Two and Nine have spent their entire lives within the Academy's barbed wire fences and tall brick walls deep in the San Juan Mountains with only each other to rely on. They have lived in absolute isolation with the other subjects, known only by their numbers-never by name-and trained so that one day they may be integrated into the outside world.
Two dreams of becoming the perfect military leader the Academy wants to groom him into. However, when he learns that Nine is leaving the Academy, he realizes that his future is meaningless without her. With time running out, he hatches a plan for them to escape together-even if it means going against the brutal overseers of the project he was born into.
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Case Notes 1: Subject Two of Subset A
Subject Two of Subset A pressed his back against the tree trunk, gripping his gun at the ready. Even in the shade, the humid summer heat beat down on him. Sweat gathered on his back and under his arms, dampening his coarse camouflage uniform. As he listened to the distant shouting and snap of broken branches, he glanced at his wristwatch.
Five minutes had passed since the wargame began. By now, his units would have fallen into position.
He unclipped the radio attached to his belt and lifted it to his lips. Softly, he said, "C-14, what is the situation on your front? Over."
"We've got them pinned down, Two. Over."
He gritted his teeth. C-14 had an aggravating tendency to refer to him by his number alone, not A-02, as was customary when talking to subjects from different subsets. It was disrespectful. They weren't friends. C-14 was a soldier under his command.
"What are their numbers?" Two asked, deciding that now wasn't the time to lecture C-14 about respecting one's superiors.
"They've got fourteen left."
There would be others. The opposing team's captain, D-05, wasn't an idiot. She wouldn't cluster her soldiers in one place.
"Stay where you are," he said. "Don't advance until I tell you to. Out."
Seeing movement in the corner of his eye, he swiveled around and leveled the gun. He fired off a quick volley of shots before the boy emerging from the bushes could even lift his own weapon.
Crimson droplets exploded across the facemask the boy wore. With a groan of dismay, he tossed his paintball marker on the ground and sunk to his knees.
Two took a step forward, keeping his gun trained on the boy. The blue bandana tied around the teen's wrist identified him as a member of the other team.
"You got me," the boy said, wiping paint from his mask's clear visor. "Ugh. Gross. I think some got in my mouth."
"Subject Three of Subset B," the boy said, tearing off his mask. Flecks of red paint fanned across his chin like blood splatter. He spat several times to clear his mouth then wiped his tongue on his sleeve.
Two covered the distance between them, stopping ten feet from B-03. He aimed his gun at the boy's chest. At this close range, a paintball would probably break the skin.
"Hey, I told you I got hit," B-03 said. "I surrender."
"Give me your radio or I'll shoot you again," he said, stepping even closer.
The boy blinked at him. "What?"
"Give me your radio. Bandana, too."
"But that's cheating."
"I'm not going to repeat myself a third time," he said, shifting the gun so that its barrel pointed at a more sensitive area of the boy's anatomy. That seemed to do the trick, and B-03's sunburnt features paled to a sickly white.
"Okay, okay, just don't shoot." B-03 ripped off his bandana and radio. As he handed them over, his face wrinkled in concern. "It's cheating, right?"
"Let me worry about that," Two said, allowing his paintball marker to dangle on its sling as he tied the blue bandana over his red one. While it was against the rules to remove his own bandana while active on the battlefield, there was no explicit law stating that he couldn't obscure it with a "dead" soldier's one. Whether this deception would end with a disqualification or not, only time would tell. It was a risk he was willing to take.
Ironically, if he chose to shoot B-03 again just for the hell of it, he would suffer no penalty. Dominance was a virtue. Violence was a tool. Suffering would callus weak subjects, teaching them to become stronger.
Those were the lessons that the Academy had instilled in him.
Instead of wasting ammunition on a subdued target, he retreated deeper into the forest. B-03 remained on his knees, where he would stay until either team acquired the enemy's flag.
Two didn't travel far. After fifty yards, he stopped and took cover against a rocky outcropping, listening in on the other team's communication. Once he had heard enough, he stuck the radio in his jacket pocket.
Just like he suspected, D-05 had used her main force to protect the flag and scattered her remaining soldiers throughout the forest. He had played against her before, and it didn't surprise him that she chose a defensive approach. More often than not, games ended after one team ran out of paintballs. If she could ward off his attacks for long enough or incite his soldiers into exhausting their ammunition, it would leave him open to a devastating counterattack.
"C-14, take your men and circle around to the enemy's flank," he said into his own radio. "Don't attack until I tell you to."
"Wilco," C-14 said.
"What should I do?" another boy piped in.
"D-12, wait as well," Two said. "A-07, maintain your position and defend the flag. You're going to be dealing with stragglers, but no large formations. Out."
Even though A-07 was in his subset and they had grown up together, he referred to the girl by her formal name to avoid creating a false sense of favoritism. Respect on his teammates' part must be reciprocated with respect of his own, but at the same time, it was important that he kept them at a professional distance. Although his unit was made up of subjects from different subsets, they were all his soldiers to command.
He returned his radio to his belt and ducked out from behind cover. He searched the tree line for movement and cocked an ear toward the trees, trying to pick out the sound of footsteps against the rustling of leaves.
He took off at a swift jog, holding his gun at the ready. If his soldiers were obeying his orders, he would have no risk of encountering them. He had a greater chance of running into D-05's teammates than his own.
The one difficulty with posing as an enemy soldier was the color of his hair, which was shorn in a crewcut but still visible against his protective facemask. Most of the kids at the Academy had light hair. His was as black as the feathers of the crows observing him from the branches above.
For his entire life, he had been aware of the favoritism that the instructors at the Academy showed to the kids with fairer coloring. It was minor, and maybe the teachers weren't even conscious of it, but he noticed it. He hated it. He had to work twice as hard to receive the same praise the instructors gave other, lighter subjects.
Nine told him that he was just imagining it, but what did she know? Everybody liked her, and her hair was so blond it was practically white. Besides, her childhood aptitude tests had shown a future in politics, not the military. They took entirely different classes for the most part, and maybe her trainers were nicer than his.
He wondered what Nine was doing now. She had a debate class around this time, and she had practiced various arguments on him last night in preparation for today's lesson. He hoped that she had done well.
Realizing that he was spacing out, he returned to the situation at hand. The only thing that mattered now was making sure that his team won with the least amount of casualties. He could think about Nine later.
"Do you have it?" a girl's voice buzzed from the enemy's radio, and he lifted the device to his ear to listen in.
"We're taking it out now, D-05," a boy said. "They think it's still in the camp."
"Take it to the creek," D-05 said. "They won't look for it there."
Two smirked. D-05 had underestimated him. She might be able to sneak a couple soldiers past his pincer movement and use the remainder of her team as cannon fodder, but that wouldn't help her now.
Speaking into his own team's radio, he said, "D-12, begin the attack. C-14, in ten minutes, send three of your soldiers to patrol the creek. Make sure that they have plenty of ammunition. A-07, continue to maintain our flag's defense. Out."
Ten minutes would give him enough time to reach the creek and secure the flag, but he wasn't ready to take any chances. In the event that the enemy saw through his disguise or D-05's order proved to be a diversion, he wanted his troops to be prepared.
With no time to spare, he took off at a run. He darted between trees and leaped over fallen logs with agile, animal grace gained through years of military drills. He kept one hand on B-03's radio and the other on his paintball marker. Paintballs rolled heavily against the sides of his gun's hopper. As a way of identifying friendly fire, blue team was given blue paintballs while red team received red ones, but even if he fired, the difference in color wouldn't arouse suspicion. It wasn't against the rules to pilfer fallen soldiers' ammunition.
Within minutes, the forest thinned, and the ground softened into mud. A moist, earthy odor overshadowed the pleasant fragrance of crushed pine needles. He spotted the creek through the trees, a long, narrow gash in the earth.
When it rained, the creek often flooded, eroding the earth on either side of it. As a result, six feet from the creek's edge, the forest dipped into a small dirt cliff studded with rocks and exposed roots. As he descended, he used the gaps between roots as foot holes. Loosened dirt cascaded to the swampy ground beneath him, rolling into the water.
Three feet from the bottom, he jumped down, landing on a flat boulder that was just one of many scattered around the bank. His shoes slipped on the slick moss that coated the stone. He regained his balance before he could fall.
Closer now, Two saw that the creek wasn't as calm as it had appeared to be from a distance. The current was spurred by a humid breeze. Small waves broke against the rocks and fought against fallen branches. Eddies swirled, kicking up muddy foam and sucking in dead leaves.
As restless as the water seemed to be, he wasn't worried about being carried away by the current. The creek was shallow, and on rest days, subjects enjoyed swimming in it or relaxing on the sun-warmed boulders scattered around its banks.
He had never heard of anyone drowning. For the most part, subjects' deaths were attributed to suicides and accidents. The first one, more often than not.
He knew that once the creek reached the tall fence surrounding the Academy, several hundred yards to the south, the flow vanished into a concrete diversion tunnel covered by a steel grate. But he didn't know where the creek went after that, or if it simply trickled away into nothing. The tunnel was much too narrow for even a child to crawl through, and in his fifteen years on Earth, he had never been outside of the Academy's walls.
One day, he had been told, he would leave this place and enter the world he had read and heard so much about. He would join the military and rise through its ranks and become a great leader. And Nine would stay at his side throughout it all, his confidant and lover.
There was no other alternative.
Looking back over his shoulder, he smiled. Aside from a few places where his shoes had dug into the earth, there was no evidence left from his descent. As for the footprints he made on the rock, he smeared them away with his heel before continuing across the creek where the water was shallowest, using other rocks as stepping stones.
After crossing the creek, he climbed the bank on the other side with ease, hauling himself up into the boulders that crested the ridge.
Staring out between gaps in the stones, he listened to the radio correspondence between D-05 and the courier transporting the flag. He scanned the tree line on the other side of the gully, searching for a telltale flicker of blue.
A commotion sputtered from his radio. He reached down and lowered the volume. The gurgle of the creek was too soft to hide the sound of his teammates' voices, and talking would give away his location.
A flash of blue glinted through the trees. A shiver raced down his spine at the anticipation of victory. Tensing, he watched as the person tore free from the dense foliage.
Small and lithe, the other boy hurried toward the creek with a rabbit's panicky gait. He clutched a large square of blue fabric in his fist. Even when being transported, the flag must always be in clear view, either tied to a stick or held aloft.
Just as the boy began to climb down the eroded embankment, Two emerged from behind cover and shot at him.
"No!" the boy cried and dropped to his knees, his torso splattered with red paint. Through his mask's clear visor, his eyes widened. "Why'd you shoot me? You're supposed to be on our side."
Two waited for a moment, scanning the tree line before sliding down the bank. He crossed the creek once more. One shoe slipped on the slick stones as he reached the water's edge, but the dampness failed to penetrate the leather.
His military jump boots were water-proofed, purchased for their durability and protection. He liked the boots much more than the cheap sneakers he had worn before, even if he was expected to keep the leather spit-shined to a lustrous finish. They made him feel important, within a hand's reach of his destiny.
As he walked over to the boy, he ripped off his blue bandana, exposing the crimson cloth beneath. "Give me the flag."
With a sigh, the boy cast his paintball marker to the ground and relinquished the flag. As Two exchanged the boy's paintball gun for his own, three teens wearing red bandanas emerged from the forest.
He expected his teammates to laugh and rejoice at the sight of the captured flag, but instead, they just hurried over. He knew at once that something was wrong, and the siren that split through the air seconds later only confirmed his suspicions.
The three consecutive blasts of the air horn meant a ceasefire. Upon hearing that sound, all subjects were to head to the observation deck at the front of the forest, where they convened before and after every wargame.
As his teammates neared, he tore off his facemask, blinking the sweat out of his eyes. The sweet fragrance of crushed pine needles filled his nostrils, and he took in grateful breaths of cool, crisp air. "Don't tell me they won."
A-07 took off her mask and shook her head. "No, it's D-12. Something's happened."
He recalled his radio's sudden chatter and instantly regretted ignoring the conversation. He had thought that it was nothing out of the ordinary, just correspondence between units. Now, hurrying in the direction of the trumpeting air horn, which had begun a second three-note volley, he recognized his error. As commander, he should have known better.
As they reached the observation deck, he found a group of teens clustered in the shadow of the wooden structure. He pushed through the crowd to get a better look. His stomach plummeted as he saw the source of the uproar.
D-12 lay on the ground, moaning feebly. Dirt dusted his blond hair. His camouflage shirt was red and soggy with blood. A jagged branch, almost as thick around as Two's wrist, emerged from his chest.
"He tried to get a better look and fell," someone behind him mumbled.
"Where's Mr. Wilson?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder.
"He went to get the Leader," C-14 said, crossing his arms. He was a stocky blond boy whose face was peeling from a bad sunburn. His nose was crooked from an old break.
"Can't feel my legs," D-12 mumbled.
"Did you guys move him?" Two asked. The surrounding trees were all pines, with their lowest branches being too high to reach. There were no trees nearby that D-12 could have climbed.
"We carried him here," C-14 said.
You don't move someone who's fallen, you idiot. He clenched his jaw, restraining the angry words that burnt like acid in the back of his throat. He turned his attention back to D-12, searching for a reassuring comment.
"You're going to be okay, D-12," he said, but before he could say more, D- 05 pushed past him. Her auburn hair flared behind her like a fiery beacon.
She dropped to her knees in front of D-12.
"Hold on, Twelve," she said, clutching D-12's hand in her own. She turned her head and glowered at Two, her brown eyes flashing. "How could you let him do this?"
Seriously? She was blaming him?
Before Two could respond, the rev of an engine stole his attention. He turned around, searching for the noise's source.
A golf cart trundled down the dirt path snaking through the trees. Mr. Wilson sat behind the wheel, flanked by a tall, white-haired man in a black peacoat.
The crowd parted around the cart as it approached. Two stepped away from D-12 and lowered his gaze. He stared at the line of blood inching through the dirt. Only as his fingers tightened into fists did he realize that he was still clenching the other team's flag. He allowed it to drop to the ground.
It meant nothing to him now.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hades Rising"
Copyright © 2018 Aden Polydoros.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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