Kazuki nervously walked from each checkpoint to the next. He was stripped of equipment and clothing, checked for runic magic inscribed on his body in any possible location, even his tongue, his eyelids, his scalp, and downstairs (a task carried out by a robotic scanner, luckily for Kazuki's modesty), given a new set of clothing, and fed a poison that would have no effect until exactly two hours after the test was expected to end… at which point he would promptly die without the antidote having been administered.

He was then escorted in by three of Sindhlot's Murder of Crows, the elite guard, and a Shadowman from the Shadow Police, also known as the ShaPol Combination Police and Special Operations Unit – more commonly referred to as just "The ShaPol." He was extremely surprised when he realized the Shadowman was there; he hadn't realized it until the Shadowman had been between him and one of the window-screens that showed the outside world, and then he only saw the subtly rippling light that indicated a Shadowman's cloaked presence.

It was said the Shadowmen had a Rune of Silence tattooed onto their left arm and a Rune of Invisibility on the right, which was why they never spoke and were never visible; becoming a Shadowman would therefore mean one forsook his individuality and identity, becoming no more than a member of the collective Shadowman units, the Silhouettes. They led him to a door with a keypad next to it. A guard pressed his ungloved left hand to the numerical buttons, in a sequence that clearly indicated that what mattered was not merely the buttons and their order, but also which finger pressed which button and when, as it was put in with an irregular pattern that used all five fingers and erratic timing. The door opened slowly in two phases; first, the enormous pair of foot-thick slabs of metal rose up from around the inner cage, where four more Crows kneeled in a line, guns ready. The inner cage then sank into the floor, wicked barbed spikes being left barely sticking out. The Crows in the middle of the row took up standing positions behind the outer two, with their guns at their sides, but ready to snap up at a moment's notice.

"Watch your step," one guard grunted through his mask, which was a combination voice-distorter and gasmask. No emotion was shown on his face… because his head was entirely covered, with the gasmask/voice-distorter in the front, the back consisting of a black mesh, and the top covered with a helmet bearing the imperial insignia, a pair of diamonds, one within the other. A stereotypical faceless soldier, almost. Even his body was concealed under a black robe, tight enough not to get in the way but loose enough to avoid letting any information about him be shown. He held a Stomper Shotgun, and the other two guards held Base-Rifles. One had an Electroshock attachment on a strap slung over his shoulder. Electroshock attachments, better known as stun-slappers, were two-pronged electric batteries that fired by launching the prongs into the target and using them as part of an electric current. They were said to be extremely painful, capable of immobilizing even the strongest men by freezing their muscles, and worst of all, very infrequently fatal. Plus, the attachment could be ejected in a short moment, allowing the Base-Rifles it was attached to fire a quick burst of bullets into the immobilized target.

At last, Kazuki was led to the inner sanctum. He was escorted through a winding metal tunnel; his steps made little noise, as they were softened by socks, without shoes, given to him during the exchange of clothing; instead of attire he was comfortable in, he wore a light blue silk jumpsuit. It was too soft for his comfort, in fact; it felt foreign and unfamiliar, he thought one moment, only in the next moment to almost forget it was even there, flooding his mind with feelings of naked vulnerability and exposure.

The next thing he knew, he was in a large, circular room, with a protruding area at the end, where the emperor sat. He briefly saw a pair of legs being dragged out a side passage. He listened to the sound of the body being dragged away, until it was cut off by a loud slam of metal on metal. He looked again at the emperor, slightly more nervous now. The emperor was clad in black pants, with at least 6 pockets that he could see, with a similarly colored long-sleeved shirt, which Kazuki did not doubt contained at least one highly lethal weapon, probably more. The emperor, for all his outer safety measures, was still a very cautious man with those who passed the tests to get in; he hadn't lived as long as he had for nothing. Most leaders before Sindhlot had an average life expectancy of roughly three years before being rebelled against successfully, betrayed, assassinated, or something along those lines; Sindhlot had lived over ten years as the emperor, after his ascension at a mere 22 years old.

"Welcome," the emperor stated simply. For a moment Kazuki thought he had misheard. Welcome, he thought. The emperor of most of the known world has just greeted me with nothing but "welcome"? No grand rant, no declarations of his own power… Why, he isn't even in particularly royal-looking clothing, Kazuki thought to himself. The emperor got straight to business, gesturing to a large box off to the side of the room. Kazuki hadn't noticed it at first, as it was closer to his side than Emperor Sindhlot's. It was about eight feet tall, four feet long, with a door on each side. Kazuki stared at it for a moment.

"Do I enter it?" Kazuki asked uncertainly. Sindhlot shook his head with a smile, nodded twice quickly, and watched as Kazuki entered the side closest to him through a sliding door that shut behind him. Inside was a computer terminal with a chair at it. There were several levers and buttons, and a headset off to the side. Sindhlot entered the other side, the observer terminal, which showed all actions carried out by the test-taker. He put on his own headset.

"Are you ready?" Sindhlot asked.

"Yes, sir," Kazuki replied.

Then let us begin." He pulled a remote from his pocket and pressed a button, followed by the number "1," then the number "2." "Live command simulation beginning," Sindhlot said with a smirk. "This is a squad command sim, it'll be pretty short. Good luck."

"Thank you, sir." The briefing began to scroll up the screen and a narration talked as he read in a vaguely threatening yet still-friendly female voice.

The following simulation will place you in command of four soldiers. You will be in command from outside the mission zone. All four soldiers are actual members of an average squad in full-body movement replicators, as all of your enemies will be. However, the difference is, your enemies will not have a unified commander during this simulation. While they will not be in any actual danger, your career will be. The mission data is as follows:

Objective: Carry out raid on medium size rebel safehouse. Let none escape. Captures are permissible if there is minimal risk, but do not go out of your way to achieve them.

Enemy units: Thirty (30) soldiers and six (6) automated turrets

Your units: Four (4) soldiers

Acceptable casualties: No more than two (2) serious injuries, only one (1) of which can be death.

Intelligence: The safehouse has three entrances; two are directly opposite each other, one is directly up. Each one is from a building, guarded by a guard inside and a guard outside. Each entrance leads to the central hub, which contains three of the automated turrets. From the central hub, there will be an armory with an automated turret, a hospital/infirmary section with another turret, and a mess hall with the last automated turret.

You will be able to view any of these camera angles:

Kazuki stared at the odds: four soldiers against thirty soldiers and six auto-guns. His attention was then drawn to a row of buttons, which flashed one at a time as the view it gave was displayed:

A: Three-dimensional map overview, with spotted enemy soldiers, all automated turrets, and all of your soldiers.

B: Over-the-shoulder view of Unit 1

C: Over-the-shoulder view of Unit 2

D: Over-the-shoulder view of Unit 3
E: Over-the-shoulder view of Unit 4

The view of Map Overview A can be rotated, zoomed, and moved. If you go within the boundaries of a building, it will increase detail. Be warned, however: you can only see what a soldier knows is there. All people will be represented by wireframes (Green for yours troops, yellow for the rebels).

Each soldier may be communicated with from his over-the-shoulder viewpoint. In viewpoint A, the map overview, your commands will be communicated to all soldiers. Soldiers in close proximity to each other will be able to hear each other. If you go to an over-the-shoulder view, then return to the map overview, it will be wherever you left it.

The screen demonstrated how to move the map overview around and went on to further explain that most of the buttons and levers would not be used until the full-battle simulation. Kazuki practiced using the map overview a bit and tested out basic communication with all his soldiers; he could hear anything they said at any time, and he tested out skipping quickly from viewpoint to viewpoint for fast communication.

Press the Map Overview Camera button to continue began to flash onscreen. Kazuki pressed the button.

Simulation beginning now

The map overview showed the current status. He flicked to each of their over-the-shoulder views one at a time and looked at them; they were all in civilian clothing with bulletproof armor under it. He returned to the overview.

"Okay, I'm going to refer to each of you by the letter you are indicated by on my screen," Kazuki said. He flicked to B, C, D, and E in order, telling them their letter. Once he returned to the "Okay, B and E, you're each going to take a side entrance. B, you're going to have a book store on your side, so go in and start reading something. E, you have a fast food place on your end, so order something. C and D, you're going to support B and E, and once they're ready to make their entrance, you're going to take the middle area before they attack to prevent escapees. Everyone good?"

A chorus of "Yes sir" came from the soldiers.

"All right," Kazuki said. "Let's do this."

The beginning went smoothly. The two guards outside the entrances were executed promptly (causing immense panic) and the guards inside were taken by surprise with no problems. They made their way to the entrance to the hub and took cover on each side.

"We have two soldiers on each entrance, with four heading up a spiral staircase to the middle-top entrance," B reported, ducking back in after the guards fired at him. "The turrets are pointing at me and, uh, E. What's the orders, sir?" Kazuki considered for a moment, then spoke.

"Spiral staircase? C and D, make your entrance, now. There's a spiral staircase, about how wide?"

"About four feet wide, sir," E replied.

"Right, four feet wide or so," Kazuki relayed to C, who told it to D. D grinned.

"I have the perfect solution," he announced. Kazuki flicked to D's view, and saw him and C firing their guns into the air. D commandeered a car and parked it over the entrance: a manhole cover that did not lead to the sewer.

"Looks like they're stuck or something," B reported.

"What weaponry do you have?" Kazuki asked.

"Standard stuff, sir. Two fragmentation grenades, an EMP grenade, a smoke grenade, a Base-Rifle, a Stomper, and a sidearm," B answered. "We also got thermal vision now that we're wearing our helmets."

"Okay," Kazuki said, switching to view A. "C and D, status?"

"They're stuck under the car," C replied."

"Okay, throw a 'nade in there. Same for you, B and E." Kazuki commanded. "B, E, you're both on inclines, right?"

"Yes, sir," they both answered.

"Throw down a smoke right after the frag, okay?"

"Got it, sir." "Yes, sir."

"On my command, all right? Ready… go!" Three fragmentation grenades were simultaneously thrown. The rebels at the door scattered back, and the smoke grenades that followed obscured their vision. "Thermal vision on, open fire, and make sure you don't shoot each other." B and E began to fire. Three guards were dropped immediately, putting the remaining targets down to 25. "C and D, get the car off the top after you throw a smoke in and get ready to make your entrance."

D got in the car; C threw a smoke down the entrance and D turned the car on and backed it off the entrance. They both flicked on their thermal vision and began descending. The first to go were some guards firing blind into the smoke futilely against the cover B had taken. C then continued to fire at the guards suppressing E, and D descended the stairs cautiously to check for the four who had been walking up.

"Turrets online!" a rebel yelled out. A loud whirring noise came, and two chain guns sprouted from wall panels; the third came from a revolving floor panel at the foot of the spiral staircase.

"Frag out!" D yelled, pulling the pin and hurling it down the staircase. A loud bang decimated the gun.

"C, take out a turret. D, get another. B, E, keep shooting." Two grenades later, the three main turrets were gone. "C and D, I want you to pick off the rest of the targets. I figure you only have a little time until the smoke clears." The rebels fell under their onslaught.

Over the next few minutes, he micromanaged his four soldiers to take out every active rebel in the hub and the mess hall and wipe out anyone who put up resistance in the medical bay, taking three hostages, who were all injured, incapacitated rebels in the beds (the doctors had been eliminated as a "just-in-case" precaution); with no casualties up to that point, he took stock of the remaining equipment of his soldiers. It totaled up that each had a few clips for their guns; there were two grenades left, both fragmentation. On his command, they burst into the armory. Long, shining racks of guns went along the length of the room, forming aisles, with a large empty area in the middle created by the absence of two or three racks of space.

In the middle of that space stood a Hero.

"Shit!" Kazuki blew forth in a torrent of expletives, then a flurry of orders. The soldiers scattered to the edges of the door. C held out his sidearm, a revolver of some type, and fired several shots blind around the edge of the frame. A click sounded; C's hand pulled back. A moment later, and the subsequent blast of gunfire would have probably turned the hand into confetti of flesh. Kazuki flicked from C's over-the-shoulder view to the overview mode, seeing a small sphere roll along the ground.

"Scatter!" Kazuki yelled. The soldiers scattered, knowing better than to ask why or check why. The grenade detonated. The imperials took cover where they could; the small amount of shrapnel that actually hit was absorbed by their body armor. The hero walked through the door with a rifle in each hand. As the hero turned left, D popped out of cover and took aim. Kazuki switched to D's over-the-shoulder view to watch.

The next part was so fast it forced the computer to lag. As far as he could tell from D's over-the-shoulder, the hero had thrown a rifle at D (an action that had registered in three parts: the turn, the throw, and the aftermath) and struck him in the faceplate, which was now marked with a spider web shatter. A small area in the upper-left of the screen now displayed "One (1) casualty: Incapacitated (nonfatal)" as Kazuki was returned to the overview-camera.

"Shit!" Kazuki yelled. "Fire in unison on three! One…" All three of the remaining troops readied their guns. "Two… Three!" In perfect unison, each soldier popped out of his hiding place and began unloading at the hero. The hero was annihilated by the barrage; he had nowhere to run. "Check up on D and-" Kazuki began. He was cut off by the blacking out of the screen and the beginning wall of text.

Simulation ended. Success.

Status:
Kills: Twenty-six (26) terminated soldiers; five (5) turrets destroyed beyond repair, one (1) disabled; one (1) terminated Hero

Captures: Three (3) injured rebels were captured in the infirmary.

Casualties: One (1) nonfatal injury – impact to head, damage of equipment and unconsciousness with little chance of long-term effects. In addition, this casualty occurred during combat with the Hero.

Grade: Excellent !!

The door slid open again. Kazuki shielded his eyes from the seemingly blinding light. Sindhlot was already standing outside. He had a pleased smirk on his face.

"Good work," Sindhlot commented, "Better than we expected, actually. That was an easy one though. What do you want to do next?"

"What is there to choose from?" Kazuki asked. Sindhlot made a vague gesture at a servant, who scrambled through a wall, and came back through the same wall with a paper. Kazuki looked at it and skimmed the choices. Group of squads, skirmish, border defense, capital city defense, full-scale field battle… now we're talking! Kazuki looked up and boldly declared, "Fourteen. I need a drawn-out campaign with supply lines, terrain, sneak attacks... That is where I want to be."