Volume 23, Number 1


Kawika Guillermo

Just before our frontal assault on Karjah, the company’s stash of kear ran out. Since Freshwater corporation was still primarily a religious-based security firm, and our partner, Intergirt, wouldn’t even allow alcohol on the barracks, we would have to get creative. Hat and I, the greenest security consultants in the company’s branch #251, volunteered to take on this monumental task, hoping our colleagues would quit the routine hazing process. Of course, we had little intention of actually getting the kear, nor did we have any idea how to go about finding a new stash.

After three days, we feared the hazing would begin again. At night our fears were especially immense. I could hear the moans and shouts of my older colleagues in the dorms, as they buckled and strained, waking after only two hours of sleep with darkened eyes, staring at Hat and me with the most menacing looks, as if we had brought those nightmares upon them. Without the kear to let them sleep, our branch fell into disorganization. The stealth and shooting drills were barely enough to wake our colleagues from tiresome docility. They never told me what the exact content of their nightmares were, but the trauma was visible in their daily habits—waking eagerly to coffee, pushing their heart rates in physical training. What small reality was available provided some escape from those dreams.

Luckily, our branch was given an assignment before the hazings returned, and soon we were calling each other ‘bro’ from beneath white helmets, padded armor, and riot shields. Like all missions our objectives came in three bullet points:

  • Provide consult services and detail options to Karjah locals.
  • Utilize all-source intelligence analysis, emphasizing the counternarcotic problem set, including law enforcement functions and illicit activities (corruption and links to insurgency).
  • Maintain protective formation position during principal’s walking movements and participate in advance security preparations.

Our targets lay across clear acres of makeshift tin houses and tarpaulin rooftops. Damage on the civilian level was always bad publicity for the company. Bullet wounds always seemed intentional, but fire was a less tamable beast, so we used M11 explosives and grenade launchers positioned about two hundred meters away from the city.

At night we polluted the skies with hydrocarbons. Hat was as calm as ever, his eyes as wild as his thick brown beard. I could not hide it. The nerves. If one of our colleagues fell or was injured in any way, the cohort would blame it on those dreams, on that struggling loss of sleep. Only the thump-thump of dizzying industrial dance music in my earphones drowned out my nerves as I ran through the course, each pumping beat exactly in time with the speed with which I ran; and with that dark visor blocking my view, I quickly gave in to the bouncing ecstasy of the charts, pulling the pins on my grenade whenever that ‘clicking’ beat buzzed into my headphones, tossing active explosives into small white spotlights, pumping my feet and hips left and right to the groove, to the funk and pleasure of that drifting, belting pulse, that building, building agony, that autonomy of movement, until the beat dropped. Another grenade thrown, another rocket fired, in that all-in-the-moment life.

When morning came there were no casualties on our side. So the hazing seemed prolonged while our branch executed the second bulletpoint. The brown-bodied locals took to us obediently, and our translator rediscovered the word for kear: “dre-if.” During our routine assessment of non-interaction, Hat and I broke contract to ask about “dre-if,” and found only frightened brown faces. The locals seemed obedient to us in the same way they had been to the insurgents before us, who had taken over our client’s once-profitable tin mines. Every face we met obliged us only as mimics and fake imperials.

If I had known what would happen that night, I would have tried much harder to secure the drug. I would have pulled my pistol. I would have lit the arms of any brown body who knew anything at all about kear. As occupiers now, Hat and I shared the dark dream that our colleagues had suffered, that desperate loneliness, as if trapped in a dark web, paralyzed, held underwater in a sea of strange murmuring voices with nothing but the dark. Finally when I woke from my first time in that nightmare, I felt as if I had been suffering in the memories of another and that part of myself had been left in that dream. I knew I was awake when I saw Hat sitting in his bed, his pistol out, his eyes pondering the weapon. I knew then that simply escaping into our real world was not yet enough. Without the kear, every night there would be only the terror upon waking, only the grip of needing to wake and the shaking to escape.

The next morning we called out to every brown body we could find, “dri-ef!” “dri-ef!” our hands in smoking gestures so they all knew what we wanted. It took three hours before we found a small boy, still unfamiliar with the stonewalling tactics of his kind, who pointed us toward the tall grassy hills in the far-off distance. We returned to base at once to change into our light camos and gather submachine guns, in case we made contact with the insurgents of the hinterlands.

All afternoon we walked, passing farmers and small stone dwellings, until our feet became sore. All the while Hat stared heavily at the lines of grass in the field, as if he were going to plunge into that void of dust and darkness in front of him, as if hoping to step upon an IED that would send him, life and soul, from that darkness. Every farmer who saw us also saw our camos, and perhaps knew that we had broken contract—that their lives, too, were caught up in the tyranny of our fake empire. They pointed us in the same direction, and it wasn’t until sunset, after so many hours of walking, when we came across a young boy smiling at us, teeth black with kear. He pulled us into a large straw hut, where there stood a mountain of green cut-up leaves, the kear we had been searching for. I could only watch myself from afar as my arms hugged the pile. Tears wet my face. Those dreams, those anxieties, those webs, suddenly lifted into the coarse and violent wind.

When we returned with the stash, no formal celebration was held, but the hazing was replaced by the nodding approval of our peers. Thus, our trial of initiation was over; we were soon promoted from cadets to accepted men of the company, and it was always ‘bro’ even without the helmets. It was thanks to us and our stash that we were able to hold Karjah and extend our contract for another month. From then on I woke up with a desire to start each and every day anew, in the innocence of my youth, with only the dreams of blessed, half-awake buzzing, of a simple lapse of time on the edge of an oblivious nothing-to-nothing drift.