Monday, 24 March 2014

Unworthy - Prologue


It is not unheard of to receive a summons to the General’s office, but it is unusual. Alex loops the brush back onto its peg and leaves the stables, crossing the training yard near the climbing wall. Shouts of encouragement mixed in equal parts with insults reach him on the damp spring air. At the far end, a group of new arrivals, boys and girls, stand at attention near the flagpole, chest out, chins up. They’re taking a dressing down from their fifteen-year-old drill sergeant. Alex’s gaze lingers on them for a moment. He’s been in her shoes. I can spot a quivering lip from twenty metres, he thinks. And there are far too many in this bunch.

Mandatory military membership. The Polis takes them all. Our greatest strength and our greatest weakness, he sighs, then bites the thought back. Opinions like that will have me up before the Council. He buries it along with many others.

They will get better. His own basic training feels like long ago, but in reality it’s only been six years. Back then, he was a thirteen-year-old raw recruit, arriving at the barracks with his schoolmates to continue his education. They had imagined that the academy could not possibly be as bad as school had been, but they’d been wrong. It was far worse.

Alex leans in for the retinal scan at the administration block and the door slides back. “Captain Alexander Hayes, Polisborn,” an automated female voice announces smoothly. He makes his way to General Graham’s office, and reports to his clerk. He prepares himself for a lengthy wait, but to his surprise he is shown in immediately. The clerk leaves, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Face to face, the General is as awe-inspiring as his reputation. At Alex’s age, a year after graduation, he had already earned his first three stripes. His experience in the field, his success stories both in quelling trouble and in running peaceful sectors, and the fact that he did it all well in advance of other officers his age; all this is common knowledge amongst the Polisborn. He is a well-known and respected military figure, used time and again by instructors as an example of the perfect Polis soldier. He is a man to be feared and a man to be emulated.

Alex has rarely been in his presence alone and the feeling is overwhelming. This man has signed his name to more executions than Alex has watched, masterminded tactical manoeuvres to bring peace to warring sectors, and earned his position and reputation with decades of loyal service to the Polis.

As the silence in the room lengthens, the summoned Captain begins to feel more awkward. The General sits at his desk, studying a letter. It appears to be brief, only a few lines, but he reads it time and again. Alex’s eyes roam to a shelf where the room’s only decoration sits: an antique timepiece, ticking audibly. It is very much out of place. The thought occurs to him that it must be a hundred years old, judging by its overly decorative shape. Such frivolous items have not been made since the twenty-first century.

“Captain Hayes.”

“General Graham, Sir.”

“I appreciate your punctuality. Would you care to sit?”

“No, sir.” Is he testing me? The seat which was offered is made of heavy wood, straight and square. It is hardly ever used. The younger man remains standing.

“I have orders for you.” He hesitates before continuing, and Alex’s curiosity fires up. Orders, verbally delivered by the General? A tingle begins at the base of his spine and works its way up his back. He has a million questions, none of which he voices.

“Yes, Sir,” he says. Chin up, eyes front.

“What passes between us in this room is to be kept strictly confidential. There is no file. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir.” Understood? Not one bit.

“You are to find a civilian in Sector 4 and bring her here to me, in the Polis. You will do this alone and without the knowledge of your unit or your CO. You will leave no trail.”

The tingling is now raising hairs on the back of his neck but he replies, “I can take an ATV and be back tonight, Sir.”

“No checkpoints. You’ll be riding.”

The soldier’s eyes flick down to the General’s for the first time. He openly stares at him, uncomprehending. “No checkpoints… Sir?”

His gaze is returned and it feels like a challenge, his eyes cold and steady. “You heard me, Captain. Once you check out through the main gate, official records will show that you returned here to HQ and are detained on the medical ward after a fall. If you are discovered in the field you will be court martialled for desertion.”

The General lets this sink in, never taking his eyes from the young officer’s face. The ticking from the mantelpiece clock seems to get louder.

From the little the General has shared, Alex does know this: the likelihood of success is miniscule. Polisborn soldiers are highly trained, and Polis checkpoints are the reason that the city has not seen strife in three generations. Getting through them, getting round them, is next to impossible. He knows because it’s part of his job to make them so.

However, even with that said, there is no question of refusing the assignment. There never was. He knows full well that officially he has no right to decline, even though, officially, the assignment doesn’t even exist. When he finally speaks, the question appears to be one the General expected.

The words come out more quietly than intended. “Why me?” Why haven’t you chosen someone else for this honour… the honour to serve you as best I can and most likely die a coward‘s death?

“I thought that would be obvious. We need to keep this in the family.”

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