“...Griffin...” A voice called out in the darkness. A hand reaching up to touch a canvas cover, pulling it open to reveal a bunk. The cold hand reaching towards a huddled figure on its cot, the voice calling out once again.
The hand would touch his warm flesh, and open his eyes to the dark shadow and the sweet voice of his imagination. He would sit up, moving his hand to where the cold fingers had rested upon, and the skin was cool to the touch, his eyes wide open in the darkness, his breaths heavy, the single bead of sweat slowly falling from his brow down to the cot, his body relaxing before laying back down on the canvas.
- “...Faye.” He would utter, silently, as his fist gripped the sheet as he finally relaxed and closed his eyes once again. The nightmare happened every night. The same dream. A large field covered in falling snow, the cold that could kill anything that stayed out too long, the chill of fear and death binding their souls together for one final conversation.
“They...said that heaven would be warm...and bright...” She said, solemnly, her breaths shallow and pained. He responded somewhat apathetically, detached from the situation.
- “Yeah...I know...”
“...Blue sky, Griffin...Don’t forget...Blue sky. We were going to see the thaw together...and...” Their codeword. Faye had never seen a real blue sky, like Earth’s. But she shared with him her most intimate details. What she wanted from her life, how she wanted him to be a part of it. Now those dreams were fading, bleeding out into the snow around them.
- “Faye. Please...Don’t talk,” Griffin pleaded, wishing he could tell her to shut up, but he let her talk, her voice was too beautiful, her suffering too far gone to stifle.
“I can see the stars tonight. Like you promised...” A gasp and cough escaped her lips, as she choked on a mixture of phlegm and blood.
His hands gripped hers tightly, the bandage around her heart becoming soaked by the massive amounts of blood that were pouring out of her wound. There was no saving her, and yet, he clung to that last bit of hope that someone would help her. However, it was just them. Re-enforcements were 20 minutes away. She wouldn’t make it.
- “The stars...,” Griffin looked up to the sky, seeing that the snowstorm was dying down, the stars from millions of distant galaxies glowed in the dark twilight.
“Yeah, I see them. See that blue star just past the Southern Cross? That’s Earth...”
- “Earth...I’ve never been there. Tell me what it’s like...there,” She said softly, her strength waning as her vision began to dim.
Griffin’s eyes were blurred from the tears and barely mustered up enough courage to continue speaking with her. The emotion finally hit him. He fought to keep his voice clear, so that she could hear him as she passed.
- “There’s lots of fields...cities...mountains, lakes, rivers and forests...Where I lived, there was this beautiful rose garden that my caretaker tended to in the summertime...She said...that roses were like people; wanting affection but having no way to really be together...”
“A Rose...That would be nice, to smell one.” She said, smiling.
- “Nothing comes close to you, not even a rose.”
He looked into her eyes, and she slowly looked to his, her blue-gray eyes dulling into nothing, glazing over slowly. Her body was shutting down.
“Griffin...run,” She gasped softly as she glanced out to the tree line. In the distance, dim red beams of light began to dance across the barren trees and dead bodies of both friend and foe along the frozen forest floor.
- “I can’t.”
Slowly, he leaned to kiss her lips, her eyes closing as he did this. He felt her icy skin press against his warm, tear-stained face, and the moisture that resulted from it covered the upper lip of his mouth as he now broke the kiss to lean his head beside her lips, so that she could whisper to him.
“It stopped hurting.” She whispered into his ear, as her grip on his hand loosened.
As her last breath escaped her, he felt something inside of him die, and he couldn’t bear to see her laying on the ground. Slowly, he picked up her body, as tree branches snapped off their limbs, cracking against smaller ones, falling down around Griffin and his now dead fiancée, his comrade. Amidst the sniper fire, he carried her to the road, laying her body on the ground on the opposite side of the incoming fire, into a ditch. He carefully removed his field coat and laid it on her body. He then reached for her dog tags, resting gingerly against her pale, dead skin. With numb fingers, and raw emotion, he got to the business of removing them and placing them in his pocket. He rested his head into her bloody bosom and gave a stifled sob into her chest as he held her lifeless body.
“God…Damn you,” He finally uttered, pulling his head away from her to stare into the night sky, as reinforcements finally arrived in the tree line behind him, opening fire into the enemy positions as he screamed in both pain and fear.
At that moment, he would always wake up. Shaken, afraid. He would then reach for her dog tags clasped beside his on his neck, and he felt safe again. This was him at his most vulnerable state. Alone and hopeless. He wrote in his journal early that morning:
October 15, 2158:
I had the same dream again. Each time I have it, I feel so alone in this world. Suicide just seems like the proper way to numb all the suffering I’ve endured these ten long years. But something tells me that must go on, at least until the conclusion of this conflict. I swear I could hear her voice calling out to me tonight. I’ve never been one to share these thoughts with anyone, not even a doctor...I feel that no doctor could cure the empty feeling I have in my heart, so bitter and empty. A soldier looked into my eyes last night...and somehow, I think I changed him with my gaze. He just appeared so hollow and empty after I looked into his eyes. As if someone close to him died, like me. Maybe that’s why I’m just a burden on myself. Maybe it’s because I feel helpless to stem these feelings away and just do my job. I’ve been doing this for years, and every winter, it’s the same thing, over and over...Soon the war will end, I feel. If it’s over. I think I’ve had my fill of soldiering for two lifetimes…
I took another stimulant before bed. Doctor said that I needed to speed up the healing process in my shoulder blade if I want to stay on the lines. It’s not helping any time I get off to let my shoulder mend, I’m called up for another assignment.
I pray this war ends soon. I’m running out of reasons to stay alive.
-Major Griffin Alexander Lancer
The Martian surface was lush and green; terraforming had completed its job almost a quarter-century before. Sergeant-At-Arms Griffin Lancer, at the age of 25, wore the uniform belonging to the Colonial Federal Forces, the Assembly of Power’s colonial wing of governmental power. Their mission was to uphold the Stratocracy they had imposed on this region of the Asteroid Field Trading routes, with checkpoints on Phobos, Deimos, Ceres, as well as nearby Asteroids that were relatively stable of orbit.
The NCO stood at the front of his platoon, awaiting the pass in review the company commander would exercise every morning before breakfast. The men stood with their weapons at parade rest, the silence of the air around them marked only by the sounds of industry in the distance, followed by voices from the citizens and tourists that always stopped by to watch the spectacle. The soft clicking of cameras punctuating the silence like bee-stings. Griffin glanced to his left and noticed the band to his right, waiting for the commander to arrive, so that they could begin the tradition that had been held in this town square for the last twenty years.
Mars City. Just another nameless town to Griffin. He enlisted with the Assembly as soon as his balls had dropped and was capable of signing his own paperwork. He served gallantly on the Pluto Insurrection rooting out a pirate stronghold, being awarded a medal for his actions, as well as the subsequent promotion to Sergeant at Arms; 2nd in command of a platoon, short of the lieutenant. 8 years of service now would look good for the Officer’s Institution later on. Perhaps he could be Military Magistrate of a new colony when his career was nearing completion, he mused.
The band started up, starting with the bugle for Drill Call, followed by the commander finding his position at the center of the formation. He quickly stood at attention now, and took a deep breath before issuing his command.
The commander himself was older. His time in the CFF was uneventful. Slightly Paunchy, bald and bespectacled. Even with all these faults, he was still an intimidating man. The voice that boomed from his chest was not just loud; it was powerful. Each word of his voice was a crack of thunder, deep and rich in its southern cultivation.
“Regiment! Atten-tion!” The bodies of the soldiers now tensed up, the echo of heels clicking together as weapons from their extended position now brought to their sides. The commander then ordered his men to make a left face, now facing the growing group of tourists that had stopped to watch.
“Pass, In Review!” The commander ordered. The band then kicked in with a rendition of the 108th Saratov Regiment’s march. Each man took off with their left foot, and circled around the parade field, passing by the commander.
As they completed this mundane task, they then automatically halted, and turned to face their commander. The band finished their last notes, before the commander then issued one final order.
“Platoon leadership; meet in my office after formation. The rest of you are dismissed until 1600. Fall out!”
After a few moments of organizing his platoon’s daily tasks, Lancer quickly made his way to the Commander’s office. As he entered, he saw a group of officers and senior enlisted men gauging the Sergeant at Arms. He felt tense, until the commander turned and noticed Griffin had arrived. Late, but still on time. The commander then gripped a manila folder and passed it to the young Griffin.
“This is yours. Command saw fit to look through your file and advance your application into the Officer’s Institution…to the Special Forces department. Your transport leaves tomorrow morning. Get packed up and ready to leave ASAP.”
Griffin looked at the paper inside the envelope. Those were his signatures, and his aptitude scores. However, the coding changed from Officer’s Institute to Special Forces.
- “Sir, this doesn’t make sense. I wanted to go Officer’s Institution, not the Greater Assembly Special Task Squadron…. I don’t have the tactical aptitude for that position, Sir.”
There was a moment of hesitation by the Commander as he waved the rest of the leadership out of his office, leaving him and Griffin alone.
“Listen. If you’re complaining about this, I feel for you, son. I do. When I was your age, I wanted SF but they gave me O.I. instead. Besides, have you seen the news? Martian trading colonies and their freighters held up at checkpoints because those Free Colonist weirdos keep planting bombs in shipments. It’s causing a lot of stress between the magistrates and the Assembly…”
The Commander looked down to his paperwork on his desk before he sighed and continued. He seemed vested in this topic, but at the same time, detached. His southern drawl was subdued, the moment of casual conversation ended, and the atmosphere remained somewhat lax as he continued his advice.
“I think if you went SF, it’ll save you a lot of heartache…Besides, I know the commander there; She’ll keep you on the level…We’re not Assembly troops ourselves, Griffin. We’re just hired help. If something happens, we are obligated to help the people of the colonies first. Just because the Assembly can buy our politicians, doesn’t mean the militia and military wings are perfectly happy with licking their boots…”
- “I understand that sir, but- “
“But nothing, son. You’re young, dumb, and full of cum; itching for a fight. Fact is, we haven’t had a real war to fight in over 50 years…’least not one that mattered…Military boys get complacent, and we gotta keep ’em busy until their enlistments up. Moreover, Wet work is one way of keeping you boys from a discharge as a Section 7. Failure to Adapt. Failure to Thrive…”
- “Sir, if I may be so blunt…Who is my new commander?”
“Captain Donna Walton of the GASTS. Hard charging, hard fighting. She was my XO first before transferring. She’ll see that you’re squared away, Sergeant…Now is there anything else you need?” The Officer at his desk looked back down to his paperwork, adjusting the frames of his glasses as he focused on a section of the paper he was reading.
- “No Sir.”
“Then you’re free to go, Sergeant. Carry on.” With that, Griffin gave his commander a salute, before making an about-face and exiting the office. As he walked back to his barracks to pack his belongings, he could not help but feel a knot in his stomach. The immediate transfer bothered him. Oftentimes, soldiers could barely process out for leave in time for holiday, let alone a specialty school. It didn’t really add up, but he shook it off as another case of military expediency.
[Greater Assembly Special Task Squadron Training Facility, Phobos]
[2 weeks later]
The desolation of the Martian moon revealed itself to him in the cosmic aura of the sun at the center of the star system. The light cast upon the rocky surface created shadows that stretched for miles, veiled in a murky brown color as shadows crossed paths with his field of vision, before lighting back up as the shadows danced above the lip of the Stickney crater. Griffin could see them from the window of the barracks as he finished sweeping the floor to the bay. This was going to be the first real day of training the class of P-1018, and Griffin was nervous. The rest of the men and women asleep in their bunks created a bigger tension; as he was the only one awake to conduct barracks maintenance at 2 am. He was glad that he had completed his tasks a few hours before the morning call, and had taken the time to gaze at the passing of the Martian surface above him. There would be another five orbit cycles before the rest of the group would have to wake up, and that meant he could get another three hours of rest. With bare feet, he rolled into his bottom bunk and quietly closed his eyes.
Morning came too soon. As soon as his eyes had closed, the bugle for first call blared through the P.A. system of the camp. All the recruits shot up out of their bunks like their first day of basic training, and immediately made their beds, conducted personal hygiene, and outfitted in their combat uniforms before the instructor walked in, baton at the ready.
Captain Walton threw the door open as she stepped inside, her small thin figure offset by the two large subordinate officers on either side of her. Those thin blue eyes and the dark skin that shone in the artificial light of the building only enhanced her intimidating stance as she stood at the whiteboard at the far end of the room.
“Fall in on me.” Her voice announced. Clear, devoid of any accent or impediment, or any feeling. The poolies did as instructed, and fell in, tight ranks and tight haircuts, awaiting instruction. Walton’s baton struck the board, creating a thin crack in its alabaster surface.
“Any of you fuck-sticks familiar with what we do here? Anyone here flunked out and came back?” She waited for a response. A few soldiers raised their hands, and a smile crept up on her face.
“Welcome back then. Proceed to the training area; your gear is right where you left it last in the armory…As for the rest of you. I am Captain Donna Walton. I am your primary GASTS instructor, and your only link to the outside world. For the next 6 months, you will unlearn all the bullshit you picked up in general population. You will re-learn the basics of soldiering, as well as how to do your jobs correctly, without getting you or your squaddies killed. I’m not going to play fuck-fuck games with Y’all. This is what real training is about. You follow orders, you do your job, and you take every opportunity to learn with an open mind and good questions, you will have a better chance of making it through to the end. This school has a 92 Percent Dropout rate, so I am going to tell you this ONE time…If you’re here because you want to be ‘hardcore’, stop wasting my fucking time, and get the hell out of my school. Go to Scout school for that…If you’re here because it’ll look good on your O.I. paperwork Then I suggest you leave all the pomp and circumstance behind and go to the Quartermaster’s battalion just down the hall...If you’re here because you want to serve your colonies with honor and distinction, then you’re in the right place…”
The Captain then walked up to the formation of poolies, stopping next to Griffin on the edge of the formation. He could hear her lean in close and take a sniff, before continuing onto the next rank.
“This is going to be the biggest challenge you will face as soldiers of the Assembly and Colonial Federal Force yet. You will be exposed to the elements, zero-G, hunger, dehydration and sleep deprivation. We will teach you how to perform your mission in space, on land, in sea, and in places where other men and women would fear to tread. You will become precise tacticians and everyone will know it.”
After a few moments, Captain Walton then placed the baton on the lanyard attached to her webbing.
“Let’s get cracking.”
Griffin found himself now running in formation from their position, through the door in single file, their pace steady and measured as they made their way at a brisk quick time to a large alcove, revealing a track and a clear glass ceiling above them.
“Run! Run until you pass out,” Captain Walton ordered, standing beside the track, now pulling out a stopwatch, starting it while she glanced to it every few moments. Griffin found himself running beside nameless other candidates. It was at this point, the young soldier delved into his mind as he tried to manage the physical exertion his body was pushing out in less-than-optimal conditions.
Each step carried with it the weight of dreams and hopes from each candidate; Heavy trots and sparse gasping could be heard around the young man. Griffin’s breathing was steady and carried a learned tempo, breathing in for three steps, exhaling for three. Each step was mentally measured.
A few hours had passed, and Griffin could feel the deep burning sensation of his muscles failing throughout his body. Every so often, he would see soldiers give up, pass out, or trip upon themselves in a desperate attempt to continue moving. Each one of them were met with a loud feminine scream from Captain Walton:
“Poolie has washed out from the course! Get off my training area!”
Every minute that passed through Griffin’s head, it was revealed another 3 dozen candidates or so would drop out. Eventually Griffin, as well as 30 others remained; ragged corpses shuffling along in a depraved dance for survival. Suddenly, Captain Walton walked to the start line of the track and crossed her arms, waiting for them.
“What are you waiting for?! Sprint!” She bellowed. Griffin, took this as a challenge, and even though his body was spent, he lifted his legs to try and get some distance between his steps. Miraculously, it worked. He began to pull away from the pack, passing the large group in front of him. His breaths were audible and labored as he found himself behind a female, her bun tied tightly around her head as she too, began to sprint. Griffin matched her pace, and the two had an impromptu showdown.
“Looks like we’re gonna be neck-n-neck, folks! First one to cross gets a thirty-minute break!”
Griffin felt his air supply running out as his breaths became shorter, but he matched pace with the shorter woman to his left. Soon, he found himself mere meters away, he could do this! With the last bit of his strength, he leaned forward, attempting to reach the line first, but suddenly felt hands on his back, forcing him down. His body too weak to fight back, relented, and he collapsed to the ground, his extended arm grazing past the finish mark, just after the female.
“Starfire! Finished in four hours, twelve minutes, fifteen seconds! Lancer! Four hours, twelve minutes, fifteen-point-three!” Walton commented aloud as the others crossed the line just moments afterward. Griffin slowly fought his way back up to his feet, as he saw Starfire standing just a few feet from him, her blue eyes piercing into his green.
“Get out of my way next time, Grunt,” She scoffed weakly as she limped past him, leaving Griffin to weakly make his way to the showers on his own power.
A voice in the distance seemed to scream his name, it’s shrill report echoing through the darkest parts of Griffin’s mind, bouncing off hollow memories and nightmares.
And then the rain fell. Like stabbing ice-cold needles on his neck, pulling his attention away from the rubber track, as if a doorway opened, revealing a black murky substance in his path. Slowly, with weak legs, he eased into the expanse, and was sucked in. There, darkness resided, triumphed over all peripherals, except the name.