My break is done. Finally got around to doing this. I'm just having a slump in writing right now. Anyway, thanks to SYPHON who makes time to help me edit and thanks to all my fans who keep nagging me.Replacements“To send an untrained man to war is to kill him”
– Captain Blake
Sergeant Lane was back at the Frontiersmen training facility. He sat at his desk with a mini-fan turned on at full power. It was a hot and dry day, one of the hottest that month. The air-conditioning had broken down and the maintenance people were trying to fix it. Meanwhile, the people in the building just had to bear with the sweltering heat. The whole office stank of sweat and the officers had to keep wiping their brows.
In front of Sergeant Lane was his computer. The dossiers for the replacements had just arrived and Sergeant Lane was scrolling through them. Quite a colourful batch. Most of them were originally from the army but two were civilians. He opened the first file. The replacement was Talos Weary, one of the replacements. Talos had a rough and scarred face, the result of many brawls on the street. Arrested twice, both for fighting in a bar. Talos was going to be tough to handle but Sergeant Lane guessed he could handle it. Even though a civilian, his physical fitness was impressive. Talos could beat a lot of the military guys.
When it came to the medical records, Sergeant Lane got quite an eye-opener. Talos had once been in a car accident and a piece of shrapnel had penetrated his eye deeply. Due to numerous complications, the doctors could not clone a new eye for him so they built him a cybernetic one. It had infrared and motion tracking customised inside. Sergeant Lane would definitely find him handy in a tight spot. Other than the eye, everything was perfect.
Sergeant Lane scrolled through the next few dossiers, all military guys. The military guys were Kael, Dominic, Steve, Shannon, Rudolph, Hank, Dorian, Sid and Lombardi. They were all strong and physically fit, raring for some action. They were also clean, no criminal record whatsoever and should not be giving any trouble. The last was another civilian, a Sicilian. The first thing Sergeant Lane thought about when he looked at the description was the mafia. However, he quickly dismissed that personal stereotype. The man’s name was Lucas, a law-abiding bodyguard.
He had gotten quite a good team. Sergeant Lane started to plan trainings, especially simulations. He had to help the replacements gel with the others, that was important. Sergeant Lane didn’t want some sort of fight in the middle of a battle situation. That also reminded him of Alan’s crappy attitude. That was a major problem for the squad. He had to find some way to straighten that out. The Alan-Trent argument was starting to affect the entire squad. A little talk was in order. Sergeant Lane picked up a phone and called the track. One of the drill instructors picked up and Sergeant Lane asked the drill instructor to get Alan to his desk. Alan came five minutes later, covered in sweat.
“Yes sir?” Alan asked.
Sergeant Lane let Alan sweat it out a bit first. He stared at Alan, his arms crossed. There was the uncomfortable silence and Alan began to fidget. A sign of weakness. Sergeant Lane let it go on for a while before saying, “We have a problem Alan. A major problem concerning you. Do you know what’s the problem?”
“Erm….” Alan started, clearly not knowing the answer. “My attitude?”
Sergeant Lane sighed. “To be frank, your attitude is ****. Okay? Did you hear that? I said your attitude is ****. You have a **** attitude and it just bloody pisses me off! It bloody pisses everybody off! You act like you are a diva. It’s like you think the world is your playground or something. I know your father is rich. I know he got power. But in here, he has no power. I am the boss around here and whatever your father has means nothing in my world. And the thing between you and Trent, it stops now! You get that into your thick skull?”
“Sir, I didn’t start it. Trent did! He started-,” Alan tried to say.
Sergeant Lane jumped up and slammed his palm on the table. “You punk! That’s the **** behaviour I was talking about! Don’t even start giving me that crap! Or I promise you; I will make your life a living hell. Do you know why you are still in my squad? Do you think I want you in my squad? Hell no! It’s because we don’t have enough people. If it was up to me, I would kick your sorry **** out of here!”
“I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to-,” Alan started.
Sergeant Lane abruptly cut him off. “Don’t you dare patronize me, you bloody imbecile! Do you think I didn’t hear what you said after you phased, back at R-329? I was still in the CC, I heard everything. Tried to run off first right? To save your sorry ****.”
At this point, Alan’s voice changed and took a more authoritative tone. He suddenly seemed to swell with confidence. “If my father hears about this…”
Sergeant Lane had heard enough already. In one fluid motion, he reached out, grabbed Alan by the throat and shoved him against the wall. Alan was winded on hitting the wall. By now, everyone in the office was looking at them but Sergeant Lane didn’t care. All the more embarrassing for Alan. At this sudden outburst, Alan lost his arrogance and his knees felt weak.
“Didn’t you hear me the first time? I! Do! Not! Care!” Sergeant Lane shouted furiously. “Now you do what I say. No more crap from you. You dig?”
Alan nodded furiously. Sergeant Lane let go and went back to his desk, as if nothing had happened. Alan just stood there for a moment, not really believing what had happened. Then, he straightened his ruffled clothes and opened his mouth to say something nasty. Sergeant Lane shot him a look and Alan closed his mouth with a snap. Alan went back to the field while Sergeant Lane went back to the dossiers. Mazle, also a sergeant and one of Sergeant Lane’s close friends, took a chair and sat down next to his friend.
“Do you think that was wise?” Sergeant Mazle said. “He does have some very powerful connections.”
“I’m not worried. That boy is going to shut up. I made sure of that. And those people cannot touch me, not while the Admiral is still head.”
“When are you going to get your promotion?” Sergeant Mazle asked.
“This week. Saturday. You?” Sergeant Lane said.
Sergeant Mazle sighed. “Not yet. My squad has been tossed in the corner. No action ever comes our way. All we do is train and train. Only two missions so far! Can you believe it?”
“I’m sure you will get your fair share of action. I’d be happy to give you mine.”
They were all made sergeants. Even Alan made it, although it was not really approved by the others. They thought he still ought to be a private. Sergeant Lane also got promoted and was now Lieutenant Lane. When a marine becomes a sergeant, he would have to go through a commander-training course. It was one of the most stressful and demanding courses of the Frontiersmen but with it, came great glory. For a lieutenant, a marine would have to sit through lectures and discussions about commanding techniques. Even though the marines were going to be certified commanders soon, Lieutenant Lane would still be their commanding officer and will be the commander for missions. The squad went to a bar to celebrate and all drinks were on Lieutenant Lane.
Cissy, being an ex-alcoholic, refrained from drinking and just asked for water but the rest took beers. Trent admired Cissy’s willpower to stay away from drink, even though she was surrounded by alcohol. The night was full of fun and laughter. The marines talked and joked, addressing each other by their new ranks, trying to sound important. It was a joyous night although most would not remember it the next day. Sam and Cissy left together early and went to Cissy’s apartment. The marines exchanged knowing grins with each other. When the night came to a close, most of the marines staggered out drunk. Trent didn’t drink much so he helped the drunken marines hail cabs and sent them back home.
Even though it was late, his family was waiting for him back home. Since his two close brushes with death, he and his family had grown a lot closer. Walter had flown back home just to see if his brother was fine. Trent remembered when the Forger had just landed. At that time, Trent had just been healed and his legs were a little stiff. Elizabeth had seen that slight limp and had fussed all about it at the spaceport, causing some embarrassment. But on looking back, Trent realised he was a very lucky person to have such a caring family. Kent had come to accept Trent’s choice and being an ex-military officer, he started to give some advice.
Back at home, Trent had an apple pie waiting for him. As he ate, Trent told his family about his promotion. Elizabeth clapped her hands with glee, like a little girl, while Kent gave an approving nod. Walter gave Trent a hug and congratulated him. However, Trent felt that something was on in his brother’s mind. A worry that weighed heavily on his brother’s shoulders. Later that night, Trent took Walter to aside and asked what was wrong. At first, Walter refused to confide in his brother, not wanting to place a burden on Trent’s shoulders.
“My company is going broke,” Walter explained. “We have this project that can save it and even make a huge profit. The only problem is, we don’t have enough money for the project and need a sponsor. But since my company is going broke, nobody will sponsor us.”
“I see,” Trent said, trying to think up of ways to help his brother. “What can I do?”
“I don’t think you can do anything at this point. Unless you can find me a sponsor. And to be frank, I don’t think you know any,” Walter said.
Trent nodded his head. Walter had to fly back the early next day to deal with his company so he needed to sleep early. Trent went to his room and flopped down on his bed, thinking about Walter’s problem. He slowly drifted off to sleep without realising it and the dreams started.
He woke up the next day, feeling worried and scared. It was as if something terrible had happened. But it was only the effect of the dream and nothing else. Soon, the feelings began to disappear and Trent got up from bed. It was eight in the morning and the sun was already out. Lieutenant Lane had given them the day off so they could do whatever they wanted. That was why Trent had slept longer than usual. He brushed his teeth and got dressed. The aroma of freshly cooked waffles floated up from the kitchen and Trent hurried down. There was a huge pile of waffles on his plate, topped with delicious maple syrup. Elizabeth was already cooking more, just in case Trent was still hungry.
Trent filled his mouth with waffles, enjoying the sweetness of the maple syrup. It was a perfect morning. The sun was shining, he had a loving family and a plate of delicious waffles. Plus, there was no more Alan. Then, an idea struck him. Trent finished his waffles, thought for a moment, and then asked for seconds. Once he was done, he went to look at the phonebook. Trent looked for Alan’s number and dialled it up. An English butler who had a puritanical look about him picked up the vid-phone.
“What may I do for you sir?” the butler asked and somehow, he reminded Trent of the long-suffering butlers in comedies.
“Is Alan in?” Trent asked briskly, trying to sound important.
“Please hold on sir,” the butler replied politely.
After half a minute of waiting, Alan finally picked up. “Hello?”
“Hi Alan. It’s Trent. I know-,” Trent said.
“Bye,” Alan said coldly. “I’m hanging up.”
“No! Wait!” Trent exclaimed desperately. “I need your help.”
“Did I hear that right?” Alan asked, his curiosity now aroused. “Do you need my help? Interesting. So asking for my help makes you hopeless and pathetic right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have come to me.”
“I am not hopeless and pathetic,” Trent argued. “Asking for help does not make me a useless person. Everyone needs help. Didn’t you ever find yourself in need of help?
“Then, goodbye and have a nice day.”
“Wait! I’m hopeless and pathetic okay? I need your help,” Trent pleaded.
Trent saw Alan laughing at him on the screen. Trent felt anger rising but kept it down. He needed Alan’s help and could not afford to lose his temper. Alan manipulating him like that was just downright embarrassing and humiliating but he had no choice but to take it.
“Fine,” Alan said arrogantly. “What is it?”
“I need your father to help my brother’s company. My brother has a very good plan to make money. If your father gives my brother some help, he will also stand to gain. It’s a win-win situation for both sides.”
“You forgot the magic word,” Alan said teasingly.
“Please,” Trent said exasperatedly.
“Good dog! So is your brother the loser Walter you were talking about? The one who screwed his own company? I heard he has quite poor managing skills.”
Trent struggled to suppress his anger again. Through clenched teeth, he replied with a simple “yes”.
“Okay. I will try and convince my father. But with a few conditions. I don’t do things for free you know.”
“First of all, no more **** form you. No complaining, no whining and no sudden anger outbursts. Second, you do everything I say. Everything. And third, call me ‘boss’. Those are my conditions.” Unbelievable! Madness! Bloody hell!
Trent thought. But I have to do it…
With a sigh, Trent said, “Yes.”
Alan smiled widely, happy with himself. Trent couldn’t take Alan’s face anymore so he hung up. Trent finally let his anger go, slamming his fist against the table and uttered a string of curses. If there was one thing Trent hated, it was giving in to Alan. Alan had one of the worst attitudes in the world. But there was no choice and he had to suck it all in. To cheer himself up and dispel some of the anger, Trent decided to go to the BMW exhibition that displayed all the latest cars.
There was quite a crowd but surprisingly, the noise level was relatively low. The exhibition was held at the Halo, one of the biggest exhibition centres in the world. The exhibition centre was so big, people needed to take small buggies and travellators to get around. When Trent stepped into the exhibition centre, he was stunned by the lavish display. Cars were exhibited on elevated, rotating platforms, lit up by colourful lights. Booths and stands were set up to promote the cars and there were a few huge holographic projectors showing short clips of the BMW cars on the road. Pyrotechnics lit the place up with sparks and explosions, creating a dazzling effect. In the middle of the hall, there was a simulator for people to find out how driving the cars would be like.
Trent walked aimlessly about, just looking at whatever caught his eye. Most of the cars were sleek and technologically advanced but too expensive for the average Joe. When he came to the simulator, he found a very long queue. A sign stood next to the line and it stated that it would cost ten cents a minute. Pretty cheap for a simulator,
Trent thought. However, after ten minutes of waiting, Trent realised that the queue wasn’t moving. He spotted a security guard move to the front of the line. Trent thought it probably was to take care of the problem. However, five minutes later, Trent was still at the same spot.
The simulator in the exhibition was nothing like the ones in the twentieth century. The simulator Trent was looking at was a machine that took the user to a virtual world. The user would be hooked up and the neural impulses in his brain would be altered, giving the impression of a very real world. Trent decided to find out what was going on. When Trent reached the front of the line, he was extremely surprised to see John in the simulator, helmet on his head and a smile on his face. Jake was next in line and his arms were folded across his chest, an annoyed frown on his face. Next to Jake was an equally annoyed attendant.
“Hi,” Trent said.
On hearing Trent, Jake grinned and returned the greeting. “Hi! What are you doing here?”
“Looking at cars. What else? Why is John taking so long?”
“See that?’ Jake said, pointing to a slot at the side of the simulator. “That’s where the coins go into. By rights, the maximum anyone can pay is fifty cents for five minutes. Then, you have to line up again if you want to have another go. So the attendants are here to make sure nobody gets over five minutes. Well, that idiot John put in three dollars! He pushed me into the attendant and when we were both getting up, he hoped in! Can you believe that?”
“Why don’t you just turn it off or pull him out?” Trent asked, wondering why nobody had thought of it yet.
Jake looked at Trent as if he was crazy. “Are you stupid or something? If you unplug him now, there is a thirty-five percent chance that he will suffer from short term memory loss.”
“Erm… okay. So, how long has he been in there?”
“Twenty minutes. Then, the simulator ends and I guess they will be throwing him out.”
Trent decided to wait the remaining ten minutes for John. Both of them decided that once John got out, they would go ice-skating. Trent had never tried ice-skating before but he was keen to learn. Ten minutes later, John was dragged from the simulator, given a warning, and then thrown out. Jake and Trent followed some distance behind, not wanting to be associated with John in public.
Trent, who had roller-blading experience, didn’t find ice-skating overly hard. It was actually quite different from roller-blading but the basic skills were the same. John and Jake were very good at it, showing their smooth turns and insane twists. It was not really surprising though because they had been ice-skating since they were children. Trent was doing a lot better than most of the beginners at the skating rink. They skated till dinner and then, went home.
Trent went back home for dinner, mainly because he wasn’t going to have dinner with them for the next few weeks. He was going back to the Frontiersmen training facility the next day for his commander course and would be staying there for the duration of the course. When Trent got home, he found a huge meal waiting for him, all his favourite dishes laid out on the table. Walter hadn’t flown back to his company yet, making a special effort to be with his brother. While they were having dinner, Trent told Walter that his problem was solved.
“I think I may have found a sponsor for you,” Trent said.
“Really? Who?” Walter asked, surprised that his brother could find one while he could not.
“Alan’s father,” Trent replied.
“What? I thought you hated Alan and he hated you just as much. How could his father agree? Did you talk to his father personally?” Walter asked.
“No. I asked Alan to convince him. Don’t worry. Alan always boasts how much his father loves him and that his father would do anything for him. What Alan asks, he will get.”
“Did you agree to any stupid conditions? Or did him any dumb favours?”
“No,” Trent lied.
Walter looked at Trent suspiciously, sensing something was amiss. Trent tried to look as innocent as possible and finally, Walter relaxed. “Okay. Thanks. But as long as you didn’t do dumb favours for Alan. I know how much you hate that guy and my job isn’t worth humiliating yourself,”
Trent nodded his head and went up to his room. The past few days, the dreams had gotten more intense. There was even a slight fear of sleeping, of the dreams. However, before Trent lay down, he told himself that it was just a dream and it couldn’t do anything. Besides, Trent would need the sleep for the next day. He lay down on his bed and closed his eyes. Just before he dozed off, he reminded himself to get some pills that would stop the dreams. He was wide-awake and he was back. But it was different. It was the same… but different. Trent was back at the dark corridor with the door at the end and it was quiet. Just as always. However, the cold was gone and it was replaced by warmth. Trent thought he had a fever and reached up to his forehead to check his temperature. His hand came into contact with something sticky and warm on his forehead. Trent brought his hand down to his eyes but could not see anything, as it was too dark.
Trent started walking. He realised that he was stepping on some sort of liquid, a sticky liquid. Then, his foot hit something. He bent down and picked the object up. After fumbling around in the dark, he realised it was a flashlight. He turned the flashlight on and… screamed. Everything was a dark red. Blood covered the walls, floor and ceiling. Even he was also covered with blood. The blood on the wall was flowing continuously onto the floor. Trent started running towards the door, wanting to get out. He had expected to hear the children laughing but he did not. Instead, he heard screams and evil laughter. Trent covered his ears and dropped to his knees. The world began to spin around him, going round and round and round.
The floor shattered. He fell and the blood fell with him, pouring down in cascades. Raw terror filled his heart as he continued to fall. He landed. His face was in a pool of blood. Trent got to his knees and looked around. It was dark, too dark. Trent groped frantically around for his flashlight but could not find it. Then, it came from the shadows. But this time, it was no skulk or Kharaa. It was the lost. The dead. Zack, Lewis, Jude, Edward, they were all there along with the others. They closed in on Trent.
“Why did you let us die?” they wailed mournfully.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Trent cried out.
They moved closer. Trent could smell their rotting and decaying bodies. He felt so small as fear overwhelmed him. Zack, who was leading the dead, bent down and brought his face right in front of Trent’s face. Trent trembled with terror. Then, Zack sunk his teeth into Trent’s face.
The three of them had gotten many allies over the next few months. They were prepared with their files and documents. Frankie had guaranteed them that the files Dan kept on them were gone. Marcus, Philip and the Admiral were the generals in the battle to come. They were getting the one of the best law firms in town to represent them. They had a good solid case and were ready. Dan had also gotten ready. He had the best lawyers and prepared his papers. The stage was set for one of the biggest legal battles the world had ever seen.
On the day itself, newspaper reporters flooded the courthouse. Police had to guard the courtroom, only admitting a few selected reporters. It took a few months for the trial. During that time, Dan tried to kick Marcus and Philip out of the TSA. However, they had managed to stay in, with the help of some other vice-presidents.
During the trial, the reporters were getting a feast for their stories. Thousands upon thousand of files were pulled up as both sides threw accusations at each other. Witnesses were called up from all corners of the earth, testifying for and against crimes. At first, it was a tie. Marcus’ side kept attacking with their files of accusations but somehow; Dan’s side came up with even more files to dispel the accusations. Then, everything changed when Frankie came to the stand. Marcus’ lawyers were stunned, as they had been assured Frankie was on their side. It was a totally unexpected development and Marcus’ lawyers frantically scrambled to come up with a suitable defence.
“Mr Blaine, what is your profession?” Mr White, one of the lawyers for Dan, asked.
“I am a professional hacker,” Frankie said proudly.
“Mr Blaine, can you tell us what kind of people require your services?” White asked.
“Lots of people hire me. Like the CIA, FBI and other government agencies. Of course, there are also normal civilians. Like Marcus. I mean, Mr Stond.”
“What did Mr. Stond ask you to do?” White asked, egging Frankie on.
“He told me to hack into an account. It’s all perfectly legal I tell you. I am licensed and can hack into any account, as long as I sign a disclaimer waiver. And I did. Besides, Marcus told me that I was doing something for the good of society, exposing some corporate scheme. So I thought, well, why not? But when I hacked into the account, I got quite a shock.”
“Mr Blaine, please tell the court what you saw.”
Frankie took out a thumbdrive and passed it to Frankie. White attached the thumbdrive to the two dimensional projector. An image was projected onto a screen and it showed the humiliating past of Marcus and the Admiral. “This is what I saw. To summarise it, showed a very dark past Marcus and Rathine Studaber have tried to hide. I think they wanted me to hack into the account so they could destroy the files.”
Marcus, Philip and the Admiral were crushed. Marcus and the Admiral buried their faces in their hands, not daring to show their faces. Everything simply went downhill from there. Those supporting them suddenly turned their backs, refusing to help. Once Kathy had found out about the scandals, she refused to talk to Marcus. In the end, Dan won and frankly, Marcus wasn’t too surprised. However, he felt humiliated and betrayed. Betrayed by Frankie and by the justice system. At the end of the trial, Frankie went up to Dan and shook his hand, and it felt like a slap right in Marcus’ face. After that, the judge went up to Dan and gave him a firm handshake. Marcus saw Dan smirking at him, mocking him.
Marcus went back home, totally exhausted. Kathy was still living with him but he suspected that unless he cleared everything up, it was not going to last for long. His home was supposed to be a place to seek solace, a place for rest. And he needed the rest, after the trying trial. However, newshounds did not allow that to happen. They camped outside his home and some even tried to climb into his house. It was a nightmare. Things weren’t much better for the Admiral. The time that was supposed to be used for the war had been spent on the trial. With the scandal out, she had lost the respect she used to command.
Since their alliance was no longer secret, they could now meet openly. There were still precautions to take so they met at familiar places. They decided to meet at the Admiral’s office one day after the trial ended. They came in their separate cars and hurried into the Admiral’s office before the reporters could follow. Once all three of them were in the office, the Admiral swept the room for bugs. After five minutes, she nodded her head and they began to talk.
“What the hell happened?” the Admiral asked angrily. “We just got our **** kicked! After so much hard work and just one guy turns the table. One guy you said we could trust!”
“Hey, I thought he was on our side. I didn’t expect Dan to even know about him,” Marcus said, trying to defend himself.
“She’s right. It was your fault. I can’t believe I stayed up late at night all this time and all I get is… nothing. I’m sorry to say this but I’ve lost faith in you,” Philip said, also angry at their loss.
“**** happens. You guys just have to learn to live with it. I think both of you would have made the same mistake if you were in my position so stop complaining,” Marcus said irritably. “We must put our past mistakes behind us and look to the future. I’m not saying we should ignore our past mistakes. It would be stupid to do so. I’m saying that we should learn from our mistakes and then, move on. Now, the question is, what do we do?”
Philip and the Admiral nodded their approval at Marcus’ wise words. He was right. Dwelling on the past would get them nowhere so they would look to the future and find a way out of their mess. Of course, just thinking it was easy but doing it was hard. They discussed strategies to use against Dan, ways to cripple his political influence and ways to remove him as the president of the TSA. However, Marcus, who knew Dan the best, quickly shot down whatever they came up with. Going to court again was out of the question. Dan had the judicial system firmly in his pocket and Dan would just make a fool out of Marcus if he went to court again.
“We can’t do this, we can’t do that. What can we do?” the Admiral said, extremely frustrated.
“What about bribing some of Dan’s people over” Philip suggested.
Marcus considered it for a moment and then, shook his head. “I don’t think so. Dan has a lot of funds. What we pay, he can pay double. They won’t come to our side. Dan also has the threat of death hanging over their heads. If any of his people turn, they are dead meat.”
They were stumped. They did not dare call in any more help as there are traitors everywhere. Marcus and the Admiral were getting hungry so Philip decided to order some pizza. They took a break as they waited for the pizza to arrive. Thinking up sinister conspiracies was very tiring indeed. When the pizza arrived, they each took a few slices and started eating. How to beat Dan?
Marcus wondered. He is ruthless and smart. How do you beat somebody like that?
“We think like him,” Marcus said quietly, to nobody in particular. “We be him.”
Philip, who just happened to overhear, said, “What did you say? Be who?”
“Guys, I got it. To beat Dan, we think like him,” Marcus explained. “We become as ruthless as he is.”
“No,” the Admiral immediately objected. “I refuse to stoop to his level. I have honour and integrity. As much as I would like to see Dan in hell, I will not stoop to his level.”
“Then what do you want to do? Let him win? He has humiliated and disgraced us. Only by defeating him can we clear our reputation!” Marcus said angrily. “Don’t you get it? As long as Dan lives, we won’t have a good life. He will make sure of it. We have to take him down!”
“So what do you intend to do?” the Admiral asked. “Bribe people? Kill people? Be an ****?”
Then, with utmost seriousness, Marcus said, “Yes.”
The Admiral was stunned. She did not believe that Marcus would resort to such underhand means. Marcus had come to her asking for her help with good intentions but somehow, he had turned out to be like Dan. The Admiral saw what the lust for power could do and shuddered. Philip, on the other hand, was not so surprised. In fact, he approved Marcus’ idea to a certain extent.
“I can’t believe you guys,” the Admiral said, not even trying to hide the disgust in her voice. “You know what, I’m out. I want no more of this.”
The Admiral asked Marcus and Philip to leave her office. Once they were gone, she sat back in her chair and sighed. No more corporate wars for her. She was just going to do what she did best. Organise the war. With most of her time spent helping Marcus out, she had a lot of catching up to do.
Meanwhile, Marcus and Philip went back to their respective offices. They didn’t call each other until they were safely locked in their offices. Since both of them were no longer in the TSA, their homes had become their offices. Marcus called Philip with his secure phone and they began their discussion.
“Do you have any plans?” Philip asked. “I suggest we buy some of his smaller fish over first. Threaten them with some violence or something like that. Maybe he won’t notice.”
“That’s **** and you know it. One of the reasons why Dan is at the top is because he is sharp. He doesn’t miss a thing. That’s why his plans are always foolproof.”
Philip shook his head in frustration. “You say we can’t do this, we can’t do that. So what can we do? DO you even have a plan?”
“Yes,” Marcus said, his voice as cold as ice. “We kill him.”
There was silence form Philip’s end. This was a serious decision and a very risky one. It had to be considered carefully. Philip thought about it, shot many holes through the idea, and accepted it. He could not think of anything better. “I will arrange it. I’ve got it covered.”
Philip hung up and leaned back in his comfortable leather chair. Strangely, he felt quite calm about the whole matter. Hiring a contract killer to do something highly risky and illegal did not seem like a big deal anymore. Before, he would have shuddered at the thought of killing anybody, but now he was hardened. He would have to do what was necessary to survive. Philip took a bottle of wine from his personal collection and poured himself a glass. Two thousand and ten was a very good year for wine,
Philip thought as he slowly savoured the wine. After finishing his glass, He called Timmy, an old friend of his. They went a long way back and had a lot of history together. Timmy and Philip had even been together in the same platoon during the brief but brutal China-Taiwan war.
“Timmy here,” the assassin said.
“Philip here,” was the reply he got.
“Hey buddy!” Timmy said excitedly. “What can I do for you? It’s been a long time!”
“I need you to knock somebody off,” Philip said.
“Now, that’s not like the Philip I know. Are you smoking pot? Or did you have too much to drink?”
“I’m serious, I really want you to kill someone for me.”
“Dan, head of the TSA.”
Philip heard muffled laughter on the other end of the line. “You serious?” Timmy asked, still trying to suppress his laughter. “Dan? The guy who owns everything?”
“I’m serious!” Philip said, exasperated. “What’s the price?”
“Okay, since you are my buddy, I will give you a fifty percent discount. How’s that? Fifty percent of the usual price.”
“I’m comfortable with that number. Thanks. Are you free next week or something? Maybe I can buy you a beer. That’s if you promise to do a clean job. Just kill Dan and that’s it. No fancy stuff like Molotov cocktails or anything like that, okay?
“Sure. No flashy stuff. So you better get that beer ready,” Timmy said.
“No problem,” Philip replied. “See you around.”
Philip hung up. He poured himself another glass. Next to his leather chair were a few pictures. They were of his ex-wife and kids. It hurt to think about them, to think about the happy times they had. It was all his fault. Philip regretted concentrating too much on his career and neglecting his family. Back then, he had wanted to be the top and mingle with the best. Philip worked late almost everyday and was frequently travelling. He was hardly home and when he was, he was going through even more files. He had missed too much and had broken too many promises. Philip could not even remember his daughter’s birthday. He had missed birthdays, awards and many more different occasions. Philip was a father that was not there. Of course, it was too late now. His wife and kids were gone and he could do nothing about it. Philip spent the next few hours reminiscing on happy times.
“How many more?” Klion shouted.
“Many many more!” the marines replied loudly.
“Good! Another ten rounds! Go!” Klion shouted.
The marines continued running, moving their already exhausted bodies. It was in the middle of the afternoon and the scorching sun shone its rays mercilessly on them. A film of sweat covered their bodies and when they shook their heads, sweat dripped from their hair. It had been two weeks since training had started and it just got worse and worse. Trent woke up everyday, wondering what new torture Klion had in store for them. Every exercise that they did, Klion did better. He was a bloody fitness fanatic.
After the ten rounds, Klion made them do a hundred push-ups and sit-ups. He made the marines alternate between the push-ups and sit-ups for half an hour. By the time they had finished that particular set of exercises, their arms felt like jelly and their stomachs were on the verge of cramping. However, Klion did not give them a chance to rest. He ordered them to sprint to the weights room and made them pump iron. Trent did not think he could be more tired than he was already was but Klion was always eager to prove him wrong. Trent constantly wondered how much longer the training was going to be. He always felt like just sitting down and giving up but his mind wouldn’t let him. He would take one thing at a time and his current goal was to finish the course.
Sam was doing much better than before. Last time, he used to be among the weakest in the group but now it was no longer the case. Sam was smart enough to train a bit more before the course started so his physical condition was quite good. In fact, he was almost catching up with Trent. Generally, the marines had improved on their physical condition although the course was still hell for them. The only one who had had not made progress was Alan. In fact, he had deteriorated and he was having the hardest time in the course. Trent was secretly wishing that Alan would choose to drop out. However, that did not seem to be the case. Alan was just barely making it but constantly complained about Klion.
“Everyone! Push-up position now!” Klion shouted right next to Trent, making him wince slightly. “Hold it there. Now, I ask you a question. See if any of you losers can answer it. Tell me why the hell am I making you do physical in a commander course? I mean, a commander just sits on his **** in the **** CC all day. Why the hell do you have to do all this?”
Trent thought that was a very good question. Mainly because he didn’t know the answer. As far as he was concerned, doing all that physical training was a waste of time. He wanted to learn some commanding skills and tactics. Trent wanted to lead his squad to victory and know the feeling of triumph. Trent looked over at Sam, expecting Sam to know the answer but he found Sam just as puzzled.
“Sir,” Cissy ventured. “You are training our physical fitness so we can be better soldiers.”
“Nonsense,” Klion shouted. “What the hell are you talking about? You are going to sit in the CC all god damned day. Why do you need to be fit? You need butt muscles to make sitting easier is that it? Don’t be an idiot and use your brains! I am training your mental fitness. Comming isn’t just sunshine and smiles. It’s tough and you have to be mentally prepared. Then you ask, why the hell are we doing these **** exercises? Every time you push yourself to go on, you are training your mental fitness. Now, do six laps. Then we can break for lunch.”
Once lunch came, nobody felt like eating. They were simply too tired and felt that if they ate anything, they would throw up. Unfortunately for them, Klion joined them for lunch and made them eat. Klion made them finish everything, even if they didn’t want to. Luckily for them, there was no immediate training after lunch. The marines were going to receive their lecture on the Kharaa by Dr. Strom. Trent reminded himself to tell Dr. Strom about the Kharaa with red eyes. Maybe she could explain everything to him.
Sam, Cissy and Trent sat together. Sam was explaining some concepts to Cissy when Dr. Strom walked in. She welcomed them back and immediately started lecturing. The topic for the day was about the new alien ability to see marines in the dark. Dr. Strom said that it was some sort of “alien flashlight” and was very deadly. So that meant no more camping in the dark for the marines. Once the lecture was finished, the marines got up to leave. They were going for more physical training at the track. Trent stayed behind to tell Dr. Strom about his strange experiences.
“Dr. Strom,” Trent said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” Dr. Strom replied. “What is it? Are you not clear about the new alien discovery?”
“No, it’s not that. I understand the alien flashlight thing. It’s about an encounter during one of the missions,” Trent explained. “You see, skulks normally have yellow eyes right? On one mission, its eyes changed colour. To red. And when its eye colour changed to red, it didn’t attack us. There was some sort of… intelligence that could be seen in those eyes.”
“Are you sure? I cannot explain this but I’m sure it is an isolated case,” Dr. Strom said.
“I’m positively sure about it. And it’s not an isolated case. I also saw a fade do it. It changed its eye colour,” Trent said.
“Now, this is very interesting indeed. You may have seen a variation of the ‘alien flashlight’ but I highly doubt so. I will bring it up with my colleagues and when I find an answer, I will contact you. Okay?”
Trent hurried back to the track. Since he had stayed back to talk to Dr. Strom, he was late and incurred the wrath of Klion. There was a ten-minute shouting session on self-discipline and the importance of punctuality. Trent tried to explain why he was late but Klion didn’t give a damn. Klion punished the whole squad by making them carry weights and run around the track with them. Even though Trent had made the squad to extra physical training, none of his squad mates, with the exception of Alan, were angry with him. They understood everyone made mistakes and they didn’t blame him one bit.
It was another week before the marines actually got their tactical training. Klion had finally decided that they were ready for the tactical part of it after pushing them to their limit. Lieutenant Lane was not going to be teaching them as he would be away doing his own course. Instead, Lieutenant Drawl was going to teach the squad how to command. Lieutenant Drawl had served in the military for fifteen years and had only recently been re-assigned to the TSA. He had a solid reputation for being an outstanding tactician and a fine teacher.
All their lessons would take place in the simulations facility. The lesson was a simple one. It was to learn how to operate a CC. Each marine had a try in getting into the CC, logging on and then familiarising themselves with the console. Even though Trent had seen the CC so many times, he had never actually been inside of it. When he got inside, he found out if was quite comfortable. There was enough ventilation inside and the chair was made out of leather. When Trent logged in, the screen turned on. It took a while for Trent to realise that it was a touch screen. He practiced placing buildings and tried to remember where the icons were located.
For a commander, speed was essential and it could mean life or death for his marines. The next lesson was to train “precision dropping”. It was to train the marines how to drop buildings and equipment quickly and accurately. Lieutenant Drawl went into the CC and showed them how to do it and what his expectations were. It happened so fast the marines weren’t even sure it had happened. In less than a second, Lieutenant Drawl had dropped an infantry portal, armoury and ten ammo packs for a dummy marine. The marines were stunned at such display of skill.
Only Alan was not impressed and claimed that he could do it faster. Lieutenant Drawl didn’t seem to mind and just asked Alan to show him. Alan stepped into the chair arrogantly and tried to do what Lieutenant drawl did. He screwed up very badly. Instead of dropping an armoury and infantry portal, he dropped two armouries. Alan then tried to recycle one of the armouries but in the end, went to the weapons screen. By then, he was getting slightly nervous. What made it worse for Alan was that Lieutenant Drawl didn’t say anything. He just stood there and stared amusingly at Alan, as if challenging him to do it right. In the end, Alan gave up and logged out, embarrassed with himself.
“Looks like a little training is in order. Apparently, you don’t have good memory and your reflexes are slow. Report to Klion now. He will rectify those problems,” Lieutenant Drawl told Alan.
The rest of the marines took turns and tried. Most managed to drop what they were supposed to but not within the time limit. Lieutenant Drawl was constantly sighing and shaking his head. Somehow, Trent didn’t want to disappoint him even though he didn’t know Lieutenant Drawl that well. They spent the next few weeks practicing dropping structures and equipment. Lieutenant Drawl occasionally sent them back to Klion to train their reactions and speed.
After a week of doing the same thing, Trent was starting to feel bored. He had acceptable timing and was now just waiting to learn something new. He was especially eager to do a simulation. That chance did not come until two weeks later. Instead of totally focusing on commanding, their day was split into three parts. One for physical fitness, one for commanding and one for lectures. The lectures took up the least time, much to the annoyance of Dr. Strom. The time for physical and commanding was split equally.
The sweat was real. The tension was real. Only the environment was fake. The marines had finished the commander course after an entire month of training. Most of the marines had passed with flying colours and nobody had failed. Lieutenant Lane had also finished his course and had done extremely well. They were in a simulation with the new recruits and Lieutenant Lane was commanding. There was a reshuffling of the teams. Trent, Pamela, Jake, Alan, Talos, Hank, Dorian, Sid, Lombardi and Lucas were in group one. The rest of the marines were in group two. Group one was doing the simulation while group two watched.
The setting was an abandoned waste disposal facility. The programmers had added little details to make the simulation much more realistic such as random dead bodies and stuff like broken pipes. A random effect may also occur during the simulation although it annoyed some of the marines. The facility was relatively small and had only one level. The three hive locations were at turbine generator, garbage chute and living quarters. Lieutenant Lane had already identified the hive location to be at garbage chute and was sending team one there. That team comprised of Jake, Hank, Dorian and Sid. Trent, Alan, Talos and Lombardi were in team two and their main task was to secure and capture RTs. Lucas and Pamela were in team three and had been assigned guard duty at base.
Lieutenant Lane was trying out a new and unique tactic. Once he had found out that the Kharaa were using MCs, he had rushed to upgrade the weapons. At the start of the simulation, Lieutenant Lane had issued a welder to each team to give them some form of defence. The Kharaa were frequently blitzing their RTs, biting it until the marines showed up and then, they would run off. There were few head-on battles as the Kharaa were playing it smart. Team two only had engaged the Kharaa twice head-on and each time, had come out with only minor injuries.
The marines currently had level two weapons and it helped a lot. Another strategy Lieutenant Lane was testing out was to use bullets to take down enemy RTs instead of using the knife. He had traded resources for time and so far, it had proven quite effective although he was slightly stretched on resources. Team two was moving to south skylights and was going to get a RT there.
South skylights was quite a plain area. There was a vent leading into south skylights on one of the walls and a huge glass panel on another, which allowed the marines. This was one of the flaws of the simulation. The mappers concentrated so hard on the interior, they neglected the exterior. When Trent looked out, he was disgusted when he saw the most fake terrain in the world. The terrain seemed like it was almost hand drawn. Trent turned away from the fake terrain and concentrated on what he was doing. He requested for a RT and Lieutenant Lane dropped one.
Trent ordered Talos and Alan to stand guard while the rest would build. Talos went to one corner and crouched. Only ten seconds had passed when Talos began to feel bored. He took out his knife and started carving his initials on the wall. When Trent finished building and saw what Talos was doing, he was ****. He walked up to Talos and spun him around.
“What do you think you are doing?” Trent asked angrily. “Can’t you be more serious?”
It was not the first time Talos had caused trouble. Talos was a quiet, brooding guy and seemed to distance himself from the rest of the squad. Even though Trent didn’t like him, he respected him. Talos was as fit as a bull and had no problem with the training. His aiming was superb and was almost as good as Sam. Talos was the perfect fighting machine but he was not a team player. During training, Talos had acted quite arrogantly due to his superior physique and accuracy. He challenged authority quite often and was giving Lieutenant Lane a headache. Talos was doing his first simulation and was already messing it up.
“What’s your problem?” Talos asked gruffly. “It’s only a simulation. No need to get so serious about it.”
Trent was about to respond when he heard the skulk. He spun around but it was too late. The skulk jumped on his neck and bit him. Trent felt his suit stiffen up as he fell to the ground. He heard a few bursts of gunfire and then felt a med pack being applied on him. His suit loosened up and he got angrily to his feet. Lombardi was the one who had taken the skulk down and was reloading his LMG. Talos was relaxing in one corner, obviously not caring about what was happening. Trent felt extremely frustrated with Talos. However, he decided that he would wait until the training was over and then, confront Talos.
Trent waved at team two to move out. They moved down a corridor and made a left turn. Trent was leading the marines and when he turned the corner, was surprised to see two OCs there. He jumped back before the OCs could fire. Trent signalled to the team what was around the corner and told them that he was going to run past the OCs as a distraction. The rest of them would take the OCs down when it was concentrating on Trent.
Suddenly, Talos ran past Trent and at the OCs. Trent tried to grab him but he shrugged Trent off easily. Trent made a quick decision and ordered the rest of the team to rush in. Talos was standing right in front of an OC and was emptying his LMG into it. Numerous spikes were sticking out of his armour and it was only a matter of seconds before his suit stiffened up. It was Trent’s quick decision that saved Talos. While the OCs were concentrating on Talos, the marines fired at the OCs, destroying them quickly. Two med packs materialised and Alan applied them on Talos.
“What the hell just happened? Why did Talos run in?” Lieutenant Lane asked angrily over the comm-link.
“I was trying to take down the OCs. I thought my team would support me but I guess they were too slow,” Talos said.
“Hey! You ran in by yourself. You didn’t tell us anything!” Alan argued.
What happened next was totally unexpected. Talos whipped his pistol out and fired four shots at Alan’s head. Alan “died” and was out of the simulation. The marines were shocked at what Talos had done. Talos calmly re-holstered his pistol and kept moving. Trent ran up to Talos, grabbed him and demanded an explanation. A shout from Lombardi got Trent’s attention and he looked around. He was too busy being angry with Talos that he did not notice the onos running at him. There was no time to dodge. Trent and Talos got hit at the same time and “died” too.
Trent tore his helmet off angrily and stormed up to join group two. Talos followed him nonchalantly, obviously not the least bit sorry. Klion was with team two and had been watching what had happened. He turned to Talos furiously and gave him a stare full of anger. During his Frontiersmen training, Talos had not been under Klion so he did not know what a stare like that meant. He just stared back at Klion, hands in his pockets. All of a sudden, Klion grabbed Talos’ neck with both his hands and lifted him off the ground. Talos started choking as his legs flailed uselessly in the air.
“What in god’s name do you think you are doing?” Klion roared. “What kind of **** are you trying to pull?”
“You… can’t … do... this…” Talos managed to choke out.
“What the hell do you think I am doing?” Klion replied. “Now tell me. What do you think you are doing?”
“It’s… only… a… sim…” Talos managed to say, his voice barely audible as anoxia began to set in.
Klion finally released his grip on Talos’ neck. Talos collapsed to the ground, gasping for air as he massaged his throat. Klion looked disgustedly down at Talos while Talos gave a look of raw, seething hatred at Klion. Klion was extremely frustrated and angry with Talos. He could not understand how Talos could not grasp the simple concept that in order to survive, he had to work with the team.
“Just a simulation eh? So you don’t take it seriously? What is your problem?” Klion shouted right into Talos’ face. “The simulation is a ten times easier than the real thing. If you can’t even beat the simulation, how do you think you will fare in the real world?”
“I can handle the real world,” Talos said quietly.
Klion heard that. “So you think you are a tough guy huh? Well let’s see who is tougher. I challenge you to a combat simulation. One-on-one. Are you man enough?”
“Sure!” Talos said confidently.
Trent had to suppress a smile. Talos had no idea what he was getting into. Trent was sure that Talos was thinking that he would be in a war simulation with Klion, a simulation with guns. However, Trent knew that Klion was actually talking about a different type of simulation. The combat simulation Klion was talking about was actually a gladiator simulation, complete with swords and axes.
“If you lose, I don’t want anymore nonsense from you. Got that? No more **** behaviour.”
“I won’t lose.”
They watched the rest of the simulation. All the while, Alan was pretty angry with Talos for shooting him. He kept grumbling about it and said something about “payback” but whenever Talos stared at him, Alan would instantly shut up. In the end, Lieutenant Lane lost. This was not due to his unorthodox tactics but due to the new marines. They were not too familiar with the scenario and were quite nervous, causing most of them to fire wildly. Lieutenant Lane had a lot of teaching to do. Once the simulation was done, Klion went down with Talos. They put on their gear and Klion loaded the simulation with a big grin on his face.
Everyone was staring at the screens and watching. The setting was the old coliseum in Rome. There were even spectators cheering and jeering. Talos got quite a big shock at first. Instead of choosing a gun, he had to choose from a variety of melee weapons. Once he got over the shock, he chose a huge double-sided battleaxe and walked out to face Klion. Klion took a huge greatsword and met Talos with it. They stared at each other, intimidating the other. For a whole minute, neither did anything and then, Talos made the first move. His axe made a wide arc through the air and Klion dodged it easily. Using both hands, he swung his greatsword and Talos and managed to graze his arm.
Talos was infuriated by such a small thing and charged madly. Klion, the experienced combatant, saw it coming and tripped Talos by sticking his left foot out. Klion tried to stab Talos but Talos rolled to the side and got back to his feet. Talos started to attack, swinging the heavy battleaxe left and right with his powerful arms. Klion parried all of Talos’ blows without even breaking a sweat. Taking advantage of Talos’ recklessness, Klion thrust his sword in and stabbed Talos in the chest. The simulation ended and the warriors removed their gear.
“Remember your promise,” Klion said. “A man who does not keep his word has no honour.”
“Yeah yeah. Whatever,” Talos said and stormed off.
Dorian started to say some prayer for Talos’ soul. Dorian was a devout catholic and always quoted the bible. Personally, Trent had nothing against Catholics despite the fact that he was an atheist. Trent believed that everyone should have the right to live whatever way they wanted, as long as they did not intrude on other people’s lifestyle. Dorian kept on trying to convert his squad members to Christianity and he was always praying over every little thing. At first, Trent had politely told Dorian that he was an atheist and would remain that way. Unfortunately, Dorian didn’t seem to get the message and pestered Trent even more.
A private came into the room and asked for Lieutenant Lane. Lieutenant Lane ordered the marines to practice at the shooting range first while he attends an important meeting. He also asked Klion to get Talos and discipline him. Nobody was allowed to leave without his permission. Trent and the rest of the marines quickly ran to the shooting range and began practicing. Sam took the training extremely seriously and wouldn’t let anyone interrupt him. There was no way he was going to let Talos catch up with him.
Lieutenant Lane came back a few hours later. He had a grim look on his face. “Listen up people! Orders just in! We are moving out tomorrow! Pack your bags, say your goodbyes and be at the spaceport by noon. No late coming!”
There was a groan of disappointment from the marines. They had planned to go out to an amusement park for some fun but it looked like they had to re-schedule their plans. Suddenly, Trent heard Cissy slap her forehead with her palm.
“Oh my god! We totally forgot about Willy’s birthday! Oh ****! He’s going to be really ****!” Cissy exclaimed.
Trent groaned again. They were too busy worrying about the injured on the Forger
to remember Willy’s birthday. No wonder he had been so sullen and angry. They were going to spend a few weeks aboard a ship with an extremely **** old man. It was going to be a blast.
From the Shadows...