It has been said that heroes never die. As the quote goes, “They live on forever in the hearts and minds of those who would follow in their footsteps.” The chosen twenty-five in this tale would have loved to believe that such a quotation could be true. But for them, the possibility of death was all too real. As they faced their own mortality, they confronted the fact that they might never return home.
The twenty-five had never intended to face realities of this magnitude, especially so early in their lives. But the task they were given was not by choice; their lives were fated to be intertwined by a single thread connecting their destinies. The link amongst them began as nothing more than an Internet social group. But they would discover that it meant much more.
To think that the tale you are about to read began with a simple group of casual friends is an astounding fact. Consider that these friends had never seen each other in person, and the story becomes almost impossible to believe. But perhaps the most improbable element of this story is the “word” that began it all; it cannot be found in any dictionary; any attempt at deciphering it would leave an etymologist baffled; it would be dismissed as nonsense by any intelligent thinker. In spite of all of this, it was this very word that began the greatest legend of courage, brotherhood, and friendship the world has ever known. The entire tale you are about to discover began with a single word:
The Washington, D.C., area had been hot and humid for most of the summer, but today, there was a different feeling in the air. It was a rather cool morning, confirmed by the Bank of America message screen: a temperature of 56 degrees at the time of 7:45. The wind blew through the trees. Normally, a bystander would not have noticed that rustling of leaves. But today, the city was quiet.
It was around this time that Cheez arrived. The Noob was dressed for success, having picked out a red striped tie to go with a black suit. Ordinarily, he would look like a loser, but who could blame him on a day like this? He was scheduled for a meeting with the Federal Bureau of Intelligence. In a serious meeting like this, a Mets cap or Favre jersey simply wouldn’t do.
Cheez paused in front of the imposing facade. In his head, he repeated the same questions that he had wondered about ever since he received the phone call three days before: “What do they want with me? I’m just an ordinary guy.”
Then, with a tinge of fear, “Surely they couldn’t have found out about that house we egged?”
His mind continued to race as he entered the FBI lobby. His outward appearance looked composed, but inside, he was anything but. The Noob went to the front desk and cleared his throat.
“Um, I’m sup-supposed to meet with Mr. Stewart?” He checked a piece of paper to make sure he had gotten the name right.
The woman at the desk studied him for a moment, then checked the papers in front of her. She asked him his name, and he gave his identity.
“Okay, these men will take you to meet with Mr. Stewart.”
A pair of hulking behemoths in black uniforms gave him a shove, and took him down a series of long hallways. After a minute of walking, the Noob wondered if they were just leading him in circles. But finally, after they were deep within the FBI HQ, they took him into a dimly-lit room. Cheez was puzzled and worried. Those feelings were doubled when the men pointed to a lone chair in the room’s center. Cheez nervously took a seat, as the men in black uniforms left. As the door slammed, Cheez heard footsteps, and a tall man in a suit came into view under the lone light bulb. He gave a sickening grin.
“So. You honestly believed you could get away with it?”
Cheez’s fears were realized. They did know about the egging. Before he could mumble a response, the Noob was interrupted.
“I don’t want to hear excuses. I want to hear the truth,” the man demanded.
Cheez meekly responded, “I… We just wanted to have a little fun. It- We didn’t know we were hurting anything.”
“Oh! Oh! Is that it? You wanted to ‘have a little fun?’” the tall man replied, mockingly. “Well, here at the FBI, we don’t think marijuana smuggling is ‘a little fun.’”
Cheez was taken aback. Unless those eggs had contained marijuana, he had done nothing of the sort. “Sir, I think you’re mistaken,” he began timidly. “I have never been involved in any type of drug smuggling.”
“Don’t play games with me, you little-” The interrogator stopped short. He looked at Cheez, and realized the Noob was probably telling the truth. “Wait…”
He walked back into the blackness away from the light and shuffled through some papers. He brought one back, and looking at it, said, “You’re Brian Augustino, aren’t you?”
Cheez replied, “No.”
The tall man was visibly confused. “Well, why were you sent here?”
“I don’t know. I just know I was supposed to meet with a Mr. Stewart.”
The man paused, then looked relieved. “Oh, now I understand.” He flicked on a light switch, providing some much-needed illumination to the room. He picked up his name plate from his desk. “See? I’m Mr. Stuart. With a ‘u.’ There must have been a misunderstanding.” He chuckled. Cheez was still too nervous to do the same. “Come with me.”
Mr. Stuart opened the door, and Cheez stepped out with him, relieved. Mr. Stuart walked him across the hall, to a door labeled “Mr. Stewart.”
“Here’s where you’re supposed to be. Sorry about the mix-up.”
“Thanks,” said the Noob. He turned the handle and stepped inside.
This room was much bigger than the one across the hall. There were folding chairs all around the perimeter of the room, with a door on the opposite side. About twenty other people were there already, sitting down. Most were his age, but there were a few who looked older. Cheez spotted an open seat, crossed the room, and sat down.
The room was dead quiet. Some were staring at their feet, but most were looking at each other suspiciously, almost as if they recognized each other. There was a reason they had all been called to this room. That seemed to be on everyone’s mind. One person seemed to be counting the room’s occupants. When he was finished, he looked down at the carpeted floor. After a deep breath, he broke the silence:
Everyone turned to face him. After a moment, he looked up and said, “Is this the Atroo Grou? Are we all in the Atroo Grou on FanNation dot com?”
After a brief pause, everyone began to confirm that fact. What had once been a silent room had erupted with chatter and excitement. The Atroo was finally meeting in person. Everyone stood up to introduce themselves. Ben, the one who had spoken up, immediately looked for Mike and Cooz, who were talking with Bigalke, the third adult of the bunch. A definite sight to see was DJ’s so-called “ginger fro.” It was as big as advertised, and its sheer volume boggled the minds of many. Mac was bombarded with requests for a leprechaun jig, but he respectfully declined. Coletrain demanded his yearbook from chrono, who avoided the question by going to talk to Cava about scholastic bowl. Cheez told the others about the mishap that had just occurred, earning some ridicule and from the others. Goat and Ravens chatted, being the youngest members of the gang, while Wallace and Esco continued their feud about the superior Big 10 university. Irish and Lifer were there, as were Leech, SS, Erwin, League, Hiya, and Eagle. From opposite sides of the room, Nomar’s and Cardsox’s eyes met. They moved off to the side, and sat down, gazing into each other’s eyes.
It was like a class reunion, though the “class” had never been together in person. Perhaps a “class union” was a better term to describe it.
The excitement continued until everyone noticed a man standing in the doorway. Dressed in a black suit and wearing sunglasses, he stood motionless. The Atrooians took their seats as the man in the black suit walked toward the center of the room. He spoke quietly and precisely:
“Now that you’re acquainted, we can get to work.”