Atriya was on his way up.
The boots on his feet struck hard against the trail. His ruck, as well packed as it was, still shifted ceaselessly on his back. Every bounce tugged at his shoulders, sending 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 whatsoever. The exhaustion was simply a measure of how hard he was pummeling the ground with the combined weight of his gear and his body.
He embraced 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 skin—every ounce of discomfort assured him he was strong. That he was tough. During his runs, he would pick the hardest, steepest trail available. And he always made it a point to fill his pack with the densest, heaviest sandbag he could find.
All throughout his life, he’d been rewarded by sticking to a simple philosophy: refuse to be weak. Push as hard as you can. Pain and hardship were not only inevitable, they made you stronger. Fuck everything else. What didn’t make you stronger wasn’t just useless—it was a waste of time.
Occasionally, someone would ask him why he punished himself as harshly as 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 and avoid injury or plateau, Atriya had never cared.
That, however, was starting to change. His contemplative side had begun to interrupt the regulated march of his thought process. The timing of it was troublesome—he couldn’t afford distractions. The job was too important.
Atriya wasn’t just ascending in the physical sense; his career was taking off as well. He was gaining acceptance as a member of the Crusaders, an elite division of shooters within the Department of Enforcement. The guys in the unit openly mocked 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?”
He saw a plateau up ahead, where the trail leveled off. He summoned the last of his energy, churning his boots against dirt. He reached the break-point drenched in sweat, gasping, feeling like he was drowning even though he was on dry land. Every ounce of his ruck was transcribed into a unique pain: a mix of screaming agony and paralyzing fatigue.
He paused at the leveled part of the trail and sucked water from a bottle. He looked down to his right and saw the Crusader training compound at the base of the mountain: a series of squat, boxy buildings with the occasional comms array or obstacle course breaking up the drab, linear patterns of architecture.
Up towards his left lay a series of gentler, flatter trails that revealed an expansive view of forest-ringed lakes on the side of the mountain that was opposite the compound. During off hours, a good amount of compound staff would hike past the plateau to appreciate the scenery, but nobody explored those wilds. It would be beyond foolish; that territory was held by Dissidents.
Atriya didn’t run past the plateau—ever—so he never got a chance to appreciate the view. Why should he? He could run up the steeper, lower-lying grades faster than most could sprint on the higher, flatter sections. The lower trails were a better workout, which meant that the upper trails were an indulgence, a waste of time.
The other reason he didn’t want to venture up there was purely mental. It was his job to kill Dissidents. Thinking of them got his blood boiling. So regardless of the view, he opted not to interrupt the tentative peace he found during his runs with a visual reminder of the enemy. He experienced a welcome escape in his solo exercise, and refused to disturb it with thoughts of work.
He looked back towards where he’d come from, and noticed a Crew Selection class approaching from a distance, rucking in a loose column of two abreast. After reaching the plateau, he would usually race down the trails and proceed to crush himself in the weight room. But this time—for some reason—he decided to drop his pack, sip some water, and watch the class.
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 noting the layered, subtle connections that ran through the world. He was rewarded with a profound satisfaction from indulging his contemplative side, but also realized that it was potentially dangerous; it could easily lead to a lack of focus.
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 men (occasionally a woman) would move on to train in the nuts-and-bolts skills of being a Crusader.
Despite passing the first nine weeks—Commitment Phase—the harshness would continue. The majority of it, however, would be channeled into training rather than weeding out the weak.
In Commitment, students were thrown into a world of merciless competition, where hurting and crippling each other was standard procedure. In a very real sense, each class would cannibalize itself. This was to be expected—animalistic brutality was forever present in the life of a Crusader; it was threaded throughout training from beginning to end, and also infused in the day-to-day job.
As the class grew from dots on the trail to distinguishable outlines, Atriya heard the instructor’s haranguing grow from far-off needling to a steady drumbeat of insults, interspersed with appeals demanding to know why the students were putting up with this shit. The instructor had no ruck, so while the candidates destroyed themselves in an effort to keep up, he chugged along at an easy jog.
They clambered up the trail, close enough to where Atriya could make out faces. Their pace was barely a shuffle, and their mouths were slack with exhaustion. There were two that were having a harder time than the rest, and they were getting the entirety of the instructor’s love.
Stragglers. In training, stragglers were the enemy.
“Bottom ten percent,” the instructor sneered. “What the fuck.”
The verbal abuse was a nonstop thing, and often punctuated by a smack to the face, 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.
The instructor called a halt, and the ragged group stopped in its 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 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 and rawness. He knew that every action—an action that might normally be considered doable—required extra scrutiny to insure that limbs or spines didn’t give out. 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 stragglers, arms crossed. “Hey fuckers, I’ve got a treat for you. 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 handles his ruck. 382’s 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 fucking slacking. If you can keep pace for two minutes with the added load, then I’ll let the class drop rucks and sit for twenty minutes. If not…well, you know what comes next.”
He took a step back. His head canted upward and he addressed the rest of the group: “Any shitbag that falls back will join these weaklings in their misery. Keep the fuck up.”
The pair of stragglers gave each other dumb looks, steam rising from their uniforms. A resigned dread had entered their eyes, but upon hearing the instructor’s announcement they both straightened, and pitiful hope registered in their clammy 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 threatened to slide off his arms—the straps were designed to pull against the front of his shoulders, not the backs. It was only by gripping a pair of bunched up storage pockets on the front of the ruck that he was able to anchor it in place. The bottom part—the lower piece of the frame—pressed against the top of his hips, cutting his steps short. Because he needed to stay upright in order to keep ahold of both rucks, he couldn’t lean forward. All of this combined to cut down on the efficiency of his stride.
Instructor Clement looked on implacably, his mouth etching a hard line across his face. His eyes were covered with menacing sunglasses, giving him a cruel, robotic appearance.
Without speaking, the class realigned and neatened their formation. They were wrung out, barely able to think, but training had made this reflexive. They would endure brutal hardship that threw them into chaos, 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 results of their toil were going to fall apart, and that they would have to repeat themselves again and again. Their efforts to maintain order never ceased, and stretched endlessly into infinity. Their suffering seemed eternal.
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 vague resemblance to a double-shelled turtle. One shell on his front, one on his back.
Clement took his place at the head of the column. He set the timer on his wrist holo and began jogging.
The sound of rustling packs filled the air. While Clement was moving at an easy clip, it might as well have been an all-out sprint for the burdened candidates. Their breathing harshened into pained braying. To Atriya, the sound seemed starkly out of place amidst the sun-kissed trails and the whispering trees.
The two stragglers bowed forward with the extra weight. Their mouths were open wide, forcing out plumes of moisture with each exhale. Their eyes were sightlessly intent on the boots of the man to their front. Their already-reddened skin adopted an alarming flush, causing them to look severely sunburned.
Thirty seconds. The two stayed close, their faces tight with desperation.
Sixty seconds. The additional weight became apparent as the two began to stumble and trip. Grunts and moans burst from their lips, and occasionally one of them would let loose with a defiant yell, trying to summon any aggression he could in order to help bear the load. The one carrying the extra ruck was hanging on to it by gripping the bunched-up folds of the front-side pockets; the jostling had caused the main straps to slide completely off his shoulders.
Seventy-five seconds. While the rest of the students’ breathing had a steady, grating quality to it, the men bearing the added mass were exploding with gasps. Dread blossomed in their eyes as they saw a short gap appear between them and the others.
Clement looked over his shoulder, noted the gap, and picked up the pace.
Ninety seconds. The gap widened. The stragglers weren’t going to make it.
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 an ankle and fell.
Legs were normally springs; muscles, tendons, and ligaments worked together to partially recycle the energy of every step. For the man doing the buddy carry, exhaustion had turned his legs into dumb, unresponsive weights. He had to spend the familiar effort of lifting a leg, but also the unfamiliar one of making sure that it didn’t collapse once he put it back down.
The man’s time was up; he had reached the limits of his energy and caved like a marionette that had just had its strings cut. The dust of the mountain trail blew upwards in a quick puff as his face smacked the ground and 382 tumbled off his back.
The beaten-down group had reached Atriya’s perch on the plateau. They were uncomfortably close, so he picked up his ruck and moved back a dozen feet. He dropped his gear and sat on it, resuming his observation. He knew what was coming. It was Crew tradition.
The instructor called a halt and rallied the men around the failures. The one with the extra pack had shucked it, and was now sucking air with his hands on his knees, barely conscious. The student who’d been carrying 382 was facedown on the ground, legs quivering.
A malicious smile bloomed on Clement’s face. This was the only time in Selection where the training cadre would demonstrate joy.
Clement gave the order: “Drop rucks!”
The class peeled off their rucks and organized them into a neat, double-row of packs by the side of the trail. Now that their fear and adrenaline were cycling down, they moved like old men. They took short, choppy steps and walked with a pronounced hunch; their best attempt at trying to keep the chafing to a minimum and exert as little energy as possible.
Clement spoke with a raised voice, demanding everyone’s attention: “What’s the Crew motto?”
In dull unison: “I am the mission.”
“What are these two, who refuse to carry their weight?”
“And what are obstacles?”
“Show me what you do to the enemy.”
The men shuffled over to the failures and began kicking them. Weakly at first, but with increasing savagery as they recovered from their sprint. Members of the class began smiling and laughing, whooping it up. The relief from dropping their rucks had flooded their minds and pushed out all other thoughts.
The men on the ground mumbled and groaned as punishment rained down on them. The one who had been carrying the extra ruck coughed up dark streamlets of blood.
The instructor looked on, nodding approvingly. He walked closer so he could get a better look.
“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. One of the failures was now drooling blood. He let out a pained yell as someone stomped his elbow, catching it at the joint while it was straightened. A harsh crack shot through the air.
The students stopped, assuming the air of handymen admiring their work.
“Good job,” the instructor said. “That one’s done. Get to work on the other.”
The mob crowded around the one that resembled Atriya. At first they rained down a storm of blows, but were rewarded with little more than muffled grunts. Then they started taking deliberately aimed shots. Still nothing. They were getting frustrated, and so was Clement.
“Hey fuckers, if you guys don’t break something, we’ll do buddy carry races for the next two hours. So hurt this motherfucker.”
They paused to reorganize their efforts. One man pinned the failure, so that the full force of each blow would be completely absorbed. Others hyperextended his limbs and propped them onto rucks, ensuring that his joints would be extra vulnerable.
With the failure’s body positioned and secured, candidates wound up and took their best, cruelest shots. It didn’t take long before three joints—an elbow and both knees—broke with sickening pops. The failure screamed, but it came out as a lazy moan. Without the context of exhaustion and abuse, the noise might have been 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 into a smile. He sauntered closer to the failure, knelt down, and spoke in a conversational tone:
“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 with laughter. It wasn’t funny per se; they had heard the joke thousands of times as every straggler was beaten and crippled, but their relief at having dropped their rucks made the statement temporarily hilarious.
The instructor stood up, unbuttoned his trousers, and let urine fly on to the face of the man by his feet. Clement hammed it up, sighing and groaning, and the men laughed harder. Once he was done he made an exaggerated show of shaking off, which got a few extra chuckles. Everybody was in a good mood when the instructor was. And instructors were always in a good mood when there were failures.
He turned to the class. “Line up! Piss break!”
Two lines formed. Once everyone had fallen in, the mob took turns pissing on both failures. The conquered men turned their bloody, swollen faces to the side as dark 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 experience relief from the weight of their rucks, and in the literal sense as well.
The instructor turned to Atriya. “You want in on this?”
Atriya got up and walked over. 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 before), he said, “Got to uphold tradition.”
The last man finished, and Atriya replaced him. He unbuttoned his fly, relaxed his muscles, and took aim. He waited expectantly. Nothing came. For some reason this disturbed him deeply, but his only admission of it was the furrowing of his brow.
What the fuck? I’ve been sipping water all day.
Clement called out, “What’s taking so long? Don’t worry about us—we won’t tell anyone 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 my amazing cock.”
They howled in laughter, and even Clement chuckled a bit. Atriya buttoned up, unable to relieve himself. He covered his consternation with another joke. “Get out of here. Your hungry-ass meat gazing makes me too nervous to piss.”
Clement turned to the class. “That’s a Crusader addressing you, motherfuckers. Ruck up—time to get moving.” His smile was pure malevolence—like a slick, underhanded stab. “There’s still almost twenty of you. About half of you are going to get what you just gave.”
There was a low-voiced groan as the men staggered to their rucks, readying themselves to re-enter the cycle of suffering. They lifted sweat-darkened packs onto their backs, primed to dive into agony once more.
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 in response.
The class took off, leaving the crippled failures where they lay. A steady rustle filled the air as rucks jostled along, accented by the choppy drumbeat of booted 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 completed some of the most brutal and demanding training on the planet. For some reason, his inability to piss on a failed candidate—something he’d done hundreds of times—distressed him more than anything he could remember.
And he couldn’t figure out why.
He raced 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