Chapter 3 NOTHING VENTURED

Session 3.1 Useful or not

Bob said he couldn’t walk anymore.

Bob said he’d rather go alone.

Bob said he didn’t want to waste time looking for a dog.

Lies. All lies.

Every time Sergeant Han explained why Bob was alone, the reason he gave was different. He was making it up on the spot. And yet, apart from Damien, no one seemed to notice or care.

Damien couldn’t understand. Who would attack an old soldier? How come there were such horrific wounds? Wouldn’t Sergeant Han have to give answers to his superiors about Bob’s death? He was the last person to see him alive.

Surely he’d have to write a report? Not that Damien would ever know.

Han was the commanding officer – his superior. All Han had to say was: “Bob got unlucky, he lost his life in the op.” No one in the team would dare to question further.

Or no one was interested in finding out more.

The army was the most efficient place to get rid of a body. Bob’s remains were stuffed into a body bag and swiftly removed. To everyone else, it was as if Bob had vanished.

Damien at first thought the nonchalance of his fellow soldiers was because they hadn’t seen the body, and therefore hadn’t realized the seriousness of the situation. So the moment he got back to the dormitory, he told his teammates everything he had seen.

Still, against his expectations, he could not elicit a response. Those napping were still trying to catch up on their sleep. Those writing home were still scribbling. Those ogling dirty magazines were still leering at lithe bodies. As if he had just told them something commonplace, say, the boiler in the bathhouse had broken down again. No, actually, that news would jolt them into some reaction at least.

Shocked at the silence, Damien couldn’t even find the will to get mad at them. He simply stared at his teammates with incomprehension.

“Haven’t you got anything to say?”

Silence, again.

“Schertling, tell them! You saw it too. The wounds…”

“I’m scared of blood. I didn’t look too closely. Perhaps you were mistaken,” the former teacher mumbled from his corner.

Coward!

Seething, Damien turned to the others, “We’re comrades, we fight side by side. We don’t know how or why he was killed and you don’t seem to care!”

“Shut up.”

Lounging on the bed, one leg draped over the other, Petar threw down the dirty magazine and glared at Damien.

“What do you expect? At his age, he could have dropped dead at any moment and no one would have batted an eyelid.”

“Didn’t you hear a word I just said? It’s clearly a conspir—”

“Clearly, you saw something you weren’t meant to,” Petar hissed, his voice quieter than usual. He leapt from the bed and grabbed Damien by the collar. “Yes, we’re in the same team. So, what happened to him can happen to any of us. Are you so dumb that you don’t even realize that? Look at him, teacher over there is way smarter.”

But Damien had also snatched the front of Petar’s top, his jaw clenched in fury. Tension filled the room. A fight was about to break out.

“Have you forgotten who saved us from the Soil Ghosts? Do you really feel nothing about Bob’s death?”

“There’s no need to drag that up again. We’re scum, but we know what happened!”

Petar shoved Damien, almost slamming him backwards into the metal bunk bed.

“A word of advice, don’t go tramping around where you don’t belong, and don’t drag us along with you. As for the old man…” Petar looked at the empty bed and murmured, “Rest in peace.”

“Rest in peace.”

Solemn whispers echoed around the room. The flippancy had disappeared from their faces. They were showing a respect they had never shown whilst Bob was alive. But wasn’t it all too late?

Damien at last realized what a moron he had been: It’s not because they didn’t understand. They’re playing dumb because they know too well – they’re scared.

But what else could he do other than lose his temper?

Damien knew it wasn’t Sergeant Han who killed Bob. He was certain that Han didn’t have the skill to inflict the wounds he had seen. His commander might be younger and stronger, but it would have been impossible for him to emerge from such a bloody tussle without a scratch. And, Han wasn’t the sort who would challenge Bob to his face.

Having said that, even though Han might not be the killer, he must have had a hand in Bob’s death. Otherwise, why would he need to lie? Whose ear did the stray dog eat? Whatever happened out there, Han was in on it.

The sharp click of military boots approached the dormitory. The dirty magazine disappeared with the speed and agility of a hurtling bullet.

Han. In the doorway.

Everyone, including Damien, jumped onto their feet in attention. However reluctant the young soldier felt about the gesture, he had no choice but perform.

“Let me show you how grown-ups mourn,” Sergeant Han said, solemn and stern. “Thirty laps. Now! Show the old man up there you know how to play the role of good soldiers, you sons of bitches!”

By the time the good soldiers returned, dripping in sweat and drained of all energy, Bob’s bed had been cleared. The old man’s few personal possessions had vanished just like his person.

Damien touched his pocket without thinking. The coffee beans were still there.

*

The sunshine brought a rare sense of ease to the barracks. Some soldiers played ball games, others sought permission to go out. Damien also left the camp, but his destination was not the bar.

Damien couldn’t remember how he had got here and found Bob’s hideout. He had only ever seen it from afar. Now, he entered the space for the first time.

Crumbling walls, a derelict house; it was no different from all the other dilapidated buildings nearby. He opened the door. The wood felt as if it would disintegrate upon touch. Inside… it was just like any deserted house. The furniture was long gone. The empty room was covered with layers of dust and sand. A few hardy plants pushed through the cracks in the wall and floor.

Did I go to the wrong house? Damien started to doubt himself. He remembered Bob used to go there to have some time alone, so he expected to find a stash of food, a blanket or two, things like that. Everyone in the army knew that other than weapons, anything they managed to lay their hands on could be claimed as theirs and it would not be considered theft.

But this place was empty.

Upon closer examination, Damien noticed a corner with less dirt. He walked over and sat down against the wall. It was a surprisingly comfortable spot, with excellent sightline of all the entry points. On the wall opposite was a mirror. It was cracked, but it was still useful for monitoring and preempting intruders. The set up reminded Damien of all the things Bob had taught him.

This is so Bob.

The thought unleashed the torrent of grief Damien had tried so hard to bottle in. He took off the gas mask and pulled out a stainless steel hip flask from his jacket’s inside pocket. He poured the amber liquid onto the ground.

“Sorry, I don’t know how to brew coffee. But the girl at the bar promised me this is the best whiskey in the whole of Zamaii.”

He mumbled to Bob as he emptied the hip flask. Then he took out the pouch of coffee beans.

It felt heavier than it was.

He took it in the heat of the moment, but what should he do with it now? He would love to give it to Bob’s family or friends, but he had no idea who they were. He remembered asking the old man if he had a family when they first met, and he was certain the answer was “Yes”, but Bob never gave him any more details.

The army should have information about Bob’s next of kin, but would there be a way to go around Sergeant Han to obtain it? And yet, whoever the higher powers might be, they were probably no better than his commanding officer. These beans could be sold for a lot of money.

Or perhaps he should bury them here in Zamaii? As a memorial. After all, he didn’t have a single lead in finding the old man’s family…

A stranger’s face appeared across the room. A soldier. Damien reached for his gun by reflex. Then he looked again. It was his own. The setting sun illuminated his face through the mortar holes in the wall and the mirror caught his reflection.

He almost failed to recognize himself. Face tense, brow furled, eyes full of hate and suspicion. Could this really be him? Didn’t he only just celebrate his eighteenth birthday?

Damien saw his face in the mirror every morning when he shaved, but right now, catching his own reflection out of context, he was shocked by his own expression.

Grown-ups used to tell him, the army would make a man out of a boy. Was this what they meant?

As he gazed at his reflected self, full of doubts and questions, he noticed writing on the wall behind him. He spun round. All he saw were random lines and cracks. He turned back to the mirror and gasped in a mouthful of air.

These aren’t just cracks. They’re words! But they can only be read in the mirror, from this very spot.

“Everyone has his own mission.”

Bob had said those words to him too. It was his mantra.

Damien traced the letters he had almost overlooked, then he saw a second line written below, these ones much smaller.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Something seemed to be stuffed in the crack beneath the last word.

Whatever it was, its color was almost the same as its surroundings. Hard to spot, shielded in this shaded corner. Damien dug carefully into the wall.

So Bob had his stash of forbidden stuff too, just like the rest of us! What if it’s smut?

That would be awkward. He recalled the collective cry of sorrow in the dorm after their run, when they discovered their dirty magazines had disappeared along with Bob’s things.

It was a notebook with a tatty leather cover. A little bit bigger than his palm and quite thick. Damien opened it carefully. The paper had yellowed – it must be of some age.

The first page had the following handwritten message:

“Brothers,

By the time you read these words, my personal battle will probably be over, but the war still rages on. War never ceases. If the current situation does not change, it will be impossible to end the war. I’m part of the old history, the future belongs to those still living. You should take my passing as an opportunity to pursue that change. You haven’t lost me, but now you are no longer restrained by me. Do what you think is right. Find your mission.

Holder of the Coffee Beans”

Damien was happy to see that Bob had brothers, or friends he could call brothers. He should pass the coffee beans onto them.

He flipped through the notebook. It was full of hand-drawn diagrams and Bob’s distinctive handwriting. He didn’t expect the old soldier to be so good at drawing. Intrigued, he turned to the last page.

More lines and symbols.

Damien examined the page and soon recognized it as a rudimentary map of Zamaii. What could these crosses and numbers mean? As he pondered this question, he saw the location where they were attacked by the Soil Ghosts marked with an X. The numbers corresponded to the date and time of the attack. And there, beside all that: “8-1”.

Eight. There were about eight Soil Ghosts, from memory. Could the dash one refer to the one he shot?

Could this map be a record of the times and places of all their skirmishes with the Soil Ghosts, as well as the number of Soil Ghosts involved?

Why had Bob done this?

Damien flicked to the previous page. It was filled with symbols and codes that made no sense.

Questions now filled Damien’s head. This notebook would for sure pique anyone’s interest.

It was growing hard to read in the diminishing light. Damien couldn’t believe how long he had stayed. He stood up and slipped the notebook into his pocket. Just then, he felt a piece of paper inside – the coffee bean company sticker he found on the truck. He put it in the notebook without another thought.

On the way back to the barracks, Damien bumped into a group of soldiers and hitched a ride.

The radio was on. It sounded like an interview with someone famous. A man was speaking eloquently.

“If a man reaches forty or fifty and still hasn’t achieved anything, then he is clearly a waste of our society’s resources.”

“May I ask what you mean by hasn’t achieved anything?” The presenter asked. “Do you mean someone who hasn’t made much contribution to our country, or…”

“Think about this: a man completes his military service in his early twenties. He has another decade or two to make his way. If he doesn’t go astray, he should by now be the owner of some land or real estate, right? If at this ripe old age he still relies on government benefits, tell me what he is if not a waste of our society’s resources? The cuts in the healthcare assistance act are a perfectly reasonable way to protect our country’s economy.”

Damien had no idea who this man on the radio was, but his words made him clench his fists.

My parents have slaved on the state farm for decades, and they still can’t afford to buy land or own their own home. But they raised me and my little sister, and made great contributions to the country’s agricultural output.

Bob probably never owned land or house either. Or else he wouldn’t have still been serving in the army at his age. But he risked his life to protect this country.

Are people like them “a waste of our society’s resources”?

“But Senator Broz, many people think the reason why the average person can’t afford real estate is because major agro businesses have bought up large swathes of arable land, so these days it’s impossible for farmers to own the land they work. For example, GDG Coffee recently acquired a farm in the east…”

“Let me remind you, the greatest stakeholder of GDG Coffee is the Agurts government. What is beneficial to the company is beneficial to Agurts. Everything our family have done and are doing is for the country – to provide genuine benefit to the country’s economy.”

Lies. All lies. Even Damien could hear the hollow ring of pretense in the man’s voice. It’s not for the country, it’s just to fatten your pocket!

“Jesus! Cut healthcare? So if we get crippled because of your war, we’ll have to pay the doctor from our own pockets? What the fuck?” A soldier Damien had never met swore and slapped his thigh.

Everyone echoed the sentiment with more angry cursing.

Damien looked at his comrades in the car and thought: Without us rookies, without these young men, without experienced old soldiers like Bob, that man could never talk so easily about his success on the radio! Omanga’s mechanized army would have long since marched on the Capital!

Night had fallen. The headlights shone on the gates to the barracks. Damien was “home”. His home for now.

What exactly is useful for the country?

Damien remembered talking to Bob about this. He felt he could be more useful going back to the farm, but Bob reminded him his work here was equally important.

But one thing he knew for certain. Useful or not, it wasn’t measured the way the politician described on the radio.

He had made up his mind. He would pass Bob’s things on to his brothers. This was what Damien would do – his new mission. And as the word crossed his mind, he thought of Bob’s mantra.

Finally, I have my mission. Not one assigned by Han, but one I discovered. For my friend.

And with that thought, Damien’s heart was lightened somewhat.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood

Session 3.2 Taking out the trash

“Now, onto our final question on today’s hot topic – the Bucks Team scandal. Your motion, supported by other senators, has resulted in the President’s announcement to revoke the Bucks Team seat in the senate and discharge its Commander. It is suggested that a national hero should be spared from such public humiliation. What is your response to that?”

“The man’s special status is precisely why such stern measures are necessary. Or else, how can the government demonstrate its credibility?” the middle-aged politician replied. “Personally, I think the President has shown great magnanimity by only putting him under house arrest.”

“So you believe this is the best solution?”

“Indeed, this affair has been drawn to a close and there is no more to be said. Yes, he has made contributions to our country, but for us to progress, to move forward, it’s important to weed out corruption at the root, especially in the military. Soon, he will be forgotten.”

“We all hope for a better future. That’s all we have time for today. Senator Broz, thank you once again for taking the time to be with us. Before the news, we have a new song from Amifa . . .”

The "on air" light flicked off as the first chords started. The DJ shook hands with his guest.

“Mr Broz, have you considered hosting your own show when you retire? Your voice is perfect for the radio.”

“Well, the Heavens do have to compensate somehow for my lack of good looks.” His hollow laughter was swallowed by the soft, sound-proofed walls. “How did you like the coffee I sent you last time?”

This was the senator’s second invitation.

“It was such a generous gift. I’ve never tasted such high grade coffee – it set my heart racing! Now I know how weak and inferior the stuff I’ve been drinking is. However, since my body can’t cope with the real thing, I donated them to charity. They’re most grateful to you, especially since the exchange rate is so good these days.”

“I seemed to recall when we spoke last time you were raising funds for people in the countryside, was that right? You know, you are a rare breed. Most people only care about making money for themselves the moment they find fame.”

“I’m just an ordinary man, it’s only natural that I care about the needs of the ordinary people.”

The radio presenter walked Broz out. The moment Broz stepped outside the studio building, his secretary – who had been trailing them like a shadow – draped a long black coat around his shoulders. It might be summer, but temperatures in Agurts always plunged after sun down, and the next destination on their agenda was known for its chilly air.  

Broz’s hair had succumbed to a smattering of gray on the temples, a sign of his age. The deep wrinkles between the eyebrows locked his face in a permanent frown. The strides made by his wiry frame were firm and full of energy. The low-key bespoke suit mirrored this wealthy politician’s social standing.

The secretary – in his thirties – was equally well dressed. His dark clothes and black gloves accentuated the pallor of his cheeks. A pair of cold, unfeeling eyes darted behind his spectacles.

“Send my compliments to the station director, and a message,” Broz instructed. “I can’t stand that man. I’ve no respect for someone who doesn't appreciate coffee.”

“Yes, sir.”

The secretary had expected this order the moment the young man mentioned the Bucks Team. Sheer stupidity. His first taste of fame was about to turn bitter indeed.

“And the cargo has arrived as scheduled, sir.”

With a slight nod, Broz disappeared into his luxury sedan.

The secretary took his usual place at the driver’s seat. They made their way through the brightly illuminated streets of Agurts’ capital Sonceto. Sharply dressed men and women wandered in and out of fancy restaurants and coffee shops, all of which stayed open late into the night. These urbanites benefited from the country's bustling agricultural trading industry. As the economy boomed, more and more high-end establishments appeared in the capital to cater for their need to spend and be entertained. In turn, this upturn in commercial activity attracted more multinational corporations to set up base in Agurts.

Of course, the wealthier Agurts got, the easier it would be for GDG Coffee to make money. However, the nation state was not fundamental to the company’s business. After the last world war, the majority of these multinationals existed independently beyond the power of any sovereign state. In fact, many were founded before the current national boundaries were drawn. These enterprises had their own treasuries as well as their own military. They were countries without physical territory, their workers were their citizens.

The Agurts government was indeed a key shareholder of GDG, but that didn’t change the fact that the company was a multinational enterprise. If being friendly with the Agurts government was good for business, then they would stay friends, but the moment the relationship was no longer beneficial, they would ditch this country without another thought.

Whenever someone made a profit, it always came from someone else’s loss. The clever ones were the people who found chances to propel themselves to the forefront – like all the upper class men and women frolicking on the streets of Sonceto.

The car was driving away from the city center. Without the bright lights of the shops, the streets dimmed and the sight of passers-by was rare. The only signs of life were a couple of beggars rummaging through piles of garbage under the feeble glow of the street lamps.

Fools! Broz couldn’t help but look at them with disdain. It angered him how stupid people were for the most part. Their country had such a natural advantage over their neighbors, yet most people did not know how to leverage the fertile land for their gain. They deserved this tragic existence for being so useless.

When they reached the hills just beyond the city center, Broz’s secretary put on his respirator. They weren’t far from the railway station, but the area was completely deserted. The site once hosted a military camp, set up towards the end of the Second World War. It ended up as a mass grave for tens of thousands of nameless soldiers and civilians. Of course, no one dared to build on such cursed land. Now, all that remained was the shell of a church and a wild forest – unusually lush because of the nourishment of the dead. The darkness only added to its spookiness.

A military jeep was parked under the shade of a tree. A man wrapped in a camouflage jacket leant against it, smoking a cigarette. Lurking in the dark, he looked like an evil spirit waiting to prey on unsuspecting trespassers. The moment he noticed the approaching sedan, he tossed the cigarette away and stamped it out, then covered his face with a gas mask.

The secretary got out of the car at Broz’s signal and approached the waiting man with a mobile phone.

“Show us the goods.” Broz gave the instruction through the phone from the comfort of his car.

The soldier shrugged – a silent grumble of Whatever! – and led the secretary to the back of the jeep. He yanked the back flap and unzipped the body bag concealed inside.

White hair. White beard.

Needless to say, the skin had long lost its glow. Only the purple-grey tint of livor mortis remained. The once bloody, gaping wounds had all congealed. Nonetheless, the secretary slipped out a gloved hand to double check. As the confirmation travelled down his fingertips, he turned to the sedan car and nodded.

“His dog tag was already gone when I got him.”

The man in the car said nothing in reply.

“I didn’t keep a single dime,” the soldier stressed as he handed over a duffel bag.

The secretary examined its content. Two uniforms, one gun and two magazines, two military knives, one tactical pen, one scarf, several notes and a handful of loose change.

He turned and shook his head.

“Are you certain you didn’t miss anything?” Broz asked through the phone.

“If your man looks carefully, he will see that I have even packed the hair from his legs,” the military man was growing exasperated but checked his tongue just in time. “Perhaps you can tell me exactly what you are looking for, it may make our transaction more efficient.”

“I told you not to leave a single stone unturned. Even if he just sat on it for a moment.”

“You also told me that this was clandestine and I mustn’t raise any alarm. If he was so easy to tail, then he wouldn’t be you know who.”

“We don’t know who he is,” the voice from the phone emphasized.

“Of course, he was just an old soldier stationed in Zamaii and no one came to claim his body after his death.” The soldier raised his hands to stress the insignificance.

The secretary waited quietly for his boss’s next instruction. The wrinkles over Broz’s forehead deepened as he pondered the situation.

We’ve taken a risk and still we’ve don’t have what we came for. This is not good.

“Did anyone show an interest in him in Zamaii?”

The unassuming question brought a menacing chill that cut through the man’s camouflage jacket. The soldier tried to brush it off with a casual answer.

“We’ve only got rookies out there. A bunch of barefaced boys. Do you think they’d talk to a boring old man?”

He had no desire to protect his minions, but he would only become more vulnerable the longer this business dragged on. His only purpose was to stay alive and enjoy the handsome fee.

“If we can’t find it, then we have to make sure no one else does,” Broz muttered into the phone, then paused. “Was he in contact with anyone outside your team?”

“No.”

The phone had gone silent.

The man started to feel clammy under his camouflage as a cold sweat broke out. He wasn’t sure his answer convinced anyone.

“That reminds me,” the phone came back to life. “There is a special mission perfect for your team. Something experimental.”

Fuck! The man in camouflage cursed silently. To him, I’m as expendable as those rookies. We’re just a negligible cost.

He always thought he was in league with the big shots, now he realized he was simply a small fry. But a part of him understood if this man wasn’t so ruthless, he wouldn’t be at the top.

“We have an agreement.”

Instantly, he regretted his words. It wasn’t smart to show that he was rattled. He crossed his arms, pretending that he hadn’t said anything, and surreptitiously felt the gun under his jacket.

“Don’t worry, I am a man of my word,” Broz said through the phone, no offense taken. “We are simply broadening the scope of our transaction.”

“I don’t want to go to hell for this.”

“Sergeant, I know it isn’t love and charity that has kept you alive this long. You were outstanding in Operation Hiker, but the Agurts army didn’t see your value. You’re young, still in your twenties. Allow me to make a suggestion – change lanes and you will go far.”

The soldier’s face darkened at the mention of his past. It was fortunate that no one could see his expression under the gas mask.

“You mean . . . GDG?

“No, something even better, something more suited to your talents. The only drawback is, it will be some distance from Agurts.”

“How very kind of you.”

The grateful tone masked his inner turmoil. Sergeant Han knew he had no choice whatsoever in the matter. Yet, as long as he had his use, he would live. Well, he was used to taking things one step at a time anyway.

“Cheer up, sergeant. Think of it as getting rid of the clutter before moving house. I wish you a glorious new beginning.”

The line dropped. Han handed the phone back to the secretary.

“You will receive the posting tomorrow.” For the first time, the secretary spoke.

“And that?” Han pointed at the body bag.

“I will take care of it. You may go now.”

Han couldn’t wait to get back to Zamaii, even though he had a long, long night of driving ahead of him. He dragged the cargo from his jeep and hopped in to the driving seat with relief. Only when he was speeding down the motorway, miles from the haunted woods, did he think he may have survived – for now. He always knew this was a fishy business and his greed had pushed him to punch above his weight, but who would have the heart to say no to such a lucrative offer?

Nonetheless, Han knew it’d be far smarter to plan his escape now than place his trust in another’s promise.

When the jeep was gone, the secretary hauled the body bag towards the church and a freshly dug hole in the ground. He pushed the pouch of human remains down before throwing the old soldier’s personal belongings on top. Then he picked up the shovel. Though his figure was slight, manual work did not seem to tire him. His movement was as precise and repetitive as a robot.

Once he filled the grave, he took a new pair of gloves from his pocket and replaced the soiled ones. Then he got into the car and grasped the steering wheel once more.

A three-point turn and they were back on the road from which they came.

“Sir, I have ordered Miss Broz’s birthday cake. The cakemaker said the cost of honey has shot up enormously, so the price has doubled.”

“That child is such a picky eater. Who spoilt her? You know it’s all your fault, Patrick. You must be a spy from Beehive,” Broz smiled kindly.

“Sorry, sir. I know Miss Broz just wants to spend more time with you.”

“I have to work hard to be able to afford her honey cakes. You know I can’t feed her coffee beans.” A happy sigh.

“Are you going to bring Miss Broz to the GDG stakeholder banquet next week?”

“No. And I’m not actually a stakeholder. I don’t want the journalists to make up stories. And I’ve still got to handle matters at the ‘warehouse’.”

“Understood.”

“I want to get to the senate early tomorrow. Can you move my schedule forward by one hour?”

“Yes, sir.”

The car re-entered the streets of the capital and continued on in the direction of the Broz residence.

The secretary had worked for the senator long enough to know how he should handle the soldiers. There was no need to ask. And the senator had long cast the sergeant’s fate from his mind.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood

Session 3.3 Tartarus

The Southern Karpates looked majestic from the air. The crescent-shaped mountain range didn’t reach high enough to be capped with snow, but it soared from the earth in scattered groups of undulating peaks nevertheless, breaking the monotony of the unremarkable plain. The layers of tors and crags were particularly captivating from above.

And yet, every time Slobo Nilos flew over these mountains, he wished they were higher. If only they were more imposing, more treacherous, then perhaps Gafia’s destiny, and his own, would have turned out differently.

The mountains drew a geological border between Omanga and Gafia. A defense line granted by the heavens to the Gafians perhaps, however, reality always disappointed. This part of the Karpates didn’t form an uninterrupted ridge of summits like Agurt’s Adria Alps, there were plenty of routes between the taller peaks.  

In other words, there was nothing to stop their menacing neighbor from inviting himself over the top.

The Southern Karpates had been the site of many battles between Gafia and Omanga over the years. Though these confrontations might seem like child’s play when compared to the Omanga-Estancia War, blood and tears had stained these rocks and countless souls still stalked the hills.

To this day, landmines lay in wait, ready to detonate with one unlucky misstep.

Slobo normally wouldn’t choose to fly, but he didn’t have time to choose another method of transportation. He needed to be back the next morning – early – to host a cabinet meeting.

The landmines couldn’t hurt him up here among the clouds, but still, he was uneasy. There could be missiles.

Who would wish to shoot down the Gafian president’s aircraft? Well, the country’s rebels, for a start.

What about Omanga? Not likely, if the state of their current diplomatic relationship was anything to go by. But who could say for sure? Maybe the invitation from Oleksandr III was a ploy to get him in the air so that the young Emperor could turn him into a firework display . . .

I’m becoming paranoid. Slobo pinched himself between the eyebrows. He could have laughed at himself. But those who called him a coward had no idea the pressures he had to face every day.

He felt like an old clown who had run out of jokes, fretting in the dressing room as he waited backstage.

As soon as the plane crossed into Omanga airspace, it was swallowed by a swathe of dark clouds. And yet, somehow, countless little dots of light glittered like stars from the ground below, piercing through the pouring rain and the shroud of gloom.

Slobo was heading for the most intense cluster of light – Stefan, the capital city. The buildings of this highly mechanized city were clad in layers of metal, glass and pipework, and the lights were on twenty-four hours a day. Refracted and diffused by the rain and mist, each glowing building was a luminous silver orb planted in the tarry ground.   

Dazzling everyone with their infinite energy supply. Dazzling alright. Slobo snorted. Maybe I should come with my sunglasses next time.

The country’s wealth was concentrated on a bright spot known as the Capital Core District. Lifted high on a manmade plateau and embraced by towering city walls, it was all skyscrapers and imposing structures as far as the eye could see.

Of all the grandeur, the jewel in their crown, without a doubt, was the Olympus Tower. The rectangular monolith jabbed the clouds above. The tallest structure in Stefan, it was the scepter of the Oleksandr dynasty.

The plane began to descend and Stefan Palace, which sat at the foot of Olympus Tower, came into sight. Extending horizontally northwest, it completed the royal complex in the shape of an enormous metal boot.  

Slobo had always thought it the perfect manifestation of the Oleksandrs’ inflated conceit. “This land under our feet.” They could never have built it had the family possessed even a smidgen of humility.

Seen from above, the Palace’s sprawling gardens glowed like a perfect step-cut emerald. A mighty greenhouse, full of the rarest flora, a paradise accessible only to the country’s nobles. Slobo still remembered the first time he set foot inside that green and pleasant land at the invitation of the Emperor.

He had seen much of the world by that point, but even he  could only gape at the verdant glory.

Nobles. The thought of them made his head hurt.

Before long, the airplane broke through the torrential downpour and touched down at Royal Stefan Airport, before taxiing into a hangar.  

A red carpet flanked on both sides by Abaddon Puppets. An Omanga diplomat welcomed him with a stretch limousine . . . Slobo stepped off the plane looking every inch the statesman and smiled graciously as he shook hands with the official.

Even he was impressed by his own act.

As the diplomat recited the welcome speech, the President of Gafia deciphered the message behind the reception. The Puppets were simply robots and she was obviously a low-ranking official, however courteous and elegant. He knew he hadn’t come as part of an official state visit, but as a head of a state, he should have been given a welcome befitting his status. This paltry set-up? To any foreign government official it would have been seen as a slight.

With the Puppets leading the way the limousine drove out of the airport, but not in the direction of Stefan Palace.

Noticing Slobo’s fleeting surprise, the diplomat explained, “There is an important gladiator fight at Tartarus today. His Majesty has invited you to join him. He thinks you will be most happy with the little surprise he has prepared for you.”

A head of state cannot accept such a change of schedule without proper notice, surely? Slobo masked his displeasure with feigned excitement, “A gladiator fight? Of course, how wonderful. May I ask when we will have the talks . . .”

“His Majesty didn’t mention any talks to me, but rest assured, His Majesty will have made plans. I trust you will enjoy the entertainment, it is unique to our nation.”

Her reply signaled that no further explanation would be forthcoming.

Great, I have no more status than a servile courtier. Slobo turned his attention to the view outside, hoping to buy a moment to wipe the feelings from his face.

The streets of the Core District were sealed from outside pollution by a shell of tempered glass. People walked around in the latest fashions without the need to wear respirators. The women  dared even to dress in revealing outfits in this day and age.

The precipitation beat down on the glass ceiling above. The glowing skyscrapers blurred into a metallic mist. At street level, it was not only dry, but the air was clean.

A network of electric rails had been constructed over the glass-shielded streets, allowing trains to shoot by between buildings. This unique feature of Stefan was the reason why Slobo had come to Omanga. He was in negotiations to bring a similar rail system to his own capital city.

To the left of the limousine, a long strip of glass appeared. The sheltered walkway ran all the way around the Core District’s circular wall. A perfect place to see the view beyond the citadel.  

Outside the walls of the Core District lay Greater Stefan. Though no glass shelter protected the streets here and the people lived in traditional low-rise houses rather than glitzy skyscrapers, it was still highly developed compared to the rest of Omanga.

The Gafian capital Raki was not unlike Greater Stefan in look and feel – real, gritty and teeming with life. The opposite of the dazzling, fantastical tableaux of the Capital Core District.  

The limousine drove into an unremarkable building. Then the diplomat led Slobo down a glass walkway, with the Puppet Troopers escorting them from behind. This was for VIPs only, he quickly realized, and wherever he was going was far grander than anything he had seen yet.

The glass was being beaten by waves of loud thudding – the rainstorm must have intensified.

Soon, they arrived at an ornate double door. Slobo felt like a prisoner being brought to the Emperor to be sentenced. Except that he would be required to smile. As the Private Guards opened the doors, he took a deep breath, pulled the corners of his mouth upwards and stepped inside.

A roar crashed against his eardrums. What he had taken for thunder was in fact a bellowing crowd. From inside the ginormous glass box, the vista opened out before his eyes, knocking the wind out of him.

Tartarus. The gladiatorial arena.

Tartarus was rumored to be larger than even the Colosseum in Rome, which had been obliterated by bombs many years ago. One side of the oval structure was embedded into the Core District Wall, which reached five or six stories high.

The VIP glass box had been placed at one end of the amphitheater, right at the top, giving them an uninterrupted view of the whole arena. The stage sat just below ground level, it was essentially a muddy pit enclosed by high walls designed to protect the tiered seating from bits of flying shrapnel.

True to the name of an amphitheater, it was open air. Where the pit was uncovered, the seating – bursting with people – had been covered by a patchwork of tarpaulin sheets.

Right now, they fluttered like insect wings, letting shafts of light pour into the space. The rain had finally stopped.

Pang!

A loud crash jolted Slobo back to reality.

In the pit, two dark brown creatures smashed into each other. One of them shot into the wall like a cannonball. The floor of the glass box shook with the impact.

The creature struggled to its feet like a wounded animal. At that moment, its spine exploded and it collapsed back into the mud. A voice boomed in the loudspeakers, cutting through the cacophony of cheers and shouting. The winner was named.

So this is their famed gladiator fights . . . Slobo could see little from his position by the doors. If he were three or four decades younger, he would probably be craning his neck for a better look.

“Your Majesty, President Nilos of Gafia,” the diplomat announced.  

Slobo hastily shifted his gaze to the elaborate sofa just a few meters in front of him. A tall seat-back obscured the Emperor of Omanga from view.

Oleksandr III didn’t stand up to welcome his guest, but merely twisted and peered round from the edge of his seat. The great ruler of Omanga tilted his head toward a chair beside him, his body language uncharacteristically casual, as if beckoning a friend.

“Mr President, here at last! You’re just in time for the big showdown today! Come, take your seat.”

Slobo had remained standing until he received verbal permission to approach. He noted that the Emperor wasn’t dressed in his usual regalia. He had often thought that this young man with his short, red hair would look just like any of his son’s friends at college if he chose to wear ordinary clothes.

“Your Majesty, the honor is mine.”

“Relax, no need for formalities. This is not an official event. Get the President some wine.”

Relax? Slobo knew full well the consequences if he was stupid enough to ignore the very thing the Omangans held most dear – their elaborate code of social etiquette. This was a country where its people could be sentenced for treason if they forgot to bow in the presence of the royal crest. The idea alone made him feel sick.

Still, the Emperor seemed to be in a good mood today.

A good sign?

Slobo sat down with a great show of politeness. The moment he took the wine glass, the whole stadium flew up.

After a split second, reason stepped in: Our glass box is descending.

The President of Gafia gripped onto his drink so that he wouldn’t spill it. He would never be able to live down such an embarrassment. In reality, the ride was so smooth he wouldn’t have known it was moving without the visual cue.

“Now that the boring opening act is over, we must take the best seats in the house. The real fight is about to begin.”

The Emperor was greatly amused by Slobo’s attempt to seem unflustered. Meanwhile, the elder statesman was furious that this young upstart had seen through him – a man who had spent decades honing his powers of concealment.

“Who cares about two clunks of outdated metal rolling around the pit? Just let them blast each other to smithereens already.”

A young man spoke without first being addressed by the Emperor. He sat at the other end of the room with three other youths, limbs draped over their seats and laughing in hysterics. They were dressed in the latest Omangan fashion, covered in large quantities of metal accessories.

Like some third-rate Cyborgs, Slobo observed to himself. If the thought of wearing something like that crossed his son’s mind, he would for sure slap the young man right across his face.

Who are these young people? Their behavior is breaking every social rule, but the Emperor clearly doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe they have his permission? No official would dream of acting like that. Are they courtesans? Aristocrats?

But Slobo couldn’t discern anything familiar in their faces. He would have recognized them if they had been descended from Omangan aristocracy. After all, he had spent months studying the social milieu around the Emperor in his bid to establish diplomatic relations.

Now Slobo had a new problem to deal with. Do these youngsters exert some kind of influence over the Emperor? He is himself young and relatively new to the throne, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had his ear. Perhaps I can use this somehow . . .

“Who do you think’s going to win?”

The Emperor’s question broke through his thoughts and Slobo answered hastily: “I don’t know many of the fighters . . . Lady Polyxena’s champion is recently unbeaten, no?”

Luckily, his adviser had fed him some names and facts on the way.

“She has quite the fighter, brave and disciplined.” The Emperor sounded satisfied. “But her opponent today is no pushover. Marquis Leonnat’s fighter is second to none. He won his last three fights within ten minutes.”

“In that case, we are in for quite a spectacle.”

“Who’s your money on?”

Slobo knew this meant he had to place a bet. He had foreseen this, luckily, and had his adviser make preparations. Bet too little and he would disappoint the Emperor, too much and he risked stirring up more opposition at home. So he went for a symbolic figure.

“They both look strong, perhaps you might give me some pointers?”

“Polyxena’s man has exquisite horsemanship, he knows how to push his machine to its limits. She recently spent large sums installing the latest nuclear reactor core, which might boost her performance by 20%. As for Leonnat’s man, he’s still using second generation core. But he always picks the best riders, very classical in fighting style.”

Damn it. Slobo thought of their last meeting at Stefan Palace. The Emperor had barely spoken, but now he was excited in the extreme. Slobo couldn’t tell if this was a good thing, or very, very bad.

“In that case, I think my money is on Lady Polyxena’s man.”

“It’s starting!” The first chords of music echoed around the arena and the Emperor pointed excitedly through the glass, just like any other young person his age might.

The broken pieces of robot from the warm-up match had already been cleared and a blanket of fresh gravel had been spread over the mud. It may not have been perfectly flat, but the arena looked neat and ready.

A warlike drumbeat intensified and the crowd fell silent.

“His Majesty, ladies and gentlemen . . . Marquis Leonnat’s champion ‘Ironfist’ Billy and his SA- Buffalo!” echoed around the arena.

A four, perhaps five foot tall Synchro exoArmor entered from the lower left side of the glass VIP box.

The crowd thundered in applause.

Tartarus arena had been built especially to host Synchro exoArmor battles. The nobles would customize their own SA and make them fight. Betting on these gruesome death matches was a favored pastime in Omanga.

The Cerberus SA is Omanga’s iconic bipedal war machine. While most Cerberus SAs were manufactured for war, these “gladiator SAs” had their cannons replaced by robotic arms designed for melee combat. The driver sat in an semi-open cockpit in the chest cavity. The large torso and thin limbs made it look like an oversized gorilla.

Unlike the muddy state-owned SAs of the last fight, this modified Cerberus SA gleamed. The body of the suit was sapphire blue, the arms a bright red. The entire suit was covered in adverts. Marquis Leonnat had attracted a lot of sponsorship. Cerberus fighting was big business.

“And next into the arena, on behalf of her Ladyship Polyxena, Icarus and SA Ultraviolet!”

From the right emerged a purple Cerberus with green and orange designs, but no signs of sponsorship. Lady Polyxena was rich and didn’t want to sully her beautiful machine with corporate logos. Typical of a woman of her class.

The Ultraviolet was a little taller in stature and its limbs a little longer and thinner, to the point that the spectators wondered if they could really carry the weight of its heavy frame. It had been fitted with beastly metallic claws.

It was a cruel and childish sport. Slobo watched the robots enter the center of the arena. From his perspective behind the glass, they looked like toys. I’d rather watch horses, he thought.

A bell sounded.

The two robots started pacing in a circle around each other. Then, as if by secret order, they ran away from each other in opposite directions.

That was when Slobo noticed the four metallic racks, each in one end of the arena. Weapons of different shapes and sizes hung from them. The Buffalo charged at the one closest to the left, grabbed a giant ax, turned and thundered back.

He wants the first blow, Slobo thought. But just as suddenly, the Buffalo stopped and with his ax, swung at a black shadow that was sailing through the air towards him. It spun and jabbed into the mud. Before he could catch his breath, another followed. The Buffalo tried to turn but its movements were clumsy, and the second projectile punched his left shoulder with a clang and an explosion of sparks, sending him stumbling backwards.

The weapon fell to the ground. A mace.

Slobo glanced across at the first weapon in the mud. A halberd.

The crowd gasped and some rose to their feet. Ultraviolet was standing in its corner, clutching a long sword.

“Ladies and gentleman, Icarus threw a mace with the ease of a spear! All the way to the other side! Wow!” The MC was genuinely impressed.

The Buffalo rubbed his shoulder with a rain of sparks, but otherwise seemed unhurt.

At that moment Icarus threw the sword, drawing a graceful arc through the air.

Ironfist Billy was ready this time and he launched the Buffalo straight at it. But the sword was followed by a shower of weapons and Billy was forced on the defensive, until he boiled over with frustration and charged.

Icarus had run out of weapons.

The Buffalo’s paw-like feet churned through the mud, his ax raised.

The head of the ax was as tall as the driver himself, and despite having taken some damage it was still deathly sharp.

Ultraviolet and its driver Icarus were about to be sliced in half . . . Slobo gripped the side of his chair to stop himself from losing all sense of decorum and jumping up from his seat.

Twaaanng!

Ultraviolet’s claws had pincered the ax.

Slobo could feel the nerves in his cheeks twitch. The entire crowd was on its feet by now and even the young people in the VIP box gasped in delight.

“I love this guy, he’s such a show-off!” the Emperor cried in delight.

The Buffalo released a large blast of smoke from his back, roared in anger, and pounced. Within moments, Ultraviolet was beneath the Buffalo, their feet gouging through the mud.

Unbelievable. He won’t give up . . . Of course Slobo knew in theory that these matches were to the death, but the reality of it. . .

Nutters, these Omangans are nutters.

And yet, Slobo couldn’t help but admit that it was exciting to watch.

The ax cracked between Ultraviolet’s claws as he shunted back against the arena wall. The blade then slipped between his fingers, toward Icarus’ cabin.

This was it, the ending. Just then, sparks flew from the Buffalo’s shoulder. Ultraviolet had placed a kick at just the right moment.

The Buffalo stumbled back. Ultraviolet cast aside the twisted ax head and with a low spin of his leg, had sent Buffalo up into the air.

Making these heavy masses of metal able to walk on two feet was already a remarkable technological feat. Even a layman like Slobo knew that by rights a move like this should have made it topple. A foot sweep! That required agility and balance, not to mention a very brave man in the driver’s seat.

The crowd were in a frenzy. Buffalo landed with a splash in the mud ten metres away. An inexperienced driver might not have been able to get back up, but Ironfist Billy flipped the Buffalo back onto its feet within seconds.

Ultraviolet charged, having grabbed a previously discarded spear. He spun it as he ran. Were Cerberus capable of such a move? Slobo watched in amazement.

The tip stabbed into the Buffalo’s leg, fast and brutal. A black liquid spurted from his metallic flesh. All he could do was press against the armored plating to stem the tide. Still, Ironfist Billy wasn’t done. He defended a further series of jabs until the opportunity he had been waiting for presented itself, and he landed a heavy blow to Ultraviolet’s shoulder.

He had used a katar, a kind of blade attached to his claw. It nearly pierced through Ultraviolet’s armor. He followed this with a series of punches that were impossible to stave off. This was the Buffalo’s moment. He made a grab for the spear and snapped it like a twig.

“The Buffalo is out.” Slobo was surprised to hear the Emperor whisper to himself.

What happened next went so fast that Slobo barely had time to register what was going on.

Just as Buffalo grabbed the spear, Ultraviolet let go, shrunk together as if sitting down and passed into the space between the Buffalo’s arms. The movement wouldn’t be considered quick for a human, but for an SA robot, it was phenomenal.

Before Ironfist Billy could react, he watched Ultraviolet closing its claws over his cabin and rip off the protective casing.

The crowd roared as Ironfist Billy was exposed in Ultraviolet’s claws. Billy froze, as did his Cerberus. Billy’s uniform began to turn a dark red.

The arena was silent for a moment, before erupting in applause. The fight was over.

“And the winner is . . . Icarus! Fighting on behalf of Lady Polyxena!”

“You have quite the eye, Mr President.”

The Emperor’s words brought Slobo back to reality. That’s right, he had bet on Ultraviolet.

“What a fight! My heart is pumping!”

Slobo knew he had to say something, but he was also surprised to find he meant it. No, no he didn’t. He was only trying to get favor with the Emperor, surely?

“What a stellar performance! See that power and precision? That is our latest reactor core. Much better than the previous generation.” The young Emperor took a sip of wine and continued, “The latest technology and overwhelming firepower, that’s what it’s all about. Mr President, I am very glad you chose the right side.”

Slobo froze. He understood now, the purpose of this demonstration. Before he could react, he was being handed a treaty. He flipped through the pages quickly, unable to believe what he was reading.

What was this?

A line of Puppets marched into the arena, took apart the blue robot and removed the lifeless driver from inside. He was going to be remade into an Abaddon Reborn Trooper. Having lost the battle, he wouldn’t be allowed anesthesia during the surgery.

Slobo thought of his adviser’s words and felt a shiver across his skin. He glanced down at the Buffalo. This twisted piece of metal alone could have destroyed an army. He dreaded to think what Ultraviolet could do. And Omanga had a whole cavalry of SAs just like it.

He could picture them now, marching over the Southern Karpates Range. The rush of excitement he had just felt hardened like ice in his heart.

“Strength is everything, the winner takes all. This is an age of science and technology, and it belongs to Omanga!” The Emperor rose to his feet and placed his hand on his chest.

A few of the young people also jumped up and shouted, “Long Live Omanga!” The others quickly joined in.

The diplomat came with a pen for Slobo.

Whose strategy was this? Was it that old fox Rezi? Or had it all been thought up by the young Emperor himself?

Was Slobo trembling out of humiliation or fear? He was the President, he represented his country. It wasn’t about his dignity, but that of the whole of Gafia.

He represented a whole people.

Slobo closed his eyes, reached out his hand and took the pen.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey