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I had heard of the islands before. In the capital I had seen a report about a humanitarian effort to aid the indigenous people of an uncategorized island: Island 821. Pledges were being collected by the national relief organizations, volunteers were being mobilized. Help was in dire need. These were our brothers and sisters.
As night fell, the road grew rockier, a heaviness saturated the air. We slowed to a crawl, pitching like a ship in turning weather. We skipped more stations. In the cigarette-studded darkness, we shared the same mental terrain. Beattie said he’d heard of an island rich with rare resources. Peersaw swore an old classmate had been killed while working at a highly experimental island research facility. Kilroy and Shaker speculated that they weren’t the first pair ordered from their sector. There had been a similar mission before ours that had ended unsuccessfully. Even Brodsky threw in with a nugget privy to Sector Dot: this was not another dispute in our storied conflict, but a joint effort against a separate but common threat. It became a game, and soon I could not tell what was rumor or conjecture or plain fiction. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone anyway. Whether our enemy to the north was foe or ally in this mission, I wondered what our distant kinsmen were saying about us. We had coexisted for so long, I wanted to know what information they were privy to, how it might save us.
In the morning, as we were idled at yet another sector station, an officer told us to disembark. We were given a half-hour break to bathe and to eat a proper meal in a hastily built roadside structure obviously erected for our arrival. The day was overcast. Clouds like soiled dish towels unfurled over a lush carpet of forest. A faint hint of saltwater carried on the breeze.
After breakfast, we lined up along the front of our makeshift mess hall. The drivers, who we thus far recognized as an elbow hanging out an open window or the hum of an old state anthem playing on the radio, were huddled like gulls by the cab of the fore supply truck. Before long, a man pushed through the steel door of the sector station and marched toward us, a sense of destiny in his gait. He conferred with the officer on hand briefly, then began addressing us.
“My name is Sergeant Donald Pickett,” he said.
He was a tall, fit man who stood with his chest out and his lips pursed. He was dressed in fatigues a shade slightly darker than ours with unencumbered cargo pockets and an ACU shirt as solid at the shoulders as burlap seed bags.
“I am your commanding officer,” he continued. “Whatever you believe you know about this mission, whatever you have discussed, this will mean nothing when we enter the fray.”
He ordered us back onto the truck, gestured to the drivers with a twirl of his finger, then mounted the bumper himself. We rode in silence. As the afternoon passed, we began discarding our hats and jackets, mopping the sweat from our brows with our standard-issue bandanas. Sergeant Pickett remained as is, scanning us every now and then with an expression that belied nothing. Only Dent and Dunn remained in their uniforms.
When it seemed the heat had reached its apex, Ricketts bolted to his feet.
“Bullshit,” he said. “This is complete bullshit. Four days on this heap without a true word about the purpose of this mission and now this. They give us a CO, put him in the back of our truck like he’s one of our mates, and he sits here saying not a Goddamn thing.”
I braced myself in my seat. Brodsky stood and I punched him in the thigh.
“We want to know the mission,” Brodsky said, and now the others spoke up with him.
The sergeant stood. He had a pistol at his waist, the holster clip unbuttoned, the safety turned to the off position.
“We reach our departure point within the hour, gentlemen. Everything will be made clear then.”
He stared at Brodsky a moment longer and reclaimed his seat. I pulled Brodsky back down beside me.
The road bifurcated. We turned and angled south, away from the wall, and reached the coast by nightfall. Our final destination was a small barracks in a military fortification at the edge of a deserted fishing town.
Besides a small crew of general laborers, we seemed to be the base’s sole inhabitants. We were ordered to unload the trucks, then gather for a mission briefing. The promise of this information put a charge into us. As I lifted a crate, Ricketts put an elbow into my ribs and leaned in close to me.
“What do you think this shit is?” he said. “Why don’t we get to know? It’s our lives.”
“Quit it,” I said. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll find out.”
“Maybe,” he said.
At 2300, we met in a decrepit meeting room at the rear of the barracks. There was an atmosphere of unrest crackling in the air. It seemed as if any sudden movement might incite outright panic. Sergeant Pickett stood at the front with his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the wall behind us.
“I have a story for you,” Pickett started. “There is an island not far from the shore of our illustrious state. This island lies exact as God’s design on the divide that separates us from our great rival. There are men on this island who honor no allegiance. Tomorrow, we board a hovercraft destined for this place. You have been chosen for this operation because of your unique abilities, for your excellence in military service, for your loyalty to the state. You have been selected specially by your CO’s to carry out a task vital to the state’s survival,” he said. “You must have made an impression.”
We all kept our gazes forward. The same questions buzzed between us. What abilities? What accomplishments? Who of us but Dent and Dunn fit the soldier Pickett described? We knew all of this was a lie. Ricketts would tell us this speech had been crafted by an egghead from the capital with aspirations for higher office, and we would believe him, because we weren’t gullible any longer.
“Not much is known about these people,” Pickett continued. “They are an unknown quantity, and thus we face the singular challenge of engaging an enemy whose defense we know nothing about, whose motives are uncertain, and on a terrain where they possess a distinct tactical advantage.”
“So it’s a suicide mission then,” Ricketts said.
Pickett didn’t acknowledge him. “Our mission is a simple one. Stealth, cunning, exploration. We learn as much as we can about our enemy, then we slip away. Poof. A hero’s welcome.”
That night, as I lay in my mildewed cot, the conundrum lingered. Why us? The short and oblong, the stupid and paranoid, the country boys. Why us for a mission of such great importance to the state? Why Dent and Dunn, who were so different than the rest of us? I knew then we had been chosen because we were expendable.
Someone screamed, kicking at his bed with both heels. It was Shaker.
“Why even tell us, two men from each sector?” he said. “Why tell us such a blatant lie?” He was laughing crazily.
“The illusion of safety,” Ricketts said. “Even now, even after all we’ve been through, we’re still hopeful there are more of us on the way.”
I imagined my own welcome home. Mine and Brodsky’s. There would be a grand feast, all of our favorite foods from the fields of our friends and neighbors. We would have our own story to tell of the war. As Ricketts spoke, his voice like a lullaby from my childhood, I imagined telling my family about my own courage under fire.
Brodsky shook me awake, and I clasped a hand to his throat.
“Time to go,” he said.
The barracks were frantic with departure. Men were scouring the floors for misplaced equipment, yanking at the damp straps of their packs. Mankew sat carving his name into the rotting wood wall with his standard issue knife.
The coastline was tufted with chaparral. Beyond the stone beach, the sea sparkled below the bright sky. Sergeant Pickett was already waiting for us. The trucks were gone and a hovercraft was moored in the dock. Pickett ordered us to load our provisions onto the craft, along with a stack of unmarked crates.
Ricketts took a step toward him. “What’s in them?” he said. “We won’t do a thing until we know what’s in them.”
“You won’t do a thing? Is that true?” Pickett asked us.
No one moved.
“OK,” Pickett said. “Private Ricketts, why don’t you take a look?”
Ricketts hesitated a moment. He glanced at me and winked, then approached the crates. He produced his field knife, pried apart the nails, and discarded the top. We heard the shot before Ricketts touched a hand to his chest, or maybe it was afterwards, it happened in such a vacuum. But whether the sound came first or Ricketts’ realization of what it meant, not an instant later his shirt went crimson wet and he fell to his knees.