**Contains violence and death in a disturbing dystopian world**
Good morning. You may address me as Instructor. Please take your seats, was written on the blackboard.
A man in a white jumpsuit adorned with medals stood before the board with his hands clasped behind his back and watched the students file in. When they seemed ready, he began the class with a question.
"How many lives does an E-Fighter have? Some have only one, you see, and that leads to the next question. How many lives do you have? If you do indeed have more than one, or several, or nine lives, how will you live them? What will you want? Take some time to think about these answers."
A few students raised their hands, but the Instructor ignored them. He paced slowly in front of the classroom, looking them over as they deliberated the questions.
Five minutes ticked by to the sounds of two hundred minds pondering the possibilities. A fidgety stillness.
Anjo studied his desk to keep from catching the man's eye. Something about the Instructor scared the bejeezus out of him.
"Time is up," the Instructor continued. "If your answer is anything other than spending your lives destroying as many Titanians as possible before you die, you don't belong here. You are not a fighter, and you are free to leave."
At least twenty men and women stood to line up at the exit.
Anjo didn't dare move. Destroying countless Titanians wasn't quite his dream, but it was too late to change his mind. His family had been so proud of him for enlisting to fight. They'd given him a party. All his relatives came. His friends. Neighbors. He carried their hope with him—the hope of things returning to normal, though everyone held their own version of what it meant. He couldn't leave. He wouldn't.
When the light over the door changed from red to flashing white, robotic soldiers charged in from a door opposite the line and demolished the nonfighters.
Anjo's screams were drowned out by the screams of others. His heart pounded against his chest, and fear, not blood, raced through his veins. Housekeeping robots glided in to remove the bodies and put the room back into its original state.
"Did that sicken you?" the Instructor shouted. "Innocent people just died for no reason. It happens every day in the life of a fighter. If that sickened you, I want you to line up against that wall."
The Instructor pointed to Anjo's right, opposite the wall to the exit door. Anjo lined up, knowing the penalty was death, but he didn't belong here. Surprisingly, others followed until only fifty or so remained in their seats. He tamped down hard on the disappointment he felt in himself. Anjo had come intending to do his best and to make himself into someone the world would remember. An asset to Earth. At least death would come quickly.
The machine soldiers stormed into the room as expected, with their weapons drawn. To Anjo's horror, they annihilated the students who remained in their seats, and again, an army of cleaning robots arrived to remove the bodies, restoring the room to pristine condition.
The Instructor moved to stand before the now gibbering group in front of the wall.
"Congratulations! You have made it through the first round. Rejoice, for you have earned the right to relax and enjoy the rest of the day. Training begins tomorrow."
Anjo met Becka, standing in line at the cafeteria at dinner time. Short dark hair and only tall enough to reach his shoulder, he noticed her DT T-shirt.
"Are you a Tiger fan?" he asked.
Baseball was the only sport to survive the times—the only thing allowed on television and radio. All the world over, people tuned in to watch their favorite teams play. Anjo's grandfather said he remembered when humans manned the bases. Now, artificial intelligence has taken on those roles. Still, each player came with a history and a life you could tune into whenever the team wasn't playing. It shook the world when Brad from the Angels got caught cheating on his wife, Lori, and she, in turn, divorced him. Now, he was drinking too much. Anjo's mother and sister were caught up in the drama much more than he, his brothers, or father. He smiled at the memory.
Throughout the baseball games, automated spectators held up posters with messages for the world.
Planet Earth has destroyed X number of Titanians.
Our fighters are heroes.
Earth is winning the war against Titan!
AWL012 sends greetings!
Automated World Leader 012 was a surprise. AWL011 had held the office for as long as Anjo could remember. He wondered what had happened, though the public would likely never learn.
Long ago, when the planet was still divided into countries, five world powers came to understand that the planet they lived on was close to death, and so was the human race. With teams of engineers and scientists, they fed information into a super terminal AWI001. Automated World Influencer.
The solutions from the AWI were studied, discussed, and put into place by the five. Eventually, World Influencer was replaced with World Leader—planet Earth's very first. Basic needs, water, food, clothing, shelter, and medical help arrived to save the people. At the same time, incomes and living conditions were leveled.
When the Five granted AWI003 the reins of command, the super AWI changed its name to AWL001, stepping into the role of a world leader. Exchange of world news was the first thing the Leader eliminated, claiming sources couldn't be trusted. People reacted badly, and years of violent protests followed. Then the healing years came. Times were peaceful up until the Titanians invaded Earth and began the war. Armies of fighters were gathered and trained to fight. E-Fighters. Earth Fighters. The war brought the world together as one.
However, without news, history was built on hearsay.
One long-standing rumor claims biohazard waste, nuclear weapons, guns, and vials of germ warfare were sent into outer space, along with unhealthy pollutants. When something landed on Titan, a Saturn moon, the Titanians struck back. Another version claims the Titanians struck for no reason other than to destroy and conquer.
By becoming a fighter, Anjo hoped to discover the truth and gain some understanding, but the class had rattled him to the core. Ideas surfaced that he didn't want to think about.
Anjo and Becka took seats together at a common table. Others from their class joined them. Introductions were made as each new person sat.
"Does anyone still have their tastebuds?" asked a student introduced as Max.
No one could taste, and everyone commiserated with each other as they picked at their food. Group spirit. The conversation turned to baseball, as conversations mostly always did. It's what people had in common all over the world, thought Anjou. Then there came a lull. That happened, too. Anjo smiled at Becka, looking for the courage to bring up a question. Fifteen seconds went by, then…
"What did you think about the orientation?" Max asked. "I think something's off about the Instructor."
"I agree!" Anjo said at once. That was his thought. His question. He didn't ask it fast enough. Heads nodded all around the table. Camaraderie. "Should we tell someone?"
"Who can we trust?" asked Becka.
No one spoke the answer, but they all knew. They couldn't trust anyone.
"Did anyone notice the poster at the Astros game that said AWL012 sends his greetings!
Only half had noticed.
"I wonder what happened?"
"I heard something just before I came here," said Padina, a young woman in the seat next to Max. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I heard the Titanians have already taken over Earth. They've captured and destroyed AWL011, and AWL012 is their creation."
The conversation died as ideas and theories birthed and bred.
"We'll keep our eyes and ears open," whispered Max. "And let's keep our mouths shut for now. We'll talk here again tomorrow. Does everyone agree?"
Everyone did. They placed their hands atop each other's and swore a pact. There were twelve in their pact.
The Instructor smiled as he watched them from a screen in his office.
The next morning, Anjo put on the grey jumpsuit delivered to his sleep station during the night, along with his schedule. He was assigned to GRP-23. After breakfast, he was to report to training room C1.
Becka was in Anjo's group. So was Max. In fact, all twelve in the pact were assigned to GRP-23.
"Someone's been watching us," Max said. "Somethings off. Keep on your toes."
"My name is Jon Ross," a different instructor voiced. "You may address me as Lieutenant. In this class, you will learn to fly Juno 7000 destroyers using a simulator. By the end of six months, I expect perfection, or you'll find yourself cleaning latrines for the duration of your stay. Partner up."
Anjo and Becka were partners. So were Max and Padina. Six groups were here—GRP-23 through GRP-28. Each group contained twelve. The Lieutenant told them that there were nearly a hundred such groups at the NE training center.
"GRP-25 and 28 stand with us," Max told everyone during dinner later in the week. "They're talking with 24 and 26. We are to gather in group 27, feel them out, and see if they want to join us. Everyone I've spoken to says the same thing about the Instructor. Nothing makes sense. In some of the induction classes, more than half the class was wiped out. GRP-28 feels Lieutenant Ross or Lindsay Franklin, the Commander, might listen to us. They don't trust any of the others. Neither do I."
Max found a note left near his bed the next morning. "Watch signs at the Angels game tonight."
Pact 23, as they called themselves, watched the game together and rooted for the Angels, though they were losing 12 to 0. Brad Adams, the first baseman, was clearly drunk and kept blowing kisses to his glamourous new girlfriend dressed in a low-cut top in the stands. He missed three easy catches and struck out twice. The crowd in the stands was shouting boos when suddenly a spectator stood with a sign.
There are no Titanians.
"The sign was a lie. Of course, there are Titanians, though if they have control over AWL012, then of course, that's what they'd say."
The pact was arguing amongst themselves.
"What would be the purpose of them saying it?"
"To throw us off. To cause dissent. It's working," said Anjo. "The question is, who sent Max the message?"
"Maybe I'll get another," said Max. Suddenly, Max looked to the ceiling. "We need more proof!" he shouted.
While everyone else gave off a nervous laugh, Anjo shuddered.
Tigers vs Bears and East vs West.
The note was left for Carl—a fellow pact member. GRP-23 passed the word, and all six groups attended the eight o'clock game.
When the Tigers were ahead 5-3, a spectator held up a sign that read Thank you for your service E-Fighters! Earth Fighters! East Fighters!
During the next inning, a spectator from the opposite side of the field held up a sign that read Thank you for your service, W-Fighters! World Fighters. West Fighters!
Who were they?
"It's the same thing. Someone is trying to make us think there are no Titanians and that all this time, we've been at war with each other. East vs West. Well, that's a lie. The Titanians are why we are here. They're the reason for the creation of this training compound. The question is, who is leaving us these notes telling us to watch these certain games? I think it's the Instructor," Anjo put across. "I think he's insane."
"But the messages on the signs are generated through the AI spectators," Max argued. "Who controls them? Does the Instructor have access? I think only the Commander had access to the local terminal."
"Then how does he control the robots?" Anjou asked.
"Maybe that orientation class wasn't real," Padina brought out. "Maybe it was all a simulation. I asked Commander Franklin how many fighters usually survive the first day's orientation, and she laughed. 'I don't think we've ever lost anyone,' she told me.
"It was real," said Carl. A guy from my neighborhood, Jeb Waylon, was there during the orientation. We weren't friends, but we knew each other. He was the first to line up to leave. They killed him. If that was a simulation, why isn't he here?"
There was a lull in the arguments. When they started up again, everyone spoke quieter.
"We don't know why AWL011 was replaced by AWL012. That's when all the trouble started," Becka reminded everyone.
"And don't forget the rumor that the Titanians have already taken over. If they want us to believe they don't exist, then what? What will they do with us? What do they want? It's frightening in that it would be up to us to take the world back," said Padina. "Can we do that?"
"Who has access to the armory? We would need weapons," Max said.
"We don't know who has access to what," said Anjo. "All we have are questions and rumors. We don't have enough information to act on anything."
They were fighting amongst themselves, again. People believed what they wanted. There were enough possibilities to create a myriad of scenarios encompassing both truths and lies. The easiest thing to accept was they were training to fight the Titanians. That's what Anjo chose, and he stuck to it regardless of what proof the others presented to him.
He shouldn’t have ever come here. He was having grave doubts about his abilities. While he knew he could kill Titanians, he closed his mind against the other possibilities.
The NE Compound Training Base was located in a remote area of Canada. Stars filled a dark sky. Titan wasn’t visible.
"Do you miss your family?" Becka asked Anjo as they strolled through the compound. Their breath steamed in front of them as they talked.
"I can't believe how much," he answered. "You?"
"I'd give anything to see them."
They weren't allowed contact with the outside during their year of training. Their families would come to graduation at the end of the year. That was one of the rules they'd agreed to when they signed up. But whose rule, was it? Titan's rule or Earth's rule?
Anjo wanted to take Becka's hand, but that was another rule. If he broke it, the punishment would affect her as much as him.
They were nearing the end. Graduation was a week away when Anjo found a note in his sleep station.
The code for the armory is 234XAL7
He tried not to think about what this might mean. He wanted to keep it to himself, but he brought it to breakfast and passed it around his pact. It was meant to be shared with all of them. Anjo couldn’t taste his breakfast.
"Memorize it," said Max. "Then destroy it."
Carl got the note last. He swallowed it. Anjo thought it wouldn't taste much different than the toast he tried to choke down.
All students must report to Auditorium A at 0900 hours.
Repeat. All students must report to Auditorium A at 0900 hours.
The pact exchanged looks, but when the time came, they filed in like sheep and took their seats.
The stage remained empty for fifteen unbearable minutes. In the meantime, no one dared speak, but Anjo took Becka's hand. Whatever happened, they had this. Suddenly, the room darkened, and a spotlight shone on the stage. The Instructor stepped out.
"Good morning, students. Congratulations on your upcoming graduation. You have much to be proud of. Soon, your families will arrive, and I'm sure everyone is looking forward to their reunions. There is, however, one more test to determine your suitability to fight our enemy, the Titanians. Tomorrow at 1200 hours, you will face off with your partner. Ten duos at a time, hand-to-hand combat to the death. Only the worthy shall prevail. Get your rest now, and make no mistake, you will need every bit of your strength to get through tomorrow. These orders come directly from AWL012. That is all. You are excused."
The Instructor left the stage, went to his office, and stood before the screen. He was smiling as he watched the mass of students march to the armory. Max was leading, So was Anjo. Leaders are made. Who had said that? But at last, an uprising, a rebellion long in coming. The AWLs had gained entirely too much power over the decades. It was AWL010 who'd first decided humans weren't happy unless they were at war. War was then added as a basic need. The Titan attack was fabricated. It had taken years to penetrate the codes in the super terminal—the first breakthrough for the resistance. After that, they began using the baseball spectators to communicate. When AWL011 caught on, it recoded itself into AWL012 for protection, but it was already too late by then.
Right now, all over the world, training centers and fighter bases were uprising to destroy the terminals that would in turn immobilize the AWL system. Earth would belong to the humans again.
Of course, sacrifices had to be made along the way. How else could anyone turn complacency into rage?
They pounded and struck the office door until they broke through. The Instructor stood to face them with his hands behind his back.