War Without End
YA Military SciFi
‘Behave yourselves,’ Officer Peters said through the grill as he locked the door and headed back to the staff room to play pool, cards or whatever else it was that the screws did after we were locked up for the night.
We’d just finished watching some rubbish on the TV. The good stuff always started after nine o’clock. I hadn’t seen Match of the Day since they’d put me in this hotel for young offenders.
As I made my way back to my bunk, Rushton pushed me in the back. ‘Come on then, Pace. Let’s finish it.’
It had started in the TV room. Sitting behind me, he’d flicked my ear. Once or twice might have been annoying, but the idiot kept doing it even after I’d politely asked him to stop. I’d turned and pushed him so that he fell backwards in his chair and cracked his head on the floor. He’d said to Officer Peters that he’d slipped. He obviously thought it was payback time now.
I wasn’t really in the mood. Rushton was an annoying little nobody who’d been put in here for torching his school – a million quid’s worth of damage. I think he wanted to be King Pin or something. I swivelled and kicked him in the goolies.
As he lay on the floor clutching at his groin and squealing like a pig, we were all stunned by a bright flash and the appearance of an armoured man from nowhere.
‘Which one of you jailbirds is Pace?’ the guy said.
I didn’t step forward, or stick my hand up. Like the rest of the kids, I stared at the robot-like giant with my mouth open. He held a weapon the size of a cannon in his right hand, with a strap over his shoulder. There were strange markings and gizmos on his armour, and his eyes glowed red through a thin black visor.
Ruston still moaned on the floor. The others stood around us gaping at the visitor, the fight forgotten.
Brown, always the idiot, moved towards the man. ‘Whadya want with him, dude?’
‘Are you Pace?’
Brown snorted. ‘Nah, the only moron that’s Pace, is Pace.’
The metal man blasted him. Half of Brown’s head disintegrated. He collapsed like a truck falling out of a tornado.
This was for real. The other kids hugged the walls for all they were worth, which wasn’t very much. None of us were worth much. Young offenders treading water before they’d let us into the real prisons.
Officer Peters unlocked the grilled door. ‘What’s going on here?’ His face was a picture as he noticed what we were staring at.
Old metal head blasted him as well – in the chest. The look of surprise on Peters’ face said everything! He slumped to his knees then kissed the floor.
‘I won’t ask again,’ the metal guy said.
Everyone pointed at me.
‘You rat finks,’ I said.
‘Are you Pace?’
Shrugging I said, ‘Looks like it.’ It didn’t take a genius to work that one out. I closed my eyes and waited for the blast.
‘You’ve been chosen.’
Opening my eyes, I saw him turn a dial on his left arm. A light started blinking.
He took a step towards me and gripped my shoulder.
I cringed with pain.
I wanted to ask, ‘chosen for what?’ but I must have blacked out. The next thing I know I’m in a cave or something with about twelve other armour-clad soldiers, and I could have sworn some of them weren’t human. It was fairly dark, with lots of shadows jumping all over the walls. A fire burned in the centre, and some strange-looking creatures covered in sores were scurrying about. One of them stirred a ladle in a cooking pot over the fire. Seeing me looking at him, he hawked and spat. I gave him the finger.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I noticed a couple of other kids about the same age as me. One of them, a girl with long dark hair, sat on a rock crying.
Another metal guy smacked her round the head. She screamed as she flew off the rock and went sprawling on the ground.
‘Stop that snivelling and get me something to drink,’ the guy said to her.
I’m not a knight in shining armour by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve never hit a girl, and I don’t respect guys who do. ‘Hey you,’ I shouted across the cave. ‘Pick on someone your own size.’ I was tall for sixteen, but this guy was a monster.
His head snapped in my direction and he grabbed his weapon.
‘Take it easy, Crisp,’ the guy who had brought me to this place said, stepping between us. ‘He’s new. I’ll beat some sense into him.’
‘You’d better, Tag,’ Crisp said, ‘before I kill him.’
Tag turned and smacked me round the head. ‘Are you stupid, or what?’
‘He was hitting that girl. I –’
‘What Crisp does with his second is none of your business. I’d be more concerned about what I’m going to do with you. You’re my second, which means you don’t do nothin’ unless I say otherwise, you got it?’
‘Second! What –’
He threw his weapon at me.
I was surprised at how light it was.
‘Clean it. But first, get me food and drink.’
Stupid clot, I thought. I had a weapon. I swivelled it towards him and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
‘Good,’ he said, taking off his helmet. ‘Now do as I’ve said, or I’ll rip off one of your arms and eat that.’
Underneath the helmet, Tag had a jagged scar down the left side of his face. His left eye was a glassy grey, and two of his front teeth were missing.
I got up and ambled over to the fire.
The girl stood sniffing as the ugly creature ladled what looked like stew onto a plate. It reminded me of the stink from the latrines in the institute. He passed the girl the steaming plate and a mug with hot liquid.
‘I’m Pace,’ I said to the girl. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Hey, Tag,’ Ugly shouted. ‘These two are talking.’
Tag strolled over.
I stood between him and the girl, legs apart and fists clenched, ready to do battle with this giant. ‘I was the only one that spoke,’ I said, my jaw set hard. ‘If you’re gonna hit anyone, hit me.’
‘I like your grit, Pace. Dybbuk chose well. Get me my food, and no talking to the other seconds.’
When I turned back, the girl had gone. I saw her across the cave, hands shaking as she passed the plate and mug to Crisp. Then she cowered behind a rock with her arms wrapped around her knees sobbing.
There were so many questions tumbling about inside my head. What the hell was this place? What did Tag mean I was chosen? Who was this Dybbuk guy that had chosen me? Who were all these soldiers? What were they doing? I could’ve filled pages with questions if I’d been any good at writing.
‘Here.’ The creature pushed a plate and mug at me.
I made him wait while I stared at him, a smirk on my face. God he was ugly. He definitely wasn’t human. Eyes were red, pointed drooping ears, a squashed nose and foul breath, weeping sores erupting all over his face like active volcanoes. Hands with three long fingers and filthy pointed nails held the plate and mug. A low growl came from his mouth.
I took the plate and mug from him. My eyes creased to slits. ‘Don’t worry Ugly,’ I said, ‘you’ll get yours.’ I turned and walked away before he could answer.
I heard his raspy breathing behind me. I crouched, putting the plate and mug down on the ground. The large metal ladle whistled over my head, scattering gravy and lumps of meat everywhere. Turning, I leapt at him. His eyes opened wide in surprise as my hand gripped his throat. I head butted him, and felt his nose flatten even more. My other hand connected with the side of his jaw, and I heard a comforting crack.
A metal hand gripped my arm and dragged me backward.
‘Don’t kill the Carbuncle,’ Tag said. ‘He’s the best cook we’ve had in ages.’
Ugly sat up spitting blood and holding his lower jaw. ‘I kill you, very soon,’ he spat.
‘Anytime, slime ball,’ I said.
Tag let go of me, took a step towards the Carbuncle and pulled him up by his tunic so that his legs were dangling off the ground and their faces were level. ‘Don’t threaten my second. That’s my job. You’re here to cook, nothing more. I even see you look the wrong way at him again, and I’ll rip your head off and put it in the pot. Do you understand me?’
I could see fear in the Carbuncle’s eyes. ‘Yes, Tag.’
Tag dropped him in a heap on the ground and turned back to me. He smacked me round the head again making my ear bleed. ‘That’s two people already who want to kill you. You’re not learning quickly enough, Pace. I’ve lost five seconds in the past three months, and I don’t want to lose another one just yet. Do you get my drift?’
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
I busied myself cleaning Tag’s weapon. It was a neat bit of kit. Looked like the trigger had been programmed to respond only to its owner, that’s why it hadn’t worked for me.
Keeping to the shadows, rat-like animals with red eyes shuffled around the edges of the cave. I saw them staring at me in small groups.
‘Can I ask you some questions?’ I said to Tag.
He glared at me as he shovelled stew into his mouth. ‘Why not, I feel big-hearted.’
‘Where are we?’
‘Hinnom. This is our base.’
'Base for what?’
‘We’re in a war, Pace. Longest war there’s ever been. And we’re losing.
‘Why was I chosen?’
‘You’re a criminal, Pace. Now, enough questions, have you finished cleaning my weapon?’
‘Yeah, I think so.’
‘Good,’ he threw his plate at me. ‘Take this and wash it. I’m gonna get some shut-eye, so don’t wake me unless it’s an emergency. Closing his eyes, he stretched out with his back against a rock and started to snore.
The Judge said I had no redeeming qualities when he sentenced me the last time for robbery and attempted murder. The guy behind the counter should have just given me the money and then I wouldn’t have had to hit him with the baseball bat. It looked like I’d been conscripted, but who were we fighting? Oh well, I suppose it was better than being stuck in the institution. At least somebody wanted me. That was a first.
I had to hunt round for the water, but it gave me the opportunity to grin at Ugly as I passed the cooking pot. He tried to spit, but grimaced in pain instead.
The girl stood bare-footed in a rock pool washing Crisp’s plate and mug under a waterfall that cascaded from somewhere high up in the roof.
‘Hey,’ I said. It wasn’t the best line I’d ever used.
She ignored me, but I didn’t get where I was by giving up.
‘I’m new, how long have you been here?’
Keeping her eyes on the tumbling water she said, ‘A week I think.’
I was in. ‘My name’s Pace.’
‘That’s a lovely name.’ Hey, I’d learnt some things in the institution. She’d soon be eating out of my hand.
‘What does it matter, I’ll be dead soon.’
That wasn’t the way it was meant to go. Kiri looked good, even though I could see by her tattered dress and tangled hair that she’d probably had a hard week. Her dirty face had tear tracks, and she stood like a broken tree in the wind.
‘That’s no way to talk,’ I said putting my hand on the back of her neck. ‘We’ve gotta make sure we stay alive. I’ll help you.’
She shrugged my hand off and turned to look at me. ‘You can’t help me. We’re not even allowed to talk to each other.’ The defeat in her eyes made my stomach lurch.
Anger rose inside me. What had these idiots done to her? ‘I’ll think of something. Tag doesn’t seem too bad. What’s Crisp like?’
‘I don’t think he likes me much because I’m a girl. He keeps hitting me.’
I clenched my fists. ‘Yeah, I saw. If he does it again, I’m gonna kill him.’ I wanted to leap over there now and tear his heart out, but I had to get my bearings first.
She gave me a wry smile. Maybe I was making progress. ‘You won’t stay alive very long if you go around killing people.’
She was right. I’d be no help to her if I got myself killed. ‘What did you do to end up here?’
‘I don’t know.’
I guessed she didn’t want to tell me. I was surprised she’d been chosen. Kiri didn’t exactly look like a soldier and I hadn’t seen any evidence of a killer instinct. But I knew looks were deceiving. She’d obviously done something bad to get chosen. ‘Oh well, you’re here whatever. We’ll just have to make the best of it.’