Before I pushed through the doors I could hear murmurs, which meant that the noise behind them was more than a dull roar. The Topsiders weren’t happy about being asked to do this mission, and though I couldn’t blame them, I could judge them for it. They signed up, just as I had, and they knew full well what the job could entail. Sure, some of them signed up for the clout, the bragging rights, and the fact that we made more money than most undergrounders, though even that wasn’t a lot by old Topside standards. It was what they could afford to pay us. The reasoning didn’t matter, we all took the same oath, and we all would see it through.
Resident Chief Atlas was surrounded by a crowd of, as I suspected, fuming Topsiders. I could overhear snippets of their complaining. “Can’t leave my wife…”
“Just got married…” “This is a suicide mission…” “rather stay here and die while surrounded by my family…”
I groaned and forced my way to his side, standing silently and respectfully in formation.
“Sergeant,” The Chief addressed me “your men are unhappy with their orders.”
I had moved up in ranks fairly quickly once I had joined Topsiders, in less than two years I was the third highest in command, behind only the General and the Chief. Our General sat safely behind a desk and formulated the plan, the Chief trained us and gave us our orders, and I led the men to carry them out.
I held up my hand which was a sign for them to close their mouths and listen. It was seen as disrespect not to and if someone chose to continue talking once I began, I could give them their walking papers. To be kicked out of Topsiders was shameful, and it would be difficult, if not impossible to find another job once you had let your quadrant down that way. So everyone fell deathly silent. You could hear a pin drop inside the room.
Resident Chief Atlas fell to my side and allowed me to have command of my men. He trusted me to get control of them.
“Each one of us took the same oath. An oath to protect the innocent, the civilians, every single Undergrounder regardless of class, race, sex, and quadrant.” I walked back and forth, making eye contact with each of my men, no matter their rank. “Now, when we are needed the most you all want to cower, to shy away, to act like a bunch of pussies in the face of adversity and that is unacceptable! These people look to us for bravery, for leadership. They look to us to save them, to make sure that they can live to see another day even if it’s under the ground of this deity forsaken planet. Yes, you have families, but that should mean you have more on the line to want to save! It should make your driving force stronger than those who have nothing to lose!”
“Spoken like someone from quadrant 1, just like your family.” I heard one of my men grumble.
“Excuse me, Private. Do you want to say that louder so the rest of the unit can hear you?”
He was stupid enough to repeat himself.
“I have earned my spot as Sergeant in this unit, I have fought beside each and every person here, I have saved several of your asses from those things we run into Topside, and I have even donated my own pay to help the families of many soldiers in here. My family has not a damn thing to do with me nor my mentality, if they did I’d be in quadrant 1 with them and not here leading your sorry ass. If you ever choose to speak out of turn like that again, I will challenge you to a duel, which is within my honor bound rights, and you will lose your life. Is a smart-ass remark worth losing your life over, Private Melko?
“Good. I’m glad we understand one another.”
“Now, we will go Topside and we will complete this mission because failure is not an option. We have an entire population of people down here, and we cannot let them down. We WILL NOT let them down. Is that clear?”
A resounding “YES SERGEANT!” rang through the room and reverberated off the walls, and I knew I had touched their pride, and gotten through to them. They’d fight now, they’d do their best not to fail, and if I had someone to pray to, I’d ask them to see my men, and myself safely home but there was nobody but us, and we were our own gods.
“Private Melko, since you like to talk so much, roll call.” I left him to check that every member of the unit had reported for duty and divide their supplies while I turned to the Resident Chief and the General.
“You both know this is a suicide mission, right?” I said calmly.
The General looked concerned. “Kai, you have no idea.”
His demeanor was disconcerting and I felt a lump form in my throat. He never called me Kai. Ever. It was always Sergeant. He inhaled deeply and removed a flask from a locked drawer in his desk.
“You’re not going out as an entire unit. This is an individual mission. We need to cover as much ground as possible. You understand I’m sure.”
“General, some of these men can barely tie their shoelaces. They won’t make it a day out there on their own, let alone a month! Let me divide them into small groups so at least the weaker of the bunch will have a fighting chance…” Before I could finish, I was interrupted by the Chief.
“Sergeant, you’re an excellent leader and of course you’re concerned for your men, but this isn’t your call. They’ve all received the best survival training available. The physically weak ones are clever and the mentally weak ones tend to be strong. I would urge you to have some faith in your unit.”
“With all due respect, Chief, you’re ordering me to send 200 men, MY MEN, to their deaths! That is what you’re asking me to do!” I caught myself raising my voice and took a deep breath to quiet myself. “You’re asking me to feed them a diet full of lies and send them out there to die. And for what? Tech and information that may not even exist anymore?”
The General interjected, “Kai, you know the deal. These are the orders and we will follow through. The men listen to you. They believe in you and you will lead them to comply.” His voice was shaky. “They will go out, not for tech or knowledge, but for hope. Because if we lose that, then we truly have nothing left.” He handed me the flask.
The General had always been a tough man. Silent most of the time, hard on the unit, but fair. Yes, I had taken an oath as had we all, but I knew certain death when it stared me in the face. He knew I’d fight for my men, he expected it. That is part of the reason I had risen through the ranks so quickly. Deep down, I knew that he was right, that we had no choice but to go and try to salvage whatever we were able. What I didn’t know is whether or not all of our sacrifices would help our situation.
I grimaced as I took a swig from the General’s flask. “Yes, General. You’re right,” I said after swallowing my pride along with that foul liquid. “I’ll inform the unit.”
“Good luck, Sergeant.” The General rose to exit to his quarters.
“You and your men are doing a great thing. A service to us all. You’ll receive your assigned coordinates on your communication devices within the hour.”
I nodded and turned to address my men.
There was no easy way to say anything I had to say. Best to rip the band-aid off quickly, and be done with it. At least that was the way I chose to do it because no amount of skating around the topic was going to make it any easier.
I cleared my throat and tried to swallow past the lump that had formed. It took everything in me to reach down into my depths and muster the strength to tell them they were all on their own.
They stood at attention; all 200 of them, and awaited words of wisdom. Of hope. Of reverie. The type of pep talks I was notorious for before any big mission, but this time I had none of those. This time all I had was the raw, honest truth and they deserved no less.
“I’ve just been given the word that this assignment is to be individual. We will not be going as a unit, nor will we be splitting into groups once we are Topside. It is every man for himself out there, and it is up to each of you whether you come back home safe to your families. It won’t depend on me saving your ass, or your buddy to save your ass, it’s up to you to save your own ass. Be resourceful, be vigilant and above all, no matter what, be ruthless, because I don’t want to lose a single damn one of you.”
Normally I would have given them their orders to double check their gear, to just sit around and wait until it was time to head up. This time I did something that was outside of protocol that I knew could get my ass busted, or demoted, but I didn’t care. If I was going to send up 200 men to go their separate ways, some of which I had no doubt would not return, the least I could do was give them this allowance.
“You’ll be given your coordinates shortly. Go, hug your families, kiss your wives, your girlfriends, and tell them you love them. No tears. No word of what is going on, you are not to give away any certified information, is that clear?”
“You have half an hour, and then we head Topside.”
With a nod, I turned and walked off, heading toward the only person I cared to see one last time. I knew I’d already said my goodbyes, but I couldn’t stand for that to be the last one. I needed to see her again.