“Society honours its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.”
Lei Zao Xun was a pacifist by nature. It was a trait he cursed daily, for in Chairman Mao’s China, such a philosophy was considered heretic, bordering on treacherous. In his early years he had walked a flimsy tightrope, caring to air his views far more freely than society tolerated, but soon the streets of Beijing had taught him the value of violence. Violence is respect. Violence is power. That was the message drilled into his core by every kick and punch they threw at him, every tooth he swallowed, and every cut and bruise he endured at the hands of the propaganda-injected masses he called his peers. He had learned to respect them, of course, but he pitied them, because in his eyes, they were no more than the uniform strips of a single, vast, monochromatic barcode – A barcode that he had no desire to be a part of. In fact, he often dreamt of leaving, racing into the warm, welcoming embrace of the West. Alas, the dream was just that, a richly constructed pseudo-reality. As long as he spent his time lying in pools of his congealed blood, with the gritty scent of defeat clogging his nostrils, he’d never leave, restrained by the rusty shackles of his own damned longing for peace. He often chuckled at the realisation – the tragic irony never escaped him.
The chuckling abruptly stopped as, one day, his father ran into his bedroom beaming from ear to ear – an expression which came off very unnaturally on the seasoned brigadier’s worn face. Lei’s father was never happy, and ecstatic wasn’t an association that often sprang to mind. He realised that only one thing would send Papa into such frenzy. Conscription. The scarlet envelope, which to so many before him resonated power, pride, and the strength of Iron Fist, seemed dirty under his eyes, caked with the as-yet unspilt blood of the innocent. A knot of barbed wire settled in his throat, its cold, steely spikes sinking deep into his windpipe. It injected pulse after pulse of undiluted anguish into his system, leaving his body quaking. The soft feel of the letter that was thrust into his hands was cruelly deceptive, for the words printed upon it seemed to puncture the concrete walls which he had long ago erected around his heart. “My son, a Private!” General Xun exclaimed, ruffling his son’s hair and hugging him, thereby removing whatever air still remained in his paralyzed lungs. He was rendered unequivocally speechless by the onslaught of affection – like every other son, he had yearned for his father’s approval, but on this occasion, he felt it tear through his psyche like an unbridled Gatling gun, strafing through what was left of his sanity. He would stare at that letter for many nights to come, trying in vain to muster the courage to tell his father what he really wanted, but the attempt was always futile. The shackles, rusty though they were, reigned supreme.
The bright, vivid, landscape swept by as the military bus rocked on its suspension, groaning reluctantly with every gear shift. Its worn tyres squelched down the muddy dirt road, victims of too heavy a load, or perhaps too many a load. To Lei they cried out, re-affirming that they were indeed the infamous ferry, carrying the damned to Hades. He glanced back out of the window, noticing that the oil painting backdrop, which had a minute ago provided a place of solace, now seemed to be mocking him, sneering at his circumstances.
His full-blown Technicolor animation was brought to a standstill as the raw scent of gunpowder assaulted him. The bus came to a halt, allowing the recruits to disembark. Lei paid the customary tip, all the while thinking bribe the ferryman. He stepped off the vehicle reluctantly, as if his body was attempting a last – gasp escape to civilisation. He overcame the urge, opting not to be court – marshalled before his first day. He turned his attention to his new home, expecting to find a heavily armed barricade with guards in crow’s nests and rotating spotlights. He was not disappointed. The Power is Strength base in northern Shanghai was the most sophisticated of its time, boasting the finest defence and offence. The walls were freshly painted, and their sickening fumes wafted over the rough, sandpaper-brick wall, leaving the new arrivals with the first of many migraines. He entered the precinct under the searing gaze of a rock-solid colonel, whose crew cut and low-pitched bark were as intimidating as the German shepherd thoroughbred at his side. Lei was ushered, or more accurately, flung forward, sent to hand in his belongings and assume a new, apparently “dangerous”, identity. He hurriedly changed into his camo one-piece, likening the tightly woven hog hair to the flesh of an older, more accomplished version of himself. It was a startling, nonsensical thought, but its reality was obvious as he took note of the various burns, slashes and blood stains on the evidently second hand uniform. He grimaced. A nearby Lieutenant, sensing his anguish, placed a large, coarse hand on his shoulder, awkwardly attempting a comforting gesture. “Worry is for the weak, think no more of it; you will soon grow to love these four walls.” Lei endeavoured to smile, but it came off sadistic and twisted. Unbeknownst to him, it would be the best he would manage for a long time.
The training process had been gruelling, and he stank of mud, napalm and gunpowder. His mind was as frayed as the tethered rope which ate at his arms during his hours in solitary. They’d made him shoot dogs and pigs: his true nature bubbled under the surface like a pressurized magma flow, and he felt it ebbing away at its confines with every soul extinguished at his hands. One night, as he lay in his lice-ridden cot, the alarm blared, shaking him from his permanent half-waking state. The Privates rolled out of their beds, donning their uniforms before plodding sleepily towards the awaiting hummers. Amidst the confusion, Lei could only discern one word. Tibet. The annexure had been initiated.
Massacre. The scene was undiluted, undistilled, massacre. The trampled earth was choked with the icy warmth of spilt blood, streaks of Lead Death loosing a crimson tide. The air, fragmented by the many swings of the Reaper’s scythe, weighed heavy with angst. The swirling gale hummed a melancholic tune, mourning the malice of the power-crazed. Soldiers were detached from conscious thought, their robotic movements mirrored by the chik-chik-shush of glinting`AK-47’s. Lei’s own gun was strapped to his hip, mercifully dormant. He was charged with loading children into the trucks, squeezing them into the one allotted vehicle. Not that they minded. Comfort was not a priority in the mind of a freshly broken soul. He helped up a young girl, and looking into her eyes he saw a sight that left him uncovered, naked to the truth. It was not hate at which he gazed, it was reality. The callous, unforgiving reality he had steeled himself from for too long. He glanced down, stunned by his white knuckles which had sealed themselves around the barrel of his weapon. It felt surreal. A moment suspended in the sadistic world of a Dali creation. He tugged. The gun flew to attention, starkly contrasting its deadweight of a minute ago. He locked. Loaded. Aimed. The adrenalin in his veins turned to liquid metal. His drive burned an incandescent flame. He fired. He did not follow the path of his spawn, only felt its pain. Bullets were in him, but they were not his. He had fired into the heart of his own regiment, and without hesitation, they retaliated, acting as barcodes should. Blood did not gush from his wounds; he did not see a white light. He felt. He felt shackles snap, and their corroded links disintegrate into nonexistence. Lei Zao Xun felt…liberation.