Chapter 4 The Last Order

Session 4.1 The code

Everyone was doing something different the night Bob died.

Some people were collecting their reward.

Some people were covering their tracks.

Some wandered the ruins of Zamaii, disturbed.

For some reason, this shadowy figure managed to navigate the many potholes and other dangers in the dark without a torch. Maybe her mask was fitted with night vision? If so, it was no standard army-issue.

And neither was she dressed in combat uniform.

If you had looked carefully though, you would have seen that her movements had purpose. She wasn’t roving the rubble for lack of a clear way through. She was looking for something.

That’s right, it was a methodical search operation, someone with special training. But there was something disturbing her, she kept stopping suddenly, crouching and covering her head with her arms, wringing her hands as if trying to hold back a tide of emotion. Then, she would get up and carry on.

The shadowy figure slipped in and out of buildings like a nocturnal creature patrolling its territory, sometimes pausing to feel the walls.

She came to an unremarkable tumbledown building, one wall was covered in cracks and branches poked in through the broken roof. The shadow carefully pushed open the door.

A crow that was settled in the branches fluttered its wings to display its dissatisfaction, but quickly went back to sleep. The intruder moved quietly so as not to further disturb the inhabitants.

The shadow glanced around the room and then made straight for a corner. As expected, the wall was covered in sloping scratches. A mirror opposite reflected the figure’s wiry outline and revealed the inverted writing etched onto the plaster.

The person reached out, stroked the wall. A large crack. A shiver went through her, out of surprise or maybe even fear.

Seconds later, the figure started scratching wildly at the crack, as if trying to dig something out of it. Awake now, the crow cawed in anger.

She stood, looked around and started searching the other corners. The crow beat its black wings and flew up through what was left of the roof, cursing the intruder with an angry squawk.

It’s not here. Someone’s taken it.

She had to accept it, and swallowing the tears that had gathered in the corners of her mouth, she bit her lip. The inside of her mask was wet, but it was impossible to wipe away the tears.
No. No, no, no.

Why didn’t she realize earlier?

The shadowy figure’s fists were trembling, but she loosened his grip. Regret was of no use. It was too late.

She could rage, she could cry, but only action could make a difference – that was how she was taught.

Whatever the case, she had to get it back.

*

Everyone was doing something different the night Bob died.

Some people were collecting their reward.

Some people were covering their tracks.

Some wandered the ruins of Zamaii, disturbed.

Some sat in a bar, staring at the two glasses placed in front of them.

Damien was sitting in the same seat as last time, two glasses sat on the table. An hour had passed, and he had only taken one sip.

This hadn’t been the plan. He was going to down one as soon as it arrived. Then reach for the second and finish that too. Then another . . .

That had been the plan.

Alcohol was supposed to help him drown the sorrow. Drink fast, shout loud, get it out . . . But, then . . .

But, then Damien remembered.

And he didn’t want to forget.

So after one sip, he didn’t want any more. It tasted like water. Was it him? Or did the bar manager dilute the keg?

Probably, it was him.

Damien recalled attending his first funeral as a child. His neighbor’s. The adults wore black and scrunched up frowns. Afterward, the adults drank while the kids were given candy. He and his sister laughed, until he caught sight of another child heaving with earth-shattering sobs. He had been given candy, but still, he cried. It seemed like he would use up all his energy on those tears, that now he had started, he would never, ever stop.

The man they had just buried was the boy’s father, the adults explained. It was the first time Damien realized what it might mean to lose a loved one. Feeling ashamed, he hid the candies and stopped smiling. He then scolded his sister for laughing until she too was shaking with tears. . . Those childhood memories.

But Bob was neither his family nor his neighbor.

What was it that made the old soldier’s death so painful? He had lost more comrades in the last attack, and he hadn’t known Bob any longer than those unlucky ones.

Why?

Why did Bob have to die like that?

Bob’s death left him with many doubts, indeed, there seemed to be more with each passing hour. But that wasn’t Damien’s most pressing question.

He ordered another drink and placed it in front of the chair before him. He should have insisted  on buying Bob a drink last time, and now he would never get the chance.

A soldier approached Damien’s table but when he saw the drink on the table he turned and made for another empty chair.

“I . . . hope I’m not disturbing you.”

At that moment Schertling invited himself to sit down, carrying his own drink.

Damien didn’t respond. He didn’t have the energy to react, nor to turn him away.

“It was awful,” Schertling said quietly, his head hung.

Damien took a second sip of his drink.

“Sorry . . . I heard someone say you guys were real tight.” Schertling continued. “Were you old friends?”

“Actually, we didn’t know each other long,” Damien finally said.

This seemed to surprise Schertling, the melancholic eyes behind his glasses seemed to widen for a moment.

Schertling was from somewhere north of Omanga. His skin was lighter and his hair fairer than the people of Agurts, although they were all one people really. They just spoke slightly different languages. His face was jagged, as if once scarred by starvation, his cheeks would never fill out again. That he would forever wear the tragedy.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. I know how it feels, he did look awful.”

A wrinkle comes across Damien’s brow. What did he mean?

“You don’t have to know someone long to feel sad about their death . . . He was a good man.”

“He was kind to you?”

“He rescued the team once, and he took special care of us rookies . . . But that’s not what I meant.” Damien shook his head. “He wasn’t just an average good guy.”

“I understand. The good ones always go first.”

“No, that’s not it. You don’t get it. Bob had a presence. At first, I thought it was of a man who has been to war. But that wasn’t it. He was reliable, you know? He didn’t have to do anything in particular, you just trusted him. I don’t know how to describe it. He just did things the right way.”

“Yes, he was good at solving problems.”

“No! What I mean is, he always did the right thing. He made you feel that as long as you did as he did, it would be right . . . It was like he had some kind of magic compass, it was always pointing the right way. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“OK, relax. I don’t think I knew Bob that well.” Schertling held his hands out in front of him, “But I can feel how much you respected him.”

“It’s just that . . .” Damien regretted having said so much, and yet he couldn’t help but add, “I can’t accept it. Why? Why did he have to die like that? A man like Bob, dead, while . . . he is still alive? What the fuck is wrong with the world?”

“This world has been nuts since the first atomic bomb. I don’t think it will ever recover.”

Damien didn’t answer. He was still thinking about Schertling’s reaction that morning in the camp.

“Another thing. . . I’m sorry. But honestly, don’t do it. You’ve got to think clearly.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Aren’t you thinking about reporting the Sergeant?”

Was he? The thought was there, sure enough, he couldn’t count the number of times it had flashed through his mind. But there was so much about it that he couldn’t make sense of, and he had no idea which part was most important. Was he thinking of reporting Han? Yes, of course he was.

“I’m not saying this for my sake. You’re young, you’ve got so much ahead of you . . . We’re nothing but small fry, we could die out here in the desert any day of the week. And honestly, what does it matter how it happens? Still being alive, that’s the only thing that matters. If Bob was still here, I bet he’d tell you to leave it too. The only way to make a difference is if you’re still around to do it.”

No. You don’t know Bob.

But Damien didn’t want to discuss it anymore. And he knew Schertling was only trying to look out for him.

“I understand what you’re saying. Thanks.”

His mouth was dry so he took another sip from his glass. He stared into the void in front of him and licked his lips. Schertling, realizing he didn’t want to talk anymore, sighed, patted him on the shoulder and left.

Schertling’s advice only made Damien even more confused and depressed. He thought about reaching for the glass and finishing his drink in one, but instead, his hand moved instinctively towards his chest.

He pulled out Bob’s notebook.

Why did he want to look at it now? He couldn’t say. Maybe he was hoping for answers of a sort, even though he didn’t know what questions he was supposed to be asking. He flicked through the pages and realized it only left him with more.

Apart from the message on the first page, he didn’t understand most of it. The pictures he got, and they had been annotated with what looked like dates. A journal? Had Bob been writing a diary? Damien realized he wouldn’t have been to most of these places.

But there were so many scribbles in the margins, weird symbols. Some looked like they might be in a foreign language, whereas others he could understand the individual words, but had no idea what they meant when put together. Was it poetry? Or. . .

Code?

In fact, it looked like several different codes.

They had studied basic cryptology as part of their military training, of course. He tried using the methods he knew of, but none seemed to work.

Were the pictures also part of the code?

That would make it impossible. He flipped to the last page. A hand-drawn map of Zamaii. He had seen that last time. On the previous page was a hastily written set of symbols.

Probably the last thing Bob wrote, Damien realized. He traced his fingers across the black lines. Judging from the relative lack of coloration on the page, they looked to be the most fresh.

Then I should start with this one, Damien thought.

Damien grabbed one of the old newspapers from the bar and started making notes. He tried to recall what he had learned during his training, but it was foggy.

Cryptology had been at its peak during the second world war, culminating in the Enigma. Devising ingenious methods of encryption had been frontline work given to experts. Normal officers were not up to the task. These days, computers had taken over.

A brain like Damien’s was no match for a computer – soldiers like him were merely supposed to wait for instructions. He had never had access to these special computers, nor any genuine secrets.

But in an emergency, an old-fashioned handwritten code was better than nothing. At the very least, it could buy time.

Was it a simple Caesar cipher? Or a Vigenère? If Bob had created a special protocol it was going to be harder. The text was short, too short for frequency analysis. Judging by the notebook as a whole, Bob was cautious. He would never have used such a common cipher. But if he wrote it at speed, it couldn’t be too complicated. . .

Damien liked puzzles, and losing himself in these riddles felt good.

What was Bob trying to hide? Was it all for his eyes only, or was it designed for someone else to decode? Damien shut the book quickly: he didn’t want to snoop in the old man’s secrets.

Bob, why did you go to all this trouble to write in code? Damien glanced down at the newspaper he had been writing on and saw that the report was about the Commander of the Buck’s Team. If that Bob wasn’t under house arrest in the Capital, he’d have toyed with the idea that the Bob he knew could have been the very same national hero.

Who could he give it to? He had no clues to go on, other than what was contained within the pages themselves. Damien picked it up and opened it again. What could be the key. . .

Damien was so focused on the notebook that he almost didn’t notice the figure approach. He heard a sound, turned, but it was already too late to stop him from sitting down.

“What?”

Petar stared back at Damien, as if to say, this chair doesn’t belong to you. But there were clearly other seats available in the bar, which made Damien pissed.

Damien carefully closed the book, pulled it close and hid it under his hand. Hopefully Petar didn’t notice.

“Hi, a glass of stout!” Petar called to the barmaid and glanced around the bar. “Where’s the blonde?”

“It’s her day off,” the barmaid said as she placed the beer on the table. She smiled and flicked her hair. “She doesn’t like interacting with the customers, but if you like, I could stay and we could arm wrestle. Special service for hot guys only.”

“Not tonight, we’re having a quiet night.”

Petar gave her a coin and she walked away, amused.

We’re? Damien was puzzled. He had nothing to say to Petar. Was he here for a second round, after this morning?

Petar didn’t say anything, and neither did Damien. They sat beside each other, drinking, in awkward silence.

“Hey,” Petar said eventually, “I don’t like you, because you’re dumb as fuck. But whatever anyone says, at least you’re not a bastard.”

“Am I supposed to be thanking you for the compliment?”

“Damn, you still don’t get it? The radios,” Petar whispered. “They used jammers to put a stop to the signal. And then what? Without any investigation, the body was removed from the base. It takes them a year to supply bandages to the medical centre, since when does anything happen that efficiently?”

He checked again that Han wasn’t in the bar and continued, “Someone wanted to get rid of him, idiot. That’s not the kind of thing a low-level Sergeant has the power to do. No, there has to be someone big behind this all. And we can’t touch something like that.”

So, he’s here to repeat what Schertling just said. But still, it surprised Damien that Petar would come to find him especially.

“You think I’m that dumb, huh?” Damien said coldly. “I think what happened would make any normal person angry.”

“Fine, you’re free to be angry . . . all the way to hell,” Petar said, shrugging his shoulders. “Or, you could try to live long enough to find out which bastard did this and fuck him up. It’s up to you.”

Damien blinked. Did he hear that right? Did Petar just advise him to get revenge?

“Or do you think what you’re doing right now is productive? Eat shit, you arrogant bastard. You’re not dragging me down with you.” Petar sneered, but for some reason Damien didn’t feel angry. Maybe on some level, he knew Petar was right.

Petar grabbed his glass, clinked it against the untouched beer in front of the seat opposite Damien. Then he drained his drink and left.

Damien watched in silence as Petar walked out of the bar. What did he want? Did he feel guilty? He always thought Petar disliked him as well as Bob, but maybe that wasn’t the case?

He sighed. At least he could be alone for a bit. If another person came over, he would go nuts.

“Hey, my Amifa? It took my money!”

No, not another one. Damien’s head hurt as he shook it. He looked across at the drunk soldier bashing his fist against the jukebox. Same one as last time.

The barmaid dragged him away and then launched a practised kick against the machine. The jukebox broke into song.

Smooth jazz. An Amifa classic. Damien and Bob had listened to this song together. The coincidence brought him out in goosebumps. But it wasn’t so strange perhaps, this was a popular song. The base was full of her fans, just like this legless soldier.

“Everyone has their own mission.”

Amifa’s sultry voice sang the line, as if just for him. Damien thought he could hear a crack in her voice, pain perhaps, but also determination. How could she sing his feelings so precisely when she had never been to war?

Everyone has their own mission. . .

A thought hit him, and he opened the notebook. Everyone has their own mission. A line of the same length was repeated a few times in the text.

Maybe it is coded in Vigenère?

Damien shook himself. It shouldn’t be this easy, but it was a good omen. Of one thing he could be certain, he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight unless he broke the code.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood