The playful digital jingle played on repeat loud enough to echo across the miles of blood-soaked wasteland that separated the opposing the armies. It started gradually. At first, troopers dismissed the faint noise as a tangential part of the ambiance. Soon the two-second loop was loud enough to drown out the soundscape of the trenches. The soldiers all recognized the trademarked tune. It was the default ringtone from their country’s best selling cell phone model. The same five notes had repeated ceaselessly for the last hour. The raw recruits weren’t shaken just befuddled and annoyed. They joked about changing their ringtone or switching phone brands when they went on leave. Only some of the more hardened veterans knew what was going to follow when the ringing finally stopped.
“Rice, rice, rice. That’s what she kept repeating before the barrage started.” Chul whimpered from the ground.
The soldier was trembling and covering his head while the younger troopers stood over him unsure of what to do. When he hit the dirt others had followed his lead now even, they seemed skeptical.
“Get up nothing’s going to happen,” a fresh-faced Corporal sneered.
“Rice, rice,” Chul sobbed. “They just kept repeating it!”
“It’s been...over an hour now,” another trooper reassured him. “They’re just trying to psyche us out.”
“No!” Chul howled. “You have to get down now!”
The Corporal rolled his eyes. “Why the fuck do they send us trauma cases,” He mumbled. “Alright get up let’s get you to the infirmary.”
“The shells are coming they’re coming,” Chul whined clasping his hands tightly over his helmet.
The Corporal nodded, and two soldiers reached down and grabbed Chul by the arms, but Chul resisted.
“You have to get down,” he repeated frantically
“If you don’t get up and go right now I’ll shoot you right here!” Shouted the Corporal.
Chul didn’t reply. The Corporal reached for his service pistol when the ringing abruptly stopped.
“Fuckin finally,” scoffed the Corporal.
A shell exploded at the edge of the trench and a plume of rock and shrapnel rain over the jolted men.
“Hit the dirt!” the Corporal ordered.
Just like the ringing, the barrage built up from a few shells to a torrent of smoke and shrapnel. The long slits in the earth they dug themselves became a mass grave. Human bodies exploded into a mist of blood and shredded flesh. Corpses mangled by the storm of exploding steel bled out into the melting slush and flooded the trench with a foul stream that carried small pieces of human remains through the entire line.
Just like the ominous chiming that had preceded it the barrage abruptly ceased and for a moment silence reigned. The shaken survivors slowly started to unfold themselves from the fetal position. A low rumble gently shook the ground. Reluctantly the remaining soldiers looked up to see the approaching dust of a mechanized army.
For better or worse Chul survived this encounter as well. He kept his head low and somehow stumbled back from the war alive. He could never decide if he was lucky to have survived or incredibly unlucky for finding himself in the midst of such mass slaughter not once but twice. By the time he was on the bus home, it had become apparent to him the rest of his life was going to revolve in some way or another around those memories. They were forever part of him, and they would only go away when he finally stopped dreaming.
He pressed his head against the window and tried to find serenity in the familiar calm of his hometown. He was far from the front, but the signs of the war were still everywhere. Lonely widows carried hauled bags from the market; children played with tiny gas masks hanging on their sides. Chul sighed and let his tired eyes close.
Overcome with exhaustion he felt his tension-wracked body finally disconnect from his warped terror brain. A wave of relief washed over him, and the world around him started to dim but he didn’t make it all the way to sleep before the piercing sound of the ringtone started him awake, and he instinctually threw himself into the aisle and took cover.
“Get down!” Screamed someone from the back.
“Incoming!” A third rider howled.
The bus suddenly decorated, it swerved off the street bouncing over a curb and smashed into a house.
When Chul opened his eyes again, he was in a hospital bed. He was bandaged up in various places but didn't seem to have suffered any serious injury. A nurse was hunched over in front of an open window at the far side of the room.
"Where am I?" Chul asked weakly.
"Oh good I'm glad to see you're awake," the nurse said gently. She turned to Chul and flashed him a smile. She was pretty, not in a striking way but her calm demeanor and friendly face put Chul at ease.
"You were in an accident," she explained turning back gain. "Your injuries aren't very serious but will probably keep you overnight for observation,"
"Ok," Chul sighed and laid his head back on the pillow.
"Well the good news is your up for in time for dinner," she said cheerfully.
"I'm not very hungry," Chul muttered.
"You must eat and keep your strength up," the nurse urged.
Chul gave a thin smile. "Well, what is it?" He asked.
"Rice," she said.
Alarms rang and screamed flooded from the rooms into the hospital corridor. Injured men ripped out IV needles and took cover under their bed others pushed past their nurses and ran as fast as they could before being descended on by orderlies. It was a scene of seemingly spontaneous chaos not confined to a single hospital wing but part of an induced hysteria. The enemy had weaponized their Pavlovian responses and transformed them into unwitting agents of chaos.