“Fulfill your duty. You are Number Eight.”
A ten-year old vulpine female Vekaiyun soldier placed a hand hidden inside an armored, red-colored uniform to her left ear upon hearing the repeated command. Fulfill your duty was a simple command, but with it came the expectations of efficiency both in speed and in effort. She was all too familiar with the trappings of the old way of thought – the valor of war, the enjoyment of spoils, and even the celebratory pauses that were greased in inefficiency and oozed with immaturity. How ignorant. How disgusting. Peace was nothing more than a lull between conflicts, and there was always time and reason for conflict. Peace was a farce used to trick the naïve into a false sense of security, she learned.
“Hejul major Ikrisia Levinile of the 79th Vekaiyun Infantry Division affirming clear transmission of command,” the young vulpine noted. She had been trained to set a razor-sharp focus on the objectives at hand, and such training gave her suppositions of purpose and importance. There was use in war, and she was useful in those endeavors.
Only a slight pause was allowed as she gazed out at the barren wastelands in front of her. And it was indeed a wasteland – once-revered buildings dressed in ornate stonework stood more like reduced spires of rubble in the dusty air thick with projectiles of bullets, shells, and bombs. These useless structures sighed and bowed to the harrowing shrieks from the sky and the clouds and craters they made in their wake, one day, perhaps, reclaimed by the ubiquitous sand. Tracks from tanks still fresh in the arid dirt tattooed the ground, with rumbles in the distance indicating their trekking was far from over. Dead bodies in various states of decay and mangled agony wore two sets of uniforms from two different species. They dotted the terrain, peeking from the rubble and sandy soil, their hands riddled with fissures of blood and soaked sand.
“Next objective is realized. Anticipate Sector Thirteen to be secured within the next three-point-five hours. We will embark to Sector Fourteen where we will rendezvous with the front lines.”
The soldier deliberately moved down toward a heap of rubble and sand in order to reach a defensive wall. Though she certainly seemed poised and immersed in a mélange of methods, versed in all the tools for success and virtues of efficiency, it was tough for anyone to truly understand just what she was. While she was indeed young, and she was fighting for the Vekaiyun armed forces, little else could be distinguished. A composite facade constructed of red plastic reinforced with steel backing hid her vulpine face. The face plate included housings for her large, triangular ears, which were used to immediately receive reports and directives from subordinates to superiors – both which were numerous. The functional mask included receptors in the eyepieces to spot movement and microphones to maintain communication. Included in the setup was a pair of environmental filters used to remove any nuclear, biological, or chemical substances, allowing a constant flow of clean air to afford maximum health. A short supply of compressed air was available in a canister should she need it. This of course meant that her uniform was airtight. Her body was encased in a special combat suit used to take full advantage of her dexterous vulpine body, fully trained and absolutely ready to engage in any task the battlefield presented. No tail was present - it was removed when she was young in order to prevent it from being a nuisance or a weakness on the battlefield. Only a collection of synthetic hairs on the crown of her head proffered some kind of identity, but apart from the defining feature and the insignia on the upper right of her breastplate, it did little to ensure that inside this robotic shell was a child bred by the state, loyal to the nation of Vekaiyu, tasked with annihilation of the enemy and constant dominion over her uniformed men and women.
“Hejul major Levinile!” an adult vulpine soldier greeted from below. He wore the typical Vekaiyun infantry uniform for a desert setting - a careful selection of shades of brown on his stiff shirt and pants, brown boots, and a helmet with extended points to house his triangular ears. It was the choice uniform when chemical attacks were not imminent. “Emerald group is advancing past-” the communication was cut short, as was his life, as his body burst apart and spattered the uniform of his mortal superior in a different shade of red when she was mid-approach to the man.
“Mind the landmines,” she commanded with monotone disquiet, unaffected by the organic chunks scattered about. It was inefficient to focus on the dead.
Ikrisia Levinile the hejul major picked up speed toward a denser collection of buildings – her new post – as groups of men and women shuffled their positions in strategic locations scattered about the battlefield, attempting to follow orders from someone roughly half their age. She demanded air as her filters worked to remove the dust. “Ruby group! Engage with the contingency set up in locale 4b!”
“Affirmative, major!” a voice called back over the radio.
Fighting in the region had ground to a standstill, but the inclusion of Levinile’s group coupled with her atypical yet risky tactics allowed for some breakthroughs, and the battle lines between Vekaiyu and Hethrostria shifted in favor of the vulpine nation. It was difficult to share the success, however, as she was not the only child supersoldier in command of a division.
“Negative, negative!” Ehjy Nimous, another supersoldier roughly the same age as Ikrisia volleyed back. “I have operatives there! This move will decrease the efficiency of my flank by at least fifty percent!”
Ikrisia paused to let a shell finish its deadly note. “It is prudent to follow the prescribed battle plans, or note any alterations as the attack progresses!” Satisfied with scoping the battlefield, she removed her rifle toted on her back, advanced from the outskirts of buildings, and entered deeper into what remained of the shell of a city. She was perhaps moving a bit too fast, but to her, the ultimate objective was to secure the area quickly. Anything else was needless or ancillary.
After reviewing her objectives with high command in stoic yet direct discourse, her next task was to secure an important bridgehead and meet up with Ehjy and another supersoldier, Isano Leyuski. Isano was the clear frontrunner of those in Project Uveshk, the covert program where all young supersoldiers came from. Though they all held the same rankings, it was obvious the military and the scientists favored Isano over all others. Ikrisia didn’t mind this. If he was better suited for the role, then for the greater good of the nation it should be awarded to him over her or all others. Any sort of enmity or jealousy was both unwarranted and inefficient.
Movement spotted across an alleyway resulted in several accurate shots from her well-maintained rifle, cared for as if it were a favorite toy. She was careful not to use ammunition on civilians, as it was simply inefficient to waste effort on non-threats, and inefficiency was to be eschewed at all costs, because inefficiency meant invalidity, and invalidity meant dishonor to the state, which justifiably resulted in the removal from duty and termination of life. Therefore, Ikrisia plastered herself close to the wall of sandy stucco with brick exposed underneath and was careful to keep watch of the falling shells as they pounded the landscape into submission one blast at a time.
When she peered down the main avenue of the town, she spotted the bridgehead – still intact, and, although threatened, stable enough for passage. “Continue to move east!” She repeated the command again in order to make certain her issues were clear.
A nearby shell tore through a brittle building, exploding on impact as stonework rained down below. Luckily her suit prevented discomfort from the high-pitched squeal and the resulting ear-splitting explosion from ringing in her head. “Onyx and Malachite groups, begin saturation bombing when in range! Ruby group, continue with securing Rublakrost Street – the main avenue of five lanes! If this passage is not secure by 2100 hours our chance of success reduces by roughly thirty-five percent! We must hold the choke point prior to securing the bridge!”
She looked over at another soldier of her command and acknowledged him with a nod. Fortunately, he didn’t explode after speaking to her.
He paused to reel from a nearby explosion. “Several other hejul majors approach from the east!”
A quick turn of her head revealed Ehjy, Isano, and another major, Ivalsa Kinusehy juxtaposed together and exposing differences in height. Horribly inefficient. They would be wise to spread their forces out to better sweep the perimeter.
“Ikrisia!” Isano Leyuski called out over the radio. “We are beginning our advance toward the enemy spearhead! By including you into our task force, we increase our chance of success by twenty-five percent!”
“I concur!” Of course, there were multiple ways to solve the problem at hand. After dodging enemy gunfire and picking off confirmed targets while avoiding newly-formed potholes, Ikrisia joined the group, which had taken up a “wagon wheel” formation, a tactic whereby each soldier put their backs to one another in a circle.
“Advance to locale 7d!” Leyuski demanded.
“How is your squad doing, Ikrisia?” Ivalsa asked. She was the shortest of the bunch, yet looked nearly identical to her female comrade, save for the choice of hair atop the helmet.
“Her tactics resulted in the destruction of at least one of her task forces,” Ehjy complained. “I heard it over the radio. I take a more responsible approach. It is more Vekaiyun to play under such rules. Azsur Venavle would be proud of my actions today! The kral commodore duty is mine!”
“The Vekaiyun dictator only cares about completing the objective!” Isano reminded as they continued moving northward, nonchalantly eliminating any resistance as they created a path of death in their wake. “And that position is already filled back in Vekaiyu. You realize your duties. Ikrisia realizes her duties. It is important that all our tactics are varied! Otherwise we’re clones and nothing more!”
“I’m more than a clone!” Ehjy growled.
“Aww, does someone miss the friendly confines of their test tube?” Ivalsa giggled.
“I do not! We all came from test tubes!”
“So? Yours was probably big and inefficient! Invalid! Invalid!”
“I am not invalid!”
“Isano!” Ikrisia interrupted. “When shall we break formation?”
“There goes Ikrisia again,” Ehjy snickered, “kivia beep-boop robot with no personality.”
Another shell exploded several bodies away, rocking the confines of the skeletal city as bloated torsos bequeathed bits of matter and a smattering of blood against the drab facades of buildings lining the vital street. “The bridgehead is to the west!” Isano commanded. “Break formation! Secure the choke point and hold it until infantry catches up!”
Of course, Ikrisia had ordered that command minutes ago. But was it too inefficient to include them in the mix? Maybe she underestimated its difficulty. The four dispersed as Ikrisia searched the premises with eyes carefully contained within windows partially obstructed by dried blood. She eventually chose an exposed outcropping, taking the most perilous position as it exposed her to potential enemy gunfire. But, that was the point as far as she was concerned, as this allowed for maximum coverage for those around her, and therefore her purpose was fulfilled. She glanced back and observed where each of her kin was positioned. Ehjy was closest to her, while Ivalsa seemed to be near the center of the street behind some debris. Isano, on the other hand, moved forward to advance and meet the enemy head-on.
Ikrisia’s communication suddenly crackled. “Onyx and Malachite groups in position, major Levinile! Awaiting orders!”
Great – her aggressive tactics were beginning to pay off. “Commence saturation bombing on sectors 9c, 9d, and 9e to neutralize advancing forces beyond the choke point!” Minutes after the order was placed, shells moving on their territory were soon outnumbered by white lines streaking across the sky as heavy artillery from Ikrisia’s command finally made it to position. The maddening missiles and their otherworldly, ominous overtones pelted positions northward, bombarding stationed opposition directly to the north. Large clouds of black and gray followed fireball explosions appearing just beyond the desolate choke point and the ever-important bridgehead.
“Good thinking, Ikrisia,” Isano exclaimed. “Your aggressive tactics have increased our chances of success by thirty-five percent, at least by my estimation. Everyone up to this point has contributed greatly to this advancement. We work best when we work together.”
Ikrisia turned to Leyuski to respond with a simple nod. It was always a weird feeling to be praised – was she supposed to respond positively to it, or ignore it and refuse the distraction? A simple acknowledgement was enough, she figured.
Shadows stretched across the scorched pavement and broken scenery as twilight set in. The group continued to press on, securing for a moment an important bridgehead and enough territory beyond it to keep it safely in the hands of Vekaiyun engineers that scrambled to analyze it for structural instabilities. Soon after the sun descended to the horizon, the big guns stopped, followed by the strafing crossfire, then the soft thuds in the distance. Nightfall. And with nightfall came a chance to regroup and recharge, so long as the opposition was doing the same.
An encampment was set up in the shielding confines of some kind of shelled-out community center. At least it seemed to be a community center based on the rooms it once had and the recreational equipment scattered about. No real time for games, though. Now that wartime frolicking was finished for the day, the supersoldiers could spend precious time for themselves, concentrating on the day’s battle, devising new tactics or, of course, working on their studies. They were not just supersoldiers, after all. If they were to become leaders in a state long-ruled by Azsur Venavle, then the children would need intelligence along with poise and integrity. Only then would they be able to preserve his vision and his message.
But that would all come in time, of course.
“Ugh! Why do these suits need to be so heavy?” Ivalsa complained as she sat down on a tattered leather chair. She huffed a sigh and shook her head. Then, with her small fingers, she unfastened the helmet from her head with two latches located near the bottom. A hissing noise accompanied the motion, as the positive-pressure essential for protection against airborne agents seeped from the open crack.
“They’re only heavy because you’re inefficient!” Ehjy exclaimed. His voice was different, perhaps sounding a bit younger without his helmet on. Still, the equipment matched his face, which was youthful and colored with red, orange, and white undertones, showing off the dominant color of vulpines so common in Vekaiyu. “But yeah… they’re kind of heavy, I guess.”
Ivalsa slowly pulled the back piece from the helmet out, careful not to catch her long, dark gray hair on the brace. Instead of carefully placing her headpiece gently on the ground, she casually discarded it and let it tumble onto the broken tiled floor beneath her without much thought. “Ew, it smells in here.” She began to train her long hair against the rubberized figures jagged by the plate armor. The short one focused forward with warm purple-colored eyes that truly had not seen the hell of battle. Or, perhaps she had, but didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Ikrisia, on the other hand, was careful to rest her equipment properly in a boring, almost mechanical fashion. Once the faceplate was removed, a head of short, thick black hair hung to about the neckline in an almost bob, showcasing a face of gray and white fur with eyes of crystal-blue water. Her face was without emotion and without scars; she too could not claim the label of a veteran. Number Eight appeared to be, like the others, a common Vekaiyun child, not old enough to be called a teen, but certainly not a little kid.
The clear leader of the group, Isano Leyuski, sat near the center of the group. His helmet was already off, and the red marks where the faceplate pinched had already faded into his fur of red and white. It was his smile that set him apart from the rest. It was a rare type of smile, one that could be seen from far away, an expressive grin that was comforting like a well-maintained rifle or cover-fire during an advancement. Something both essential and comforting was contained in his grin, but despite its characteristic beam, it didn’t really display emotion, like it was meant for those around him and not himself.
“Finally!” Visela, another group member on task with the four exclaimed. She, unlike the others, was mostly brown in fur but had black hair to break any sort of camouflage. “Time to work on some homework. What did anyone get for the third question on the calculus assignment?”
“It’s un-Vekaiyun to ask for homework answers!” Ivalsa said with a smirk. She looked through her hair which partially obstructed her gaze. “Right?”
“It’s even more un-Vekaiyun to be a slow reader.” Ehjy added as he elbowed Ikrisia, causing her to slip her own elbow as she slowly read a chemistry book.
“I am reading about step-growth polymerization,” she replied. “There are many figures.”
“Figures? Oh, pictures! Just your type of book!”
“Why do you need to pick on everyone, Ehjy?” Visela fumed. “Can’t you leave people alone for a change?”
“Enough,” Isano Leyuski exclaimed, silencing those around him decisively. “We’re not going to sink to the level of petty bickering.” Isano always had a way of dealing with that sort of stuff. “We’re more than that. We’re the future of Vekaiyu, and the future of the world. We mustn’t lose focus, because the future needs us.”
Ikrisia offered just the slightest hint of a smile. “The Vekaiyun Ideal would serve this world well.”
“Yeah it would,” Ivalsa added after dropping her initial reprieve. “If only more could learn the ways of our forefathers.”
“Forefathers nothing,” Isano corrected. “They’re pawns in our perfect resolve, and worked with an incomplete vision of the Vekaiyun Ideal.”
“But what is the Vekaiyun Ideal?” Visela asked. She tried to get cozy in a dusty foldout chair as the other child supersoldiers began setting up rations and supplements in between homework. “I hear it all the time like it’s some kind of thing we should always follow, but each time we’re corrected we find out what’s wrong and we never hear what it is. Like peeling an onion to find its core. I’m tired of peeling – I just want to know what we’re supposed to be fighting for!”
“Pfft,” Ehjy dismissed. “That’s because you’re slow and inefficient. All we need to do is find out what Azsur Venavle would do, like Isano says. If he does it, that’s the right. If he doesn’t, then it’s not. It’s a cinch!”
“But we don’t see him every day. How can we be sure?”
“This is the Vekaiyun Ideal,” Isano clarified. “We are to support the vulpine species and the Vekaiyun culture above all else, and strive to ensure the nation as a whole is represented over the individual. Apart we are small ants. Together, we become a unified force that will never buckle. Therefore, it is prudent that we all behave the same and work toward the same goal: Vekaiyun dominance in all things – land, people, culture, and, of course, the state. There are people who really do suffer, people who are in pain and struggling to survive. People by nature are greedy and only think of themselves, so it is up to the state to ensure they are taken care of. And the way Venavle has set things up, it is important that we adhere to his model, because in this way everyone becomes the same. And uniformity is good.”
“But we’re not the same,” Visela argued. “We’re supersoldiers grown from test tubes. We’re not even supposed to call ourselves kids. We’re not like the others.”
“Naturally,” Isano replied with a smile. “We’re going to be their protectors. Maybe not now, but in time. Later on, we’ll carry on the same goals as Venavle himself. That way a select few can have more, because they know how to help people more. With social and economic controls in place, we’ll be sure to eliminate things like poverty and privilege. They’ll just be artifacts of the past.”
“Economics and social controls?” Ivalsa asked. She picked up her fork and worked on finishing her bowl of kikale in – a medley noodle dish laden in spices (spicier the better as far as Ivalsa was concerned). “That’s boring stuff. Kind of like how fighting is boring after a while.”
“But it is our duty.”
Ivalsa turned to watch as Ikrisia examined a syringe, nonchalantly inspecting it before pointing it downward and pushing the needle to the soft skin of her neck after she peeled back her skintight uniform a tad. “Yep, not even a flinch. Ehjy or Ankya would scream like babies if they had to do that!”
“Would not! But… why do some of us take supplements anyway?”
Visela looked to Isano, waiting for him to speak. “Some of us require it, some don’t. It’s what the scientists say, and the scientists are always right. But it doesn’t matter where we started, all that matters is if we remain useful.” A smile like a rolling morning fog crept on his face. “They say impatience can stunt our growth. So it’s best not to dwell on that, I think.”
“May we one day become more useful to the Vekaiyun state,” Ikrisia yearned. “One day we will be better than what we are now.”
Ivalsa grinned. “But for now, let’s rest so we can shoot up more bad guys!”
“Indeed,” agreed Isano. “Finish studies, then prepare for rest. We will start fighting early tomorrow morning, as usual. Every dead soldier brings us closer to our ideal.”