“If you believe that the killing of innocent people is right, then you are not part of my future.”
~ King Abdullah II ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Proxima had never known such a miserable place.
Tarrying through underground sewers of the Capital Barracks, Proxima thought constantly about the freezing, barren cave she had left her pack in. How she would have loved to be there now. Anywhere was better than a Dyonuxiot sewer. She only had her weapons with her – her sword hanging from the belt propped onto her shoulder, her daggers, and her gun. She didn’t bring her bow, because she’d decided she wouldn’t have much need for it. Proxima had begun to sweat also in the hot tunnel, and had an itch to take off her coat and leave it back in the mountain cave. But she had to force herself to not be a wimp and keep the coat on.
There’s no way in Hell your going back out, Proxima thought to herself, You’ve got this far, there’s no way you’re going out and doing it all over again!
She paused a moment, leaning against one of the walls of the sewer and slowly sliding down it into a squat.
Smell’s so bad, though Proxima – her eyes stinging from the ridiculously putrid smell and her mind panting in frustration.
It was nothing less than she had expected; but that didn’t mean she liked it. The sewer was big enough to fit a donkey-drawn cart [in the unfortunate event of a blockage or flood, the place would need to be cleaned out], and there were narrow sidewalks aligned to the arched walls; whereas the sewage sloshed around the centre, slowly making its way out. Any sound made echoed many times, and the place was swarming with rats and cockroaches. The sudden squeak of a rat or the crunch of a cockroach exoskeleton under Proxima's boot was so frequent; she almost didn't notice it anymore.
Proxima blinked back tears, as she readjusted the pashmina over her face – desperately trying to block out the smell. But her desperation was all in vain – not the thickest veil in the world could block out the stench of a Dyonuxiot sewer.
Surely Human sewage didn’t smell this bad, thought Proxima hopefully.
But somehow she doubted it. If the Dyonuxiots had inherited Human form, then why not Human waste? She got up and trudged on miserably, her feet clacking on the concrete sewer sidewalk. The talking-bird incident still troubled Proxima. What if her target knew she was coming? What if he knew what she looked like? What her plan was? What if someone was waiting for her in this sewer itself, to dispatch her and then leave her bloated corpse to float down their filthy Nile? Proxima shook her head, and tarried on – trying to focus.
She looked up at the toilets in the ceiling, passing them by – feeling she wasn’t yet deep enough into the barracks. Dyonuxiot toilets were a little more than holes in the ground, and their… business landed in this sewer. Perhaps, for courtesy’s sake, none of the ‘holes’ were directly above the sidewalks. Still, there was always a large splash when anything fell through. Proxima quickened her pace a little, and stopped, at last, once she was satisfied that she was deep enough into the military territory. She looked behind her, and saw the hundred different tunnels, and faced forward only to find another hundred tunnels. She wondered briefly if she’d ever get out of this filthy Hades, but then turned her attention to the ceiling.
First things first, she thought, I have to kill Rustin. There has to be a way out, just like there a way in.
Shaking the doubt out of her head, she listened intently for any sign of movement. She counted to thirty in her head, and satisfied that there were no users above, she began to climb the arched wall towards the holes. Again, it was better said than done. Slippery, filthy and brittle; Proxima couldn’t help but gag every time her hands made a squelching sound.
“I swear Sheldon will pay for this,” she muttered, “Wait ‘til I have his head in a bloody toilet. I’ll flush it so many times; he’ll learn to crap out of his mouth!”
She set eyes on the rim of the nearest toilet, and stared a moment. She reached out a hand, still hanging, and found her fingers were just able to brush against the edge.
Not good enough, she thought.
She held the ledge once more, both hands gripping tight, aware that she was dangling like a fish on a line. Proxima closed her eyes. She knew how to overcome this situation. Cato had taught her, years ago, when she was a little kid struggling with monkey-bars. Swing. That was the trick. Swing. Only back then, there were the protective arms of Cato below, to catch her if she fell. Now there was a river of sewage flowing, vicious, and waiting to engulf her – maybe even kill her – if she fell. Proxima pushed all thoughts aside.
There’ll be time to be sloppy-sad when I get this done, she thought.
She took a deep breath. Time stood still. She tightened her grip on the ledge.
Proxima moved her legs forward and brought them back.
The laws of physics helped pull her back and forth, back and forth.
Her mind screaming, Proxima let go – eyes wide with fear, but determined. Time slowed once more, as Proxima’s hands scrambled wildly to catch the rim.
Her left hand slipped.
But her right latched on.
Allowing herself a small sigh, Proxima brought up her left arm to hold the edge on which she’d almost completely missed, and hauled herself up through the hole.
Both feet now firmly on the ground, she examined the cubicle. It was large. The floor was tiled, black and white; the walls were painted a light blue; and from the ceiling hung a single naked bulb. There was a basin, a mirror glued to the wall above it, and a bathtub also. Proxima nodded and her hands trembled for no particular reason – probably still trying to shake off the fear of the few minutes that had passed – then removed her hood. She removed her coat, her tunic, her pants, her thermals. She slipped off her boots, and her sword clattered to the floor and she unstrapped the belt. Only keeping a diamond-edged dagger in her hand, Proxima stood behind the door, half-naked, and listened attentively.
* * * * *
Sweyn was a fussy veteran. He didn’t like freshmen, and he didn’t like the new sanction allowing females to join the Fyddin either. And he let it show.
“Rustin’s gotta be mad!” he’d once said, “Allowin’ all these fresh-faces into the ranks. And the women!” he’d slapped his forehead; “They wouldn’t even know how to get their pampered hands around a gun’s trigger if their bloomin’ lives depended on it!”
“They can be… trained, sir,” said a colleague sheepishly.
Sweyn had spat, “Trained?! Pah! To be a soldier, you have to be born one! These young ‘uns don’t know the bloomin’ difference between ketchup and blood! While us veterans had been trained like wild dogs from the days we were born, these fresh-faces are being going to be trained now?!”
“Sir… they are quite young. They can be… conditioned into becoming good soldiers,” the colleague persisted.
“How old are they?”
“Fifteen, sir, most of them.”
Sweyn shook his head, “Awful. They’ll never grasp anything. You’ll see. Wait ‘til they be put on the frontlines – they’ll be swatted like flies by those bloody Human novices. The Fyddin will lose its rep thanks to them.”
“I’m sure General Rustin knows what he’s doing, sir.”
“Fat chance of that. He won’t be the one trained the sluggish lot.”
“And there’ve been reports of a conspiracy against him.”
“Ha! A conspiracy? Against Rustin? Like that’ll ever happen! If you ask me, Rustin’s been jumpin’ at shadows. The Queen herself wouldn’t lift a finger against him, let alone a gang of conspirers!” Sweyn had shaken his head a second time, “Bloomin’ new recruits! They so much as piss out of turn, they’ll be a getting’ a caning they’ll never forget! Not for the next couple of decades!”
Despite this, Sweyn was a good soldier and refused to be anything but that. He often trained the new-comers – whilst having a vine-cane for his sidekick – and, though he had a seething temper, he was respected.
He trotted down the corridors of the Capital Barracks, when a soldier brushed passed him.
“Oi! You there!” he called.
The soldier froze and turned slowly towards him, shivering in his uniform.
“Name?” said Sweyn.
“Adrian, sir,” he said.
Sweyn looked the young soldier up and down. The boy had dark hair and skin; he was skinnier than a professional 100-metre racer and had the profile of everything you’d expect in a farmhand.
“You new here?” barked Sweyn, hands on his hips.
The boy nodded furiously.
“Hmm,” Sweyn straightened a little, “Well, this is no place for a newcomer. Shouldn’t you be outside?”
“The General called for me, sir.”
“To tell everyone to get in line, sir.”
“Well,” Sweyn pointed at his chest, “then you should know: I’m going to be your drills master. And if you want to survive here in the Fyddin – you’d better start watching where you’re going and who you’re bumping into. Understood?”
The boy nodded again, “Yessir.”
Sweyn grunted, and turned round without waiting for the boy to leave.
Bloomin’ children! he thought angrily, How can you send that kind onto the battlefield?
He made his way to the bathroom, now more aware of the cheap Methist wine that was about to burst his bladder. He swung the door open and stepped in. There were several spacious cubicles to one side – all unoccupied. There were basins on the other side, and three hand-driers standing next to them. He picked a cubicle at random, but as soon as he opened the door his eyes widened.
He didn’t have time to think, as a sharp object was thrust into his cranium; causing his body to go rigid for a split second and then – stillness…
* * * * *
Proxima walked through the Capital Barracks, looking around, using the time to admire the spectacle. It looked like a historical sight that she would have loved to visit as a child with Cato yammering on about it. Anglo-Saxons, this; and Puritan, that; and so-on. He would have loved this place if he had set his sights on it. Proxima slipped a hand under her tunic and itched her shoulder.
Sweyn’s uniform was bit large for her, but it was manageable. When the poor fellow had dropped to the floor, dead, there wasn’t much blood to clean up. Just some from the back of his neck, where Proxima had attacked him, and some that had dribbled out of his mouth. She donned his uniform – the tunic being a perfect fit, but the jacket on top being large and long. The pants had also been a struggle to put on, but she managed to wear them by tightening the belt as far as she could. Sweyn’s boot were a complete no-no – she would be tripping over her feet every few seconds because of their giant size – so she wore her own boots and hoped that no one would notice. She then put on her sword belt once more, strapped Sweyn’s rifle onto her back and placed all her daggers as was appropriate. She also removed anything that could have passed as a badge of honor from the uniform – so she would only appear as a new-be. And, finally, she dumped Sweyn’s body – stripped down to his loin-cloth – in the bathtub, thrust her remaining belongings in a dark corner and locked the cubicle door from the outside; before heading out of the barracks and looking for others that were to join her as a new recruit.
A finger tapped her shoulder, and she spun around – trying to act as normal as possible – and looked at a face, sparking with curiosity.
“You new here?” he said, trying to put some power in his voice.
Proxima smirked, “I am,” she said, “Are you?”
The young soldier frowned at her, “What are you smiling at?”
“Your macho act,” she gave a hand, “and failure.”
He laughed and shook her hand, “The name’s Adrian. What’s yours?”
“Ariadne,” said Proxima, not wanting to use her other alias, “I’m a bit lost. Any idea where we’re meant to be?”
Adrian nodded, “Come. You’re sorta late, but I guess you ain’t the latest. Everyone’s linin’ up.”
“One more thing: once you’re in line – no talking. Our drills master ain’t a pretty face.”
Proxima laughed lightly at that, “Yes. The only one that seems to have a ‘pretty’ face is you, Adrian.”
Adrian turned on her, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she said, smiling, “Just teasing.”
Adrian sighed. People always teased him for his somewhat effeminate features. He rolled his eyes and said, “Come on, or we’ll be getting a caning.”
Adrian led Proxima to an open field, their boots sounding on the gravel as they trudged towards their line. Many new recruits had joined, and there were separate lines for those in different groups. Proxima joined Adrian’s line without any fuss, so he assumed that she belonged to their cohort. He took a brief glance at her. She was a pretty girl – long red hair, fair skin, a sprinkle of freckles, a small diagonal cut on her forehead, and a good smell – but there was something… unnerving about her. Perhaps it was her bright green eyes – they held something cold, something sinister, something… something painful. Proxima looked at him, and he looked away immediately.
“Problem?” she asked.
Adrian shook his head and didn’t say anything more.
“WHERE IS THAT BLASTED VETERAN!?”
Everyone snapped their heads forward, all mouths clamped shut and all senses alert. General Jier Rustin stood in front of his new recruits. He looked exactly like the projection from the Imocs. Proxima shivered again. She still could not imagine herself killing such a man. The very sight of the General wanted to make her say ‘Uncle Cat!’ and hide behind Cato. She allowed herself a fearful sigh.
Rustin eyed each of his new recruits, the eyes of a wolf scrutinizing a flock of timid sheep.
He straightened, and cleared his throat, “Your drills master appears to be absent,” he said, his powerful voice unhindered by the veil covering the lower half of his face, “Drunk as a monk, no doubt. Since he’s away, I’ll have to inspect each of you. It would have been a little different if Major Sweyn was here, but it’s not much of a problem.” He walked towards one of his lieutenants and said, “Find Sweyn. When you do, tell him he’s going to get a good bollocking for not showing up.”
The lieutenant nodded, scurried off.
Where is he? thought Rustin.
Sweyn was a drunken womanizer; but he wasn’t one to miss a gathering like this – even if the Major hated the guts of each and every ‘fresh-face’. Rustin pondered on Sweyn for a moment longer, before turning his attention to the recruits once more. Rustin sighed, indignantly.
Which one is it? he thought, If only Kaw hadn’t disappeared. She would have been able to help me.
He scrutinized all the young faces once more. One of them caught his eye. He pointed, “You!” he barked, “Step forward!”
Proxima looked about her, and her eyes widened – realizing that Rustin was pointing at her.
Stay calm, she thought, Just stay calm.
She walked forward. There was a whisper amongst the recruits.
“Shut up, the lot of you!” yelled one of Rustin’s lieutenants, “Or you won’t have tongues when we send you all crying back to your bloody mothers!”
There was silence once more. Proxima felt her temples throbbing, and cold perspiration running down her back.
You’ll be fine, she thought in vain.
Rustin looked her in the face, and paced around her – taking in all her could from her outward appearance.
“State your name,” he said.
“A-Ariadne,” she responded, stammering.
Nothing peculiar about that, thought Rustin.
Something strange about that smell… he thought, But she is a girl…
Rustin still refused to believe that she was an average soldier. There was something wrong with her; he could feel it in his guts. And if he found that there wasn’t, there would be no harm done and no harm in checking.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ll test you first,” he gestured towards the buildings, “Come. The session is private.”
Proxima gulped, and nodded – following Rustin into his den. And possibly into her grave.