Chapter 5 Disposables

Session 5.1 You are what you eat

The driver stared at the two cardboard boxes left in the truck as if they were monsters. The Soil Ghosts had taken the contents and replaced them with vacuum-packed pouches.

“What the hell are these?”

“Dry shit and nails made of flour,” Han glanced inside the cartons. “Our FSR (Fast Strike Ration), I mean.”

“I know they’re military rations. I’m asking why they’re here,” the driver glared at Han. He hadn’t expected the Soil Ghosts to leave anything behind.

“Maybe our friends didn’t want us to go hungry,” Han shrugged. “I’ve heard that they give their victims one day’s worth of food and water to escape from the desert. I always thought it was a lame lie made up by mercenaries, you know, they keep the cargo themselves then put the blame on the Soil Ghosts.”

Han checked the packages. The Soil Ghosts took all that was edible, like the chicken and gravy, and left the rest. They clearly knew military rations well.

“Those fuckers took the seasoning and the dried fruit too.”

“They’re smarter than they look,” the driver ran his hand over his stubble. “If they let everyone die out here in the desert, no one would risk coming this way and they’d have killed off their own livelihood.”

“Huh? Last time they treated us to a feast of bullets.”

The driver answered with a faint smile.

Han’s suspicion returned. Did the driver make a deal with the Soil Ghosts? How else could he guarantee that no one would be hurt? Han was as scared as his men had been just now.

“Come on, give us a hand. Can’t let the guinea pigs see this.”

The driver pushed aside a metal panel to reveal a hidden compartment with a keypad lock. With some effort, they stuffed everything inside – there was already quite a stash within.

“They won’t get onto the truck,” Han grumbled, but he knew he had to obey the driver.

“They will, Sergeant. They’re lively, which is a good thing, but I’ll make sure they are in the right frame of mind.”

What does he mean? The driver’s chirpiness made Han shudder. Am I helping him with whatever it is he's plotting? Or am I just another one of his victims? How will I ever know?

“You know, we soldiers like to get things done quickly. I can resolve this for you in ten minutes.”

Han surprised himself with his words. His patience must have evaporated along with his sweat. Why else would he make an offer so out of his character? He was never one to volunteer to take action.

“Why? Aren’t you enjoying your trip through the desert?” The unnerving smile was back. “Our jobs are about results, but it doesn’t hurt to enjoy the process, Sergeant.”

He then passed an empty can of gas to Han.

*

“I’ve contacted HQ, the Sand Team will meet us at the refuge, but we can’t take the jeeps with us.”

Everyone stared at Han in disbelief.

“We haven’t got enough gas,” Han continued. “Do you want all four cars to run out in the middle of the desert? We’ll put what’s left into the truck, and it’ll take us to the refuge.”

“But, sir, that’s a container . . .” Schertling raised his hand timidly. “Isn’t it better to wait for the Sand Team here?”

Coffee beans had no need for air. They could be kept in a sealed metal box. But humans?

“You shitheads need to stop questioning your orders all the damn time!” Han glared at Schertling. “Either move your fucking ass into the truck now, or stay here and wait for the Soil Ghosts to tear it up again.”

“Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Just don’t shut the doors completely,” the driver said and gave the container a smack.

“Load up,” Han ordered. “We depart ASAP. We need to take full advantage of the dark.”

After their close shave with the Soil Ghosts, the soldiers were all exhausted, even Damien grew too tired to analyze Han’s orders. Right now, everything sounded reasonable – their supplies were taken, it made sense to conserve gas. No one thought about who would come to take the jeeps back to Zamaii – in fact, no one cared.

Before long, the whole squad was squeezed into the semi-trailer of the GDG truck.

Not made for passengers, the soldiers had nothing inside to hold onto. The truck climbed up and down over sand dunes, throwing the young men around the metal box. And yet, some still managed to doze as they slid left and right, exhaustion having taken precedence.

That is, until dawn broke and their real problems began.

The sun blazed down on the metal container, turning it into an oven. They opened the doors, but still temperature climbed.

“You know . . . the beans that go the desert route are green when they’re loaded on the truck . . . and when they get to their destination, they’re already . . . thoroughly roasted.” Petar stammered as he sucked in large mouthfuls of air.

Damien found it incredible that he was still in the mood to joke.

The men removed their uniforms, and even their gas masks. The EHI reading didn’t matter anymore.

“I’ve always wanted to drink a cup of coffee before I die,” someone murmured. “But I never imagined I’d actually roast like a coffee bean.”

“We’re lost, right? We’re hopelessly lost, aren’t we? He’s just hiding from us, isn’t he?” Another was working himself into a panic.

“The driver doesn’t seem nervous at all, maybe we should have some faith in him . . .”

“Fuck, if I’d known, I’d have eaten my rations yesterday.”

Moans and groans echoed around him. Damien had his eyes half-closed as he felt himself drifting up and out of his body.

“Hey, are you alright?” Schertling nudged him.

“I’m – I’m just thinking . . . I don’t understand . . . What are they trying . . .”

Schertling assumed Damien’s incoherent mumbles were a kind of sleep talk and he felt too wretched to ask for elaboration. After all, which of them was in their right mind right now?

Suddenly, no more jostling. The truck had stopped. The soldiers waited. Nothing happened, until suddenly, the doors were yanked wide open from the outside. The dazzle of sunlight reflected from the sand blinded the young men for a moment.

“Look at yourselves. Get dressed, ladies!”

It was Han.

“Have we arrived?” Schertling pulled on his uniform and got up on his feet.

“Not far now, but we’ll have to walk the last bit.” The driver, now standing behind Han, pointed in the distance.

Walk? That one word was enough to strike fear into their hearts.

“We’ve broken down. Sand must have got into the engine in the storm. It happens,” the driver shrugged.

“Can I take a look? I fix tractors.”

Damien hopped down from the truck but the look Han and the driver gave him told him any hope was futile.

The driver lifted the hood and Damien found the damage immediately. And yet, everything else seemed curiously pristine.  

Anyway, without replacement parts he wouldn’t be able to fix the truck, and the machine couldn’t run in this state. He went back to his teammates and shook his head. The collective disappointment crushed him farther.

“Alright soldier boys, let’s walk,” the driver was in high spirits. “It’s not far.”

“Move out!” Han beckoned gruffly.

With great reluctance, the young men pulled on their backpacks and climbed down from the truck. One of them had pressed himself into a corner, however, and was refusing to move.

“Ljupčo, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Han smacked the side of the container.

“I’m not going. I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere!”

Right then, a big guy had leaped inside the container and lifted Ljupčo onto his feet in one smooth movement.

“C’mon! We’ve got through our training, we’ve survived the Soil Ghosts. This is nothing!”

“You’ll come back for the truck. We’ll wait here. I’m not walking out into that hell.” Ljupčo had the look of someone having a mental breakdown.

“We are soldiers. We follow orders. Then we all go back together,” the big guy led Ljupčo to the semi-trailer doors. “You can do it.”

Typical Savo. Damien recalled how he had managed to keep his wits about him when they were attacked by the Soil Ghosts near Zamaii.

But Han was growing impatient. “Each minute you sit in there those of us out here have to spend an extra minute standing under the sun. Get the fuck down and start walking!”

Ljupčo looked at his comrades and forced himself to come down. Schertling gave him a pat on the shoulder.

“Let’s go, soldiers.” The driver took off alone. Han trailed behind with his map.  

Damien and his companions left the truck behind them and headed in the direction of a hazy horizon.

*

Why . . .

Why are we here?

Damien couldn’t wrap his head around their predicament. If this was Han’s ploy to kill him, to kill one of them, or even the whole team, it seemed overly complicated when there were so many more straightforward ways to achieve the same result.

Yet now, Han, who had always shirked any real danger, was here with them, getting fried in the desert.

Could this really be an accident?

The truck got stuck in the sandstorm. They came to rescue it but got robbed by the Soil Ghosts. Then they got lost for a while, and now the vehicle broke down again . . . Could it really just be awful, rotten luck? Just a chain of unfortunate coincidences?

Ever since Damien first set eyes on the driver, he felt that something wasn’t right. And yet, at this very moment, he was leading them through the desert on foot.

He couldn’t figure it out.

“If you know what they’re after, then you can predict their actions.”

Bob, I really have no idea. I can’t tell if they’ve got an ulterior motive. What should I do?

*

Pull foot from sand. Lift leg. Step forward.

His foot sunk as if he had just stepped into mud. It took all of Damien’s concentration just to maintain his balance, just to keep his body vertical.

Stay upright.

Pull foot from sand. Lift leg. Step forward.

Shift weight. His knees burned as if the cartilage had melted.

Stay upright.

Pull foot . . .

Damien clenched his jaw and ploughed forward. He was forcing his body to repeat the mechanical movement by sheer will power alone.

Dehydration, your worst enemy in the desert.

Dehydration without knowing when you would drink again was even worse.

How long had it been since they last ate or drank anything? Damien tried to recall. Counting helped to keep his mind functioning. Nine hours? Ten? So it wasn’t even half a day. Why did it feel like he had been trudging through the desert for at least a month? Probably because he only ate half his dinner last night – the other half was taken by the Soil Ghosts.

Not that he noticed the hunger anymore. The fire in his throat was the only thing he felt.

The soldiers dragged themselves forward in single file. The person in front of Damien was a zombie trudging towards the edge of hell. Further ahead, Han was a gray-black blur, twisting and shifting, bent out of shape by the heat in the air – a grease stain on a postcard of sand dunes.

Walking consumed every bit of Damien’s mental capacity. Room for thought dwindled with every step.

The sand and sky blended into one. They were prisoners to this ever-changing infinity of murky white.

“Look! There! I can see it! We’ve arrived!” Ljupčo cried and pointed to the right. He was walking several places ahead of Damien.

Everyone turned to look. A flickering green. Was that the outline of a building?

“At last! Water! Food!”

Somehow Ljupčo found a hidden store of energy and ran.

“It’s a mirage, idiot!” the driver shouted. “Stop him! That’s a red zone.”

“Stop, Ljupčo! I said, stop! Don’t give me any more fucking trouble!” Han shouted as he gave chase.

Ljupčo stopped dead. He turned to look at his teammates.

In those short moments, he had been sucked torso-deep into the sand.

Everyone stopped. No one took another step towards Ljupčo.

“What the—Rope! Give me a rope!”

Han stretched his hand out. The sand was swallowing Ljupčo quickly.

Petar tore open his backpack. He was tasked with carrying the ropes.

“Damien! Petar! Help! Savo! I’m sinking! I’m—”

Only his head and an arm were above ground now.

Then he stopped shouting. He seemed to have understood it was too late. He looked at his teammates and . . .

He pulled off his gas mask, hurling it towards his brothers-in-arms. Then he closed his eyes to face his fate. The sea of sand sucked him down, flesh and bone, as if he never existed at all.

“Holy fucking shit!” Petar flung the rope, which he hadn’t even had time to unwind, to the ground. Everyone was stunned.

A strapping young man, alive and talking one second, the next, puff, gone, no more. Damien looked at the mask, the only remaining trace of Ljupčo.

He took one step forward.

“No, Damien!”

Schertling.

Damien paused and looked at the mask once more.

Good, I’m not sinking.

He took another step, crouched down, stretched his right arm out and grabbed the mask. Then he felt someone yanking his backpack and dragging him away.

Schertling again.

“Are you mad? What if that happened to you? Who cares about a mask!”

Damien looked at the respirator. He didn’t know what to say. His mind was a blank.

“Such a waste.”

The voice drew Damien from his daze. He wasn’t sure who spoke, but the first face he saw when he looked up was the driver’s. Did he say that?

Ljupčo was lost forever but no one screamed, no one wailed. They used silence to hold reality at bay.  

They started moving, heaving their bodies after the driver and their Sergeant. No one said a word, no one questioned the driver’s authority anymore. They followed meekly, so the quicksand wouldn’t get them.

Fear kept them moving, and when they at last saw the derelict green structure – the refuge – they felt trepidation rather than excitement.

“Look, we’ve arrived!”

Gloating, the driver led them inside, into a hidden entryway by a masonry wall. Once inside the bunker, reality began to catch up.

Two large cabinets marked “food” and “water” sat in one corner.

If these doors had been locked, they would have used all their weapons to blast them open. Thankfully, there were no locks. One light tug was all it took.

The first cupboard was filled with canned food. There was more than enough. They could take as many as they wanted.

The second cabinet had several large containers of water – but they were all nearly empty.

A dark cloud descended over them.

“Someone must have forgotten to refill them,” the driver said as if it was no concern of his. “At least we’re getting a good meal.”

No words could ease the pain of their thirst, but Damien wondered why everyone was so orderly, given the circumstances. They were showing the best of their military training. He looked at the water containers again. At most they’d get half a cup each.

The moment the soldiers got their ration of food and water, they pulled off their masks and sat on the floor. The chorus of pops as they pulled open the cans was the most melodious sound they had ever heard.

Damien sucked the gravy first, to moisten his parched throat. It was such a pleasant shock to his body that it made him cough. Now that his mouth and lips weren’t as dry as sandpaper, he felt ready to eat. He dug out a piece of meat with his finger and gobbled it down. He didn’t even bother to look at the label to see what he was eating.

This is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted, Damien thought. He felt tears forming in his eyes.

He looked around and the sight made him smile. All his comrades were happily stuffing their faces. Some took too big a bite and almost choked. Then he realized he wasn’t the only one taking his time with his meal.

Han and the driver. They were nowhere to be seen.

Damien thought he saw them going into the room next door. Did they say they were going to check for other emergency supplies?

Weren’t they hungry?

If it wasn’t Han, he might think they were doing it out of duty, wait first until they were sure there was enough for everyone. But Han? He would order everyone to watch him eat before he let anyone touch their food.

Damien wasn’t sure how many days since they had had a proper meal. Two? Maybe even three. And he had just spent at least half a day walking through the desert. Despite his training, he was about to collapse from exhaustion. So was everyone else. Han always seemed the same no matter the situation, but the driver was curiously energetic, if a little tired.

Now that Damien’s mind was on the driver, it occurred to him that the man didn’t even seem thirsty. Could it be that he was used to being in the desert or . . . he had his own private water supply?

By now, Damien had been sitting for a while. With food in his hands, his wits seemed to be returning. He could finally hear the alarm bell ringing deep down in his gut.

Nothing felt right, even though he couldn’t put his finger on what, exactly, was wrong.

Damien looked at the can in his hand then the mouthful of water in his canteen. A realization came to him: he shouldn’t touch anything until he had seen Han eating and drinking from the same ration.

His stomach rumbled. That first taste had awakened his appetite. His body was calling for more.

Perhaps I’m being delusional? Damien thought with a frown. Everyone else is eating happily, it’d really stupid if I starved to death because of some baseless suspicions.

He tried to shake off the conspiracy theories and scooped another spoon from the can. As he was putting it in his mouth, the image of Bob’s bloody corpse flashed across his mind.

And he felt the weight of Ljupčo’s mask on his belt.

A mirage.

The desert survived by consuming human beings.

The idea made Damien shiver. He let the food drop back into the tin.

“Good news, the Sand Team just said they’re almost here.” Han appeared out of nowhere. “Fill you stomachs then take a rest. They’ll take us back to Zamaii.”

There was palpable relief among the soldiers, even a few whoops. Finally they could get out of this hell. Smiles were finding their way back onto their expressionless faces.

“Hey, kid, what’s wrong? Aren’t you hungry?”

A hand pressed down on Damien’s shoulder. The driver.

“I – I like to chew slowly,” Damien grappled for an excuse. “My parents taught me.”

He forced a small piece into his mouth, made a point of chewing thoroughly before swallowing it.

“That’s good, eating slowly is good for digestion.”

The driver’s smile was giving Damien the creeps.

“What about you? Aren’t you joining us?” Damien pretended to make small talk.

“Oh, we’ve been eating over there.”

The driver pointed at the next room. Damien could see a few opened cans, but who knew if they were actually eating from them. He kept eating in small bites until the driver turned his attention elsewhere.

Damien breathed a sigh of relief as the driver walked away. Then he felt the weight of Petar’s suspicious gaze – he had noticed his odd behavior.

Damien glared. He knew if he spoke in even the quietest whisper, Han and the driver would be on him in an instant. Anyway, he wouldn’t know what to say. He couldn’t tell Petar to stop eating without giving him a proper reason.

But he found Petar holding his gaze. Were they understanding each other? Petar picked up his can, took a bite, then grabbed his canteen, all the while keeping his eyes trained on Damien.

A mouthful of meat, a mouth of water, a mouthful of meat, a mouthful of . . .

Damien watched him repeat the action over and over. At last he got it. Petar was spitting what he chewed into the canteen.

So Damien did the same. Not being able to swallow was torture, but if that spoilt brat could do it, so could he.

The two young men “finished” their food whilst Schertling and the rest happily wolfed down their rations.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood