To set the record straight, I signed up for this. The uniform, the drills, the sleepless nights, I willingly volunteered. I knew my life would end the day I entered the Academy. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.
“Miles Anderson.” The sergeant’s voice gathers like condensation, dripping with liquid power. “Approach.”
As I step forward, I try to hide the trembling of my hands.
“Anderson, reporting as called,” I respond according to custom.
The sergeant eyes me, inspecting my uniform, scrutinizing my face, combing me up and down in search of any…weakness.
I try to take a deep breath, but the tight fit of my government-issued vest makes it impossible to relax. The seconds pass painfully, tiny pinpricks of torment. I can no longer be still. If I don’t speak, I’ll go crazy.
“I am ready to serve in any manner. I’m strong. I’m among the fastest runners. I received top marks in my class. I—” I freeze, the words at the edge of my tongue suddenly feeling cheap and insubstantial.
The sergeant’s eyes have glazed over. He is bored with me. I have failed to impress. Instead of speaking, he waves his hand lazily to the left, the area designated for Squad 156. My last sliver of hope disappears.
Oliver, my blue-eyed brother, is playing down by the stream bank. His unruly hair catches the shifting sunlight as it ripples through the swaying tree branches. He looks so content.
“Miles! Miles, look!” Oliver holds a toy boat he has fashioned from sticks and river grass. There’s even a little sail rising proudly from the center. “I’m going to see if it floats!”
He places the vessel in the water and watches as the sail he has fashioned from forest leaves flips upside down beneath the current. His smile sinks right along with his ship. He snatches the vessel before it can get too far downstream and I see his eyes well with tears.
I’m beside him now, my hand resting on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Oliver. We can fix this. You just need a little more weight at the bottom. What you need is a keel.”
“A keel?” His face scrunches in confusion.
I nod, taking a thick piece of tree bark and wedging it vertically into the bottom of the boat. “Try this.”
I hand him the boat and he places it gently in the water. To his delight, the ship stays afloat this time, the sail pointing straight and true towards the blue of the sky.
We’ve been marching for days now. Crossing the frosty tundra, we navigate a maze of dwarf shrubs and tussock grasses. My feet are raw and blistered. The ear flaps of my hat are frozen outward at an awkward angle, making me feel clownish and ill-prepared despite my Academy uniform. Now that I've been assigned to the Squad, the number 156 is embroidered on the front pocket of my vest. Seems a bit of a waste.
“Company, halt!” The squadron leader’s voice blankets the desolate landscape. He pauses, checking his map and compass. “Just beyond that ridge is the enemy threshold.” He throws his hand in the general direction. “We divide here, striking in three locations. Conrad, your team will go east over the far ridge, Everett, your team west around the moor, and Anderson, you’ll meet them head-on.”
I swallow, trying to calm the lurking terror. I knew it would be me. Ever since the cold eyes of the sergeant, I never had a single doubt.
The recruiter is standing on our porch. I should know, I’d recognize an Academy uniform anywhere. His dark hair is greased back and military hat tucked beneath his arm. My heart is drumming against my ribcage and a cold sweat forms on the back of my neck. I feel nauseous, but I have to open the door.
“Good afternoon.” I nod curtly. “How can I help you?”
“Congratulations, Mr. Anderson.” The recruiter reaches out to shake my hand. “You will be pleased to learn a member of your household has been summoned to the Academy.”
After six years of fearing the worst, the worst has finally come.
“I’ll go get my things.”
I start to turn when the recruiter clears his throat. I turn back, and he looks me up and down, visibly frowning.
“Oh, we’re not here for you, Miles Anderson. We’re here for the boy, your younger brother. According to our records”—the recruiter checks his clipboard—“Oliver has all the qualities the Academy is seeking. The boy has potential to be a great leader one day.”
There’s a twist in my stomach, his words stabbing like a knife. My mouth goes dry and it’s all I can do to muster my next question.
“But he’s so young, Sir. Surely, there’s another option?”
The recruiter shrugs. “Well, there’s always Squad 156, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want that.”
It’s as if my whole world has frozen. All I can hear is the blood rushing in my ears, the pounding of my heart. I look the recruiter dead in the eye. “If I volunteer, you won’t take Oliver?”
He nods. “That’s right. Only one recruit per family.”
Machine gun fire splits the air, tearing the calm into a thousand pellets of molten lead. Distant explosions glow red and white, the sky flashing like sirens. Tick, tick. There’s no escaping. Smoke, gray and pink, furls in billows around my head. I try to make sense of my surroundings, but the ringing in my ears is impossible to escape. I press further into the folds of enemy territory. The destination is just ahead. Enter the gates. I just have to get inside. Tick, tick.
I hurdle a mound of rubble, ducking my head at the onslaught of gunfire that follows. One hundred more steps. An explosion cracks above me and I instantly drop to the ground. Sliding my arms forward, I army crawl several meters through the ash-strewn street. A thick cloud of smoke enshrouds me and I roll to my feet and start to run. Fifty more steps. Tick, tick.
As the smoke clears, I hear the voices of enemy soldiers. Their finest gunmen are tracking me now. What was incredibly dangerous has now become insanity. Tick, tick. An array of bullets shatters the glass of a building behind me. I swear I could hear each bullet spiraling past. Ten steps. I feel the heat from fires sprouting up around me. Beads of sweat drip down my face and neck. Tick, tick. I’m nearly there. Five steps. Tick, tick.
I hurl myself into the gates just as the ticking in my vest runs out to zero.
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