At first it was hearsay. No official entity had confirmed it.
The Defense Cabinet decided that a delegation team of the Talienkian army was to settle in Klaria, Barun, a military campground for collaborative work between the two countries, Barun, a republic with a blue history, and Talienk, a nation with an even bluer past.
Henry Bergstrom, the Chief of Command, sat at his desk and studied the portraits of the twelve soldiers that had just landed in Klaria. Twelve young faces, identified by numbers.
Class A: 23919, 21133, 45322, 23553, 21023, 44385, 22441
Class B: 49221, 22145, 43764, 01223, 50032
Class Z: Chief of Command Bergstrom, Henry A.
To the public eye, a soldier was just a number. You could argue against that. You could pretend to care about them, but it’s still true.
These individuals were real people with real lives. Two soldiers of Class A were married. One was engaged. Three soldiers of Class B were newly wedded. Two of them had a joint wedding. Some had kids. Others had parents, siblings, and friends. They were loved and cared for, with a past and a future.
And they were his responsibility.
Henry Bergstrom had arrived at the camp 24 hours earlier. He had watched the Barunian army prepare the base for the delegation team. It was a privilege to be the link of hope between two countries on the brink of war.
But at the same time, Henry feared something would go wrong. The Talienkian media had called it ‘A ticking bomb.’
Henry took a deep breath. All eyes were on him. If this went to hell, he was the one people will blame, and he didn’t like that.
A knock on the door startled him. Henry spun in his chair and stood up. “Come in.”
The door opened. Henry smiled. Class B’s 50032, one of the three married men, smiled back. Fred Babinski, an old friend of Henry’s, and also his right hand.
“Welcome to Barun,” Henry said, embracing Fred. “Is everyone here?”
Fred nodded. “They’re waiting for you outside. Quite keenly, I must say.”
Apparently, keen was a stretch. The faces of the jet-lagged and sleep-deprived soldiers were drained of color, and their hands swung lazily by their sides. Each hand went straight to the head in a salute as soon as Henry emerged from his cabin.
Henry saluted them back. “I see that you’re all a bit tired.” He looked back at the makeshift building they had been allotted. It would do just fine for now, at least for a few hours. “We will regroup here in five hours. Go, get some sleep.”
Fred Babinski shot Henry a funny look. As a trainee soldier, Henry used to crave for a break. Henry furrowed his brow.
The soldiers dispersed. The sun had vanished beneath the horizon not long ago, and the sky was still red. When the last soldier finally went out of earshot, Fred shook his head.
“What?” Henry asked.
“And here I thought you intended to use every bit of their energy the moment they arrived.” Fred looked back at the soldiers. “Is this a good idea?”
Henry turned around and looked up at the sky. There was something unearthly about this country. Not particularly good or bad. It just felt…weird. He had been to many countries, and none felt like Barun. The weather was a mess, and the populace a frustrated circus bear looking for a way out.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. General Vernozi doesn’t care. This will give us authority over Klaria. Also, my government is seeking revenue.” He sighed. “Hidden agendas, Fred. Hidden goddamned agendas.”
Fred scoffed, his head bowed, his hands inside his pockets. “I was… um, talking about the shut-eye. But yeah, sure – I, I agree. Hidden agendas everywhere.”
Darkness had filled the camp. Sound had left it.
The soldiers were alert, each one taking a unified poise. Henry Bergstrom had already talked them through the evening. Their purpose here in Barun was not the same as the one back home. Fighting the enemy wasn’t a part of the plan. Nor was the practical side of military training; ergo, handling automatic and semi-automatic weaponry.
Fred looked around the perimeter. His boss was standing across from the soldiers. Their eyes were on Bergstrom. Fred stood at the side and listened.
As his old friend recited what they would be doing in Klaria, Barun, Fred became more interested in what the public thought of them. He knew for a fact that the Barunian government wasn’t one of the best governments – in fact, it was one of the worst. The people of Barun were against this program. Fred had read several opinionated articles on the Hull Post, expressing the general viewpoint of the Barunian people.
It is rather absurd that the government hasn’t considered the consequences of such acts. We have one of the most incredible military powers, and cannot submit to the step-by-step control scheme endorsed by the government.
Fred had nodded when he read the articles. He wouldn’t have liked the idea of a Barunian basecamp in Talienk after all.
But he wasn’t the one calling the shots. His job was simple: obey the commands. Army General Vernozi had once told them to become one. In unity, there is strength. If everyone was on opposing sides, they would be seen as scattered matter. If all held the same opinion, the job would be a lot easier. But opinions always differed, and nothing was ever easy.
“Our job here is to assess the basecamp. I’ve given each one of you different tables you will need to fill. The troops will arrive in one month at max.” Henry Bergstrom spun around and smiled at Fred. “And there’s our timeframe.”
One month, Fred thought. That’s enough to assess a whole city.
“Corporal Babinski will lead this assessment. We’ll be joined with the Barunian Welcome Team – which isn’t the name I expected – tomorrow morning.”
Henry Bergstrom stopped. Fred Babinski narrowed his eyes. The look on Henry’s face had changed. What’s wrong, Henry? The soldiers gave curious glances to each other. Their Chief was stricken. Distracted. Lost in thought.
Henry was looking up. Barren hills surrounded the basecamp. It was dark, and even with the bright floodlights, one could barely spot anything. Raised grounds and steep nature-made steps were the characteristics of Klaria.
Henry’s eyes widened.
The shot came at breakneck speed. Fred stood there breathless and frozen like a stone, staring at the cold, unmoving body of Henry Bergstrom.
A bullet whizzed past his ear, and Fred regained his composure. He looked around him. The soldiers were taking cover behind whatever objects there were to hide behind – lampposts, vehicles, rocks.
Fred ducked and rolled on the ground. A few soldiers had already grabbed their rifles. They aimed at the hills from where the first gunshot had come. Flashlights suddenly lit up, and then there was silence.
Fred Babinski took hold of his sniper rifle, aimed, and watched with squinted eyes.
A silhouette crossed from one side of the hill to the other, bearing a rifle. Another one followed. Silence again.
Another shot reached the basecamp. The soldiers cocked their rifles. Fred couldn’t see anyone. Where were the shots coming from?
Two soldiers dropped to the ground. Fred crawled to the door and entered the building. He cocked his rifle and took hold of his Glock as he motioned towards a telephone.
Hidden agendas everywhere.
Fred thought of who could be doing this. As he pressed the numbers on the telephone, several suspects flashed across his mind.
Shots started flooding the basecamp.
The Barunian army has played us.
“Pick up, goddammit!”
No one answered Fred’s call. He tried a different number and pressed the telephone receiver on his cheek. “Come on. Come on...”
Or is it the Barunian individuals seeking revenge?
Fred froze when the door behind him opened. The shooting had ceased. He let go of the telephone receiver. His gun slipped out of his hand.
“Well,” the voice behind him said. “Aren’t you going to fight back, Corporal Fred Babinski?”
Beads of sweat formed on Fred’s forehead as he turned around slowly.
Hidden agendas everywhere.
“Who are you?” Fred asked, staring at the gun the man pointed at him. Fred swallowed.
“I’m the taxman,” the man said and fired his gun.