Chapter 1 RAINSTORM AT THE FRONTIER

Session 1.2 The First Battle

Zamaii was a town situated along the northern border of Agurts. Considering the state that Zamaii was in, perhaps the word "ruins" would be more befitting than "town".

Prior to the World Wars, Zamaii had been a prosperous town, renowned for its timber and textiles. However, the endless conflicts reduced everything to rubble. Although a few drains could occasionally be found along the roads, the original underground drainage system had long been destroyed by demolitions. To add to that, heavy downpours caused serious flooding everywhere, and a month of ceaseless torrential storms made things worse. The deluge of sewage transformed the road into a muddy yellow river.

Three jeeps sped past, with a Speeder MK1 in the middle of the group. It was the sergeant’s personal vehicle – a transformable high-speed SA. The eleven other soldiers were crammed into the jeeps. They jostled about as the vehicles jounced wildly while passing over uneven potholes in the muddy river road.

To ensure a clear line of sight, they forcibly pulled down the canopies of their jeeps and let the rain pour down on them. Damien, being drenched like the others, clutched his rifle tightly and tried to remain calm. Their squad had been repeatedly carrying out monotonous patrol and guard duties every single day for the past month. Although Damien had complained to Bob about it, he knew that they were as lucky as if they had been winning the lottery for days in a row. However, their luck was not meant to last forever.

A moment ago, they had received a distress signal from a truck which had crossed a checkpoint just twenty minutes before. Damien’s squad had been the closest to the distress signal, and that was why they were racing there right now. Their mission, of course, was to save the truck that was under assault and ensure the safety of its contents. However, every soldier in the jeep were probably praying that they would only find the driver’s body in the muddy water when they arrived. If that was not the case, it would mean that they had to engage the Soil Ghosts in combat. It also meant that new recruits like Damien, who were directly dispatched to this outpost from the training camp, would be facing the enemy head-on for the first time.

"I’m betting twenty dollars on Adam."

"Fifty on Petar."

"Hey! What about you, hick?"

Damien felt a sudden shove. He had not been paying attention to what the others were talking about. Sometimes, the rustling sound of the rain and the drone of the car engine was so loud that even the transmissions coming through inside the gas mask were inaudible.

"Jesus! He doesn’t even know what we’re talking about!"

"Adam and Petar are having a wager on who will kill a Soil Ghost first."

"Do you really think Petar will beat me to it? He is always second in the races," boasted Adam. The soldiers in the jeep behind gave a thumbs-down gesture.

"Really? Well, someone can’t even remember the steps of assembling a gun in the correct order. Hick, you remember how he almost killed himself last time too, right?"

Adam and Petar both hailed from wealthy city states, and they were the ones who bragged the most. However, had their parents been truly wealthy, they could have made arrangements for their sons to be sent to inland supporting units. They would have been able to stay out of harm’s way there for five years and complete their compulsory military service.

Their parents might have had decent white-collar jobs in the capital, and they probably lived in a clean and well-lit house. They might have even drank coffee. But, despite all that, they did not have enough power or money to save their sons from being dispatched to the front lines. Despite having riches which they could brag about, they still ended up there, drenched together with Damien. When this thought had crossed his mind, Damien decided that he could do better than deal with them.

"I don’t have any spare money for bets," said Damien, not wanting to be involved in these petty ego trips.

"Oh yes, you do! You can scrub our boots if you lose."

"You guys have it all wrong. He thinks he’s better than us. Soil Ghosts don’t even come close to the voles he’s used to shooting in the farms."

Everybody laughed except Bob. The old man, seated in front of Damien, kept looking outside the entire time.

"Come on, tell us. Are you Jack or Steel?"

The soldiers continued to mock Damien, simply because he was always talking to Bob.

There was a squad of legendary elite soldiers in the Agurts military – the Bucks Team. The founder and commander of that group had been hailed as a legend even before the formation of the team. He had four equally renowned lieutenants – King, Jack, Argus, and Steel – all of whom had demonstrated numerous acts of valor in countless battles. However, no one really knew what they looked like or who they actually were – the identities of the members of the Bucks Team were kept strictly confidential. Some people even claimed that those four names were just aliases.

The only name that people knew of was "Bob", the Bucks Team’s legendary commander.

While the legends surrounding the man were quite well-known, the people’s actual knowledge of him was limited to this very common name, which too was doubted by many as to whether it was his actual name in the first place.

Before Damien was conscripted, the biggest news in Agurts was of this mythical commander, who had saved the nation multiple times, committed treason, and had even been caught misappropriating military firearms. He had been stripped of his ranks by the new president as a result of his irresponsible acts.

That bizarre incident became the main topic of discussion for the months that followed. To Damien, nonetheless, it was all just unfathomable politics which had nothing to do with him. He only knew parts of the story.

"He must be carrying out a secret mission for the great commander, you dumbasses! Be careful, or you might disappear tonight!"

"Pissing my pants right now!"

The soldiers roared with laughter.

Back on the farm in Damien’s hometown, there were at least two workers and a cat who were named Bob. There were, of course, many other people named Bob in the army. But, the soldiers intentionally used "Great Commander" to mock the old soldier, just because he happened to have the same name. Damien felt that the joke was over the line and cruel. Nonetheless, Bob continued to sit in silence and ignored them completely.

"Heads up, rookies!" Sergeant Han’s voice drowned out the laughter, and everyone fell silent immediately. The convoy began to slow down. As Damien lifted his head, he saw that a truck had stopped in the middle of the road, blocking their way. It was the same truck that had sent the distress signal.

"Damien, go check it out! Over," ordered the sergeant.

"Wilco."

Damien hesitated slightly. Didn’t the combat guide state that they should always act in teams of two? Should he ask?

"This is Bob. I’ll go with Damien. Over."

"Fine," the sergeant casually responded to Bob’s offer, indifferent to the whole situation.

Damien and Bob jumped off the jeep and approached the truck in a single file, their rifles cocked up in their hands. As they got close to the front of the truck, they saw that the windshield and driver’s seat were riddled with bullet holes, and the whole scene was covered with blood stains. However, there were no signs of the driver or his body.

The armed guards who had accompanied the truck were nowhere to be seen either.

"This is Damien. Report. There are only blood stains, but no signs of people. Over."

Damien moved towards the back of the truck, his mind riddled with uncertainty. He opened the doors to the container under Bob’s watchful cover.

There were only a few boxes left in the steel container. Everything else had been taken. However, there was not a soul in sight. Bullet holes cratered all over the crates, a few precious coffee beans were spilled onto the floor.

"Report. The goods have been taken. No signs of people or bodies. Over."

Several sighs of relief were heard over the squad channel after Damien had transmitted his report. They had been too late. The Soil Ghosts had already taken the goods and had fled. Unless the sergeant ordered them to pursue the thieves, they would be able to go back and have lunch.

"Can we roll out the canopy now? When is this damn rain going to stop?"

A soldier stood up to unfurl the canopy.

"Get back!"

Bob pulled Damien to his side almost at that same instant.

Damien’s reflexes took over as he heard shots being fired. He hid behind the back of the truck, clutched his rifle, and looked back up. The soldier who had just stood up had been splayed across the jeep chair in a peculiar pose. He was motionless.

"Check your six! Check your six!"

"My leg! My leg!" somebody yelled out in agony.

"I can’t see them! Where are they?"

Shouting and screaming from the soldiers flooded the communications channel. More gunfire ensued, and everything descended into complete chaos. It was only then that Damien spotted the shadows that were moving among the debris on either side of the road.

"Retreat! Repeat, full retreat!"

As soon as Sergeant Han roared his command, his MK1 began to transform. The driver’s seat hoisted up, and the assault vehicle turned into a two-legged mech which enveloped the sergeant in armor. He broke away from the formation with ease and made a U-turn while firing the SA’s 3-barreled gatling gun in a sweeping motion.

Two jeeps turned around immediately, but were blocked by the third which remained stationary. It turned out that its driver had been shot dead. The soldier next to him seemed to be frozen in fear. The only option that remained was to go around it. But, when the first jeep did so, its wheels got stuck in the muddy waters, making it a sitting target.

The enemy did not even have to waste any bullets on them with rapid firing. Tauntingly, they took down each of the occupants of the jeep one-by-one like target practice. The inexperienced new recruits frantically jumped off the jeep. Some got shot as they landed.

The ambush and killings left Damien stunned and motionless. He knew that he had to help those soldiers in distress, but he did not know how.

"Follow me. This way," Bob gestured to him, waking him up from his stunned state.

Damien did as he was instructed. He pressed his body to the ground and crawled stealthily towards a cluster of dilapidated buildings.

"Don’t run off on your own. Form teams of two and take cover. Over!" transmitted Bob over the radio.

After hearing Bob’s low voice over the communications channel, the meaningless shouting of the new recruits ceased a little. They started to gather their wits and began asking for each other’s whereabouts while looking for their companions.

"We can’t run off by ourselves and leave them behind."

Damien did not understand why he was following Bob as he was running in the opposite direction to the convoy. He could not help but ask him in a hushed voice.

"You still don’t get it, kid? We were ambushed," the old soldier grunted. "The enemy’s vehicles must be nearby. They’re more anxious to get out of here than we are."

Damien was still processing what Bob was saying when a gigantic, ominous shadow appeared ahead of them.

The pair approached cautiously, while staying close to the collapsed walls. A run-down jeep came into view in the heavy rain. There were also two strange-looking men, wrapped in tattered clothing and wearing skull masks.

They were Soil Ghosts – those terrifying, deformed savages. This was the first time ever that Damien had seen them.

One sat in the driver’s seat, while the other kept watch with a rifle next to him. They only guarded the jeep and did not take part in the assault. But, they did not notice that Damien and Bob were closing in on them.

There was more gunfire nearby. The sound of hysterical screams could be heard over the radio.

"Help! I’ve been hit…Sergeant…"

"Didn’t I order you to retreat? Why are you guys jumping off the jeep? Are you trying to screw me over?" growled the sergeant.

Damien lifted his rifle and aimed it at the Soil Ghost driver. However, Bob intervened and put his hand on the young soldier’s shoulder.

"All the bullets will be flying our way once you fire that shot. They are not alone here."

"But we have to stop them! Should I shoot their jeep?"

"If you destroy their ride, they’ll have no choice but to kill us all."

"What should we do then?" cried Damien helplessly, not being able to simply stand by while watching his companions get shot.

"Think about what they’re after. Do you really think that they’d bother risking their lives to take out a tiny little squad like ours?"

Think? Damien’s mind was a mess. All he could think about was his current predicament – how he was being surrounded by the enemy, or how a bullet could pass straight through his thumping heart at any moment. There was a real possibility that he would die amidst these ruins.

He caught his reflection on the lens of Bob’s mask when he turned his head to face Bob – it was the reflection of a typical masked soldier.

He paused to think. He was no longer a farmhand, he had become a soldier now. Fretting would not get him home. Damien forced himself to concentrate and answer Bob’s question.

What do the Soil Ghosts want? Weren’t they just after the goods? If so, why would they stay behind to ambush the rescue team? Damien could not figure out the rationale behind the actions of the Soil Ghosts. Killing a patrol squad made up of rookies would not do them any good either. Right! Staying there and risking their lives to kill those rookies would not do them any good.

"What…What do we have to do to make them retreat?" Damien muttered.

Bob picked up a rock near him and weighed it in his hand.

"If it’s stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid." With these words, Bob hurled the rock at the back of the Soil Ghosts’ jeep. The guard with the rifle immediately turned around and fired three shots in the direction of the unexpected thud.

The driver started the vehicle immediately. He did the right thing, as a rain of machine-gun bullets soon flew his way. The sergeant had noticed the gunfire and pointed the Mk1’s gatling gun in the same direction, opening a speculative fire.

Although the quick reaction of the Soil Ghost driver helped him and his companion escape the barrage of bullets, it exposed their location. Suddenly, Damien noticed movement behind a pile of rocks nearby. Soil Ghosts emerged from inconspicuous places and ran towards the jeep. On the other side of the road, another jeep appeared. The enemy suddenly seemed to be on the defensive. They began to retreat hastily. Damien secretly felt relieved that he had not given away his whereabouts just moments earlier.

"Now! Save them!"

Upon Bob’s prompting, the shell-shocked soldiers near the convoy rushed out and pulled their companions behind cover.

Damien and Bob picked up their pace and came across a soldier from their squad who had been left on his own.

"Can you stand up?"

"My leg…My leg’s been shot…" the soldier whimpered.

"Don’t worry, son. You’re not going to die…unless you keep sitting here."

Bob grabbed the injured soldier under the arms, as if out of habit.

It was right then that Damien spotted a dark shadow charging out from nowhere. The figure came to a grinding halt – it seemed that he was not expecting to run into them either. With reduced visibility in the rain and fog, it was not surprising for people to discover each other only when they got too close. It was a precarious situation for both parties.

The old soldier and an injured companion trailed behind Damien, while an armed Soil Ghost stood before him. The Soil Ghost’s hand moved…

The rain drops suddenly turned blood red. The Soil Ghost dropped to the ground and splattered into the mud. It was only then that the bewildered Damien realized that he had pulled the trigger.

He had killed the Soil Ghost.

"Move!"

The old soldier’s low voice snapped Damien out of his daze, and the young man rushed to escort his injured companion as they pulled back. Another Soil Ghost appeared, but he was shooting aimlessly. His only goal was to drag away the body of his fallen comrade. Both parties were anxiously distancing themselves from each other.

The three soldiers made it back safely to their convoy. The Soil Ghosts had given up on their assault and were rushing to their jeeps to escape. Sergeant Han turned his MK1 around in pursuit, firing relentlessly from behind.

It turned out that the Soil Ghosts had only two small jeeps. There could not have been more than ten of them, and they stood no chance against the MK1. No wonder they fled as soon as they were exposed.

Damien and his companions ran to the jeep that had stopped in the middle of the road. They were surprised to find that the soldier sitting next to the driver was still alive – he was only paralyzed with fear. Damien grabbed him and shook him, but the man continued mumbling to himself. So, Damien had no choice but to shove the driver’s corpse onto the petrified soldier so that he could get into the jeep.

Bob heaved the injured soldier into the jeep and shouted at Damien, who was about to step on the gas, "Put it in reverse and go backwards! Don’t make a U-turn!"

Damien obeyed instinctively and put the gear in reverse.

Sergeant Han ceased pursuing the Soil Ghosts as soon as he saw that Damien’s jeep was in motion. He instinctively turned the MK1 around to catch up with them instead.

"The guy’s not that stupid after all," Bob muttered.

All of a sudden, there was a deafening noise and a flash of fire. Alarmed, Damien protected his head with one hand and closed his eyes. A burst of hot wind swept over the jeep as the truck up ahead burst into a fireball.

The MK1 struggled awkwardly to get on its feet after being toppled over by the shockwave, but had no luck. Sergeant Han changed it back to the speeder mode and swore as he jumped off the vehicle. He was now covered in mud because of that fall.

The jeep also came to a stop. Even Damien understood that this explosion meant that the battle had ended. The Soil Ghosts had gone. Blowing up the truck was their last resort – they did that in order to prevent the soldiers from pursuing them.

He shivered involuntarily as a chilling thought crossed his mind: What would have happened had the Soil Ghosts detonated the bomb when he and Bob went to inspect the truck? His body might have been transported home in pieces for his parents to bury.

Sergeant Han continued his swearing, but he stopped abruptly as he approached the jeep and saw Damien and Bob. He stood there and stared at them. That was all he did.

It was impossible to see his facial expression behind the gas mask, yet Damien could sense the sergeant’s ire. He seemed to be holding a grudge against the two for some reason.

"Party’s over, pansies. Go look for the wounded!" Sergeant Han shouted. He then kicked the jeep before leaving.

The soldiers began administering first aid to their injured companions. Those who survived completely unscathed, like Damien, had to go back and look for other wounded squad members or retrieve the bodies of the deceased.

The unit had set off as a team of twelve. Now, only nine survived — three were KIA, and four were WIA.

As Damien put the corpse of a fallen soldier into the jeep’s back seat, he pulled off his mask to find Adam staring at him wide-eyed, his face a pale white. His partially opened mouth hinted at a scream that could not be let out. An intense sensation in the stomach overwhelmed Damien. He felt a sudden pang of remorse for being angry at Adam earlier.

The three dead bodies were piled on top of each other in the back seat like cargo. Damien crawled back into the driver’s seat. In the rearview mirror, he saw the sergeant put his hand inside the pocket of Adam’s uniform. Just as Damien was wondering if he was looking for his dog tag, he saw him pull out a pack of cigarettes and two bank notes. The sergeant put them into his own pocket casually. Damien fought the nausea welling up inside him and stepped on the gas. He finally understood why this squad was made up almost entirely of new recruits.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Johnny Ko