Chapter 1 - The Force
I honestly expected more. The propaganda clips on my slip made them look invincible. But up close, the Elites were utterly human. Of course, that was what The Force wanted when they started training eighteen year olds - young human squads deadly enough to scare shapeshifters. With two years of vigorous training that competed with the Navy SEALS under their belt, they better have been deadly.
I craned my neck to see them climb the rope ladder. This team was made of six.
One petite blonde girl was in the lead. The staff sergeant beside me was murmuring details to me, even though I already saw everything on my slip - the computerised contact in my left eye. She was Elise Young, the speed demon with especially high scores in special reconnaissance training. She was already on the platform and sprinting to the edged weapons rack, opting for throwing knives. Targets were fifty metres away. I didn’t know if I was breathing when she hit the bullseye and roped down to the ground.
Close behind her was Ben Murphy. His bright ginger hair and red sweaty skin glistened in the sun as he hesitated at the rack. My slip emphasised his preference for direct action, axe throwing and hand-to-hand combat. Axes weren’t a smart idea, right? Not at that range. I hid my cringe when he reached for an axe. It hit the inner rings of the target. Goddamn.
Lily Scott was a plain brunette close on Murphy’s tail. She grabbed a bow - the most time-consuming option but Tyler King, Thao Tran, and Gabriel Santos weren’t closing in on her too fast. She threw a quick glance behind her shoulder and barely took five seconds before hitting the bullseye. Maybe they weren’t a complete waste of funds.
Santos went for a spear, while Tran and King both went for a bow.
The course kept going, and positions were constantly changing. The only constant was Elise Young in first place. It didn’t matter what place they came; they were all significantly below the average time and moved like wraiths. I would’ve been suspicious if they didn’t pass the DNA tests with flying colours.
How was I going to lead these people? Better question: why was I leading them? My father, General Li had refused to give answers through virtual, either just to be stubborn or not admit his lack of competency in slip tech. I had just finished a mission across the country when a communications officer came to me with a confused face and handed me an old-fashioned letter addressed to Sergeant Mason Jin Li. Get to base ASAP, it said in annoyingly neat handwriting.
Young finished first with sweat gleaming on her brow. Somehow, she still had the energy to dance and brag with a hoarse voice.
“What was the point in all that?” I asked the staff sergeant beside me.
He frowned. “There was none. Training finished for them last month. This is their leisure time. I think they just like the competition.”
I mirrored his expression when I watched them walk off the course. “Leisure time? Why haven’t they been deployed before?” Men and women were dying in this war and could’ve used the help of these people. But they’ve just been racing each other.
“Nothing ‘important’ enough for them until now,” he turned to me before leaving. “Don’t bother setting up for the brief until their break ends. They’ll come over in fifteen minutes.”
I nodded. What was I supposed to do? Twiddle my thumbs? I sighed and trailed far behind them to the mess hall. At least there I could gauge what they were like without a weapon in their hands. They arrived and I loitered by the entrance, watching them line up for food.
Owen Clark jogged to me with a broad smile on his face, and I felt my stomach relax after being in the state of permanent unease for a week. We were on the same mission when I was summoned. He’d been called over when there was a shortage in hand to hand combat teachers. They had all been deployed to fight in the front lines.
“Jesus Christ, how did you get here so fast?” I asked.
“I didn’t take the long route.” He gave me a pointed look. “We should’ve travelled together.”
“As much as I would’ve liked that, I think I needed all the alone time I could get before this shitshow starts.”
“Working with the Elites for god knows how long. Ring a bell?” I looked at them in line for food. Even from across the hall, I could feel their attitudes and egos filling up the room like a toxic gas waiting to render me defenceless. Owen followed my gaze.
“Oh, that shitshow. I thought you were talking about your meeting with The General.” Owen said it like it was the title of a horror movie. He knew all of it was a horror movie, especially when I ranted to him after receiving my letter.
“Don’t remind me.”
“Can’t be that bad, dude.”
I shrugged. Now wasn’t the time to trash talk General Li. Not when most of the base were crammed in the hall for a seat.
“Are you going to eat or what?”
Owen nodded and I followed him when he went to line up in the queue.
“So, have you met them?” I asked, watching the Elites take a table without effort. Elise Young found my eyes. I broke the eye contact first.
He shrugged, moving with the line. “I met Lily and Gabe ages ago.”
Owen grinned. “They’re trouble – but definitely not as bad as you think they are.”
I opened my mouth he cut in again. “Chill, give them a chance, will you?”
“I want to know what they’re like so if you can get me sitting at their table, I’ll consider it.”
Owen grinned. ”Easy. They’re a little rough with social skills, so ease up, okay?”
I agreed before we grabbed our food and walked to the table of Elites.
Owen nodded to Gabriel Santos – Gabe – who was shovelling down the meal in front of him.
“Mind if we sit?”
Gabe’s mouth was still full, so he shook his head and gestured at the seats opposite Lily and Tyler, next to Ben. Owen gave me a look: told you so.
We sat and Elise straightened.
“We were wondering when you’d stop staring.” She wore a smirk and glanced at us. “What’d you think of our little race?”
I shrugged, “Good.”
Someone – Owen – stomped on my toes. I hissed through my teeth and Elise was still looking at me expectantly. Did they want a fucking parade for safely prancing around on base like they owned the place? I pushed the tight feeling in my chest down. I could still figure them out.
I stumbled. “Impressive, I liked the knife throwing, very good. Congrats on coming first.”
Elise smirked and thanked me. She said it like she’d said it a thousand times before. Practised and proud, like she was was praised regularly. If she didn’t have her hair in a tight, low bun, she would’ve flipped it over her shoulder.
I didn’t want to look at her anymore, so I turned to Ben. “You could’ve been faster though.”
He looked up with his too-wide mouth open. The red under his skin and on his cheekbone blemishes only deepened when he registered what I said. The rest of the table looked at me and Gabe was barely compressing his laughter. Ben shut his mouth and furrowed his strong eyebrows.
“I’d rather be able to fight with my hands than be fast when if I run away.”
I clicked my tongue. “But sometimes, running away is smart, and being fast will most likely save your life.”
Owen was choking on his food, realising I was critiquing an Elite worth half a million dollars.
Ben narrowed his eyes and his knuckles whitened around his cutlery. “And who the fuck are you?”
I offered my hand and grinned. “I’m Mason.”
His eyes flickered between me and my hand. Gabe rose and reached across the table, taking my hand in between his two.
“It is so nice to meet you,” he said with a smile. He sat back down. “And don’t mind Murphy, he’s just hungry.”
Ben – Murphy – loosened the grip on his cutlery and straightened, as if trying to prove Gabe wrong.
Owen cleared his throat. “So, what’s happening with you guys today?”
“Packing,” Elise said. “We’ve got a thrilling mission we’re leaving for tomorrow.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“Yeah, some protect and escort mission with the General’s son.”
I straightened in my seat. Owen opened his mouth and I shook my head. They weren’t getting off that easy. I still had dirt to dig up.
“That guy is such an asshole,” I said.
“Yeah, he’s apparently super strict,” Tyler across from me piped up. Lily and Thao nodded.
“Exactly!” Elise continued. “I heard he’s got a stick permanently lodged up his ass. Not as bad as the General though.”
“You haven’t met him yet?” I asked.
“Nope, but he’s debriefing us after break.”
“Well good luck. Owen, here, is basically his bitch.”
“No way! Spill the beans.”
Owen coughed, trying to cover his laughter.
“I wouldn’t say his bitch,” he said in his fit.
I smiled. “Which is exactly what somebody’s bitch would say.”
He recovered and inhaled, trying to catch his breath. The table was encouraging him to spill. He surrendered.
“See, Li and I were already trained in knives and switchblades and all that, so when the firearm phaseout started, we taught the edge weapon modules to a few squads.” He started. “But the dude went around carrying a squirt bottle and fired at anyone who didn’t do the drills right.”
Everyone at the table cringed, even the ever-quiet Thao. I smiled at the memory. It was an effective method.
“How was he not stabbed?” Murphy asked in-between his too-polite bites.
“I have no idea, but he didn’t just go for the students, he came for me too!”
Half the table laughed and the others, mainly Thao, started looking around as if mentally preparing themselves for after the break.
Owen continued, “I kid you not, if I even looked at him when it wasn’t 100% necessary, he squirted me right in my face!”
Lily, Tyler, and Gabe were clutching their stomachs and wheezing. Thao just looked worried.
Owen kept telling stories and I just ate, listening to the entire table talk about me, completely oblivious to it.
Owen kept telling more stories until break was over and his left eye glossed over with blue light. He turned to me, speaking quietly.
“I’m invited to your debrief for some reason.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, it just came up on my slip.”
The Elites were packing up to leave so I quickly initiated my slip.
The screen was transparent blue, with the weekly schedule, emails, and other notifications. I brought up the mission plan which was still sitting on the files on the Elites. A red box in the lower corner told me something was new.
Corporal Owen Clark was added to the mission list.
I deactivated the slip and frowned, “why the last-minute change?”
“Oh, I get it.” Owen furrowed his brow.
I scoffed and told him to shut up before getting up and walking behind the Elites with him.
Elise looked over her shoulder. “Come on, man, this is getting a bit weird.”
I shrugged, holding back a grin. “Guess we’re just going to the same place.”
“Just don’t get too obsessed. We’re leaving tomorrow and I don’t want you to be sad.”
I laughed, “I’ll try not to be.”
They found the debrief theatre and sat down. Thao was tapping his foot anxiously and Elise and Lily were looking around. They both saw me enter the theatre and walk to the front desk. Owen sat behind everyone. I grabbed the clear slate, which temporarily displayed my slip screen and duplicated it with the projector screen.
Up on the wall was the login screen with a picture of my face and my title, up for all the Elites to see. I could pinpoint the moment when they all realised who they were badmouthing to. Murphy went wide-eyed, Elise pressed her face into her open palms, and Gabe was cringing. Thao had no expression on at all and Lily and Tyler were exchanging glances. I logged in, and the mission details projected themselves onto the wall next to me.
“Good afternoon,” I raised my voice. “I’m Sergeant Li, and I’ll be leading this escort mission.”
Murphy slid back into his seat. I let myself smile for a second.
“I’ve sent you all your individual tasks on your slip, but there should be tablets under your seat if you’d prefer that. Tomorrow, we’re leaving for Gerrich and securing Thomas Hayman.”
I paused, looking at the details. No. There was no way this guy was Evelyn Green’s business partner. Evelyn Green made slip tech 20 years ago and single-handedly funded through Greenzone - the perfect eco-city to ever be created until it was burned down by shapeshifters almost six years ago. I’d never heard of him. I should’ve heard of him. How was that possible? I looked up at the Elites. Lily and Murphy looked to be thinking the same thing.
I cleared my throat, “There’ve been several threats against him in the past few weeks so we’re meeting him at his loft in downtown Gerrich so that he can finish his project safely.” There was absolutely no information on his project. Only it’s priority rating and that it was a machine. “When he’s finished, we’re to escort Hayman and his project to the Department of Defense headquarters. We’ve been given a two-month deadline, but don’t worry, we’re going to try and be as fast as possible.”
Thao raised his hand, “Why’s that?”
“Because whatever Hayman is building might just win us this war.”