As we walked, there was a sort of gloominess that occupied the town and its people. We were receiving sad looks from what people that had bothered to show themselves. Did they know how their police force had crumbled? Did they know we were going to risk our lives, that we were ready to die to protect them?
The station was packed. Soldiers were getting into groups and leaving the station by the truckload as the big black military-issue trucks pulled up to pick up more and more soldiers. When ours finally came, our party piled in together. The truck started with a jolt and careened down the street. We were packed in fairly tight, but not squished.
We looked around. The streets were now filling a bit as people came to watch us go. I could see scattered families looking for family members lost in the bombing, digging hopelessly through the rubble. I realized that I had been fortunate to know my mother and brothers were safe...for now. Callan and I might be throwing ourselves before death at this moment. But I understood now what made us do it. We knew we had to protect our family. We couldn't just sit there and let classmates and young neighbors enlist alone. I had watched as other young men disappeared in my life. When I was young and working at the factories I had seen young men - no older than seventeen - disappear in a black truck like I had. They were still young, still going to high school, still only on the road to becoming men...and they had gone without a trace to defend us. I had admired that. Now that Callan and I were sixteen, it was our turn.
The truck pulled through the gates of the city and out into a heavily forested area. Birds chattered everywhere, and for once on that truck...I wasn't thinking about the war. Squirrels scampered through the trees and deer peered curiously at us. We went in that direction for a few miles, then the field opened up. I could see buildings. A sign read "Nebelheim National Military - Beta Base". On the sign was a blue jay. I stared at it, feeling oddly mystified. It turned and looked right at me, and I felt calmer and more confident than I ever had in the world. The bird's eyes seem fixed onto mine, and with our gazes locked I felt something added to me that I couldn't quite understand. The blue jay took off in flight and I focused on the road ahead, intense.
The trucks stopped to unload us, and we stumbled out together. There was about eighty of us. I could see rows of military men lined up before us. I could recognize the captains, standing a ways apart from the others. One man beckoned for them to come forward. We were told to split into groups of twenty, leaving four big groups of us. A large muscular man with short-cropped brown hair and a rugged look to him came forward.
"I'm Paul Flint, one of the four captains of the Underwing Unit, which is the group you louts belong to. Each of us captains are going to pick which group of you we want. You all best serve your captains well, or face punishment." he said.
We got to know a bit about the four captains just by looking at them and seeing how they acted. Flint was tall, muscular and durable. He was practically a drill sergeant. David Lark was fair-haired and looked kind. Lee Young had jet-black hair and was tall and quiet, and he also seemed perpetually disinterested. Then there was the last and most different one....Kozen Saikon. Kozen was rather small and looked about eleven years old, but he looked very cold and ruthless for a kid.
The captains chose their groups. Flint passed by our group and many of us let out a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, so did kind looking Lark. I was surprised. Saikon, the smallest male I had seen in the military, had chosen our group.
Our "teams" were given names. Flint's group was the Red team, Lark's was the Green team, Young's was the Yellow team and ours was the Blue team. We were then marched to separate segments of the field, to begin target practice. We were given the field farthest from the barracks, on Kozen's request. We marched past the other training fields. Lark was helping his new soldiers, giving them pointers on how to shoot. Flint was shouting at his soldiers and making them do push-ups for every failure. Young was disinterestedly correcting his new charges.
Kozen was a different story. When someone did something wrong, he explained it to them, but in an almost enthused way. When it came my turn, I got nine out of twelve targets, which seemed to impress him a little. We did obstacle courses, more shooting practice, and even hand-to-hand combat practice. Everyone was doing their hardest...for the most part.
At the end of the day, we headed to the Blue showers. As I showered, an older guy with jet-black hair made his way to me. He was about eighteen, and taller than I was.
"You're one of the newbies, huh?" he asked. He had a brash smile and was almost instinctively likable.
"Yeah." I said.
"Well, tips to give. Make sure none of the other new guys screw up. Or we're all gonna pay for it." he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Has Kozen been glaring at anyone today? Not just a glare here and there, but y'know....boring into the back of their heads with his anger kind of glare?" he asked.
"Yeah...there was a guy earlier who was slacking off when we were lifting weights." I replied.
"We're all so screwed." the guy said. "Watch."
I didn't understand what he meant until we returned to showering. I felt the water in my shower begin to gradually grow colder and colder until it was freezing. I recoiled out of the water, yelping. I thought that mine was malfunctioning until I realized that all around me, other men were doing the same. The dark-haired guy came back over.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"It's Kozen's cold shower treatment. Whenever someone screws up, we get about five minutes of heat to shower in, and about twenty five agonizing minutes of cold showers. That's how Kozen deals with slackers and the defiant." he explained.
"Thanks. Who are you anyways?" I asked.
"Ace Atkins." he said. We shook hands.
I bit down on my lip and continued to shower. The cold water poured over me, making me feel almost numb with cold when I got out of the shower. Eagerly, I changed into a t-shirt and shorts to relax for the night in the bunker.
The next two weeks, not much happened. We trained our very hardest and finally there came a day when we would be out on the battlefield. We changed into our uniforms and got in the same black trucks that had taken us here. Everyone was unnerved. This was our first real battle, something that we couldn't even imagine.
The trucks stopped at a field. From what I'd heard upper rank soldiers say, it was called the "Bloody Field" because of how it looked at sunset. We were given weapons, water, all sorts of things. I was now loaded down with gear I would apparently need for the fight. We marched out on foot, behind the unit of battle bots. I took in a deep breath and waited for the enemy.
They appeared too, clad in brown uniforms. Both sides stopped upon seeing each other, then refused to move. I could feel a great tension building up in me, like someone was pressing down on a spring. I was just waiting for that metaphorical person to release the spring.
It happened in seconds. They yelled and charged, and we responded with a war cry of our own. The sound of shots broke out. I felt the man beside me crumple and fall, the one on my other side shooting back. The battle bots clashed mid-field with a booming metallic clang. I saw Ace, using his gun to pick off soldiers on the other side of the field. It was an overwhelming influx of stimuli. There were too many things going on, too many noises to be heard. Only three things to smell. Fuel from the Battle-bots, gunpowder and blood. Somewhere along the way my helmet, which hadn't been secured properly, fell and was kicked away.
I raised my gun tentatively and fired, mowing down a few men from the other side. A bullet whizzed right past my ear, fortunately missing me. I gasped and returned more fire. I looked around for friends. I couldn't find Ace again. I could see Malcolm for a second, shouting obscenities and returning fire. But he disappeared in the vast crowd. Quite suddenly something hit me on the back of the head. I stumbled, almost fell. I fired rapidly at their ranks, then an overpowering dizziness overcame me and I fell, and everything went black.
I thought I was dead at first. All that existed in my view was a patch of grass right before me. Then someone stepped on my arm and I yelped. The whole world seemed to open up again. Was I dead? No wait...I had just felt pain. I must be alive!
I rolled over onto my back. There was a guy standing over me. He must have stepped on my arm. He was younger than me...he looked about fourteen years old. He seemed concerned.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked.
"Mm....yeah." I said, surprised I was able to speak.
"Sorry for stepping on your arm. I didn't know you were alive...not like I would have stepped on you if you were dead, but it's still kind of hard to navigate." he said, crouching beside me and removing his helmet. He had dark brown hair that appeared to be drenched in sweat, and I became aware of the dampness present in my own hair.
"It's all right." I replied, sitting up. Closer to his level, I could see now that he had navy blue eyes. His eyes were bright though, almost friendly.
"I'm Justin. Justin Linten." he said, standing up.
"Ted Alborn." I replied, standing up and shaking hands with him.
"Look at this..." he said, suddenly sounding depressed. I now saw why.
Bodies lay all around us. Men, boys my age, younger ones. All of them were dead. They had once been alive, active, vibrant. But every trace of that was gone. There was a boy not far from where I had lain. He was only about twelve or so, and he had a familiar face. I processed mentally for a moment, then I recalled where I had seen him. He was the son of Truman, the owner of a grocery store that Callan and I used to buy food at. His eyes were open, but lifeless. I could see now. He was dead.
Wait, where was Callan? In an instant I turned, looking all around me.
"CALLAN!" I yelled, at the top of my lungs.
"Is Callan a friend of yours?" Justin asked.
"No, he's my brother. I need to find him." I said.
"Let's get some help then." Justin said. He whistled and two other guys came running. One looked older than me, maybe nineteen or so with very light blond hair and blue eyes. The other was smaller, about twelve, with hair dyed purple and brown eyes.
"This is Johnathan Drake and Arlen Terpomo." Justin said, gesturing first towards the older guy and then towards the younger.
"Guys, this is Ted Alborn." Justin added, gesturing to me.
"I'm looking for my brother." I said.
"What's his name?" Johnathan asked.
"Callan Alborn." I said.
"He might be one of the live ones. We'll go look. Check all the dog tags if we must." Johnathan said. The two split up and went searching.
I began searching around the bodies near me. I couldn't lose Callan. Not Callan. He was everything to me. Without him, I don't know if I'd have the strength to go on. He was my sole motivator right then. Out here, friends could be made and lost. But Callan would stay true to me no matter what. He was my world and I was his. No one could replace my twin. If I lost him, I was as good as lost myself.
I was halfway into a panic attack when I realized that Justin was calling for me. I took off in his direction.
"I found him!" Justin yelled. He was helping Callan up.
"CAL!" I yelled, running to him.
"TED!" he yelled in reply and we both hugged each other.
"You okay?" I asked him.
"A little shaken, but I'm fine. You?"
"Where are the others?"
As soon as he brought up the question we began to search together. We found Ace tending to his gun not far from us.
"I got a fair amount of bastards. One of them took out my man, Ryan. Rest his soul." Ace said, looking at a young man that lay motionless nearby. He polished his gun again, looking sullen.
"Have you seen the others?" I asked.
"I saw Murdock screaming his head off at the enemy. King too. Both of them were east of my position. And I think the red-headed kid, Tiernan went with Davies and the little guy to the west." he added, spitting out mixed saliva and blood.
"Hinterher?" I asked.
"Hinterher." he confirmed. "The little quiet one that was with your lot."
"Oi! All right there Alborn?!" a voice shouted from behind us. It was Kain Murdock, helping a slightly injured Malcolm limp over.
"Yeah. Yourself?" I asked.
"Just fine." he replied. "That was one hell of a war."
"Say, where's LT, John and Hilbert?" Malcolm asked.
"I don't know where Hilbert'd be." Kain said. "He got separated from the others when I last saw him."
Just then we saw two figures making their way from the wooded area beside the battlefield. It was John and LT, both looking startled.
"You two all right?" Callan asked them.
"Yeah. I didn't know what else to do, so I just bolted over there. And LT followed. I think Hilbert was on our tail for a bit, but he disappeared." John explained.
"So where is he?" Ace asked.
Just as we were about to search, a small figure came running from the wreck of a nearby Battle bot. It was Hilbert.
"You guys have to help me. There's a guy hurt over here." he said, panting.
We rushed over. Indeed, he did need help. He was underneath the Battle-bot, but somehow not completely broken. The arm of it was twisted at an odd angle and stuck into the ground. That angle kept it from crushing him completely. Only his arm was under the Battle-bot. Callan, John, Kain, and Johnathan managed to lift it while Ace and I gingerly removed him from underneath the hulking metallic mass.
I couldn't see his face. He was wearing some kind of mask, which I felt strangely reluctant to move. He was also wearing some heavier sort of uniform, more like armor and jet-black. There was a purple streak down the left arm. Those were our colors. So he was one of our men.
We carried him to the nearest medical tent and let the doctors take him. I went back out and reclaimed my helmet from where it had been kicked, and I picked my gun back up too. The sun was setting, and the field almost glowed red entirely. It was now the Bloody Field for two reasons. The sun was like a descending fireball on the horizon.
As I faced the direction of the sun, I felt the warmth of it on my face like I was being caressed. I had shot people. I had felled others today. But I was lucky. I was alive, and so were my friends. We lost many men but so did the other army. But I felt a small nagging guilt. I had killed people. I had killed other human beings. I felt like a monster. If it hadn't been for Callan and the others, I don't know what I would be thinking or doing right now. Would I be sane after what I had witnessed? Everyone was affected. Kain seemed to be in a sort of shock, eating very little and talking less than he ate. Callan was quiet, more thoughtful than usual. Hilbert looked positively terrified. Ace was sullen and lost his brash smile that I had seen that first day we met. John wasn't being quite as social as usual, he spent a good deal of time thinking on his lonesome. LT just seemed to be in shock, sitting against the wall with his legs pulled in towards his chest and his arms around them. King cursed and spat more, and even ducked away from us for a moment. Perhaps to cry. I could cry right now. In fact, I already was. A single tear was making its way down my cheek. I wanted to be forgiven...forgiven by myself.
My dad had died in this war. He was in one of the first units deployed. I began to wonder how he had died. Had he gone down just like the men and boys that had been around me? These men and boys had families back home. And they were all like mine now. But what or who had killed my father? Maybe he was shot down like the rest....or maybe he was tortured by some captain. I would never know.
At least, that's what I thought.