I dedicate this book to courage;
may it find you when you need it most
I guess it was inevitable. Looking back on it now, there was no way we could have avoided the third world war. Some nations starved in poverty while others were vying for power - the only solution was violence. It wasn't long before the government called for conscripts; one from each family. I was the only one of age - dad was too old, Katie was too young, and mum… well mum was long dead.
The trucks came round the whole country, stopping at each house until one family member was surrendered. Exceptions were made for the old, young, ill, insane, etc. but otherwise you were made to go - kicking and screaming if necessary. I didn't scream. I didn't kick. I just left. I hugged my family and walked to the truck before being pulled up into the back and given a seat. Nobody was allowed to bring any belongings; any items found on you were confiscated as contraband. It was like being taken to prison, except we knew that prison would be safer right now - convicts were another exception to the conscription. Most of us sat silently in these cattle trucks watching the floor, others were crying, one even tried to escape, but in the end we were all herded to a large training camp somewhere within the countryside. It was here that we were assigned our khaki uniforms and our orders.
Anyone able to fight right away was sent somewhere else; probably the front lines. As for us fresh young recruits, they eased us in, teaching us tactics and basic skills in a classroom environment, but soon we were made to do physical drills, and we would eventually get weapons. A few of the recruits were almost excited at the thought of taking on the enemy - avenging lost family and friends was a potent motive - but most of us weren't so keen. The war had already been going on for six months, and we were losing to the Federation - we nicknamed them 'feds' for short. The Allied Block, as we were known, was a last ditch attempt to keep the Federation out, but the feds were well financed and had been conscripting long before we had; in short they had better guns and more people to wield them.
I knew that part of the Allies' problem was a lack of officers, and because of my high grades at school I thought I had a chance of being taken into officer's training. The training would mean I got more pay which I could send home for Katie and dad to buy supplies as rationing hit - plus it would keep me away from the front for a few more months while I received my extra training. Lots of people applied for the same reasons. I wasn't surprised to get a rejection when they realised I was only seventeen - 'nobody's gonna take orders from a kid' they had said. So I stayed in the barracks with the rest of the privates waiting to be called to the fight.
All the recruits used to tune into the television every night and huddle round it before bed. Each night there was a report on the war; it was all upbeat, but we knew that was all for show. Reporters would gleefully describe how we'd gained a town here and there, but when a plane full of bodies or wounded was flown back from the front it was obvious that any gains were costly. The wounded that did return would even tell us that for every town we gained, that same territory would only be lost days later. But despite the lies we heard from the reporters, it was nice to know we were still in the fight.
A week before we were due to start weapons training we were huddled by the television as usual, and the evening news report had just signed off. That was when I heard the whispering…
"…they say it's some kind of special assignment. Apparently they're going to take some recruits out of here to take part in it. Frankie said it was for a propaganda campaign, you know, to rally the people back home."
"You really think they'll keep us back? They're not just sending us to the front early?"
"Seems that way. Duncan said that some people have already been taken out of some other camps, and they weren't told to take weapons."
"How do you get in?"
"No clue. But if a list goes up I'll sign us both up, yeah?"
… Whatever this special assignment was, people wanted in. They wanted it bad.
Our weapons training arrived all too quickly for me; not that I was afraid to use a gun - given the choice I'd rather know how to defend myself than not. The real problem with it was that it signalled the coming of our launch into combat. Truth be told, I wasn't too bad at weapons handling; I scored highly in accuracy and weapon assembly, but in the practice combat sessions I was lost. We were divided into two groups of ten, and each group was placed at one end of an arena. The arena was made to look like a ransacked village, but it held a post in the centre, and it was our objective to capture and hold that position before the other team managed it. The only difference from a real battle was that our bullets were made of paint. But in almost every session I would leave looking like a form of abstract art - orange splodges blotted all over my khaki uniform, having not fired a single shot myself. I was bad. I couldn't seem to avoid the hail of bullets that came at me, and even in places of cover I would end up being pinned down by heavy fire. Sometimes my team would leave me as a rear guard to keep me out of their way, but I could tell that my instructor was less than impressed with my performance, particularly my failure to shoot anything. After our eighth attempt at the arena, the instructor - the half woman half Bulldog, Sergeant Temple - called me out.
"Ranger!" She roared, using my surname in true military style. "You're not to participate in this exercise. Report to captain Newman immediately."
"Yes, maam." I replied with a curt salute.
She turned her attention back to the arena as soon as I had finished, and I took that to be my cue to leave. My inaptitude for the practice arena was clearly a problem, and now I was going to have to explain why I was so pathetic to our captain. I wouldn't be kicked out - that was too much to hope for - I would probably be reassigned as a communications recruit in our unit; which meant I'd still be thrown into the fight, I'd just have a map and a radio instead of a gun. I trudged to the captain's office, dragging my boots in the mud, not caring how the captain would react to my lack of respect for uniform. The captain's office was inside the officer's building, where they slept and worked all day - recruits only got tents to stay in, so I'd never been to the officer's building before. It was a concrete blob on the outside, with its windows covered by shutters - so nobody could spy in on anything - and a thick black door manned with a guard.
I did my best to look confident as I strode up to the guard and said "Aaren Ranger to see captain Newman" in my best robotic military voice.
He smirked at my feeble attempt at looking mature. "You been bad?"
I wasn't in a good mood, and so I was surprised when this comment made me smile. I suppressed the twitch of my lips as soon as I could, but he'd certainly noticed.
"It's okay to laugh; I'm not going to report you for anything."
I believed him. He had friendly blue eyes, and he only seemed to be in his mid-twenties, not like the old surly veterans that ran the camp. "It's good to finally find someone who's not so…"
"regimented?" he chipped in.
He flashed a quick grin. "I've always had a bit of rebellion in me. Now, where did you say you were headed?"
"Captain Newman." I sighed.
"Why so gloomy?"
I considered telling him to butt out, but as this was the first real conversation I'd had in weeks I didn't want to wreck it. "It's because of my training. I'm… well, let's just say the arena is getting the better of me."
"Don't worry about it, Newman's not too bad. Come on, I'll show you in."
He slipped the door open and ushered me inside. The concrete exterior was continued inside, but a ragged blue carpet attempted to cover the floor, and there were propaganda posters splashed over the bleak walls. The hallway I was in was lined with wooden doors which I knew held offices and quarters. The upper floor was supposed to be reserved for an officer's club where the more privileged soldiers could relax, but I knew I wouldn't be allowed up there. The guard took the lead at this point, guiding me to a door at the far end of the hall. He knocked on the door for me, and we waited in eerie silence. I could feel my heat beat through my chest, and it was getting faster by the second. I was about to face my fate. The door snapped open, and a middle aged man with pale skin and cropped black hair faced us.
"Aaren Ranger reporting, sir," I said in response to his inquisitive stare.
He snapped his attention to the guard now. "You delivered her Johnson?"
"Yes, sir," the guard replied, snapping to attention immediately.
"You've done your job, now get back to your post." After dismissing the guard, the captain swept back into his office, gesturing for me to follow.
I almost laughed when Johnson dropped his statue like stance, but managed to pass it off as a cough. Still, Johnson flashed me a wink as I passed into the dark office, and that helped to ease my nerves a little. I flicked the door closed behind me, and stationed myself in front of the desk at which the captain now sat. He was quiet for a while, shuffling through the piles of paper on his desk. I took the time to admire his office, spotting some familiar propaganda posters on the walls, each featuring happy recruits and catchy slogans. The rest of the room was bland, save for a small light that dimly lit the captain's desk, and the battered wooden desk itself.
I snapped my attention back to the captain as he spoke. "Private," he said, addressing me by rank in proper military fashion, "You've been reassigned."
I froze. This was it. I was doomed. My heart wasn't beating fast anymore, in fact I think it stopped all together. I was going to die on the front lines, peppered with bullets rather than orange paint.
He gave me a short glance before pulling out a sheet of paper and reading it aloud; "Says here you've been requested for a special operation."
I caught my breath. The mysterious assignment had completely slipped my mind over the last few days. I struggled to believe that it was true; I was escaping my death sentence, and being transferred. I struggled to hold back a smile. Once I had regained my composure I asked, "What does this special operation involve, sir?"
"Classified. I don't know, and if I did, I couldn't say. All I know is that you've been selected and that you have to report to administration within half an hour. Your orders are to leave all your belongings here. I will inform your instructors that you have left, so there is no need for you to report to them again, understood?"
"Good. Now get out." He finished, ignoring me in favour of a pile of documents that he was skimming through.
I ripped the door open, practically flying through it and out of the concrete container into the fading sunlight. Huge breaths of fresh air flooded my lungs and I felt every cell in my being tingle with relief.
"Good news?" Johnson asked, snapping me from my dreamlike state. Clearly he hadn't missed my smile.
I beamed at him. "Something like that."
That's when I noticed his face. He was young, which made the frown lines strikingly obvious. "You got picked right?" He asked it softly, but I knew he wasn't happy.
"How did you know?" I probed.
He forced a smile. "Two more guys were here before you, they said they got reassigned to the operation. You're all getting out of here."
"I know," I replied shortly, "but what's making you so grumpy?"
Johnson avoided my eyes as he spoke. "Just that… a lot of other people would kill to be in your shoes."
"Nobody even knows what the hell this assignment is!" I retorted, angry at losing the one cheerful person I'd found in the camp.
He shrugged, keeping his eyes on the ground. "It's away from here. Isn't that enough?"
Something in me jolted. I was sure that the look on his face was the same one I was wearing just a few minutes ago. The look of someone who knew they were doomed - after all everyone else was still going to war even if I wasn't. My rage melted into guilt. "I'm sorry." I said, barely getting above a whisper.
He looked up at me now, his forced smile returning "Don't be. Damn it, you should be happy. I'm just being… a bit of an ass really. Now, you go… and take care of yourself." His real smile surfaced for a second.
"You too." I replied, giving a quick wave before I ran off in search of the administration tent.
I skidded to a stop before I reached the tent, bending double to catch my breath. There were two others assembled outside the tent already; both were boys not much older than me - I assumed these were the ones Johnson said were being reassigned too. One was lean and the other well built. They seemed to know each other as they were already deep in conversation. I stayed a few steps back in fear of seeming rude. The night was drawing in quickly and I could felt he icy air close round me like a fist. I wrapped my arms around myself, and kept my sleeves over my hands for warmth. I couldn't help but listen to the conversation going on beside me.
"… I thought he was kidding. I mean, come on, one week from weapon handling, then we'd be off to war. But no, the captain swoops in like our God damn fairy Godmother, waves his wand and sends us off for special training. Think about it Dwayne, we're basically saved. Even if we do finish this special training before the war ends, they're not just going to throw us into the fight again, nah, we'll get the good missions and stuff."
"I hope you're right, but I wouldn't bet on it. The way this war is going, they're gonna rush us to the front first chance they get."
"Still, it's worth a gamble."
"You got that right. I wouldn't mind a bit of extra training either, might just give me one up on those bastards on the other side."
"Damn straight. You know…"
He never finished his sentence. It took me a moment to realise why. The air around us was ferocious now, as a drop ship stooped overhead; it's huge propulsion system keeping it floating above us. I'd only ever seen these ships at a distance as they took troops off to war; up close it was huge. Before I could make out all the details of this ship through the darkness, its underbelly clanked open, lowering a platform from the hole in its hull. It reached the ground after a few seconds, and I took this as an unspoken instruction to board, after all this ship was clearly meant for us. The two boys were already on the platform, and it was getting ready to ascend again when I realised I wasn't on it.
"Hey, get your ass over here" called the lean boy whose name I still didn't know.
I ignored his aggressive tone - you get used to that sort of talk in these places - and ran for the platform, jumping on to it as it began to rise. We were suspended on a thin metal sheet, held up by only four metal wires - one at each corner. I didn't dare think about how high we were.
"Relax wouldya, this thing is solid" growled the well built boy, Dwayne.
I realised I was huddled close to them for safety, and my body was paralysed. I immediately tried a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the ground racing away from us. Thankfully it wasn't long before we were being pulled through the hatch under the drop ship. We came up to the deck before the panel was winched back into place and clamped down to fill the hole in the floor. This drop ship was open at the top, leaving us at the mercy of the night air once again. At the front of the ship was the sealed pilot cabin - armour plated for intense combat scenarios - I found myself hoping we'd spend our journey in there where it was bound to be warm. When we arrived, a stocky old man with wisps of white hair and a thick beard was awaiting our arrival. "Identify," he croaked gruffly, his speech thick with a foreign accent. "Private Aiden Fell, 7665" the lean boy replied, quoting his serial number robotically. "Private Dwayne Cross, 7664" said the other, confirming my suspicion that they knew each other - their serial numbers proved they'd been signed up together. "Private Aaren Ranger, 7813" I said, trying to keep my voice as flat as possible to mimic the tone the others had used. "Get y'selves strapped in quick," he instructed in his coarse voice. Before I knew what was happening he was pulling a radio from his pocket and giving orders over the intercom "all onboard, kick this thing into high gear, boy." I realised I was in danger of missing the boat again, so I dived into one of the seats which encircled the deck. I had only just figured how to fix the buckles together when we lurched into motion.
The boys were sat opposite me, resuming their conversation as if nothing had happened. I wasn't surprised by their behaviour - in military camps you find people who take things in their stride easily. Sadly, I was not one of those people. I was so stunned by how quickly I was leaving behind the camp that I nearly found myself missing it. But then I realised that the hundred or so recruits - which were rapidly fading into the distance - would be off to war in a few weeks, and then they'd be dead. I wasn't leaving any friends behind; those who had been taken from my town with me were as good as strangers to me, and the friends I'd had at school had all been left at home, with their older brothers or sisters taking up the conscription call instead. I guessed Johnson was the sort of person I'd miss, but only having known him five minutes hardly qualified him as a friend. Still, there was a pang of regret in my gut that told me that all those I had trained with were soon going to be another platoon of corpses being flown back in several pieces. Any wish to return to the camp was now eradicated from my mind.
The night air whipped by us all through our journey, yet neither the boys nor the stout man on board with us seemed bothered. Unlike them I was frozen solid; even with my body huddled together for warmth I could feel my bones ache with chills. Nobody seemed to notice my discomfort, and even if they did they retained the true military mentality of ignoring this non-fatal issue.
After an eternity of whisking through the frozen night, the ship began to slow. When we finally stopped I unbuckled myself and waited for the stocky man to operate the platform to take us down. But when I looked over to where the man had been sat he was gone. I glanced to the boys. Both were on the deck, slumped over and lifeless. I ducked, expecting we were under fire. And then I felt a sting in my neck. My head slammed into the deck as I blacked out.
My war was about to begin.