• Johnathon Sytes did his normal morning routine. He put on his Academy uniform pants and some socks, ate a bagel for breakfast (he hated the breakfast food in the Academy’s cafeteria), put on a white t-shirt and his black uniform jacket, and put his daggers in their holsters. He looked at himself in the mirror. His short, brown hair was a mess, so he combed it. He also put eye drops into his grayish-green eyes. Then he walked out of his dorm room into the hall.
    As he walked to his classroom, nobody spoke to him. Sytes wasn’t exactly the most popular guy in the Oakwood Garden Military Academy. In fact, the only reason anyone would know his name is that he has the best scores in his class. He was guaranteed to graduate after the exam. Sytes was in his fourth year at the O.G.M.A., and was one test away from joining the Altarian Army.
    Students usually failed the exam the first try, and went on to take a fifth year of studies and combat training. If they failed again, they kept coming back until they passed or dropped out. Students were forced to leave once they turned 21, but most people passed or left by then.
    Sytes reached his class and took the only available seat in the room (which, of course, was in the middle of the front row). The students behind him were talking about the final exam. That’s right, he thought to himself, we’re supposed to choose which exam we want to take today. Those looking for a position among the infantry chose to participate in the Field Exam, where they were assigned to do the “grunt work” that the Altarian Army needed done in an actual battle. The Field Exam had a simple grading system: You Live, You Pass. That scared most people into being tacticians and taking the Written Exam.
    Even though he tried not to listen, Sytes heard the students behind him talking.
    “He’s definitely going to take the Field Exam,” said one guy, “I mean, look at him! I don’t think he’s afraid to die.”
    “No way,” said another, “He acts all quiet and cool, but I think inside, he’s a real crybaby.”
    Now Sytes was listening. Are they talking about me?, he wondered.
    “Would you guys stop it?” said a third voice. This one was a girl. “It’s bad enough everyone thinks he’s a freak, but do you have to bet on him, too?”
    Hey, I know that voice, Sytes thought. It was Elizabeth Grainsborough, Sytes’ partner, and the closest thing that he had to a friend. However, she was more like an annoying little sister than a friend. What’s she doing here? Sytes asked himself, She’s supposed to be in the second year class.
    As an Academy policy, fourth year students were paired up with someone from the second year class. It was supposed to teach the younger students how to behave when they became upperclassmen so as to inspire the other students. It also functioned as a “buddy System” in the Academy’s training center; nobody was allowed in without their partner. When Sytes was paired with Elizabeth (or just Beth, as she preferred to be called) He was skeptical of her abilities and doubted if she could handle herself in a fight. However, he realized that for a 15-year-old, blonde-haired, brown-eyed girl, she had one hell of a roundhouse kick. Apparently the instructor decided not to mention she was a black belt in three kinds of martial arts until AFTER he woke up in the hospital wing two days after their first combat practice.
    The Instructor came into the room. Sytes’ instructor was Corporal Henry Willson, but his favorite students called him “Big Willie”. He got his name for the fact that he was seven feet tall, weighed three hundred pounds, and laughed at his own size (the nickname was HIS idea). Of course, most of his weight was muscle, but he still had a bit of a beer gut. Out of everyone at the Academy, Big Willie and Beth were the only ones Sytes had any respect for. After all, Willie was his Instructor, and Beth was like his apprentice or something. You know, it was like a chain of teachings, with Sytes as the middle link.
    “Listen up, cadets,” Bug Willie said, “As you know, today the fourth year class picks their exams. Now, we’re going to tell you the conditions of the Field Exam before you decide.
    “Altar has been at war with Colicia for twenty years now, and the demand for troops has never been higher. We need you to assist the army by reloading weapons, tending to the wounded, and clearing battle sites of the deceased so the army has more time to do their job. Be reminded that this is an actual war zone, and you may die in the line of duty. Should you live, you will graduate and move on to either join the Altarian Army, or, if you prefer, may apply to become an Instructor at the Oakwood Garden Military Academy. Since we need so many cadets in this particular war, we’ve invited the partners of year four students to assist them. They will be getting extra credit for this, and will not have to take their real exam at the end of their fourth year.”
    Well, that explains why Beth is here, Sytes thought.
    “Alright, now the field exam squads will be in three man cells. This number will be adjusted to fit the second years willing to assist. How many here are willing to take the Field Exam?”
    Sytes looked over and saw Beth raise her hand. She gave him with a look that said, “Come on, Please?” Well, he thought, it would be nice to prove I’m not a crybaby. Sytes raised his hand.

    Six hours later, Sytes was waiting in the Briefing room with Beth. As usual, she was trying to talk to him.
    “Who do you think we’ll be grouped with?” she asked him.
    Sytes looked up from the floor and said, “I don’t know.” He sat up straight when he saw Big Willie enter the briefing room. Then he whispered, “I’m more concerned with what we’ll have to DO then who’ll be getting in our way.”
    Beth nodded, and then got serious. If there was anything Sytes taught her, it was that you couldn’t rely on anyone, so you better be prepared for someone to disappoint you. This worked well in combat, because you shouldn’t expect your partner to do things the right way. Sytes had to screw up dozens of virtual missions before she was able to handle herself. As he saluted to Big Willie, he thought, She’s a good kid. If I die, they’d better still let her skip her actual exam. I don’t want her do go through this again…
    “Hello, John.” said Big Willie as he sat down at the table.
    “It’s just ‘Sytes’, Sir.” Sytes hated it when people called him by his first name. Corporal Willson was the only one to do so since his family died. It really bothered him.
    “And I keep telling YOU to call me ‘Big Willie’.” The Corporal smiled. “Until you do that, you’re just John to me. Good to see you, Beth.” He pulled out a file and gave it to Sytes. “Now, you’ll be the leader of Squad 13, Codename: Team Lion -”
    “- and as such, you should know the file of your third man.”
    “Sir, with all due respect, I’m not a leader.” Sytes was angry. He lived life a simple way: do what you’re told, no questions asked. He didn’t tell others what to do. It was easier that way.
    “But Sytes,” Beth said to him, “you’re a great leader. Who was it who, just a few minutes ago, tested my commitment to this exam by constantly mentioning how likely it is that I’ll be killed?”
    That wasn’t a test, Sytes thought, that was a warning. That was a notification. That was my way of saying, “You’re going to die, back out while you can.”
    “John,” Big Willie said in his rarely heard, but often heard OF, “serious tone”, “the decision on who’s leader of their squad is based on their grades. You honestly didn’t expect this?”
    Sytes sighed. He knew the regulations. He picked up the file, opened it, and read the name on the first line. Instantly, he felt more disappointment. “Kevin Zimmel?! Are you KIDDING ME?!”
    “What’s wrong? Zam’s a nice young man. He’s just a little… unique.”
    “‘Unique’? He’s just WEIRD.”
    “Well,” Big Willie said as he stood up, “you better start apologizing, because he’s right behind you.”
    Sytes turned around, and was immediately disappointed.