Humanity is an incredibly tenacious species: they survived the atomic bomb, the second ice age, five world wars and the destruction of their planet.
Yet…humanity is also an incredibly self-destructive species: they brought about the atomic bomb, the second ice age, five world wars and the destruction of their planet. All because of their insatiable drive to rule everything with technology and weapons – including themselves.
10 years A.C. – “After Colonization” – on a new planet: Earth is now but a distant memory of the past, and Earthen history has been all but lost. Humanity had forgotten much of their military technology in their long interstellar sleep, and the catastrophic crash onto the face of this barren planet had all but reduced them to helpless scavengers on the land.
And yet, because of their tenacity, they survived. Humanity rebuilt itself at a startling pace – some by rebuilding their technology equally as fast, while others quickly adapted and learnt to live off the land. It would have likely only been a matter of time before humanity tried to conquer itself again – but then the nightmare began. Inexplicably drawn to thriving humans, they scuttled, slithered and buzzed towards any and all major colonies and began rending flesh from bone.
Thus, humanity was once again distracted: they again had a bigger threat than themselves, and technology was once again fostered to defend themselves for the next 200 years.
Humanity was an outcast on Earth, and it was also an outcast here. Luckily for humanity, it’s always the outcasts who prove to be the most dangerous.
Two cloaked figures wandering into a dusty, decrepit town – normally, no-one would bat an eye at the sight of vagrants and spent travellers drifting through the outermost reaches of the nation. Anyone foolhardy enough to travel to Arcadia by foot would have their garments ripped and shredded into rags by the surrounding deserts and canyons. If the wilderness didn’t finish them off, then the thugs of these slums surely would.
That’s why the two men wouldn’t have warranted a second look – if it weren’t for the distinctive points of spears protruding from their rags. A sandy wind swept past, briefly revealing dark skin over lean muscle, and tribal red cloth bound tightly against their bulky forearms.
The Arcadians had a name for these people: outlanders. And outlanders immediately drew the alarm and hostility of everyone from the city-dwellers to the slum-thugs. Even the armour-clad soldiers on patrol were wary: outlanders had a talent for stirring unrest and conflict amongst the citizens, and the sooner they were gone, the better.
Presently, the two figures were purposefully striding towards a lone stall, behind which stood an alarmed, ageing old man. His eyes widened in fear and his long, grizzly white hair flailed about as he shook his head at the sight of the impending giants.
A nearby soldier clad in Fortune Armour watched the scene unfold. He was still new to this area, but he knew his directives: even if an outlander were to intimidate or threaten a civilian into handing over property, they were not to be engaged or arrested unless a riot broke out. It was the best way to preserve the civil peace, they said. It’s also letting these desert rats get away with any and all crime, he thought to himself. He knew his orders – but those orders sickened him to the core.
“W-what do you want from me?!” the elderly stall keeper screamed, “I-I have nothing that interests the likes of you! L-leave me alone, I don’t want to die!”
The two outlanders exchanged a brief glance. At a distance, the soldier couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw the shorter of the two jerk his head slightly. The larger one simply held his partner’s gaze a moment longer, before turning back and rapping the table loudly as he placed an oversized fist on the rotten wood. The old man jumped from the sound, and the soldier found himself grinding his teeth at the veiled threat.
The outlander withdrew his hand, and the stall keeper’s eyes widened as several round objects clattered onto the table. The soldier caught his breath: outlanders actually offering money? Where the devil did they even get their hands on Arcadian currency? Then again, he thought to himself, they could’ve just as easily pilfered the gold from the foolish travellers who perished in the desert.
“Y-you want to buy?” stammered the stall keeper, before quickly regaining his composure, “well, ahem! Even you outsiders seem to have finally caught onto how things work in civilised society! Very well then, which of my fine wares may interest the likes of you lowly sand people?”
The larger outlander seemed to make a fist. The Fortune soldier was about to draw his firearm from his backpack when he saw the index finger extend from the fist and point downwards, before the outlander seemed to rap his knuckles rhythmically against the table several times, almost like he was pointing downwards. Whatever he was doing, the stall keeper understood it: his short-lived look of smug arrogance suddenly morphed into horror, before quickly contorting into outrage.
“You can’t have that! You don’t have nearly enough money! And even then, as if I’d sell it to desert rats who are brainless enough to ask for it in publi-” the old man caught himself as he suddenly noticed the watchful gaze of the soldier. The soldier would’ve simply liked to have shrugged and looked away, but that wasn’t an option with the presence of two outlanders in the vicinity – outlanders who had suddenly turned their hooded gazes directly at him and the hand that had been inching towards his backpack.
But behind the stall, the old man had been pushed past his breaking point. “A MITHRIL SHARD THIS SIZE ISN’T FOR YOU DESERT RATS!” he screamed as he whipped a stolen pistol out from underneath the table. In a whirlwind of motion, the larger outlander spun around and knocked the pistol out of the man’s grip before a cloth-bound forearm slammed the stall-keeper against the wall by his throat. The Fortune soldier’s arm darted for his own rifle – but an armoured hand grabbed his wrist and stopped him. The Fortune soldier looked around wildly and found the armoured hand holding him belonged to an Atom-clad soldier – his superior officer. “Sir, what’re you doi-“
“You would’ve lost an arm if I didn’t stop you, private,” the Atom replied, “take a close look at your surroundings.” The Fortune soldier looked around, and suddenly noticed the second outlander out of the corner of his eye, much closer to him now than just a few moments ago. He was straightening up, and withdrawing an empty hand from his cloak – a hand that had been ready to skewer the soldier with a spear.
“You were ordered not to engage any outlanders because you do not yet have the skill or experience to handle or understand them,” the Atom officer continued, “they will leave soldiers alone if they pose no threat.” As he said this, the Fortune soldier caught a glimpse of something which made his heart skip a beat – blood-red irises gazing back at him from under the shadows of the outlander’s hood.
“But it is the military’s duty to confiscate contraband mithril –” began the soldier.
“HQ already has that one covered, private.”
It was only then that the Fortune soldier noticed that the old man had been released from the wall and was now gasping for air. The outlander who had released him was now staring intently towards another soldier, standing mere metres away from him. The Thunder Armour’s finishing was scratched and beginning to fade – a clear sign that this soldier was the longest serving member of the Spec Ops unit.
The private noticed that the operative only carried a standard-issue Cutter sheathed at his waist – did he honestly intend to fight the outlanders in close-combat when they were too fast to shoot?
The outlander and the operative stared each other down for a long moment, before the outlander spat on the ground and turned to leave. The old man shrieked insults at the departing outlanders and made to crawl for his pistol. In one swift motion, the Thunder soldier drew his blade and hurled it at the old man, the blade landing mere centimetres from his face. The man gulped and shuddered at the message: shut up before I stop trying to miss you.
The operative retrieved a fist-sized, glowing blue-purple crystal shard from the stall. He placed it inside a black container – an insulation unit – and was turning to leave when the private suddenly yelled at him “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU LET THOSE DESERT SCUMBAGS LEAVE AND THREATEN OUR OWN CITIZENS?”
The Thunder soldier studied the private for a moment, then retrieved his Cutter from next to the cowering old man and continued walking. “Private, I could have you court-martialled for that outburst,” the Atom officer warned, “consider yourself lucky that I’m following suit and turning a blind eye.”
“This is complete bull,” muttered the private, “what the hell is going through his head?”
“One who knows nothing can understand nothing, private. Your encounter with the outlanders today should have been proof enough of that.” So saying, the Atom soldier returned to his post, and the private was left to his own thoughts for the rest of his patrol.
Croy let out a quiet sigh. Newer recruits never seemed to understand how to stay out of trouble, particularly when it came to being debriefed by the higher-ups. And particularly when they fail to understand when "friendly advice" from the top brass were actually iron-clad orders.
He was standing in a beam of bright light in an otherwise pitch-black room. The shadowy outline of a crescent-shaped table stood before him, and the silhouettes of the generals seated behind it were all but invisible. Beside him stood the Fortune soldier from his patrol unit. Ground forces were usually debriefed one-by-one, but Croy was finding himself frequently called in to "assist" with sensitive incidents. He wondered if that was really the case -- standing exposed before something he couldn't see still made him uneasy, even while still clad in his Atom Armour.
"Do we have an understanding, then?" came a voice from the darkness, "Our operative simply did what was necessary to reclaim civilian contraband. He may have had to suppress any outbursts to maintain civil order, but it may be more favourable if we simply overlooked that."
Croy cut off the soldier before he could protest. "Understood -- we cannot have the military's authority undermined with accusations of civilian brutality. Rumours can't start if mouths are kept shut."
"Prudent as always, Staff Sergeant", came a second voice, "but does your subordinate share in your wisdom?"
Behind his visor, Croy closed his eyes; there was nothing more he could do for his soldier. His next words would either acquit him, or condemn him like the countless others...
A stare can tell you a lot about a person. It can tell you about fear and admiration, much like the ones he was getting right now as he strode down the long, metallic hallway. Only, these were not the disciplined gazes of caution and respect befitting of trained soldiers: these distracted expressions of open-mouthed awe were those of rookies gathered from all four corners of Arcadia.
He’d long since put it down to wearing his armour at all times. Simply going without it was the most obvious solution, but the top brass didn’t want that, citing “significantly decreased mobilisation time”. Fixing it up and maintenance was another, but the engineers cited “calibration issues”. To top it off, the brass went so far as to suggest the battered look was a sign of perseverance, and hence a strong source of military morale – that stopped him from getting a new suit of armour entirely. Not that he would have, after having finally grown accustomed to his current one.
Why the military thought it was a good idea to deprive a Spec Ops member of his anonymity was beyond him. It seemingly defeated the whole purpose of establishing a shadow unit of unknown size and composition. While focusing the public spotlight on him made the nation assume that the other members were like him, even he didn’t know the identities or missions of the other operatives. They were shadows, even from each other – except him. He was being used as the public decoy. Except it made little sense for him to be the military’s scapegoat when they had made it plenty clear how vital his role was.
He resigned himself to leaving that puzzle unresolved as he walked into another hall – and was suddenly made fully aware of his surroundings. Three thoughts registered subconsciously: the quiet, hydraulic hiss of closing doors; a steady rhythm of footsteps abruptly ending in a sharp footfall; and a subtle, tingling sensation of heat on his left temple. One thought registered consciously: someone had just exited the debriefing room, stopped at the sight of him, and was now staring at him – and a gaze of this intensity was usually hostile.
He glanced left to where the footsteps stopped: the heavy doors were sliding shut, quickly concealing the darkness beyond in the debriefing room. Before those doors stood two men: one was clad in the distinctive blue-purple hue of the Atom, while the other, who had stopped dead in his tracks, wore the dull hues of the Fortune Armour.
Judging from their body language, neither of them seemed too happy to see him.
They had just walked out of one confrontation – with his subordinate only just managing to avoid an act of treason – and straight into another one. Of all possible people to run into… Croy thought to himself as he sighed again. Just as well that he was here then, and that it was his own subordinate this time – it was a lot harder to talk some sense into hot-headed soldiers who outranked him, and he could sense the Fortune’s hostile glare even from behind his helmet.
Croy waited a moment for the private’s temper to get the better of him, and watched intently as the private made to walk menacingly towards the operative. The moment the Fortune’s first step touched the ground, Croy’s voice cut through the air with a steely edge: “Stand down, private.”
The Fortune froze; even through his helmet, the razor-sharp command had narrowly sliced past his ear like a bullet. Then, as he felt a spike of adrenaline surge through his veins, he realised he was scared.
Another order split the silence: ”dismissed, return to the barracks.” Croy watched for the twist of the waist and opening of the palms indicating his subordinate was about to turn around and try to talk; when he saw the Fortune’s wrists move, the staff sergeant thundered “NOW, SOLDIER!!” The private’s primal instincts kicked in, and the rush of adrenaline carried his body away in a sprint while his mind tried to make sense of the inexplicable fear he felt coursing through his veins.
Croy watched his fleeing subordinate, then exhaled slowly. You don’t reason with hot-headed soldiers using logic – you reason with them using their instincts. Many others in the military thought that he was usually far too lenient on his soldiers. They failed to understand that soldiers tend to get used to your yelling when you’re always doing it: rationing your voice made your commands considerably more potent when used properly with threats. And the best way to threaten is to hit them with the consequence just after they’ve clearly decided to do something, but before they can complete it.
He looked around: the Thunder operative was also gazing in the direction the private had fled. “Must you always rub so many people the wrong way?” Croy asked, “It’d make our lives a lot easier.”
The Thunder turned to Croy, but said nothing. “Okay, it’d make my life a lot easier,” Croy amended, reading the Thunder’s silence, “the brass still seems as happy as ever to call it ‘treason’ and send a soldier to prison if they don’t get the hint. I’m just trying to make sure good men aren’t going to waste.”
The Thunder gave Croy another look. “Well, able men then,” Croy conceded, “soldiers willing to serve Arcadia. Good men willing to look after their own –”
“Anyone can look after their own,” interjected the Thunder, finally breaking his silence, “but ‘their own’ is simply their own people. They see another, and they’ll regard it as the enemy, no matter what their own have done. That’s not a good man – that’s not even self-preservation. That’s self-superiority.”
They stood in silence for a while. “I’m just trying to help you, Kierens,” Croy finally said, “you don’t need to live like this, and I don’t think making enemies is helping you get any closer.”
Before they could continue any further, a low siren blared throughout the complex, followed by a voice echoing through the speakers.
“PERIMETER BREACH DETECTED IN YB FACTORY. CONTACT: MULTIPLE TERRESTRIAL LIFEFORMS. ROSTERED EMERGENCY RESPONSE UNITS TO MOBILISE IMMEDIATELY.”
“Them,” the Thunder hissed as a golden glow started wrapping around his legs, before he bolted in the direction of the mobilisation point. Croy sprinted after him. This was going to be a long day, but at least this time, they could agree on the same enemy.