The dust had long ago ground its way into his skin. It was no longer an annoyance but part of his flesh, baked into the cells by the intense heat. Once, clouds might have blocked the sky but Sam didn’t remember a time like that. Those were just stories, told by the Boomers.
Sam stood in the middle of the back forty as the dust storm threatened. They needed to get back to the barracks and the safety of the fort before the storm finally decided it was coming for them like a vengeful god.
All the storms had been like that since before Sam could speak. That much, Sam did know.
His grip tightened on the saber in his right hand. The cool hilt was polished lead coated in gold. A saber made for slashing and quick cuts.
Today, it had drank heavily of blood. Not the blood of the enemy. The blood of a candidate who’d failed. Even now, the cuts on the unworthy plebe’s body were seeping into the dust. Calling to the carrion feeders circling high over head.
“I did my best,” the plebe rasped, his voice nearly gone from the harsh summer wind.
“Your best is not good enough. You did not pass.” Sam felt only a cold dispassion in passing judgement. Those who were unworthy, by even a single measure, were weak. And the weak brought down the entire formation.
Good soldiers died protecting the weak.
So there were no more weak. Sam made sure of it.
“One blow. You got in one blow. And only because I tripped!” The plebe scrambled to his feet, gripping his side as blood seeped between his clenched fingers.
“What if you trip in combat? Someone has to stop. Someone has to wait. You cannot trip. You must be flawless to be a Soldier. You are not worthy to wear our colors. Remove them before you leave the stadium.”
“Please. Sarn’t Brudhuil. I need this. My family. I’m the only hope for my family. I have a little girl. She needs surgery.”
Sam turned his cold gaze on the burgher. “How is this my problem? If it was this important, you should have trained harder.” His gaze flicked down the burgher’s battered body. “Burn the colors before you leave.”
He turned away, heading to the waiting formation of plebes who had passed the test. Who were graduates into the TRADOC program to become Soldiers. They were the strong.
But even they were not promised success. Success was earned. There was one standard. And the plebe at his back had not met it.
The plebe would never know how it tore at his soul to turn his back on him. How once he’d been weak and allowed one plebe ascension to the candidate ranks.
That mistake had cost him and his squad dearly. It was only the fact that Sam had been the one to discover the outbreak before it had spread that had save him.
He did not make the same mistake twice.
He met the gaze of the each of the successful candidates. Seven males, five females.
The dark skinned female’s eyes that spoke of Pacific heritage widened slightly.
Sam turned, raising his blade instantly as he dropped to a knee, warding off the plebe’s attempt to strike him with his back turned. A flick of his wrist and the blade sliced into the plebe’s chest, carving deep into sinew and bone.
The world had changed. There was no room for the weak.
And the plebe’s choice now meant that the little girl now needed a father in addition to surgery.