Session 2.1 A Midnight Assignment

Trainers in boot camps loved taking roll calls during wee hours, dragging new recruits from their beds for a surprise drill, either to prepare them to face future emergencies, drill discipline into them, or just for a laugh. In reality, all reasons and justifications behind what one would perceive as injustice were of little significance, for the golden rule in the army was for soldiers to obey the commands of their officers at all times.

When the sergeant’s whistle pierced the darkness, it was barely the crack of dawn. Despite the gloom, the recruits left their bunks and assembled without a hassle.

The Soil Ghost’s last ambush had occurred a week ago. Two soldiers with minor injuries were back to work, but only three new recruits had reported from the reserve. The team was still short-handed. Although Damien saw his teammates joking around as usual, a sense of discomfort hung in the air. Even Petar’s usual “I don’t give a damn” big city arrogance seemed like an obvious attempt to avoid a point of contention.

No one mentioned the incident after coming back from the pub, nor were those who had left spoken of.

Damien was nonetheless certain that the same thoughts troubled everyone when the sergeant blew the whistle. He could tell from the expressions on their faces. “Who’ll be the unlucky one this time? Will this be my final mission?” A sudden roll call was never a good sign.

“Damn Soil Ghosts! Couldn’t they wait till after sunrise?” A replacement recruit tried to lighten the mood, but no one responded. Not even Petar could fashion a sarcastic comeback. After mumbling something incoherent, the newcomer fell silent.

Damien felt bad for the guy, he had no idea what had happened to the team. The kid reminded Damien of his first day in the field. All newcomers knew anxiety, being well aware that their lives could be at risk, but to experience the battle first hand, to watch your comrades fall one after another, their still-warm corpses slipped into bags and carried away, was a whole different matter. The illusion of heroic sacrifices shattered to millions of pieces in an instant. Death transformed into a tangible reality, which descended unannounced and then became just another number on a chart. The shadows of the dead lingered above those who survived, refusing to let go.

“Where’s Bob?” Sergeant Han had noticed that a member was missing. Before he could finish his question, the veteran showed up.

“Sorry sir. My legs are acting up.”

This was the very first time that Bob had ever reported late. It made Damien worry about his health. He feared that Sergeant Han might grab the chance to hand out a punishment to Bob. Much to Damien’s surprise, Han only fixed Bob with a stare.

Without further ado, Han commanded the team to depart, informing them nothing about the mission but a location. The soldiers put on their masks and jumped onto their jeeps, setting out in the dark, rainy morning.

“Where are we going?” inquired another replacement recruit.

“The suburbs beyond Zamaii,” Damien replied in a low voice, making everyone uneasy, for the area lay adjacent to the border.

The newcomer was far from satisfied. His true inquiry was about what the mission entailed, which was a question everybody was keeping to themselves.

“Is this normal?”

Damien was not sure if the novice was complaining about the lack of knowledge about the midnight mission or the team’s hostility towards a newcomer . Either way, it was unusual, but Damien had already lost the sense of normalcy after a short while in the army.

Yet, no one acknowledged the newcomer. His frustrated voice echoed through the intercom.

“Guys, you may see me and my people as no different from the Soil Ghosts, or a bunch of dirty refugees, but I was a high school teacher in my hometown. Can’t we at least be civil with each other?”

Everybody looked more or less the same in their military uniforms. Only his heavy accent distinguished him as a foreigner. But even if he kept his mouth shut, his teammates could tell that he was an outsider. People from another country always felt different.

The land of Agurts was among the few less-polluted lands after “The Gray Summer.” It soon became a paradise for refugees wishing to escape the wars in their own countries. Damien, born and raised in Agurts, knew too well that this serene paradise  only existed in the outsiders’ heads. Pollution was a global disaster, and Agurts had not been spared of its consequences. The singing of birds and bloom of flowers in the clean fresh air was a thing of the distant past—it existed only in old photographs.

Nonetheless, refugees flocked to Agurts like bees to a honeycomb. Agurts was once an agricultural country dependent on human labor, but with the advancement of machines, manpower was better employed in the army. As Omanga expanded their military forces, Agurts needed to maintain a relatively large army as well.

In addition to drafting their nationals, former president Aldaman launched a scheme to encourage the refugees to join the military in exchange for citizenship. The latter were usually assigned the most dangerous and undesirable posts, but the sea of homeless refugees were more than eager to oblige. This foreign replacement recruit in front of Damien was one example.

“Are you kidding me? What did you expect? Can you define ‘normal’ in less than a hundred words, teacher?” Petar could not help but tease. Others sniggered. Starting a dispute about refugees at this time was by no means a wise move. Noticing his clenched fist, Damien suspected the teacher’s face had turned red with fury under his mask.

“Take it easy. No one gives a damn about your stupid accent. All we care about is the enemies coming our way,” another team member commented calmly.

A long silence followed. The foreigner finally gauged the tension.

One life-threatening combat’s all it takes, Damien thought. None of them had much experience in the frontlines, but the ones who had fought in the last battle undoubtedly a step ahead of the replacement recruits .

Bob and Sergeant Han were, however, the exceptions. They always seem so calm in any situation. Damien could not help but speculate the number of missions the old soldier had been on, and the amount stress he had endured. How many missions must one be on, before he could conquer this fear of “never returning ”?

Gazing at the sky, Damien saw it turn from dark to grey—dawn had not broken yet. He opened his palms, and to his surprise, not even a drop of rain fell on his gloves.

“The rain’s stopped,” someone muttered, but there was no response. The rain had persisted for over a month now. People had been yearning day and night for it to stop, but when it finally did, Damien did not feel the excitement he had expected he would. In fact, there was not an ounce of happiness in him. He figured the others must feel the same way.

Their jeeps arrived at the destination—another god-forsaken place, with buildings a little less ruined. They could see structures three to four stories tall. They appeared to be intact, at least from the outside. The place was nonetheless way too close to the border and at way too much distance from the shops and camps in Zamaii. It seemed deserted—there was not a soul around.

The sergeant hastened the soldiers to get off the jeeps and surrender all their ammunition.

“We need to recover a lost item from a livestock truck. It is very expensive, so you’re all gonna have to switch to tranquilizer ammo.”

The ridiculousness of the mission astonished everybody. None of them could believe that they had been rushed to the borders in the middle of the night to catch livestock. But no matter how much they cursed, they were secretly relieved to know that no Soil Ghosts were waiting for them. They were happy to while away their days with insignificant missions like this. No one wanted to be a hero anymore; at least that was exactly what Damien was thinking.

“I didn’t even know we exported livestock,” Petar piped up once he had heaved a sigh of relief. “What is this great escape artist of ours? A pig, an ox, or a goat?”

Sneering, Sergeant Han said, “It’s a pet. A hound of a precious breed. People who have the money are willing to pay a handsome amount for it.”

The sergeant instructed them to hand over all ammunition, including the spare ones. Damien was hesitant.

“This place is very close to the border…” he murmured to himself. Should they come across the Soil Ghosts without any bullets on them, it would cost them their lives.

“Don’t be such a wuss. The Soil Ghosts are still asleep and dreaming in their nests.” Han grabbed Damien’s bullets from his hands. “That dog is precious. The last thing its owner wants is for it to get hurt.”

Without a fuss, or even a single word, the old veteran surrendered all his ammunition. Others followed suit, replacing their bullets with tranquilizers.

The sergeant split them into groups of two to search for the beast. Damien was paired up with the foreign teacher. Old Bob was singled out.

“I’ll go with the old man here. This is a vast area, communications may not function properly. We will regroup back here in three hours,” the sergeant ordered, loading his rifle. “Now, let’s hunt .”

Something’s off. Something’s definitely off, Damien decided, finding the whole affair highly suspicious. The sergeant clearly had a rub with Bob. Why does he want to team up with him?

“Sergeant, what does this dog look like? Do we have a picture?”

“It’s a big dog… with white fur. Something like that. Do you really need me to tell you what a freaking dog looks like, eh? Four legs and a tail?”

Nobody dared raise another question after that. Damien threw the veteran a concerned look, but he could not see his expression under the mask. The veteran patted him lightly on his shoulder and left with the sergeant.

Damien’s team was assigned to the farthest east, while the sergeant headed to the west. Damien and the foreigner trod along a small unmarred path. Within a matter of minutes, all other teams were out of sight.

Though this was by no means a combat mission, treading in a strange dark place armed with only two hand torches was no fun at all. Damien noticed that the sky had turned from charcoal black to a lighter grey, but dawn was still far away. At intervals, the flashlights cast ghostly images on the ruins, startling the two, before they realized it was nothing but wavering shadows and reflections.

“The work in the frontlines is nothing like I had imagined.” The foreigner was murmuring again, lowering his guarded a little now that they were only the two of them.

“It’s the very first time for me too, an order like this.”

“So it’s normal for me to have doubts?”

“Everybody thinks it’s weird. But as long as we don’t have to face the Soil Ghosts, it’s good.”

“Are the freaks really that terrifying?”

“We fought them in the last mission. We lost half the team.”

Damien’s words, though delivered in the calmest tone possible, made the foreigner halt in his tracks. Damien felt like his senior. The fact that he was more knowledgeable in certain aspects than an older person gave him a sense of accomplishment.

“Okay, that’s why everyone acts weird. I understand. When Omanga invaded my hometown, everyone feared that they might be the next victim. My relatives were executed right before my eyes. ” The former teacher let out a sigh.

Damien’s short lived seniority quickly morphed into embarrassment. His past was nothing compared to the person in front of him.

All of a sudden, they heard a rustling nearby. They quickly pointed their weapons at the source. Their flashlights revealed an old tree growing on a brick wall. A large crow took off from its branches. Rainwater accumulated on the surfaces of the leaves dropped onto the ground. All was silent again.

The duo lowered their firearms in relief.

”A pet dog. People are starving here, and yet they feed pets. Funny, this world. They prefer dogs to us refugees,” the teacher ridiculed himself.

“Do we have to check each and every building?” Damien looked around. There were several places for an animal to take shelter from the rain. But since the rain had now stopped, the beast could have escaped anywhere.

“That’s no way to do it.” The teacher tuned in his intercom channels. “Sergeant, could you at least tell me if it is a Greyhound or a Golden Retriever? Sergeant?”

Nothing but white noise came in reply, further heightening Damien’s unease.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Harriet Chung