by Declan Cosson (age 18, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin)
You have the right to be protected from kidnapping.
Zach crept deep into the old subways of what had once been Leningrad wearing a helmet and a gas mask. It had been his first day in battle and he felt lost and confused. But he had a job to do.
The dropships had left the vicinity, but Alpha Squad remained, searching for any kidnapped civilians out in the smoking remains patrolled by enemy machines. The other squad members had given up hope of finding anyone, but Zach had gone on, eager to prove himself. He felt his shoulder radio beeping. Zach’s commander Michael’s voice came through the static:
“Zach . . . where are you? Zach . . . we haven’t found any civilians . . . Zach, are you even listening to me? . . . all civilians are evacuated and accounted for . . . machines are closing in now . . . Zach?”
Zach turned off the radio and muttered to himself:
“Clearly they’re not trying hard enough in finding people.”
He looked at his scanner to reassure himself. A spot flashed red on the display screen. Red meant warmth . . . Warmth meant life . . .
Determined, Zach pressed on into the subway. The flash on the spotlight attached to his gun shined light over the dark and creepy subway.
Meanwhile, on the dropship, Michael slammed his fist down and yelled, “Damn the stupid boy! His overconfidence is going to be the death of him!”
“Well you have to admire him in some ways. To explore a city. A city under machine control. That takes guts,” Alexi said, trailing off under Michael’s glare.
Chang, another squad member, spoke up.
“Michael, Dia and I can go look for the boy. He’s new meat and at his most vulnerable. It won’t be long before some sort of mechanical horror descends upon him.” Dia nodded towards Michael, confirming his willingness to go with Chang.
“While I admire your commitment,” Michael began, “I’ll do it myself. I can’t risk losing any more of you. Stay here and protect the crew. Did you hear me? Stay by the dropship. No matter how intense it gets . . .”
Oblivious to what was happening in the dropship, Zach continued to wander the Leningrad underground. It was a dark and creepy place. The abandoned magnetic trains made for a haunting sight. Zach snuck around the place with his gun at the ready. He heard a noise, something was moving around the bend of the tunnel. He raised his assault rifle to shine the way. The red light was flashing faster on his life scanner, it was clear he was going to encounter a living organism. The noise sounded again. Zach braced himself and raised his rifle. With his finger on the trigger, he turned the corner.
Much to his shock and awe, Zach found a little boy, looking only to be between six or seven, huddled in the corner. The boy had dirt and grease on him. He had short blonde hair and blue eyes. He wore a small furry coat and a pair of gloves. Soft trousers and runners covered the boy’s lower body. He was curled up in fear. Zach lowered his gun and approached the little boy. Realising his gas mask and helmet must be frightening, Zach took them off.
“Hey little guy, what’s you’re name? I’m not a machine. I’m Zach.” He lightly touched the boy on the shoulder.
The boy flinched away from him, asking in Russian, “Mum? Dad?” The boy looked Zach in the eyes. “Where’s my Mum?”
Zach didn’t really know how to hold a conversation in Russian, but he figured that the boy must have been taken from his parents during one of the machine air raids. Although he felt pity towards the boy, Zach didn’t forget the urgency of his mission. If the boy was taken by machines, chances were there would be some nearby.
“Hey little guy. I’m sorry, but I don’t know where your parents are. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll try and get you back to them okay? I can’t promise you that, but you’re still going to have to trust me.”
The boy seemed confused and disorientated, but he climbed onto Zach’s lap without a fight. Zach’s relief was shortlived, however, because as soon as the boy was secure, a crunch sounded behind him and then a spotlight was shining on his back.
With a pounding heart, Zach asked, “Michael?”
Michael aimed his rifle and said angrily, “You know, you just ran off on my squad in the heat of battle for the sake of glory, which is bad enough, and then when I try to contact you, you switch off your radio? If we were fighting on the Western Front in the 1910s, that would merit an execution. So are you coming back with me, or do I have to kill you?”
Zach breathed in, his body still shielding the little boy from Michael’s sight. He moved him off his lap on to the ground, then stood up slowly and said: “By all means Michael, I’m the new meat. I’m useless to your squad. Besides, you don’t seem too friendly. So, by all means, shoot me!”
Before Michael could fire his gun, Zach lifted the boy up into his arms and turned around, exposing him to the flash of Michael’s spotlight and saying sarcastically: “Because I tried really hard and found a civilian!”
The little boy’s frightened face filled Michael with shock. He breathed in and lowered his rifle.
“So that’s why you ditched us. You went looking in the right place. Where did you find this boy? What’s his name?”
“I don’t know his name, but I found him here in the tunnels. He’s vulnerable little guy like me!”
Michael shook his head and put his arm on Zach’s shoulder.
“Tell you what, we take this boy with us. The rescued civilians were evacuated to refugee camps in Norway. We’ll try get him there. If his parents are alive, odds are that’s where they’ll be.”
Suddenly Michael’s shoulder radio began to shriek. Michael pressed on it to respond.
Dia’s voice yelled from the radio. “Michael do you copy?” In the background, gunfire and shouting raged.
“Talk to me, Dia.”
“Michael . . . we’ve lost our dropship, we’re barely holding out . . . most of the drop’s crew is dead! Michael . . . do you copy?”
Michael cursed under his breath, the machines must have left the little boy as a decoy to distract the squad and then circled back to ambush the dropship. “Hold on,” Michael said, “ Zach and I are going. We’ve got a child with us.”
He looked at Zach gravely. “Zach, get your headgear and mask on. You’re going to need them.”
Michael turned on his heels and began sprinting back the way he had come. Zach picked up the little boy and followed Michael out of the subway.
Beside their ruined dropship, the team were holding out as best they could, taking on any machine that came close. In the distance, they saw Michael and Zach move towards them. A robo soldier was about to gun the pair down, but Alexi sniped it. Once reunited, Chang turned to Michael and asked the question on everybody’s mind: “What the bloody hell do we do now?”
Michael was shaken, but he put on a brave voice for his team.
“Simple as, according to our GPS, the nearest dropship pick-up point is at the southern edge of the city, not too far from here. Even though our main radio was on the dropship, we can still use our shoulder-radios to contact each other. In fact, it works to our advantage because we’ll be too small to pick up on the scanners of any of the machine’s fortresses.”
“But we’ll have to cross the Badlands . . .” Alexi said, clearly uncomfortable.
“Badlands?” Zach was confused.
Dia turned to him to explain. “The Badlands are known to be the place of failed experiments. A lot of big creatures out there. Machines all over the place.”
“Well what else can we do?” Michael exclaimed. “Do you want me to lie to the lot of you and say that we have teleporters?” The squad shook their heads. “Well, then. We have no choice but to go by foot! Now, if you want to stay behind and wait for the robotic war party to find us that’s fine. Any volunteers?”
The squad realised there was no alternative. One by one, they packed what equipment could be salvaged form the dropship and set off. Only Alexi, Zach and the little boy remained.
“Zach. Who is that?” Alexi gestured to the boy.
“This little guy was taken.”
“What? No, no Zach. You are not becoming anyone’s stepfather just because he’s cute!”
“I’m not leavin him behind.”
“Alright, but I take no responsibility. If he dies it’s on your head.”
Alexi shouted to the rest of the squad up ahead.
“Everyone, hold up for Zach. He’s got a kid with him!”
Zach looked up at the sky as the sun was beginning to set. He could see the machine fortress floating on the horizon. As he went to hoist the little boy up onto his shoulders, he noticed a name stitched on the back of his furry coat: Dmitri. Right then, he made a solemn promise to himself.
Dmitri, I will find your parents, no matter what.
You have the right to be protected from kidnapping