The city was peaceful. The grey sky seemed to blend with the destroyed landscape. Silence was broken regularly by distant gunshots and explosions, but there was no movement around the ruins other than the occasional military patrol.
The occupation troops patrolled constantly by moving along the streets that weren't blocked off by rubble. An Imperial invasion force had recently been fought off and stragglers still lurked around the dead city's remains.
Three Union soldiers walked down an avenue, holding their rifles in both hands.
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
"Yes. I checked the map, this is absolutely the right way. Now stop asking!" The other answered, annoyed.
"Give him a break, man. Everything looks the goddamn same in this place! Grey, destroyed, and filled with corpses." The third said.
A low noise came from inside one of the destroyed buildings, making the soldiers stop.
"Did you hear that?"
The three aimed at the direction of the noise. They quickly detected a figure trying to hide behind the debris.
"Straggler." One of them said as they slowly approached the figure with their rifles ready.
"Hey, you! Come out with your hands above your head! You're under arrest for supporting the Imperial cause!"
"Are you deaf? I told you-" The figure threw a brick at him.
He fell on his back, covering his face. The figure started running away as another soldier started shooting. The hurt soldier grunted between his teeth. "It's fine! Go get him!"
Leaving the other two behind, one of them chased the straggler into the ruins. Making sharp turns and going through the confusing maze of damaged structures, the soldier tried fruitlessly to shoot at his target. As they ran into a house, the runner climbed over some rubble and managed to get onto the second floor.
The soldier followed quickly, but as he got onto the second floor, the runner attacked him with a combat knife. Blocking the attack with his rifle, he kicked the straggler back, giving himself the space to shoot down the Imperial.
The trio reunited and made its way back to their outpost.
That was the routine of soldiers in No Man's Land. The Union and the Empire battled for control and later they patrolled the dead cities, hunting down survivors of the other side until a new battle happened and the process repeated itself again. Theoretically, the two factions would be fighting their way through No Man's Land to reach the actual territory of each other. However, reality was an endless tug of war across empty landscapes that were bombed again and again.
The three soldiers approached the outpost their troop had set up. It was a small two story building, apparently still structurally intact. The broken windows were used as vantage points to keep watch over the surrounding terrain. Around the outpost, car carcaces and sandbags had been placed as to give the occupants defenses in case of an attack. Inside, the second level was used only for the vigilance through the windows, they slept in the basement, and the ground level was repurposed as a makeshift bar, equipped with objects the men found around the wasteland.
As the men went through the door, they met with a fourth squadmate sitting by the table, drinking while listening to a portable radio.
"Welcome back." He greeted without getting off his chair. "Ray?"
"What?" Ray answered as he pulled a white case from behind the improvised bar tab.
"You look like crap. What happened?"
Ray sat down and put his helmet beside the case. Another soldier took the first-aid supplies from the case and started to treat his injury, answering the question.
"A straggler threw a brick at him."
"Did he get away?"
"Almost, but Dan chased him down."
Dan was on the other side of the room, putting his rifle away. "He tried to ambush me in the ruins with his knife."
"What did you do?"
Dan sighed. "Kicked him back and unloaded."
The talk was interrupted by the fifth occupant of the outpost, who came down the stairs, holding a scoped rifle. "Frank, its your turn to watch."
Frank drank from his glass and grumbled.
The other stood by the base of the stairs, impatient. "Come on, get off your ass and do something useful for once."
Frank turned off the radio and obeyed reluctantly, taking the scoped weapon from the previous watcher, who proceeded to take his place by the table.
Ray flinched constantly, annoying his caretaker. "Will you stand still for one second?"
The injured soldier growled a response. "Be more careful. It hurts!"
"Stop complaining and suck it up."
The fifth squadmate turned to Dan, gesturing to Ray. "Straggler?"
"Yea. Threw a brick at him."
"Ouch. And you got him, right?"
"You can never be too careful with stragglers. Get distracted for one second and you're done for."
"I just tried surrendering him. That Imperial son of a bitch..." Ray said as the treatment was finished.
Ray's caretaker put the white case back where it was. "Like I always say, we can't trust the Imperials. We should shoot them on sight."
"That's way too extreme, Paul." The fifth soldier repressed.
"They have no mercy for Union troops. Why should we?"
"Because we're not them, Paul. If we act like the Imperials do, what's the point of fighting a war against them?"
Ray huffed. "I hate Imperials, but Sam has a point. We can't get down to their level."
Paul sounded irritated. "Imagine if that guy today was armed! You could have gotten killed, Ray!"
"Like any other day was different! Everytime we go to the city, death is right around every corner!" Ray replied.
Dan supported him. "We weren't careful enough. I think we've been letting our guard down lately."
"Whatever..." Paul said, rubbing his eyes. "I haven't slept well in days."
"You people had a long day, you all should get some good rest. I'll get the food ready."
With that, the patrol trio went into the basement, leaving Sam to his thoughts.
"Around every corner..." He whispered to himself before going off to cook up the rations.
The next morning, Sam, Frank, and Paul went for the patrol. Dan sat by the doorstep and Ray was in the second level.
"Look! Here it comes!" Ray shouted from inside the house.
Dan stood up and managed to see the escort coming in their direction. It was the weekly supply truck that kept them stocked, guarded by two military jeeps. When it arrived, the responsible for the truck asked Dan some questions and then, he would order some of the soldiers in the jeeps to help carry the fresh supplies inside and, when they were done, set off for the next outpost.
"How many stragglers have you seen this week?" The officer asked while the supplies were carried.
"Three, as far as I can remember."
"Every outpost I passed by has seen few or none at all lately." The man said.
"Weird. Did the higher-ups say anything about it?"
"Nothing special. They say its because of how hard we kicked their asses."
"Makes sense to me."
The resupply was soon finished and the men continued their trip.
Meanwhile, the patrol was checking the market district, which commonly attracted stragglers in search of food. Sam walked cautiously, looking down the sights of his rifle. He led the group as they went through the megastore's large corridors.
Suddenly, Frank broke the silence. "Look!"
The other two shifted abruptly and aimed at the direction he pointed. Frank ran forward.
"This TV might still work!" He said, examining the screen on the shelf.
Paul rolled his eyes. "Seriously?"
"Yea, seriously!" Frank replied, wiping the dust off a sign next to the small TV and read it out loud. "Vodduk Mobile TV System. Affordable, durable, Vodduk quality."
Sam watched their surroundings. "Frank, we're on patrol. Its too dangerous out here for us to carry a TV all the way back to base."
Frank put his rifle on his back and grabbed the TV's top handle, pulling it out of the shelf and revealing its slim briefcase shape.
"It's not even that heavy, guys. Hell, I can have my pistol out too if it makes you feel any better." He pulled out his handgun with his right hand. "See?"
Paul wasn't convinced. "Why do you need a TV?"
"Because ours broke... Duh."
"You broke it."
"No. Ray was the moron who kicked it."
"What are you going to watch on it anyway? It's all propaganda out here these days."
"Not if you know what you're doing..." Frank smiled, looking at the TV. "I just need to set up the antenna and soon I won't have to keep listening to that crappy radio."
Something startled Sam. "The two of you, shut up. I think I heard something."
"Put that thing down, Frank." Paul whispered between his teeth.
"I'm not letting this baby go until we get back to base."
"Stop being retarded and get your rifle out!"
"What did you just call me?"
Sam kept his gun pointed at the store's corridor, turning his head. "Guys, seriously! This is not the time to argue! I think there are stragglers-"
Suddenly, a large black rat ran out from below one of the shelves next to the patrol. Seeing the rodent, Frank immediately panicked.
"RAT! KILL IT! KILL IT!" The soldier yelled, shooting at the animal with his handgun. The rat, scared by the shots, ran around and between Frank's feet.
Worried, Sam tried to make his squadmate stop. "Frank! Frank! FRANK!"
The shooting continued until Sam got tired of shouting and jumped towards the panicking soldier, hitting Frank's chin with his rifle's butt. Frank fell on one of his knees, covering his mouth with the hand that held the pistol. While the rat ran away, Sam returned to his guarding pose.
"Fuck! Why did you do that?!" The soldier asked, getting back up.
"You were panicking and wouldn't listen to me." Sam replied dryly, still looking down his rifle's iron sight.
"I have musophobia, you know that!"
"That's not an excuse to shoot at us!" Paul said.
"It's a phobia! I can't help-"
"SHUT UP OR GOD HELP ME I WILL STRANGLE BOTH OF YOU!" Sam yelled, looking into his squadmates' eyes.
Out of nowhere, two Imperial soldiers jumped out of hiding and ran toward the store's entrance, carrying the supplies they managed to scavenge. Taken by surprise, Sam quickly turned and fired at them to no avail. The patrol tried to follow them, but lost the stragglers as soon as they left the building.
Sam looked around the street. He grabbed his own helmet and violently threw it on the ground.
"GOD DAMN IT!"
Much later, the patrol returned to the outpost. Frank put the TV aside, planning to set it up as soon as he had the chance, and poured himself a drink. Paul sat down beside Ray, who was completing a small crossword magazine. Sam rushed across the room and toward Dan, who stood by the stairs.
"Give me that." Sam grumbled, taking the scoped rifle from Dan, and quickly went up the stairs.
Dan walked over to behind the bar and opened one of the fresh supply boxes, looking for their rations. "Jesus, what's got into Sam?"
"Paul pissed him off." Frank answered and turned his glass.
"What?! You were the one who took that TV in the first place!"
"It was stupid!"
"Maybe. But if you didn't keep complaining about it, everything would be fine."
"Don't you dare put the blame on me. You freaked out and almost shot us!"
"I. Have. Musophobia. What part of that you don't understand?"
Ray raised his eyes away from the crosswords for moment. "What's that?"
"The fancy name for being terrified by rats." Paul said.
"Oh, just what I needed." Ray said as he returned his attention to the crosswords.
Meanwhile, Dan put the rations inside a microwave, courtesy of the Union Central Command for the outpost teams. The machine, being made of surplus parts, naturally took a couple of punches to start.
"Wait, wait, wait... Frank almost shot you?" Dan asked after he noticed the microwave was working.
"A giant rat jumped on me out of nowhere and I, having musophobia, panicked."
"OK. First of all, the rat wasn't that big. Second, it did not jump on you. Third, in what scenario would it ever be reasonable to try to shoot a rat when you have your other hand busy?"
"Was that what pissed Sam off?" Dan asked.
"Well, not exactly..." Paul tried to explain. "I was trying to deal with Frank, but then, Sam snapped and started yelling at us... And then two stragglers managed to escape."
Ray looked away from the crosswords again. "Let me see if I get this straight. Basically, your bickering was so awful you managed to not only make Sam mad, but also make him, the best shot in this house, unable to hit any of two stragglers."
Paul sighed and closed his eyes. "...Yea..."
"Amazing. And all that because of a TV?"
"Because you broke the other one." Frank growled.
"It was already broken when I kicked it."
"I just messed up the settings. I could've fixed it if you didn't wreck the screen."
The discussion continued while Dan put the containers with their rations on the table. Before joining them, Dan took one of the meals upstairs.
On the building's second level, Sam watched the house's surroundings through the scope of the rifle. Theirs, like most Union outposts, was some minutes of walking away from the dense urban area they patrolled. Sam periodically changed his focus between the road that connected them to the rest of the world and the dead city.
Dan quietly put the food on the floor next to Sam, who thanked him without looking away from the scope.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm tired, that's all."
"We'll find those two tomorrow."
Sam sighed. "I don't care about the stragglers. I worry about Frank and Paul."
"They are always squabbling and can't stay focused. The Imperials could've ambushed us today and we wouldn't have a chance." Sam turned to Dan. "You guys are my team. And I refuse to let any of you die because of something stupid like that." He returned his eyes to the scope. "I just need some time alone to think."
"I understand." Dan said as he went back to the stairs.
Sam was, once again, left to his thoughts.
"You're going to guard this house together, and that's final!" Sam was yelled at Frank and Paul. The squad had decided that Sam, Ray, and Dan would patrol that day, while the other two would stay in the outpost. This obviously led to some intense arguing by the doorstep.
Behind Sam, who yelled continuously, stood Dan and Ray, holding their rifles and ready to begin patrolling.
"Do you think Sam's plan will work?" Dan quietly asked to Ray.
"They have their problems... But they're still friends. They'll eventually remember that."
Frank and Paul finally went into the house.
"Come on, we have a lot of ground to cover today." Sam said, rushing by his other two squadmates, who followed him into the dead city.