The files were really there when I returned home. Doubting whether there’s some kind of trap, I kept my distance. After all, I never liked him from the day before we met. I never liked him because he’s the one who pulled me into this kind of life. Even without becoming a Crusader, I knew Michelle from the Ark. Scarlet went to the same school with me, and my parents’ death was all together, inevitable. If it wasn’t for this doctor, injecting in some biochemical substance into me that somehow made me like this, I would be living an ordinary life – have friends, live a life of my own, and worry about things my age level would; at the same time, sustaining every good relationships I have.
“Are you going to open it?” asked Michelle from my side.
“Not yet,” I replied. The file was quite thick. And what was queer was that it was in paper, not in digital holograms. I found a place to keep it safe while I was absent. Then I followed Michelle to the command center.
“What was the deal you had with Dr. Greg?” she asked suddenly during our trip. I had to say I was taken aback. I hesitated for an answer. She glared at me as I did not respond.
“In return for information… it’s –“ I stopped, trying to figure out how to trivialize. “Just helping out his newest research. That’s all.”
“Really? It seems like an awful bargain for you,” she said.
“Now that Leon is here, I hope we’ll get through this much faster. Well, everyone else will know what we’re doing so far: scout the area and find anything that will serve the Dominion; it will be best if it’s some kind of raw material or a mine field, but bountiful food source or information of enemy encounter is also welcomed,” announced Director Han. He cleared his voice and showed us the wide map on the screen. “You all know we’re located at the area once called Siberia. Apparently a century of climate recovery and change made this place a forestland. But it does not have to mean that all of the abundant natural resources of Siberia have disappeared. So, let’s get this over with.”
Our group set out west; specifically, Sector 3 set out west. It was four days since I dropped my sword, but it obviously did not feel awkward holding it again. It felt natural. It felt satisfying and… safer. A weapon could have been some stake, or some knife or a gun – they were all something that could have kept me ‘safe’. But they all felt reluctant for me.
Just then, the others who were at the front of the scout let out shouts; some shouts of awe. When we ran towards their direction, we knew what they were awed at.
“Is this like the one we only saw in pictures and videos?” said one of the members.
It was marvelous, fascinating, enchanting; so tantalizingly beautiful. The blue water sparkled like sapphire in the sunlight. The sparkles rippled on the surface like rows of jewels. And just in time, a gentle breeze scarfed around my body and the entire area. The tall plants just around the rim of the water swayed back and forth, boasting its colorful flower to the spectators. Small region of soft grass surrounding the body of water was like another form of water in green.
“It’s a lake,” said Michelle. She was also captivated by the scenery stretched out in front of us.
“A lake isn’t so big,” said one of the other Crusaders. “I saw in pictures; the biggest one I saw was like only a quarter of our settlement, not counting the camp sites.”
“No. It’s a lake for sure. If you gave more interest, you should’ve found more that was larger; huge ones enough to cover Sector 3,” I responded. I walked down. The lake was larger when I saw it closer. When I was just reached the point where the water met the soil, the end of the lake was invisible. Only the tall plants and endless body of clean blue water was seen in front of me. I sat down on the bank of the lake. “I think we found something useful for the Dominion already. Everyone can take a rest here.”
Some of the scouters cheered in joy. They formed small groups of their own and started chatting, enjoying the warm wind and the magnificent view. Michelle came down and sat beside me.
“I remember when you showed me pictures of Earth,” I said to her.
“I’m impressed you’re remembering that. The last time I could afford showing pictures to you was like when you were seven or eight,” she said. She closed her eyes and hummed a tune. I listened to her.
“You showed me all kinds of things. Famous canyons, lakes, rivers, oceans, islands, waterfalls….” I continued. I reached my hand and swayed around the lake water. It was cool. “But I never listened to you at that time. Instead, I demanded you to play games with me.”
“You did. You were a very hard student to get to pay attention. Sometimes I can see why I was able to teach you for such a long time,” said Michelle. “It’s probably because I’m used to your behaviors after more than ten years of teaching.”
The lake rippled down my direction. I stared at it curiously. What was interesting was that the lake stimulated my brain to recall the past. I blurted out things and Michelle kindly responded, none of those were something she didn’t know or remembered. In some ways – in many ways, actually, she was a better person than me. And probably better than my parents.
“I wonder whether we can move here,” I said.
“You’ll have to fly for more than three hours to get here from the settlement. I would love to live near such place, but I refuse taking ages to come back and forth,” she said with a slight smile.
“I think I could withstand that. So far Earth was a place of tension and nervousness. But this place seems to be the only place that gives me peace,” I said. I closed my eyes and lied backwards. I was cushioned by the softness of the grass and the blue sky on top of me drew white clouds for me to see. I was sincerely calm, at peace, and liberated.
The entire 3rd platoon (Han suddenly called us when we came back) really took a day off while the others strived very hard in search for anything useful. Apparently, the directors had some sort of tracking device and seeing our platoon unmoving for nearly three hours did not grant a smile upon Han’s face.
“I truthfully that you guys were dead,” said our director. “1st and the 4th at least tried to find, but the 3rd not only failed to find resources, they didn’t even try hard. How in the world do I have to debrief this to the commanders? You seriously want me to say the scenery was too beautiful to carry on a search?”
“Is there any group who scouted something useful?” I asked him cynically. Han seemed angry because I didn’t answer his question immediately.
“2nd platoon found a potential mine field. 5th platoon found natural gas deposit,” he said.
“I can’t believe they actually found underground resources with that stone-age radar,” I shrugged innocently. Han certainly looked furious by that point. I looked at him indifferently and he sighed.
“So… where was this… lake you found,” he asked, almost in a resigning voice.
“Are you interested?”
“I need at least some things to put in my report,” he demanded
“About 50 clicks west from this settlement,” I said. He typed down what I said; about the view, the atmosphere, the state of the lake and some things too trivial to remember. “Just say the 3rd platoon found a ‘haven’ for psychologically pressured humans. Now that’s a resource – mental resource – and it’s going to be very useful for the Dominion.”
“There are Hunters out there,” he said coldly.
“We stayed there for more than three hours but there was no activity. Some of use took a nap and nothing happened. It’s pretty safe,” I said.
“Yeah, good for you,” said Han. He turned around and faced backwards. “You’re dismissed.”
When I arrived home, it was almost supper time. I was alone at my house so I decided to go through the files Dr. Greg gave me. The paper file was quite thick and supposedly, it held every detail about what I wanted to know. The files were actually wrapped around, separating one bundle of file from another. The first bundle was written HUNTER in bold on the cover, the other was blank; but both were labeled classified.
Just when I opened the Hunter file, there was a knock on the door. I quickly covered the files with some cloth and went for the door. It was Scarlet.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“Just bored. Figured I’d just come to see how you’re doing,” she shrugged casually. I looked at her, then at the covered files on a table. “What’s in there?”
“You know what, come in, I have something interesting you’ll find less boring.”
I explained how he received the bundle of confidential files. Scarlet became immediately excited. She looked so eager that I was worried whether she would to rip the cover to see the content. So I finally uncovered the Hunter file.
The first few pages were nothing special; the same rank system I saw at the simulation room.
“Woah, this page looks interesting… they give names to Hunters?” she frowned. The paper she saw recorded couple of major Hunters which also had their own name. I recognized Roach and Chimera. But the one that looked like a human was not there.
“This one – Roach. The doctor said that’s the one I killed several days ago,” I said pointing at the black and white image of Roach. I fingered downward at Chimera. “And this… is the very Hunter that practically led the Sector 1 and 2’s devastation.”
“It looks horrible,” she said almost in disgust. “Speaking of looking horrible, what do you think the Hunters think of us? I actually thought of this for quite long.”
“No idea. Probably just some slimy, fleshy, fragile creature with metal weapons,” I replied. I flipped one more page; again I did not see the humanoid Hunter. Instead the page for major Hunters came to an end. This is disturbing.
“Look, there’s information about the lairs,” she exclaimed. Scarlet pointed at the large greyscale picture that filled an entire page. “They named it HCZ-1. It’s the one only a few kilometers away from Sector 1.”
“Largest lair found so far, estimated Hunter inhabiting… 700,” I read from the caption. “You remember how many Hunters invaded Sector 3?”
“Around 70, as I recall…” mumbled Scarlet. Then she flipped back to the page of the major Hunters, and then came back to the picture. “All of the named Hunters are from this lair.
“And that means the 70 Hunters mobilized for the invasion was also from this lair,” I said. I turned over more pages, but the rest were wordy reports; minor compared to the ones we’ve seen carefully. We finished reading through the Hunter file. Again, the humanoid Hunter was not written. What is going on? Why hasn’t Greg incorporate anything about it?
“Let’s go over the other one,” said Scarlet, very motivated. She settled the second bundle in the middle of us and opened the cover. “This is bizarre…”
“What’s wrong?” I looked at the papers. Save a few words per page, every single line and pictures and images were either cut out or lined out so that it was impossible to see. The several words left readable, didn’t give any information at all. I was instantly furious and violently flipped through the papers. All the papers were in the same condition.
“Are you sure Dr. Greg gave you this for you to look, because overall, there isn’t much in it. Even the Hunter file was half useless,” said Scarlet. She started examine the cover, shook the bundle side to side, hoping to find some hidden piece of paper. Nothing came out. He lied to me. Why? He’d gain nothing if he lies; if he did not give me the information I want. If I don’t co-operate his experiment, he had nothing to gain. I thought over as Scarlet continued to search through the pile of paper. Michelle… is it her…
“Scarlet, let’s burn this thing,” I said. She blinked.
“Can we burn it?” she said with a frown.
“It’s my file anyway.”
I carried it to the kitchen and activated the stove on. Just when I attempted to burn the first bundle, there was a knock on the door. Scarlet looked at me, and then ran towards the door. In the doorstep was a Crusader.
“The director wants you in the command center right away,” said the Crusader.
“I’m a little busy right now. And I remember being dismissed like an hour ago,” I shouted back from the kitchen. The files caught on fire. Grabbing the tip with a set of tongs, I watched it burn.
“This is urgent. They say all the rankers from the Sectors are joining as well. It looks quite important,” yelled the Crusader back. I ignited the second bundle. Without a word, I watched the orange flame consume the pieces of paper. “I sent you the message. It’s not my fault when you don’t come up.”
“Aren’t you going?” asked Scarlet carefully after she closed the door. I stared at the ashes.
“Unless you want to hear a lecture from Michelle again,” shrugged Scarlet. “I’ll take care of the ashes, go ahead.”
I was the last to arrive. There were fifteen Crusaders and five directors were all present. Dr. Greg was also there. Just as I entered the door, the doctor began to speak.
“Now that everyone’s here, I’ll explain the operation,” said Dr. Greg. Operation? It was a queer word to be heard at such times. “Four days from now, we are launching our first attack on a Hunter lair.”
The directors looked uncomfortable. And the command room immediately began to bustle. I found my way beside Michelle who also looked very shocked.
“We expect around 600 Hunters dwelling in the lair, and therefore will be fighting about that number. I realize this is quite shocking; nobody will have thought anything about a firsthand attack from the human side. But… that is exactly why we are commencing an assault. The Hunters apparently can think. They are not emotionless animals unaffected by psychological factors. In their perspective, we are fragile. We are weak. We always defend and act passively against any sort of invasion.”
“We’ve done a good job so far,” said someone.
“Who is this? Dill, isn’t it?” snapped the doctor. He located him and pointed at him. “Do you think we will retake Earth with that kind of mind? No, we cannot. What you think is foolish and cowardly; to satisfy with mundane defense results. I hope everyone disagrees with Dill here. To the Hunters, we need to show them that humans aren’t dying. That humans aren’t falling apart every time they attack. Through this assault, it’s time to show the Hunters that we were once rulers of the Earth; that we are not an enemy to underestimate.”
“Everyone in this room is veterans; best of best. You’ve all proved your personal skill, but now it’s time to prove your skill as a leader. From now on, you’ll be squad leader. Until the fourth day, the directors will assign each of you a balanced squad you will each lead in the battle. And on the day before D-day, we will meet again to debrief the specific tactics,” said Dr. Greg. He showed us the picture of the lair, HCZ-1, that I saw in the file. For a moment I thought he was looking at me when he turned back from the screen to us. When I looked around me to see whether he really was, there wasn’t particularly anyone around me. When I looked back, the doctor’s eyes were on the screen. “This is the lair. The first lair we’ve found, and the lair that supported for every Hunter responsible for Sector 1 and 2’s collapse. It’s only several kilometers away from the ruins. Some might think this some kind of joke; but it isn’t and it’s happening right now. All Crusaders without fatal injury will engage in combat as well as majority of the soldiers. But remember, they’ll always be back-ups for additional firepower. You guys are really the ones who will have to kill the 600 Hunters. This operation, as you can expect, cannot fail. You cannot fail. The executive circle expects greatly from the Crusaders, on the directors and even me. So I will expect to see disciplined soldiers until the lair is destroyed.”
“What about the others? I think we know how to train ourselves,” said one of us.
“The other Crusaders and the soldier will be announced tomorrow. But I’m telling you people first because you are the rankers of the old Sectors. You all need to be the main characters of this battle,” he said. He raised his glasses. “To say the truth, the fifteen in the room account for more than 50% of all our military strength. So straighten things out and get your mind trained up. I say again; Operation Hornet’s Nest starts today.”