Chapter 1 RAINSTORM AT THE FRONTIER
Session 1.1 The Taste of Coffee
Lush green bushes strewn with strings of red fruit, arranged in rows inside an arched greenhouse.
Although Damien had never seen a real coffee tree before, he assumed that the picture on the sticker was that of a coffee plantation, since the cargo was labelled “GDG Coffee”. Actually, the colors on the sticker had faded. Damien, being homesick, must have only imagined those long forgotten colors from his farmstead.
Everything here was gray. He picked up the sticker, which had fallen onto the ground, and tried to put it back on the crate. But, it would no longer stick. He would’ve tried harder to paste it had he not heard the driver’s impatient goading. So, he simply stuffed the sticker into his pocket.
“Check complete. Everything’s fine!” Damien reported as usual.
As he jumped off the truck, he was once again facing the heavy downpour that had been prevailing for days. It almost felt as if he was standing under a waterfall. The rain pelted down like bullets on his helmet and military uniform. It seemed that the world was bent on crushing them with rain.
“Let them through!”
Upon the sergeant’s order, the convoy passed through the checkpoint and headed for the Agurts border, while Damien returned to his post. The chugging of the engines faded away slowly into the background, but the annoying, rustling sound of the rain remained. These torrential storms had been persisting for an entire month now. From what Damien could recall, it had been raining already on his first day of being dispatched to Zamaii from the training camp—it had never stopped since. The sky remained the same grayish-black no matter the time of the day, making it impossible to tell day from night.
Nonetheless, the number of trucks passing through did not diminish despite the downpour. The same was true of the number of Soil Ghosts who encroached on the border. The only thing that the heavy rains were successful at was in making the members of the patrol unit stationed there complain for days on end.
Damien sat down against a dilapidated wall beside another soldier. The wall might have belonged to someone’s bedroom or kitchen. It could even have been a church. All that was left now was a fragmented brick wall, which somehow miraculously survived the bombings. Everything else had vanished long ago, and the acid rain washed away any distinctive features which might have provided clues as to what this place used to be.
People like Damien, who were born after the Gray Summer, found it hard to believe how others before them had referred to the water droplets that descended from the skies as “nectar”. Nowadays, the acid rains that fell from the gray clouds destroyed much of the environment, leaving behind layers of smog. The long-term inhalation of this smog would result in damage to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of living beings. They also had that foul smell which the metals give off when they erode.
Through his gas mask, Damien could still detect a vile stench—Isn’t it smelling more intense than usual?
“I think I smell something strange,” he murmured, adjusting his mask in apprehension.
“Didn’t your training instructor teach you anything about light gas masks?” grunted the soldier next to him, “They should only be used as an emergency measure when the readings drop below 2.2.”
Damien grew more uneasy by the second. He hesitated over whether he should take off his mask and replace the filter.
“Then should we... erm… should we remind the sergeant to distribute combat respirators?”
“You could try.”
Not getting what the old soldier meant, Damien tuned his radio to the squad channel. The sergeant was just there on the other side of the jeep. But in the environment they were in, one always had to use the radio unless the person one wanted to talk to was right next to you.
“Captain, the current EHI (Environmental Hazard Index) reading is 2.1, I think we should change our masks…” Damien voiced his concerns with a serious tone.
“Oh! Well done, newbie! Looks like you know how to look after the squad better than I do,” sneered the captain, “Boys, be sure to hand over your masks to this germophobe at the end of today’s shift. Pansy’s volunteered to clean them tonight.”
Sneering and laughter from other squad members tittered through the channel before the transmission ended abruptly.
“There are never enough gas masks… Or even filters for that matter. The army would never issue quality gas masks to low-ranking soldiers. Forget it,” said the old soldier flatly.
Damien’s shoulders sagged in disappointment as he came to realize that he had it coming. He only wondered why the old soldier let him fall into the trap despite knowing what would happen.
“Don’t worry, kid. Your mask will just make it to the end of the shift,” the seasoned soldier promised as he patted Damien’s shoulder. “These masks are worn-out, but there’s a way to make the filter last longer. I’ll show you when we clean up.”
Damien was grateful. It turned out that the old man was using the opportunity to teach him about life in the camp.
Each soldier in the camp looked the same in their masks and military uniforms. Their standard-issue equipment almost erased their identity, making it hard for one to recognize the other. Damien could not see that the soldier in front of him was an old man, whose hair and beard had already turned white.
Bob was indeed an experienced veteran, one who willingly taught others the practical skills that could not be learned in the training camps. Damien was not liked by others in his squad and were alienated by them. Even the sergeant was not very fond of him. So, he really enjoyed chatting with his new friend.
Their chat was suddenly interrupted by shouting and the sound of gunshots that erupted nearby. Damien nervously grabbed his rifle and swung around while keeping his back against the wall. But, all he could see in the heavy rain was the obscure silhouettes of his companions jumping up out of nowhere.
“Cease fire! That was just a damn stray dog! Who shot at it first?”
“It jumped out of nowhere. It was asking for it.”
The soldiers reported and laughed over the open channel as if it was no big deal. However, the sergeant remained silent.
“Don’t do what they just did, kid. If this was the battlefield, they would’ve exposed our location and brought trouble right to our doorstep,” the old man whispered. Damien nodded his head and sat back down.
“Maybe they shot because they’re afraid of running into the Soil Ghosts. Everyone’s on edge these days…”
Sergeant Han and Bob aside, Damien’s entire squad consisted of new recruits. Some of them were rich brats from the capital who just wanted to complete their five years of compulsory military service and go home. Nobody wanted to cross paths with the savage Soil Ghosts and die on this lifeless, barren land along the border. There were almost no survivors from the patrol team that was ambushed by Soil Ghosts the previous month. The poor soldiers did not realize that the Soil Ghosts had long been hiding among the inconspicuous dilapidated walls and heaped rubble around them until they were met with the sweeping light-machine gun fire. One couldn’t blame the squad members for opening fire like mad men whenever they saw any sign of movement. After all, their superiors did issue a shoot-to-kill order.
Bob only smirked when Damien brought this up. “Troops have been stationed to drive out Soil Ghosts here in Zamaii for quite some time now. Do you know how many soldiers were killed on an average each month just half a year ago? And are you aware about how many died this month?”
Of course Damien did not know—he was just a new recruit. He did not understand what Bob was saying.
“They’re out of their minds, right? There are so many soldiers stationed here, but they still have the nerve to steal. No wonder the government says that they’re animals. Back when I was in the South, I thought what they said on TV were just fibs.”
“You shouldn’t believe things that you haven’t seen with your own eyes so easily,” sighed Bob.
“Have you ever seen a Soil Ghost?” asked Damien, his curiosity aroused.
“An old soldier like me has seen all sorts of strange things…”
When Bob said this, Damien could not help but want to hear him say more. The young man hailed from the countryside in the South, and he had not even had the chance of going to the neighboring town, which was over a hundred kilometers away, before he was conscripted.
“Have you ever had coffee?”
Coffee was said to be a very popular drink before the World Wars. Damien came to realize that although Bob was old, he was probably not old enough to be born before the war.
“Yes… A long, long time ago.”
The old soldier’s answer surprised Damien, making him even more curious.
“What does it taste like? Is it really as good as they say?”
The old man seemed to be lost in remembrance. He did not answer until quite some time had passed.
“It was bitter... It had a heavy bitterness to it.”
“Bitter?” muttered Damien, “The rich have weird taste.”
Coffee was something that only the wealthy could afford. In this Acid Rain era, Agurts was one of the few nations that still had some arable land left. Greenhouse farms owned by the central government, like the one where Damien’s family worked, put priority on the production of genetically modified crops which grew quickly. With the exception of only a handful of rich people from the capital who could afford them, luxury goods like coffee were mostly exported to generate national income. Ironically, coffee was the reason why Damien was stationed here now.
“We’re clashing with Soil Ghosts here because of this bitter drink?” Damien said while thinking to himself that he did not even know what coffee tasted like.
“If nobody’s stationed here to protect the transport route, all this produce would be plundered in the blink of an eye.”
“But if I go back to the farm, I can grow more crops for our country. I think I’m more useful out there than here, pretending to check trucks…”
All trucks headed to the border had to pass through a dozen checkpoints like theirs along the way. The other trucks did not matter, but everybody knew that they could not mess with the ones carrying coffee beans. The coffee bean companies were too powerful. So, it was best to just to let them through. This was what Sergeant Han had told Damien and his squad the day they got assigned here. Having performed such a meaningless task hundreds of times over, Damien could not help but question his purpose.
“Every mission has its purpose,” the old soldier said. After a brief pause, he continued, “Everyone has his own mission…”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t doubt the orders of my superiors.”
It occurred to Damien that he should not be saying things like that. Bob was so kind that he got carried away and started to whine. But, the old man seemed dissatisfied with this reaction.
“Is that what you really think?”
“We’re soldiers after all…”
“Well, what if your superiors ordered you to die?”
Damien looked at the old soldier next to him with shock. How could he ask such a question with such indifference? he thought. On second thoughts… Is a soldier even allowed to ask a question like that?
“Do you mean risking our lives while fighting against the enemy? I think… that is the duty of every citizen of Agurts.”
“You don’t have to tell me the answer. Keep it to yourself.”
Bob’s assertive tone unnerved Damien. No wonder the others thought him to be strange and were worried about getting in trouble by being associated with him. Very few professional soldiers his age still fought on the front lines, and he was not even a corporal. Everybody said that something must have been wrong.
However, Damien himself stood out like a sore thumb among his fellow squad members. All the squadron members thought that he was a slow-witted and backward hick. Damien did not want to butter up to those rich kids. He felt that they were all equals in the army, and he did not understand why they had to act all high and mighty.
Two outcasts in the army Damien thought, mocking himself. Just as it was for Bob, a smooth promotion was probably not in the cards for him. In any case, he would be going home after completing his compulsory military service. He had absolutely no interest in being a professional soldier.
“How long is this rain going to last?”
Damien wiped the raindrops off the lenses of his mask. He missed the milder climate of his hometown.
“It’s going to rain for a few more days yet… Or at least that’s what my knees are telling me.”
Bob stretched his leg. This was not the first time that Damien had heard about the arthritis pain in the old man’s knee. As a matter of fact, a walking stick would suit him better than a rifle. Damien thought that after they got to know each other better, he would try persuading him to retire sooner and go home.
“Attention! We’re moving out in 30,” the sergeant ordered over the squad channel.
At long last, they managed to survive another day without incident.
“It’s fragrant,” Bob suddenly murmured.
“Are you serious? It still reeks.”
“I’m talking about coffee…”
“Didn’t you just say it was bitter?”
“It was bitter, but it also had a flavorful aroma. It’s a scent that I can’t explain…”
As he was saying it, Bob carefully took out a waterproof pouch from his pocket and shielded it from the rain with his hand. He then plucked out a small brown oval bean from it. The bean had a deep crack down its center. Damien instantly recognized what it was, despite never having seen the real thing.
“Is that the real deal? Where did you get it from?” Damien’s eyes widened. That small pouch of coffee beans alone might be worth his entire month’s salary. Bob did not seem like someone who would steal from the trucks. He had never even been near one.
“This is a memento… A reminder of what I’m fighting for.” Bob’s voice conveyed a sense of fatigue. He put the pouch of coffee beans back into his pocket.
Damien was surprised that Bob was carrying something so valuable on him, and that the old man actually let him in on it. The gesture made Damien quite happy since he thought that it meant that Bob trusted him and considered him to be a friend.
“What… What are you fighting for?”
“I’m fighting so that I can drink a cup of coffee brewed from beans that I grow myself.”
The old soldier leaned on his rifle to stand up. It was time for them to assemble. Damien followed the old soldier, a little surprised, a little awed, but all the while imagining what coffee tasted like.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Session 1.2 The First Battle
Zamaii was a town situated along the northern border of Agurts. Considering the state that Zamaii was in, perhaps the word "ruins" would be more befitting than "town".
Prior to the World Wars, Zamaii had been a prosperous town, renowned for its timber and textiles. However, the endless conflicts reduced everything to rubble. Although a few drains could occasionally be found along the roads, the original underground drainage system had long been destroyed by demolitions. To add to that, heavy downpours caused serious flooding everywhere, and a month of ceaseless torrential storms made things worse. The deluge of sewage transformed the road into a muddy yellow river.
Three jeeps sped past, with a Speeder MK1 in the middle of the group. It was the sergeant’s personal vehicle – a transformable high-speed SA. The eleven other soldiers were crammed into the jeeps. They jostled about as the vehicles jounced wildly while passing over uneven potholes in the muddy river road.
To ensure a clear line of sight, they forcibly pulled down the canopies of their jeeps and let the rain pour down on them. Damien, being drenched like the others, clutched his rifle tightly and tried to remain calm. Their squad had been repeatedly carrying out monotonous patrol and guard duties every single day for the past month. Although Damien had complained to Bob about it, he knew that they were as lucky as if they had been winning the lottery for days in a row. However, their luck was not meant to last forever.
A moment ago, they had received a distress signal from a truck which had crossed a checkpoint just twenty minutes before. Damien’s squad had been the closest to the distress signal, and that was why they were racing there right now. Their mission, of course, was to save the truck that was under assault and ensure the safety of its contents. However, every soldier in the jeep were probably praying that they would only find the driver’s body in the muddy water when they arrived. If that was not the case, it would mean that they had to engage the Soil Ghosts in combat. It also meant that new recruits like Damien, who were directly dispatched to this outpost from the training camp, would be facing the enemy head-on for the first time.
"I’m betting twenty dollars on Adam."
"Fifty on Petar."
"Hey! What about you, hick?"
Damien felt a sudden shove. He had not been paying attention to what the others were talking about. Sometimes, the rustling sound of the rain and the drone of the car engine was so loud that even the transmissions coming through inside the gas mask were inaudible.
"Jesus! He doesn’t even know what we’re talking about!"
"Adam and Petar are having a wager on who will kill a Soil Ghost first."
"Do you really think Petar will beat me to it? He is always second in the races," boasted Adam. The soldiers in the jeep behind gave a thumbs-down gesture.
"Really? Well, someone can’t even remember the steps of assembling a gun in the correct order. Hick, you remember how he almost killed himself last time too, right?"
Adam and Petar both hailed from wealthy city states, and they were the ones who bragged the most. However, had their parents been truly wealthy, they could have made arrangements for their sons to be sent to inland supporting units. They would have been able to stay out of harm’s way there for five years and complete their compulsory military service.
Their parents might have had decent white-collar jobs in the capital, and they probably lived in a clean and well-lit house. They might have even drank coffee. But, despite all that, they did not have enough power or money to save their sons from being dispatched to the front lines. Despite having riches which they could brag about, they still ended up there, drenched together with Damien. When this thought had crossed his mind, Damien decided that he could do better than deal with them.
"I don’t have any spare money for bets," said Damien, not wanting to be involved in these petty ego trips.
"Oh yes, you do! You can scrub our boots if you lose."
"You guys have it all wrong. He thinks he’s better than us. Soil Ghosts don’t even come close to the voles he’s used to shooting in the farms."
Everybody laughed except Bob. The old man, seated in front of Damien, kept looking outside the entire time.
"Come on, tell us. Are you Jack or Steel?"
The soldiers continued to mock Damien, simply because he was always talking to Bob.
There was a squad of legendary elite soldiers in the Agurts military – the Bucks Team. The founder and commander of that group had been hailed as a legend even before the formation of the team. He had four equally renowned lieutenants – King, Jack, Argus, and Steel – all of whom had demonstrated numerous acts of valor in countless battles. However, no one really knew what they looked like or who they actually were – the identities of the members of the Bucks Team were kept strictly confidential. Some people even claimed that those four names were just aliases.
The only name that people knew of was "Bob", the Bucks Team’s legendary commander.
While the legends surrounding the man were quite well-known, the people’s actual knowledge of him was limited to this very common name, which too was doubted by many as to whether it was his actual name in the first place.
Before Damien was conscripted, the biggest news in Agurts was of this mythical commander, who had saved the nation multiple times, committed treason, and had even been caught misappropriating military firearms. He had been stripped of his ranks by the new president as a result of his irresponsible acts.
That bizarre incident became the main topic of discussion for the months that followed. To Damien, nonetheless, it was all just unfathomable politics which had nothing to do with him. He only knew parts of the story.
"He must be carrying out a secret mission for the great commander, you dumbasses! Be careful, or you might disappear tonight!"
"Pissing my pants right now!"
The soldiers roared with laughter.
Back on the farm in Damien’s hometown, there were at least two workers and a cat who were named Bob. There were, of course, many other people named Bob in the army. But, the soldiers intentionally used "Great Commander" to mock the old soldier, just because he happened to have the same name. Damien felt that the joke was over the line and cruel. Nonetheless, Bob continued to sit in silence and ignored them completely.
"Heads up, rookies!" Sergeant Han’s voice drowned out the laughter, and everyone fell silent immediately. The convoy began to slow down. As Damien lifted his head, he saw that a truck had stopped in the middle of the road, blocking their way. It was the same truck that had sent the distress signal.
"Damien, go check it out! Over," ordered the sergeant.
Damien hesitated slightly. Didn’t the combat guide state that they should always act in teams of two? Should he ask?
"This is Bob. I’ll go with Damien. Over."
"Fine," the sergeant casually responded to Bob’s offer, indifferent to the whole situation.
Damien and Bob jumped off the jeep and approached the truck in a single file, their rifles cocked up in their hands. As they got close to the front of the truck, they saw that the windshield and driver’s seat were riddled with bullet holes, and the whole scene was covered with blood stains. However, there were no signs of the driver or his body.
The armed guards who had accompanied the truck were nowhere to be seen either.
"This is Damien. Report. There are only blood stains, but no signs of people. Over."
Damien moved towards the back of the truck, his mind riddled with uncertainty. He opened the doors to the container under Bob’s watchful cover.
There were only a few boxes left in the steel container. Everything else had been taken. However, there was not a soul in sight. Bullet holes cratered all over the crates, a few precious coffee beans were spilled onto the floor.
"Report. The goods have been taken. No signs of people or bodies. Over."
Several sighs of relief were heard over the squad channel after Damien had transmitted his report. They had been too late. The Soil Ghosts had already taken the goods and had fled. Unless the sergeant ordered them to pursue the thieves, they would be able to go back and have lunch.
"Can we roll out the canopy now? When is this damn rain going to stop?"
A soldier stood up to unfurl the canopy.
Bob pulled Damien to his side almost at that same instant.
Damien’s reflexes took over as he heard shots being fired. He hid behind the back of the truck, clutched his rifle, and looked back up. The soldier who had just stood up had been splayed across the jeep chair in a peculiar pose. He was motionless.
"Check your six! Check your six!"
"My leg! My leg!" somebody yelled out in agony.
"I can’t see them! Where are they?"
Shouting and screaming from the soldiers flooded the communications channel. More gunfire ensued, and everything descended into complete chaos. It was only then that Damien spotted the shadows that were moving among the debris on either side of the road.
"Retreat! Repeat, full retreat!"
As soon as Sergeant Han roared his command, his MK1 began to transform. The driver’s seat hoisted up, and the assault vehicle turned into a two-legged mech which enveloped the sergeant in armor. He broke away from the formation with ease and made a U-turn while firing the SA’s 3-barreled gatling gun in a sweeping motion.
Two jeeps turned around immediately, but were blocked by the third which remained stationary. It turned out that its driver had been shot dead. The soldier next to him seemed to be frozen in fear. The only option that remained was to go around it. But, when the first jeep did so, its wheels got stuck in the muddy waters, making it a sitting target.
The enemy did not even have to waste any bullets on them with rapid firing. Tauntingly, they took down each of the occupants of the jeep one-by-one like target practice. The inexperienced new recruits frantically jumped off the jeep. Some got shot as they landed.
The ambush and killings left Damien stunned and motionless. He knew that he had to help those soldiers in distress, but he did not know how.
"Follow me. This way," Bob gestured to him, waking him up from his stunned state.
Damien did as he was instructed. He pressed his body to the ground and crawled stealthily towards a cluster of dilapidated buildings.
"Don’t run off on your own. Form teams of two and take cover. Over!" transmitted Bob over the radio.
After hearing Bob’s low voice over the communications channel, the meaningless shouting of the new recruits ceased a little. They started to gather their wits and began asking for each other’s whereabouts while looking for their companions.
"We can’t run off by ourselves and leave them behind."
Damien did not understand why he was following Bob as he was running in the opposite direction to the convoy. He could not help but ask him in a hushed voice.
"You still don’t get it, kid? We were ambushed," the old soldier grunted. "The enemy’s vehicles must be nearby. They’re more anxious to get out of here than we are."
Damien was still processing what Bob was saying when a gigantic, ominous shadow appeared ahead of them.
The pair approached cautiously, while staying close to the collapsed walls. A run-down jeep came into view in the heavy rain. There were also two strange-looking men, wrapped in tattered clothing and wearing skull masks.
They were Soil Ghosts – those terrifying, deformed savages. This was the first time ever that Damien had seen them.
One sat in the driver’s seat, while the other kept watch with a rifle next to him. They only guarded the jeep and did not take part in the assault. But, they did not notice that Damien and Bob were closing in on them.
There was more gunfire nearby. The sound of hysterical screams could be heard over the radio.
"Help! I’ve been hit…Sergeant…"
"Didn’t I order you to retreat? Why are you guys jumping off the jeep? Are you trying to screw me over?" growled the sergeant.
Damien lifted his rifle and aimed it at the Soil Ghost driver. However, Bob intervened and put his hand on the young soldier’s shoulder.
"All the bullets will be flying our way once you fire that shot. They are not alone here."
"But we have to stop them! Should I shoot their jeep?"
"If you destroy their ride, they’ll have no choice but to kill us all."
"What should we do then?" cried Damien helplessly, not being able to simply stand by while watching his companions get shot.
"Think about what they’re after. Do you really think that they’d bother risking their lives to take out a tiny little squad like ours?"
Think? Damien’s mind was a mess. All he could think about was his current predicament – how he was being surrounded by the enemy, or how a bullet could pass straight through his thumping heart at any moment. There was a real possibility that he would die amidst these ruins.
He caught his reflection on the lens of Bob’s mask when he turned his head to face Bob – it was the reflection of a typical masked soldier.
He paused to think. He was no longer a farmhand, he had become a soldier now. Fretting would not get him home. Damien forced himself to concentrate and answer Bob’s question.
What do the Soil Ghosts want? Weren’t they just after the goods? If so, why would they stay behind to ambush the rescue team? Damien could not figure out the rationale behind the actions of the Soil Ghosts. Killing a patrol squad made up of rookies would not do them any good either. Right! Staying there and risking their lives to kill those rookies would not do them any good.
"What…What do we have to do to make them retreat?" Damien muttered.
Bob picked up a rock near him and weighed it in his hand.
"If it’s stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid." With these words, Bob hurled the rock at the back of the Soil Ghosts’ jeep. The guard with the rifle immediately turned around and fired three shots in the direction of the unexpected thud.
The driver started the vehicle immediately. He did the right thing, as a rain of machine-gun bullets soon flew his way. The sergeant had noticed the gunfire and pointed the Mk1’s gatling gun in the same direction, opening a speculative fire.
Although the quick reaction of the Soil Ghost driver helped him and his companion escape the barrage of bullets, it exposed their location. Suddenly, Damien noticed movement behind a pile of rocks nearby. Soil Ghosts emerged from inconspicuous places and ran towards the jeep. On the other side of the road, another jeep appeared. The enemy suddenly seemed to be on the defensive. They began to retreat hastily. Damien secretly felt relieved that he had not given away his whereabouts just moments earlier.
"Now! Save them!"
Upon Bob’s prompting, the shell-shocked soldiers near the convoy rushed out and pulled their companions behind cover.
Damien and Bob picked up their pace and came across a soldier from their squad who had been left on his own.
"Can you stand up?"
"My leg…My leg’s been shot…" the soldier whimpered.
"Don’t worry, son. You’re not going to die…unless you keep sitting here."
Bob grabbed the injured soldier under the arms, as if out of habit.
It was right then that Damien spotted a dark shadow charging out from nowhere. The figure came to a grinding halt – it seemed that he was not expecting to run into them either. With reduced visibility in the rain and fog, it was not surprising for people to discover each other only when they got too close. It was a precarious situation for both parties.
The old soldier and an injured companion trailed behind Damien, while an armed Soil Ghost stood before him. The Soil Ghost’s hand moved…
The rain drops suddenly turned blood red. The Soil Ghost dropped to the ground and splattered into the mud. It was only then that the bewildered Damien realized that he had pulled the trigger.
He had killed the Soil Ghost.
The old soldier’s low voice snapped Damien out of his daze, and the young man rushed to escort his injured companion as they pulled back. Another Soil Ghost appeared, but he was shooting aimlessly. His only goal was to drag away the body of his fallen comrade. Both parties were anxiously distancing themselves from each other.
The three soldiers made it back safely to their convoy. The Soil Ghosts had given up on their assault and were rushing to their jeeps to escape. Sergeant Han turned his MK1 around in pursuit, firing relentlessly from behind.
It turned out that the Soil Ghosts had only two small jeeps. There could not have been more than ten of them, and they stood no chance against the MK1. No wonder they fled as soon as they were exposed.
Damien and his companions ran to the jeep that had stopped in the middle of the road. They were surprised to find that the soldier sitting next to the driver was still alive – he was only paralyzed with fear. Damien grabbed him and shook him, but the man continued mumbling to himself. So, Damien had no choice but to shove the driver’s corpse onto the petrified soldier so that he could get into the jeep.
Bob heaved the injured soldier into the jeep and shouted at Damien, who was about to step on the gas, "Put it in reverse and go backwards! Don’t make a U-turn!"
Damien obeyed instinctively and put the gear in reverse.
Sergeant Han ceased pursuing the Soil Ghosts as soon as he saw that Damien’s jeep was in motion. He instinctively turned the MK1 around to catch up with them instead.
"The guy’s not that stupid after all," Bob muttered.
All of a sudden, there was a deafening noise and a flash of fire. Alarmed, Damien protected his head with one hand and closed his eyes. A burst of hot wind swept over the jeep as the truck up ahead burst into a fireball.
The MK1 struggled awkwardly to get on its feet after being toppled over by the shockwave, but had no luck. Sergeant Han changed it back to the speeder mode and swore as he jumped off the vehicle. He was now covered in mud because of that fall.
The jeep also came to a stop. Even Damien understood that this explosion meant that the battle had ended. The Soil Ghosts had gone. Blowing up the truck was their last resort – they did that in order to prevent the soldiers from pursuing them.
He shivered involuntarily as a chilling thought crossed his mind: What would have happened had the Soil Ghosts detonated the bomb when he and Bob went to inspect the truck? His body might have been transported home in pieces for his parents to bury.
Sergeant Han continued his swearing, but he stopped abruptly as he approached the jeep and saw Damien and Bob. He stood there and stared at them. That was all he did.
It was impossible to see his facial expression behind the gas mask, yet Damien could sense the sergeant’s ire. He seemed to be holding a grudge against the two for some reason.
"Party’s over, pansies. Go look for the wounded!" Sergeant Han shouted. He then kicked the jeep before leaving.
The soldiers began administering first aid to their injured companions. Those who survived completely unscathed, like Damien, had to go back and look for other wounded squad members or retrieve the bodies of the deceased.
The unit had set off as a team of twelve. Now, only nine survived — three were KIA, and four were WIA.
As Damien put the corpse of a fallen soldier into the jeep’s back seat, he pulled off his mask to find Adam staring at him wide-eyed, his face a pale white. His partially opened mouth hinted at a scream that could not be let out. An intense sensation in the stomach overwhelmed Damien. He felt a sudden pang of remorse for being angry at Adam earlier.
The three dead bodies were piled on top of each other in the back seat like cargo. Damien crawled back into the driver’s seat. In the rearview mirror, he saw the sergeant put his hand inside the pocket of Adam’s uniform. Just as Damien was wondering if he was looking for his dog tag, he saw him pull out a pack of cigarettes and two bank notes. The sergeant put them into his own pocket casually. Damien fought the nausea welling up inside him and stepped on the gas. He finally understood why this squad was made up almost entirely of new recruits.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Session 1.3 Jazz Blues
Although the jukebox was playing at the maximum volume, the chatter still drowned out the music. Damien found all the clamor extremely irritating. He tried to find a corner away from the crowd, but it did not really make any difference.
He regretted coming. Perhaps he should get a ‘hideout’ like Bob, Damien thought to himself. He knew that Bob always hung around a derelict house near the barracks. It was kind of like the old man’s personal quarters. He would nap there whenever they were off duty.
However, it was quite surprising to see the solitary veteran not only come to the bar today, but even chatting with a barmaid in the opposite corner. This roused Damien’s attention, since Bob was one who would brush off any girl and drink on his own on his rare visits to the bar.
All the noise gave Damien a headache. He did not want to be at the bar at all. But, he did not dare to turn down his team’s invitation to celebrate at the bar. Even though he was not quite fond of socializing, he knew that it would not be a good idea to be very antisocial in situations like these.
On this particular night, however, watching the drunken antics of his companions in this crowded bar would have been more bearable than being alone in the barracks. He actually needed a drink.
Damien forcibly gulped down a mouthful of beer. Every time he closed his eyes, the splutter of crimson in the rain would appear in his mind. The image of the bloodshot gaze of the Soil Ghost was fixed in his mind – he was a murderer. No, that could not be right! That Soil Ghost was wearing a skeletal mask, and their encounter only lasted a few seconds at most. Moreover, there was the rain and the mists, there was no way that Damien could have seen those accusing eyes so vividly.
It must have been just his imagination. Those eyes looked as if they belonged to a vole. Damien recalled the first time that his father took him vole hunting on the farm – it was the first time that he had killed a living, breathing animal. When the animal was dead, its soft, warm fur gradually turned ice cold in his hands, while its beady, black eyes stared at him, as if saying, “All I wanted was to fill my stomach. Why did you have to kill me? Don’t you want the same thing?”
No, the Soil Ghosts were much more vicious than voles. They were deformed lunatics; bandits who seized the fruits of the industrious labor of citizens. The posters that were plastered on the walls were a constant reminder of that and a warning for all to remember.
Damien tried to convince himself to not let his emotions get the better of him. He was a soldier now, and not a child. It was his duty to kill the enemy. He had just begun his service in the military – this was only the first of many to come…
But it was a person, not a vole.
“Cheers to being alive! This round’s on me!” Petar bellowed as he jumped onto the table, raising his glass. His youthful, freckled face was flushed right down to his neck – he was thoroughly drunk.
What about the dead? Damien pondered immediately. He understood that everyone was relieved about making it back in one piece. But, turning this goddamned incident into a celebration? He just couldn’t fathom it.
All of them obliviously fell into the trap set out by the Soil Ghosts and retreated with their tails in between their legs. Three people died, while two of the four who sustained injuries were so severely wounded that they were immediately relieved from frontline duties… Despite being just a new recruit, even Damien understood that it was a humiliating defeat for them. He could not understand how the others thought that the incident was a courageous victory over the Soil Ghosts?
The members of Damien’s squad were showing off in front of the other new recruits, claiming that they trounced the Soil Ghosts and pressured those freaks into retreat. Now that they were in the bar, there was no need to wear gas masks. Not only did they reveal their relieved expressions, they also revealed their naivety.
Being dejected, Damien downed another mouthful to prevent himself from blurting out the truth. The truth was that they were the greenest of all rookies; they all had forgotten about their training the moment the shit got real.
A red-haired barmaid in a sleeveless dress approached Damien when she saw his that his glass was empty. “Hey handsome, we’ve got a remedy to fix that frown of yours. Want another?” she offered while flashing Damien a flirty smile.
Hardly anybody lived in Zamaii anymore. It only had a tiny market that provided the soldiers from the barracks and transiting drivers with the bare necessities. The restaurants and bars made the most money, because anything that tasted remotely like food was better than the military rations that they got to eat. Alcohol, needless to say, had priority over everything else. The owners and the employees of these businesses made up the majority of the civilian population of the town.
The bar was staffed entirely by women. Naturally, this was only a ploy to coax the soldiers into drinking more. The shop opposite the bar provided more “direct” services. Girls who wanted to make more money would work there instead. Consequently, the barmaids did not flaunt their “assets” excessively. All they had to do was learn to say the right things to comfort the wounded souls in order to earn some decent tips.
Damien put the money for his booze and a small tip on the table. The barmaid took it with a beaming smile and poured some muddy beer into his glass. In outskirts, such as this, one could hardly find any drink that was clearer than gasoline.
Damien picked up his glass and was about to chug it in one gulp when, much to his dismay, someone shoved right beside him. He was about to get up and walk away, but he put his glass down and sat up straight as soon as he realized who the uninvited guest was.
Even at a military camp that was as large as the one in Zamaii, there were only a handful of old soldiers that had a head full of white hair and a snowy beard. Bob sat down next to Damien with a glass in his hand.
“First kill?” asked the old man casually.
“Unless he could still live with his head split open,” Damien sighed deeply.
“You protected me and a fellow teammate. You did good, son.”
“Me? Are you kidding? You are the one who saved all our asses!”
Damien could not help but sound excited and raise his voice when he said this. But, Bob gestured him to quiet down. The young man looked around frantically, fearing that Sergeant Han was there. But, the bar was too noisy for anyone to take notice anyway.
“You told me to think… I’ve thought about it many times already, but I still don’t get it. When did you realize that the truck was rigged with explosives? And, how did you know that their jeeps were there?” Damien asked in a hushed voice as he drew closer to the old soldier.
“I didn’t know whether the truck was rigged to blow. But if I were them, that’s what I’d do,” Bob declared rather calmly.
“But… but how did you know that they’d retreat?”
Bob did not answer straight away. He swirled his glass and took another sip.
“Well, if you know what they’re after, then you can predict their actions. If you want to survive on the battlefield, you can’t just rely on your gun. You need to use your brain too,” the old man uttered as he pointed a finger at his own temple.
Damien hesitated for a moment before speaking.
“When I was a boy, my father taught me how to shoot voles that were too big to catch with a cage. He’d put a chunk of sugarcane along a path which they frequented, and then all we had to do was hide and wait for them to come like pigs to the slaughter. We’d take them out one after another without breaking a sweat.” said Damien slowly, “It felt like we were those voles out there today.”
“That’s good. Then you won’t be a stupid vole next time,” Bob chuckled.
“We had twice as many soldiers and a MK1, but we still almost got wiped out,” Damien lowered his voice again. “We must’ve drawn the short straw to have him as our unit leader, no?”
“Watch your mouth, kid,” said the old soldier seriously, “He might be a lousy commander, but he’s no idiot.”
“Oh, of course! He sure knows how to cover his own ass,” Damien snorted with disdain.
“Most recruits screw up their first battle. You made a good shot and a clean kill. You can at least be proud of that,” said Bob, trying to change the topic.
“Really?” Damien knew that the old man was just trying to cheer him up, and he did feel a little bit better. “You sure sound like a commander who knows how to encourage his subordinates. Damn, even I’m beginning to suspect that you’re the national hero!” Damien said as a chuckle escaped his lips.
Bob burst into a loud laughter as he said, “Nowadays, everyone says that he’s a traitor…”
“I’m not too sure about that. But, before Zamaii turned into ruins… I mean, before it was turned into a restricted border zone, it was only thanks to him that the Omanga invasion was thwarted here in Zamaii. That’s the story I’d always heard of when I was a kid.”
The Omanga Empire was located to the north of the desert wastelands beyond Zamaii. As opposed to the city states of Agurts, which were founded on agriculture, the Omanga Empire had been fervently developing nuclear energy and robotics technologies ever since its establishment. The Omanga Empire was plagued with severe nuclear pollution. Utilizing their technologies, they built a powerful mechanized army to seize the habitable territories from their neighbors. Moreover, the newly throned emperor, Oleksandr III, was a warmonger. It was only logical that the southern neighbor of Omanga, which had a healthy reserve of natural resources, felt threatened.
The reason that the Agurts had deployed their troops in Zamaii was not to fend off the Soil Ghost tribes wandering in the desert, but the prying Omangans.
“Do you really think that one man can hold down a fort on his own? Don’t be so naïve. One man can’t fight a war alone.” Bob said with a hint of disapproval.
“But he did save our country. Would such a person turn into a traitor? It’s no wonder that people say power corrupts. Politics is a messy business.” Damien answered his own question, all the while doubting himself.
“Oh yes, politics sucks.” Bob sighed as he took another sip of his beer.
They shared a brief moment of silence, but it was soon shattered by the soldiers’ senseless shouting. A drunk man banged on the jukebox angrily because it had stopped playing.
“Amifa! Give me Amifa! It took my money!”
A barmaid scurried over to take care of the problem and appease the soldier. That machine was ancient – all that banging would render it unfixable.
It seemed that the crowd had finally grew tired – the clamor finally settled, and brisk, soothing jazz could be heard. Amifa’s low, magnetic voice oscillated between the octaves, stirring up the emotions within the hearts of each and every man. Many soldiers fell silent, mesmerized by her voice.
Even though Damien was only a fresh recruit, he had already discovered that the army was a stressful, testosterone-fueled environment. Besides the company of a barmaid or the touch of a woman, songstresses like Amifa, who had the gift of soothing people’s souls, were often more appreciated and valued.
Men who were not interested in music, such as Damien, only came to know these songs and singers after they had joined the army. Bob started singing the lyrics to the melody softly on his own. Damien was surprised to find that the tune that the old man hummed quite often was actually from the song that was playing right now.
“This song’s by Amifa?”
“It’s a great tune. The lyrics are very meaningful.”
“I thought… Uh, never mind.”
Damien was too embarrassed to continue. He thought that all the songs that Bob hummed were oldies since their melodies seemed to be nostalgic. It did not occur to him that the old soldier also listened to music by songstresses who were so young. Amifa was probably young enough to be Bob’s daughter.
Damien was surprised that he ran into Bob at the bar that night, and even more so now that he recalled finding the old man chatting with a barmaid. Such behavior was not like Bob at all.
The girl whom he spoke to had short blonde hair and was wearing black jeans with a t-shirt, just like a girl next door. If it had not been a bar, it would have seemed more like Bob was talking to his granddaughter.
Perhaps the girl reminded the old soldier of his family, Damien thought. It appeared that men of all ages enjoyed seeking solace in young women. Tenderness was the one thing that the army constantly lacked; not everything was necessarily about sex.
“How about that? Looks like this old geezer’s keeping up with the times better than you!”
The white-haired man slapped Damien’s shoulder.
“This era belongs to you youngsters. If you don’t stay ahead of it, it’s going to lead you by the nose.”
Staying ahead of the times? That sounds really cool, but what exactly does it mean? Damien felt there was a philosophical aspect to this – Bob was not simply telling him to catch up with the current trends.
The jazz blues evoked different memories in the two men. Before that day, all that Damien recalled was the moist earth and the lush, green crops of his hometown. Now, however, there was a gray shroud of unease and guilt.
“Where would you be in five years, you could choose yourself then,” the old soldier asked as he finished what was left of his beer.
“I’d go home. You? Why are you still with the army?” Damien finally asked the question that he never had the chance to ask.
“Like the lyrics say, ‘Everyone has his own mission’,” uttered Bob as he put his glass down and stood up, “Use that brain of yours more and make it to the end of these five years.” Saying that, the old soldier left the bar.
Damien felt slightly guilt-ridden. He was going to buy Bob a drink, but he had missed his chance.
It was already 10:30 p.m., Damien reminded his drunk teammates that they needed to return to the barracks before the curfew. Petar had passed out, leaving Damien no choice but to carry him. Fortunately, the rain began to weaken as the night fell; there was only a light drizzle. This “nice weather” was rare to come by, and some people decided to leave their masks off altogether. If they were to throw up while wearing a mask, the smell would be even more putrid than inhaling acidic fogs.
None of his teammates could walk in a straight line anymore. Damien felt lucky that he was at least sober enough to be their driver.
Just as he was about to start the engine, someone jumped swiftly on board the already overloaded jeep.
Sergeant Han smiled at him with a cigarette in his mouth. It was definitely not a friendly smile.
“Isn’t Bob with you lot?”
“No, sir! He left moments ago.”
“Relax! You’re off duty now. Drive.”
Sergeant Han shoved a drunk soldier aside so that he could sit next to Damien. This made the young man feel slightly uneasy. His superior’s pretentious sincerity unnerved him even more.
“He seems to enjoy chatting with you, doesn’t he? Did he tell you anything related to the capital?”
Damien could not figure out why the captain asked him about this. He had a faint feeling that something was off.
“Did he tell you anything about his past?” inquired the captain, “You know how it is…. Old soldiers love bragging about all the things that they’ve done.”
“Cut the crap, Damien! Do you think I’m so dumb that I can’t tell whether you’re lying?”
“I’m telling the truth, sir.”
“Fine! We’ll see,” Sergeant Han scoffed and blew out a mouthful of smoke.
Damien recalled Bob’s words. He did not know what the sergeant was after, and began to worry about whether he had gotten himself into trouble.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey