An eternity must have passed since he last glanced at the time. It felt like hours. In reality, only a few minutes had gone by. Time seemed to have slowed down to a sluggish crawl for Alexander Bryant, who was currently sitting in his arm chair in the corner of his living room. He sat still in the chair, casually resting his chin between the thumb and pointer of his left hand, staring aimlessly into his electric fireplace.
Despite his calm demeanor, his mind was racing. His heart was pounding furiously against his chest. A single bead of sweat slowly dripped from his brow: A result of his anxiety rather than from the artificial heat coming from the fireplace.
After another eternity, he glanced at the time once again: 23:19. Time might as well be going backwards. He was instructed to wait until 23:45 before making his move to leave the city. But it was becoming torture. The waiting was causing him to lose his nerve. There was too much at stake, and he couldn’t keep sitting there. It only took him a moment to make the decision.
He was leaving now.
In just a few short moments Bryant was on his feet, in the foyer, and at the front door. There, he had placed two large duffel bags packed to the brim with the essentials: Select clothing, toiletries, and acceptable family heirlooms. He couldn’t help but frown as he remembered what he was instructed were “acceptable” family heirlooms. He couldn’t save anything that held any association with or sentiment for his clan. The single heirloom he was permitted to bring fitting that description was his ancestral glaive. The glaive was passed down through the Bryant family for countless generations, being carried onto the battlefield during every war the Zeta Clan ever fought. He looked up at the glaive hanging above their main entry as if it was guarding their home. His father gave it to him, and he had long planned to give it to his son, his second-born and rightful heir to such an heirloom.
His thirteen year-old son, Castor, was still sleeping in his room. Now came the task he truly feared throughout the day: Waking his son. It was too late to change his mind, so he walked up the stairs and down the hallway to the door of his son’s bedroom. He took a long breath before gently pushing the door open. Stepping into the room, he realized he didn’t anticipate how heavy this moment would feel. He constantly wondered how Castor would react to everything, but it wasn’t until now that he began to fear the consequences of his actions.
Snapping out of his brief trance, he sharpened his focus on the task at hand. His calm demeanor immediately changed as he gently pressed on his son’s shoulder to wake up.
“Castor. Wake up.”
Nothing. He pushed a little harder, his hands beginning to shake as the reality of the situation truly began to settle in. He noticed his son start to stir, prompting him to continue pushing his shoulder in a frantic manner.
“Castor, I need you to get up. Wake up, son.”
His eyes finally opened as he turned over and stared up at his father.
“Come on, son. Get up.”
He rubbed his eyes, looking around for the time.
“What’s going on?”
“No time to explain. But get up, we have to go. Now.
Castor sat up in his bed, continuing to rub his eyes. He wasn’t quite awake yet, and it was clear he wasn’t processing what was happening.
“What? Where? Where are we going?”
Bryant walked back to the door, switching on the light switch in hopes it would hurry things along. He looked back to his son, who was shielding his eyes from the sudden illumination.
“I already packed our bags. Let’s go.”
“Where? I have an exam in the morning, and-”
“Look, son, I promise I’ll explain everything, okay? Everything is going to be fine. But please get dressed. And hurry. We have to go. Now.” Bryant could hear the nerves in his own voice. He was only hoping his son didn’t pick up on it as he abruptly left the room. He made his way back to the front door, grabbing one of the duffel bags and slinging it over his shoulder.
After another false eternity, Castor finally came down the stairs to join him. He was fully dressed, but still groggy from his sudden awakening.
“Okay, so what are we doing?”
Bryant pointed to the second bag. “Take that.” He reached up and grabbed the glaive from its mount. He admired it for a moment, suddenly having a fresh appreciation for the ancient weapon. He glanced at Castor, who just finished hanging his bag over his own shoulder.
“I’ll explain on the way. Come on.”
Bryant opened the door, taking one last look around his home knowing it would be the last time. He let out a large sigh, feeling the pressure building behind his eyes as his lips began to tremble.
“Are you okay, dad?”
No tears would fall. He bit his lip, swallowed his emotion, and nodded. “I will be. Let’s go.”
Moments later, the two were in Bryant’s truck driving down the highway. Their bags were in the back, with the glaive carefully placed so it wouldn’t move around too much. Bryant had double checked to make sure he didn’t see any lights on in his neighbor’s homes. A little paranoid, but at this point it was better to carry a bit of paranoia for the sake of being safe.
He suddenly became aware he was driving way too fast. That could bring unwanted attention, so he let off the accelerator so the truck would gradually slow down to a more moderate speed.
“Where are we going?”
“I told you I’d explain on the way.”
Castor gestured out the window. “We’re on the way.”
Smart ass. “Just keep quiet.”
Castor crossed his arms, leaned back in his seat, and stared out the window. Perhaps Bryant was being a little rough on the poor kid, but it was all he could do to get through the night.
As they approached the outskirts of the city, Bryant saw a checkpoint coming up. He took a deep breath, knowing this was the last obstacle to navigate. The checkpoints were generally pretty lenient, but anyone traveling out of the city at this time of night is bound to raise some sort of suspicion. Especially someone as high profiled as him.
As he slowed down at the checkpoint, he rolled down his window to address the colt manning the station that night. The colt stepped forward: His helmet was casually sitting in his booth, but he was geared up in usual combat armor.
“How are you, sir… May I just see your ID, please?
The colt held out a scanner connected to a data-pad. Bryant offered a card, which the colt then scanned. The colt looked it over for a moment.
“Warlord Bryant. It’s a little late for you to be leaving the city.” He peered through the window of the truck. “With your son?”
Bryant’s heart started beating fast, but he managed to breathe and keep calm. “What was your name again, Colt?”
The colt instantly stood straight up. After all, he was talking to a warlord. “Sullivan, sir.”
Bryant looked away for a moment, noticing the clear sky above him. He thought for a quick moment then looked back at Sullivan, managing to force out a condescending smile. “Yes, Colt Sullivan, this is my son. Although he has an exam in the morning, we rarely get a clear night like this, wouldn’t you agree?” Sullivan looked up at the sky, nodding in agreement. Bryant continued. “Great night for taking a look at the stars. We’re hoping to get far enough away from the city to avoid the light. There’s a great spot about ten clicks west of here.” He wasn’t lying about that part: They were heading to a lush forest in that location.
Sullivan nodded along. “I suppose you’re right.”
“We don’t really get a good chance to just stop to look up at the stars anymore.”
Sullivan smiled. “I suppose we don’t, sir. So do you have a telescope or are you just going to use the old naked eye?”
“We have a telescope.” As soon as he said it, he realized it was a mistake. He didn’t even own a telescope. Of course he would make such a small slip up tonight of all nights.
Of course, it piqued Sullivan’s interest. “Oh yeah? What model do you have? I own a Dye-Tech 7-Series. Second edition.”
He had to get out of this conversation. “Ours is also Dye-Tech. I can’t remember what model. It’s been so long since we actually used it. Just hoping I haven’t forgotten how to use it.” Bryant forced a laugh, trying to be as casual as possible.
Sullivan smiled, gesturing towards the back seat. “I can show you if you’d like, sir. If you want to pull it out, I could probably…”
“Oh, no. That’s okay, Sullivan. You have better things to do, I’m sure.”
Sullivan let out his own laugh. “We rarely get anyone out here during graveyard. I assure you I have nothing else to do.”
Bryant switched to his stern voice. “If you are unhappy with your post, I’m sure you can request a transfer to something more to your liking.” The colt’s smile disappeared immediately. Bryant forced another smile. “I’m just kidding, Sullivan. As much as I’d like a lesson, we are in a bit of a hurry. Like I said, he’s got an exam.”
The colt immediately stepped back towards his booth and away from the truck, clearing a path for him to pass. “I understand, sir. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“No trouble at all, Sullivan. In fact, we’ll make sure to stop and show you some photographs on the way back.”
“That’d be great, sir.”
Bryant smiled, giving the colt a wave as he drove on past.
He rolled up his window, but waited several moments before letting out a huge sigh of relief. After a moment, he suddenly became anxious as he realized that Sullivan might contact someone if they didn’t return after some time passed. But then an even darker realization set in: It wouldn’t matter. By the time Sullivan would possibly contact anyone, he and Castor would be gone.
No use in arguing with the kid. “Yes. I did.”
The tone in Castor’s voice was different now. Whatever thoughts he had before, any trace of optimism was gone. “Where are we going, dad?” He knew that something serious was going on. He wasn’t wrong. Bryant couldn’t keep avoiding his son’s question, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell him the truth.
He glanced over his shoulder, the city of Lumpur now off in the distance. The lights glowed against the clouds in the night sky. For a moment, Alexander considered changing his mind and turning around. It is always hard to leave the place you felt was your true home. But at that moment, he knew it was absolutely necessary. And sadly, he knew that he would never see the city of Lumpur again.
Some time passed when Bryant pulled over to the side of the road, surrounded on both sides by a thick forest. He quickly checked something on his data-pad, confirming their location. “Okay, out of the truck.”
Castor looked around in shock. “What? Here?”
Bryant turned off the engine, but left the keys in the car. He wouldn’t need them, after all. He walked to the back of the truck, pulling out the two bags. He offered one to Castor, who took his time getting out of the truck and joining him at the rear.
“Where are we-”
Bryant was tired of the questions. This time he decided to ignore it. “Take the bag. Let’s get moving.”
Bryant reached into the truck and took hold of the glaive. He extended his arm to Castor, offering him their family weapon. Castor looked it up and down. “Need me to carry this too?”
Castor didn’t hesitate to take the weapon. He always enjoyed holding. Afterall, it was his birthright. The weapon could be traced back to the days of the Xi Clan centuries earlier, an ancient clan presided over by the Bryant family. After the Xi Clan was absorbed by the Zeta Clan, the Bryants remained a highly respected bloodline. There was an inherent honor and privilege in being able to hold that legacy in your hands.
Bryant found himself admiring his son. He always loved how proud Castor was of his family and bloodline. His older daughter, Eve, was also proud to be a Bryant of course. But never quite like Castor. Bryant snapped out of his brief trance. “Let’s go, son.”
The father and son then turned and began walking into the forest.
“Are we close?”
Bryant fiddled with his data-pad, trying to pull up their current location. “We’re getting there.” The reception was a little weak this deep in the forest.
“How much further? We’ve been walking for like an hour.”
Being woken up in the middle of the night and put on the move can’t be easy to deal with, especially when you don’t know where you’re going. Still, he wished that Castor would just remain quiet for the time being. “It shouldn’t be too much further now.”
He should have heard the footsteps surrounding them sooner. The plan had been embedded in his head for weeks, and somehow they still took him by surprise. He heard his son’s voice, calm and panicked at the same time.
Bryant looked up from his data-pad. Even in the dim starlight he could make out the gunmetal color of their combat armor. He swung his head back and forth: There were at least a dozen. Maybe more. All with their rifles drawn and trained on him and his son. Castor. His son must be absolutely frightened.
Bryant grabbed Castor by the shoulders, turning him and leaning down so they were face to face. Bryant looked him in the eye. “You trust me, right?” Castor kept looking to the side, nervously eyeing the Alpha Clan soldiers who continued to surround them. “Look at me, son.” Castor snapped his eyes back to his father. “They won’t hurt us. Do you understand?”
Bryant saw the look in his son’s eyes: Castor was starting to realize what was going on. He wasn’t scared or frightened anymore. Now, he seemed sad and disappointed. “I understand, dad.”
Patting his son’s back, he stood back up to face the Alphas. A single Alpha stepped forward, and Bryant could feel the Dragoon’s piercing gaze even through the dark visor on his helmet. Bryant also noticed the diamond insignia on the shoulder plates of his armor. This was who he was sent here to meet. “Hauptmann Cao?”
The Alpha nodded, taking off his helmet and holding it at his side. The hauptmann clearly didn’t view Bryant as a threat, leaving his head vulnerable to attack. He looked Bryant up and down, sizing him up a bit. Bryant never met Deshi Cao in the flesh, but his reputation preceded him: Cunning, confident, and intimidating. The two were communicating digitally for the last week about where to meet on this fateful night, a meeting organized by none other than the Alpha Clan chieftain’s older brother, Vincent Bloomer.
“Warlord Bryant. I’m glad you made it. You’re a little early.” Cao spoke with such authority. Bryant was a warlord in the Zeta Clan and head of their intelligence division, answering to no one but the chieftain’s leadership council. Cao was only a hauptmann, but he spoke to Bryant as if the warlord was a mere colt.
Bryant nodded apologetically, accepting the condescending tone. “Yes. I thought it’d be better to get here sooner rather than later.”
“These are difficult circumstances for you, I’m sure. I thought you might be late. I say that with no disrespect of course.”
“No disrespect taken, Hauptmann.”
Cao raised his arm to the other Alphas in the immediate area, calling for them to stand down. He gave a reassuring nod, and they all lowered their weapons in unison. Cao stepped forward and extended his hand to Bryant. Bryant took it, giving Cao a firm handshake.
“I’m happy you’re early. It moves us ahead of schedule.” Cao looked him up and down once more. “I must admit, I am surprised you did not bring your armor with you.”
Bryant let out a slight grimace. “I didn’t have a choice. Our armor has trackers, and they would have been aware that I was on the move.”
Cao nodded with a smile. “Fair enough. You won’t be needing it anyway, will you?” The pleasantries ended there. Cao moved on. “Did you bring what was agreed upon?”
Bryant glanced quickly back at his son. A wave of shame suddenly wept over him, now that his son was there to watch him carry out his schemes. He couldn’t let his son see him do it. He looked back to Cao. “I’d rather give it to you once we’re mobile. You know, once we’re away from here.
Cao offered a firm shake of his head. “No. Before we move you, I need to know that you’ve delivered what was agreed upon. It is critical to our operation. We need to see it now.”
Bryant hesitated. “But… But I…”
“Either you give me what we agreed upon now, or we’ll simply leave you and your son here. The choice is yours. Make it. Now.”
Bryant glanced at his son once more, a small tear forming in his eye. He could see the disappointment and confusion in Castor’s eyes. He couldn’t bear it, dropping his eyes to the ground. The shame was setting in heavily, weighing him down. He swallowed whatever pride he had left and looked back up at Cao. He pulled a memory card from his pocket and held it out for Cao.
Cao quickly took it, gesturing for an Alpha sergeant to approach. The sergeant quickly stepped forward, brandishing his own data-pad. Cao handed him the card, and the sergeant inserted the card into the data-pad and began scanning the data provided.
Bryant opened his mouth, barely able to speak. “Everything we agreed to.”
Cao didn’t acknowledge the statement, almost ignoring him as the sergeant continued to verify what information was on the card. “We’ll see.”
Bryant spoke softly. “Garrisons. Patrol routes. All of it. All there.”
Cao answered by simply raising a hand to silence him. He patiently waited for the sergeant to finish examining the memory card. Bryant lowered his head, submitting to Cao’s demand of silence. After a few more moments, the sergeant looked up from his data-pad and gave Cao a quick nod.
“All there, sir.”
“Good. Transmit this to Warlord Gray. He’ll get it to command.”
The sergeant turned to leave, and Cao turned back to Bryant. “You’ve held up your end of the agreement, and we will hold up ours.” Cao took a look at Castor, his face growing slightly concerned. Cao stepped closer to Bryant, speaking quietly as if he didn’t want Castor to hear his words. “I was told you had a son and a daughter. I’m a man of my word, and I will take your children to safety. But if your daughter is not here…”
Bryant nodded, understanding the implication. “My daughter was moved into the city on orders. I did my best to try to get her home in time, but I was unable to do anything without raising suspicion.
Cao pressed the issue. “You understand I cannot keep her safe? I wish I could, but under these circumstances you must know I cannot.”
“Yes, I understand.” There was pain in his voice: A father unable to save his daughter.
Cao gave Bryant a reassuring pat on the shoulder, almost as if he was a child. “You’ve made the right choice. We’ll get you and your son moving right away. Sergeant?” Another Alpha sergeant stepped forward. “Take them to the designated transport. They’ll be going back to the Mesa.” Cao looked back to Bryant once again. “Bryant, this is Sergeant Moreno. She’ll take care of you from here.”
Bryant acknowledged everything with a simple, slow nod. “Thank you, Hauptmann Cao.”
Cao smiled, his tone almost condescending. “Not at all, Warlord. Thank you.”
Bryant put his arm around Castor and turned to follow Sergeant Moreno, getting ready to move deeper into the forest. He was just about to catch his breath…
“Wait.” Cao’s voice called out, piercing Bryant’s ears.
Bryant stopped, slowly turning back. He knew what this was about, but he didn’t want to admit it to himself. “Yes?”
Cao had an almost wicked smile on his face. “Do you believe I forgot our personal agreement?”
Bryant swallowed hard. He was hoping this part could be done in private. “Is it completely needed? Is it something that is absolutely necessary?”
“We had an agreement, Alexander.” His voice was more stern than ever. Most Dragoons, regardless of clan, tended to refer to each other by their surname or rank. Cao using Bryant’s given name was a strong power move, flexing a muscle that Bryant didn’t expect.
“But… I just… I thought…
“Perhaps we should leave you and your son here. Maybe you’d prefer to stay when we lay siege to your city in the morning, using the intel you’ve already given me.” His eyes narrowed. “Or maybe, you’d prefer if I just took it myself?” Cao casually moved his free hand to his hip, lightly gripping his side arm as he eyed Castor.
The words leaving Cao’s lips landed in Bryant’s heart, fearing for his son’s life. Without any more hesitation, setting his shame aside, he turned to Castor and extended his hand. He gestured to the glaive. “Give it to me, son.”
Castor didn’t understand. His eyes went wide, and he took a half-step away from his father. “What? Why?”
Bryant’s words quickly turned from soft to stern. “Give it to me. Now.”
Bryant could hardly take it as he watched Castor’s heart break before his very eyes. Castor looked at the glaive in his hand, knowing it would be the last time he’d hold this priceless token of his bloodline. Bryant reached out, pulling it from Castor’s grip. Castor tried holding onto it, but it quickly slipped from his hands. Castor looked up and locked eyes with his father. Any emotion on Castor’s face faded away to nothing. He felt nothing. Not anger, not sorrow, not disappointment. There was nothing.
Castor dropped his eyes, looking away from his father. It would be the last time he would ever look his father in the eye.
Bryant forced himself to face Cao, also taking a moment to look over the glaive one last time. Generations of the Bryant family passed this weapon down for centuries. He could still recall the moment his father passed it onto him. As a young Dragoon, the pride and honor nearly overwhelmed him as he took hold of the glaive for the first time. He couldn’t stop smiling for days. It was one of the highlights of his life.
Now, he took a deep breath and offered it to Cao. Cao smiled, taking the glaive and admiring his prize. He looked at Bryant as if he was proud of him. “I’ve been told the Bryants have always been a smart family. A resourceful family. A rational family. I’m happy to see that the rumors are not unfounded.”
Bryant said nothing, simply turning back to Castor and Sergeant Moreno. Moreno led him and his son away. Bryant noticed Castor looking back at Cao one more time, observing as Cao gloated and displayed the weapon to a few sergeants. Castor faced forward once again, keeping his eyes on the ground.
The shame continued to build within Bryant. Both his mind and his heart began feeling heavy. He put his arm around Castor, attempting to comfort him. Bryant almost flinched at the touch.
“They told me you can start attending the academy right away. It’ll obviously be a little different and there will be an adjustment period, but you’re a smart kid. You’ll be able to adjust and it’ll be like we never even left.”
Castor offered no response. Not even a physical reaction. He just kept walking along, following Moreno’s lead.
“I don’t expect you to understand now, son. I know this is all happening very fast for you, and it is all a lot to deal with. I know you’re probably disappointed. But one day I know you’ll understand… I hope you understand… You’ll understand. You have to. You just have to… This is for the best. It’s all for the best…”
His voice faded out. The realization set in that he wasn’t trying to convince Castor: He was trying to convince himself. He dropped his head in shame, silently praying to the creator that one day his son would forgive him.