The scene seemed to play out in slow motion as the spent cartridges hit the table. The tinkling sound was followed by a hollow, metallic ring as the mess tin covered the shells. Somewhere in the distance, the sounds of a marching band drifted across the cookhouse.
"I wager... ten days," said one of the men, whose hand was clamped over a mess tin. He looked at the other two. "I'll match ten days," said a second man. The third man thought for a moment, then said, "Agreed." There was a pause as each man counted the handful of shells they had randomly thrown in their concealed hand.
"Wondering how it's played?"
Fresh recruit William Zhang turned around to see that his sergeant, Bill Tan, had come up from behind him. Relaxing, he replied, "I understand, sergeant," and turned his eyes back to the game. One of the men had shouted "Liar!" and all three men were now counting the revealed shells.
"It's a game of deception," William observed. "Your bet includes all shells, not just your own." His brow creased as the two men laughed at their third companion, who had obviously lost. "What are they wagering?" William asked.
"The only thing we have," said Sergeant Bill. "Years of service."
William scratched his chin as the men gathered up the spent shells. "So any serviceman can be challenged?"
"Yes," replied his sergeant. "Anyone."
William paused for only a second. He said out loud to nobody in particular: "I challenge Captain David."
The was a painful caterwauling as the trumpets of the marching band squealed off key, and a series of thumps and crashes akin to percussion section being thrown down a flight of stairs. All faces swiveled to William's, amazement written on each of them, then flicked towards the main doors of the cookhouse. In the silence, only the soft tread of boots could be heard, growing louder by the second. With each step, recruits shrank away into the darker shadows of the hall.
Captain David appeared in the doorway, framed by the shadow of the dark corridor behind him. His eyes quickly found those of Recruit William. "I accept," he said with his trademark lisp, spittle flying from his mouth as he spoke..
Captain David watched William warily as he sat down at the table. "The stakes?" he asked.
"My life," replied William. "An eternity of servitude."
"No!" Sergeant Bill cried out softly.
William didn't flinch as Captain David asked, "Against?" He slowly reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a photograph. It is a grainy picture of what appeared to be an official document, but clearly printed across its header were the words: "RELEASED FROM SERVICE".
Captain David let out a small gasp of surprise. He suddenly stood up to his full, considerable height. "How do you about the document?" he asked vehemently.
Recruit William was unfazed. "That's not part of the game, is it?" He slowly put the photograph back in his pocket and leveled his gaze. "You can still walk away," he told the Captain.
Captain David scowled as slowly sat back down. He reached into his beret and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. He carefully unfolded it until the words across the header could be read. Satisfied, William nodded. Captain David carefully refolded the sheet and slid it under his beret.
Without a word, the two men each grabbed a handful of shells and tossed them into the mess tin, then quickly slammed them face down onto the table. Out of nowhere, a third tin slammed onto the table as well.
Captain David looked from the hand to its owner. "What's this?" he asked Sergeant Bill.
"I'm in. Matching his wager." Sergeant Bill had a hard look in his eye.
"No," William said forcefully. "Don't do this."
Sergeant Bill looked at him dejectedly. He gave William a half shrug. "The die is cast," he said. "I bid three tracers," he said. He turned to look at his commanding officer. "It's your bid, Captain."
Captain david closed his eyes, like he was seeing what could not be seen. He gave a small chuckle before he said confidently, "Four blanks."
William looked down at his hand gripping the mess tin. "Four tracers," he said.
Captain David's eyes slid back to Sergeant Bill. "Six rounds," said the sergeant. William's eyes darted back to the captain.
Captain David peered under his mess tin, revealing four blank rounds and one tracer round. "Seven tracers."
William looked at his rounds: three tracers, one normal, and one practice. "Eight tracers," he said.
Captain David chuckled, a slow, horrific chuckle. "Welcome to the Force, liar." He continued chuckling, until Sergeant David suddenly interrupted, "Twelve tracers."
The captain's head snapped around. He stared at the sergeant. "Twelve tracers," said the sergeant. "Call me a liar, or up the bid."
"And be called a liar myself for the trouble?" asked Captain David. He grabbed Sergeant Bill's mess tin and looked at the collection of rounds he had hidden underneath. "Sergeant Bill, you're a liar and you will spend an eternity in this unit!" He stood up to leave and turned to William. "Recruit Zhang, feel free to leave camp," he snorted, "the next time we book out!" He roared with laughter as he stomped away.
William turned to his sergeant. "Fool. Why did you do that, sergeant?"
Sergeant Bill looked at him morosely. "I couldn't let you lose."
William shook his head. "It was never about winning, or losing," he said.
The sergeant looked perplexed for a moment. Then it hit him. "The form!" he exclaimed. "You just wanted to know where it was."
Inspired by a discussion about automatic MC machines and down-PES jackpots. But you can't guess where it's from.
The only thing we have: years of service.
The Edna Man