Chapter 37 Squad Selection

Maybe hope can be bought and time shared and joy spread and the whole world can be at peace.

Then again maybe not.

“On behalf of our great city, and the Janiform Gemma and all the military and academic personnel who work hard everyday making Garghent a better place, on behalf of Professor Vandle who spent countless hours as trainer, and I, Principle Makleod of the Garghent Elite Military Cadet High School for the Savant, hereby declare the 8th Savant class, the finest group of students, Specters and future soldiers our city has ever seen, as officially graduating with the highest honors in aptitude and courage, intelligence and strength. You’ve done all of us proud. Serve our great city with the same conviction you met your studies with, that is to say head on and with a purpose.”

The speech continued on its run-on sentence style for quite a while. Already there were hours of speeches before, a band and even a parade of academic professors from Garghent’s most prominent universities who had a hand in formulating the curriculum, which for the record, Hales was still bitter about. Three years worth of schooling completed in a single year. Not to mention keeping peak physical shape, sustaining a high proficiency in weapons accuracy and her own personal captain training she had attended for the last half of the year. 

Hales daydreamed during most of the ceremony, save perhaps for Professor Vandle’s sweet and mercifully short speech. The whole affair dragged on all day and still afterwards was the military induction ceremony following this graduation ceremony. Hales and her class were lined up in a row on the podium, dressed formally in suites and ties. 

Out of the original twenty-five, only eighteen were graduating today. Yillo failed his exam and would need an additional six months of extended classes. Jonatan would not graduate as he was killed by Yillo, a plain as day cloud to see surrounding his mood as he took his own failure as punishment and justice.

Antho was off somewhere doing underground vigilante work. Lo, Aulus and Winnow had been recruited to Aceldama, the travelling force of peacekeepers, the new school way of peace keeping; launching into the atmosphere and dropping in on high threat targets to apprehend if possible and kill if necessary. Garriot still was nowhere to be found, his goblin apparently teleporting him off the face of the world.

The military wanted all twenty-five, but eighteen was still far higher than anyone should expect or deserve. A group this large with powers is unprecedented, even if it is seven less than anticipated. 

Hales adjusted her tie as she sought out Master Klyle in the crowd, the lion-man responsible for this dispensary of Aspects, who was nowhere to be found. Likely off in some mission as he was one of the military’s most effective assets. Training young students to enlightenment was just one of his potential uses. Attending a graduation ceremony is a gross waste of that time and usefulness for someone of his caliber, that’s what the Generals would say. He awakened twenty-five students, ‘Great, moving on to the next task…’

“Please join us for the post graduation banquet, thank you.”

It was over! Hales audibly sighed, to which a few strange glances were given to her. Hales didn’t care, she could wipe out the entire audience if she wanted to. She reflected on an old daydream she had during the tournament last year. Could I defeat everyone in the entire tournament myself? It was an interesting question, if not a little macabre. Still, it’s a fun thought-experiment, looking at it objectively. Fighting an entire crowd of armed guards and super-powered humans. Failing to come in first place would be an easy indicator that she would not have succeeded in that battle but what about now? Was she strong enough to take them all on now, a year later? She was certainly stronger than before, but so too would everyone else be. And what of Qortiko, the Salt Specter dressed in desert robes and adorned with piercings all over, the boy who had won the tournament, how strong is he now? 

Hales found herself among her peers and various other students from the school as well as parents, officers, professors and other faculty and staff members. The time was a couple hours past noon and so the banquet served lunch and refreshments to the mingling crowd.

“Ah! Miss Ailor, so good to see you. Congratulations on your successful graduation.” Hales turned to find that the speaker was Mathis, one of the tournament butlers that kept communication between participants and the wealthy observers. In particular Mathis relayed messages for the Gentleman Rabio. Gentleman being a term for very wealthy citizens when used formally. Rabio had accrued his wealth by placing clever bets on various business ventures and most notably, Specter tournaments. He never lost a bet due to some uncanny ability for predicting the outcome of fights. Oddly enough there is no account of him having an Aspect.

“Rabio still trying to claim his prize?” Said Hales icily. She had denied his offer of employment, her duty to her classmates and family weighing out her decision to stay in the military, though normally joining a war based institution would be her last option. The benefits of a steady income and a slightly more predictable lifestyle, at least compared to a shady aristocrat, presented itself as the more prudent choice.

“The Gentleman Rabio merely wished to convey his good will and regret in a failed relationship.” 

Mathis was doing his job, Hales knew that, but still, hearing that selection of words disgusted her.

“I don’t know what Rabio is scheming, but if he ends up on the wrong side then make sure he knows not to bet against me.” Hales was clearly on edge, though Mathis, ever the professional and ever in character, answered diplomatically. He bowed respectfully, acknowledging Hales’ contempt. “Rabio had an answer prepared in the event that you felt that way, may I?”

Hales let a hand up in compliance, though her expression remained suspicious.

“That is precisely what Rabio is attempting to avoid. He wants you to know he bears no ill will nor any grudge toward you.”

“How benevolent,” Hales retorted.

Mathis continued, “He is giving his word that should you two meet again that it can be with a fresh start and open minds, neither friends nor enemies.”

“Of course.” Hales relented, knowing that she’d never find peace until Mathis got the answer Rabio wanted. Hales made to leave.

“One more thing, miss Ailor.” She paused. “He wants your word that upon your next encounter it will be as a fresh start and an open mind.”

How much did Rabio know? Hales only recently had been briefed on her first assignment during captain school, an operation classified from any non-ranked military persons.

“You have my word.” Hales finished and walked away. Mathis bowed, regardless of the fact she left.

The banquet turned out to be more about procuring favors and establishing connections. Hales had none of it, only politely nodding and greeting through the motions, committing no faces or names to memory.

A few more words were spoken at the end of the banquet and those involved in the military were led to the largest base on Garghent a few blocks away. That group ended up consisting mainly of the graduating high schoolers.

Reaching the base made the whole thing so much more real. This was it. A life of war. Hales found herself okay with it. Not necessarily excited but she had grown out of most of the unease and existentialism she harbored toward the military. Having an Aspect helped a lot in that department. Acquiring a taste for fighting helped with the rest. Hales enjoyed the display of skill and technique rather than the brutal violence of bloodlust. Developing new strategies and attacks was fun for her, it gave her abstract mind something to work on as she compared and imagine-battled every single Specter she had met. She often won those mock mental duels, a little bias sure but in her defense she usually won them in reality.

The base looked more like a behemoth with gaping maw and jagged spikes of stalagmites on the rounded ceiling made to look like a shell. The implication of the architecture was clear, this was Garghent’s primary military headquarters, and therefore the first line of defense. Yet if prodded the shelled beast could snap back. That’s what the design implied. The history said that it lended itself to purely an offensive institution and the shell made it invincible to counter attacks. 

The building was both impressive and massive, not that it was Hales’ first time seeing or even entering the base, but soon she would officially be working here, at least when she wasn’t on battlefields.

“Welcome back to fort Tytuhn, sir.” Said a middle aged soldier at the gate, he was saluting and grinning widely at Professor Vandle. The two clearly had fought alongside each other as certain facial expressions could only be given after experiencing and surviving a horror such as war together. Hales wondered if she would make such bonds with soldiers, especially as captain. Perhaps she would try being the cold and cool leader like the ones in movies. 

“I’m only stopping by to drop off this batch of young warriors.” Vandle said while returning the salute.

“A lot of kids,” The guard remarked skeptically.

“Kids? I only bring men and women.” Vandle said proudly.

“They look like newborn pups!”

“Careful my friend, these dogs have got long leashes and short tempers.”

The guard looked over the group again and saw all the steel in their oddly hungry eyes. He reconsidered as his soldier’s instinct told him they all could kill him in a heartbeat. They were Savants with deadly powers after all.

He stammered under the scrutiny of so many dangerous eyes. “Get… going then. Ceremony won’t induct itself.” He muttered at the end. Vandle chuckled at his discomfort and ushered his class in. A few more groups of graduating students each led by their professors followed behind, though they lacked powers they still were joining the military alongside the Savant class.

The emphasis for the day was on the Savants, but all newly graduated students would officially be soldiers after this ceremony.

The inside of the building was less dramatic than the outside, halls and offices, and kiosks for coffee and food, and meeting rooms, and plenty of elevators and staircases leading to hidden floors, and underground armories lined the interior. The three main Generals of the Battlefield division worked here, Draje the wizard, Vecar the scholar and Antaran the silver duelist. As the HQ of the military they handled the main operations and the overall direction and action Garghent took for all things war related.

Vandle led his class straight into the ceremony hall. It was already set up, only the Generals had to arrive. Hales eased into her assigned chair at the front row. Normally Yillo would have that seat as his last name was first alphabetically. She wondered how he was dealing with all this, it seemed rather unfair that he had been failed. 

Dartan sat to her right and started rambling on about something. Hales only realized he was talking to her after a few sporadic sentences. “Can’t believe he’s here for this, I mean it makes sense I just didn’t ever consider a ceremony like this to be important enough for him.”

“Slow down! Who?” Hales had to ask after missing the pronoun. Her first thought was Master Klyle and her excitement immediately piqued.

Dartan gave a look then remembered who he was talking to and that zoning out was Hales’ specialty. “Uh, Janiform Gemma!”

That was pretty unbelievable. “Where, I don’t see him.” Hales glanced around and didn’t notice anything except for military uniforms.

“He’s over there on the podium, behind the curtains.” Hales assumed that curtain had some sort of plaque or a table of medals or something ceremonious behind it, not the ruler of Garghent.

“Why is he behind that?”

“Because he always is. He never shows his face, that blue curtain hides him wherever he goes.” Dartan explained it like that was just a normal attribute, like having a weird hairdo or a strange pair of shoes or some other peculiar physical feature.

“Why does he do that?”

“He just does, Hales. He’s the Janiform, no one sees him.” 

“That doesn’t really make sense. Whatever. Why is he here then?”

“No idea.” Dartan said and glanced at the curtain, he turned to talk to someone else with less ‘obvious’ questions.

Hales shrugged and waited for the procession of Generals and other high-rankers. This ceremony began with much less adieu than the graduation had. Getting straight to the point with only a few introductory statements and the formal naming of all officers present as well of course as a bow in honor of the Janiform’s presence, a presence behind a blue curtain.

“He’s being treated like a divine being,” Hales muttered under her breath.  

One by one the names of each and every student were called. The process was simple, walk up to the podium, accept the creed to defend and honor the city with your life, salute the Generals, bow in the Janiform’s direction and receive a shoulder sleeve insignia of your rank and status. For Hales and a select few others that rank would be captain, for everyone else it was private class, common foot soldiers. Soldiers with Aspects received an additional insignia signaling they were Savants.

Hales was thankful she was first and could get it over with, now all she had to do was watch her classmates join her in the military. The one caveat of the ceremony was she had to remain standing for the entirety of the process. The suit and tie made sure she wouldn’t be comfortable doing so.

But it’s crazy, her mind wondered, that we have made it to this point. Awakening her Aspect was something people dream of without actually achieving and to do while in highschool was closer to an impossibility than it was to a practicality. Even a year later it still sometimes blew her mind that it was real. That she really did exist and that she could attain even the slightest bit of oneness with herself and nature. Everyday she woke up still with powers felt surreal, it’s like owning a slice of the universe, something that should be left out of the greedy hands of mankind. 

Not that Hales would ever consider giving up her power, she was too obsessed with it. But still, out of principle she thought humans would likely be better off without them, however since humans did have them… May as well enjoy it as one of the lucky few who have a power. Though luck would discount all her years of studying and hard work to get into the school that would then train her through more hard work and studying until finally the day of Awakening occurs. 

Hales could still remember that day as vividly as it had happened. Sitting under the freezing cold waterfall for an hour, losing feeling in her skin, lips turning blue from the onset of hypothermia. Instead of retreating into her psyche, she had let everything go, let her self feel nothing, no memory, no thought, no cold, no anything. In that void she had discovered a vast expanse of space, not empty space but outer space. The space of stars and planets and supernovas and asteroids and gravity and wonder. When at last her eyes opened, flashing with the glint of a million microscopic stars, her Aspect was awakened, activated, decided, whatever the process is. She had an Aspect, connecting with the universe in a way perhaps more literal than others had. Solar. The word blared in her mind as if she had known it all along. From that day the course of her life was altered forever.

Now she was a captain in the military and the strongest Specter in her class. In a group such as this, everyone believed in their own talent to the point of superlatives, Hales did have the repertoire to back her claim up though.

The military must have recognized this as she was given the first choice in drafting her squad. 

“Captain Hales Ailor, now that the induction formalities have concluded, please select a Specter to have on your squad. Remember, squads can have two other Specters and four soldiers, making seven in total, including yourself.” Cull Marcarios, the captain trainer and her commanding officer, said while giving a slight nod to her. He was interested in the team she was going to select. Over the months he had seen the potential for strategy and the raw power she wielded. Professor Vandle looked doubly interested in what her selection would be, as he had taught her for years.

The truth was that all of her first picks weren’t available. For some reason she wanted Veron, the Jinx Aspect, in her squad yet she had already been picked up by the Espionage division and Juy Feigh, the Moonblink Aspect was a squad captain herself. Juy could benefit from Hales’ moons, giving her more potential during daylight hours. Yillo had failed so of course he was out too. Magun got picked up by General Criue in the Heavy Weapons division. 

Hales wanted to draft someone with powers she already knew worked well with her own, she was reluctant to even consider some of the other Specters outside of her own class, which there were about a dozen of. All older men and women who had served at least a few years and whose squads either had been disbanded or killed. 

The captains had months of preparation for this selection process, however Hales had ignored the files and decided long ago she’d just wing it when the time came.

Hales looked around at the assortment of Specters and special forces soldiers lined up in rows. Hales had a good look at everyone since she stood on the raised podium. There were soldiers with machine guns, snipers, assault rifles, swords, crossbows, rocket launchers and one guy even had a flame thrower. Not a single one of these soldiers looked inadequate for war. Hales didn’t like any of them at first.

She did see one soldier standing a few rows back who seemed to be as bored as she was as his eyes hung heavy and his attention was focused on what was probably something on the person in front of him. He had an unkempt beard and hair that grew wildly under his helmet. He didn’t have any guns on him and he wasn’t in the Specter group. 

Hales stepped down and approached him. “You, soldier, what’s your name?”

The man was caught off guard and made a lazy salute as he almost slurred his words, “Private Saccha, weapon jack, captain Ailor.” Weapon jack was a term that loosely meant at least an average proficiency in a dozen or more different killing tools. Hales, at the time, did not know what that meant as it was an older phrase rarely used.

“What’s your specialty? I don’t see any weapons on you.” Hales inquired, ignorant that his first response clarified that already.

Private Saccha swaggered, “Well I can use just ‘bout anything with a barrel on the business end of stick.” 

Hales once again didn’t really know what that meant, but it sounded like guns. Her social anxiety skyrocketed as she was too worried about looking stupid because if she passed on him then people might think she didn’t understand his value. 

“I’ll draft private Saccha.” She declared.

“It’ll be my pleasure.” He said, surprised he had been drafted. In all his ten years of service not a single squad had selected him in the draft process and so he constantly moved to fill in wherever he was needed.

Professor Vandle made a face that probably equated facepalming and Marcarios smirked at her first choice as valedictorian of the captain program. Hales didn’t know, couldn’t have known that private Saccha had a reputation.

“Interesting choice,” Said General Vecar quietly to another General. Not only did Hales not select a Specter for her first choice, but she had chosen someone without really knowing his skillset. He was a survivor though, ten years on the front lines is respectable no matter what kind of reputation you had. 

Genjam was next and he drafted Dartan, the Rule Aspect. Uana drafted Hido the Guardian, her long time friend and teammate. The two made for an effective dynamic, though without Jillian they lacked a balanced offense. Luckily for Uana, she was able to convince one of the directors to move her from the Defense division into the Battlefield division, the current division they were in. Somehow Uana already had pull, and she just now officially joined the military. Everyone knew not to draft Jillian so Uana’s trio could be complete.

Xander drafted a Specter that was an alumni of a previous class. A majority of Hales’ class had been recruited by the different Generals so the options were very limited. Even Abajem had to join the Odd division along with Hijo.

Bregan drafted the flamethrower guy. The element of fire was too valuable to risk losing to another captain.

Corven and Juy both seemed to pick people they knew and suddenly it was back to Hales.

Hales considered herself to be fairly well rounded in terms of her ability and her first choice also had a broad skillset which left Hales contemplating if she should continue down the route of utility or add in more specialty. 

A communication and engineer technician caught her eye. Someone good with technology was vital, she decided.

Genjam drafted a hard eyed sniper and already his team looked devastating, having a Color and a Code Specter with a long ranged support, who could himself be boosted by Dartan’s power. 

Uana drafted Jillian of course, and Xander selected another older Specter Hales didn’t recognize.

Bregan picked up an ‘electrician’, a special forces soldier armed with tasers, stun guns, batons and what looked like some sort of experimental rifle that likely shot out an electric blast. The soldier had been a long-time member of Marcarios’ squad, as his electricity could amplify and be amplified by the Cull’s Fulmen Aspect.

Bregan definitely earned his nickname as sorcerer as he built his squad around his own ability, giving him powerful elements to combine with. It’s a strategy called min-maxing, as one puts all their focus into a single ability to maximize its potential while ignoring every other area, or minimizing any component that doesn’t directly add to that one skill.

Juy and Corven both drafted their second Specter. Hales felt a little better after Bregan didn’t draft any Specters either but his reasoning had more to do with the fact that synthesizing elements from another Savant usually gave poor results .

With her third choice, Hales added a woman with a sharp countenance, she was a type of soldier known as a ‘terrainer’, essentially an all purpose survivalist, someone who could track, orient their position and thrive in any biome under any conditions. A glorified wilderness expert trained to kill for an army.

Hales stopped recognizing her fellow captains’ draft choices and only paid attention to Bregan’s team, as his was the most interesting to her. It followed a similar strategy as her own impromptu plan did. Whereas Bregan was highlighting his own ability, Hales was covering any potential shortcomings in her own. 

Bregan’s third choice was a bruiser, a big tough soldier clad in steel and layers of bullet proof armor. 

Hales went with a high-class medic, though every soldier was trained in basic first aid, a professional doctor seemed like a necessity in her mind. Keeping herself and her squad alive was of paramount importance to her.

When Bregan’s fourth turn arrived he bolstered his Synthesis Aspect’s possibilities with a chemist. The soldier wore a filtered mask and employed poisonous gasses to decimate enemies.

Hales, in a choice that would likely permit some moral punishment in the future, enlisted an espionage agent, in particular someone who specialized in torture and intel. 

Bregan struck gold by finding a soldier in the very back corner who dealt with mine detecting. He also happened to be a hobbyist of meteorology. “A metallurgist meteorologist,” He had joked when explaining himself to Bregan. The man couldn’t have been more than a couple years older, yet instantly regretted making the joke after seeing Bregan’s no nonsense expression. A resource locator was a clever addition to his team. 

With Hales’ final pick, rounding her team off at seven, she recruited a tactician officer who carried a rather sizable light machine gun. She wanted a more situational-oriented soldier who could act as a foil to her own strategies and the fact that he used a portable turret meant he still knew how to be practical.

Hales assessed her team and found herself plotting make-believe scenarios where each of their skills would come in handy for whatever crisis presented itself. Offense and defense were well rounded, no real flaws there. Between her planets, the mini-turret, the doctor and the terrainer, their defense was solid. Offense she had Saccha the ‘weapon jack’, the assassin torturer, the engineer who could deploy explosives and her own arsenal of stars. Utility was covered across the board by all her squadmates.

Hales watched Bregan’s final member approach his group. A huntress who could find the best trees for wood or tracks for animal parts. A resource gatherer to round off his team. Bregan could be considered a narcissist for the sort of squad he procured, but no one could deny the potential devastation he would surely be able to dish out.

Draje, the wizard-general, was most excited by Bregan’s single-minded selection. A Specter who was too afraid to be selfish would never evolve. One must obtain as much of the infinite powers as possible. That’s what it meant to be a Savant, someone whose studies never cease.

“Your squads have been selected. There is daily training with your squads and meeting briefs for the captains. You have two weeks before deployment, enjoy that time, you’ve earned it.”

With that, Cull Marcarios concluded the last of the night’s ceremonies. 

Hales thought her team was well rounded and foolproof, that if she could do it over she would draft the same six crack group of veteran soldiers. With their diversity of skills and her creative power, no mission would be outside of her ability to participate in. Nothing overlooked, she thought, finally free of the stress of school and training and all the pressures building for the last year. Hales could finally relax as everything seemed to be clicking into place. She even had two weeks of free time, aside from daily training, that she could see Deo! Hales felt good, and nothing could go wrong.

But she had overlooked a relatively small detail, one that warranted a cause for concern and it had to do with her number one draft choice, a special forces soldier she was relying on for all purpose fighting, her go to guy, the center of her squad’s dynamic… But how could she have known? Well of course she could have actually read through the files that were handed to all captains months ago, but still…

Saccha stretched and scratched his scraggly beard, “So who wants to go drinkin’?” The post question belch indicated his predilection for inebriation. 

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