It was dark in the back of the lorry, but the rear was open and four gunmen sat with their legs swinging over the side. Rohan was grateful for this as it allowed the moon to cast silver shadows across the faces of the other teenagers, blurring their expressions. He could almost feel their thoughts spinning and whirring around inside his own head, and he kept his eyes focused on the terrain outside, watching, listening, imprinting the journey on his mind in the hope that he would be able to find his way back. But, there was little chance of escape, not with the men guarding them. He hoped they might stop somewhere, allow them to stretch their legs, to pee, and then he might slip into a wooded area and make himself invisible. Yet, the lorry kept rolling on into the inky darkness.
For the men, it was as though the chaos in the street and Harper’s death had never happened. They were calm, laidback and one of them was singing out of tune; Rohan wondered if that was how it felt to hold a weapon.
Beside him a boy was crying softly, so as not to draw attention to himself. Rohan glanced at the boy and recognised him as Monty, a harmless unassuming young man who often helped the older folk in the village with their gardens and vegetable patches.
Monty must’ve seen that Rohan was looking at him because soon after he tugged on his T-shirt and whispered, “Where are they taking us, Rohan?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think they will kill us?”
“Why would they kill us for no reason?” said Rohan.
“They killed Harper.”
“They killed Harper because he was a fool. Can the same be said for me and you?”
Monty shook his head. He thought about it and said, “No we’re not fools, but … I’m scared, Rohan.” His whisper cracked with these words.
Rohan faced Monty so that he could see his face. “People get scared when they are supposed to; those that don’t get scared aren’t normal.”
Monty was silent for a while.
The lorry was travelling along the mountain highway, and Rohan kept his face to the cool night breeze. He needed to keep his head clear, to be able to think. Allowing panic to set in would only make things harder.
Monty’s low voice penetrated his thoughts again. “Rohan, do you think they will teach us how to fight and operate guns?”
“Maybe,” said Rohan. “The world is going through a tough time and people are—”
The sound of gunfire halted Rohan mid-sentence. Bullets seemed to rip the night apart, ricocheting from the lorry and making them cover their ears to block the sound. The four guards scrambled inside the lorry and lay flat on their stomachs, weapons aimed outside the vehicle.
One of them warned, “Everyone lay flat on the floor and do not raise your head. I repeat, do not raise your head!”
Like everyone else, Rohan lay flat on the floor of the lorry, the smell of diesel oil filling his nostrils. Bullets whistled above their heads and echoed inside the truck. Beside him, Monty was crying gently.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shooting stopped and the world outside grew silent once more. The armed guards resumed their position at the rear of the lorry, legs swinging over the side, lighting cigarettes. Rohan wondered how bad the northern land must be for these men to have become so blasé about a gun attack from nowhere in the middle of the night. It was this that scared him more than being dragged from his bed and taken from his home in a lorry filled with other scared teenagers.
Taking a deep breath, he shuffled closer to the guards as the kids resumed their places around the truck’s interior. “Can I ask you something?” he said.
They tightened their grip on their guns and turned to look at him.
“Go talk to your mates,” said the one closest to Rohan.
“They seem to have lost their appetite for small-talk.”
“Huh?” said the man peering behind Rohan.
“Well, if someone dragged you from your bed in the middle of the night and blew the brains out of someone you grew up with, you might not want to make small-talk either.”
Another man laughed out loud. “He’s got a point. Remember how we felt when we were first taken?”
“You mean … you guys were abducted as well?” He didn’t know why, but Rohan had unrealistically assumed that these men had chosen to enlist as soldiers. He would never have guessed they were once a normal boy like himself.
“You think we chose to be here?”
“I … yes, I guess.” Rohan shrugged. “Where are they taking us?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. If we told you, you’d wish you hadn’t asked.”
Rohan’s heart lurched in his chest and he swallowed hard. “I don’t think curiosity is abnormal in this situation, do you?”
The man eyed him up as if deciding whether to continue the conversation or not. Eventually he said, “You’re going to be sold.”
“Sold?” Rohan’s heart was thumping against his ribcage and he forced himself to remain calm. “Sold to whom?”
“The highest bidder,” said the man closest to Rohan. He took a long drag from his cigarette and offered it to Rohan who declined. “There are plenty of them, but Nicholas De Vine is the one with all the power right now. He’s the one gathering an army about him.”
That name again. “Who is Nicholas De Vine? Why does he need an army?”
The man frowned at him. “Where have you been living – under a rock? He’s the region’s warlord, amongst other things, and powerful men need powerful armies to back them up. Nicholas De Vine Junior that is. If we were taking you on Nicholas Senior’s behalf,” the guard shrugged, “let’s just say I’d shoot you now, save you the pain.”
Until now, Rohan had managed to keep his thoughts clear, but these words resounded in his head. He suddenly had the feeling that whatever was about to happen to the boys in the back of this truck, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. He glanced around the inside of the vehicle – there were a lot of them – and wondered whether they could overpower the gunmen if they stuck together: they might be able to seize the weapons before they had a chance to shoot, maybe even force the driver to stop and set them free, but these guys were armed soldiers. And they were just boys.
He prayed these guys didn’t have all the facts and there would be another way out for him when they reached their destination. He took a deep breath and tried to get the men talking again. “So, Nicholas De Vine Junior,” he said, “he’ll buy us to fight for him?”
“Depends,” continued the same man. “They might want you as a Brainiac. If you’re intelligent enough, they’ll use you for your brain, drill into your skull and insert an electrode to process specialised information for them.” The man continued to stare at Rohan. “You might do yourself a favour and stop talking. I’ve seen those kids, and it isn’t pretty.”
The man next to him chuckled. “With the cloning machines being so scarce, they might sell you for body parts instead. We can make a bit for a pair of decent kidneys.”
“But that’s not even the biggest money-earner,” added the first one. “The big units are made from selling a Superstar.”
Rohan could no longer tell if they were trying to shock him or simply winding him up. “Okay,” he said. “What’s a Superstar?”
The guard waved his hand dismissing Rohan. “No point us telling you everything before we get there. We gotta hold something back.”
It was obvious they were done with the conversation, so Rohan resumed his place beside Monty. “What did they say?” Monty whispered.
Rohan stared at the guards’ backs and the dark sky behind them. “They said we’ll all be okay.”
Monty closed his eyes and Rohan rolled over, cradling his head in his arms, and fell into a deep slumber.
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