Kadamba looked at the list displayed on the monitor in the hallway of the Donovackia 2th Brigade Initial Military Training Facility, Zoranth Division, command building. He couldn’t believe that he had been assigned to Elite Forces. He expected to be assigned to infantry or transportation. He knew that he had performed well in the initial training but didn’t think that he had performed that well. Being named to Elite Forces would be a prestigious assignment; however, receiving this assignment felt absolutely impossible. Ka was sure that there were other soldiers, better soldiers, ones who didn’t carry his scars that would be more likely to get this honor.

He took a deep breath. The last couple of months had been tough, physically, mentally, and emotionally. He hadn’t made any friends, but as far as he knew, he hadn’t made any enemies either. He continued to be an outcast because of the scar on his arm and what that scar told people. He looked at the screen again, expecting it to change at any second, assigning him to some horrible, menial fate. Then a terrible thought occurred to him. What if his assignment was simply a ruse? What if he was just going to be sent back to prison?

He looked up and down the hallway; he was still alone. He touched the screen just to make sure that it was real and stared at the list. All of the members of his unit that had completed training had their orders. Most of the assignments seemed to be somewhat aligned with the capabilities of the men with whom he had trained. However, there wasn’t a single name on the list, other than his, that was assigned to Elite Forces. That was it. It was someone’s idea of a sick joke. In his gut, he knew it. He was going back to prison or someplace far worse.

Kadamba’s mind shifted into overdrive. This was a military training camp. It was not a prison. There were no fences with barbed wire, no guards wondering about with guns, and the truth was, that there was no one forcing him to stay. He made a quick inventory in his mind of the things that he would need. He would be heading into the woods tonight, going AWOL. A comfort swept across him. No prison. No military. It would just be him and a planet to discover. He would live off the land for a few years, not that he really knew how, but he was confident that he could figure it out. He took another deep breath and began considering how to secretly start gathering the supplies that he would need.

“Cadet Vorhoor,” the voice broke his concentration.

“Yes, sir!”

“I’m sorry to startle you, son,” Lieutenant Mittelwert Padda remarked. “I see you have been looking at the post-training camp assignments.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Kadamba, fearing that the look on his face would give away his plans of living a life on the run.

“It appears we have a common destination, cadet. I’ve been transferred to Elite Forces. I will be taking charge of their training program and facilities on Koranth. The shuttle leaves in two hours. I’ll see you on the platform.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Kadamba.

Kadamba watched as the Lieutenant walked down the hallway. Two hours would not be enough time to gather what he needed to head into the woods. If he wasn’t on that shuttle platform before the Lieutenant, he knew that a contingent of soldiers would begin looking for him. Even if he slipped away from the training camp, he would be captured before the end of the day. He wouldn’t be sent to a military prison. No, he would be sent back to the containment facility with Jackos, where he was sure that he would die.

Then another thought crossed his mind, “What if the Lieutenant was simply escorting him back to prison?” He had been the one to pick Kadamba up and bring him to the military training camp. Kadamba realized that he was trapped. The only real option was to be on that platform and hope that he really was heading to Elite Forces training.

The shuttle departed on time. Rather than a typical military transport, this was the same shuttle that had brought him to the camp. Kadamba imagined that it was an executive shuttle. The seats, large and comfortable, were arranged in seating areas, rather than just rows. He felt out of place, as the Lieutenant walked into the section of the shuttle that he had been told to sit in. Like the previous trip in this shuttle, there was no one else around.

Lieutenant Mittelwert Padda sat down across from Kadamba. While the Lieutenant had brought Kadamba to the training camp, Kadamba had seen little of the commanding officer since they had left the shuttle. It felt odd again, to be on the same shuttle, heading once again to the Kareenet-Pooshz Portal, with the very same soldier who had picked him up just a few months before. The Lieutenant studied the newly graduated cadet for a few moments.

“Are you surprised to be on this shuttle with me again?” asked Lieutenant Padda.

“Sir, yes, sir,” responded Kadamba, “I didn’t expect to be assigned to Elite Forces, but I am grateful.”

“You know your scores weren’t good enough to get into the Elite Forces?” stated the Lieutenant.

“Sir?”

“With your past, son, and the fact that you were mostly a loner, along with the originally recorded scores in your record, you didn’t qualify for Elite Forces. You simply didn’t make the cut,” stated the Lieutenant.

Kadamba swallowed hard. This was it. Kadamba just knew that the Lieutenant was about to tell him that he was going back to prison. He tried not to panic. In his mind’s eye, he could already see Jackos laughing and telling him to get ready to complete the “business” they had together.

“Son, what I am about to tell is strictly off the record. I will deny this conversation,” Lieutenant Padda informed him.

“Yes, sir,” replied Kadamba. The sense of dread began filling his insides. He could taste the acid from his stomach working its way into his throat. He wanted to vomit, but he held his composure, at least on the outside. He watched as the words formed on the Lieutenant’s lips, knowing his life would soon be over.

“Your scores were artificially reduced while you were participating in training. No one wanted to give you the scores you deserved. No one wanted to give you the scores you earned. And it is simply because of that brand on your arm,” the Lieutenant stated, in a very matter-of-fact manner. “It is this simple. The world will always look at you as a devil. Our job here was to make you fail. Everyone will deny that, but it is the truth. You were given the worst assignments, the hardest jobs, and put in situation after situation that would have broken many men. Yet you survived, and even excelled.”

Kadamba searched the Lieutenant’s face for a twisted smile, for an evil grin, for anything that would let him know that the man was playing him and making fun of him. The next statement had to be about going back to prison, back into the domain of Jackos.

“Cadet, I am a man of honor. I don’t much follow politics or the whims of society. I measure a man by what I can see with my own eyes. I see the brand on your arm. I know what the words mean, but I don’t know, and I don’t need to know the details. What I have seen is a man set up for failure, set up to be ruined, yet a man who refused to give up.”

Was this a compliment? The Lieutenant seemed to be showing something like respect to Kadamba, and he didn’t know exactly what to do. He just looked at the Lieutenant and listened, not knowing what the next words would be.

“I don’t know who, son, but once again, someone has twisted the strings of fate on your behalf. Your scores from training camp were changed. Someone, with some serious influence, has given you the scores that you actually deserved. I have no idea whether they knew what they were doing or not. Your assignment to Elite Forces surprised the hell out of me, but you are capable of this assignment.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Kadamba, not knowing what else to say. The vision of Jackos faded quickly from his head, as he realized that this wasn’t a ruse. He really was going to Elite Forces training.

The Lieutenant looked at Kadamba for a long moment, as if he was trying to see inside of him. “I don’t know what it is that keeps you going, but you will need it for this next year. For every ten men that go to Elite Forces, four drop out. That’s four people without any stigma. You’re going to have one hell of a difficult time at training. I imagine that it will be similar to initial training. You will be given the toughest tasks, the hardest jobs, and you’ll have little or no support. I can’t promise to make it any easier on you, but I will be watching.”

The Lieutenant stood up and walked into another room on the shuttle. Kadamba sat in that comfortable chair, not sure what to think. He would be leaving Zoranth in a few hours. That meant a ride in the tubes again. He wasn’t scared to ride in them, but he wasn’t looking forward to it either. Actually, he’d rather ride around in the tubes all day than ever see Jackos again. He realized that his entire body was still tense. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply, forcing himself to relax.

The sun was shining brightly, and Ka looked around. Everything seemed perfect, as it always did here on Schmarlo’s Landing. The trees, shrubs, and grass were green. The sidewalks were swept, and trashcans empty.

Ka walked to the playground. The sand was perfectly flat and level as if no one had ever touched it. He stood for a moment, regarding the spot where Alorus had died. It almost seemed too perfect of a place for anyone to experience any pain, but he knew better.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, as Ka walked to one side of the Landing. A small half-wall and guardrail stood at the very edge of the building. Some people couldn’t get very close, but Ka walked right up to the wall, reached out his hand, and felt the force-field cover that protected the Landing. He wondered whether it might have been better if no force-field cover existed at all. Maybe he could have run to the wall and jumped over before Alorus had died. Perhaps he could have fallen off before he had sold the rath to Alorus.

“Why are you here, Ka?” asked the boy.

He turned to see Alorus standing behind him and looking at him intently again.

“I don’t know,” Ka answered him.

“How come you and I are the only ones here on the Landing?” Alorus inquired.

Ka looked at the boy. He wished with all his heart that he could undo what he had done. A tear began to run down the boy’s face. Ka stepped towards the boy, but the boy took a step back.

“Ka, why isn’t there anyone else? Why is it just you and me here?”

“I don’t know why Alorus. It just is.”

Ka walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Alorus followed but stood a few feet away.

“Where are we going, Ka?”

“Back to Koranth.”

“Are we going home?” asked the boy.

“No. I’ve been assigned to Elite Forces. I’m going to training,” stated Ka.

“Do they like to have guys that are real killers in Elite Forces?”

Ka’s face dropped into his hands, and he began to cry again. Maybe there was something to the boy’s insight. Maybe he would be an ideal candidate for an organization that trained soldiers to be the best. To kill on command. Maybe, he was nothing more than a killer.

The shuttle landed with a jarring bounce, waking Kadamba. He looked around, almost expecting to see Alorus standing there, looking accusingly at him, but there was no one but the Lieutenant signaling him to the door.

“This portal trip will be a little different than your last,” chuckled the Lieutenant. “You’re not going first-class this time. This is true military portal transportation. Welcome to the Pooshz Rapid Transport Facility.”

They placed their bags on a conveyor belt and watched them zoom into a hole and out of sight. They were waved through and headed into a large, open building with a maze of walkways. The employees of this facility were obviously military and aptly fulfilling their duty, which was packing the passengers as efficiently as possible into the tubes.

Lieutenant Padda and Kadamba were directed to the same tube, as was a third soldier. Little was said as the men were stacked into the container. While each had his own space, Kadamba found it to feel even more claustrophobic than before. The allotted volume of space was smaller, and the surface was harder. However, it was the same calm voice that came on from unseen speakers to review the safety instructions. This time, Kadamba pushed the button and felt the gentle spray of mist hit his face. With the next breath, he was unconscious.

• • •

Chapter 22 Chapter 24

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