Chapter 10.5: Military Games - Preliminaries

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She tapped the surface of the clear bridge with her toe. It pretended to be solid enough. Seth strode passed her. His hurried pace betrayed his confident strut. She followed at a run. As she blew by the captain, he joined in her mad dash.

Once on the other side of the canyon, the pair regarded the translucent bridge, daring it to fade away. It maintained its dubious stance of pretending to be a real bridge. Astral remained unconvinced. She was sure that when she needed that bridge most, it would let her down. In that moment she realized that she had no faith in technology. Perhaps she was projecting a personality on code that was neither self-aware nor cared what she thought about it. She was well aware that any number of issues could have surfaced over the past two centuries of the Regime's dictatorship.

"It's not that I don't trust it..." she offered as her reason. Let's face it, she didn't know Seth's skill level when it came to technology or what exactly that talent entailed; it was a broad field. He had mentioned in their first encounter that he had to do some major repairs in order to access the projection chamber.

"If it makes you feel any better, who knows if there's a fault in the program?" Seth shrugged. "I've crossed this bridge at least a dozen times and it doesn't get any easier."

She glared at the view. If Seth blew up the bridge two years ago, then who put in the sky bridge? It was hard to believe that someone had the foresight to plan for that occurrence, it would have been easier to isolate the ward on one side of the canyon, instead of having it straddling both sides. The extra shielding and the back-up protocols had to be the work of a rely anal retentive Hunter. She liked the hypothetical Hunter already.

"You expect me to believe that you came down here to repair these tunnels without no one noticing?" Something about Seth's version of events just wasn't adding up.

The captain called up the digital interface, disabled the bridge, and sealed the tunnel with a holographic shield. "I never said that I came through these tunnels. This was how I discovered that there was a facility under the school. I repaired the damage to the elevator shaft so that I could reach the projection chamber." He gestured down the passage, indicating that they should carry on with the task Astral was determined to complete.

Astral found ventilation holes in the rounded tunnels. Like the other side, they travelled in complete darkness with the exception of the gold haze that spurt out of from the walls every time the spectators in the stadium roared with excitement.

"They're not going to forfeit, they never do." Seth words hung heavily between them, as though his subconscious was trying to impart critical information to the Hunter. Astral watched Seth's soul sway. "I walked these tunnels every chance I had. I took up employment with the maintenance crew, janitorial work mostly. I'd take on impossible tasks; things I knew that would make me blow curfew. There's a small sleeping area with a cot in one of the supply rooms."

Astral was happy for the conversation, even if it was one sided. Seth was telling her more about the environment than he realized.

"I remember thinking how strange it was that the only time staff was scheduled to do anything at the arenas on tournament weekends. They'd have maintenance crews working from dawn to dusk on Saturday, and dawn to noon on Sundays. I found out later that staff ends up locked out during the week to avoid site tampering. There was an incident about a decade ago; some squad tried to get the advantage ended up blowing a hole through part of the spectator's platform killing hundreds of people."

Seth shook his head at the incident. "I get how important it is to perform well in the games, but at the expense of innocent by-standers... that's just criminal."

"A decade ago..." Astral thought back to what the world was like before she had been infected with the stigma. She knew so much more then. She had been so adamant about moving to Clearwater and preventing the uprising of the demon king. Preventing a second legion of demons to spread their devastation across the world had been her reason for being; even if it meant sacrificing her father in the trade. "The Council would have had a firm hold by that point. The assailants would have been punished."

"They blamed a disgruntled worker and he was sentenced to life on the killing fields. He hung himself before they were able to transfer him," Seth explained.

"But you implied that it was a squad member," Astral said.

Seth nodded. "That's because only squad members have access to the field and the bomb was set close to the gate. See the lowest numbered squad plays from the front gate, while the higher number plays from the back gate."

"Security?"

"Missing. It was ten years ago. When I heard about the incident, I did look it up. In the squads defense, any participant could have put the bomb there. It could have been played off as a favour; my former captain was big on favours." Seth's distain soured the word favour in such a way that Astral almost admired him. His tone told her that while his former captain played loose with the rules, Seth held himself and his team to a higher standard. She could learn to respect him for his moral compass. "It doesn't matter."

"I want to know what happened!" Astral surprised herself with her outburst. Why should she care? The tragedy happened a decade ago, by the hands of the overly-ambitious. "What did you find?"

"All I was able to do was get a list of squad members. I removed the people who were sent to do their tour, and looked into the families of those who paid their exemption fee. I didn't see anything unusual." Seth shrugged.

Superficial research. At least he looked into the money trail; it wasn't a bad idea. "Did you look at corporate transaction or donations during that year?" There were any number of ways to bribe the right people. If the offending party came from a prominent family, it wasn't uncommon to expect the rules to bend ever so slightly in their favour.

"Are you suggesting a bribe? That would just be obvious. All corporate financials are publically accessible. They've been fighting that law for ages, probably for that reason. But I'm not a leadership student..." Was he implying that leadership studies trained students to be law-bending sociopaths?

"Not unless it's done over a set period. The Council would have considered the tragedy a waste of resources. A hundred viable soldiers and breeders, dead. Who know how many others wounded. I could see the Council asking for the exemption fee, for each life, plus twenty five percent. At that point, the guilty party would either be shielded or be made to step forward and admit his guilt. A public admission of guilt would have damaged the family's name and had a negative ripple effect. It might have just been more cost effective to pay the damages."

"And let an innocent man take the blame. Does the Council really barter with our lives like that?"

Astral cocked her head. "It's politics; people don't factor into much of anything. Did you not look into the worker, his family, maybe he needed an exemption fee for one of his children?"

Seth stopped in his tracks. He lowered his head and sighed. "That makes sense. The money is transferred to the worker who pays for his child, skirting the indentured service law. No one learns of the crime because he's killed before he can have second thoughts. If they intended to kill him anyway, why honour the exemption. Would it be strange if the kid was allowed to walk freely when everyone knows that there was no way his parents combined could have afford the fee?"

"Exactly," the Hunter nodded.

Seth balled his fists and clenched his jaw. "You don't think of us as means to an end do you?" She could hear the wet in his voice. She didn't mean to make him feel helpless, at least not with something so mundane.

"I suppose there's a truth to that," Astral admitted. "But it's not for self-gain. I fear that if I got to know people I would find a reason to not help them. An instance like the one you mentioned, is enough to make me find where they live, dragged them out by their ears and feed them to the first demon I can find. I am not an arbiter of justice. If I were, my methods would be even handed to point of cruelty. When I see the people here, I don't see people worth saving. I see people who will willingly hurt each other for that extra credit."

"Then why do it?" Seth turned to her.

"Because no one else will. No one else can." The was one more reason. She couldn't afford to let the demons win, though she couldn't remember why. For now her conviction was enough.

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My god, I'm a little late on this one. Busy long weekend. Hopefully, no more rewrites and I can keep giving you new content. Astral drops a huge bomb about her motivations in this segment. What are you thoughts about why she Hunts? Should she be hunting? Or should she step down?

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