Chapter 3 NOTHING VENTURED

Session 3.1 Useful or not

Bob said he couldn’t walk anymore.

Bob said he’d rather go alone.

Bob said he didn’t want to waste time looking for a dog.

Lies. All lies.

Every time Sergeant Han explained why Bob was alone, the reason he gave was different. He was making it up on the spot. And yet, apart from Damien, no one seemed to notice or care.

Damien couldn’t understand. Who would attack an old soldier? How come there were such horrific wounds? Wouldn’t Sergeant Han have to give answers to his superiors about Bob’s death? He was the last person to see him alive.

Surely he’d have to write a report? Not that Damien would ever know.

Han was the commanding officer – his superior. All Han had to say was: “Bob got unlucky, he lost his life in the op.” No one in the team would dare to question further.

Or no one was interested in finding out more.

The army was the most efficient place to get rid of a body. Bob’s remains were stuffed into a body bag and swiftly removed. To everyone else, it was as if Bob had vanished.

Damien at first thought the nonchalance of his fellow soldiers was because they hadn’t seen the body, and therefore hadn’t realized the seriousness of the situation. So the moment he got back to the dormitory, he told his teammates everything he had seen.

Still, against his expectations, he could not elicit a response. Those napping were still trying to catch up on their sleep. Those writing home were still scribbling. Those ogling dirty magazines were still leering at lithe bodies. As if he had just told them something commonplace, say, the boiler in the bathhouse had broken down again. No, actually, that news would jolt them into some reaction at least.

Shocked at the silence, Damien couldn’t even find the will to get mad at them. He simply stared at his teammates with incomprehension.

“Haven’t you got anything to say?”

Silence, again.

“Schertling, tell them! You saw it too. The wounds…”

“I’m scared of blood. I didn’t look too closely. Perhaps you were mistaken,” the former teacher mumbled from his corner.

Coward!

Seething, Damien turned to the others, “We’re comrades, we fight side by side. We don’t know how or why he was killed and you don’t seem to care!”

“Shut up.”

Lounging on the bed, one leg draped over the other, Petar threw down the dirty magazine and glared at Damien.

“What do you expect? At his age, he could have dropped dead at any moment and no one would have batted an eyelid.”

“Didn’t you hear a word I just said? It’s clearly a conspir—”

“Clearly, you saw something you weren’t meant to,” Petar hissed, his voice quieter than usual. He leapt from the bed and grabbed Damien by the collar. “Yes, we’re in the same team. So, what happened to him can happen to any of us. Are you so dumb that you don’t even realize that? Look at him, teacher over there is way smarter.”

But Damien had also snatched the front of Petar’s top, his jaw clenched in fury. Tension filled the room. A fight was about to break out.

“Have you forgotten who saved us from the Soil Ghosts? Do you really feel nothing about Bob’s death?”

“There’s no need to drag that up again. We’re scum, but we know what happened!”

Petar shoved Damien, almost slamming him backwards into the metal bunk bed.

“A word of advice, don’t go tramping around where you don’t belong, and don’t drag us along with you. As for the old man…” Petar looked at the empty bed and murmured, “Rest in peace.”

“Rest in peace.”

Solemn whispers echoed around the room. The flippancy had disappeared from their faces. They were showing a respect they had never shown whilst Bob was alive. But wasn’t it all too late?

Damien at last realized what a moron he had been: It’s not because they didn’t understand. They’re playing dumb because they know too well – they’re scared.

But what else could he do other than lose his temper?

Damien knew it wasn’t Sergeant Han who killed Bob. He was certain that Han didn’t have the skill to inflict the wounds he had seen. His commander might be younger and stronger, but it would have been impossible for him to emerge from such a bloody tussle without a scratch. And, Han wasn’t the sort who would challenge Bob to his face.

Having said that, even though Han might not be the killer, he must have had a hand in Bob’s death. Otherwise, why would he need to lie? Whose ear did the stray dog eat? Whatever happened out there, Han was in on it.

The sharp click of military boots approached the dormitory. The dirty magazine disappeared with the speed and agility of a hurtling bullet.

Han. In the doorway.

Everyone, including Damien, jumped onto their feet in attention. However reluctant the young soldier felt about the gesture, he had no choice but perform.

“Let me show you how grown-ups mourn,” Sergeant Han said, solemn and stern. “Thirty laps. Now! Show the old man up there you know how to play the role of good soldiers, you sons of bitches!”

By the time the good soldiers returned, dripping in sweat and drained of all energy, Bob’s bed had been cleared. The old man’s few personal possessions had vanished just like his person.

Damien touched his pocket without thinking. The coffee beans were still there.

*

The sunshine brought a rare sense of ease to the barracks. Some soldiers played ball games, others sought permission to go out. Damien also left the camp, but his destination was not the bar.

Damien couldn’t remember how he had got here and found Bob’s hideout. He had only ever seen it from afar. Now, he entered the space for the first time.

Crumbling walls, a derelict house; it was no different from all the other dilapidated buildings nearby. He opened the door. The wood felt as if it would disintegrate upon touch. Inside… it was just like any deserted house. The furniture was long gone. The empty room was covered with layers of dust and sand. A few hardy plants pushed through the cracks in the wall and floor.

Did I go to the wrong house? Damien started to doubt himself. He remembered Bob used to go there to have some time alone, so he expected to find a stash of food, a blanket or two, things like that. Everyone in the army knew that other than weapons, anything they managed to lay their hands on could be claimed as theirs and it would not be considered theft.

But this place was empty.

Upon closer examination, Damien noticed a corner with less dirt. He walked over and sat down against the wall. It was a surprisingly comfortable spot, with excellent sightline of all the entry points. On the wall opposite was a mirror. It was cracked, but it was still useful for monitoring and preempting intruders. The set up reminded Damien of all the things Bob had taught him.

This is so Bob.

The thought unleashed the torrent of grief Damien had tried so hard to bottle in. He took off the gas mask and pulled out a stainless steel hip flask from his jacket’s inside pocket. He poured the amber liquid onto the ground.

“Sorry, I don’t know how to brew coffee. But the girl at the bar promised me this is the best whiskey in the whole of Zamaii.”

He mumbled to Bob as he emptied the hip flask. Then he took out the pouch of coffee beans.

It felt heavier than it was.

He took it in the heat of the moment, but what should he do with it now? He would love to give it to Bob’s family or friends, but he had no idea who they were. He remembered asking the old man if he had a family when they first met, and he was certain the answer was “Yes”, but Bob never gave him any more details.

The army should have information about Bob’s next of kin, but would there be a way to go around Sergeant Han to obtain it? And yet, whoever the higher powers might be, they were probably no better than his commanding officer. These beans could be sold for a lot of money.

Or perhaps he should bury them here in Zamaii? As a memorial. After all, he didn’t have a single lead in finding the old man’s family…

A stranger’s face appeared across the room. A soldier. Damien reached for his gun by reflex. Then he looked again. It was his own. The setting sun illuminated his face through the mortar holes in the wall and the mirror caught his reflection.

He almost failed to recognize himself. Face tense, brow furled, eyes full of hate and suspicion. Could this really be him? Didn’t he only just celebrate his eighteenth birthday?

Damien saw his face in the mirror every morning when he shaved, but right now, catching his own reflection out of context, he was shocked by his own expression.

Grown-ups used to tell him, the army would make a man out of a boy. Was this what they meant?

As he gazed at his reflected self, full of doubts and questions, he noticed writing on the wall behind him. He spun round. All he saw were random lines and cracks. He turned back to the mirror and gasped in a mouthful of air.

These aren’t just cracks. They’re words! But they can only be read in the mirror, from this very spot.

“Everyone has his own mission.”

Bob had said those words to him too. It was his mantra.

Damien traced the letters he had almost overlooked, then he saw a second line written below, these ones much smaller.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Something seemed to be stuffed in the crack beneath the last word.

Whatever it was, its color was almost the same as its surroundings. Hard to spot, shielded in this shaded corner. Damien dug carefully into the wall.

So Bob had his stash of forbidden stuff too, just like the rest of us! What if it’s smut?

That would be awkward. He recalled the collective cry of sorrow in the dorm after their run, when they discovered their dirty magazines had disappeared along with Bob’s things.

It was a notebook with a tatty leather cover. A little bit bigger than his palm and quite thick. Damien opened it carefully. The paper had yellowed – it must be of some age.

The first page had the following handwritten message:

“Brothers,

By the time you read these words, my personal battle will probably be over, but the war still rages on. War never ceases. If the current situation does not change, it will be impossible to end the war. I’m part of the old history, the future belongs to those still living. You should take my passing as an opportunity to pursue that change. You haven’t lost me, but now you are no longer restrained by me. Do what you think is right. Find your mission.

Holder of the Coffee Beans”

Damien was happy to see that Bob had brothers, or friends he could call brothers. He should pass the coffee beans onto them.

He flipped through the notebook. It was full of hand-drawn diagrams and Bob’s distinctive handwriting. He didn’t expect the old soldier to be so good at drawing. Intrigued, he turned to the last page.

More lines and symbols.

Damien examined the page and soon recognized it as a rudimentary map of Zamaii. What could these crosses and numbers mean? As he pondered this question, he saw the location where they were attacked by the Soil Ghosts marked with an X. The numbers corresponded to the date and time of the attack. And there, beside all that: “8-1”.

Eight. There were about eight Soil Ghosts, from memory. Could the dash one refer to the one he shot?

Could this map be a record of the times and places of all their skirmishes with the Soil Ghosts, as well as the number of Soil Ghosts involved?

Why had Bob done this?

Damien flicked to the previous page. It was filled with symbols and codes that made no sense.

Questions now filled Damien’s head. This notebook would for sure pique anyone’s interest.

It was growing hard to read in the diminishing light. Damien couldn’t believe how long he had stayed. He stood up and slipped the notebook into his pocket. Just then, he felt a piece of paper inside – the coffee bean company sticker he found on the truck. He put it in the notebook without another thought.

On the way back to the barracks, Damien bumped into a group of soldiers and hitched a ride.

The radio was on. It sounded like an interview with someone famous. A man was speaking eloquently.

“If a man reaches forty or fifty and still hasn’t achieved anything, then he is clearly a waste of our society’s resources.”

“May I ask what you mean by hasn’t achieved anything?” The presenter asked. “Do you mean someone who hasn’t made much contribution to our country, or…”

“Think about this: a man completes his military service in his early twenties. He has another decade or two to make his way. If he doesn’t go astray, he should by now be the owner of some land or real estate, right? If at this ripe old age he still relies on government benefits, tell me what he is if not a waste of our society’s resources? The cuts in the healthcare assistance act are a perfectly reasonable way to protect our country’s economy.”

Damien had no idea who this man on the radio was, but his words made him clench his fists.

My parents have slaved on the state farm for decades, and they still can’t afford to buy land or own their own home. But they raised me and my little sister, and made great contributions to the country’s agricultural output.

Bob probably never owned land or house either. Or else he wouldn’t have still been serving in the army at his age. But he risked his life to protect this country.

Are people like them “a waste of our society’s resources”?

“But Senator Broz, many people think the reason why the average person can’t afford real estate is because major agro businesses have bought up large swathes of arable land, so these days it’s impossible for farmers to own the land they work. For example, GDG Coffee recently acquired a farm in the east…”

“Let me remind you, the greatest stakeholder of GDG Coffee is the Agurts government. What is beneficial to the company is beneficial to Agurts. Everything our family have done and are doing is for the country – to provide genuine benefit to the country’s economy.”

Lies. All lies. Even Damien could hear the hollow ring of pretense in the man’s voice. It’s not for the country, it’s just to fatten your pocket!

“Jesus! Cut healthcare? So if we get crippled because of your war, we’ll have to pay the doctor from our own pockets? What the fuck?” A soldier Damien had never met swore and slapped his thigh.

Everyone echoed the sentiment with more angry cursing.

Damien looked at his comrades in the car and thought: Without us rookies, without these young men, without experienced old soldiers like Bob, that man could never talk so easily about his success on the radio! Omanga’s mechanized army would have long since marched on the Capital!

Night had fallen. The headlights shone on the gates to the barracks. Damien was “home”. His home for now.

What exactly is useful for the country?

Damien remembered talking to Bob about this. He felt he could be more useful going back to the farm, but Bob reminded him his work here was equally important.

But one thing he knew for certain. Useful or not, it wasn’t measured the way the politician described on the radio.

He had made up his mind. He would pass Bob’s things on to his brothers. This was what Damien would do – his new mission. And as the word crossed his mind, he thought of Bob’s mantra.

Finally, I have my mission. Not one assigned by Han, but one I discovered. For my friend.

And with that thought, Damien’s heart was lightened somewhat.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood