He’d slept heavily, and it was night time again when he awoke. Reporting to the captain, as he had hoped, hadn’t taken very long. Probably his captain had seen how tired he was and was taking pity on him, because the report he’d offered wasn’t really very detailed.

He now felt ravenous, but dirty too. He’d climbed straight into bed after making his report, without taking any time to shower, or even wash off the worst of the grime he was covered in. He showered before heading to the kitchen on the upper deck, and watched as the water carried away a steady stream of reddish brown dirt. Once he was in a clean uniform he felt much better, and gathered up his dirty clothes to take upstairs to wash.

He found both machines already in use so he left his laundry in a pile on top of the one that didn’t already have one waiting. The two machines they were provided with would be enough under normal circumstances, but sharing them with eight other people who had all just returned from several days away meant they’d be going constantly for a few hours while they caught up.

In the kitchen he pulled the top off of one of the tins from the cupboard there and poured the contents into a bowl, which he placed in one of the microwaves to heat up. It was a kind of beef stew, and looked quite appetising, though right now even more ham would be welcome. It was only a minute or so before the smell of the heating food wafted out to him, and he watched the seconds count down on the timer eagerly.

He was alone in the deck, most of the men he shared the billet with still asleep in their bunks below. Those from the two or three unoccupied ones were probably over at one of the other billets, swapping tales of their exploits of the day before with their colleagues.

“Oh, you’re up at last.” Hitu was emerging from the narrow staircase – not much more than a ladder really – that joined the upper deck to the bunks and showers on the lower one. “I’ve popped up a couple of times but this place as been deserted.”

Hitu had returned from his assignment late that afternoon. Journeys were easier now that the choppers could pick them up from the LZs they were creating, so they only had to journey one way on foot. If nothing else it gave the pilots a chance to familiarise themselves with the location and to ensure the LZ was big enough.

“Lieutenant Forbes brought us back. she was talking quite a lot about you, actually. I gather you two met this morning. Quite an impression you must have made. She certainly seemed to be asking quite a few questions about you.”

Andrew nodded to agree they had indeed met that morning. His meal was ready now, and he was already starting to eat it, choosing the cooler patches from the edges to spoon into his hungry mouth.

He liked Lieutenant Forbes, or at least thought he would from their very brief acquaintance, but she was very far from being his ‘type’. He’d probably have to have ‘that’ conversation with her sooner or later, something he’d avoided doing since he’d first joined the Academy.

He spent the rest of that evening in conversation with Hitu, telling him what he’d found at the town, and listening to Hitu’s own recollections of his first trip out of base, and his subsequent journey to prepare the first of the ambush sites.

They were joined by the men from below as each woke up, each of them coming up to the upper deck to eat. Those that didn’t then head off for other billets sat on the sofas, leaving Andrew and Hitu to share the small table that was provided on their own.

It was late when Hitu finally returned to his own billet. Andrew left to find the sergeant major and issue his instructions for the morning. he’d leave behind one of the less experienced teams, along with the sergeant major himself. He’d already established that Hitu would be taking his own sergeant major with him again, so it made sense for one to be left behind. It would also be an opportunity for Sergeant Johanssen to experience life ‘in the bush’ first hand, and Sergeant Flynn had had a relatively easy day that day.

He turned in after giving these instructions. He wasn’t really tired now. It had only been a few hours since he’d last slept, but the following day’s trek would be hard going again and take its toll, so he’d probably need all of the energy he could muster. It was much harder to get to sleep that night, and he spent some time listening to one of the talking books he’d brought for the purpose on his small MP3 player. It helped stop him thinking of other things that might be on his mind, and as he’d listened to that particular story many times he felt no particular desire to stay awake to find out what happened next. ‘Chapterising’ the book on his PC back home meant that he could listen to a track and when he fell asleep midway through the machine would stop instead of playing the whole thing. Getting new batteries for his player probably wouldn’t be that difficult but he preferred to use them sparingly, and certainly didn’t want it still playing long into the night long after he’d dropped off.

He awoke before dawn the next day, and before his alarm started buzzing him awake. There was little point trying to get back to sleep for the forty five minutes or so his early awakening had gained him. Instead, he took the opportunity to use the communal showers alone, something which so far he’d been doing anyway. He wouldn’t be embarrassed to use these facilities with his men; he was used to it from his schooldays after all. Perhaps they would be if they knew all of the truth about him, but that would be their problem, not his. Still he appreciated the chance it gave to stretch a bit, and to think ahead about what the day might bring, to plan really, without any interruptions.

He pulled on his last clean uniform and made his way up to the kitchen, careful not to disturb the men sleeping in the bunks which lined his way out. He wasn’t surprised to find this, too, deserted, and he flipped on a light to let him see where the cereal boxes lay. He thought for a second. They’d have no hot meals once they left camp until they returned the following evening. He put back the cornflakes packet he’d selected and turned instead to the freezer. He quickly found a breakfast to eat up. It was already cooked and in a plastic container. It would just need defrosting and heating, which would only take a few minutes.

When the microwave pinged to tell him his meal was ready, he took it over to the table and took off the lid. The aroma of the sausage and bacon that hit him as soon as he’d done this was very tempting, and he was soon tucking in with gusto. Some of the sausage was only mildly warm, but better that than the meal being too hot to eat. Maybe he’d try giving it another thirty seconds longer next time. He still hadn’t been joined by anyone else as he placed the now empty container in the waste bin, and washed up the single combination knife and fork he’d used to eat it with. There were separate knives and forks in the drawer of course but he was becoming used to eating with a single implement, preferred it in a way. It left the other hand free for other activities. In this case it had been to enable him to read the paper he’d found on the sofa more easily. It was a few days old, before news of China joining the Alliance, but nonetheless made an interesting read. It was good to know what else was going on in the world.

He realised he hadn’t actually voted yet. He’d have to get online and do that when they returned the following evening. There probably wouldn’t be time to do it now. He’d decided who to vote for State wise, but still hadn’t decided who to pick for the local council. Maybe he’d email Mike to find out who he was going for. It would be more relevant to him after all. Andrew probably wouldn’t return during the time the winning candidate was serving, apart from the occasional break, so wouldn’t really be affected by decisions made at that level.

He brought his kit up from his cabin below. He’d be taking pretty much what he had before, so really only needed to restock the food. He looked for another tin of the beef stew he’d had the previous night. He’d enjoyed that, although maybe that was just because he’d been so hungry. He avoided the ham! It didn’t take long to complete the exercise. They were only expecting to be away for a couple of days but his training had taught him not to make assumptions. Better to carry around a few days’ rations that wouldn’t be used than to have to live off things that could be foraged, or worse still to just go hungry for a few days. So he packed the required week’s worth of supplies, ensuring a bit more variety than last time.

It was getting light when he made his way outside. He returned the salute of the men tasked with guarding the camp for that watch. They were from Hitu’s team so he didn’t really know them, not by name at least. He’d probably learn that over the course of the next few weeks, assuming they remained stationed there.

He found the captain too was also out strolling around the camp. He hadn’t seen him since reporting back from the town so after the obligatory salute had been returned he started making ‘small talk’ with him. This mainly consisted of talking about their task for the next few days but also drifted off into more informal chat about their lives back home, hobbies, that kind of thing. He learned as much as he told. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that Captain Kergoat was a keen chess player. He enjoyed this game himself but rarely got the chance to play anyone.

“We’ll have to have a game when you return tomorrow afternoon, if you feel up to it of course.”

Andrew agreed this was a good plan. He also thought to himself that this would provide a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about his commander, maybe even to raise the possibly touchy topic of how the captain was giving his orders.

The camp had become a bit busier while they were talking. Men, the sergeants mainly, moving between the various billets to ensure the men were now awake and those that would be going out that day preparing for the journeys ahead of them. Both Andrew and the Captain had returned salutes as they’d been offered, but hadn’t got into any conversations with these men. They all seemed deep in their own thoughts and besides were giving the two officers a chance for a private conversation. They all knew what would be needed to be done before the Companies left, so there was no need for additional orders at this point. The captain left him, to take his own breakfast which he hadn’t yet had, adding that he’d see him again in just under another hour, just before they left.

Andrew returned to his own small room for one last check that he’d packed everything he should have. The mens’ bunks were empty now, though the sounds of the running shower told him at least one of them was still on the lower floor.

His kit was in order, so he ascended to the upper deck to greet his men. They’d been selected to stay behind that time, and would spend the morning completing the few chores that needed doing – restocking the water tanks, emptying the chemical toilets, a bit of gardening to keep the camp clear. It was amazing just how quickly the undergrowth was growing back, trying to reclaim the patch of ground that had been seized from it.

After exchanging a little light hearted banter with these men, he visited the other billets under his command, that housing the more experienced men last. At this one, he accepted a cup of coffee and sat with them for a while. It was another opportunity to get to know them a bit more. They seemed as keen to learn more about him too. No doubt what they could learn would be discussed amongst themselves and gossiped about with the other teams when he wasn’t in earshot. He expertly turned the conversation back to them each time they steered it towards himself.

Sergeant Major Smith was in the billet too, eating alone in the kitchen area, and didn’t join in the conversation. He stirred his coffee now and then, sipping from it as it became cooler, and was obviously listening, just not talking.

“OK,” said Andrew rising from the sofa he’d been sat at. “Time to leave very soon.”

He made his way back to his own billet to collect his kit and found that the sergeant major was following him.

“I wouldn’t get too friendly with the men, sir,” he offered in a low voice. “It’ll just make it harder for you if we lose any.”

Andrew thought about this. It wasn’t really something he’d considered – not for this assignment anyway. Once they did start to fight, they’d be up against what had to be untrained men whose only motivation would be the money the drugs barons were paying them for their services. He didn’t really expect to lose anyone, though this was probably actually inevitable.

“Yes, you’re probably right, Sergeant Major,” he replied at last. “As you can probably tell I’m finding getting the balance right quite hard, especially with so few peers around to talk with.”

“Yes, sir, all the same, sir, …” the sergeant major responded. The incomplete comment didn’t need finishing. Andrew knew what the sergeant major meant, and that he was right too.

“Thanks, Sergeant Major. I’ll see you back here in a couple of minutes, once I’ve picked up my stuff. Have the teams assembled and ready to leave please.” He’d deliberately finished with ‘please’ instead of ‘OK?’ so that it sounded more like an order. He was learning.