“They say that every classroom is a battlefield.”
The teacher was facing away from the class and towards the blackboard as he spoke.
Some students took advantage of this inattention to scribble notes or make faces at one another. From his seat at the front of the class, however, one boy with red hair listened with rapt attention. His desk was clean, his uniform crisp, his hair cut precisely according to school guidelines. His hands were clasped behind him and his eyes strayed not once from the front of the room.
“You are all soldiers of a sort, you who sit before me,” the teacher said. “I cannot see you, of course, but I do not have to. You are no different from those that have come before. You have promise and potential, but without education you would only know how to waste it.”
A girl in the front row stirred uncomfortably. The teacher lashed out backwards, slamming his ruler on her desk. The redhead smiled smugly as the girl snapped back to rigid attention. Still the teacher did not turn to face the class.
“You see, unshaped and unruly creatures as you are, you are by nature wayward and wild. You do not even recognize me yet as your benefactor,” the teacher continued. “The task of an Educator is thankless in this way, but it is also essential. It is not mere rhetoric when our Mayor says that students are the future, but it is our job to determine what sort of future it will be. Such matters are too important to leave in the hands of children.”
There were murmurs of discontent this time. The redhead remained at perfect attention as the teacher slashed the air with his ruler to restore silence.
“I cannot hear your complaints,” he warned them, “for I have no ears. Of course I expect many of you to resist. It is the way of students to flee from their own salvation, to struggle against their saviors. You are drowning in a sea of ignorance, and it is up to us to pull you up from its depths. We will do this by force if we must.”
With that the teacher finally turned towards the class. For the first time Cross could see that the man had no face. There was only a blank oval of smooth flesh.
“This is the nature of education,” the teacher said. “It is and has always been a war waged against you young monsters—a war to rescue you from yourselves.”
The redhead blinked. The man had no mouth. How could he speak? Was he speaking? Were these even his words?
The man drew closer.
“Well, Cross? Which side of the war are you on?”
Cross stood slowly and regarded the faceless man. He could feel the eyes of his peers upon him. He opened his mouth and the answer flowed easily.
“Your goals are my goals. I have no purpose but what you give me. Only through education can I find that purpose.”
The faceless teacher nodded with approval.
“A fine answer. Music to my ears. I can see that your mentor Edward has been a very positive influence on you.”
Cross smiled at the praise. He could feel the resentment of the other students in the room, but he didn’t care. Nothing he did ever seemed to make them happy. Teachers, at least, could be pleased.
“Thank you, sir.”
From somewhere far away a bell began to ring. Without waiting to be dismissed, the other students got up and began to file out the door. Cross stayed where he was, until only he and one other boy remained in their seats.
The other boy looked at Cross with emerald eyes.
“Good boy. You’re not going anywhere just yet.” Edward grinned. “After all, there’s so much yet to be done for my legacy.”
Edward held up a mirror. Against his will, Cross looked into it.
He tried to scream, but he couldn’t.…
He had no face.
* * *
The bell was still ringing when Cross awoke.
Through the noise and the darkness he struggled to gather his bearings. Vague images from his nightmare flashed before his eyes, and for a few confused moments he half expected to find Edward looming in the shadows over him. Then there was a crack of light from an opening doorway, and the stirrings from the other bunks brought the memories rushing back.
Edward was dead. He had been for a long time.
Cross rubbed his eyes. It had been nearly a year since the young rebels of the Truancy had first risen up en masse to seize control of the City. A year since Edward, an ambitious student and Cross’ mentor, had sided with the Mayor and answered the Truancy’s challenge with his own Student Militia.
A year since the Truancy’s founder Zyid had called for peace on the night of his greatest offensive. Neither Edward nor Zyid had survived that night. The cease-fire that followed had deteriorated quickly, as Cross had known it would. Now, a year later, peace was still elusive.
No sooner had Zyid’s death been announced than word of his replacement, a mysterious boy named Takan, had circulated. And Edward had barely been gone a day before the Mayor had insisted that his protégé should succeed him—thus Cross had ascended to a leadership and responsibility he had never desired.
Swearing under his breath, Cross slid out of bed and into his shoes. Someone turned the lights on and was rewarded with a chorus of groans. Cross ignored them and focused on recalling the current situation through a fog of sleep.
The room he was in now had a year ago been an old classroom of the District 2 School. It had been long since converted into a dormitory, and the school itself transformed into a base for the students who chose to fight to defend their City.
They were losing that fight.
“All students, report for duty immediately,” the intercom blared. “This is an emergency. I repeat, all students, report for duty immediately.”
Cross looked around and saw that the other students were still dragging themselves out of bed. Heaving himself to his feet, Cross dashed out of the room without a word to those supposedly under his command. The only backwards glance he spared was for the clock on the wall. It read 20:06. He’d had a long patrol that morning and had slept right through the entire day.
Cross ran for his locker. The hallways were dimly lit by dying fluorescent lights and buzzing with blue uniformed students in various states of preparedness. Reaching his destination, Cross entered his combination and quickly retrieved his equipment. Rifle. Knife. Sidearm. Body armor. Flashlight. Pieces of himself.
Feeling complete now, Cross rubbed sleep from his eyes as he headed for the front doors where he knew his personal unit would gather. Sure enough, two of them were already there. The first was a lean, wiry boy with straw-colored hair and a sniper rifle slung over one shoulder. The other was a girl with brown hair held back by a blue bandanna.
“Rise and shine, boss.” The boy bowed with exaggerated deference. “You sure look bright and cheerful this fine—”
“Not in the mood, Sepp,” Cross snapped. “Have you heard anything about what’s going on?”
“Well, sir, it would appear that the Truants are attacking. I hear that they’re very unhappy and would like us all to die.”
Cross let out a noise of exasperation. The girl cracked a smile.
“All we know is that they’ve massed around the eastern overpass,” she said. “It sounds like they’re a lot of them out there, but last I heard they haven’t even tried to tackle the barricade yet.”
“Well, that’s some good news,” Cross muttered. “Thanks, Floe.”
The girl gave an airy salute. Rather than the uniform pants used by most girls in the militia, Floe had opted instead for a matching skirt and a hip sack. At five foot five she was the shortest member of his unit.
The news she’d offered was important. The Truancy’s long campaign had cut off Educator-controlled districts from one another and strangled them until only a fortified core remained. Those fortifications had held so far, but they were all that stood now between the Truancy and total victory.
All tiredness forgotten, Cross found himself itching to get into the fight. Black vans were beginning to pull up by the curb outside.
“There’s our ride,” Cross said as other units began to form up and exit through the front doors. “We’re still missing Joe. Has anyone seen that—”
“I’m here, I’m here!” a deep voice shouted, its owner shoving his way through the crowd. “Yeah, I’m a little late, whatever, let’s go, come on!”
Joe was a large, muscular boy with a shaven head. Without waiting for a reply, he charged out as though he had been first. Rolling their eyes, the others followed. Now fully assembled, Cross’ group piled into one of the waiting vans. Cross clambered in last and shut the door behind him.
Together the four of them made a formidable team, one that Cross felt was a match for any group of Truants. He had selected each of them for a different reason. Joe had impressive strength and could be absolutely vicious in battle when he got going. Sepp was one of the best shots in the Militia and could pick off Truants from many blocks away with his rifle.
As for Floe … Cross glanced over at the brunette, who was busy adjusting the sight on her rifle. Cross had personal reasons for picking her, but she had also defected from the Truancy and thus knew more about the enemy than any other student.
“The Truancy never had all this standardized gear.” Floe admired her knife as the van began moving. “But we did get to play with some neat toys.”
“Like what?” Joe grunted.
“Like these.” Floe pulled a glass bottle out of her hip sack. A cloth was stuffed into its neck, and Cross recognized it as an old Truancy favorite—gasoline and motor oil, mixed into an explosive cocktail.
“Aren’t those illegal?” Sepp said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Floe stuffed the bottle back into the pack.
“It’s not like they’d arrest her for that,” Cross said. “The Educators should let us use them openly. They’re easy to make, and they give the Truancy an edge.”
“Might as well have us all just be Truants,” Joe muttered.
Cross glared. “Shut up, Joe.”
An awkward silence fell over the van. Cross had never liked Joe as a person. The large boy had made the mistake of taking Cross for a pushover during his first day with the Militia. When their first and only fight put Joe in the infirmary for two days he had become much more respectful, though Cross knew Joe was still sore over the incident.
“Hey, you kids back there all ready to go?” the driver called. “I’m about to hit the gas so you all better buckle up!”
The students reached for their seat belts as the driver took a particularly sharp turn. Stop signs and streetlights flew by so quickly that Cross was glad that there was a curfew to prevent pedestrians from getting flattened.
“What have you heard about the situation?” Cross asked the man.
“Probably not much more than you,” the Enforcer said, hitting a speed bump. “The overpass seems to be holding, which is good, ’cause the most important thing for us is to hold the high ground there—but the ground is just swarming with Truants. We can’t pull too many Enforcers away from the other districts in case this is just a diversion.”
“So that’s why we’re being called in.”
“Exactly, kiddo. Now hold on tight, we’re almost there.”
A few moments later, the van screeched to a halt. Cross was already sliding the door open before the wheels had stopped turning. He leapt out. The others quickly followed. Sepp looked a little green from the ride and took great gulps of air with his hands on his knees.
They were standing at the base of a ramp that provided access to the overpass above. Not too far off in the distance, Cross could see tiny flashes of gunfire and movement—that was where the front lines were. The Truancy would have a hard time drawing closer with the overpass so well defended.
His heart racing with excitement, Cross was about to order his team straight onto the overpass. A rocket slammed into the van they had just gotten out of. There was a flare of heat and light, and then the force of the blast sent Cross crashing to the ground.
His head spinning, Cross dove behind the van’s wreckage as gunshots rang out. He saw muzzle flashes coming from ground level. The Truants were in the buildings that lined the overpass.
Cross soon found himself joined by Sepp and Floe—Joe had found other cover nearby. They blindly returned fire.
“Ugh, with our attention on District 8 they must’ve snuck in over the District 5 border,” Floe said. “They’re everywhere now!”
“Split up,” Cross said. “Sepp, go find a roost. Floe, you stay down here and keep an eye on the buildings, don’t try anything stupid. Joe, come with me, we’ll go—”
“Wait, look up there!”
Floe’s eyes were wide with fear. Cross turned. Just a few blocks down, on the roof of a relatively low building, a figure stood clearly illuminated by a red neon sign. Against the dark blue sky, Cross could make out wild hair, a matching brown trench coat, and the faint gleam of what had to be a white sword.
Cross breathed. “Is that—”
“Takan,” Floe said grimly. “Their leader.”
“Sepp, can you get a shot off from here?” Cross demanded.
Sepp reached for his rifle, but never got the chance to aim. Another rocket landed nearby, and Cross’ unit ducked for cover as shrapnel shredded the air. By the time they raised their heads again, Takan was gone.
“Of course it wouldn’t be that easy,” Cross muttered, his ears ringing. “He’s taunting us. But if he’s here at all, that means this fight is the real deal.”
Already more vans and Enforcer patrol cars were arriving. Students and Enforcers spilled out of them, filling the streets, forming defensive positions, and charging up onto the overpass. A subordinate, one of the Student Militia’s coordinators, ran up to Cross.
“Orders, Captain?” the student asked.
Cross frowned. This was the part he hated the most. He didn’t like everyone looking to him for answers—he was good at carrying out orders, not giving them. He never thrived on being in charge as Edward had.
“Send half of the students onto the overpass to reinforce our defenses there, and spread the other half out down here,” Cross said. “Try to push the Truants back to those buildings.”
The student nodded and ran off to relay the commands.
“Don’t underestimate Takan,” Floe warned, glancing up at the neon sign. “If he joins the battle himself, it’s gonna be messy.”
“This was never going to be clean,” Cross replied, raising his rifle. “All right, Joe, you’re with me. Everyone, get going. Let’s hunt some Truants!”
Floe joined the other students advancing upon the unseen Truants in the buildings. Sepp darted off on his own. Cross felt a familiar thrill as he charged up the ramp and onto the overpass. Peering off the side, he let off a three-round burst at a Truant that had strayed too far from cover.
Cross fought for the sake of fighting. He didn’t enjoy the killing itself. It was the danger and excitement that came from being one mistake away from death. He didn’t really remember why he was supposed to be doing it. He didn’t care why. Cross lived for the moment.
As the Student Militia reinforcements arrived, the Truants backed off. Only sporadic fire came now from the shadowed buildings. The brief respite gave Cross and Joe a chance to peer over the edge of the overpass, into the darkness of the Truant-infested District 5. That area had already been abandoned before the war had started, but now it lay in utter ruin with only the burnt and crumbling skeletons of buildings left standing.
“Can’t say I like what they’ve done with their occupied territory,” Cross said. “Everything they touch seems to turn into a smoking wreck.”
“I hear the guys have their own name for it.”
“Do they?” Cross turned to look at Joe. “What is it?”
The large boy grinned and fired a shot off into the darkness. A tiny wisp of smoke rose from the barrel of his gun.
“They call it Truancy City.”
Copyright © 2012 by Isamu Fukui