From afar, amongst the black,
A visitor, intent unknown.
Helplessly await arrival,
Soon, potential shall be shown.
Swiftly, Raiden rushed the hallway, pistol gripped in his right hand, his left providing support for recoil. The voices of his students were muddled with panic, the screams of the injured no longer resounding. Death may be creeping on his soul, weariness rendering, silent, screams for help. Raiden feared this prospect, but the double doors were now a mere five feet away. Through them, truth awaited. He peered through the slim window within the door’s face. Only the backs of his students were visible.
Slowly, he applied pressure, his free hand with the knob turned to avoid the click of its opening. The young men before him were clueless of his presence. They stood unsurely, swaying on shaky feet. It appeared they wished to flee but refrained. Whoever it was that withheld them from doing so was before them, but Raiden couldn’t see through his students’ ranks.
To his right rested a stack of tumbling mats raising three feet off the ground. He moved to them and mounted, pistol aimed above the heads of his students toward the object of their attention. When his eyesight broke the barrier to see beyond, his nerves relaxed. A groan of relief escaped his mouth as his arm lowered the weapon and replaced it in its holster.
Timothy Williams sat on the ground with his back against the far wall. His leg dripped blood from a moderately deep slice in the thigh, but it was by no means life-threatening. The weapon responsible sat alone a few feet out, its long, silver blade tainted with a line of blood along its edge. Timothy maintained contact with his own SWUN, which rested beneath his bent legs, so obviously this had not been a self-inflicted injury. The culprit had, indeed, forsaken his weapon, but whether he remained in the gym was yet unknown.
“What’s happened here?” Raiden’s voice boomed from above. His students turned in alarm, apparently quite jumpy already. He leapt down from his tower and walked toward the bleeding young man, the crowd of others parting to allow him passage. They remained silent and watching, none affording the slightest effort to clear up his confusion. “I asked what happened here. Timothy, are you all right, son?”
“Yes sir,” he replied. “Stings like a bitch, though.”
“Who did this to you?”
Timothy turned his gaze to the floor and then shifted his eyes to peek at his teacher. He didn’t want to rat a friend out. There was hush for a few moments as Raiden stared him down, conveying his disapproval through expression. The silence was short-lived.
“I did, sir,” came a voice from within the host of onlookers. Arms reached out to the shoulders of two in the front row, separating them to give way for their owner’s advance. It was Darren Slater that emerged, his cocky grin from earlier no longer present. “It was an accident.”
Raiden looked at the apologetic young man, to his wounded friend, and then back again. “Okay, Darren. I believe you that it was an accident, so I guess I can’t really punish you. Injuries are an expected risk when training.” Darren’s expression lightened as he realized he wouldn’t be forced to dig trenches in the snow for the rest of the year. “I’m glad you were man enough to own up to your own mistake.” At this, Darren’s grin began to show again. “But it’s still a mistake, Mr. Slater. You need to be able to control your weapon well enough to avoid these kinds of mishaps.”
“Timothy, let’s clean that up real quick and get you down to the nurse so she can have a look at it. Everyone else, put your real SWUNs back in your lockers and grab your training ones. Obviously, you guys aren’t quite ready for the real thing as I had thought.”
The young soldiers groaned in disappointment and moped their way over to the lockers at the far side of the room. Raiden pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket and bent down to dab the blood away from Timothy’s wound. The boy hissed at the sting and then let out a quiet groan as Raiden bound his thigh in the rag and pulled it tight to close the laceration.
“Mr. Slater, come pick up your wounded friend and take him down to the nurse. Then come right back. We’re focusing on close-quarters combat, today, and I don’t want you to miss out. Timothy, I know you’re a quick learner, so I’m sure this little hiatus won’t be a big deal for you.”
Darren came to Timothy’s side and offered a hand, pulling him up from the floor and providing him support as they hobbled out through the double doors.
Raiden watched as they went and then turned to the rest of his class with a stern look on his face. “All right, men. As you probably heard me say, today’s lesson will concern hand-to-hand combat as well as utilization of your SWUN’s blade. Both of these weapons are valuable tools in the battlefield and essential components to master if you are to maximize the superiority of your SWUNs.”
Raiden paced from left to right as he spoke, staring into the eyes of each student until they broke eye contact and looked down with unease. He could tell the confident from the submissive through this simple test. None of them could look at him for longer then a few seconds. None of them were ready yet.
Raiden reached an open hand out toward his audience, and a student in the front took the unspoken charge and quickly handed over his heavy plastic training SWUN. He threw the weapon into the air with a spin and caught it again with one hand on the grip and the other supporting the barrel. There was an air of confidence surrounding him as he handled it: a fluidity and ease in his motions that came only with years of experience. He trusted his hands to do what they knew best while his mind was allowed to focus on the more novel aspects of the situation.
“The first rule of close-quarter combat,” Raiden began, “is to always face your opponent.” He turned to face the group head on. “The second rule, and almost equally important, is to constantly be aware of your surroundings. Are there other enemies around? Are there weapons that you could use or that could be used against you? Are there any lustrous surfaces that could be utilized for seeing the environment behind you? These are all questions that you should be asking yourselves and answering within the first few seconds of a confrontation.”
As he spoke, Raiden tossed his weapon from one hand to the other, his eyes paying no attention as they stared into those of his students. “And rule three: always be prepared for an attack. Never let your guard down. Now, this isn’t to say you must always be tense with your hand on your weapon, but you must consistently have a plan of action, and you must keep this plan secreted from the eyes of your enemies. Feigning vulnerability can often be a useful tool in luring an adversary from hiding.”
Without warning, Raiden flipped a switch adjacent to the trigger and began an arcing swing of his weapon. At once, the blade sprang from within the barrel, extending an extra two feet and whistling as it sliced the air in its path. The student who had provided the weapon had barely blinked an eyelid before the blade dug itself into the center of his chest. He let out a yelp of surprise and fell backward to the ground, his hands flailing upward to grab for his heart. The other students jumped in alarm, scattering from the position of their fallen comrade.
“Rule number three, gentlemen: always be prepared for an attack.” Raiden walked to the side of the downed student, grabbing him by the hand and hauling him up from the padded floor. The young man forced an amused smile on his face and nodded, rubbing his sternum where the rubber blade had found its mark. “If this had been a real SWUN, I think we all know that Mr. Drewes here would not be smiling as much as he is now. I can’t be too hard on him, because the kind of reaction time necessary to counteract that blow can only come after much practice.
“But practice is what we’ll be doing here, gentlemen, and teaching you the skills necessary to defend yourselves from such assaults, and even deliver your own, will be my number one goal for the next few months.” Raiden retracted the rubber blade and handed the practice SWUN back over to its embarrassed owner. “Now, all of you partner up. I’m going to run you through some basic movements and give you each the opportunity to master both implementing and defending against those movements. When I feel you have done so, and that will not be today by any means, we will move on to some more advanced techniques.”
“You mean the kind you used to kill all those bank robbers back in the day?” The question reverberated from the opposite side of the gymnasium, causing the entire class to turn their heads toward its source.
Darren Slater was back from the nurse’s office, smiling as he strutted across the mats toward the others. “You know what I’m talking about, professor. We’ve all heard the stories.”
Raiden blinked away the sudden image of a man’s twisted face slipping free, like a ragged mask, from the cracked skull it once clung to, bleeding where a sniper round had just parted his cranial sutures and dropped him in a dead heap to drain. The vision passed, but the scorched, metallic smell of gunpowder still lingered in Raiden’s nostrils. Of course, he knew what Darren was referencing. It was a day of his life that would never end. It was a day of images—disturbing, violent, brimming with death—that endlessly replayed in his mind, intruding into his present at the most inopportune times to remind him of what he could do and how deeply into the realm of evil he could plunge. But he had been evil for good reason. He often needed to remind himself of that.
“I heard there were like 50 guys in masks with guns and knives and all that stuff,” Darren continued, “but they didn’t stand a chance against your SWUN. You killed every one of them and saved nearly a quarter of Fraq’s money from slipping into the wrong hands.”
As he finished speaking, a blanket of silence fell upon the room. The other students stood in astonishment at their classmate’s audacity. They weren’t sure if their professor would appreciate the topic very much. They were right.
Raiden stared rather blankly ahead, his mind drifting once again to that day, attempting to avoid the violent sights he had long repressed into his subconscious. Everyone turned their gaze to him now, awaiting his response. After a few moments of silence—which felt longer than the class, thus far—Raiden blinked the glaze of recollection from the surface of his eyes. “Actually, Mr. Slater, there were only 40 bank robbers. You heard 50, though? Hmmm, that’s just preposterous.”
His humor was forced, disguising the pain that flowed just beneath. He hid that pain from the others, but more so from himself. The students released their breaths of suspense with his words, relieved that their professor was not angry at the sudden mention of his historically brutal past.
“But to answer your question, Mr. Slater, yes. The techniques I will be teaching come from the same arsenal of tricks I used to prevent that crime, and I would hope that any of you, after this course, would be able to accomplish the same success in a similar situation.”
The soldiers lit up at the mention of such a prospect. They looked around, basking in the mutual eagerness of their fellow classmates. Raiden turned his back to the group and took a deep breath, surveying the room to decide how much space each pair of students would need to practice their sword fighting.
Private Drewes sprang from his place amongst the group and rushed the unsuspecting professor, his SWUN clutched before him with its blade hurtling forward to meet Raiden’s spine. Before contact was made, Raiden spun to the right and ducked down, bringing a leg out and along the floor in a sweeping kick that nearly flipped the cadet a full 360 degrees. Drewes hit the mat hard with his shoulder blades, his weapon flying free from his hands upon impact. He opened his eyes to the silhouette of his teacher looming above, the man’s heavy forearm across his chest and pushing him into the ground, the other arm wielding a knife that threatened to slice a flap in his throat.
Raiden was breathing rapidly in what seemed a sudden bout of rage. Drewes was breathing rapidly, but in utter fear for his life. Everyone looked on, shocked that their classmate had made such a daring advance but more so worried that their professor was about to end his life for it.
“Rule number one, professor,” Drewes managed to murmur from beneath the burly beast of a man.
Raiden took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His battlefield instincts had overtaken him. He fought the urge to rip the young man’s trachea out and throw it to the floor like a slinky. He’d done this before. The memory flashed like a taunt, a command. He needed to calm down. What the hell was he doing with a real blade up to his student’s throat?
Raiden threw a smile over his battle face and postured up, returning the knife to its sheath at his side. “You’re right, Mr. Drewes. But unfortunately for you, I know the game too well. Rule number three: you can look vulnerable, but always be ready. I read your eyes earlier. I had a feeling you may pull something.”
Drewes smirked and slid out from between the legs of his kneeling professor. He rose to his feet and brushed the dust from his pant legs. Raiden followed suit.
“But how did you know I was coming at you,” Drewes inquired. “I made sure to stay quiet and give you no warning. It’s like you have eyes in the back of your head.”
Everyone nodded in agreement. They were perplexed at the skills of their teacher. Raiden guffawed, turning to point at the far wall of the room where a trophy case stood, its contents shimmering in white light just beyond the glass plane. “Rule number two, of course. I saw you coming.” The others squinted as they stared at the case, eventually noticing their faint reflections in the glass and nodding in amazement. “Like I said before, gentlemen, I don’t expect you to be masters of these principles, just yet. In time, though, I’m confident that you will be.”
Raiden smiled as he looked out across the eager faces of his students. This was just what they needed to inspire their own progress. He could already see their spirits lifting in anticipation of greatness. “Now, as I said, partner up and spread out. We’ve still got quite a bit to do today. And just for the record,” he added, “the next one of you to come at me like that gets to dig trenches for two weeks while your fellow classmates learn how to kick some ass.” Private Drewes’ smile quickly twisted into a somber look of apprehension. “Don’t worry, Mr. Drewes. I’ll let you off this time since you helped to demonstrate all three rules. Next time, though, I won’t be so easy on you.”
“See you tomorrow, Professor Whitmore,” Darren shouted, waving as he walked through the swinging doors at the opposite end of the gym.
With the click of their shutting, Raiden collapsed to sit on a stack of mats against the wall. He was exhausted. Two hours of swinging heavy blades and yelling commands at the top of his lungs left his muscles aching and his voice slightly hoarse. He rested for a few minutes, thinking up the content of his next class and questioning the best ways to go about teaching it. A weak vibration in the pocket of his jacket snapped him out of thought. He grabbed the cell phone within and read the reminder to catch the snow tram in 15 minutes.
After turning the lights out and locking up, Raiden exited the building through the front doors and recovered his Snow Rockets from the bushes. It was nighttime now, and the glow of Arth and Calri cast shadows that dirtied the white expanse of snow before him. He felt like he was all alone within the world—no sounds, no people, no movement save for the fluttering leaves and swaying branches of the campus trees.
Actually, there was the wind to make noise, but it was a sound that most people did not notice. It was hushed, and cold, and ghostly, and it moved about on its own accord, without figure and without detection. Often, it could be seen for a fleeting moment when its feeble grasp managed to catch a tuft of snow and carry it along for an ephemeral flight. Its invisibility was the price it paid for its greed, the flakes of snow it kidnapped revealing to the eye its mysterious flux, its swirling flow.
Footsteps littered the ground, disappearing in areas of great activity and then, always, finding their way out again to trail the path of the individual that made them. There was no way to hide on Fraq, Raiden realized, because those tracks in the snow were reliably present, and it took but a keen eye for them to rat you out to your pursuer.
He slipped his skis on, pulled the remote from his coat pocket, and began to zoom down the slope that sat behind the SWUN facility. The trees were fairly thick on the hill, but the lower branches had been cut to allow for passage. Whenever he skied, he felt the urge to drift into a trancelike state where his body did everything and his mind thought nothing of it. When he took this way home, though, he had to fight that impulse. The branches were absent, but the trunks that remained could really cause some damage. Letting his mind wander could easily lead him to the hospital—or the funeral home, for that matter.
The trees flew past in a blur, each one screaming as it neared and then fading as he left it behind. It took nearly three minutes at high speed before he approached the bottom of the hill and could see the waiting tram stationed in the distance. Its whistle blew two quick notes that echoed through the bitter air and shook the snow from the surrounding tree boughs. Raiden felt the urgency of the tone, its sounding meant to inform of coming departure.
He rushed across the open field, ramping a frozen creek bed and drifting around an icy turn that brought him through the doors just as they began to shut. Quickly, he pressed the button on the remote to stop the engines of his Snow Rockets and then sat down to take them off and place them in his suitcase. It was a 10-minute ride on the snow tram, so he loosened the button on his collar and leaned back in his seat to relax.
There were only a few other passengers on the tram, all spaced out randomly about the cabin and minding their own business. Raiden looked to the far end where an elderly man shook with some kind of nervous system disease: the kind that came only after far too many years of living. The man met eyes with him and raised a wobbly salute in respect. Raiden smiled and returned the gesture.
For the remainder of the trip, he leaned his head against the cold window and looked out as the tram’s motion brought vibrations into his skull that nearly lulled him to sleep. His eyes opened and closed as he teetered from consciousness, shifting between images of the speeding tree line beyond and the blackness of his eyelids. This, in fact, was his customary means of passing the time. He wasn’t going to accidentally miss his stop.
As soon as it came, and the tram slowed to a halt, Raiden rose and stepped out onto the metal platform of the station. He continued on through a small arched walkway that led to the parking lot where his vehicle sat in its usual place. It was a short five-minute drive before the tracks of his tundra truck drove its tread into the snow of his uphill driveway. As he turned the engine off and reached to the passenger seat to gather his things, he could see his daughters’ little faces peaking out between the curtains of their front room. He jumped down from the monstrous vehicle and looked back toward the window again as the faces disappeared and left nothing but the fluttering curtains in their wake. Raiden chuckled and prepared for the ambush.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
Their screams were full with excitement as he entered into the front room and tossed his suitcase to the ground. He knelt with open arms to intercept their sprinting bodies, sucking them into a fatherly embrace and kissing each forehead. Today, he remembered, was Kristen’s turn to be kissed first. Yesterday it had been Katie’s. He had to make sure he was consistently fair in the attention he gave his daughters, because if he wasn’t, there would surely be a dispute over which twin was Daddy’s favorite.
“Mommy got us ice cream after school today!” Kristen exclaimed.
“Yeah, and I fell on the playground and scraped my knee. See?” Katie added, lifting up the leg of her pajama pants to show off her fluorescent pink bandage.
Raiden smiled. They were at that age where every sentence was a new conversation. It was that childish egocentrism that had them always thinking and talking about the world as it pertained to them personally, even if their thoughts were completely random.
Dinner was his favorite time. Not just because of Victoria’s cooking, but because of his daughters’ unrelenting story-telling. It was one non sequitur after the next—so confusing yet so entertaining. Every day, it was a challenge to leave. From the second he walked out the door, he could hardly wait to get back from work to play with them.
“Ouch,” he said, grabbing Katie’s leg to take a closer look. “But at least you have that pretty bandage. And ice cream, huh?” he said, turning to Kristen now. “That sounds really good. Did you save some for Daddy?”
“No. Mommy said that ice cream is the last thing you need.”
She and her sister giggled and poked at his belly, which wasn’t quite the six-pack it used to be but still, he thought, was nothing to be ashamed of. Victoria walked in from the kitchen, attracting his attention but not his daughters’, who were still teasing away at his stomach.
“I heard I can’t have any ice cream,” Raiden remarked. She laughed and walked over to greet him with a kiss. “You know I resent that?”
“I’m sorry, honey. We’ll get you some ice cream tomorrow if you really want some.”
He just smiled and rose to his feet, hugging her while his daughters continued to prod at his legs.
“Girls, stop poking your father and go sit at the table. Dinner’s ready.”
Raiden placed a palm on each of their heads and ruffled their pale blonde hair like a disc jockey scratching beats. They giggled and squirmed away, extending taunting tongues before scampering off into the kitchen.
Raiden leaned forward and gave his wife a quick peck. “Good timing. You’re amazing.” He shifted his eyes upward and began to sniff. “It smells delicious”
“It’s spaghetti and meatballs. The girls’ request.”
“Oooh, they know just what I like.”
Raiden grabbed his wife by the hand and walked with her to the table where Katie and Kristen were already seated in front of their steaming plates. Their eyes were fixed on the food, anxious as they waited for their parents to join. Raiden pulled the chair out for his wife—even after 10 years, the chivalry lingered—and grabbed the television remote as he took his own seat. As expected, the girls had been watching their favorite show, Izzy Wild.
Izzy was an ex-marine turned animal expert, and if his show’s title was meant to be a witty way of asking “Is he wild?” the answer was most definitely “Yes, wild and deranged.” The guy seemed fearless, whether he was wrestling with a 50-foot andromaconda or sneaking up on a full-grown snow lion in the midst of feeding.
Raiden liked to watch because he wanted to see when the guy would get hurt. His daughters just liked the animals. The fluffy ones, of course, were their favorite. But dinner time was not the venue for Izzy Wild. Raiden had a routine to uphold. He flipped from the show just as Izzy was entering an ice cave, the change much to his daughters’ dismay. They knew, though, that it was time for their daily dose of the evening news. Raiden felt it was important to keep up with current events and wanted to make sure his daughters got in the habit, as well
“Okay then,” he began. “Everyone say your prayers, and let’s dig in.”
Here was another concept he felt was vital. He refused to force religion on his family or to dictate the manner in which they communicated, or didn’t communicate, with God. He, himself, had grown up with a highly religious father who prayed aloud before every meal and made sure no one touched a single morsel of food until he had finished doing so. Raiden hadn’t thought it a bad thing, but he did sometimes want to say something completely different than what his father was communicating collectively for the family.
In light of his past experiences, Raiden figured it was best to teach his daughters how to pray and then allow them to do so in whatever way and at whatever time they chose. Of course, as tradition had it, he would propose prayer before each dinner, but whether they choose to do so was something he didn’t know and didn’t feel he needed to.
By the time he opened his eyes, his daughters were already devouring their meals and Victoria was just picking up her fork. He watched his savage daughters for a few moments, glanced across the table and met eyes with his wife—the two of them smiling in agreement that their children were cute yet voracious—and then picked up his fork and dug in. The news droned on in the background, Maria Lauriette speaking in her typical smooth, formal voice:
“Some fear it may be the beginnings of a second Rebirth. Others are saying it will float right past us to continue on into the depths of space. A majority of astronomers, though, are unsure what to expect from the incoming mass that made its way onto our radar only a dozen hours ago. Stay tuned as we talk with leading experts and explore the possibilities of this potentially-devastating development.”