Everyone shared the sentiment, even Lee Qiang.
Crossing the no-man’s-land of empty fields, flattened neighborhoods, and glassified rubble only partially covered in dirt and weed, he had felt exposed, vulnerable, impotent, feeling half a dozen scopes trailing him, making his skin itch. But no bullets came.
They had settled in a less devastated part of the city, with some of the concrete and iron frames still standing, providing some cover from the wind and any chance patrols. Thorny, tough vegetation crept over everything, reclaiming what used to be its kingdom. It was hard to imagine what this city had looked like whole. It looked like a bad, deliberate prop from a war movie.
“I’m fine,” Marc complained, a sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“You’re not fine,” Ollie said.
Marc was cradling his gun. “Putain, leave me alone.”
Ollie backed off. But they were all thinking the same thing. With high fever, probably due to an infection in his chest, Marc was becoming a liability. It was a fine line between an injured soldier and someone who should be left behind to die.
The thing was, Lee Qiang thought he was getting sick, too.
He had a woolly lump in his throat and it hurt every time he swallowed. He had ingested 2.5 grams of antibiotics earlier and downed it all with a probiotic substrate to protect his intestines. He would take another 2.5 grams later in the evening. He was feeling weak and his muscles had a leaden quality to them.
He hadn’t told anyone.
Marc slid down the wall and reached into his pouch, fishing out vitamins, antibiotics, and a few other drugs that were designed to help soldiers combat disease on an expedited basis. The man’s face had a pallid, waxen sheen, and his eyes were too moist.
Across their little shelter, Olaf was gently peeling a crusted bandage from his forearm where the bullet had gone through without tearing up any nerves or shattering the bones. He winced every time he randomly plucked a knot of hairs.
“I’m going to climb up,” Cem said, rising. Not too far away, a five-storey building still stood, looking like a skeleton of something in early stages of construction. And maybe it had always been just that, allowing the blast wave to pass through where the walls ought to have been rather than knock it down.
Lee Qiang reached into his backpack, fishing out a combat ration. Sveta sat close to him, as she always did when they stopped to rest or camp overnight. It had become a natural thing, and she probably felt much safer around him than any other merc.
He opened the hermetically sealed ration and put it on the ground between them. Then, remembering his sore throat, he reconsidered, putting it away. Her eyebrows twitched for a moment, she gave him a long look, but then seemed to understand.
He must have dozed off.
He wasn’t quite sure what had woken him up—or what he might have dreamed. It was a typical low-fever nightmare, a repetitive dream playing over and over, usually something trivial and annoying you knew you could solve in real life, but kept fussing with in the restless dream.
He felt heat, presence.
She had snuggled close to him, and there was a strange twinkle in her eye.
Lee Qiang did not move at first. He looked at the camp. The rubble and half-standing walls obscured some of the surviving team—that was the intent; if an artillery shell landed or someone fired a volley, they would at least be partially protected from the incoming blasts. He saw Eddie and Ollie sleeping. Cem was probably perching on the rooftop like a Turkish Batman. Lee Qiang heard but didn’t see Marc. The rest must be on guard duty or prepping up night defenses.
Lee Qiang stirred. He was alert, wary curious.
Sveta was very close to him. Even with his half-clogged nose, he could smell her. Sweat and road grime, but also a soft, feminine scent underneath all that hardship.
He said nothing. He waited.
She inclined her head, appraising him from different angles. It was dark except for the weak illumination from broken chem sticks and the low-intensity solar-charged red battery light that cast everything in an almost avant-garde glow of some hardcore punk club.
“I just…wanted to thank you,” Sveta said in Mandarin.
“Thank me?” he replied in English, his throat sticky and raw.
“You are much nicer to me than I deserve. You are kind.”
“Thank you,” he mumbled. Not being an animal hardly constituted as kind. The knowledge that she saw the world on that spectrum made something in his sternum twinge, and not in the best way.
“Kindness is not something I see a lot. This world has forgotten kindness.”
She kissed him. Her lips felt cool on his clammy skin.
Lee Qiang pulled back.
The confusion on her face was priceless. It was the first absolutely genuine emotion from her since they had captured her. “What?”
Lee Qiang smiled, felt the bottom lip tear. “It’s just…”
“You don’t find me attractive?” she said, almost too predictably.
“No,” he replied softly.
Lee Qiang shook his head. “Sveta, I’m gay.”
He watched her digest the words, trying to figure out her strategy. Sex was a powerful weapon. Humans were nothing more than self-replicating systems with a bit of extra fluff. Deep down, they were hard-coded to continue their species. He was certain Sveta had used sexual manipulation before, almost with brutal ease.
Now she was thinking of a new angle. Something that required a new contingency plan.
The combat between instinct, intellect, and experience was fascinating.
“So. You’re a poof.”
Lee Qiang straightened, back pushing into the wall behind him.
The captain stood close to their little corner of the improvised shelter, watching the two of them with obvious disdain on his face. Lee Qiang didn’t know much he’d overheard, but it was more than enough.
“Use that word again, and I’ll smash all your teeth in,” Lee Qiang warned. He had placed his hand on the grip of his pistol. Easier to shoot from a sitting position. He didn’t trust his weak arms now to aim the rifle.
The captain grimaced and tilted his head in what passed for an apology. “My bad.”
“What do you want?” Lee Qiang muttered. Sveta had gently moved herself off him, staring away, as if this wasn’t her problem anymore.
“All this time you’ve been with us, you were eroticizing my chiseled musculature, is that it?” Lip badgered, trying to keep a playful tone, but it was dripping with poison.
Lee Qiang knew how it went. People rarely responded to admissions of sexual intimacy well, especially when it went contrary to their own. Even if they had no personal objections to homosexuals, soldiers didn’t like not having known. It was what bothered them the most. The question whether they would have cared and perhaps acted differently. So they imagined and projected, and the feeling of betrayal was always worse than the reality.
Lee Qiang had handled the situation in various way throughout his life. He had found rejection to be the least bloody. “With all due respect, captain, you’re not my type.”
There. The whiff of indignation. The smidgen of vanity.
Lip was silent for a moment. Then he grinned. “Good one, Lick Young. Good one.”
“Thank you,” Lee Qiang replied with as much cynicism as the captain.
“I wanted to talk to you about something.” His eyes said, prisoner be gone.
Before Sveta could move away, Lee Qiang pushed himself up. He must not look weak. But his head throbbed as his wobbly sense of balance took its merry time adjusting. He followed the captain to a secluded spot. It was a sandbagged south corner of their shelter, with a bipodded machine gun placed down and ready to fire.
“Marc might not make it,” the captain said.
“He’s a stubborn son of a bitch. I thought we could stay put for a couple of days, give him time to truly rest and recuperate. Fucking Orenburg is big enough that we can lose ourselves in the ruins without anyone finding us. Or not easily. We soak up some radiation, but perhaps Marc will live.”
And I can fight off my bug, too. “That’s a good idea.”
“I don’t want this discussed and decided by the team. Marc will go apeshit.”
Lee Qiang nodded and regretted it. He found it hard standing in one spot with his fever or flu or whatever it was attacking his system. “We might need to find a better, more fortified position. Not sure about water supply though.”
“It’s a risk. But before he died, Ivan did some calculations for us. In fucking Orenburg, we probably get an annual dose every week, which isn’t too bad. Water is probably contaminated with heavy metals, not so much radioactive isotopes, but he reckoned if we drink less than two liters of this shit per day, our kidneys won’t seize.”
Lee Qiang started pacing to keep his head from spinning.
“Tell me, what did you learn from our delicate Chinese flower before you revealed your gayness?”
Lee Qiang squared his shoulders.
Lip snorted. “Relax, Lick Young. I can use the word ‘gay.’ It’s not like it’s 1950.”
Lee Qiang wondered if he should mention some of the things he knew about the captain. No, best if he saved those for when they would serve a purpose. “Well, she is definitely not just a disc jockey. I am almost certain without asking she’s military intelligence. I think she is not leading us astray yet, but there might be a big trap ahead. I think her work in that power plant and the GPS going offline are related. The East Alliance was probably preparing a major offensive before we waltzed into Sector 8.”
“Any solid information?”
“Not yet. She knows how to dodge questions.”
“We can always use a wet towel and a canteen.”
“That’s why we use that last.”
Lip smirked. “If we come under heavy attack, I want you to deploy the KOS.”
Lee Qiang hesitated. “I will. But it has to warrant that. Once it’s used, the Chinese will know. It has to matter.”
Lip grunted. “Matter? See, Lick, that’s the difference between you ideological fucks and us pragmatic military types. I fight because I get paid. You fight because you believe in some pointless shit.”
Not belief. We just fight for different outcomes. You want the war to last forever. I want it to end. “It is not without reason they call you Lip.”
“Amen. And how are you feeling?” The captain’s tone changed.
“What do you mean?”
“I know you’re ill.”
“I don’t care. But if you start lagging, I’ll put a mercy bullet in your head; do you understand?”
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. “Understood. If I fire back, it means you will have misjudged the moment.”
“What about your ear?”
“Getting shot is never pretty. You never get used to that. It will heal well, but I’ll be a great deal less handsome. Your China doll has a deft hand. Who knows what other skills she might have?”
That was a definite jibe at the situation earlier. Lee Qiang let it slide. He was getting tired of the banter. He wanted to go back to his little shelter, lie down, swallow some more medicine and rest. He had to maintain control over the unit. It was symbolic but powerful. It reminded the mercs that this wasn’t a bargain deal of the century. They had a mission, and it ended on the friendly side of the war zone.
Lip probably valued his reputation too much to defect, but you could never know. Survival was a great motivator. You might not even be able to explain yourself the reasons for switching sides. If that happened, Lee Qiang needed a steady hand to kill the captain.
The banter was over. Lip walked away, to his dark corner of radioactive debris.
Lee Qiang returned to Sveta. She was composed again, as if the little moment had never happened. The distraction had given her time to work out a new strategy, and it seemed she had.
He put his backpack under his head, tucked in his jacket, as he was feeling shivers down the side of his back, and covered himself with a space blanket. He was still quite alert, hearing every little breath, lip chap, deep-throat cough—or the wheezes from Marc.
“Do you have a lover?”
Lee Qiang opened his eyes. Sveta was watching him carefully.
“Not at the moment,” he replied after a pause.
“Were you ever…married?”
“Not the marrying type.”
She nodded, as though filing information into some mental cabinet. Perhaps she was.
“What about you?”
Her face twitched with annoyance. “Not really. You can’t have…in the war. You know.”
“Did Shishka drag you into Sector 8?” Lee Qiang wondered how many soldiers in this cursed place actually wanted to be there, and how many feared the punishment from their leader. How many were even aware of the dangers of radiation? If the East Alliance soldiers were anything like the West Army, a good third were using drugs steadily, and another third drifted between alcohol and PTSD.
“In a way. It’s not that bad.”
“Sector 8 isn’t bad?”
“You focus on your work. You focus on your missions. The destruction just fades away.”
Lee Qiang shifted weight onto the other shoulder. “So who should win this war?”
Sveta touched his forehead. It was a rather intimate little gesture, and he startled, not expecting it. “We should.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s our side.”
It was a pragmatic yet depressing answer. “I hear Shishka’s generals want peace. But they won’t do anything while he’s around.”
“Hard to know what the generals think,” she replied with smooth evasiveness. “I think you’re underestimating him. It’s too easy to create a formulaic, simplistic view of your foe just because it sounds good and patronizing.”
“Have you met him?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.”
Was that a lie?
He should stop now. Sleep. Let his body flush out the toxins. He should not be running a casual interrogation while fighting a fever. He might accidentally reveal something he didn’t want Sveta to know. So far, she had proven far more cunning and resourceful than they had believed.
But there was one last question that nagged, and he couldn’t let it go.
“What is Shishka trying to achieve? What is his goal? You say you should win the war, but how does it end?”
Sveta smiled. “The war never ends. But in this round, I think Shishka wants all of Asia.”
“Why did Alexander ride to India? Why did Genghis Khan lead his horde all the way to Poland? Some men are born with an urge to conquer. It’s their destiny.”
This was more than the entire West military intelligence had on Shishka. Maybe a glimpse into his mad motives. Then again, this could just be a silly rumor, a fantasy notion that a young female soldier had about her powerful leader. Or a ruse, and Sveta was playing him. She had tried to seduce him. She was now trying to confuse him, and his brain didn’t have the strength to fight back.
Remember who she is.
And yet, he wouldn’t have heard any of this if he hadn’t confided in her. Trusted her.
Apparently, you didn’t have to fancy women to be charmed by one. Or maybe it was the extra dose of medications in his bloodstream clouding his judgment.
Sleep. He needed sleep.
“Rest now,” she said, reading his mind.
He closed his eyes. Flashes of abstract color danced on the inside of his eyelids, a techno beat of fever and exhaustion. The strobe-lights faded away. The world lost its harsh edge. He relaxed and realized he might actually have a decent couple of hours of healthy, regenerative sleep.
Cem ruined it when he spoke on the comms.
“Guys, I see movement.”
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US DoD (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.