‘If you reach the camp before me, I’ll let you live,’ the Soldier said.
It was the same chance he allowed them all. The fairest judgment for their crimes against his people.
The young man lay snivelling in the sand at his feet. Tears had always disgusted the Soldier. They were the lowest form of expression, the physical symptom of psychological weakness.
The Soldier lifted his head and looked across the black desert to the camp’s border lights. The dark sky was an explosion of stars, patched here and there by shifting cloud. He sucked cold desert air into his lungs.
‘Why are you doing this?’ Danny whimpered.
The Soldier slammed the door of the van closed and twisted the key. He looped his night-vision goggles around his neck and strode past the shivering traitor to a large rock. He mounted it, and with an outstretched arm pointed towards the north-east.
‘On a bearing of zero-four-seven, at a distance of one-point-six-two kilometres, your weapon is waiting,’ the Soldier barked. He swivelled, and pointed to the north-west. ‘On a bearing of three-one-five, at a distance of one-point-six-five kilometres, my weapon is waiting. The camp lies at true north.’
‘What are you saying?’ the traitor wailed. ‘Jesus Christ!
Please, please don’t do this.’
The Soldier jumped from the rock, straightened his belt, and drew down his cap. The young traitor had dragged himself to his feet and now stood shaking by the van, his weak arms drawn up against his chest. Judgment is the duty of the righteous, the Soldier thought. There is no room for pity. Only fury at the abandonment of honour.
Even as those familiar words drifted through his mind, he felt the cold fury awakening. His shoulders tensed, and he could not keep the snarl from his mouth as he turned to begin his mission.
‘We’re greenlit, soldier,’ he said. ‘Move out!’
Danny watched the Soldier disappear in the brief, pale light before the moon was shrouded by clouds. The darkness that sealed him was complete. He scrambled for the driver’s side door of the van, yanked it, pushed against the back window where a long crack ran upwards through the middle of the glass. He ran around and did the same on the other side. Panic thrummed through him. What was he doing? Even if he got into the van, the keys were gone. He spun around and bolted into the dark in the general direction of north-east.
How the hell was he supposed to find anything out here?
The moon shone through the clouds again, giving him a glimpse of the expanse of dry sand and rock before it was taken away. He tripped forward and slid down a steep embankment, sweat plastering sand to his palms, his cheeks. His breath came in wild pants and gasps.
‘Please God,’ he cried. ‘Please, God, please!’
He ran blindly in the dark, arms pumping, stumbling now and then over razor-sharp desert plants. He came over a rocky rise and saw the camp glittering in the distance, no telling how far. Should he try to make it to the camp? He screamed out.
Maybe someone on patrol would hear him.
Danny kept his eyes on the ground as he ran. Every shadow and ripple in the sand looked like a gun. He leapt at a dry log that looked like a rifle, knelt and fumbled in the dark. Sobs racked through his chest. The task was impossible.
The first sound was just a whoosh, sharper and louder than the wind. Danny straightened in alarm. The second whoosh was followed by a heavy thunk, and before he could put the two sounds together he was on his back in the sand.
The pain rushed up from his arm in a bright red wave. The young man gripped his shattered elbow, the sickening emptiness where his forearm and hand had been. High, loud cries came from deep in the pit of his stomach. Visions of his mother flashed in the redness behind his eyes. He rolled and dragged himself up.
He would not die this way. He would not die in the dark.
The soldier watched through the rifle scope as the kid stumbled, his remaining hand gripping at the stump.
The Soldier had seen the Barrett M82 rifle take heads clean off necks in the Gaza Strip, and in the Australian desert the weapon didn’t disappoint. Lying flat on his belly on a ridge, the Soldier actioned the huge black rifle, set the upper rim of his eye against the scope. He breathed, shifted back, pulled the trigger, and watched the kid collapse as the scare shot whizzed past his ear.
What next? A leg? An ear? The Soldier was surprised at his own callousness. He knew it wasn’t military justice to play with the traitor while doling out his sentence, but the rage still burned in him.
You would have given us away, he seethed as he watched the boy running in the dark. You would have sacrificed us all.
There was no lesser creature on Earth than a liar, a cheat and a traitor. And bringing about a fellow soldier’s end was never easy. In some ways, it felt like a second betrayal. Look what you’ve forced me to do, the Soldier thought, watching the kid screaming into the wind. The Soldier let the boy scream. The wind would carry his voice south, away from the camp.
The cry of a traitor. He would remember it for his own times of weakness.
The Soldier shifted in the sand, lined up a headshot, and followed Danny in the crosswires as he got up one last time.
‘Target acquired,’ the Soldier murmured to himself, exhaling slowly. ‘Executing directive.’
He pulled the trigger. What the Soldier saw through the scope made him smile sadly. He rose, flicked the bipod down on the end of the huge gun and slung the weapon over his shoulder.
‘Target terminated. Mission complete.’
He walked down the embankment into the dark.