Chapter 4 The Last Order

Session 4.1 The code

Everyone was doing something different the night Bob died.

Some people were collecting their reward.

Some people were covering their tracks.

Some wandered the ruins of Zamaii, disturbed.

For some reason, this shadowy figure managed to navigate the many potholes and other dangers in the dark without a torch. Maybe her mask was fitted with night vision? If so, it was no standard army-issue.

And neither was she dressed in combat uniform.

If you had looked carefully though, you would have seen that her movements had purpose. She wasn’t roving the rubble for lack of a clear way through. She was looking for something.

That’s right, it was a methodical search operation, someone with special training. But there was something disturbing her, she kept stopping suddenly, crouching and covering her head with her arms, wringing her hands as if trying to hold back a tide of emotion. Then, she would get up and carry on.

The shadowy figure slipped in and out of buildings like a nocturnal creature patrolling its territory, sometimes pausing to feel the walls.

She came to an unremarkable tumbledown building, one wall was covered in cracks and branches poked in through the broken roof. The shadow carefully pushed open the door.

A crow that was settled in the branches fluttered its wings to display its dissatisfaction, but quickly went back to sleep. The intruder moved quietly so as not to further disturb the inhabitants.

The shadow glanced around the room and then made straight for a corner. As expected, the wall was covered in sloping scratches. A mirror opposite reflected the figure’s wiry outline and revealed the inverted writing etched onto the plaster.

The person reached out, stroked the wall. A large crack. A shiver went through her, out of surprise or maybe even fear.

Seconds later, the figure started scratching wildly at the crack, as if trying to dig something out of it. Awake now, the crow cawed in anger.

She stood, looked around and started searching the other corners. The crow beat its black wings and flew up through what was left of the roof, cursing the intruder with an angry squawk.

It’s not here. Someone’s taken it.

She had to accept it, and swallowing the tears that had gathered in the corners of her mouth, she bit her lip. The inside of her mask was wet, but it was impossible to wipe away the tears.
No. No, no, no.

Why didn’t she realize earlier?

The shadowy figure’s fists were trembling, but she loosened his grip. Regret was of no use. It was too late.

She could rage, she could cry, but only action could make a difference – that was how she was taught.

Whatever the case, she had to get it back.

*

Everyone was doing something different the night Bob died.

Some people were collecting their reward.

Some people were covering their tracks.

Some wandered the ruins of Zamaii, disturbed.

Some sat in a bar, staring at the two glasses placed in front of them.

Damien was sitting in the same seat as last time, two glasses sat on the table. An hour had passed, and he had only taken one sip.

This hadn’t been the plan. He was going to down one as soon as it arrived. Then reach for the second and finish that too. Then another . . .

That had been the plan.

Alcohol was supposed to help him drown the sorrow. Drink fast, shout loud, get it out . . . But, then . . .

But, then Damien remembered.

And he didn’t want to forget.

So after one sip, he didn’t want any more. It tasted like water. Was it him? Or did the bar manager dilute the keg?

Probably, it was him.

Damien recalled attending his first funeral as a child. His neighbor’s. The adults wore black and scrunched up frowns. Afterward, the adults drank while the kids were given candy. He and his sister laughed, until he caught sight of another child heaving with earth-shattering sobs. He had been given candy, but still, he cried. It seemed like he would use up all his energy on those tears, that now he had started, he would never, ever stop.

The man they had just buried was the boy’s father, the adults explained. It was the first time Damien realized what it might mean to lose a loved one. Feeling ashamed, he hid the candies and stopped smiling. He then scolded his sister for laughing until she too was shaking with tears. . . Those childhood memories.

But Bob was neither his family nor his neighbor.

What was it that made the old soldier’s death so painful? He had lost more comrades in the last attack, and he hadn’t known Bob any longer than those unlucky ones.

Why?

Why did Bob have to die like that?

Bob’s death left him with many doubts, indeed, there seemed to be more with each passing hour. But that wasn’t Damien’s most pressing question.

He ordered another drink and placed it in front of the chair before him. He should have insisted  on buying Bob a drink last time, and now he would never get the chance.

A soldier approached Damien’s table but when he saw the drink on the table he turned and made for another empty chair.

“I . . . hope I’m not disturbing you.”

At that moment Schertling invited himself to sit down, carrying his own drink.

Damien didn’t respond. He didn’t have the energy to react, nor to turn him away.

“It was awful,” Schertling said quietly, his head hung.

Damien took a second sip of his drink.

“Sorry . . . I heard someone say you guys were real tight.” Schertling continued. “Were you old friends?”

“Actually, we didn’t know each other long,” Damien finally said.

This seemed to surprise Schertling, the melancholic eyes behind his glasses seemed to widen for a moment.

Schertling was from somewhere north of Omanga. His skin was lighter and his hair fairer than the people of Agurts, although they were all one people really. They just spoke slightly different languages. His face was jagged, as if once scarred by starvation, his cheeks would never fill out again. That he would forever wear the tragedy.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. I know how it feels, he did look awful.”

A wrinkle comes across Damien’s brow. What did he mean?

“You don’t have to know someone long to feel sad about their death . . . He was a good man.”

“He was kind to you?”

“He rescued the team once, and he took special care of us rookies . . . But that’s not what I meant.” Damien shook his head. “He wasn’t just an average good guy.”

“I understand. The good ones always go first.”

“No, that’s not it. You don’t get it. Bob had a presence. At first, I thought it was of a man who has been to war. But that wasn’t it. He was reliable, you know? He didn’t have to do anything in particular, you just trusted him. I don’t know how to describe it. He just did things the right way.”

“Yes, he was good at solving problems.”

“No! What I mean is, he always did the right thing. He made you feel that as long as you did as he did, it would be right . . . It was like he had some kind of magic compass, it was always pointing the right way. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“OK, relax. I don’t think I knew Bob that well.” Schertling held his hands out in front of him, “But I can feel how much you respected him.”

“It’s just that . . .” Damien regretted having said so much, and yet he couldn’t help but add, “I can’t accept it. Why? Why did he have to die like that? A man like Bob, dead, while . . . he is still alive? What the fuck is wrong with the world?”

“This world has been nuts since the first atomic bomb. I don’t think it will ever recover.”

Damien didn’t answer. He was still thinking about Schertling’s reaction that morning in the camp.

“Another thing. . . I’m sorry. But honestly, don’t do it. You’ve got to think clearly.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Aren’t you thinking about reporting the Sergeant?”

Was he? The thought was there, sure enough, he couldn’t count the number of times it had flashed through his mind. But there was so much about it that he couldn’t make sense of, and he had no idea which part was most important. Was he thinking of reporting Han? Yes, of course he was.

“I’m not saying this for my sake. You’re young, you’ve got so much ahead of you . . . We’re nothing but small fry, we could die out here in the desert any day of the week. And honestly, what does it matter how it happens? Still being alive, that’s the only thing that matters. If Bob was still here, I bet he’d tell you to leave it too. The only way to make a difference is if you’re still around to do it.”

No. You don’t know Bob.

But Damien didn’t want to discuss it anymore. And he knew Schertling was only trying to look out for him.

“I understand what you’re saying. Thanks.”

His mouth was dry so he took another sip from his glass. He stared into the void in front of him and licked his lips. Schertling, realizing he didn’t want to talk anymore, sighed, patted him on the shoulder and left.

Schertling’s advice only made Damien even more confused and depressed. He thought about reaching for the glass and finishing his drink in one, but instead, his hand moved instinctively towards his chest.

He pulled out Bob’s notebook.

Why did he want to look at it now? He couldn’t say. Maybe he was hoping for answers of a sort, even though he didn’t know what questions he was supposed to be asking. He flicked through the pages and realized it only left him with more.

Apart from the message on the first page, he didn’t understand most of it. The pictures he got, and they had been annotated with what looked like dates. A journal? Had Bob been writing a diary? Damien realized he wouldn’t have been to most of these places.

But there were so many scribbles in the margins, weird symbols. Some looked like they might be in a foreign language, whereas others he could understand the individual words, but had no idea what they meant when put together. Was it poetry? Or. . .

Code?

In fact, it looked like several different codes.

They had studied basic cryptology as part of their military training, of course. He tried using the methods he knew of, but none seemed to work.

Were the pictures also part of the code?

That would make it impossible. He flipped to the last page. A hand-drawn map of Zamaii. He had seen that last time. On the previous page was a hastily written set of symbols.

Probably the last thing Bob wrote, Damien realized. He traced his fingers across the black lines. Judging from the relative lack of coloration on the page, they looked to be the most fresh.

Then I should start with this one, Damien thought.

Damien grabbed one of the old newspapers from the bar and started making notes. He tried to recall what he had learned during his training, but it was foggy.

Cryptology had been at its peak during the second world war, culminating in the Enigma. Devising ingenious methods of encryption had been frontline work given to experts. Normal officers were not up to the task. These days, computers had taken over.

A brain like Damien’s was no match for a computer – soldiers like him were merely supposed to wait for instructions. He had never had access to these special computers, nor any genuine secrets.

But in an emergency, an old-fashioned handwritten code was better than nothing. At the very least, it could buy time.

Was it a simple Caesar cipher? Or a Vigenère? If Bob had created a special protocol it was going to be harder. The text was short, too short for frequency analysis. Judging by the notebook as a whole, Bob was cautious. He would never have used such a common cipher. But if he wrote it at speed, it couldn’t be too complicated. . .

Damien liked puzzles, and losing himself in these riddles felt good.

What was Bob trying to hide? Was it all for his eyes only, or was it designed for someone else to decode? Damien shut the book quickly: he didn’t want to snoop in the old man’s secrets.

Bob, why did you go to all this trouble to write in code? Damien glanced down at the newspaper he had been writing on and saw that the report was about the Commander of the Buck’s Team. If that Bob wasn’t under house arrest in the Capital, he’d have toyed with the idea that the Bob he knew could have been the very same national hero.

Who could he give it to? He had no clues to go on, other than what was contained within the pages themselves. Damien picked it up and opened it again. What could be the key. . .

Damien was so focused on the notebook that he almost didn’t notice the figure approach. He heard a sound, turned, but it was already too late to stop him from sitting down.

“What?”

Petar stared back at Damien, as if to say, this chair doesn’t belong to you. But there were clearly other seats available in the bar, which made Damien pissed.

Damien carefully closed the book, pulled it close and hid it under his hand. Hopefully Petar didn’t notice.

“Hi, a glass of stout!” Petar called to the barmaid and glanced around the bar. “Where’s the blonde?”

“It’s her day off,” the barmaid said as she placed the beer on the table. She smiled and flicked her hair. “She doesn’t like interacting with the customers, but if you like, I could stay and we could arm wrestle. Special service for hot guys only.”

“Not tonight, we’re having a quiet night.”

Petar gave her a coin and she walked away, amused.

We’re? Damien was puzzled. He had nothing to say to Petar. Was he here for a second round, after this morning?

Petar didn’t say anything, and neither did Damien. They sat beside each other, drinking, in awkward silence.

“Hey,” Petar said eventually, “I don’t like you, because you’re dumb as fuck. But whatever anyone says, at least you’re not a bastard.”

“Am I supposed to be thanking you for the compliment?”

“Damn, you still don’t get it? The radios,” Petar whispered. “They used jammers to put a stop to the signal. And then what? Without any investigation, the body was removed from the base. It takes them a year to supply bandages to the medical centre, since when does anything happen that efficiently?”

He checked again that Han wasn’t in the bar and continued, “Someone wanted to get rid of him, idiot. That’s not the kind of thing a low-level Sergeant has the power to do. No, there has to be someone big behind this all. And we can’t touch something like that.”

So, he’s here to repeat what Schertling just said. But still, it surprised Damien that Petar would come to find him especially.

“You think I’m that dumb, huh?” Damien said coldly. “I think what happened would make any normal person angry.”

“Fine, you’re free to be angry . . . all the way to hell,” Petar said, shrugging his shoulders. “Or, you could try to live long enough to find out which bastard did this and fuck him up. It’s up to you.”

Damien blinked. Did he hear that right? Did Petar just advise him to get revenge?

“Or do you think what you’re doing right now is productive? Eat shit, you arrogant bastard. You’re not dragging me down with you.” Petar sneered, but for some reason Damien didn’t feel angry. Maybe on some level, he knew Petar was right.

Petar grabbed his glass, clinked it against the untouched beer in front of the seat opposite Damien. Then he drained his drink and left.

Damien watched in silence as Petar walked out of the bar. What did he want? Did he feel guilty? He always thought Petar disliked him as well as Bob, but maybe that wasn’t the case?

He sighed. At least he could be alone for a bit. If another person came over, he would go nuts.

“Hey, my Amifa? It took my money!”

No, not another one. Damien’s head hurt as he shook it. He looked across at the drunk soldier bashing his fist against the jukebox. Same one as last time.

The barmaid dragged him away and then launched a practised kick against the machine. The jukebox broke into song.

Smooth jazz. An Amifa classic. Damien and Bob had listened to this song together. The coincidence brought him out in goosebumps. But it wasn’t so strange perhaps, this was a popular song. The base was full of her fans, just like this legless soldier.

“Everyone has their own mission.”

Amifa’s sultry voice sang the line, as if just for him. Damien thought he could hear a crack in her voice, pain perhaps, but also determination. How could she sing his feelings so precisely when she had never been to war?

Everyone has their own mission. . .

A thought hit him, and he opened the notebook. Everyone has their own mission. A line of the same length was repeated a few times in the text.

Maybe it is coded in Vigenère?

Damien shook himself. It shouldn’t be this easy, but it was a good omen. Of one thing he could be certain, he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight unless he broke the code.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood

Session 4.2 Maze in the Sands

Damien longed to close his eyes and sleep.

He hadn’t been doing anything much, only been sitting around. He hadn’t been marching with a heavy load. And yet, despite the inaction, he didn’t have a single drop of energy left in him.

He wanted to lick his lips. They were dry as tree bark. But he couldn’t move his tongue. It was stuck to the bridge of his mouth.

Dehydration, one of your worst enemies in the desert.

Bob wrote that next to a sketch of the desert in his notebook. Those words suddenly flashed across Damien’s mind.

This was the first time the young soldier from the mild south had set foot onto the sandy expanse. Damien had thought the incessant downpour of acid rain was tiresome, now he realized the longed-for sunshine was something even less welcome. He could no longer find anything to like about the cloudless sky or the glaring sun. Glowering down on him like the eye of a Cyclops, watching him burn in fiery hell.

Water was evaporating with an alarming rapidity. Damien could no longer feel the perspiration on his skin. The uniform might keep the sun from scorching his skin, but the fabric didn’t insulate the heat. He felt like a joint roasting in the oven . . . generously marinated in his own salt.

The thought tugged the muscles around his lips feebly. He didn’t even have the strength to mock himself.

Through the smudged lenses of his gas mask, Damien could just about make out Schertling, who was sitting next to him. His eyes were shut tight. Asleep? The rest of his team was much the same. Heads bowed, shoulders drooped, all life zapped.

In the desert, gas masks acted as physical barriers to filter sand in the air. The dusty grains were no simple sediment of nature. This earth was once a country, teemed with people, cities, farms, factories, roads. But the rapid desertification swallowed it all. Everything was grinded into particles. The sand underfoot was probably toxic granules from crushed up buildings and bits of bone from the dead.

Sand was far more damaging to the gas mask filter than smog as it clogged and rubbed against the air valve. That was why Damien was finding it harder and harder to breathe.

The jeeps rode up and down the enormous sand dunes, churning around like small boats in a rough sea. At first, Petar was thrilled by the off-road driving. He raced against another car to see who could jump higher and farther, and in the process made Schertling sick. However, two days on, the boys had grown numb to the unceasing yellow landscape.

Hills of sand in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Impossible to tell direction. Only the odd pile of rubble – gnawed to the bone by the desert – gave the soldiers a sense of progress and movement.

Humans aren’t welcome here.

Damien thought he heard the wind and sand whisper. He shook his head, a futile attempt to wake himself up.

Everything about the mission felt wrong. He needed to stay alert. But he had been in this heightened, tense state for thirty odd hours already and he could barely keep his eyes open.

The silence that followed reminded Damien of his childhood, scenes he kept recalling these days. More than once he had seen representatives of their landlord coming to the farm with harsh new rules. He remembered asking his parents why they didn’t object to such unreasonable demands. Each time they would surreptitiously shake their heads and signal for him to stay quiet.

“We’re ordinary folks, we obey,” they would tell him afterwards. “If we make a fuss, we only end up making trouble for ourselves – and for others too. Keep your head down and concentrate on getting by. There’s no point making a scene.”

Damien thought of his parents’ words and how they, in their meek, obedient way, managed to raise a son and a daughter. Perhaps they were right.

He looked ahead. The truck was driving forward with determination, leading the three jeeps to the rendezvous area. If such a place actually existed.

Sergeant Han was at the steering wheel of the truck.

The whole mission had originated from an order received two days ago.

A sandstorm hit the GDG convoy. One of the trucks was stranded and had its distress beacon activated. The company requested for military assistance.

The Zamaii patrols rarely venture this far beyond the borders. Most operations in these parts were handled by the 88th Sand Team, however, it seems babysitting trade convoys fall back to the duties of the Zamaii Border Patrol.

Follow Han into the desert? Again? Another inconspicuous request? Are you fucking kidding me?

Damien refused to believe that this was a simple rescue and rendezvous operation. But he saw the command arrive and Han’s disgruntled look when he read the message. He also sounded very put out when he told everyone to gear up. But after Bob, it was hard for Damien to take things at face value.

And Damien wasn’t alone in suspecting something was afoot. Petar asked to stay back, faking stomach cramps, but Han saw through him.

“The signal isn’t far, we should be back by sunrise. But we’ll take some supplies. Just in case.”

For once, Han managed to sound humane.

They set off at sunset and drove all night through the desert to the location of the distress signal. Damien noticed how the temperature dropped sharper during nightfall as they moved further away from the border. The jeep’s headlights sliced into the blackness ahead, but where Damien was sitting, it was so dark that he couldn’t see his hands.

Just before sunrise, they found the lone truck, stuck in the sand. The sandstorm had eased by then, so the soldiers pulled off their masks and stretched their legs.

The driver was a skinny middle-aged man. For someone who made a living ny traversing the deserts, he seemed unusually pale-skinned.

He didn't shut up once the help arrived. He told them he got injured during the sand storm and how the truck got stuck. He spent most of the fuel trying to get out of the dunes and depleted most of the power to keep the heat running all night. Many words of complaint but not a single word of thanks.

“Seems to be in good spirits,” Damien muttered.

The young soldier had made up his mind that something unsavory was going on, so even though the driver had a bloodstained bandage around his head, he refused to believe that he was actually hurt.

Hearing the quiet grumble, the driver raged “What the fuck was that? You think this is funny smart ass?”

Schertling pulled Damien away and tried to defuse the situation, “He didn’t mean it like that.”

“Fill the tank. Be quick. I need to rejoin the convoy.”

The driver spoke privately to Han in the truck’s cabin. When Han hopped down, he said, “The convoy is not too far away to the northeast. We should be able to catch up with them before lunch and be back in Zamaii by dinner.”

Why can’t we take the driver and his truck back and let GDG deal with it?

The soldiers exchanged a look. It was clear this question was on everyone’s mind, but no one put it into words.

“Departure at 0500. If you want a piss or a nap, this is your chance. Dismissed!”

The soldiers accepted their fate, they scattered to find a spot to rest.

“Sandstorm?” Damian heard Petar snort quietly. “I say his truck is cleaner than our jeeps.”

Damien took a closer look at the scene. Surely the truck would be much dirtier after being battered by wind and sand. Right?

“Let me be clear,” Petar interrupted the thought. “If you were singled out and separated from us, like the old man, don’t expect me to come looking for you. You’re on your own.”

“I know.”

Petar pulled on his mask and hopped onto the jeep. Damien followed.

Before long, the clouds began to disperse and rays of light pried through the inky night.

In the first light of dawn, Damien saw the desert for the first time. Sand in every direction as far as eye could see. The temperature shot up as the clouds retreated for the day.

Bob wrote in his notebook that people used to find their bearings in the desert by the stars. But the world’s climate had changed, cloud and fog gather over the sandy wilderness at night, blotting out the heavens above. Now the only way to orientate oneself was at sunrise when light started to appear in the east – and this was the direction they were heading in, roughly.

The old soldier probably wrote down other ways to find one’s way in the desert, but Damien couldn’t take the notebook out right now.

This wide expanse of sand separated Agurts from Omanga and Gafia. If one drew a straight line across the desert on a map, Agurts might not seem far from those two countries. But in this dust bowl, it was impossible to estimate the speed of travel by distance.

Too many dangers lurked in this wasteland.

Quicksand, often impossible to see, had sucked in countless travellers and their vehicles. Soil Ghosts always materialized when least expected . . . Desert traders were willing to make as many detours as necessary to traverse this inhospitable expanse in safety.

The jeeps climbed up and down sand dunes after the truck – Han was still in the driver’s seat. In every direction was dust and sediment, and the occasional reminder of a manmade structure.

“The convoy went east to avoid Soil Ghosts,” the driver announced when they stopped for lunch. It would take longer than expected to make the rendezvous. Those words came as a premonition to Damien: they’d have to camp out in the desert tonight.

*

As he had predicted, they spent the night in the desert, taking turns to guard the truck.

Another day in the sand. Thirty plus hours since they left the barracks. Finally, Han admitted that they “might have deviated somewhat from the planned route.”

The driver proclaimed that a small diversion was common in this shifting landscape, but he knew the place like the back of his hand.

Damien couldn’t figure out what was going on, he can’t help but feel that something was off, they have ventured out in the deserts for far too long.

They had plenty of food and water for now, but he began to save his water ration as a precaution.

*

Yet another day passed. Once more, he had been baked dry in the jeep with his teammates – for nothing. They arrived at small cluster of ruins just before sunset. The driver said they would spend the night here.

A multistoried building once stood on this site. Now, all that remained was its steel frame, rising from the desert like a giant climbing frame. By its side was some form of a concrete structure. What luck! It should provide enough shelter to keep the sand away for the night. As the soldiers began to set up camp, they realized they were standing on the top floor of a building and the levels below had disappeared under the sand.

If Damien hadn’t been so shattered, he would have noticed how very odd it was that he was able to lie down without having to remove debris and dirt from the floor. But right now, he only had one desire – to burrow into his sleeping bag and close his eyes.

He had no idea how long he had been sleeping when he was woken up by a noise. Was it his turn already? Shouldn’t Schertling have come to wake him up when he’d done his shift?

The young man forced his eyelids to part. In the fog of sleep, he registered someone staring at him. Schertling?

Just beyond the threshold of their temporary shelter Damien saw the former teacher. In the dim light, his eyes were wide with fear, his face glistened with sweat. He was standing stiffly and awkwardly, his mouth open but no sound came out.

A dark figure behind Schertling held a dagger to his neck. Schertling was the human shield.

Antlered mask, swollen limbs . . . A Soil Ghost!

No one stirred. No one realized the Soil Ghosts had come.

Damien’s hand shot out to grab his gun, but this only made the Soil Ghost pressed the dagger harder against Schertling’s skin.

Damien paused.

Sensing movement, Damien’s neighbor woke and saw the clumsy shadowy form. “Soil – Soil Ghost!”

The words exploded into the sleeping soldiers’ ears like water splashing into hot oil. Sizzling with fear, they reached for their fondest bedfellows – their guns.

By now the Soil Ghost had dragged his hostage from the entryway. The pursuing soldiers hotfooted towards a ghastly sight.

There were at least twenty of these grotesque beings, each disfigured, their bodies lumpy and deformed. They were moving back and forth, transferring the truck’s cargo into their vehicles like a group of worker ants.

At the sight of the soldiers, they pulled out their firearms and ushered the hostages to the front – the team of three who were guarding the camp.

“Where the hell did they come from?”

“They’re taking our stuff!”

“Lets avenge Adam! Kill them all!”

The rookies brandished their weapons and shouted. Sleep was now the last thing on their mind.

The Soil Ghosts, in response, tightened their chokehold on the hostages and shouted back in a language none of the Agurts soldiers could understand.

Two dozens guns cocked and ready to fire. One pull of the trigger and it would be carnage.

The Soil Ghosts had numbers on their side. Damien could sense several guns pointing straight at him. He was unsure at whom he should aim, eventually he settled on the bastard threatening Schertling.

“Enough!” Han roared and silence descended.

No one had seen Han appear, but Damien was certain the Sergeant hadn’t been sleeping with them in the house, nor the driver. Han looked at the Soil Ghosts and the hostages, then lowered his gun with a sigh.

“Don’t hurt them. Take what you want.”

“Sir?”

Han’s response shocked everyone.

“No! They’re fucking savages! They’ll kill us all! Sir!” someone shouted, remembering the bloodbath at their last encounter with Soil Ghosts.

“Shut your mouth! Lower your weapons! That’s an order!” Han then turned to the Soil Ghosts, signalling them to move on with one hand, and halting his own troops with the other.

The Soil Ghosts seemed to understand. The one with the most elaborate mask gestured and the rest of the Soil Ghosts stepped back.

Now that the atmosphere was slightly less explosive, most of the Soil Ghosts went back to the truck’s cargo. Once they had removed the valuable stock, they turned to the jeeps and took water and food.

Immediately, the soldiers raised their guns.

“Hey! Didn’t you hear me? Stay put!” Han ordered.

“How are we going to get out of this hell without food or water?” Petar couldn’t hold his tongue anymore.

“I’ll find a way. Keep your weapons down!”

“They won’t keep to their side! They’re going to kill us!”

A chorus of agreement followed.

“They could’ve easily turned you all into mincemeat while you were sleeping like babies. Learn to read the situation you dumb shits.”

Damien had never seen Han show any concern for their well-being before. Why does he suddenly care if Schertling lives or dies? He must be doing this to save his own skin – he’d be in the crossfire too if we start shooting. Something else nagged Damien. How come he is so chilled? It’s totally out of character.

Shouts from the Soil Ghosts. Were they making threats about the hostages? Schertling looked like he was on the verge of tears.

Everyone was forced to stand by and watch their vital supplies be taken by the enemy. Once the food and water were gone, the Soil Ghosts tried to take the last stockpile of supplies at the heart of the camp. The young men’s vehement reaction forced them to back down.

After taking everything they wanted, the lead Soil Ghost pointed at Han and beckoned. Han stepped closer and the Soil Ghost spoke, gesturing at the truck, at the hostages and the soldiers, then somewhere in the distance. Then he hopped into his vehicle and drove away – with the hostages in the last car.

“No! Stop them! Help us!” Schertling and his fellow soldiers screamed.

Damien and a few others gave chase but Han held them back. In no time, the darkness had swallowed them. Even the engine noises were muffled.

“You son of a bitch! You sold them!”

Petar. He exploded first, even before Damien. Following his lead, everybody crowded around Han.

“Watch your language, Private!” Han shoved the young man back.

“Oh no . . . they’re back!”

Shadows were racing this way. Guns were raised once more.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

Schertling. The three of them were coming round the dune.

Thank God! A collective sigh. Arms were thrown wide to embrace them. Damien gave Schertling a pat on the shoulder. The poor man was shaking and muttering, “God, I thought that was it.”

“See?” Han glared at Petar.

“Sir, you speak their language?” There was awe and respect in the soldiers voice.

“Of course not, but I took one look at their hideous faces, I could tell they only wanted the cargo.” Han was looking insufferably smug.

“They also took our water and food,” Damien said.

“Don’t worry. You’ve still got me,” the driver finally surfaced. Where had he been during the confrontation? Nobody knew. “Two hours’ drive from here is an emergency refuge for desert traders. They’ve got everything there – food, water, and gas.”

“Why would we trust you?” Petar could barely contain his rage.

“Do what you like. Go anywhere you want. I don’t fucking care. I’d happily watch you lot get swallowed up by quicksand whilst I enjoy fresh water in the refuge,” the driver retorted. “You think you can survive two days in the desert without me? You lot were supposed to protect me, and yet you gave away my whole cargo!”

No one could argue against that last accusation. The soldiers stood in awkward silence.

“Enough now. You’re soldiers, you can’t piss yourself the moment you see a Soil Ghost,” Han tried to lighten up the situation. “No one’s hurt. We just lost some food and water. Pack up, we’ll go to the refuge.”

“Shouldn’t we report back to Zamaii?” Damien asked.

“Report what? That three dumbass soldiers were taken hostage by Soil Ghosts? My security escort lost a whole truck’s worth of coffee?”

“Hey, I’m making the calls here.” Han hissed at the driver. Then he turned to Damien and Petar, “If I hear another word from you troublemakers before we get back to Zamaii, I’ll make you regret that your mother ever gave birth to you. Understood?”

Han waited until both had said yes with gritted teeth before checking the truck. Once he was gone, Petar glared at Damien. He could not believe that he was being looked at in the same light as this country bumpkin.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know how they snuck up on me. I was keeping a look-out for any movement. They made no noise at all – just like ghosts . . .”

Schertling kept apologizing. No one blamed him for what had happened, they just didn’t want to talk about it.

The team’s morale couldn’t have been worse. Slowly and with resignation, the young men packed up their sleeping bags and the few supplies that had not interested the Soil Ghosts.

For Damien, the night’s events at last began to sink in. His second encounter with Soil Ghosts. This time, they only took what they wanted. No shooting. No death.

Had they been lucky? Maybe Han was right. No one got hurt. What was taken wasn’t even theirs in the first place. Why should they care?

Last time, the Soil Ghosts took all the valuables and waited patiently in ambush to pick them off one by one. Were some Soil Ghosts more merciful than others? Actually, letting them live but taking their food and water wasn’t really merciful. Those supplies had been their only lifeline in this sea of sand.

Maybe Han had struck a deal with the Soil Ghosts? No, if he could do that, he wouldn’t still be a sergeant.

Soil Ghosts, Bob, Han . . . there’s a connection somewhere... Damien felt there must be one, but he couldn’t see it yet. He had barely slept since they entered the desert and the face-off just now put his nerves in an even more fraught state.

To Damien, everything at this moment was as mysterious, confounding and dangerous as the desert. The country boy couldn’t have come up with such a predicament even in his worst nightmares, yet without knowing how, he had been ensnared. Trapped within, his destiny cast adrift.

Original Story : Kit Lau

Author : Perl Grey

Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood