The sun was rising in the sky quickly, and it was becoming hot. Rather than wear our uniforms, we were in choice clothing for the weather. I was wearing a white undershirt and black shorts.
My party was sitting outside one of the tents together, talking about the battle we had just been in.
"Oi, that was some fight." Kain, who wasn't wearing a shirt at all, said.
"Tell me about it." Callan mumbled. He was wearing an undershirt like how I was.
"I got knocked out." I muttered.
"Knocked out? Hah, some poor idiot probably clocked you while waving their gun around." Ace chuckled darkly. Ace, like Kain, had decided to go without his shirt.
"That was nothing. They didn't even use loads of bombs and all." Kain said.
"How many of their raids have you been through?" I asked.
"Well...they started when I was little..." Kain started.
Kain was a strong young man for his age. More muscular than a lot of boys. His hair was messy and dark, his body built strong because had enough muscle to his frame. He was kind of tall, taller than most of his new friends. He had the same blue eyes as some of his new companions, though his were perhaps just a touch lighter.
The explosions that had made their way into his life started when he was younger. His family had been killed in one of the first bomb raids.
He had been playing hide-and-seek with his older brother, and had decided to break his mother and father's biggest rule, to never go down in the basement. He was a mischievous child, with little to no regard for rules. Not that he purposefully tried to break rules, but they meant very little to him. So he had run down the stairs to the basement, grinning impishly. His brother would never find him here, so he would win for sure. He managed to fit himself in a cabinet and waited.
Suddenly, something happened. There was a loud boom, and everything shook. At first Kain didn't quite understand. Was it only some really strong fireworks? They continued, and something inside of Kain told him to stay put. He couldn't even recall how long it lasted. When they seemed to have finally ended, he climbed out of the cupboard and made for the door leading upstairs.
As soon as he touched the doorknob, it was fiery hot, and he backed away from it. He clambered onto an old desk on the other end of the room and managed to open the window, which was level with the ground outdoors. He stretched his arms out, his small fingers finding and clasping the edge of the window frame. He pulled himself up and out of the basement.
The first thing little Kain felt was the heat. It was unbearable. Then the smoke came, making it terribly hard for the young boy to breathe. Without even looking at the house, Kain scrambled away on his hands and knees towards the tree near the fence that separated his home from the Mr. Woodman’s home. In his young mind, the tree was a safe place. It was always the “safe zone” during tag, and it was always the place he retreated to on a hot summer’s day. Little did he know what little protection the tree would really offer, but rather, what protection he would find there.
Just as he reached what he thought was shade, Mr. Woodman noticed him from over the fence. The man acted quickly, picking the little boy up. Kain struggled, but the fight went out of him in seconds as another wave of smoke surrounded them, making Kain cough. Mr. Woodman dashed to his bomb shelter. A somewhat paranoid man, Mr. Woodman had a secure bomb shelter constructed beneath his backyard.
Mr. Woodman brought the little Kain into the shelter, putting the boy down near his wife, who was weeping over the chaos and destruction. The next day, the Woodmans discovered the entire area of the city had been ruined. But worst of all, two hundred lives were lost. And among them, Kain’s family.
Kain was barely old enough to go to school, and he was already alone in the world.
I listened intently until Kain was finished. I walked over to him and clapped him on the back softly, in an almost affectionate sort of way. When he almost leaned into the contact, I put my arm around his shoulders and sat with him. LT stepped forward and began to tell his story next.
His mother died in an automobile accident when he was very little. His father got caught for trying to steal a police Battle-Bot and assault the officer in one shot. His dad was still in prison, and has been for a long while already. LT’s older brothers supported the family. One older brother went to join the military. He never came back.
LT had done factory work and paper routes in order to get enough money for food, clothes and other necessities. At the old factory he had worked at, he was pleased because the factory had an on-site barracks for workers. To LT, it was essentially free housing. It provided him with a warm place to sleep at night.
Then, when LT feared losing his factory job, he had enlisted in the military. He had gotten on the train we had met on at the stop just before Callan and I’s.
It was Ace’s turn next. He told us about how his dad died serving in the military, and his mother died of some illness when he was eleven. At age thirteen he had enlisted himself. Since the death of his friend Ryan at the Battle of the Bloody Field, he had lost all of the original friends he had made. But now he had us, at least.
Callan explained our side for us, and I was glad. I didn’t want to have to think about home enough to explain everything about my past to everyone. Hilbert’s turn came and he merely turned away and wouldn’t speak, so no one even bothered to ask him.
Malcolm stood before us.
“I think it’s about time I told someone. Get it off of my chest, you know.” he said. He stood up, rubbing his forehead before pacing nervously.
“I lived a fairly normal life. But...I decided to join the military out of repentance.” he said.
“Repentance? For what?” I asked.
“Well...” he started, looking away from us. “It’s a long story.”
“We got the time.” Kain said, looking interested.
“All right.” he said. “Then I’ll tell.”
“I was minding my own business, going home from school one day, when this guy attacks me with a gun.” Malcolm says.
“This story has a lovely start already.” Callan whispered to me.
“I was trying to not really do him a lot of damage, just get the gun away from him and report him to the authorities. In the struggle, I grabbed the gun, and he almost pounced on me. I was struggling to get out from under him. I was so scared, I thought for sure I was going to die, you know. While we struggled, it accidentally fired twice.
I suddenly fall still under him, because I’m just so tired. I figured if he was going to kill me, well he got me. But then I realized he wasn’t moving. I feel something wet and warm on my chest and I push him off of me. It’s then that I realize that I accidentally shot him in the struggle.
I was so shocked and just...scared. I never killed anyone before. Never wanted to harm anyone. And here was this guy that was dead, and I’d done it. I killed him. I remember I picked up the gun and threw it. And I just fell to my knees and started crying.
Then I realized something wasn't right. I wasn't the only person crying. I look up and...”
Malcolm trailed off, a veil of sorrow falling over his eyes. Whatever it was that had happened next must have really rattled him, right to his very core.
“I see that the gun...when it fired two shots...one hit the guy that attacked me.” Malcolm began, taking a deep breath. “The other shot...hit this little kid nearby.
He was just a boy, just a little schoolboy. I was so scared, I didn't know what to do. I panicked, and while I was panicking...he died.
There was this canal nearby, and it had these barrels carrying goods all the time. I found an empty barrel and I put the guy and the kid in it. I used water from the canal to wash away the blood on the ground. As for my shirt, I took it off and burned it. I just didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t mean to shoot either of them...”
Malcolm refused to speak any further.
Suddenly, the sirens in camp were going off. I saw soldiers around me hurriedly grabbing guns or changing into their uniforms. I quickly leaped to my feet and had my shorts off in an instant, practically leaping into my uniform pants and grabbing my jacket up and buttoning it. I could see a hurriedly dressed Kain linger in my view. Fortunately we’d had our boots on that day, as little changing was needed. Kain turns to face me and I unbutton his jacket upon seeing it lopsided and rebutton it correctly while he corrects a button or two on my own jacket. I toss my peaked cap onto my cot, not wanting it ruined by the stampeding soldiers, and I grab my helmet. My black uniform lay forgotten, and I knew it was mostly for wearing in public or on formal occasions. The uniforms we fought in were camo, and they came with a helmet.
I put my helmet on and secured it, grabbing guns with the others before marching out to the field. I have no idea where anyone else is, except Kain, whose arm continually brushes against mine as the swarm of us march out to meet the enemy. I don’t mind a bit, and am actually quite relieved to have a constant companion in the midst of the turmoil. The enemy looms in silence. We glare back through the heat. There is a tense silence, and someone from their side fires a shot, and the air is suddenly full with the sound of gunshots.
We run forward, screaming. I crouch for a moment and take aim at the nearest soldier I can see, downing him on the spot. The man beside me is shot and I let out another yell, firing into their numbers. There's smoke from the gunpowder everywhere. The gunshots head our way, and Kain and I throw ourselves into a nearby ditch, using the ground as cover.
The ground suddenly begins to shake and someone falls into the ditch beside me. I notice that it's Callan, soot on his face. He had thrown himself down with us to avoid some danger. He really looked darker than normal due to all that dirt, and that was how I had not recognized him at first glance, but I could hardly say his skin had become dirty when I noticed the swarthiness of my own; my hand was as far from pale as it had ever been.
The abrasive ditch had protected us from whatever it was, and when I looked up, I saw. We had been narrowly missed by a cannon ball that had hit a battle bot, which then combusted. The flaming remains of charred metal were near us, as well as a sick smell of something melting, which had engendered the quake we'd felt mere moments ago. I noticed Callan had tucked his face in his shirt, trying to avoid as much of the fumes as he could, and I followed suit, getting Kain to join me in doing so. We climbed, no stumbled out of the ditch, away from the blighted machinery and the fear around us was finally something tangible, though we each saw it differently. A mass of battle-bots in the distance were mere harbingers of the dread that followed.
I stumbled, and felt Callan help me keep going. We were moving away from the thick smoke, and I had no time to worry about anyone other than Callan and Kain; they were all I could see right now.
Suddenly, it felt as though my lungs were on fire, and I stumbled and fell to my knees, coughing and retching, trying to get that warm, itchy, ashy feeling out of my throat, which seemed to be restricting. Callan had noticed and knocked me out of the path of gunfire in the nick of time and yelled something to Kain as a bullet whizzed by. Kain came over and helped Callan carry me. I didn't know why they were risking themselves to carry me somewhere, and next thing I knew, I was being thrown into a ditch.
My first thought was that Callan and Kain were going to leave me here, maybe to die. Maybe I had been shot without even knowing and they knew I was beyond saving; fear was surrounding me in a chokehold and I could barely even feel my body hitting the dirt. But I felt the thump of bodies beside me and I knew we were taking cover again. Kain straightened up, muscles tensing, gun in his hands, and he was firing out into the masses, hoping to fell more enemies. Callan leaned over me, towards my ear so he could say something.
"Are you okay?" he asked. I put my hands around my neck to express my difficulty breathing.
Cal knew just what to do. He reached in his pocket and pulled out an inhaler. I was surprised he had one on him, but I remember he had told us that he was going to bring as many small medical supply items as possible, and fortunately an inhaler was part of that small stock.
He put the inhaler to my lips and I opened my mouth, letting him give me a spray, and the feeling was so wonderful and relieving, and I felt strangely at peace, enshrouded in the ditch with my brother and one of my best friends, still alive, their hearts still beating. And that gave me hope. Kain obdurately fired at the masses, more determined than ever to strike a devastating blow, and the the things he shouted at them were coated in his haughtiness, the haughtiness of giving a young man a gun and making him fight for the lives of his friends. There was a moment that was full of tedium, but it was over as the earth shook again, even nearer to us than the blast from the last one. I could immediately hear Kain and Callan yell, and we rolled further into the ditch, narrowly avoiding being crushed by something. A fallen battle bot had almost landed right on us. The falling bot had tempered Kain's firing frenzy, and Callan shepherded me out through to a clear patch of sky, he and Kain at my heels.
We crawled out into the smoke, and I felt a tug on my shirt. I cringed, expecting to be stabbed, but only saw Kain and Callan, and we ran with one another to another ditch, me barely avoiding being pulverized by the foot of a battle bot that passed by us. We came to a large ridge and crossed over it, and we dropped into another small trench here, using our arms to bolster us enough to peer out of it tentatively. There came an acrid odor of smoke and blood, and the ground nearby was littered with fallen bodies. The smell debilitated us for a moment, and I could tell we were all trying our hardest not to eject the last meal we had eaten, but we were strangely accustomed to the smell within a minute, and the hindrance of its presence became nonexistent and obsolete.
We appreciated this brief hiatus from the fight, but weren't cowardly enough to hide in the ditch the entire time, and in moments the three of us were peeking out of it again, firing at anyone our bullets could reach that wore enemy colors. The battle seemed languid in compared the quick start it had gotten off on, and as I shot, my mind wandered. Was this, I wondered, the degeneration of man? To kill one another in cold blood and do so without hesitation or regard for life? But we weren't fighting for money or for ourselves or for glory. We fought with honor, participated in this deadly game because we needed to protect our families and defend our country. If a phoenix is of flame and born from the ashes, then I figured man could very well be born from those same ashes. At least, it felt like Callan, Kain, and I were being born again here; born into men. This fight was more intense than the last, where the enemy had supposedly fled after a few minutes. This battle had the elements both working for and against us. The burning machines created a sweltering atmosphere and deadly fumes played a part in strangling some men long enough to be shot. But nature worked for us with the trenches, which were protecting us from some of the hazards that lingered among us. I felt practically hidebound as these thoughts occurred to me and repeated themselves in my mind, ever unyielding.
There was something else about lying there, beaten in a ditch. I would have cast aside all notions of hope if I didn't have Callan and Kain there with me; their presences were therapeutic. A timorous and ponderous silence then came, and we peeked out and saw that the enemy was gone, and judging by our country's flag raising over the smoke, we had won. But by that point we had physically exhausted ourselves and just lay in the ditch with one another and fell asleep.