“Sir, the city has been successfully evacuated.”
“Thank you, Private. Good work.”
The United States Marine quickly saluted his commanding officer, then briskly walked off.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant took a look at his surroundings. The city had never been this spine-chillingly tranquil before. He could easily feel the wind blowing in between the lonely skyscrapers towering around him and onto his bare face. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling in the slightest. They were nowhere near the ocean, yet the wind almost felt like it was stinging his face, making him grit his teeth.
“Damn, this is really starting to feel like that day,” he whispered to himself, just before turning to the man beside him. “About how long would you say we have, doctor?”
“At the rate it’s going at, I’d estimate that we have, more or less, about twelve weeks or so until it completely overtakes our atmosphere.”
The middle-aged Marine pensively stared up at the unusually violet, afternoon sky. The sight of it made him feel uneasy and more than uncomfortable.
The physicist stood up from the several monitors that were placed in no particular order on the ground and straightened up next to him.
“I have an unnerving feeling that this time around… not a single person will be able to survive it. When Die Sanguinis occurred five years ago, we had absolutely no way of countering it. So many millions of lives were lost because of that. And now, although we can actually predict when it’ll occur again… we still have no way of stopping it. It’s frustrating.”
The Marine glanced at someone behind the doctor and confidently smirked.
“Well, I wouldn’t count us out yet, doctor.”
He respectfully saluted another, much older gentlemen who proudly approached them.
“Sergeant Major,” the Marine addressed.
“Master Gunnery Sergeant Draughn. How are things coming along here?”
Leonard Draughn had an exceptionally well-maintained physique for a man in his late forties. However, the visible stress lines along his forehead and the slightly crooked nose that had clearly been broken multiple times before in the past, showed a man with experience of perhaps sixty years; about how old the Sergeant Major was.
“Everything’s being carried out as originally planned. Well, so far, anyway.”
The physicist remained silent, carefully studying the flashing screens in front of him.
“Oh-ho, is that right? I’m glad to hear that. Then, we’ll move on to the next phase immediately. Ah, and speaking of which… Draughn, I’m putting you in charge of the assault team. I don’t really feel like doing it myself. I’m assuming you remember the details?”
This made Draughn laugh.
“Of course I do. I’m the one who came up with the stupid plan, after all.”
The eccentric Sergeant Major chuckled, as he absentmindedly stroked the white stubble taking over his chin.
“Then, I’m counting on you, as usual, Draughn. Mankind will make its move in twelve weeks. Best of luck with that group,” he added, accompanying the comment with a whimsical wink.
Draughn tensed up at the fact that the Sergeant Major had felt the irresistible need to wish him luck. Why did he need to remind him that this would be a nearly impossible mission?
“Er, yeah… thanks,” he responded, with a slight hint of sarcasm.
He saluted once more as the other took his prideful leave from the site. The Gunnery Master Sergeant placed his large hand on the physicist’s shoulder.
“Well, doctor, it looks like we might stand somewhat of a chance against that fucking thing. Watch us put up one hell of a fight this time.”
Even Draughn’s unnatural optimism couldn’t lift the man’s already dampened spirits.
“I hope you’re right about that.”
“Yeah, me too,” Draughn thought.
A stern, red-haired woman with sharp, emerald eyes greatly resembling a cat’s, swiftly made her way over to the two gentlemen and saluted.
Draughn was the only one of the two who turned to acknowledge the person.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t First Lieutenant Holtz!” Draughn happily announced. “It’s been a while, kid. How have you been?”
“It certainly has been some time, sir,” she agreed. “I’ve been doing well, thank you. Just keeping myself busy.”
“Oh, I’m sure. I heard you were stationed out west; it’s always so stupidly busy over there. Hey, but weren’t you about to head overseas for the meeting? What happened? Why are you here?”
“I’ve been reassigned to your assault team, sir. I arrived with the Sergeant Major moments ago.”
Draughn’s face unmistakably lit up.
“Wait, really? Why the hell didn’t that crazy, old man say anything to me? He was just here, damn it. Whatever. He actually listened to my suggestion for once without making me jump through any hoops first, so I’m happy. This mission will go more smoothly with you as my right-hand.” He instantaneously frowned, as he continued. “But, now comes the real pain in the ass part… locating and retrieving the other members.”
Aurora looked a bit confused.
“Will they be difficult to find, sir?”
“Nah, that’s not exactly the problem here. That’ll actually be a walk in the park. It’s getting them all to cooperate with one another that’s the issue… Ah, well. Fuck it. Let’s get this over with before I change my mind and go home to await my sweet death.”
He turned his attention toward the group of determined physicists, meteorologists, and climatologists who were surrounding him. They were all diligently typing and observing the numerous computer systems that were all around them. The very heart of the empty city had been transformed into their temporary base of operations.
Draughn cleared his throat.
“Men! I leave the current situation here in your capable hands. Don’t any of you dare to disappoint me, or you’ll have to deal with me personally, you got that?!”
This was evidently a valid threat and motivator because every single person present automatically responded with, “Sir! Yes, sir!”
The Master Gunnery Sergeant replied with a proud smile, as they all returned to their stressful tasks.
“Alright, Holtz. Let’s not waste any time recruiting those losers. Come, walk with me.”
The two of them needed to watch their footing. There were various tables, monitors, and wires laid out in what was hopefully an organized manner. They successfully stepped around all of the equipment that was spread out in every possible direction.
After weaving through the maze of wires, both Draughn and Aurora made their way onto the paved road that was currently being used solely by military personnel. Not a single pedestrian could be seen on the usually bustling sidewalks. It was a rather chilling sight for the city. The forgotten items littering the ground informed them that the city’s inhabitants had been evacuated in a rush.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant folded his hands behind his back while they continued to walk side-by-side. He softly cleared his throat as if to avoid startling Aurora after the brief moment of silence between them.
“So, we’ll be looking for five people in particular. I need you to find the girl and the so-called ‘genius of business management.’ I’ll find the other three since they’ll be the most difficult to bring in. Once you find those two, escort them to the site that was reserved for us. It’s not too far from here. Let’s meet there in approximately forty-eight hours… That should theoretically give us enough time.”
Draughn gave her a speculative look and scoffed.
This sudden, out-of-the-blue reaction puzzled her.
He caught himself and apologized.
“Oh, sorry. I was just wondering why he can’t be as cooperative as you are, Holtz. It sure would’ve made my life a hell of a lot easier if he had even a fraction of your personality.”
The two of them stopped walking, having come across a parked, dark green Humvee.
Aurora pivoted on the balls of her feet to face him directly, awaiting his explanation.
“Ah, yeah. I’m talking about one of the men I’ll be retrieving. Do you not know who the members will be yet?”
“I read and memorized each of their profiles on the way here, sir, so all I’m familiar with is the information that’s recorded in them.”
Draughn couldn’t help but laugh.
“Of course you’ve memorized them already. You haven’t changed one bit in the two years I haven’t seen you. You’ve always been so meticulous with everything you do. Well, then you know that we’re after what the public calls ‘super-humans’. They all have unique abilities that’ll help us win against this damn thing once and for all. The ‘he’ I was referring to is Darius Hiro, the royal pain in my ass… even after all these years.”
“Right, I read that he’s a veteran, sir,” Aurora recalled.
“I never told you about him?”
“No, sir, but I have heard the stories.”
Draughn nodded as if to say, “Yeah, who hasn’t?”
He glanced down at the watch that was strapped around his left wrist, and then toward the several sheets of paper that Aurora was firmly holding under one of her arms. He signaled for her to hand them over and promptly flipped through to the profile that he needed.
The small photograph on the top left of the page revealed an image of when Hiro had still been enlisted with the Marines more than five years prior.
“Darius Hiro,” Draughn began, recalling his history with the man. “He served under me when he first enlisted into the military the very day he turned eighteen. He was such a stubborn, smart-mouthed, hot-headed punk who loved to pick fights and argue with everyone around him, disregarding the ranks they held. Well, I guess that part of him hasn’t really changed much over the years… I had to constantly bail him out of troublesome situations thanks to that, so he was the main cause of my migraines back then. But, despite all that, he was a valuable soldier. He was damn good at being a Marine. It was about the only thing he was good at apart from picking fights and being annoying.”
He stopped to look up at the sky and sigh.
“After Die Sanguinis, he received an honorable discharge per his request. He’s been doing mercenary work ever since, quite obviously trying to stay off my radar. I’m sure he thinks I don’t know that,” he added with a chuckle.
Aurora furrowed her brows and shifted her stance.
“Permission to speak my mind, sir?”
Draughn raised an eyebrow in curiosity. Aurora wasn’t one to vocalize her personal opinions very often, so he was intrigued.
“Of course, go ahead.”
“Sir, forgive me for asking this, but why exactly are we in need of someone so insubordinate? Or of regular civilians like we’re trying to recruit? I fully understand that they have extraordinary abilities that excel the human limits in every way possible. But, with the sole exception of Hiro, none of them have had any proper military training. Three months might not be enough time to get them all to the desired level to essentially protect our species. And, just based on their profiles, they don’t seem like the type who would willingly jump at the opportunity to protect this world. Can we not accomplish this critical mission ourselves without needing to resort to civilians?”
Draughn nodded, understanding her concerns. It undoubtedly mirrored the reactions that his fellow soldiers had expressed when he had first proposed the risky and near impossible plan.
“Do you seriously want to use those kids to stop that thing, Draughn? Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
“Besides Hiro, they have next to no combat or tactical training whatsoever. And bringing in Hiro would be a risky move that humanity can’t afford to make right now.”
“Plus, we don’t know what we’ll be going up against this time around, or if it’ll even be the same thing as five years ago. How are you even so sure they’re the right candidates for this?”
“We’ve been keeping an eye on all of them for the past five years and none of them are exactly ‘model citizens.’”
Draughn took advantage of the sudden pause in between the yelling and arguing in order to interject his own thoughts.
“You said you’ve been monitoring them for several years now, right? So, then, you’re fully aware of why they’re the only ones who’d be able to pull this off. Hiro was just a bratty kid who desperately wanted attention when he first enlisted. But, look at everything he managed to accomplish in the Marines in such a short amount of time. Even you lot can’t deny that… I’m sure they’ll all take the center stage if we can get them to work together. I’m not saying that it’ll be easy because it won’t be. I’m just saying that it’s possible. What other choice do we have available to us, anyway? Like you said, we have no idea what the hell we’ll be fighting against this time around. But, these are the best cards we have at our disposal right now. As much as I hate the damn phrase, they’re the ace up our sleeves. Unless any of you has a better idea?”
His confidence in the plan radiated through the room. Each branch began to consider the spontaneous proposal without uttering a single word aloud.
The Sergeant Major of the Marines had been silently listening to everyone’s opinions, weighing each of them individually. This was something that he wasn’t particularly known for doing.
He cleared his throat and rubbed his chin stubble out of habit, signaling that he would be speaking at last.
“Master Gunnery Sergeant Draughn, can you please shut these idiots up by answering one final question for us today? Why do you believe so strongly that they’re essential for our survival?”
“They were the only real survivors of Die Sanguinis. Anyone who came into contact with whatever was drifting around in the sky that day died. But, they survived. No one knows how or why they did, but we desperately need their immunity and connection to it if we want to have even the slightest chance of coming out on top this time,” he repeated word-for-word.
“I understand, sir,” answered Aurora, forcing Draughn back into the present.
He took a quick peek at his watch as he handed her the packet of profiles.
“Holtz, you were by far my best student back when I taught at the Academy those three long-ass years. So, I have no problem in fully entrusting Rhea Lavenia and Caleb Sterling to you. Don’t take no for an answer. I’ll meet you at the site in forty-eight hours.”
Aurora saluted the Master Gunnery Sergeant while confidently declaring, “Leave them to me, sir.”
He dutifully returned the gesture. He turned around and came face-to-face with the Humvee, opening the passenger side door and sliding in.
There was already a fellow Marine patiently waiting for him in the driver’s seat. The man’s duty was to accompany his Master Gunnery Sergeant to the nearest operational airport as soon as possible.
Draughn watched Aurora walk away. The driver turned the key in the ignition and started up the vehicle.
As he began to drive, “So, where to first, sir?”
Draughn thought it over for a few seconds before answering.
“We’ll be going to get Aston Hoyt first. He’s only a few states over right now and I already got the approval for clearance. Then, we’ll look for Hiro. He’s damn hard to miss, so he won’t take very long to find. I’m pretty sure I’m still faster than him, too, in case he tries to run at the sight of me again,” he added with a malicious smirk. “After that, we’ll be heading over to Japan.”
The driver kept his eyes on the littered, concrete road.
“Uh, Japan, sir? What’s all the way over there?”
“Only the most renowned family in the East. We’re aiming to recruit the current head of the Yuusuke Clan.”
“You mean… the last Blood Knight, sir?”
This fact seemed to be common knowledge among everyone, no matter how old they were or where they lived.
Draughn nodded, enunciating, “The very one.”