Two months, and Old Ming was sick of the new island. After setting up a makeshift HQ, Command had up and left them with little more than vague orders to wait. Ming had done his share of waiting throughout his life, but here, so far from the front, unaware of any new developments, he’d sworn that the next official who turned up would end up as personal target practice.
Too bad Command was too smart for that.
They’d sent a telegram, instead, with a set of coordinates.
He should have been happy, but the itch in his fingers said otherwise. And faced with the prospect of hunting down the rest of his merry little band and getting them off their asses after two months of lazing around on this little rock, he was about ready to blow the place up and be done with it.
“Where’s that damn Liow got to now,” he muttered to himself, ripping up the telegram. The pieces scattered in the wind; he watched their flight path for a moment before turning and tramping off to the beach.
He found her soon enough, at least, through the telltale smell of smoke. On the grassy knoll overlooking the shore lay a young woman, silvery mane fanning out beneath her head. Behind her towered a gleaming Doll, like a silent statue of the ancients. Its painted mask glowered at Ming as he approached.
“Girl! How many times I gotta tell you, show some damn respect!”
The woman propped herself up on her elbows, a concise, fluid movement. “Mornin’, Cap,” she said, giving him one of the lazy, arrogant glances she’d patented. She held out a box of cigs. “C’mon, no one watching.”
He grabbed a stick and lit up. “Doesn’t make it any less disrespectful.”
“Where the others?”
“Off placing bets again. The usual.”
“Even Miqa? Surprised she’s not with you.”
Her response was a little too quick. “We’re not always together.”
“Sure,” he said, squatting down beside her, thinking about how everything had changed.
They smoked together wordlessly in the shadow of her Doll, watching the distant waves.
“So?” she said at last.
He made a grunt of assent. Fell silent again.
“Just spill it, old man.”
“Heard the Sakata Corporation has a secret factory round these parts.”
“You think that’s our next target?”
“Nah. No point in that.”
“Quit talking in circles, then.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just wondering. Thinking when this damn war’s going to end. If it ever will.”
She snorted. “I hope it doesn’t. You and I’d be out of a job.”
“There’s always work for a merc.”
“So you say.” She leaned back, blew a cloud of smoke into the sky.
“I just don’t know what the king’s thinking. This can’t last forever. Even with these fellas,” he said, gesturing at the Doll behind them, “once the mainland gets serious…”
“I’m sure the little fool has something up his sleeves. Or the Clans do.”
“The Clans are a bunch of useless bastards. His Majesty’s no better, letting them lead him around by the nose.”
She laughed. “Now who’s being disrespectful?” But the bitterness in her tone gave her away.
“This whole war is a farce.” He stood, dropped his cigarette, ground it under his heel with sudden viciousness.
“What’s it matter to you, Cap? We’re not even official. Win or lose this war, as long as we get paid…”
Ming turned, looked down at her. She stared back at him, her eyes dark, intense. Unreadable. He could have told her that a defeated employer was worse than a dead employer, but he knew that wasn’t what she was asking.
“Tell me, Liow. What you girls left your village for in the first place.”
For a long time she did not answer. “Thought maybe we wanted to see the world a bit, Cap. What about you?”
He’d grown up in a nameless hamlet by the sea. Nothing but sand, fish, gulls, and gods. He’d joined the royal military thinking to make something out of himself, left when he realized he hated taking orders. Still, the battlefield was his home. Killing was all he knew, all he lived for. He’d seen bodies rotting on the frozen fields of the north, in lands far beyond Nahwan, beyond even the neighboring empire. He’d seen what men and women resorted to in times of need. What beasts they truly were.
“For the money,” he said at last.
“Good answer.” She stretched, sat up. “When we moving out?”
“I’ll go get the others for you.”
“Much obliged,” he said dryly.
She smirked and strolled off, hair shimmering in the sun, whistling what he recognized as a bawdy miner’s song.
When he was sure she was gone, he turned to the giant at his side. His gaze followed the trail of painted designs along its limbs upwards until at last he tilted his head to its forbidding face.
“Never gonna get used to you, am I?”
He saluted the machine, fist over heart.
Of course, it did not respond.
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