No, that was not the right word. Non-combatants, then. That didn’t work either.
Everyone was affected by the global war of the past nineteen years. The best description was people with no control over their lives. Fallen leaves, waiting to be swept and whirled by a sudden gust of wind. Ghosts, with brittle smiles.
One such specimen stood at the corner of the street. Smiling that empty smile of people living through hell.
Sometimes, they didn’t even know it.
Humans were superb survival animals. They could take a lot of punishment over very long periods of time. More so than any other complex life form. It was also why humans could wage wars for such long, protracted periods.
The boy looked poised to flee. Like a fox. It was curious, attracted by the humans and their food, but ready to spring at the slightest threat. The child, selling fruit, was watching the soldiers, trying to match their bravado, knowing that looking confident helped avoid trouble, but also knowing that rubbing an armed person the wrong way could land you in even more trouble.
His eyes fleeted left and right, unconsciously. He was looking for the right opportunity to sell his small stash of green melons, pears, and dates. But then, the animal instinct kept him somewhat timid and reserved. It was a precarious dance.
The word implied there was something civil about people. That there was a decorum of sanity and courtesy, that the society functioned. But this wasn’t the case anywhere along the hundreds of kilometers of the battlefront or the hundreds of kilometers into the battle zone.
The people who lived here were savages.
That’s the word, Lee Qiang realized, and something, like a coin, settled in his stomach.
It didn’t make the reality any better, but he was more comfortable with what he was seeing.
The war had changed the world. Countries had fallen apart. Organizations had ceased to exist. Even thousands of kilometers away from where bullets and mortar shells fell every minute, there was the sense of that change. No one was safe from ballistic missiles and militia. And even if parts of the planet still resembled their prewar times, there were holes in the fabric of the society. The basic things that made civilization what it was were gone.
The knowledge of how thin the border between these two worlds was humbling. It made the diehard soldier in him feel oddly fatalistic about his journey through life. He believed it was his mission to restore civilization, but he was fighting to save people from themselves. The magnitude of that task, repeated over and over through the age, made him weary.
He looked at the ruins around him. There was no electricity in the city, not from a planned grid, anyway. No running water in most places. Food shortages. Constant threat of snipers, shells and mines. Layer upon layer of the civility onion stripped away. Leaving behind the animal that lived because it was programmed to survive.
The boy was trying to sell his fruit to the murderers.
The odd ghost that sometimes emerged from hiding fascinated Lee Qiang. It also gave him a chance to see how Captain Smythe and his gang of mercenaries behaved. His first lesson in studying the group of killers he had inherited.
Lip was doing another patrol, another sermon. He was taking the recruits on a city tour, showing them weak points in the defense lines, helping them understand what they should do if the enemy tried to breach their positions, how to maintain battle formation, and how to retreat. He used the destruction around him as a visual stimulus. He also tried to highlight that in a maze with no street names, and with every alley looking like the exact same stretch of broken concrete, milky puddles of stagnant water and mud, and refuse, combat could easily become disorienting.
He droned about every little detail he could think of. Knee and shin guards were essential so they didn’t end up tearing out their legs on jagged pieces of debris and jutting rebars. Counting street corners and turns. Walking in a loose formation so they didn’t all disappear in a cloud of gore if a mortar dropped. Walls were dangerous, because they attracted bullets. Narrow streets were dangerous, because they contained and channeled shell blasts. Snipers liked chokepoints.
And then, there was the lesson of interacting with the civilian populace.
The demonstration currently focused on the boy and his fruit.
The veterans in the company were spread, keeping loose focus and attention on nearby streets, more a habit than strict necessity. The recruits milled closer, wondering what sort of attitude they should adopt, trying to mimic the captain’s erratic style and failing. Especially since Lip was enjoying the moment and making sure it lasted longer. But he wouldn’t let anyone best him at his game.
Lee Qiang stood a little to the side so he had a decent view of most of the Golden Horde. He was studying their patterns. Sergeant Mirza tended to spit a lot. A man called Derrick always did a 360 when he reached a street junction, took a step back, then stopped.
One thing he didn’t doubt: they were professionals.
“Fresh fruit,” the boy repeated when none of the soldiers reached out for the fruit or the money in their pockets. Everyone was waiting for Lip to do his little teaching ceremony.
It wasn’t deliberate malice. And there was always this odd element of care about the captain, the only real reason why Lee Qiang had not disbanded his unit. The Golden Horde had a reputation, and it wasn’t just a typical chest-thumping myth. Captain Lip and his personal bible of statistics were a genuine article, and the drama had substance.
The boisterous mannerisms still annoyed Lee Qiang.
He had grown in a conservative house. His mother had taught him that bragging was shameful. Lip was almost like a cartoon nemesis of his childhood upbringing. That, plus being a psychopath.
“Hello, nip,” the captain said. “Selling?”
“Yessir,” the boy switched from clipped Russian to broken, loud English. “Fresh fruits.”
Lip cupped one of the melons like it was a teat, staring at it with one closed, almost as if wondering if it were real or fake. “Where are you from, nip?”
“From, from, Achamayli, yessir. Fresh fruits.”
“We’ll take a few, shall we?” He tossed the melon to one of his men. Then, another fruit, another soldier.
The boy’s lips moved as he mustered words. “Twenty dollar, yessir.”
“Call it goodwill, how about that?”
The boy frowned. He did not seem to understand. But there was the fox, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble.
Time to intervene.
Lee Qiang started toward the fruit stall. He saw the men watching him, following him with their gazes. Hard. Judging. Wary. Far from friendly.
He reached into one of his pockets. Like pretty much any SF operative, his combat uniform was somewhat like a wizard’s robe, full of small, sealed pouches containing money, survival kit, hunting gear, tools, medications, weapons. He remembered it was the British SAS that had started the tradition of sewing gold coins and silk maps into the fatigues, so that operatives would be able to bribe soldiers or local population when working behind enemy lines, or navigate if stranded and left on their own.
Some hundred years later, the basic idea remained the same, with some advantages in technology and miniaturization. Lee Qiang had several currencies on him, paper and coin. Despite the deep economic crisis gripping the North American Federation—well, the whole world really—the dollar still had more value than most other monies, and Lee Qiang always made sure he carried some.
He handed the seller a single note.
In a narrow, bombed alley behind the boy, a donkey lashed to a twisted length of rebar was pulling on weeds growing between cracks. It looked at him and flicked its ears.
The child was lucky that his family still had an animal for transport. Most people had eaten theirs, or seen them blown by mines or rockets. The long stretch of no-man’s-land between the two armies was one giant strip of mines, artillery, tanks, and bunkers on both sides, with hotspots like Kungirot, where they faced each other close enough to kiss.
“Thank you, yessir,” the boy said, smiling.
Lee Qiang looked at the captain. “You must have forgotten the old tenet: be nice and cooperative to the locals? Win their hearts? Treat them with respect? And don’t fucking steal?”
Lip was unfazed. “The only reason that lad can come here and sell his wares is because I made this city peaceful enough for him to do that.”
Lee Qiang noticed the veterans fidgeting. They were trying to unnerve him. “And I’m sure the lad appreciates your bravery. It still does not excuse you stealing.”
“C’mon, Lick Young. This is war.”
Lee Qiang smiled, and he was pleased when the captain’s face twitched with surprise. “Of course. This is why I’m not talking about your other business endeavors in this…war.”
Lip recovered quickly. He went for a classic rake’s smile. It was also a signal for his agitated men to stand down. He did not want a showdown. Not here, not now. His lip had not yet fully scabbed over. The captain also didn’t feel threatened enough, which suited Lee Qiang just fine. He needed the captain for what was ahead.
As soon as he got clearer orders, that was.
“Sharp mind, I like that.”
“That’s from my mother’s side.”
Lip wagged a finger. “Excellent.”
“What does Colonel Ivanov have to say about your little side trade?” Lee Qiang had already spoken to the city commander. The man was an empty shell. An alcoholic who fretted too much about logistics discrepancies, getting upset over trucks needing maintenance and less-than-sufficient supplies of fuel, ammo, and spares. But he still wanted to hear what Lip had to say.
“The colonel is grateful. I take care of the defenses while he’s busy with his paperwork. Not the finest of men I’ve met, I’ll grant you that, but he’s the right turd for a shitty place.”
Lee Qiang decided not to push the captain too much. There would be time for that later. He’d already humiliated him twice. “Make sure you pay for your fruit.”
Lip touched his chest, feigning indignation. “Always.”
Like a pack of wolves trying to figure out if the new stranger qualified as an alpha male, they moved down the street. Lee Qiang saw his second civilian. An old woman, waddling close to the berm of rubble on the side of the road, keeping her eyes forward. She deliberately did not look at the soldiers.
Along their patrol route, more people emerged from the ruins. Emaciated, weary, haunted. Lee Qiang wondered what compelled them to stay. In the first few years of the war, people used to cling to their possessions, to their homes, to their hopes and illusions. The survivors and the rich had fled early, the way it always happens. Then many of those with families and children. In their place, refugees had come, folks for whom a different slice of hell look appealing and safe. After several more years, even they had left. It was down to profiteers and this… other kind, whom Lee Qiang never fully understood. But then, he hadn’t really had a home in two decades.
Battle zones were hard places.
Cities where the two sides met ever harder.
Still, it could be worse.
It wasn’t Sector 8.
That was the sermon everyone repeated, whenever things got hard and they needed to cheer themselves up. In history books on the previous world war—and TV comedies—Lee Qiang recalled, it used to be the Russian Front. The Wehrmacht soldiers would put with anything, everything, but the notion of being sent east made them terrified.
Lee Qiang heard a distant whistle. Instinctively, he and the rest of the Golden Horde on patrol hunched down. The mortar landed several hundred meters away, the sense of distance and sound distorted by the flutes and organs of the city’s skeletal landscape.
The streets were empty again. The civilians had retreated back into the shadows.
Something else exploded not too far away, a hollow boom muted by buildings that stood between the impact and their small group.
“How often does the enemy shell our side?”
Lip shook his head. “It varies. Sometimes it’s days in between. Sometimes minutes.”
Lee Qiang stood up, keeping where he felt he’d be safest from a mortar lobed from the east. “And what’s our response?”
“We’ve got artillery radars trying to pinpoint the source, then we respond in kind. The usual.”
“And armed drones?”
“Too few, too expensive, needed elsewhere. The enemy ignores the small stuff, but they shoot at anything with a wingspan wider than my arms. Works well as a bait, thought. You flush out their snipers and AA teams, and sometimes even the infiltrators that managed to sneak in to our side.” Lip pointed over his shoulders. “That, though? Could be East Alliance, could be a disgruntled faction protesting the latest price in heroin or fuel. Who knows.”
Could be worse, Lee Qiang thought.
“How pleased are you with your tour so far, sir?” Lip taunted.
“Breathtaking.” A waste of time.
He had been in the city for three days. No word from the HQ just yet. Perhaps they wanted him to get acquainted with the mercenaries before they sent the orders. Perhaps they didn’t have any orders just yet, and he’d be forced to spend time in this rathole for a while. The thought soured his mood.
Lip had wandered over to a small body of newbies, upbraiding them over invisible slights, his hazing techniques rapidly shifting between sympathetic and caring to raging and venomous, the background tapestry of throbbing machine gun shots and firecrackers of small-caliber assault rifles only making his performance grander. Well, the captain’s record proved it worked. Unit 4 was a great bakery of battle-ready killers.
Lee Qiang had many doubts about his new team. They were not men who would let themselves be tamed or re-educated. They had their well-oiled methods, and nothing short of bullets would stop them. Half of them had long, colorful criminal records. The rest were even worse, with redacted, censored resumes that made Lee Qiang wonder how they all managed to function together without murdering each other.
The mystical glue was Captain Smythe, it seemed.
And now, he was here to break their brotherly bonds and be a stern surrogate father.
He wasn’t worried about Lip trying to kill him. That was the easy part. He needed to make sure the company performed under him. Lip was right in one aspect; he would have to prove his worth to these men.
They went back to the barracks, a hardened shelter built to survive air-dropped bunker penetrators during the less bleak era of the war when countries still had borders and law, still had air forces and fat funds to fly expensive planes. Now, the threats were fewer but more desperate.
Wars never get easier as time drags on.
He found three men and a big, thick envelope waiting for him in his improvised office-cum-sleeping-cell. The soldiers were there to confirm the delivery. It was lined with lead so the contents could not be scanned, and there was a small explosive charge inside, which would incinerate the package if someone tried to tamper with it.
Lee Qiang had to scan his fingertips to disarm the charge. The contents turned out to be a very long passphrase he would need to decrypt his next milmail message. The ceremony was long and annoying, and he went through four hoops of misdirection and alphanumerical challenges, but in the end he had his orders.
It could be worse, Lee Qiang.
You spoke too soon, Lee Qiang.
He walked into the common area, which smelled of men who washed too little, gun oil, stale food, and mold. Lip was sitting on a couch made from tires, hessian, and folded parachutes, watching TV. He was alone in the room. This was his private cinema moment.
“Do you have an invitation?” Lip asked, not looking away from the set.
“Yes I do.” Lee Qiang waved a piece of paper; it was the printed passphrase, now just a useless bunch of numbers and letters.
Lip paused the playback. “What do you want?”
Lee Qiang waved the paper again. “Fuck.”
“We have our orders.”
Lip perked up. “What are they? Is the word fuck included? Do we need to fuck somebody?”
Lee Qiang motioned for the captain to join him somewhere secure and soundproof so they could discuss the orders.
“Well?” Lip pressed.
“Yes. In a manner of speaking.”
TO BE CONTINUED …
For comments, please head out to Goodreads!
Image credit: SHAPE NATO on Flickr (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.