Chapter 2 THE VETERAN’S FINAL MISSION
Session 2.3 Passing It On
A loud blast cracked in the distance. Damien and his companion stopped and turned to look.
“What was that?”
“It sounded like. . . a bomb?” Damien recalled the sound the coffee truck made when it exploded last time they were out on patrol.
“Surely not? I’ve seen action in Omanga. Their bombs don’t sound like that.” The former teacher didn’t quite believe him. “Maybe a building collapsed?”
Also a possibility. Damien wasn’t sure, but it would be a more reassuring answer. After all, bombs don’t grow out of the ground. A man-made explosive raised the question of which man put it there. And no one wanted to think about that, whoever it was.
“It sounded like a bomb to me.” Except that Damien wasn’t actually convinced. Once again, he turned on the team radio and tried to contact their sergeant, or indeed anyone. But the only reply he got was static. Could it really be a matter of bad reception?
The two of them looked at each other and waited for nearly half a minute, but everything was quiet; no unusual sounds. Maybe they were too far away? It must have been a huge blast for them to be able to hear it all the way over here.
“You think too much. It was probably just some rubble collapsing.”
“I think maybe we should check it out.” Damien was feeling more and more uneasy.
“But . . . our mission is to find the dog. We’re supposed to stick to our orders, right?”
Clearly, he was just trying to get out of going. In case they got into trouble.
This was probably a normal reaction. Part of Damien wanted to agree. Nod and say, sure, forget about it. But then it struck him: Bob and Sergeant Han had headed in precisely that direction. The feeling that something wasn’t right started ringing in his head like an alarm.
“We’re border patrol. We’ll be held accountable if something happened nearby and did nothing.”
A tentative argument perhaps, but also true. If the explosion was the result of an invasion by the Soil Ghosts and they didn’t investigate, they could be held responsible and punished by their superiors.
The other soldier sighed and mumbled something in an accent that Damien didn’t understand before turning and following.
The night began to retreat and they switched off their flashlights. The mist had dissipated as soon as the rain stopped in the middle of the night, and now the air was a pale milky white, covering everything with a clean, quiet dreaminess. Together, the two men walked through it, as if lost in the emptiness. Damien had to remind himself, it was nothing more than the mist before dawn.
It was the morning after a long month of torrential rain and the world was as bright as spring. He had to hold back the urge to take off his gas mask and breathe it in.
And yet, this was why Damien the vague sense of unease that was gnawing at his insides felt so jarring. Could it just be paranoia, after being ambushed by the Soil Ghosts last time?
They continued to try the radio as they walked. Still no response.
“Are we going too far? Isn’t it time we start heading back for rendezvous?” The former teacher stopped again and was now refusing to go any further. He took out the electronic map and tried to persuade Damien that they should return to the assembly point.
At that moment, they heard a brief chorus of barking. Not one dog, a pack.
“Our mission is—” But before Damien could finish, his companion sighed. And so the two men turned in the direction of the dogs.
“It sounds like there are at least four or five. How do we know which one the sergeant wants? Shout, heel boy?”
The teacher kept jabbering and began to speculate on the various causes of the blast. Two dogs were fighting, one kicked a crumbling pillar, and then the entire ceiling fell. . . A similar thing had happened back in his home country, he explained.
In short, it wasn’t a bomb. This was his main and only point, Damien concluded.
Ignoring him, Damien walked out in front. Then, suddenly, he stopped.
There, on the road in front of them, was a long, thick trail of blood. From the color he could tell it was still fresh, there was no way it could be mistaken for gasoline. The two men stood staring at it, speechless.
Someone, or something, had been dragged through the mud.
“Either our doggy got hungry, or he’s been turned into breakfast.” The teacher smiled nervously, but Damien didn’t answer. Because whatever it was, it was much bigger than a dog. They both knew that, and gripped their guns a little tighter.
“If it’s just dogs, then it’s no big deal,” Damien said and started to follow the trail. His companion followed, reluctantly.
The barking was getting louder, but was also accompanied by a low, steady rumble. Damien spotted them, five or six balls of mud scrabbling at a pile of gravel. Two were fighting and the rest licking blood from the dirt. They looked like creatures that had just crawled out of the pits of hell. There was nothing noble about any of them, certainly not the pedigree hound they were told to find.
The closer they got to the pile of rubble, the louder the rumbling. Damien approached first. It was coming from a hole inside. It was deep, bottomless, and sounded like a large, angry monster, growling from below.
The city’s sewers. The rain had stopped, but there would be a large volume of water flowing urgently down there. If anyone were to fall down inside, who knows where they would be taken.
What happened here exactly?
The two largest dogs were still barking and fighting, and ignored the human beings approaching. They were locked in a battle over a piece of meat and neither was letting go. Saliva splashed from their sharp teeth, their robust paws clawed. They were covered in blood, and ragged. Finally, one of them could no longer stand the pain and released the lump of flesh. The winner grabbed it with its maw and retreated, panting happily.
The scene was chilling and two men couldn’t move.
“Did you see that?”
“No, it fucking wasn’t! It was not…” But the teacher couldn’t continue. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. They had both seen it clearly: attached to the lump of flesh was a human ear.
The dog had already swallowed it. Damien took a step forward, but the dog grabbed what remained of the meat and ran away. Probably to find a safe place to finish it in peace.
Damien jumped up onto the pile of gravel, without getting too close to the open sewer. Falling down there would be no joke. He turned on his flashlight and shone it inside, but still, he couldn’t get a good view of what was down there, only the vague notion of the reflective surface of the flowing water.
“I can do a scout out myself if you go back to rendezvous and notify the others.” Damien could see the fear on his new teammate’s face. The other man said nothing for a few seconds.
“You probably think I’m a coward. You’re right. I am. A coward. I escaped the war, fled my homeland with my tail between my legs.”
“No, I don’t. And you enlisted in the Agurts army.”
The teacher laughed self-deprecatingly, then sighed and shook his head.
“That’s right. If I couldn’t escape the war, at least this way I would have better weapons.” He took a deep breath and raised his rifle. “I’m coming with you.”
In actual fact, Damien was grateful not to be left alone.
“Sorry, I don’t remember your name... Scherman, was it?”
“Schertling. Were you one of the kids that slept through class?”
“Sorry, Mr. Schertling.”
The two men consciously tried to relax. They were both on edge. There had been no sighting of the enemy, nor had they spotted any bodies – only a piece of one that was now churning in the belly of a wild dog. That, and the ominous trail of blood.
The dangers the eyes cannot see are often more horrifying, however, because there’s no telling where they will come from.
Damn. Damien wanted nothing more than to turn around and run, but he gritted his teeth and made a circle around the pile of rubble. He was almost certain that the bearer of the blood has disappeared down this black hole, the only real question was whether it had been alive – or whole – as it did so.
The two men were silent as they proceeded with alert and measured steps, as their training had taught them, following the trail of blood to where it started.
Before long, they came to the ruins of a house.
This must have been where the blast came from, Damien realized.
What was it that made it look different from all the other ruins? . . . Yes, that was it. The pieces of rugged concrete still standing and strewn all around were too “fresh”. They had yet to be polished smooth by the repeated downpours of acid rain.
By the remains of this house was a clearing the size of a crossroad. The ground was covered with large areas of fresh blood. The scene of a battle, but with no bodies to be found.
A glint of something gold caught Damien’s eye. He kicked at the gravel and uncovered two spent shells. He glanced around and saw that there were lots of them strewn by the roadside.
“What the hell. . . ” Schertling muttered to himself.
We didn’t miss anything, Damien thought to himself. Someone didn’t want whatever happened here to be known. Someone tried to clean up, but they ran out of time.
There were still traces of blood, and the empty casings had been kicked out of the way.
“Check this out. . . God, they must have slaughtered something here.”
Schertling pointed his rifle at a clump of blood-soaked mud.
Damien started to hesitate. Maybe they should go back and report this to their superiors first. They shouldn’t have come, Damien was more sure of this with every second that they stayed.
Now, Schertling was taking the lead. He had found more suspicious blood: someone had been hurt, before moving northeast.
The two men started on. Maybe they would find some Soil Ghosts waiting to ambush them? Or Omanga scouts? Or refugees fleeing to the border. Or their own secret forces sent for special training. Or some never-before-seen man-eating monster. . . Damien raced through the possibilities in his head. But he could never have imagined what was really waiting for them.
They followed the trail of blood until they saw him. A soldier, wearing the same uniform as them. Lying on the blood-soaked ground.
Damien thought he was shouting, but in fact, he made no sound. His mouth gaped, but nothing came out. He rushed to the old man’s side, crouched, and ignoring all his training, put down his rifle in order to take Bob into his arms. As soon as his fingers touched the old soldier, he realized that he was holding a body.
Bob was dead.
The front of his uniform was completely red and his body was covered in wounds. Shocking wounds. In places, he could see bone.
Damien was trembling all over, but he couldn’t tell if it was from fear or fury. How could someone do this to an old man? Why? One bullet would have been enough, surely, even for their enemy?
Schertling stood beside him but said nothing, his eyes wide and fixed. What was he feeling? Or was he just too scared to react?
One thing they both noticed at the same time: Bob had both ears intact. This meant that the dogs had not found Bob, but someone else.
Who did this? Damien clenched his fist. But at that moment, someone was approaching.
“Hey! What are you doing here?!”
Sergeant Han. He glanced at the corpse and swore under his breath.
“Damn! Who did this?” Han pushed his rifle onto his back and crouched down to check the body.
“Sergeant, weren’t you with him?” Damien said suddenly.
“He told me he was in too much pain to keep going and he was going to rest. I did a round nearby and by the time I came back, he was gone. The radios were down, so I’ve been looking for him ever since.”
It can’t be. Bob would never give up on a mission, no matter how much pain he was in.
Damien stared at Han, trying to glimpse the face beneath his mask. But it was impossible.
“Poor Bob. I should have reminded him this place is full of wild dogs. They’re like coyotes.”
Damien felt anger ignite inside him. The injuries had clearly been caused by weapons, at least most of them. Damien had seen more livestock attacked by wild animals than he cared to remember, but even a blind person would be able to see that was not what happened here.
He was about to open his mouth when he felt a kick. Schertling.
“You’re right, Sergeant. We saw a pack of wild dogs on the road back there, maybe it was them,” Schertling offered.
“A tragic accident,” Han sighed, shaking his head.
“Let’s go back. Our dog has probably suffered the same fate. A good soldier never leaves a fallen brother. Carry him back.”
Waves of doubt, anger, and fear crashed over Damien. But by now, the sun was up and the first rays of light had broken through the heavy clouds, illuminating Damien and the body lying beside him.
It was a somber morning, and yet the weather was unusually fine for Zamaii.
Fuck you, sunshine! Fuck you, blue sky! Had the world become so sick and crazy that it was celebrating a tragedy?
Damien was so furious he wanted to roar at the heavens.
But as the sun caressed Bob’s face, Damien noticed that his expression was not as pained as he had expected. In fact, he looked quite peaceful, at ease even. His eyes were closed as if he had just fallen asleep.
This quelled Damien’s anger somewhat and instead released some tears.
They hadn’t known each other long, why was Damien so upset? But there was something different about it this time, not like last time their brothers were killed. Totally different.
He didn’t know exactly what had happened to Bob, but he was sure he had gone honorably, the way a good soldier should. That he had fought to the last. Yes, look at the wounds, he died like a warrior. Like a hero from a legend.
With a thought like that, Damien couldn’t begrudge the weather. In fact, Bob deserved to end his life basking in sunlight, with the best weather offered all of Agurts.
Damien was quiet and together with Schertling, they tried to lift the body. But as Damien was straightening Bob’s clothes, he felt something in the pocket of his uniform. The coffee beans Bob had shown him.
Damien could see through Han. If he were to find them, he would merely sell them to pay for liquor, smokes and the touch of a lady. No, these beans must have meant a lot to Bob. There was no way he was going to let Han take them.
As Han stood up and turned, Damien reached into his dead friend’s pocket and grabbed the coffee beans. Then he slid them into his own pocket. He looked up, only to catch Schertling’s eye.
Shit. Did he see? He couldn’t have, could he? Nervously, Damien stood up.
“Should we take his dog tag?” Schertling asked.
Secretly relieved, Damien reached for Bob’s neck.
“Wait . . . what? His tag is gone!”
“One of the dogs must have taken them,” Sergeant Han shrugged. “No matter. We all know it’s Bob.”
Sure, the dogs could have taken lots of things. Like your conscience. But Bob’s warning rang in Damien’s ears, so he kept silent.
Bob’s body felt heavier as exhaustion caught up with them. A strange feeling came over Damien. This wasn’t Bob, it was just some human-shaped object. The real Bob, his only friend in the army, was in his pocket. Inside the bag of coffee beans.
Damien decided there and then: he would send Bob back home. Bob’s keepsake would be returned to the people he loved the most.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood