Reed strode down the familiar halls of the Mercenary School toward the auditorium. Since he'd been taking assignments, he hadn't been around much, but the place had been like a home to him since he was a teenager. He knew little about his father; he hadn't seen him in years, but he knew his father had close ties to this school. It was what had prompted him to apply. His foster parents and his caseworker had objected hotly, but he was sixteen at the time and they couldn't stop him. With an acceptance letter in his hand, he walked away from the foster system and into the life of a mercenary. Six years later, he graduated at the top of his class, and now he was just returning from his third assignment to see a bulletin requesting all the school members, those of age anyway, to attend a meeting.
The auditorium was filled with familiar faces. Most were familiar enough to greet by name, but there were new faces there too, some young enough to be new students, but some older graduates too, just not on Earth all that often. The school was more than just a school; it was a hub of their existence. When the school called a meeting, everyone came if they could.
As the last of them finished their greetings of old friends and had shuffled into available seats, the school commandant stepped out onto the stage and waved for silence. "Good evening, gentlemen." There was an audible 'ahem' from the audience "and ladies," Quigley amended with a nod in the direction of the sound, winning a chuckle from those nearby. "Nice to see you all here. I'll get right to the point since I know you are all busy. As you all know, the war with the bugs drags on. There's not a one of you who hasn't lost some family member or someone you know to this war. I called you all here tonight to ask for volunteers. I can't go into all the details here. Suffice it to say, should you decide to volunteer, it will change your life. Think it over. I know you all have obligations. Not volunteering will have no effect on your career. Should you decide you would like to know more, I will meet with you in my office in an hour.
Reed knew such an open-ended invite would likely turn out very few volunteers. Then again, that might have been the point. Reed was curious though, plus he'd never been to the commandant's office. He'd never believed in rocking the boat. Doing so attracted attention, and that was something he'd always avoided. He did put off the visit as long as he dared; he didn't want to appear too eager either, only to discover the job something he'd want to avoid anyway.
Reed entered the outer office to find eight other people there, six of them, the three girls and three of the men looked to be in their last year of school, the other two men were older than Reed by at least a couple years.
The students and one of the older men sat around a coffee table talking about simulator scheduling, while the other man was looking at something on one wall. His attention drew Reed's and he realized that the entire wall was carved marble. Curious, Reed moved closer, seeing MIA engraved at the top of a long list of names. Next to them were places and dates.
At a glance, Reed recognized many of the place names, but then he saw something that took his breath away. The name 'Rafe Meyers' was on the list. Why would his father's name be on this wall? The date beside it was nine years ago, and then Reed realized that was about the last time he'd seen his father. My father died and no one told me. It's not as if they didn't know who his father was. Every time he visited, the system would find some reason to move him to another home, and sometimes even to another city. The moves made making friends nearly impossible, accentuating Reed's already strong desire to do things by himself, to depend on only himself. 'Loner' appeared in his file many times.
Reed was only four when his mother died, but he still remembered his father carefully explaining why he had to go with the nice lady and that he would come find him every chance he could. He gave him his big ring to show he intended to keep his promise. And he kept his promise, finding him at least every year as close to his birthday as he could manage. Reed turned the heavy ring on his finger.
Reed's thoughts were interrupted by Commandant Quigley entering the room. "Hello ladies and gentlemen. I'm glad you've come. Have a seat and I'll try to explain what this is all about. Feel free to ask any questions; it's very important that you understand every aspect of what you may be volunteering for. I reiterate - you can back out with absolutely no repercussions, all the way up until the last moment.
Reed raised his hand, and at Quigley's nod, asked, "What are those names?" He pointed at the marble wall. "Why are they listed as MIA and yet there's a place listed with them?"
"A very good question to start our discussion with, but let me go back just a bit further before answering. You all know from your history how, after the capture of a bug queen, we were able to turn the tide on the war and begin to push them out of our territory. What really happened was obscured, and in many cases, outright hidden." He pointed to the wall Reed had asked about. "Thanks to what we learned from our captive bug queen, we were able to turn their magic against them." He gestured to the marble wall again. "Because of our captive queen, we were able to create those men and women, and many others like them. We have come to call them Guardians; they are the linchpins of the war. As you can see," he indicated the wall yet again, "being a Guardian can be quite hazardous."
"Why are so many of them listed as MIA, and yet have a location listed as well? Reed asked again.
"Guardians are our most powerful weapon, and as such, they are pitted against the worst the bugs have to offer. Sometimes they lose. Those people listed here are volunteers from this school who died protecting the federation and pushing the bugs back. The date and place are where they were when they died; the MIA listing is because nothing could be recovered, despite our best efforts."
When Quigley paused, one of the girls rose, muttered an apology and left, followed closely by one of the young men.
Quigley watched them go, remaining silent until the door was closed behind them. "Being in the line of fire isn't the only reason this is voluntary," he continued, now scrutinizing those remaining in the room.