Chapter 4 The Last Order
Session 4.3 Gun Salute
As the last shot echoed, the only thing left was the dust that swirled in the air. There were no birds, no animals, because they had all retreated as far as possible when the first round of shots rang out.
The sergeant put down his telescope and saluted to the major standing on top of the jeep: “All clean hits, sir!”
A 100% hit rate from this distance must have been a national record. No wonder he was expecting his superior’s approval.
The major and all the members of the team were wearing gas masks, so it was impossible to see if he was satisfied. The burly major crossed his arms over his chest and stared ahead in the direction of the gunfire.
“‘Enemy command is farther than we estimated, the target must be adjusted another 500 metres due east.”
The sergeant was staggered, but managed to maintain his composure and instead considered the instruction.
“But, sir, to aim that far away . . . And we’re just about to move with the assault team . . .”
Before the major could reply, a voice from behind interrupted:
“Want me to show you how it’s done, squirt?”
The sergeant hadn’t noticed his presence, and his words sent a chill through him.
The man leant against the jeep and looked back at the sergeant provocatively. This was no way for a soldier to behave. He was thinner than the major, but much more intimidating.
The sergeant and his team didn’t say a thing, however. They knew who this man and the major really were. The respect they received did not simply come from their rank.
“Move the target, or move your troops,” the major said calmly. “Battles never go exactly as planned. If your team is forced back by long-range fire, but your fireteams continue to push forward, what should you do?”
The sergeant swallowed and thought for a moment. Finally, he answered, “The fireteams need our support. We would cross through the woods over there and catch up with the second fireteam!”
“It may be harder to traverse, but my team has experience maneuvering these terrains. And if we meet from the other side, at least the schedule won’t be affected! Sir!”
“Then prove it.”
The sergeant made a salute and then turned to give his team the orders.
“Huh, bunch of lazy-asses. You raise the stakes a little, and they shit their pants.” The lieutenant leaning against the jeep spun his pistol on his finger as he spoke.
You’re the one who doesn’t act like a soldier, the major thought to himself and sighed. But he didn’t reply. They had known each other too long, and just like their commander, he knew that no matter what they said, this guy would never change. And he wasn’t here to be a model soldier, anyway.
“The second fireteam have completed their orders and suppressed plateau number five!” The radio delivered the news from another team.
“Roger. The first assault team has begun its offensive as planned. Third artillery team move to plateau number four, ETA before 1130.” The major made his orders clearly.
Despite the crackle of the radio, the sadness in the voice on the other end was unmistakable. Field Flakbike FB7f must switch back into tank-mode in order to move. They didn’t even have time for their guns to cool if they were going to make their destination on time. Hell, there wasn’t even time to curse.
The second lieutenant casually slipped his pistol back into its holster and jumped onto the jeep in anticipation of the major’s orders that they should move on to the next location.
“If only we had had this level of support at the Battle of Eltepe. . .” the lieutenant said.
From the very beginning, the lieutenant had understood the reason behind this drill, but the exhausted soldiers had no idea why they were running around. The major is too conscientious, I wouldn’t waste my time on these fish, he thought.
The jeep started moving the next location.
“Was that him? I thought they wanted to keep us apart?” the second lieutenant said.
Thirty seconds later, he had already taken out his gun, as if he had nothing better to do. Which was true. His hands couldn’t stand it. He was itching to shoot something.
“The original guy in charge got sick.”
“Poor fucker!” the lieutenant commented sarcastically.
“Jack, I’ve got something important to tell you later.”
The lieutenant froze. His first name; it had to be serious. An ominous feeling crawled across his his chest and he hated it. He took out two guns and started spinning them.
Maybe the old man was finally giving them a new mission? The driver didn’t belong to their team, otherwise he would have forced the major to tell him straight away.
Damn, how long were they going to have to live like this?
Two hours later, the morning’s combined military exercise had been successfully completed. The soldiers had gathered in the temporary camp to avoid the rain and were wolfing down their rations while exchanging crazy stories from the morning. The only ones who really complained were the new recruits, who still hadn’t grasped what was really going on. Most soldiers who have been on the battlefield understand that any training that helps them survive is a good thing.
The corporal of the first fireteam was an athletic young man, but when he stepped into the command tent to find the Major, he blushed like a little girl.
“Sir, I’m sorry to have disappointed you.”
The major lowered his map. Neither he nor the people around him had taken off their gas masks. His voice was unexpectedly mild:
“No time for apologies in real combat. Do you know what went wrong?”
“The enemy anticipated our plans and ambushed us, we were lucky the third flanked through the woods. Sir!”
“And what did you learn?”
“The unusual approach and the enemy’s delayed advance suggested that they were setting a trap. I should have re-assessed the situation instead of forcing my squad to stick to the original assault plan! Sir!”
A few years ago, the Agurts military started to arrange for their soldiers to carry out regular live ammunition exercises on the border, mainly to display their defensive capabilities and deter unwanted forces. By now, these drills had become so routine that the soldiers grew complacent with the standard exercise that they believed they had mastered.
And yet, today’s drill had tested them to the limit by changing circumstances rapidly and relentlessly. Reluctantly, the sergeant had to admit that he was lacking in experience and had made a dangerous mistake.
“Very good. It’s important to be aware of the movements on both sides of the battlefield. Don’t blindly use tactics out of a textbook.”
The major raised his hand to indicate that he could go. The sergeant was surprised that he hadn’t been further reprimanded.
“Thank you for your guidance, sir.”
He made a salute. He had enough experience to realize his superior had changed the positions of the other troops to put his team in danger, all to point out his blind spot. The Bucks Team. Those weren’t overblown stories of bravery and skill: they were the real deal. He had learned a lot today.
Just as he turned, another soldier wearing a gas mask brushed past him and entered the tent. He glanced at the man’s shoulder: commander insignia. It was the captain who had played enemy commander during today’s drill.
“You get more and more like him with every day that passes,” the commander said, then pulled closed the curtain behind him and removed his mask. He was smiling sadly. He wasn’t fat, but his face and his figure were a little round for a military man. His gentle temperament wasn’t an obvious fit for his uniform either. A suit and a job as an executive would have made more sense.
His sudden appearance didn’t surprise the other two men.
“Bullshit, Steel. If it’d been Bob, these guys would’ve been so fucking screwed.”
The second lieutenant who had been playing with his gun removed his mask as well, took a deep breath. From beneath his cropped grey hair, his eyes flashed and the stubble that adorned his bony jaw only made him look even more wild.
No one answered his flippant comment. That was unexpected and it gave him a bad feeling. Had something bad happened??
“What is it I don’t know?” he growled at the other two.
Steel looked in surprise at the major.
“King, you haven’t told him yet?”
“I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
The major also removed his mask. There were only three of them remaining in the tent. His eyes, square jaw and full beard all perfectly still and calm.
Since their superior was dishonourably discharged, they were deliberately assigned to different units under different headings to prevent them from plotting together. Steel was transferred to the eastern forces. Jack was supposed to go to the south alone, but because he was uncontrollable, he was allowed to join King here.
This was the first time the three of them had met since then.
“That’s not a great opening line.” Jack murmured.
King laid out the facts like a full-frontal attack. Steel sighed, then tensed his muscles and turned to Jack, ready to contain him if he lashed out.
But Jack didn’t do anything. He just took a deep breath.
An uncomfortable silence ensued, which only made Steel even more worried.
“Didn’t you know that I had an argument with him before he left? He didn’t let me go with him. That’s when I knew. That it would turn out like this. So tell me. When? Who? How?”
Jack’s fist was clenched hard.
Steel was relieved. This was the Jack he knew. Because if he didn’t get mad, Steel would have no reason to force himself to calm down.
“We don’t know much. The emergency message came three days ago from the kid, it’s still under investigation. But she tried her best,” King explained.
“Three days? Did you say three days!? You’ve known for three days and didn’t tell me!”
Jack jumped up and rushed at King, grabbed his shirt and made to punch him. King wasn’t going to fight back, so Steel ran and pulled Jack off just in time. Jack turned to Steel and aimed. He needed to hit someone.
King couldn’t take it any more, growled, grabbed Jack’s arm and slammed him to the ground.
“What do you think I’ve been dealing with these three days! If you need to fight, do it with me! Come on!”
King had been expecting an intense reaction to the news. When the boss wasn’t around, he was the one who had to hold back, stand up and be the rock for all the guys, whether they were sad or agitated. His commander had taught him that. And yet, he couldn’t tolerate any of his men attacking each other.
King regretted it immediately, he had been just as emotional. He could only sigh to himself, he was no replacement for the boss.
Jack rolled his eyes, then seemed to give up struggling against King’s grip and laughed at himself.
“The first thing I do is punch my own guys. The old man would have been disappointed in me.”
Steel was surprised. This was probably the closest thing to an apology to ever come out of Jack’s mouth.
King released Jack. As Jack brushed down his clothes and stood up, King tried to restore a note of calm.
“I wasn’t sure I would be able tell you calmly. And I wanted to tell you in private.”
This, Jack could understand. His anger had already turned to more specific targets.
They were all aware of who was behind it. But they didn’t have evidence.
“Agurts should have received the news by now. Now we have to discuss our next move.”
“Didn’t the old man leave any instructions? That’s not his style.”
Jack knew that Bob was always prepared. Even for his own end.
“That’s the problem. The notebook is gone. Worst case scenario, it’s in enemy hands.”
Jack swore under his breath.
“Maybe our luck hasn’t turned out so bad after all.” Steel took a letter from an inside pocket in his jacket.
“I received this, this morning. Which is why I took the risk to come here. ”
King looked surprised and took the letter. Jack leant over to read it too.
It looked like any old ordinary letter, sent via the standard post. It was addressed to “Qemal Butka”. The cover Steel used for secret messages. The name of his favourite architect.
Dear Mr. Butka,
This letter may come as a surprise, because you don't know me. We do, however, have a mutual friend, an old soldier who carried with him a bag of coffee beans. It’s a shame he’s gone. For some reason, I have his things temporarily. I wish to return them to his friends and relatives, but I don't know who to contact. It wasn’t easy for me to find your name and address, as well as the two notes from our friend that I have copied below. I don't know why our old friend used this method, but I have tried to maintain it, out of respect. I hope you understand what I mean. I’m not too good at this kind of thing. In fact, I am also very perturbed. Something doesn’t feel right. If you are a relative of his, I hope you can tell me what to do.
Temporary holder of the coffee beans. Please call me D.
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
What followed was a string of meaningless letters. King took out a pen and paper to decode the message immediately, because he was the only one who knew which ciphertext the password indicated:
I’m leaving you what I know, in case you want to continue. The condition of Zamaii confirms what I had previously guessed. If it goes on, there will be trouble in Gafia. Without them, Agurts will be next. It wasn’t easy for me to get this. I haven't figured out what it is for. But since someone was prepared to do anything to get their hands on it, it must be important. And yet, the enemy from within is just as dangerous as the enemy from without.
King and Steel were still pondering what the message meant when Jack whispered, “Who’s this D guy?”
“Do you think it’s a trap, King?” Steel sounded worried.
“It must be!” Jack said. “This fucking bastard must have stolen the notebook!”
“But if the content is true, this D guy doesn’t seem to know what he’s got on his hands. He might not even know who the “old soldier” is,” Steel said.
“Bull. If he didn’t crack the code, how could he send us the letter? He’s already read it! How could he not know that it’s Bob’s notebook?”
“Maybe he only deciphered the simplest ciphertext, like the temporary address. If he only got it three days ago, he couldn’t have gotten too far. Especially if he’s working alone.”
“Hasn’t he decoded the second message? He knows it’s Bob. Why else would he be so mysterious?”
“Maybe he sensed it, that it’s dangerous and he had better be careful?”
“Maybe he’s waiting for us to bite.”
“The sun will rise in the east. Did we get the location wrong?”
Steel didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was usually the suspicious one, Jack was always about acting first and thinking later.
“No more arguing.” King frowned and read the letter again. “These two messages do look like Bob. It’s his phrasing. I believe that he wrote them.”
“Yes, that’s true.” The other two men agreed.
“So, irrespective of who sent this to us, I think we should follow Bob’s orders first,” King continued and then using a lighter, set the their decrypted text on fire.
“I didn’t see any specific instructions! Shit.”
“Find your mission. Jack, I may not be as bright as the old man, but even I get what he means. He doesn’t want to give us orders. He wants us to decide what the next move should be. I mean, hell, he even didn’t even tell us where the Bucks Team is heading!”
But King couldn’t help but feel a similar frustration as Jack. He served as Bob’s second in command for years, and even often acted as leader of the team on Bob’s behalf. And yet, carry on without Bob’s leadership… He couldn’t imagine it.
“Of course! We’ll crush that bastard and make him pay . . .”
“Was that what he meant by your own mission? Or is this your desire for revenge?”
Steel’s words provoked Jack more than he had intended.
“So you’re going to quit? Like that? Go home and play with your toys?”
“I just think we should give a bit more thought to what the old man meant!”
“Enough,” King interrupted. “We all know that Bob took the fall for all of us. Now, we can pretend that we never received this letter, or we can think about what our next move should be.”
The trio was silent for a while.
“Would you like to reply? Bambi is still looking for the notebook. The same is true for the enemy.”
“Let me handle it,” King said, taking the letter cautiously. “I will inform Argus."
They still didn’t know what it was Bob had got hold of. Maybe he wrote about it before or after in his notebook. They needed to see the pages for themselves to know. Whether this D guy was an enemy or an innocent passerby, King could only hope that he didn’t know either.
The soldiers outside the tent saluted and informed them that the troops had already assembled to prepare for the afternoon’s drill.
Before leaving the tent, the three men put on their gas masks again. King looked Jack one last time in the eyes, and saw that he had made a decision.
“Instruct the artillery teams to face two o’clock and fire three times!” King gave the order and the captains responded immediately. It was an unreasonable request to be sure, but no one hesitated after their morning’s experiences.
The ground underfoot was soft and muddy after the rain. The seven field tanks had been set into battery mode, that way the chassi retained enough grip to withstand the strong recoil.
The sound was deafening.
King froze. Why did such a familiar sound turn his heart cold? Because there was something different about it.
Their surroundings were briefly lit by the fire and a grey column of smoke rose upward, twisting and coiling like a giant rising to his feet and climbing an invisible ladder up into the sky.
The second round followed quickly.
King, Jack, and Steel watched the artillery teams in silence. The gunfire had taken on a new meaning.
Now, it was in the direction of Zamaii.
A salute to a fallen hero.
Steel was relieved that they were wearing their gas masks. He didn’t want to see that bastard Jack’s tears. Nor did he did want the other two to see his as well.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood