The rain fell a bit more softly now, and combat boots tracking through the complex’s open yard stirred the mud to stew. Jonathan’s platoon hunkered under some of the grossly inadequate roof edges around its edge, devouring last bits of mess hall rations or slumped in fitful rest.
The dreary scene belied the reason for their wait. Along with all the bedraggled platoons huddled and milling about the open space, each in their own slightly varied uniforms and in varying states of wholeness and health, Jonathan’s had been identified and called back from the front lines. It was the news any soldier hardly dared hope for. The promise of returning home; of leaving the scurge of the battlefield. It was a rare occurrence. Most platoons were simply whittled down to nothing, death erasing their memory before any of their members were called back. But by some divine luck, these groups of war-hardened soldiers were now waiting for final release from uniformed life to walk out of the complex and return to their families or to life after the duty of enlistment. A life they could choose.
Jonathan’s eyes were tired but he couldn’t sleep. He gazed out over the yard, half-focused, his mind empty and wandering. Thus, a growing commotion at the far gate took him several moments to comprehend. His attention finally caught like a stubborn wick, and as it did others around him began to look too.
The gate was opening but too slowly; force was apparently being exerted on both sides and it complained in the confusion. A man’s voice shouted aggressively, then a few more punctuated the soft murmer of the rain. And then Jonathan saw the first newcomers through the gathering of soldiers that had already been inside the yard now clumping at the gate.
A flash of yellow, bedraggled but unmistakeably distinct from anything in the yard thus far, peaked through the crowd and more began to fill the space behind. The arriving platoon was a sort Jonathan had never seen; only heard about. They were the subject of slander and sardonic laughter around campfires late at night when his mates felt at ease and brash on their whiskey – the topic didn’t surface much but every once in a while, someone would mention the yellow-jacketed platoons that existed only on the far reaches of the front lines. They were few and far between. They weren’t stuff of legend as much as scorn. Some said they were only half as tall as normal men; some said they had been banned from fighting until just a year ago when the situation turned worse and Parliament had issued an emergency draft expanding the list of citizens required to serve. Some who talked about them sounded genuinely disgusted by them; that they were lesser, infected with terrible diseases, capable of peculiar sorcery, or were, to a man, turncoats or cowards. Never had Jonathan heard them mentioned, if mentioned at all, in an honorable light.
And now, a whole group of them – sodden and bloodstained – were entering the yard. Most of them had their heads down. Some comprehended their surroundings with more fire or distaste. Their company included two horse-drawn carts carrying wounded. Their commanding officer in the front carried papers in his hand and was now engaged in a tense discussion with an officer from another platoon who had sauntered up and was flanked by two of his men, all carrying themselves like alcohol-emboldened bucks in a pub itching to pick a fight.