The five men stood in the morning sun, dew steaming from the hard cement at their feet. They were in a long, rectangular courtyard surrounded by thirty-foot walls of stone rising above. Filling the courtyard were obstacles of varying size and complexity, many of them resembling common structures. There was the occasional zipline running across the court, or a cargo net stretching up a wall. Traw looked it over, wondering what their purpose could be. He had seen a company of GAM troopers in strange, green armor pass by, and he supposed they might have a part in it.
A large screen was plastered to the wall the five men faced. The glass was scratched and stained. It flashed to life, revealing a shrewd man with a thin frame and thinner glasses set on his face. Traw glanced over at Clayton, then back at the screen. The man on the screen adjusted the camera, better centering him in the shot. “Good morning, gentlemen,” the man greeted in a pleasant, slightly plucky voice. “I am Ivan Klept. I am one of the GAM's chief strategists, with a doctorate in psychology, making my skill set ideal for training a five-man squad such as yourselves. I will personally evaluate each of you while still reinforcing the strength of your team. Are there any questions?”
“Yeah, I got one,” Sanchez answered, barely giving the doctor any time to finish the question. “How long are we doin' this crap today? I got a hot date with one of them chicks downtown. I'll probably crash at her place.”
The doctor chuckled for a moment, as if he knew the question would be asked. It was a delicate laugh, half to himself. “I assure you Special Operative Sanchez, you will have no issue with that...as you have no permission to leave this compound. And sneaking out will be...far more difficult than you could imagine. Any further questions?”
“Yeah...” Traw said, after some hesitation. “You called us Death Squad. Why?”
“Oh, you are not aware I see. Well, in most instances, your sole task will be to...eliminate targets. At certain times these targets may be breathing, and have the intention of killing you. There will be very few, if any, missions that do not include killing. In fact, I have the details of your debut mission. But I'm sure you're interested in the objective at hand. Your goal for this training exercise is simple: capture the flag at the other end of the court, and dislodge it from its planted point. After seeing your efficiency, teamwork, and individual performance, I will give you a score judging the overall effectiveness of your team. Only when you reach 100 will I grant you your full armor and weapons. Otherwise you will be entering battle like any other Marine. Time begins in ten seconds.”
“Where are the weapons?” Aveer blurted, knowing there would be some danger ahead.
“There will be opposition. They will have guns. If they are dead, their guns become yours. It is simple. Three...two...one. Begin match.”
The five men were unsure of what to do. Then Traw caught sight of an enemy squad advancing through the narrow street. Sanchez bolted into the simulation city. Moore followed close behind, invigorated for battle.
Aveer looked around, then back toward Clayton and Traw. He ran in a different direction, taking a separate street into the city. “I'll follow you,” Clayton told Traw in a timid voice. “I'm not one for fighting.” Traw grinned warmly. There was at least one other person who wasn't overly fond of violence.
“Let's see if we can find another way around the court to get to that flag,” Traw said, pointing to the end of the court. They could hear laser fire coming from within the combat zone.
Traw and Clayton crept along the border wall, under the shadow of the hollow stone buildings. There was a straight, two-foot-wide alleyway leading to the end of the court, and they had been following it with caution for the past couple minutes. Suddenly, a soldier clad in green training armor sprinted into the hallway from one of many entryways, looking behind him. Clayton and Traw both froze in their tracks. Aveer barreled headlong into the soldier's chest, slamming him against the hard stone. The dark-skinned trainee launched his fist into the soldier's cheek in a swift blow and knocked him out. Aveer picked up the gun, motioning for his two team members to follow him.
Aveer crouched as he advanced toward the end of the court where the flag stood, with Clayton and Traw following his lead. Traw brought up the rear, ready to tackle anyone who opposed them. The three of them approached the main yard, an open space before the step pyramid that held the flag. Aveer made a halting gesture with his hand. He sneaked across a small pass and pressed himself hard against a wall, which was not easy to do, given his hefty frame. Aveer took a momentary glance at the pyramid, poking his head out from behind cover. He held up four fingers to Traw and Clayton, who were watching eagerly for the next order.
Across the yard, one of the soldiers stumbled backward from a dark alleyway, falling to the dirt. From the darkness came two laser shots to the soldier's armored chest. The other four soldiers from the pyramid rushed to the scene, holding their rifles at a ready position. Other laser shots came from the shadows, one of them nailing a soldier in the head.
Then, like a beast, Moore leaped from behind a corner, taking one of the three remaining soldiers head on. After a brief wrestle, Moore put the soldier into a headlock and snapped his neck. Aveer shot down one of the two surviving soldiers just before Moore was going to be shot. Then there was one left. Traw sprinted to the pyramid, narrowly avoiding two shots. Sanchez ran out of the alley and gunned down the last soldier in a hailfire of laser blasts, preventing him from shooting Traw.
Passing the last step, Traw gripped the flag and raised it from its position triumphantly. “It's over!” he shouted with a grin to the discreet mounted cameras. “Mission accomplished.”
“Wasn't so bad,” Moore remarked, looking about casually.
Clayton added in a timid, reserved voice, “This is too simple.” He scanned the perimeter, making his suspicion clear as day.
Traw's triumphant smirk faded as he watched eight cannons rise from hidden compartments on the edge of the far wall. “Lethal?” Sanchez wondered aloud, staring in awe and terror at the massive mechanical foes.
“Not something I want to find out,” Aveer commented, readying his gun.
Then with a chilling uniformity, the cannons aimed and opened fire on the squad members. Each of the men took cover from the artillery, which only had the capability of knocking them unconscious and leaving them with a bruise. Huddled next to Moore, Clayton told him, “I need you to puncture the wall fifteen meters down the court. I noticed a wire outlet there, and I could disable the power for the cannons with less than ten seconds of meddling.”
“I don't take orders from you,” Moore sneered, not bidding Clayton even a glance. “All you gotta do is not get shot. Now shut the hell up.”
Traw, who was five meters behind them, overheard the discussion, and the rejection from Moore. Rushing past them with a rifle he picked up, Traw remarked, “Follow me, Clayton. I'll get you that hole.”
Clayton joined Traw as they sprinted along the wall to the outlet, narrowly avoiding several cannon shots. Aveer noticed his teammates under assault and opened fire on the cannons with his rifle, knowing they were impervious to his attacks. Three of the eight began firing on him, and he dodged with expert speed. Sanchez and Moore remained in their shelters.
Meanwhile, Clayton had his hands dug into the wires, with Traw guarding him. “How much longer?” Traw urged, watching the cannons relentlessly opening fire in the courtyard. With a satisfying spray of sparks, Clayton backed away from the hole and turned to see the cannons deactivate.
There was a long silence. Each of the five men scanned about, searching for more dangers. Finally, a deep voice ordered over the speakers, “Return to court entrance immediately.” Clayton and Traw exchanged glances, the suspicion not needing to be expressed through words. From the urban arena came the five team members, still holding onto their rifles and watching the door for another attack.
Dr. Klept walked out of the entrance, holding a notepad. The five team members assembled in front of him. He looked less prestigious when on their level. “You accomplished the mission,” Klept granted, peering over his notes. “Yet I am not satisfied. In one week you will assemble here at the same time and we will go over the mission again.”
“What'd we do wrong, little man? I ain't about to come out here again and go through this crap,” Sanchez asked, his lips tight.
“Your teamwork was pitiful,” Klept informed, unafraid of retaliation. “You and Moore broke off and were nearly outflanked on three occasions, had it not been for a few lucky turns. And Aveer, you completely segregated from the squad and actually took two hits from our rifles when surrounded. If those had been Nektro soldiers, you would be dead. Albeit Traw and Clayton won your squad the match, the cannonfire nearly destroyed the rest of the team because of their indecisiveness. Leave the weapons at the armory on the way back to the barracks. Report to Dr. Geinz' office for a study on Nektro anatomy at 0800. Dismissed.”
The day was long and dreary after that, for each man in his own way. They learned statistics regarding Nektro anatomies, baton kata drills, GAM naval strategies, and a slew of other courses that were intended to bolster the effectiveness of the squad. There was also two hours of basic physical training and two hours of marksmanship practice. The time for rest at 2100 hours was well received by all five men, though they knew the rest of the week would follow the same pattern.
Traw returned from the showers to the barracks, scratching his rough, thin hair. “There's the champ,” Moore greeted, puffing a cigarette and holding seven cards in his hand. Sanchez glanced up at Traw, then stuck his cigarette butt into the ashtray and picked up another card from the deck. “So how 'bout that crazy junk Clayton pulled at the end of the match? Man, that's jacked up like nuthin' else. Didn't know you actually got somethin' to offer, little man.”
“Hey, why don't you leave 'im alone, huh? Saved all our asses with that brain of his. Least you could do is give him a little respect and shut the hell up,” Traw jeered, setting his razor down on the metal nightstand.
“Fine, your holiness,” Moore retorted, taking another puff. Clayton bade Traw a modest nod of thanks, then returned to his book. Aveer merely watched. Slowly he rose from his bunk, his dark, broad frame shifting from a hunched position. He approached Traw, who was sitting on his bunk flipping through a textbook each of the men were issued.
“A word?” Aveer asked Traw, standing over him with a daunting silhouette.
“Sure,” Traw granted, rising.
Standing in the cold, sterile hallway, Aveer mentioned, “You defend the small one. Why?”
Traw paused, confused as to why the robust dark-skinned man was asking him a question in private. “I dunno,” Traw answered, scratching the back of his head. “I guess what Moore's doin'...well, it just ain't right. If I didn't have to work with him, I'd give him a firm blow to the jaw, y'know what I mean? Not that I like violence, I just...I dunno, I can't watch as Clayton gets beat like that. Like I said, it ain't right.”
Aveer grinned. It was not smug, like he had an upper hand and Traw was his doomed opponent. It was the grin of realizing something good that was already suspected to be true. “You have honor,” Aveer told Traw, nudging him on the shoulder with his meaty hand. “Not common. Not with these men.”
Traw smiled, chuckling as he looked down at the floor for a moment. “Thanks, big man. Alright, we got a big day ahead of us. Let's get some shuteye.” Aveer slapped his hand across Traw's back as they entered their squad's room.
All the other men were asleep. Only the dull, warm glow of the strip lights illuminated the room from the walls. Traw lay down in his bunk, insomnia ruling him. “What am I doin' here?” he whispered to himself, one hand beneath his head. “I should be bringin' home the cattle right about now. Louise'd be givin' me a kiss on the cheek. Luella'd be grabbin' my waist. I'd be with the only people I care about, and instead I'm in this god-forsaken military base with this bunch of rat bastards. Five kaoris says I'm gonna regret this.”