Eyes squinted against the daylight glare, Lee Qiang stepped out of the tin-can transport, together with seventeen other soldiers, all new recruits—except him. They milled quietly, rubbing shoulder against sweaty shoulder, trying to get some sense of where they were.
Hell, Lee Qiang thought.
A familiar place.
The street smelled of bad sanitation, burned rubber, rain, and pulverized cement. Strangely, not of dead bodies. Whoever ran this shithole had spare time to clear the corpses away.
He looked at his orders. Unit 4, the Golden Horde.
What an inspiring name.
The transport drove off, leaving them coughing hot, puke-inducing diesel soot. Lee Qiang stared at the ruined buildings, pocked by countless shells and bullets. Farther down the street, behind a pile of rubble and sandbags, he saw a congregation of men, standing in a circle, looking up at a lone soldier on a podium of some sort who was giving a vigorous speech.
This must be Commander Lip.
“We go there?” Billy the recruit asked, smiling uncertainly, bobbing his head, the barbed-wire tattoo on his scrawny neck stretching this way and that.
“I guess,” Lee Qiang said. Standing in the middle of the street would get him no answers. He started walking toward the other group, sidestepping debris and holes, his heavy backpack swaying over his left shoulder.
As he neared the crowd, he could hear the speech.
“You see this man? You see him? If he fucks your sister, or even your mother, you still treat him like he’s your god, because he is your goddamn god. Your combat medic is your most precious possession. When you wake up in the morning, the first thought you’re gonna have is about your medic. And every night, when you go to sleep, the last conscious thought you’re gonna have is of this ugly bastard right here, the one with the field kits and plasma. He is the oasis in your desert. He is your Jesus and Moses combined. He is your savior, your one and only love. From now on until you die. And if you treat him well, you just might live a few days longer.”
Behind the speaker, several soldiers snickered, obviously pleased with the theatrics. Older, grizzled fighters with a confident angle to their posture. In front of him, the semicircle of listeners was quiet; younger men, timid, intimidated, shocked.
Veterans and the new cadre. Getting the welcome speech. Getting terrified. The classic.
“Ninety-one percent survive if a medic attends to their wounds in the first five minutes. Sixty-eight percent of wounded men survive their injury if they get treated by a medic in the first twenty minutes. Those left bleeding and crying on their own for thirty minutes, twenty-three percent.”
Lee Qiang put the backpack down and joined the listeners. Billy was at his side, breathing excitedly through a half-open mouth, with the distinct odor of deep-throat phlegm and bad teeth.
Lee Qiang moved half a step aside.
He looked up. The ruined buildings were fairly tall and closely spaced, providing good defense from lethal things lobbed from afar. But there was always a chance for a well-aimed mortar round to land in between, and then the narrow corridor would aid the detonation, funneling the blast and the shrapnel into their sorry crowd.
Lee Qiang took another step, behind the U formation of sandbags.
Commander Lip would not be giving speeches if it were dangerous, he thought.
Then again, based on what he’d heard about the man—he just might. Nothing like an amputee on Day One to get the recruits properly honed in on the action.
“If you see your medic out there, you run toward him. You don’t think. You don’t ask questions. You sprint, and you cover him, with your own body if needed. He is more important than any other man in the squad. Do you understand?”
Some of the recruits nodded weakly. The others were still too shocked to respond.
“If you fuckers were smart, you’d have trained as medics. But since you aren’t, you dumbfucks will serve as personal bodyguards for the man with the medical profession.”
The speech abated. A rare quiet moment.
Time to interject and introduce himself, Lee Qiang thought.
“What if I have no religion?”
The commander raised his eyebrows, pretending to be shocked by the question. Then, slowly, he scanned the crowd for the troublemaker. His eyes roamed dramatically before they found Lee Qiang. Lip—Lee Qiang assumed he had to be—grinned, but there was no mirth there. “Well, well. What’s your name?”
“Lee Qiang Mlody.”
The commander frowned, chin dipping. “What kind of stupid name is that?”
“My father was Polish. My mother is Chinese,” Lee Qiang explained with dry patience.
The crowd tensed. Lee Qiang had expected it.
So, what does that make you? Are you half-enemy? their eyes asked.
The commander grunted, pretending not to notice the reaction from the soldiers. “Lee Qiang. Lee Qiang,” he rolled the words like a gourmet cook tasting an unfamiliar seasoning. “All right, from now on, you’re Lick Young.” The veterans snickered again.
Like I haven’t heard that one before. Very original. But he was grateful for the commander’s crass, predictable joke. It would help make his own sound even better. “As long as I’m not Lick Old like some others here.”
The silence lasted for a full five seconds, as thick as a bean soup.
Finally, his witty remark got him a wave of semi-respectful oohs from the veterans. It was hard guessing ranks; no one wore them, to minimize the risk from enemy snipers and abduction teams, but he was sure most of them were senior, with grim, hard-earned reputations. The joke was probably going to get him into trouble.
He was used to it.
On his side, Lip was obviously enjoying the extra attention, Lee Qiang noticed. He didn’t seem offended or even mildly annoyed by the display of insubordination. He was loving the show.
It all made Lee Qiang’s work easier.
“Sergeant Borislav, what does Regulation Nine say?” the commander intoned.
Happy to oblige in another theatrics, one of the veterans replied, “Recruits don’t talk back to their commanding officers, sir.”
Lip slapped his thigh. “Amen.”
The sergeant spat through the gap in his teeth, and licked his bisected lower lip.
My turn. Lee Qiang sighed. It was always like this. His youthful, unblemished face, free of scars, pockmarks, acne, or tattoos, made him a choice target with well-established bullies in every unit. That was a mistake they only tried and did once, though.
“May I know your name, sir?” he asked, trying to sound as polite as he could, maybe even slightly intimidated, just enough to satisfy the dramatic need.
Lip snickered. “Now look at the pluck this one got. He sure is a brave one, our Lick Young.” He puffed out his chest. “Captain William Lip Smythe, the commander of the bestest goddamn unit in the whole army, the Golden Horde.”
The veterans cheered. The recruits winced.
Lee Qiang pursed his lips. Casually, he tossed the orders bag over, and instinctively, the commander caught them in his gloved hands. “Then it’s my pure and amazing luck I wasn’t talking back to my commanding officer. Now that we’ve established your authority, Captain, you may stand down. I am here to relieve you.”
“Damn fucking bureaucrats. Tossers, all of them.”
Lip fumed and huffed, but he knew his limits. He calmed down, a very deliberate, calculated action.
He is fully in control of his anger, Lee Qiang realized, jotting down another mental note. He would need every little bit to make sure this assignment worked.
“How could they do this to me?” William said in a lower tone, mustering a look that was both sincere and offended.
Because they need the right man for the job, and you aren’t that man, Captain. Instead, he said, “The soldiers will expect unity from you and me. We work together, like a pair of twins. We feel each other’s thoughts, we anticipate each other’s actions. There can be no rift in the command structure, no doubt. Out there, doubt kills.”
“I created the Golden Horde.” It was almost a lament from a play.
Lee Qiang creased his own features into a sympathetic mask. “No one disputes your achievements or your bravery, Captain. That is not the issue here.”
Lip nudged his whiskered face forward, a mildly threatening gesture. “What is the issue then? Did I fuck the wrong wife in some cabinet office somewhere?”
“Your sexual prowess is irrelevant. What matters is the cohesion between the two of us. Synergy.” Lee Qiang hated the word, but he knew Lip was going to hate it even more. “Whatever we do, we do it to save lives.”
Captain Smythe bristled. “Don’t lecture me on what I need to do. Those soldiers are like my sons, every last one of them.”
Except you never did anything for the half a dozen sons you have scattered across Europe. “You never doubt me in public. You never question my word, my motives. You do as I say, and if there’s a problem, we discuss it quietly. You will support me, and make sure your diehard loyalists treat me with respect.”
“Respect is earned, Lick Young.”
Indeed it is, and you will need to work hard to earn mine, Captain. “I don’t expect your men to blindly follow my orders. I am aware of how your unit works. I know that every man has an equal voice in decision making, and that is fine. But ultimately, it’s my authority. Petty insults won’t work. But if your actions cause a drop in the unit morale, or someone dies because of your less-than-perfect conviction in my orders and motives, I will make your ass into the unit’s mascot. It’s not a threat, Captain. It’s a lesson in anatomy.”
Lip was quiet, contemplating, weighing the words, trying to figure out how much of that was theatrics, bravado and empty posturing to match his own. He was a shrewd one, and despite years spent at the battlefront, he functioned sanely. A purebred warrior.
“You will show me you deserve to lead this unit, Lick Young, and no amount of paperwork from bureaucrats is going to change that.”
Lee Qiang rolled his eyes. “Will you follow orders?”
He is going to try to kill me one day, I guarantee that. “Good. Then I can focus on proving my worth to you, Captain.”
Lip was silent for a while, rubbing his silvered cheeks. “One thing, Major.”
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. He knew what this was going to be. You’re a special bastard, but I’m bastarder than you. “Yes, Captain?”
Lip smiled. “Out there, I’m gonna call you Lick Young, and you’re gonna love it.”
Lee Qiang reached and neck-hugged the captain. Lip was suspicious, but he did not resist. “Agreed. Now, let’s go out there and win this fucking war, Captain.”
Smooth cheek to whiskered cheek, like two best friends, they tottered out of the ruined building and into a hell that smelled of bad sanitation, burned rubber, rain, and pulverized cement, but strangely, blessedly, not of dead bodies.
T0 BE CONTINUED …
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