To the untrained eye, the differences between our side and their side were subtle. New flags and uniforms, new types of technology and weaponry. But it was still a war zone. Rubble, checkpoints, walls of gabions, machine gun turrets, sniper nests.
And then there were the smells of destruction.
To Lee Qiang, this was a brand new world.
It always happened when coming back from a mission, no matter how long or intense. Your mind tuned into the survival cadence of your objective and coming back from it was hard. The mind did not want to lower its shields too easily, to expose itself. So it distrusted the signals, distrusted the visual cues, struggled to adapt to the new reality.
It wasn’t unique to special forces. Every soldier went through the same ordeal. Some never managed to go back to their previous selves, ending up in mental institutions or going back to war, where life made simple if brutal sense. When your creed narrowed down to “kill or be killed,” planning lost its allure and everything became easier. No hard choices, no pointless deliberation, no dramas.
Lee Qiang knew the trauma would last for a while. He would be too sensitive to how people behaved and looked, even to subtle things like glances, smiles, or posture. He would find the luxury of being able to stand down almost agoraphobic. He would be irritable. He would feel disdain for fellow soldiers who indulged in what he titled the privileges of safety. Then the feeling would fade away, his old focus and determination would return, and he’d feel drained.
However, this time, there was another layer of taint on his soul.
The knowledge that he had not completed his mission. But it wasn’t just the tactical failure. Shit happened. Operations sometimes went wrong. He could cope with those. What bothered him was that he had misjudged the enemy.
Lee Qiang turned. A military police lieutenant was coming his way. Someone who knew it was best to announce their presence early to a group of grim, blood-soaked special forces. “Here.”
The man just nodded; no salutes in the combat zone. “I’m 2nd Lieutenant Sokolov. I’m here to debrief you, and…” He paused, giving them a sorry look. “If you need any assistance…”
Lee Qiang wanted to berate the man. Then he remembered himself. It wasn’t this guy’s fault. He hadn’t been in Sector 8. “We need medical attention first and foremost. All of us. And I will also be formally transferring a prisoner into your custody.”
Sokolov nodded, but from his expression, it was obvious he did not know who among them was the enemy. He might not even have noticed that Sveta was a woman. She was covered in grime and gore, and could pass for a slim, youthful soldier. “Of course.”
“Get to it, then.”
They sat on the ground, drinking water, eating energy bars, and waiting for Sokolov to return. Lip was dozing, head resting against a pile of industrial rubble. A group of soldiers outside the nearest bunker was smoking and arguing loudly. It was about who or who hadn’t fucked Ilya’s sister.
“Hey!” Lip barked suddenly. “Tossers, keep it down. I’m trying to sleep here!”
“Isn’t it too early for your nap, Grandpa?” an anonymous face in the crowd jeered.
One of the definitions of cowardice is bravery in numbers, Lee Qiang thought as he scanned the group. The worst kind of cowardice. Not the fresh recruits in total shock and awe, not the hardcode veterans who knew better than to taunt an unfamiliar face. The second-year or third-year fighters, who thought they were invincible and who were monumentally bored with the ugly routine of their life.
“Putain.” Marc got up and spat. He approached the group. He was ill, weak, covered in vomit and blood—wild, insane, dangerous. The soldiers looked distinctly intimidated. They suddenly understood their mistake. “If the captain says you keep quiet, you keep quiet.”
“Never stand too long outside an entrance or any door,” Lip lectured from his prone position. “If a mortar drops, the cavity beyond will augment both the expanding and collapsing shockwaves, and you will end up with more tissue damage than normal. Disperse.”
“Aye, sir,” another voice said, far more timid.
“Besides, it’s impolite, and you’re blocking the entrance for others.”
“Where the fuck is that Sokolov guy?” Eddie muttered.
Almost an hour later, the lieutenant returned with a small convoy, including two ambulances and three 4×4 transports. Lee Qiang had spent the time counting sporadic gunfire. He had given up after the hundredth shot echoing through the ruined town of Inza.
Medics stepped out of the ambulances and approached them warily, almost afraid the injured men would suddenly shatter. Marc refused to go, and it took a lot of firm goading from the captain until he finally relinquished his weapons and let them take him into the ambulance. The fact that he was still alive was a miracle.
Sokolov cleared his throat. “Who is the prisoner?”
Lee Qiang pointed. “She is. Colonel Sveta Zhang of the East Alliance Military Intelligence.”
The lieutenant nodded appreciatively. He didn’t know the details of Operation Putain, but he seemed impressed with the prize. “She is coming with us, then. Come, Colonel.”
“She needs medical attention,” Lee Qiang said.
“She will get it. Separately,” Sokolov explained patiently. “Colonel.”
“Give me a minute,” Lee Qiang said. He turned his back on the MP.
Sveta was wearing a curious expression on her face. Sadness mixed with fear. He didn’t know how much of that was genuine shock and how much play. The fact that he couldn’t trust his own ability to read people unnerved him. It was a chasm between him and Sveta. It hurt more than it should. She was supposed to be just an enemy soldier.
“It’s been an adventure,” he said.
“It still is,” she said.
“Well, once I know where you’re interned, I will come by for a visit,” he said, and realized he meant it.
“That would be nice,” Sveta said and smiled.
“You should be treated well.” He was almost dead certain how the procedure would go. Sveta would be taken to a temporary holding location, then moved to a new one during the night so that any enemy spy looking for information on Alliance prisoners would be thrown off guard. She was too valuable to go to an ordinary military prison. She would be debriefed in the highest circles, and Lee Qiang would contribute his own findings to the report. Operation Putain was a failure, but they had learned important lessons about Shishka.
“When they ask you questions,” he said. “Don’t lie to them. They won’t be as gentle as I am.”
“Thank you.” She kissed him on the cheek, stepped around him, and let Lieutenant Sokolov cuff and hood her.
“Do you know what the first thing I’m gonna do is?” Lip said, standing at Lee Qiang’s side. There was no malice in the captain’s voice, and he did not appear to be concocting a cruel joke.
“Get a nice and long bath. Then I’m gonna fuck something.”
Lee Qiang patted the captain on the shoulder. “You never cease to surprise me, Lip.”
“Don’t look so glum. We came back. We’re alive. We still need to kill Shishka, and I still need to kill you.”
A medic came over. He looked at Lip first. “Name, sir?”
“Captain William Smythe.”
“Are you injured?”
“Are you blind?”
Lee Qiang let the tirade drift to the back of his mind. While waiting his turn, he found himself gazing at the town ruins, at the shelled-out houses, the million pockmarks from bullets and shrapnel, the bubbly pools of melted metal and rubber, the rusty teeth of rebars and pipes, the rubbish. After Sector 8, this felt too busy, too chaotic. He was used to destruction, but the fact that there was an armed human almost everywhere made him feel vulnerable. If they had managed to infiltrate enemy territory with porn, drugs, and cigarettes, what was there to stop the East Alliance from bribing their way into the West sectors? Maybe Shishka was right there among them, gloating.
It wasn’t the medic. It was some captain. Lee Qiang could not tell his unit. He just wore a standard uniform, a vest, and a pistol on his hip. He might even be mistaken for a combat reporter. “Here.”
“Eric Schmidt. I was told to escort you.”
Lee Qiang knew he would not like it. “Where?”
“To the high command for debriefing.”
“I’m busy being injured,” Lee Qiang snapped, then remembered himself. It’s not his fault.
“Of course. I did not imply otherwise,” the Schmidt man continued. “But given the urgency, you and Captain Smythe will have to come with me, and we will do our best to make sure you receive the necessary treatment on the way.”
“What do you want?” Lip said, changing focus without blinking.
“I think you will have to wait for your fucking,” Lee Qiang told him.
“Son of a bitch.”
Twenty. “I win.”
Lip frowned. “You what?”
“Twenty ‘sons of bitches’ in less than hour. It was a bet, and I won.”
The captain made a sour face, like he had sniffed in an elevator fart full on. “How does that even work? How can you bet yourself?”
“It’s good for your self-esteem. And the best part is, you always win.”
Lip chuckled. “Well, it’s the funniest thing I’ve heard so far this miserable day, I’ll grant you that.”
Urgency or no, they had spent almost two days in the hospital, soaking in all sorts of stuff from IV drips, getting male nurses to look them over, much to Lip’s chagrin. Lee Qiang would wag his eyebrows every single time one of the men left, just to annoy the captain.
Their injuries were not life-threatening. They had no infections, no internal bleeding, and no fragments of metal embedded in their tissues, no signs of severe radiation poisoning or any symptoms of mutagenic diseases, so it became a matter of rest, antibiotics and vitamins, mild radiation treatment, continuous checkups, and then limping into an armored car for a long journey to army command.
Air travel used to be popular and heavy over Europe, until the war put a stop both to commercial and military flights. Conservative reports by army intelligence estimated there were approximately 10,000 MANPADS operated by militias, gangsters, independent mercenary brigades, and terrorists, as well as Alliance covert sabotage cells. With economies in ruin, major airfields bombed out and saturated in unexploded cluster munitions, and air forces blighted by attrition and appalling losses, manned flight had become a rare and dangerous adventure. Worldwide, it was only Latin America and sub-equatorial Africa that still enjoyed some semblance of unrestricted air travel.
Elsewhere, travel had become slow.
It would take them two days to reach Sofia. Lee Qiang’s superiors burned for a full story, but they did not dare share anything over the regular communication lines. On his end, Lee Qiang wanted to know more about recent developments—the Alliance counter-offensive, the nukes in northern Europe—but he kept his curiosity at bay until the meeting.
Two days together with Captain Smythe in an armored transport.
If Lip bore a grudge, he knew how to push it away until he needed it, almost as if he had a split personality. But then, he must have, to be able to survive and thrive so well in this ugly war.
Lip grunted, shifting his weight. There wasn’t enough room for them to stretch their injured legs fully, so they asked the driver to stop frequently. Their escort was humble, inconspicuous. And apparently, the soldiers had been told to cooperate with their whims.
Lip knew it, and he was doing his best to compensate for the frustration of not getting laid. “Helmut, I need a break.”
“We stopped only forty minutes ago.”
“I swear I’ll piss in the car if you don’t pull over right now,” the captain warned. Helmut obeyed. “Join me, Lick Young. But no looking.” He raised a stern, warning finger.
Lee Qiang was wary as he stepped out of the SUV. It was a Magdalena, a slimmed-down version of the spec ops variant they had used to insert into Sector 8. For one thing, it had none of the antennas, cameras, hooks, and handles like the combat model.
Lip hobbled out into the field by the side of the road, his gait still restricted by a mesh cast. He glanced over his shoulder.
Lee Qiang knew the captain was armed. They both had their side weapons. Maybe Lip wanted to settle the score right now? Well, there was no avoiding it. Ignoring the impatient puffing and tutting from the soldiers in the follow-up car, Lee Qiang walked over.
“Marc’s dead,” Lip said.
Lee Qiang nodded. He had not bothered asking about the rest of the team. For some odd reason, he didn’t feel he should be the one doing that. Now that they were back in friendly territory, he was once again a stranger, an intruder, a mistrusted half-Chinese.
But if asked to partner with the Golden Horde for another mission, he would do so without hesitation.
“What about Gustav and Bolek?”
“I am sorry,” he said.
Lip wasn’t urinating. He just stood there, hands calmly folded in front of him, away from the grip of his 9mm pistol. “They all knew the risks. They all did what they loved.”
“What about the other guys?”
“They will live. I have to say, we’re damn lucky. Either outright death or a complete recovery. No missing fingers or toes.” He shrugged and touched his trimmed earlobe, healing an ugly dark red. “No nerve damage. No cripples. Some will be decidedly uglier than they used to be, but they will return to active duty within the month. I am going to be busy rebuilding the company. I just hope some of those recruits were listening to my lectures.”
Lee Qiang let the breeze cool his skin and nodded again.
“What about you?” Lip asked.
“What about me?”
“You going back to your secret missions?”
I don’t know yet. “Maybe my commanders won’t be pleased with the outcome of the mission.”
“They shouldn’t be,” Lip growled. “I know I am not.”
“They might pin it on me.”
“Damn bureaucratic faggots. Sorry.”
“Well, whatever they decide, I am going after Shishka,” Lee Qiang said. And he realized he meant it. For some reason, he would don back his combat gear—his sophisticated helmet and double ceramic vest, his custom-tailored LBH—gather his weapons, and head out back into Sector 8. He wasn’t sure if that was an intellectual or a physical challenge, but he knew he would not be able to rest until he found and destroyed Shishka.
Until Operation Putain, he had believed the death of the elusive Alliance leader would allow the two sides to finally make peace.
Now he knew that peace might never come. But he would have peace.
Shishka’s death was imperative. It was a need, a religion, and it had been born and bred into him in the short few weeks they had spent in the hell called Sector 8. As a special forces operative, he should have been immune to war traumas, but that too was a myth.
We all have our limits.
“Well, unless you intend to try to kill me now, or you’re secretly hoping for a hand job, we’d better back into the Magda,” Lee Qiang said.
Lip smiled. “I still have not recast that bullet.”
“And the other thing?”
“When I said I wanted to fuck something, I didn’t mean I was desperate.”
“Good, because you’re not my type.” Lee Qiang turned his back on the captain and headed for the cars.
“You know, Lick Young, you have all the right attributes to be a member of the Golden Horde,” Lip called.
“So, what do you say?” Lip hounded, coming at his heels.
Lee Qiang opened the heavy, reinforced door. He pointed toward the interior. “Let’s talk after Sofia.”
Lip snuggled himself in. “Helmut, for fuck’s sake, step on it. We need to get back to the army command before my dick turns limp…”
Smiling, Lee Qiang hobbled into the car and closed the door.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Navy (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.