Respite


rating: +6+x
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Vietnam, 1969


In his free time, Jai liked to count the number of straw hats bobbing around atop the rice paddies. Each hat belonged to a farmer that was working diligently and paid no mind to the platoon of marines passing by. He spotted about twenty of them now as they stepped out of the treeline and began approaching the village ahead.

Places like these were a far cry from the utter warzones he'd experienced in some parts of the country; for one, the land wasn't being flattened by B-52 bombing runs and it wasn't scorched to cinders by napalm. For the most part, the people here seemed to be going about their lives as if all was normal, and for a moment, it seemed like no war was even going on at all.

It really makes me think… Jai thought to himself, eyes scanning over the villagers and the lush, green landscape. Why are we here?

Although his trusty M16 was slung over his shoulder in a low ready position, Jai's eyes and head were constantly on a swivel. Out here, though, he felt somewhat safe. The jungle was cramped, dark, and rife with potential ambushes from the Viet Cong that could come from quite literally any angle. At least now that they were out in the open—with much better visibility—they could bring their full firepower to bear against any threat they faced.

Besides, the enemy wouldn't dare use their own civilians as meatshields against the Americans… would they? Jai only shivered at the thought.

As he passed by another group of villagers, he suddenly stopped, innately feeling a pair of eyes burning into the back of his head. Jai looked over his shoulder and locked eyes with an ancient-looking woman that was standing upright in the rice paddy, who seemed to be oblivious to her young granddaughter poking her to do something.

He stared back at the old woman for an uncomfortably long time, even as some of the others in his squad passed him. Strangely, they seemed to pay this utter abnormality no mind, but Jai kept quiet regardless. He blinked, unsure of what to say or do at that moment, but then his mind suddenly raced back to a painfully long lecture he and the others had to sit through in Saigon.

Vietnamese lessons.

"Xin chao," He smiled, holding up a hand to wave. That would work.

The old woman narrowed her eyes and quickly babbled something back to him in a language he couldn't understand. Before Jai could process whether he had been cursed or complimented, he felt a hand on his shoulder. A large, muscular white man then motioned him back into line, patting him on the shoulder a couple more times.

Jai looked up at the man, seeing that his army green durag-wearing squad leader, Sergeant Gibson, was more surprised than he was confused or angry at Jai for standing out of line. He just sighed as he quickened his step, moving back to where he was in the formation with the Sergeant in tow.

"Sorry, Sarge, just thought the old lady standing out there was-"

"Hey, no worries, kid," Gibson began, cool as ever, as he strode next to Jai. Powerful muscles rippled beneath his sweat-drenched skin, which he was showing off much of, given he opted to wear an olive drab t-shirt and flak jacket in lieu of a regular OD jacket. "You ain't in the wrong, buddy. Just wasn't sure why that old hag was doin' that either."

Gibson then turned over to a Vietnamese soldier in their formation, a short man wearing a tiger stripe-pattern uniform and matching boonie hat, who was smoking a cigarette. "Hey, Kim, what'd the old lady back there say to Jay?"

The South Vietnamese trooper shrugged his shoulders and took his cig out of his mouth for a moment. "Dialect is too rugged for me, Sergeant. Something about Perryman being familiar to her."

The marine ahead of them snorted. "I'd sure as hell remember the look of the only negro marine in 1st Platoon."

"…and one who can shoot better than your blind ass, Freyman." Gibson quipped. Jai smiled slightly for a moment, glad to see his Sergeant still had his back.

"It's, uh, Jai, by the way, Sarge," He corrected Gibson.

Before Gibson could respond, though, someone in the front flashed their left fist up, a sign Jai immediately knew as someone giving the order to stop. So, he did exactly that, planting his foot down and dropping to a knee as he began inspecting his surroundings quietly.

A tall marine with a lieutenant rank insignia on his helmet walked towards him, then changed paths halfway and stepped over to Gibson. He muttered something unintelligible to the man as he made a knifehand towards the village, glanced at Jai for a moment, then turned back to the others and continued along the long line of marines in the formation.

Gibson then stood up and moved to the front. "First squad, on me! Kim, get the scoop on the VC from the elders up there!"

Jai followed the man and their Vietnamese interpreter, and was soon joined by about seven other marines from the formation. Kim and the Sergeant then began speaking to an old man with a beard as white as the clouds, with Gibson asking the questions as Kim translated what he said into Vietnamese, and what the elder said back into English. While this happened, the rest of the squad set themselves up in somewhat of a semi circle around them, facing the village.

Jai crouched beside the dirt road and scanned the horizon, not even bothering to turn around as he heard footsteps behind him, as he knew who it was already. A lanky, blonde white kid around his age with a bandolier of ammo around his neck and a red bandana jogged up next to him. He dropped to a knee beside Jai as he rested his M60 against his leg.

"Soooo, Perryman," Cody panted. His voice was slow and slick. "Heard you were talking to a VC witch back there. You know Vietnamese now or somethin', man?"

"Only enough to get by, Parsons," Jai explained softly, turning to his friend. "They didn't give us a Vietnamese crash course back in Saigon for no reason. I remembered what I could. Also, these ain't the VC."

"How do you know, man?" Cody sneered. Jai gestured out to the farmers, busy as bees, then to the occasional kid running around or hiding behind a palm tree, pointing and giggling at the marines nearby. The placid scene was a better explanation than any words Jai could've said at that moment.

"Oh." It was as if a lightbulb of clarity had turned on in Cody's head. He nodded. "I see."

"I see this and I just wonder to myself. I got no clue why we're over here, brother," Jai muttered, his outstretched left hand falling to his thigh and making a clapping noise. He sighed. "No goddamn clue at all."

"Like, I was thinking about it too, man…" Cody began. "Like… have you ever wondered what it is we're doing here? Like, how we got here, to be more specific?"

Jai shrugged. "Fighting commies, politicians telling us what to do, I guess. Panthers say we're fighting a lost cause for a racist government that don't care about us." He paused, gesturing to himself, then to Cody. "Not just us. Soldiers, too. Don't matter if they black, white, or otherwise."

"Yeah, right on. If you ask me, man? What I think is…" Cody paused as he tried to emphasize what he was trying to say with two open hands. He closed his eyes, deep in thought. "Maybe we're in this faraway country, right, man, 'cause we're fighting a made-up enemy. Like, we made up this war, and made up the beef between North and South, man."

"Never thought of it that way." Jai murmured, nodded.

"Like… we're in this country we know jack shit about, don't know nothin' about it's ethnic makeup, don't know whatever the Frenchies and Japs did here earlier, don't know nothin' about the politics, and we're goin' in, and fighting their war, man? Cause the politicians said so? Cause war's a better alternative than communism?"

Cody scoffed. He cringed dramatically, narrowing his eyes as he tried to rationalize his own thoughts. "You dig, man? You know this crap doesn't add up, right?"

Jai nodded again. Cody was a bit long-winded with his explanations for sure, but at least he had the patience to bear with him.

"It's stupid. But, I got another idea, man. Get this…" Cody held up a finger. "Maybe we're here… in this faraway country, blowin' up tunnels and kicking ass, because fate brought us here. Like, there's no other explanation, man. Maybe we were meant to be here."

Jai narrowed his eyes as he watched a pair of children running from one hut to another. Part of him wanted to admit that Cody was possibly right, but a larger part of him thought he was simply stupid for thinking that.

He scoffed bitterly. "Cody, I think I was meant to be the first man in my family to graduate from college, not the first to be in the military. And in 'Nam. That ain't fate, that's bad luck."

"Ohhh, right, right." Cody nodded. "Forgot, sorry. But, yeah. Like, what are we doing, man?"

"Now that is an astute question, Private Parsons!"

Both marines perked up at the sudden interjection to their little conversation. Cody winced audibly, mumbling something under his breath. "Aw, shiiit. Contact, rear."

Jai could see their platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Buczek, approaching from the rear, and he was coming in hot. Every step he took was deliberate, and his strides were much longer than usual, which meant that the stocky man currently stomping his way through the rice fields was extra pissed-off.

"What the hell is going on here?" Buczek snapped, stepping up to them. "Is this chat time, or is this 'pull fucking security' time, marines?!"

"We're pulling security for Corporal Kim and Sarn't Gibson while they talk to the villagers, Staff Sarn't!" Cody shouted, almost as if they were in basic. "El-tee asked us to do so!"

Jai could see some of the villagers looking up from the fields to see what the commotion was. Buczek took note of this as well and turned back to the two Privates. "Well, allow me to quiet down so I don't disturb these fine people with their farm work."

The platoon sergeant paused, lowering his tone as he drew out every next word, practically pressing his nose in the duo's faces as he leaned in towards them. "You two nimrods need to lock it the fuck up before we get a VC patrol on our ass, 'cause you two idiots wouldn't shut the fuck up. Any one of those rice hats out there could be a spy or a VC in wait, and if they see any slack from us—ANY slack—they'll attack. You got it?"

"Yes, Staff Sarn't." Cody barked.

"Good." Buczek then raised his voice. "Now… where the FUCK is Gibson at?"

Upon hearing his name, Gibson peeled away from Kim and jogged back over to the trio, stepping up in front of Buczek. "Right here. Staff Sarn't?"

Jai blinked as he saw Buczek put a hand on Gibson's shoulder. The Staff Sergeant then gestured out to the rest of Gibson's squad, which were still occupying the semi circle shaped formation around Kim and the elders.

"Gibson." His tone was calmer than usual. "Can you please tell me what is wrong with this picture here?"

Gibson looked confused as hell. "My squad's providing security for our interpreter, Staf—"

"I can tell you what's wrong," Buczek interrupted. "What in the fee fi fo FUCK were you thinking leaving your rear unguarded for me to just walk up in here like that? You think second squad's gonna save your ass from any attacks from the rear? THINK AGAIN! Their ass isn't even covered because YOU aren't covering your own ass! You've been in this shit longer than these greenhorns, Gibson, you should know better! Fix your SHIT!"

Jai briefly took a look at their unit as a whole, spotting the other squads in similar formations to their own. Theoretically, they had a near 360-degree view of the area, and any given marine with an attentive eye would be able to see and engage any threat within their field of view, while also covering any other squad. What was Buczek talking about?

Gibson, evidently already knowing this, grumbled. "I'll fix my squad's deficiencies, Staff Sarn't."

"Excellent!" Buczek smiled… before turning to Jai. "Now, you… Private…"

"Perryman, Staff Sergeant!" Jai said.

"Private Perryman… let me ask you this." He leaned in uncomfortably close to Jai's face. "Do you like me? Are you enamored by my beautiful face, enraptured by my picture-perfect physique?"

Jai wasn't sure whether or not to break into laughter or wrinkle his nose in confusion, or both, so he just stared at the man. "Staff.. Sergeant…?"

"I'm only asking you this question…" His voice trailed off. "…Because, Private Perryman, you have just been standing there, lookin' at me, doing absolutely FUCK ALL, THIS ENTIRE GODDAMN TIME. What is your malfunction, marine? When I give your fellow marine a task, I expect that task to be EXECUTED. I expect you to DO IT. I expect to see CHANGE happen right away. And I expect to see a marine guarding the GAPING FUCKING HOLE in the rear of your formation. I'm gonna need you to WAKE. UP."

He emphasized his last point by clapping his hands twice in Jai's face. "Capisce?"

Before he even had the chance to reply, the world around him froze.

Jai's eyes then began to focus on something out in the rice fields, past Buczek, and past even Kim and the rest of the squad.

There was a woman with short black hair standing in the rice paddies, her calves submerged in the water. She wore the Viet Cong's signature "black pajamas", a khaki Chicom chest rig, and a checkered scarf around her neck; the telltale signs of a VC Fighter. The French SMG slung over her shoulder, though, was an abnormality: if she was here to kill him, she would've opened fire by now.

Jai just stared back at her, tilting his head to the side, much like a bird in confusion. He looked over this Vietnamese woman thoroughly, unsure of whether to shoot her first or continue staring. Come to think of it… she didn't even seem Vietnamese at all, let alone American. Yes, she had tanned skin, but her overall features and proportions like her face and eyes were very much unlike that of a typical Vietnamese woman.

Wait, her eyes.

Much of her face was occluded by her hair by means of a seemingly non-existent breeze around her, even though the world was frozen. Her eyes, though, still seemed to be locked onto his, despite the blockage, and it was an unnatural, surreal, and alluring gaze that Jai simply couldn't escape from. He couldn't quite grasp where he had seen her, but she seemed familiar.

Somehow.

What the hell? Jai mouthed the words, finding himself unable to speak them.

He saw the woman raise her left hand to her stomach, her hand cupped, as her right hand mirrored the motion, though it was inverted. The fingers on both her hands touched, then Jai had a moment of clarity as he realized what was happening.

Buczek's voice echoed in his ear as the world around him melted away to a black, starry sky.

"WAKE. UP."

***

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Rhodesia, 1973


Jai rose from his bedroll slowly and sat upright. A ray of moonlight steadily beamed down onto his face as he shifted out of the brush beneath an acacia tree. To his left was an empty bedroll and their parked Land Rover, and to his right, Darren was fast asleep, occasionally rolling around in his bedroll.

The contents of the dream he had were, to say the least, vivid, but Jai was already forgetting the details as he lingered here. He hastily reached into his ALICE rig and pulled out a small notebook and pencil, turned on the angled red lamp flashlight clipped to his rig, and began reciting off what he could remember.

"Platoon on route to village, saw a weird old lady looking at me," He whispered to himself as he wrote. "Gibson helped me back up… Cody ranting about war, long winded as usual. Buczek hollerin’ to me about some nonsense about not paying atte—"

Wait, no. That's not right.

Jai stopped writing. That wasn't how he remembered it. How it really happened was that the entire approach to the village before they made contact with the VC was quiet, and deathly so. The real Buczek was loud, but he also wasn't stupid—if he had to chew someone out in the middle of a combat patrol, he'd do so in their face with almost a whisper, as opposed to a loud and proud tirade. The Buczek from that dream was someone much more akin to a drill sergeant than a seasoned marine.

Then, the woman. Jai hadn't forgotten about her at all. He wrote her encounter down in his notebook as well. Speaking of…

I need to go talk to her.

He pocketed his notebook and pen and stood up, then crept away from the campsite.

He found her sitting atop a boulder nearby, her back to Jai as she sat in silence, staring blankly upwards at the Milky Way plastered across the night sky. Faint white light from the moon above gave the enigmatic woman's black hair a silvery sheen, and also produced a white glint on the freshly-cleaned South African assault rifle slung over her shoulder. A breeze slowly passed through the area, rustling the bushes around the boulder she sat atop.

Were it not for the fact that Jai was here to question her, he would've commented the obvious and said she looked nice. He stood his ground and looked up at her. "Hey."

Mira turned her head over her shoulder, her black eyes scanning him up and down. "Hudson's right. You are stealthy, Jay. I didn't hear you at all." She then shifted her body around, facing him. "Nice flashlight. Why's the light red?"

"It's a red lamp light. Red light's harder for the enemy to see from a distance, but I can still do what I have to do with it." He gestured to the angled flashlight attached to his webbing. "Have it here so I can use both hands if I gotta use a map."

"Huh." Mira huffed. "The more I know. Guess I learned something new from you today, Jay."

"GOC still around?"

"Nope. Jackrabbit and Roadrunner left before we set up camp, did some fancy-pants extract using a Fulton Recovery System if you saw, though. You ever seen one of those in action?"

Jai shook his head.

"Mmm. It's cool. Anyways, why're you up? You're not supposed to be on firewatch this hour anyways." He saw she was checking something on her rifle, yet wasn't maintaining eye contact with him.

Maybe she knew what he was planning.

"I'm up because I had a weird dream," he fibbed. It was a good lie, naturally, given it was partially true. "Needed to walk 'round some."

Mira nodded. "Makes sense."

Jai then approached the boulder, finally making eye contact with Mira as he looked up at her. "Yeah, it does make sense, but the dream I had didn't. I was back in 'Nam, talking to my old unit. My platoon sergeant, Buczek, was ranting to me about pullin' security and not paying attention. My buddy Cody Parsons was rambling about why the war sucks. You were there."

Mira raised an eyebrow, then shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno what to tell you, Jay. Dreams are usually related to past events, or are simply a recreation of them and recent events in life, so that probably explains why I might've shown up. Hell, maybe Darren might've shown up in it, too. That's just my experience, but it sounds like you've still got memories of your time in the jungle up in that head of yours."

Jai frowned. "Thing is, that's not how that event in my memory played out at all." He shook his head. "It was way more quiet in real life, way more serious. Less talking, more doing." He paused. "More dying."

Then, he stretched out a finger to Mira, whom he just now noticed was fiddling with a fingerless glove over her right hand, as if she wasn't paying attention to what he was saying at all. "But that's not my point. You were there. Just standing there. Why were you in my dream?"

She laughed, a half-scoff in disbelief, and gestured to herself. "If I was in your dream, right, was I doing anything weird in it? Besides standing around. I mean, come on. Be honest." She smirked. "I don't judge."

This wasn't getting anywhere. Jai dropped his hand to his side, scoffed loudly in frustration, and then recreated the hand gesture Mira had done in the dream.

Her eyes widened in surprise. "I—"

Before she could finish, Jai's .45 pistol had already cleared its holster, and he held it out towards her without any hesitation at all. She froze as the control in the conversation was shifted over to him immediately, now spotting the same fiery glare in the black man’s eyes that he had when he had defeated the monster earlier that day.

"Jai—"

"I won't ask this again." Jai placed his thumb on the hammer of his pistol. "Why were you in my dream?"

A silence ensued for what seemed like an eternity, before Mira dropped off the boulder and faced Jai, setting her weapon down onto the ground. She raised her hands, as if to show she was unarmed, but Jai saw her ungloved left hand assume another weird gesture.

Her fist was balled, but then her index and middle fingers extended out, her thumb connecting to her index finger. Jai cocked his head to the side. "What are you doing?"

She whispered something and snapped her fingers on that hand, then Jai saw it spontaneously burst into flames.

He frantically backed up, nearly shooting Mira in anticipation that she was about to light him on fire. Her hand burned as if it were doused in oil and set alight, but, strangely, the woman made no remark about it whatsoever.

Jai flinched again. "What the fuc-"

"I'm trying to show you," Mira began calmly. "Have you ever heard of the term 'thaumaturgy' before, Jay?"

Jai lowered his pistol, as if understanding where she was getting at with this. He placed it back into its holster and relaxed. "I've heard the term get used by Hudson a couple times in passing, put together a basic understanding from what little I knew. Magic."

"So, you're aware of what a thaumaturge is, right?"

He nodded. Putting two and two together made this one obvious. "A magician. A wizard." Jai then glanced at the strange, flaming hand Mira was holding up. "A witch."

She snapped her fingers, and in an instant, the flame had vanished, her hand completely free of any burns or other blemishes. "That's what I am. A thaumaturge. More specifically, a combat thaumaturge. Hudson needed one for the Scouts, so that's where I come in. That right there was just a basic flame incantation."

"I see. But why all the secrecy?" Jai folded his arms. "Why've you been such a mystique to Darren, to me? I mean, I don't ask much, and I don't say much…"

He gestured to her. "But I've got literally no idea who you are, and where came from. Like, the "duck hunter" camo you wear. The South African rifle. The hand literally bursting aflame. You popping up in my dreams. I've got no answers, Mira."

She sighed. "Secrecy is a luxury only few can afford nowadays."

"I'm aware of that. Learned that in my interview with Hudson. I just want some answers, Mira." He then stopped himself. “I’m guessing Mira ain’t even your real name, either. It’s a pseudonym.”

“Yep.” She said, rather unceremoniously.

Jai rolled his eyes. “I knew it.”

"As for that dream…" Mira's voice began to trail off. "I got curious as to who you were. I’m sorry. You're an enigma, Jai, you know that, right? Someone who’s still relatively 'normal' despite being in all this… yet someone who still has room to grow among the anomalous. You’re a good learner, too. I'd wager that you’re currently the best-equipped out of all of us to adapt to this new world."

He raised an eyebrow at her remark. Just how much did she know about him, and how long could she have been hiding herself in his dreams? Was Darren also a thaumaturge? Was Hudson? Moreover, what was her real name? Too many questions were presenting themselves to him, yet he felt as if he had too little time to have them all get answered.

"Jai, the reason why I'm so secretive with my background is because I can't trust the very organization I fight for." Mira looked away, her eyes once again in the starry heavens. "To a degree, neither should you."

Jai paused to think over her words and stepped forward a bit. "What do you mean by that?"

"Have you ever sat down and thought about what kind of cause you're fighting for, Jay?" She turned back to him. "Who you fight for, and why? Do you wanna go ahead and answer that question right here, right now?"

In response, Jai went quiet for a couple seconds to think. Really, he was at a loss for words here—what did he fight for? Was it money? Fame? Was it because he thought it was the right thing, because people like his mother and his platoon didn't deserve to die from forces totally unknown to them? Was it because humanity needed protection from the anomalies, and no one else was willing to fight for that cause?

Or was it something else? Perhaps Jai had no choice at all in the matter—he simply chose to join the Insurgency because Hudson had given him an opportunity at a low point in his life, and he took it without thinking twice about it. Maybe its ideology of fighting the anomalous by using the anomalous was something attractive to him. Maybe it was the thrill of raiding GZ camps and weaponizing ancient, powerful artifacts. Maybe something far larger than him compelled him to take that business card and call that number that fateful day in Atlanta three years ago.

Maybe he was all wrong, and it was something different, but he had yet to find it.

"I fight… because I don't have any other option," Jai's thoughts began forming into words as he looked at the ground. "I don't want to go back home to a country that's turned its back on me, and I wanna avenge my platoon. I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I went through back in 'Nam. Ever. I fight 'cause it's what Hudson tells me to do, and I get paid for it, and I fight to keep Great Zimbabwe from wiping this country and its people off the map…"

Mira raised a finger as she leaned against the boulder, watching him pace around the clearing pensively. "Yeah, you think that—and those are good points—but have you any idea what the situation in Rhodesia is like at all? Any idea what Hudson's Scouts are? What the Insurgency is?" She cocked her head to the side. "Do you even know what the Chaos Insurgency is, Jai?"

To be honest… he didn't know any of this. He just shook his head. "No."

"Whether you want to accept it or not," she began, "Rhodesia's split between black and white. This place is a helluva lot better than South Africa and its apartheid, but it's still not perfect. While we fight communist insurgents, the white minority government is trying its hardest to keep themselves in charge, and they're fucking ruthless when it comes to that.”

"And Great Zimbabwe is a challenge to that status quo. Them popping up means they're rushing to remove them, before they wipe out the Rhodies, or worse," Jai concluded, as Mira raised a thumbs up in confirmation. "Come to think of it… this all seems odd that they're even fighting Great Zimbabwe in the first place. They've been here longer… But what about the Insurgency?"

"I'm not sure if you know this, but we are but a fraction of a larger, more organized, and more enigmatic group, Jai. You ever realized that?" She raised a hand up to the stars, as if to count each individual glowing dot out in the void. "There are a multitude of other "Hudson's Scouts" out there for a multitude of other countries. We're an entire shadow army that acts on both instinct and principle. Our fight isn't strictly here. It's global. It's not just against the Foundation, that locks these anomalies up and keeps their true potential from the world, or even against the GOC, that’s hellbent with destroying them all. It's against the forces incomprehensible to us, the anomalous itself."

"So we're a global organization…" Jai thought aloud, but stopped again as he felt his mind turn with the information he was taking in. How she was describing the Insurgency now made them seem more in line with the GOC, or perhaps even the Foundation, to some degree. Things weren't making sense, but then again, when did they ever really need to?

"But who the hell do we take orders from?" Jai raised an eyebrow. "If not Hudson, then who?"

She sighed again, rubbing her temples. "Jai, you're thinking of this like it's the military, not a disorganized mess of grunts and scientists following a loose hierarchy, vying for power over one another. We take orders from Hudson. Hudson takes orders from Command—Delta Command."

Jai nodded, having heard the aforementioned term before as well. "And Delta Command takes orders from…"

"The Engineer." Mira's tone was ominous. "Some telepath, or a precog, or something in between, I don't know. What I do know is that the Engineer writes the Steps of the Plan—our overarching objective from now 'till its completion—and gives it to Delta Command. Delta Command then compiles these Steps and gives people like Hudson as a Step Compilation, and from that, Hudson gives us our missions. That monster you blew up, and the mission around it? That was quite literally all part of a Plan."

She stopped. "Every single time a Step Compilation is given, it is almost always executed flawlessly. I don't know how."

Jai's face still remained neutral as he thought back to something from his dream, something Cody had mentioned before, perhaps, but the words were already fading away. "I take it these Plans are as sparse as they come."

Mira flashed a finger gun at him, which he flinched at, for good reason. "Bingo. You're catching on, Jay, and you're a lot more talkative. You'd be surprised how long I've had to wait sometimes for a new Step Compilation to come in."

Jai nodded. "But, about the Engineer…" He raised an eyebrow. "Surely you can't have an Engineer without an Engine, no?"

He saw Mira look at the ground for a moment as he said this, as if he had said some sort of taboo he was not permitted to speak of. She remained uncomfortably quiet for some time until she began muttering. "…You're right. Thing is, Jai, no one knows who The Engineer is, or what the Engine even is. From what I know, the Engineer's orders are sporadic, unorganized, and Delta Command has to sift through all of it."

"Mmm." Jai said, pondering something she had said earlier. "You said I shouldn't trust the Insurgency. Is this why?"

"Yeah.” She began, picking up her rifle again. “This entire show is built on subterfuge, on deceit. One arm of this many-armed thing which we call the Chaos Insurgency works independent from the other, unaware of what the other arm is doing."

She folded her arms. "I take it you've never even met Delta Command, probably never even heard their voice. No one has, not even Hudson, most likely. No one knows who they are—what they are—and why they do what they do…"

Mira's voice trailed off again for a moment. "…and no one knows how the Engineer gets their orders. No one knows the nature of these Plans, and how they seem to get executed so flawlessly. No one knows what the Engine is. No one knows where the Engine is. No one even knows if we have an Engine. No one knows why we fight, and why we do the things that we do, nor why we infight so frequently. No one knows why we hate the Foundation, other than that they are 'immoral reprobates' that 'keep the world blinded,' as Command once said. No one knows about the war we fight against the anomalous, and why we fight it. No one knows anything."

"Except for following orders," Jai added grimly as Mira finished her rant. "That's all we know, I suppose. We're all being kept in the dark about the Insurgency's true purpose, and we just follow our orders. Kinda ironic."

What was the Insurgency, then? Hudson had described it as a virtuous band of freedom fighters, who sought to show the world a new way of thinking and encourage them to embrace the unknown, whilst also protecting humanity from the unnatural forces that went bump in the night. For the past three years, Jai thought this interpretation was the correct one.

Mira's view contradicted this; she saw the Insurgency as a disorganized, chaotic mess of mercenaries, researchers, and commanders, all following the vague orders of a shadowy inner circle which they knew nothing about. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like her idea was true. Jai likened it to a game of telephone, where small misconceptions and inconsistencies could change the overall picture. The Insurgency truly, like its name, was utter Chaos.

He figured he had to make his own assumptions going forwards. If Mira was really to be believed, then no one could be trusted. Not even her.

He turned back towards the campsite. "I think I should probably get goin'. But I've just gotta ask: how do you know so much about the Insurgency? How long have you even been in this, to know all this?"

She knew a lot about the Insurgency, perhaps a little too much for his liking, but Jai figured it would be nice to have friends in the know in an organization like this.

She never answered, though, and he knew why. The wind dying out had caught his attention as well.

It was as if the entire world had suddenly stopped moving for the duo. The frogs and insects ceased making noise as this happened, as if they knew something was happening as well. Fearing the worst was about to happen, Jai immediately cut off his red lamp flashlight and motioned for Mira to get as low to the ground as possible, then began creeping back towards the camp.

His eyes darted around the dark clearing, searching for whomever or whatever was currently stalking them in the darkness. The trees seemed to be closing in on them with every step he took, stretching further and further into the starry sky like the ribcage of a dead animal.

It was quiet, almost too quiet, and as Jai scanned the darkness, he suddenly looked to his side at Mira, who was only a few paces away and was barely illuminated by the moonlight. He saw the woman had an intense, concentrated glare at something in the darkness that he couldn't quite find. This was a glare he knew very well from observing people like Sergeant Gibson and Staff Sergeant Buczek in combat; she knew what she was looking at, and she intended to kill it.

Knowing how rigid her body language was, he wouldn't have been surprised if she went ahead and started shooting right there, but her stature and shallow breathing was giving off another emotion to Jai.

Hesitation.

As she tensed up, raising her rifle from a low ready position… a hollow thwoonk suddenly rang out from somewhere in the woods. Jai hit the dirt and covered his head, immediately recognizing the sound of the M203 firing, and Mira's eyes snapped upwards.

The land, only barely lit up by the moonlight, suddenly became as bright as if it were daytime, as a white orb of light materialized above the clearing. The flare round illuminated the form of a tall, muscular African man covered in white war paint, and made the dark figures of gunmen in heavy combat gear concealed in the foliage around them stand out like a sore thumb.

Right before he could even begin shouting at Darren to get out of there, he heard the crackle of a large gun firing ahead of him. The force of the blast in front of him knocked him airborne for what felt like an eternity, before his back finally met the hard ground.

Mira's frantic vocalizations and Darren's screams were drowned out by the overwhelming crackle of gunfire and the hiss of magical blasts being fired at them from all sides. As he began fading into unconsciousness, Jai saw the stars above slowly begin to fade away; they were replaced by a deep, expanding blackness that slowly moved in to embrace him.

Soon, all he could see was darkness, and all he could hear was silence.

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