Training Day (Valkyries Chapter Three)

All three teams somehow survived the mind-numbing classes we had been assigned to, and now we were rewarded. I’m not sure what goes through your head when you think of an obstacle course, but let me tell you how the Order does things. Obstacle courses are broken into two parts: the physical agility phase, and the reactionary phase. The agility is a standard, run-of-the-mill course like the military used to use during boot camp or basic training. Climbing wall, cargo net, some running, some crawling…you know, all that good stuff. Due to the Order wanting to keep our locations somewhat secret and private, all our training is done indoors. While it might seem like having training indoors would suck, you have to understand that our bases are huge and we have top-of-the-line tech. That’s where the reactionary phase comes in.

The agility phase was a course that each operative ran solo; no surprises, no team work, just you and the course. The reactionary phase took advantage of the size of our facilities, virtual reality technology, and the fact that we work in teams. When everyone had finished the agility phase, we would form into our respective teams, throw on the VR goggles, and hit the course. We would be given an objective (a location at the other end of the facility), and we would be given tech-sensitive batons to simulate our blades. Once we had been prepped, we would begin making our way to the objective. The course would create virtual enemies for us to combat during the course, and we would be timed on how fast we could work our way through various situations and scenarios.

When the agility phase of our run was over, my team was first to hit the reactionary phase. The course instructor gave us our goggles and our batons while barking out the scenario.

“Alright, the three of you have walked into a structurally unstable building, and you are in search of an informant who is trapped in a room on the other side. The informant is being held for ransom by a violent street gang in Malaysia, who are known for their brutality and frequent use of amphetamine-hallucinogenic drugs. They will be hostile, they will be somewhat unpredictable. They will be armed, and you must reach the target before they decide to kill him. Your time starts as soon as you walk through the door.”

We stacked up outside the door. In one fluid motion, we all began to move. Dianna kicked the door off its hinges and swung right into the room; Ricky was right behind her and moved to the left, while I marched straight down the center. No hostiles were detected, but we ran into an issue we did not expect: not only was the building creaking and shaking like it was going to collapse, but it was filled with smoke. Before moving through the next door, we briefly huddled up and formulated a plan.

“Okay, I think through the next door is a hallway. It appears that we are in a hotel or a run-down apartment complex. We’re probably going to have rooms on either side of us. Dianna, you clear the rooms to the left, Ricky you’re on the right. We clear one room at a time, in case we find more than we can handle holed up in one room. Clear?”

They nodded vigorously and we all bumped forearms. We charged through the door and into the hallway with our blades at the ready. My assumptions were correct; we were in an old hotel, with rows of rooms on both sides. This actually made clearing the building much easier, as we could see the entire room from one or two steps inside. We swiftly worked our way down the hall, finding no opposition in any of the first six rooms. When Dianna went to open the seventh door, it flew open and a bald man with a machete came running out, screaming at the top of his lungs. Without thinking, Dianna cut the guy in half and we crept forward.

It seemed like in the split second between breaths, our situation went from easy and clean to FUBAR. All of the sudden, the smoke intensified, and dozens of gang members poured into the hallway. It would have been manageable if not for two things: first, most of them had guns, and in a confined space like a hallway, that becomes very dangerous. Second, they appeared so quickly, that within a few seconds, they had separated and isolated all three of us.

When I realized all of this, I shouted out to Ricky. I wanted to get an idea of where he was and make sure he was handling himself alright.

“RICKY! Let me hear the crackle, buddy!”

In a room off to my right, I heard Ricky yell “WOO-HOO!” and then a loud, electrical buzz. That let me know he was fine for the moment. As long as he was conscious, he could hold his own. As a spark, he could light up anyone like a Christmas tree who was within a five foot radius. The person I was most concerned about was Dianna. She was an excellent fighter, but being swarmed like we were, she was bound to have some trouble. Her gifts were much better suited to stealth and escape. Dianna was a fader and a shifter. Being able to teleport around a room or look like someone else is all fine and dandy, but neither of those abilities comes in very handy during a combat situation.

I could hear her grunting and yelling from a room a little ways down the hall, so I cleared myself a hole. I swung both of my blades out in front of me, and using my gift, I shot a stream of flame that stretched out four feet in front of me. I swung and hacked my way with my blazing blades to where I heard Dianna’s voice. When I walked in, she was surrounded, but to her credit, she was handling herself just fine. Like I said before, she was a great fighter. She had found ways to improve her technique and speed to make up for not having an aggressive gift.

I stepped in to help her and when we had cleared the room, we found Ricky finishing off the last opponent in the hallway. As soon as he did, there was a loud, metallic THUD, and the sound of hundreds of pairs of feet rushing towards us from around the corner ahead. Ricky swore and I hung my head for a moment, mentally preparing myself for the onslaught. As we braced ourselves for the attack, Dianna yelled, “Wait!”

We only had a few moments before the crowd of simulated gang bangers was on top of us, so she spoke fast.

“This is a leveled simulation. If we waste our time killing every single enemy, the next wave will simply keep on coming until we are overwhelmed. Don’t bother stopping. You two should run in front clearing a path to the target, and I’ll cover your backs. Then, when we reach the target, the course will either be over, or we will have found a defensible place to hole up until we beat them all.”

Ricky laughed as his blades crackled with electricity. “Damn, girl; pretty AND smart? That’s the whole package right there.”

With that, I lit my blades again and we charged our way through the next wave of attackers. Without stopping, we simply cut, shocked, and burned our way through the seemingly endless crowd. After several minutes, however, we reached our door. We flew right through it, and suddenly we were in the training hangar again.

Standing at a series of monitors in front of us was the course instructor, beaming from ear to ear as he stared at us where we fell.

“Congratulations, team; you have successfully completed the course. An extra congratulations goes out to Ms. Alvarez for not only recognizing the use of leveled game theory, but also for noting that reaching the target was of higher priority than eliminating the enemy. Flying colors, Team 1. Outstanding.”
When he had finished, we turned in our gear, and we were escorted back to the rec area next to the training hangar. Within about an hour, both of the other teams had successfully completed the course and Tragedy met with all of us as a group.

“Good work, Teams. You have all passed your obstacle course training successfully. Now you may head back to your quarters for the night. We will resume tomorrow with a training exercise involving sword-to-sword combat.”

Somewhat puzzled, we made our way back to our rooms. We didn’t usually have to fight anyone armed with a sword. Most of the people we fought had guns, actually. Tragedy had left right after making that announcement, so the only thing we could do was head back to our quarters and speculate on what the next morning held in store for us.

I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing.

“Hello?”

“Blaise, it’s Tragedy. We are going to have to postpone your training for the day. Something has come up, and I need to see both you and Wade in my office as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, sure; just let me get ready real quick. What happened?”

“We’ve lost contact with Team 4. I will give you all the details when you get here; I just need you to get down to my office as quickly as you can.”

With that, she hung up.

I promptly hopped out of bed and made myself presentable, and rushed out my door. I met Wade in the hallway, who was pulling his shirt over his head as he stepped into the hall.

“Hey, did she tell you what all this is about?”

“She told me that we’ve lost contact with Team 4, but that’s all she would say over the phone.”

“Well, that’s not good. Where are they stationed?”

“I don’t have a clue. Last I heard, they were headed out on an assignment in Chicago.”

Grunting at my response, Wade broke into a run. Something about Team 4 being in Chicago seemed to concern him. As far as I knew, Chicago wasn’t such a bad place anymore. I mean, sure, the mafia had gotten more involved in recent years, but it wasn’t an exceptionally violent place or anything. I started running after him, and we raced the rest of the way to Tragedy’s office.

When we burst through her office door, Tragedy was pacing behind her desk. She paused where she stood and collected herself before sitting down in her chair and saying, “Gentlemen, please take a seat.”

As we sank into our chairs, she continued, “As I told Blaise earlier, we have lost contact with Team 4. They were on assignment in Chicago, bringing in a corporate executive who we discovered was also a high-level accountant for the Mafia. He was helping them to balance their books, launder their money, and he was running an extortion and insurance scam for them on some of the local politicians.

“We sent Team 4 in to bring him in two weeks ago. They were supposed to bring him in, in the hopes that we could flip him. With his position in Chicago, the Order decided that he could be a valuable asset. Our last contact with Team 4 was five days ago. As you know, team leaders are supposed to call with status updates every other day. I was willing to accept that the situation may have gotten complicated, so I overlooked this breach in protocol. However, after almost a week with no contact, I am beginning to worry about Team 4.

“Blaise, I want you to take your team and finish the operation. The subject’s name is Robert Church. Considering the circumstances, he will probably be expecting you. I believe it is safe to assume he will be holed up in his high-rise with a fair amount of firepower protecting him 24/7.

“Wade, I want you to take your team to Chicago and look for any signs of Team 4. Use your connections there and see if you can figure out what happened to them. Best case scenario, their equipment was damaged during the operation and they are on their way back to base. Worst case scenario, they have been killed or captured, and we need to retrieve their equipment before it falls into the wrong hands.”

I nodded as I absorbed the information. Wade, however, had a question almost immediately.

“So, is this why we were supposed to have that swordplay training?”

Tragedy sighed and replied, “To an extent, yes. When we first lost contact with them, I realized that if the criminal underworld ever got ahold of some Valkyrie blades, our operatives needed to be prepared. At the time, I was hoping that Team 4 was simply too busy to call as scheduled. Now it seems this may already be a real danger.”

“So basically what you’re telling us is the people we’re about to fight might have a few pairs of blades? Why should we even be concerned? They can’t take us out with guns, what makes you think they would be any more dangerous with a hand-to-hand weapon?”

“Well, it’s not necessarily the weapon that makes the soldier. That doesn’t change the fact that we still need to recover those blades. I would rather have them in our possession than floating around out there in untrained hands.”

“Fair enough; when do we ship out?”

“Right now. Gather your teams and get busy. Contact me when you make it to Chicago.”

A Break in the Action(Valkyries, Chapter Two)

I got up in time to catch the last bit of the sunrise coming up over the Dodoma skyline. It was nice; I had a chance to relax and watch the city start to wake up while I got myself ready for the day. Once I had cleaned up, I locked up the room and headed down to the street. I wasn’t in much of a hurry since I didn’t have to be at the coffee house for another half hour, so I lazily strolled through the nearby streets, absorbing the early morning warmth.

The shops and carts were all in their places as I walked by, with locals trying to sell me one thing or another along the way. I stopped to check out a few of them as I made my way around, finally finding myself where I needed to be. Apparently, my little walk through the city had taken longer than I thought, because both Dianna and Ricky were already sipping on their drinks when I arrived. I made my way past the hostess and walked up to the table on the street side patio where my partners were seated.

“It’s about time you showed up; we were about to report you missing to the authorities,” Ricky quipped as I sat down.

Dianna smirked from behind her cup as she said, “Can you imagine that? ‘Excuse me, officers, we assassinated the mayor last night, and one of our buddies went missing afterwards. Can you help us find him?’”

I chuckled and shook my head. These two could find humor in just about any situation. One time, Ricky had gotten hurt really bad during a mission. He got his hand caught on a hydraulic lift, and nearly had his arm ripped off. During his recovery, he kept cracking corny jokes about “needing a hand” since he had nearly been “disarmed.” For as serious as our jobs were, I’m really glad I was teamed up with them. This line of work requires a balanced perspective, and they definitely provided it.

I flagged the waitress so I could order my drink, and I said, “So, how was your evening?”

They both shrugged. Dianna spoke up first. “I wasn’t really followed. Once we got over the wall, no one followed me. It makes me a little uneasy; the getaway was too easy for my taste.”

The conversation died down for a moment as I placed my order. When the waitress had walked out of earshot, Ricky said, “Oh, c’mon. Everything went according to plan. We’re good at what we do; you should be happy about the way things went. I wasn’t really followed either. We went over the escape routes a thousand times it seems, and when it came time to get away, we stuck to the script. Don’t be such a worrier. Everything’s fine.”

I took a deep breath, leaned my head back, and closed my eyes for a moment. The sound of someone playing a taarab could be heard in the distance. The soft hustle and bustle of the people on the street, combined with the music and the birds chirping was quite calming. When I opened my eyes again, my coffee was sitting on the table in front of me, and my teammates were looking at me, waiting for me to weigh in on the situation.

I tested the temperature of my drink and took a long, slow sip before I offered my opinion. “I’m not going to pick a side here. You’re both right. Things did go exactly as planned, and we seem to have gotten away clean. No one from the corrupt mayor’s advisory board has seen us, and they weren’t able to keep up, so they shouldn’t be able to find us. However, it is always best to exercise caution, whether a mission goes as planned or not. Getting comfortable gets people killed. This is all stuff both of you know, though, so I really shouldn’t have to say any of it.”

Ricky nodded quickly and beamed at Dianna. “See? I was right. Relax, Di; let the music soothe you.” With that, he snapped his fingers, turning on the nearby jukebox on (he is a spark, after all), leaned back, and put his hands behind his head. In response to Ricky’s happy-go-lucky smile, Dianna squinted and scowled at him for a second before turning to me.

“So, Blaise, what now?”

“Well, now we wait for Tragedy’s political ground team to address the other local officials.”

“I knew that part of the plan. I kind of meant what happens with us? Do we stay in Dodoma, or do we go back to base?”

“I’m not sure, really. I have to call Tragedy and find out whether she wants a team on stand-by here or not. I would say once we have confirmation that the PGT is on-scene, we will probably have permission to leave. However, considering there have been situations in the recent past where the PGT boys were less than successful, she might want a team here until an election can be held.”

Dianna nodded quietly, and there was a moment of silence. Given the dangerous nature of our line of work, quiet moments rarely last long, and today was no exception. All at once, the three of us looked up at each other. We all could sense it; someone was watching us. We sat still for several seconds, waiting for the right moment to slip away. As luck would have it, a city bus was coming down the street, and as it rambled our direction, under my breath I told them, “I’ll get ahold of you after I have a chance to talk to Tragedy.” The two of them nodded almost imperceptibly, and quickly finished their drinks. As the bus passed, we leapt into action, disappearing into the city. To anyone watching, it would appear as if we had never even been there, except for the money sitting on the table. (Of course we paid for our drinks; we’re assassins, not thieves.)

After leaving the coffee house, I meandered through the city for an hour or so, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be following me. In the Order, we are trained to pay attention to every detail of our surroundings; the rustling of trees, the flow of traffic, even the breathing patterns of those around us. Not every detail is immediately important, but every little thing could wind up being the thing that ends up saving your life. I couldn’t tell you what made us all uneasy about the coffee house at that exact moment, but some instinct told us that we weren’t safe, and that we were being watched.

It was those same instincts that told me then that I had shaken whoever had been watching us. I stepped inside a local shop and ducked into the bathroom for a minute to think. No one will follow you into a bathroom, and if they do, it’s a relatively safe place to start asking them for some answers. Reflecting back, it really was quite strange; it didn’t feel like the guards from the night before had found us. It was a much more refined feeling, like a predator had us lined up in their sights. Truthfully, it scared me a little bit, because it almost felt like we were being tracked by someone who was as well-trained as we were.

I stepped out of the bathroom, bought a pack of gum, and stepped back outside. I carefully made my way back to my hotel room, performed my usual search of the place, and immediately got on the phone to call Tragedy. When she answered, she was all business.

“I assume the first phase of the mission is complete?”

“Yes, it is. We’re all fine, by the way.”

“If any of you had died, it would have been all over the news and I would already be knee-deep in a cover story. Besides, you’re one of my top teams; of course you’re fine. Now if you’re finished with the banter, I’d like to get back to the purpose of your call. We can catch up on a personal level when you return to base.”

“Fair enough; alright, so we took out the mayor like you said, and we made a clean getaway. There might be someone tailing us down here, but it’s a professional. Maybe a military intelligence agent, maybe we’re all being paranoid. Anyway, the extermination is complete.”

“Wait, you said you had a clean getaway, but someone might be following you? How does that work?”

“Well, we shook the guards after we took out the mayor. Today, at the post-op briefing, we all felt like we were being watched. We couldn’t point out anyone in particular who was watching us, but something wasn’t quite right, so we split. Only someone who does surveillance for a living can hide from us (and even then, we’re pretty good at picking out a scout or a tail.) What I’m trying to say is we felt like we were being watched, and this person knew what they were doing because we couldn’t figure out who or where they were.”

“Okay…did you feel you were in any danger?”

“Not really; it was just uncomfortable, more than anything.”

Tragedy paused a second, and I’m sure she nodded her head before continuing.

“Alright then; putting that on the back-burner, is there anything else you need to tell me about the situation before we move forward with the next phase?”

“No, everything went according to plan, and by my assessment, we are ready to begin the election phase.”

“That is good to hear. I have a political team on the ground already, so I will have them gather the local leaders and begin the election process. You and your team should be cleared to come home within twenty-four hours.”

“What about a local security detail?”

“As soon as I get off the line with you, I will dispatch another team to stay in the area until the local affairs have been peacefully completed. Don’t worry; we’re not having a repeat of Dubai.”

“Okay then; that was my only concern.”

“Humph. Yours, or Raven’s?”

The things this woman knew astounded me sometimes. Still, I played dumb; I wanted to know how she knew Raven was here (not that it matters, of course; I was just curious, and she probably wouldn’t tell me if I asked her straight up.)

“What do you mean?”

“I know you trust me enough to not even ask that question on your own. Given that Dubai was such a mess, and I had a lovely personal visit from Ms. Stockhart afterwards, she is bound to be in Dodoma to keep an eye on how things are handled.”

I chuckled and shook my head. I suppose, given the history between the two women, that it wouldn’t be too hard for Tragedy to figure out Raven would be in town for this. Getting back to the matter at hand, I said, “Yes, Raven did raise her concerns over how this particular event was going to play out. However, this little rabbit trail has probably wasted too much of your time already, so…this new team. They get here within a day or so, and then me and mine ship out immediately?”

“That is the plan, yes. Brief the incoming team and head back to base. I need a full, official briefing for the records when you arrive, and then we have a few things to go over before you are sent back out into the field.”

“What sort of things?”

“The top three teams are up for training and field evaluation for the year. The Council won’t let us send you on another assignment until we run your yearly training and send back a clean report. On top of that, we want to run a few new exercises and leader assessments with your set before we try them out on the rest of the Order.”

I sighed. I hated the stupid mandatory training, but the Tri-Council required it if we were to stay operational and acting under their authority (not that we needed their approval or their authority at this point, but the politics involved with our relationship with the Council were dizzying sometimes.)

“Okay, I’ll let Dianna and Ricky know.”

“Thank you; and Blaise, if you see her (which I’m sure you will), let Raven know what’s going on as well. The last incident was regrettable, but we have learned from our mistake.”

“Will do.”

With that, she hung up the phone. When I think about it, there’s no surprise Tragedy wound up running the Order. She’s very professional and very good at what she does, but she has just enough of a personal touch in any given situation to remind you that she’s not a bureaucratic robot. She handles things with just the right balance of bitchiness and finesse. She can be kind of a pain sometimes, but she gets the job done, and she gets it done well. I suppose that’s all anyone can really ask of their boss, especially when they manage twenty-seven assassins for a living.

After being hung up on by Tragedy and meandering my way through that short bit of professional reflection, I called Ricky and Dianna. I gave them the run-down of my conversation with the boss lady, and told them that as soon as the new team arrived, we would be shipping back home. Since our jobs here were pretty much done, I told the two of them that we could relax for a day or so, and simply keep an eye on the city. If things got out of hand, we would get back to work, but for the most part, our job here was finished.

Over the next few hours, I wandered through the city streets, not really looking for anything in particular, just watching the people. Nothing really exciting happened over the rest of my time in Tanzania, so I’ll fast forward to the part where the next team arrived.

When our relief showed up, I gave them a complete briefing on the situation, and turned over a copy of all the dossiers and files we had on the mission. Once they had been filled in on the situation, my team and I climbed on the plane that had brought the new team in and flew back to base.

Now, “base” is kind of a misnomer, mainly because we had three of them: one in Langley, one in San Diego, and one in Cheyenne Mountain. We shuffled between them for various reasons (they were undergoing constant maintenance, and Tragedy felt changing up our scenery now and then kept us fresh and motivated), so at this point in time, we were stationed in Langley.

Upon arrival, we departed the plane (obviously) and settled in. Tragedy was busy in a meeting when we got in, so we simply took our stuff back to our apartments and called it a night. Each base had a small living space for each operative. We didn’t have homes outside the Order, so base was as close to home as we got. Each of us had a small apartment at each base, with a bedroom, a small kitchenette, and a living space big enough to put a couch and a T.V. in. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was enough. It gave us a little bit of privacy when we weren’t out on assignment, and it was a lot better than being stacked up in bunks and barracks. Anyway, we all went back to our little corners of the place and got a bit of sleep before we had to report back to Tragedy in the morning. I tell you what, after being in the heat of Tanzania for a week, running around in the streets, it felt really good just to drop my bags and fall face-first into my bed. That moment was always the best part of any mission, hands down.

Tragedy’s meeting went a little later into the night than she was anticipating, so my team and I were left to our own devices until almost noon the next day (and by “our own devices,” I mean “allowed to sleep undisturbed.”) At a quarter to twelve, there was a knock at my door from one of the administrative assistants telling me that my presence had been requested in the briefing room by Tragedy. I reluctantly rolled out of bed, made myself presentable, and made my way down to the briefing room.

I walked into the room and Tragedy was the only other person in there at the moment. She was going over notes at the conference table while absent-mindedly using her gift as a mover to make herself a cup of coffee from the other side of the room while she waited for the three of us to arrive. Erica “Tragedy” Thompson really was a marvelous human being. Her father had built the Order from the ground up, but it had been Tragedy who shaped us into the elite, respected group of fighters that we had become. When The General announced to the Tri-Council that she was to be his successor as leader of the Valkyries, most of them were skeptical of her abilities. Within a mere three months of taking charge, she had proved her competency so thoroughly that the Council removed the supervising assistant that they had hired to watch her. She actually gained her nickname through this process, as at the hearing where the Council decided to remove the supervising assistant, one of the U.K. councilmembers was recorded as saying, “That girl is a gale-force hurricane; this unstoppable force of nature has proven herself as her father’s daughter. She is cunning and capable enough that I say we let this tragedy run its course; she has nothing left to prove.”

After that, it was all business for Tragedy. With the exception of a select few people, she kept things very close to the vest. I was fortunate enough to be one of the few she considered friends. As I walked up to the table, she stopped stirring her coffee for a second and flicked a finger towards me, pushing a chair out from the table.

“Have a seat, Blaise. The meeting won’t start for at least a few more minutes; would you like some coffee?”

“Nah, I’m alright for now. How are you, though? You seem a little preoccupied.”

She sighed and took off her glasses. “I’m fine, really. I’m more concerned about a minor detail here or there than I should be. It’s no big deal.”

“I don’t know, Tragedy; it’s not like you to needlessly worry. What’s up?”

“Well, I haven’t heard from Trodaire in months. Ever since he officially retired, he has been much more reclusive, but he still calls once every few weeks to check in. He is still our initial trainer, he’s the only one who knows how to design the Valkyrie blades, and it’s not like him to go so long without checking in. I’m just worried; I’ve been trying to read over these papers, but I can’t focus. My mind keeps wandering back to Trodaire.”

“That’s understandable. He’s an old family friend, on top of being heavily involved in the Order. It’s perfectly okay for you to be concerned about him”

“I know, I just have a few too many other things that require my attention right now. I can’t be worrying about him at the moment.”

“Fair enough; let’s knock one of those things off the list, then,” I said just as Ricky and Dianna walked into the room.

The two of them sat down quietly, and I gave basically the same debriefing as when I was on the phone with Tragedy in Tanzania. Ricky and Dianna supplemented the story a little bit with various bits of information from the times where we had to split off, but in a nutshell, our report was this: Job complete.

“Alright, it sounds like you guys did a superb job, as always. Thank you for your professionalism in the field. Now, are there any questions you have for me before I send you off to training?”

Dianna nodded, saying, “What is the situation like now that we have left the region?”

Tragedy smiled and replied, “What, have you been talking to Raven as well?” Looking down at the sheets in front of her, she continued, “It looks like the elections will be held within the next couple of days. The city is still peaceful, and we still have a team on the ground in case there is a disturbance.”

We all nodded at that point. That was about as good of an outcome as we could hope for in that situation. Looking at the three of us, Tragedy said, “If that is all you have for me, then I believe we can close this meeting. From here, I need all of you to report to the classrooms. I know that these refresher courses can be boring, but we have an obstacle course and a field exercise this time that I think makes up for it. Half a day of classes, and then you get a day and a half of field fun. Do you think you can handle that?”

Ricky smiled and cracked his knuckles. “I think we can manage.”

With that, we all left the conference room. Tragedy walked back towards her office as my team and I made our way towards the classroom wing of the compound. As we walked, Ricky and Dianna excitedly discussed what could be waiting for us in the field-exercise portion of the training. Ricky described in intimate detail a scenario involving lasers, trained monkeys, underwater kickboxing, and a trampoline (I’m not sure how it all fit together; I was only half listening.) While that was going on, I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Trodaire myself. I didn’t have the history with him that Tragedy did; in fact, the only time I had met the man was when he had fashioned my blades and given me some training on their proper use. Still, from a practical angle, his absence was something to be concerned about. If he wasn’t around to make blades for new recruits, what would happen to the Order when we actually needed new recruits? As far as anyone knew, Trodaire was the only person in the world who knew how to forge the blades. We needed to find him before anything happened to one of us. Of course, Tragedy had probably come to that same conclusion several times over, which only added to the stress of her situation.

Arriving at the main classroom, we were divided up. Team leaders took one class, members took another. I made my way over to my classroom, where I found Wade. Jonathan Wade was the leader of Team 2. At first blush, he was a surprisingly intimidating person. His spikey hair and cold blue eyes always looked like they were itching for a fight. He wasn’t a particularly big guy, but after one glance at him, you knew he wasn’t someone you wanted to tango with. Add to that the fact that he questioned and debated just about everything, and it was no wonder the General picked him to be a team leader.

The story goes that when Wade was a kid, he lived on the streets (that wasn’t so hard to believe, since foster care or alleyways were where the Order found a lot of us), and when he was 13, he got caught stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery where the General happened to be shopping. Apparently, when he caught Wade, the shop owner decided to teach him a lesson. Taking the bread away, he reared back and clubbed Wade across the side of the head a couple dozen times. The General watched from the back of the shop as after every single hit, Wade just glared furiously into the shopkeeper’s eyes.

Once the man decided Wade had learned his lesson, he turned him loose. The General caught up with him and told him that he was the toughest and ball-siest kid he had ever seen. He offered Wade a home, a life of excitement and action, and a chance to live up to his potential. Now, no street urchin is going to pass up an opportunity like that. Wade went back with the General, who immediately put him on the team leader path. Jonathan Wade was the last Valkyrie to be chosen and recruited by the General, and with every mission that went by, he continued to prove himself as one of the best operatives the Order had ever produced.

Leaned up against the back wall of the room with his arms crossed, he nodded to me as I entered the room. I walked over to where he stood and said, “Are you ready for all this excitement?”

He snorted and replied, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

“When is this supposed to start, anyway?”

Wade shrugged his shoulders. “Whenever the Team 3 leader shows up, I guess. I heard they were on assignment and got back just after you did. They might be in a briefing still.”

I nodded, and Wade continued, “So I heard you got a little paranoid the other day; catch a little sun stroke, did you?”

“I don’t know…it seriously felt like someone was watching us, but none of us could pin them down. You know that feeling you get when you suddenly wake up and know, even before you open your eyes, that someone else is in the room with you? It was a lot like that.”

“Eh, don’t get too worked up about it. I’m just giving you crap, but in all seriousness, this job will do that to you. I look at it as a good thing. If you are constantly on the lookout, no one can get the drop on you.”

We continued to chit-chat until the class began. However boring and mundane Tragedy had made it out to be, it was five times worse. It was a very slow day; we discussed the role of a team leader, standard protocol, and basically it was a refresher course of all things we learned as recruits (minus all the fun stuff.) When we finally came to the end of the class, all three of us felt like the life had been sucked out of us. Luckily, after a quick lunch, we moved on to the enjoyable part of the day: the obstacle course.

Dodoma (Valkyries, Chapter One)

 

About one hundred years ago, there was a massive plague that swept the globe. One of the big governments was experimenting with a super virus, and somehow it got out. Some people said it was an accidental outbreak, other people believed it was intentional. In any case, it got out, and close to a billion people died before they developed a cure.

They realized pretty quickly that some people were almost completely immune. I say almost because it still affected them, but I’ll get to that soon enough. They collected blood from those who were immune and they developed a vaccine with it. The disease was completely wiped out and humanity was saved. Something curious happened with the survivors, though.

It started with those who were immune. They didn’t get sick, but instead, their genetic makeup altered itself to ward off the disease. Call it evolution, call it adaptation, but whatever you call it, it was remarkable. They found that they were able to heal faster, and they had newfound abilities. Soon enough, the same thing happened to those who had taken the vaccine.

The changes were mild for the first generation or two, but they were very clear. After about fifty or sixty years, the changes had just about reached their peak. The changes could be classified in a few general groups by this time, with small variations and differences from person to person. Along with being able to heal quicker than before, every person had one or two newfound abilities. Basically, it broke down like this: torchers (they could manipulate and conjure flame), sparks (pretty much the same thing as torchers, but with electricity), shifters (they could change their appearance to look like other people, and some of them could even make themselves completely invisible), movers (they could make things move with their minds), and faders (they could teleport from place to place.)

After the plague, a lot of people had died, but for the most part, life went on as before. Cities were still bustling, people still went to work, and society moved on, almost as if nothing had happened. None of the crazy stuff you see in post-apocalyptic movies happened, not even the mass hysteria. People got sick, they got better, and they kept on going like they always had. I mean, with the exception of the new powers, very little changed. Fast forward to modern-day, and everyone’s powers are pretty commonplace. We use them all the time for various things. It’s been over one hundred years, so governments and politics have changed a decent amount, but we have survived.

Politically speaking, the world is indeed a different place. Over time, the world was more or less united. People tried the “one world government” thing for a while, but it didn’t quite pan out. There was a huge uprising, and there were wars all over the place. The United Nations eventually called a world-wide ceasefire, and held a meeting with the leaders of every country on earth. The world leaders decided to divide the planet into three segments, the Americas, Euro-Africa, and Austro-Asia. Basically, we have America, the U.K., and China in charge of the rest of the world; we call it the Tri-Council. Each of the major governing bodies has three members on the Council. Surprisingly, this has worked out quite well.

The first thing the Tri-council did was sit down with the world leaders and decide how involved they would be in each country’s affairs. Some countries were really struggling economically, so they spent a significant time protecting and stabilizing those areas right off the bat. After the world was more or less stable, they decided that issues of global importance would be handled by the Council, while more local issues would be dealt with by the smaller governing parties. The smallest form of government that was able to take care of a problem did so.

The other major change that occurred with the Tri-Council coming into existence was that the armies of the world were dissolved. The Council passed a law that war would no longer be an option, and that any disagreement that could not be solved at the national level would be presented to the Tri-Council and they would have the final say in the matter. With that, armies and battles were abolished, and it fell to the local police to keep the peace among the people.

This would have been a perfect system, except for the fact that humans are a violent race by nature. People may not have been forming armies and revolting, but that didn’t mean that they were completely peaceful. With the new world order, crossing borders and staying connected was much easier. This made organizations like the mafia a much more global enterprise, rather than scattered groups of loosely-connected families. Coupled with the fact that there were some issues the police forces could not handle, the Tri-council decided that there were still instances where deadly force was necessary.

About thirty years ago, The Tri-council commissioned two men to form an elite group of assassins who would eliminate those who threaten world peace. Alan Thompson (better known as “the General”) and a man now known only as “Trodaire” worked together to form what would become the Valkyrie Order. The two of them scouted out the strongest, brightest, and most skilled individuals on the planet and recruited them. They trained them in hand-to-hand combat, battle strategy, espionage, and taught them how to utilize their gifts better, expanding their abilities and using them in the field. Trodaire designed the Valkyrie blades; he came up with a basic design for twin short swords, but custom tailored each pair to the wielder. He adjusted the design to each Valkyrie’s fighting style, size, and gifts. For torchers, he made blades that could withstand intense heat, and would carry a flame; for shifters, he made blades that would disappear or camouflage their appearance based on their surroundings, and so on and so forth.

With the Valkyries’ weapons designed to be quick, silent, and effective, the members had to be the same. In time, they surpassed the expectations of the Tri-Council and were officially given a place in the government. The Valkyrie Order became the people’s watchdog, guarding them from internal threats, as well as keeping an unbiased eye on the government itself. If there was one member or group that began using their power to exploit other people, they received a visit from the Valkyries. If they still refused to change their ways, they were done away with.

Violent crime was surprisingly high in the business sector, although with any close examination it was very clear why. The mafia had their fingers in various big businesses, and they had their own way of getting the things they wanted. The street gangs, while not as organized or as sophisticated, had become more organized as well, and their murderous ways had placed them on the Valkyries’ naughty list. The Order would wait in the wings, with their leadership watching events around the world unfold, withholding the order for assassination until all other options were exhausted. That being said, they still remained fairly busy. In a world filled with billions of people, there were always at least a few people running around who needed to be removed.

As the years went on, the original Valkyries got too old or they died, and new teams had to be formed. At that point, the General and Trodaire decided to write a code for the Order. It was very simple, but it was immensely important if they wished to maintain their moral high ground in the world. The first rule was that there could never be more than twenty-seven of them. This was set in place for two reasons: the original number of the Valkyrie Order was twenty-seven, but on a more practical level, if the Order was ever to become a menace to society, their low numbers would make it possible for them to be eliminated if necessary.

The second rule was that they would not kill the innocent, and further, they would do what was necessary to protect the innocent. The Valkyries were to pride themselves on knowing that their actions maintained peace in the world, only eliminating targets who left them no other choice. This gave every person in their crosshairs the chance to repent of their ways.

The third rule was that they would cling to their fellow members as family. If a major threat ever arose, the only way the Order could survive was if they worked as a unit. Unity, community, and trust were to be engrained in every recruit, and training sessions would be held regularly to help nurture and maintain a deep camaraderie between the members of the Order.

That was it; there were only three rules. As the Order grew and changed with the times, these three pillars were designed to ensure that they stayed true to their original purpose. In time, the General’s daughter began working with the Valkyrie Order, eventually taking his place at its head after he died. Now, there’s a lot of history that I’m skimming over, but that should hold you over for now. Where the story picks up for you, my team and I were in the middle of a mission.

I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Blaise, and I am a team leader in the Valkyrie Order. The Order is organized into teams of three, and my teammates are Dianna Alvarez and Patrick McMannis. We are currently on assignment in Tanzania; the mission itself wasn’t too difficult. We eliminated a public official who was using the police force to extort the people he governed. The actual assassinations seem to be the easy part of most missions; getting away has a tendency to be much more difficult.

Dianna and Ricky were ahead of me, and they had climbed out of a window in the official’s estate that faces the city. I dove out after them, and after a short free-fall, tuck-and-rolled onto the rooftop of a section of the building below me and continued running for the edge of the estate. Behind me, guards were clamoring out the window, trying to keep up with us, while below us at ground level, they were trying to shoot us off the roof.

The three of us had been working together for years, and we had discussed the plans for when and where we would meet up if we had to split up. Given the pursuit, we all knew that splitting up gave us the best chances of a clean escape, so once we reached the outer wall, we vaulted over it and took off into the night in different directions.

As my teammates quietly disappeared, I kept running, zig-zagging through the streets, climbing over obstacles, and after several minutes, I had shaken the guards who were chasing me. I knew that they couldn’t catch me at that point, but just to be safe, I kept running and evading until I had reached a place I could lay low until morning. I have be professional, after all, and getting caught would be highly unprofessional.

I ducked into the alley where I had hidden a backpack just for this occasion. Inside, I had a change of clothes and a hat. Valkyrie armor is designed to be hidden underneath street clothes, so I simply tucked my sheaths into the backpack and put the clothes on over my tactical suit. I snuck out of the alleyway and headed back to the hotel I had already booked.

When I arrived, I took the back stairs to the balcony of my room. Going through the lobby, I would run the risk of being seen. I don’t expect that anyone would look for me here, but on the off-chance that they did, I’d rather not have to sit through an interrogation. Getting up to my room, I popped open the balcony door and did a quick search of the room.

The front door was still locked, and nothing seemed to have been disturbed in the main room. I checked under the bed and in the closet, gripping the hilt of one of my blades as I did so. When the front area was clear, I checked the bathroom, and headed back out to the balcony. It was warm that night, so the slight breeze felt good. I smiled to myself as I had a snarky inner conversation with myself.

“You go through all that trouble to make sure no one is in your room. You’re more than a little paranoid.”

“It’s better to be safe; the moment I start to get comfortable is the moment I am most vulnerable.”

“True, but seriously, if someone did manage to get in here and get the jump on you, you know you would be able to snap them like a twig.”

“That may be the case, but there’s a reason we go through all that training when we join the Order. We have to be ready, and we always have to be vigilant. It’s who we are, and it’s what we do.”

My inner cynic sighed deeply. “You think people are following you, your paranoia knows no bounds, and you are standing here in the middle of the night having a conversation with yourself. Has anyone ever told you that you might be schizophrenic?”

“No, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

I shook my head and stepped back into my room. They say 80% of all communication is internal. We communicate more with ourselves in one day than we do with other human beings in a week. I suppose I could have a problem, but in the end, everyone has their issues. I like to think that mine make me good at what I do.

I locked the balcony door and double checked that the front door was locked before I laid down to sleep. Silencing my inner cynic, I tucked my blades under my pillow and turned in for some much-needed rest.

Suddenly, I was awake. I didn’t know what time it was, all I knew was that was still very dark. Granted, my eyes were still closed, but you know…anyway, I heard something. Someone was picking the balcony lock. I tightened my grip on my blades, opened my eyes, and leapt out of bed just as the door opened and the intruder stepped in. I swung behind them, hooking their arms behind their back and placing a blade to their neck. A low growl escaped my throat; I don’t really know why, it just happened. In my defense, this person had just woken me up quite suddenly, so I was still somewhat in fight-or-flight mode. All of this took place in about three seconds, so by the time I had the intruder pinned, they hadn’t had a chance to identify themselves. It’s a good thing I didn’t just slice them open, because after a short cough, the intruder said, “Blaise, get the hell off of me.”

I let go and tossed my blades to the bed as I replied, “Dammit, Raven; haven’t you heard of knocking? People have been doing it for centuries.”

With the dim moonlight seeping through the still-ajar balcony door, I saw her smirk.

“What fun is knocking? Sometimes I like to get the drop on you.”

I snort. “Yeah, that’s working out real well for you. I could have killed you.”

“Nah, you’re not the shoot-first type,” she said with a laugh.

This is Raven Stockhart. I met her while on assignment in Malaysia a few years back. I was on security detail for the local government, and she was sneaking into the treasury department. I busted her before she could steal anything, but she slipped past me and we had one hell of a chase. When I finally caught up to her, she brandished a pair of Valkyrie blades I had never seen before (remember, they’re all custom-made, and the Order is pretty tight-knit). We had a short fight (she’s quite skilled with her weapons, I just happen to be better), and I brought her into custody. The moment Tragedy, my boss, saw her, she rubbed her eyes, sighed, and told me to let the girl go. When I took the restraints off and led her back outside, she winked at me and blew me a kiss before saying, “So long, Romeo; I’ll be seeing you soon.”

I did see her quite soon after that. It turns out, she’s known Tragedy a long time, and she’s been an informant for the Order since she was fifteen. No one knows where she got her blades or who taught her to use them, but there’s no doubt she’s as good with them as just about any Valkyrie in the Order. Tragedy will use her from time to time to gather information, and since she is stealthy and can take care of herself in a tight situation, our fearless leader rarely feels the need to send her out with a security detail or any back-up. Since then, I’ve worked with her quite a bit. She lends us a hand when we need it, provides valuable inside information, and she is immensely helpful when an assignment requires me to split off from Ricky and Dianna.

So there’s Raven, in all her stunning glory, sitting on my bed and wiping a drop of blood from her neck where the razor-sharp edge of my blade had nicked her.

“How did it go? The word on the street is that three maniacs came in and killed the mayor and then disappeared into the night.”

“Well, it sounds like we did our job then.”

Raven raised an eyebrow at me and nodded before saying, “Does the Order have someone ready to take his place, or are they going to leave the position open like they did in Dubai?”

I put my hands up defensively and reply, “That was an oversight on our part, I will admit, but we got the situation under control. You know Dubai was a mistake and that’s not how we operate.”

Raven crossed her arms and tapped her boot on the floor. “That’s great, but it doesn’t answer my question. You left the people of Dubai without a leader for a month, and the place nearly turned into a warzone. What’s the plan for this place?”

“Well, now that the mayor is gone, we will tell the other local officials that an election needs to be held as soon as possible. We’ll stick around and make sure that the city stays peaceful until the politics stabilize again.”

Raven nodded and looked around the room. “Good; if you three were just going to leave, I was about to have some words with Tragedy.” She crinkled her nose as she continued looking around. “You couldn’t have picked a nicer room? This place is a dump.”

I chuckled. “It’s not that bad. I just need a place to sleep. I’m not like Ricky; I don’t feel the need to entertain the locals.”

There was a short pause, and it became clear that she had something on her mind that had nothing to do with re-establishing the government.

“What is it?” I asked.

“What is what?”

“There’s something else you wanted to talk about. It’s all over your face.”

She ran her fingers absent-mindedly through her jet-black ponytail as she gazed around the room.

“It’s going to sound ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous or not, it’s still bothering you. What’s the matter?”

“Well…the rumors about the Twelve keep popping up all over the place.”

“Yeah…and? There have been rumors about them for decades. No one’s ever been able to confirm that they actually exist. Is it really just some old rumors that have you this concerned?”

“Yes and no; it used to be you would hear about them like they were some sort of boogeyman. These days, it’s not just whispers and rumors of some secret organization in the underground. People are saying that they have been pulling the strings in political circles as well as a few seemingly accidental deaths. It’s just getting a little too convenient for my taste.”

I nodded. “As always, we’ll keep our ears to the ground and you do the same. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t any new information on them, and no one has ever actually seen them. Right now, they are what they have always been: rumors and ghost stories.”

She looked me straight in the eye and replied, “That’s all the Valkyries were until the General died, and we both know you guys are dangerously real. All I’m saying is maybe you should look into them, just in case.”

I held up my hands again as I said, “Alright, I relent. I’ll bring it up to Tragedy when we get back to base and see what she can dig up. Maybe we’re wrong.”

She pursed her lips and nodded again. It was silent for another moment before she spoke.

“So how long do you think you’ll be in town?”

“I’m not sure, but my best estimate is about a week. Once the people elect a new mayor and we know the police force isn’t going to stage a coup, we’ll pack up and go.”

“Alright; I’ll be seeing you then. You should probably get some sleep; you’ve had a long day.”

With that, she slipped past me and out the balcony door, somehow managing to lock the deadbolt behind her. I had to laugh; that girl was something else. She was right though. I needed to sleep. I had a coffee date in about three hours.