Chapter 5 Disposables
Session 5.2 Pawns In Their Game?
“My God, we could have covered this distance in just over an hour, and you made us walk almost a whole day?”
“That was the route the computer gave based on wind direction. Or else, any idiot could have seen we were walking in circles. Technology isn’t just about creating SA, Sergeant .”
Still half asleep, Damien could hear talking. He forced his eyelids to part and saw Han and the driver appear in the entrance to the bunker. Everyone else was splayed on the floor asleep, surrounded by empty tins and bottles of water.
When the hell . . . He had told himself to stay awake, and yet he had no memory of finishing his food. Had he fallen unconscious?
“So you’ve spent three days actively wearing them out, and now you’re letting them eat and sleep?”
Han was carrying food in one hand . . . From their FSR ration? Didn’t the Soil Ghosts take it all? Damien felt a surge of shock pass through his body. The driver wasn’t wearing his bandage anymore, and there was no sign of a wound on his head.
“Sergeant, have you ever been woken from a deep sleep? It’s more exhausting than never having slept at all.”
“Let me tell you, insufficient sleep is bread and butter to a soldier.”
The two men were approaching. Damien quickly shut his eyes and pretended to still be asleep. He felt someone kick him gently, but he forced himself not to react.
“I know, I don’t just want to tire them out physically. I want them to succumb mentally. If I take everything away at once, they’ll fight back. But if I take it away bit by bit, they won’t even be conscious of it.”
“I think they already want to kill me.”
“And yet they haven’t. It’s all going according to plan. Don’t worry.”
“What about the quicksand?”
“A tolerable accident.” The driver didn’t sound pleased, but his tone was not as coarse as before. His arrogance was clear enough, however. “Sergeant , let me tell you. If it weren’t for the fact that I can’t go against orders, I would have made you take his place to make up the numbers. Don’t forget that.”
Damien didn’t hear Han’s reaction. Maybe, just for once, Han didn’t manage to get the last word.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to you. Keep it as a souvenir. You know, the design was inspired by prisoners. So that they could drink their smuggled-in liquor in secret.”
Fuck. Damien desperately wanted to open his eyes and see what the “souvenir” was. A secret water supply!
“Should I tie them up before they wake? Or can I go already?” There was a helplessness in Han’s voice.
The driver laughed.
“No, I don’t want you to tie them up. But I do still need your help. As long as you follow my orders, you’re in for a great show.”
So Damien had been right, Han was following orders from the driver! Which meant . . . he couldn’t be further from an ordinary driver. The whole thing was an elaborate hoax—
“I’m just a hick. Why don’t you look for a young gun in a white coat to help you.” Han was trying to get out of it.
“Your character is vital for the next act, you’re the authority figure. If all I was interested in was precise data on the efficacy of the drugs in a controlled setting, I could have used prisoners. I want to know if they will have the desired effect in this giant sandbox. Desert, sandbox . . Get it? Forget it, you don’t understand.”
A shiver went through Damien and he felt goosebumps rise on his skin. They had drugged their food! All the insane misfortunes they had suffered along the way, they’d all been meticulously planned so that they would gobble down anything they were presented with, no questions asked.
What had they been given? Damien’s stomach churned as he recalled the few bites he swallowed. What were they doing? And who was this “driver”? What was he doing?
“Wear this. Stick to the script, and I guarantee you’ll get out of the desert just fine.”
A loud piercing sound rang out just as the driver finished his sentence.
The men jumped up, punched out of their sleep. Their eyes were wide and bloodshot as they scrambled for their weapons. Only to find . . . they were gone.
Damien had no choice but to play along.
“The Soil Ghosts!” the driver shouted. “They’re coming! You shitheads are sleeping? Just like last time!”
“Soil Ghosts? Where are they?” The men were panicking.
The man who called himself a driver opened the cupboard. All the tins were gone. “The Soil Ghosts have taken your supplies! And they killed the guys who were on their way to save you! No one else is going to come for you, you’ll die out in the sand! You’ll see!”
It was nonsense. Last time, the Soil Ghosts stole their supplies, but they didn’t kill. This time, Damien and the men had taken shelter inside a locked bunker. How did the Soil Ghosts get the code to unlock the door? And if they did kill the guys out in the desert, why would they leave Damien and the others to go free a second time?
Han had never been in touch with the Sand Team, he was sure of it.
Damien’s teammates were all staring wide-eyed at the “driver”. See? He wasn’t the only one who found the whole thing suspicious.
“No one . . . no one is coming to save us?”
“All the food . . . is gone? What about the water? Gas?”
They were shaking. Damien looked at them in astonishment. Were they really just swallowing it all?
“Gone! It’s all gone! You bunch of useless idiots are going to die out here!”
The men started shouting and together they rushed at Han and the driver.
“Get back, idiots!”
The driver pressed a button on a small device hidden in his hand. Damien covered his ears and stumbled backward, as did the others. But it was as if Han and the driver couldn’t hear the piercing sound.
The man looked across at Han. Han took a deep breath and then started shouting: “Useless pieces of shit! Dirtbags that even soap couldn’t clean! Such a simple order and you still fucked up! You’re useless!”
They were used to being cursed at, this was nothing. And yet, the strapping young men curled up into balls and someone even started crying.
“Look at you! You four-eyed fag! You had one job, to protect our camp during the night! And you let yourself be caught by the Soil Ghosts. You let them take everything. Agurts should have never let refugee scum like you in!”
Once Han had finished screaming at Schertling, he turned to Damien. He patted the young man’s face menacingly, then began sneering:
“And you! The sight of your scarred nose makes me want to chop it off. We’re wasting good air on you! You think you’re so smart? The great mechanic? You’re just a dumb fuck! You don’t even know when to fucking shut up!”
Schertling was sobbing like a child. It was a weird reaction. Everyone was acting weird. What was with them? These were strong young men that had somehow been reduced to tears?
Damien knew he was trying to mess with their heads, and yet, he couldn’t push Han’s words out of his head. He pictured himself as a child and his father screaming at him, the helplessness and the shame. Suddenly, he too felt like crying.
His head felt hot, as if the feelings he usually kept buried were about to erupt.
Only once Han had finishing cussing every single one of them out did the driver release the button and the blare stopped. Damien covered his face and pretended to cry, but in fact he was trembling in fear and searing rage. This must have been the effect of the drugs. What was this guy doing to them?
“Understand? No one is going to save you useless pieces of shit. Because you can’t even defend yourself against some Soil Ghosts!” The driver was relentless. “The only thing you can do to redeem yourselves is to Kill. Those. Goddamn. Disgusting. Soil. Ghosts!”
Damien was shaking now. He watched as the other men looked up at the driver as if they were waking from a dream.
“That’s right. Kill them. It’s your only chance. They’re the scourge of the desert, if you don’t kill them they will come in the night and slice your chests open and pull out your hearts!” He was reaching his crescendo. “Let me tell you, they may look like people but they’re monsters. They don’t understand human talk. If you don’t kill them, they will overrun your hometowns!”
No, we can’t let them! Kill those deformed monsters! Wait, no! He’s talking nonsense! The two sides of Damien’s brain were fighting against each other.
“The Soil Ghosts want you to starve in the desert, then they will take over your homes! Those warped, ugly monsters will crush your parents’ skulls and make them into masks! They will rape your sisters and wives!”
The driver was really getting into it now.
“All because you useless pieces of shit didn’t kill them first!”
Kill the deformed monsters. Prove yourselves.
Kill them kill them kill them.
Shut up! Damien and the other soldiers were shouting, gnashing their teeth and generally making no sense. Only, Damien’s reason for shouting was different to the others. He was trying to drive the unfamiliar feeling of terror from his heart.
“Kill! Kill them!” The driver joined in the chant. He looked happy and rubbed his hands together. “That’s the spirit! We’ll get them!”
“Fuck. What did you give them?” Han’s expression suggested he didn’t know whether to be delighted or scared. “When they start we usually cuss them out, but you’ve managed to give them all killing faces!”
“It’s all based on science, Sergeant. Science.” The driver smiled. “Come on, give them their ticket to the fairground.”
Damien thought Han’s smile looked forced. But he didn’t dare look at the two men too closely. He had to concentrate on keeping his wits while appearing just as crazy as everyone else, and he’d never been good at acting.
The entire team shook their fists and shouted garbled swear words as they followed Han and the driver outside. The truck was parked outside. What was it doing here? Damien saw that it was filled with guns and ammunition.
The soldiers cheered, jumped into the vehicle and grabbed the weapons. They were like excited children in a candy store. . . It was all too ridiculous. Damien wondered if he might be dreaming after all.
“Kill the ghosts!” Someone yelled and rammed into the side of the vehicle beside him. It was Schertling. Damien quickly followed suit. Acting was wearing him out, he felt like he was about to cry.
What do I do next?
“Kill the Soil Ghosts! Kill them dead!”
Damien could hear the driver’s voice coming from the corner. Why had the container been fitted with a speaker? This was clearly a matter of preparation.
The soldiers shouted in unison.
The soldiers continued their chant in perfect rhythm as they left. Grasping their guns, eyes wide, trembling with excitement.
“Kill them . . . Kill! Them!”
Even Schertling was wearing a strange expression on his face. It was like they were all being possessed, Damien thought. He was lucky not to have eaten much of it!
Damien peered at Petar. He was doing a great job of pretending. Was he waiting for his chance?
Savo was chanting “Kill them!” as he removed his jacket to reveal his toned muscles. A white object was stuck to his chest plate, a smile drawn on it. Damien looked down. He had one too! It hadn’t been there before he went to sleep.
His heart throbbed. He knew what this was. If only he could tear it off, but if there was a speaker inside the truck there could well be surveillance cameras. He would just have to wait.
Could he escape? In the middle of the desert?!
The truck stopped.
The door to the container opened and Damien could hear talking, but in a language he couldn’t understand. Women and children.
A shiver travelled up Damien’s spine. Suddenly, he understood. No. Please God, don’t do this. No, no no no no no.
Three heads poked inside the container door, a woman and two children. Soil Ghosts.
Blood exploded all over the woman's face. The baby in her arms jerked backward.
“Kill ─ them!”
“No! No! Stop!”
The soldiers, like beasts released from their cages, jumped down from the truck and started shooting.
Damien could pretend no longer. He followed the other men and lunged at the nearest soldier.
“No! Stop! Wake up! Savo! You can't do this!”
Savo shoved him aside and raised his gun after the women, who were now running away. Damien couldn’t stop him. He looked back at another soldier who had jumped out of the truck and was holding a ghost child by the collar, his army knife raised. The child was screaming.
Damien rushed at the soldier and together, they tumbled to the ground. The child wriggled free and ran.
The soldier brandished the knife at Damien from where he lay on the ground and slashed his arm. The two men tangled once again. Damien managed to wrestle the knife from him, only to discover the soldier was Petar.
“Wake up you dumb fuck! What are you doing?”
Damien punched Petar in the face with his right hand.
“Do you even know what you’re doing? What’s with you? Are you trying to kill a child?”
Petar looked up at him for a moment, then smiled strangely.
“Ah, country boy. I’m not going to lose to you! I will defeat more enemies than you─”
Damien interrupted him with another punch.
“You’re not killing the enemy! You’re just killing! Didn’t you spit out the meat, like me? How could you have been drugged too?”
“Meat . . .? Oh, right, that meat . . .”
Petar finally paused, then looked puzzled. His eyes flickered. Damien muttered a swear word and quickly tied his hands with a zip tie.
Wails and screams echoed around them and Damien stood up to get a sense of where they were.
He could see a small desert ruin, but quite unlike anything he had seen before. Multicolored tents dotted around it, as well as objects necessary for normal, everyday life.
A small Soil Ghost village, home to only the old and the young, as well as the feeble.
Damien’s teammates were running in and around the tents, laughing and shooting indiscriminately. Everywhere, Soil Ghosts fell to the ground. Big and small, but the ground drank in their blood with equal enthusiasm.
Each gunshot was met by a wail or a shout in their strange tongue.
Within minutes, the hot air carried the rusty smell of blood.
Damien couldn’t do anything to stop the hell. And, he realised, neither could he escape.
“Kill them! Kill them all!”
Suddenly, Damien heard a sentence he understood. He looked up and saw Savo’s tall frame standing not too far away. The gun in Savo’s hand had just been shot and he was stopping to change the magazine. Several surviving Soil Ghosts were hurriedly climbing onto a pickup truck to escape.
Damien raised his gun and pointed it at Savo.
But his finger wouldn’t move. He couldn’t press the trigger. Savo, the man who had trained harder than anyone else . . .
He moved his gun down and aimed it at the weapon in Savo’s hands, but as he pulled the trigger, Savo finished loading his.
Damien’s bullet missed and sunk into Savo’s left shoulder. “Fuck!” Savo shouted, but took another swiped at the Soil Ghost in front of him instead of defending himself.
His aim was poor with only one hand, however, and a round of bullets came straight for him. A young Soil Ghost dropped down from the pickup. Ignoring his injuries, Savo ran straight after him, laughing.
Damien’s voice was hoarse from all the shouting and his face was wet with tears. He cried the name of each of his teammates, but received only the rat-a-tat of gunfire as a response.
The coffee truck that had brought them here had long since disappeared.
Petar said that there had to be people more powerful than Han behind it all. Damien now began to think it might be the Agurts military, or the government itself? Who else would be able to manipulate a whole team of soldiers?
Give soldiers drugs to make them lose their senses, then have them slaughter the enemy . . .
Whoever they were, to them Damien’s teammates were nothing more than flags that could be moved at will. Or mere pawns used to kill?
Damien wanted to pull the smiling face off his chest, but it was stuck too firmly. He chose instead to remove his whole body armor and throw it away. Then he roared, took up his gun and ran straight for the tent from which voices could still be heard.
He found inside a soldier strangling a young girl. The girl’s face was covered in blood and she sobbed as she struggled. The soldier swore and smashed her against a pillar to get her to stop.
Damien blazed with anger and kicked the soldier aside. His glasses flew, and Damien was able to see his face clearly. Schertling. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot and Damien could barely recognise in them the gentle teacher he knew.
Damien looked like he had seen the devil. His hair was on end. He grabbed his gun out of reflex and smashed it against his head. Schertling had no time to fight back and flopped on the ground.
Damien turned to looked back at the girl. She looked to be around the same age as his sister, which only made him feel even more furious and disgusted. To her, he was just another bad guy so she screamed and ran out of the tent.
“No! No! Stop!”
Damien rushed forward. If she encountered any other soldiers, she wouldn’t survive.
He ran out of the tent, stumbled over a dead body on the ground and was forced to greet it in closer proximity than he had hoped. His face had been blasted beyond all recognition, but he could see that he was wearing the same uniform as Damien.
That was when Damien noticed the change in sounds around him. Were the soldiers shooting less? There were new voices, men’s shouts, cries of livestock and . . . cars!
Several rounds of bullets hit the ground beside Damien. A few small grains of sand caught fire and Damien covered his head with his hands.
“Nizi teshe! Nizi teshe!”
Although he couldn't understand it, Damien knew what it meant. He maintained his posture, dropped his gun and slowly raised his empty hands.
A few men wearing typical Soil Ghost attire approached, their guns pointed at him. One of them was wearing a mask made from a human skull decorated with a red trident on the forehead. The faces of most of the rest of the Soil Ghosts were only partially covered so that their tears or sorrow and rage were clearly visible.
They roared and shouted at Damien. One of them stepped forward and tried to shoot. Someone else stopped him, a dispute followed.
In their eyes, I am one of the devils who slaughtered their families. Damien knew he had no way to escape. How could the Soil Ghosts possibly let him run free?
The gunfire stopped, leaving only a few heartbroken men and women crying and calling out the names of loved ones that would never respond.
Damien knew what that meant. His end was near.
Together, the blood of unfamiliar Soil Ghosts and the teammates he once called friends were absorbed by the hot desert sands.
Only when Damien’s blood had been drained from his body would he finally have escaped this bloody nightmare.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood