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 throughout his body. His lungs burned as if he were holding his breath. Fatigue had spread from his legs to his arms, even though his arms were under no strain. The exhaustion was simply a measure of how hard he was pummeling the ground with the combined weight of gear and body.
He didn’t mind the pain. In a way, he was addicted to it. Not the pain itself, but the validation it gave him. Each burning breath, each chafe of gear against his raw skin—every ounce of discomfort was an assurance that he was strong. That he was tough. He deliberately picked the hardest, steepest trail every run. And he always filled his pack to the brim with densely packed 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 he did it 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 condescending scoff or a blank look.
It was the only way he knew. For him, it was 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 however, 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’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 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?” Unit tee shirts sometimes referred to the organization with the macho label “The Wrecking Crew.”
He saw a plateau up ahead, where the trail leveled off. He summoned the last reserves of his energy, churning his boots against the dirt, smacking the ground roughly with his feet. He reached his break-point drenched in sweat, gasping, feeling as if he was drowning even though he was on dry land. Every ounce of his ruck was transcribed into a unique pain that was a mix of screaming 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. 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, as well as the small stretch of city surrounding its perimeter. Vast stretches of trees and lakes were visible from the higher parts of the trail. During off hours, a goodly amount of compound staff made the hike further up to appreciate the scenery, but nobody actually went into those wilds. It’d be beyond foolish; that territory was held by Dissidents.
Atriya rarely ran further than the plateau, so he never truly appreciated the sweeping perspective that summiting the mountain might have granted him. But why would he? He could sprint up the steeper, lower-lying grades faster than most could sprint on the flat sections of mountain, so he stuck with the stretches of mountain that were closer to earth.
The other reason he didn’t want to ascend further was purely 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 in a loose column of two abreast. Normally, he would race back down the trails and continue training by crushing himself in the weight room. But this time—for some reason—he decided to drop his pack and watch by the trailside while he sipped his water.
Every now and then a small, inquisitive part of him—one that was buried deep and marked by intense curiosity—took control. That part of him enjoyed watching 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. Indulging in speculative wonderment was dangerous. It led to a lack of focus and 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 channeled into their training—which, when you got right down to it, was to kill Dissidents—rather than weeding out the weak.
In Commitment, students were thrown in to a world of merciless competition, where hurting and crippling each other was standard procedure. In a very real sense, each class cannibalized itself. This was to be expected—animalistic brutality was forever present in Crew life, threading its way through training from beginning to end. It infused 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, tiny-sounding needling to a steady drumbeat of insults, occasionally interspersed with logical appeals that demanded to know why the students 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.
They clambered agonizingly up the trail, close enough to where Atriya could clearly make out their expressions. It looked as if they had been going for a while. Their pace was barely a shuffle, and their mouths were slack with exhaustion. Each man’s eyes were glazed and unfocused. There were two that were having a hard time keeping up, and the pair of them were getting the entirety of the instructor’s love.
Stragglers. In training, stragglers were the enemy.
“Bottom ten percent,” Atriya heard the class’s tormentor sneer. “What the fuck.” The verbal abuse would oftentimes 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 random pair of legs. Agony on top of agony.
He called a halt, and the ragged group stopped in their tracks. Outwardly, they looked dumb and slow. Lazy. Atriya knew though, having been in their place, that this was a result of the accumulated abuse that they’d been forced to endure. He knew that their hearts—even while sleeping—were racing abnormally fast from the unrelenting grind. He knew that their once trustworthy bodies felt traitorous; their limbs and joints had become awkward collections of fatigue, pain, and rawness. He knew that every action that might normally be considered doable required extra scrutiny to make sure that it didn’t cause the students to give out or collapse—a real possibility, considering that the perpetual strain had made their muscles unreliable. He knew that 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 stragglers, 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 one handles 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 slacking the fuck off. 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 upward 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 gave each other dumb looks, steam rising off their uniforms. A resigned dread had crept into their deadened eyes, but upon hearing the instructor’s announcement they both straightened, and a pitiful hope registered in their clammy, drenched expressions. Atriya noticed that one of the two bore a strong resemblance to him.
The stragglers 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—the straps 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 front of the ruck 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. Because he needed to stay upright in order to keep both rucks in place, he couldn’t lean forward as easily. All of this 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 a robotic appearance.
Without speaking, the class realigned and neatened their formation, spacing themselves out in the process. 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 their gear out, and then themselves. All the while knowing that the result of their effort was going to fall apart and they would have to do it again. And again. And 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, his silhouette bore a slight resemblance to a double-shelled turtle. One shell for his front, and one for his back. The rest of the men’s rough, mindless breathing filled the air as their Clement took his place at the head of the formation. He 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. While Clement was moving at an easy clip, it was an all-out sprint for the burdened and exhausted candidates. Their collective breathing roughened. 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, forcing out big plumes of moisture with each grueling 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 the two started to stumble and trip. They began grunting and moaning, every now and then letting loose a short, defiant yell and trying to summon any aggression they could to help them 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 slide completely 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 gasps. 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 now 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. Each step required him to spend the familiar effort of lifting a leg, but also the unfamiliar one of making sure that it didn’t collapse after he put it back down. This man’s time was up; he had reached the limits of his energy and caved abruptly, like a puppet with its strings 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. The straggler who’d been carrying 382 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 of the failures. The one with the extra pack had shucked it and was sucking in air with his hands on his knees, barely conscious at this point. 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 a neat, double-row of packs by the side of the road. With the fear and adrenaline gone from their bodies, they now moved like old men. They took short, choppy steps and stayed hunched over; their best attempt at trying to keep the chafing to a minimum and exert as little energy as possible. Their expressions were blank, their features drooped from their faces. Showing emotion at this point took too much energy. They were too caught up in the relief coursing through their bodies from having shed 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 their recent exertion. 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, and this surprised no one. What was about to happen was nothing out of the ordinary; it was expected.
Members of the class started smiling and laughing, whooping it up. The relief from not having to shoulder a ruck was the flooded their minds, pushing out other thoughts. The men on the ground mumbled and grunted as punishment rained down on them. The one who had been carrying the ruck coughed up pink flecks and dark streamlets of blood. Internal bleeding.
The instructor looked on, nodding approvingly. He walked closer to inspect the progress of 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 now 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 a storm of blows, but were rewarded by nothing from their victim aside from muffled grunts and tired moans. Then they started aiming deliberate strikes at weak spots. No breaks. They were becoming frustrated, and 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 carries for the next hour. Buddy carry races. So hurt this motherfucker.”
The class was a little dumbfounded by the man’s resilience. Atriya was baffled as well. The instructor too, but he didn’t show it.
They paused to reorganize 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—broke with sickening pops. With what little energy he had left, the man on the ground screamed. It came out as a lazy sounding groan. Without the context of exhaustion and abuse, the noise 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, and reformed 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 having dropped their rucks made the statement temporarily 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 Clement 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 declared with jovial authority. “Piss break!”
Two lines formed—one for each straggler. Once everyone had fallen in, the mob took turns pissing on both failures. The men on the ground turned their bloody, swollen faces to the side while dark brown streaks of urine arced through the air and 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 towards the side of the trail where the Crusader was watching from. “Atriya, you want in on this?”
Atriya got up and walked over. And even though he didn’t feel like participating (which he knew was strange; this was a scene he’d witnessed—and been a part of—countless times), said, “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. He paused and waited expectantly. Nothing came. This disturbed him deeply, but the only sign of it was the 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 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 cock.”
They howled in laughter, and even Clement let loose with 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.
Clement’s next order cut through the air: “That’s a badged Crusader that’s talking to you, fuckers. Ruck up. It’s 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, once again primed to dive into agony.
The instructor keyed his wrist holo and spoke into it. “Command. Requesting med pickup for two.” His console barked out a 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 the choppy drumbeat 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