46: sos, six feet under
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“Colonel! Yang!” A high-pitched shout echoes far into the distance. It carries enough might to sway the waters around them, the current wavering in its tenor. Jae sits cross-legged on a sandy shore and peers out of a pair of binoculars. He had been at it for the past thirty minutes nonstop, though it doesn’t seem like his vocal cords are strained just yet. He channels his energy into loud, reverberating yells. “Colonel Yanggg!!”

His black hair is soaked, pathetically sticking to his forehead along with pieces of seaweed and sea detritus. It is futile effort to be calling out for the colonel in such a stranded place, but the thought doesn’t deter a very fervent Jae and an even more diligent Li Jiayun who is scripting some intricate SOS signal on the sand.

The SOS signal used to be simple enough, but in the duration of thirty minutes, the redhead soldier had opted to draw flowers and seashells on the curve of bubbly letters. While it is of epitome craftsmanship, no one tells her that not a single soul will be able to stumble upon it, let alone will anyone venture upon a deserted place, coordinates unknown, in the dead of night.

The two younger soldiers, despite their grim expressions, are trying to make the best of the situation. On the other hand, the indifferent Yoo Seok is off to the side, wringing his shirt dry. He’s preoccupied with absolutely nothing, and his deadpan expression further serves to tell just how unbothered he is to be washed up here.

Not everything is grim – their small lifeboat, for one, is still in decent shape minus one broken plank and one rudder that Jae had lost midway. It’s currently dragged onto shore and hoisted upright just in case they’d need to travel. Perhaps the still-serviceable boat is their only lifeline, but the First Unit soldiers had always been creative when under dire circumstances. They all collectively agree that they’d get out of this predicament somehow, despite the colonel being missing or possibly dead.

“Co! Lo! Nel! Yang!” comes Jae’s ongoing yells. It is also miraculous that not a single anomaly had tried to eat them so far, what with how loud the young man is. “Send us! A signal! If you are! Alive!”

He waits for five whole seconds, listens to the sound of wind, rumbling waves… No signal comes from the colonel, but a signal does come in the form of resounding thunder, the night clouds darkening once again as harbingers of rain. The downpour had temporarily stopped an hour ago only to pick up pace.

An unharmonious wave of groans and sobs, Jae and Li Jiayun both saddened by the onslaught yet again. It is unknown, however, whether Li Jiayun is more depressed about her SOS sand painting being ruined than about the colonel’s unfortunate disappearance. Jae seems to worry more about his expensive night goggles fogging up, the panic on his face obvious as he tries to shield the device with his entire body.

“Stop,” comes Yoo Seok’s curt instruction.

The man may not be high in status nor rank, but he carries with him a distinct kind of authority. It may be just his aura that is enough to catch attention. Yoo Seok, for his looks and alpha physique alone, is exceptionally eye-catching considering how little effort he puts into grooming. He is only second to the colonel because of his apathetic nature.

Yoo Seok stops wringing his clothes and says simply, “We’re going to find shelter.”

Jae lifts up his head. “But what about the Colonel? What if… what if he comes back? What if he’s still swimming to us? Remember that time he swam for twelve hours after we dropped into the ocean and we thought he died—prepared a funeral and everything—and then he ended up floating back to shore with an impaled fish on his back and with a very victorious expression on his face? Then he yelled at us for not making him look more handsome in his funeral picture? Isn’t this time pretty similar? Do you think he’s still swimming or… do you think the colonel is… dead?! Should we prepare another ceremony—”

“If that guy can die so easily…” Yoo Seok gives a nonchalant response, “then at least we’ve figured out he’s a mortal.”

It seems Yoo Seok’s propensity to boost team morale is extraordinarily high despite his blasé. The whole group nods in consensus.

“Oh,” Jae says simply. “That’s true.”

“That…” Li Jiayun muses to herself. “I agree. The colonel has said he himself is harder to kill off than a roach with, um, two extra c-co…reproductive organs.

“His exact words were that he has an astronomically bigger cock than a cockroach,” Yoo Seok says dully. “Two cockroaches. Which in hindsight is a spectacular claim, considering roaches aren’t exactly known for their phalluses but more so for their lack thereof.”

“He changed it from cockroach to t-rex,” Jae corrects him. “Colonel Yang said his cosmic proportions are out of this world. Sergeant Hannes had compared him to a Godzilla—ah, I don’t know what that is, but it seems to be some kind of prehistoric fictional… popular culture character back in the day? The colonel also said his junior is no junior, but a senior—"

“He changed that too,” Yoo Seok tells him. “He noticed it gives the assumption of a shriveled-up organ, and so he reiterated that all his body’s minor muscles are instead, majors.”

“Which, um, is a… valid claim?” Jae ponders a little. “His pectoralis minor is quite sturdy… Last time, I caught him flexing alone in a dark room.”

Li Jiayun chimes in readily. “Colonel Yang has a tendency to show off his powerful physique, so no matter what, he won’t be taken out by a tsunami or any other natural disaster!”

And just like that, the First Unit soldiers completely dismiss the colonel’s possible state of death, going so far to redeem his questionable character traits through a convoluted, extremely elaborate way of thinking. All talks of Colonel Yang’s intense egotism and his nether regions aside, the group also completely forgets that they have an underaged teenager on tow.

Ming Tang makes his presence so slight that if it weren’t for a small sniffle, no one would’ve noticed him in the vicinity. The boy holds true to his words of ‘not being a bother,’ as he’d like to put it. In fact, Ming Tang hardly socializes with any of the soldiers. He lives stringency to the fullest, never using more resources than necessary, never complaining about the tire nor the bullet-grazed wound on his left leg. It still poses problems for his walk even a week later.

Ming Tang stands listlessly on the shore, staring far out into the sea. It’s the weather that makes him emotionless face more poignant than usual, the rain droplets pelting down his already-soaked hair. Past twilight, the moon casts shadows down to shoreline, illumining his hair in gray and dusk blue. The melancholy in his look may be imaginary, but it fades just as quickly as Li Jiayun beckons him over.

“Ming Tang?” For reasons unknown, the twenty-something-year-old soldier is intimidated by his stoicism, her voice hesitant to address him. Li Jiayun catches him staring fixatedly into the waters and then says, “I think… I think Colonel Yang is with Noah.”

A small flicker of ease across his emotionless face. Akin to relief but not quite.

He replies simply, “I see.”

It is hard to decipher the boy, so young but so abnormally precocious. He displays far less attachment than Li Jiayun herself, and perhaps this is the reason why she feels odd being with him. The children of the slums are often pain stricken, battered and hollow, but Ming Tang is… not hollow. In fact, his eyes, so perceptive, carry an air of condescension.

Only in small moments like these will he display vulnerability.

Li Jiayun tells him, “Noah will be fine with the colonel by his side. You don’t have to be so worried.”

“I am not worried,” he says. “I just feel sorry that Noah has to be stuck with that idiot.”

“…T-The colonel has very intense ways of showing a-affection,” Li Jiayun stutters out, trying her best to defend the man. Very loyal of her, to find a speck of gold among all of Yang Rong’s obvious flaws. “Jae told me that they… that their relationship may be rocky, but Yoo Seok said they can patch things up if they spend quality time and—"

“—When did I say that?” The man in question walks over with raised eyebrows. He throws her a turned-off flashlight and motions her to follow along. “I merely mentioned that Colonel Yang is ignorant with words and most social conventions. He isn’t suited to spend quality time with anyone outside of the bedroom.”

Jae, slightly ahead of them, splutters out, “M-Ming Tang, I’m sorry that your, um, good brother is in the hands of—a-ah, I mean Colonel Yang is a good person when you overlook certain personality traits a-and sometimes he may talk too much, but he also has good looks to make up for his other… deficiencies? Actually, did you know that he’s ranked number one in the city’s favorite magazine? I think they still distribute those for entertainment.”

The young soldier babbles on incoherently. “It’s why he has a legion of… supporters? The First Unit gets good rep not so much for our mission success rate but for our looks—which is strange to hear, but despite my mediocrity, Colonel Yang and Yoo Seok fully make up for everything else. Oh! I should tell you about how we get free meals at the canteen because of them…”

As the group of four makes their way down the shore, Jae narrates countless anecdotes. Stories of when the First Unit was sent to patrol the outer border, stories of when they frequented bars during their free time, of when Yoo Seok fell asleep on duty, when Li Jiayun bumped into a colossal alpha and subsequently got into a fight.

“Colonel Yang slugged him so hard he flew backward,” he says animatedly. “He crashed into a storefront and ended with both of his legs broken. He threatened to get revenge the next day but then he ended up getting slugged again – he never showed up after that. It’s a pity that the store was our favorite barbecue. Sergeant Hannes and Colonel Yang used to down gallons of alcohol in there. Now… well, now the place is probably closed. We haven’t been back in a while.”

Surprisingly, Ming Tang speaks up. “What is it like?”

The boy had been listening intently despite the trivial topic. There’s blooming curiosity and wonder in his face, a very uncommon look for him. For once, he seems more like his age – rounded-out eyes, straightened brows, softer features. Innocence.

Jae may not be receptive of this change, but he’s pleased to keep talking.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much entertainment in the city because we’re all expected to contribute in some productive way. The Nexus only has finite resources after all. A lot of allocation goes into the science and medical fields, combat technology, army recruitment…”

The young soldier pauses a little. As the rainfall gets heavier, his words carry more weight. Jae, perpetually lighthearted, lets out a small sigh.

“There’s also a placement exam of sorts when you reach of age to determine your qualifications and…” Jae’s smile doesn’t match his countenance, “if you don’t fit into any category as a beta, you’d likely live in the outer border.”

“Is it bad?” Ming Tang asks.

“It’s not as bad as being thrown into the slums.” Jae brightens up again. “But I’ve lived in both, and I like roaming outside instead. It is quite good to be a soldier!”

Yoo Seok taps him on the shoulder, cutting off further conversation. “Let’s hurry. We should find our way to a base before sunrise and contact Command. You lead the way, Jae.”

Jae stares at him awkwardly. “…Hyung, I don’t know where we are. Where am I leading us to? And how?”

A raised brow. “Can’t you simply read the stars?”

“…No?” Jae looks to Li Jiayun for confirmation. She shakes her head in return, looking more and more like a deer in headlights. “It’s not in our soldier manual to learn that. I can only read maps and outline terrain, but when it comes to… star navigation, I have nothing.”

“Then you can rely on intuition,” Yoo Seok says simply. “Instead of reading up on strange sea creature mythology, you should pick up a book or two on astronomy.”

“But—"

“Lead the way.”

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