Tidus stood with his back against a support column, watching the activity of the Helghast war machine around him with half-interest. His mind drifted away from the battle he had just partaken in, the beginning of the campaign to seize the ISA spaceport on this nameless atoll, to his family. Not his father, overzealous bastard, but to his brother Aldric. He had received word from his mother that his sibling had completed training and would be arriving on Vekta in the next couple weeks.
A squadron of jet-bikes passing overhead brought Tidus back to the present, just noticing the soldier standing in front of him. The man radiated the eagerness of a soldier fresh from mobilization, both in the way he carried himself and the lack of attention to his uniform. He sighed: more recruits had been executed for uniform violations than he could remember.
"I'm Private Salek," the soldier said, tossing in a salute after remembering he was speaking to a superior officer. "Colonel Damon, I've been assigned to your unit."
"First of all," Tidus began, "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Damon, Colonel Damon is my father. Second, you should spend less time hurrying about and more time on your uniform." Tidus motioned to Salek's tangled mess of respirator tubes. "My father has been known to execute fresh meat for even the simplest violations." Private Salek stammered his apology and fixed his hoses, patting dust from his uniform.
"T-thank you, sir."
"Don't mention it." Tidus said, waving the private away. "You'll find my father in the command center; he'll assign you to a squad." Salek saluted and scurried off, Tidus' mind drifting away once again.
"Why the hell did I join the army?" he asked himself.
"Because you didn't have a choice." A part of him answered. He chuckled lightly and strode back to his quarters.
"God I hate war."
His father was waiting impatiently in his quarters. Tidus passed by Colonel Damon and tossed himself in the room's only chair and propped his feet up on his cot.
"Yes father?' he asked, putting his arms behind his head.
"Where the hell have you been? I told you there was a command meeting at 1400 hours!" his father yelled.
"Must have slipped my mind," Tidus said, glad his respirator hid his scowl. He despised those droll meetings, a group of old windbags arguing over the best way to charge the enemy. Tidus had hoped his father would have attended without him. He wasn't so lucky.
"Don't play stupid with me," Colonel Damon said, knocking his feet to the floor. "Let's go Lieutenant Colonel."
Tidus stood up and saluted.
Tidus entered the command center behind his father, taking up his all-important position of standing in the corner and looking presentable. As the meeting dragged on Tidus found it harder and harder to concentrate, his mind once again beginning to wander. He imagined what life would be life if his father wasn't a fascist bastard, if he hadn't been in the military, if he had hair. Then in the corner of his mind, he heard a voice call.
"Lieutenant Colonel Damon."
"Lieutenant Colonel Damon." There it was again.
"Lieutenant Colonel Damon!"
"Sir!" he yelled, saluting no one in particular. The room was silent, all eyes on him. He could feel his father's eyes boring into him from behind his goggles.
"You've met the new recruit?" a brigadier general asked.
"Y-yes sir." He stuttered, saluting a second time.
"Very good," the general said, "but make sure not to nod off next time."
Tidus nodded shallowly as the whole room descended into laughter.
The Lieutenant Colonel staggered and fought the urge to hold his face. His father's voice shook, accenting each word with a slap to his face.
Colonel Damon backhanded him a final time and went to his foot locker, drawing out a velvet pouch. He pulled out a bottle of amber liquid and poured a glass. His father downed the whiskey and sighed.
"Put your mask back on." His father grunted.
Tidus put his breather mask on gingerly, the cold plastic irritating his burning skin.
"Get out of here," his father began, "we're mobilizing in two hours."
"Yes Colonel Damon." Tidus said, saluting his father and striding out of the room.
The sounds of battle echoed throughout the desolated building. Distant thuds of far-away artillery shook dust from the walls which settled like snow on the Helghast inside. Tidus wiped the gray dust from his goggles and looked back through the scope of his rifle. The streets below were in chaos. Soldiers from both sides darted around piles of wreckage like rats, dodging both the enemy rounds and the shells that had turned the settlement into a hell storm. He sighted a group of ISA riflemen as they crept down an alleyway across the street and considered firing on them. He decided against it; it would only give away his position. Then there would be enough explosives falling on their heads to dig a well.
"Yes sir, we're on it."
Tidus turned, his father stepping into the room. Several of the newer men stood and saluted. Tidus stayed where he was and rubbed his face through his mask.
"We've been ordered to take out an artillery position a few clicks from here, let's go." His father barked. There was a clamor of affirmatives from the soldiers as the prepared to move. Tidus began to pack his own things when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Make me proud, son. You take point." Colonel Damon said.
"Yes father." He replied, motioning the squad to follow him out into the maelstrom below.
Tidus hit the ground as bullets impacted the concrete behind him. He brought his rifle to his face and fired, catching the ISA soldier in the chest. Plumes of crimson erupted from the wounds and the man fell face first to the ground, blood oozing out from under his body armor.
"Move!" Tidus yelled, pushing himself off the ground and plunged into the thick smoke ahead, ordering the men to do the same. He paused and glanced around. All he could see were shadowy figures rushing this way and that. Tidus steeled himself and rushed in the direction he believed their objective was.
"All units forward!" he head his father's voice over the comm.
"Bastard," Tidus though, "he's probably hiding right now." He believed he was halfway through the smokescreen when a figure stepped in front of him. Tidus paused, unsure whether in was friend or foe. But this man was too short, too slim to be Helghast. He crouched and drew his combat knife, slinking up behind the man. Tidus stood and thrust upwards, feeling the blade pierce the soft skin under the man's ribcage. He covered his prey's mouth with a gloved hand, waiting until the man's muffled screams subsided and set his limp body on the broken ground. He withdrew his blade and cleaned it on the man's uniform before sheathing it and standing upright. As he sprinted on his thoughts drifted back to the man he had just killed. He almost felt sorry for the enemy soldier, surely he had been just as disoriented in this smoke as he was. Tidus shook the thoughts from his head and rushed out of the smoke…
…and right into the sights of an ISA machine gunner. Tidus swore and dove behind a piece of rubble as the nest opened fire. The heavy-caliber rounds tore into the concrete, exposing the rebar beneath. Tidus covered his head with his arms and balled up in an attempt to present a smaller target. Bullets impacted the ground around him, tossing chunks of concrete into the air. Just as he thought he was going to die, a group of voices shouted over the comm-net.
He looked up, spotting his father and several others pressed against a wall some ten meters away. They beckoned to him; Tidus could see Salek waving his arms like a madman.
"Come on sir…run!" he yelled.
Tidus grit his teeth, drawing every ounce of courage present in his body, readied himself, and sprinted for the safety of the sagging wall.
That two meter run felt like the longest sprint of Tidus' life. His lungs worked like bellows, the beating of his heart drowning out all noise. He could feel rounds slamming into the ground at his heels, but the Vektan gunner had yet to hit him, and the wall grew ever closer. It seemed like the entire event crept by in slow motion, like something right out of a war film. Then Tidus tripped, and the world came slamming back into focus. Cold fear gripped him as he hit the ground and he imagined the gunner's bullets creep closer. He rolled away from his approaching death, feeling a quartet of hands pull him behind cover.
Tidus thanked the soldiers who saved him and dusted himself off. He looked everyone over and sighed. They had started this operation with twenty-five soldiers. He could count the remaining men on two hands. Colonel Damon put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm glad you're all right, son."
Tidus stared, dumbfounded, at the man who had slapped the shit out of him hours before.
"T-thank you, father." He stuttered.
His father nodded, gathering the contingent of men around him.
"General Fraer is sending more men, but we need to take that nest before they get here."
Tidus swallowed hard. He knew the others were thinking the same thing, even if they didn't show it. No one wanted to charge that nest. He felt extremely sorry for Private Salek. He could see the soldier quivering. His father lined the men up against the sagging wall and pumped his fist downward. Each soldier pulled a grenade from his belt, pulled the pin, and lobbed it over the wall. The explosives burst, coating the battlefield once again in thick, gray smoke. Soon the machine gun fell silent and an eerie silence descended upon the soldiers. Colonel Damon peeked around the corner into the blinding haze and turned back to the men.
"You, lead the charge," he said, pointing at Salek.
"Sir?" Salek stammered, his knees visibly shaking now. Tidus' father looked at the private as though he had been struck.
"Are you deaf? Lead the charge!" Colonel Damon's voice rose. Salek's breathing intensified. He looked from solder to soldier, drawing no support from the emotionless masks and cold goggles. The private then glanced at Tidus, but the Lieutenant Colonel looked away. Salek tightened his grip on his rifle and shook his head, sobbing.
"I'm sorry. I can't do it."
Colonel Damon grabbed the man and slammed him against the wall.
"Cowardice on the battlefield is a sin, soldier," he roared. "Will you charge that position?"
Salek shook his head and whimpered. Colonel Damon dropped him and pointed to another soldier.
"Watch him. If he shows any sign of deserting, kill him." He then turned back toward Tidus. "Lead the charge."
Tidus gulped and nodded. He glanced back at Private Salek and silently prayed for the dishonored man before sprinting into the billowing smoke.
Lieutenant Colonel Damon watched as a group of enemy soldiers were placed in front of the sagging wall. Tidus saw his father stride down the row of prisoners, dispatching each with a shot to the head. The ISA has surrendered their position, and now they were paying for their gutless actions. He turned away. The Helghast part of him wanted to laugh as the Vektans died like dogs, and he chastised himself for it. Then he heard the gunshots stop and Tidus faced the execution. All but one of the prisoners had been killed, and his father was in the process of reloading his pistol. Colonel Damon called to a pair of soldiers who dragged a bloodied Salek to the sagging façade.
Salek had been badly beaten. His helmet, goggles, and breather mask had been torn from him, and the bruises from several blows were already starting to show. He looked around, fear-stricken, as he was placed next to the surviving POW. The squad commandant stepped over to him and read the charges.
"Private Gregory Salek, you have been found guilty of the worst sin imaginable…cowardice. You let your fear of death overpower your duty to Helghan. Your penalty is death."
At this, Salek burst into sobs, pleading desperately to the soldiers around him. But his cries fell on deaf ears. Colonel Damon holstered his pistol and called to his son.
"Lieutenant Colonel, you may have the honor of killing this filth."
Tidus clenched his jaw and strode forward, automatically freeing his pistol from its holster. His mind raced, trying to find some loophole, some way to spare Salek's life. But the Helghast Military Code was absolute…there were no exceptions. Tidus raised his pistol and placed it on the private's forehead, trying not to look into the man's watery gray eyes. His hand trembled as his mind continued to search for some excuse not to pull the trigger.
"What are you waiting for? Shoot him!" his father yelled.
"Please…" Salek whimpered.
"don't kill me…"
"Tidus, if you don't pull that trigger I'll…"
He fired, the pistol kicking in his hand. Salek fell back, crimson goo and chunks of his skull adding to the collage of brain matter that decorated the wall.
"What the hell is wrong with you people?" a voice yelled. It was the surviving ISA prisoner.
"You just killed your own guy. For what? 'Battlefield cowardice'?" he ranted, struggling in his bonds. "You Helghast are just a bunch of fascist ba…"
The prisoner slumped to the ground, a hole through his head. Tidus holstered his pistol and turned around, bumping into his father.
"My quarters." Colonel Damon said through gritted teeth.
His father shoved Tidus into the tent and stormed inside."Take off your helmet and mask." He ordered.
Tidus sighed and complied, hooking his respirator to his belt and tossing the helmet onto his father's cot.
"Googles too," his father added.
"What?" Tidus asked. "Father, are you serious…" He stopped as he heard the slide of a pistol lock into place. Tidus raised his arms and turned around, staring into the barrel of his father's sidearm.
"Father, are you crazy?" he yelled.
Colonel Damon dropped his arm, and then brought it across Tidus' face, smacking him with the handgun. The strike shattered his goggles and sent Tidus to the ground. He wiped blood from his eyes and ripped off the useless eyewear, glaring at his father. He stood and reached for his own sidearm when his father fired a shot into the ground.
"Father, what the hell is wrong with you?"
"Shut up! You have disgraced me for the last time. I should put you on that firing line!" Colonel Damon shook with rage and waved his pistol menacingly.
"For what?" Tidus yelled, his own blood rising. "For hesitating to shoot a comrade, a mere boy, for what you call 'cowardice'. You asked a recruit to charge a machine-gun nest. What did you think would happen?"
His father pistol-whipped him second time.
"You have no right to criticize my judgment. I am your superior, I am your elder, and I am your FATHER! You're a disappointment!" he roared.
"But father," Tidus sneered. "I killed that other unarmed prisoner without hesitation. Without you ever asking me."
Tidus' father smacked him with the pistol again and thrust his arm to the open tent-flap.
"Get…out." He said coldly.
Tidus grabbed his helmet and strode past his father.
The coastline rushed by Tidus as the convoy made its way to the spaceport, situated high up in the mountainous region of the island. He opened the APC's hatch and stood, enjoying the feeling of the cool salt air. He reached up to undo his mask, letting the zephyr wash over his bruised features. Tidus rubbed his face gingerly and looked towards the head of the column, spotting his father's car a couple vehicles ahead of his. The Lieutenant Colonel glared daggers at the vehicle, hoping it would hit a bump and swerve off the road, plunging down the sheer cliffside into the depths below.
"If that prick doesn't die in this battle, I might just kill him myself," he seethed.
The convoy came rumbling to a stop a few miles from the spaceport. Non-commissioned officers whipped the men into formation in front of Colonel Damon. Tidus stood off to the side, clutching a pair of binoculars in his gloved hands. His father began his speech in a low voice.
"Men, we have once again been selected as the vanguard of this operation. You have fought long and hard, but the final stage of our campaign in our grasp." He pointed to the mountain high above him.
"We take that spaceport, and more of our Helghast brothers will rain from the sky, and completely annihilate the Vektan dogs that so foolishly oppose us." Colonel Damon paused as a cheer arose.
"The main force is already in route…there is no time for subterfuge. We will attack them head on and overcome them with the sheer force of our will!" The men's cheering now drowned out the Colonel's words, but his task was complete. Tidus peered through the binoculars at the spaceport's defenses. There was only one road up the mountain; at its end was a massive gate, its walls covered by machine guns and cannons. Attacking from the road would be suicide, and their bodies would only become roadblocks for the main force as it attempted its attack up the winding path. Tidus scowled. Even if his father's troops breached the gate, he doubted there would be enough men left for any effective action.
"Colonel Damon," Tidus called, rushing over to his father. "You can't attack that base head on. It's a fortress!"
His father scoffed.
"You are a coward, boy. Do you not believe in your men?"
"Father, I have faith in my subordinates, but the ISA are no pushovers either. They have fortifications and the high ground. It's a deathtrap."
"We will win, Tidus, because we are Helghast," his father said bluntly. "Don't compare us to those Vektan dogs."
"But father," Tidus pleaded. "If we just found another way to assault the base…"
"Then you find another way," Colonel Damon said, crossing his arms. "Take some men and do what you want. Your efforts might prove useful…as a diversion." He chuckled and walked off.
Tidus stomped his foot on the ground. He looked over the mobilizing soldiers as his mind began to race.
"Oh, I'll be much more than a simple fient," he said under his breath.
Tidus gripped a tree branch and hauled himself on the other side of its trunk. He held up his palm and heard the rustling of thirty-two men making themselves comfortable. As comfortable as one can be on a sixty-degree slope, anyway. Tidus had handpicked the men of for this mission: veterans whom he knew could handle tough situations. They had hoofed it the two miles to the base of the mountain, and spent an hour finding a suitable slope to climb. His father's assault had begun halfway through their ascent, the sounds of battle echoing through the woodland that clung to the side of the mountain. Tidus grabbed his binoculars from his pack and scanned the summit before them. The wall above them was relatively unguarded, its only defense a trio of sentries. He smiled to himself. His plan was working perfectly. Once the wall was breached, Tidus would radio the all-clear to the approaching reinforcements, and Helghast forces would pour through the gap, taking the base before his father's men ever breached the gate. He put away his binoculars and ordered the team to resume their ascent.
"Fire." Tidus said. A trio of cracks broke the silence, each round finding its mark in the head of an unsuspecting ISA soldier. The Lieutenant Colonel waved his soldiers forward, mounting the summit and pressing himself up against the wall, his subordinates following suit. He pointed to one soldier, and then pumped his fist at an empty section of the wall.
"Vasel, make us a door."
Vasel nodded and readied large cannon. He stepped away from the wall and spread his feet, pulling the gun's charging handle to place a large round in the chamber. Vasel fired, the cannon's recoil knocking him back. The high explosive round plowed into the wall, a large section of the wall collapsing in a fiery explosion.
"Go," Tidus yelled, rushing through the gap. He knew the sounds of the battle at the gate would not mask his entry, and that he and his men needed to act fast to keep their advantage. His men surged into the spaceport, opening up on the startled defenders. The Lieutenant Colonel cut down one man and sprinted for the gate control shack. He opened up a channel to the main force.
"Attention 7th Helghast Army, this is Lieutenant Colonel Damon. The slope route is clear. I repeat, the slope route is clear."
Tidus smacked a man with the butt of his rifle and put a round in his chest. He was like a god of war, merciless and untouchable. This was not the first time adrenaline had coursed though his veins, but this was a battle-high he had never experienced before. Tidus felt invigorated. His instincts told him not to just survive, but conquer as well. "Was this how his father felt leading men to victory?" he wondered. Tidus felt a round strike his arm, but his shrugged off the hit and continued up the stairs. He reached the control room door and lobbed a grenade through the entryway. He smiled grimly as the device exploded, cutting the men inside to ribbons. He kicked open the door and strolled inside, putting bullets into those who were still breathing.
"Get this gate open." He ordered as a group of soldiers rushed in. Tidus shouldered his rifle as the massive gate began to raise, legions of Helghast pouring through the opening portal. He smiled wolfishly, thinking of what he would say to his father. Today's victory was due to him and him alone. He was almost certain he would be promoted.
"To Colonel Damon," a voice in his head said.
"No, I could be ranked higher than him,' he told himself.
"The generals would never allow it, Colonel Damon."
"Shut up." Tidus said.
He strode out of the room and down the stairs. The battle was virtually over, Helghast soldiers cheered loudly as tanks rumbled into the plaza. He made his way to the gateway, pushing past lines of men. He stopped when he saw the devastation before the gate. The road to the spaceport was littered with bodies. The broken shells of vehicles lay smashed on the sides of the avenue, their designations linking them to his father's unit. Tidus walked over to his father's car, spotting a body in the passage seat. He walked over to his father and checked his pulse. Tidus sighed and strode back into the spaceport.
Tidus Damon watched as another shuttle lanced up into the atmosphere. He turned his eyes downward at the river of Helghast soldiers and equipment that wound their way up the mountain for their journey back into space. He smiled. The prize from his momentous victory was now the key cornerstone in the Helghast retreat.
"Oh the irony."
He had been baffled when he heard that a four-man team had undermined their entire invasion, and that one of its members was one of the late General Lente's staff. An approaching soldier derailed his musings.
Tidus waved the soldier away.
"I'm not Colonel Damon. Colonel Damon is my…"
He stopped himself, looking at the Colonel's stars on his shoulder. His father's stars.
"Never mind," Tidus said. "What is it?"
"Your shuttle is ready to depart."
"All right. I'll be there shortly."
The soldier saluted and hurried away, leaving Tidus alone to watch the sky. Then, for the first time in years, he cried. He cried for those who wouldn't be returning to Helghan, like Salek, and those who never saw their deaths coming, like that soldier in the mist. He cried for the twist of fate that left his father dead and him with his accursed rank. Tidus fell to his knees and beat the ground in frustration, roaring in rage. He stood up shakily, his anger spent, removing his goggles and wiping his eyes. Colonel Damon replaced his eyewear and left for the shuttle.
"God, I hate war."
Colonel Damon shielded his eyes as the shuttle's ramp descended, bathing him in orange light. He saluted as an octet of soldiers passed, carrying between them an ornate pewter coffin. Tidus followed the procession out onto the paved surface of the runway. A hundred senior officers stood in file on each side of the exit ramp, saluting as the pall-bearers strode by. Colonel Damon picked out his mother and brother from the crowd. Aldric had his arm around her as she sobbed into his shoulder. After seeing his father's body to the hearse, he approached them. His mother embraced him, sniffling lightly.
"I'm sorry about father." Tidus said. His mother looked up at him.
"Don't worry Tidus, the important thing is that you're safe."
Mrs. Damon released him and left to visit the cemetery, leaving the two brothers alone. Colonel Damon turned toward his younger sibling.
Tidus paused as his brother hugged him.
"I'm glad you're alright, brother." Aldric said.
Tidus smiled and pat Aldric's head.
"I am too. Come on, let's go home."
The two brothers left, glad that the worse was behind them.