I was falling asleep again. I've had increasing trouble with that lately.
I could still feel my seat under me, the cushion that had worn thin from my ass being pressed into it every time I thrust upward, the chilled metal underneath, unerringly cold even as the sun boiled the rest of my cockpit up to (according to my instruments) 106 degrees Fahrenheit. This clashed with what I could see though; I looked down and was in a chair, not a pilot's seat, looked around and found myself in a college lecture hall, not a cockpit. And outside must surely appear to be my old college campus, and not the blasted landscape Old Abaddon that had burned its every nook and cranny into my mind more powerfully than any professor had taught me in this pompous school I was dreaming of.
I had trouble staying awake in class, ironically, and could feel this yearning to sleep even in my dream. Old Abaddon had taught me to fight that urge. Old Abaddon had taught me a lot. My eyes would grow heavy, my head would droop, and then for a moment fall. All sound would go quiet as my head dropped three or four inches before a tiny shot of adrenaline brought my eyes back open and my head stiffly alert. This was the same both in this illusory classroom and in Old Abaddon, but while in the latter I would snap back to reality to hear the noise pollution of a city filled with gunfire, sirens, screams, orders being barked, surrenders being pleaded, terms being negotiated, the former brought me back only to hear the unintelligible droning of my dreamed-up teacher. I had said it to myself many times, with many different reasonings, but most often it was that I made this deceleration when staving off respite that I most desperately needed. I felt my lips move and my vocal cords mumble,
"This is Hell... Just let me sleep..."
My chair began to rumble below me. Not my school chair, but my real one, the sensation of reality intruding on my dream was unmistakeable. At the same time I heard a distant yelling, radio chatter I assumed, which caused me to stir restlessly in my seat. The atmosphere of Old Abaddon came back to me all at once, and only then did I realize I had escaped it in my dream, no matter how briefly. I thought about not waking up, about letting whatever happened happen. Perhaps, I thought, death was the rest I was looking for. So in that cushioned university chair, I let my eyes close and my head fall, giving myself to that urge. But my body wouldn't let me.
"Pisces! Wake up!"
I shot to attention in my cockpit, and with my helmet still on, so too did my Bipedal Armor. Another BA was in front of me, and indicating to the sky above us. He was a standard "Grunt" Armor like mine, and I couldn't see the insignias on his shoulders or back to tell who it was, but nevertheless I took his order as he shouted,
"Artillery, one-o-clock! Satellite-Freud is sending you data now!"
I took a single breath and held it as the numbers appeared on my visor, in the top right corner. With the adrenaline of being screamed awake still in my system, my mind worked faster than the numbers appeared. They came in three lines: Location relative to Old Abbadon's center, location relative to myself, and then coordinates. The first line read "137-02-04"; Old Abbadon's streets were designed very efficiently, conservatively, like a perfect grid. So "137-02-04" meant "137th Street of grid (02 (across), 04 (down)). I was aware of most of the city's layout, and knew grid (02, 04) as mostly evacuated housing developments. The troops manning the artillery would probably want to stay in the houses, and store their shells somewhere else. Every grid with housing had a community center at the very north-east of their layout, so by the time the second line came to me, I was already angling my shot.
"12.667-101NE" Twelve-and-two-thirds miles out at 101 degrees north-east (meaning 101 degrees away from directly north). But I knew that already. I knew a lot, at least enough to make that shot in one swift motion: Readying my weapon, pointing to to the sky at an off-angle, then pulling the trigger. It was a motion that had been intentionally kept in the Bipedal Armor design, the simple trigger pull. The entire frame of my machine rocked from the force of my cannon, the weapon which was my responsibility to the unit. I shouldered it as soon as my BA's overheat alert had silenced and the joints had cooled. Absorbing such recoil would've been possible only on the most deeply secured artillery weapons in the past, but the Bipedal Armor's four limbs made it possible to move and fire such massive weapons from nearly anywhere.
I watched my shot sail across the sky for a few moments before it disappeared behind the Old Abbadon skyline I had fired into. I could see other such shots fired, maybe one or two every five minutes. They seemed random, though I knew they likely weren't, and if I were to introduce Old Abbadon as a person, I would describe that image: Contrails of ordinance criss-crossing among the sky, warm glows erupting at their end, all the sounds mixing together chaotically as the booms and bursts of the weapons' discharges and impacts lagged behind their actual effects. It was a massive city, a desert city built onto the north-west coast of an economically blooming Saudi Arabia, intended to receive immigrants and refugees from any and all ailing African and Middle-Eastern countries. The word "Asylum" was used to describe it, and at first, the intended meaning applied; people from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad, and many others were welcomed, their refuge constructed by the sudden wealth brought together by the United Arab Trade Federation, and the fortune they made from the newly discovered "Solorash" mineral. The same mineral used for its light-weight, load-bearing traits to construct Bipedal Armors. When it was discovered that the UATF was using their refugee safe haven to secretly mine the east coast of Egypt for Solorash, their once proud city turned into a battlefield. With recently re-established interests in Egypt giving the United States stake in its resources, the most advanced in weapons technology was used to occupy an Eastern Bloc of what quickly became known as "Old Abbadon", named for the intense fighting and indiscriminate death visited upon a population made up exclusively of people trying to escape such a setting.
There is a line in Old Abbadon that I don't cross, and that's because nobody crosses it. Not on purpose anyways. The Eastern Bloc has been held for as long as there has been an Eastern Bloc, but some days there's a bit less Bloc to hold, and some days there's a bit more. The line will move, and maybe a single man, maybe an entire unit will get swallowed up by the difference. I woke up, took a breath, fired my weapon, and wondered aloud:
"Is today my day?"
The BA in front of me shifted, looking from the contrail of my shot down to me and grunting,
"The fuck you talking about?"
My head sank and I sighed, "Eh, nothing. Are you with my unit?"
He shook his head, then leaned down to show his shoulder plate's insignia: A Bald Eagle, swooping down with its talons out and its beak wide open, the call sign "Vineyard" printed under it. I turned my head away in shame. If he knew my call sign, Pisces, he had already seen my insignia, the Black Sheep of a draftee. He turned away and began marching down the street adjacent to the alleyway I had crumpled in. I had crushed in a bit of the building next to me in doing so, a storefront of some kind I think, but I refused to apologize to anyone for it. I had found that lying in rubble kept up the appearance of being dead, and so long as no one pillaged my BA for scrap, the Eastern Bloc could be taken for all I cared and I would just lie there sleeping. Not that they would even bother; the Bipedal Armors we used were about eighteen feet tall and ten feet across from shoulder to shoulder, and while there were many different varieties, as far as we were into the conflict over Old Abbadon only the all-purpose model was produced anymore. It was the cheapest to make, uniformly tan, and essentially a BA frame with metal armor protecting it, but therefore versatile enough for any weaponry to be equipped to it. My own wielded an auto-loading 150mm Howitzer, mounted on the right shoulder but supported by the spinal column (rendering my Bipedal Armor immobile when deployed, as a safety measure, trying to run while firing that thing would tear the suit in half), a Vulcan minigun on the left arm along with a replaceable cluster of three Hydra 70 rockets. On the right arm I had a blade, one that I have no other way of describing beyond "Piston-Powered Bowie Knife". It's exactly what it sounds like.
My Eagle-Unit comrade stomped on ahead of me, his BA quite a bit more heavily equipped than mine, making the taller buildings sway underneath his suit's every step. I thought for a moment that he would leave me in peace, only disturbing me out of panic so that I might silence an artillery placement that was making him uncomfortable. No such luck. He stopped and looked over his shoulder,
"Pisces, come with me. They're drawing for a convoy."
These words made my stomach sink. He watched me, his Bipedal Armor's two main lenses glowing, glaring red at me. My mind imagined it like the beeping red siren of a smoke alarm for some reason, maybe because I was panicked and still waking up. I didn't remember when I got to sleep, but I did remember never seeing the dark of night. So had I slept all through it? Or had I even made it through the day previous yet? He kept staring until I trotted along behind him. I could tell, he was making sure I followed along. A Black Sheep who doesn't show up to a drawing is a deserter, and I didn't wanna risk this guy being kind to the idea of dishing out a deserter's punishment.
A "drawing for a convoy" is a simple concept to explain. Each BA pilot puts his call sign into a lottery. Three get chosen to be vanguard for a convoy moving from any given point to any other given point. A fourth is drawn. He gets to go home. No one would willingly enter if it weren't for that last rule, even with the threat of being labeled a deserter. Being in the vanguard of a convoy was an absolute death sentence. The only places that needed convoys were places where targets were more plentiful than bullets, which usually meant the front line, and that being the case, all those targets were determined to maintain that imbalance. A vanguard could shoot every target that presented itself and they'd still get pulverized before they could make it to safety, as any and all artillery placements in the adjoining grids would be alert to its movements. It didn't help that the vehicles used in these movements were city-block-wide tanks. The noise and dust they kicked up alerted every guerrilla in the area, and rooting out infantry in a Bipedal Armor while under heavy weapons fire is not something that most pilots have any real experience in doing. I'd heard of pilots surviving, but never actually seen it happen. I chalked it up as rumor, myth even at this point, that anyone could be assigned to vanguard and survive. But it was worth that chance. It was the absolution that so many soldiers get addicted to, the all-or-nothing that gives stability to an adrenaline-soaked psyche and leaves one knocked off balance in lacking: You go home, or you face death.
Getting out of my cockpit always felt like climbing out of a pool, or coming out of a hot shower. Even the slightest movements of the air around me felt frigid, even as the sun beat down on the horde of other pilots I dismounted alongside. Worse though, I felt absolutely naked. The Bipedal Armors had sound dampeners installed, and since my job in the Black Sheep Unit was to operate one of our Howitzers I could understand completely. But it wasn't just our own ear-shattering armaments that protective padding shielded us from, the distant rumbles and rhythmic reverberations of any number of far-off or danger-close discharges were more subtly muted by these mechanisms. To leave the cockpit of a BA was to go from relative quiet to assailed from every direction with thunderous tremors. The madness of the place could be felt through the air, the ground, even as my eyes trembled freely in their sockets when I looked up at the sky for too long.
I followed the herd to a two-story building with its roof removed- looked like a pharmacy, but I can't read Arabic. There, several non-Black Sheep soldiers in pilot jump suits assembled with clip boards in their hands. These were lists of the call signs they had seen showing up to the drawing, recorded and handed in to an older fellow who would transcribe them to small pieces of paper and put them in a box. Doing this removed the stress of handing one's name over to someone else, for the tension of physically delivering the decision of life and death to someone else's hands is a feeling I can speak to personally, and enough officers seemed to feel it affected morale to the degree that it needed to be fazed out. I could never tell who had my name, and because I had never been called, combined with how disorganized the assemblies were, I sometimes wondered if my name was even in that little box. The man tending to the container tried shouting to address the crowd, but his voice came lacking and wasn't even audible from the center of the mob, where I stood. He gestured to someone below him, and was eventually granted a megaphone, with which he was able to project the announcement,
"The drawing for the convoy to grid two-forty-nine will now begin! Everyone quiet down!"
The crowd hushed unusually fast, and I knew exactly why: Grid 249 was right at the front line. If my memory served me right, I was in Grid 80 at that moment, and even there we still had to contend with the stray enemy BAs and far-off artillery placements. Officially the line stood at Grid 250, and as I said before, it may occasionally move, but something that is always agreed upon no matter whose officers one asks is that Grid 250 is No Man's Land. There were 501 Grids, with Grid 0 being the western-most gate of the city, meaning that if one side held Grid 250, they would be in control of 51% of Old Abbadon. 51% had been the standing objective for both sides since the Eastern Bloc had been established, and while it had never been achieved, there were always rumors of it being the magic number to lead one side to victory. Victory. Even thinking the word now feels strange, like talking backwards or swearing in front of a child. I didn't know anyone, officer, soldier or draftee, that knew what the actual conditions for victory were, but 51% was convincing enough to have hundreds fighting to take Grid 250 every day. Firing at it, running for it, every body pushing themselves to their limits for it, killing for it, dying for it, but never actually setting foot on it. And whoever was drawn was going right to the edge of that.
"The first for the vanguard!" The man shouted, winced away from his megaphone's feedback, then reached into the box. The crowd held their breath, quiet and focused enough for the sound of the tiny slips of paper ruffling against each other to be grating. One was pulled with several other papers clinging to it, as if they were trying to keep it from leaving the box, like even the written names alone knew of their owners' fate. The man spoke the name,
There was a whooping from somewhere in the crowd. Whoever Echo was, they were excited to have been picked. I heard a masculine voice screaming "Yeah! Yeah! I'm gonna be the one! I'm gonna be the one!" as he made his way through the other Black Sheep. The herd is usually kind enough to clap for whoever gets drawn, but with Echo's enthusiasm, even the most dreary-eyed of soldier found some energy to cheer for him. It was easy to see in their faces; they wanted him to survive. They wanted anyone to survive, for a million reasons, but right at that moment they had a willing volunteer to test the overbearing nature of Old Abbadon, and that was special. The old officer with the megaphone even cracked a smile as the crowd clapped for him. The crowd regained its grave atmosphere by the time he had made it up to the second floor of the building the officer was drawing names on, as seeing Echo up there made what he was about do seem real enough to rob them of their energy once more. The officer shouted,
"Second for the vanguard!"
His hand went back into the box. At that moment I was bobbing my head, reassuring myself in a whisper I was sure only I could hear, mumbling,
"It's not gonna be me, it's not gonna be me, it's not gonna be me..."
A second slip was drawn.
People looked around for someone to move. No one spoke, breathed, or gestured for anyone else to get up. It was quiet for a while, as well all hoped that whoever Bard was would own up before another name was drawn to replace the soldier. Eventually someone did. A short fellow, but muscular as they come, but dead quiet. Just as Echo had riled the crowd, Bard seemed to silence it as he glided through them, his stout posture and stoney expression speaking to a resentment of his fate as vividly as any words might. Bard took to the second floor to stand alongside Echo, the clapping ending long before he made it up there. The officer took a breath and shoved his hand deep into the box without saying another word. His eyes were fixed on the crowd as he did so, and looking into them I could almost hear the soldier telling himself "I have to do this. I have no choice." before yanking out another slip of paper. He let out a breath and said calmly,
Not a moment went by before a shrill scream was heard from somewhere near the front of the crowd. Someone who was waiting, stressing over hearing their call sign announced, and reacted as suddenly as if a limb had just been taken from them. The soldier, Chickasaw, had been restrained in trying to make a run for it through the mob. They held him around the waist and by the arms and legs as he kicked and thrashed, snarled and yelled, threatened and cried to be let go. All the while his comrades reassured him, "I'm sorry" "This is the way things are" "I'll tell my kids about you someday". None of it meant much to him, if he could even hear it. Eventually he tired himself out, or maybe just decided to save his energy. He was brought up to the second story of the building with the others, and it's just my opinion, but I think he looked at the downright-glowing Echo and the mountain-man that was Bard and concluded he might have a chance.
It took me a moment to notice, as it always did, but I was in the clear. I realized it with a wistful smile and looked around to see some other people sharing the feeling; we had survived this trial. It was Old Abaddon, not dying was a victory. Even better, it hit me, next to be drawn was the person getting sent home. Everyone else realized it at the same time, and a small chatter began to emerge from the herd as people excitedly exchanged babble, and dreams of back home. I wouldn't dare believe I had a chance, I wouldn't torture myself like that. Instead I had conditioned myself to be happy for the person that did go home. It made me feel like a better person, in fact, it was perhaps the most human action I was allowed given my position as long-range artilleryman. So I relaxed a bit, let my shoulders rest, realizing only then that they had been straining at attention the whole time. The officer did the same, speaking into the megaphone,
"That was the last for the vanguard. Now I'll draw for one of you to go home..." he appeared to search for profound words to close things out with before settling on, "...right, and uh, thank you all for showing up. It means a lot to me, and I'm sure all your comrades up here with me, that you're all willing to risk everything together. Okay, let's get this underway."
His hand went into the box and the universe fell silent. Not a bomb, not a gun, not a blade or clenched fist could shake me and mine from our trance. He pulled out a name. To him it was just another name, but to us it was gold in the air. And he said the word,
I shot up, then felt suddenly embarrassed. Did I hear him right? How does this work? Do I take a plane out? Should I act excited? I held myself in. I felt like I needed to cough, but instead of feeling rough, my chest tickled. It was my heart pounding, I could hear it in my ears, and soon I became so focused on it that there was a moment until I realized my legs were moving towards the building. My eyes were focused on the ground in front of me, but in the peripherals of my vision I could see them, the rest of the Black Sheep staring up at me. They all clapped, some nodded, some scowled, all attention on me, attention I felt uncomfortable with. Their eyes brought the same instinctual urge to dodge as seeing a laser sight focused on me, or having a gun pointed at me. I quickened my pace, worried that someone might lash out in envy. The worst were the looks of the three drawn as vanguards. Echo's smile still remained, but it was obviously held up, not the naturally intent look he wore on the way up there. He looked like he envied me, but if he had any resentment it was well hidden. Bard's expression had intensified, and while not directed at me, the same aura that had sealed the chirping of the crowd's lips was now pressing entirely down on me, a tangible jealousy that I could only imagine a fraction of, having watched people go home, but never done so from the seat of a vanguard. Chickasaw didn't even look at me. I heard a wheezing mumbling coming from him as I passed by which went quiet as he turned away. I was gestured to stand on the right side of the officer with the megaphone. He addressed the crowd one more time,
"That concludes this drawing. I'm sure you all have other duties to attend to, so I won't keep you from them any longer. Godspeed, Black Sheep. You soldiers are the backbone of our-"
A sudden burst of movement from his left flank made him jump to guard himself. He dropped the megaphone, causing it to let out a deafening screech of feedback, but his target wasn't heading for him. Chickasaw let out a deathly cry,
"Why?! Why do you get to leave and not us?! It isn't fair, dammit!"
Chickasaw headed right for me, arms outstretched. His escorts had abandoned him at the second floor, they were just other Black Sheep after all, not real guards for the makeshift event. He tackled me and wrapped his hands around my neck, pinning me to the ground with his knees. His fingers laced together behind my neck while his thumbs pressed into my throat with horrifying strength. I thought my neck was going to snap right there, and his knees pushing into my stomach only made the sensation of being crushed more intense. I had felt half-asleep for the entire day before that moment, but when I looked up at him, when I saw the madness and despair in his eyes, I saw no reason, no sympathy, nothing to appeal to in order to calm him down. I wouldn't be killed though. I refused to be defeated, not by this animal. Life was so simple in that moment: Victory meant life, losing meant death.
I brought my hand up and slapped him, my palm landing right in his eye. This knocked him off balance. With the extra room this allowed for my hand, I shoved the hard bottom of my wrist into his nose, feeling it break. The officer nearly had his hands on Chickasaw by the time I had tossed him off myself. I took a sharp breath, creating a hoarse noise as my trachea tried to re-expand after being crushed. I dragged myself on top of Chickasaw, securing his arms with my knees. He struggled, even snapped his teeth at me as if that would help, and by reflex I hit him as hard as I could in the mouth. His teeth broke, but I only realized this as my hand went back to hit him again. The second hit made him gasp reflexively, causing the dislodged incisors to fall into his wind pipe, scraping against it and making his eyes wide with panic. He choked on his own teeth as I kept hitting, again and again and again and again, some part of me trying to kill him and rid myself of the threat, some other part trying to put him out of his misery. A point in my exertions came when I blinked and found no face below me, no head, just a pile of red and pink mush mixed with the remnants of eyes, lips, teeth and skin. A few seconds after I stopped, the officer finally pulled me off, throwing me back from Chickasaw's twitching body and into the table the box was being kept on. It fell over, spilling the names of all the Black Sheep that watched me kill that soldier across the floor.
I heard voices, but didn't listen. They sounded miles away, or in another room, and they may as well have been for how far removed my focus on Chickasaw was from the rest of reality. I had only ever killed from the safety of a Bipedal Armor, and only seen blood on my blade in the two or three times it had penetrated deep and close enough to actually stab or cut the pilot. Every other killing was remote, distant, one machine fighting another and winning. But not really winning, because I could never see them die, it only occurred to me in that fashion now, after seeing the world through the scope of life-or-death. My BA protected me from knees against my lungs, or hands around my throat. I was never safe, but never felt danger. I was half-asleep.
Over my shoulder their words came into focus,
"Well now we're a man down..."
"Do we draw another?"
"I-I don't know, I don't think this has happened before, I mean-"
"Well do something! I'm not going in a man short, that's suicide!"
I finally turned around when someone said,
"Why not him?"
It was the officer, and as I whipped about to look I saw Echo and Bard looking at me curiously. The officer continued,
"I mean, he killed him, and his name came up. Doesn't it make sense?"
I wanted to say "No", but I felt it would hurt my case, partly because I honestly wanted to scream it. I stood up and watched them deliberate, my heavy breathing from the fight finally slowing down.
"Come on, can we really do that? Isn't it a bit cruel?" said Echo. I looked at him pleadingly. The officer responded,
"There are no rules for this stuff anyways, so why not change them?"
"Well... I don't like it, but..."
"Please." I was shaking, too much for any other words to follow that one. I repeated it, "please."
Echo looked to Bard, who cast his gaze aside shamefully. Echo shrugged and said,
"Well, Pisces... Guess you've been drawn to vanguard a convoy."
I looked between Echo, the officer and Bard. None of them looked pleased, but neither did they look ready to back down. Some of the nearer crowd had heard the exchange and began to rile, approaching the building on which we stood with accusations of injustice and mistreatment. "That's just not right!" "What if you were in his shoes?" "So you can just send us back in whenever you want, is that it?!" Seeing so many stand up for me just on principle gave me a feeling like being in my BA again, of having an impenetrable armor around me. I knew that there was at least some self-interest involved in their approach, but I didn't mind much; they weren't ready to charge the building out of altruistic concern for me, but knowledge that if I got sent back in after getting a ticket back home, any one of them could be just as easily mistreated. Knowing this didn't take away from the nobility of their protest though, the opposite in fact, as a rabble fighting for themselves was more rabidly powerful than a rabble fighting for someone else's cause.
"Quiet!" the officer shouted. All this did was alert more to the situation, as a greater and greater number of Black Sheep began to inquire as to what happened out of their ear-shot, some joining the mob after hearing the situation, some walking away. The officer pulled his pistol out and took a shot at the air to make them jump back. A line of men bearing that Bald Eagle Unit insignia was forming in front of the building we stood on. The officer stared out at the dozens of angry draftees below him and was stiff with hesitation, knowing he could neither instigate a riot by following through with assigning me to the vanguard, nor rescind his order and therefore compromise his authority. Echo put his hand on the officer's shoulder, took a quick glance over his shoulder at me, then said sternly,
"We have to do something, man. I am not going in a man short."
His tone betrayed the desperation he contained in his chest. I was still unsure what would happen, hopeful that I might be allowed to leave, when I suddenly heard the boom of a deep voice from my flank. Bard said,
"I've had enough of this shit. He goes."
I turned to the direction of his voice just in time to see his fist flying into my forehead. Everything went black.