Chapter 4 The Last Order
Session 4.2 Maze in the Sands
Damien longed to close his eyes and sleep.
He had spent the day sitting and yet still he was exhausted.
He wanted to lick his lips. They were dry as tree bark. But he couldn’t move his tongue. It was stuck to the bridge of his mouth.
Dehydration, one of your worst enemies in the desert.
Bob wrote that next to a sketch of the desert in his notebook. Those words suddenly flashed across Damien’s mind.
This was the first time the young soldier from the mild south had set foot onto the sandy expanse. Damien had thought the incessant downpour of acid rain was tiresome, now he realized the longed-for sunshine was something even less welcome. He could no longer find anything to like about the cloudless sky or the glaring sun. They glowered down like the eye of a Cyclops and watched him burn in fiery hell.
Water was evaporating with an alarming rapidity. Damien could no longer feel the perspiration on his skin. The uniform might keep the sun from scorching his skin, but the fabric trapped in the heat. He felt like a joint roasting in the oven . . . generously marinated in his own salt.
The thought tugged the muscles around his lips feebly. He didn’t even have the strength to mock himself.
Through the smudged lenses of his gas mask, Damien could just about make out Schertling, who was sitting next to him. His eyes were shut tight. Asleep? The rest of his team was much the same. Heads bowed, shoulders drooped, all life zapped.
In the desert, gas masks acted as physical barriers to block out the sand in the air. The dusty grains were no simple sediment of nature. This earth was once a country, teemed with people, cities, farms, factories, roads. But rapid desertification made the land uninhabitable, and before long, everything turned into dusty particles. The sand underfoot was probably mixed with granules from crushed up buildings and bits of bone from the dead.
Sand was far more damaging to the gas mask filter than smog as it clogged and rubbed against the air valve. That was why Damien was finding it harder and harder to breathe.
The jeeps rode up and down the enormous sand dunes, churning around like small boats in a rough sea. At first, Petar was thrilled by the off-road driving. He raced against another car to see who could jump higher and farther, and in the process made Schertling sick. However, two days on, the boys had grown numb to the unceasing yellow landscape.
Hills of sand in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Impossible to tell direction. Only the odd pile of rubble – gnawed to the bone by the desert – gave the soldiers a sense of progress and movement.
Humans aren’t welcome here.
Damien thought he heard the wind and sand whisper. He shook his head, a futile attempt to wake himself up.
Everything about the mission felt wrong. He needed to stay alert. But he had been in this heightened, tense state for thirty odd hours already and he could barely keep his eyes open.
Damien’s mind drifted back to his childhood on the farm. More than once he had seen representatives of their landlord coming to the farm with harsh new rules. He remembered asking his parents why they didn’t object to such unreasonable demands. Each time they would surreptitiously shake their heads and signal for him to stay quiet.
“We’re ordinary folks, we obey,” they would tell him afterwards. “If we make a fuss, we only end up making trouble for ourselves – and for others too. Keep your head down and concentrate on getting by. There’s no point making a scene.”
Damien thought of his parents’ words and how they, in their meek, obedient way, managed to raise a son and a daughter. Perhaps they were right.
He looked ahead. The truck was driving forward with determination, leading the three jeeps to the rendezvous area. If such a place actually existed.
Sergeant Han was at the steering wheel of the truck.
The whole mission had originated from an order received two days ago.
A sandstorm hit the GDG Coffee convoy. One of the trucks was stranded and activated its distress beacon. The company turned to the military for help.
The Zamaii Border Patrols rarely ventured this far beyond Agurts’ territory. Most operations in these parts were handled by the 88th Sand Team. However, babysitting trading convoys was Zamaii’s responsibility – even in the desert.
Follow Han into the desert? Are you kidding me? Who knows what nasty plan he’s cooking up?
Damien refused to believe that this was a simple rescue and rendezvous operation. But he saw the command arrive and Han’s disgruntled look when he read the message. He also sounded very put out when he told everyone to gear up.
But after Bob, it was hard for Damien to take things at face value.
And Damien wasn’t alone in suspecting something was afoot. Petar asked to stay back, faking stomach cramps, but Han saw through him.
“The signal isn’t far, we should be back by sunrise. But we’ll take some supplies. Just in case.”
For once, Han sounded like he gave a damn.
They set off at sunset and drove all night through the desert to the location of the distress signal. Damien noticed how the temperature dropped sharper during nightfall as they moved further away from the border. The jeep’s headlights sliced into the blackness ahead, but where Damien was sitting, it was so dark that he couldn’t see his hands.
Just before sunrise, they found the lone truck, stuck in the sand. The sandstorm had eased by then, so the soldiers pulled off their masks and stretched their legs.
The driver was a skinny middle-aged man. For someone who made a living traversing the desert, he seemed unusually pale-skinned.
He didn't shut up once the help arrived. He told them he got injured during the sand storm and how the truck got stuck. He spent most of the fuel trying to get out of the dunes and depleted most of the power to keep the heat running all night. Many words of complaint but not a single word of thanks.
“Seems to be in good spirits,” Damien muttered.
The young soldier had made up his mind that something unsavory was going on, so even though the driver had a bloodstained bandage around his head, he refused to believe that he was actually hurt.
Hearing the quiet grumble, the driver raged, pointing at his forehead. “What the fuck was that? You think this is funny smart ass?”
Schertling pulled Damien away and tried to defuse the situation, “He didn’t mean it like that.”
“Fill the tank. Be quick. I need to rejoin the convoy.”
The driver ordered the military around as if GDG was their employer, and the soldiers would have to do his bidding without a word of complaint.
Then the driver spoke privately to Han in the truck’s cabin. When Han hopped down, he said, “The convoy is not too far away to the northeast. We should be able to catch up with them before lunch and be back in Zamaii by dinner.”
Why can’t we take the driver and his truck back and let GDG deal with it?
The soldiers exchanged a look. It was clear this question was on everyone’s mind, but no one put it into words.
“C’mon, move! I don’t get paid if my delivery is late. Are you going to pay for my loss?”
This driver cared more about his fee than his health. Maybe drivers who gambled their lives on the desert for a living were all like that?
“Hey, we’re the Agurts army, not GDG’s private security firm. They’re under my command. OK?” Even Han was growing irritated at the driver. “Departure at 0500. If you want a piss or a nap, this is your chance. Dismissed!”
Accepting their fate, they scattered to find a spot to rest.
“Sandstorm?” Damian heard Petar snort quietly. “I say his truck is cleaner than our jeeps.”
Now the young man took a closer look at the scene. Surely the truck would be much dirtier after being battered by wind and sand. Right?
“Let me be clear,” Petar interrupted the thought. “If you were singled out and separated from us, like the old man, don’t expect me to come looking for you. You’re on your own.”
Petar pulled on his mask and hopped onto the jeep. Damien followed.
Before long, the clouds began to disperse and rays of light pried through the inky night.
In the first light of dawn, Damien saw the desert for the first time. Sand in every direction as far as eye could see. The temperature shot up as the clouds retreated for the day.
Bob wrote in his notebook that people used to find their bearings in the desert by the stars. But the world’s climate had changed, cloud and fog gather over the sandy wilderness at night, blotting out the heavens above. Now the only way to orientate oneself was at sunrise when light started to appear in the east – and this was the direction they were heading in, roughly.
The old soldier probably wrote down other ways to find one’s way in the desert, but Damien couldn’t take the notebook out right now.
This wide expanse of sand separated Agurts from Omanga and Gafia. If one drew a straight line across the desert on a map, Agurts might not seem far from those two countries. But in this dust bowl, it was impossible to estimate the speed of travel by distance.
Too many dangers lurked in this wasteland.
Quicksand, often impossible to see, had sucked in countless travellers and their vehicles. Soil Ghosts always materialized when least expected . . . Desert traders were willing to make as many detours as necessary to traverse this inhospitable expanse in safety.
The jeeps climbed up and down sand dunes after the truck – Han was still in the driver’s seat. In every direction was dust and sediment, and the occasional reminder of a manmade structure.
“The convoy went east to avoid Soil Ghosts,” the driver announced when they stopped for lunch. It would take longer than expected to make the rendezvous. Those words came as a premonition to Damien: they’d have to camp out in the desert tonight.
As he had predicted, they spent the night in the desert, taking turns to guard the truck.
Another day in the sand. Thirty plus hours since they left the barracks. Finally, Han admitted that they “might have deviated somewhat from the planned route.”
The driver proclaimed that a small diversion was common in this shifting landscape, but he knew the place like the back of his hand.
Damien sensed something was off. They had been out in the desert for far too long. What was going on? Though they had enough food and water to last a few days, he began to save his water ration as a precaution.
Yet another day passed. Once more, he had been baked dry in the jeep with his teammates – for nothing. They arrived at small cluster of ruins just before sunset. The driver said they would spend the night here.
A multistoried building once stood on this site. Now, all that remained was its steel frame, rising from the desert like a giant climbing frame. By its side was some form of a concrete structure. What luck! It should provide enough shelter to keep the sand away for the night. As the soldiers began to set up camp, they realized they were standing on the top floor of a building and the levels below had disappeared under the sand.
If Damien hadn’t been so shattered, he would have noticed how very odd it was that he was able to lie down without having to remove debris and dirt from the floor. But right now, he only had one desire – to burrow into his sleeping bag and close his eyes.
He had no idea how long he had been sleeping when he was woken up by a noise. Was it his turn already? Shouldn’t Schertling have come to wake him up when he’d done his shift?
The young man forced his eyelids to part. In the fog of sleep, he registered someone staring at him. Schertling?
Just beyond the threshold of their temporary shelter Damien saw the former teacher. In the dim light, his eyes were wide with fear, his face glistened with sweat. He was standing stiffly and awkwardly, his mouth open but no sound came out.
A dark figure behind Schertling held a dagger to his neck. Schertling was the human shield.
Antlered mask, swollen limbs . . . A Soil Ghost!
No one stirred. No one realized the Soil Ghosts had come.
Damien’s hand shot out to grab his gun, but this only made the Soil Ghost pressed the dagger harder against Schertling’s skin.
Sensing movement, Damien’s neighbor woke and saw the clumsy shadowy form. “Soil – Soil Ghost!”
The words exploded into the sleeping soldiers’ ears like water splashing into hot oil. Sizzling with fear, they reached for their fondest bedfellows – their guns.
By now the Soil Ghost had dragged his hostage from the entryway. The pursuing soldiers hotfooted towards a ghastly sight.
There were at least twenty of these grotesque beings, each disfigured, their bodies lumpy and deformed. They were moving back and forth, transferring the truck’s cargo into their vehicles like a group of worker ants.
At the sight of the soldiers, they pulled out their firearms and ushered the hostages to the front – the team of three who were guarding the camp.
“Where the hell did they come from?”
“They’re taking our stuff!”
“Let’s avenge Adam! Kill them all!”
The rookies brandished their weapons and shouted. Sleep was now the last thing on their mind.
The Soil Ghosts, in response, tightened their chokehold on the hostages and shouted back in a language none of the Agurts soldiers could understand.
Two dozens guns cocked and ready to fire. One pull of the trigger and it would be carnage.
The Soil Ghosts had numbers on their side. Damien could sense several guns pointing straight at him. He was unsure at whom he should aim, eventually he settled on the bastard threatening Schertling.
“Enough!” Han roared and silence descended.
No one had seen Han appear, but Damien was certain the Sergeant hadn’t been sleeping with them in the house, nor the driver. Han looked at the Soil Ghosts and the hostages, then lowered his gun with a sigh.
“Don’t hurt them. Take what you want.”
Han’s response shocked everyone.
“They’re fucking savages! They’ll kill us all!” someone shouted, remembering the bloodbath at their last encounter with Soil Ghosts.
“Shut your mouth. Lower your weapons! That’s an order!” Han then turned to the Soil Ghosts, gesturing back and forth between the cargo and the hostages. They seemed to understand. The Soil Ghost with the most elaborate mask held his hand up and they all stepped back.
Now that the atmosphere was slightly less explosive, most of the Soil Ghosts went back to the truck’s cargo. Once they had removed the valuable stock, they turned to the jeeps and took water and food.
Immediately, the soldiers raised their guns.
“Hey! Didn’t you hear me? Stay put,” Han ordered.
“How are we going to get out of this hell without food or water?” Petar couldn’t hold his tongue anymore.
“I’ll find a way. Lower your weapons now!”
“They won’t keep to their side! They’re going to kill us!”
A chorus of agreement followed.
“They could’ve easily turned you all into mincemeat while you were sleeping like babies. Learn to read the situation, rookies.”
Damien had never seen Han show any concern for their well-being before. Why does he suddenly care if Schertling lives or dies? He must be doing this to save his own skin – he’d be in the crossfire too if we start shooting. Something else nagged Damien. How come he is so chilled? It’s totally out of character.
Shouts from the Soil Ghosts. Were they making threats about the hostages? Schertling looked like he was on the verge of tears.
Everyone was forced to stand by and watch their vital supplies be taken by the enemy.
After taking everything they wanted, the lead Soil Ghost pointed at Han and beckoned. Han stepped closer and the Soil Ghost spoke, gesturing at the truck, at the hostages and the soldiers, then somewhere in the distance. Then he hopped into his vehicle and drove away – with the hostages in the last car.
“No! Stop them! Don’t let them take us!” Schertling and his fellow soldiers screamed.
Damien and a few others gave chase but Han held them back. In no time, the darkness had swallowed them. Even the engine noises were muffled.
“You son of a bitch! You sold them!”
Petar. He exploded first, even before Damien. Following his lead, everybody crowded around Han.
“Watch your language, Private!” Han shoved the young man back.
“Oh no . . . they’re back!”
Shadows were racing this way. Guns were raised once more.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
Schertling. The three of them were coming round the dune.
Thank God! A collective sigh. Arms were thrown wide to embrace them. Damien gave Schertling a pat on the shoulder. The poor man was shaking and muttering, “God, I thought that was it.”
“See?” Han glared at Petar.
“Sir, you speak their language?” There was awe and respect in the voice.
“Of course not, but I took one look at their hideous faces, I could tell they only wanted the cargo.” Han was looking insufferably smug.
“They also took our water and food,” Damien said.
“Don’t worry. You’ve still got me,” the driver finally surfaced. Where had he been during the confrontation? Nobody knew. “Two hours’ drive from here is an emergency refuge for desert traders. They’ve got everything there – food, water, and gas.”
“Why would we trust you?” Petar could barely contain his rage.
“Do what you like. Go anywhere you want. I don’t fucking care. I’d happily watch you lot get swallowed up by quicksand whilst I enjoy fresh water in the refuge,” the driver retorted. “You think you can survive two days in the desert without me? You lot were supposed to protect me, and yet you gave away my whole cargo!”
No one could argue against that last accusation. The soldiers stood in awkward silence.
“Enough now. You’re soldiers, you can’t piss yourself the moment you see a Soil Ghost,” Han tried to lighten up the situation. “No one’s hurt. We just lost some food and water. Pack up, we’ll go to the refuge.”
“Shouldn’t we report back to Zamaii?” Damien asked.
“Report what? That three dumbass soldiers were taken hostage by Soil Ghosts? My security escort lost a whole truck’s worth of coffee?”
“Hey, I’m making the calls here.” Han hissed at the driver. Then he turned to Damien and Petar, “If I hear another word from you troublemakers before we get back to Zamaii, I’ll make you regret that your mother ever gave birth to you. Understood?”
Han waited until both had said yes with gritted teeth before checking the truck. Once he was gone, Petar glared at Damien. He could not believe that he was being looked at in the same light as this country bumpkin.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know how they snuck up on me. I was keeping a look-out for any movement. They made no noise at all – just like ghosts . . .”
Schertling kept apologizing. No one blamed him for what had happened, they just didn’t want to talk about it.
The team’s morale couldn’t have been worse. Slowly and with resignation, the young men packed up their sleeping bags and the few supplies that had not interested the Soil Ghosts.
For Damien, the night’s events at last began to sink in. His second encounter with Soil Ghosts. This time, they only took what they wanted. No shooting. No death.
Had they been lucky? Maybe Han was right. No one got hurt. What was taken wasn’t even theirs in the first place. Why should they care?
Last time, the Soil Ghosts took all the valuables and waited patiently in ambush to pick them off one by one. Were some Soil Ghosts more merciful than others? Actually, letting them live but taking their food and water wasn’t really merciful. Those supplies had been their only lifeline in this sea of sand.
Maybe Han had struck a deal with the Soil Ghosts? No, if he could do that, he wouldn’t still be a sergeant.
Soil Ghosts, Bob, Han . . . there must be a connection somewhere. Damien felt there must be one, but he couldn’t see it yet. He had barely slept since they entered the desert and the face-off just now put his nerves in an even more fraught state.
To Damien, everything at this moment was as mysterious, confounding and dangerous as the desert. The country boy couldn’t have come up with such a predicament even in his worst nightmares, yet without knowing how, he had been ensnared. Trapped within, his destiny cast adrift.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood