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CHAPTER 1 - Imaginary friend

Sample Chapter: Welcome

            Kai stood in front of the mirror, futilely trying to adjust his uniform to look polite. This was his spare, kept in the back of the closet and un-ironed since he picked it up from the wash - months ago. Despite tugging and pulling, wrinkled lines criss-crossed the sand-colored shirt and pants. Sighing, Kai grabbed his beret and put it on. He glanced one more time into the mirror. Passable. It would be dark in the room anyway.

            Kai opened the door and instinctively duck-and-rolled as a purple ball careened over his head.

"Hah!" the ball squeaked and stopped midair two feet away. It turned into a miniature boy. Kai got up and cursed under his breath. This was exactly the kind of behavior he'd been trying to avoid. Normal people didn’t randomly roll across hallways. 

            He looked around, but luckily nobody saw him. He gave the boy an annoyed look then silently headed for the exit. Normal people did not talk to themselves.

            The boy laughed, changed into a bee and buzzed away, likely to set up an ambush somewhere more public.

            Kai's watch showed 1650 - the meeting was scheduled to start in 10 minutes. Breath misting in the chill air, Kai headed towards the 5th platoon's headquarters. Around him, army engineering crews and civilian contractors scuttled to finish the work before the last rays of daylight vanished. They’d been reconstructing buildings damaged in the recent earthquake. It was the second one in a year. 

            It was unusual to see so many civilians inside the compound, but the army couldn’t spare enough soldiers for the manual labor and to keep the farms, the city and the surrounding areas safe. 

            Speaking of danger… Kai carefully studied his environment. He felt Sari’s presence nearby, but saw no purple light. He continued to walk. To his surprise, Sari waited for him in front of the entrance, in the form of a tiny soldier, full uniform and all.

            "You are late, Private Erel!" Sari chastised as Kai approached. Kai suppressed a grin, not wishing to encourage the little devil. Ignoring a creature whose only goal in life was to embarrass Kai in public was an acquired skill.

            The building had been recently repaired and the walls still smelled of fresh paint. Kai followed the hallway to the open seminar room doors. 

            Most people were already here, quietly talking to one another. Kai recognized a few he’d worked with in the past. Among them, one of Jake’s Lieutenants looked familiar. Hook-nosed and with short-cropped hair, he resembled a coyote, suspiciously avoiding Kai’s eyes. His face stirred a vague memory, but Kai couldn’t place him. He was new though, as the old Lieutenant of the 4th had died in the earthquake. Great, this will bug me for the rest of the meeting.

            He picked a seat in the back. As he passed, soldiers gave him curious glances and shared whispers. He considered focusing to hear the latest rumors, but decided he didn’t care enough. 

            Kai’s integration with the general forces - and society - was a relatively new experiment, in a way more challenging than the others. He didn't know what the goal was, but if Dr. Klutotekhness insisted, it had to be important. 

            "It will be good for you to mingle with the soldiers," the old man had said. "It will make you more real to them. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a friend.”

            Kai remembered snorting at that. He had enough friends. 

            Loosely attached to Jake's Easy company’s 4th platoon, three months down the line, Kai still felt like an outsider. His reputation and the preferential treatment - officer quarters despite being a private - weren’t making it easier. It was for security purposes - some of Kai's equipment couldn’t be left in a chest in the barracks, but the soldiers didn’t care. Kai didn’t care either, he owed them nothing.

            I guess being "touched" has its perks, he thought as the lights went out in the room. Touched was the word soldiers used behind Kai's back thinking he can’t hear them - sometimes mockingly, sometimes fearfully.

            "Feri..." A soft voice came alongside Kai's ear, interrupting his thoughts. "Are we going hunting?" Sari asked.

            Since the day he appeared, Sari had been using the name Feri. The sprite couldn’t say why, but apparently, ‘Kai’ was wrong.  Kai tapped two fingers on the armrest of his chair. It meant ‘I don’t know’.

            "Hmm… I hope we do! It's been forever!" Sari changed into a purple fly and buzzed into the room, hopping from one unsuspecting person’s head to another. Kai held a chuckle. Normal people couldn’t see Sari.

            Kai didn't know the little devil's origin or his nature. He suspected Sari's appearance somehow related to surviving the solok's attack five years ago, but never managed to learn more. He’d tried asking many times, and in many different ways, but Sari somehow knew even less. To the sprite, Kai had always been there. The idea of a time before he met Kai confused it, as if unable to comprehend the concept. Eventually, Kai gave up and accepted he had an imaginary friend. 

            Only, Sari knew things Kai couldn't have - locations of objects, or topics of conversations Kai wasn't around for. Finding no other explanation, Kai decided Sari was a real imaginary friend.

            Jake began the meeting. Unlike Kai, Jake had climbed the ranks - Commander of Easy company, 2nd Battalion, Captain Jake Erel was in charge of four platoons. Their lieutenants sat in front of the room.

            The lack of career progression didn’t bother Kai. He had no desire to lead or to have responsibilities. Kai knew how to fight and how to kill solok. That was enough.

            The meeting would follow its usual routine, starting with general status reports, then task assignments to individual platoons and planning for any upcoming missions. In the end, Kai would get his assignment in private. It always ended the same way, but at least he never had to kill people.

            Jake droned on in the background. "...with the base reconstruction under way, we are currently unable to man most of the planned missions. However, our intel reports state that the opposing forces have suffered significant losses as well. We are not expecting a surprise attack." 

            That’s why they are called surprise attacks, Kai thought to himself. The earthquake that had left half the base in ruins happened two weeks ago. Luckily for Gib, three days later, another of similar magnitude shook the ground near Moab. Both cities suffered heavy losses and an unspoken truce emerged. Kai shook his head at the joke of it.

            Sari, once more a tiny soldier on Kai's shoulder, seemed to have similar thoughts. He whispered into Kai's ear. 

            "Humans... Their world is in ruins, population a fraction of what it used to be, a common enemy reigns over all of land but few stronghold cities... and the humans still war with one another." 

            Despite himself, Kai turned to stare. Sari was a playful sprite, mischievous, energetic and rarely sparing a thought to anything not fun. His days consisted of coming up with different ways to embarrass Kai, saving his skin on missions and practicing his - Kai was not sure what to call them - powers? Deep thoughts on the nature of humanity, and words like ‘reign’ were not Sari's way. They were, however, becoming more frequent as time passed. I wonder what Sari will be like in the future. 

            Strange thought. The sprite did change - shape shifting, opacity control, interactions with matter; they came gradually, and the latter was still a work in progress. But a grownup Sari?  

            A sudden random epiphany struck Kai. The man I tied up! 

            The new 4th Lieutenant was the man Kai had left in the desert during a mission some years ago. Tired of holding back, Kai had left him tied up in the medical convoy’s path to demonstrate he worked better alone. People had been outraged, egos hurt, but nobody could dispute Kai's effectiveness - he’d cleared the objective in half the predicted time, without casualties. After a month of confinement in the research center, the brass conceded, and Kai was allowed to work alone. He hadn’t spoken to the man since and couldn’t remember his name. 

            The lights turned on, startling Kai from his thoughts. With only one mission to discuss, the meeting was shorter than usual. People gradually rose and left. Kai sat quietly while Jake sorted through his papers; folding some, throwing away others and generally trying to look busy until the last man left.

            He wore the same uniform as Kai, with a pair of silver rimmed black stripes added to his collar. The uniform looked freshly washed and ironed, every piece of metal on it polished to a gleam. 

            "Private Erel," Jake addressed him.

            "Jake," Kai replied. 

            Jake sighed and finished stacking the papers on the desk. Sari, still a tiny soldier, sat on its edge, absent-mindedly eyeing a bug on the ceiling. 

            These moments were always tense. Kai's position in the army was a tenuous one. Still a private, he teetered at the edge of the military hierarchy – more a mercenary than a soldier. Being the only known human to survive direct contact with a solok made him valuable. It gave Kai leverage to be more aloof than a regular soldier. Threats of official punishment accomplished nothing - they couldn't demote him as he had no rank to lose, they’d tried confining him, but he didn’t mind, and they couldn't kick him out because they couldn't afford to lose him. The brass hated it. Kai didn’t care. 

            "Your help on this one would be appreciated, Kai," Jake said, talking about the mission to capture more farmlands near the Nishara lake. 

            "I am sure of it," Kai answered, his tone neutral but clear in meaning. He would not kill people.

Jake sighed. "Fine." 

            He reached down to his bag and pulled out a data sheet. "This is your assignment. After clearing the path for the 3rd, you are to investigate possible solok sighting in Halshiral. The source is credible. You know what to do." 

            Kai grinned and took the papers. "I sure do." 

            Jake smiled back and shook his head whilst packing away the remaining documents. Then… the awkward silence followed. Neither knew what to say. So, neither said anything. When Jake finished with the papers, he forced a pleasant smile. Kai returned it. Jake wished Kai good night and left.

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