I’m currently editing the next exciting instalment in the Galactic Division series. How have the dramatic events of Initiation affected the team? Have they overcome their issues with each other? And what are the implications of their shocking discovery? These questions will be answered when Occupation is released at the end of this month. Until then, though, I have a treat for you. The first chapter of Occupation is ready now, and available for all to read completely free.
“OK, I think they’re coming. You ready?” Antonia fixed me a look with sharp brown eyes. “It’s gonna work this time Milo, come on.”
I flexed my hands, steadying my rifle. Sure enough, I heard footfall. Though faint, it grew louder with each step. The Arena was a huge room, with every surface a hard, rigid material. Every sound, no matter how quiet, carried through. I slowed my breathing, concentrating on staying deathly quiet. We couldn’t afford to give ourselves away. My hands were sweating beneath my gloves. After a few more tense seconds, the familiar charcoal grey of armour entered my line of sight, past the rock I was using as cover, blocking my view of Antonia across from me. One hostile soldier passed. Then, two more on either side, and one step behind. A triangle formation. I had lined my shot up on the lead, but had to bring my rifle around to the more pressing threat. He was focused ahead. They were watching the sides. Both Antonia and I were immediately spotted.
Training my rifle on the nearest of the two spotters, I felt the increasingly familiar pressure of the trigger beneath my finger. A shot rang out. Either Antonia had caught her target, or they had been quicker on the draw. My money would have been on the former. Just as I was about to squeeze the trigger, I hesitated. An involuntary reaction. Another shot rang out, and that was my death knell. I looked across just in time to see Antonia avenge me, before the lead hostile turned and took her out.
“Dammit, Milo,” Antonia hissed under he breath as she stomped past me. Kicking at the faux rock in anger, I followed her lead, as we made our way to the sidelines of the massive Arena. I followed her silently until we reached one of the benches of shame tucked away from the battleground floor.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Antonia held a hand up.
“Yeah, I know,” she told me. She shook her head slowly, not even looking at me. I felt heat rise to my face, but I tried to quell my shame. “Milo, I don’t know, maybe you need to speak to someone.” It wasn’t an unexpected suggestion, and was something that I’d been wondering about myself since our return to the Anastasia.
“It’ll just take time,” I assured her. “It was… a lot. I just need to process it.” Antonia turned to face me.
“I don’t know if time is something we’ve got, though. If we really are going back, we need to be ready. I mean properly ready, like never before.”
“You really think we’re going back?” I asked her. “No-one’s mentioned anything since that debrief.”
“Nah, he was just being dramatic, you could tell.” Casper joined us seemingly from nowhere. “You see the way he shut up as soon as he said it? It was just talk.” Despite everything we’d been through several days previously, Casper seemed to have taken it all in his stride. In fact, he seemed almost happy. “So what happened to you guys?”
“Don’t ask,” Antonia said, shaking her head again.
“No, you can ask. I screwed up.” I didn’t mind admitting it. I’d tried to hide for too long from my inadequacies. “What about you? They got you early!”
“I was creating a distraction, so Tasia could sneak away,” he shrugged. “I thought you guys were gonna get them anyway, so I wasn’t too bothered. Did you get any of them?” Antonia held two fingers up. “So it’s Tasia against two of them? She’s got this.” I didn’t share his optimism. We’d all done extraordinarily well on our unscheduled rescue mission, but despite our promotion to Level 2 Scouts, we hadn’t become elite soldiers overnight. The squad we were taking on had also been on a couple of successful missions, though not, I would guess, anything as eventful as ours. Casper’s words were proven wrong after just a couple of minutes, when a flurry of shots rang out, then Tasia joined us several seconds later.
“What are you apologising for? You lasted longer than any of us,” Antonia told her. “Did you take any of them out?”
“One,” she said. “I caught them by surprise. I just wasn’t fast enough to get the second one before she got me.”
“I wonder if we’re done yet,” I said. Antonia gave me a disappointed look.
“We’ve only been at it about forty minutes, Milo. You more than anyone should embrace the chance to improve.” I rolled my eyes. I was struggling, it was true. I didn’t think it was something that would be helped with more simulated bouts, though. I needed a break. Unfortunately, it turned out we weren’t done. We began a cycle of hostage rounds. The other squad had one more member than us, and so a different one of them would act as hostage each time. We were the first up to try to keep the hostage hidden and protected.
“If you run, or shout out, I swear, I am not gonna be a happy man,” Casper told him. He was the other team’s sharpshooter, which boded well for us. With their best target-person out of the game, we had a distinct advantage.
“OK, so obviously, Toni is our key person,” Tasia said. “We need to keep our hostage in a position that she can easily cover. That means somewhere relatively open.”
“Won’t that make it easier for the other team to find him?” I pointed out.
“That’s the idea. If they can see him, they’re more likely to risk moving out into the open to rescue him. That exposes them perfectly so that Toni can take them out.”
“Doesn’t that seem a bit too obvious, though? I mean, aren’t they gonna see him out in the middle of the floor, and know that something’s up?”
“Maybe, but they still have to get him. In order to win, at some point they have to reach him. When we did this the last time, keeping the hostage tucked away in an enclosed location actually helped the rescue operation.”
“It’s harder to protect a tight area,” Antonia agreed, “it affects our visibility as much as it does theirs. We stick him right in the middle of the arena, and hide out around him. Anyone trying to go in gets caught in the crossfire.”
So we deposited our hostage on a low, flat rock in an open area at our end of the room. Antonia went off to find somewhere high to snipe from, whilst the rest of us took closer positions surrounding our prisoner. I found a rock that was almost an l-shape, providing me a decent amount of cover from three directions. I could not, unfortunately, see over it to shoot, as it was just too high. As it was facing away from our hostage as well, if and when I had to do any shooting I’d need to lean around it, which would take away some of the benefit. Still, though, I was pretty proud of the little hole I’d found myself. I made a mental note to look out for it in future, though the rock formation was definitely different to the last time we’d been in there.
I waited several minutes, hoping they’d stretch out into more, desperate for the exercise to be over. I was starting to feel pressure from the rest of the squad, Antonia really, to improve my simulation performances. Never mind that I’d survived in a real-life combat situation against overwhelming odds. That apparently wasn’t good enough. I hated when the focus was on me. It made me tense, which only served to further impact my performances for the worse.
All too soon, though, the gunfire started. Casper and Tasia were closer to our opponents half than I was, and I was relying on their shooting to alert me to their approach. Easing my way around the edge of my rock, I looked around, trying to pinpoint exactly where the fighting was happening. I could see our prisoner from my vantage point; I’d made sure of that. I couldn’t, though, see anyone else. Antonia would be well hidden wherever she was, I knew, and it was pointless even trying to pick her out. I had no idea where the other two were either, though, and I couldn’t make out any of our attackers either. After a couple of minutes listening to shots being traded, I decided to get a bit closer, see if I could get the drop on someone. Not that I was overly eager to get involved, it was just that I was getting a bit bored.
As soon as I stepped out from behind my rock, two hostiles appeared across on the other side of the hostage, a few metres away from him. They were keeping a look out over their shoulders, presumably to check if Tasia or Casper were in pursuit. I was a bit of a distance away, but I had a clear line to them, and they were moving slowly towards me. It was my chance to show that I could be a productive squad member. I couldn’t get down on one knee, my favoured shooting position. I’d have been too low then, the rock the hostage was on forming too much of a barrier. Picking a target, I trained my sight over her. I had her dead centre, not moving at all. I just had to pull the trigger. I stood there, perfectly still, ready to take her out. But I couldn’t do it. It’s impossible to describe the mental block. No harm would have come to her, and it would go some way to getting Antonia off of my back. Still, for some reason, I just couldn’t go through the simple process of pulling back the trigger.
A shot rang out. The girl looked down, and realised she’d been hit. Her companion looked around, spotting me. Instinctively, I adjusted my aim so my sight was pointed at his chest. Whether I would have been able to hit him at that distance or not, I’ll never know. He shot, a grin appearing on his face as my suit registered the hit. Then another shot exploded from on high, and he was also out of the game. Antonia had taken them both down. With a growl of frustration, I made my way to the loser’s bench. I’d hoped I’d gotten away with it, but when the match was over, the one bout that had seen our squad victorious, Antonia marched straight over to me.
“You could have cost us the bout,” she hissed at me. I looked her right in the eyes, my brain ticking over, trying to find the words that might placate her. In the end, I looked down at the floor, mumbling a pathetic apology. We swapped ends with the other team, and prepared for our turn to try to rescue the hostage.
“We’re Level 2 Scouts. How did we lose to these jokers?” Casper said later on, as we removed our armour.
“I don’t think we can reasonably lean on an arbitrary promotion,” I replied. He looked hurt.
“Arbitrary? We went through Hell to get that promotion!” He wasn’t wrong, but it still felt meaningless to me.
“It wasn’t a complete disaster,” Antonia said as we walked back into the Arena entrance area. “We’re changing up our tactics. We’re getting the kills. If you look at how we were when we started the Evaluation, we’ve developed. We just need to get past our personal flaws.” Casper looked himself up and down.
“Flaws? What flaws?”
“We all have things we need to work on,” Tasia giggled from behind us. “Some physical, some mental. At least we’re working as a team now. Well, most of the time.” She shot a look at me and Casper.
“Hey, it was his idea!” he protested.
“Yeah, but the problem was, you listened to it,” Antonia retorted. “We agreed on a strategy, and you deviated from it.”
“Sometimes, that’s what you have to do to stay alive,” I pointed out. “A strategy is only good for as long as it’s working. When it isn’t working, you need to be ready to adapt. If we’ve learnt anything these past weeks, it’s surely that.” Antonia pouted, but didn’t argue. I may have been struggling with some things, but I had at last earned everyone’s respect.
“As long as we’re only changing tack when it needs to be changed. But yeah, we are working together more like a team now. That’s good.”
“I wonder if that’ll be the case once Liberty’s back,” Casper said.
“Cas! Don’t say things like that.” Tasia looked at him disapprovingly.
“How’s she doing, anyway?” I asked.
“You haven’t been to see her yet?” Antonia asked in surprise.
“I’ve been busy,” I shrugged
“Well I suggest you go see her, Milo. Before they let her out.”