“What the hell is this?” Sanchez asked with a sneer, smacking the giant steel orb that lay before them. The team stood in the training arena, under a bleak sky much like the compound they were in. For a fleeting moment, Traw wondered why those in charge of the artificial weather even included overcast days. He reckoned it was to make it as realistic as possible.
No one else was in the training ground, and there was no sign of Klept. The team had been ordered to report to training ground D at 0700, and they followed the command to a tee. This training ground was merely an empty, concrete-paved field 400 yards long and 150 yards wide. There were no other obstacles or changes in terrain. At the center was a five-foot-diameter steel orb with a dark, rough coat finish.
“Should we go back? Maybe there's been a mistake,” Aveer suggested, starting to turn back to the closed doors.
“No,” Moore told him, staring at the orb. He seemed concentrated, even intent. “This is a test.”
“How do you know?” Sanchez scoffed, smacking the orb carelessly. “For all we know, they might've just screwed somethin' up, and we're gonna be sittin' here for the next hour like idiots.”
“They haven't made a mistake of that nature yet,” Clayton reminded his teammates. “I highly doubt they would be this sloppy. And this orb is here for a reason. It has a specific purpose, likely for us.”
“I'm with Clayton on this one,” Traw agreed. “This thing's here for a reason, and so are we.”
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Klept's voice boomed on the speaker, nearly interrupting Traw. “Before we get started with the morning training sessions, I have devised a challenge for you all to complete: moving this orb. I want it moved from its place. Nothing more.”
“That's it?” Sanchez hollered in the general direction of the speaker. “Just move it?”
Klept sat back in his chair with a wall of viewscreens at his desk, and a microphone protruding from the desktop. He grinned a moment. The test was so simple, and yet so difficult. It was something extraordinary to the rest of the military compound. He bent the microphone head toward him and answered with a slight smile in his voice, “Just move it.”
Moore motioned for the rest of the men to join him, and on the count of three, they all pushed with the extent of their bruteforce. Teeth bared and muscles flexed, the orb was quite clear to be stationary. Klept brought out his notepad and turned off the microphone. He observed the men like rats in a laboratory, noting their mannerisms and gestures to one another. “Try another way,” Aveer said, budging from the other side. The others joined him, and they soon realized the problem was identical.
“This thing ain't goin' nowhere,” Traw commented, taking a step back and putting his hands on his hips. He was already beginning to break a sweat.
“Yeah, you got that right,” Moore remarked, running his hand through his short hair. “This is one hell of a test.”
Klept jotted down notes on his pad, watching the men carefully. “They've tried one method, in two different ways. It's apparent they're near the point of losing hope already,” he said to himself. He was alone in the dark room, though there were two rows of chairs and desks, intended for an observation team. Unlike most of the other GAM scientists, he never used any assistants.
“Maybe try pushing from every side at once,” Sanchez shrugged. “Everybody take a side, and we'll all push.”
With far less enthusiasm than their first two attempts, the team spread out along the circumference of the orb and pushed inward, but to no avail. “This sucks,” Moore grumbled, kicking the orb. “Bug off, Klept!” he shouted, raising his middle fingers.
Klept rest his hand on his chin, focusing the camera on Moore. He scrawled a few more notes onto his pad, then returned his gaze to the wall of monitors. The men were just standing around the orb, unsure of what to do. “It's impossible,” Aveer muttered, staring at the orb with sunken eyes.
“What if we tried pushing it up?” Clayton suggested. Klept's eyes lit up, and he panned the camera over to Clayton.
“And further confirmation that we have our brains of the team,” Clayton grinned, scribbling something else down onto his pad. The other men looked at Clayton with renewed enthusiasm, and without words they all gripped the base of the orb and began to lift up in unison. Through the ache of tired muscles and the beads of sweat that dripped down their brows, they could tell the orb was moving. Three inches off the ground, the orb tipped over and rolled for a few feet.
Clayton crouched low to the ground and tapped his finger to a three-inch-tall steel peg protruding from the ground. “Ingenious, really,” he smirked. “The orb had a slot that fit this peg perfectly, giving it the appearance of being stuck to the ground permanently. When pushed in any horizontal direction, the orb will not budge, but vertically, it is a relatively easy objective.”
“Now what?” Traw wondered, scratching the back of his neck. He rested one hand on the defeated orb.
“Well done, gentlemen,” Klept applauded over the speakers. “Things are rarely as they seem, as I'm sure you'll discover more in due time. Training Ground A is awaiting you for the Test.”
“Dammit,” Traw growled, accompanied by the groans of his teammates. They were all quite familiar with the Test, since their first day of training.
“It'd be one thing if it was the same test every time,” Sanchez granted as they walked through the long hallway to Training Ground A, “but they change the setup every time we take it. Aside from where the flag is, we got no idea what we're flyin' into.”
“That's the point, retard,” Moore scoffed, nudging Sanchez on the shoulder. “If they set it up with the same guys and the same obstacles every time 'round, it'd be so easy they could just train some apes to do it. Last I checked, most of us aren't apes.”
“Most of us,” Traw murmured, smirking to himself. He glanced over at the glass panels separating the hallway from Training Ground C. From what Traw could see, it was a jungle setting, with the floor mostly submerged in at least six feet of water. He noted soldiers exchanging stun rounds in the training ground, some running, some taking cover. He even saw a few men dive underwater. “That'll be an interesting one,” he mentioned to himself.
The doors to Training Ground A slid open, and the team walked into the open space before the massive jumble of various buildings and obstacles which were designed to resemble a city. At the end was the step pyramid, with the coveted flag. “You know what to do, gentlemen,” Klept's voice boomed over the speakers, and a case of armor and stun weapons rose smoothly from the cement ground.
Sighing, the men approached the suits of armor and began to rig themselves with it. “This is the third time, and we still suck at it,” Sanchez grumbled, strapping his breastplate into place.
“We gotta stick together, that's all. Splitting up is suicide, plain and simple,” Traw reminded his team. “Besides, we got armor and guns now. First time 'round we had to scavenge, and I'd rather not go through that again.”
“And what if they surround us, crush us, and none of us get anywhere near the flag?” Moore quipped. “We gotta split up into two groups. Sanchez and I'll rush the flag while you three draw fire and make some noise. I'd put my chips on that.”
“Yeah, that's real noble of you,” Traw muttered with a sarcastic smirk as he settled his helmet onto his head.
Moore stopped and put his hand forcefully onto Traw's chest. “It's not that I wanna get the flag and leave you boys in the dust. I don't give a damn which of us actually grabs the flag. I just wanna see this done. Sanchez is fast, I'm hard. Combined, we stand a chance of actually completing the mission, as long as you three attract fire.”
Traw hesitated, looking Moore in the eye. He knew Moore was right, though he was not so quick to admit it. “If this goes south, all eyes on you,” Traw replied, shirking Moore's hand off his breastplate.
“Wouldn't have it any other way,” Moore grinned.
The team stepped up to the yellow line separating training ground from open space. “Exercise begin,” Klept announced. Two sets of doors opened at the far end of the battlefield, and soldiers poured into the area, guns raised.
“Rock and roll,” Sanchez grinned, sprinting into the complex with Moore by his side.
The other three walked into the complex under the shadow of hollow concrete towers. “You've seen me in this setting. I'm useless,” Clayton mentioned to Traw, sighing.
“I'll protect you,” Aveer told him, in a tone more of notification than compassion. Clayton slipped behind Aveer, hands trembling as he held his gun. Nearby, Traw heard gunfire, and realized they were not the ones under fire. He fired off numerous rounds into the sky, prompting Aveer and Clayton to do the same. Then he saw the dodgy glimpses of incoming soldiers approaching. By his reckoning, they were at least fifty feet deep into the complex, and they could very well be surrounded.
“Gotta do what we gotta do,” Traw muttered, taking aim and waiting for anything ahead of him to move.
“Move your ass out there and get it, Sanchez!” Traw heard Moore holler from a hundred feet away. The stun gun fire was more intense, and the air was humming with the electric discharges being exchanged. Finally, he saw a soldier turn a corner fifteen feet away and fired off two rounds, sending the soldier hard onto the cement ground. Aveer sprayed his respective area with stun rounds, as he couldn't get a clean shot at any one target. A few moments later, one unlucky soldier happened to run into the line of fire, and was shoved back against a concrete wall by the shock. GAM stun rounds knocked their targets out, but also provided a powerful blow, making them effective for both combat and minor demolition, as needed.
“Moore, what's the status on the flag?” Traw shouted over the stun fire, which was starting to ring in his ears. There was no response. He knew Moore could hear him. The distance between them was not enough to stop them from hearing one another.
“I think he's down,” Clayton mentioned, laying down suppressive fire from his direction. His aim was the weakest of the group, but he could ward off opponents long enough.
“In which case we're screwed,” Traw grumbled.
“Unless we dash toward the flag and seize it before they can take us all down,” Aveer suggested, narrowly avoiding a stun round that hit just two inches from his shoulder.
“These soldiers aren't ceasing, nor are they becoming any fewer. If Moore and Sanchez were both knocked out, any remaining soldiers would join these ones and press us in like rats in a cage,” Clayton added. “Our best option is to punch a hole in Aveer's direction and slip along the wall, then turn sharply and seize the flag.”
“Sounds alright,” Traw replied, “let's do it.” He backed into the cramped space where he and his two comrades were pinned, and joined Aveer. Clayton released one last burst of fire, then joined the other two in charging Aveer's direction.
Following Clayton's plan, the three men slipped along the wall, barely missing a few shots, and were drawing very near to the turning point. Suddenly, a soldier turned the corner just ahead of Aveer, fumbling to raise and aim his gun. Wielding the stock of his gun, Aveer busted the soldier in the jaw, sending him hard to the ground. Once they turned the last corner and the step pyramid was in plain view, they saw what had stopped Moore and Sanchez: at the top of the pyramid, beside the flag, was a stun cannon mounted on a sturdy tripod and accompanied by four soldiers.
“Damn,” Aveer muttered as the gunner swiveled the turret in his direction. Hands rumbling, he opened fire on the three men, blasting Aveer in the chest several times. Traw ducked and rolled while Clayton scrambled to get behind the corner they had just turned.
“I seem to forget a turret being involved,” Clayton jested, his head just inches away from being nailed by one of the turret's stun rounds.
The other soldiers opened fire as well, and began encircling Clayton and Traw. “Now we're rats in a cage,” Traw grumbled, glancing around the other side of the small building to see a small squad of soldiers advancing. “How many, Clayton?”
Clayton thought for a moment, above the intense heat of stun fire. “Between 15 and 18, not including the gunner,” he answered, poking his head around the other side to see glimpses of more soldiers marching in his direction. “Surrender?”
“Hell no,” Traw sneered, then turned around the other side of the building and shot down two soldiers. He narrowly dodged the retaliation, nudging against the wall. “C'mon, bastards, let's play.” For a brief moment he glanced over toward Clayton to check on him, only to see another squad of soldiers advancing toward him and opening fire, leaving Clayton's incapacitated body behind. Traw desperately lept around the corner again, only to run into the remainder of the first squad. He let loose a few stray shots, only to be bludgeoned in the back of the head. Then there was darkness.
Traw awoke to blinding light, and Klept's voice repeating his name. “Sebastian...Sebastian...can you hear my voice?” Klept repeated. Traw blinked himself awake, and looked about to see he was in the Study Hall: a large, circular room with two massive viewscreens on the walls and a podium between them. They were usually used for educating recruit classes of 120 students, but the administration allowed Klept to use it between scheduled sessions.
Klept held a small flashlight, shifting it back and forth between Traw's eyes. “What is your last name?” Klept inquired.
“Traw,” he answered, breathing deep. “From the planet Sino, father of one, husband of Louise Traw, here in the GAM training compound. I'm fine, Doc.”
“That was quite a blow you took,” Klept remarked, placing the flashlight back into his coat pocket. “I've tried to discourage the use of brute force during my training sessions for this reason. I want smart soldiers. Accurate soldiers. Skilled soldiers. This kind of attack is nonsense, the way I see it. I have you learning martial arts for a reason. If I wanted meat walls rather than men, I would have done nothing more than given you each a punching bag and three meals a day. But it seems Venko and I do not see eye to eye on this matter. Hence, you are hear with a purple bump on your skull.”
Traw glanced to his left and right to see the rest of the team seated, some of them with bruises. “What time is it?” Traw wondered, rubbing the bump on the back of his head tenderly, wincing when he touched it.
“08:30. Right in time for our study session. Before I begin the lesson, though, I want to have a brief discussion on what happened. There was obviously a flaw in strategy or performance, or else you would have been victorious. What happened?”
“I'll tell you what happened,” Moore grumbled. “That goddamn turret happened. If that thing hadn't been--”
“No, the turret was not the root of your failure,” Klept interrupted, leaning against the podium and facing the five men in a casual manner. “I've seen your other fight simulations. Turrets are difficult to overcome, but they are not beyond your limits. Anyone else want to take a crack at it?”
There was a brief period of silence. “We split up,” Aveer replied.
“Close, but still no,” Klept denied. “Splitting up in and of itself is not bad. That was not the problem. You were not coordinated. You became two separate entities, fighting independently for the same goal without consulting one another. And because of this, you were picked off, and did not have each other for support. In actuality, though, there were two problems.”
“And the second one would be?” Clayton prompted.
“You assumed the enemy's action,” Klept answered matter-of-factly. “Moore, you assumed that the enemy would take full notice of the other squad's diversion and send the majority of their men toward these three here. I was watching the entire match, and your opponents only sent a third of their soldiers toward Traw's squad. All the while, the other two-thirds of your opponents were spreading out, and sending out scouts to intimidate you and give you the illusion that they were following the same strategy as they previously have. Once the turret had you pinned down in one location, those very same scouts joined up with the rest of the group to encircle you and shoot you down shortly thereafter. Never make assumptions like that about your opponent.”
Moore raised his eyebrows and smirked to himself, reclining in his chair. “Now let's begin the actual lesson,” Klept granted, displaying images of overhead reconnaissance on the dual screens beside him.