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.
“How are you?”
“Nervous,” Sveta said.
Lee Qiang smiled. “That facade finally crumbling, eh?”
Sveta made a wry face. “I have seen prisoner exchanges before. Sometimes they go badly wrong. I’d rather be crossing the Volga River in a Taifun. At least there I had the feeling of being in control.”
Is that what’s bothering you? Lee Qiang wondered. That you are no longer in control? That you cannot manipulate anymore? That you’re going back to your side, which may not look fondly on your getting captured?
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.
Ignoring the wounded, Lee Qiang tuned his mind back to the fight. They had to neutralize the armor first. If they did not, they would all die.
He tried to close his fist. It worked. He opened it. A spongy feeling, but his muscles responded. His sleeve was drenched with blood. The fabric was ripped in two places where the shrapnel had cut through.
Lee Qiang rose, using his left arm to pull himself up against the greasy side of the all-terrain vehicle. The cannon breech was closed. Lonya must have reloaded a fresh shell before the Type 89 fired. Lee Qiang positioned himself behind the gunner sight, aiming the iron at the AFV.
“Maybe you use some of that gay charm to talk our way out of this?”
Lee Qiang put a hand on Lip’s shoulder and loved the fact the man flinched ever so subtly. “Not sure if that’s going to work here, but thank you for your suggestion.”
There was a bridge.
Flowing lazily under it, the Volga River.
Guarding both banks was a shady bunch of troops in mismatched camo and a serious stock of weapons.
Yefim had rhotacism.
Back in Poland, when Lee Qiang had been growing up, such a speech impediment would have earned a child a lifetime worth of beating. Probably in all the Slavic countries.
The fact Yefim was still very much healthy and alive in Sector 8 meant the childhood bullying had prepared him well.
They sat in the man’s house, in what would technically be the living room, drinking too-sweet tea from small crystal glasses.
It was surreal.
“Well, ain’t that bloody marvelous,” Lip whispered.
Yes, but what now. “What can you tell us, Cliff?”
The engineer was holding the Geiger counter toward the blast. It did not show any elevated readings, beyond what they expected to find this close to Orenburg. “We did receive an initial dose of infrared and gamma. Does anyone have any burning sensation on their skin or impaired vision?”
A rounds of negatives came back from the group.
Fucking Orenburg was still there around them, a torn postcard of destruction, obscured by the wilderness. At the bottom of what looked like a dry irrigation canal, there was a convoy of abandoned cars all sunk deep in sandy ground. Plastic bags of rubbish poked through the grass, spangles of red and blue against the sunburnt carpet. Higher on the west bank, there was a bus.
The rust-splotched husk was lying on its belly, the axles half-sunk into the ground, leaning slightly toward the incline. The old thing had burned down, and was mottled reddish-black all over. There was a patina of lichen-like growth climbing up its sides. Inside, the plastic chairs had melted, forming a frozen river. Even now, even with his senses dulled by illness and the ashes, he could smell the waxy, phenol stench.