Chapter One: Home
“For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.”
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius
It was people. And tents. Tents and muds and stacked wooden crates amongst lined aisles of bobbing heads for as far as the eyes could see. But he could not see far as he was short. A little less man and just over a boy. Fourteen years old Kenji Mitsui stood atop the wooden crate that housed all their collective belongings, which were no more than what he had left school with. Like the tarps that were haphazardly thrown over most of the tents of the camp, the box he stood on had the logo – a pair of doves crossing mid flight – and acronym of the Welfare of Aston Corps stamped onto it.
Whacked. A good descriptor of how the refugees felt of the situation, he felt. Overlooked by the towering skyscrapers of the city of Mullen in the distance backed by the setting Sun, he could feel the eyes of hundreds, if not, thousands of people looking over the refugee camps in disdain. People whose lives had yet to be touched by the war outside. People who simply wanted to live their normal lives in constant normalcy of the norm. People who were like Kenji was just a month ago.
He thought of how the people in the city would be wearing pants that were dry and shirts that weren’t stained. A slight tinge of jealousy wove through him. His once grey shirt was more brown than anything, and his blue jeans had an uncomfortable mild sogginess to them after having been worn for more than two weeks straight. He noted a need to change pants soon. Running a hand through his black hair, he felt the greasiness of not having washed it in a week and wondered if he could sneak a pail of water from the collection point just for it.
A tent, a lock, and a crate. According to the W.A.C, that was all any refugees needed in material possession to survive the war. It did not matter that long lines for food and water meant you could only get a single serving of meal and a pail of water per day, or that if you were alone the chances of your belongings being stolen by the time you returned to your tent was high. A tent, a lock, and a crate. That was home. That was supposedly all you needed.
“Woah!” He shouted, foot slipping slightly on the box. His hands waved frantically to stabilize himself. He breathed a sigh of relief as he succeeded in the balancing act. “Not nice, Mei!” He turned to her.
The girl smiled back. Her long golden hair was tied in a ponytail with ends split and frayed. Her baby-blue shin-length sundress was stained with mud from the knees down, contrasting the pristine clean top. Her formerly white shoes were covered in patches of mud and at her waist was a small bag that dangled from a strap that had key chain plushes, buttons, pins, and uncountable colourful doodads stuck on.
Kenji climbed down from his perch. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes shining a playful wood brown, she held up a pack of cards. “Want to play?”
He laughed and sighed before caving in with a nod. He double checked the lock on the crate before jokingly bowing and pulling aside the flaps to the tent. Mei laughed and curtseyed before removing her shoes and rolling up her muddied skirt to her knees, tying the edge of the dress in a knot. She hid her shoes behind the crate and stepped in. Kenji followed shortly, setting his shoes beside hers.
Inside the cramped space, two cotton blankets and sleeping mats separated the two sides. They both sat on one mat each and the girl passed him the pack of cards to be dealt. Reaching inside her bag, she took out two cans of warm cola, setting one down before him. Outside food was banned from the camp, as the officials were afraid refugees would be unhappy at some being treated better than the others, not considering a few of them were starving.
Tan Mei Ling’s elder sister, Lin Hua, was a volunteer at the refugee camp who worked the ration centre and occasionally brought Mei along. Kenji first met the younger girl there on his first day and became fast friends. The sisters’ grandfather was one of the wealthiest man of his time, having invented and patented the aether generator, and had left his family with a fortune. While Lin used their financial stability to volunteer around the world, Mei had hopes of becoming a teacher. For now though, the girl, just a year younger than he was, lived a relatively carefree life.
Taking a sip from the cola, savouring the taste of fizzed-out sugar, he dealt the cards to both of them. “Is your sister done at the rations line?”
“Not yet. Just an hour to go, I think,” Mei replied, a calm smile constantly on her face. She set a card face-down between them and he did the same. “Neh, Ken-chan, where’s your father?”
They flipped both cards over. He had a jack while she had a four. It was his loss and he turned his card sideways. “He’s getting the rations and trying his luck at the recruitment centre again.” They both set another card down. This time, he got the upper hand, with his three beating her queen.
“What are you going to do if he gets it?”
“Move out? I mean, honestly, government required minimum wage and housing covers pretty much everything we want. I understand why no one wants to hire refugees. We ask for a lot. It’s no wonder it’s hard to get the jobs.” They set two more cards down and flipped. He won again. “Still, I would give anything just to be able to live a normal life again. Not that I have a lot to give.” He thought of his life before the city of Siaoshan was captured by the invading army of Westlay.
Sure, back then, there was a war going on at the waters. A naval battle for control of a shore for landing. But the war seemed so far away at that point. The countries had been trading fire for over two months and the defensive lined seemed to be holding. Not to mention that his father was no longer a soldier. Also, Aston did not have a mandatory conscription law, and even if they did, Kenji was not of age. The war was far away.
Until the day it wasn’t.
It started with a night raid and midnight artillery bombardments. Special forces parachuted in under the cover of darkness and explosions before quickly taking down communication towers and command centres. Within forty hours, Siaoshan was overrun and he was on a shelled bus out to Mullen with just the clothes on his back and the stuff from his locker at school.
Now a month later, he was playing a game of clover with a volunteer girl from a wealthy family that was practically the modern-day version of nobility. The game of life was surely broken.
Mei won two more matches. With just one more win to go for her, Kenji sets down his ace to stop her from furthering the lead. They flipped and she revealed her joker, a card that loses to every other except the ace.
Surprised, he asked, “How did you know?”
She grinned back slyly. “I’ll always know.”
As she said so, the flaps to the tent was pulled open excitedly. The man at the ‘door’ knelt inside, making sure to keep his muddied footwear out of the relatively clean interior.
“Oh!” the man let out in surprise, though unable to wipe the wide smile off his face. “Mei Ling! Sorry, I didn’t know you were here.”
“Mou man tai, Miyagi-san. And I should be the one apologizing for the bother,” she casually replied with a smile. “You seem happy.”
Miyagi Mitsui, a man in his late forties, was not especially fat, though neither was he muscular. He had a straight frame, his body leaving nothing for curves or sharp form. With short and ruffled darkened hair like his son that was always waving in the wind, he wore the patched and dirtied white singlet he had brought with him since the day they escaped their home. His cargo pants had been torn at places, with a straight rip down the left shin and a large tear on his right knee in desperate need of repair. The sole of his right boot had partially fallen off and was held together by duct tape.
The man turned to Kenji, “Son, I’ve got it. I’ve got a job.”
Kenji nearly jumped to his feet, but stopped himself on a kneel after remembering the height of the tent was just short of his head. “Really? We’ve got a place?”
“Yes!” Miyagi nearly fell backwards in his excitement as he pumped his fist. “I’ll be working at the aether plant. We’ll get a one-room apartment and everything!”
Kenji moved to hug his father. The recruitment centre consisted of benevolent business owners who hires refugees for work. Most bosses refused to hire refugees, given that they are mandated to provide mandatory housing. Because of that, the job offers were low in numbers, and getting one is akin to having flown first class.
Mei clapped behind them, exclaiming, “We should celebrate! We’ll get dinner, my treat!”
“Oh, no,” Miyagi replied. “I mean, we appreciate that and I’m not so prideful as to refuse, but we still can’t go into the city yet. We haven’t had our papers done.”
“Oh…” she gave a slight frown with a glance to Kenji, but quickly perked up a smiled. “Well, we’ll wait until you’re in. Then, we’ll have a party!”
Kenji noted, “Speaking of dinner, where’s our rations?”
His father looked around before slapping his forehead. “Argh…I was so excited I forgot.” The man got to his feet and readied to leave. “I’ll be back soon. Just wait a moment!” He rushed off, closing the tent’s flap before Kenji could reply.
The two children laughed for a moment, chatting of the new opportunity a job would bring. They talked of possibly going to the same school, and the idea of a normal life returning sparked a light dimple as he smiled. As they were about to get back to their game, another interruption halted them.
A voice from beyond the tent’s entrance sounded, “Is Kenji Mitsui here?”
Kenji and Mei exchanged glances before the latter shrugged nonchalantly. They were in the middle of a refugee camp of thousands. Any open action of violence or danger would be seen and heard almost immediately. Somehow, despite the dire situation everyone found themselves in, most of the refugees tends to stick together. A human nature Kenji admired. The fear of a dangerous stranger was one of the few things he did not worry of there.
He bowed himself excused before stepping out into the open, only to immediately realise how quiet the world had gone. The once noisy camp had been reduced to not even a whisper.
Standing on the muddied pathway before their dinghy tent was a man dressed in an odd mash-up of combat gears. His unusual ensemble was nothing of what he knew soldiers wore, though Kenji could still tell he was a soldier. Copper plated gauntlets, a leather vest, straps of holsters and pouches across his limps, all were equipped over a black synthetic fibre suit. The man’s hair was a shadowed brown as were his bagged eyes. Dried blood marked his face where dirt had yet to touch. A face that looked too young – just shy below twenty – to be on the field of battle.
Despite the odd showing, Kenji did not feel threatened by him. The boy asked, “Can I…help you?”
The soldier’s eyes looked the boy up and down, a face of surprise and admiration etched into his expression. “You’re really younger here…” Clearing his throat and shaking his head clear, the man said, “Yes. I was um…I was told to give you this.”
From a pouch at his waist, the man took out an object. Kenji held his hand out to receive the item, and the man placed it onto the opened palm.
“Who told you to?”
“Well…” the man replied, sounding uncertain. “I did, I guess.”
Confused, Kenji took a look at the item. At the end of a long strand of green chain was a pendant. A small, gleaming blue pearl with teal crystal wings protruding for the sides adorned the accessory. From the underside of the pearl, two silver prongs protruded in odd shapes of curved and jagged edges, almost like the teeth of keys.
“What is it for?” Kenji asked without taking his eyes off the pendant.
“For luck,” the man replied. “Keep it safe, you will need it one day.”
“What am I–” He looked up, only to find that the soldier was no longer there. The sound of the chattering camp returned as two doves circled the sky in the cloudless distance.
Author’s notes: Thank you for reading Absolution! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I will with writing it. If you wish to support my writing, you can check some of my other stories and books, or through my Patreon, where you can get some nifty rewards!