Dust Trap

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What is the next step in mankind warfare?

Submitted: October 26, 2013

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Submitted: October 26, 2013

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The first thing that we teach the new ones is to always mind the dust. Dust is your constant companion, your constant adversary. No matter how busy, do not forget to check the filters at the entrance. Currently, we use the Plastron A15 model, which according to the sales copy, requires no emptying for 12 hours. Fact is, ignore the filters for more than 3 hours, and the slightest nudge bellows up a cloud of redness. Imagine half a rowdy Pac platoon stepping in, and wheezing the next moment. You don't need me to tell you what that encourages them to do later.

 

After the dust, we tell them to remember the golden rule of cafe management. Smile. Always smile. No matter what happens, who it is happening to. By this, I am not suggesting our diners are foul; half are just boys barely out of their teens. The problem lies with the gear they come packaged with. All that armour and armament that they cannot disrobe from either because it is too troublesome, or because it requires machinery aid. The Pacs, or the American Marines, aren't too unnerving. They favour stealth over prowess, so the sleekness of their suits gets a little less imposing on the eyes after a while. It is the Pan-Europa ones, the PEs. Somehow, the old world has regressed in preference with time, once again favouring the baroque. Those bazookas on their backs. The arm harpoons. The shoulder snipes. I continue to wonder how they manage to sit and eat with what must be half a ton of gear clasped over their bodies. Sit and eat by the way, with the other troops eyeing them. The Saharans, the Delhities, the Chinese, and yes, even their traditional allies the Pacs. That is the time you have to smile, so that you remind the boys everyone is on neutral ground. That is the time that you need to smile, because it distracts you from wondering whether someone did not disable his weapons outside the door.

 

Once in a while, a new one asks me, how do I do it? How do I, day after day, moons after moons, maintain my composure amidst these? It is a question with so many possible replies, which means you will never get it right. I attempt some sort of reply for their sake, nonetheless, and usually I use examples. I tell them how the older staff do it. Such as how Teo the bartender uses the classic pub trick. Endless tales and anecdotes, the believability of which you shouldn't spend more than a second on, but yet never failing to captivate an incredulous audience. I tell them also about Alfred, the boyish lead server, who responds to everything with a grin so earnest it reminds that it is still possible for even a warring soldier to have a good time. Occasionally, I tell them about Singh, former track champion back Home. He injects his races into his work now, speeds through every serving to accomplish twice of anybody else. He does so because in his own words, that is the most practical way to get the troops fed, and out of the cafe ASAP.

 

If I feel like it, I share my own method. I tell of how I nest myself behind the cashier with an ambiguous half smile. I use that smile both to suggest hospitality, and to affirm disinclination. My message, I am uninterested in your affairs. I am only here because of a lack of choice. Because of that, leave your affiliations, your beliefs, your alliances, at the door. Like the dust, keep those out of my cafe. Come in here only, if willing, for good old Home-based cooking.

 

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Mankind colonized Mars 13 years ago. By then, our Hurtling technology had already enabled passage beyond the Epsilon system, so we came to the planet of the war god neither for residence nor for resources, but for war. We succeeded in doing what the owners of the old world could only dream about. We brought our wars to a battlefield where we do not have to be concerned about anything else other than how to kill more efficiently.

 

This accomplishment was celebrated with global joy. Defying the doomsayers too, the human race did not revert to barbarian roots. Conversely, the leaders of the strongest nations, or the Powers, unanimously agreed on something for the first time. The Sirenum Accord, signed beneath the misshapen moons of Mars. Under this, war on Terra is banned conditionally. If you have grief with another nation, trash it out on Mars. Send whatever troops, whatever guns you have to Mars, and settle your differences on it. If you are unable to do so, then eat humble pie and walk away. Violate the Accord in any way, and the Powers assume ownership of you. Immediate and permanent ownership, that is.

 

In addition, the Accord also stipulates that every nation must maintain a presence on Mars, with the nature of that presence free for a nation to decide by itself. The rationale behind this stipulation is too convoluted for me to explain, so I would skip ahead and state that the Powers, and some of the brasher nations, thus built bases and fortresses, while the manufacturing nations built arms factories to enrich their economies. For my Home nation, one of the smallest countries but also one of the richest, we opened a cafe. I know, it sounds absurd. But it is our way of announcing to Terra our position towards the Accord. We cannot reject it. Nor can we change Mankind's continued obsession with his ugliest side. But we can distance ourselves from it. We will respect the Accord. We will befriend and welcome any who honours our neutrality. But we will not be drawn into the affray. We will not repeat our past mistakes, most specifically, how we once allowed the Pacific Wars to decimate us.

 

For these reasons, it is paramount that my staff remembers and embodies our neutrality. This I remind them constantly, right from the moment of their arrival. Each day, I scrutinize the team too, because words can only do so much, and I must detect those who are starting to entertain thoughts of defection despite my efforts. Horrid as war is, it often exerts a romantic allure on a person beyond it. It incites fantasies of glory and valour, of sacrifice and courage. Nothing compromises our neutrality more than one of my guys defecting to a Power. This was how we entered the Pacific Wars, as everybody knows. A platoon of volunteers who distinguished themselves with the Chinese so much that my Home nation was assumed to be an ally. We got bombed, forced eventually to fight on the side of the Chinese. We must never repeat that mistake. Our citizens must never die for someone else's cause again. Never.

 

And so I keep my eyes open, and my mouth working. Do I succeed? No. Not remotely. I am honest to myself about my failure; the facts compel me to. Half of those who resign from the cafe end up missing, only to turn up months later with the Powers under new identities. At the beginning, those who defect do so in secrecy, now they discuss and banter about it openly. This year alone, my Home nation was accused three times of siding with particular Powers, the third accusation almost cumulating in a declaration of war. The implication of all these is clear. At best, we have delayed the inevitable. Before long, our guys will be out there too, in the barrens and the dunes. Before long, a fortress will stand on top of the cafe, and once again we will be dying for someone else's cause.

 

Dying, unless my Home nation, or I, can come up with a better solution. A better dust filter, put it that way. One that still might not keep the cafe permanently dust free, but at least a little longer.

 

With Teo, I believe I found the answer.

 

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The staff debate a lot about Teo. First about why he applied to be a bartender. Then about why he is still with the cafe. You see, Teo is a completely military guy in and out. Look at him and no one would fault you for thinking he is one of those currently fighting in the dunes outside. In the Pacific Wars, he served for 12 years as a platoon commander. Physically, he befits any stereotype one has of military men. Bulky, a chunk of brawn. Never lowers his volume beneath a boom and possessing a grin that could be both menacing or assuring. Home Dispatch was hesitant about sending him. A war veteran, why else would he want to be on Mars if not to defect? To that, I told Dispatch my new theory of how war veterans might actually be more resistant to the seduction of glory, having witnessed so much death on the battlefield before. It took Dispatch a while before they reluctantly arranged for Teo's transport, and two months later, I had the evidence to allay their skepticism. Business bloomed in the cafe with Teo around. His natural affinity with other military folks drew in troops from all the coalitions, including the opposing ones. More importantly, this did not field any confrontation. With the same affinity that attracted friendship, Teo prevented animosity from aggravating to physical levels within the cafe. It is quite a sight seeing him in action. How he, with just his grin and a punch on the shoulders, can get belligerents to settle for the same mug of beer after vehement tirades. I know it absolutely made him a hero in the eyes of the younger ones, troops and staff like Alfred. The same heroism keeps drawing in more and more troops too.

 

Because of these, I assign Teo more responsibilities. Acknowledging his experience with logistics, I place him in charge of the store. When I have to leave the cafe for whatever reason, he takes over my place at the cashier. I even delegate to him the task of leading the new ones when they go on their orientation visits to the Powers, something that I am not allowed to do under the protocols. When Home questioned, I simply told them I could not handle the visits anymore. Knowing the amount of blood the Powers have spilled, you cannot expect me to be able to face them with a straight face forever. If you want to fuss over that, find yourself another manager. Home never complains again after that threat.

 

And so everything was well. For once, we suffer no attrition for over six months. Like life itself however, good things do not last. The way it happened was something to do with Teo's brother. As he talks quite openly about it, everyone know that Teo has an elder brother who vanished 15 years ago, purportedly to join the Chinese side of the Pacific Wars. This was also Teo's reason, by the way, for volunteering in that conflict. On the evening it happened, a Chinese lieutenant mentioned something to Teo. The next moment, Teo's fists flew. Snipes were raised, armed, and mayhem descended. Two hours later, I estimated the damage. No deaths, fortunately. But almost a third of the cafe was smashed. Seven guys from the Chinese were also hurt, another four from the Pacs. Home slapped a one-week closure on the cafe.

 

For initiating the brawl, Teo was prosecuted. Using my influence, and on grounds of Teo's earlier contributions, I manage to convince Home into reducing this to a stern warning and dismissal from the cafe. The evening before his enforced departure, Teo came to my office. First he handed me handwritten apologies to be given to all the troops injured in the brawl. Then he thanked me.

 

"You don't have to," I told him.

 

"You know what I mean," he said.

 

"In that case, you can thank me by never coming in here again."

 

That famous grin of his. "I remember your instructions. I spoke to Colonel Holden earlier too. I didn't know you guys know each other for over ten years."

 

"The Pacs always talk too much. If you speak with Holden again, remind him this is the third time he fought inside my cafe."

 

He had more to say. But we both knew that it was inappropriate. So we just shook hands, and left it at that. The next day, Teo did not turn up at the launchport. According to rumours, he joined the Pacs, under the new name of Cheung.

 

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At the start of the Pacific Wars, my Home nation declared itself independent of all coalitions. Despite that, we maintained a humanitarian station on one of the Midway islands. One opened to the wounded from any of the conflicting Powers. We did so to put to rest constant efforts by the various factions to enlist us. That station we sustained that for 16 months, before the controversies, the accusations, the sneak bombings, forced us to the Chinese. We lost 200,000 citizens in that war. Teo's brother was one of them. I know, because I was Teo's commanding officer on Midway.

 

When Sirenum began, our alliance was again sought by the Powers. This had nothing to do with our wealth or military expertise, or even our experience from the Pacific Wars. Rather, it was because of our attempts at neutrality. We overplayed our neutral, diplomatic role. Whoever gains us now not only projects the strongest message of justification possible, they also get to harness our relations with other nations. Aware of this, my Home nation set up the cafe on Mars. It is our way of saying, this time, we will be involved no further than this. You will not suck us in again.

 

As I said, it is ridiculous. A futile delaying of the inevitable. Teo agrees with me. Years ago, we both reached the conclusion that war is ingrained in Man's blood. Beyond that, we differ in our resolutions towards war. He believes in submitting, I seek ways of circumventing. Thanks to this, we reached an easy agreement. He is now with the Pacs under my recommendation. The last I heard from Colonel Holden, Teo is now a special affairs officer with the Pacs, whatever the portfolio of that is supposed to mean. He is also introducing two of his buddies to Holden. These two I have already arranged for to start work in the cafe.

 

Their combined expertise, or should I say more accurately, memories, should prove most useful to the Pacs. Why? Because during the Pacific Wars, all of them were stationed on the Chinese mainland after Midway. At this moment, the Pacs are in the final stages of preparation for their next confrontation with the Chinese, so they will welcome any intelligence about the Chinese. Likewise, the Chinese are also very curious to determine the actual strength of the Pacs on Mars, something Teo and his boys should quite easily uncover within weeks. My objective out of all these is to goad both Powers towards a brutal clash. Equally placed now, hopefully by my efforts, they will be so busy surviving each other, they might just leave my Home nation alone for once.

 

Home nation knows of what I am doing. I would be surprised if they aren't. Alfred, whom I long knew was posted here to keep an eye on me, never fails in his responsibility. So far, there is no reaction, at all. I take it they appreciate the beauty of what I have done. I succeeded where they failed. I achieved true neutrality. One that is not a constant rope walk on a fence, but complete apathy towards everyone and everything. Since the Powers adore their wars so much, let's now facilitate the fights, instead of just staying at the sides. Let's even encourage some of them to go suicidal. Each Power annihilated is one lesser pain for us, after all.

 

Of course, my method carries a certain ethical questionability, the least of which being I am very likely sending veterans like Teo to their deaths. I am also elevating my Home nation from the status of victim, to that of monger. I would be lying if I claim there aren't moments when I falter in resolve, such as the morning when I sent off Teo, or during the farewell dinner when Alfred regarded me with such raw loathing. Mars proves to be my pillar during these moments. Again, it's the dust. When you cannot hope to rid yourself of it, all you can do is to gather the dust, and dump it back into the open. Hopefully, the next time it takes a little longer to get back to you. When it does, I know without a doubt I would need a new filter, a better one too. But days on Mars are longer than Terra's, if only marginally. Behind my seat at the cashier, I will have time to think of something. Like how the Powers continue to find new ways to wage war, I will find newer ways to keep their dust away. This, I am absolutely certain.


© Copyright 2018 Felix Foong. All rights reserved.

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