Chapter 2 THE VETERAN’S FINAL MISSION

Session 2.1 A Midnight Assignment

Trainers in boot camps loved taking roll calls during wee hours, dragging new recruits from their beds for a surprise drill, either to prepare them to face future emergencies, drill discipline into them, or just for a laugh. In reality, all reasons and justifications behind what one would perceive as injustice were of little significance, for the golden rule in the army was for soldiers to obey the commands of their officers at all times.

When the sergeant’s whistle pierced the darkness, it was barely the crack of dawn. Despite the gloom, the recruits left their bunks and assembled without a hassle.

The Soil Ghost’s last ambush had occurred a week ago. Two soldiers with minor injuries were back to work, but only three new recruits had reported from the reserve. The team was still short-handed. Although Damien saw his teammates joking around as usual, a sense of discomfort hung in the air. Even Petar’s usual “I don’t give a damn” big city arrogance seemed like an obvious attempt to avoid a point of contention.

No one mentioned the incident after coming back from the pub, nor were those who had left spoken of.

Damien was nonetheless certain that the same thoughts troubled everyone when the sergeant blew the whistle. He could tell from the expressions on their faces. “Who’ll be the unlucky one this time? Will this be my final mission?” A sudden roll call was never a good sign.

“Damn Soil Ghosts! Couldn’t they wait till after sunrise?” A replacement recruit tried to lighten the mood, but no one responded. Not even Petar could fashion a sarcastic comeback. After mumbling something incoherent, the newcomer fell silent.

Damien felt bad for the guy, he had no idea what had happened to the team. The kid reminded Damien of his first day in the field. All newcomers knew anxiety, being well aware that their lives could be at risk, but to experience the battle first hand, to watch your comrades fall one after another, their still-warm corpses slipped into bags and carried away, was a whole different matter. The illusion of heroic sacrifices shattered to millions of pieces in an instant. Death transformed into a tangible reality, which descended unannounced and then became just another number on a chart. The shadows of the dead lingered above those who survived, refusing to let go.

“Where’s Bob?” Sergeant Han had noticed that a member was missing. Before he could finish his question, the veteran showed up.

“Sorry sir. My legs are acting up.”

This was the very first time that Bob had ever reported late. It made Damien worry about his health. He feared that Sergeant Han might grab the chance to hand out a punishment to Bob. Much to Damien’s surprise, Han only fixed Bob with a stare.

Without further ado, Han commanded the team to depart, informing them nothing about the mission but a location. The soldiers put on their masks and jumped onto their jeeps, setting out in the dark, rainy morning.

“Where are we going?” inquired another replacement recruit.

“The suburbs beyond Zamaii,” Damien replied in a low voice, making everyone uneasy, for the area lay adjacent to the border.

The newcomer was far from satisfied. His true inquiry was about what the mission entailed, which was a question everybody was keeping to themselves.

“Is this normal?”

Damien was not sure if the novice was complaining about the lack of knowledge about the midnight mission or the team’s hostility towards a newcomer . Either way, it was unusual, but Damien had already lost the sense of normalcy after a short while in the army.

Yet, no one acknowledged the newcomer. His frustrated voice echoed through the intercom.

“Guys, you may see me and my people as no different from the Soil Ghosts, or a bunch of dirty refugees, but I was a high school teacher in my hometown. Can’t we at least be civil with each other?”

Everybody looked more or less the same in their military uniforms. Only his heavy accent distinguished him as a foreigner. But even if he kept his mouth shut, his teammates could tell that he was an outsider. People from another country always felt different.

The land of Agurts was among the few less-polluted lands after “The Gray Summer.” It soon became a paradise for refugees wishing to escape the wars in their own countries. Damien, born and raised in Agurts, knew too well that this serene paradise  only existed in the outsiders’ heads. Pollution was a global disaster, and Agurts had not been spared of its consequences. The singing of birds and bloom of flowers in the clean fresh air was a thing of the distant past—it existed only in old photographs.

Nonetheless, refugees flocked to Agurts like bees to a honeycomb. Agurts was once an agricultural country dependent on human labor, but with the advancement of machines, manpower was better employed in the army. As Omanga expanded their military forces, Agurts needed to maintain a relatively large army as well.

In addition to drafting their nationals, former president Aldaman launched a scheme to encourage the refugees to join the military in exchange for citizenship. The latter were usually assigned the most dangerous and undesirable posts, but the sea of homeless refugees were more than eager to oblige. This foreign replacement recruit in front of Damien was one example.

“Are you kidding me? What did you expect? Can you define ‘normal’ in less than a hundred words, teacher?” Petar could not help but tease. Others sniggered. Starting a dispute about refugees at this time was by no means a wise move. Noticing his clenched fist, Damien suspected the teacher’s face had turned red with fury under his mask.

“Take it easy. No one gives a damn about your stupid accent. All we care about is the enemies coming our way,” another team member commented calmly.

A long silence followed. The foreigner finally gauged the tension.

One life-threatening combat’s all it takes, Damien thought. None of them had much experience in the frontlines, but the ones who had fought in the last battle undoubtedly a step ahead of the replacement recruits .

Bob and Sergeant Han were, however, the exceptions. They always seem so calm in any situation. Damien could not help but speculate the number of missions the old soldier had been on, and the amount stress he had endured. How many missions must one be on, before he could conquer this fear of “never returning ”?

Gazing at the sky, Damien saw it turn from dark to grey—dawn had not broken yet. He opened his palms, and to his surprise, not even a drop of rain fell on his gloves.

“The rain’s stopped,” someone muttered, but there was no response. The rain had persisted for over a month now. People had been yearning day and night for it to stop, but when it finally did, Damien did not feel the excitement he had expected he would. In fact, there was not an ounce of happiness in him. He figured the others must feel the same way.

Their jeeps arrived at the destination—another god-forsaken place, with buildings a little less ruined. They could see structures three to four stories tall. They appeared to be intact, at least from the outside. The place was nonetheless way too close to the border and at way too much distance from the shops and camps in Zamaii. It seemed deserted—there was not a soul around.

The sergeant hastened the soldiers to get off the jeeps and surrender all their ammunition.

“We need to recover a lost item from a livestock truck. It is very expensive, so you’re all gonna have to switch to tranquilizer ammo.”

The ridiculousness of the mission astonished everybody. None of them could believe that they had been rushed to the borders in the middle of the night to catch livestock. But no matter how much they cursed, they were secretly relieved to know that no Soil Ghosts were waiting for them. They were happy to while away their days with insignificant missions like this. No one wanted to be a hero anymore; at least that was exactly what Damien was thinking.

“I didn’t even know we exported livestock,” Petar piped up once he had heaved a sigh of relief. “What is this great escape artist of ours? A pig, an ox, or a goat?”

Sneering, Sergeant Han said, “It’s a pet. A hound of a precious breed. People who have the money are willing to pay a handsome amount for it.”

The sergeant instructed them to hand over all ammunition, including the spare ones. Damien was hesitant.

“This place is very close to the border…” he murmured to himself. Should they come across the Soil Ghosts without any bullets on them, it would cost them their lives.

“Don’t be such a wuss. The Soil Ghosts are still asleep and dreaming in their nests.” Han grabbed Damien’s bullets from his hands. “That dog is precious. The last thing its owner wants is for it to get hurt.”

Without a fuss, or even a single word, the old veteran surrendered all his ammunition. Others followed suit, replacing their bullets with tranquilizers.

The sergeant split them into groups of two to search for the beast. Damien was paired up with the foreign teacher. Old Bob was singled out.

“I’ll go with the old man here. This is a vast area, communications may not function properly. We will regroup back here in three hours,” the sergeant ordered, loading his rifle. “Now, let’s hunt .”

Something’s off. Something’s definitely off, Damien decided, finding the whole affair highly suspicious. The sergeant clearly had a rub with Bob. Why does he want to team up with him?

“Sergeant, what does this dog look like? Do we have a picture?”

“It’s a big dog… with white fur. Something like that. Do you really need me to tell you what a freaking dog looks like, eh? Four legs and a tail?”

Nobody dared raise another question after that. Damien threw the veteran a concerned look, but he could not see his expression under the mask. The veteran patted him lightly on his shoulder and left with the sergeant.

Damien’s team was assigned to the farthest east, while the sergeant headed to the west. Damien and the foreigner trod along a small unmarred path. Within a matter of minutes, all other teams were out of sight.

Though this was by no means a combat mission, treading in a strange dark place armed with only two hand torches was no fun at all. Damien noticed that the sky had turned from charcoal black to a lighter grey, but dawn was still far away. At intervals, the flashlights cast ghostly images on the ruins, startling the two, before they realized it was nothing but wavering shadows and reflections.

“The work in the frontlines is nothing like I had imagined.” The foreigner was murmuring again, lowering his guarded a little now that they were only the two of them.

“It’s the very first time for me too, an order like this.”

“So it’s normal for me to have doubts?”

“Everybody thinks it’s weird. But as long as we don’t have to face the Soil Ghosts, it’s good.”

“Are the freaks really that terrifying?”

“We fought them in the last mission. We lost half the team.”

Damien’s words, though delivered in the calmest tone possible, made the foreigner halt in his tracks. Damien felt like his senior. The fact that he was more knowledgeable in certain aspects than an older person gave him a sense of accomplishment.

“Okay, that’s why everyone acts weird. I understand. When Omanga invaded my hometown, everyone feared that they might be the next victim. My relatives were executed right before my eyes. ” The former teacher let out a sigh.

Damien’s short lived seniority quickly morphed into embarrassment. His past was nothing compared to the person in front of him.

All of a sudden, they heard a rustling nearby. They quickly pointed their weapons at the source. Their flashlights revealed an old tree growing on a brick wall. A large crow took off from its branches. Rainwater accumulated on the surfaces of the leaves dropped onto the ground. All was silent again.

The duo lowered their firearms in relief.

”A pet dog. People are starving here, and yet they feed pets. Funny, this world. They prefer dogs to us refugees,” the teacher ridiculed himself.

“Do we have to check each and every building?” Damien looked around. There were several places for an animal to take shelter from the rain. But since the rain had now stopped, the beast could have escaped anywhere.

“That’s no way to do it.” The teacher tuned in his intercom channels. “Sergeant, could you at least tell me if it is a Greyhound or a Golden Retriever? Sergeant?”

Nothing but white noise came in reply, further heightening Damien’s unease.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Harriet Chung

Session 2.2 Deer Season

Now that the downpour had finally stopped, water on the rain-soaked road began to seep down, turning the ground into mire. Sergeant Han and Bob headed west, churning the mud in silence.

“Go on, let’s see what’s inside.”

Sergeant Han pointed at a doorway, willing Bob to go first. The old soldier shrugged and strode in.

The three-story structure might have been someone’s home at one point, but no rustic wooden table or rocking chair greeted the visitors. Instead, the space was stuffed with beaten-up stretchers and gurneys – witnesses to what had really taken place in the area.

At a certain time in the past, the building had served as a makeshift hospital, a brief shelter for the wounded. In a corner, a pile of broken up furniture, used as firewood when the fuel had run out. On the wall, a line of bullet holes.

Empty bottles lay scattered all over the floor. Over them, rotting bandages spotted with black marks were strewn. Unspeaking traces of the hasty retreat made by the last inhabitants of this room.

The old man bent down to pick up a small bottle, still half filled with some kind of fluid. Tenderly, he wiped away the dust. Saline solution.

Meanwhile, the sergeant was kicking detritus out of his way, raising a cloud of dust.

“What a fucking mess, must have been brutal, right?”

No answer.

“Let’s go upstairs.”

“Have some pity on my knees.” The old man patted his leg.

“We’ve come all the way here, shouldn’t we take a look? I hear the beast is very good at hiding.”

Sergeant Han stood behind Bob, holding his gun. The older man had no choice but to climb the stairs.

On the second floor, gurneys lined one side of the hall, making the narrow space so cramped that progress was near impossible. Three small rooms opened on each side of the passageway, their doors shut or half closed. At the far end, the glass panes in the window were surprisingly intact. The blue curtain Bob remembered had long since been taken down – when they ran out of blankets.

Blue.

He was stunned by the vividness of his memory.

“How’s it going being back here, Bob?”

Han’s voice came through the transceiver as the footsteps behind him retreated.

“Feeling old,” Bob muttered to himself.

He paused halfway down the corridor. He didn’t turn to check where Han had gone. He knew that he was some distance away already.

“What’s it feel like to be a national hero? Must be awesome, eh? Fame and fortune. And then one wrong move. Puff! Everything’s gone. God, I can’t imagine how much that hurts.”

“It was never about the individual. It’s about the country.”

“Yeah right, old man. Don’t give me the grand spiel. At your age, you should be content with your lot. Why mess with people you know you shouldn’t mess with?”

Bob made no reply. He took off the gas mask to get a better view of his surroundings, and so that he could hear them better too. The air seemed to have stopped, leaving only a last vestige of cool dampness.

The silence was intense, as if the world had fallen away. Broken only by sniggering from the transceiver.

“But I guess you already knew – the deer season has begun.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us? It’s the chance of a lifetime,” the old soldier replied without a hint of tension.

“Nah, I’m alright. I’m a realist. I’m happy taking the money without getting into danger. Hunting isn’t for me. I’ll leave this sort of aristocratic game to the rich.”

“You’re missing the best part.”

At that moment, Bob leaped up and hurled himself towards a nearby stretcher.

Time appeared to slow.

Bullets were sailing through the door on the left, coming straight for where Bob had been standing only milliseconds before. The door on the right tore, as if made of paper. Through it, a squat shadow followed and scuttled, crouching along the hallway. A glint of something sharp caught in the beam of his flashlight.

A pincer assault.

Bob landed on his back. The impact pushed the bed down the corridor, away from the shots aimed at his head.

The bullets smashed into the wall, spraying concrete. The shadow lunged for Bob’s legs, but hit air.

The shadow stretched to its full height – a tall, skinny man in a battlesuit, wielding a combat knife. A door opposite crashed wide by a violent kick. A similarly dressed man with a large gun stormed in, protected by a cloud of dust.

Suddenly, the two men collapsed. Both met by a single bullet each. Or at least they should have, but not tonight.

Bob had been given a momentary advantage to take the first shots, but he didn’t have any bullets to use. The anesthetic cartridges Han had given him were probably doctored. All he could do was throw the flashlight in his hand.

The beam spun as it flew through the air, illuminating its trajectory in stutters, turning the people and the clutter in the cramped passageway into frames of a stop motion film.

The first image: Bob, hands on the end of the stretcher, flips into a handstand. The flashlight flicks: the gunman’s finger pushes the trigger.

Next: Bob flips in a back somersault. The bed frame follows, with a loud clanking.

Half a second later: The man wearing the protective mask swings his straight-backed blade. As long as his forearm, the tip of the hefty weapon dips and curves in a clip point, its spine rugged with sawtooth serrations. The shape is unmistakable. A Bowie. Its sharp edge meeting the flashlight.

Then the final image, just before the light was extinguished. The bed is upright, in the middle of the room. A shield for Bob.  

Black out. The Bowie cut the airborne flashlight in two.

Bullets rang out. There was no need to aim in this narrow corridor. The shots passed through the thin mattress with ease. It was no shield for Bob after all.

It had all happened so fast, but the passageway was once again cloaked in that eerie quiet. In the dark, the two men could hear the drip, drip, drip of blood hitting the floor.

Target eliminated?

The assassins exchanged a glance. The tall man approached cautiously, blade brandished in defense. He shoved the gurney aside.

Glistening liquid pearls were dripping drop by drop, forming a small puddle on the floor.

But it was transparent, not red. Saline solution.

Not blood.

On the windowsill sat a small, cracked flask.

Where’s the body?

Where’s the target? Where could he have gone?

But they were professionals. They would not succumb to panic. And yet, they couldn’t stop the chill spreading in their bones. They knew the tables had turned – they were no longer the hunters, but the prey.

The gunman sensed something and swerved with such quick reflexes that even his attacker admired them. Yet, he was still a fraction-of-a-second too slow. A dark shape fell from the ceiling and landed behind him. Now his gun hand – his right – and his neck were yanked back in a chokehold.

He struggled with all his might, twisting and kicking. But Bob’s arms locked onto him, firm and tight like pliers, cutting off his airway and blood flow. Behind the protective mask, color was squeezed out of his face. An ordinary person would be too weak by now to maintain his grasp, but this man still managed to grip his gun tightly. Bob couldn’t wrestle free the weapon.

As the two men grappled, the other assassin came to his partner’s aid and—

A thrust of a knife!

Bob let go and hopped back. If he hadn’t already come across men like these several times before, he wouldn’t have moved in time.

It never occurred to the second assassin to help his companion. All he saw was a chance to eliminate his target – at the cost of his teammate’s life. Blood sprayed from the gunman’s abdomen, and he collapsed in a wail.

Bob snorted in anger. I’d never stoop so low. Never!

As his target retreated, the assassin pushed forward, skipped over his fallen brother-in-arms and thrust the blade again. This weapon was designed to slash open torsos and cut through bones.

But for Bob, these few backward steps were a trap designed to bring his attacker closer. He pushed away the knife, slammed his full weight into the assassin’s chest, and delivered a punch to his lower jaw.

The move was guaranteed to concuss.

The assassin dimly registered his arm being twisted, then hoisted up and hurled.

As his face smashed into the floor, he felt a groan escape his mouth. Then he sensed the old soldier stamping on his left wrist. He had to let go of the Bowie, but he could still use his right hand. Grunting, he pulled out a smaller blade and swung it at the old man’s leg.  

Bob spun and rolled away. When he was on his feet again, he was holding a gun.

Crack!

The assassin threw the dagger as the gun fired. The blade and the bullet brushed past each other.

The blade buried deep into the wooden door behind Bob.

The bullet burrowed into the assassin’s forehead.

“This is retribution. For what you did to the owner of this gun,” Bob declared.

The thud of the assassin hitting the floor almost masked a weaker but more deadly tap. An object the size of a fist bounced once before settling on the floor with a strange-sounding clonk. A sound familiar to anyone who had spent time in the special forces.

Bob swore under his breath, spun and sprinted to the end of the passageway. Glass shattered into the night air. The old soldier hurled himself through the window.

A deafening boom rushed after him. A ball of flame exploded from the building and lit up the surroundings.

Bob touched down in a roll to soften the force of his fall. He was quickly back on his feet and in a frown.

Half of his body was numb from the pain in his knee.

Time is unforgiving . . .

He prayed the commotion wouldn’t draw the young rookies over. This was a private soirée organized just for him. Any gatecrashers would have to pay with their lives.

Now the welcome party lurking outside rushed forward and closed around him like a net, making sure the old man wouldn’t be allowed a breather. Rifles, light machine guns, semi-automatic handguns and other firearms sent forth a curtain of bullets of every caliber and from every direction. Spent shells clattered like rain around him.

Yet something incredible was happening.

There should not have been any blind spot in this chorus of gunshots, but the gray-haired old man managed to evade each and every lethal projectile with precision. The target, clearly past his prime, slipped between the torrent of bullets like an insect darting through the rain that somehow managed to stay dry.

Not only that, each time the old soldier pulled his trigger, the choir lost a member. They slumped to the ground, all because of one small, bleeding wound.

Each of these gunmen were assassins who had survived all kinds of adverse situations in their hunt for famous people, politicians, warlords, and, sometimes, even their own kind. Yet none of them had ever met a prey like this, who could fight back with such finesse. It was as if, as if . . .

We’re the prey.

As the thought flashed across the mind of one of the light machine gunners, he caught Bob’s eye. Just then, he realized his neighbor had long fallen, and a warm liquid was oozing from his own skull.

My brain’s still conscious, even after being hit?

And then, this man, this killer, who had taken more lives than he could count, fell dead. Gone forever from this world.

Bob at last was given a time out. He was panting. No more bullets. No enemies still standing.

No. One more.

He turned and fired.

Ka!

His gun had run out of bullets. He tossed the weapon away.

His opponent carried no firearm either. He strolled straight at Bob without a care, until he filled the old man’s sight.

“You’ve just taken out our whole team of elite assassins, single-handedly. Not rusty yet, it seems.”

This man was wearing an unusual skin-tight tactical suit. His respirator only covered his mouth and nose, revealing a head of closely-cropped black hair and a pair of cruel eyes.

“Truly an honor, Commander ‘Bob’. I’ve long admired the Bucks Team.”

In the twilight before the sun rose, the man’s sculpted body stood erect among the ruins of the abandoned street like a work of art. His toned muscles collectively formed the ideal body of a supreme warrior.  

“I don’t usually introduce myself to my target, but I’d make an exception for you. Call me Sandbur.”

He threw his arms wide to the sound of swords unsheathing. Countless small blades protruded from the metal armor on his arms and legs. Each as long and wide as a finger. The edges serrated like inverted hooks.

Armor or cybernetic prosthesis? Bob squinted as he appraised his new opponent. Clearly seasoned in close quarters combat. He cleared his throat and wiped away the sweat on his brow.

“I’ll cut the buck’s head off and hang it on my wall.” Sandbur pointed into Bob’s face. “That’s a prize worth showing off.”

“What’s there to brag about in killing an old soldier? Haven’t you got anything better to do, hedgehog?”

Sandbur cackled, “If you are just a simple old man, then I’m a hermit!” He planted one foot forward and sank slightly, one arm extended and the other pulled back.

“Cut the crap! Show me what Bob is made of!”

Sandbur did not pull out any weapon. He simply curled his fingers in a provocative beckon.

So I was right, a CQC expert. Bob lowered his stance and shifted his weight to ready himself. I’m warmed up now, at least.

*

“Fucking morons! Didn’t I say no explosives?”

Han looked grudgingly back at the building he had just left, the boom still ringing in his ears.

Setting off a grenade? What if my rookies come looking? What if it attracts the other squads? That’ll land me in a fine mess!

Han always knew that this was a troublesome business. But since he had taken the money, he’d better deliver. At least deliver enough so he wouldn’t have to pay the price personally. Or else, it would be a very bad deal.

“Bastards! Call yourself pros?” he grumbled through gritted teeth. “Can’t you just do your job quietly? Dragging me into this shit! Fuck!” He turned reluctantly back to face the site of explosion.

*

The punch hurtled precisely into a gap in Bob’s defense. The older man dodged, turned and grappled with the assassin’s shoulder, weakening the strike in one nimble, fluid movement.

Beautiful! He’s not like all the other imposters I’ve fought. Such a shame –

Sandbur let his weight fall back and the blades on his arm slid through the flesh of Bob’s hand.

Blood drew lines across the air, tracing Bob’s hasty withdrawal. Sandbur’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction. If the old soldier had reacted a fraction slower, the hooked edge of the blade would not only have cut his skin open but torn out chunks of flesh.

The assassin rolled on his back and bounced up, his body supple as a cat’s. Bob had never seen prosthetics like that before.

It must be armor . . . unless it’s a prototype so new that even I don’t know about it. If it’s pure flesh and blood under that metal shell, then his explosive strength is among the strongest I’ve ever known.

With that conclusion, Bob tore off the strips of tattered fabric twined around his arm.

Only a handful of moves were exchanged, but the old man was already pricked and scored all over by the bladed armor. His aging body was weeping red.

When the midnight summon had come, Bob had known he would end up in a situation like this. That was why he ran off to hide that thing. Even though he was wearing the standard issue uniform of a common soldier on the outside, underneath he was clad in the tactical base layer the Bucks Team had created for their special forces. The ultra-strengthened fiber offered much more protection than the fabric of standard uniforms, yet his skin had still been cut and sliced open.

Those blades must be made of high quality carbon steel.

Over the years, technology had developed at a breakneck speed due to the ongoing arms race. As killing machines became increasingly precise and effective, protective gear also improved accordingly.

As a senator, Bob had always advocated for the advancement of standard army-issued equipment.

The army is like the country. It isn’t made up of just a small handful of people in power. Its smooth running relies on the support of the common people – the people without power. If we forget this fact, then we will never be able to lead the country to a prosperous future . . .

A discarded old soldier. That was who he was now. There was no point in thinking these thoughts. It was hot air nobody wanted to hear. No wonder even Dr. William used to tease him back then for being too into playing the senator.

Bob collected himself, and stepped back to maintain distance. He seemed to be flagging. His strides growing heavy.

“Too late to run now, old man!”

Sandbur stepped up with a sneer and lunged. In a blink, he was right in Bob’s face.  

The old soldier could only defend himself passively. All the CQC techniques he knew were rendered useless by the blades on his opponent’s limbs. He even had to give up the few chances to strike back, since any countermove would require getting tangled up with the assassin. And the attacker knew very well how to cause maximum damage with his armor.

However, evading such an aggressor was no less tiring. Bob was now increasingly bloodied. The gashes crisscrossing his body drained him of both blood and energy. His motion and response were slowing. His limbs could not answer as fast as required to his will’s command. An old machine with rusty bearing.

He was old. He had to admit it.

Sandbur at last found the opening he was waiting for as Bob twisted awkwardly to avoid being cut in the throat. The assassin hooked his foot around Bob’s calf, tipping the old soldier’s balance. At the same time, he thrust his elbow into the old man’s chest.

Gravity pulled Bob’s leg across Sandbur’s blades. Jets of blood shot from his flesh.

Bob crashed into the ground, letting out a dull grunt. He could hear the screams of his worn-out spine. His bones hurt more than the gushing red gulf on his leg.

Sandbur leaped onto Bob and sat astride his chest, his hands wrapped around the old soldier’s neck.

“I’m going to squeeze until your eyes and tongue pop out. That’ll make your head look even better on my wall!”

The assassin tightened his grip. His eyes glinted with the smirk of a victor. He took great pleasure in using suffocation against his targets.

It’s so much more textured and hands-on than using a knife or firing a gun. I get to look into their eyes. Watch them descend from fear to despair, then tip over the edge and into death.

Oh, the ecstasy!

Bob could sense the assassin’s sick thoughts and see the twisted smile beneath the mask. How he longed to wipe it off with a punch. But, just then, Sandbur yanked his head up and smashed it on the ground. The old man could hear the disturbing crunch of his skull.

“Come on! Is this it? Is that all you’ve got, Bob?”

Thump!

“Is this the Great Commander of the Bucks Team?”

Thump!

“The Hero of Zamaii? The Guardian of Agurts? Huh?”

Thump!

“You’re just an ordinary man. You’ve grown old. Feeble. Nothing you’ve done matters. You can’t change this world!”

He smacked the head onto the ground once more. Bob could feel his mind turning fuzzy and his vision disintegrating into a blur.

“You and I are the same. Soldier. And killer. A hero? Ha!”

Sandbur throttled Bob so hard that he could almost snap the old man’s neck with his bare hands.

No matter how hard he tried, Bob couldn’t wrench Sandbur’s hands away. Not when the forearms holding him down were covered with blades. He clawed higher up, but it was impossible to get a good grip.

Pop!

Sandbur screamed.

The old man had pulled the assassin’s fourth finger into a most unnatural angle.

The moment Sandbur let go, Bob thrust his knee into the assassin’s gut, using every drop of energy left in his body to kick him away.

Sandbur hadn’t been expecting such strength and took the brunt of the attack in his midriff. Flipping into a roll, he backed off.

Bob clambered onto his feet and lowered into a defensive stance once more. His mouth gulping the stinking, suffocating air. His lungs hungry for oxygen.

“Impressive! But you’ve lost already, why won’t you let me have some fun?”

Sandbur kept his eyes locked on Bob as he bent his finger back into joint without even a wince.

This white-haired old man can’t even stand firm on his feet, he noted with delight.

“You’re wrong,” Bob coughed then inhaled deeply. His voice gained a sense of certainty. “Everything we have done in the past is shaping this world.”

“Only evil shapes this world. War. And nukes.” Sandbur’s eyes glazed over as he grunted his conclusion.

So, he too is shaped by evil, Bob sighed inside. “You can’t kill me.”

“You sure? Let’s find out.”

Sniggering, Sandbur swung his fist at his dying prey.

However strong Bob might have been, the man had already spent more than half a century in this world. If he had been the same age as Sandbur, perhaps the assassin would not be so confident about coming out on top.

But right now, the old man’s death could not be more certain. He barely had any strength left and he had lost a lot of blood.

This would be the final blow.

Bob tightened his jaw and faced the onslaught head on. He adopted the most basic blocking stance against Sandbur’s attack.

He is going to throw himself onto my blades! Even the seasoned assassin was taken aback.

Bob’s arm sank deep into the spikes. But that did not stop him. He grabbed at Sandbur’s wrist and shoulder as if he could not feel a thing. He let the blades gorge out large patches of skin.

Sandbur was certain that even tendons would have been severed by now.

Does he want to die?

Just as the thought flashed through his mind, Sandbur realized he could no longer pull back his right arm – the serrated edges of his armored blades had lodged so deeply into Bob.

It was only then that he understood his target’s intention, but it was too late.

Bob twisted round to Sandbur’s side. His mutilated arm dragged the armored arm over its shoulder.

Sandbur watched the blades of his own armor slice across his neck.

“You might have surrendered yourself to this world . . . but I haven’t given up the fight!”

The gurgle of blood answered for Sandbur, gushing and bubbling from the gap in his throat. It was a curious sound.

The two men crumpled together.

Several minutes later, Bob climbed slowly onto his feet. He was wounded from head to toe, his right arm so mangled that he could barely will it to move. But other than losing blood, Sandbur hadn’t managed to maim him.

I’ve suffered worse. Bob let out a wry smile. But this is bad enough. If I were ten years younger, I’d have dispatched him in three minutes.

Bob knew he could no longer deny that his strength or stamina could not compete with the younger man. Accepting the fact, the old soldier let his enemy see his tiredness, his weakness, thus luring him into his trap. If Sandbur had been able to control his pride in combat and his eagerness to win, he could have worn Bob down and lived to see another day.

The old body is still hanging on.

Bob pulled out the individual first aid kit fielded to every soldier. The rudimentary blood-clotting device supplied made him shake his head with a grimace. Fortunately, despite the rush earlier that night, he had managed to bring the hemostatic gel developed by the Bucks Team.

Our soldiers give their lives to protect the precious fields and crops of our country, the old soldier thought as he dressed his wounds. Our state should treat these young men better and equip them properly!

He managed to stop most of the bleeding with the gel and quickly bandaged himself. Then he began to hobble back to the meeting point, knowing that it wasn’t over yet.

What should I do with Sergeant Han? Bob asked himself. Of course he won’t take me back to camp safely for treatment. But there’s no point capturing him and trying to make him speak. He’s just an ignorant pawn in the whole conspiracy . . .

An almost inaudible whimper interrupted him. It came from beyond the stump of a wall by the road.

Was that a cry for help?

Bob stopped to listen. It was very quiet, but what he heard was unmistakable.

His limbs felt cold and numb from the loss of blood. He needed urgent medical attention. But however suspicious he might have been, he couldn’t ignore such a cry.

Bob turned and headed to the source of the noise.

Under a window half blown-off by mortar fire was a woman. Her arms were tied to the rusty window frame. Her body sagged weakly on the ground. The clothes on her body were torn and slashed into tatters. Her body was marked by dozens of gashes, still oozing blood.

Even though the outskirts of Zamaii were abandoned long ago, the unbearable sight in front of him was still known to occur from time to time. Or maybe Bob had just seen too much in his life.

Outside the Capital and the big cities, women lived under constant and very real threats. Agurts was already one of the safer countries, but when daughters disappeared, everyone knew what had probably happened.

Yes, even here. Zamaii. A restricted area by the border.

Women still vanished.

Did the assassins use her for their amusement just now? That would explain the cuts. Maybe they left her here as a “prize” for when they had completed the mission?

Bob hesitated for a moment, then limped over.

The woman wore no gas mask. Her mess of blond hair shielded her features, but he could tell that she was a beautiful young woman in her twenties.

Her body shivered like that of a frightened animal. Her eyes implored the old soldier. Blue they were, swollen and stained with tears. One look into them would break any heart.

“Please . . . don’t . . .” Her voice was hoarse and weak, as if she didn’t even have the strength to cry.

“Don’t worry, I’ll help you.”

Bob moved closer and cut the ropes that bound her with a blade taken from the assassin’s armor. He had pulled it out from his mutilated arm and kept it just in case. He never expected it to come in useful so quickly.

The woman flopped into Bob’s arms.

“C’mon, let’s get out of— ”

Bob felt the muscles in his chest tighten and he immediately shoved the woman away from him. She backed off slowly, pulling out the switchblade she kept hidden in her hand. Blood sprayed over her face and her tattered clothes, dyeing her blonde hair red. With her alluring smile, she was monstrously beautiful.

“You know, I asked myself just now . . . If you free me, should I let you live?”

Her voice wasn’t hoarse or weak anymore. She closed the flick knife as she straightened herself gracefully. The gashes on her body did not seem to bother her at all.

“But you’re all the same. You’re a soldier. You’re one of them.”

Bob pressed the gushing wound in his chest. His body slumped heavily onto the ground. The woman looked down, pulled back her hair and appraised the old soldier, her head tilted.

“However, I do respect you. You’re an opponent that can only be subdued with the most unscrupulous means. I haven’t done this for many years, letting my prey see my face.”

She touched her bleeding wounds tenderly.

“You think I faked this? No. They’re real. My injuries, my tears, my despair. All of them are real. Some time ago. Someplace else. They did exist. So, you should be pleased. Because, in a certain way, you haven’t been tricked at all.”

Bob’s chest grew fiery hot as if it was about to explode, but the rest of him remained icy cold. His heart had already stopped two or three times over the course of his life. But each time, he had been pulled back from the brink by his comrades. But he knew, this time, the reliable old fellow in his chest wouldn’t answer the call of his will and start itself again.

The excruciating pain was easing, but Bob had yet to complete his mission.

“Why? Why wasn’t there anyone like you back then . . . then, maybe, everything would be different,” the woman muttered then laughed.

Bob could no longer command his body. Her beautiful but forlorn face was mirrored in his glassy eyes. What a joke! He, of all people, fell for such a shallow trap.

And yet, he had no regrets. Her words only reinforced his certainty. He would have done the same if he were given another chance.

Because, it is right thing to do.

Only, he was too late. He couldn’t stop this world from turning this woman into a monster.

“Sir, listen to the cheers of the Zamaii people. Don’t beat yourself up.”

“Sir, let us handle what comes next.”

“We’re the Bucks, we’re your team.”

“Sir, wait for our good news!”

His senses were now faltering. Yet, curiously, he could also hear the voices of his old comrades, he could see their faces.

Perhaps this is it. Death.

“What are you fighting for?”

“. . . a cup of coffee brewed from beans that I grow myself.”

Bob recalled the question that the young conscript had asked him in the bar the other day. Somehow it brought about that bitter taste to his mouth, with just a hint of sweetness. It felt so real. He was almost certain that he had had a mug of coffee in his hand, gazing over a large, lush field. Clusters of coffee beans hung from the trees, painted gold by the sunset. Aldaman was next to him. They were drinking freshly-brewed coffee and talking about the future that would befall Agurts.

The future . . .

The woman watched the old man’s quivering lips. She thought she saw him slowly mouth the words “is yours”.

And so the old soldier finally retired from battle.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood

Session 2.3 Passing It On

A loud blast cracked in the distance. Damien and his companion stopped and turned to look.

“What was that?”

“It sounded like. . . a bomb?” Damien recalled the sound the coffee truck made when it exploded last time they were out on patrol.

“Surely not? I’ve seen action in Omanga. Their bombs don’t sound like that.” The former teacher didn’t quite believe him. “Maybe a building collapsed?”

Also a possibility. Damien wasn’t sure, but it would be a more reassuring answer. After all, bombs don’t grow out of the ground. A man-made explosive raised the question of which man put it there. And no one wanted to think about that, whoever it was.

“It sounded like a bomb to me.” Except that Damien wasn’t actually convinced. Once again, he turned on the team radio and tried to contact their sergeant, or indeed anyone. But the only reply he got was static. Could it really be a matter of bad reception?

The two of them looked at each other and waited for nearly half a minute, but everything was quiet; no unusual sounds. Maybe they were too far away? It must have been a huge blast for them to be able to hear it all the way over here.

“You think too much. It was probably just some rubble collapsing.”

“I think maybe we should check it out.” Damien was feeling more and more uneasy.

“But . . . our mission is to find the dog. We’re supposed to stick to our orders, right?”

Clearly, he was just trying to get out of going. In case they got into trouble.

This was probably a normal reaction. Part of Damien wanted to agree. Nod and say, sure, forget about it. But then it struck him: Bob and Sergeant Han had headed in precisely that direction. The feeling that something wasn’t right started ringing in his head like an alarm.

“We’re border patrol. We’ll be held accountable if something happened nearby and did nothing.”

A tentative argument perhaps, but also true. If the explosion was the result of an invasion by the Soil Ghosts and they didn’t investigate, they could be held responsible and punished by their superiors.

The other soldier sighed and mumbled something in an accent that Damien didn’t understand before turning and following.

The night began to retreat and they switched off their flashlights. The mist had dissipated as soon as the rain stopped in the middle of the night, and now the air was a pale milky white, covering everything with a clean, quiet dreaminess. Together, the two men walked through it, as if lost in the emptiness. Damien had to remind himself, it was nothing more than the mist before dawn.

It was the morning after a long month of torrential rain and the world was as bright as spring. He had to hold back the urge to take off his gas mask and breathe it in.

And yet, this was why Damien the vague sense of unease that was gnawing at his insides felt so jarring. Could it just be paranoia, after being ambushed by the Soil Ghosts last time?

They continued to try the radio as they walked. Still no response.

“Are we going too far? Isn’t it time we start heading back for rendezvous?” The former teacher stopped again and was now refusing to go any further. He took out the electronic map and tried to persuade Damien that they should return to the assembly point.

At that moment, they heard a brief chorus of barking. Not one dog, a pack.

“Our mission is—” But before Damien could finish, his companion sighed. And so the two men turned in the direction of the dogs.

“It sounds like there are at least four or five. How do we know which one the sergeant wants? Shout, heel boy?”

The teacher kept jabbering and began to speculate on the various causes of the blast. Two dogs were fighting, one kicked a crumbling pillar, and then the entire ceiling fell. . . A similar thing had happened back in his home country, he explained.

In short, it wasn’t a bomb. This was his main and only point, Damien concluded.

Ignoring him, Damien walked out in front. Then, suddenly, he stopped.

There, on the road in front of them, was a long, thick trail of blood. From the color he could tell it was still fresh, there was no way it could be mistaken for gasoline. The two men stood staring at it, speechless.

Someone, or something, had been dragged through the mud.

“Either our doggy got hungry, or he’s been turned into breakfast.” The teacher smiled nervously, but Damien didn’t answer. Because whatever it was, it was much bigger than a dog. They both knew that, and gripped their guns a little tighter.

“If it’s just dogs, then it’s no big deal,” Damien said and started to follow the trail. His companion followed, reluctantly.

The barking was getting louder, but was also accompanied by a low, steady rumble. Damien spotted them, five or six balls of mud scrabbling at a pile of gravel. Two were fighting and the rest licking blood from the dirt. They looked like creatures that had just crawled out of the pits of hell. There was nothing noble about any of them, certainly not the pedigree hound they were told to find.

The closer they got to the pile of rubble, the louder the rumbling. Damien approached first. It was coming from a hole inside. It was deep, bottomless, and sounded like a large, angry monster, growling from below.

The city’s sewers. The rain had stopped, but there would be a large volume of water flowing urgently down there. If anyone were to fall down inside, who knows where they would be taken.

What happened here exactly?

The two largest dogs were still barking and fighting, and ignored the human beings approaching. They were locked in a battle over a piece of meat and neither was letting go. Saliva splashed from their sharp teeth, their robust paws clawed. They were covered in blood, and ragged. Finally, one of them could no longer stand the pain and released the lump of flesh. The winner grabbed it with its maw and retreated, panting happily.

The scene was chilling and two men couldn’t move.

“Did you see that?”

“It wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“No, it fucking wasn’t! It was not…” But the teacher couldn’t continue. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. They had both seen it clearly: attached to the lump of flesh was a human ear.

The dog had already swallowed it. Damien took a step forward, but the dog grabbed what remained of the meat and ran away. Probably to find a safe place to finish it in peace.

Damien jumped up onto the pile of gravel, without getting too close to the open sewer. Falling down there would be no joke. He turned on his flashlight and shone it inside, but still, he couldn’t get a good view of what was down there, only the vague notion of the reflective surface of the flowing water.

“I can do a scout out myself if you go back to rendezvous and notify the others.” Damien could see the fear on his new teammate’s face. The other man said nothing for a few seconds.

“You probably think I’m a coward. You’re right. I am. A coward. I escaped the war, fled my homeland with my tail between my legs.”

“No, I don’t. And you enlisted in the Agurts army.”

The teacher laughed self-deprecatingly, then sighed and shook his head.

“That’s right. If I couldn’t escape the war, at least this way I would have better weapons.” He took a deep breath and raised his rifle. “I’m coming with you.”

In actual fact, Damien was grateful not to be left alone.

“Sorry, I don’t remember your name... Scherman, was it?”

“Schertling. Were you one of the kids that slept through class?”

“Sorry, Mr. Schertling.”

The two men consciously tried to relax. They were both on edge. There had been no sighting of the enemy, nor had they spotted any bodies – only a piece of one that was now churning in the belly of a wild dog. That, and the ominous trail of blood.

The dangers the eyes cannot see are often more horrifying, however, because there’s no telling where they will come from.

Damn. Damien wanted nothing more than to turn around and run, but he gritted his teeth and made a circle around the pile of rubble. He was almost certain that the bearer of the blood has disappeared down this black hole, the only real question was whether it had been alive – or whole – as it did so.

The two men were silent as they proceeded with alert and measured steps, as their training had taught them, following the trail of blood to where it started.

Before long, they came to the ruins of a house.

This must have been where the blast came from, Damien realized.

What was it that made it look different from all the other ruins? . . . Yes, that was it. The pieces of rugged concrete still standing and strewn all around were too “fresh”. They had yet to be polished smooth by the repeated downpours of acid rain.

By the remains of this house was a clearing the size of a crossroad. The ground was covered with large areas of fresh blood. The scene of a battle, but with no bodies to be found.

A glint of something gold caught Damien’s eye. He kicked at the gravel and uncovered two spent shells. He glanced around and saw that there were lots of them strewn by the roadside.

“What the hell. . . ” Schertling muttered to himself.

We didn’t miss anything, Damien thought to himself. Someone didn’t want whatever happened here to be known. Someone tried to clean up, but they ran out of time.

There were still traces of blood, and the empty casings had been kicked out of the way.

“Check this out. . . God, they must have slaughtered something here.”

Schertling pointed his rifle at a clump of blood-soaked mud.

Damien started to hesitate. Maybe they should go back and report this to their superiors first. They shouldn’t have come, Damien was more sure of this with every second that they stayed.

Now, Schertling was taking the lead. He had found more suspicious blood: someone had been hurt, before moving northeast.

The two men started on. Maybe they would find some Soil Ghosts waiting to ambush them? Or Omanga scouts? Or refugees fleeing to the border. Or their own secret forces sent for special training. Or some never-before-seen man-eating monster. . . Damien raced through the possibilities in his head. But he could never have imagined what was really waiting for them.

They followed the trail of blood until they saw him. A soldier, wearing the same uniform as them. Lying on the blood-soaked ground.

Bob.

Damien thought he was shouting, but in fact, he made no sound. His mouth gaped, but nothing came out. He rushed to the old man’s side, crouched, and ignoring all his training, put down his rifle in order to take Bob into his arms. As soon as his fingers touched the old soldier, he realized that he was holding a body.

Bob was dead.

The front of his uniform was completely red and his body was covered in wounds. Shocking wounds. In places, he could see bone.

Damien was trembling all over, but he couldn’t tell if it was from fear or fury. How could someone do this to an old man? Why? One bullet would have been enough, surely, even for their enemy?

Schertling stood beside him but said nothing, his eyes wide and fixed. What was he feeling? Or was he just too scared to react?

One thing they both noticed at the same time: Bob had both ears intact. This meant that the dogs had not found Bob, but someone else.

Who did this? Damien clenched his fist. But at that moment, someone was approaching.

“Hey! What are you doing here?!”

Sergeant Han. He glanced at the corpse and swore under his breath.

“Damn! Who did this?” Han pushed his rifle onto his back and crouched down to check the body.

“Sergeant, weren’t you with him?” Damien said suddenly.

“He told me he was in too much pain to keep going and he was going to rest. I did a round nearby and by the time I came back, he was gone. The radios were down, so I’ve been looking for him ever since.”

It can’t be. Bob would never give up on a mission, no matter how much pain he was in.

Damien stared at Han, trying to glimpse the face beneath his mask. But it was impossible.

“Poor Bob. I should have reminded him this place is full of wild dogs. They’re like coyotes.”

Bullshit.

Damien felt anger ignite inside him. The injuries had clearly been caused by weapons, at least most of them. Damien had seen more livestock attacked by wild animals than he cared to remember, but even a blind person would be able to see that was not what happened here.

He was about to open his mouth when he felt a kick. Schertling.

“You’re right, Sergeant. We saw a pack of wild dogs on the road back there, maybe it was them,” Schertling offered.

“A tragic accident,” Han sighed, shaking his head.

“Let’s go back. Our dog has probably suffered the same fate. A good soldier never leaves a fallen brother. Carry him back.”

Waves of doubt, anger, and fear crashed over Damien. But by now, the sun was up and the first rays of light had broken through the heavy clouds, illuminating Damien and the body lying beside him.

It was a somber morning, and yet the weather was unusually fine for Zamaii.

Fuck you, sunshine! Fuck you, blue sky! Had the world become so sick and crazy that it was celebrating a tragedy?

Damien was so furious he wanted to roar at the heavens.

But as the sun caressed Bob’s face, Damien noticed that his expression was not as pained as he had expected. In fact, he looked quite peaceful, at ease even. His eyes were closed as if he had just fallen asleep.

This quelled Damien’s anger somewhat and instead released some tears.

They hadn’t known each other long, why was Damien so upset? But there was something different about it this time, not like last time their brothers were killed. Totally different.

He didn’t know exactly what had happened to Bob, but he was sure he had gone honorably, the way a good soldier should. That he had fought to the last. Yes, look at the wounds, he died like a warrior. Like a hero from a legend.

With a thought like that, Damien couldn’t begrudge the weather. In fact, Bob deserved to end his life basking in sunlight, with the best weather offered all of Agurts.

Damien was quiet and together with Schertling, they tried to lift the body. But as Damien was straightening Bob’s clothes, he felt something in the pocket of his uniform. The coffee beans Bob had shown him.

Damien could see through Han. If he were to find them, he would merely sell them to pay for liquor, smokes and the touch of a lady. No, these beans must have meant a lot to Bob. There was no way he was going to let Han take them.

As Han stood up and turned, Damien reached into his dead friend’s pocket and grabbed the coffee beans. Then he slid them into his own pocket. He looked up, only to catch Schertling’s eye.

Shit. Did he see? He couldn’t have, could he? Nervously, Damien stood up.

“Should we take his dog tag?” Schertling asked.

Secretly relieved, Damien reached for Bob’s neck.

“Wait . . . what? His tag is gone!”

“One of the dogs must have taken them,” Sergeant Han shrugged. “No matter. We all know it’s Bob.”

Sure, the dogs could have taken lots of things. Like your conscience. But Bob’s warning rang in Damien’s ears, so he kept silent.

Bob’s body felt heavier as exhaustion caught up with them. A strange feeling came over Damien. This wasn’t Bob, it was just some human-shaped object. The real Bob, his only friend in the army, was in his pocket. Inside the bag of coffee beans.

Damien decided there and then: he would send Bob back home. Bob’s keepsake would be returned to the people he loved the most.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood