The first thing that struck him was the heat. The commercial jet he’d arrived in had been air-conditioned; he hadn’t expected to disembark straight into the open air. He was more used to airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, where one got off a plane straight into a building. The air was humid and Andrew knew that it wouldn’t take long for even moderate exercise to leave him sweaty and uncomfortable. Still, there was quite a strong wind blowing, which helped keep him cool for now.
He walked across the tarmac with the other passengers towards the Arrivals building. He was the only one in uniform so he wasn’t surprised that these others were casting him looks quite frequently. He felt the rush of pride which came with knowing that he had made it through to become a member of such an elite force.
At the Arrivals building he passed swiftly through Passport Control and Customs, without incident, and headed off to join his new colleagues at the meeting point they’d all been told to report to. In the distance, he could see some of the other lieutenants he had trained with. There was no sign of his Company, who had been given the same leave as he had. He guessed they had already all arrived and left for the camp that would be their new home for the foreseeable future.
“Andy,” called a voice from the small group of lieutenants as he approached it. “Welcome to Venezuela. How were your flights, okay?”
He recognized the low tones of Stefan Vladimir. At first the greeting sounded strange and it took Andrew a second or two to realise Stefan was speaking in Werlderin. It was, of course, mandatory at the Academy and in the Werlder Force in general. With people from so many different nations serving together it was essential that they all used and understood a common language. But he’d quickly slipped back into English when he’d been home, so he thought it might take a little while to get back into the habit of thinking in Werlderin.
That was the trick really. Thinking in the language rather than trying to translate everything, then translate an answer back into the language. Classes didn’t really allow this. It was too easy to slip back into English and the time one spent there was not enough to accomplish this. Living and working in an environment where Werlderin was the only language spoken made thinking in it so much easier.
He recognized most of the other lieutenants from the Academy. Drew Ortega from the Philippines, his 5′ 7″ frame hiding the enormous strength Andrew knew he had, Hitu Kopapetu from India, his dark features contrasting quite sharply with the white dress uniform he was wearing, and Clive Bayley, a Canadian whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to be drunk, as much and as often as possible.
He recognized others too, but although they’d been in many of the same classes, they had been living in different dormitories, so he didn’t know them quite so well.
There were other faces too, that he didn’t recognize at all. He quickly learned that these were experienced lieutenants who had been reassigned from other locations.
There were a couple of captains too, and he saluted these as he approached. They too had been given leave, before starting their new assignment in Venezuela.
“Word is,” said Stefan, once Andrew had closed the gap between them to a discreet distance, “that we’re going to be setting up a new camp, to stop the drugs barons smuggling their wares out of Bolivia and Colombia. Probably won’t be as exciting as facing the North Koreans, or keeping the Taliban in check in Afghanistan, but it’ll beat kicking around one of the big bases waiting for there to be a disaster to go and help in. That’s where Peters and Yip have gone.”
“What about Chang?” asked Andrew. Paul Chang had been a particular friend at the Academy, but Andrew had missed saying his goodbyes to him as Paul had broken his leg in the final exercise, falling over a wall of all things, and had been rushed to hospital as a result.
“I don’t think he made the final cut, unfortunately.” Stefan said ‘unfortunately’ but Andrew could tell he didn’t really mean it. ‘Someone had to go – better him than me’ he was probably thinking. Stefan and Paul had been friendly enough with each other, but never particularly close.
Andrew nodded, sad that his friend hadn’t made it but realising too, as Stefan obviously did, that it was inevitable some of the lieutenants go in the final cut. There weren’t enough positions for all of them.
Andrew wasn’t quite the last of the group to arrive and he waited patiently with the others for the final two to arrive. During that time he found out the names of his new colleagues, and their life histories – or at least, their histories in the Werlder Force, and made small talk with his friends, old and new, about what they had spent their leave during.
Most, like Andrew, had used the time to visit family back home. Hitu on the other hand had no close family back in India, and loved the cold for some reason, so had spent his vacation time in Switzerland. His tales of skiing and the après ski amusements, soon made all of the ‘family’ stories seem quite tame.
Once they were joined by Freddie Thompson a smallish white South African with a wicked sense of humour, and Toby Kwang, a Namibian who was quiet most of the time but usually very profound when he did choose to speak, their party was complete and they set out for the car park to find their ride to base.
Andrew was relieved to see it was a minibus rather than a lorry that would be taking them to their final destination, but then a little disappointed when he learned that it wasn’t air-conditioned, as he had expected. With a lorry at least you had air blowing through the canvas to help cool you down.
The journey was uneventful but long, and it had already fallen into darkness when they finally arrived.
The minibus took them straight to their new C.O.’s offices, where they were introduced, handed over their orders, and told that they would be sleeping with their men in the mobile units that had already arrived.
“The powers that be don’t see this as a ‘long-term’ assignment,” explained their new C.O., a colonel who was again British, or actually Scottish from the sound of his accent. “Besides,” he added, “many of you won’t be staying here that long. We want you to get a bit closer to the border. I’ll explain more tomorrow at the briefing.”
He wished them all a goodnight and left them to get instructions on where to find their various billets from an old(ish) corporal, the C.O.’s batman no doubt.
His room was very near that of Stefan’s, and they walked together in the direction they had been told, talking excitedly about the new information they’d been given so far. It wasn’t much, but it still fuelled the need to speculate, to wonder exactly what they would be doing here, and why.
When his torch beam told him he had found the right unit, Andrew bid Stefan a goodnight and opened the door as quietly as he could. The heavy bags he was carrying made this quite difficult but he made an effort at least.
Most of the bunks were empty, and he supposed the team were upstairs, regaling each other with tales of their vacations, and making free with the beers in the well-stocked fridge that would undoubtedly be there. A couple of bunks were occupied though, one with a sleeping body curled snugly in the warmth of his sleeping bag and one guy still awake, reading by the bedside light provided for that purpose. Andrew recognized Private Mendez, the radio operator who had been with him all the way through the last exercise.
“Hi Sir, good trip?”
Andrew nodded, too tired to go into any details.
“Not up with the others?” he enquired, somewhat pointlessly, as Private Mendez obviously wasn’t.
“No Sir, bit tired. Besides, someone had to make sure you arrived safely didn’t they, and I drew the lucky straw.” Private Mendez smiled at this last comment, as did Andrew.
“Think I’ll turn straight in – bit tired myself after a day’s travelling. I’ll see the team tomorrow.”
“Okay Sir,” he heard, as he stepped through the door into the very small space that was to be his bedroom until told otherwise. He wondered briefly about unpacking but decided against it tonight. Instead he shook off the uniform he was wearing and hung everything up in the wardrobe under the bed. It had dried out as the sun had sunk, but Andrew knew he’d be spending a lot of time washing and ironing, in these conditions.
He climbed wearily up into the bed. He didn’t zip up the sleeping bag he had crawled into – it might get too hot in the night and he’d need to be able to throw it open but for now it was comforting to pull it tightly around him. He snapped off the light above him that had guided him into this resting place, and laid his head on the pillow which felt soft and cool to his touch.
He hadn’t long been wondering about these new sleeping arrangements, and whether he should really be with the new more experienced men he hadn’t met yet, when exhaustion overcame him and he fell asleep.