This article is a work of fiction and is not knowingly based on the life of any person, alive or otherwise.
There’s dirt on my face. I wasn’t expecting the dirt. Or the fear. Pixels can’t really capture the terror, the bleakness of my situation. I remember, looking down on the carnage as a child, pushing toy tanks around like it didn’t matter. The candy-coloured war games were foolish, foolish for everyone.
I first played Advance Wars when I was a child. Everything seemed so much simpler then, y’know? Defeat the bad guys, win the war, save the world. The friendly Commanding Officers seemed as innocent as could be, barely children and waging war against the devilish forces of the Black Hole army. And factories just pumped out units, pushed out tanks and planes and soldiers as long as you had the money to fund them. I didn’t know the truth like I do now.
After leaving school, I was at a cross roads in my life. I was a smart kid, but I never excelled. I could take orders but I never had the stomach to take the lead. I was a strike out at life. And then I realised I could be part of something bigger than myself: the Orange Star Academy. I could step out of that video game world and be a real hero, on the front line. I could move past those imitations wars, foolish propaganda, and fight in the real war against Black Hole. An enemy that was proving far less easy to conquer.
My time at the Academy was fair, if not what I expected. While the soldiers in the gameplay I knew so dearly never flinched in the face of certain danger, significant numbers of the veteran infantry at our base were suffering from gruesome injuries, post-traumatic stress, fierce depixelation. The lucky ones that had been spared from the fallout of kamikaze assaults lay motionless in the recovery wings, overflowing with casualties. The guys that were really spooked were those on the sidelines, spared from true warfare. I lost track of how many mech squad survivors I talked to during my training who had seen their entire battalion being gunned down mercilessly as they ran for cover. They should have been done for abandonment but maybe Orange Star didn’t have the heart to do it. It knew what it was asking its men to do, it had the heart to send them to die.
This is the kind of imagery that filtered through the press during the campaign but it never told the whole story. I can tell you that the troops actually being fired at didn’t feel as carefree.
Despite the trauma that surrounded me at the academy, my training was successful. While a great deal of energy was put into conditioning the new recruits into forgoing empathy with our enemies, I was more than prepared for the empty bloodshed ahead of me. Taking the time to talk to the survivors wasting away in the hospital wards gave me all the motivation I needed to become efficient. Cold. Flashbacks to my childhood reminded me just how disconnected commanding officers could be, as cruel as our opponents and I knew that I couldn’t depend on anyone else for my survival. It was the cadets that couldn’t even look the wounded in the eye that I feared for most, you could almost see the lines of their coding running like cogs, desperate to find a course of action that would free them from these death games.
My promise was soon acknowledged by those in power at the academy and I was quickly fast tracked to more prestigious and less perilous divisions. My interactions with the Commanding Officers grew ever more meaningful and my relationships with them could even have been classed as friendships if they didn’t see the likes of me as cannon fodder. I’d like to think the exception to that was Sami, one of Orange Star’s leading commanders and an expert in the use of infantry soldiers. During my years of service, I worked closely with her on numerous occassions and she always made an effort to keep me safe, out of harm’s way. I like to think she cared but maybe she just wasn’t as heartless as the rest of them. I’d like to think that too.
Following my graduation from the academy, I was quickly sent out on a flurry of dangerous missions. Luckily, we never sustained heavy casualties thanks to advantageous terrain, weather conditions or weakened targets. I was then transferred to a reconnaissance mech squad that specialised in gathering intel and taking out big targets without a lot of attention. We were good at what we did but there was always an element of risk at hand, on countless occasions our Commanding Officer dropped the ball and we were on our own, deep behind enemy lines and wildly outgunned. I’m not proud of it but there were missions when I used the bodies of my men as cover from enemy artillery or gunfire, anything to keep me alive. In this game the dead are forgotten, maybe I was at least giving them one last chance to be a hero.
That all changed when I was assigned to lead a squad for an assault on Cape Point. This was no small mission, co-ordinating with troops from Green Earth and Yellow Comet who could barely speak English but always seemed to have better cigarettes. We were part of an attack on all fronts against a secret Black Hole development lab, surrounding them from land, sea and air. As we climbed into our tank, something felt different. I ignored my gut instinct and drove across dirt and deprivation. My gut told me everyday to get out of this sickness, I wasn’t about to start listening to it now.
As we dismounted from our transport and approached the doors of Black Hole’s base, things were far too quiet. The cover fire we were laying down seemed unnecessary but our enemy would never have left such a coveted facility unguarded, so defenceless. And then I realised, it was a trap. Instantly, I ordered my team to flee the scene, to fall back but an Anti-Air unit spawned from the undergrowth and blocked off their exit, trapping them directly in the target zone of Black Hole’s incoming silo attack. I didn’t question my actions as I charged for the enemy tank, spraying machine gun at its windscreen and killing the driver.
I turned to see that my men were still too close, still going to be killed by a full impact from the missile… but what if I took it out in mid-air? The blast would still be dangerous but they’d stand more of a chance, taking cover would shield them from a premature explosion. I spun the Anti-Air’s gun turret and began firing at the missile, trying to shoot it down as best I could. I considered running for cover but the automatic controls were jammed, this was the only way to save my men. Yards before impact the silo’s warhead gave in to my gunfire and detonated, ripping apart my tank and throwing me across the terrain as my squad fled amid the carnage.
As I lay there in the dirt, I feel the life seeping out of me. The dirt feels real now, more real than it did in those early missions, more really than in the two dimensional world of a video game. This was my game over, my credits screen and no one was here to see it. I could sense footfall, running, screams of pain as massive tanks obliterated mere men for the cruel satisfaction of victory. Gunfire, smoke, artillery, numbing pain as the land forgets me, shaking off my very memory as it mechanically pushes on.
I think of Sami. I don’t know why she’s my dying thought but it’s as good as anything else. She always said I looked like a proper man in my red helmet, a soldier. I always told her that I still felt like a boy playing war games in the back garden, waiting to get called in for the evening and have my cardboard machine gun decommissioned by my mother.
Sami looked into my eyes from across the camp fire, the crackling embers that brought peace to an otherwise solitary night at base. She picked up her tin cup and emergency rations, headed for her tent for the night but as she was about to go inside she looked back and said, “Life’s just a game, soldier. The challenge is figuring out what’s worth saving.”
And my world went black.