Chapter 1:

A Twisted Offer

The Legacy of Xaero: Unit 561

 For the most fleeting of moments, Hunter thought he was dead. He certainly hoped he was. Because the alternative would have been worse. Death was the only escape from the hell of the TechnoWar. The only escape from the demons that plagued him during this war.

A bright light came on with a loud thunk, searing his eyes even behind his retinas. As he felt the grogginess reluctantly fade from his mind, he realized there was a cloth wrapped around his eyes, and yet it still burned through the wrapping and scorched his vision. Hands belonging to sturdy TechnoWarriors forced the specialist into sitting an upright position, as if they were trying to be as rough as possible. He groaned, irritated that death had not yet come for him and that the reprieve was now over. An intercom crackled to life. Either grand theatre by the enemy, or the Electorate bastards were just as strapped for resources as the Republic was.

“Welcome Specialist Hunter,” A distinctly feminine voice announced, oozing with faux-sincerity. “We’re honored you could join us for our experiment.”

The cotton was ripped from his face, forcing him to blink away the spots in his eyes. His feathers bristled, betraying the indignation he felt.

“I don’t suppose you could mark me absent,” Hunter snidely rasped. “I don’t really work well with others.”

“Oho, another funny one,” The voice exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see how long you’ll last. Another fine addition to my experiment!”

The voice commanded the guards to escort him into the next room where four others were kept, immobilized by harnesses that pressed their hands into the back of their heads. One of the soldiers produced a fifth restraint, clamping it on him. As his arms were forced behind his head, he felt his magyk drain, and a feeling of exhaustion came over him. Hunter nearly fell into his bench, but to his surprise, a soldier caught him, and gingerly set him in his seat along with the others.

Without a word, the guards exited, leaving Hunter alone with his new friends. He eyed them up just as much as they eyed him. After a moment, one of the soldiers chuckled. As he laughed, the Avis Sith felt a prickle of recognition as his heart sank along with a wish that the damn robots just killed him now.

“Specialist Hunter, is that you,” the elf snorted. “Looks like your wings finally got clipped, eh pretty bird?”

“Karking hell,” Hunter groaned. He knew that voice. And just when he had gotten it out of his head, the insufferable kni’vear popped back into his life again. “I thought I got rid of you after Basic.”

Private Lawrence Powers grinned his shit eating grin. “Aw, I missed you too, buddy!”

“Stow it, Powers,” his CO barked. “I will personally waterboard you if you don’t keep your mouth shut.”

His lieutenant’s attempt at intimidation only provoked Lawrence further. “Ah, that’s sweet of you, boss! I could use a bath!”

Everyone else groaned. If there was any solace Hunter could gain, it was that he wasn’t alone in detesting the Silvan. “What’s your unit?” he asked the lieutenant, trying to ignore Powers.

“3rd Battalion, 25th Infantry,” the Aquarian answered back, glad to have to discuss something that didn’t involve dressing down his verbally insubordinate private. “Lieutenant Jasper Mareel.” He nodded towards the human male in his company. “This is Private Anthony Henderson, formerly of the 287th Infantry.” Jasper made a noise that sounded like he was trying to remain professional while vomiting. “And you’ve already met our self appointed mascot.” he added, tilting his head towards Powers.

“I’m Olivia,” the human woman added. “I’m a journalist for the Republic’s Oro Gazette, reporting on the war effort. ” Her attitude became sheepish. “Though I’ve missed about a dozen headlines by now, so I might be out of a job.”

“How did all of you get into this mess?” Hunter asked.

“We got captured during the retreat from Wan,” Henderson offered. “Most of our squad got hit by artillery fire. Us and Sloane managed to get to safety, but the drones cut us off from our battalion.”

Hunter’s own story was similar. He had participated in in the Siege of Phon to rescue some high priority target, only for his squad to get eliminated by a surprise attack from TechnoSoldiers while probing the city’s defenses. They had somehow failed to detect an improvised explosive device while scouting the area, and most of his team were caught by the shrapnel and hail of bullets that came right after. Had he been closer to the blast, his life would have been over. He likely would have shared the same fate as his teammates if not for the fact he was ranked as a specialist, though Hunter did wonder if he was spared because of his biology as a Cait Sith.

“Is this supposed to be our cell?” He asked the others.

“I think it’s some kind of waiting room.” Sloane suggested. “There were others with us, but they were removed a little bit before you showed up. We’ll likely be moved now that there’s five of us.”

“Maybe they plan on boring us to death?” Powers smirked, but for once, Hunter could tell the crack was done not out of his incurable compulsion to entertain himself, but out of genuine concern for his teammates.

Sure enough, soon a contingent of Unimus soldiers arrived to escort them all to another room. One of them produced a strip of cloth and expertly stuffed it into Power’s mouth, gagging him and immediately lowering the blood pressure of everyone else in the vicinity. Hunter tried to memorize the route they were taking, in the event he could find a way to escape. As they walked, he couldn’t help but notice all the large doors with metal slots in the middle for inserting food. Were they in some repurposed mental asylum? An Unimus and an Elf were waiting for them as they entered a large atrium. On closer inspection however, Hunter realized the elf was actually an Unimus who modeled herself to resemble the Silvan race.

“Welcome to Unit 561,” the male Unimus boomed. He was a large thick set man with a somewhat handsome, if oafish face that made him look like he belonged as a bouncer to some dive bar instead of as a thug in charge of a prison camp. “My name is Overseer Ascee, and you will learn to hate me just as much as I hate you. For now, you hate me because I am Unimus, your sworn enemy. Soon enough, you will hate me not because of my race but because of the content of my character, for I am your God in this godforsaken prison.”

Ascee gestured to the faux-elf next to him. It looked like he didn’t want to acknowledge her. “Dr. Rosette will be your prophet.” He continued, and Hunter knew he was going to quickly grow tired of the Overseer’s religious motif. “Every depravity you endure in this hell will be performed by her hand and on my orders. You are nothing more than inferior lifeforms, who’s only use will be for us to learn how to kill you more effectively.” A wicked grin stretched across his face, and it was obvious he was relishing what he was about to say next. “But I am not without mercy or reason and am a benevolent God, who will not leave you without hope. Right now we have around three hundred prisoners in residence, all neatly divided into five man squads. The first ten soldiers to turn on his or her allies and successfully slaughter their teammates will be granted their freedom.”

The team exchanged glances with one another. Hunter immediately knew he was the unknown factor they were all thinking about. Would he take the obvious bait and turn against the rest?

Dr. Rosette stepped forward with a smile, somehow coming across as more sincere than the Overseer. “I’m looking forward to our time together,” She said cheerfully, and Hunter realized it was her voice he heard over the intercom. “And don’t worry, for those of you who don’t commit friendly fire, we still have plenty of experiments I will be needing volunteers for.” It looked like she was finished speaking when the faux-elf added, “I hope this will be as stimulating for you as it will be for me.”

With that as their conclusion, Hunter and his new teammates were escorted to their cell. In keeping with the Overseer’s declaration, they were kept in a room barely large enough to accommodate the five of them. Perhaps as a cruel joke, only four beds were placed on the floor, so Henderson volunteered to share with Hunter as a courtesy to Sloane. The room looked like it was meant for a disturbed person, with worn padding all over the floors, walls and ceilings, aside from the large metal door. After the soldiers left them, their restraints trilled twice, and released their arms from behind their heads.

Powers immediately removed the gag from his mouth. “Must be laundry day,” He commented, grinning wryly. “That was so rank it was kind of hard to pay attention to those whack jobs talking to us earlier.”

Once again, all of them glanced at Hunter, the odd man out. “I don’t have any intention of killing anyone, as inviting as it would sound to stop having to listen to Powers yammer on and on,” he assured them, tearing off a few strips off the base of his shirt. Hunter proffered it over to them. “Don’t want to take my word for it, just bind me up so I won’t try anything.”

“Belay that,” Mareel barked. “That’ll just make you a more enticing target if anyone of us prefers to slit everyone’s throats in our sleep.”

“What kind of experiments do you think Dr. Rosette will put us through?” Sloane asked wistfully.

“Shame she’s the enemy,” Henderson remarked. “Rosette sure does look pretty.”

Everyone stopped to look at him. Powers had a dumb smirk on his face like he just caught the human doing something incriminating. “What?” He exclaimed. “Just because they’re the enemy doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the view, can we?”

Sloane sighed. “No, I guess you’re right.” She conceded.

Mareel had a different opinion. “She’s the enemy, private,” He said simply. “There is nothing beautiful about someone destroying everything you know and love. I guarantee you she will kill you with an honest-to-the-Divines smile on her face.”

“Wow, way to bring down the mood, boss.” Powers chimed in as Henderson’s sheepish grin fell. “And I thought Hunter was the killjoy.”

“Only when your mouth is open,” Hunter answered dismissively.

That night, he was woken up by sounds echoing outside their cell. Hunter struggled to remove himself from sleep’s embrace, and was irritated to find Henderson cuddling up to his legs. “Wake up,” He whispered urgently, nudging the human awake with his foot. “You hear that?”

Henderson smacked the sleep from his eyes, then widened them in alarm as he started hearing it too. Hunter roused the others from sleep, and for once, Powers didn’t have some smart remark at the ready.

All of them instantly knew what the sounds were. The desperate, primal sounds all of them experienced on the front lines when weapons became useless, and survival meant relying on wits, strength and skill. Olivia grew still, plugging her ears in an attempt to block out the noises. Mareel and Powers moved over to the reporter and wrapped their arms around her.

There was nothing they could do except wait it out. Bit by bit, the number of voices began to decrease. Occasionally, a sixth voice of reason would beg for them to stop, but it was all in vain. An appeal to their better nature was pointless in the face of the oncoming darkness. Finally, the struggling voices grew still, and only one voice remained, exhausted, and triumphant. A shallow laughter echoed throughout the hall, as the soldier drank in the glory of his own survival, of putting himself before his teammates and his country.

“That… That sounded like Jenkins from Basic,” Henderson finally said once the laughter died down. “By the Divines, he was always getting care packages from his family and sharing the loot with his bunk mates.”

“How could he do something so horrible?” Olivia murmured.

“He took the Overseer’s offer,” Mareel answered simply. “Now he has to live with what he did. For however long that will be.”

Powers managed to fall back asleep following the friendly fire. The rest of them weren’t so lucky. It felt more like an uneasy dream that they were already partaking in, desperate to find a way to wake up from.