Stories from a slightly stranger island
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141215

You can see it when you close your eyes, but thankfully not when you dream - though that is only a matter of time. At the leftmost is the __ ___1, five hundred meters away and ten thousand years old, caked in rust and iron scaffolding. It is unfinished, as it always has been, and as it always will be. Such is the way of all scaffolded, rust-covered things.

There are also large iron rigs with thick legs that stand in the water, sullen load-bearing beasts whose sole purpose is to give and receive the great ships that pass like sleepwalking giants in the middle of the day. No more impressive than the __ ___, but no less ancient or immutable, either.

In the distance, beach houses, half never finished, half never used. Cranes watch over a pair of empty grey towers, overseen at a distance by a council of tall and silent power lines. Bare hills where the soil has been gouged out in slices, forests interrupted by occasional concrete outcroppings. This is the Johor shore. No ignorant armies clash here by night. Lights only come on when they need to. At times, there are fireworks, but they are half-hearted affairs blooming noiselessly in the distance.

At the rightmost is a lone red buoy. It moves between shifts, though no one knows why, or cares.

This is Prow duty. Here, you can choose to give a shit at five in the morning, or you can fall asleep and die, and maybe even dream. Nothing important can result from this.


271215

"They make the stock out of dead souls," the lance-corporal says, one elbow resting on the concrete parapet.

"You're shitting me," you reply.

"No, it's true," drawls the sergeant from the rear of the bunker. "They grow trees over mass graves from the old wars, then carve the wood by hand. Preserves the flavour, they say."

"I hear Fabrique-Nationale has a monopoly over half the trenches in Western Europe alone," chips in the lance-corporal.

"Well, what kind of wood do they use, then? Elm?"

"Usually oak, but hazel works just fine," says the lance-corporal. "You want something with a real tight grain and good density, to trap the eternal torment of their ethereal forms. Oh, and water- and rot-resistant, too."

The sergeant nods. "The humidity's a real bitch in the tropics."

"But why souls?" you ask.

The sergeant shrugs. "To absorb the moral recoil, of course. With a well-aged stock like this, you could fire into a room full of terrorists and not feel a single thing."

"The souls feel it for you," explains the lance-corporal. He points towards the stock of the gun, where deep scratches like fingernails crisscross the varnished wood.


020116

There are no tigers in the jungles of Singapore, which is a very bad thing indeed for the hundreds of National Servicemen training in the area every year. For while one tiger can be sufficiently sustained on a diet of one or two live humans every month, and two tigers can comfortably share a space of several hectares, living on about a dozen humans each year, no tigers feast on nothing. In this case, the no tigers of Mandai subsist entirely on the hopes and dreams of National Servicemen, which, after several days of outfield marches and fire-movement exercises, have most likely been reduced to nothing at all.

It is very difficult to know when one has been attacked by no tigers, for their feeding process is stealthy and efficient. Most servicemen only know of the sharp, pounding headaches that follow the sinking of nonexistent teeth into their corporeal skulls. Only a rare few have claimed to see their assailant as it fled from the edges of their mind's eye, leaving a flash of black and orange memories. Fewer, still, have claimed to hear its footfalls through the jungle brush, a soft whistle above the whimper above the whine that rings in the middle of pitch silence, or after a rifle has been fired a little too close to one's own ears.

Army Safety Inspectorate officials, ever too keen to spot new dangers on both the training grounds and the battlefield, have long since begun addressing this pressing safety issue. New recruits going outfield for the first time are issued fresh letters from home, forming a barrier of crisp memories for no tigers to feed on. Meanwhile, combat rations are laced with a potent day-lily extract that renders unfortunate noospheric predators bloated with false conceptions; this, unfortunately, also leaves the bulk of servicemen who consume them extremely constipated.

Another solution lies in the direct approach. While no tigers are immune to conventional weaponry, the imagined force behind a blank round or a loud yell will suffice in stunning and repelling them for a short period of time. Emptier threats - such as a dummy MATADOR or fake Bangalore Torpedo - are even more lethal, but their use against no tigers is very strongly discouraged. For if one applies such devices with enough vigour in the proper direction, they could result in the complete annihilation of a no tiger, and the unfortunate precipitation of an actual, physical one in its stead.


150116

Behind each guardroom sits a couple of bullet catchers, bright red cylinders sprouting out of the ground at an angle. Each is about the width of a human head. A little-known fact is that the tubes extend far into the earth, and each negligent discharge only serves to send yet another piece of metal clinking into the deep, where it rests amidst golden piles of spent rounds and dented bullets. It is rumoured that Central Ammunition has jurisdiction over this slice of military subterranea, located only half a kilometer west of the Air Force's underground depots and twenty meters under the lowest basement of the Circle Line.

A former enlistee of Central Ammunition tells me on the condition of anonymity of specialised metallurgists sifting the gleaming sea of metal, eyes bleached wide and white from the long hours of darkness, searching for signs of life. Occasionally, they find them. Not all bullets die when they leave the barrel of a gun. Some hold on tenaciously, remaining live long after their charge has been spent, twitching with the faintest hints of kinetic energy that only a military-certified metallurgist's ears can discern. The slightest jerk of a reflected torchbeam off a pile results in a frenzied rush to find the still-live round, until clammy hands grasp the precious survivor and place it gingerly in a sealed plastic bag, where it remains until brought to the lit, sane areas of Central Ammunition HQ. Then they incinerate it, to make sure the live round stays dead.

Sometimes, when the deed is done, one of the wide-eyed, white-eyed metallurgists looks away, though he knows not why. He will go home with a heavy conscience and a heavy heart, and arrive the next day with a small pair of tweezers and a sturdy metal flask. When no one is looking, he sweeps the stray, shivering bullet into his makeshift container, and no one is any the wiser.

The container will sit on his desk, rattling gently at first, but becoming louder and louder as the days go by. It echoes of gilded mausoleums and cleansing fire, and of finishing things once begun.


280216

I sleep in the back of the five-tonner as it enters a space quite like the one it just left, except that this space is a lot less real. The sky outside is still dark, but the moon does not move, for time has no meaning to the dreaming. Eyes strain open, capturing hints of stars; nostrils choke on sand and gas fumes. I look around, and see dark faces wrapped in smoke.

The tonner throws up dust behind, blanketing half the night in a soft haze. Headlights, as warm as melted butter, cut through; the air bleeds milk. In this transitory space, nothing can exist for long. Treelines flash by barbed wire fences, each blending into the other, forming faint impressions on the insides of my eyelids. The canopy flaps. The engine drones. The dream continues.

We aren't home yet. There are still miles to go before I wake. Until then, my mind careens on potholes beneath a swiftly-moving sky.


310316

"Pop smoke!" yells the sergeant, and the lance-corporal complies, lifting himself out of his prone position just long enough to lob the smoke grenade into the clearing and yell back: "Smoke out!"

The plume of white smoke arcs through the air, landing a good twenty metres away behind a log. As the plume disperses into a cloud, the rest of the section pours forth, weapons firing wildly at imagined targets. The sound of blanks fill the early morning air. For the moment, you and the lance-corporal are alone.

You rest your rifle against the forest floor, and catch your breath, inadvertently inhaling the chemicals. The lance-corporal hears your choking, and laughs. "Christ, what do they put in this?" you manage to spurt out between coughs.

"Mostly zinc chlorate and HCl. Nothing too scary." He draws back his arm, and throws a rock into the smoke. "Here, watch this."

It arcs through the air, tracing nearly the same path the grenade did. As it flies, it stirs the smoke into little spirals and eddies. You see shoulders, heads. Slowly, silhouettes emerge from the chemical haze, somehow lucidly translucent in the morning light.

"Ghosts," whispers the lance-corporal. You can't see his face, but you're sure he's grinning like an idiot.

"That can't be right," you say. "This place has always been jungle. It's not like they grew a forest over a graveyard or Malay village, overnight. These aren't ghosts."

"A ghost doesn't have to be dead to be real. All it needs is a good story."

I nod, slowly, at the figures in the fog. "We tell them into existence all the time."

"Yep, that's right. And the way we're doing it, it's self-sustaining by now. Look."

He throws another rock into the fog. From within, a hand reaches out to catch it.


100516

The MB will take quite a while to arrive tonight. You lie on your back in the empty lot, reclining as far as the back pouch of your iLBV will let you. Tonight, as on all other nights, a sky of sparse stars await you. Your finger lazily traces Orion's belt; you know of no other constellations in this patch of sky.

Your buddy lounges beside you. "Watching the stars like this, you tend to find the holes," he says, turning to you. "This far out, the stars usually come in all the wrong places."

You grunt in reply. No need to question it - you've seen it happen, with your own eyes. Lining up Betelgeuse with your eye and your thumb, you note with mild disinterest that it's slightly more hazy than you remember it, and a little more to the right than you're comfortable with. Light pollution in reverse, the perceptual kind, where the stars themselves are drowned out in the shine of your confused eyes.

"In the past, people looked to the stars all the time," continues your buddy absent-mindedly, lost in his own thoughts. "There aren't enough people to see them anymore. That's why they twinkle and fade, as if they aren't sure of themselves anymore. See, the black patch there used to be his head."

He points, and your eyes follow skyward. Sure enough, a hazy patch of sky no different than a butt hangs in the space between the hunter's shoulders. You squint, and it shimmers. Blink, and it's gone, lost to the black, and Orion's headless once more.

Your buddy turns to you with a faraway look in his eyes. "Holes. See? Nothing to hold them up with but our eyes."

You wonder if the same is true for all things, not just stars trapped in the the corner of the fabric of some forgotten sky. You wonder when's the last time you've seen a civilian, when's the last time you've seen the outside world. A week? Maybe more.

Slowly, the edges of the sky begin to fray.


270616

They're rolling out antiperceptual camouflage in some units, freshly printed prototypes from the laboratories of the DSTA. While digital camouflage works by making the wearer appear like the average shade of their surroundings, thus blurring the physical impression of the wearer in the viewer's eye, antiperceptual camouflage performs by blurring the mental image of the wearer in the viewer's mind's eye.

It was a logical progression, really: the modern pixelated camouflage pattern was invented to solve the problem of conventional camouflage's lack of versatility. Solid patch uniforms of the First World War were useless in close-quarters jungle combat, while the distinctive patchwork design of US Woodland was marginally conspicuous from certain distances - not to mention garish and passé. Modern camouflage patterns thus utilise fractal arrangements of pixels arranged such that they resemble a drab nondescript smudge of background when viewed from afar, yet appear as a mass of indistinct patches of green and black at close range. The eye is easily tricked by such tricks of colour and light, borne by the innate human instinct to make sense of a world that does not.

Perceptual camouflage works in similar ways, borrowing the the swirling stripe patterns of the no-tiger: the fractal edges of the cloth blend with the edges of one's memory, appearing as part of one's background mindscape when not thought about, and dissolve into a chaotic mass of hazardous sensorium when focused on in detail, causing the brain to shut it out entirely in self-defense. In fact, issuees of the new camouflage are warned not to take it out of its protective casing unless absolutely necessary, and only to gaze upon it for limited periods of time. Certain units, it is rumoured, carry within each section a bottle of 30-proof alcohol just to deal with the accidental side effects.

All in all, this leads the camouflage pattern to occupy negative memory space; with the right application of face paint, the mnemonic vacuum extends to even the wearer themselves. In field tests, entire platoons have been known to sneak up on enemy positions undetected, only being noticed when the first blanks were being fired. Curiously, a few antiperceptually-cloaked uniforms became visible for a brief few seconds when fired upon by the empty shells, which is surprising until you learn that the shadow of a soldier can be killed by the shadow of a bullet.

Of course, as with all items issued to the common soldier and signed off with a many-lined form, antiperceptual camouflage has had its fair share of complaints. The sleeves itch, and the material leaves a powdery black residue in places when rubbed the wrong way. And despite safety precautions (including the aforementioned alcoholic antidote), wearers regularly complain of headaches, dizziness and sore eyes.

It remains a curious fact that no one is actually sure which companies, divisions, or even vocations, have access to this new material. Neither is it clear just how many units were produced. Detractors say the existence of antiperceptual camouflage is merely a lie, spread to boost the standing of the army's technological prowess or to secure more funding for its research subsidiaries. Others say that it is a story spawned from the overactive mind of a daydreaming recruit. One trooper I met on guard duty one night told me a different, more fanciful story: that antiperceptual camouflage had already been in full circulation since 2005, and as a result entire battalions have since ceased to exist.

I thought he was joking right up to the point when he disappeared into a coy line that wasn't there.


140716

This can of lubricant shouldn't have been here. The storeman, while cleaning the armskote, found it fresh in an unopened cupboard, complete with a 17-C order form dated two weeks in the future; he promptly sent a 17-B form to HQ dated two weeks in the past to rectify the glaring temporal discontinuity. It turned out that the oil was quite effective anyway, being able to remove rust and carbon deposit even before it being formed.

You cock your rifle and bloodstained bullets fall out, recovered from futures that never happened.


300716

Next stop, Bishan. The door on the left says THIS SIDE in LED-lined block-letter, but the station's pulling up on the right. And the boy in smart number 4 staring at his phone, facing the rushing subway wall, bag in hand preparing to disembark. Please mind the platform gap. You think of telling him he's going the wrong way, but then the train stops and the door opens and you can only watch as he's swallowed as he unknowingly, willingly, steps through the wall.


041016

"It's a common story," you tell your friend over the crunching of leaves and breaking of branches underfoot. "Don't tell me you've never heard it in your unit. Or in Tekong, at least."

"You hear things, here and there, in HQ," he mutters, ducking between two trees. You help him through it. Bark comes off on both your clothes. "But desk job's a desk job at the end of the day. It's all stories. I just don't get out much."

"Well, there's the classic one where the OUV is sent to reach a training ground somewhere in Mandai or Gedong or somesuch. It doesn't get lost, or anything, but somehow every turn is taking longer than it has to be, and every straight stretch going further than either the driver or the VCom ever remembers it to be. Turns become circles and roads become loops. After what seems like ages they finally reach the training shed - only to find that only a few minutes have passed since they started out."

"You sure? Seems to be that it'd make more sense that they've only been driving for a few minutes, but in reality, whole hours have passed."

The trail fades here. You check your GPS, and push yourself tentatively into the forest's edge, trying to discern a route of least resistance. "Why do you think that?"

"Dunno. The story feels better this way."

"Well, I might have heard it that way once or twice. One time the journey took no time at all, but the driver and VCom just find themselves exactly where they started."

"Kind of like how every civilian discussion between us just turns into army talk, huh?"

"Fuck, did we do it again? I hate it when that happens."

There, where the trees are thinner and the ground slopes up. You bash into the bush, careful not to trip on roots, narrowly dodging the pincushion-frond of a raffia palm, and your friend follows, pushing the foliage aside in your wake. The ground is drier here, but not by much, and soon both your shoes are caked in rotting leaves and mud.

"Booking out to go outfield," you muse. "Man, the irony is real."

"Wait." Your friend signals you to stop. "What's up ahead?"

"It looks kind of familiar." You squint your eyes. The ground ahead slopes sharply upwards, in a scene that is both intriguing and familiar. That hill, in Taiwan or Tekong?

No, something bigger. You follow his gaze upwards, where the leaves and mud arc, where the branches grow back into themselves and spread roots into other branches, climbing higher still, and the forest floor curves to touch the sky.

"Fuck, dude. We just figure-eighted again."


211016

Time stops every morning at around 0515 at the 'C' coy building. You should know, as you were the one who discovered it.

Your eyes would open, inexplicably, to frozen air: air held fast, air suspended, thick and heavy and moist, moonlight floodlight from the opposite block triggering false circadians and the music from your phone a dead silence, six hours since the last track ended, hanging suspended too in the space between the plastic and the ear. Ears would listen expectantly for a sound, any sound, hearing none but a stillness that resembled death. And you would know that time had stopped, truly stopped, because thought was suspended too, trapped in ever-nearing cycles of lucidified dream, trapped in dead time.

You were not dreaming. You felt your body still, your sheer physicality, fleshy weight, dead weight held fast by its own awareness of itself. Moistness beneath the sheets. Soon it happened often enough that you were certain you were not dead. But what does a restless youth know of death? Of the stillness beyond the soul?

The stillness beyond time will have to suffice. At length you taught yourself to move without moving, dream-walking through the frozen air, wandering the coy line, as ghosts do, action without form, motion without thought, without intent. Most times you lay still, and simply be. It is easier that way.

Treasure this moment thus. You will not be seeing it for very long.


221116

Parade day. Despair consumes you. Not the drudgery of what came before, but the blankness of what comes ahead. Fearfully, you return to your bunk, only to find a single, live, round shivering on your pillow.


281116

Okay, folks. Time for a true story - or, well not entirely true, of course, for mouths and fingers are clumsy and corrupt truths in the sheer telling of them. But true enough, or stitched from truth, which is the best I have to offer, and that makes it a real story anyway.

So this happened in one of the jungles. It doesn't matter which one, because the stories don't care. But for completeness's sake, we can pretend that this happened in Asrama - Asrama, remember? Where the tigers aren't and the ghosts shamble through plumes of popped smoke. A third time, a third charm, and the third time's the charm.

You're on patrol, your buddy and you, a different buddy from before (Every story, the buddy is different. I say this now so you know, though I do not think it matters.), and it's nighttime and the half-moon is low and yellow through the thickets of gray trees silent in the windless night air. Humidity grips you like a vice, and your sweat hangs inside your helmet; you can feel it cold against your skin. The lights are ambient city lights, reminding you that you're never truly far from home, and they cast a purple glow on the edge of the trees' horizon, diffusing into your vision in a lit haze.

It's in this light that you see the village for the second time, or what's left of it: concrete slabs, the top crumbled off like pastries, around shoulder-level high, just a few metres off the side of the road. Leaves barely obscure the layout of rooms, and you think you can see small, sharp things poking through underneath, hints of straight edges and reflections (nature's abhorrences, next to flat ground and vacuums - though she gives allowances for large ponds, as well as lakes). You think to call to your buddy, but he plods on, uncaring. You think it might be worth a looksee through the ruins, because strange things by day are far stranger by night, especially to the naked eye. You risk a quick nip into the brush.

You find nothing of note inside. No spooks or scaries or old photographs in lockets. Just broken glass and ceramic shards. But on your way out, something catches your eye on the bare dirt of the road, just where it meets the forest's edge. A moving, writhing line: forest ants, no bigger than your thumb, frenzying around a point when your feet disturb their paths, a mass of tight black static in the purple night somehow feeling so wrong against your eyes, almost as if you feel the same static behind them and in your skin. And then your vision clears, and you see what you've really disturbed, a feast, a gorging, a rending of something pale and white and glistening and fleshy like a peeled frog's leg, a half-limb half-buried in the dirt, about the size of a rat, and somehow, the part you remember thinking, the part that keeps you up at night while you're elbow-deep in shellscrape and the leaf litter is singing around your ears, the part that makes your skin creep in your sweatsoaked No. 4 is not the ants or the glistening pale flesh or what it is or where it even came from, but the idea that the crawling flesh is somehow sweet, sweeter than honey -

It still crawls today, when you think of it. People ask you for army tales, of tales set in the forgotten place, the space between the paths and beyond the sight of civilised roads, and you struggle, and come up with half-truths and old boys' tales. Because the true inexplicabilities don't come in story-shaped packages. They come in glimpses, half-buried in the dirt, fragments of stories, not enough to fill one's hunger, but always enough (ah, the curse of good beginnings!) to stoke it. And you lie in the dark with untold not-stories whirling in your head, and slowly, gradually, drift to sleep, dreaming of crawling black static on sweet white flesh, lying half-eaten on an old, old road …


??????

There is a logic here, of sorts. Not the logic of rank and file, of chain of command, of regimental discipline and The Eight Core Values. Or is it Nine? That logic's dead now. It was never alive. Time flows in different directions here. A watch beeps and a second passes, and a million klicks away there's a dreamer that dreams an eternity and then some. Does any of this make sense after it's all over? Are the stories beginning to leak? It's all we have, at the end of the day. Stories to make our ever-narrowing gyres feel like a journey. Stories to make us feel whole. But what happens when the stories start being about themselves?

Slowly the entries grow sparse. The outside world leaks in more and more with each passing day. Soon it will bud, and exit the world from which it was born. The heart, I mean. The logic. The dead logic, cultivated within. The one not of rank and file and whatever. Do you think it'll survive? I don't know. All I can do is tell them, and hope that they will be heard.

God, some of these entries are terrible.

I guess it was fun, while it lasted. Here's to auld lang syne.

-M

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