It was a sound that did not belong in his fitful dreams.
Lee Qiang woke up, kicking the thin, camo-patterned top half of his space sleeping bag off him, rising, walking toward the source of the sound. For half a second, he felt disoriented and weak from low blood pressure before a rush of adrenaline made him alert and sharp.
He wasn’t the only one to wake up, but he was the first to intercept the situation.
Sergeant Mirza was kneeling above Sveta, and it was obvious what he had intended to do. She was cuffed in the front and gagged with a special nighttime breather gag for prisoners, unable to resist too much because a restraint ran from her collar to the wheel of a Magdalena behind her.
One look was all it took.
And so it begins.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Mirza turned, a dangerous look on his face. “Teaching this Chinese bitch a lesson.”
Lee Qiang nodded, mostly to himself. Warfare psychology had advanced a lot in the past hundred-odd years, from the vague understanding of shell shock and combat neurosis in the Second World War to PTSD to the modern science of providing soldiers with daily drugs to minimize the effects of combat fatigue. But what doctors and psychiatrists never managed to do was predict when a person might suddenly lose it.
“Mirza, step away.”
The sergeant rose, but he did not back off. His stance was dangerous. He was poised to fight.
The Golden Horde were all awake now, most of them armed, watching the incident. The external world was momentarily forgotten. Lip stood there, but he did not intervene. He wanted to see how Lee Qiang would handle it.
He might have even set the sergeant on the girl to test my reaction. So be it.
The circle of mercs wasn’t a friendly place right now. Lee Qiang was aware that if they wanted him dead, he would die. But then the mission would become unsustainable, the results inexorable, and it would have to be aborted, and their captain would not have the promised prize for his cooperation.
Lee Qiang did not have any dead-man switches on him. He couldn’t rain death on their heads or set explosives off with his last heartbeat. He had to sort this out using everything he’d learned in his lifetime as a soldier—and what he knew of the psychological profiles of the men surrounding him.
And the one in front of him.
“I just want to have some fun. We fucking deserve it.”
“Mirza, step away.”
“Why are you protecting her? Is it because she’s Chinese, like you? Is that it? Are you a spy? Are you a fucking spy?”
“Last warning, sergeant.”
Mirza was holding a knife down the side of his leg, and he was ready to use it. They stood about three meters apart, and Lee Qiang was armed with a pistol. The odds were in his favor. A rational person would not fight.
But the sergeant wasn’t rational right now.
And when he moved forward, Lee Qiang shot him.
A single bullet in the head.
Mirza collapsed and did not move.
No one else moved either.
These men were not amateurs. Nor were they prone to emotional outbursts. They had seen a friend die, but then, they had seen many friends die, in a hundred different situations, ranging from heroic to bizarre. They had witnessed and enacted executions all over the world. Seeing someone collapse from a gunshot was a familiar sight. And they also knew that sudden movements around sudden death did not improve anyone’s odds at living.
Especially since the focus of their attention, their commanding officer, still held a loaded pistol in his hands. A silenced 5.56mm weapon with a 14-round clip. Plenty of lead left to cause significant damage.
They were thirty-two men in a tight circle, in the darkness, in the middle of Sector 8.
Brothers in arms, some would say.
Thirty-one brothers and one stranger.
Lee Qiang looked at Lip. The captain had a curious expression on his face. Part anger, part surprise. Maybe even part respect. “I warned him.”
“That you did. Bolek, see to Mirza.”
“The bullet entered the left eye and exited through the back of his head. There’s definite brain damage. Nothing I can do to help. He’s dead, sir.”
A ripple of soft curses spread through the circle of men. But the outrage was well contained.
No one spoke for a long while. There wasn’t any need for big words. They all understand what had just happened. Deep inside enemy territory, where any little act could mean death, challenging your superior—no, threatening your superior—was mutiny. There was only one solution to that.
But they still hated him for it.
Lee Qiang recalled Lip’s attempt at murder back in Kungirot. The big difference was that it had been a deliberate, well-calculated act. Lip had been in control. Mirza had lost it.
In Sector 8, the penalty was death.
As the violence simmered down, Lee Qiang allowed himself to breathe deeply, let his heartbeat settle. He holstered the weapon. He was as vulnerable or as safe as he ever was going to be. Nothing would stop any one of these men from trying—or trying again—to kill him. He could not watch over his own shoulder all the time or anticipate all their actions. All he could do was be their leader and continue this mission.
Lee Qiang finally allowed himself to look down at Sveta.
She was still prone, watching from her odd angle up, eyes sparkling with curiosity. No fear.
Madness just got madder.
“Disperse,” Lip said suddenly. Almost reluctantly, the men retreated, going back to their sentry posts or their aluminum blankets, all except Bolek, who was busy packing Mirza into a black zipper bag, having stripped the corpse naked with brutal efficiency. The man looked like a giant worm, covered in wet dirt, disappearing into that bag like it was a hole in the ground.
Eventually the medic dragged the dead body away.
Lee Qiang and the captain were the only ones standing in the center of their little camp. And then there was Sveta, lying there.
“Very dangerous, what you did there, Lick Young. You’ve reduced our combat effectiveness.”
“And reduced risk. I cannot tolerate unpredictable, irrational behavior.”
The captain raked his hair. “Mirza was a good man.”
Lee Qiang glanced at their prisoner. She was listening. He did not want to have their conversation here, but he would not move unless Lip stepped back first. In a strange, animalistic way, he had claimed dominance over the woman. Exactly what he hadn’t wanted. “Perhaps he was. You know the rules.”
“I know the rules.”
“Go to bed, Lip. You have guard duty later.”
And then, he was alone with Sveta—but he knew the other men were listening. He knelt at her side. She still radiated that simple, matter-of-fact calm that did not belong with radio technicians. Then again, women did not belong in the Alliance combat ranks, and surely not in Sector 8. Surely not as officers. What kind of mental profile and training did she have to be found at that old plant?
With clumsy fingers, he removed her gag. He was still shaky, his blood brimming with adrenaline. The feeling was wearing off, and he was suddenly cold. He should go back to bed and burrow into his sleeping bag.
Instead he pulled the blanket over the woman’s body. If he was feeling the chill, she must be even more so.
“Thank you,” Sveta said in a low but firm voice.
“It’s nothing,” he said, and realized his response was stupid and unprofessional.
“I have witnessed situations like this before. Few men ever interfered. Most joined.”
The notion of her being a sex slave floated back into his mind. The way she had said it was too detached to be just casual observation. There was suppressed pain there. But then, it could all be a ruse. A clever game to garner his sympathy. Mastermind manipulation by a well-trained intel officer.
He had done the same in China all those years back.
“What happened here?”
“I was asleep. Then he woke me. He wanted to rape me, I guess.”
“Did you provoke him in any way?” Her replies from the earlier investigation still echoed in the back of his mind. She had told them a lot without saying much. Excellent tactical delaying. She shared information that wasn’t vital or timely enough to compromise her side.
But what she probably hadn’t taken into account was that reverse psychology cut both ways.
He had learned a lot from what she did choose to say, and that included details into her actual rank and her seemingly innocent communications work. Both more significant than she claimed.
Shishka would not have sent a woman if she could not take care of herself among the many psychopaths and killers that served in his army.
He had to bide his time slowly. Very slowly. Gain her trust. Conventional methods would not work. Unconventional methods would not work either. Simple honesty.
And maybe… just maybe, her mixed heritage.
I am going to give Lip’s boys an ever bigger reason to distrust me.
“No,” she said at length.
“Where were you born?” he asked.
She lifted her head a little, as much as the restraint let her. “Is this an interrogation still?”
Lee Qiang smiled, his breath escaping through his nostrils. He really was getting cold. “No. Just curiosity.”
“Are you part Korean?” he hazarded.
“You can tell?” she said.
“I’m not sure. Maybe your cheekbones.”
“Half-Chinese. On my father’s side. He left the country in the late 1990s. He told us he thought he could make better business in a post-Communist Russia than post-Communist People’s Republic of China.”
“My brother and me.”
“And what about him? Is he in the military?”
Lee Qiang paused, trying to see whether his words had pried too deep. But she did not seem to retreat into herself. That fatalism, right there, taking everything at face value. Admirable and disturbing.
Sveta frowned, looking at him aslant in the week light of their camp. “And what about you? From somewhere in the Caucasus?”
“Half-Polish, half-Chinese. My mother.”
She looked almost hopeful for a second. “Do you speak Mandarin?”
I must not lie. Gain trust. “Some. Decent.” Before she could exploit the moment, he asked, “What happened with Mirza? Please tell me.”
“He shook my leg. He had that crazy look in his eyes. I knew what he wanted to do. Didn’t bother me much. In fact, I expected it. I always knew if I ended up a hostage, that would probably be the first thing the enemy does. But your man wasn’t careful. He pulled me down toward him, and I started choking on the collar. I had to cry for help.”
Otherwise you wouldn’t? Lee Qiang wondered. “Have you ever been attacked before?”
She shrugged under the blanket. “It’s war.”
Her matter-of-fact tone unnerved him. There was something more here, but he would not learn it right now. It had been an exhausting day. A day of bullets, blood, and near-death experiences. Even his mind needed time to rest after such an ordeal. He had long learned that sleep helped him cope best with combat trauma. He was lucky that he belonged to that 2% of pure fighters, men who never really felt the debilitating terror of warfare and never really slipped into PTSD. But like Mirza, he did sometimes feel overwhelmed by violence in his own unique way.
“You risked your life to save mine,” she said, confused by his selfless act. And with perhaps a hint of mistrust. Bad cop, good cop was the oldest trick used to harvest sympathy from captives and suspects. Only, usually, it did not include such extreme measures as killing a comrade.
“It has nothing to do with you,” he told her, knowing the harshness of truth would work better than an idiotic story of romantic heroism. “You were just the catalyst. The man lost control and had to be put down.”
Sveta did not seem offended by his words. Maybe even more confused than before. Good. He wanted her confused.
Captain Lip did not understand this part of the game, despite his years of brutal experience.
“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly.
“Lee Qiang,” he replied.
“Lee Qiang,” she repeated, with perfect intonation. It made him smile.
Sveta offered him a small, reserved smile. “Thanks again.”
She had just dismissed him, he realized. There would be no more chitchat. He was tired. And cold. He must sleep. They had no idea what waited for them tomorrow morning. Sector 8 had a nasty way of turning up surprises.
Before you go about traipsing through a radioactive kingdom of lunatics, make sure you catch a good night sleep. That way, you will be well rested for the morning’s atrocities.
Feeling eyes watching him from the half-darkness around, he went back to his spot on the ground in the circle defined by Magdalenas and the array of sensors and burrowed into the superbly insulated sleeping bag, his side arm at his, well, side.
I’ve just killed a man, up close, real personal.
He didn’t regret it. He did not feel miserable. But the death weighed on him. A reminder. A good thing, in a way. He did not want to become a man who saw death as a background to his life. It should not stop him, and he must never hesitate, but killing people had to matter somehow. It was a reflection of his humanity. The very first thing they tried to take away from you when you joined an elite unit.
He blinked hard, trying to still the ghost images floating in front of his eyes.
Operation Putain was becoming complicated. They were trying to fight chaos and madness with some of their own. But chaos was, by its nature, unpredictable. It was hard knowing what Shishka would do and how—if at all—he was going to retaliate for their meddling in his business. So far, they hadn’t stirred the hornet nest hard enough.
Well, they couldn’t really know.
Sleep. He had to sleep. He had to be lucid and alert tomorrow.
Sveta was not going to be just an ordinary prisoner anymore. She was going to become his shadow, whether he wanted it or not. His burden. His responsibility. The mercs would not let it slide. He had claimed a life by taking another.
Some animal bayed into the night. It sounded forlorn.
Sleep, he commanded himself.
Hyperactive, he lay there listening to the wind, the crunch of boots from the guards, the odd sigh and grunt, feeling dawn would come and he would still be curling, overthinking the mission. But then his body surrendered, and he went back to his fitful dreams.
This time, in the dreams, Mirza and Sveta were there, too.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Army (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.