They drove until dark. Ren cringed every time another explosion thundered, but soon the blasting was behind them.
“Where we going?” he asked Tito’s guardian, who was sitting next to him.
“To one of the other squadron’s base of operations, I reckon,” the man answered with a drawl.
Tito leaned over and grinned. “This is Nelson. He’s all right.”
Ren nodded and glanced at Alex. The boy was sleeping in the corner, his head bobbing with every bump. He turned back to Nelson. “Did you know his guardian?”
“Nah, but that ain’t a surprise. We rarely leave our assigned squads.” Nelson gave Ren a long, hard look. “You don’t look like no soldier. You must be a newbie.”
Hurley chuckled. “New to the front. We both are.”
“Well, it’s a helluva good idea you had for the drummers,” Nelson said. “And don’t you worry, kid, I got your six. We all do.”
Murmurs of agreement swept through the small group, but before Ren had the chance to thank them, the truck screeched to a halt.
Alex woke with a start, flopping against Ren. “Wha—?”
“Shhh,” came a sharp reply from Nelson. “Something’s wrong.”
A few seconds later, Simms poked his head through the back flap. “Patrol of Qweds ahead,” he said, voice low but urgent. “Move out now!”
The guardians divided the equipment between them and each of the boys carried their own drum. By the time the patrol was close enough, Ren could hear the strange clacking and rattling that was the O’qwedian language, he and his group had melted into the darkness, taking cover in the nooks and crannies of the hillside next to the road.
Ren’s heart pounded so hard, he thought for sure the Qwed’s would hear him. He huddled with Alex and Hurley, squinting into the shadows while the enemy ripped the canvas off the back of the truck and destroyed everything left behind.
Simms crawled to each of the guardians, whispering commands, then moved to crouch before Hurley. “We’re going on foot from here.”
“Shut up kid,” Simms snapped. “These things ain’t fucking around. We stay here, we die. Now, let’s go.”
Without another word, Simms took point with Nelson at his side, the two carrying the large metal bin between them. Tito and Alex went next, with Ren and Hurley right behind. Miles, Grady, and Evan each paired up with their guardians and took flank and rear as they set out into the night.
Once they were away from the Qweds, Ren trotted to keep up with the brisk pace Simms set. He wasn’t sure where they were, nor where they were going—a feeling that unsettled him.
“Water,” Alex gasped. “I need a drink of water.”
Without even slowing down, Simms passed a canteen back. “We ain’t stopping until we get there, so best you sip, not gulp.”
“Dude…” Tito said, barely out of breath, “when we gonna be there, wherever there is?”
“See that rise in front of us? It’s on the other side, so, maybe another hour.”
Ren couldn’t help but notice that he, Alex, and Hurley were the only ones breathing heavily. They were the weak links. Digging deep, Ren discovered a fortitude he didn’t know he had. He would pull his own weight, and he would survive to see the Qweds defeated.
He went over the rudiments in his mind, keeping time with the pounding of his feet as they ran. With each measure, he visualized the corresponding command, trying to envision the use for each one. His head and heart filled with images of glorious victory, celebrations, and, finally, peace.
Lost in his musings, the rest of the journey sped by, and he was startled when the flickering torch lights of a military camp came into view.
Simms stopped at last, raising an arm with a fist. Everyone behind him halted, and not a single word was uttered. Setting the metal bin down, he motioned to Nelson, who vanished into the night in the blink of an eye.
A cricket chirped, the noise so loud in the oppressive quiet, Ren jumped.
“Easy, son,” Hurley whispered.
Ren swallowed hard and nodded. As they waited, his mind drifted to his old life; to days in the library with his mom, while his dad did research in his lab. Nights spent huddled in a bunker, eating rice and beans until he couldn’t stand the sight of either. What he wouldn’t give for a plate of that now. His stomach grumbled, and he quickly turned his thoughts from food to the night it all ended.
Patrol had picked up a Qwed ship in range, and before they could even get everyone into the bunkers, the city was attacked. He’d been in the library when the sirens sounded. Hurley was there too, and the two of them had been retrieving a stack of research documents from the lower-level storage.
“My mom!” Ren yelled over the blaring sirens. He dropped the pile of documents on the table and turned to the door, but Hurley grabbed him.
“You can’t go up there! She’ll come for you; it’s safer down here, anyway.” Hurley dragged Ren away, and the two hid beneath a heavy wooden table.
His mom never came though. Neither did his dad.
“He’s back.” Hurley nudged Ren, startling him from the memories.
Ren squinted into the darkness as Nelson bent near Simms and murmured in his ear.
A moment later, Simms motioned for the group to come closer. “Battalion five HQ ahead, this’ll be our new base of operations. Get ready to move out.”
Ren and the rest of the drummers gathered their drums while the guardians collected the remaining supplies.
“Stay low,” Simms ordered. “And keep an eye out for Qweds.” With the large metal bin secure between him and Nelson again, the two took point. “Let’s go.”
Upon arrival at their new HQ, they were ushered into a large tent in the center of the compound.
Ren accepted a canteen and drank deep before passing it to Hurley.
A man with a pure gray, short-cropped afro entered the tent. “Name’s Harris. I’ve sent scouts to locate Kryn, but we can’t wait. Drummers, we need you. Four of our six battalions are under attack. It’s some kind of big push from the Qweds to end us. We’re going to push back.”
Simms turned to Hurley. “How long will it take you to get set up?”
“The equipment, thirty minutes. Then we’ll go over a plan for the boys.”
Simms glanced at Harris, and they both nodded. “We’ll take care of the planning while you get your stuff ready.”
“Do we have a power source for the laptops?” Hurley asked, already working on removing the lid from the metal bin. “If not, it will limit our use of them.”
“I’ll have some batteries brought in,” Harris said. “That do?”
“Yes, thank you.” Hurley looked over his shoulder at Ren. “You and Alex come help me.”
“What else do you need?” Harris asked.
“Tables, chairs, a couple more lights, and some cots and food, if you have any to spare.” Hurley spoke as he unpacked, handing the laptop bags to Ren.
“Tito, you and Nelson go with Harris, get the tables, and hustle your butts back here,” Simms ordered. “Guardians, stand watch, no one but us or Harris gets in or out without authorization. Drummers, follow Hurley’s lead. We keep things tight, understood?”
A resounding “Ooh-rah!” filled the air.
Harris stepped out with Simms, Nelson, and Tito right behind, while the rest of them got to work.
An hour later, Harris and Simms returned, and with them was Kryn.
Ren hadn’t realized how much he considered the man his leader until he was missing, and now with his return, hope was renewed.
“Listen up, drummers,” Kryn addressed, glancing at each of them in turn. “Our troops are in a bad way. Qwed’s are attacking from all sides, they’ve already destroyed two bases. We’re out of time.”
Harris moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Kryn. “My base is the most secure, so we work from here. I’ve got transports waiting to take each of you to a different front, places where the battles are raging, and men are dying.”
A cold shiver ran through Ren. He eyed his fellow drummers, relieved to see he wasn’t the only one shocked by the news.
“Hurley, you’ll stay here, ensuring all incoming and outgoing data flows smoothly. You’ll send commands to each scanner via the laptops to coordinate the attacks. Drummers, your guardians go with you.” Kryn looked at Alex. “You’ve got a new one, he’s on his way here now.”
Simms came and stood next to Ren, his mere presence reassuring.
“You’ll meet up with the commander of each squadron, remember, don’t be calling them ‘sir’ or anything else that identifies them as a leader,” Harris reminded them. “Your very lives depend on it.”
“Squadron leaders will advise you of the situation at each location, then give you orders to convey back to base, as well as to the other commanders.” Kryn picked up a scanner. “Each squadron will have one of these. It’s your jobs to translate to your commanders what the codes mean, as we haven’t had the time to brief them.”
“Guardians, you will protect these boys with your lives. They are our last hope to win this war against the Qweds.” Kryn’s hardened demeanor slipped as he studied the men and boys before him. “You move out in thirty minutes. Good luck and Godspeed.”
Ren held tight to the roll bar of the Jeep, barely able to keep his seat as they bounced over the rugged ground. Their assigned driver, a young gung ho soldier of Nordic descent named Calder, had been instructed not to take any roads, as enemy patrols were heavy.
He was sorry to part ways with the rest of the drummers, especially Alex. The kid had gotten under his skin, like the little brother he’d never had. He hoped the new guardian took good care of Alex.
“Almost there,” Calder said as he pulled the Jeep into a copse of trees. “We go on foot from here.”
Simms climbed out first and turned to Ren. “Wait here, I’m going to scout ahead.” He glanced at Calder. “And you, keep this kid safe, no matter what.”
“Of course,” Calder agreed, hoisting his automatic rifle off the front seat. “Straight through the trees you’ll see the battalion and bunkers. Tell them who you are. They’re expecting us.”
“Copy that.” Simms headed into the brush and disappeared.
“It ain’t gonna take him long, best get your stuff together,” Calder advised.
Nodding, Ren strapped on his harness, then climbed out of the Jeep and mounted the drum on his chest. With sweaty palms, he clutched the drumsticks in one hand, and scanner in the other as he watched the treeline.
A series of rapid-fire bursts rang out, distant yelling, then an explosion.
Ren flinched, his gaze darting around the small clearing.
“Never seen the front, have you?” Calder lit a cigarette and took a drag.
“No.” Ren swallowed hard and glanced at the soldier. “What’s it like?”
“It’s… I mean…” Calder took another hit of his smoke. “Look, kid, it’s loud, and chaotic, and scary, but you got it better than most. Simms, and everyone else out there’ll be covering your ass.”
Ren glanced down at his drum, his mind whirling with fear, his nerves stretched taut as the bombings and gunfire continued. “You really think we can win?”
“Course I do.” Calder held his cigarette out to Ren in offering. “It’ll calm those nerves.”
Ren was about to accept, when a movement in the brush had Calder ditching the smoke and raising his gun.
A few seconds later, Simms stepped out of the trees. “The hell you think you’re doing, trying to give him a smoke? He’s a kid.”
Calder lowered his weapon and grinned. “I been smoking since I was younger than him, ain’t hurt me none.”
“We gotta go.” Simms grabbed a pack out of the Jeep and hoisted it over his shoulders. “It’s getting ugly out there. Comms went down and the Qweds breeched the frontline. We ain’t got much time. Kid, you ready?”
Ren’s stomach heaved and a drop of sweat ran down the side of his face, but he nodded. If Alex could do it, then so could he.
“Good lad,” Calder said as he climbed into the Jeep. “I gotta get back. Kryn wants me standing by to evacuate Hurley, if things go south.”
“Copy that, watch your six.” Simms waited until Calder had driven off, then turned to Ren. “Let’s move out.”
The sky was gray, and smoke hung heavy in the air. Tanks crawled forward, zigzagging through the rows of barbed wire. Sandbag bunkers dotted the field while trenches deep enough to stand in connected them like a maze.
Men darted everywhere, ducking in and out of the bunkers, and scurrying through the trenches while the steady pop-pop-pop of machine guns blanketed the area.
Ren had never seen anything like it.
His body shook, the trembling beginning in the pit of his belly and radiating outward to spread to his limbs. Even his teeth chattered.
“Easy, kid.” Simms squeezed his shoulder. “Take a couple deep breaths. See that trench right there? That’s where we’re going. Maybe a twenty-second run. Got a guy waiting there to take us to the control center. You don’t have to deal with all of this, you hear me?”
Ren gulped, clenched his jaw to stop the chattering, and nodded.
“Good man.” Simms stepped in front of him. “When I say run, you run like your ass is on fire, and for fuck’s sake, stay down. Got it?”
Crouching at the knees, Ren squeaked out, “got it.”
Simms took off, hunched over, and sweeping his gun back and forth as he sprinted.
Hot on his heels, Ren focused on Simms and nothing else, counting as they ran. He’d reached twenty-two by the time they jumped into the trench.
As promised, a man with a skull and crossbones tattoo on his neck was waiting for them. “This way,” he said, taking off at a jog into the network of trenches.
Ren panted, one arm holding the drum tight against his chest to prevent it from bouncing around and hitting him in the chin as he ran. They passed soldiers, some sitting and scarfing food, others manning lookouts, and a few coming from the opposite direction.
When they reached a low, dirt-covered bunker, the man on point moved aside and waved them in.
“That him?” A man in the middle of the room holding a walkie asked.
Simms took the scanner from Ren and nudged him forward. “This is Ren, the best of the drummers. He helped put this all together.”
“Nice job, son.” The man extended a hand. “I’m Franklin, glad to have you with us.”
Ren shook Franklin’s hand. “Glad to be here, sir—er—Franklin.”
“Battalions two and four are under heavy fire, three has incoming, and five is base of fire for six.” Franklin ran his fingers over his short-cropped hair. “We’re holding our own, for now, but Qwed’s are moving in from all directions.” He gripped Ren’s shoulder, his face tense, but sincere. “Show us what you got, son.”
Ren ran through the list of coded commands, while an aide wrote them down as he spoke. Next, he explained how the scanner picked up the vibrations from the chip in his arm, displaying the codes for the other scanners to see.
“Give me a command and I’ll show you,” Ren suggested.
Franklin took the list from his aide and glanced at it. “How about All In?”
Ren played the rudiment on his drum and a second later, S1: ALL appeared on the scanners display screen.
A few more seconds and, S4: ALL showed, followed by, S5: ALL immediately after. Within minutes, scanners two, three, and six had checked in as well.
Last to come in was BOO: ST ALL.
“Base of Operations,” Ren said excitedly. “That’s Hurley! Status, all in.”
“Bloody fucking brilliant,” Franklin said in awe.
Simms cracked a rare grin. “And there’s the advantage we needed.”
As a steady volley of gunfire continued outside, a flurry of activity erupted inside the bunker. Codes and tactics were discussed, commands were given, and soldiers slipped out carrying handwritten missives.
Ren’s chest swelled with pride, and he forgot all about being scared. This was going to work.