Atriya was on his way up.
The boots on his feet struck hard against the mountain trail. His ruck, even as well packed as it was, still shifted ceaselessly on his back. Every muted bounce tugged his shoulders, sending small stabs and aches steadily throughout his body. His lungs burned as if he were holding his breath. Fatigue had slowly spread from his legs to his arms, even though his arms were under no strain. It was simply a measure of how hard he was pummeling the ground with the combined weight of his gear and his body.
He didn’t mind the pain. He was addicted to it, in a sense. Not the pain itself, but the validation it gave him. Each burning breath, each chafe of gear against his raw skin was assurance that he was strong. That he was tough. He deliberately picked the hardest, steepest trail every run; always filling his pack to the brim with huge bags of sand.
All of his life he’d been rewarded through his simple philosophy of refusing to be weak, of pushing himself as hard as he could. It was just a matter of course that the only way he did things was through pain and hardship. He didn’t reflect on it. When asked the occasional question about why he punished himself the way he did, the only answer he could produce was a blank look.
It was the only way he knew. For him, the only way that worked. Whether it was talent or luck that allowed him to push as hard as he did without injury or plateau, Atriya had never cared.
Insidiously though, that was starting to change. His curiosity and contemplative side had recently begun to interrupt the regulated march of his thought process. The timing of it was troublesome-he couldn’t afford to be distracted. The job was too important.
Because it wasn’t just in the outward sense that Atriya was ascending. His career was taking off as well. He was gaining acceptance as a competent member of the unit known as the Crusaders, an elite division of shooters within the Department of Enforcement. The guys in the unit openly mocked and disparaged the pompous sounding title of “Crusader,” and opted simply to call themselves “The Crew.” If they ran into former or active teammates outside of work, they would shorten it even further, dropping the word “the.” As in: “Hey, are you Crew?” Informal unit tee shirts sometimes referred to the organization with the macho phrase “The Wrecking Crew.”
He saw a plateau up ahead, where the trail leveled off. Summoning the last reserves of his energy, his boots churned against the dirt, smacking the ground mercilessly. He reached it drenched in sweat and gasping, feeling as if he was drowning even though he was on dry land, every ounce of his ruck transcribing into a unique pain that was a screaming mix of throbbing agony and paralyzing fatigue.
He paused at the leveled part of the trail, sucking in water from a bottle. He looked down to his right: The Crusader training compound lying at the bottom of the mountain. A series of squat, boxy buildings with the occasional comms array or obstacle course breaking up the drab, linear pattern of architecture. It was home.
Up towards his left lay a series of gentler, flatter trails that revealed an expansive view of what lay in the opposite direction of the compound and its surrounding city. Vast stretches of trees and lakes were visible from the higher parts of the trail. During off hours, a lot of compound staff made the hike further up to appreciate the scenery, but nobody actually went into those wilds. It was held by Dissidents.
Atriya rarely ran further than the plateau, so he never truly appreciated the sweeping perspective. He could sprint up the steeper grades faster than most could run at top speed on the flat sections, so he stuck with the hills.
The other reason he didn’t want to ascend further and take in the panorama was mental. It was his job to put Dissidents in the ground. Thinking of them got his blood boiling. When he was rucking, he wanted to stay steady. So good view or no, he opted not to interrupt the tentative peace he touched on during his runs with a visual reminder of the enemy. He found a welcome escape in his solo exercise, and refused to disturb it with thoughts of work. There was a time and place for that.
He looked back towards where he had come from, and noticed a Crew selection class approaching from a distance, rucking up the mountain as a loose column of two abreast. Normally he would race back down the trails and continue training, crushing himself in the weight room. But this time-for some reason-he decided to drop his pack and watch by the trail side, sipping his water.
Every now and then a small, inquisitive part of him took control. It was buried deep down and marked by intense curiosity. It enjoyed observing the interplay of the world and noting the layered, subtle connections that ran through it. He was rewarded with an inexplicably profound satisfaction from indulging his contemplative side, but also realized that it was a dangerous thing to entertain; it was a distraction from the task at hand. His job was to be a gunfighter, and indulging in speculative wonderment was dangerous. It led to a lack of focus. It kept him from killing as many Dissidents as possible.
Atriya counted heads. This class looked to be about twenty strong. They would probably drop another ten or so before moving on to Technical Phase. Typical selections started with around a thousand prospects. Nine excruciating weeks later, they ended with roughly ten survivors. The remaining guys would move on to train in the basic nuts-and-bolts skills of the actual profession.
Despite passing the first nine weeks-Commitment Phase-the harshness would continue, but the majority of it would be directed towards training to kill Dissidents, rather than weeding out the weak.
In Commitment, students began by mercilessly competing and hurting each other. The classes cannibalized themselves, in a sense. Animalistic brutality was always present in Crew life, threading its way through training from beginning to end, and infusing itself in the day to day job as well.
As the class grew from tiny dots on the trail below to distinguishable human figures, Atriya heard the instructor’s haranguing grow from far off and tiny needling to a steady drumbeat of insults and logical appeals asking why they were putting up with this shit. The instructor had no ruck, so while the other candidates destroyed themselves in an effort to keep pace, he chugged along at an easy jog.
It looked as if they had been going for a while. They clambered agonizingly up the trail, close enough to where Atriya could clearly make out their expressions. Their pace was barely a shuffle, their mouths were slack with exhaustion; eyes glazed and unfocused. There were two that were having a hard time keeping up, and they were getting the entirety of the instructor’s love. Stragglers. In training, stragglers were the enemy.
“Bottom ten percent,” Atriya could hear the class’s tormentor sneering at the two. “What the fuck.” The verbal abuse would frequently be accented by a forceful smack to the back of a head, or a half-push, half-punch to their packs or their arms. The worst was when he wound up and threw a vicious kick at a randomly chosen pair of straining legs. Agony on top of agony.
He called a halt to the ragged group, and they stopped. Outwardly, they looked dumb and slow. Lazy. Atriya knew though, having been in their place, that it was a result of the accumulated abuse. That their hearts-even while sleeping-were racing abnormally fast from the unrelenting grind. That their once trustworthy bodies felt traitorous; becoming awkward and alien-feeling collections of fatigue, pain, and rawness. That every action that was normally doable required extra scrutiny to make sure it didn’t cause them to give out or collapse because of the perpetual strain having made their muscles unreliable. It felt like they were in a never-ending series of sprints, each one making them weaker and clumsier.
Atriya recognized the instructor as a Crew operator named Clement. Good on the gun. Not much of a personality.
Clement addressed the two, arms crossed, “I have a special treat for you motherfuckers. Extra incentive, you might say. See Candidate 382 up front? Since you fucks aren’t pulling your weight, one of you is going to buddy carry him while the other shitbag is going to handle his ruck. 382 has been pulling his weight, so he deserves a break. You pieces of shit are going to put in some extra work, to make up for your slacking. If you can keep pace for two minutes with the added load, then I’ll let the whole class drop rucks and sit for ten minutes. If not….well, you know what comes next.”
He took a step back. His head canted slightly and he addressed the rest of the group, “Any fucker who falls back will join these weaklings in their misery. Keep the fuck up.”
The pair of stragglers looked at each other dumbly, steam rising off their uniforms. A resigned dread had crept into their dead eyes, but hearing the announcement they both straightened, a pitiful hope registering in their clammy, drenched expressions. Out of the far corners of his mind, Atriya noticed that one of the two bore a strong resemblance to him.
They loaded up with the extra weight. The Atriya look-a-like was assigned the buddy carry. Heavier, but more stable. The candidate with the extra ruck had less weight, but less stability. The pack was positioned on the front of his body and its main straps were already threatening to slide off his arms because they were designed to pull against the front of the shoulders, not the back of them. It was only by gripping some bunched up storage pockets on the fore of the gear that he was able to keep it in place. The bottom part, the lower piece of the frame, pressed against the top of his hips, cutting his stride short. He couldn’t lean forward as easily either. He needed to stay upright to keep both rucks in place. All of this mercilessly combined to cut down on the efficiency of his running form.
Instructor Clement looked on implacably, his mouth etching a hard, blank line across his face. His eyes were covered with menacing looking sunglasses, giving him an inhuman, robotic appearance.
The class wordlessly realigned and neatened their formation, uniformly spacing themselves out. They were wrung out, barely able to think, but training had made this reflexive. They would endure brutal hardship that made them ragged and disorganized, but as soon as they had a moment’s reprieve, they were expected to straighten themselves and their gear. All the while knowing that the result of their effort was going to fall apart and they would have to do it all over again. Thinking about the futility was maddening. Their idealistic efforts to rebuild order and organization never ceased, stretching into infinity. Their suffering seemed endless.
The two stragglers took their place in the back, one hoisting 382 in a fireman’s carry, the other adjusting the extra ruck through his arms, anchoring it as best he could on the front of his torso. With one ruck on his back and the other on his front, he had the silhouette of having a giant shell protruding from his body in either direction if viewed from the side. The rest of the men’s rough, mindless breathing was audible as their tormentor took his place at the head of the formation and set the timer on his wrist holo for two minutes.
The instructor took off at a light jog. Violent rustling from bouncing packs filled the air as the class pounded the trails to keep pace. While Clement was moving at an easy clip, it was an all-out sprint for the burdened and exhausted candidates. Their collective breathing roughened, and their panting harshened into pained braying that wounded the serene mountain air.
The two stragglers bowed forward with the extra weight. Their mouths were wide open, forcefully shoving out big plumes of moisture with each excruciating exhale. Their eyes were sightlessly intent on the boots of the man in front of them. Exertion caused their already reddened faces to take on an alarming flush, giving them the appearance of being severely sunburned.
Thirty seconds. The two stayed close, nothing showing on their faces but effort.
Sixty seconds. The additional weight became apparent as they started to stumble and trip. They began grunting and moaning, every now and then letting loose a short, defiant yell, trying to summon any last bit of aggression in their bodies to help bear the load. The one carrying the second ruck was hanging on to it by gripping the bunched-up folds of the pockets alone; the unrelenting jostling had caused the loops of the main straps to completely slide off his shoulders.
Seventy-five seconds. While the rest of the class’s breathing had a steady, grating quality to it, the men bearing the added mass exhibited beet-red faces that exploded with moans and huge, sucking gasps as numbness spread throughout their bodies. Dread sprang up in their eyes as they saw a short gap appear between them and the rest of the students. Clement’s head quickly swiveled back, then forward, noting the gap. He picked up the pace.
Ninety seconds. The gap widened. The two of them knew, and so did Clement: They weren’t going to make it. The gap was too big. Their eyes were sick with despair.
Two minutes. Beeping from the wrist holo filled the air. It sounded like the crowing of a playground bully. The doomed pair were unacceptably far back. Not just stragglers now, but failures as well. The candidate assigned the buddy carry, the one who resembled Atriya, turned one of his ankles and fell.
Legs were normally springs; muscles, tendons, and ligaments worked together to partially recycle the energy of each step. For the man doing the buddy carry, exhaustion had turned his legs into dumb, untrustworthy weights. Nothing spring-like about them. Each step required him to spend the familiar effort of lifting a leg, but also the unfamiliar effort of making sure it didn’t collapse after he put it down. He had finally reached the limits of his energy and caved abruptly, like a puppet with its strings suddenly cut. The disturbed dust of the mountain trail blew upwards in a quick puff as he smacked face first onto the ground and 382 tumbled off his back. He lay on the dirt, too tired and beaten to register emotion on his face. It was impossible to tell if he cared. The only thing certain was that he was done.
The sweaty and beaten down group had reached Atriya’s perch on the plateau. They were uncomfortably close and he had trouble watching the whole scene, so he picked up his ruck and moved back a few meters. He dropped his gear and sat on it, resuming his observation. He knew what was coming next. It was Crew tradition. There was something ancient and timeless about it.
The instructor called a halt and rallied the men around both failures. The one with the extra pack had shucked it and was sucking in air with his hands on his knees, barely conscious. The student who had been carrying 382 was face down on the ground, legs visibly quivering. He was so spent that the act of laying on the soil and breathing took all that he had.
A dirty, malicious smile bloomed on Clement’s face. This was the only time in selection where the training cadre showed joy. It was the only time where the class was allowed to show it as well.
He gave the order, “Drop rucks!”
Wordlessly, the class peeled off their rucks and organized them into two neat rows by the side of the road. With fear and adrenaline leaving their bodies, they moved like old men. They took short, choppy steps and hunched over-trying to keep the chafing to a minimum and exert as little energy as possible. Their faces drooped blankly. Relief coursed through their bodies from shedding the weight.
Clement didn’t yell, but he spoke with a raised voice, demanding everyone’s attention, “What’s the Crew motto?”
“I am the mission.” They responded in dull unison.
“What are these two, who refuse to carry their weight?”
“Obstacles to the mission.”
“What are obstacles?”
“Show me what you do to the enemy.”
The men shambled toward the pitiful forms, who were now lying on the ground, breathing rapid and shallow. They began kicking the failures weakly at first, but more viciously as they recovered from the grueling run. The two on the ground didn’t care. They knew what was coming. They themselves had done it to others who couldn’t keep up. They accepted their fate.
Members of the class started smiling and laughing, whooping it up. The relief from not having to shoulder a ruck was the only thing flooding their minds. The men on the ground mumbled and grunted in pain as punishment rained down on them. The one who had been carrying the ruck coughed up pink flecks and streamlets of dark blood. Internal bleeding. The instructor looked on, approving. He walked closer to inspect the ongoing beating.
“Keep going. I want to hear some bones crack. Cripple these motherfuckers.”
The class picked up the tempo, boots coming down in one earnest thrust after another. The man who had taken the ruck was drooling blood. He let out a pained yell as somebody stomped his elbow, catching it at the joint while it was straightened. A crack shot through the air. They stopped briefly, with the air of handymen pausing to admire their work.
“Good job,” the instructor said. “That one’s done. Get to work on the other one.”
The mob crowded around the one who resembled Atriya. At first they rained down blows furiously, but heard nothing except muffled and tired groans from the victim. Then they started aiming deliberate strikes at weak spots. Nothing was breaking. They were becoming frustrated. So was Clement.
“Hey fuckers, if you guys don’t break something, then you don’t get the second part of your relief. And instead of regular rucking, we’ll do buddy carry races for the next hour. Hurt this motherfucker.”
The class was a little dumbfounded at the man’s resilience. Atriya was baffled as well. The instructor too, but he didn’t show it.
They paused to organize their efforts. One man held the failure down, so the full force of each blow would be completely absorbed. Others hyperextended his limbs so the joints would be extra vulnerable.
With the body positioned and secured, candidates started winding up and taking their best, cruelest shots. It didn’t take long before three of the joints, an elbow and both knees, popped sickeningly. With what energy he had left, the man on the ground screamed. It came out as a lazy sounding moan. Without the context of exhaustion and abuse, it would have almost seemed comical.
Clement had been watching the process with a frown, disappointed at the man’s resilience. As the pops rang through the air, his frown relaxed, re-forming into a smile. He sauntered close to the crippled man, hands in his pockets. He knelt down and spoke conversationally.
“Hey man, you hear about those cold-hearted fucks that wouldn’t piss on you if you were covered in flames? Well you’re in luck, friend. Because we’re not them.”
The class howled in laughter. It wasn’t funny per se; they had heard the joke thousands of times, as each candidate that failed to keep up was given the same treatment, but their relief at temporarily dropping their rucks made it hilarious.
Clement stood up and unbuttoned the fly of his trousers, letting urine fly on to the face of the beaten lump that used to be part of the class. He made a great display of sighing and smiling in relief, and the men laughed harder. After he was done he shook off, making an exaggerated show of it, which got a few extra chuckles. Everybody was in a good mood when the instructor was. And instructor cadre were always in a good mood when there were failures.
“Line up gents!” He addressed them again. “Piss break!”
Two neat rows formed. One for each of the stragglers. Lining up, the mob took turns pissing on both of them. The men on the ground turned their bloody, swollen faces to the side while dark, smelly brown streaks of urine arced through the air onto their bodies.
The remaining candidates were in a good mood, laughing at the misfortunes of their former classmates. Their loss was the class’s gain. Failing selectees meant that the class got to relieve themselves, of their rucks as well as in the literal sense.
The instructor finally acknowledged Atriya’s presence, turning his head to his seat towards the side of the trail, “Atriya, you want in on this?”
He got up and walked over, even though he strangely didn’t feel like participating, “Got to uphold tradition.” He said this with an enthusiasm that he didn’t feel.
The last man had finished relieving himself. Atriya replaced him, taking his rightful spot, standing over one of the prone forms. He unbuttoned his fly, relaxed his muscles and took aim, waiting expectantly. Nothing came. This disturbed him deeply for some reason, but the only outward expression he showed was a furrowing of his brow.
What the fuck? I’ve been sipping water all day.
Clement called out to him, “What’s taking so fucking long? Don’t worry about us. We won’t reveal how small your dick is.” Laughter from the class.
Atriya covered it up smoothly with a joke. “It’s the exact opposite. I can hear all you fuckers smacking your lips and salivating over this luscious penis. I can’t relax knowing that all of you are barely restraining yourselves from chugging this amazing cock.”
They howled in laughter, even the instructor letting loose a few chuckles. Atriya finally buttoned up, unable to relieve himself. He covered up his consternation with another joke. “Get the fuck out of here. Your hungry-ass meat gazing makes me too nervous to piss.” A few trailing laughs were his response.
The order cut through the air: “Ruck up, fuckers. Time to get moving.” Another mean smile. Like a slick, underhanded stab. “There’s still almost twenty of you. About half of you guys are going to get what you just gave.”
There was an almost inaudible groan as the remainder of the men staggered to their rucks, getting ready to be fed back into the cycle of suffering. They lifted the sweat and dirt crusted packs up and on to themselves, primed to begin the agony anew.
The instructor keyed his wrist holo and spoke into it. “Command. Requesting med pickup for two.” There was a slightly static-threaded reply and he nodded, apparently satisfied. He turned again to the class, which had already formed back up. They took off at a steady pace, leaving the crippled and humiliated failures where they lay. A steady rustling filled the air as rucks jostled with each choppy strike of their feet.
Atriya watched them leave. He had seen the insides of people strewn about like garbage. He had pushed himself through mind bending pain. He had been through the most brutal and demanding training on the planet. For some reason, his inability to piss on a failed candidate, something he had done thousands of times, disturbed him more deeply than anything he could remember. And he couldn’t figure out why.
He raced back down the mountain, trying not to think about it.
Here’s a link to the author’s notes for chapter 1: Chapter 1 Author’s Notes