Sweat dripped down Moore's back as he pulled himself up on the metal bar. A single droplet hit the floor with a miniature splash. “Twenty-one,” he muttered, his jaw trembling as he eased himself down and prepared to lift himself back up. He glanced over at the digital clock on the gym wall. It read 5:45 AM. For a moment he considered going to an even twenty-five pull-ups. He reckoned there would be plenty of exercise that day, though.
He dropped to the floor and grabbed a white towel from the rack, unrolling it and dabbing his face, which felt like it was without any muscle, along with the rest of his sweat-beaded body. Two other Marines walked into the room, bidding Moore a pair of grim, suspicious glances as they passed him. “Top of the morning to ya,” he smirked, squirting water from a bottle into his parched mouth. Neither of the Marines responded, taking off their shirts to reveal thick, sturdy muscles accented with black hair singed by battle and several notable tattoos.
As Moore reached for the door handle, he saw in the glass reflection that the two Marines were walking toward him menacingly. They came for a different type of workout.
Moore turned around and looked both of them in the eye with a sort of look that told them he was both annoyed and disgusted. He thought of some witty comment to mutter before the fight ensued, then simply sighed, “Really?”
The two Marines looked at one another, a bit confused. “We figured we'd teach you new boys how things run around here. It's a bit of a crash course,” one Marine muttered, clenching his fists. The other one grinned, flexing and assuming a stance that subtly told Moore he was preparing for a fight.
One Marine threw a punch at Moore, who dodged to the left. He flashed the sweat-covered towel in the other Marine's face, followed by a swift upper cut that sent him onto a benchpress. The other threw a wide swing at Moore's head, from which he ducked away and succeeded it with a knee to the Marine's groin. An uncomfortable grimace across his tough face, the Marine stumbled back, clutching his groin and stooping over in borderline nausea. The other Marine wiped the blood and snot from his face, approaching Moore again. Moore winked at him and made a taunting kiss face.
Enraged, the Marine sent his fist toward Moore, who deflected it swiftly. Like lightning, another fist came, then another, both of which were either blocked or deflected by Moore. Finally, the Marine delivered a powerful blow, which Moore dodged and allowed to slam through the glass door. Moore slapped the Marine in the face and sent his boot-clad heel into the Marine's hip, crippling him over.
With both Marines entirely out of commission, Moore stood by the door triumphantly. “Kids these days,” he grumbled with a smug grin, then exited. The security recording would do the explaining, so he knew he had nothing to worry about.
Moore walked back into the barracks shortly before six o'clock, changing from one uniform shirt to another. There were a few perks to being a part of the elite forces: having a set of clean, interchangeable shirts was one of them. After he slipped on an alternate shirt, he watched the digital clock on the wall as the numbers rose from fifty-eight to fifty-nine, then set to 0600. At that very moment, the lights in the room blared on, and a screeching noise blasted from the intercom speaker. Half from discomfort and half from instinct, each of the men rose from their bunks and lined up, Moore joining them.
After a few more seconds the screeching stopped, and a sergeant, one of many in a long line, ran into the room and called the men to attention. Each of the men, trying their hardest to oust all fatigue, stood rigid at attention with their hands at their sides. The sergeants rotated from barrack to barrack each day, to make certain none of them could become accustomed to a particular group of soldiers. “Your mission!” the sergeant called.
“To seek and destroy all enemies of the State without regret and without hesitation! Enemy blood is our fuel of combat and our blood is the power of our brothers!” the five men shouted in reply. Traw was not one for a loud voice, but he had learned in the past two weeks that in order to be left alone, he had to be loud, ironic as it was.
“Your mindset!” the sergeant called again. He had shouted it hundreds of times in his career, but he said it with the same rigor every time.
“I am a warrior of thick blood and thick armor, and I will die for the State with honor! Death is honor and battle is glory!” Traw was tired and sore, but in some way he could not explain, the chant woke him up every morning.
“Your meditation!” the sergeant shouted at last, facing straight ahead with an uptight intensity in his eyes.
“I surrender my unconditional obedience to the State and its supreme command! I will deliver due judgment upon any and all traitors and allow my orders to define me! High Fealty!”
“High Fealty!” the sergeant echoed.
There were a few moments of silence as the sergeant looked over his datapad, allowing Traw some time to think. In that moment, the truth of the matter dawned upon him: he was a part of the machine. When he began, he saw the Galactic Armored Marines as merely a paycheck source. Part of him still did. But something about the creed drew him into the service with a sense of brotherhood, something he was still not entirely comfortable with.
The sergeant was silent, looking over his datapad as the men remained at attention. He still had a terseness about him as he conducted his duties. “Five men to a squad?” he muttered, looking up from his pad. He had just double-checked the roster.
“Yessir,” Traw answered, looking straight ahead.
“They're doin' it the old fashioned way,” he shrugged, pleasantly surprised. “Report to Training Ground D in full gear at 0700 after breakfast. Dismissed.”
The sergeant filed out of the room in an orderly fashion, joining the long line of other officers who ate before the rest of the units. “Took out another two today. They'll be adoptin', without a doubt. Good thing, too. They're a couple of ugly sons of bitches,” Moore mentioned, with a smug grin across his stubble-covered face.
“D'you hear a crunch?” Sanchez asked, laughing for a moment.
“You bet. Wouldn't be surprised if there's spit-up on the gym floor, too,” added Moore. “Evidently word ain't been getting around among them that we're not the kind to be trifled with,” Traw muttered, scratching his teeth with his fingernail. He watched as the last officers in line passed their barracks. A few of them bade Traw some unsavory glances, with a condescending air about them.
“That brass don't mean nothin' in my book,” Sanchez muttered, noting the last few pass. “I'll bet half these boys wouldn't take me on in a good ol' mano-e-mano brawl. That's how I measure a man. None of that high-and-mighty BS.”
At the sound of a familiar, less cringe-inducing siren blaring through the hallway speakers, the recruits filed into order, including the Death Squad. Though he and the others had done this numerous times already, something about it still felt alien to Traw. He was used to open fields and having a world to himself. Granted, there was always work to be done. But it was his world, his own dominion, where his will was on the throne.
Here there was no such thing.
There was order, and discipline, and structure. This world was so rigid and efficient, more like a clicking machine than an organic environment. People were cogs, and time was a written schedule. Individual thoughts were inconsequential and minds were fitted like iron in a mold.
Walking in step with the collective pace, Traw wondered what the others of his team were thinking. He had no clue what their previous lives were like, aside from what had been relayed to him at the initial meeting two weeks prior. None of them had spoken of their civilian lives since, and Traw suspected it might have been with good reason.
As the breakfast line progressed at a snail's pace and Traw was eleven people away from receiving his morning meal, he glanced up at the GAM symbol displayed proudly on the large, blank cafeteria wall opposite of him, hewn into rock. It was an eagle with its wings spread and its talons extended in either direction, the right bearing a sword and the left bearing a scale. They represented judgment and execution. In bold, hard-edged letters beneath the eagle were the letters 'GAM'.
“I do love order,” Venko remarked as his breakfast was set before him; a completely separate dish, with a completely separate quality.
“I'm sorry?” Klept asked, sitting next to him with a few other high-ranking officers and specialists.
“All of this you see before you. Such beauty in the structure of it all,” Venko clarified, gesturing to the mess hall with a broad window set before him.
Klept half smirked to himself, looking out at the rows of soldiers eating their breakfasts. In the fourth row, he thought he noted his squad. They were five men among hundreds. “And yet they are men. Their hearts and minds cannot be constrained. Rebellion is a part of them. Imperfect humans made by a perfect being,” he added, musing half to himself.
“I'm to assume you're not talking about science, Doctor?” one of the generals beside him murmured in a foreboding tone. Klept paused. Venko was looking over at him as well, with a heavy presence.
“Forgive me. I forgot such things have no place here,” Klept apologized in sincere humility, bowing his head toward his lap.
“In that you are correct, Dr. Klept,” Venko replied, stabbing a clump of scrambled eggs. “As I'm sure you are aware, the Hierarchs left behind a great many things behind so we could form the State. Unlike history, with whom the Disciple is entrusted, God was one of those abandoned from us. You know that. Your signature attests to that. And you also know any sign of reverence to the old world is punishable by death...you won't let something like this happen again, will you?”
Grateful for the mercy, even if misplaced, Klept answered quickly, “Yes, sir.”
“It's one of many crimes that go unpunished here,” another general mentioned beneath his breath.
“Though most of them take place in the bedroom, and we all respect each other's right to pleasure in that setting,” added the general beside Klept, and the others chuckled. Klept glanced over at Venko, who was laughing with slightly less volume. In a brief moment, it all died down and they returned to their meals in silence. Though most would not identify it as such, Klept found the laughter almost nervous.
Traw swallowed hard a last gulp of coffee from his steel mug. “In order to fully achieve a state of intellectual completion, mankind must reach a state where he fights wars with words, not weapons. Or, in a case of utmost fantasy, reach a state in which war is merely a discarded word: an unspoken relic of the past which represents a more primitive time,” the man beside him quoted from memory, gesturing with elegance.
“For god's sake, Dogmer, shut the hell up. Nobody wants to hear that crap,” Sanchez grumbled, reaching across the table and shoving Dogmer in the shoulder.
“No, no, I think Dogmer's got a point,” Moore corrected, leaning in and ripping off a piece of his toast. “Ya see, what he's saying is that he wants to enter the battlefield using his wit, and confuse the enemy with all his mathematical theories and famous quotes. It's genius, really. I'm surprised you guys aren't trying it yourselves.”
Traw smirked, scraping up the last bits of his eggs onto his fork. As much as Moore struck an uncomfortable chord with him much of the time, Traw was grateful for his alleviating humor. The atmosphere felt so heavy to Traw, leaving him constantly on edge.
“Alright, ladies, let's move!” one of the sergeants shouted, kicking the men up and out of their seats. They had hardly been in their seats for ten minutes, but nonetheless, the base had a tight schedule to keep, and Traw understood that. He glanced about and noted a dozen other sergeants pacing through the aisles of benches, booting soldiers out of their seats.
Before the nearest sergeant came to him, Traw rose from his seat and made his way toward the long line of garbage cans and tray holders. “You!” the sergeant in his aisle shouted, pointing to Traw. A bit confused, Traw turned about, to see the sergeant marching toward him determinedly. “Did I come to you yet?” the sergeant snarled with a scowl that could have turned coal to diamond.
Traw hesitated. Technically, only Dr. Klept had authority over his squad, as they were a specialized unit. That is, of course, with the exception of morning and evening drills. “Am I not clear?” the sergeant barked, taking a firm step forward. Traw realized how long he had been thinking.
“You're clear, sir,” Traw answered, standing at attention. Moore looked up behind him at the sergeant, who was grilling Traw only with his intense stare.
“I just wanted to help move things along, sir,” Traw explained, blinking a few times.
“My ass you were,” the sergeant smirked. “I've heard that excuse before. You just wanna get back to your barrack and get five minutes of shut-eye before exercise today. Drop and give me forty, then return to your seat and wait for everyone else to go.”
Reluctantly, Traw went down to the floor and began doing his required push-ups, setting the tray to the side of him. Still under the harsh gaze of the sergeant, he finished the fortieth push-up, picked up his tray, and sat down again. With the room gradually clearing, he was forced to sit still and wait. The rest of his team rose and left upon being prodded by another officer, and still he was forced to stay seated.
Ten minutes passed.
The cleaning crew entered the room and began wiping down the tables and benches, carting their supplies behind them. Traw was still seated in his place, staring straight ahead as he was commanded. The sergeant was directly behind him, arms crossed and eyes grim. The room was empty and devoid of the usual bustle. “Go,” the sergeant ordered.
Traw eagerly rose from his seat and shuffled over to the tray stacks. “Walk!” the sergeant barked, as he paced out of the room, and Traw slowed his pace.