[86 Side Stories] Triage – Black Tag/Ordinary Everyday (First Half)

“――Fido. It’s fine. Open it up.”

Shin said as he pried open the canopy shielding the “Juggernaut” with one hand, peering into the empty cockpit. The comrade inside was nowhere to be seen.

Within the “Juggernaut” that was on automated standby, the screen showed Kujo’s determination.

In the case of a “Juggernaut”, the Processor within was a goner the moment it got pierced in the flank by a Grauwolf.

The “Juggernaut”, the trash of a machine the Republic boasted of, would be severed in half if the frame around the cockpit was attacked. The comrade looked devastated as his upper body was blown alongside the frame, but it was commonplace on this battlefield.

Fido, the name given to the old “Scavenger”, used its burners and the crane arms to purge the canopy. Shin then bent down as he slithered into the cockpit. With Fido’s massive blocking, the other Processors could not see the inside

The main forces of the “Legion” had retreated, but it seemed there were straggling drone mines――each of them of deformed human shapes, filled with highly potent explosives――they were lethal to Processors leaving their suits after the battles, but Shin had no need to keep his guard. The assault rifle with the foldable stock strapped on his shoulder did not appear to be meant for self-defense either.

He reached his hand out to touch, and stood up while wielding his rifle. Yes, Kujo had died. He had breathed his last, and there was nothing more to be said.

Kujo was lucky. The central neutral system that kept people alive was different from the head or chest, which were part of the circulatory system. Even when his flank was critically damaged, he would not die immediately. He might pass on after suffering from a few days, and even then, he was lucky.

Death remained an unchanging fact, and it was better not to suffer that much after all.

The treatment priority was level 0, ‘Triage: Black Tag’.――the subject might still be alive, but was inches from being KIA, and there was no need to treat a dying man. The Eighty-Sixers were assigned this tag before they were sent to the battlefield, and this was a common understanding.

Thus, the pain arising from his fatal wounds lasted merely for a moment, and he did not truly experience the urge to die.

――Someone    save me

The Para-RAID captured a feeble voice that kept echoing away. I never got to help you. I never could protect you. I wasn’t able to be by your side in battle. Gone was the comrade he treated as a little sister, the one who fought alongside him for several years before they were assigned to Spearhead.

Sorry, Mina. I couldn’t do anything until the very end.

At the very least, she finally got some rest, and he drew a cross before his chest. Except for him, nobody else prayed. The Eighty-Sixers, unable to escape and always tormented, never believed that there would be a god saving them. To them, absolute rest came from accepting ‘death’, the scorned ending, delivered from the headless death god, especially so for this squadron.

Mina, along with Mashu who was initially assigned to this squad, had died…if I die, will God be the one leading me on?

Within the optical screen, there was their squad leader standing next to the Scavenger, which was working through the comrade’s corpse and the remains of the quad-pedaled spider. Truly the moniker befitted him, in an ominous yet admiring manner, a beautiful death god.

But despite that, it was foolish for him to think of dying the entire day.

<strong><em>“132 days till Run Out Date!! Fucking Glory to Spearhead Squadron!!”</em></strong>

“Righto.”

Every morning, Kujo would write the colorful countdown in the hangar, his palms completely covered in chalk. He was a rare Southern Black (Astra), with black skin, hair and eyes. He was long and massive, three braids tied behind his neck in three tails.

In the face of their inevitable fates, they would live on heartily, with no restraint. Such was the most defiance they could exhibit in the face of oppression.

He arrived at the barracks cafeteria, where breakfast was being prepared. In the kitchen facing the counter, there was Anju stirring a pot with a wooden scoop, and Raiden cooking omelettes in a frying pan. Theo and Kurena were laying the utensils at the counter, and Kaie opened the can of milk, to feed the kitten Daiya had brought back. The other members and the maintenance crew were yapping away at the desk, and like usual, Shin was seated a little far away in the back row seat, reading a book.

Suddenly, a distant memory appeared in Kujo’s mind, and he narrowed his eyes.

He recalled his childhood, when he was in the living room of his own home, his mother busy in the kitchen, his siblings laughing away at the table, while his father was reading the newspapers on the sofa――.  

Such was an unforgettable memory before they were all contained.

And none of them remained alive.

If Shin was to be described as the father, and Raiden as the mother, or so he thought as he added lots of sugar in the coffee (while Kino look on with much glee).

Anju, who had her long hair tied in a triangular napkin, leaned over the counter.

“It is done. Come get your meals, everyone. Also, do wash your hands, Kujo-kun. You still have chalk powder on her hands.”

“Oh, got it..”  

Everyone got up from their seats (as though there was something filthy on the floor), Kujo left the cafeteria to wash his hands.

He returned to see that someone had served him food, gave thanks, and went to find a place nearby to sit down at..

Breakfast considered of warm canned bread, hare stew and vegetables omelette. The after-meal dessert consisted of oranges and berries. There was also Dandelion as a replacement coffee, forest in the forests surrounding the abandoned cities, raised in the barracks. The menu was a little simple, but it was a lot better than eating what was made from the production plants…the tasteless synthesized food that was meant only for human nutrition.

Kujo looked around, and at a corner of the table, he saw the seat empty despite breakfast being ready.

He could sense his comrades looking over. The atmosphere was spread in the cafeteria, and soon, everyone realized.

Mina died yesterday.

A heavy atmosphere immediately descended upon the cafeteria.

For the Processors who often saw their comrades die, such deaths were quickly accepted. Most of the time, they would be anguished by the deaths late into the night, but it would all back to normal the next day. Or so it would appear at least.

On this battlefield, death was commonplace. Of course, there was a problem with this fallacy――but from time to time, it would grant a sense of helplessness. Thus, they chose to forget, to smile and welcome the cruel future right before their eyes.

In this somber silence, the bright morning sun and fragrance of the food dominated the cafeteria.

Kujo clenched his fists.

If he could not smile, he lost. If he could not enjoy, he lost.

Their defeat would be to surrender to the white swines who sent them to the battlefield, driving them to despair.

Did they lose?

“Hey! It’s a full moon three days later. Let’s ‘watch the moon’ then!”

――Do you know, Kujo? There is a rabbit on the moon.

――I really want to see it. Let’s go to the moon.

When Kujo suddenly yelled and said those words, his comrades turned towards him in shock.

He got increasingly agitated as he said.

“There’s a festival to the far east of the continent. Come on. It’s about the same as ‘flower viewing’. Right, Kaie!?”

He suddenly directed his sight towards Kaie, who frantically nodded. The distinct black hair ponytail of the Fast East black (Orienta) swayed continuously.

“Ah, something like that. I don’t really know though.”

“If we’re watching the moon, we need to drink sake! But we can’t drink alcohol!”

Kujo knew that the Processors could not taste any alcohol. If they got drunk, they could not fight. If they were attacked by the “Legion” while being unable to fight, it would be a slaughter, and their dignity would not allow for them to do so.

Raiden seemingly realized the purpose of this suggestion as he chuckled,

“Well, that’s a nice idea. We all got some free time, so why not we relax a little?”

Even the vice leader agreeed. The eldest of the lot in the base, the chief mechanic, could only grimace as the others, along with the mechanic crew showed decent reactions.

Thus, they looked towards the leader who had the final say in the matter――Shin, who was calmly reading his book, paying no heed to Mina’s absence or anything else.

“Hey, that’s good Shin?”

“…”

Shin remained silent, and in his case, there were three possible conclusions. Agree, disagree, or that he did not care. For him, the third option was the most likely.

Thus, he decided to ask again.

“We’re going to ‘watch the moon’ three days later when it’s a full moon! You fine with that!?”

“I heard you. Isn’t that fine?”

Nobody dared to answer before he gave his opinion.  

Shin closed the pocket book he was reading, and turned his bloody red eyes towards them. The title on it was ‘Second Variety’, an old Sci-Fi. Shin himself would read any books, though he was more of a browser than a reader. Not too long ago, he read an anti-war poem from a female poet from the Far East, and before that, the propaganda book of a drug addict of a dictator.

Just unique tastes he had. Such were the words Raiden had of Shin, and Kujo himself too felt the same.

Though Kujo disliked the rudeness of the boy three years younger than him, Kujo did somehow hope that Shin did understand his reasons for this suggestion.

There was no need to think about what he was reading――he was probably being cautious, looking disinterested in everything around him.

“But isn’t that an autumn thing? And we don’t have such stuff around.”

“Doesn’t matter. I just want an excuse to do this. I don’t really know how we’re going to do it.”

And Shin――in a rare moment――looked annoyed.

“…Can’t you just bring some cups and water and watch the flowers with everyone instead of bringing alcohol?”

Kaie tilted her head in confusion.

“Speaking of which, you looked weird back then. Were you planning to do something back then? Water instead of alcohol then.”

It was a pity that they could not drink alcohol, and they even prepared posh mineral water bottles and wine cups of the Far East――items they had scavenged from the wastes of the department stores..

Shin let out a lethargic sigh.

“…Nothing.”

Three days later.

There was a storm.

“Damn it…! Stupid moon stupid wind…!”

“Whatever. Looks like next month it is. I thought we could see something like this, but now it’s a complete downpower.”

Kujo looked to be on the verge of tears as he sprawled on the cafeteria table, while Theo, with his elbows on the table, added salt to the wound.

“Master, one more cup.”

“Want to sober up already?”

Kujo took the cup and acted as though he wanted refills. A pretty boy he was, but he was a thorough hothead deep instead.

Thus, he cupped both hands behind his head, leaning on the chair backrest.

“Ahh damn it. I was really looking forward to seeing that scene again.”

He recalled the past.

――Do you know, Kujo? There is a rabbit on the moon.

――I really want to see it. Let’s go to the moon.

――When it’s the full moon, it gets really bright. Maybe we’ll see it.

Such were the words Mina with an innocent smile said when they first met.

And she never got to see the rabbit on the moon. So at the very least, he wanted to help her look for it.

“And everyone knows today’s impossible”

Theo looked towards the hangar, shrugging. It was free time after dinner, and the mechanics were supposed to be resting, but on this night, the sounds of the mechanics working on the repairs never stopped.

The feeble “Juggernauts” were often greatly worn out in battle, and the parts were lacking. This was the day the Republic resupplied them through air, but as the transport pilots were greatly hungover, the repairs were delayed greatly. They had to wait until the parts arrived before they hastily began work after dinner.

Daiya, who was resting, returned with coffee in hand, and sat next to THeo.

“Finally can start work. Guess we can’t finish this until lights out though.”

Kujo snorted. The mechanic crew too had their own pride. They had to ensure the “Juggernauts”, the lifeline of the Processors, were in perfect shape, and would typically never allow the Processors to touch those machines out of obligation.

“Anything we can help them out with?”

“Shin heard about it too, but they didn’t want our help. Said that us kids can’t help much, but more importantly, it’s really inconvenient.”

The Eighty-Sixth District――this area was simply a frontline base documented not to have any people present, and thus the bare minimal electricity was provided. At this moment, most of the electricity was used on repairs, and the power output of the barracks remained low. The other members, including Seo and Daiya, were gathered in the cafeteria, and there was no excess lights in each room.

There was double the usual number of people present, and the cafeteria was a lot rowdier, with the six female shrieking away. Kujo too was looking was looking really uplifted. He never went to school, but this should be how a night in a school field trip would be like. It was rare to see the mood improving over and over again, and everyone was enjoying this happy time. Shin returned to the back row seat to continue reading his unfinished book, the terrified cat experiencing a thunderstorm for the first time clung onto the chest of his fatigues.

Kujo, being all curious, started to probe.

“What are you reading now?”

“The Mist.”

It was written by a master horror novelist, set in a closed circle.

And this was the perfect isolation situation when they were surrounded by the storm, the “Legion”, the white swines and the anti-personnel mines.

“…Perfect timing too…”

The storm was really blowing hard. The windows, and even the barracks felt as though it was shaking.

Kaie and Kurena were shocked, and Shin too lifted his eyes.

The storm struck the barracks, only to subside a little later, but the ominous howls and winds continued to bellow through the gaps of the window. The large pelting raindrops echoed loudly, as though possessing physical destructiveness.

“…”

At this moment, for some reason, everyone looked towards the ceiling silently in unison.

“…The barracks here probably won’t leak.”

And as Kurena had said, the barracks on the various frontlines were mostly leaky and shoddy to begin with.

“Well, this is the base in the most important position after all.”

Raiden answered, and Kujo gave an exaggerated grimace.

“But Raiden, the other bases are equally important, right? It’s rare not to see them leaking though. In the base I was at, it got so bad that everyone was doing a basket relay.”

“Yeah…”

Everyone (with the exception of Shin who was listening intently) looked disgusted. It seemed they had all experienced this.

“Well yeah, the baskets are our friends! Along with nails and hammers and boards.”

“Snow’s more troublesome than the rain though. The snowstorm two years ago ended up blowing in.”

“And back then, Shin even jokingly order Fido to shovel away the snow.”

“More annoying than that was the wind blowing in through the gap…the weather on the frontline is cold, especially in winter. Those on patrol caught colds.”

“Ahh, there’s such a base. The hangar at my last base was punctured through by an icicle…”

While everyone continued to talk about their ‘frontline stories (weather edition)’, there was a sudden blackout.

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