The jeep’s engine sputters along as we head over the bridge. There’s seven of us in total: a driver, gunner, four soldiers, and me. I’m the only one with his seatbelt on, and I’m sure the driver is taking wide, exaggerated turns just to mess with my stomach. There’re so many abandoned cars on the bridge that I can’t call him out though. When Lieutenant Rodenski ordered this group to escort me over, the man sitting across from me introduced himself as Horacy Michalec.
I shift awkwardly in my seat, each peldak here is at least a head taller than me. “So, what were you men doing before all this started?”
“Your mom!” Michalec slaps his knee as the other soldiers erupt in a flurry of laughter. The soldiers on my left and right playfully push me back and forth, and the other to my front left wipes a tear from his eye.
“…” I sigh, “how old are you?”
“Old enough to be your great grandfather, boy. Well, heh, with how many Monsoo women I’ve been with? I might be! Haha!” The four peldaks in the cabin start passing around high fives, and Michalec leans back with his arms crossed, basking in the praise.
“Ah,” I say. “What’s your job in the peldak army, might I ask?”
“We’re just volunteers, really.” He reaches forward and pats my knee, “joking aside, I wasn’t actually with your mom a few hours ago.” He leans back and gives everyone a moment to stop giggling. “No, we were cleaning up around the base and then the bombs started falling. We were sent out to the bridge to assist anybody stuck or wounded, then communications went down so Lieutenant Rodenski had us stay put.”
“Volunteers? What do you mean, you’re not soldiers?”
Michalec raises an eyebrow and sneers for a second, “of course we’re soldiers! We’ve got the armor and the training after all. Once you become an adult, every peldak joins the military for 20 years. I plan to stay in when I’m finished, since there’s a big war going on, but not everyone does. So, we bust our asses helping around the base, do shooting practice and strength training, and have the rigid peldak discipline drilled into our brains so we can become the model citizens the Peldak Protectorate needs us to be!”
I grip my seatbelt tight, “so you’re not real soldiers then!?” I frantically look around the cabin, “wh-where are all the battle-hardened warriors, the guys who’ve lived through thousands of campaigns?”
The boys recoil at my question, and the peldak on my right speaks. “One, we are real soldiers. We’re proud gears in the vast peldak war machine. Two, they all probably went west to chase off the gurant artillery. Our seniors could only stop the bombardment because they knew we were keeping things tidy at home, so you’re welcome.”
I grab my chin and think for a second. “Ah… that’s what happened. The rea-… ‘experienced’ soldiers were lured out into the jungle and all that was left for the city’s garrison was a bunch of kids. That’s why the gurant have had free reign of the place.” I look up and notice their scowling faces.
Michalec huffs angrily, then lets out a sly smile, “actually, no. Those ‘experienced’ soldiers weren’t sent out to stop the gurant.”
The man on my left plays along, looking to his comrade with a raised eyebrow. “Really? Then where were they sent?” I don’t have to be a genius to figure out what’s coming.
“Yeah, they were all headed to his sister’s house! Hahaha!”
They all start passing around more high fives, continually making jokes at my expense. They say I’m short compared to them, that I’m an infant compared to them, and they say I’m not very muscular. They never mention my wife though, adultery is a capital offense in their culture, and not something to joke about.
It finally dawns on me that these ‘men’ are basically just teenagers on an after-school fieldtrip to the army. I’m in a small metal box, on a bridge owned by the empire, with only these guys standing between me and death. I reflexively tighten my seat belt and raise my arm to grip one of the handles.
I turn my head to look out the small window behind me. The bridge is full of abandoned cars, and the sky beyond the railing is thick with black smoke. I still see boats out there, yet not a single warship is on the horizon. As the bridge continues to roll by, I start seeing shot up cars and… bodies.
The driver’s voice echoes through a small speaker, there isn’t much static. “We’re coming up to where the gurant set up. Don’t mind the machine gun, we’ll be through I’m just a moment.”
I shoot my hands up to my ears just as the machine gun opens up, but it’s surprisingly not that loud. The cabin must be muffled, and the foam the doctor shot into my ears must be doing wonders. The jeep is arranged with the driver in the front left, and the gunner sitting to his right. The machine gun sits atop the passenger seat; he has to undo a hatch on the roof to access it. The cabin where I’m sitting is behind those two, with then chairs facing inwards, and a metal ramp door on the back hatch.
The jeep shakes as enemy bullets plink off the hull, and the machine gun pumps away bullets.
“I-is this cause for concern?” I yell.
Michalec smiles, “not unless you’re a pansy! Ha!” More high fives. That wasn’t even clever…
“W-would you take this seriously! We’re being shot at!”
The peldak on my left slaps my back. “Relax, guy. No way their dinky little bullets can pierce through this armor. They’d need high explosives for that, but using them on a suspension bridge would be suicidal. And even if they are suicidal, our gunner should have them pinned down, so it isn’t a worry.”
I gulp. It makes a lot of sense, but my stomach is reeling, “if you say so.”
Michalec leans forward, “come to think of it, why exactly are we escorting you across this bridge?” There are nods in agreement from the other men.
It’s a… very casual question to have when our jeep is under fire, but okay. “I-I made friends with a sayran and shot at those imperial agents back at the bridge, so Lieutenant Rodenski agreed to help me across.”
The boy on my front left leans forward on his knees, “sure, sure, but why do you want to get over there? What are you actually doing?”
I look down, “I just have a bad feeling, alright? My wife and kids are over on this island, and I feel like I should go to them, no matter the risk.”
Michalec raises an eyebrow, “you have kids?”
“Two of them.” I look around at the faces of the soldiers, it seems I’m alone in that regard. They nod in approval, but I think I can go further. “And a loving wife who greets me every time I return from work with a smile, and a homecooked meal.”
The young men tighten their jaws and send sharp glares my way. I can’t deny this sense of victory in my chest
“So.” Michalec says, “your kids. What are they like? Raising them, I mean.”
My smile is radiant, that was such a desperate pivot to avoid me bragging about my wife. “Why, looking to have some of your own?”
“Of course!” Michalec says, prompting the others to nod in agreement. “Though I’ll probably wait until we find the gurant homeworld and set it on fire. All peldaks want to continue their bloodline and raise the next generation of soldiers.”
I raise my chin and look down my nose at him, “even though you don’t even have a wife yet?”
His ears twitch, “back to the point, what are you kids like? How was it raising them?”
“What… are they like?”
“Yeah. I used to take care of a cousin of mine, so I know a little bit about kids, but what about monsoorai children? Are they in sports? Do they fight often? How old are they?”
“They’re 9 and 10 years old,” I say, giving myself more time to thing. What are Chalerm and Sopa into?
“Ha! They’re still so young. So, what about their personalities? That’s nearly maturity for you aliens, right?”
A weight of guilt is placed on my shoulders. “Their personalities. I… don’t know, actually.” They all lean in closer, their heads cocked, or their eyebrows raised. “Th-the arrangement with Natcha was that I’d go out to earn money while she raises our children, so, uh, I’m not… sure what they’re like.”
The peldak on my right recoils, “aww, guy! Children need their father.”
The one on my left puts a hand on my shoulder. “Even if you’re busy with work, you need to be involved.”
Michalec nods, “no matter how tired you are, you always gotta make time for them. I’m sure it’s not that bad though. When was the last time you really talked to them?”
I lean forward, placing my elbows on my knees. “I… Sopa was doing a project for school, making a model warship. I work on ships, so after she finished, she brought it to me and asked me how she did. Well, it was awful. But I couldn’t just say that, so I patted her on the head and told her it was fine, and that I was proud of her.”
The cabin erupts in protest, even the driver starts berating me through the speaker.
“You can’t praise her for doing a bad job, what’s wrong with you!”
The driver yells over the sound of gunfire, “you encouraged your daughter to be mediocre.”
“If it’s bad, you have to tell her that, then you start over or help her improve it! Come on man. You missed out on a great father-daughter bonding time.”
My stomach hurts, I feel like scum. Truth is, I thought of helping her, but I was so tired from working overtime that I just wanted to finish eating and sleep, I figured she did a good enough job for her grade, so it didn’t matter. It never once occurred to me that it would have been a bonding moment.
“What about the other one?” The man on the front left says.
“He, uhh, it was one of my days off a few weeks ago and Chalerm wanted to go to the store. He ended up stealing something.” I hang my head, “and instead of explaining to him why stealing is wrong, I berated him the whole walk home…”
“Did you make him walk back inside and return the item?”
I raise my head, “what?”
Once more, the cabin erupts in jeers.
The man on the right shoves me a little, “you have to discipline your son! If not you, who will?”
“All that taught him was he can steal whatever he wants, and all he’ll get as punishment is a little lip.” The man on the left shakes his head.
Michalec shouts “my dad would have beat me and made me work in that store for a week to pay off my theft.” The beating is a bit extreme, but the peldaks are a martial people. Even still… they bring up a good point, I should have made him return it.
I go over more and more failures with my children. At some point, the machine gunner up front stops firing because we got past the empire. The soldiers agree with a few of my actions, but my failures far outweigh my successes.
I end up spilling my guts on a few of my worst regrets. When Natcha made a recording of a play they did at school so we could watch it when I got home from work, but then I fell asleep halfway through. When we planned to go on a trip somewhere, but then the 8th fleet was destroyed so I picked up overtime, and they went without me. When Chalerm secretly followed me to work, and I had a buddy take him home rather than take him myself, or let him watch me for the day.
Most of my screw ups revolved around just not being there due to work, or relying on Natcha too much to deal with them. By the time we reach the other end of the bridge, I’m left feeling like an emotionally dead husk.
“I’m… a bad father, aren’t I?”
The peldaks open the back hatch and we filter out.
“I wouldn’t say ‘bad’. You’re just not there, that’s the main problem.”
I stretch my back and fill my lungs with the salty, gunpowder-scented air. “Do you guys think I can fix it?”
Michalec pats my back as he directs me to follow his small group. “I think so. You’re heading into a warzone on just a hunch that they’re in danger, so I can’t say you don’t love them. They’re still young, too. Just decide to do better from now on and they won’t even remember your absence by the time they’re adults. I believe in you!” He flashes a smile and I feel my spirits lift somewhat. Even if these peldaks are young and immature, I see they know a lot more than me about some things.
When I find Natcha, Chalerm, and Sopa, I have to be more active in their lives. Forget about shipbuilding, they’re the priority.
Though, first, I’ll have to make sure I’m even alive to do that.