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What a sight for sore eyes. The reflection looked back at Gunny. Eyes bleak and dead. Hair straggly and unkempt. Wrinkled lines and unshaven beard. His knees buckled as he fell forward, kneeling. The whisky bottle was empty again. It fell out from his limp hands, clanking onto the floor.

Gunny’s shoulders heaved as he sobbed. Then a chuckle escaped. It’s funny how it had taken one moment, and suddenly he was now unrecognisable. He had transformed. From what he had, what he was before—a respected expert marksman with a fast-tracked career in the military wing of Vinlan Corp, husband to a loving wife, all with a shining future ahead of him—to this. He was a shell of the man he once was.

I knew that change is inevitable. It all starts with your brain. Then your body. And finally your face. It eats away at what you know and what you are... I just wish I had more control over it, his thoughts were rational despite his insobriety.

I guess it’s just the hand that life plays you.

***

The armoured military vehicle rolled through the desert. The tyres picked up gravel and dust clouds followed its trail. Squad 802 was a team of five who had concluded a difficult day of advance scouting. Finally, they were able to take the edge off with a game of poker as they proceeded back to base. Jimmy felt lucky that his superiors were not the serious sort and knew how to have a good time. He had worked under bosses who just wanted to spend all their free time strategizing and talking about advancing troops. War, attack, success, that’s all they ever talked about. The de facto team lead, Gunny, had an idea to bring playing cards along; it was contraband that would never otherwise have made it past the superiors. But Jimmy was still nervous, and moreover, he was not familiar with poker. He decided to sit and watch the game while four others played.

Gunny slapped down his hand on the floor. “Full house baby. I’m on fire today! Suckers.” He scooped up his winnings—little pebbles that each represented favours since nobody had any money.

“No way,” Maria lifted the cards to double check. “Oh wait. Yeah, it’s a full house.” She tossed her hand roughly, disappointed.

“You cheated, assface!” Hunter was a proper sore loser. “Is that what they teach you in the Elite Armed Forces?” He had been Gunny’s senior in basic military training, but later failed the interviews for the Elite Armed Forces position. Even after all these years, he was disgruntled.

“Prove it, bitch,” Gunny showed Hunter the middle finger. They had been friends for decades after all.

“Hey John, how far away are we?” Gunny yelled over to the cockpit. “We should be at the meet-up point in an hour,” came the reply. The vehicle was a supply tank and moved slowly because of its weight.

Gunny looked over at Jimmy. The young chap looked really nervous. His eyebrows were knotted up and his body language remained tense even after the mission had been completed. “C’mon son. It’s your first tour in Xin, right? How old are you?”

“Yes sir, seventeen, sir.” Jimmy responded immediately. “Are my nerves that obvious?” he said in a quieter voice.

“Listen kid, stick with me,” Gunny slung his arm around Jimmy’s shoulders. “You’ll be safe with me. But these guys, they’ll die early and even take you with them if you hang out with them for too long! Ha ha ha.” He pointed at Maria and Hunter, laughing.

“Say that again?” Hunter was triggered. He balled up his fists and started to approach Gunny menacingly.

“Come on, lighten up. I’m trying to help the little rookie out here,” Gunny waved off Hunter.

“Whaaaa….” John’s words were stolen from his mouth in mid-sentence as he heard a whoosh, a frantic beeping. Seconds later, an incoming impact from the right resulted in an explosion.

The last thing Jimmy saw was a flash of blinding light as the truck slammed to the left violently. It had been hit by a violent force, and flipped twice over. Since none of the passengers had been seated or buckled in, they were thrown around the interior like rag dolls. Blood covered the inside of the truck, the playing cards scattered.

Gunny tried to open his eyes, but saw only darkness. His eyes, had they stopped working? He grunted to make a sound. He couldn’t move any of his limbs either. Then he felt the restraints on his wrist, knees and legs. Which way was up? He was spread out like a starfish, propped up and restrained against the wall.

“No one can see anything,” Maria’s voice came from his left.

“Where are we?” Gunny asked, his head still throbbing from the impact of the concussion. Maybe multiple concussions. He felt pain and numbness all over his body at the same time.

“Most likely a POW camp. The Xins ambushed us,” Hunter’s voice was on his right.

Sobbing came from further away. “A...are we about to be tortured?” Jimmy cried, his voice breaking.

“Calm down Jimmy. We need to figure out how to get out of this,” Gunny said reassuringly. He was ready to lead. “Where is John? Can you hear me, John?”

“He’s not here. Better that he died in the explosion,” Maria said. “It would’ve been quick.”

“Shush, nobody speak,” Gunny ordered. There were new footsteps coming towards them. Their captors were here.

***

“So who wants to make this easier and go first? Do we have any volunteers? Our captain wants to know the location of a particular tunnel that you’ve been digging.” The first voice, with a heavy foreign accent, said. It was matter of fact and to the point. The four prisoners were silent. “No volunteers from you Vinnies? What should we do?”

“How about we start with the girl? Let’s have some fun. We deserve it, right?” A second voice cackled eerily. Sounds of shuffling ensued.

“Take your hands off of me!” Maria shouted. She was struggling and everyone could hear it.

“Ooh we have a fighter here. Let’s see how long you can keep this up !” the captors’ voices dripped with malice.

“Don’t. Touch. Her.” Gunny seethed through gritted teeth.

Although there was nothing to be seen through the blindfolds, Squad 802 could hear everything. Maria’s screams pierced through the dark chamber, echoing off the cold walls for what seemed like hours. Her screams turned into wretched anguish in-between thumping, slapping sounds. First skin on metal, then skin on skin. Gunny’s imagination ran with the sounds, evoking grisly images as he pictured the worst. He knew what they were doing to his poor teammate, and he could simply not bear that she was right there in the room while he was plastered against the wall.

The members of her team all understood what was happening to her. Jimmy vomited all over himself, retching in disgust and fear. Gunny himself was in tears, helpless and unable to stop what was happening. “Please,” he cried out. “Take me instead, leave her alone!” Guilt punctured his thoughts as he begged for mercy for his teammate.

“Sir, I don’t want to die sir,” Jimmy was blubbering. “I joined the army to run away from home. You said you would protect me. Please, I don’t… wanna… die…. please…” Jimmy’s words weighed even more heavily upon Gunny’s shoulders as he was reminded of his responsibility. This psychological torture was too much. Why wouldn’t he shut up? Why did all this happen? Why did it have to be the people he cared about?

“I think she’s stopped breathing.”

“We were supposed to ask her questions! You idiot.”

“Now what?”

“Just get the kid, he’s already peed his pants. He’ll talk.”

“Noooooo!” Jimmy’s voice trembled desperately. “Sir! Help me!” There were sounds of slashing and ripping. Liquids gushing. “Please spare me! I don’t know where the tunnels are!” Jimmy repeated. Again and again, for what seemed like eternity. Except each time, Jimmy’s cries grew more defeated as Jimmy lost consciousness.

The smell of fresh blood hit the dark room. Hunter and Gunny had a moment of instant recognition. Since he had fainted and lost his senses, the torturers amped up their torture tactics so Jimmy could feel pain more acutely. These savages.

“I beg you, have mercy! Please stop,” Gunny choked out. His voice was raw, and his tears had run out. “Kill me instead, please just kill me instead,” he half-whispered. He could not bear that his subordinates were taking on all of the pain and torture. I’m their leader, that should be me, he thought. I promised Jimmy that he would be safe with me. What a lie that had been.

Hours passed before Gunny heard anything further beyond rips and blows. The quiet was even more unsettling than Jimmy’s cries. That meant...

“The kid’s dead. He probably didn’t know anything.”

Sounds of boots kicking stopped.

“I do. Let me show you where the tunnels are.” Hunter’s voice was shaking but determined.

“Finally, a volunteer! Smartest one of you lot eh. Bring him here.”

Gunny could not even stop Hunter. Hunter was just doing what he could to protect himself. After the horrors they had just heard, he could understand. He just wanted it all to stop.

There were some murmurs. Hunter was probably negotiating his release from his vulnerable position on the wall. More conspiratorial whispers in a low tone. The mood had shifted from the previous torture dynamics.

In an instant, Gunny’s senses went haywire. The room filled with ricocheting screams from all directions. Gunshots. More footsteps approaching. Screaming and shouting from all sides—there were lots more individual voices in the room. What was going on? Gunny was completely disoriented by the chaos happening around him.

That blinding light again. Followed by a booming explosion.

Then pain—even more excruciating than before. It was fire on his skin. Gunny struggled to break free from the rope on his limbs, and to his surprise, they broke free. The restraints had been burned off by fire flares. With a free hand, he pulled off the blindfold, and immediately wished that he hadn’t.

***

The carnage was horrifying. Everything in the dark cavern was lit aflame with a menacing glow after the detonation.

There was a body slumped over a chair, completely unrecognisable. Save for the mop of blond hair matted with dried blood, Jimmy’s corpse had been completely mutilated. His guts were spilling out of the torso and it seemed like the Xins had relished in dissecting his bone from flesh at the joints. There was a butcher’s knife in the corner, completely drenched in blood. Maria was undressed and lying on the floor. Rigor mortis had set in and her knees were twisted unnaturally, likely broken. Each of her nails had been torn off with pliers. Hunter was dead, his body riddled with bullet holes. Around the room, there were at least a dozen Xin soldiers in uniform all dead. Hunter had killed them all. Gunny clapped a hand to his mouth, his chest heaving with grief.

The fire was rapidly spreading. Gunny’s soldier instincts began to kick in. His left leg was busted but he could still move. There would be no time to pay his respects to his fallen comrades. There could be more of the Xin soldiers coming at any time. Gunny snatched a gun from one of the soldiers for protection and found his way out of the underground cave.

I am sorry… I have failed.

Gunny fled into the scrub wilderness. He stumbled awkwardly, trying to get as far away from enemy territory as he could. After a long time, an all-terrain armoured vehicle with the Vinlan Corp insignia came into his vision. It had been searching for the missing Squad 802 after finding their destroyed vehicle. The crew pulled Gunny on board, and he finally allowed his consciousness to fade after all the war crimes he had witnessed.

***

Gunny was finally going home. He had been questioned over and over by a relentless investigator who wanted to know what had happened to the rest of Squad 802. That meant that he had relived the horrors he had heard while blindfolded, and been forced to recall his tragic memories and graphic images of his teammates—their bodies broken and chopped up. “What kind of weapons did they have? What was the design of the underground cavern? What sort of rope did they use?" Enough with the questions, Gunny had screamed. A psychiatric doctor had taken him away, conducted a few tests and pronounced him unfit to return home until his PTSD treatment had been completed. But he had done so anyway, forging the doctor’s signature. He had to go home and see his wife.

Home. He was finally here. There would be a warm meal on the table, Eliza’s favourite jazz music in the background, and her warm loving hugs. Even when he was broken, he could count on his wife to be there for him. She had been by his side all these years, and supported his journey to enlist in the military.

He stopped at the front door, lost in his thoughts. Wait, what was that? Shrieks were emanating from the kitchen but they were not that of danger… but pleasure. Two shadows were Gunny peered through the window off to the side. There were two figures in there, one of them seated on the counter-top.

“Gunny will kill me if he ever finds out!” the voice was familiar. Gunny’s memory sparked with recognition. A chill ran down his spine.

“He’s not back for another two months. Don’t stop now,” Eliza gasped.

Gunny knew it was all over. He stood frozen in front of the window. Rain began to pitter down from the heavens. His tears mixed with the raindrops, blurring his vision hard. He didn’t want to see any more.

***

Think about the happy moments in your life, the psychiatrist had told Gunny.

Gunny was lying on an open field. He could feel the sun beating down upon his skin through his uniform, and the grass prickling up from below him. This was the meditation that he had been taught. In his mind, he replayed scenes of his successes. Passing his basic military training, with Hunter. How he had earned each one of the medals pinned to his lapel. Proposing to Eliza. Succeeding in his first mission and being awarded an Elite Armed Forces. Achieving the rank of Colonel. It all culminated in this morning’s medal ceremony, where he was awarded an honorary medal for his prisoner of war experience. “I am honoured to recognise a brave war hero. You faced the enemy and showed what it’s like to be a True Vinlander,” the Defence Minister of Vinlan Corp had told him. “I salute you. Son, thank you for your service.” Gunny had dipped his head in respect, but it was out of sorrow. He had done nothing to deserve a medal. His team had perished and so had his dignity. This medal was not a recognition of his survival skills, but his shameful self-preservation. Well done, Gunny, for failing everyone. The gold weighed heavily on his chest.

Gunny reached out for the gun he always kept in his pocket. The whiskey bottle was empty again. It would be his last. Hands shaking, he moved the gun to his mouth.

It was time for Gunny to go. He opened his eyes to take one last look at the sky. Two burning suns looked back at him.

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About the author

PlayingGamesOfDespair

Bio: YA fantasy book series created by Kabir Singh & Judy Goh
Sypnosis: Tournament of the century, ordained by God. Who will prevail?

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