Chapter 1 RAINSTORM AT THE FRONTIER

Session 1.3 Jazz Blues

Although the jukebox was playing at the maximum volume, the chatter still drowned out the music. Damien found all the clamor extremely irritating. He tried to find a corner away from the crowd, but it did not really make any difference.

He regretted coming. Perhaps he should get a ‘hideout’ like Bob, Damien thought to himself. He knew that Bob always hung around a derelict house near the barracks. It was kind of like the old man’s personal quarters. He would nap there whenever they were off duty.

However, it was quite surprising to see the solitary veteran not only come to the bar today, but even chatting with a barmaid in the opposite corner. This roused Damien’s attention, since Bob was one who would brush off any girl and drink on his own on his rare visits to the bar.

All the noise gave Damien a headache. He did not want to be at the bar at all. But, he did not dare to turn down his team’s invitation to celebrate at the bar. Even though he was not quite fond of socializing, he knew that it would not be a good idea to be very antisocial in situations like these.

On this particular night, however, watching the drunken antics of his companions in this crowded bar would have been more bearable than being alone in the barracks. He actually needed a drink.

Damien forcibly gulped down a mouthful of beer. Every time he closed his eyes, the splutter of crimson in the rain would appear in his mind. The image of the bloodshot gaze of the Soil Ghost was fixed in his mind – he was a murderer. No, that could not be right! That Soil Ghost was wearing a skeletal mask, and their encounter only lasted a few seconds at most. Moreover, there was the rain and the mists, there was no way that Damien could have seen those accusing eyes so vividly.

It must have been just his imagination. Those eyes looked as if they belonged to a vole. Damien recalled the first time that his father took him vole hunting on the farm – it was the first time that he had killed a living, breathing animal. When the animal was dead, its soft, warm fur gradually turned ice cold in his hands, while its beady, black eyes stared at him, as if saying, “All I wanted was to fill my stomach. Why did you have to kill me? Don’t you want the same thing?”

No, the Soil Ghosts were much more vicious than voles. They were deformed lunatics; bandits who seized the fruits of the industrious labor of citizens. The posters that were plastered on the walls were a constant reminder of that and a warning for all to remember.

Damien tried to convince himself to not let his emotions get the better of him. He was a soldier now, and not a child. It was his duty to kill the enemy. He had just begun his service in the military – this was only the first of many to come…

But it was a person, not a vole.

“Cheers to being alive! This round’s on me!” Petar bellowed as he jumped onto the table, raising his glass. His youthful, freckled face was flushed right down to his neck – he was thoroughly drunk.

What about the dead? Damien pondered immediately. He understood that everyone was relieved about making it back in one piece. But, turning this goddamned incident into a celebration? He just couldn’t fathom it.

All of them obliviously fell into the trap set out by the Soil Ghosts and retreated with their tails in between their legs. Three people died, while two of the four who sustained injuries were so severely wounded that they were immediately relieved from frontline duties… Despite being just a new recruit, even Damien understood that it was a humiliating defeat for them. He could not understand how the others thought that the incident was a courageous victory over the Soil Ghosts?

The members of Damien’s squad were showing off in front of the other new recruits, claiming that they trounced the Soil Ghosts and pressured those freaks into retreat. Now that they were in the bar, there was no need to wear gas masks. Not only did they reveal their relieved expressions, they also revealed their naivety.

Being dejected, Damien downed another mouthful to prevent himself from blurting out the truth. The truth was that they were the greenest of all rookies; they all had forgotten about their training the moment the shit got real.

A red-haired barmaid in a sleeveless dress approached Damien when she saw his that his glass was empty. “Hey handsome, we’ve got a remedy to fix that frown of yours. Want another?” she offered while flashing Damien a flirty smile.

Hardly anybody lived in Zamaii anymore. It only had a tiny market that provided the soldiers from the barracks and transiting drivers with the bare necessities. The restaurants and bars made the most money, because anything that tasted remotely like food was better than the military rations that they got to eat. Alcohol, needless to say, had priority over everything else. The owners and the employees of these businesses made up the majority of the civilian population of the town.

The bar was staffed entirely by women. Naturally, this was only a ploy to coax the soldiers into drinking more. The shop opposite the bar provided more “direct” services. Girls who wanted to make more money would work there instead. Consequently, the barmaids did not flaunt their “assets” excessively. All they had to do was learn to say the right things to comfort the wounded souls in order to earn some decent tips.

Damien put the money for his booze and a small tip on the table. The barmaid took it with a beaming smile and poured some muddy beer into his glass. In outskirts, such as this, one could hardly find any drink that was clearer than gasoline.

Damien picked up his glass and was about to chug it in one gulp when, much to his dismay, someone shoved right beside him. He was about to get up and walk away, but he put his glass down and sat up straight as soon as he realized who the uninvited guest was.

Even at a military camp that was as large as the one in Zamaii, there were only a handful of old soldiers that had a head full of white hair and a snowy beard. Bob sat down next to Damien with a glass in his hand.

“First kill?” asked the old man casually.

“Unless he could still live with his head split open,” Damien sighed deeply.

“You protected me and a fellow teammate. You did good, son.”

“Me? Are you kidding? You are the one who saved all our asses!”

Damien could not help but sound excited and raise his voice when he said this. But, Bob gestured him to quiet down. The young man looked around frantically, fearing that Sergeant Han was there. But, the bar was too noisy for anyone to take notice anyway.

“You told me to think… I’ve thought about it many times already, but I still don’t get it. When did you realize that the truck was rigged with explosives? And, how did you know that their jeeps were there?” Damien asked in a hushed voice as he drew closer to the old soldier.

“I didn’t know whether the truck was rigged to blow. But if I were them, that’s what I’d do,” Bob declared rather calmly.

“But… but how did you know that they’d retreat?”

Bob did not answer straight away. He swirled his glass and took another sip.

“Well, if you know what they’re after, then you can predict their actions. If you want to survive on the battlefield, you can’t just rely on your gun. You need to use your brain too,” the old man uttered as he pointed a finger at his own temple.

Damien hesitated for a moment before speaking.

“When I was a boy, my father taught me how to shoot voles that were too big to catch with a cage. He’d put a chunk of sugarcane along a path which they frequented, and then all we had to do was hide and wait for them to come like pigs to the slaughter. We’d take them out one after another without breaking a sweat.” said Damien slowly, “It felt like we were those voles out there today.”

“That’s good. Then you won’t be a stupid vole next time,” Bob chuckled.

“We had twice as many soldiers and a MK1, but we still almost got wiped out,” Damien lowered his voice again. “We must’ve drawn the short straw to have him as our unit leader, no?”

“Watch your mouth, kid,” said the old soldier seriously, “He might be a lousy commander, but he’s no idiot.”

“Oh, of course! He sure knows how to cover his own ass,” Damien snorted with disdain.

“Most recruits screw up their first battle. You made a good shot and a clean kill. You can at least be proud of that,” said Bob, trying to change the topic.

“Really?” Damien knew that the old man was just trying to cheer him up, and he did feel a little bit better. “You sure sound like a commander who knows how to encourage his subordinates. Damn, even I’m beginning to suspect that you’re the national hero!” Damien said as a chuckle escaped his lips.

Bob burst into a loud laughter as he said, “Nowadays, everyone says that he’s a traitor…”

“I’m not too sure about that. But, before Zamaii turned into ruins… I mean, before it was turned into a restricted border zone, it was only thanks to him that the Omanga invasion was thwarted here in Zamaii. That’s the story I’d always heard of when I was a kid.”

The Omanga Empire was located to the north of the desert wastelands beyond Zamaii. As opposed to the city states of Agurts, which were founded on agriculture, the Omanga Empire had been fervently developing nuclear energy and robotics technologies ever since its establishment. The Omanga Empire was plagued with severe nuclear pollution. Utilizing their technologies, they built a powerful mechanized army to seize the habitable territories from their neighbors. Moreover, the newly throned emperor, Oleksandr III, was a warmonger. It was only logical that the southern neighbor of Omanga, which had a healthy reserve of natural resources, felt threatened.

The reason that the Agurts had deployed their troops in Zamaii was not to fend off the Soil Ghost tribes wandering in the desert, but the prying Omangans.

“Do you really think that one man can hold down a fort on his own? Don’t be so naïve. One man can’t fight a war alone.” Bob said with a hint of disapproval.

“But he did save our country. Would such a person turn into a traitor? It’s no wonder that people say power corrupts. Politics is a messy business.” Damien answered his own question, all the while doubting himself.

“Oh yes, politics sucks.” Bob sighed as he took another sip of his beer.

They shared a brief moment of silence, but it was soon shattered by the soldiers’ senseless shouting. A drunk man banged on the jukebox angrily because it had stopped playing.

“Amifa! Give me Amifa! It took my money!”

A barmaid scurried over to take care of the problem and appease the soldier. That machine was ancient – all that banging would render it unfixable.

It seemed that the crowd had finally grew tired – the clamor finally settled, and brisk, soothing jazz could be heard. Amifa’s low, magnetic voice oscillated between the octaves, stirring up the emotions within the hearts of each and every man. Many soldiers fell silent, mesmerized by her voice.

Even though Damien was only a fresh recruit, he had already discovered that the army was a stressful, testosterone-fueled environment. Besides the company of a barmaid or the touch of a woman, songstresses like Amifa, who had the gift of soothing people’s souls, were often more appreciated and valued.

Men who were not interested in music, such as Damien, only came to know these songs and singers after they had joined the army. Bob started singing the lyrics to the melody softly on his own. Damien was surprised to find that the tune that the old man hummed quite often was actually from the song that was playing right now.

“This song’s by Amifa?”

“It’s a great tune. The lyrics are very meaningful.”

“I thought… Uh, never mind.”

Damien was too embarrassed to continue. He thought that all the songs that Bob hummed were oldies since their melodies seemed to be nostalgic. It did not occur to him that the old soldier also listened to music by songstresses who were so young. Amifa was probably young enough to be Bob’s daughter.

Damien was surprised that he ran into Bob at the bar that night, and even more so now that he recalled finding the old man chatting with a barmaid. Such behavior was not like Bob at all.

The girl whom he spoke to had short blonde hair and was wearing black jeans with a t-shirt, just like a girl next door. If it had not been a bar, it would have seemed more like Bob was talking to his granddaughter.

Perhaps the girl reminded the old soldier of his family, Damien thought. It appeared that men of all ages enjoyed seeking solace in young women. Tenderness was the one thing that the army constantly lacked; not everything was necessarily about sex.

“How about that? Looks like this old geezer’s keeping up with the times better than you!”

The white-haired man slapped Damien’s shoulder.

“This era belongs to you youngsters. If you don’t stay ahead of it, it’s going to lead you by the nose.”

Staying ahead of the times? That sounds really cool, but what exactly does it mean? Damien felt there was a philosophical aspect to this – Bob was not simply telling him to catch up with the current trends.

The jazz blues evoked different memories in the two men. Before that day, all that Damien recalled was the moist earth and the lush, green crops of his hometown. Now, however, there was a gray shroud of unease and guilt.

“Where would you be in five years, you could choose yourself then,” the old soldier asked as he finished what was left of his beer.

“I’d go home. You? Why are you still with the army?” Damien finally asked the question that he never had the chance to ask.

“Like the lyrics say, ‘Everyone has his own mission’,” uttered Bob as he put his glass down and stood up, “Use that brain of yours more and make it to the end of these five years.” Saying that, the old soldier left the bar.

Damien felt slightly guilt-ridden. He was going to buy Bob a drink, but he had missed his chance.

It was already 10:30 p.m., Damien reminded his drunk teammates that they needed to return to the barracks before the curfew. Petar had passed out, leaving Damien no choice but to carry him. Fortunately, the rain began to weaken as the night fell; there was only a light drizzle. This “nice weather” was rare to come by, and some people decided to leave their masks off altogether. If they were to throw up while wearing a mask, the smell would be even more putrid than inhaling acidic fogs.

None of his teammates could walk in a straight line anymore. Damien felt lucky that he was at least sober enough to be their driver.

Just as he was about to start the engine, someone jumped swiftly on board the already overloaded jeep.

“Captain?”

Sergeant Han smiled at him with a cigarette in his mouth. It was definitely not a friendly smile.

“Isn’t Bob with you lot?”

“No, sir! He left moments ago.”

“Relax! You’re off duty now. Drive.”

Sergeant Han shoved a drunk soldier aside so that he could sit next to Damien. This made the young man feel slightly uneasy. His superior’s pretentious sincerity unnerved him even more.

“He seems to enjoy chatting with you, doesn’t he? Did he tell you anything related to the capital?”

Damien could not figure out why the captain asked him about this. He had a faint feeling that something was off.

“No, sir.”

“Did he tell you anything about his past?” inquired the captain, “You know how it is…. Old soldiers love bragging about all the things that they’ve done.”

“No, sir.”

“Cut the crap, Damien! Do you think I’m so dumb that I can’t tell whether you’re lying?”

“I’m telling the truth, sir.”

“Fine! We’ll see,” Sergeant Han scoffed and blew out a mouthful of smoke.

Damien recalled Bob’s words. He did not know what the sergeant was after, and began to worry about whether he had gotten himself into trouble.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Johnny Ko