I met up with some of my comrades sometime after the war; we all served in the same battalion. There were six-hundred-and-sixty-six of us in the 6th battalion, none of us died. I remember that our Lieutenant Colonel was insane, he had an obsession with tapping on window-panes, whenever he saw them he tapped at them furiously – he would crawl through rubble to satiate his obsession with the glass. If we took shelling from the enemy, he would disappear into the wilderness for several days, returning dishevelled and incomprehensible. The man slowly went insane, and we had him replaced with a private sometime during the war, just after we dissolved the companies within the battalion and began to float around in a big group. We marched dead south – as per our vague, poorly communicated orders – following the river and then the beaches of the Great Lake to find enemy secrets. We never found anything, and I remember we followed that water until we left our country, passing coal mines, churches, castles and poor people wearing overalls.
Every now and then we encountered massive, wheeled iron beasts that spewed shells and black clouds into the sky, but whenever things got tough, another battalion from our brigade would appear and the beast would roll on by. We met priests who flicked strange water at us that caused us to experience great indigestion and suffer sleepless nights.
When we reached the south sea we turned back and marched home. We decided to partly march through the desert, and we saw mounds of charred Jousen corpses outside every commune, and women with children born from rape. Upon returning two years later, having fought packs of defected vigilantes intermittently along the way, we found Nela razed to the ground, four of the enormous iron beasts laying eerily destroyed just beyond the city’s limits.
We had been away long enough for the ruins to have become like hanging gardens, as the earth had begun to reclaim land it had been severed from for centuries, sending grass and running vines up every man made structure still erect. We sifted through the remains of our old city for less than a week before finding what was left of its inhabitants. Only around two thousand of its previous millions were then residing in Nela’s north, an ancient area that had been relatively unharmed by shells, unlike the rest of the place. We thought there would be more people and city left when we first found them, but the survivors soon dispelled our doubts. These were the last of our giant city.
Rice paddies and fields of rye had spring up all around the old industrial districts where pumping stations could still be operated, and it was now not uncommon to call the old factory next to the plot of land on which you farmed your home. In places where the war had been more ruinous, the inhabitants fashioned earthen walls where there were none, pulling up wood and thatching to replace long-destroyed roofs, and in some places, at night, neighbourhoods would all share dinner together either out in the open, or in long rooms that resembled beer-halls.
This was all a far cry from what I remembered of Nela.
Our battalion settled in, picked up shovels and saddles, and turned in our rifles. I began to work the land for an elderly couple, who grew tubers for alcohol, and for a time, life seemed blissfully serene, it seemed like these survivors were catching up on a decade’s lost sleep, and after every sunrise another dark ring was removed from their eyes.
That was, at least, until what happened the month before I was introduced to Harkoff.