In the fourth installment of this great story, Xasl is named squad leader and has to deal with malcontents in the squad.
And the whole squad went silent waiting for him to lead them out and back for meal break.
He looked at the clock and waited until they had just enough time to get down the ladder and lined up. From now on they would not be accused of being over anxious for their meal breaks.
He opened the door and led the squad down the hall out to the ladder and down starting the quiet cadence as he got on the ladder. Once he reached the bottom of the ladder he stepped to one side and stood at attention ready to help if there was any issue. The duty of the squad leader was to ensure everyone made it down safely and got lined up at the right place at the right time.
He did not notice when the sergeant came out and started watching the progress, he was too focused on keeping everyone moving in synchronization. When the last recruit was down, he followed her over to the squad and fell in at the front of the squad.
Sergeant, squad 1 assembled and accounted for.”
“Squad 1. As you know, you have a new squad leader. As with your previous squad leader, he carries my authority when I am not present.
Am I understood?”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant!”
“Good. Squad Leader take your squad to the chow hall. We are behind squad 3 in today’s priority.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.
Squad about-face. Forward – March!”
Xasl marched the squad to the chow hall and queued the columns as their turn to get in line came. When the last column was in line, he fell in at the end of the line.
Last to eat, and first to leave. This is my life now. Damn. I knew better than to do anything to stick out, why did I do that?
A few minutes later he was seated at a table eating his meal quickly so that he could get back outside to form up the squad as they finished their meal.
“Squad leader, thank you for the water and the concern. I know you did that at your own peril, but you saved me from being set back and I will always be grateful.”
Xasl came out of his self-ridicule to look across the table at recruit 22. She was wiping a tear from her eye and looking at him with clear sincerity.
He wanted to say that it was a mistake, but seeing how much it had meant to her, he could not say such a thing.
“You would have done the same for me 22. We are bound together by our common goal of graduating and getting out of this hell.”
“She would not have done the same for you. Nor would any of us. It was inspiring. You showed us that we could care about one another and survive.”
“Yes, I agree. 22 was just the day’s target for the sergeant. You bucked his authority, I can’t believe you survived it. I think that’s why he made you squad leader. So he could yell at you every day to get even.”
“Regardless, I am grateful.”
“We need to all stand together. If we do, we will make it through. If we let him separate us, then any of us can be set back for anything. As you said 22 was just today’s target. Tomorrow, it might be you 15, or you 30. Stick together, help one another and remember who the enemy is.”
“We’ll see if you still feel that way after a couple days as squad leader. But I like the approach so far. Not like 1 who lorded it over us from day one.”
“Give her a break, you have seen how the sergeant treats the squad leader. She was under more pressure than any of us, and she survived it.”
“Yes squad leader.”
Xasl felt the intended taunt.
15 is going to be a problem. I need to build some strong support among the others so they help keep him in line or this could be a very rough month getting to graduation. Well, there can always be a blanket party if needed.
Xasl finished his meal and stood up to leave the table and head for the formation area.
“Remember, working together is our only hope. The better we function as a team, the safer we all are.”
With that he turned and left the table.
…Xasl awoke with a start. There was whispering and movement in the other isle. Something was wrong.
He jumped out of bed and moved quickly and quietly around to the other side of the wall and sure enough there were three recruits with a blanket moving toward one of the beds. They were going to give 1 a blanket party. Xasl moved quickly intercepting them and holding up his hand for them to stop.
“Get out of the way squad leader or we will visit you tomorrow night.”
“15, 6, 19. I know who you are, and this is not going to happen. 1 did what she was told to do as squad leader. None of you have any idea what the pressure is like. I am not going to let you do this.”
“I said get out of the way. 19 move him.”
19 was a pretty good sized man and he stepped toward Xasl.
“I wouldn’t do that. You all best be doing as the squad leader said.”
“Yes, and right quickly or there will be 3 blanket parties instead of 1.”
Xasl recognized the voices of 27 and 22 and could hear others gathering behind him. There was a clear change in attitude among the three who had planned to give the blanket party and 19 was the first to back off.
“Stand your ground, these idiots all know 1 deserves this party, and we are going to give it to her.”
“15, I’m not getting beat so you can look big in front of the new squad leader. I’m out.”
And 19 turned and headed back for his sleep station.
“Me neither, you are on your own.”
With that 6 turned and headed back for her sleep station leaving 15 all alone.
“This isn’t over squad leader.”
“It better be.”
15 flashed a disrespectful hand signal at him and turned to return to his sleep station.
Xasl finally turned around and was surprised to see a group of 8 recruits behind him.
“Thank you. The support is very much appreciated.”
“You would do the same for any of us. We have your back squad leader.”
And they quickly disappeared into the dark.
“Thank you 29, er squad leader. I was bracing myself for the beating. Figured it would come any night now that I am no longer the hated squad leader. Looks like you were a good choice for the position.”
Xasl was startled, he had thought 1 was still asleep since she had not moved during the incident.
“You would have done the same for me.”
“No, that’s the problem until tonight, I wouldn’t have. But I will remember this. If you ever need me, I’ll be there.”
“We just need to work together as a team and focus on the goal of graduation. There are no debts here, just a group of people trying to survive.”
“Well, thank you just the same.”
“You are welcome.”
The next day they had combat drills with weapons in the morning and hand to hand in the afternoon. With no reason to hold back any more, Xasl focused and concentrated on every shot in the morning session and scored the first perfect score he had posted. In previous sessions he had always watched the others and made sure he scored in the middle of the pack. But now he needed to lead by example, so when he posted the perfect score he felt satisfaction.
“I thought you had that in you 29, a weapons master should shoot better than anyone else in the squad. I expect that level of performance the rest of the way.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
They changed weapons three times and he focused shooting perfect scores each time. Xasl was surprised to see that the whole squad shot better. Apparently he had not been the only one trying not to stand out. With his score on the board, everyone could shoot better and not be singled out.
They finished the morning sessions and broke for a meal before heading over to the gym for hand to hand training.
Again, with no reason to hold back, Xasl quickly slipped into the focus he had learned to use when performing skilled labor jobs or defending his things against others on the street.
He felt the rhythm of the kata and the strength of the movements and body positioning.
Yes, this is simple, 1,2,6 spin 6, sweep, turn 7, slip, 4,2,1, spin 7, spin 3, sweep, slip, 5, turn 6. Very logical, one move flowing into the other.
He could almost see the opponent trying to counter and mount some form of offense at the same time. The art was not as physical as what he had leaned on the streets, but he knew it would be effective. Here though a takedown would make a lot of sense. And there a head butt would be effective, over here a groin punch would be wide open. This form of fighting was elegant and showy, but he could see how he would work to defeat someone fighting by the rules established here.
They finished the kata forms and then started working on new techniques and combinations. It was easy for Xasl to remain in focus and he found he really enjoyed the work and the symmetry of the movements. He noticed 15 and 19 talking and working on combinations that were not part of the instruction for the day. He moved over near enough to them to be heard without having the sound carry to the instructor.
“You two get back on track. If the instructor catches you goofing off you will be scrubbing toilets for the rest of the month.”
“Worry about yourself squad leader. We are working on effective techniques, not this artistic crap they are going over now. When I’m in the heat of battle, I want someone covering my back with solid technique not dance moves.”
“You will do as you are told, or I will assign you to guard duty every night this week to burn off all this extra energy you seem to have.”
“You do that, you better sleep lightly.”
Xasl saw that they shifted back to the techniques being taught, regardless of what 15 said.
“You try something with me, you will quickly learn that I’m not 1. And I have friends in the squad too. Don’t let me catch you goofing off again.”
He heard 15 snort, but he did not say anything else and Xasl worked his way back to his position at the front of the squad.
“Okay, break. We will do some sparring today. I think we will work a squad champion tournament. Winner gets a furlough day. Is the squad up for that?”