When duty calls, and danger’s near,
And those with numbers will prevail,
Forgotten ones are brought to light,
And forced to tread the treacherous trail.
A drop of wetness fell suddenly from above, finding rest upon his cheek with a quiet slap. Others came, far apart, striking his face with annoying patters until he squirmed to escape. Aric lay on a cold dirt floor, his skin filthy and smeared brown and his garments hardened with mud and crusting. None of these details were visible, for the room in which he lay was so dark and lonely that one would question if he’d gone blind. His eyes, anyway, were shut.
He felt groggy and weak, his muscles unable to bid him rise or even to simply open his eyes. It was as though his lids had been sewn shut, unwilling to part no matter how much effort he asserted. It was only a few seconds that he was awake before his weariness became too much to resist.
He vanished back into sleep.
When, again, he came to, Aric mustered the strength to prop himself up against the chilled stone wall at his head. His eyes, he believed, were open, but he couldn’t be sure. Nothing changed as he blinked. The room reeked of feces and misery: partly his own endowment but clearly the primary product of others before him. He was in “The Pit,” as they called it. How long he’d been there, he had no clue. He had no recollection of waking prior, although, in fact, there’d been several small bouts, brain-dead as they were. Just enough to eat the waste they tossed to him, and then it was back to unconsciousness, if he’d even really left it in the first place.
This was the second time he’d ever been tranquilized, and it was by far the worst. He wondered if his body tissues were saturated with the chemicals after the first time, increasing the effect it had on him the next time around. It was a theory, but it wasn’t going to do much for his splitting headache and piss-soaked pants. With much effort—and the wall’s support—he managed to stand with wobbly knees.
Aric reached his arms out, his fingers spread like antennae, his boots shuffling through the dirt in search of the opposite wall. When he felt the rough surface graze his fingertips, he flattened his palms upon its face and spun to lean his back against it. From where he now stood, he noticed a minute hole up toward where he expected the ceiling to be. It was small—maybe one inch across—and the light that entered was barely able to penetrate the room’s thick darkness before dying in the fight. The tiny outlet seemed out of place, as if a prisoner—or many—had worked on boring it through with some kind of tool.
The light from beyond revealed a small ledge where the wall jutted slightly inward. Instinctively, he wanted to get up there and peer through the hole, but he wasn’t sure if he could reach the ledge. He moved to the base of the wall and jumped with stretched arms, but the ridge was at least a foot or so out of reach. Again, he shuffled through the dirt toward the opposite side of the room, this time counting his steps to approximate the distance he had to work with. It was 20 feet or so, he guessed: just enough to allow him a few strides to gain some speed.
With a deep sigh of reckless abandon, he ran blindly toward the far wall. In fear of smashing face first, he jumped a bit prematurely and let his toe lead. When his foot struck the coarse surface, he used that brief moment of contact and friction to push himself higher. His fingers barely grabbed hold the ledge, the strength of his furthest knuckles holding his weight as his feet pumped furiously to help. After some moments of struggle, Aric managed to get his palms flat against the top of the ridge and pull himself up until his elbows locked and his straight arms supported him like pillars.
The surface was hardly big enough for the length of hands and far too small to sit upon, so he stayed as he was, with his back muscles straining and his chest tense against the rocky face. The hole sat just at eye level, the sun’s light blinding him momentarily as his pupils fought to contract from their dilated night setting. Almost instantly upon gaining the ledge, the sound of flying aircrafts and distant voices assailed his ears. The commotion, he could tell, was out of the ordinary.
Fresh air sifted in from outside, alerting him to just how muggy and malodorous it was within. He forced his nostrils to the hole and inhaled deeply, savoring the purity only to amplify his displeasure in returning to the inside musk. Through the opening, he could see very little: just the side of a distant building and some men in uniform sprinting by every now and then. He took a few more breaths and dropped back down to sit and rest his muscles.
After a minute, the jangle of keys caught his attention, and the click of one within a lock brought him back to his feet. The blackness parted with a screech as the heavy metal door to his left swung open with a burst of sunlight. A man’s silhouette stood tall within the entrance, unidentifiable with the light at his back and only darkness about his front. Aric winced with an open hand about his brow to shield himself from the painful glare.
“Get out here, you lazy bastard,” the man commanded. Aric recognized Sergeant Mauler’s voice and rushed quickly to the doorway. The sergeant backed out and allowed him to pass. He glared with angry eyes. “How’d you like your stay, Private?”
“Sir, I don’t remember, sir,” Aric replied. Even though he’d only had a single lesson, he still remembered how to address the man.
Mauler grinned at his obedience. “That’s good, soldier. Consider yourself lucky. The Pit’s not a place you want to remember. It seems that even an entire week in there hasn’t affected you too badly.” Aric’s eyes grew wide in surprise. “That’s right, soldier. One whole week, you were in there. You were gonna be sent back to prison, but some new developments have come up and we’re going to need every man we can get. I know you’ve received no training, and the others have had very little, but we know you have a history of gun violence, and we figured you’re capable of doing the same for your freedom. Heck, if anything, we just need another body to throw in the frontline to block the bullets from the real soldiers. You understand, don’t you?”
Aric squirmed at the imagery. “Sir, yes, sir.”
“Good. In fact, I nearly forgot I’d thrown your miserable ass in here. You’re lucky that wimpy friend of yours spoke up on your behalf or you’d be stuck in this dark hole screaming for help until your body ate itself to death. This camp is gonna be a ghost town within the hour. We’re all being called to duty ASAP.”
“Sir, what’s happened, sir?”
“Walk with me, Private,” Mauler ordered.
The two of them stepped out into the camp, away from the single-room structure in which Aric had just resided. The sky was clear and the air dry, a cool northern breeze sweeping his skin and taking with it the heat of the sun’s blistering touch.
They walked in unison as the sergeant spoke, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes straight ahead. “The Calrians have begun the first battle of the war. They’re currently laying siege to Fraq’s central base in the North, and our Commander in Chief wants our teeth in their asses while their forces are held up there. We’re going to attack one of their smaller bases in the Southeast while they’re not expecting it, and this will give us a nice foothold in the South to begin taking their bases out one-at-a-time. It should be a quick and easy deal. We’re sending in nearly 3,000 of our men at once, so we anticipate almost immediate retreat or surrender. Those tiny little assholes won’t know what to do.”
“I see,” Aric said. He decided to cut the “sir” bullshit and see how the sergeant took it. The man said nothing. “So what are we doing now, then?”
“Well, I’m going to go over to that side of camp where the ships are waiting. Once they’re filled, they’re leaving for Centrum. You, on the other hand, will walk into that building right there and tell the man behind the counter that you need weapons and uniform. Then, you’re to peel yourself out of those piss-drenched clothes and suit up. Come and find me when you’re finished. You’ve got 10 minutes, and if I don’t see you within that time, I’m going to come looking for you.” Mauler’s eyes cut him like blades. “Trust me, soldier, you won’t want me to do that.”
“Yes, sir, I understand.”
“Good. Then go, and be quick about it.” The sergeant gave his parting command and began to walk to the far side of the camp.
Aric stood only for a few moments to watch him leave and then rushed anxiously through the doors of the armory. The others had already come and left, so the place was empty. Perfect. No line.
Aric stepped up to the empty counter and rang the silver bell on its corner. No one came, so he rang the bell again and waited. He glanced at the clock. His time was wasting away. A minute passed, and eventually, a short, portly man with a curly head of hair, glasses, and the beginnings of a mustache appeared from behind the shelves in the back room. He coughed into a fist and placed his hands on the edge of the counter to lean in, nonchalantly. His clothes smelled strongly of androweed, and from his mouth, the stinging aroma of hard liquor discharged with his words. “What can I do you for, soldier?”
“Sergeant Mauler sent me here to get my gear,” Aric said. “I need a uniform and a weapon.”
“Ain’t you got a uniform and a weapon already, son?”
“No, I don’t. I’ve been locked up in The Pit ever since I got here. The sergeant just came and released me a few minutes ago.”
“Now you sure about that?” the man asked, his voice thick with skepticism.
Aric was getting annoyed. “Yes, I’m sure about that. Could you please just get me my uniform and weapon? Mauler’s gonna kick my ass if I don’t meet him at the airships in eight minutes.”
The man stared at Aric for a moment, attempting to judge the validity of his words by the look in his eyes. “Okay,” he finally said. “Just give me a moment.” He disappeared into the back and returned a minute later with a green duffel bag that he shoved across the countertop. “Here you are, soldier. I’ve put your uniform and gear in the bag, along with a standard M4-K12 assault rifle, a Lexington semi-automatic pistol, a tactical knife, and an assload of extra clips and ammo. In the side pouches, you’ll find your grenades.
“The round ones are fragmentation grenades, the tall, skinny ones are smoke grenades, and the short, fat ones are tear gas. You have three frags and two of each of the others. That’s all your basics right there . . . except for a flak jacket. You’ve come in a bit too late, and there’s no more in the back.” Aric recoiled, his face full with apprehension. The man noticed. “But don’t worry, kid. I’m sure they’ll have one for you before you ever see any fighting.”
Aric nodded hesitantly and grabbed the bag from the counter, nearly dropping it with its unexpected weight. “Thanks,” he said, swinging the strap around his shoulder and heading toward the door.
“Try not to drop that bag, kid,” the man yelled after him. “That’s probably not the safest thing to be throwing around.”
Aric imagined the bag exploding at his feet from a misfiring grenade, sending his legs across the room to leave him sprawled in red misfortune. “Yeah . . . I won’t.”
“Oh, and kid?”
“Good luck. Stay safe out there. I want all that stuff back in one piece, you hear?”
Aric turned and the two met eyes for some time. The man didn’t know him, but he genuinely cared for his wellbeing. It was nice, but also unsettling. There was a hint of doubt in the man’s eyes. He knew he would never see those weapons again. He knew he would never see this young soldier’s face again. These were things he knew but tried to ignore. Aric nodded a silent “thank you” and exited the building.
He stepped lively to the nearest barracks, his new lifeline dangling from his shoulders and bouncing off his waist. Upon entry, he set the bag onto a cot and spread the articles of his uniform across its surface. It took him only a minute to displace his sordid clothing and suit up in his red camouflage outfit complete with rugged brown boots and a belt of grenade clips with a waist pack attached on the side. He left his weapons in the bag, which he zipped and threw over his shoulder again before glancing at the clock and reeling in panic. He had only three minutes to get to Mauler’s side.
He sprinted through the camp with clouds of dust kicking up behind him. By the time he reached the sergeant, he knew he was late but pretended otherwise.
“Good to see you looking like a real soldier, Private,” Mauler said. Aric smiled through heavy breaths of exhaustion. “I’ve been holding the fleet up just for you. I believe everyone else is already here.”
Aric looked around at the scattered aircraft. There were nearly two dozen of them, all exactly the same save for the names painted on the sides of their bodies: Sky Cutter, Star Chaser, Screaming Death-bringer, and such. Ahead and to his right, he spotted a line of soldiers filing into the back of a ship called Firepower and Brimstone. David was one of them, barely recognizable in his military uniform and his dark sunglasses. Aric wanted to wave and get his attention, let him know that he was all right and released from The Pit thanks to his help. He didn’t try, though. His friend never looked over before disappearing into the craft’s interior.
“So what airship should I be joining, sir?” Aric asked. “I saw some familiar faces loading into Firepower and Brimstone over there.”
“No, that ship’s at capacity. They all are, actually, except for this one right here.” He pointed to the closest craft, which sat with its back hatch propped open at them and its engines spinning dust in spirals on the ground beneath it. “It’s called Lucky Stars, so maybe you’ll absorb some of its luck during the trip. Vigilance and skill are your best bets for staying alive out there, but a little luck can’t hurt. Go ahead and board now.”
“Okay. Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, soldier. Enjoy the journey over there. I’ll see you on the ground in a few days. Good luck.”
Once again with the good luck. Aric was getting a bit worried. If everyone believed he was going to need luck to survive, what exactly did that imply about his level of preparedness or the degree of danger he was about to drop into. He accepted the blessings, though. Even crossed his fingers and hoped that it would give him some kind of advantage. If not, he knew he had at least one thing going for him: his freedom to fight for and the thought of his daughter urging him on. He had everything to gain, and that made him a very dangerous opponent.
Aric cast a stern salute to his commanding officer and marched over to the open back of Lucky Stars. Inside, the air was hot and moist with the vapor of sweat and the sultry gases of nervous expiration. The voices and laughter resonated in the haze, but the fear hung heavier than these phony gestures of distraction. These men were afraid of what lay ahead, just as he was, and their facades of indifference could not nearly contain the dark energy of that emotion.
Aric strapped himself into the only available seat and slipped a smile on his face like all the others. It was time to pretend that he was cool and collected, that his mind was not consumed by thoughts of pain and death, that he was inhumanly resistant to the implications of their sudden call to arms. The room became louder with his voice and his laughs, now, but the fear in the air—invisible but oh-so palpable—grew even more drastically.
“Get us on the ground! Get us on the ground, now!”
The voice of their ship’s commanding officer boomed frantically from the cockpit of the craft where he yelled at the pilot as if his words would make things move more quickly. Aric swayed violently in his seat as the ship banked sideways, swooping and ducking acrobatically above the Centrumian forest. They were a couple miles out from the Calrian base, and they hadn’t retained the element of surprise as hoped. Aric looked out the window to his right where the anti-aircraft missiles screamed past in blurs of light, leaving tails of dusky smoke lingering in the air like fissures cracking the world apart.
Each moment, he knew, could be his last. His heart galloped within his chest as he watched, helplessly, the projectiles soar by. Other ships in their fleet took hits, pieces of their structures exploding away with crushing impact, the sights preceding the uproarious thunder of their resounding. Potent incendiaries burst from within the shells, engulfing their targets in flames that drove them sharply from the sky like meteors ablaze.
The turbulent bluster of machine gun fire consumed the cabin as their ship gained range and began to fire down upon their attackers. An abrupt explosion boomed low and loud as they launched missiles of their own at the enemy artillery. The strings of smoke began to thin in the air as the aggressors slowed their assault, Calrian soldiers falling to the unforgiving gunfire from above and their stores of ammunition dwindling all the same.
“Take us down there,” the officer commanded.
Aric looked to the ground where the woodland opened out into a field of tanned orange grass. They were flying only a couple hundred feet above the treetops: close enough that the thrust of their propellers brought waves amongst the sea of leaves and branches.
In minutes, the landing skids of their craft were pressed within Centrumian soil and lost amongst a jumble of foot-long weeds. The remaining ships of their fleet littered the clearing, their backs open and disgorging camouflaged bodies amongst the field.
Lucky Stars, too, released its warriors to join the massing army. Aric capped off the line that exited the safety of its walls, his duffel bag now empty at the foot of his seat and his hands and belt equipped with all its former contents. He was decked out in combat gear and deadly weaponry, feeling so powerful that he didn’t notice the nakedness in his lacking body armor. Ranks of soldiers lined the area with rifles held before their beating chests. Beneath their helmets they hid their fright, locked from eyes by hardened steel and peeling paint. Tall and proud, each group assembled and took orders from their own team sergeant.
The sun hovered high in sky, filtering through cirrus clouds and casting light without warmth. The air was clean and refreshing, and Aric inhaled through his nose, relishing the aroma of pine and grass before it was marred with the stench of death. The din of distant gunfire caused an anxious sway amongst the men, its insinuations inflaming haste in their officers’ words.
“Damn it, there’s no time for talking,” Sergeant Mauler suddenly hollered above all others. “At least five of our ships crash landed in that forest. We’ve got men stranded out there with probable injuries and no support. It’s time to move! Our primary objective at this point is to recover our men and secure this forest. Once we’ve done that, we will rally our numbers and overwhelm the Calrian base. For now, take your teams and find those downed airships.”
Aric scanned the crowd for David, but he failed to find him before the army began to swarm the tree line in an angry stampede. He took off after the rush, breaking through a wall of reeds like the doorway to another realm. Once beneath the canopy, the air grew oppressive with wetness and heat. Every surface he could see—ground, tree trunk, stone or log—was swathed in an untamed rash of cherry foliage. It was unlike any woodland he had ever encountered; it was a rainforest.
The sweat instantly beaded beneath the lip of his helmet and across his entire body, his clothes sticking distressfully to his skin and tugging against his movements. It was too humid for the perspiration to evaporate, so it clung to him in a layer of discomfort.
The soldiers before him moved in direct paths, but he felt the need to veer away from the others and head right through the forest where a slight smog tinted the air between the trees. His eyes were wide and vision acute, wary of movement if ever it came. The sounds of his teammates’ footsteps perished at his back, and gradually, his solitude increased as he trampled over the forest floor of decaying leaves, and plants, and sticks. The farther he ran, the thicker the smog grew, its scent soon strongly evident of burning fuel.
Aric halted swiftly at a sudden movement in the treetops, dropping down to a knee behind a mossy log and pointing the barrel of his rifle at the area of suspect. He peered through the scope at the top of his gun, finger on the trigger in preparation to pull. After some careful searching, he managed to make out a primate nestled in a tree with its feet on a thick branch and a hand gripping a vine above. It stared at him without movement, unsure as to what animal he was and what danger he posed. Aric met eyes with it for but a moment before standing again and continuing onward.
The trees stretched on in all directions until blending, at length, to a pale red haze. Eventually, a wafting cloud of smoke materialized in the near distance. Aric slowed his pace to a cautious gait and moved behind cover of tree to tree. The smell, at such proximity, was no longer one of burning fuel but rather a pungent concoction of singed hair and cooking meat. He gagged in disgust and began to inhale through his mouth alone.
As he approached, he recognized the ship as one of their own, burning on one side with a column of smoke twisting furiously in the rising fumes. Scorching wood and metal crackled and popped loudly amidst the roar of the inferno. As he protruded his face from behind a thick trunk, the intense heat stung his nose and cheeks, permitting him only fleeting glances of the scene. There was no one around, as far as he could see, but he waited and watched just to be sure. The time gave him chance to look beyond the cover of smoke where the ship’s name loomed, half-burning, in the flames: Firepower and B . . . .
His stomach turned. His head felt, instantly, as a grape squeezed between two fingers. “David!” he yelled, bursting from behind his cover in full sprint. A figure arose from behind the craft to investigate the sound, and Aric barely had time to identify the man and throw himself to the ground before the bullets came at him in whistling flight. As he fell, his finger pulled reflexively on the trigger of his rifle, pumping lead from the barrel and kicking the gun against his shoulder with trembling force.
A stream of bullets escaped and found their mark in the Calrian’s small body, sending him to his back with a cry and a thud. Oh my God, Aric thought to himself, his heart playing drums within his head. He’s so small. I’ve killed a fucking child.
In seconds, Aric could hear the shuffle of feet—at least two pairs—kicking through leaves to save their fallen comrade. He rolled to his right and placed his torso against the exterior of the ship where he wouldn’t be seen until the enemies passed over their friend’s corpse and broke around to that side in chase. Flames licked at his heels only inches away, the radiance of their figures making the outsoles of his boots soft.
He waited with his barrel aimed at the ship’s far edge, and when two men crept around in low crouch—their guns ready and eyes looking in all the wrong places—he blasted them away. When they collapsed and did not move, Aric lay still and tried to calm his nerves, waiting for evidence of any other presence. His breaths were hectic and loud, bombarding his ears as they hissed past his rifle’s form. When no one else arose, he jumped to his feet and hunched over as he approached the fallen bodies strewn lifeless in the bleeding leaves.
Now that he was closer, Aric could see the aged faces of his victims and the blatant fact that these were not children but full-grown men. They were strangers to him, and now they were dead strangers by his own hand. Somehow, despite all the qualms he had had coming into battle and his worries that he wouldn’t be able to kill someone that he didn’t know deserved it, he had found it relatively easy to pull that trigger in the moment. The decision was actually quite uncomplicated and promptly made without even his conscious thought. It was instinctual and raw. It was his own will to survive, and knowing the action had been made at such an innate, automatic level, it was very hard to find sadness and regret in it.
In fact, at that moment, staring down at the unmoving bodies of the men that had just wished him dead, he felt exhilarated and free. He felt liberated from the moral restraints of his civilized humanity and empowered by the natural drives that made him prevail. It was these inherent forces that, because of their operation, now gave his lungs breath and his heart pulse. He grew angry that his life had been threatened—enraged in fact—and kicked the nearest corpse with a firm boot to the head.
Aric jumped back with a scream as the dead man reached out in response and grabbed hold of his foot with a powerful grip. The soldier twisted at his ankle, trying with all his dying strength to harm him as much as possible. Aric, startled and furious, unloaded a short burst of fire into the man’s face. Instantly, the fingers loosened from his ankle and fell limply to the ground where the blood was emptying from the exit wounds at the back of his skull.
“Damn, these are some tough little bastards,” he muttered.
Just in case, he examined the other two bodies to make sure they were in fact dead. One had taken two shots to the chest. Aric prodded him with the barrel of his rifle, and when the corpse didn’t react in any way, he shifted gaze to analyze the last one. This one was more of a sure thing, a large bleeding hole burrowing straight through his right eye.
Aric stood for a few more seconds looking down at the bodies, unsure what to do next. Suddenly, he snapped out of his trance and remembered David and the burning ship at his back. “What the hell am I doing?” he mumbled, turning to the open rear of Firepower and Brimstone and ascending into the cloudy cabin as he inhaled a deep breath and held it.
In the smoke, he could barely make out the dead soldiers still strapped in about the room. He moved face-to-face with each one, passing from one body to the next in search of his friend. He came across some empty seats and grew hopeful that David was one of those survivors, but as he neared the final soldier and shed the layers of smoke that stood between them, that hope died. The fire burning to his left cast flickering light upon his friend’s soft features, its image reflecting in a smear of blood that stained David’s forehead where a piece of debris had fatally struck. Aric lost his breath and coughed profusely as the smoke flooded his lungs on inhalation. He wouldn’t have long to mourn.
David’s helmet sat lopsided on his wounded head, a large mural of a yellow face smiling back at Aric despite its painter’s dire state. Through tears and pain, Aric released a feeble laugh—just a single “ha”—at David’s rebellious act of vandalism on his own uniform. Maybe he’d hoped the smile would distract his enemies or gain their favor long enough for him to flee a deadly encounter. Then again, maybe he was just trying to bring a glimmer of light into a thing as dark and wicked as war. Either way, he’d never been allowed the chance to use it. None of the men in that ship had been allowed a chance to use what they had to survive. They’d been killed without warning and without escape, and neither their helmets, nor their body armor, nor their weapons and training had lent them any aid.
All Aric could do was thank his Lucky Stars that he wasn’t strapped into that burning cabin as well.
He slammed the sooty metal wall with an irate fist and stood to absorb the injustice of his fellow soldiers’ executions. After a short time of grief—very short, for he could no longer breathe and was growing lightheaded—he emerged from the craft with rifle in hand and a fuming expression as hot as the fire behind him. He fiddled to button his undone jacket and straightened the smiling helmet he now wore upon his head.
He was ready for some vengeance. He was ready to shed the skin of his old, conservative self and release the barbarous inborn beast that would ensure, at any cost, his survival over the coming days. The heat of the flames shrank behind him, the trees flying by at the speed of his sprint. Gunfire echoed from the distant forest, and he changed his course to join in the fray. His legs pumped with a purpose and a new passion for spilling Calrian blood. His hands, he’d make certain, would be coated in it by the time the sun fell behind the trees at dusk.