“What’s happening, Uncle Jack?”
Stephen was frightened. He couldn’t say he wasn’t. His mother had been screaming, telling him to run away, and now he didn’t know where she was. He’d been dragged here bodily and shoved into the middle of this circle. No one had spoken to him, but Stephen had heard one of the soldiers say, “We need him,” before he was picked up. Everyone was grim faced and quiet, and his Uncle Jack wouldn’t look at him. He wouldn’t look at him.
“Hey, soldier!” Uncle Jack called out.
“Uncle Jack!” Stephen, at nine years old, ran to his uncle and was picked up and twirled in a circle. “You came!”
“Of course I came,” Jack said. Stephen had called him for the Father/Son picnic at school, because his own dad wasn’t going to come, and Stephen wanted SOMEONE. He hadn’t told his mum. Mum always seemed a little ambivalent about Uncle Jack.
The picnic had been a great success. Between the two of them, Jack and Stephen had won four of the seven contests, archery, rowing, the carry-all sprint (a race where the child rode on his father’s shoulders) and the treasure hunt. “That was amazing, Uncle Jack!” Stephen said as he and Jack walked hand in hand back to the school. “How could you do all that? I thought you just worked in a shop.”
“No, soldier,” Jack said. “I’ve had a lot of different jobs.”
Stephen looked at his Uncle Jack’s blue military coat. “You ever been a soldier, Uncle Jack?”
“Of course,” Jack said.
“What does it mean to be a soldier?”
Uncle Jack frowned a little. “It’s hard, Stephen,” he said finally. “I don’t recommend it. It’s hard when you don’t believe in what you’re fighting for.”
“What if you do believe in it?”
“Then it’s hard because you care,” he said. “You have to care more about the cause than you do about your life. You have to care more for your men than you do for other men. And when your men die and the cause becomes questionable, little pieces of your heart die with them.”
“How can you care more about something than you do about your life?”
“Well...” Jack’s frown deepened. “Imagine World War II,” he said. “Imagine there’s a vicious foe who wants to destroy all species — all races — that they consider inferior. Imagine there are people dying, or starving, great heaps of people dead, and the only way to save everyone is to stand up and say, ‘You have to kill me before you can get to them’. That’s how you can do it.”
“Were you ever in a war?” Stephen asked.
“Yes,” Jack said quietly.
“I’ve been in a lot. I can’t talk about it.”
“Is that what you did?”
“It’s what my men did,” Jack said. “Over and over again I had to send them in to die. And each and every one of those soldiers knew that they could die, and stood and faced it anyway.”
“Why didn’t you go in to die?” Stephen asked.
Jack was silent for a long time before he said, “I was standing beside them, Stephen. It’s just that I wasn’t the one who died.”
“You were lucky?”
“Something like that. But I’ll tell you a secret.” He looked right at Stephen. “I didn’t feel lucky. If I could have died in the place of every one of those men, I’d have done it in a heartbeat.”
“For the same reason they were standing beside me,” Jack said.
Stephen almost wished he could be a solider. They had reached the school by then, and Stephen saw his mum by the car. “There’s mum!”
“I’d better go.”
“Come have dinner!” Stephen said.
So Uncle Jack had come and had dinner, and Alice disapproved, but at the end of the day when Jack went home he gave Stephen a big hug and a kiss... and Alice let him give one to her too.
Things were getting more hectic around him. Stephen could see the soldiers, now, out of the circle of light he was standing in, dark shadows all around him. But there were gaps. All around, huge gaps. He could have run... Mum told him to run. Grandma, way back when he was little, she taught him how to run, how to fight, how to get away. He knew there were ways.
Jack flinched, but didn’t look at him. He pounded furiously on the keyboards, desperately, his face as stern as flint.
Stephen looked around him. There was Mum at the window, furiously pounding on the glass. So she was all right, then. He couldn’t hear her, but he could see her mouth moving, see her crying. Run. Run. Run, Stephen, run away.
He could run. He could. But Uncle Jack was there, amongst all the soldiers... and he wasn’t telling him to run.
Football was a lot more fun with soldiers than it was with the boys at school. Stephen pounded on the concrete, his blood pumping in his ears, and the men shouted at each other, with a comradery that he adored.
Mum probably thought he couldn’t hear during the game, but sound carried in that concrete bunker. “They’re taking the kids.”
He glanced up quickly, and then ran back for the ball. Mum didn’t want him to know — but Stephen was no fool. His grandmother hadn’t taught him to close his eyes and seal his ears. She had taught him to listen to everything, to observe and retain information. Stephen had been paying attention.
He had been watching.
A glimpse of a monster on a screen. Hushed voices about his Uncle Jack. People crying in the corners of the bunker. Oh, Stephen had been watching.
The game finished and he laughed with the soldiers. “What’s it like to be a soldier?” he asked one of them as he brought up a drink.
“It’s a bloody pain,” he said.
“Hey, leave off!” said another. “He’s just a kid.”
“I’m not kidding. Don’t do it, boy,” said the first.
“It’s hard, son,” said the second. “But you do it to protect people. You do it to be the good guy.”
“Even if what you’re doing is bad?” Stephen asked. “You were one of the men who took me and Mum, weren’t you?”
“Following orders,” said the soldier. “You don’t always know what’s going on up top. But you have to trust that they do, and that they mean well.”
“But you scared us,” Stephen said. “You hurt us.”
“To try and save others,” the soldier said. “And I’m sorry about that, kid, I really am. I was sorry every second, I didn’t sign up to kidnap women and children. But the up and ups knew what they were doing, and sure enough, here you are, safe and sound, free. You’re not hurt, and they had their reasons.”
“Even for taking the kids?” Stephen asked quietly. “That’s what they’re doing, I heard. The army are taking the kids.”
The man looked sad and scared. “They have their reasons,” he said bleakly, and he turned his back on Stephen.
“But what if they aren’t good reasons?” Stephen persisted, chasing after him. “What if they’re wrong?”
The soldier looked down at him and then, with a sudden tensing of his face, hugged Stephen hard. “A reason doesn’t have to be good or bad,” he insisted in Stephen’s ear. “It’s a bad reason. It’s a very, very, very bad reason! And no one can know if it’s right or wrong.” He pulled away. “But they have their reason!” He looked like he was trying to convince himself more than Stephen.
“I’m sorry,” Stephen said.
“Everyone’s gonna be sorry before this day is over,” the soldier said. “I got a kid sister out there... Dad’s new wife.... But you’ll be all right, eh?” He looked away, and Stephen saw a tear in the corner of his eye before he brushed it away.
Stephen wanted to ask if they’d taken his kid sister, but he realized the answer might hurt. He made a very adult decision to let the question drop. He knew, as he was making it, that it was an adult decision. It made him feel very responsible and grown up.
He had grown up a lot in the last four days.
Jack finally looked at Stephen as he pressed a button. One button. And a sound started to build around Stephen. A sound that hurt his ears, that made his heart quiver in his chest. He could feel the same overwhelming blankness starting that had happened before when the aliens had used him to speak with. But this time the feeling was building from inside him, not outside, and he could move... he knew he could move.
He could have moved from the moment they put him there. He could have listened to his mother. He could have run. Even if they’d have caught him, they might have had to hold him down, keep him still, and maybe he’d have gotten away. His mother was still beating on the glass, screaming and crying, and he wanted to run to her, but he wasn’t going to run.
Because Uncle Jack was staring at him. Staring at him as if his world was ending.
“Hey, Soldier!” Uncle Jack said, dragged into the bunker in handcuffs. That was all he had time to say. That and “Stay with your mother.” But Stephen barely heard that second part. “Hey, Soldier! Hey, Soldier! Hey, Soldier!”
That was his Uncle Jack, the Soldier, who, Stephen had realized, was fighting the aliens who wanted to take the kids. He called him Soldier. Stephen was a soldier!
His awareness was slipping. The pain was fading, too, though his heart was racing faster and faster and he couldn’t hear anymore.
He knew he could run. He knew he could escape this. He was not a stupid child. With his mother’s screaming and the soldiers’ stony faces and his Uncle Jack... Uncle Jack’s tear filled eyes. Stephen knew this was not safe for him.
But the solider had said, “We need him.” And they were taking the kids.
Stephen’s mind shut down as the lethal frequency passed through his brain. With the last of his consciousness he did not look at his mother, screaming and crying. He did not look at the machinery that was doing this terrible thing to him. Stephen looked at his Uncle Jack, who thought him a soldier. Uncle Jack who had said, “If I could have died in the place of every one of those men, I’d have done it in a heartbeat.”
Stephen couldn’t run anymore, and he was glad. He didn’t have to be strong, now. It was over. He had done his duty. He hadn’t run. He had stood up and said, “You’ll have to kill me before you can get to them.”
He wished he could tell his mother that his brain was shutting down, like it had before, and it didn’t hurt. He wished he could tell his Uncle Jack that it was okay. He wished — he did wish — that it didn’t have to be this way. But he didn’t get any of those wishes. He was granted only one, and that one was enough.
Stephen was a soldier.
“Hey, Soldier!” Jack’s voice flickered in Stephen's memory, his very last thought.