The town of Syrrus was quiet, still. There were the usual background noises of automobiles, which came few in stock, as well as the sounds of people chattering on the wind, but it was a mere background hum to my ears, which had heard true loud noises. They had heard the scream of severely wounded soldiers, the metallic clang of steel-on-steel when enemy Battle-Bots clashed with our own, and the sounds of the rapid booms of gunfire and cannons consuming all other sound. I felt like a veteran, and though I was no longer a newbie soldier, I was not trained enough to call myself a veteran with honesty yet. But I still saw the peaceful life in the glimpses when we had temporary relief from duty, and it seemed a foreign and alien world that I no longer belonged to. It was a world that I had left behind so long ago, and I did not want to return to it.
I watched a small bird land atop a wooden post, and recalled a bluejay I had seen on the way to the very first Nebelheim Military base I had been to. I was a child still then, an innocent boy who had yet to hold and fire a gun, who had yet to snuff out lives. As the tiny finch chirped to me, I laughed, remembering how green I had been back then. I had picked up "green" as a term the older soldiers like Ace used to describe the new soldiers. I had been with the Nebelheim Military long enough to be justified in calling those soldiers "green" with the older boys, but I never used it in a cruel way. We all used it in more of an endearing way. We remembered what it had been like to be like that.
That Ted was the Ted that was easily shocked at how the battles had changed him. I had adequate time between then and now - a year - to become better adjusted with the changes that would take place in my body as it transferred itself from having a schoolboy's build to being that of a proud soldier. My shoulders had filled out a little bit more, just a little, and my thin arms had become ropy with muscle. Even my pale skin had become slightly sun-kissed, and that served to outline my muscles more. Kain, King, and I had all been avid about working out ever since we were introduced to the special gym rented out to Nebelheim soldiers in Syrrus. There, I had become a familiar friend to the treadmill and elliptical, the bench press and the leg press, but my oldest and dearest friend in that gym had become the chinning bar, which had always been my favorite. Callan, John, and Hilbert did join us, but they were not as passionate about it as we were and did not spend as much time in there as we.
Callan had grown more interested in something else, another room that was instead lent out to a branch of the Nebelheim Archery Academy. I had been pleasantly surprised when he told me he was signing up for archery classes, and I fully supported the new hobby. It was so like Callan, he had told me he found it far funner than the "boring machines" I so liked to spend time with. I grinned. Callan and I were so different, but the same in many ways, and nothing could keep us from being inseparable...even our conflicting interests. Callan had found a friend in Hilbert this way, as the small boy seemed to have the same appreciation for archery that Callan had, and the two often laughed at us as we headed into the gym in our workout clothes while they were in their black archery academy uniforms with the crossed bow and arrow on the insignia on the breast, a bow and a quiver over their shoulders.
Kain was even more muscular than ever. He had already had a good lead on me when we had first met, and he was still ahead of me now, then again I suppose his height contributed to it. Malcolm King, too, had a more muscular build than I, but I was no longer shrimpy and weak. I had grown strong and powerful. It had become clear in all of us, even the half of us that spent only an hour in the gym instead of two or three a day. It had become apparent when Callan and Hilbert were in archery. I could remember watching Callan's intent gaze as he scrutinized the target ahead of him, the muscles in his arm stretching taut as he took aim and fired, piercing the very center of the target. His teacher, Mr. Mallory, was extremely proud of him, and considered Callan as his prize student in the art of archery.
I whistled to the tiny finch and scooped out a generous amount of bird feed and held it in my hand, and the tiny bird tweeted merrily and flew over to rest on my wrist as it began to gratefully peck the little speckles of bird food from my hand. When he'd had his fill, he took flight again, off into a tree, and I smiled after him, scattering the remainder on the cobblestone road. No cars were here, it was a tiny sidestreet for pedestrians only that led between apartments, so scarcely a person came through here that was not a resident or a guest.
I began to walk back to the main road, where I could find the tiny street named Kalpert that led to the apartments that my group and I had rented out. As I passed by, many people beamed at me and little kids wanted to stop to talk to me, hug me, shake my hand, give me a high-five...as I was a soldier and all. I crouched down beside them and told them how we were going to beat the enemy - the Kilmjacs - badly, and how we would protect them, and I often carried some Nebelheim Military Jr. stickers in my left pocket to give to the kids on such an occasion; it was good revenue for the project, which was where families with kids could do things to fund the military, and the kids got special prizes and such by mail for great contributions. And while many little kids loved to ask about my scar, which they found "cool", they also loved to look at my medal, which I kept with me at all times.
I had recently been given a Medal of Courage by Kozen, and I was proud of it, and I was sure my mother would be if she had followed military newspapers, but somewhere in my heart I knew she did not, that the absence of Callan and I leaving and the memory of it would only sadden her.
I noticed someone waiting for me, then grinned. It was Violet, the friend of Tayler’s that had deflated my ego a year ago. We had since become friends, at least, though I was still very much attracted to her. She was just the most beautiful girl that I think I’d ever seen, and she was smart too. I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander over her soft black hair. I smiled.
“Hey Violet, looking good as always.” I said slyly. She rolled her eyes at me, but continued to walk with me as I headed to the apartment that some of the guys and I had. I was content to do just this, to merely walk with her. I knew Callan often spent a lot of time with Tayler, looking around the museum she had an apprenticeship at.
I opened the door of the apartment when we came to it. The entrances were all indoors, right inside a building. Right when you walked in, there were two doors that led to apartments and a set of stairs. It was up these stairs that the apartment I lived in was, right to the left.
Inside I found Callan and Tayler sitting at the oak table. Kain and John sat at the other end of the table, listening intently to the radio. We had bought a portable radio the very moment we headed into town, as it was important to know what was going on while we were trapped in our own world of guns and Battle-Bots.
I walked over to the radio, for I noticed Kain and John had crouched very close to it. John sat up and looked at me, a bit worried.
“What is it?” I asked John. In all the year we’d been here, there was such little activity from our enemy, the Kilmjacs. Ever since the last battle, we hadn’t seen much of them. Kozen always told us to never get too comfortable though, and his eyes blazed like fire when he said he knew they were only biding their time.
“Kilmjac activity over by Nightlock Ridge. That’ll be our call.” John said.
“It’s ‘bout time we got some action, mate.” Kain said, lifting his head up away from the portable radio. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, like many of us did these days. The Nebelheim jackets were used less and less as we had acquired new belongings. I currently favored a letterman jacket, while John had picked up a jean jacket to wear on outings. No one ever forgot I was a soldier. I had my scar to thank for that.
“So we’re going out to duty again?” I asked to John, who had leaned back towards the radio. I could hear the military man on the radio calling out the names of squadrons to report back to base. Underwing Red 38, Underwing Green 84...
“Underwing Blue 59! That’s us! Report at the Western Outskirts bus stop tomorrow morning!” John cried. Callan had been following the conversation and he now looked apologetically at Tayler. I turned to look at Violet.
“I guess I won’t be seeing you for a while.” I said. There was a strange look on her face, and the whole atmosphere felt dampened by this revelation. The smiles were gone.
“Just promise me you won’t get killed.” she said. I turned my head away for a moment.
“I can’t promise that.” I said quietly, and as I did, the imagery of smoke and falling soldiers entered my mind. That could be me, I thought.
Then Violet hugged me. It caught me totally off guard and was something very unlike her to do. Perhaps she’d seen the look in my eyes or the question in them of whether I would be alive or not the next time she saw me. But I knew she was in fact, concerned about me, and I felt rather touched. I hugged her back, knowing it might be the only chance I ever get to do so.
With that, she left the apartment without saying another word to me. I felt a bit hurt, because I knew that she and I had become friends now and the fact that I might die upset her. I saw Tayler leave behind her and I knew that they would not be the only ones upset. All of us that lived in this apartment had talked about what we had sacrificed in joining the military. While the war was going on, there would be no school for us. No going out with friends. No settling down and starting a family.
But someday Violet, when this war is over, you and I can start a family together, I thought as I looked at the door she had passed through only moments ago. I was young, and didn’t have much experience with love, but I just had a feeling inside that she and I were supposed to do just that together, to love one another and raise a family. I was positive she was the one for me.
We told the others when they got home, and everyone was in a glum mood, save for Ace. He took one look at the gloomy lot of us, and frowned.
“Guys, it’s not the end of the world!” Ace cried. “Look, I got us a bottle of Dragon-spit for tonight!” And indeed he had, for he pulled out a bottle of smooth-looking amber-gold liquid. Kain hastened to get some glasses for us to drink from, and Ace doled out the Dragon-spit.
“Are we allowed to drink this?” I asked.
“Eh, you’re a year under the requirement, but what the hell?” Ace said, smirking.
I smelled the liquid first, and was surprised. It had a smell like citrus and vanilla, and I immediately took to it. I raised the glass to my lips. The Dragon-spit was cool in my mouth and refreshing, but after it went down my throat, I began to understand why it was called “Dragon-spit” to begin with, for my throat began to have a burning sensation in it that actually was rather enjoyable. It left a sweet taste in my mouth when I exhaled, like cream soda.
I watched down the table as we all took our turn drinking it, laughing at the faces the others made when it was their turn to take a sip. Ace left for a while and soon brought back his fiancee, and we all gaped when we saw her, because of her stomach.
"Pregnant, Ace?" Callan asked. Ace nodded fervently.
"A boy." he said, proudly. "Kid should be coming any day now."
"Wow Ace, congratulations!" I cried.
"Thanks kiddo. I'm going to be the first dad in Blue 23." he said, grinning. We moved over to give him and his fiancee our best wishes, congratulating them. I would never forget the overjoyed look on his face when he said that, his handsome face alive with wonder and joy, his thick black hair looking windswept. I would never forget the time we spent just talking to each other that night, nor the laughter we shared. It was the last fun night we would have.
The next morning, we headed out to the bus stop on the western outskirts of town. Three dozen other soldiers met us there, and we were dressed in our uniforms. No one brought their normal clothes. They wouldn’t be needed out here.
The big black military trucks showed up as usual, and we clambered into them together. I felt like I was heading to my doom getting in, but I knew this was the path I had gone down. This was the choice I had made. Back home, I had decided that I wanted to be a major part of the war effort. It just felt strange getting a summons after a year had gone by.
I watched as the truck turned down the dirt road I recognized as the way to the Delta base. It was here where we had undergone rigorous training, and been allowed to take certain courses to determine what roles we would serve in the military. We were required to take at least two courses of our choosing. I had chosen firstly to take a hand-to-hand combat course, as well as a sharpshooting and sniping course to improve my shot. It was while taking those courses that I had decided to enroll myself in the command course, after Kozen kept hinting to me that I had the natural leadership abilities to gain a lot from it. I was now certified to lead soldiers of my rank or lower on recon missions.
I was surprised when it was me that Kozen approached first when we reached the Delta base. He moved towards me, a purposeful stride that told me we had an upcoming mission, and I stood, trying to appear tall and strong. Kozen looked up at me.
“You’re under orders to lead Blue 59 and Blue 23 on a recon mission by Nightlock Ridge.” he said. I gaped.
“You want me to head that mission?” I asked, a little shocked that Kozen was going to put my skills to the test so early on.
“Is there a problem you have with accepting this mission, soldier?” Kozen asked. I shook my head.
“Not at all, sir.” I replied.
"Good." he said smoothly, and he pulled me aside to show me the details. I would have a few soldiers from both Blue 59 and Blue 23, and they happened to all be soldiers I was familiar with; ones I had either worked and practiced with, or had just spent down time with. We would work our way through Nightlock Ridge, avoiding the fields and keeping to the woods if we could help it, scouting out a group of Kilmjacs a civilian had apparently seen in the area. We were to report back to Delta once we had more intel.
I walked out of the room, and found both regiments staring at me.
"Callan Alborn, Kain Murdock, Malcolm King, Hilbert Hinterher, John Davies, Ace Atkins, LT Tiernan, Lane Easton, Ivan Temoc, and Johnathan Drake. You are to accompany me on this mission." I said. The group of soldiers I had named stepped out from the group, looking around at one another.
With a flick of my hand, I had them following me. We were suiting up and grabbing our guns and equipment. There would be a camp set up a few miles south from Nightlock, in case anything went wrong and we needed to head to a more well-equipped area.
We headed out of Delta and into a set of black trucks that would take us into Nightlock camp, where we would continue the journey on foot, so as to avoid suspicion. I was lucky of who I had been provided with. Callan and King had taken up tracking courses, and I was pretty sure Lane had as well, so I knew I had a good team of men with me. Johnathan was an experienced sniper as well. My small force could easily overtake another our size, we were so well-built. Nothing could possibly go wrong, I thought.
We spent very little time in Nightlock camp, merely checking in with some soldiers to relay the message from Kozen about our mission. They saluted us and we headed south, right into a field full of beautiful green grass. The field seemed to stretch on for miles, but a small stretch of forest began on one side of it, and I pointed this out to them, to convey this is the direction we would head in.
"It sure is nice here. Wouldn't mind dying in a place like this." Ace remarked as we trudged through the field and towards the beginning of the forest. King and Callan had their eyes on the ground, looking for any signs of land that had recently been trodden upon, scouring the grass for every bit of evidence that the enemy had passed through here.
"Sure is." Lane chirped. He was a cheerful soldier around my height, with short hair that was thick and dark. He was respectful in all ways, and he never showed the slightest bit of insubordination to his commanders.
"If you like botany." Ivan Temoc added. He had a darker complexion than I and stood slightly taller, also with short-cropped dark hair. He was one of the older, more sarcastic fellows I had trained with. Ivan's contribution to our small force was his knowledge. He had read a dozen military strategy books, and knew how to carry out all kinds of plans.
We reached the trees without anything to report, but almost immediately, Callan picked up some old tracks and we all got excited. At least someone had been creeping around here. We eventually broke off the tracks a bit to stop and eat, and by the time we were back on them, night was falling.
There was always something about the night that made one fearful of his surroundings. Every bump in the night was once a monster to me, but now, it was an armed enemy, ready to end my life. Every shadow cast could have been an unknown soldier ready to strike us dead.
The tracks eventually got wishy-washy, and we were forced to break the group up. I decided that each tracker would bring a man with him, and the remainder of the force would stay put and hide, to serve as backup in case one of the pairs was ambushed. This idea seemed to be approved by everyone, so I began to break us up. I partnered Hilbert and Callan up, then partnered John with Lane, LT with King, and I was to go with Ace. We split up, heading in the same direction but at different angles.
After moments of walking and not hearing the others, I knew we were a decent distance apart from one another. The night became more intimidating, and I could see Ace scrutinizing the path ahead. I would not admit it until much later, but I was very shaky as I trudged along, and I stayed very close to him. Something inside me was building. It burned like the Dragon-spit going down my throat, but it was not a pleasant sort of burning.
What happened next caught us by surprise.
There was a sound of something from above. I was knocked to the ground as something hit me. A man in brown got on top of me and brought out a knife and I thought for sure that I was dead. I saw the menace in his eyes, a cold sort of look, like he was trying to detect fear in my eyes and relish in it before he drove that cold wedge of steel he held into my chest.
Someone pulled him off me and brutally slammed his helmet into the man's abdomen. The man let out a cry, and the figure, who I now recognized as Ace, held out a hand and helped me up. I was about to thank him, when another soldier came up out of nowhere, knife in his hand, and drove it into Ace's chest.
"NO!" I shouted, and I threw myself at the man, reaching for the hunting knife on my belt, frantically pulling it off of my belt. Mechanically, my arm brought the knife up and drove it down into the enemy's chest, and I stabbed a few times until I was sure he would not get back up. I straightened up to confront the other soldier, who must have been younger and less experienced, for he fled. For a moment I was empowered to chase after him and make sure that he never got back to wherever he was going, but I heard a noise behind me and turned around.
"Ace!" I cried, running over to crouch at his side. He had fallen over and I now saw a dark red stain spreading on the chest of his uniform. A great fear rose in me. I had to help him.
"Somebody! HELP!" I began yelling. I turned my flashlight on and waved the beam of it in the air, gun drawn just in case I attracted unwanted guests. Someone came crashing through the brush and I pointed my gun.
"It's just John!" the figure yelled, and I eased my weapon. John ran over, followed by Lane, and they noticed what was wrong as soon as they saw Ace on the ground. John got to him first.
"Oh my god..." John cried out, voice trembling. He turned to Lane.
"The flare, Lane, shoot it!" he yelled. Lane dutifully pulled a flare out and I turned my eyes to Ace, who was breathing irregularly. He coughed up blood. John immediately turned him so he was laying supine on the ground, rather than prone.
"He'll drown in his own blood if we leave him that way." John explained. Lane shot the flare and I watched it, red and forbidding in the sky.
The others joined us in what had to have been two minutes tops because they had all sprinted over here.
"Callan! I need you!" I yelled. Callan had taken a medical course at Delta. Callan crouched down to examine the wound while a gunshot echoed through the area. Kain had shot the man I'd stabbed. Callan tapped on my shoulder and pulled me away from Ace for a moment.
"Ted, I've looked at the wound and there's nothing we can do for Ace. His internal organs are severely damaged. If we had advanced medical equipment, we'd still have a very slim chance of saving him." Callan said, keeping his head down the whole time as though guilty, like him telling me this made it impossible to save Ace.
"No, no Callan there's got to be-" I began, but Callan merely shook his head. A tear rolled down his cheek.
"Dammit Callan, he's going to be a dad! He can't die!" I cried, and the last words came out weak, because at that very moment, I had lost my calm and the tears I had been restricting ran freely down my cheeks, the wind stinging my cheeks with its icy kiss. I moved over to Ace, whose eyes met mine.
"The...field." Ace coughed weakly when our eyes met, and I instantly knew what he wanted.
"Kain, pick him up." I said. Kain moved over, trying to keep his head down so I couldn't see his tears. I immediately turned to LT and Hilbert.
"I want you two to go back. Run to Nightlock camp and tell them what's happened and have them back out here. Callan, King, Ivan, Lane go follow that other guy's tracks. They should be fresh. John...come with me." I said. John nodded, and he and Kain followed me out into the field.
We walked until we were way out in the midst of the field. I signaled for Kain to let Ace down. Kain set Ace down gently, with care. I took Ace from him, holding him up so we could look at him.
"We're here, Ace. We're in the field." I said. He looked at me then, and he smiled, and the smile sent every hair on the back of my neck alight. It was the smile of someone who knew death was coming and was no longer afraid, the look of someone who had already accepted it.
"Ted...look at me." he coughed, and I immediately looked right into his eyes and he was satisfied that I had. His hand gripped the knife weakly, and knowing what it was he wanted, I took the knife and pulled it out of him as gently as I could. My breath came in choking gasps as I struggled to keep myself from breaking down fully as I looked at him. Kain gently removed his helmet, letting his tangle of black hair be released. The wind tousled it gently.
"Do you....know why I-I....picked the field?" Ace asked me. I shook my head gently, never breaking eye contact with him. He smiled a bit more as he looked at me, and I could tell that what he had to say was extremely important
"I picked it...because there is life...here. In all this killing...you begin to forget...what really matters. Even in war...there will always...be life...always. Your sun you look at so much...Ted...think of it that way. If we have it....we have life...no matter how...how small. You just...just can't let that...that fire out." he said, then he stared at me, even more intently. "Never lose your light...Ted. Without it...there is no life. Never lose your-"
As he was saying "your", his face suddenly fell solemn, and I watched the light leave his eyes, and the spark of life that was always there went out. It took a moment for this to sink in, and my hand immediately wandered to his neck, feeling for a pulse. It was John who pulled my arm back gently.
"Ted...he's...he's gone." John said, lowering his face, tears falling freely.
"No...no!" I cried out, and I shook Ace gently, but he felt cold and stiff in my arms, devoid of all the life and warmth he embodied, I studied his face for a moment, studied his eyes, and I could see him in my mind's eye, smiling at me. That handsome sly grin he so often made, and never again would he make it for us. The teasing but playful tone his voice held, no longer to be heard again. It all sunk in at once.
"Nooooooo!" I cried out, letting myself drop beside him, my face resting in the cold shoulder of my dead friend. The man who had taught me so many things in the past year, the man who cheered me up when I was down, the man I considered a friend...a brother...gone. My heart shattered in that instant.
More sounds, cries, came from me, but I hardly recognized them as mine. I only knew they were mine because they were coming out of my throat, which felt like it was closing more and more each second. The tears had run down my face and fallen onto Ace's from before, and as I rose, I could see one rolling down his cold cheek as though it had been his own. Memories of Ace, his voice, his laughter, his grin, all surged through me and brought wave after wave of tears to my eyes, and my eyes. I could feel Kain trying his best to support me as John reached over and closed Ace's eyes, but I let myself fall in the dark grass, spent, and as I continued to cry, it seemed as though time had stopped and it grew silent. Silence for Ace, and then nothing.