Sins of Our Fathers: Career Day [sci-fi; mature content]


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Thread: Sins of Our Fathers: Career Day [sci-fi; mature content]

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    Sins of Our Fathers: Career Day [sci-fi; mature content]

    "Good morning, sir! Please, state your business!"

    I wouldn't give the young sentry posted at the school gate more than 16 years of age. He's probably posted there for some infraction, at least if school these days is anything like when I was that age. But for all his tender age, the young lad already shows the firmness and confidence of an adult in his posture and voice. I have little reason to doubt that should the need arise, he would put that old M27 assault rifle currently slung neatly over his shoulder to use without hesitation. Not that he would need to - these days, there's rarely a need for armed sentries outside a school, unlike in my father's youth when the tradition served a practical purpose rather than as punishment.

    "Captain Hendriks Vanags, 2nd Special Tasks. I'm here for the Career Day," I speak, producing my ID. Normally, the mere mention of a Special Tasks battalion would open most doors for me. However, Aizkraukle District Youth Education and Training Camp, or simply "town school" in colloquial parlance, isn't one of those places. Here, even the Governor-Colonel must play along by the book to set good example for the youth.

    The boy briefly examines my ID card, comparing my face to the picture with a quick glance. He then turns to go through a list of today's visitors on a clipboard pinned to the wall of his sentry box until finding my name on it. Having found it, he gives a satisfied nod and gestures to one of the other lads on sentry duty manning the boom gate, snapping a crisp salute as I enter. I return the salute and move on, leaving the boys to their duties.

    Given the general educational and social trends of my home country, I will no doubt be one of the most popular characters to visit the school today. Every self-respecting Baltic boy aged 7 to 18 wants to become a Tier One when he grows up - at least until he realizes that it's not such a dream job after all and decides to instead live to old age doing something less prestigious and safer. A couple other of my guys will be coming over today as well for some demonstrations.

    As I pass through the school grounds, I look around and can't help but get a bit nostalgic. Like most people from Aizkraukle and the surrounding district, I too studied and graduated here once. The neatly-paved road leading from the gate to the main building is kept meticulously clean year-round by students appointed to groundskeeping duties on a rotational basis, additional hands being assigned as a disciplinary measure. The stadium is to the right, several training platoons of boys from the older classes in standard-issue sportswear running laps led by their drill instructors, while a platoon of senior-year girls practice hand-to-hand combat techniques in the football field in the middle under supervision of several female instructors. Judging by the occasional shout to keep eyes forward and focus on the task from the male instructors, the running boys are having a hard time focusing their attention to exercise. Recalling myself at that age, I don't blame them. As if attending a sex-segregated boarding school isn't bad enough for a bunch of testosterone-laden young men, having to run laps while a class of pretty young girls in skimpy overalls are exercising nearby must definitely seem like a form of exquisite sadism on part of the instructors. Clearly, at least the PT schedule doesn't seem to have changed much since my day in this respect. Back when I was a student here, we'd also run laps every day precisely at this time regardless of the weather, and the senior-year girls would always exercise next to us, their curves invariably proving a distraction to us.

    On the left side, there's a lengthy obstacle course, currently occupied by boys of the junior years. Carrying mock-up rifles and backpacks filled with rocks, many are visibly struggling, a grizzled old PT instructor liberally showering verbal abuse on them. A few boys who have already attracted his wrath are sweating at his feet doing push-ups, two assistant instructors leaning down to them and shouting to put their backs into it in. I can see the better part of the boys are already on the verge of crying.

    "You little scumbags! I bet your mamas regret you weren't born mutated and deformed so they could have you discarded! I bet they were sorry they had to raise and feed a bunch of useless parasites like you!" the drill instructor roars at the miscreants at his feet, "You are disgrace to your families, to me, this town and this whole fucking country! If this were the days of the first Colonels, you'd all be taken outside the walls in the wild and left to fucking die! But since that is sadly not gonna happen today, it falls unto me to remake you bunch of degenerate apes into some semblance of human-fucking-beings! I'll PT you untill you shit buttermilk every ass-ramming day of the week if I have to, but you are going to run this course within the alotted time by the end of this month! DO YOU MAGGOTS GET ME?!!"

    "Yes, Staff Sergeant!" the boys groan.

    I remember that voice. It's Staff Sergeant Turks, the dreaded bane of every school-age boy in Aizkraukle, especially those who couldn't meet the school's rigorous fitness requirements. A former Tier One, old Turks is a veteran of both Liberation Wars against the Mekhs, having plentiful scars to show for his efforts. He got busted down to Tier Three after sustaining a crippling injury in the second war, and found new use for his skills as the PT instructor in the town's school. Being a school-aged boy around that time, I too had the questionable pleasure of experiencing his harsh tutelage. Even the most incorrigible miscreants used to scatter and hide at the mere mention of his coming.

    "I can't... I can't anymore, Staff Sergeant!" one of the punished boys collapses and starts crying in earnest. Probably the worst mistake a 13-year-old boy in Aizkraukle District Education and Training Camp can possibly make.

    Sergeant Turk's face assumes a tinge of deep-red, his buzz-cut silver hair even further emphasizing the redness, and the veins on his forehead look like about to burst.

    "WHAT?! WHAT WAS THAT WORD AGAIN I JUST HEARD SPILLING FROM THAT FILTHY SEWER OF YOURS!? ARE YOU SHITTING ME?! ARE YOU GONNA QUIT ON ME NOW?!" he shrieks so loud even the girls in the stadium pause briefly to look what the fuss is about.

    "I... I can't..." the boy whimpers hysterically.

    "STOOOOP!!! EVERYBODY - ON ME!" Turks roars to the rest of his trainees on the obstacle course. His bellow still sends the shiver across my spine just like it used to back when I was in the place of those kids, as this shout invariably signalled something very unpleasant about to happen. The students drop what they're doing, those currently navigating the ladders dropping down with the speed that would do monkeys proud, and assemble in a picture-perfect box before their fearsome instructor.

    "What is the one single word you are expressly forbidden to utter during my classes?" Turks turns to his trainees and points at a random lad, his voice suddenly ominously calm, "Recruit Bērziņ, surely you must know!"

    "It is "I can't!", Staff Sergeant!"

    "Correct. Because there is no such word as "can't" in my classes, this school, or our fine society in general," Turks continues in the same tone that I know to be a calm before the storm, "I would have hoped that when your mamas and daddies saw you off to this school, they had the decency to tell you to leave that word at home, or better yet, forget you knew it entirely. Sadly, this whining mama's boy Recruit Ezerkalns here just proved me wrong."

    "I have tried my best to impress upon Recruit Ezerkalns and the rest of you," the sergeant speaks, "That doing twice as much as you want is still at least twice as less as you actually can do, ergo, that there is no such thing asked of you here that you actually couldn't do. Something that you would quickly realize by yourselves if only you put some brain and God-honest effort into it. But apparently I have failed in that task. I have failed because this recruit here seems to believe he is better than the rest of you, that he's going to be cut some slack here if only he whines and bitches hard enough like he's apparently used to doing at home. And I have failed because YOU haven't helped me and convinced Recruit Ezerkalns that he is not in fact such a fat lazy worthless slob who can't even do measly 120 push-ups like he's currently pretending to be! Which is why I am now going to punish all of you for his error of judgement. Drop your backpacks and hit the dirt!"

    As the boys drop their packs and get down, Turks finally lets loose his pent-up fury.

    "I WAS ONLY TWO YEARS OLDER THAN YOU WHEN I FOUGHT IN THE FIRST LIBERATION WAR! A REAL FUCKING WAR IN WHICH YOU BUNCH OF LIMP-WRISTED PASTY-FACED SHIT-FOR-BRAIN MAGGOTS WOULDN'T LAST FOR FIVE FUCKING SECONDS! YOU THINK THE MEKHS GAVE A FUCK I WAS ONLY FIFTEEN THEN?!" he bellows so loud one could probably hear him on the far side of the town, "I HAD TO DRAG MY OWN FATHER FOR SIX CLICKS TO THE NEAREST INFIRMARY WHILE UNDER HEAVY FIRE FOR MOST OF THE WAY, AND YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE PUKES WHINE AND BITCH ABOUT ME PUSHING YOU TOO HARD HERE IN COMPLETE PEACE AND SAFETY?! I'M DRILLING YOU HARD SO THAT IF THE MEKHS OR THE RAIDERS HIT THIS TOWN TOMORROW INTENT ON RAPING YOU MAGGOTS IN THE ASS BEFORE THEY MURDER YOU, YOU CAN ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT BESIDES BENDING OVER AND PUCKERING UP! I'M DRILLING YOU HARD SO THAT YOU DON'T HAVE USELESS DEADBEAT ASSHOLES LIKE THIS WORTHLESS LAZY PIECE OF SHIT HERE DRAGGING YOU DOWN AS A DEAD WEIGHT AND A LIABILITY IN YOUR RANKS!"

    Taking a few deep breaths to calm down, Staff Sergeant Turks finishes his motivational speech. "Recruit Ezerkalns here still has 47 push-ups to go! Until he's done them all, you will be doing them with him, and I don't care if it takes him all day to get it done!"

    Peer pressure resulting from collective punishment can do miracles to restore discipline and motivation. As the rest of the class start doing push-ups, the eyes of the boys shoot daggers at young Ezerkalns, who soon stops whimpering, gets his act together and continues with the exercise. He groans and struggles, but keeps going nonetheless - like me, he knows for a fact that should he fail to keep pace ahead of the rapidly-dwindling patience of his classmates, he's going to be given a "blanket party" tonight. It is a harsh lesson for a 13-year-old boy to learn, but learn it he must - that pain, misery and exhaustion are no excuses to quit and fail in one's duty, especially not where others depend on him. I used to hate Staff Sergeant Turks just as much as Recruit Ezerkalns probably hates him now, only to come to appreciate his harsh lessons much later. And I know for a fact that for all his harshness and severity, the old sergeant deeply cares for his young charges, drilling them mercilessly to prepare them for a life in an equally merciless and unforgiving world.

    As I move on, I see a platoon of "whelps" practice drill in the parade ground in front of the main school building. The younger children, aged 7-12, have it a bit easier, if only marginally. Their education consists more of theoretical studies and less military instruction, though that is by no means to say they don't get a full taste of military drill and discipline from the very first day. I notice my son Mareks among the boys. He sees me coming as well, his eyes widening with joy, though he dares not even smile while in formation under the stern gaze of his drill instructor.

    "Platoon, halt! Attention! Officer present!" the instructor, a Corporal Hartmanis, himself a young lad of maybe 20 years, barks to his charges. Two dozen pairs of small boots clatter to a halt in perfect unison as the boys freeze at attention. From what my son has been telling me on home leave during weekends, they practice drill two hours every day, once in the morning and once in evening, the result being quite obvious after a year and a half. Corporal Hartmanis snaps a crisp salute, and I return the courtesy.

    "Captain Vanag, it is a pleasure to see you here," he speaks, "I was just hoping I could get a word with you sometime this week."

    "Speak your mind, Corporal," I say, "Has that anything to do with my son? I trust he's behaving well?"

    "Yes, your boy has been consistently performing above average, and if anything, has been very disciplined for his age. The training company sergeant asked me to speak to you about a different matter when possible, however," the Corporal speaks, "It seems your son is... a bit sensitive."

    "What do you mean - sensitive?" I'm surprised.

    "We took the boys to witness an outlaw hunt the other week, I'm sure you've heard of that whole nasty affair. Company sergeant and I couldn't help but notice your son was displaying an alarming degree of sympathy for the outlaw, looking away when the justice was served, and later saying to his peers that he felt sorry for the scoundrel. Perhaps you could talk to to your son and explain to him that outlaws are being treated the way they are for a reason, that they are very bad people who merit no compassion by virtue of their foul crimes."

    "He did mention that on his last home leave. Said something about the outlaw being the brother of a friend of his," I speak.

    "Ah, right... A most unfortunate affair, really," the Corporal expresses his opinion, "That outlaw was what, only 19? But you know how it is, Captain - the law is the law, and if we start cutting people slack with the law..."

    "...then we'll end up lawless like the wastelanders," I finish, "I'll make sure to explain my son the importance of that."

    The incident the Corporal is talking about is a rather unfortunate one, having been all the talk in town for the past two weeks. After all, outlawing isn't something that happens every day, or even every year in any given place. A certain 19-year-old young man, the eldest brother of a friend of Mareks, got into a heated argument with another lad in what was by all accounts an alcohol- and jealousy-fueled quarrel over the sympathies of a girl. Push quickly came to shove and both suitors decided to settle things the old-fashioned way in a contest of arms. Had the two been sober and fought only until first blood, nobody would have batted an eye and the town's Legal Officer would likely have let them off with a week or two on latrine duty just as a friendly reminder that there are more productive outlets and uses for their energy. Unfortunately, the fight didn't stop there. After the soon-to-be outlaw was soundly beaten and left with a memorable knife scar on the cheek, he would leave to wash down the bitterness over his defeat with more alcohol at a friend's place. Further intoxicated and on his way home, the youngster saw his rival gloat about his latest victory to a group of friends in an outdoor bar, and decided to take a rematch by going over to his nemesis from behind and slitting his throat from ear to ear.

    Whether or not one might sympathize with the offending boy, the law is clear and adamant - murderers shall be subject to outlawry. In the old days shortly after the Great War, it was deemed the most economic and practical punishment for the most heinous offenses. Using the scarce resources to keep a lawbreaker imprisoned was completely out of the question, and executing one would require leaving the shelters to dispose of the body with the accompanying radioactive contamination risk, so it was determined that simply casting out criminals from the community shelters to fend for themselves was the most cost-effective and severe punishment. The Enforcer patrol that took the boy dragged him off to the joint to sober up, and he was taken before the Legal Officer for judgement the very next day. With enough witnesses and his own repentant confession, it only took 15 minutes for the Legal Officer to find the chap guilty of murder under aggravating circumstances and sentence him to outlawry - a lifetime banishment from every community allegiant to the Baltic Union.

    It might not seem like the worst punishment one could be handed out for murder. The catch is, outlawry doesn't just stop at banishment. As the name suggests, one is also declared "outside the law" - stripped of any and all legal rights and protections, including protection from retaliation by the victim's family members and friends who might want to seek revenge. Once the sentence is pronounced, the outlaw is stripped of his clothes, branded on his face and right hand with the mark of his crime - a spade for murder in this case - and paraded through the town for everyone to see his shame and memorize his face as one no longer to be associated with. One of the Enforcers escorting the outlaw constantly whips him with an excrement-soaked stick along the way for added humiliation. When he's finally driven to the town gates, the outlaw is given his clothes back, with maybe a small survival knife thrown in as a special grace, and given a customary one-hour head start before any who might seek revenge on him may set out to find him and do some punishing of their own. With a bit of luck, the outlaw can elude these pursuers and the gauntled of beating implements, noose or gasoline-filled tire that they have in store for him, but his future prospects are still very bleak to put it mildly. With the mark of outlawry branded on his face and right hand, he can no longer show himself anywhere near any Union settlement or even speak to any law-abiding citizen, since willingly aiding or associating with a known outlaw is itself an outlawable offense. Furthermore, military patrols and private citizens alike are expected and encouraged to kill any outlaws on sight. The outlaw's only option for survival consequently is to find a gang of raiders willing to take him in and live the rest of his days preying on his former compatriots until his luck eventually runs out.

    Long story short, this is exactly what happened to that boy. Having heard of an outlaw about to be expelled from town, the drill instructors at the school apparently deemed it prudent to bring along their classes of younger kids to show them what happens to those who break the law. From what I heard, the outlawed boy was found not far outside town, having made little effort to flee or hide whatsoever. All things considered, he got away lightly - the father and the brothers of the victim simply cudgeled him to death with pickaxe handles, and he was also said to have taken the fatal beating like a real man, in dignified silence. Seeing how this was probably the first person Mareks witnessed killed up close, and the outlaw was still the brother of a friend of his, my son seems to have taken the incident a bit more to the heart than one should.

    "Platoon - at ease! You've got a five minute break! Marek Vanag, your father wants to speak to you! Dismissed!" the Corporal commands his young charges. Merrily cheering, they instantly turn from dutiful little soldiers into 8-year-old boys full of joy and mischief. My son runs over to me for a hug. It is rare for parents to see their school-age children outside weekends and the breaks on planting and harvest seasons, when they are let off on home leave.

    "How are you doing, my lad?" I ask.

    "Great, papa! I got top scores in math, English and Lithuanian last week!" Mareks tells me, "But I was also punished with chores for failing a test in Estonian. Estonian is hard, so not like the other languages..."

    "I'm sure you'll get a hang of it soon," I encourage him, "Your young head can grasp things way faster than grown-ups can!"

    "But it feels so strange to the tongue..." Mareks is about to complain but falls silent from my stern gaze.

    "Marek, remember what I told you - there's no such thing as can't. I can't is an excuse for stupid lazy slobs, which you clearly aren't. So if you aren't getting something done, it's either because you aren't doing it right, or because you're not putting enough effort into it, and when that happens, it is your job to figure out which is it and do something about it," I remind him, "Now, what are you going to do the next time there's a test in Estonian coming?"

    "I'll study harder, papa," Marek humbly nods.

    "Correct, and if you fail that one as well, you will redouble your efforts. You will spend your free time asking the instructors for help instead of playing outside if you have to, and you will keep trying until you get it right! You're a Balt, son! And Balts don't quit on their problems, ever - they grind them into dirt!" I speak.

    "Yes, papa," my boy dutifully nods, and for a moment I feel like I'm being too hard on him. But I chase the thought away immediately. I know better than most what the world outside the safe-zones is like - I would only be doing my son a great disfavour by going easy on him if I look to see him survive and thrive in that world.

    "How are things otherwise?" I ask Marek to change the subject, "Are the other boys treating you alright?"

    "For most part," he speaks, "I only got in a fight once last week. Lauris and Raimonds were teasing Eino because he's Estonian and speaks Latvian with a funny accent. I stood up for him and told them they'd do no better speaking in Estonian. We started arguing and then fighting."

    "And?" I ask, only now noticing a fading bruise under my son's right eye.

    "And?" he proudly straightens up, "Corporal Hartmanis showed up, dragged us all to the gym and made us fight in the boxing ring. He said that if we so want to beat each other senseless, we might as well do it the proper way. And me and Eino kicked their ass!"

    "Looks like you got some beating yourself as well," I point out at his bruise.

    "Eino got it worse than me, but we beat those two in the end," Mareks argues, "The Corporal himself said I have talent."

    "Isn't fighting at school forbidden?" I ask.

    "It is. So we all had to scrub the toilets afterwards regardless," Mareks loses his boastful grin, "But it was worth it! Now nobody is picking on Eino anymore, and I'm cool with Lauris and Raimonds as well."

    "It is good that you stood up for a friend when someone was being mean to him," I pat him on the head, "You did well and I'm proud of you!"

    "The Corporal said you wanted to talk to me about something, papa," Mareks smiles and speaks. Like me, he's not much for small talk, preferring to get straight to business.

    "Your drill instructor told me you were brought to watch an outlaw hunt last week," I speak in a serious tone, "He told me you looked away and said you felt sorry for the outlaw. Is that true?"

    I can see Marek become serious and slightly saddened as he walks by my side away from the ears of other students.

    "I did, papa," he speaks with the seriousness of an adult, "You know my friend Juris who sometimes comes over to play when I'm home on weekends? Santis was his big brother. He was always nice to me, he even brought me along for rides on his motorcycle sometimes. So I felt sorry for him when he was outlawed, and I couldn't watch when they killed him."

    "I know it can be hard when it happens to somebody you like," I speak, "But Santis made his choices himself. Nobody poured that liquor in his mouth, nobody put the knife in his hand, and nobody put that hand to the throat of another young man - nobody but himself. He picked a fight over a stupid reason, wasn't even man enough to accept defeat, and chose to murder his opponent like a coward instead of striving to better his fighting skills to beat his rival the next time. Those were all his choices, and he paid the price due of them."

    "I know what he did was wrong," Mareks argues, "But he wasn't a bad person. I know he felt sorry for what he did."

    "I hear he didn't run or hid, nor did he scream when they beat him. He took his punishment as a man should. You did him dishonour by refusing to witness it," I speak, "I know it was hard to watch because you liked him, but the next time something like that happens, I want you to look straight at it without flinching. I want you to look and see everything, so that whenver somebody asks, you can attest whether the outlaw you saw punished took it like a man and is worthy of being remembered at least as a brave lad. Condemned by law, an outlaw's life is beyond redemption - but you can save a little bit of dignity for him by bearing witness to his demise. Do you understand what I mean, son? Will you do it for me the next time it happens?"

    "I won't look away the next time, papa," Marek promises. Content with the answer, I ruffle his hair and turn back, as his break will be over soon.

    "Papa, will you be doing any demonstrations today?" he asks me enthusiastically.

    "I might," I smile at him, "I don't wanna ruin the surprise!"

    "2nd Platoon, on me!" Corporal Hartmanis shouts, seeing that I'm done talking with my lad. Mareks waves me a quick goodbye as he runs off to get back in line.

    ---

    Having gotten my son's sensitivity issue out of my way, I am off to meet with the school commandant and make arrangements for the upcoming demonstration. I make my way up the front stairs to the lobby. The grand stairs overlook the parade ground and double as the podium

    The school's interior has been somewhat freshened up since I was a student. Back in my day, the place looked rather bleak and utilitarian, like a military command post. Now the interior has been changed to a bit more brighter, less oppresive colouring and design. Along with the usual propaganda posters, there are even children's drawings put up here and there now. All obviously feature an assortment of patriotic themes. The best drawings and paintings by the older students are placed in the lobby right in front of the entrance to immediately catch the eye of a visitor. Further above, the portraits of the original sixteen Colonels look down upon me, a huge Union flag occupying the rest of the space between there and the ceiling.
    "Please state your business, sir!" another young man, a Sergeant in his early 20's, approaches me from the small office near the entry. The chief of today's watch, judging by his distinguishing armband and the .357 revolver in the holster on his hip.


    "I'm here for the Career Day demonstrations. Where could I find the Commandant?" I speak.


    "He should be in his office, Captain," the lad points me to the left wing of the building on the first floor. The staff offices are apparently still where they used to be.
    The walls of the hallway are lined with a mix of children's drawings, photographies from memorable school events, and patriotic propaganda posters. A new addition I take note of is "Young Heroes of the Union", a series of posters featuring portraits of children and youths martyred for the cause of the Union along with an illustration and brief description of their heroic feat.


    Daina Liepiņa, 12.07.2091-15.09.2107, aged 16. When the barbarous Mecharussian foe invaded Baltic Union for the second time in 2107, Daina Liepiņa was among the first of the youths in Aizkraukle to join the adults in defense of their community. Heedless of danger, she aided in the extraction and treatment of the wounded despite heavy bombardment of the town. After Aizkraukle was overrun and the Mekh occupation began, Daina continued her noble pursuit by aiding wounded resistence fighters despite great personal risk. After a failed resistance attack on the local occupation authority, she was captured while treating a wounded resistence fighter in the barn of her family farm. Despite being savagely tortured and repeatedly raped by the bestial Mekh occupants, Daina remained adamant in her resolve and betrayed no members of the local resistence. She was publicly executed by hanging, her death inspiring yet another series of riots and resistence attacks against the vile foreign invaders.



    The youthful blue eyes of a beautiful ash-blond teenage girl gaze at me from the portrait in the upper left corner of the poster. Below, a skillfuly-painted illustration details her martyrdom. Young Daina stands proudly on the gallows, bruised and bloodied but unbroken, her head defiantly held high. Her gaze is affixed towards the skies as if already looking beyond this world, her torn clothes implying the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her captors. A group of brutish, ape-like, almost subhuman Mekh troops jeer and mock her, one of their combat androids putting the noose around the girl's neck, while a cordon of more Mekhs is struggling to keep at bay an angry mob of local citizens outraged at the display.
    Perhaps some of the other pictures and stories are enhanced or outright fabricated, such as the one featuring a 12-year-old Lithuanian boy charging a Mekh flamethrower tank clenching an AT mine to his chest, his clothes ablaze but his face firm in determination. Or a 9-year-old Estonian girl defiantly staring down the barrel of a Mekh trooper's gun over the dead bodies of her parents, supposedly gunned down for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Mecharussian flag. The one about Daina Liepiņa is true to the word though. I was a little older than my son is now at the time, and saw her execution with my own eyes. My father was killed a few weeks later in the uprising that her death inspired.


    As I walk on, I can't help but notice majority of characters in these posters at least here in this hallway are young girls, the illustrations and descriptions of their martyrdom sparing no detail on the torture and atrocities inflicted on them. The Education and Training Department are clearly doing their job well, taking into account the instinctive extra disgust and anger that violence perpetrated on a young female tends to elicit. A few pictures feature atrocities by wasteland raiders, but most of the heat is dedicated to our dear and esteemed neighbors, the Mecharussians. Growing up reading stories like these every day, there will be little love lost between the Mekhs and the children of my generation, but it's not like the Mekhs have done much to deserve a better reputation with our youth.


    "Permission to enter?" I speak as I knock on the Commandant's office door. Few things are more terrifying to a Baltic student than being summoned to his school Commandant's office. Every move and word must be by the book, lest the Commandant condemn one to two weeks or more of hard and unpleasant chores on reduced rations and no home leave. Not because he would care that much about proper protocol, but rather because the student's mere presence in his office indicates a lack of discipline that must be promptly addressed. Even though many years have passed since I was last a student here, I still feel a little uneasy when knocking on this door. I wasn't a good student by any standard. At times I spent almost as much time scrubbing toilets, sweeping the parade ground or peeling potatoes in the kitchen as I did studying, so there's no surprise that I still have my reservations about meeting the Commandant in his office.


    "Come in," a stern voice commands from behind the door, and I step in. The Commandant, an old Lieutenant Colonel, is sitting behind his massive desk overlooked by the portrait of the current High Marshal and gazes at me sternly, evidently having expected a misbehaving student or an inexperienced instructor come to complain about the lack of discipline in his training platoon.


    "Good morning, Commandant," I greet him, "Captain Hendriks Vanags, 2nd Special Tasks. I was told to speak to you about today's demonstrations."
    "Vanags? Are you by any chance the son of Viktors Vanags, Captain?" the Commandant speaks. His silver hair and the scar across his face clearly marks him as a veteran of many battles.


    "The same," I affirm.


    "I fought in the last war alongside your old man," the Commandant speaks with no small measure of admiration, "He was a fine soldier if I've ever met one. Damn shame about what happened to him."


    "I like to think I've turned out reasonably well regardless," I state.


    "Aye, you have! Your father would be mighty proud seeing you wear that green bandana," the Commandant speaks, "Either way, let's get to business!"


    ---


    According to the plan, most of the Career Day presentations will take place in the school's gymnasium, with some of the practical demonstrations including mine being set outside in the stadium. The Commandant himself seems thrilled when I elaborate what I and my guys have planned in our demonstration.


    "You Tier Ones sure know how to leave an impression! Just please, try not to mess up the turf - we spent almost a quarter of our budget last year to get it. Had to import it all the way from the Commonwealth, these things don't come cheap."


    "We won't leave a scratch," I promise.


    "Good," the Commandant is content, "How's business these days?"


    "I'm not at liberty to say..."


    "Your personal business, I mean! You still live in your family farm, do you not, Captain?"


    "Oh, the farm... We're getting by alright. You'd be better off asking my wife though, I don't get to spend anywhere near as much time as I'd like at home because of my "other business", Commandant."


    "Well, you'll be pleased to know I'm a big customer of your cigars. Your missus sure knows how to get them right!"


    "It's her family recipe. Her grandparents were all from West Virginia, two of them were in the tobacco business."


    "And it's showing. From what I've heard, they don't make anything this good in America anymore. Not since the place was overrun by left-winger traitors and Communists, anyway."


    I grin at the Commandant's opinion of the current government of what used to be United States of America. Truth be told, most Westerners and their descendant residing in the Union share that opinion, my wife Gloria among them.


    "Coming back here makes me feel a bit nostalgic," I mention, "Reminds me of my own boyhood."


    "I hear a lot of that from folks of your age, Captain," the Commandant smiles, "No time like the time when one's single biggest concern in life is getting laid, eh?"


    "Aye," I chuckle, "I remember all too well."


    "If seriously, it ain't no easy task keeping a battalion's worth of teenage boys with raging hormones in line," the Commandant speaks as he looks out the window, "Especially not when there's another battalion's worth of teenage girls with equally raging hormones shacked up in the barracks just a fence apart. Keeping them all busy enough not to get ideas takes quite a bit of imagination, and even so does not always prevent... undesirable contact from happening every now and then."


    "Were it only the teens," I grin, "I've got a whole squad of rooks in their 20's in my platoon. Most of them are more inclined towards chasing skirts than training. Not that I was any different at that age."


    "Well, I suppose only starting a family can remedy that, and chasing skirts is how families usually get started, " the Commandant sighs resignedly, "Speaking of which, aren't Tier One candidates all supposed to be married?"


    "Normally they are," I explain, "Chernobyl unfortunately put a big dent in our ranks that we're still trying to patch up, so a few rules got suspended."


    ---


    Even though Chernobyl was never supposed to become public knowledge, it is a household name across the Union these days, an eponym for everything a special operation shouldn't be.
    It all started with a coalition of raider gangs from the East harassing Union settlements in the Southern Reclamation Zone. The raiders were eventually tracked down to a large compound near Chernobyl. Seeing how the place was a radland even before the Great War and the current raider presence didn't offer much in way of an improvement, the brass back home started to plot on how to rectify that.


    Since the whole of old Belarus and Ukraine is at least nominally Mekh territory, our government filed a formal complaint with the Mekhs and demanded in no small terms that something be done about the raiders. It was mostly just for good form - Mecharussian authorities will much rather pay any raider gangs to go pester their neighbors instead of spending any time or resources trying to get rid of them. And who can blame them - raiders make for a cheap, expendable, and most importantly, plausibly-deniable force perfect for black ops, even if their reliability and allegiance is questionable at best.


    So predictably, the complaint fell on deaf ears, the Mekhs giving their usual line of not being responsible for the actions of a few criminals. Consequently, the Council of Generals took matters in their own hands and sanctioned a military expedition. Since Chernobyl is deep inside Mekh territory, sending a heavily-armed Tier Two expeditionary force would have been an act of war by every international law and standard, and was therefore out of question. Therefore, Tier One assets were deployed instead to take care of the problem more discreetly. Since the raiders were estimated to number at several thousand and were evidently operating with the tacit support of Mekh authorities, there was no practical way to eliminate them all, so the Generals ordered a decapitation strike instead. Tier One assets were to eliminate key members of the gang leadership who were maintaining the volatile alliance between the gangs, preferably in a manner that would implicate rival groups. Ideally, this would have started fierce infighting and disintegrated the so-called "Chernobyl syndicate".


    The plan certainly looked good on paper, but problems would start to plague Operation Striking Cobra, as it was designated, from the moment our troops stepped aboard their Skyrangers. Two out of twelve teams had to turn back early because of technical problems with their rides, and another was lost in Minsk Wasteland halfway across Belarus to a freak dust storm that grounded the rest of the elements and delayed the whole operation for 18 hours while the storm subsided and survivors were recovered from the crash site. Evacuating the wounded survivors back home left the Tier Ones short another Skyranger, so the task force was already down to 75% strength by the time they arrived at their designated insertion points 23 hours late. Things did not improve afterwards, the intel on enemy positions and defenses being out of date because of the earlier delay, which forced several elements to spend extra hours ways around them. Furthermore, one of the squads was attacked by a pack of wildland mutts. That they somehow avoided detection in spite of all the ruckus they caused fighting off the beasts is nothing short of a miracle. However, the proverbial shit really hit the fan only after the task force finally launched their assault. Perhaps things would have worked out well in the end, were it not for one guard who escaped our detection by taking a lenghty dump in an outhouse and left it at the least opportune moment. After the said guard promptly raised an alarm, the whole compound of two thousand-plus raiders descended on our troops, who had to fight their way out. Furthermore, it turned out the Mekh government forces were indeed in cahoots with the raiders, keeping several mobile SAMs in the surrounding countryside. These SAMs shot down five of the nine remaining Skyrangers, leaving the bulk of the Tier One task force stranded literally on the enemy's doorstep, only a lucky few squads managing to reach alternative exfil points and escaping by air. Another two dozen or so operators gradually turned up weeks later after having eluded or escaped capture and walked back home all the way across Belarus.


    The summary aftermath of the whole botched operation was 52 Tier Ones KIA or missing, another 67 captured, though about a dozen eventually managed to escape and return home, and most of the remaining 25 who returned with the Skyrangers wounded. The Mekhs made a big stink internationally, further escalation only being avoided by our government demonstrating proof of their sponsorship of the raiders. Mekhs naturally denied everything, accusing our government of falsifying evidence, gave our captured lads a show trial sentencing them to 25 years in Gulag on charges of terrorism and espionage - only to quietly exchange them back for some of their own captured operatives once things had quieted down about a year later. Many of the exchanged captives were in rather bad condition and were no longer fit for Tier One service, so the dent that the Chernobyl op put into Tier One's ranks was considerable. The Generals consequently suspended several candidacy rules to replenish their ranks faster, including the one requiring candidates to be married and with at least one child.


    I was a 1st Lieutenant back then, and one of the lucky few who got out of there without first enjoying the questionable Mekh hospitality. Many others including my former commander weren't so lucky. As the highest-ranking survivor in my company, I became the acting CO, a title that was officially made permanent shortly thereafter. On the bright side, for all the mess it caused Operation Striking Cobra was ultimately a pyrrhic victory - it did succeed in destabilizing and dismantling the Chernobyl syndicate as planned. The most ironic thing about the whole affair was two of the syndicate's gang bosses we failed to assassinate that day turning up at the Union border with the remnants of their gangs about a month later and expressing desire to give up raiding and join our cause. They would cite bitterness about how quickly their underlings turned on them in the aftermath of the battle as their main reason. Last I heard, these former raiders were doing a decent job keeping other scum like their old selves out of Union lands down in the South.


    ---


    "I and Major Ezeriņš were in the same platoon back in school," the Commandant mentions my late commander, "Your father was the one who recommended him for Tier One."


    "Aye, the Major was a fine soldier and a good man," I agree, "My old man always had an eye for both."


    Our conversation is interrupted by the buzz of my cellphone.


    "Excuse me, Commandant," I apologize, "Gotta take this."


    "Hey there, Cap!" the youthfully-irreverent voice of Corporal Liedskalniņš greets me on the other end, "We're at the school stadium! Where are you?"


    Andris Liedskalniņš is one of the eight young mischievous skirt-chasers that I have just been complaining about. Aged 21, he and his squadmates would only be eligible as entry-level candidates to Tier One training under normal circumstances, that too provided they were all married or in the very least formally engaged. Owing to the botched op in Chernobyl last year, however, prospective talents from Tier Two like them have been granted special dispensation to be placed semi-permanently on a Tier One team straight away, learning the trade "on the go". Although he is cocky, irreverent and at times reckless, I feel Liedskalniņš has a clear potential for leadership. With time and effort, he could be polished into an excellent Tier One operator and perhaps even groomed into an officer.


    "I'm at the Commandant's. I'll get to you in a moment," I reply and end the call.


    "Well, Captain," the Commandant nods, "Looks like I've already taken up too much of your time. The opening ceremony starts at 1100 in the gymnasium, I guess I'll see you there."


    ---


    When I go outside to meet with my men, the students have already cleared the stadium. Several trucks stand parked on the running track, and my guys along with several other groups are already setting up our presentation stands.


    "Hey, Cap!" Corporal Liedskalniņš greets me, "We've got all the stuff in those two trucks. Where do you want it?"


    "Right there in the football field should be good," I point with my hand, "I want the maze set up with some space for the DAGOR and quad-bikes to maneuver outside, and the LZ for our 'Ranger clearly marked off. Commandant's okay with us landing our bird and pulling some stunts here as long as we don't mess up the turf, so no drifting and 360-spins!"


    "I thought my boys were playing the bad guys today."


    "You are. But you'll also be doing a couple breaches, like on that showcase job in Riga on Union Day."


    "Great! Let's see if the kids these days still got what it takes!" Liedskalniņš grins with such menacing delight that I feel compelled to remind him.


    "Remember, body shots and light melee only!"


    "Right-o!" the Corporal nods and turns to his squad, "Alright, boys, you heard the boss-man! Let's get to it!"


    Along with an exhibition of our most commonly-used weapons, gear and vehicles, we are planning to do a showcase hostage rescue. Corporal Liedskalniņš and his squad are going to play the enemy today, holding a group of student and teacher volunteers as hostages. My squad will in turn breach and clear the maze they will be hiding in, my platoon sergeant Valdis Liepnieks arriving with his squad as reinforcements by land and air. Afterwards, I intend to let a couple squads of senior-year students to try out their skills against us both on offense and defense to see if any of them have what it takes to match a Tier One commando in the field. For additional incentive, both we and our volunteer opponents will be wearing "zapper rigs". While hits with simulation rounds do sting nastily when they hit square-on, they quickly lose their punch over distance, rarely hurt badly enough to keep the victim out of action for long like a real injury would, and oftentimes do not hurt much at all if hitting at an shallow angle. This is where the zappers come in - worn as harnesses fitted with sensors and electrodes, they pick up hits anywhere on the body and immediately deliver a powerful electric jolt, which hurts like hell and temporarily paralyzes the affected part. From painful personal experience I've certainly found that zappers are invaluable in teaching rooks like these senior-year kids to use cover.


    While Liedskalniņš and his guys are busy pulling pre-assembled plywood frames that serve to set up improvised "buildings" for breach-and-clear exercises and starting to set up the nominal building where the enemy and their hostages will be holed up in, I see the rest of my squad arrive, driving a DAGOR, an armored five-tonner and a couple quad-bikes.
    "Morning, Captain!" Sergeant Pētersons speaks, hopping off from a quad-bike, "I see you're already setting up. What's the plan?"
    I briefly explain him the idea, making the hulking Sergeant laugh jovially.


    "Call me a sadist, but I find the zapper is definitely the next best invention ever after chemrails! Hell, it's probably the very reason why we Balts are so tough - where foreigners only separate real men from boys in war, we only ever field real men to begin with, having already done the separating in schools with the zapper among other things!" he chuckles, brushing through his trademark horseshoe mustache that is famous throughout the town.


    I chuckle too, because Pētersons is largely right. Many a youngster confident about his future in Tier Two has changed his mind after his first encounter with the infamous zapper rig in school.


    After sharing a laugh, we get back to business.


    "I want tables with our guns set up here," I instruct my men, "Our usual gear should be next to it. Also, set up one of our spare exos and some weights, kids love to try out those! I want two drones prepped and ready, synced with the big screen over there, so that everyone can see what goes on in the maze once we start."


    ---


    After two laborious hours, our presentation is finally set up, and we still have 30 minutes to spare. I leave Sergeant Pētersons in charge and head off to have a smoke with Liedskalniņš and a handful of other smokers of my platoon. It is a small shelter opposite to the main entrance. A handful of instructors and senior-year students are already there, the latter distinguished by their field caps pushed far back, giving them a bit sloppy, careless look. That and the right to use the smoking area alongside the instructors is an informal privilege for boys who have already been on their first "field practice" - accompanied adult Tier Twos or Threes on a patrol. Those who have seen action on their "field practice" have the additional right to "show their colours" - to wear their collars unbuttoned so that their undershirt is prominently visible. Girls in turn mark their field exploits oppositely, by wearing their caps deep down on their eyes, so that they have to lift their head proudly up to see what's in front of them, and by wearing their hair loose rather than in one of the regulation styles. All that besides the right to smoke is, of course, strictly informal - in formal events or presence of officers, senior students must still shape up and dress by the book.


    Recalling my own senior years, I wonder if the older kids these days still take their little privileges as seriously as they did in my day. Back then, unfortunate was the boy or girl who dared to wear one's uniform the "privileged way" or have a smoke without having earned the right to first, even if it happened on weekend home leave. If the instructors caught him or her first, the offender could look towards a miserable day of punitive exercise and unpleasant chores. If the "anointed" senior students did, it would end in a severe beating instead.
    Seeing me approach, the boys quickly button up their jackets and readjust their caps back to their prescribed positions, at least until I wave them to ease up and enjoy their smokes.
    "I can't believe it's been only three years since I was here myself," Corporal Liedskalniņš speaks, offering me a light first. I know for a fact that normally he wouldn't bother with such courtesies, but since the boys are watching, he apparently wants to set good example.


    "People grow up fast," I agree, "It feels like my own boy was a baby just yesterday, yet today I already see him marching in formation."


    "Andri, is that you?" one of the students suddenly exclaims after looking at Liedskalniņš tightly for a moment, "Holy Christ, man, you've changed!"


    "That's Corporal Liedskalniņš for you!" one of the instructors sternly corrects the boy, reading my Corporal's name from the tag on his uniform.


    "Uh... yes, Sergeant!" the student looks down sheepishly.


    "It's alright, Sergeant," Liedskalniņš speaks, "He's my neighbor's son."


    "If you say so, Corporal," the drill sergeant frowns, clearly uncomfortable with his students being granted such undeserved liberty to speak with a Tier One on such familiar terms.
    "So, Janka, how are you holding up? You're graduating this year, right?" Liedskalniņš turns to his neighbor.


    "Aye! If I get picked for Tier Two, I'll serve a term and then go to university, if not, I'll go straight away," Janka speaks, "I haven't decided between Riga Technical and Tartu yet, but I'll definitely take civil engineering. And if that doesn't work out, I've got an uncle working in LKOD, they always have room for apprentice mechanics and pay good money."


    "You sound like a technically-minded lad," I join the conversation.


    "Oh, I am, sir!" the boy answers with no small measure of pride, "I don't mean to brag or anything, but with my grades in technical drawing and practical mechanics, they'd be idiots not to accept me!"


    "And with your grades in electronics, they'd be idiots if they did!" his drill sergeant adds to temper his enthusiasm.


    "I'm working on it, Sergeant!" Janka protests.


    "Then you better work harder, it's only three months until the final exams," the instructor grumbles, putting out what's left of his cigarette and turning to the rest of his present trainees, "I want everyone in the gymnasium at 1100 sharp! Anyone late will be sweeping the barracks!"


    "Copy that, Sergeant!" his disciples acknowledge and turn to us as the Sergeant and his assistant Corporals leave on their business.


    "I understand there will be folks from both RTU and Tartu University here today," I speak to Janka, "See if talking to them helps you make up your mind. Or you could even try and apply for scholarship abroad, the Commandant said the government is offering scholarships for study in Old Nations' top universities these days."


    "I don't know...," Janka suddenly loses his confidence, "Dad says they don't like us Balts much abroad. He says the Old Nations looked down on us even before the Great War, and that nothing's really changed since. And he knows what he's talking, he used to serve on Colonel Marcinkievičus' retinue when he was younger."


    "You know what our ancestors would say about that?" I respond, "Seeing once is better than hearing a dozen times. You won't know unless you go and see for yourself. Oldies certainly can't be worse than the Mekhs, can they? And besides, a true Balt doesn't shy away from challenges - he eats them for breakfast! It's what I keep telling my son."


    "I defer to your judgement, Captain," Janka humbly states, "I suppose I can at least give it a try. If it doesn't work, there's always the job with my uncle..."


    "What about the rest of you bunch?" I turn to the other boys, "Surely you've got plans for your lives as well!"


    "I'm definitely going Tier Two, full time, no excuses!" a lanky freckled red-haired chap is the first to respond, "And I'll be gunning for Tier One as soon as I'm eligible, Captain!"


    "Oh, good," I smile at his enthusiasm, "Maybe you'll even end up in my unit someday. If you got what it takes, of course."


    "Yeah, if he ever passes the marksmanship tests in the final exams! Konrad here can't shoot for shit," a lively short lad teases his classmate, "As for me, I'll go work on the railroad after school. My big brother is an engine driver on the Riga - Daugavpils line. With a bit of luck, I could get on his crew as an apprentice, and see where it goes from there."


    "I'll be a farmer, sir!" the biggest and burliest of the boys is the last to speak, "My pops died fighting the raiders in the South a few years back, and ma and sisters can't do all the farm work on their own."


    "You're just saying that so the Captain doesn't see you for what you really are!" the short lad teases him, "Admit it - you're just too big and dumb for a better job!"


    "Screw you!" the big guy barks, raising his fist and prompting me to intervene before these two start a fight and get thrown in the stockade for their efforts.


    "Hey, nothing wrong with being a farmer!" I interject, "Farmers are the reason you get to eat as often as you do. I'd be a farmer myself if things hadn't turned out differently for me. Hell, you're probably smoking my tobacco right now!"


    "Point taken, sir," the short guy speaks, "I don't mean no disrespect for farmers, I'm just saying that Arturs here is big and dumb, which is objectively true... OWW!"


    And he cringes as his big classmate punches him in the shoulder.


    "Say, you boys ever sneak off to the girls' barracks?" I ask to change the subject, prompting peals of laughter from the lads and wide grins from my men.


    "Why, of course, sir!" the red-headed chap named Konrad states, his freckled pale cheeks burning in a bright red, "The girls sometimes come over as well. Just please don't tell the drill sergeant, he said he'd personally neuter anyone caught on the wrong side of the fence, and I'm pretty sure he didn't mean the girls!"


    "Your secret's safe with me..." I laugh, "Believe it or not, I was once your age too, a student in this very same school."


    "You were?" the boys seem surprised, "What was school like back in your day, sir?"


    "Tougher," I state, "But that was after the last war. I too was PT-ed by Staff Sergeant Turks."


    "Really? He was the PT instructor already back then?" the boys seem surprised.


    "He was. From what I've heard, he's got enough metal in his body to make a compass point to him rather than the North," I explain, "He got busted down to Tier Three after Mekhs dropped a forty-mike-mike right next to him. Body armor saved him, but he still got shredded up bad. That is why he started to work as a PT instructor here. Tough and mean bastard if there ever was one, but he means well. Didn't make me hate him any less back in the day, of course, but Turks did teach me useful lessons, so you should listen to him. After all, if you think he's being too tough on you, what would you do faced with a real enemy?"


    "Nah, Turks is alright!" the boys argue, evidently not wanting to admit their resentment of the Staff Sergeant now that I've put it like that, "Tough old bastard, but fair, that's for sure! If he chews someone up, it's always for a reason."


    Seeing their reaction, I can't help but recall my own school days again, of how the word of an authority figure could sway my impressionable young mind from resentful reluctance to renewed enthusiasm. In my case, it was my uncle.


    "Hard in training, easy in battle! Always remember these words, Hendrik, remember them whenever you feel the drill sergeant is being too hard on you!" such were his words when I once complained about Turks pushing us too harshly.


    "Uh... Captain, we should get moving, it'll be time soon!" Liedskalniņš points to his watch. Indeed, time has elapsed without notice with us conversing here.


    ---


    On the way to the gym, we pass by the boys' barracks, separated from their female counterparts by an imposing concrete fence complete with barbed wire on top. I can't help but notice the barbed wire being tied down with a pair of zip ties in the far corner of the yard behind the bushes, a pair of holes hammered in the concrete fence for easier climbing.
    "Well, at least one thing is still just like it used to be," I remark with a laugh, recalling a number of occasions I had used the same place for unsanctioned forays in the realm of the opposite sex.


    "I'll be damned, the "glory steps" are still here!" Liedskalniņš agrees with me, laughing along with his boys. The bunch clearly strike me as having been frequent users of these steps during school years, and evidently have changed little since then.


    ---


    The gymnasium is a separate building conveniently located roughly an equal distance from the main building and both dormitories. Assorted classes already seem to be gathering, entering the room in the organized and efficient fashion that's been drilled into them since day one. I remember spending the whole of my first day in school just practicing how to enter the classroom, sit down, rise to greet our drill instructor, and leave the class in a quick and organized fashion. A number of presentation have been set up by attending representatives of various institutions, a large schedule on the wall near the entrance lists times and classrooms in which more elaborate lectures and Q&A sessions will be delivered. For now, students and attendees assemble further inside the gymnasium, a huge projector screen being draped on the wall underneath the ubiquitous giant black-cross-on-white Union flag that adorns just about every wall inside public buildings large enough to accomodate one. As everywhere else in the school, the gymnasium's walls are lined with propaganda posters and slogan-bearing placards.


    "Disciplined and fit youth is the pride of our nation!" one large poster informs, an athletic blonde teenage boy and an equally fit blonde girl in shining white sportswear smile down upon the viewer with a flying Union banner in the background. In another picture, a young soldier charges forth intrepidly, spectral figures of warriors from ages past towering over him and looking down benevolently from behind, their ranks stretching backwards into eternity. The image is inscribed "It's your time to carry on - make it count!"


    "Always liked that one," Liedskalniņš speaks, taking note of my gaze, "Love it how the artist has expressed the duty to continue our ancestral legacy in it."


    "Back when I was a student, none of this was here," I respond, "They only built this gym a couple years after the war. Didn't have any posters in it at first, they only showed up around the time I graduated."


    The curtains of the high windows are pulled shut, darkening the hall, and the projector mounted on the balcony over the entrance begins to cast its light on the screen on the wall.
    "They're gonna show The Movie!" a hushed and excited whisper rushes over the crowd of students.


    ---


    The Movie is another time-honoured ritual in Baltic schools and public events in general. A five-minute patriotic propaganda flick, it is changed a bit every few years to keep it fresh, but the general gist of things remains the same, telling the story of the world before and how our nation came to be.


    At first, the screen goes dark, only a distant folk melody played on flute and bagpipes echoing throughout the hall. The melody grows closer, the screen brightening up to show aerial views of lush, green landscapes akin to the most fertile and pristine ones found in the Union today.


    "This is the land of our ancestors," a deep, dramatic male voice announces as various breathtaking scenes of pristine nature appear on the screen, "Since times immemorial, the people of Baltic nations have called this land their home."



    An ancient village of log houses and huts gradually appears in a meadow seemingly out of nowhere, the surrounding woodland gradually giving way to farmed fields.


    "For untold generations, our forefathers watered this land with the sweat of their labour," the voice narrates as ploughmen are shown tilling the fields with horse-pulled ploughs, "And in return, the land gave them bountiful harvest."



    The view changes accordingly to show vast yellow fields of ripe grain waving under a gentle breeze like a sea, the likeness in turn foretelling the next scene, which seamlessly transitions to an actual sea braved by an ancient-looking fishing boat.


    "So too did they sail and work upon the sea, and it rewarded them with bountiful catches, even the waves washing up riches like nowhere else," the narrator tells as fishermen are shown to haul in heavily-laden nets, and women in traditional dress walk the shoreline, gathering amber washed ashore by the waves.


    "Such was our ancestral land, and it was always coveted by many," the voice grows more sombre, the idyllic music changing to a darker, more aggressive tune. The image changes to the marching feet of ancient warriors, and the screen is taken by various battle scenes. One of the men tilling the field, a battle-scarred middle-aged man, is cast from the clothes of a peasant into the armor of a warrior. The first scene takes place in a village on the seashore, marauding Vikings burning houses, slaughtering men and chasing terrified women, when the warband including the protagonist emerges from the woods and charges the scoundrels. Axes clash, shields break, and men fall like leaves in autumn. As the vanquished Vikings flee back to their longships, the view zooms in on the victorious Balt, raising his axe towards the sky and roaring triumphantly. The camera then pans out to show him in the midst of a huge battle, swinging the same greataxe against droves of crusading Teutonic Knights, whose cloaks are ironically almost identical to today's Baltic Union colors. As he beheads a charging knight, blood spraying into his face, the view zooms in to capture a mix of horror and rage in his eyes, only to zoom out again and reveal him in a 17th century Swedish uniform. An uplifting tune of fife and drum keeps pace for the formation of Carolean line infantry marching towards what appear to be Russian ranks. Guns thunder, cannonballs roaring through the air as the formations close in to trade volleys. The green-coated Russians fall like grass under the scythe, but the ones who remain standing present arms and let loose a volley of their own. The view pans in to the Baltic soldier's eyes again, and pan back out again to show him already in Russian uniform, storming the walls of a fortress on some Southern battlefield, the minarets behind the walls and the attire of the enemy soldiers betraying the defenders as Turks. After hacking a bloody path through the Turks with his sword , the man plants the Double-headed Eagle flag on one of the city towers and the camera zooms in again to change view. The hero is now cast aboard a pre-dreadnought battleship braving the high seas, still flying Russian colours. Its many smokestacks belching clouds of black smoke as shells howl and burst all around it, kicking up pillars of water. The Balt and his comrades operate one of the ship's deck guns. As they fire, the camera follows the shell all the way to enemy ship flying Japanese colours. The Balt pumps his fist triumphantly, and after another zoom in and back out, is shown in the muddy trenches of the First World War, about to go over the top as shells fall all around.


    "For centuries after centuries, our ancestors fought and bled on this sacred land, and on many others, never failing in their resolve as warriors, but cursed to never bleed for a cause that would be their own," the narrator tells, the aggressive tune shifting to a sombre dirge as the camera shows the charging soldiers with Latvian Riflemen insignia cut down by machinegun fire in the middle of a swamp. An eerie tune of an old man singing an old soldiers' song echoes over the scene of carnage, the finally-fallen protagonist shown lying dead amidst thousands of others.


    "But endowed with great patience as they were, even our ancestors had their limits," the narrator tells as the music shifts to a merrier patriotic tune played on a piccolo flute, "They would bleed for alien causes no longer, and for the first time in many centuries, they had the luxury of taking up a cause of their own!"



    The following scenes feature WWI-era Latvian troops followed by an Estonian armored train charging across the Iron Bridge in Riga, chasing away German soldiers, who are then shown embattled on all sides by Lithuanian soldiers coming from the south. A similar fate awaits droves of apish, subhuman-looking Communists that are gunned down mercilessly in the snowy fields of the East. The colours of the three original Baltic States fly proudly, a theme based in the Union anthem foretelling their unified future.


    "Free to decide their own fate for the first time in centuries, it would seem our ancestors would finally be masters of their destiny," the narration goes, "But for every noble warrior who had given his life for his nation, three parasites and profiteers would spring up to exploit what he paid the ultimate price for. Patriotic enthusiasm was soon replaced by narrow mercantile interests, brotherhood forged in arms by petty bickering and differences. While ancestors bickered among each other, their enemies to the East and West plotted and schemed against them."



    For emphasis, a close-up shot of a headstone marked "Unknown" in Riga Brothers' Cemetary is imposed in the background of scenes of politicians arguing, and a historical footage of Soviet and Nazi diplomats shaking hands on the signing of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


    "And soon again, they found themselves bleeding for alien causes like never before. Son fought father and brother fought brother, all for the whims of foreign tyrants."
    The scene shows Balts in German Waffen-SS uniforms engaged in a fierce battle with Soviet soldiers riding desant on T-34 tanks, two finding themselves going muzzle to muzzle and both realizing with horror that they are brothers, staring at each other in shock.


    "Regardless of who won, we would stand to lose," the narrator tells, showing further scenes of Balts in the Soviet army, fighting and dying in the mountains of Afghanistan, "And that changed little even after our patriots restored independence, only for their efforts to be hijacked again by profiteers and criminal scum. It would seem there would never be an end to the cycle of death and noble causes lost to selfish betrayers, not even after our ancestral nations found powerful allies in the West. But there were still those who carried on the ancient warrior spirit, those who believed and tried to break the cycle regardless."



    The Movie now shows historical footage of Baltic heads of states signing the BALTCOM Treaty of 2032, the pact of economic and military cooperation that set our ancestral nations on the path of unification.


    "It was the middle of the 21st century that we tried to break the cycle yet again. The world was in a rapid decline, and future looked bleaker by the day. The once-mighty West was beset by deluded Marxists, social justice warriors and other traitorous scum. Worsening climate change sent hordes of savages from the South flocking towards the heart of Western civilization like vultures, to wait until she breathed her last before feeding on her carcass. The East in turn was, as usual, under the heel of bloody tyrants, mindless masses of willing slaves begging to be sent to die for the false and vain promises of glory and power. And our own people were caught in the middle, exposed to and tainted by the worst influences from both. Such was the world at the twilight of the civilizations of old, on the verge of the Great War in 2054."



    The footage in the meanwhile shows crowds of rioters clashing with police, complacent and disrespectful youths in outlandish attires shrieking Marxist slogans, and aggressive drunk Southern barbarians rampaging in Western European cities. It then shifts to the East, where autocratic leaders preside over massive military parades, the footage imposed over other footage showing torture and executions of political opponents by those same regimes. An allegorical scene depicts a Gulag inmate receiving a whipping from a brutish guard, loudly counting the strokes, and then thanking and kissing the guard's hand still holding the whip. The angry murmur that these scenes stir up among the students indicates they clearly disapprove of what they see. Finally, to a dramatic music, various nuclear detonations are shown, signifying the end of the old world. Scenes of destruction end in a barren wasteland under an almost pitch-black sky, the only sound being the wind.


    "So ended the old world. A deluge of atomic flames swept it away along with its infinite greed, corruption and complacency," the narrator speaks, "But from the ashes of the old world rose a new world - our world! To many the Great War was no doubt the worst disaster to ever befall Mankind..."



    The video appropriately shows grinning fat politicians and businessmen, fat couch potatoes and epicene youths with outlandishly-dyed hair and gaudy clothing as to leave no doubt who the beneficiaries of the old pre-war world were.


    "...but to others, the warriors and the survivors, it was an opportunity!"



    A fat angry-looking girl with a rainbow-flag shirt and gaudy purple hair and an androgynous boy with many piercings on his face, both shouting something in some kind of protest demonstration, are shown fading into skeletons partly buried in ash, only tufts of their dyed hair betraying them as the same people.


    "The nuclear exchange nearly destroyed Mankind - but so too did it help repair the world that was run to ruin, and rid it of those who ruined it. Fat-cat corporate CEOs and lawyers, Hollywood producers and pornographers, designers and sales managers of useless junk, child psychologists, feminists and social justice warriors with their echo-chamber safe-spaces, commies, anarchists, welfare leeches and other useless parasites!" the narrator again leaves no question as to who was responsible for the decadence and corruption of the old world, "For once, only the fittest and worthiest would survive and get to decide the future of their nations! And those who survived to become our immediate ancestors finally decided - no more! No more of the nonsense that already ruined the world once, no more bleeding for their lies and false causes, no more blood for any causes but our own! From now on and always, we shall be free men in charge of our own destiny!"



    A formation of uniformed youths doing martial arts forms at the command of a drill instructor is shown, performing every movement in perfect unison. Images of life in contemporary Baltic towns and villages are shown imposed over it, every person moving with purpose and deliberation, and seeming to know exactly what to do.


    "Our Founding Fathers, the Colonels, knew better than anyone that freedom comes at a price. So they forged and shaped our new, better society with that in mind. For freedom is not a right like people believed in the old world - freedom is every human being's most sacred duty and moral imperative! And to carry out that duty, one must be prepared. Where foreign nations have sought to rebuild the corrupt and decadent old ways of exploitation and repression in one form or another, we alone have renounced them for good. We alone have made freedom and everything that entails a moral and legal duty.We alone have made our entire lifestyle dedicated to that one single most noble pursuit - the preservation of freedom. Because freedom from tyranny foreign and domestic is what Baltic Union is all about! Long live the Union! "



    With those final words, the screen fades to an image of the Union flag, the national anthem "Three Stars" starting to play. I raise my hand in salute as everyone snaps to attention and begins to sing along. I can feel a tear roll down my cheek, this last part of every edition of The Movie never failing to get me.


    ---


    After the Commandant says a brief speech thanking all attendants for being here, and encouraging students to explore and carefully consider the presented career options, I and the guys linger no more, having to get back to our own demonstration that is scheduled soon.


    I return to the stadium to find everything in place, Sgt. Pētersons and a few others already mounted up and ready to make a show.


    "Say the word, Captain, and we'll get those drones up in the air," he speaks, "Also, Valdis and the rest just called in, they are taking off as we speak!"


    "Good," I acknowledge and turn to Liedskalniņš, "If your guys need to change or take a piss, now's the last time."


    "Already done, we only need to get in our "bad guy" outfits!" the Corporal answers, hopping into one of the trucks and helping his lads inside. There's some Mecharussian uniforms "liberated" on a couple earlier missions there, which they intend to wear for "enhanced realism".


    No sooner are they ready when groups of students begin to flock to the stadium. They'll have all day to explore the other presentations, but a series of demonstrations by Tier Ones isn't something any self-respecting Baltic kid - or adult, for that matter - would ever miss.


    "I trust you and your men are ready, Captain?" the Commandant approaches our station.


    "Ready when you are, sir!" I respond. Waiting for another minute for everyone to arrive and take seats, the Commandant checks his earpiece microphone and begins to speak.


    "Students, instructors, today we have special guests from Aizkraukle's finest, who will be doing demonstration of their skills! Let's hear it for the lads and girls from the 2nd Special Tasks!"


    "And... the drones are up!" radioman PFC Slišāns who also doubles as the drone operator today informs from inside the truck where he sits with the control pads. The two drones buzz to the air, stopping to hover over the maze where much of the demonstration will take place, their camera feeds going to the stadium's big screen.


    "Ladies and gentlemen, I am Captain Vanags, and I will be leading today's demonstration," I speak after the Commandant hands me a microphone once the public is done applauding, "Before we commence, I will need four brave volunteers for our first exercise!"


    Needless to say, plenty of hands lift, so I pick out largely at random. I pick two younger boys, a senior-year girl and a female instructor to serve as hostages.


    "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our brave volunteers!" I announce, putting all of my modest showmanship skills to use, "Please, introduce yourselves!"


    "Sergeant Laima Daugaviņa," the instructor starts as the eldest, "I am Economy & Housekeeping instructor for girls."


    "Private Egle Orbakaite," the girl introduces herself next, speaking with a strong Lithuanian accent, "Platoon C-11."


    "I used to be in Platoon C at your age too," I smile, "Let's hear it for our sister from the South!"


    "Recruit Uldis Briška," one of the boys continues after the audience is done applauding, "Platoon B-6."


    "Recruit Pēteris Zeltiņš, Platoon A-6!" the other boy finishes.


    "Pleasure to have you all here! Now, here's what I will need you four to do," I continue, "Today you'll be playing hostages. You will be held inside this maze, the inside of which will be visible to everyone in this stadium on the big screen, along with your captors. Do not try to fight them or escape, just sit or stand wherever they tell you to. You will be given earmuffs and face masks, which you absolutely must not remove until I tell you it's safe. Do you understand the rules?"


    After the four volunteers answer in the affirmative, I turn to the truck where Liedskalniņš and his lads are waiting.


    "Let's hear it for our today's villains!" I announce them as they step out of the truck wearing Mecharussian uniforms under their exos. Judging by the loud booing and whistling that erupts from the spectators, Mekhs definitely aren't the most popular folk among the town's youth. Liedskalniņš and his guys gesture the "hostages" to follow them inside the maze, while I wave Slišāns to cut the drone feed for now.


    "In order for this rescue to be fair play, we will shut down the camera feed for now, so that our foes can set up without us seeing them on the screen," I explain. In the meantime, Pētersons and the rest are getting on the quadbikes and DAGOR and drive off to turn around at the main gate.


    "Ready whenever you are!" I hear him on the radio once they have turned around.


    "Ready," Liedskalniņš reports from inside the maze, and I signal to Slišāns to restore the drone camera feed.


    "Begin!" I give the order.


    What happens in the following minutes is a textbook breach-and-clear assault. The quadbikes and the DAGOR arrive at speed, surrounding the nominal building that our maze represents. The four men and the machinegunner on the DAGOR remain on overwatch, covering any potential escape routes, while the rest move in to breach. After peeking inside with a fiber-optic camera to make sure no hostages are in the way, the entry teams plant two separate breaching charges. The ones used here are practice charges, only strong enough to cut through plywood - the real thing would likely demolish a good part of the maze and injure those inside. The stadium shakes with a loud bang as the door and walls are breached simultaneously, followed by additional two bangs as the entry teams throw in flashbang grenades. Moving swiftly, they enter, shooting their way through the enemy ranks. Since Liedskalniņš and his boys are Tier Ones, the entry doesn't go as perfectly as one would hope, two of the attackers being downed before the last "bad guys" are neutralized. In the meanwhile, Slišāns signalizes to me that Valdis and his team are inbound with their Skyranger. Moments later, the VTOL roars low overhead, prompting wild cheers from the spectators as it circles around the stadium and comes to hover almost over the maze. Valdis and his squad hot-drop in from a height of 10 meters , spreading out immediately to secure perimeter while the Skyranger circles around again and proceeds to land in the marked-off LZ. The hostages are escorted to the Skyranger, and I give the end signal once they are all aboard. Judging by the cheers and applause, the audience is more than satisfied.


    "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done in Tier One!" I announce, "Senior-year students and instructors who wish will later have a chance to try their skills against ours in this same maze! Any willing contestors may sign up with me or Sergeant Pētersons here!"


    ---


    The following hours are very busy ones, all of us having to contend with answering countless questions from students of all ages and instructors alike. Kids who are tall enough to try on our demonstration exoskeleton want to know why wearing it feels so clunky, and I have to explain again and again that it's because it is not properly calibrated and attuned to their individual nervous systems.


    "The neural impulse unit is run by a smart processor," I explain, "Basically, it records how your nervous system works as it operates, and readjusts itself based on those records for improved performance. In a way of speaking, the exosuit takes time to adapt to you just as you take time to adapt to it. The more diverse situations you wear it in, the better it adapts, until it becomes like a second skin."


    Others want to know why we didn't use our famed Chemrails during the exercise, and we have to explain that the SG20 dual-stage linear motor rifles, a.k.a. Chemrails, do not have a practice mode or any sort of practice ammunition or adapter, that they are meant to be handled by already-trained professionals. Considering how being entrusted with a Chemrail is a high compliment to one's martial prowess and something of a mark of status in our country, the youth's interest in this iconic rifle that has become eponymous to Tier One is understandable.


    Still others are busy signing up to try out their skills both on offense and defense against Liedskalniņš and his squad. So far there's already seven squads of senior-year students, three of them all-girl teams, and additional two composed entirely of instructors willing to test their skills.


    The presentation of the neighboring Tier Twos finally gives us a welcome respite. Guys from the district garrison have among other things hauled over an Iron Wolf tank and a Strv 203 Thunder tank destroyer, also known by the unflattering nickname of "sterva". Probably first conceived by the Mekh tankers in one of the Liberation Wars - tankers say the Thunder's main gun packs enough wallop to blow the turret clean off from any Mekh tank currently in existence, assuming it doesn't just punch all the way through it. Talk about Swedish ingenuity and German engineering... The TD clearly seems a favourite among the kids, many of whom probably dream of crewing one if they make the cut for Tier Two.


    Next to the Tier Twos, the Land Reclamation Service makes their presentation, demonstrating an assortment of CBRN vehicles and equipment. Although not in itself a popular career choice for obvious reasons, work in land reclamation is a necessary one, and compensates for the involved risks with very generous salaries and additional benefits to one's family and dependents. Even further, at the far end of the stadium, the town's Enforcers, paramedics and firemen make a joint presentation by demonstrating their vehicles. Foreigners would probably find it a little strange that your average town's EMTs use military medevac APCs for medical emergencies during peacetime, but it makes best use of available resources, finding practical application to vehicles that would otherwise have little use in peacetime and sparing the expense of having to buy and maintain a pool of dedicated ambulance cars.


    ---


    Finally the time comes for the much-awaited spectacle of brave teens and their instructors facing a squad of Tier One commandos. Those who already have some familiarity with zapper rigs are visibly anxious as they get suited up, and for a good reason.


    The first two teams predictably get owned with ease. Storming and clearing buildings is no easy task even for professional soldiers who do it for a living. I see Sergeant Pētersons grin widely as the defeated boys leave the maze whimpering and groaning. The next manage to get two of our men each, but likewise get taken down afterwards, some loudly protesting when Liedskalniņš and his lads tackle them to the ground, only having expected to be shot at with simulated ammo.


    "Not fair!" one of the boys shouts as he exits the maze, "Your men cheated, Captain!"


    "I never said there was no melee allowed when I read out the rules, did I?" I respond, "Besides, would you expect a real enemy to fight fairly?"


    The instructor teams, which have some retired Tier Ones in them, fare much better - as could be expected from men and women of their age and experience. One actually manages to clear the maze, albeit with only a sole survivor, that too because Liedskalniņš who was the last of my men standing ran his magazine dry just a single burst before his opponent did. The other does well, but is ultimately eliminated in an ambush from two directions.


    The first girl team shows commendable enthusiasm and decent skill for their age, but goes down quickly enough. Admirably, the downed girls groan and whine much less about getting zapped than most boys. The second team, however, takes us by complete surprise.


    Instead of going through the maze like everyone else, the girls suddenly decide to lift two of their own up on the walls. Balancing on top of the maze, they quickly pave way for the rest of their team, neutralizing Liedskalniņš and his men from above by complete and utter surprise and take the maze with only one of their own downed. The spectators applaud them wildly. Since the rules never specified the attacking team must necessarily go through the maze rather than over it, there's no excuse for us to consider that cheating.


    "Take the names of this bunch," I tell Pētersons, "And ask which one of them came up with that idea."


    There's another reason for us being here besides offering career prospects to youths, and that is looking for prospective candidates with the right qualities to be recommended for Tier One service once they become eligible. With their unorthodox thinking, these girls have clearly proven they have one of the main qualities necessary for a Tier One. Should any of them pass their exams well enough to be accepted into Tier Two and choose a military career, they would definitely be deemed prospective candidates for induction into Tier One.


    ---


    The simulated battles against us mark the high point of the Career Day. Afterwards the kids gradually begin to return to their everyday routines, while the visitors gradually begin to take down their presentations.


    "Very impressive work," the Commandant arrives to personally thank us while we are busy taking down the maze, "From what I overheard on my way here, you're all the talk among the students now."


    "Just doing our job," I state and show the Commandant a list of names taken by Sgt. Pētersons, "I couldn't help but take note of a few prospective candidates here. These kids clearly seem to have potential. Perhaps you could talk to their instructors and have them put some extra effort into these students, encourage them towards a professional military career if they aren't already inclined so."


    "I can do that," the Commandant nods, clearly pleased to learn that there are suitable talents among his charges, "If you could send me a copy of this list, I'd even talk to these students myself over the matter."


    "I'd rather have it done more subtly," I object, "They haven't even graduated yet, so it's still early to say. I wouldn't want knowledge of their potential candidacy go to their heads, or for them to feel pressure to join. It should be their decision alone to try and join, and they shouldn't have any ideas about having better chances than others. You could merely nudge them in the right direction."


    "Good point," the Commandant agrees, "I'll see what can be done about that, though after today's show you gentlemen put up, I doubt anyone will even want to do anything else in life besides trying to join Tier One once they come of age."


    "I can't think of one self-respecting kid who hasn't dreamt of that at least for some time," I chuckle.


    "Aye," the Commandant speaks, "It's like they all used to want to be cosmonauts in the 20th century, and IT specialists in the 21st before the Great War."


    True enough, every age and society has its own idols. The elite soldier is ours. The Commandant's words make me wonder what dreams does my own son have for his future. Though I have little doubt he wants to follow in my footsteps, surely he too must have considered something else besides that. Somewhat to my shock, I realize I have never actually asked him.
    At that moment, I make a commitment to do just that once my boy comes home on home leave this weekend. The revelation that I don't actually know what my son wants to become when he grows up frankly makes me feel neglectful as a father.


    Though part of me no doubt wants him to follow in my steps, the other hopes I can talk him out of it. For all the privilege and celebrity status that Tier Ones enjoy, it is not a life that a good father would wish for his child.


    But that will be his decision when my boy comes of age - all I can do is give him direction and provide guidance.

  2. #2
    I would suggest to have like a bit more emotion that is like very human in a way.

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