Chapter One - S.S.D.D
It’s late in the afternoon when Sergeant Alarick Schäfer tells his squad that they’ve reached their next waypoint along ASR Blue Lagoon. They’re located in a small patch of forest somewhere in rural Nordwalde Province; as far as most of this band of average 18 to 20 year-old Rhodellian conscripts is concerned, they’re somewhere south of Camp Bergenstein, north of the provincial capital of Schwarzwald, and west of MSR Spirytus - the main road connecting Bergenstein with the rest of Rhodellian civilisation. Judging from the rotting picnic benches, leaf-littered public toilets, and shuttered ice cream stall, Schäfer determines that this place is indeed the derelict campsite he marked on his map. Although one of his fire teams, Fire Team Alpha, has already scouted out the area, deemed it safe, established an observation post 100 metres from the entrance, and is currently maintaining a triangle-shaped perimeter around it, he makes a few quick sweeps of the area with his thermal weapon sight, and confirms that nobody has slipped past their cordon and is preparing to ambush them.
“Rest up while you can on your turns, gents, we’ve got twenty mikes each. We’re Oscar Mike in thirty!” he folds up his map and turns first towards his team leaders “Meier, your team’s on perimeter watch. Be stealthy about it in case the enemy's nearby. Collins, rotate with Meier's team in ten. Jung, with Collins's team in twenty.” and then to the rest of the squad “Maintain your weapons. Have Doc check your feet for blisters and rashes. Reapply any face paint that might’ve worn off due to face-rubbing or sweat. Add some more local vegetation to your helmet bands, helmet cover slits, and combat webbing. And if you still have time after all of that, eat whatever chow's left in your MREs.”
The squad breaks their patrol column formation to do whatever they have to do. While maintaining a reasonable level of noise discipline, they complain about the objective, the ROE, the stones that somehow got into their boots, how much they’d rather be back at base sweeping the motorpool, or sleeping through a SHARP training, and how their mission may end up being yet another waste of their valuable time if they - once again - end up not killing anything. The one exception is the automatic rifleman of Fire Team Bravo, who’s asking around to see if anyone has a spare can of energy drink before he goes off to watch his sector of responsibility. Schäfer notifies his platoon leader of his location over the radio before checking over his equipment. He is in the middle of changing the batteries on his rifle's thermal weapon sight when Fire Team Alpha is relieved from sentry duty by Fire Team Bravo. He notices Alpha’s team leader, Corporal Rolt Jung, approaching him.
“Why the f*ck are we here?”
“Can you expand on that question?”
“Okay… Why are the fourteen of us out here in the middle of bumf*ck nowhere, spending our entire afternoon rucking up and down all these steep-ass hills in full gear?”
“Well... That’s easy, Jung. Somewhere, in this…” he looks around to see that he is no longer surrounded by the beautiful vistas of Nordwalde’s hills, just a long-disused campsite and the densely packed trees and foliage of an unnamed forest “...beautiful expanse of Rhodellian countryside, a bunch of Native Aurelian Liberation Army assholes are up to no good. Our job and patriotic duty as soldiers of the Rhodellian Army is to hunt them down and f*ck ‘em up for daring to trespass on our territory. Ideally before they do something nasty.”
“I know that’s our mission, but I mean... I was asking about the reasons why we’re doing all this shit in the first place. Like, what’s the rationale behind this whole war anyway? Has it ever hit you that this entire thing’s been going on since way before any of us were born?”
“Did you fail history class, or is National Service the first time you’ve crawled out from under your rock since the Cambrian period?”
“Nah, dude.” Jung chuckles, “It’s just that, I swear to God, my grandpa patrolled through this exact same ASR and stopped in this exact same picnic area while hunting for NALA insurgents back in the Sixties. And maybe his grandpa before that too.”
“Well, Jung…” Schäfer rubs his mouth as he tries to think up a satisfactory answer “This land of ours is a diverse and multicultural one. Rhodellia’s only like what, 89,000 square kilometres? Yet, within these tiny borders of ours, for thousands of years, hundreds of different peoples and cultures have been living in and dying over the same patch of dirt. You’ll see evidence of that painted across almost every cave wall in the country. As for us Rhodellians and the f*ckheads in the Native Aurelian Liberation Army... We just happen to be the latest generation of retards bleeding over who gets to call this land rightfully ‘theirs’. And for NALA, who still haven't gotten over colonialism, sharing was never an option.”
“So which side do you think is in the right, Schäfer?”
“In the opinion of this conscript, it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. None of that shit’s worth caring about. Not to me at least.” Schäfer shrugs his shoulders. He turns his head to admire the trees and shrubbery around him. “I live here. I like living here. And I can’t be arsed to move out. If anyone has a problem with that, they can talk to the business end of my rifle.”
“So who do you think is in the right anyway?”
“Jung, I could write you a whole f*cking essay on the damn thing.” Schäfer removes his helmet to inspect the camouflage paint on its NVG plate “But again, that’d be a pointless-as-f*ck exercise.”
Jung shrugs, supposing that Schäfer wants to change the subject.
“Alright, I guess…”
“Let me ask you a question, Jung.”
“Hit me with it.”
“Why do you think this country is still called ‘Rhodellia’ and not something more... Native Aurelian-sounding? Why are we still here?”
“Just to suffer?” Jung smiles to himself. A few nearby squad members overhear the two and start cracking up, also recognising the reference. Schäfer chuckles, acknowledging that he set himself up for that.
“Yeah, that’s one reason Goodsprings has us rucking through the countryside today. But that's not exactly the answer I'm looking for.”
“Uh…” Jung pauses to think of an articulate (or at least smart-sounding) answer “Because of the rule of law? Legally speaking, Schäfer, our country must own the rights to these lands.” He sweeps his finger across the forest around him “And a good chunk of the international community agrees with that. By most counts, the Rhodellian government in Friedrichstadt is considered the ‘legitimate government’ who exercises sovereignty over this territory. That, and because the N-A-L-A is a violent-as-f*ck terrorist organisation with one hell of a grudge. I swear to God, bro, those psychos will try to genocide all the white people the moment they step foot in our government offices.”
Schäfer nods a few times.
“A good answer, Jung. But that’s only part of the story.” He breathes in and out as he tries to collect his thoughts and think of what to say next “In the opinion of this conscript... it’s mostly because we are capable of superior violence, and NALA is not. It doesn’t matter how many articles some self-hating, guilt-tripping, latte-slurping liberal hippie ethnic minority-cocksucker publishes on their blog...”
Every nearby squad members squad smiles. Even its two Native Aurelian members are trying to contain their laughter in keeping with noise discipline. Schäfer continues.
“Those self-righteous pseudo-intellectual assholes can screech into the void all they want about social justice, native land rights, and how our country’s entire existence is technically an illegal occupation of stolen land. But in the opinion of this conscript, all of that shit’s irrelevant. So long as the Rhodellian government has tanks, fighter jets, and the continued will to fight, it doesn’t matter how much other people b*tch and complain about us being here. We’re not budging off this land. And that’s that.”
“Can’t you come up with a better justification than ‘Right of conquest’ or ‘Might makes right’? What’s next, Schäfer? The f*cking ‘discovery doctrine’?”
“Maybe.” Schäfer shrugs while readjusting the camo netting and foliage secured by his helmet band “This country is imperialist to the core, and we’re too proud of that to let go.”
Jung shrugs as well. He shifts his attention to the squad medic, Corporal John Mark ‘Doc’ Garcia, who’s applying some kind of cream to the foot of someone from Fire Team Charlie. As physically fit as all able-bodied Rhodellians are legally mandated to be under the Spartan Protocol, Jung supposes that not everyone’s an avid hiker. He supposes that near-non-stop marching across several-dozen miles of hilly terrain while hauling over 100 lb of gear is starting to take its toll on some of his squadmates. He looks down at his own combat boots, and wriggles his toes to revive the blood flow to his feet.
“Okay… Next question: Why, in his infinite wisdom, is Goodsprings making us do this whole search-and-destroy mission on foot? If I'm going to be illegally occupying rightful Native Aurelian clay, I'd at least like to do it in an armoured vehicle with air conditioning.” Jung frowns, referring to his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Emory Schreiber. Schreiber’s callsign is ‘Goodsprings’, after the starting location of his favourite video game.
“Just for f*cking once, man, I just wish that motherf*cker would give us a mission with non-retarded orders, orders that won’t put us all in unnecessary danger, or at least won't make us expend more effort than needed. I mean, you saw the motorpool back at Bergenstein, right?”
“What about it?”
“We’ve got a shitload of perfectly good APCs and other armoured utility vehicles back at base. Plenty of helicopters too. Despite that, Command just had us dropped outside the AO and told us to f*cking hoof it the rest of the way. Can’t we cover more ground more quickly if we actually had some transportation?”
“I can think of a few reasons.” Schräfer unfolds his map, spreads it across the picnic bench, and beckons Jung to look closer. Schäfer plants his finger on a single carriageway roughly 500 metres to the east of their current position. On Rhodellian military maps of the AO, that specific road is called ‘MSR Spirytus’; it’s a common route for supply trucks delivering supplies up north to Camp Bergenstein from the nearby city of Schwarzwald.
“Whatcha got?” Jung leans closer, resting his arm on the picnic bench for support.
“Ride in an APC, and our movement will stay restricted to the roads, and our sight will be confined to what we can see from those roads. That, and the enemy can more easily anticipate our movements. They’re more likely to prepare an ambush for convoys driving down a main road than for random dismounted conscript squads chasing animal trails in the surrounding hills. Logistics vehicles are way juicier targets. You get to shoot people AND get piles of neat shit out of it.”
“And the helicopters?” Jung looks up at the overcast sky, imagining himself manning a rotary machine gun, spraying streams of 7.62×51mm tracer rounds into the woods below as Ride of the Valkyries blares from the Bluetooth loudspeakers he recently ordered online. He looks ahead to see Schäfer looking up as well, correctly guessing that he’s imagining the same thing.
“Well…” Schäfer snaps from his daydream “This whole operation is supposed to be kind of a secret, stealthy one… Only BCT headquarters, Intel, and our battalion knows why we’re really out here. For all the rest of the wurld knows, we're just on a regular training exercise. The enemy might not know that we’re aware of their presence. If they see random Rhodellian Army dismounts like us walking across the hills, they might just think I’m a lost butterbar leading my men while failing at LandNav, and let us pass out of pity. All without suspecting a damn thing.” he then points up at the sky “But if we ride in with helicopters, searchlights, and Wagner playing, that just screams that we’re on to them. And they’ll escape by hiding in one of the local woods where we can't see them with binoculars or thermals. If we’re especially unlucky, they might even shoot us down for shits and giggles. At least that’s Goodspring’s logic.“
“Fair enough.” Jung shrugs. “You know, I get that commissioned officers tend to see things from a radically different perspective than the grunts under their command, but… uh… sometimes, I swear to God, the bars they graduate with at officer school must be prime breeding grounds for dementia-inducing brain parasites.”
“I sure f*cking hope they're not.” Schäfer sighs.
“I mean, where else would our COs get their advanced retardation from?”
“You know, I actually want to enroll in Gottesberg Military Academy after I do my Masters', grab a commission, and make a difference out here.”
“When you do, please, for the love of God, don’t be the kind of douchebag who prioritises petty workplace politics and career-climbing over the mission and well-being of the men under his command. The Rhodellian military's already got more than enough of those.”
“I’ll try to get my priorities straight.”
“Christ… You know, Goodspring’s actually a really good guy in person and all, but what turns a well-meaning Rhodellian into something like that anyway?”
“I dunno. Some ‘Sword of Damocles’ shit?”
“F*ckin’ Goodsprings, man.” Jung shakes his head.
“Alright…” Schäfer pats Jung on the shoulder before removing his rucksack “You can go back to your team now. Tell them what's up. Meanwhile…” he exhales as he unzips a side pocket, retrieves a pack of baby wipes, and starts heading towards the campsite's public toilets “I gotta go take a shit.”
“Aight.” Jung nods before rejoining his team.
Fire Team Alpha is busy gathering pieces of foliage with their bayonets, using breezes of wind and leaf rustles to mask their sound, when their team leader returns to them.
“What it is, hoes?” Jung takes off his helmet and starts comparing the shape and colour of the local plants with those already attached to his uniform. He opts to start swapping them out.
Alpha’s automatic rifleman, Private Garrick Wolff, rubs his fatigued eyes with his sleeve.
“We’ve been rucking for like… almost five hours now. Where the f*ck even are those NALA infiltrators we’re supposed to be looking for?”
“F*ck if anyone knows, dude.”
“With four companies of soldiers patrolling the AO on foot, you’d think at least one squad would’ve run into them by now. The AO ain’t even that big.”
“Think about it this way, Wolff: every square meter of ground we cover is one less they could be hiding in.”
Wolff shakes his head, feeling even more tired “That’s… still a lot of ground left that our squad needs to cover…”
“Then think about it this way, man. Every step we take is one step closer to us kicking the absolute shit of them for making us waste such a fine afternoon.”
“I guess...” Wolff shuts his eyes for a brief few moments, stewing in bitterness and rage, imagining all the creative ways he could take revenge on the NALA infiltrators for making him leave his room “Bro, I could be playing Warzone right now… I swear, I’m finna scalping each and every one of them. No cap.”
“Good! Use your aggressive feelings, boy.” Jung smiles as he cuts some leaves off a bush he knows is not poisonous “Let the hate flow through you!”
“Goddamnit.” Wolff laughs. The thought of scalping fellow human beings brought another question to his mind, this time addressed to one of the two Native Aurelians in the squad. He also happens to be Alpha’s rifleman.
‘Wickwash’ is the nickname for Fire Team A’s rifleman, Private Puhihwikwasu'u Geldfeld. Despite being half-Native Aurelian, he’s proud of his mother’s native heritage but ashamed of his Dolchic surname. When he first introduced himself, he asked his squadmates to use his forename instead; they all respected his wish without question. Problem was, most of them kept mispronouncing it. The squad eventually shortened his name to ‘Wickwash’ after watching him snuff out a row of lit candles with his rifle.
“Sup.” Wickwash nods up.
“Aside from being half-Dolchic, ironic as that is for you, you’re basically a Native Aurelian in every way, right?”
“Nʉmʉnʉʉ.” He corrects Jung. At least in Rhodellia, Native Aurelians prefer to be known by their specific tribal affiliation instead of a generic term. “And f*ckin’ A I am. What about it, you cream-faced, culture-destroying, genocide-happy Dolchic coloniser?”
“So I’ve been wondering, bro… When you started your National Service, you signed up to be an infantryman, right?”
“Yeah, dude. What does that have to do with me being from one of The Tribes?”
“So when you wanted to become a rifleman, you knew full-well that you’d be sent up North to Nordwalde... to help The White Man, er... slaughter your fellow Native Aurelians, lay waste to their cities, and re-colonise your ancestral lands?”
“Man, I don’t get why all you white people keep lumping us all together like that.” Wickwash smiles as he inspects his newly re-camouflaged helmet, puts it back on, and examines his head's increasingly certainly-not-human outline in the mirror. “Not every shithead in the N-A-L-A is from my tribe, so it ain’t like I’m specifically out to kill my own people. I just came out here to scalp some motherf*ckers, maybe earn an eagle feather or two, and go home to watch some anime. You feel me?”
“Yeah, I feel you, bro.”
“And just as we overheard Sarge saying 10 mikes ago: we’ve been smoking each other long before any of your pasty asses first set foot on this continent. Heck, even after Dolchic settlers came along, my ancestors accepted your state-of-the-art muskets, your fancy carbon steels, and your dirty blood money in exchange for scalps claimed from other tribes.” Wickwash nods, grinning. "And damn, were we f*cking good at getting those!"
“Hell yeah it was! And three-hundred years later…” he flourishes his bayonet and taps on the tactical tomahawk on his belt. He shakes his head and smiles in reassurance to his Dolchic squadmate “That time-honoured tradition ain’t dying with me, bro.”
Private John Adebayo, Alpha’s grenadier, budges closer to Jung, Wolff, and Wickwash. He’s a second-generation immigrant who has neither Dolchic nor Native Aurelian blood in him.
“And it’s all thanks to that tribalistic attitude that The Dolch managed to divide-and-conquer the shit out of your lands. I know how you feel, brother. That aside, don't you guys have any sense of Native Aurelian solidarity?”
Wickwash hands Adebayo some spare vegetation, which Adebayo heartily accepts and adds to his combat webbing.
“I’m a Rhodellian first. Nʉmʉnʉʉ second. Native Aurelian third.” Wickwash shrugs.
“And that brings us to the wonderful f*cking SNAFU we have today...” Adebayo chuckles as he uses a mirror to help gauge the new changes to his equipment’s leafier, grassier, and increasingly inhuman outline.
“It really do be like that, dawg.”
Seeing the lull in the conversation, Wolff re-inserts himself into it.
“So yeah, Wickwash, what anime are you watching at the moment?”
“Right now, back at the base?”
“So I’m watching this long-running Rhavan anime called ‘Now I’m here, now I’m gone.’ It’s just been rebooted with a whole new animation studio. So I’m trying to get up to date with the eleven seasons that came before it, so I can compare the original anime with the new one.”
“Jesus Christ. Eleven f*cking seasons? Just how many episodes is that?”
“Around 270ish episodes, not counting filler episodes or the reboot. I’m binge-watching the original seasons while waiting for the next episode of the reboot to come out. I just finished Episode 172 this morning after chow, and I’m telling you bro…” he smacks his lips “This shit’s A-grade classic material, dude.”
Taken aback by the episode count, a long whistle filters through Wolff’s mouth.
“What’s the anime about? I only see episode counts like that from long-running Shounen anime.”
“Well, allow me to subvert your f*cking expectations, my guy.” Wickwash chuckles as straps his helmet back on. “It’s actually not a Shounen. No power-ups, jutsus, bankais, stands, or anything like that. It’s a drama show with romance and stuff. Like a... live-action soap opera, but animated. We can watch the first episode when we get back to base.”
“Damn, bro. From all your talk about doing hardcore shit, like scalping motherf*ckers and keeping their heads as trophies, I’d never have thought you were into that kind of anime.”
“Eh, they’re nice to watch once in a while.” Wickwash shrugs “Even for us Rhodellians, there’s gotta more to life than just violence, right?”
“Wickwash, my friend… I can not believe that beneath that blood-crazed ice-cold warrior exterior of yours, you’re actually a massive f*cking faggot holy shit!”
The whole team bursts into laughter. Wolff continues once it dies down.
“So should we start with the earlier seasons first, or do we start with the reboot?”
Wickwash pauses in thought before nodding a few times.
“Yeah, we can start with the reboot. It basically follows the original story, but with nicer-looking visuals. You can watch the original in your own time.”
“Sounds cool to me, bro.” Wolff nods as he opens his mirror, noticing that perspiration has caused some of his face paint to fade. “F*ck, man. I gotta redo my face again. My skin's shinier than f*cking silver.”
Having already finished repainting his face, Wickwash tosses a pack of tissues and his own face paint kit to Wolff. While Wolff's busy, Wickwash continues the conversation with Jung and Adebayo.
“How about you, Jung? You watching any good anime either?”
“Nah, dude.” Jung shakes his head as he finishes redoing his camouflage, and very carefully takes a sip from his canteen to avoid accidentally washing away his new coat of face paint. “I don't have the patience to sit all the way through a single 24-minute episode nowadays, so I just read manga and webcomics whenever I feel like it.”
“Well, for starters, there’s this Kirvinian one I’m reading called ‘Like In Those Days’...”
Upon hearing Jung mention that last title, Adebayo perks his head up.
“Hey, I’ve been reading that one too!”
“No shit.” Jung chuckles, “Your patrician taste never fails to impress me, bro.”
Adebayo and Jung bump fists and start talking about the newest chapter.
“Nice.” Wickwash nods, trying not to get left out of the conversation “So what’s it about?”
Adebayo takes it from there, raising his bayonet for a flashy performance.
“It’s a story set in a fantasy version of 16th-century Aurelia…” he shuffles backwards, creating a safer distance between himself and his fellow teammates. With the grace of a professional fencer, he thrusts, swings, and flourishes his bayonet in all directions. Some squadmates from Bravo, returning from their watch, quietly cheer on and clap to his knife-play. Adebayo is encouraged by this and continues doing knife tricks with enhanced vigour.
“It’s about a guy, named Constantine. He goes around hunting monsters in the woods, getting into sword fights with people, getting caught in political intrigue, and just being an overall cool guy. A guy from Haus Rödel is even one of the guy’s nakama! The art's great, and the action is badass as f*ck, my dude. You gotta see it to believe it!”
Adebayo spins his bayonet one last time before sheathing it. Wickwash nods as Adebayo speaks. He imagines his squad ganging up on a dragon with spears, swords, and magic missiles
“Damn, bro. That sounds so much cooler than whatever the f*ck we’re doing right now.”
“Yeah brother, the whole webcomic’s f*cking awesome.” Adebayo laughs, more eager than ever to get back to base so he can show Wolff the webcomic “Whenever Constantine goes into a forest, he gets to duel spriggans, werewolves, and all kinds of other crazy shit with f*cking swords and magic. That’s badass. Meanwhile, if we go into a forest, we don’t even get to slay wolves or bears. Y’know, because we drove all the local ones extinct. Nah, dude. Instead, we just get blown up by landmines. Or shot.”
Wolff’s ears wriggle at the mention of landmines, and interjects. It appears that he just finished re-applying his face paint.
“Speaking of landmines, y’know, I grew up near a Red Zone as a kid.”
In Rhodellia, a ‘Red Zone’ is an area of land so devastated by past conflicts (usually either the First or Second Anéantic Wars) that they’re no longer safe for human habitation. This is generally because they’re still littered with uncleared landmines and unexploded artillery shells. And so, to protect the populace from the explosive remnants of war (ERW) inside them, Red Zones are either fenced off or marked with warning signs.
“Oh shit. Really?” Wickwash gestures to Wolff that he has the whole team’s undivided attention. Wolff nods, pauses to gather his thoughts, and continues.
“My family couldn’t go camping in the woods behind my backyard because it’s sealed off behind three thick-ass rows of razor wire. But whenever I did sneak in there, say, because the other boys in the hood wanted to f*ck around in old trenches and ruins, we always, ALWAYS had to watch our step for unmarked unexploded ordnance. Kids still get blown up in there every year! Did you know that, at one point in the First Anéantic War, both Rhodellia and the Grand Alliance fired like a million f*cking shells per day back there, just in that one sector.?
Wolff’s teammates are amazed by the figure.
“That’s a f*ckload of ordnance, brother.” Adebayo whistles, mimicking the sound of a falling (subsonic) artillery shell.
“I wish I could drop that much shit on NALA headquarters.” Wickwash wishes out loud.
“How the hell does your Red Zone still have ruins left standing in it?” Jung raises an eyebrow.
“The wonders of Rhodellian engineering, I guess.” Wolff shrugs, unsure of the answer himself. His figure about artillery shells was probably just an exaggeration, unless a major battle actually was fought over his hometown. The team imagines just how much industry and logistics it would take for a group of artillery batteries to even sustain that rate of fire. It’s an amusing thought. Wolff continues.
“So yeah, back home, we still use discarded shell casings as house decorations. Flowerpots, fence posts, pencil-holders, you name it. And now, on top of unexploded ordnance potentially lying outside of the marked Red Zones, we gotta look out for signs of potential ambushes too. I’m always too busy staying frosty to feel like I’m going on some big adventure like the dudes in fantasy anime, manga, and webcomics. Ain’t no magic up in this b*tch. This sucks major ass, I tell you.”
“As long as we get to make motherf*ckers bleed by the end of the day, whether it be with tomahawks, bayonets, rifles, or magic spells, it’s still all good, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so, man.”
Jung stands up, brushes the dirt off his knee pads, and looks around him. He pulls up his glove to look at his watch, checking how long it will be until his team is supposed to take over perimeter watch from Fire Team Charlie. It should be about time, but neither Charlie or its team leader, Corporal William Collins, have returned from perimeter watches.
“Well, look on the bright side, Wolff.” Jung pulls down his glove “If an unexploded mine gibs any of us before NALA does, at least we’ll get to become cyborgs.” He pats his right arm “Have you seen the Cyberpunk-looking shit the VA’s rolling out nowadays? A Military Police vet in my neighbourhood lost his right arm when NALA raided Camp Kirstein a few years back. According to him, the f*ckers dropped a 155-mike-mike arty shell right on top of his mortar emplacement using a civilian drone.” He taps his right arm again, and swings his hand away while mimicking the sound of an explosion. “Shrapnel severed his arm. And now the VA’s hooked him up with a cybernetic arm with five independent fingers and the capacity to feel. He ain’t exactly shouting ‘Hocus Pocus’ with a wand, but at least he can still say ‘Avada kedavra’ while pulling a trigger. That’s still pretty magical, ain’t it?”
“Rhodellian healthcare’s nice and all…” Wolff shrugs “But imagine dedicating years of your life to getting swole... imagine building up the discipline to stick to a strict diet and workout routine, and suffering through extreme lactic acid build-up day after day to grow all this muscle mass in your arms and legs... just to get them replaced.”
“And once you get past all those ‘initial reaction’ marketing stunt videos that keep showing up on everyone’s Volkscast recommendations… You’ll see that the prosthetics we have commercially available right now aren’t exactly at 'Sci-Fi' levels yet. They’re still nowhere near as good as the biological limbs we’re born with. So losing a limb is still as much of a downer as it’s always been.”
“You seem pretty knowledgeable on prostheses.” Jung whistles.
“I’m not, but my older brother has one. Two years ago, while he was still doing his National Service, he volunteered to help some combat engineers demine part of the Red Zone back home. Thing is, their demining robot broke down on ‘em. And… You know where I’m going with this?”
“Oh f*ck, dude.”
“Yup.” Wolff nods “He and the engineers had to go in themselves and do shit the old-fashioned way. My brother missed an unmarked landmine he didn’t catch with his detector. Apparently, the mine was partially unburied by a recent rainstorm. But by some f*cking miracle, my brother survived. He was fine everywhere else, but he lost his entire left leg.” He then taps his thigh to show where his older brother’s stump is. “The mine ripped it clean off."
“Jesus…” Adebayo wipes his mouth. Wolff pauses to recall more of his memories regarding the event.
“The Red Zone incident made the local headlines. Before we knew it, this prosthetics start-up came knocking on his hospital room door. They asked him if he’d like to take part in a PR stunt. If he agreed, he’d get a fancy new leg out of it. And that's how he got it.”
“Was it a bad leg?”
“By 2019 standards? Nah, bro. It’s one of those state-of-the-art myoelectric legs that pick up muscle impulses, with electrodes, microprocessors, motors, and shit. It’s definitely a direct upgrade from the usual prostheses most amputees are issued by the RHS or the VA. But it ain’t the cyberpunk techno-wizardry the advertisements hype them up to be. My brother was very happy at first, ecstatic even, but he’s moved past that. I mean, his f*cking leg’s still gone. Poor guy still copes with phantom pains from losing a literal, tangible part of himself that's been with him since birth.”
“Damn, man, I’m sorry to hear that.” Jung pats Wolff on the back.
“Sorry, bro, if I crushed your transhumanist fantasies.”
“Ah well... It's no biggie.” Jung shrugs as he tries to figure out where Charlie is; they’re running slightly late on their rotation. “Maybe we’ll get some really cool developments, like, five years from now, and another five years until they become affordable enough to be widespread. At least our kids will be shooting lasers from their eyes!”
“Looking forward to it, man.”
Meanwhile, at a close-by picnic bench, the boys in Corporal Koen Meier’s Bravo team are talking about magic and slaying fantasy creatures because they overheard their buddies in Alpha talking about it.
Bravo's rifleman, Private Waltz Fischer, has scooped up a long stick from the ground and is switching between a series of longsword guard stances.
“You know, I went to Dolchic longsword fencing clubs back in primary school, secondary school, and college…” Fischer boasts at length about his swordsmanship prowess, backing it up with well-rehearsed footwork and a swift Zornhau cut “Hey Kowalski, think I can solo a dragon?”
The team’s automatic rifleman, Private Jakub Kowalczyk, shakes his head “Your stupid ass would get eaten in three seconds. Tops.”
The team’s grenadier, Private Robert Powell, laughs with Kowalczyk as he inspects his weapons. “I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t.” He taps his rifle’s underbarrel grenade-launcher “If I had magic, I’d cast a spell to turn my 40-mike-mikes into Davy-f*cking-Crocketts. A dragon’s hot shit, alright, but I’d like to see how they’d do against seven tactical nukes-a-minute.”
“You’d still f*cking die before shooting your second shot, Powell.” Meier chuckles at the surreal thought of Powell running up to a dragon, screaming like a banshee, and unintentionally blowing everyone at.
“You shut your pussy lips, Meier! Kamikaze’ing a dragon with a nuke has still gotta be one of the most hardcore ways for a man to go out! That’s gotta be worth some award, right?”
“Yeah, a Darwin Award!”
The lads in Bravo laugh until they notice half of Fire Team Charlie jogging behind them, with excited smiles across its member’s faces. Specifically, they see Collins and Charlie’s rifleman, Private Danuwoa Catawnee.
“Oh shit! Look who’s finally back from their combat circle-jacks!” Meier calls out to the two. Catawnee politely responds with a wide grin and middle finger.
Seeing as Charlie’s automatic rifleman, Private Ludwig Zimmerman, and grenadier, Private Abdul Hamid bin Faisal al-Latif, are both missing, Meier takes this as a very good sign.
“Look at ‘em.” Meier slings his rifle “They look like kids wanting to show their parents a cool toy they saw through a f*cking store window.”
“Think they found those NALA pricks we’ve spent the past five hours looking for?” Powell checks the status of his face paint in the mirror, one last time, to ensure it properly blends with the local environment and masks the natural shine of the human skin. He seems proud of all the camouflage he's attached to himself throughout the day (without compromising his range of movement, ability to perspire, ability to move quietly, or turning his combat uniform into a full ghillie suit). Fischer crouches next to Powell and checks the ammunition in his magazine.
“After all the rucking those shitheads made Goodsprings put us through today? God, I f*cking hope so.”
Kowalczyk squats on the grass next to Fischer, eagerly waiting for Schäfer (who just returned from the biological weapon called the campsite’s ‘public toilets’) to announce a pre-combat inspection.
“If we actually get some today bro…” he looks up at Fischer and clenches his fist around his squad automatic weapon’s pistol grip. “I swear to God, all of the bullshit we took today would’ve been f*cking worth it.”
Meier nods, knocking on the side of his helmet.
“Especially if we get eagle feathers for this. They’d look so badass on my helmet band. B*tches love feathers.”
They see Collins and Catawnee briefing Schäfer on something urgent. Schäfer absorbs what information he can, and relays it back to his platoon leader over the radio. Once that's done, Schäfer starts jogging between the different fire teams, flanked by Doc, grabbing their attention with kicks, nudges, and creatively verbose threats of grievous bodily harm.
“Everyone in the squad who's not busy, form up around this table!” Schäfer beckons the squad to his picnic bench. Jung, Meier, and Collins take out their ballpoint pens and notepads as their sergeant unrolls his map of the AO, and plants his finger on their grid square. Wolff, Kowalczyk, and Catawnee walk off to maintain watch while their team leaders note down the plans for them, and Zimmerman and al-Latif are away monitoring what potentially could be the possible enemy.
“Zimmerman and al-Latif have contact on a squad-size element of eleven unidentified foot mobiles setting up cammie nets 500 metres to the east of our pos. They’re at the edge of the forest on the west side of a hill overlooking MSR Spirytus, fifty metres directly east of the T-Junction at Checkpoint Niner at Grid Bravo Sierra Four-Five-Niner-Five Four-Five-Three-Two!”
Schäfer shivers, barely able to contain his excitement or maintain a serious, stoic exterior.
“Get ready for pre-combat inspections, we're going into REDCON-2! If Goodsprings doesn’t f*ck us in the ass by calling in an airstrike instead, we might actually get to kill some motherf*ckers!”
And so they all cheered for war.
Madame Secretary Ponagar stepped out of her office, taking a deep breath of fresh air. That moment quickly passed as the scent of fuel and gas entered her nose. She loved the city of Hai Bọt Biển. The fresh ocean breeze, and sound of the sea grass in the wind, and the beautiful mountains looming over the city. She did not like the reason she was here.
"Madame Secretary, the senator is right outside." Ponagar slid open the balcony door and entered the office, which has ceiling high windows, and pale white walls, with one desk in the middle.
"So what are you waiting for, let him in" the Madame Secretary exclaimed. The aid quickly rushed to the door, to welcome the young representative to the room. His name was Ametung Hidayat, and he was the representative from the state of Sambal Bokur present in the senate.
"Tôtl'rí Naam Ponagar. Tôtl Mầy Tôtl?" asked the representative, as they both sat down.
"Spare me the pleasantries. Let’s skip the bull and get on to your point. What do you want this time" the madame secretary said as she sat down. "And while we're at it, aid, get me some tea. I'm not getting any younger." The aid ran out of the room to fetch hot jasmine tea from down the hallway.
"If you insist. I'd like to ask for permission to go to Yeosan." Ponagar sighed, and slid her chair closer to the death, releasing a noise as the chair inched closer.
"You know I cannot keep doing this, while I am sympathetic to all ethnic groups in Rhava, there just isn't a lot I can do while still helping you from office. It's only a matter of time before the head of state snitches on me to the council." The aid reentered the office, spilling some tea. "Oh, so now you are in a hurry. I am one of the most goddamn powerful people in the country, show some urgency. Leave us." The aid bowed, and ran out the door again, this time for his job. "Now why do you need to leave Rhava." This time, it was Ametung's time to sigh.
"The government has one of our lead scientist. We know they are using her for something, we just don't know what." Ametung frowned.
"You know as well as I that we can't send a Rhavanese citizen to Yeosan, much less a helpless one."
"Hey!" Ametung exclaimed, slightly offended."
"Perhaps I can find someone though, hmm." Ponagar opened her laptop, and scanned her email. The representative slid closer, and Pongar slammed the laptop closed. "Did I say you could look at my stuff, no. Get out of my sight." The representative shuffled out of the room leaving Ponagar alone in her office. She once again went to her balcony, and stood there for a while. Change was in the air, she could sense it.
5th December 2018 - 14 days before the fire.
Musty carpets, musty walls, musty air, Xiying thought to himself as he budged his metal cart through the archaic and near-abandoned hallways of the South Palu Foreign Affairs Department. Outside thunder rumbled, rain pattering against the ruined rooftops above. The grim yellow lighting keeping the room in a perpetual sickly glow flickering every so often. The cart was filled with dusty books and piles of crumpled stained papers, the weight causing the cart's wheels to squeak. The beige walls were lined with towering rusting cabinets threatening fall and crash upon Xiying and the cart. Nevertheless he pushed forward. The halls felt endless, the only distinction between where he was going and where he came from were the occasional intersections of hallways, collapsed white wooden doors, and already torn down walls exposing the department's insides to the harsh tropical winds of the night. As far as he was aware there was only himself and three others shovelling the documents to the vans outside. Vans that would take them to new undisclosed locations. Where exactly he didn't know nor care to know, he wasn't being paid to be nosey, he was paid to move the documents, stay quiet, and not tell a soul about anything he's seen inside the rotting corpse of a building.
Suddenly the cart lurched backwards, its front wheels hit against an unseen fallen cabinet. The sudden stop snapped Xiying back to reality, stepping around the cart to inspect the cabinet. It had fallen on its side, the drawers hung open with papers and small A6 diaries spilled out upon the damp carpet. Xiying grimaced before beginning to slowly lift the cabinet up from its end, bending his knees and using all of his strength to lift and push it back. Just as the cabinet thudding back upright one of the drawers slipped out completely and thudded against the floor causing hundreds of papers to scatter including several sealed mail.
"Damnit.." He muttered, swiping several of the papers and mail and shoving them into his pockets to free up his hands, continuing do so for several minutes before he had collected them all, yanking them out of his front and back pockets and tossing them crumpled back into the cabinets. He had only been instructed to take documents from certain rooms, and not to deal with anything in the hallways or side rooms. Xiying dusted off his hands on his trousers and rubbed the dust off from his nose ending with a deep breath and a cough.
Outside a car horn began to be played repeatedly. Xiying went back to the cart hastily and begun to quickly push it down the hallway.
He'd made it to the exit of the building, the glass double doors already smashed and swung open. The department was surrounded by dense white-bark savanna trees, dry shrubs and bushes, and cracked orange dirt. The only light came from the building itself and the light from a distance rural village downhill, the campsites like fireflies. Xiying knew the difficulty the local government had to endure to gain the rights to recover lost data from the building, tribal monarchs rarely gave an inch unless the federal government got involved or there were enough bribes to buy a new fancy house. They had to drive the vans around the villages on what few dirt roads that existed, taking them the entire day from sunrise to sunset to get from Pomodoria City to the building. He was not looking forward to the back trip. Xiying exhaled, speeding up and began to run with the cart through the rain around the side of the building towards four white unmarked vans, and towards the only one without its headlights on. With haste he swung its back doors open and tipped the cart's contents into an already full back and slammed the van's backdoors shut. He made is way to the side and hopped into the front, where another man, burly and clearly of Lysian descent, was already starting up the engine, the headlights buzzing to life. No sooner had he jumped in did the van begin to move, the other three vehicles doing the same as they moved into a single file line, down the unmarked dirt roads. The occasional dip in the mud causing the whole van to jostle and turn causing Xiying's stomach to churn. He'd already became acquainted with the driver, Yaotel, a silent man who only wanted to do his job. Seeing as he wasn't going to get any small talk of the man Xiying drooped his head onto the window and slowly went to sleep.
The sudden jostle of the vehicle woke Xiying from his sleep. The rattling noise of something loose within the van was only complimented by the continued rainfall, the rolling sludge of the mud beneath the wheels, and the faint echoes hidden within the savanna forests. Suddenly a walkie talkie next to the gear shift crackled to life, a lady speaking in an unrecognisable accent of Nawātl was being said was breathless and on high alert. The accent was too heavy for Xiying to understand, only hearing some lone words from Anglish such as 'banmāh' (vans), 'aleconiz' (electronics), and Yaotel's name. He'd turned his gaze briefly towards Yaotel, who leaned back in his chair, eyes dead set on the road. But before Xiying could turn back towards the window, the burly driver spoke up.
"You were asleep for four hours. Sunrise is in an hour, we'll be stopping at a nearby village for rest in half an hour."
Xiying's eyebrow rose. "I thought the contract stated we were not to dist-"
"We'll be stopping at a nearby village for rest in half an hour." Yaotel cut him off, his tone of voice monotonous. Not once did Yaotel take his eyes off the road. Once it was clear to Xiying the conversation was over, he twisted himself to look out the door window towards the endless dense trees and the occasional landmark. The three other vans remained behind them, all four going at a snails pace to prevent slipping off the roads. The contract specifically stated to not disturb the local villages, the last thing the local tribal monarchs want are unmarked government vans parading themselves down their roads and disturbing the local balances of power casually buying out entire local hostels or purchasing the most expensive meals at the only restaurant in the village. Nevertheless Xiying could sympathise with the drivers, Yaotel himself with heavy bags under his eyes.
"If they didn't want us to stay in a village, they'd have packed us with camping equipment." Xiying muttered to himself, crossing his arms. Yaotel in the back nodded and the van suddenly began to speed up. Distant twinkling of lights told him they were close. Xiying twisted his body, itchy from being in the same posture for hours on end, only to hear crumpling from his behind. He'd frown and shuffled forward, pulling out a crumpled unsealed letter from his back pocket. Yaotel's eyes finally dislodged themselves from the road, a frown creasing across his face. "You took a document from the department?"
"Hm, oh-" Xiying glanced at the partly folded letter, a broken red wax seal partly crumbled to dust and smeared on the envelope and most definitely on his trousers.
"-no. I must've forgotten I put it there. It's from the hallways so, nothing that could get us in trouble. I think." Xiying remarked, his voice tense. Yaotel's eyes turned back to the road.
"They're planning to burn the building down in a fortnight. I'd reckon it's important enough to be burned. What's inside?" Yaotel said, causing Xiying to squirm in his seat. He'd pull back the letter's envelope to pull out an ancient piece of paper. Scrawled across the paper were old Crescent Empire syllabic script and, surprisingly, old Esonyan script. It's distinct style even noticeable to a common man like Xiying.
"It's... Something. Esonyan and the Crescent Empire? How old is this document.." Xinying muttered in confusion, squinting his eyes and pursing his lips. At the bottom were two black lines, on the first was more Esonyan text, but the other black line was empty. Xinying pushed the paper back into the envelope and examined its back, revealing the date and context.
"1563, Chocolate Wars Treaty.." Xinying read out, causing Yaotel's eyebrows to raise higher than before.
"1563? That's bloody old. Don't know what the Chocolate Wars are though." He responded, the burly man quickly flicking his eyes from the road to the letter then back. The village lights now brighter with the individual shanty homes of the rural village now visible, light from the sun peeping out from behind the horizon.
"Chocolate Wars. Chocolate Wars." Xinying repeated in a loud whisper, looking up with eyes tightly closed. "Can't think of anything."
"We can always check when we finally arrive back in Pomodoria City." Yaotel said, slowing down the van.
"Sound's dumb." He'd remark with a scoff, still holding the envelope, finally looking up to see the village ahead.