CHILDREN

by John Dodd

I have no fear of death, it is merely a companion to me in my life.

When I was born, he came to me and took my mother from me, shortly after that, he came and took my father who was unable to live without her. I found myself alone and without assistance in the world. Taken from the remains of the tenement in which I was found, they put me into training at the academy known as meny. It was decided that they could do things to me which they could not do to the other cadets, I was placed in the special training division, and from the age at which I became conscious of my existence, all I can remember is the company. I become aware of myself at age three, this is year One of my training.

In year five, I received my first scar, in unarmed combat training, they gave us knives, and set us upon each other. I killed three of my friends, having been told that it was a game, that all we had to do was tag them with our shiny staffs. I did this, not knowing that they could not get up after I put them down, I remember crying when my friends did not talk back to me, and the eye of the trainer that I tore out when they came to return me to my cage. I remember the lashes of my trainers as they drove me back to my cage, and I remember the scars I carved in my arm, the names of my friends, that I would never forget them.

In year six, my training began in earnest, they began to teach us the meaning of anger, what it can do for you, and what it can do to you if you do not hold it in check. They passed us through constant trials, with constant bullying from the trainers, and no words except shouting and abuse. We learned what it is to summon blind, bottomless rage from deep inside us, and how to channel it. I killed two more of my friends, their names joined the list upon my arm, and each day, I recited the catechism of their names to me, that no one would ever forget those who had died to bring me to where I stand now.

In year seven, they began to teach us the basics of life in general, the fact that there were other races in the world than us, the fact that orders are to be obeyed at all times, and without question. Questions are wrong, posed only by the enemies of the system, a good soldier obeys orders, does not question, fights hard, dies well. Any question that we tried was met with lashes upon the rack, and solitary confinement. It was also at this point that we learned of what we are, I now know that I am nothing, I am a soldier, I learn the way of the warrior, and the creed of the soldier.

Question Nothing.
Obey Always.
Fight Hard.
Die Well.

Each morning as we rise, we roar this creed to our officers, each night as we retire to our quarters, we roar it to the walls, proclaiming our allegiance to the people who have created us.

In year eight, they began to integrate the other classes, we are put in with other students, all of them a good ten years older than us. They are larger than us, but soft, they lack discipline, they lack capability, they are destined to be dead, they just don't see how or why. The trainers begin to separate us in order to correctly assess and further our training. We are taught the value of being able to blend into the crowd, and are trained in the ways of society, this causes problems, the creed of the warrior does not fit well with the nature of society. Question nothing, but be free to ask questions of those around you, obey orders, but only from certain people. Some of us were sanctioned for being unable to separate these orders, those of us who could separate them were allowed to continue.

We are given names with which to identify each other, it is thought to reinforce the idea of teamwork if all of us have a name to give to those who are not part of our unit. In private, we still refer to each other by the names that we gave each other when we still small children, but in public, we are ordered to use the names that we have been given.

Obey Always.

I am named Ezekiel, I do not know what it means, it is irrelevant to me.

Year Nine, and we are released into the general population, this is a hideous mistake, our superiors do not seem to understand the nature of the beast that they have created. We are allowed to mix with the normal students and participate with them in the various sports that they engage in for recreation. In a friendly game of basketball, myself and four others from my unit face off against one of the better of the older student teams, the game is good, well played, and enjoyable to my friends and I. The other team plays well, but they lack our discipline, and although we are smaller than the others, what we lack in size, we more than make up for in ability. The game is brought to an abrupt end when one of the other team starts a fight, it is over nothing, Azrael, my good friend, and nimble on his feet as a spider upon his web, scores by evading the largest of the other side and slipping through his legs. The person who was evaded takes this badly, and strikes Azrael down as he recovers the ball.

Fight Hard.

Instantly, the rage takes over, and the entire team is upon the attacker, he is stronger than us, but we are a team, and he goes down, hard, his own team-mates seem to be frozen for some reason. We have no such compunction, and the attacker is brought down instantly, we move instantly to destroy that which threatens us.

A few seconds pass, and finally, his friends come to his aid, if they could work together like us, they would stand a chance, they cannot, they do not.

A minute of frenzied combat passes, my programming cuts in, all the attackers are down, the rage is quelled instantly, the five of us stand and survey what we have done. The other team is on the floor, three of them have broken limbs, one of them sprawls awkwardly, her neck at an angle impossible to reach, the one who started it is laid on the floor in a slowly spreading pool of arterial blood, his throat has been torn out. I look at my team for signs of injury, only gabriel has a minor cut on his chest, azrael stands wiping the blood from his teeth, and it takes me a second to realise that it is not his.

We report back to our superiors and detail the entire incident. The platoon is put on indefinate suspension from liasing with other students, the project is nearly scrapped when the other students finally come round. Mysteriously, their complaints are dropped and they leave the academy, I do not know why.

Question Nothing.

Year Ten arrives, and we begin to learn of all the other things within the world. We learn how to kill anything that lives, how to live in the most barren of lands with only our own bodies for sustenance, we are given the first of our many implants that will improve us beyond the capability of normal mortals. The first implant is the Calcifier, this reinforces our entire skeletal structure and lines our bones with calcium, we are given a new diet, rich in the minerals that our bodies can now convert into natural armour. We begin to adapt to what we are being made into, we learn how to use our new abilities in the service of our lords. Each of us is assigned a team that we will train with, I am placed in Team Seven, along with my good friend Azrael, Gabriel, Achilles, Phoenix, Tyrus, and Gunnar. We are taught the difference between personal combat, and war, and are given rules in which to base all combat.

Year Eleven, and the twenty teams are placed in a citadel for two months, there is only food and water for ten teams, despite our other capabilities, we will have to kill others to survive here, there is no other way out. Team Seven takes the centre of the citadel quickly, the others form up well under my command. We take full control of all the supplies and secure enough food and water for us to live comfortably for the two months before abandoning the centre and striking out for the edge of the building. We forge a small base in a corner of the citadel, and construct makeshift walls to defend us against the other teams. We eat in shifts, sleep in shifts, do not speak unless absolutely necessary, and maintain our strength for the coming ordeal.

We do not have to wait long, within a week, the first attack comes, what appears to be a single member of team five limps towards the barrier waving a white flag. He presents no threat to us and so we ignore him, maintaining watch for the other teams. We are punished for our complacency, from behind him, he draws a firearm and opens fire. The rest of us are instantly awake as the shots ring out. We were not told that there were firearms to be found within this building, it did not occur to us to look for them. We begin to learn that all that we are told is not what it seems, and the lesson is a bitter one. We leave behind a few days of food as we make the retreat, laying a trap of unstable rubble loosely suspended from the ceiling. Sure enough, hunger out weighs caution, and three members of team five move into our base to take the food. The remaining four members of their team hold back, covering them with firearms. As the first three reach the food, we collapse the trap on them, a half ton of metal and stone rain down upon them like the wrath of God. I assume that they do not survive the trap. it does not matter to me if they do or not, my concern is the welfare of my team.

With sign language, I send Gunnar and Phoenix around to the left, Tyrus and Achilles to the right, and we make plans to assault the remains of their team. Team five are preoccupied with trying to clear the rubble, wether to reach the food or free their team-mates I do not know, nor do I care, we have the measure of their weakness, and victory will go to us.

As three of them begin to move a particularly large piece of metal, I signal the attack. From three different angles, team seven dives to the attack. The only member of their team to still hold a weapon pivots smoothly and fires, I hear a scream, but can spare no time to check who was hit. We put him down in an instant and I seize his weapon, turning it on his team, mowing them down without mercy.

The silence suddenly seems deafening, and my programming takes over again

"Team Seven, Roll call, Ezekiel, team leader."
"Azrael."
"Gabriel."
"Gunnar." 
"Phoenix."
"Achilles."

Tyrus does not answer, we mount a swift search through the rubble for him, he lies where he landed, the shot from the gun having taken him in the chest. His eyes are closed, but they flick open as we approach. He coughs, and foaming blood sprays from his mouth.

"Forgive me my brothers, I failed you." the words are choked out, he is dying, the wound has pierced a lung, he cannot survive the injury without a medical centre and we have months left to go before we are allowed out.

Surprisingly, it is Azrael who answers him.

"You have done nothing for us to forgive brother, you were with us to the end, you fought hard."

I motion to the others to take the hearts of the dead from team five. This done, I crouch down to Tyrus.

"Nothing more do you have to prove to us brother, greet death as a warrior true." I place a piece of each of the hearts in his hand. "Give these to him as his tribute and demand your rightful place in his cohort."

I stand as the last breath shudders from his, saluting in the correct way, left arm over chest, right arm over left, head bowed, the team follows suit as we each send a prayer for our departed brother.

Die well.

As I raise my head, a soft sob is heard, all of us turn in the direction of it. Gunnar, largest and most fierce of us is still in the salute, but his face is crimson, and tears track down his cheeks to splash mutely upon his tunic. He looks up to us, his face a mask of rage and sorrow, I nod to him, the only sign that I have of understanding what he feels, as I turn to dispose of the bodies of team five, a single tear winds it's way down my face. I catch it in one hand and look at it, I know why I am crying, I just feel numb, I had thought that sorrow would be stronger than this.

Now we have weapons, and we have food, but it has cost us one of our brothers, it is the first of the many bitter lessons that we will learn over time. The remaining weeks pass swiftly, the other teams have neither the food nor the weapons with which to make a concerted challenge against us.

Year Twelve, there are now six teams left, the only team that made it whole from the citadel was team one, who are largely regarded to be the best of us. Our lost brother Tyrus is replaced by the only surviving member of team eight, her name is Dione, and we welcome her as our equal. It is the judgement of our superiors that we are ready to be field-tested in actual battle, and so we are sent to a distant fringe world to serve as a fast response team in the centre of the capital city. We are taught the methods of the enemy, their weapons and tactics, and we await the chance to prove our worth in battle.

Our chance arrives quickly, the enemy attack in force, and land a group of soldiers in powered armour near the spaceport. Team seven is first upon the scene, and we are unprepared for what we see before us. The Powered armour that the enemy is using is far larger than we have been told to expect, each suit is at least ten feet high, and carries a formidable array of weaponry, they are making their way to the battlecruiser Atreides, here for repairs. I motion closed formation and we move as one, targetting a single enemy suit as we have been trained. Our wave of fire brings the suit down in an incandescent shower of sparks, the pilot falling from the remains in a shattered bloody heap. The other suits turn and direct fire to us without hesitation, we scatter instantly, seeking cover in amongst the remains of their comrade and the buildings around us. They are undiscipined, they fire randomly into the area in which we were, we know better than to remain there, they should be more concerned with escaping while they still can, we are Team Seven, they are no match for us. Separated, we still work as a team, each of us moves to the pre-designated place that we had discussed when drawing plans for such an assault.

Through the Jawbone com unit each one of us carries, we hear the voice of Gunnar.

"In position team leader, awaiting command."

"Sound off" I reply "Team Seven, indicator check."

I glance down to my arm computer as the six lights all light up in unison.

"Team leader to Gunnar, light up your first target."

A split second passes before gunnars first shot explodes off the lead suits helmet. They all turn to face the perceived threat and as they do, Phoenix takes his shot, impacting on the same suit. Again, all of them turn to face the new threat, and as they do, I take my shot. There are less of them than there are of us, and we have the advantage here, if they had been trained well, they would simply concentrate their fire upon a single one of our positions until the person in that position was taken down. As it stands, they continue fruitlessly trying to pinpoint the location of the shots that are being fired upon them. In minutes, two more of them are downed, and the remaining two make a break for it. We have been ordered to hold the location that we are in, and so we do not give chase to them.

Obey Always.

Even if it makes no sense…..

Year Thirteen passes in a blur, the entire year is spent in surgery, then brief periods of recovery and isolated training, then more implants. The time passes quickly, and before we are truly aware of what has happened, we find ourselves back on duty, we have a vast range of implants now throughout our bodies, each one of them tailored to a specific part of warfare. We can run a hundred miles in a day, go three days without sleep and still function perfectly, and now we have senses more acute than anything in natures kingdom. We are capable of healing almost any injury in minutes, and our blood is now a liquid protein coagulant, which can be used as sealant for other creatures injuries should it be required.

Year fourteen is the point at which they throw us out into the world, to find how we work with it, to see if all the time and training has been worth it. Unsurprisingly, we find accommodation as a team, and accept assignments as a team. We are inevitably successful in those assignments that we take, and our reputation grows, the media take an interest in us, unfortunately, we have no interest in them, and we are portrayed as cold blooded killers. I often wonder if we are, I don't think we are, we are soldiers, soldiers do not kill in cold blood, we kill because we are ordered to do so. There is a difference, the civilians do not seem able to see it. It does not concern me. We begin to form attachments with other people, friendships begin to be apparent. We are always careful never to go to places where violence could break out, we dare not take the risk that the rage will come upon us in what others would consider a playful fight. Dione and I become more than team-mates, we were not trained for this, and there is no-one around us telling us that it is wrong, so we learn new things, about the nature of the world. We were never told about all the other emotions that humans can have, they are all a wondrous mystery to us, and for the first time in our lives, we experience what it is to be a child.

We train alone, making certain that the places in which we train are not observed, we dare not practise with others, our techniques are far beyond anything that they will have been taught. Each of us discover new things about ourselves, we find that there are things beyond our comprehension, limited as it is. Gunnar discovers the concept of art, and spends his down time looking at and trying to understand things of beauty, Achilles and Phoenix gain an appreciation for music, in all it's many forms. Gabriel learns of the art of baking and cooking, not to survive or for necessity, but for pleasure, and spends a lot of his time preparing meals for all of us. Azrael, always the most single minded of all of us, spends his time reading, and uses his wages to amass a veritable library. Dione and I learn what it is to be almost human, and we spend our time together trying to understand how two soldiers who were trained the same since birth, could be as different as we are. We have always been taught that all soldiers in the teams are the same, that we exist to serve, and that there is nothing different about any of us. Watching my team over that year, I learned that the instructors are not always right, and the knowledge begins to gnaw away at me. What if they were wrong about all the other things?

Our new found knowledge of the world is brought crashing down upon us one evening, Gunnar, ever the most emotional of all of us, has formed an attachement with one of the local women, and upon this evening, he has not returned home. None of us are unduly worried, it would take a lot more than most of these people to bring one of us down, but the problems that we are about to encounter are far worse than those that militant idiots could cause us.

It is a little past 0100 hours when he calls, he sounds afraid, something I have never known him to be:

"Ezekiel" he says "got a problem."
"What's happened brother?" I reply, still half asleep
"Can't explain it sir, you have to see this."

Dione stirs next to me, laying one arm across my chest.

"Are you sure?"
"Tor, I'm sure." He uses the name from childhood as a means of emphasising the need.
"Be right there." I reply
"26 New Horres, on the corner of Wold and Rea."

I get up and make my way over there quickly, Gunnar answers the door before I knock, leading me upstairs without a word, he indicates the bedroom. I raise one eyebrow by means of answer. He pushes the door open. I recognise the body on the bed, it is the young lady that he was fond of.

"What happened?" For one terrible second, I contemplate that he lost it and killed her. Then my programming takes over and I look upon the scene with analytical eyes, there are no bruises on her body, and no signs of a struggle, her body appears as if rigor mortis has set in, but her skin shows no sign of the inevitable pale blue tinge. I move to the body and run my hand over her, her skin is still warm.

"What happened?" I repeat
Gunnar shrugs, he's as confused as I am "We'd just finished and I was sleeping, she started screaming, then she stopped, and then she went like this."
I frown, I have no explanation for what has happened here. I take up my arm computer and punch in the code for emergency. Within twenty minutes, the whole team is there. None of them have a clue until Dione arrives. She takes one look at the body and nods.

"I'd forgotten all about this" she says "It was part of the lessons in year thirteen, part of how to control the implants."

I'm mystified, I cannot remember any of this, I look to the others, from the looks I'm getting, neither do they.

Dione continues explaining.

"Remember the blood being a liquid protein coagulant? Well, if you lot had been paying attention, you'd remember that it's not just the blood that does that, so do all the other bodily fluids, some better than others. One of the best ones is semen…."

It all comes together like a black wave rushing the beach at night. I look at the body on the bed.

"So…." I trail off, not knowing what to say, there is nothing that will save the girl now, the reason that she is unable to move is because her entire body is even now being transmuted into scar tissue from the inside out. There is no way that any of us could save her, we were taught to kill, not to cure.

Gunnar looks up, his face tracked with tears, he stares directly at me "But, but you and Dione….."
I cannot meet his gaze, there are no words that will ease his pain, it is Achilles, wise Achilles that speaks, almost a murmur "We're team my brother, she's team, we not designed to kill each other"

There are no words to be said, we leave the area the next day, and go back to the project, reporting failure, asking to be put back amongst the other teams, where we belong. Gunnar is beside himself, he has no words to voice what is going through his head. We remain the same creatures on the outside, but nothing will give us back the innocence that we were enjoying until now.

Year Fifteen, and we are assigned a simple sweep and clear of a distant mining colony. We do not know why we have been sent here, this is a job better suited for the regular army, not us.

Question nothing.

We secure the command centre and place Dione in there, monitoring the sweep, while we divide into fireteams of three and begin the clearance. Azrael and Gabriel form the first team with me, Phoenix, Achilles, and Gunnar form the second. There is no resistance as we move through the deserted colony, we were told to expect minimal resistance, but we were expecting some. As we clear the first area of the colony, we hear a brief burst of static over the comnet and Dione's voice, normally calm, now screaming.

"Fireteam Two down, Seven individuals moving in on my position, request assistance urgently!"

There is a sound like an explosion and the comnet is suddenly nothing but static.

I look to the others. Dione was clear in her announcement, Fireteam Two Down, that means that none of them still live. We run back to the command centre, as we approach, a single round lances down through the air, taking Gabriel directly below his collarbone. The round goes through his armour as if it wasn't there, taking most of his internal organs with it on the way out. He slumps in mid run, Azrael and I continue running, to stop and try and save him would be a pointless exercise, whoever is doing this is well trained, and would take the opportunity as a perfect excuse to finish the last of us.

I reach the command centre and motion for Azrael to hold the point while I check it.

Inside, Dione is laid across the command console, her armour stripped from her, she is bleeding from several huge tears in her torso. Something is drastically wrong here, the wounds are not closing, she is not healing. She looks up feebly as I arrive in the room, and points to the corner of the room. A cursory glance tells me that nothing is there, so I move to her side, taking her body in my arms, tears rolling down my face. I look on her face one last time and see her crying "I love you" she whispers softly, then the spasms begin. I crush her to me, as if holding her to me will give her the strength of my body, as if I can heal the injuries by holding her close to me.

"It was Te……" her last whisper is cut off as her last breath sighs out.

I lay her down gently and move to where she was pointing, a small amount of G9 explosive compound is there, the amount is sufficient to devastate the whole of the colony. I leave the room and find that Azrael is gone, there is no sign of a struggle, and there was no sound from outside, I would have heard. It all begins to make sense to me in a twisted sort of way, I run from the command bay to the power plant at the centre of the complex, not stopping for anything, I reach the reactor and make what brief arrangements I can.

I do not have to wait for long, the door opens and eight figures carrying one more enter the room. The lighting disguises them until they get closer, but I need no light to know them. My supreme commander, Brigadier Morax is the first into the light, the second figure throws the one he is carrying to the floor, it is Azrael, battered and bloody, but still alive. He glances up to me with the eye that he has left and nods almost imperceptibly. The Second figure steps into the light, It is Alpha, leader of Team One. I expected as much, this just confirmed it.

"Why?" I ask "We did what you asked, we broke none of your laws."

Morax looks down at me as a condescending parent might upon their child.

"You don't get it do you? "he says" You were never meant to survive, all you were was a test, to see how well soldiers could do if that was all they had ever learned, thanks to you, whole generations of soldiers will be created in the manner that you were."

He pauses for a second.

"You're wondering why your team was taken down?"

I don't dignify that with an answer, I already know why, he seems to take this as a yes, and continues.

"There will be only one team that will be cloned to make the superior soldiers, and those have to be the best of the best, in this case, team one, they will created and then trained and then taught the warriors code in our service."

Question nothing.
Obey always.
Fight hard.

He stops as he realises that I am not listening to him, I am speaking the catechism of names upon my arm. Alpha leans over to him and explains. Below them, Azrael smiles, he knows what is coming, and is ready for it. I finish my list with the last person I am to kill.

"Ezekiel, Team Seven."

Morax has time to realise what I've just said when the world erupts in fire and the colony collapses around us. I briefly regain consciousness entombed beneath tons of rubble, a figure walks towards me through the destruction, I know this man, he took my father and mother, my team-mates, and now he comes for me. I have no fear of this man, he knows the tribute that I have paid him over the years, and I know that he will not forget that. He reaches out one hand to me, I take it and walk into eternity.

Die well……