Lee Qiang opened the email. It was in Mandarin:
I know you’re angry. I know you feel like I betrayed you. But we both know that’s not the case. This is war, and as luck would have it, we fight for different sides in this sorry conflict. We both know what it takes—whatever it takes—to finish the mission. I could not have given up mine, and I know you know and respect that. You would have done the same. Had I given up, I would have lost your respect, and no matter how insincere that may sound to you, I find that important.
Your anger is not with me. It is with yourself. You feel betrayed by your own emotions and instinct, by your intellect and experience. That will not fade away quickly, if ever. I believe it will never fade away. The only way you can have closure is if you come after me and try to rectify the mistakes you made during your ill-fated operation. I am aware that you will try to find me again and kill me, and I bear you no ill will for that. I expect it.
I will be ready.
You have no reason to believe anything I’ve written here. But know this: I do think you’re a remarkable person, Lee Qiang Mlody, and I have not lied to you when I said that under different circumstances we could have had something more. Perhaps not a romantic relationship, but maybe some kind of a friendship. You are a kind person, and I deeply admire that, because kindness is not easy to find in this war. Kindness is weakness, so you have to understand how amazingly brave what you did when you took me captive was. You showed compassion. You showed that you can retain humanity even under most difficult circumstances.
I admire that because I would not have done the same.
It is unlikely we will ever meet again, but I will always have a fond memory of you, even as I plan to end this war with the utter defeat of the West Army and its military assets. I have no qualms about seeking your death, because it’s not personal.
I will not write again. This is a small admission of my affection for you, Lee Qiang. But now I must disappear. I think I’ve also learned a valuable lesson. The mistake I made at the abandoned power plant will not happen twice.
If you are alive when this war is over, I will find you.
P.S. Stay out of big cities.
P.P.S. I mean it.
Lee closed the lid of his laptop and leaned back in the wicker chair. The waitress came over, put the coffee mug down, offered him a bland smile, and wandered away. He was the only customer sitting outside, watching the people and cars on the Hristo Giorgiev Boulevard. Wartime Sofia still had a semblance of civilization. Scars and wounds well hidden under makeup and a brave face.
“Well, well, if this isn’t my favorite gay man in the world.”
Lee Qiang looked up. Lip’s limp was barely perceptible now, but maybe he was putting on a guilt show for the sake of it. Without waiting to be invited, the captain sat down with a loud groan, making his own chair rustle and creak.
“Coffee any good?”
“Haven’t tasted it yet.” He opened the laptop and turned it toward Lip. “Read.”
“Are you taking the piss?”
Oh, yes. “Sorry.” He translated the email. The English version did not read as well as the original, but the general idea was there.
“For you?” the waitress asked, leaning over the captain.
“Cold beer,” Lip said, frowning, annoyed that she had interrupted him. He leaned back dramatically. “Well, well, this must be the first known case of a gay man getting blue-balled by a woman.”
Lee Qiang sniffed. “Yeah, she was that good.”
The waitress returned with the drink and her bland smile.
“Wasn’t one of your ex-wives Bulgarian?” he asked Lip.
“Romanian. But then, I also had a Hungarian wife, an Irish wife, two Frenchwomen…” Lip paused. “What about you? Do you have a boyfriend or something?”
Lee Qiang sighed. “No, no boyfriend at the moment. It’s a bit difficult managing a serious relationship when you’re in the special forces, and in the middle of fucking war.”
“I never had a problem,” Lip said.
“That’s because you’re special,” Lee Qiang teased. He tasted the coffee. It was too bitter, or maybe his mood was too sour.
Both he and Lip were forced to return to Sofia for another long, grueling round of interrogations, the latest set conducted with the newfound hindsight of Shishka’s identity. They had gone over every single detail, and it was amazing how different the reality felt knowing who Sveta really was.
The knowledge galled.
The sense of a missed opportunity and of being so profoundly and completely deceived made Lee Qiang restless. Most soldiers experienced some form of post-combat trauma. Sometimes guilt over dead comrades, fatalism over who died and who didn’t and how chance played its cruel game, a need for closure, usually associated with failed tasks and high casualties, a need to control the situation with endless replies of battles rehearsed with tiny imaginary differences compared to how they actually panned out. For some, the distinction disappeared and they ended up drinking medication cocktails in rehabilitation centers.
For Lee Qiang, it was not a matter of wishful thinking and trying to warp the reality to soothe his hurt pride. He knew the reality was different from how he remembered it. What he needed was to go back to Sector 8 and finish the business. There was nothing else that would bring him peace.
He didn’t know what Lip was thinking.
Maybe the captain was here to finally exact his revenge.
Or just have a cold mid-morning beer.
“So what now?” the captain asked, wiping his lips with the back of his hand.
“What now?” Lee Qiang said, waiting. He wanted to see what Lip intended. It was unlikely the captain would try to kill him right then. Even first-class psychopaths liked their beer.
“We need to go back,” Lip said.
Lee Qiang relaxed a little bit. Only a little. “Why?”
“Because we need to find that bitch and finish her, that’s why.”
“We’ve already made significant progress,” Lee Qiang said, deliberately playing devil’s advocate. “We have established Shishka’s identity. We have her DNA samples, her fingerprints. We know what she looks like, and there isn’t a biometric scanner in this world that won’t scream a thousand alarms if she puts her face in front of it. Better yet, we know Shishka exists. She’s not just a myth.”
“That’s bollocks, Lick Young, and you know it.”
“Our mission wasn’t a total failure,” Lee Qiang said.
“No, it was a monumental clusterfuck.” Lip was getting worked up. “This war will not end until that bitch is dead. I know it, and you know it.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“Go back. We…” He gestured wildly. “…go back.”
“Operation Putain 2.0?”
Lip grinned. “Exactly. I was thinking it should be a different name, but that works.” He set the beer glass with a loud clang. “Good news. I forgot to tell you. Gustav and Bolek made it.”
“And the rest of the guys?”
“All of them made it. Got themselves wandering, and eventually ended linking up with the FFF rebels. Some of the men will need a long recuperation, but they will all live, and they will be able to return to active service.”
Lee Qiang was happy to hear that. “That is good news.”
“The Golden Horde got pounded hard, but they aren’t finished.” Lip must have realized how stupid that sounded, because he started laughing.
Lee Qiang had no anger in him. He was drained. Sveta’s email had left him empty. There was a void in his soul, and that would burgeon into sharp anger one day. Right now, he was spent.
“So you’re joining us then?”
Lee Qiang squinted. “Joining you? You mean lead?”
“No fucking way.”
The captain closed his fist and put it against his lips. “How about we do it like the last time? You’re sort of in charge, and I’ll be your creative consultant?”
Lee Qiang still wasn’t sure if Lip was being serious. Maybe the captain was just taunting him, so he could humiliate him when he accepted by retracting his curiously touching offer. Maybe something had changed deep in his soul. A combination of hardship, radiation, and getting shot in the thigh.
But for William Smythe to cede his megalomaniac authority?
That was unheard of.
There has to be a catch. Yet Lip’s expression was sincere. Simple, open, waiting. “Why?”
“Because you showed yourself capable of leading when most men squeeze out ice-solid turds. You were given the lead of the toughest spec ops team in the world and you managed to survive. Us, Sector 8. You even got that lucky shot back then. That’s not bad.” Lip smiled. “And you haven’t shagged any one of my men.”
Lee Qiang returned the smile. “I’m getting the feeling you might be a closet homosexual, Captain.”
“I’m just saying.”
Technically, he did not need Lip’s blessing. The army command could simply reinstate him as the temporary officer in charge of Unit 4 if they decided there ought to be another mission and that Lip’s crippled company should be mobilized. As long as the Golden Horde functioned as part of the West Army, they were subject to its whims. Lip might try to wheedle his way out, but it wouldn’t help him. It hadn’t helped him the first time and there was no reason why it would be any different now. He could perhaps quit, but people like Lip never quit. The glory of crime, the sweetness of authority, and the thrill of combat were the bread and butter for men like William Smythe.
Lee Qiang wasn’t sure he had liked his time among the mercenaries. They had been hostile and mistrusting. They were not his friends. Special forces thrived on the concept of intimacy, which was why his mission has been so difficult, even before they had stepped into Sector 8.
He had led numerous missions before. He wasn’t sure any other group would have survived Sector 8.
So it was a bastard job, and when it came to bastards, Lee Qiang ranked pretty high.
And then there was the other thing.
If he refused, Lip might decide to go after Shishka himself, out of his own sense of pride, honor, and missed opportunities. He might even succeed. If he did, Lee Qiang would forever be deprived of his closure. Someone else would have that. That someone would be Captain Smythe.
No fucking way.
“On one condition,” Lee Qiang said, and he almost chuckled at the eagerness in the captain’s expression. “The name needs to change. The Golden Horde is offensive.”
Lip blinked. He was speechless for a moment. “Fuck you.”
“I thought Pink Unicorns. It does not sound scary, which makes it scarier.”
Lip did his best to look genuinely offended. “Here I am, on a limb, extending my olive branch, and you took a dump on it.”
“Stop being a pussy. The name stays then. I will talk to the army command. See about how we can formally sort this out.”
Lip finished his beer. “If we kill Shishka, my…reward stays. Also, I will kill you for what you did one day, but I promise it won’t be as long as we work together. You’re still Lick Young.”
Lee Qiang extended his hand. The captain shook it.
This time, the captain spent a good few seconds trying to flirt with the girl, to no avail. She was acerbic, apathetic, and she probably didn’t understand English that well. Lee Qiang took a few moments to read Sveta’s email again.
The empty feeling wouldn’t go away. He was certain. He had to go back to Sector 8.
He believed the captain had it, too. And the only sensible way to proceed was for them to band together. That way, they stood the highest reasonable chance of finding Sveta.
And killing her.
It would bring him no pleasure. But like she had written, it was nothing personal.
He was still a little surprised that Lip would be willing to humble down so much. He had not expected that from the captain. Nothing in his psychological profile and past experience showed he was capable of authoritative flexibility. It was shocking and suspicious and honorable all at the same time. And annoying. It was another omission. He should have seen it.
Cheer up, Lee Qiang. The captain knows you’re better than him. You know it. There’s no reason to play the humility card.
War changed people. Operation Putain had made him more introspective.
That was it, then. He and Lip were best buddies now, and this time, they would not have to pretend it when they met the troops. But the captain’s sudden bout of chivalry was also a test. There would come a moment when he would have to show humility like Lip had. Lee Qiang wasn’t sure when that would be, and what he would have to do, but Lip would be waiting.
Should make it interesting.
“When are you heading back?” Lee Qiang asked.
Lip gave a slip of paper to the waitress, and when she was gone, answered the question. “In about a week. I have some unfinished business in the city.”
Stay out of big cities. Did Sofia count? “We’ll meet at the front then.”
Lip mock-saluted. “Cheerio, Lick Young.”
Lee Qiang rose. It was tempting to stay and spend more time with the captain. But it was dangerous. Peacetime did not really suit people like him. He was not meant for this chitchat and banter and soft bullshit. The war waited out there. Everywhere. A never-ending business.
Leaving Lip to his new conquest and the unpaid drinks bill, Lee Qiang walked away, down the boulevard, marveling at the fragile tranquility of it all. He had a day to kill, and he intended to spend it studying people and their faces, so he didn’t forget why he risked his life out there. For them.
The streets smelled of gasoline, decaying autumn leaves, colorful perfumes.
For a moment, he wondered what Sveta was doing.
He walked on.
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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.