The cool air wrapped around me with a familiar embrace; I’d grown quite used to it after being posted here for so long. I shuffled over to the fire barrel, seeing little more than glowing embers in the bottom, and scooped up some things to burn. Various degenerate works were in the burn pile, many with titles and authors I didn’t recognize. Their history was of little consequence as I tossed them into the beautifully glowing embers; the covers of the books quickly curled and twisted into carbon black forms. I sat for some time feeding the flames and marvelled at the fire’s dance. My attention was only drawn away from the blaze when I remembered I actually had a task to do.
I stepped back to my original position and gazed upon the sprawling, barren plains in front of me. The plains appeared like the surface of some far off world as they were exceptionally flat and devoid of plant matter save for the occasional shrub. This alien appearance was only accentuated by the barbed-wire fences that were placed in a fixed interval of three hundred meters. My eyes swept over the fencing I could see as I kept an eye out for enemy commandos or defectors trying to cross no man’s land. My eyes wandered beyond the rows of fencing until they landed upon the barely discernible border station of the ONI Republic. I could see what must’ve been spotlights and vaguely see guard towers which dotted a rather large wall. What they were worried about I have no idea.
I was broken away from my gawking as I heard footsteps coming from the steps. I turned and met a familiar face who greeted me by saying, “Oi King, fuck off.” I grinned slightly under my balaclava and said “About time Chuu. Been freezing my ass off out here. Any news to swap?” Chuu propped himself up against the sandbag railing and pulled out a pack to smokes; he got one out for himself and held one out for me. I said in a surprised tone, “oh, I don’t smoke.” He gave me an odd look and said in a gruff tone, “your loss then. And on the subject of news I do have something to tell you. Well it’s not exactly news perse, more of a rumor if anything, but you’ll probably want to hear it.”
He had my interest and I quickly inquired, “spit it out then boy. Can’t leave me all blue balled over here.” With a smirk and a half chuckle he let out a cloud of smoke and nearly had his cigarette fall from his mouth. He pulls his cig from his lips and, after clearing his throat, says in a low voice, “so I heard this rumor in the barracks just after you left. One of the officer-in-training types told one of the guys that there’s something big about to go down. Goes like this see, the brass, you know like the big guys, they’re cooking up some plan.” In the same low tone I as his I ask, “what sort of plan?” He smiles slightly as he recognizes how interested I am and shifts his posture a bit. With a more serious tone he starts up again, “The way I heard it is that they’re doing something over there,” he points across no man’s land, “something nasty, real nasty. Anyhow, back to what the brass are doing, the rumor is that they are sending some crack team of super soldiers over there. Cooked ‘em up in some sort lab. Going to go in and capture some bigwigs or some such.” “Sounds like hogwash to me. Super soldiers? We ain’t got nothing like that,” I said in disbelief.
Chuu shrugged off my comment and replied, “I don’t come up with the stories, just pass ‘em along. Well, we’ve been chatting long enough and I bet you want to get back to the barracks to get the chill off.” “Damn right about that,” I responded and made sure I had everything I needed before heading off. The walk back the barracks wasn’t too bad, only a kilometer or so, and the route I took was rather scenic. I went right downtown and got to see plenty of nifty things like the statues of the brass or the public works emblazoned with the sigil of the government. After soaking in the surroundings for a bit I hurried back to the barracks. I cracked open the door and was enveloped in the sort of warmth only a woodstove packed with oak could bring. It was refreshing and really made me realize just how cold it was outside.
I turned to the requisition officer, his office was right by the entrance, and handed over my trusty rifle. He gave me nod as he swiveled to place the rifle in a locker and I went into the bunkhall. I walked into see a group of troopers gathered around a man with something in his lap and was curious as to what they were doing up at this hour. “What are you lads doing,” I inquired. One of them responded gleefully, “We just got the new issue of the Political Sciences journal. Got a whole section on how to deal with reactionaries.” I nodded and replied, “Good stuff then eh? Well, I’d be rather pleased if you boys could keep it down while I catch some shuteye. Been a long night.” I fell into my bunk with my boots still on and, despite the continuous ruckus, fell into a deep sleep.
I was awoke in the wee hours of the morning by the ringing bell of the chow hall. I’d practically been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to the sound of that damn bell. I quickly sprung out of my bed and set out to get some grub. I swing open the doors of the chow hall and, once the aroma of eggs, bacon, and sausage hit me, discovered truly what hunger meant. I got in line and grabbed a tray. I watched like a dog at the table as the men in front of me got their food doled out onto their trays. By the time I finally got to the cook I was damn near ready to steal another man’s tray. The cook put a generous amount of fixings on my tray and, with a smile, said, “Enjoy the slop.”
I quickly found an open spot at a table with some other troopers. They eagerly chatted about the latest things from the rumor mill and I could only think of how famished I was as I prepared to dig in. I shoveled sausages down my gullet with lightning fast rapidity as I caught the occasional earful of garbage from the troops beside me. Things like, “Johnson in unit 341 has a ten inch…,” or “I got this sweetheart back home and, like, I totally have had sex with her.” It was only after I had fully consumed three quarters of my meal something actually caught my attention. One of the troops started gabbing on, “You fags hear about the spook op?” The rest of the table murmured in response and the trooper started back up. “There’s some big hush-hush thing being cooked up by the egg-head tactician types. Some invasion plan or something like that. Or was it an assassination plan? Anyways….” he continued but eventually lost my attention; what was left of my bacon and eggs took priority.
After clearing my tray of even a particle of food I strutted over to the dishwasher feeling content. I left my tray behind but the memory of that meal would remain with me for the rest of my life or at least until I went to the mess hall next time. I stepped through the swing doors of the communal feed trough and headed towards the barracks with a full stomach. Since I woke up fairly early, early for me at least, I decided to lengthen my trip back to the bunkhouse in favor of taking in the local scenery. I strolled into downtown and made my way to Comrades’ Park. The park was a lovely place; healthy trees and beds of flowers lined the walkways and in the very center stood a memorial to the dead of the Total Global Conflict. While the park was pleasant the real reason I came down this way was the impressive architecture of the government buildings.
The Parliamentary Arbitration Building was the most eye catching structure of all. Carved marble walls bore scenes of the people’s revolution and tall spires adorned with the sigil of the government clawed at the sky from each corner of the building. I had heard the inside made the exterior look like a tin hut but that was mostly hearsay from a friend of a friend and so on. I sat in the park and milled about until I had my fill of the city’s charm. I casually walked to the barracks until I happened to glance down at my wristwatch; it read a half hour til noon so I quickened my pace, couldn’t miss out on the daily radio show.
I made it to the barracks at ten til noon and slid into the lounge room. The lounge room was pretty much devoid of furnishings except for the large radio and a couple folding chairs but it was better than nothing. I shuffled over to the fridge sized radio which, because of its size, had the name “thick bitch” etched into its paneling. I fiddled with the switches and knobs until I got it set to my preferred volume. I took my place on my folding chair throne and sat through the last couple minutes of advertisements and PSAs, waiting patiently for my favorite program to begin. Everyday at noon the state run news came on to announce the various going ons of the nation and talk about more mundane topics like traffic or the weather. A favorite feature of mine was that the daily news was always accompanied by a message from one or, in some cases, a few members of the government.
The radio cracked with some static as as the newscaster began speaking. He listed off some of the more boring things first, like they always do, but once all the fluff was out of the way he started talking about the interesting bits. The newscaster cleared his throat a bit and said, “We have some things to report from the international summit. I perked up with interest and the newsman continued, “Tensions were high as discussions between the High Commander, along with the rest of the party, and the leader of the ONI Republic became heated. The subject of today’s summit was originally to be about the ONI Republic’s Imperialist expansion but shifted into a series of personal attacks and slander as the day progressed.” I listened closely and the newsman spoke once more saying, “In other news, our fellow states in the Lendan…” My attention was torn away from the radio as I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey King.”
I turned my head and saw Brown propped up in the doorway. He shifted his pose and, with a chuckle said, said, “You were in a trance listening to that noise box eh?” I let out a small laugh and said, “Yeah, I suppose so. What’re you doing poking around the barracks?” As he walked over to occupy the empty chair near me he responded, “Got some time to kill. The hospital isn’t too busy these days,” he shifted in his chair a bit, “We’re mostly running drills these days.” “That’s a good thing right,” I said with a slight grin. “Yeah, I guess it is,” he chuckled a bit, “means nobody is getting tore up and means I don’t have to stitch noone up.” We listened to the radio for a bit and chatted for some time until Brown had to head back to the hospital. I followed him on his way out of the barracks until something caught my eye. The cork board for notices had something for me tacked to it. I tore it off and read through it. The note read, “Conscript Kingslayer, you are to report to Eastern Security Station 041 at 2200 hours.” I decided I better catch some shut eye since I’ve got to start my sentry duty that late. I went over to my bunk, kicked off my boots, and set my alarm clock for nine; the Eastern Station was only about a half hour away so I’d have more than enough time to get there. I crawled onto my bunk and pulled my itchy wool blanket over me.
It seemed that the instant I shut my eyes my alarm clock rung out like an angry rooster in the wee hours of the morning. The barracks was full of soldiers and was buzzing with energy despite the late hour; the men were joking and cutting up like it was the holidays. I was curious what the fuss was all about so as I slipped on my boots I asked the new guy, Conscript Scraps, “What’s going on? Someone get new nudie mags?” He grinned big and replied, “I wish haha. Nah, the great party artists unveiled a new mural in the park which shows our leaders commanding from the front during the TGC,” he was obviously full of pride, “it’s mighty heroic.” “I bet so,” I nodded as I slipped on my overcoat, “I’ll catch you lads later; got guard duty.”
I came to the requisition officer’s desk to retrieve my rifle and without much more than a grunt he sent me on my merry way. I pushed the door of the barracks open to discover freshly fallen snow which enveloped everything like a fine powder; I rather enjoyed this type of snow as a lad but dreaded it as a sentry. I trudged through the snow and lamented how thin our issued boots were but was relieved greatly to see a cargo truck going buy. I thumbed him down like some kind of lowly hitchhiker and he was kind enough to slow down. The aged window of the truck rolled down and the driver asked, “What can I do you for friend?” I rubbed my hands together to keep them somewhat warm and responded, “I’ve been posted out at the Eastern Security Station, you heading out that way?” He chuckled a bit and said, “It’s your lucky day kid. I’m making a small delivery there; hop in.” I pulled open the creaky metal door of the truck and immediately felt better knowing I wasn’t going to have to hoof it the entire way.
After only a few minutes and some idle chatter with the driver we arrived at the station. I thanked the driver for the lift and repaid him by carrying a couple small crates for him to the loading dock. He stepped back in the truck, turned the key, and the iron beast belched black smoke from its exhaust and chugged on into the distance. I gave the station a good once over visually; it wasn’t much different from any other station except for the concrete which appeared to be much older and the spotlights placed less efficiently. I made my way over to the administration booth to check in with the head of the station. There was a thin man sitting idly watching several monitors with camera feeds but a television set on which images of the party were shown with bombastic marching tunes as the ambient music seemed to be his main focus. I waited for a moment for the man to turn around and after some time spoke up, “Sir, I hate to be burden, I was told to report here at 2200 hours.” He swiveled in his chair to face me, rolled his eyes, reached for a pen and clipboard, then turned back to the monitors. “Name please,” he said with a listless tone. “Kingslayer1, sir,” I responded in as polite of a tone possible. He swung around to face me and ran his finger down the clipboard and landed on my name. With the same dry, listless tone he said, “You are to report to sentry post three on wall one.” I was going to thank him for his assistance or excuse for assistance but he diverted all of his attention back to the screens which emitted only the finest blue filtered light.
I followed the pathway to wall one and went until I hit the big painted three. Sentry post three was little more than a concrete bunker with an old stool in it but at least it was better than being in completely open air since the night was only getting colder. I stepped into the bunker and propped myself up against the wall adjacent to the windows. As I peered out the windows I was shocked to see ruins in the distance instead of no man’s land and the neatly positioned fences I were so accustomed to were in complete disrepair. As the minutes crept by I turned my eyes to the wall of the bunker which had been graffitied by dozens of soldiers; curse words and phalluses seemed to be a crowd favorite but there were also some long-winded rants written in obviously hurried handwriting. After reading some of the fine literature i decided I should probably get back to doing what I was assigned to do and once more fixed my eyes on the horizon. I scanned over the ruins and marveled at how much shorter the distance was from the bunker to the ruins; at my other post the fences went as far as the eye could see. As I focused my eyes on the ruins I could clearly see fine details of buildings and some large signs. It dawned on me these weren’t just simple collapsed structures but a whole city just left to the clutches of time.
I tried to observe with even greater intent but my focus was broken as I saw something in my periphery. I quickly turned with my rifle at the ready to see a friendly soldier who was just as surprised to see me. “Christ man! Put that thing down, you scared the hell out of me,” the stranger said. “Same here. You almost ended up decorating the concrete,” I said with a laugh. “It’d be my luck,” he let out a small chuckle, “so what’re you doing here?” “Sentry duty. First time being posted at this station,” I responded. “Huh, that’s odd. This is usually my posting,” the stranger said. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I was sure I was in the right spot, the man in the admin building confirmed it.”
The stranger shrugged and said, “No foul. I probably got a notice and didn’t read it or something; no telling where I’m supposed to be right now.” I nodded as if to agree and waited for him to either continue talking or head off back to his barracks. He piped up again saying, “You mind if I stick around? Everyone at the barracks is having a ‘rowdy beer drinking night’.’ I gave a slight smile and said, “Wouldn’t bother me a bit; could use the company.”
We talked of mundane things for some time and that, thankfully, made the ever so boring task of standing in place go by much quicker than being on my lonesome. After a lull in the conversation my curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “So, what’s this place all about? Never heard of a town being abandoned like this.” He perked up as the words left my lips. He shifted his posture, “Figures you wouldn’t know about it. It’s been covered up so to speak,” he said with a embittered tone. I waited for him to continue and, knowing he had me hooked, he spoke up once, “You know of the ONI Republic right?” I nodded and he continued, “How much do you really know though? Do you know how it started?”
I was somewhat puzzled by his line of questioning, everyone learned about this stuff in school. I answered him to the best of my ability saying, “To my knowledge the ONI Republic has existed even before the Total Global Conflict; always been around basically. Records of its creation aren’t available since it’s so old.” “Bullshit! Fucking revisionist tripe,” he spat. My eyes widened with surprise. “Sorry, I just can’t contain myself when people parrot the lies they’ve been spoonfed,” he shifted his tense posture to a more relaxed form, “The way it really happened is like this.” I got a bit closer as he lowered his voice. “This empty city over here,” he pointed across no man’s land to the ruins, “it’s the birthplace of ONI’s principles.” I raised my eyebrows in a mixture of doubt and confusion and opened my mouth to speak but was interrupted.
“At one time, you see, the leader of ONI lived here in the Conglomerate, had his own town. He had the ‘wrong’ kind of ideas for around here and was exiled for ‘deviant’ behavior. He set up his own nation built on the principles of freedom, equality, and created one of the last true bastions of true, unmitigated creativity,” the stranger said proudly. “How do you know of any of this,” I asked with genuine curiosity. He looked around and, in a hushed tone, said, “I’ve been there, the Republic. Even met with the big man himself.” “How? There’s absolutely no travel between our borders,” I inquired. “I was contacted by some of his agents; got a secret tunnel that runs under no man’s land,” he said with a great degree of pride. “Ah, I see,” I said with a hint of disbelief in my voice. He must’ve picked up on that slight variation in my tone and taken slight to it since he quickly rose to his feet. “I’m going to head back to the barracks; it’s late,” he said with some spite. He quickly shuffled out of the bunker and left fresh tracks in the snow as he slinked away. After he was well away I said under my breath, “Nutter’s off his rocker.”
I spent the rest of my sentry duty rather bored until I was finally relieved by another soldier shortly before one o’clock. I wasn’t eager for conversation so I gave him a passing “how do you do” and started on my way back to the barracks. I pondered upon all the new information I took in tonight; I’d seen some mysterious ruins which were previously non-existent to me and listened to a rather out there rendition of history. The bitter cold, which I could now feel clearly in my toes, gave me little time to focus intently on the wacky, wild things from tonight. I hoped, in vain, that another transport truck would come rumbling my way but luck wouldn’t happen upon me twice tonight. I hoofed it all the way back to the barracks and hated every step of it as the snow continued to fall. I finally had the barracks in my sight and not a moment too soon; my toes were turning into popsicles. I practically ran inside to the warm, welcoming interior of the barracks and passed my rifle off to the requisition officer. Everyone except for one soldier, a young lad looking at nudie mags in the lounge room, was already asleep so I crept as quietly into my bunk as possible. I’d complained for many nights prior about the quality of my bed but on that winter’s night I might as well have had a cloud for a mattress.
Chapter 2 Edit
I woke up in an absolute panic as I felt something smack me in the face. My eyes slammed open and I saw Chuu, along with Brown, standing over me. “Come on faggot, let’s get some breakfast,” Chuu said with a laugh. I looked over at my clock and saw the time, half past five, and retorted, “Good god, what’s wrong with you two? Do you know what time I went to sleep?” Brown laughed and said, “Come on now. No rest for the wicked.” It became rather evident that they weren’t going to take no for an answer so, after almost falling off my bunk, slipped on my boots and coat.
As we left the barracks Chuu asked, “So where were you last night? You weren’t at your post; don’t tell me your shirking on your duties.” “I was put somewhere else; the Eastern Security Station,” I said as I rubbed my eyes. Brown chuckled and said, “Man that place is a dump. Who’d you piss off to end up there?” Chuu seemed to be of the same opinion and asked “Yeah? Whose wife did you get caught with?” I laughed a bit and replied, “To my knowledge I haven’t been caught yet. I don’t know why I was posted there, just had a message telling me to report there for the night.” “Well, you should know, the guy that was in your place at your typical posting was a real stick in the mud and wasn’t big on conversation,” Chuu said with some snark in his voice.
There was nothing but chuckles and kind-hearted jabs at one another until we reached the near empty mess hall. Brown motioned to the freshly unveiled mountains of food and said, “Early bird gets the worm, eh lads?” We practically ran to the line, grabbed our trays, and took far beyond our fair share of grub. Coffee was a must too, especially for me, so we got a pint each. It was a race to the table and I unfortunately was last to get seated. Conversation became the redheaded stepchild as we eagerly wolfed down pancakes, eggs, and sausage. After eating enough to feed all of the ONI Republic we started up the banter. “So Chuu, any more news on the whole hush-hush thing,” I poured some coffee down my gullet, “the suspense has just had me torn to pieces.” He gave a grin, “Oh, I see how it is. Only want to talk to me when I got the info. Well, there’s not too much more I know other than Master Administratum Supah is scheduled to make an appearance today.” Brown piped up with a mouth full of pancake, “I call bullshit on that mate. Nobody’s seen an admin in years, let alone the big cheese!..”
“It’s just what I heard come down the line,” Chuu said as he poured more syrup on what he had left on his plate. Brown was about to undoubtedly let out something with razor like wit but was interrupted by his beeper. “Shit boys. Got to cut this short; needed back at the chop shop,” he said while trying to get the last bit of food off his plate. “Remind me to never get medical attention from you,” Chuu said with a chuckle. Chuu went back to the line for seconds and came back with a plate of sausages paired with a pile of bacon. He offered some to me but I was fit to burst so I declined the ever so generous offer. “So, do you know why an admin is making an appearance? Think it’s related to the spook op rumors,” I asked as Chuu clogged his arteries. “No clue but it’s likely,” he wiped his mouth with the cuff of his uniform, “both of these things popped up in the rumor mill fairly closely.”
All of our plates had been cleared so I asked Chuu, “Want to head downtown and catch the news? The hourly show should be on in a quarter hour or so.” “Sounds better than sitting here like a couple of poofs,” he said with a laugh. We trekked out of the chow hall and I regretted getting so warm only to come back to the bone chilling cold. After making it downtown we headed into the Information Center. The Information Center was an illustrious building which contained the works of the greatest thinkers of our generation, many of them party members, and was also a place to catch the news on television rather than on radio. I sprawled out on a couch while Chuu grabbed a chair in the corner. “Keep your boots off the furniture,” he said in a joking snobby tone. “Shut it cunt. The news is about to start,” I replied in a smarmy manner.
The jingle for the news played and the tube lit up the whole room. The newscaster sat behind a mahogany table which bore the sigil of the party on its front. “Howdy all. We have breaking news to report this morning; it appears that despite the recent diplomatic efforts put forth by the party that the ONI Republic has continued its buildup of military forces along the border. They are amassing troops, artillery, and armored vehicles just on the other side of the demilitarized zone or, as it is more commonly known, no man’s land,” the newscaster said in a clear, articulate manner. After clearing his throat a bit he continued, “In response, the Master Administratum has saw it fit to begin taking defensive actions so active duty soldiers can expect redeployment in the near future. Additionally, a statement from the party, ‘we would like to ensure the worker that we will overcome the transgressions of our Imperialist neighbors and we will remain prosperous duri…’” I tuned out the rest after hearing the news of redeployment. “Shit man, at least there might be more legitimacy to the admins making an appearance,” Chuu said with a hint of worry in his voice. “Yeah, if they’re talking about it on the news then the admins will definitely have to make a public comment on it. I got to head back to the barracks; if they’re assigning people to new posts, I need to be there,” I replied. We both went our separate ways and I hauled ass back to the barracks. It was still fairly early, only about eight o’clock, so not everyone was awake yet. Those that were up had gathered around the radio in the lounge room and were practically glued to it.
Conscript ND turned as I walked in and asked, “Hey man, did you hear the news? It’s the only thing the stations are talking about.” “Yeah, I caught it on the telly at the Information Center,” I said as I knocked the snow off of my boots. I was about to open my mouth to talk more but snapped to attention as I heard the warrant officer, Plague, bark out, “Listen up gents. Get out your dress fatigues and your covers. We will be reporting to the general assembly center at 1100 hours. If I see so much as a stray hair on your heads I’ll make you P.T. till you die.” Just as quickly as he arrived he pirouetted and marched right back out of the door.
Everyone cracked open their footlockers almost in unison. The sound of locks popping open and the sound of many desperate searches was all that could be heard throughout the barracks. I had little trouble finding my dress uniform and garrison cap; they were in almost new condition since there weren’t many occasions on which I actually wore them. Everyone waited impatiently for the turn at the ironing board to get out the dreaded creases which had earned many conscripts extra time on latrine patrol or laps on the obstacle course. I didn’t bother trying to iron my uniform since, due to my rude awakening, had been up since five and was running on fumes at this point. I slipped on my itchy wool trousers and tunic, dusted off my cap a bit, and crawled onto my bunk to get even a wink of rest.
After what seemed like only a minute I was awoke by ND. “Come on, can’t have you being late or Officer dickhead will make us all ‘pay dearly,’” he said as I began to stir about. ND and I joined a clump of our fellow soldiers as they left the barracks and made our way to the General Assembly Center. Everyone was fairly chatty, the main object of conversation being the recent news of buildup along no man’s land and the appearance of the Master Administratum, but little of the banter had actual substance.
The General Assembly Center had a name that conjured up images of a school gym but was actually rather impressive; as with most government buildings it possessed aesthetically pleasing stonework on the exterior and the interior was akin to an amphitheatre where you would observe an opera. As we strolled up to its doorways in a nebulous mob Warrant Officer Plague caught us before we could go in. He perked up and let out in a stern tone, “Get in a proper line! No cutting up or horseplay, there’s cameras in there so act like soldiers for once in your miserable lives.” With many vulgarities muttered under breath, I, and all the other soldiers, made a uniform line and did a last minute self-inspection.
With our Officer in the front of the line we finally entered the Assembly Center. We were somewhat early; something our Officer seemed rather pleased with. He gave us assigned seats like we were small children but I found it hard to complain since they were in the back. After I was seated I scanned the gilded room; one thing in particular grabbed my attention. Front and center was the rather tall stage, which had its curtains drawn shut, with ribbons displaying party iconography hanging on the front. Towards each corner of the room stood large cameras with four to five men crews who eagerly fidgeted with their devices. ND tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to the camera, and said, “Think I’ll be able to say hi to my ma?” Officer Plague must’ve heard him and shot a nasty look right at us. We both sunk back in our chairs and acted like nothing happened. After a few minutes the rest of the seats were getting filled and in a short time the theater was filled to the brim.
Everyone talked in hushed tones and whispers until the lights dimmed and shadows could be seen behind the scarlet curtains. Out from the stage, like a series of phantoms, members of the valiant honor guard appeared. The crowd was silent with awe as the guard came down in front of the stage and stood in formation. Even I was captivated as I gazed upon their overlapping armor plates, machine pistols tethered tight to their chests, and their regal yet intimidating masks. The room was already quiet as a cemetery but when the honor guard officer, denoted by a golden party sigil on his mask, came to the front of the formation it seemed as though everyone held their breath.
Everyone knew who he was and feared him; even Plague. The leader of the honor guard was known as “the Imp”, but the title didn’t do him much justice; he was a tall, broad-shouldered stick of hell. Everyone had heard the stories of his ruthless service to the party from serving as a member of the death squads to carrying out suicide missions in hostile territory. The Imp cracked his neck and spoke in a commanding tone, “I would like to request your silence gentlemen,” the room somehow grew even more quiet, “I also ask you maintain this respectful silence until speaking is once more deemed appropriate.”
The entire room dared not to utter a word; even the camera operators seemed to be as quiet as they could while getting the camera and lights oriented on the stage. After an eternity of the deathly silence the honor guard officer reached for his earpiece, muttered something, and then announced the assembly would begin. The curtains peeled back like receding tides to reveal not only the Master Administratum, Lord Supah, but a couple other members of the Lendanto Party. Cheers rang out from the crowd and continued for nearly a whole two minutes uninterrupted.
The administrators took the cheers and applause in different ways; the recently elected Sir Ork visibly enjoyed it, smiling and waving at the crowd. The other, Sir Necrus didn’t even seem to take notice, his head sunken over a small tablet he clutched in his left hand. The Master Administratum approached the podium while the others stood to his left and his right. He had a warm, welcoming expression which helped take the edge away from his spotless uniform and chest full of medals. With a smile he spoke into the microphone, “How are you boys doing this morning?” The crowd gave a variety of responses in unison. Lord Supah spoke up again, “It warms this old soldier’s heart to see so many of our fighting fit in one place. In fact, that’s why we have gathered here today for.” He motioned to the other party members present, and then turned back to the audience.
He shifted his expression slightly, had a more serious look, and spoke in a less warm tone, “As I’m sure you are all aware, we have had problems with our Imperialist neighbors. Despite multiple attempts at diplomatic action the ONI Republic has been dead set in their ways to stand in the way of peace.” He shifted his stance a bit and continued, “We have tried our absolute best to succeed with our negotiations but, due to the uncooperative nature of the Republic, this is proving more and more difficult.” Everyone was on the edge of their seats as Lord Supah paused. Knowing he had the undivided attention of the audience he continued, “They’ve not only been incredibly stubborn in our diplomatic actions but have continued amassing military assets on the border. This, however, is far from the worst of the news.” Again, Lord Supah paused, let out a sigh, and continued speaking, “It is with heavy heart I announce this; we have very reliable intelligence from our great spymaster,” he gestures to Sir Necrus, “that the ONI Republic has begun development of their own nuclear arsenal.” Though the mood was already quite tense you could feel the dread wash over the crowd.
Lord Supah, with a stern visage, continued speaking, “In light of this undisguised act of hostility we have decided to take action; in fact, that’s why we called this assembly. We ask that everyone in the Conglomerate stay strong in these trying times, let their minds remain uncluttered, and trust in the guiding light of Lendanto. To our military members, we are looking for the best, the bravest, and the daring to undergo intense training in preparation for aggression. Those who feel they will make the cut should report to their superiors for further information.” Lord Supah scanned the room; the audience was visibly uneasy while the administrators, along with their honor guard, were calm, collected. Lord Supah pointed above to a banner and read the mantra aloud, “As Lendanto, by Lendanto.” As the administrators exited the stage with their cadre of guards applause grew so loud to the point of almost being deafening.
Even though I heard the Master Administratum’s words ring out and clapped for him, and the rest of the administrators, I was unsure how to process what exactly I had heard. I wasn’t sure whether to chalk it up to the extreme fatigue I felt or the sensory overload I experienced due to the news I received. This seemed to be the general mood among everyone; the entire audience just had a figurative bombshell dropped right on top of it. The mere idea of the Imperialists possessing their own nuclear armaments was mind shattering to everyone in attendance. Everyone drug themselves out of the Assembly Center, filtering out like rivulets from the entrances. The mood was obviously dour, there wasn’t much chatter as everyone headed back to their posts. I, along with a dozen or so others, headed back to the barracks.
I shed my dress uniform, chucked it back into my footlocker, and crawled into my bunk. I was incredibly tired but tossed and turned endlessly as the Master Administratum’s words echoed through my head in endless repetition. After realizing there wasn’t much of a chance of me getting any rest I got out of my bunk and put on my duty fatigues. Hanging around in the lounge room seemed like a fine idea until I popped in to see ten or so soldiers huddled around the radio like cavemen around a fire. A walk downtown seemed like just the thing to clear my mind so I strolled out of the barracks while slipping on my overcoat.
I quickly found myself situated in Comrade’s Park and decided to park it on a bench for a bit after knocking the snow off of it. I stared at the sky but focused on nothing in particular; just watched as the clouds ran through the sky. Some birds chirped, automobiles growled in the distance, and the wind rustled the dried leaves which hung from the trees. It did a great job of making me feel removed from everything. I glanced down at my watch and caught the time, a quarter past one, time for some grub. I made my way to the mess hall with my lethargy and hunger in tow. I gladly took the day’s special, flat bread and pork, and got a nice hot cup of instant energy otherwise known as coffee.
I walked over to an almost empty table and sat across from a fellow soldier. He was a new recruit from the looks of his uniform. As I sat down I let out an obligatory, “How’s it going mate?” With a mouthful of food he simply gave me a shrug.
I ate my food quickly and gingerly sipped on my coffee. The recruit across from me piped up, “You hear the news? It’s all anyone’s been talking about all morning.” “Yeah, I was present at the assembly center,” I said unenthused as I downed some more joe. I glanced at his name-tape as he ate his chow. “So,” I reread it just to make sure I got it right, “Raider, what’s your take on all of this?” He tenseed up, gnarled his face a bit, and said, “It brings my piss to a boil man. The Conglomerate has been trying to be all ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ with the reactionaries and it isn’t working. I’m glad that we’re finally doing something for once, taking a hard stance.” I said in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “Well, with that sort of spirit you should volunteer for the new training program.” “I was thinking about that earlier. Probably going to try out,” he said.
His response was somewhat of a surprise; you don’t typically think of new recruits as being the go get them types. I said my goodbyes to the recruit and took my coffee to go. I finally meandered back to the barracks around three after loitering around Comrade’s Park for a bit. Despite all of the caffeine I took in I found myself passed out on my bunk after swearing to only close my eyes for a second. I came to around six o’clock as people either came back from or went to dinner. The headache I developed as I slept was a real treat which was only complimented by the ruckus of the soldiers in the bunkhouse. I stepped over to the message board to see if there was anything new.
There was a flyer up which gave information for plucky soldiers who thought they could hack it in the new training program; additionally, there was a flyer up which informed all sentries that they would have to report to their posts two hours earlier which meant I had to get to the station at eight. I killed some time by chatting with the soldiers hanging around in the lounge room and listening to some tunes on the radio. At half past seven I got my rifle from the requisition officer and headed towards the security station. Seeing my usual post was a sight for sore eyes after having to spend time at the Eastern Security Station but it was drastically different. The station had really been beefed up, every sentry post was filled - some even with two men each. Mortars and heavy machine guns were also a new addition atop the wall. As I made my way up the stairs I took note of the freshly stacked sandbags and the gleaming concertina wire that hung from the wall.
As I reached my post I spotted ND huddled next to my trusty fire barrel. He didn’t seem to hear me walk up; his attention was directed towards warming his hands over the fire. I tapped him on the shoulder, which gave him a surprise, and said, “Now I know who tends the fire.” He perked up a bit and said, “I was wondering when you finally going to show up.” “What are you doing here,” I inquired. “Well, as you can see,” he points around to the new fortifications and weapons, “the brass seems to think this station is pretty important. It makes sense, the Republic is just a stone’s throw from here.” “Should’ve figured as much,” I said with a chuckle. He grinned slightly and said, “Nobody ever accused you of being smart.”
We traded stories by the fire and killed the tedium with conversation. Our banter gained us some stern looks from the rest of the sentries so I opted to be a bit more diligent with my task. ND manned the spotlight and I kept my eyes fixed on the snow covered no man’s land. As I stood there with my balaclava turning into a sheet of ice I heard a series of vehicles pull up to the station. I glanced over my shoulder to see what was happening; it wasn’t often convoys came to the station. The convoy consisted of a transport truck loaded down with field guns, an armored troop carrier, and a sizeable self propelled gun. A dozen or so men clambered out from the carrier and assisted the transport driver in unloading the cargo while the self propelled gun oriented itself towards no man’s land. “Shit man, I wish we had a radio or something out here; it’s suspenseful to be out of the loop,” I said to ND. He looked over at the convoy and said, “Tell me about it.” I tried my best to concentrate on the horizon but found my gaze straying back towards the crew moving the field guns up to firing ports in the wall. As the night passed additional transports delivered ammunition, landmines, and more soldiers.
The time passed slowly as I began to experience sensory deprivation from the monotony. My boredom was cast away as I heard another vehicle pull up to the station. I glanced back and saw a glossy black town car. The door popped open and Plague stepped out. He was apparently taking a tour of the station as he walked around and inspected the recent fortifications. Eventually he came to my post. He seemed content to give me and ND a quick once over but I caught his attention before he walked off. “Sir, if I may ask, is there any new intelligence,” I asked in a respectful manner. He responded in a dry tone, “There’s nothing new I can share with you at this moment. Have faith and carry out your duty, that’s all you need to know.”
ND looked over at me and said, “You get points for trying at least.” I let out a slight laugh and shrugged. I looked down at my watch and said, “At least in fifteen minutes I get to go back to bed.” Finally our shift was over; I headed back to the bunkhouse and ND went to the Worker’s Respite to drown his sorrows in spirits. After turning in my rifle and kicking off my snow encrusted boots I crawled into my bed.
I found myself nestled in a crater with my rifle in my hands and my uniform covered from top to bottom in grime. I looked around the foxhole and saw a couple of my fellow soldiers, some alive, others dead, along with a couple inanimate ONI Republic troopers clumped together. I could hardly hear past the roar of cannons or see through the pitch black night. A familiar voice was calling out orders and I looked desperately for the source. Plague stood in a half crouch over the body of a maimed trooper, his entrails were spilled out on the ground. Plague fixed his gaze on me and the other surviving soldiers. He yelled out, “Listen lads! We’re getting out of this bloody hole! On my count w-..” He was interrupted as a whistling shell came our way, slammed into the ground, and began hissing. His eyes widened and he cried out in horror, “Gas! Gas! Get your masks on!” I fumbled with my gear as I tried to bring my haversack around. The air I breathed became fiery hot and heavy as I clawed the mask from my bag.
Coughing profusely I slipped on my respirator. Through my fogged lenses I saw a couple men go to the ground as they clutched at their throats. They thrashed around in the muddy pool of water at the bottom of the foxhole; they cried out in hellish shrieks and groans as tears ran down their twisted faces. My stomach was uneasy and I could hardly stand as my knees buckled. A hand grabbed me by the shoulder. I looked up to see Plague, his mask tethered tightly, trying to get my attention. Looking through his lenses I could see the fear in his eyes. In a muffled voice he yelled, “Goddamnit lad! Snap to!” My throat felt dry as I roared, “Yes sir!” He slid a bit on the slick mud and said, “Follow me!”
I trailed closely behind him as we left the crater. My feet sunk deep into the muck of no man’s land with each step but I kept pressing forward. Plague stopped at a gnarly, uprooted tree and I took cover beside him. I was finding it rather hard to breathe through the mask as I tried to catch my breath. Plague swiveled his head, looking for friendlies most likely, then looked back at me with visible worry. Up in the sky an illumination flare cast a bright white light over the battlefield. I was horrified as I saw dozens of mangled bodies and the charred remains of tanks scattered about. A thunderous sound echoed out in the distance and Plague screamed over the cacophony, “Hit the deck!” He pushed me backwards into a small foxhole but remained behind the tree himself. I felt the ground rumble, my ears ring, and was buried in debris. I clawed my way out of the ground and realized my lenses busted leaving me to deal with shards of glass in my mask.
I searched desperately for Plague; next to the tree, which was now splintered beyond recognition, lay his body. His right arm and leg were entirely gone and his left leg was only held in place by the remains of his trousers. As I looked upon his face I lost my breath; part of his jaw was torn away and his remaining eye hung freely like a pendulum. Another flare shown in the sky and my heart sunk.
I woke up gasping for air and absolutely drenched in sweat.