Disposable Heroes

The baby boom after the Third World War meant that the countries that had survived had populations that they could not control. Government orphanages were set up, but the truth was, for every eligible adult that could adopt, there were about ten children waiting.

Jacob was one of those children.

When women found themselves pregnant after the war, they realised there was no way they could afford to keep the children. So they took them to the orphanages, most of them keeping their identity secret, not wishing to see their children in 16 or 17 years time, when the sight of the children they had given up would put them in a guilt trip worse than that they experienced when they had first given them up.

Jacob's mother was one of those women.

Jacob spent his first 12 years of his life at the orphanage, before the Fourth War broke out.

It was too soon after the last war, and the country had a limited amount of men to send forward.

They were, after all these years, still fighting with guns. They didn't even have tanks any more, not after the last war.

It was hard to say which of the countries had started the war, it may have even been the country Jacob was living in, but they were at war, with no men, and that was all that mattered.

They turned to the orphanages, and took those children that were over the age of 5.

They were bundled into a van, and driven away from the orphanage.

The fighting took place in the wastelands, once flourishing towns and villages, destroyed by the last war that took place.

Jacob cowered in the trench, his gun pulled against his chest as tears rolled down his face.

"I want to go home." He cried. "Let me go home!"

His General stood in front of him, scowling at him. Her blonde hair was tied back, her 15-year-old face scared and hardened by 6 months of war.

She slapped him. "A soldier does not cry, Private." She snapped her eyes narrow as she gazed at him. "You know the rules. 25 kills and you can have a week's rest."

The bullets held in them an electronic device, which sent a signal to Head Office when it sensed there was no life in whomever it had landed in. Jacob knew his 'score', as it were. 16 injuries, 22 kills.

"Three more, Private."

At 50 kills, you had another week's rest. 100 and you got promoted. Within 6 months, this girl had killed 250 of the enemy. At 300, you were given the chance to go home.

He closed his eyes, as she drifted away, leaving him.

He heard the call, and along with the other children, he leapt over the side and started firing.

He watched as one of the boys fell to the floor, a boy no older than six, who had been sent here last week.

With a cry, Jacob ran back, firing over his shoulder, before he jumped into the trench.

Panting, he wiped the tears from his eyes, gripping his gun as he chewed his lip, scared.

"Well done solider." His General winked at him. "26 kills."

He reported to the Office a week later. For the whole 'week of rest' he had been watched closely, in case he tried to escape.

He stood in front of the Major, who lifted his eyes and stared at him.

"12…fuck." He shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "They just keep sending you kids to me…" He closed his eyes. "You want to go home, don't you boy?" The Major, to Jacob, looked old. He had streaks of grey in his dark hair, dark patches under his eyes. The war had aged him beyond his 32 years. Or maybe it was the children. Every day he had reports of a child killing his 50th enemy, no older than 16. Even the enemies were using their children now.

Jacob nodded. "Yes sir. But there are rumours; the orphanages aren't taking us back."

The man sighed. "That's because they have too many children." He let out a bitter laugh. "Three orphanages have been built, boy, since this war started, seven months ago. People are panicking that they will be killed, so they do what they like, sleep with who they want, end up with children they can't pay for. It's been going on for years, but now…" He leaned back. "People don't realise that if this war is still going on in 5 years, then the children they give up now for a better life will end up here."

Jacob nodded, understanding that this man, this Major, needed to get this off his chest, needed to talk about it.

He studied Jacob. "Home…I guess you don't have a home, do you boy?"

Jacob shook his head. "No sir."

"What's your name, Private?"

"Jacob."

The man seemed to consider this. "I had a son, once, you know. A little boy, same age as you actually." He glanced at the ceiling.

Jacob listened.

"I tell you what…" The Major pulled his eyes down, looking at Jacob. "I finish my service in 2 weeks. When I have done so, I will take you back with me. Would you like that?"

Jacob nodded, slowly. "Yes, sir."

"Good." He nodded slowly, smiling gently at the boy. "Now, back to the front."

Jacob shivered, his foot aching already from the boots. He dug his heels in, looking around, wondering when they'd get something to eat.

"Hey," He called to a boy sitting not too far from him. "When we getting food?"

The boy lifted his head, dark eyes shining at Jacob. He shrugged. "Where've you been? They're not giving us much; we have to eat whatever we can catch."

"What do you mean?"

The boy looked around, and even as he did, a rat scampered out and past him. Immediately, the boy's hand reached out and swiftly, one hand holding his gun, the other on the rat, he broke the creature's next.

"I mean," He bit into the rat, and Jacob could hear bone crunch in the animal's body, as the boy snapped it in two, pulling it apart. Jacob shrank back against the side of the trench, as he saw the rat's organs being pulled apart, bones struggling to stay fixed together. "We eat what we can catch."

He held out half the rat to Jacob, who turned and threw up. With the vomit came memories of the last three weeks he had spent here, when they had had a small amount of food, but no one had caught rats.

He remembered seeing a six year old boy gunned down before his eyes, remembered the blood and guts that had spilled everywhere, breaking as easily as the rat he had seen.

They were replaceable. For every 10 of them killed here, there were 15 or 20 more children at home who would be turning 5 soon, who would become eligible for fighting.

Replaceable.

It was a word that Jacob had come to associate with children, with every child that sat here with him, with every child that sat in the trenches opposite them. The enemy. They were children too, weren't they?

Replaceable.

He had come to link it with the General, the girl who had slapped him. During his week away, she had gone over with her Private's, and been shot down almost immediately. 299 kills, one more, and she would go home. One more. Her body, according to the soldiers who returned, had seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces. Destroyed by three bullets from three different children. Immediately, she had been replaced by a thirteen-year-old boy who had just killed his 250th enemy.

Replaceable.

Now, Jacob realised, he was irreplaceable. Now he had a reason to survive, a reason to live through the next two weeks. Even if the war lasted for another 5, 6, 7 years, he would be safe, in the Major's home.

It was this thought that got him through the few days. Every time he went over the top, he would keep the picture of the Major in his head; remember him, his words, and the thoughts that he would soon be leaving this living hellhole.

It was less than three days before the end of the two weeks, when Jacob would be taken by the Major, when he received word from the new General – the thirteen year old boy whose hands were dark, dirty and rough, whose face was pale and drawn, whose body was thin, ribs showing – had told the men that the Major who had, for the last six months, made sure they had enough to eat, made sure they got their week off when they killed enough, had died.

That night, as they tried to sleep in the cold, muddy trenches, most of them ignored the weeping of Jacob, as he silently mourned for the man who could have taken him away from these trenches.

Jacob wasn't to know that the Major had written home, knowing he was close to death, to his wife, a woman who had become infertile not long after the death of their own son. He had told her about a boy who looked very much like their own son, their own Joseph. He wrote to her, and proclaimed undying love for her, "for even though my body will die, know that my soul will love on. It will love you. Please take the child back to our home. I know we can not save all, but I ask you to save this one child for me." He also pleaded with her to marry again, to never allow herself to be lonely. At 28, she was beautiful, and, as he explained, had a whole lifetime ahead of her. He included the boy's name, rank, regiment, everything, and with faith in his wife, knew she would take this child away from the horrors for war. The Major was never one to break a promise.

The morning after, the Major's wife would be arriving to pick up Jacob. If he had known, then things may have been so different.

As it was, he was fed up with this hellhole. Fed up of eating rats, of seeing children half his age gunned down in front of his eyes, their blood spilling onto the ground at his feet.

So it was that he climbed over with the others.

They held back, as they always did; ready to jump down when too many of them were killed. Jacob, however, walked forward, his legs carrying him closer and closer towards the enemy camp.

He had dropped his gun, knowing he had no use for it. He felt a bullet rip into his shoulder, saw the blood burst out and splatter onto the ground. A bullet smacked into his leg, causing him to fall to his knees.

His bone was shattered.

He pulled himself to his feet, and carried on walking. By now, he was riddled with bullets, yet he still crawled, as his bones shattered like clay.

He cried out, as a bullet hit his arm and his face landed in the mud.

He swallowed, feeling as the watery mud entered his mouth and slipped down his throat.

He heard footsteps, but no more gunshots.

Replaceable.

"Hey, hey buddy," He felt the butt of a gun knock his head, and was rolled over. He stared up at the two boys, both his own age, who stood over him. "Shit man, what the fuck are you doing out here?"

"Dying." He wheezed out, bitter laughter coming from his mouth.

Replaceable.

"Bloody hell," One of the boys fell to his knees. "You need help."

Jacob narrowed his eyes, taking in their uniform and helmets.

"You're not…like me…are you?"

Replaceable.

They all were.

"Nope lad," The other one smiled sadly. "We're not. But we ain't never had one of you boys up this close."

They seemed older than him, the way they talked, the way they stood.

Jacob closed his eyes, begging for death to take him; the pain was too much to bear.

"We ain't evil though, are we Jacob?"

The boy kneeling next to him shook his head. "Nope, we're not." He looked up and down Jacob's body, and noticed the rips and shreds of skin that hung tightly onto the bullet wounds.

Replaceable.

"Jacob?" He wheezed out, and the boy kneeling nodded. "My name is…is…Jacob…"

"Really?" Jacob smiled, although it was a sad smile. "See, we're not so different, are we Jacob?"

"No." Jacob shook his head. "How many…many are you…on?"

"299." The other boy ran a hand through his head. "I bet those lads who shot you are waiting for you to go, so they can have another one added. But we won't let that happen, will we? We'll take you back, heal you up."

"But…" Jacob stared at the other boy's face. "Why….aren't you…299! One more…"

"And I get to go home."

"Kill me."

"What?"

"Kill me! You can…can go…go home then…"

"But…"

"Please. I want…to…die…too much pain."

"You sure mate?" The boy looked at his companion, who shrugged, indifferent to Jacob's plight.

"Yes!" Jacob gasped out, and felt the cold barrel of a gun against his head.

Replaceable.

"Alright, we'll meet again, eh Jacob?"

Jacob forced himself to smile, as the boy pulled the trigger and the bullet shattered his skull, fragments flying everywhere as the body convulsed.

The bone had smashed easily, broke easily, like a rat's body, like clay.