“The trick is to take the sachet of instant coffee and crumble it into the dehydrated breakfast pack,” Coby whispered. “Not only do you get an extra shot of caffeine, but it actually makes it taste… almost good, somehow.”
Sebastian was two years older than Coby, but seemed far, far younger. He didn’t seem to have much experience or common sense, and that often made him seem naive and even a little bit stupid to others. But he wasn’t stupid - he was incredibly smart, just not in any of the ways the army cared about. He might struggle with setting up camp, polishing his boots and making his bed to the army’s ridiculous standards, but he could name every single part of every single rifle they had to take apart, he could calculate exact distances by eye, and his knowledge of tactics and strategy - which he’d learned entirely through research - was incredible. He could think two steps ahead of anyone, he just wasn’t very good at any of the bits that involved fighting or surviving.
Coby didn’t mind helping him. He was glad to have one more friend, and secretly even more glad to have someone who looked up to him, who filled out the parts of him that were missing.
“How do you learn all these things?” Sebastian asked, ever inquisitive. “It would be great if there were some kind of archive of all the useful tips that anyone in the history of the army has ever discovered.”
“Sorry, Seb, some things just don’t get written down in books.” Coby tapped his head. “They’re stored up here and passed down from person to person.”
“Like the great epics,” Sebastian whispered, reverently.
They were due to head out tomorrow for the last part of their final exercise in Basic Training. It was week four, and they’d gone through hell - being yelled at by their drill sergeant, cleaning the floors with toothbrushes, being tested on trigger discipline until their fingers bled. It didn’t seem to affect Coby. When he was taking orders, he was like a robot. He would do exactly what was asked of him with no complaint, even when a drill sergeant was right in his face, spitting with rage.
“Privates, atten-TION!” The drill sergeant and an accompanying officer entered the barracks, uniforms perfectly pressed, boots shiny enough that you could see your face in them.
Coby jumped to his feet, dropping the boot he had been polishing and clicking his heels together, chin high, arms by his side, back straight. He had excelled at drill training.
Sebastian, not so much. He stumbled to his feet, and once standing, he kept flicking his eyes over to Coby to check and correct his own posture.
The drill sergeant and the officer walked slowly, menacingly, through the ranks of soldiers, who, only seconds before, had been casually lounging around the barracks. Now, they had fear in their eyes - they were not expecting an inspection, and the beds were unmade, the floors were dusty, and their possessions were not stored tidily in the metal footlockers at the end of their beds.
“At ease, men.” Coby’s feet moved to be shoulder width apart, his muscles relaxing a little. Sebastian copied him.
“Tomorrow’s exercise is your final one, and you should, by this point, be exemplary soldiers.” The sergeant looked around the room, eyes deliberately resting on the untidy areas. “You were told at the beginning of training to be ready for an inspection at any minute. I can see that most of you did not heed that warning.” He walked over to Coby.
The drill sergeant bent down and picked up Coby’s shoes by the laces, as if they were dirty.
“What is this, private?”
“And why are they on the floor, and not on your feet?”
“I was polishing them, sir!”
The drill sergeant took one boot in his hand and looked at the toe, where Coby had been working on getting a mirror-like shine. “Hm. Good job so far, Private Blair.” He showed them to the officer, who nodded appreciatively, and then turned to Sebastian.
“Sir,” Sebastian replied, with a great deal less confidence in his voice than Coby had had.
“Your boots are not up to this standard. Do you see how shiny Private Blair’s boots are?”
“Uh, sir, yes, sir.”
“Have your boots this shiny by tomorrow, and have your kit ironed, properly, or I will write you down for a misdemeanour. Do you understand me, Private Collins?”
Sebastian looked despondent.
“Sir. Uh, yes, sir, yes. Sir.”
The drill sergeant dropped Coby’s boot on the floor and spun on his heel to address the entire room. “That goes for all of you men. There is no excuse for not having your uniform meet the proper standards required. It is a matter of pride. It is a matter of discipline. It is a matter of showing that you give a damn about this army. About fighting for our world. Anyone whose uniform is not up to standard will be expected to run the obstacle course outside until I get tired of watching you.” He paused for effect, a menacing smile creeping across his face. “And I can go for hours.”
That night, Sebastian did not sleep. His bunkbed was the one above Coby’s, and Coby could hear him frantically buffing the toes of his boots, occasionally sighing or grunting in frustration. Finally, he could take it no more, and he climbed out of bed and poked his head up.
“Seb. Let me help.”
“No, Coby. You’ll get in trouble. He’ll know.”
“He won’t know. How could he? It’s not like I’ll leave a fingerprint. Chill. I’ve got this.”
Sebastian reluctantly handed over his boots to Coby.
“Get some sleep, Seb. Boots are not as important as passing the exercise tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay,” Seb whispered back, sleepily. “Thank you, Coby.”
“Atten-TION!” The call rang out around the tiny barracks, as men scrambled to jump out of bed, in various states of undress, and put their kit on as fast as they could. When they were all assembled, lined up at the end of their beds, and fully dressed, the drill sergeant started his walk down the lines, inspecting their uniform.
“Private Sanders. Good. Private Nell. Good. Private Cooper. Good, very good.” He reached Sebastian and stopped.
The drill sergeant looked at his feet.
“Private Collins, who did your boots?”
“I...I did, sir,” Sebastian stammered.
“I don’t believe you, private.”
Sebastian was sweating. “Sir, I promise, I did them-”
The drill sergeant turned to Coby, who was staring directly in front of himself, not blinking, and trying incredibly hard not to look over.
“Private Blair. This was your work, wasn’t it?”
Coby did not look over. “Sir, no sir.”
The drill sergeant slammed his open palm against the metal bedframe and both Coby and Sebastian flinched.
“Listen closely, privates. When I ask you to do something, I DO NOT MEAN GET YOUR FRIEND TO DO IT FOR YOU. When you are out there in the field, when you are under fire, WHEN YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR NO ONE BUT YOUR DAMN FOOL SELF, you cannot rely on your friends to look after you. Your friends are not your mommy. SAY IT.”
“My friends are not my mommy,” the room echoed.
The sergeant turned back to Sebastian.
“Private Collins, you have failed basic training. Pack up your things and get out of here. I do not want to see your face again.”
Sebastian was frozen in shock.
“LEAVE,” the drill sergeant bellowed in his face.
As he turned to exit the room, Coby finally blinked. “Sir, please,” he said, out loud, barely believing that it was his own voice. Every man in the room turned to look at him in disbelief, including Sebastian who was on the floor, emptying his locker, and the drill sergeant, who had turned on his heel and looked so incredulous that Coby thought the vein might pop in his forehead.
“What did you say, private?”
“I… Sir, it wasn’t Private Collins’ fault. He was really trying. I made him go to sleep, I made him give me his boots. Sir, if you punish anyone… let it be me.”
The drill sergeant stamped over to Coby. “I can have you written down for insubordination just for a start, private. How dare you speak to me like this?”
Coby tried to stay resilient in the face of threat. “Please, sir. My record is clean. I have passed every test and exercise with flying colours. Let me take this punishment. Just… please don’t make Private Collins leave. He worked hard for this.” Coby was looking the sergeant in the eyes now.
The sergeant paused, rage simmering in his eyes, but clearly Coby’s plea had got to him. He looked at Coby for a long, long time, his face inches from Coby’s, teeth gritted. Coby couldn’t decide whether he was going to tell him to leave the army as well, but finally he moved backwards.
“Private Collins,” he said, still looking at Coby. “Stop packing. Private Blair here has offered to save you.” There was disdain in his voice, but he had listened.
He turned back to the whole room. “Another important lesson to learn, privates, is that you are collectively responsible for one person’s fuck-ups. One person fails a bomb check, you all die. One person misfires his weapon, you all die. One person disobeys orders…” He looked pointedly at Sebastian. “You. All. Die. Do I make myself clear?”
“Sir, yes sir,” the room shouted in chorus.
The sergeant turned once more and crouched down next to Sebastian, whose look of relief quickly turned back to one of fear.
“You listen to me, private,” the sergeant hissed. “This will be your last fuck-up. And if I catch Private Blair helping you again, you are both out of here. Understand?” Sebastian nodded.
“Good.” And with that, the sergeant walked out again, slamming the door behind him. Sebastian immediately burst into tears. Coby exhaled the breath he’d been holding in.
Sometimes being brave is the stupidest thing you can do.