The serpent slithered across the hard cave floor, its viridescent eyes shining like emeralds, its scales glistening with dew. The cave was dark and damp, stalactites clung to the ceiling dripping with water. At the end of the cave was a faint light; a mellow warmth that gave off a nostalgic aura, yet it also seemed impossibly distant. Heedless, the serpent continued its inexorable advance towards the light, never stopping, never resting, never looking back.
Suddenly the Serpent turned around and spoke in a resonant voice, “You must find your path.”
Sulla woke up, he had little time to ponder what the dream meant. He glanced at his surroundings: the standard issue military tent that housed his squad, his fellow soldiers were in various states of readiness. Some were cleaning their guns, some just waking up, and some looked like they had not slept in years. A tension hung in the air, thick and heavy, a noxious miasma of fear and anxiety. Sulla had fought in many battles during his five years as a soldier, he knew what would come next. As a staff sergeant Sulla commanded a squad of nine soldiers including himself. These men and women were his responsibility and he would do everything within his power to keep them alive in the coming battle. Sulla knew that this battle would be more brutal than most of his squad had ever fought in.
After taking a moment to reflect, Sulla began the soldier’s routine that had been drilled into him during training. First he checked his weapons; there was the standard-issue E-66 battle rifle with a foldable stock; a venerable weapon that had been the mainstay of the Minoan army for over a hundred years. The E-66 was a simple, reliable weapon popular among soldiers and inexpensive to manufacture; it could fire in single shot, three round bursts, and fully automatic; it also had a modular frame that made it highly customizable. An infantryman could switch a grenade launcher, bayonet, laser cutter, grappling hook, or net launcher as the situation demanded. His sidearms were an E-15 pistol and a short double-edged sword for close combat.
After checking his weapons Sulla went to each member of his squad to prepare them for what was coming. Jax was his corporal, a seasoned veteran several years his elder who followed orders without question and carried them out effectively. Sulla and Jax had developed a strange kind of friendship over the years, they trusted each other inherently and had saved each other's lives multiple times. They never discussed their respective pasts with each other and had come to a silent understanding that it simply was not relevant, they were both professional soldiers who did their duty.
Before Sulla could check on the rest of his squad, he received a flashing red notification on his wrist communicator. This was the signal to assemble his soldiers at the staging point. There would be time to talk to his squad later, he signaled them to follow him and stepped outside the tent. The northern air was frigid, like the icy breath of a primordial giant. Snow was falling in huge flakes the size of a man’s palm. Sulla had never seen snow before the Minoan army deployed him to the northern campaign against Thule.
The camp was more of a small city than a military camp; thousands of tents lined up in neat rows each housing a single squad. In total there were two thousand tents housing eighteen thousand enlisted soldiers and noncommissioned officers. The commissioned officers lived apart from the enlisted soldiers in prefabricated buildings which they would set up wherever the division made camp; it was also a common practice for officers to bring servants. A perfectly square metal wall ten meters high surrounded the camp with watchtowers spaced evenly. Minoan military doctrine stressed the importance of preventing ambushes and maintaining vigilance over one’s surroundings. Whenever possible, the army preferred to requisition housing from local towns but that option was not available due to the nature of the division’s mission. Sulla’s division, the elite II Armored, had pushed rapidly into Thulean territory and correspondingly made camp wherever possible. The officers had driven them at a relentless pace, their mission relied on speed and mobility. They had direct orders from Central Command to take the strategically important city of Xactis from the Thulean forces defending it. In addition to being an economic hub, Xactis anchored the Thulean defenses. Sulla knew that if they took Xactis they would blow a hole through the enemy lines that the rest of the Minoan Fourth Army Group could exploit. Over five hundred thousand Minoan soldiers were waiting on the results of the II Armored Division’s mission.
The war between Minos and its northern neighbor Thule had been raging for eleven years; Sulla himself had been fighting in it for the past four. This campaign had the potential to finally end the war on extremely favorable terms to Minos. Minos had ostensibly invaded Thule because of the latter’s support for anti-government revolutionaries. But Sulla suspected that the real reason was that the political leadership of Minos felt that it had been too long since the country had fought an aggressive war.
On his way to the staging ground Sulla caught sight of his platoon commander, Lieutenant Vanir. Like most commissioned officers, Vanir was a member of the Dynatoi: the collection of 135 noble houses who controlled the government and military of Minos. Members of the Dynatoi were raised from birth to command others; every word, every action, every order was a constant reminder of their intrinsic superiority and breeding. The Dynatoi strictly controlled access to the best and most expensive physical and mental augmentations. These augmentations could turn normal humans into super-soldiers, they could make a person stronger and faster, improve their reflexes, aim, and endurance. In a standard military-grade set of augmentations, the core consisted of various implants within the chest cavity, which forced the heart and lungs into overdrive. The skeletons of these soldiers were reinforced, making them more durable in order to handle the massive demands imposed by their enhanced muscles. There were also neural augmentations which increase the processing speed of information in their brains, along with a built-in HUD for their eyes.
Sulla knew that long ago, the original Dynatoi had been the very first enhanced soldiers. The previous government of Minos had created them in a desperate effort to salvage a lost war. Against all odds they had snatched a decisive victory from the jaws of defeat, and immediately seized power to establish a new government with themselves as the martial aristocracy. For the past three hundred years the Dynatoi had strictly controlled access to augmentations; most civilians can only purchase the most basic enhancements such as eyesight corrections and memory upgrades. The heavy duty combat grade enhancements were reserved for the military and the best of these for the commissioned officers. A Minoan soldier was a superhuman relative to the general population, but in turn, an officer was a superhuman relative to the average soldier. It was for the purpose of gaining access to these augmentations that Sulla had originally joined the Minoan army; he had a higher personal mission that he needed augmentation for. As an NCO Sulla had better augmentations than the rest of his squad but nothing like the advanced enhancements that Lieutenant Vanir had. Commissioned officers received even more powerful versions of the basic set. Sulla had even heard rumors that the highest ranking officers: generals and admirals, received a special type of mental augmentation that allowed them to take direct control of soldiers’ bodies.
As Vanir strode by, Sulla snapped to attention and saluted his platoon commander. “Good morning sir, have you been thinking about what we discussed?” Sulla inquired.
“Yes I have Staff Sergeant, I have been considering it .” Vanir complimented him. “After this battle I will sponsor your application to the Academy.”
“Thank you sir.” Sulla replied. “I won’t let you down sir.”
“See that you do not. Now assemble your squad at the staging era, Colonel Syphax is about to give our regiment orders.” Vanir ordered.
This was the moment Sulla had been waiting for; as a non-Dynatoi, he could only become a commissioned officer if someone from one of the families sponsored him. To ascend to the officer ranks was not only a military achievement, it also offered unimaginable opportunities for social and political advancement, and also the very best augmentations. Sulla had been working towards this goal since he joined the army five years ago at the age of twenty-two. He had followed orders, distinguished himself in countless battles and skirmishes, and for the past year had been cultivating a relationship with Lieutenant Vanir. When Vanir arrived to take command of the platoon, he was a young officer fresh out of the Academy, his status as a scion of the House of Mors - a minor but wealthy and respected Dynatoi noble house- had granted him this command. With Sulla’s assistance and experience, the Lieutenant had won distinction on the battlefield and impressed the senior officers; Sulla made sure that Vanir knew who to thank for that.
At the regimental staging point were over 2,000 assembled soldiers standing at attention in neat rows with their officers in front: all of Valkyrie Regiment was there. Sulla saw lines of spider-tanks with their hatches open and mechanical drones patrolled the skies keeping a watchful eye on any enemy movement. As Sulla moved into place he caught sight of Colonel Syphax: Valkyrie Regiment’s commander. Syphax was a middle-aged officer of massive size, over two meters tall and heavily muscled. His immense natural strength was further enhanced by his extensive set of augmentations. Sulla was himself a large man and stronger than most, but he knew that there was not a chance that he could match the Colonel in strength. Furthermore, Syphax had a reputation for brutality and fought with an insane fury that would leave most humans withering away in fear. His status as a member of the House of Ilus: one of the most powerful of the Dynatoi protected him from any investigation into his battlefield conduct. However, there was no denying that Syphax was an extremely effective commander; he had crushed enemy after enemy for Minos and the Central Command placed great faith in his abilities. At the age of forty-three it was expected that he would be promoted to division commander sooner rather than later and would eventually ascend to a spot in the Central Command itself.
“Soldiers hear me!!” Syphax bellowed. “This battle will be the decisive engagement of this campaign, our division’s victory will open the path for the rest of the army, each and every one of you will execute your duty and bring victory and glory to Minos, is that clear?!!”
“Sir yes sir!” The assembled soldiers shouted back, their combined voices somehow seeming quieter than Syphax’s.
“My Valkyrie regiment will be the tip of the spear, we will have the honor and the privilege of being the first unit to enter Xactis, we will bring these Thulean savages to their knees, move out!!”
Sulla and his squad dismounted from the troop transport, the ground was frozen solid and a thick layer of snow covered it. He could see Xactis in the distance; an outline of alien looking buildings against the frigid backdrop. He could see bizarre spirals and corkscrews, buildings that looked more like failed art projects than any livable space. And with his enhanced eyesight he could just about make out the silhouettes of the Thuleans.
The Minoan assault began with an artillery bombardment. Shells and rockets rained down on the city and assault drones zipped overhead to deliver their deadly payload. Sulla knew that this would not be enough to break the Thulean defenders who were dug into their positions, but it would soften them a bit for the infantry and tank assault.
After about half an hour, the artillery barrage stopped and the order came down to begin the assault. Sulla looked over expectantly at Vanir to give the command to advance which the Lieutenant promptly did. Sulla knew from experience that the next few minutes would be crucial, as they crossed no man’s land with the enemy able to target them at will. They would have to avoid being shot or blown to pieces and many would die.
“Alright soldiers, advance!”. Shouted Vanir.
The platoon burst forward, other platoons followed suit, within seconds the entire regiment was moving forward, men and machine. Anchoring the assault was a line of spider-tanks: a heavy weapons platform supported by eight armored legs. The spider-tanks were extremely powerful and tough war machines but they were not indestructible, and were especially vulnerable to attacks from below. The infantry’s job was to screen their advance and cover their vulnerable points. The infantry would advance first to clear the way for the tanks who would then pummel the city’s defenders. When the signal was given, they charged forward, immediately attracting enemy fire. Sulla saw soldiers he had known for years blown to bits by rockets. He saw soldiers shredded by machine gun fire, bullets ripping through their flesh like a hot knife through butter. Those were the lucky ones; the unlucky ones remained alive, he saw soldiers clutching the bloody stumps where their limbs had once been, trying to crawl back to safety. He saw the lieutenant of another platoon with a piece of shrapnel through her eye, screaming in pain. Sulla had long since grown numb to the carnage and brutality; he had seen thousands of his comrades die during his years of service in every way imaginable.
And suddenly it was over, they had reached the outer buildings, now the street fighting would begin. Sulla drew up his squad behind a squat building. Jax had made it, but they had lost two others. The infantry had taken heavy casualties but enough had made it that they were beginning to clear a path. Their units were engaging the Thulean forces building by building, street by street, taking out the enemy artillery emplacements and rocket nests. Meanwhile, the tank squadrons were making their way to the city, with Colonel Syphax in personal command. They were the mailed fist that would shatter the Thulean defenses; if Valkyrie Regiment could gain a foothold in Xactis, the rest of the division would pour into the city; the battle would be as good as won.
Vanir and Sulla advanced the platoon cautiously along the narrow street, careful of ambushes or booby traps. Sulla could hear gunfire and the screams of soldiers close by. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a flash, and then heard a loud crack, and they were on him. Enemy soldiers poured out of the buildings and nearby streets. Sulla shot one, then another, then another; he managed to kill five before the hand-to-hand combat began.
Switching to his sword and pistol, Sulla bellowed orders.“Form up on me squad!”
There were at least a hundred enemy soldiers on this street against which they had one battered platoon. Vanir was still alive, Sulla spied him locked in hand to hand combat against three enemy soldiers. He dashed forward thrusting his short sword through the back of the nearest Thulean’s neck before spinning around to shoot another at point blank range in the face, his blood and brains splattering everywhere; Vanir then finished off the third one with a swift decapitation.
“They’re coming from that building. They’ve got a heavy artillery piece in there, the tanks can’t risk advancing into the city because of it, they’ll be blown to scrap.” Vanir shouted, pointing to an egg-shaped building down the street. “We need to secure it so the tanks can move in.”
“So it will be done sir.” Sulla replied.
The rest of the battle flew by in a blur of bullets and shells, rockets and drones, killing and more killing. Vanir’s platoon had carved a bloody path to the egg-shaped building and taken it. They lost over half of the unit in the process, Sulla’s squad had just four soldiers remaining: himself, Jax, and two others named Myra and Nox. Their victory had allowed the spider-tanks to move in scurrying like insects over the streets and up the side of buildings, blasting apart Thulean defenses. Valkyrie Regiment had secured the necessary foothold in the city which allowed the rest of the the II Armored Division to pour in and mop up remaining resistance district-by-district. Within twelve hours the entire city was under Minoan control. Sulla could rest satisfied that he had once again proven his valor and skill on the battlefield and that Lieutenant Vanir would recommend him to the officer academy. He would then receive the patronage of a Dynatoi house and advanced augmentation, all of which would help him achieve his true goal.
“Sir, I have orders from Colonel Syphax for you.” A voice interrupted Sulla’s contemplation.
Sulla looked over at the messenger, a young private who couldn't have been older than twenty.
“What is it?” Sulla asked.
“Sir, Colonel Syphax has ordered you and Lieutenant Vanir as well as your men to assemble at the city square.” The youthful private replied.
“Very well, let’s go.”
On the way to the city square Sulla witnessed a plethora of sights which disgusted him. He saw Minoan soldiers from other units looting buildings, he saw civilian corpses piled high, he saw children weeping over the bodies of their dead parents while soldiers laughed. There was nothing that he could do though; Minoan military law allowed a certain amount of sacking and pillaging after a battle and most Dynatoi officers turned a blind eye to such activities. The best he could do was to make sure that his own squad never did such things, he was lucky that Vanir shared his views and kept the entire platoon from such disgraces.
When Sulla arrived at the city square he saw that the entire surviving Valkyrie Regiment was there, minus the critically wounded. The regiment had taken a brutal beating in the battle, over a third of their number were dead and many of the survivors were wounded. Vanir had taken a nasty head wound when they stormed the egg-shaped building and Sulla spotted him wearing a bio gel bandage. Vanir gave him a nod of understanding which Sulla returned.
In the middle of the square stood Syphax accompanied by a squad of his House’s guard: the Raptors. The Raptors were technically not part of the military, rather they were the personal guard of the House of Ilus named after that House’s emblem of a screeching raptor poised to strike. There wasn’t anything unusual about this as it was a common practice for high ranking officers from the most powerful Dynatoi houses to bring their own guard into combat with them. Still, their presence made Sulla uneasy, the Raptors had a reputation for brutality even by Minoan standards and Syphax usually gave them a free hand to plunder and murder. Each one of them had training and skills on par with most junior Dynatoi officers and they had the best augmentations and equipment that the immense wealth of the House of Ilus could buy. They answered only to members of that House. There were a hundred of them, organized into ten rows of ten each, they stood completely still, completely silent, their crimson and gold armor gleaming under the northern sun’s rays, their faces totally covered by helmets, they seemed more robot than human to Sulla.
In front of the Raptors was a mass of prisoners shackled and gagged, Sulla counted over a thousand in total. He observed a mix of Thulean military uniforms and civilian clothes. A sick comprehension began to dawn on him, he realized what had happened and what was about to happen next.
“These Thulean prisoners are scum!” Bellowed Syphax at the assembled soldiers of Valkyrie Regiment. He pointed at a group of men and women in military uniform “They pretended to surrender and then tried to assassinate me and several senior officers.” He then pointed at a group of Thuleans in civilian clothes. “Those savages killed two of my Raptors and four soldiers of Valkyrie Regiment.”
Sulla suspected what had really happened, the captured POWs had probably surrendered after being granted promises of humane treatment, after which Syphax had ordered his soldiers to execute them. They had fought back until being captured again. The civilians had probably resisted the depredations of Syphax’s troops, fighting back against the looters who were there to plunder everything they had.
Sulla looked into the crowd, it was mostly women and children, old men and young boys, infants and adolescents. Most of them were bruised, cut or burned, many were missing body parts. Many of the women had bruises on their necks, arms and legs, and the children had a vacant look in their eyes. Sulla had seen this look many times before, it was the empty gaze of lost innocence; when a child is forced to lose all hope in the world, and to know firsthand the absolute depravity of which people are capable of. Sulla knew what was about to happen, and it sickened him to his core. When he joined the army he knew that he would see some brutal things, but the sheer scale of the carnage and the depths of human turpitude shocked him. Sulla glanced over at Vanir and they shared a look of abhorrent comprehension, they both knew what was about to happen.
“In accordance with military law I have sentenced these prisoners to be immediately executed!!” Roared Syphax. “And you, my Valkyrie Regiment, along with my Raptors will be the executioners!!”
A murmur went up from the assembled regiment.
“Know this: any soldier who refuses to carry out this order will be branded a traitor and court martialed, these scum do not deserve your sympathy, they are mere animals who must be euthanized!!”
“You, Staff Sergeant Sulla!” Syphax shouted, pointing at Sulla. “Come here!”
Hesitantly Sulla stepped forward.
“Execute them!” Syphax ordered, gesturing at a woman clutching her child.
The woman was young, no older than Sulla, she clutched her infant child to her chest, there was a temerity in her deep brown eyes, a look of defiance that only a mother protecting her child could have. Blood was streaming down her face from a head wound, her clothes were torn and there were bruises and cuts on her throat, neck, and arms. Rivulets of tears had mingled with the blood on her face. And yet that look of defiance in her eyes remained. But there was something else in that look, was it pity? Compassion? Kindness? It was as if the woman, even in her justified rage and her pain, could still find it within herself to feel empathy for him, the enemy, her tormentor. Sulla had seen something like this before, and it shook him to his core.
“I will not murder this woman and her child.” Sulla declared.
“It is not a request, Staff Sergeant, Do it now or you will be court martialed.”
“So be it.” Syphax answered. There was no turning back now, the promotion Vanir had promised him was now just a distant dream. He would be lucky to escape this with his life. Disobeying a direct order from a superior officer and one from an extremely powerful Dynatoi House to boot was not an act that a lowborn NCO like Sulla could hope to come back from. But Sulla knew that he had made the right decision, he could go to the court martial with moral righteousness on his side.
“Seize him.” Syphax ordered and four of his raptors stepped forward to restrain Sulla. Then, Syphax pulled out his sidearm and shot the woman in the back of her head, pieces of skull and brains flew everywhere. On that cue the massacre began, the Raptors and Valkyrie Regiment soldiers began shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning the assembled prisoners. One of the Raptors restraining Sulla pulled out a shock-staff and electrocuted him with it, the last thing he saw before falling unconscious was the dead woman’s eyes staring at him, gazing directly into his soul.