Oh, and I don’t feel like having my sack ripped open by one of those sharp nodes you mentioned.”
“But you’ve got your sack on your lap, so I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
“I wasn’t talking about that sack,” Darren retorted.
Raiden chuckled at his own naiveté. “Also, very wise.”
The two of them descended in a more controlled manner and met their comrades at the base of the slope. The man who had taken the painful spill had already recovered and moved in with the crowd, the messy imprint of his body at the base now empty and blending, in a swarm of footprints, into the commotion. Now that they were down amongst them, Raiden could hear the laughs and chatter of the soldiers gathered about. He had just been laughing too, but now he wondered how he could have been.
This was by no means a joyous occasion, a time for joking and giggling, a time to detach from the gravity of the situation. The reality in which they lived had them taking a four-day voyage to another world to dodge bullets meant for their heads. They were about to be dropped into the middle of a war where each of them would need to kill others in order to stay alive. They were going to see their new friends fall injured or lifeless about them, hear the howls of the dying amongst the clamor of gunfire, smell the scent of blood thick in the air and, in time, the stench of rotting flesh as it crept its way amongst the fibers of their outfits so that there could be no escape.
These were just the things Raiden knew of: the things he had read about. There was no anticipating the horrors that lay ahead. There was no way to know just how obscure the line between reality and nightmare would soon become. So he stared across the host of soldiers, flinched at their laughs, and shuddered at their smiles, and pitied, wholly, their ignorance. Or did he admire it? Did he wish that he, too, could stand carefree with a smirk on his face and a freedom from the coming hell, if only for the short time that remained? He didn’t know, and he didn’t care to contemplate. For the time, he would remain staid and focused and appreciate his preparedness. War, he knew, would hit him hard, but it may very well strike the unsuspecting with an even greater blow.
“Lieutenant Whitmore.” The voice stirred him from his thoughts. “This way.” Raiden looked up where General Harrison was standing some yards away and waving at him to approach. Raiden and his five soldiers jogged closer for command. “Glad to see you,” Harrison said. “We’re lifting off in roughly five minutes, so you’re going to need to get your soldiers here onto the ship that’s carrying the rest of your squadron. It’s right over there.” He pointed to a craft at the corner of the clearing. “You can join me and the other officers in this one right behind me.”
Raiden looked to the craft and then to his men, whose faces were a mixture of forced poise and concealed panic. “All right soldiers, you heard the general. Get over there, quickly.”
Darren’s face, especially, displayed a spark of shock, his eyes dimming slightly as he turned with the others and shuffled toward their ride. He had felt so confident only moments before, but now, that assurance waned with each step he took. The farther he strayed from the secure side of his leader, the more abandoned and vulnerable he felt.
“I can’t believe the professor’s leaving us,” one of the others said.
Darren turned one last time to see if Raiden was behind them, but he wasn’t. He was far off, still conversing with the general as if none of them existed: as if they weren’t on their way to battle. He hadn’t even said ‘goodbye’ or ‘good luck’ or ‘remember what I taught you.’ It hurt, and the pain brought a tear to the edge of Darren’s eye where it instantly froze to impede the flow of others behind. It was a good thing. He couldn’t be seen with trails of weakness streaming down his face. Raiden was gone, and now it was time to draw strength from within, instead.
The five of them sauntered up the ramp that took them into their craft. The air inside was warmer, for the biting breeze did not surge freely, but the noise that polluted its every inch was deafening enough to thwart their own thoughts. The men they had trained over the last two weeks lined the cabin walls, their mouths a constant source of sound that muddled into an unintelligible stew.
The remaining seats were dispersed about the room, so the five split up to find their spots and strap in.
“Hey kids, where’s Lieutenant Whitmore?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Yeah, where is he?” another added.
The random talk that had plagued the cabin quickly silenced. The men’s faces were eager, and those of the cadets were disheartened and low. No words needed voice for the answer. It was clear. Raiden would not join them.
Suddenly, it was as if he had died. This was the story told by the sadness in the room, and the bowed heads of the soldiers, and the heavy stillness of the once-restless air.
The open back of the ship began, suddenly, to close, the sunlight breaking and vanishing like the hope in the room. Darren stared at the rising door, his vision rippling through the tears he refused to blink down. It wasn’t until that final sliver of light eclipsed—when that door shut solidly in place with a thud that hit him like a punch to the gut—that he knew he was alone and he let those tears fall. Over the weeks, he had imagined dozens of various combat scenarios—stepping foot on Centrum, defending against an Arthian ambush, killing his first foe—and in none of them was he ever without the guidance of his teacher. He closed his eyes and escaped to the darkness that only his eyelids could offer. In there, it was black like the thoughts that fought, now, to engulf him.
That blackness, though, suddenly began to lighten, shade-by-shade to a brighter hue. Some new bulb had probably illuminated, at least this was Darren’s thought. It was an assumption he refused to check, for his hopelessness clung heavily to him as the oozing slime of apathy. But voices grew to break the hush, their loudness rising with the light, and then he opened his eyes to see that the door had opened wide. The sun, once again, cast its friendly rays about their faces, but its reach was clearly obstructed by a man’s towering silhouette. The room ignited as if this man, himself, were a torch aflame.
Raiden brought heavy boots upon the ramp, stepping with dull raps on the metal, their sounding unheard amongst the cheers, and claps, and hoots of his soldiers. Darren’s tears nearly climbed back up his cheeks and crammed into his eyes from where they’d come. He wiped them with the fur on his hand as he unfastened his seatbelt and rose to stand in attention. “Sir,” he said, “you’ve come back to join us?”
Raiden’s face shined brilliantly with the joy of his men. “Come back?” he asked. “I never left.”
“But what about General Harrison?”
“He wanted me to travel with the other officers. He expected that I had selected a captain for our squad and would direct your actions by his hand from the safety of the Centrumian headquarters. I told him there was no way I would abandon my men to fight without me. I don’t care how high my rank is. I’m a soldier to the core, and I’ll see the battlefield as long as my men must endure it. Because of this, I haven’t chosen a captain. I’ll serve that role in combat alongside all of you.”
The members of his squad made their approval clear with cheerful shouts of “Yeah,” “Hell yeah,” and “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Their respect for him was like the universe itself: boundless and ever-growing.
“And what did the general have to say about that?” one of the men asked.
“He told me I was insane.”
“And what did you say, sir?” another asked.
“Ha, I told him he was probably right.”
The soldiers laughed, and Raiden moved to Darren’s side to ease his nerves. He could tell the boy was worked up. Darren was like a son to him, and he wished, at that point, to hug him and promise that he would never desert him in such a way. Darren had plenty of things to worry about—heck, they all did—and Raiden wanted to make sure that abandonment was not one of them.
“I didn’t think you were coming, sir,” Darren said. His eyes were glossy, red, and slightly swollen.
Raiden resisted the urge to embrace the young man. It wasn’t the professional thing to do, especially not in front of all the others. “I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so far behind. The general gave a bit more argument than I had anticipated.”
“It’s all right. I’m just glad you’re with us.”
Raiden nodded. “Me too.”
After kicking a soldier out of his chair, Raiden and Darren sat down beside each other to wait for lift off.
“I’m proud to have you as my leader, Lieutenant,” came a voice to his left.
Raiden turned and met gaze with a pair of eyes he wouldn’t soon forget. They were the eyes that cast him stare the moment he stepped off the plane two weeks before. He’d seen the man several times throughout training but had gone out of his way to avoid speaking to him directly. Now, it appeared, he would stop the evasion.
“Thank you, soldier. What’s your name?”
“I’m Osyrus,” he replied, “and from the look on your face, I’m assuming you’d like to know why I stared at you that day at the airstrip.”
Raiden winced, surprised at how the man had read him so accurately. “I wasn’t going to bring it up, but as a matter of fact, yes, I am curious about that little incident.”
“I also noticed you’ve been avoiding me. I was afraid we wouldn’t get the chance to speak, but then I received a message that I should sit in this very seat.”
“A message?” Raiden asked. “From who?”
“From I don’t know who,” Osyrus replied. “God I suppose, or someone like him. The same one who’s been talking to me for the last 10 years. Not by voice, though. Just thought. I don’t know if it’s a male or a female, because there’s no way of knowing, but let’s just say it’s a man to make things simple. He tells me things to do, and then I do them.”
This guy’s a nut, Raiden thought. He kept a straight face out of politeness.
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not true. I’m not crazy. I used to be a cop back in the day. I was for nearly 20 years, and damn good one too. I was maybe 30—10 years into my career—when I started receiving these thoughts I’m talking about. At first, I figured that maybe they were my own, like my subconscious trying to tell me the things it felt and wanted.
“It was all about justice. In my line of work, I saw some horrible things. Brutal murders, drug deals gone bad, rapes turned bloody, kidnapped children mutilated and barely recognizable: I’m talking real twisted stuff. Half the time, we couldn’t catch the culprits. It’s not because we didn’t know who they were, but rather because we didn’t have ‘sufficient’ evidence to prove their guilt. Needless to say, I was getting sick and tired of watching scumbags walk free, back into society as if they belonged.”
Raiden nodded, intrigued.
“The idea came to me that I should catch those bastards myself, that I should punish them for their crimes if no one else was going to. To be honest, I never felt so sure about something in my life. I can’t explain the feeling. I continued to serve in law enforcement, utilizing the evidence I could muster from files and crime scenes to identify the killers without a shadow of a doubt. These thoughts that came to me would tell me exactly what to do and when to do it, and I would wipe those villains off the face of Fraq with a smile on my own. In a way, I felt like a superhero.
“The voice in my head never failed to provide me the perfect means of enacting this justice, and I never got caught. That is, of course, until I did get caught. Ten years of flawless success, and then it ended just like that. The cops—my friends—caught me in the act with a baseball bat held high above my head and a beaten rapist at my feet about to have his skull crushed in. I was going to set the bat down, but the voice said to finish what I’d started.” Osyrus paused, his face suddenly taking on the gloss of recollection. “And so I did.”
Raiden continued to nod, unsure where the man was going with his rant but interested, nonetheless.
“I was thrown in prison with a life sentence and spent five years of it wondering, every second, why the voice had led me astray. Then, one day, a pair of uniformed men came to my prison with an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was an offer that the voice would not allow me to refuse. At night, I saw your face. I didn’t know who you were, but I knew that you were important.
“I knew that I needed to help you. How and why, I’ve never known, but when I saw you step off that plane, I was sure that I was on the right track. I knew, then, why I had begun my vigilante escapades and why I’d been caught and sentenced to prison and compelled to join the military. It was all necessary to place me in your path. You have a great role to play, of that I’m certain, and I believe I am here to ensure you play it.”
Raiden didn’t quite know how to respond to what he had just heard. Mostly, he felt that the man was delusional, but part of him opted to believe. He took some breaths to ponder the soldier’s words and then extended a handshake as the ship began to rise from the ground. “Well then, Private Osyrus,” he said with a solemn face. “I don’t know if I’ll be saving the universe any time soon, but I suppose we’ll see what we can do.”