The stench was unbearable.
Under the sun, the tropics sweltered. Trees disappeared in and out of the haze as insects dragged their chitin encased bodies from plant to plant to animal. Anything larger than an insect simply did not move. Not during the day. The night gave little relief, but any relief was welcome.
The slight breeze caused by a humvee as it passed by was also welcome. Except that in it’s wake, the stench of rotting flesh was freshly stirred and sent cascading over the soldiers as they stood at attention. The heavy fatigues they wore crushed the air out of their chests. The filters they had to suck the air through only made matters worse. Sweat collecting in their masks was accepted. Dryness in the back of their mouth was accepted. But the stench couldn’t be.
It was something you shouldn’t have to accept.
Chen Li stood stiffly at the end of the line. Accepting it meant accepting what he’d witnessed for the past month. They stood now in the center of a village in a remote area of China. That was all he knew. None of the soldiers knew where they were. All they knew was what they saw.
It was nondescript from any other village like it. Indoor plumbing and electricity still hadn’t found their way up the steep mountains or through the thick forest to connect the village to the modern world. Only a narrow dirt or mud path, depending on the time of year, served the village, and only the most off-road of cars or pack animals dared attempt the journey. The dirt road ran straight through the center, lined on either side by shanties of stone and wood. It was a village without a name, settled by refugees of the People’s Republic and those who simply wanted to escape modern life. It had no name because it didn’t need one. No one ever expected communication with the outside world. It was a throwback to simpler times, lost in the woods.
And very dead.
The sights were burned on Chen’s memory. Men, women, children, coughing, the blood trickling through their tightly squeezed fists as they covered their mouths. Then the hysteria as they tore into each other, crying out in pain and paranoia. Children were beaten unconscious. Women tore their clothes. Men threw themselves onto firepits. Screams overwhelmed coughs. And then silence. They lay everywhere, exactly where they fell after the fever in their brain subsided. Here and there a dog would rummage through a house, looking for food. But despite their hunger, the dogs left the bodies alone. Flies buzzed about the bodies, laying maggots to claim ownership. The soldiers had been assured the flies couldn’t be carriers but had been ordered to kill as many as possible, just to be safe.
Chen had seen it all from his post. During the month, the outfit he was posted with had been ordered to monitor the people’s progress from a series of blinds encircling the village. Contact with the villagers was forbidden. Then when it all seemed over, they were ordered into the village, to make sure everyone was dead.
They had moved out slowly, weapons drawn, filters operating at maximum. Everything was so silent. The village had just died, and the noise of the forest had yet to fill the void. Any twig he snapped underfoot sent shivers up his spine. He was almost at the center when he felt something wrap around his leg.
He quickly leveled his rifle and found himself looking down the barrel at a woman barely out of her teens. He’d been watching her, struck by the health that shone in her black locks and eyes. She was one of the last to get sick. Clinging to him, she was white. Blood dribbled down her chin. She clawed at him with fingernails full of the hair she had pulled out in clumps. She was mumbling, just loud enough for him to hear.
“Kill me, kill me…”
She pulled the barrel to her chest. Closing his eyes, he pulled the trigger.
Chen forced the image from his mind, clenching his rifle tightly. For four weeks he had watched, standing by as dozens of people were slowly executed like test rats. He stayed fast, acting like the obedient soldier, kept in line by knowing he’d escape with the information he’d gathered to return later and bring vengeance upon those responsible for so many deaths. He’d come back himself, and bring all of Hell with him.
The last of the humvees passed him. He craned his head slightly to see down the line at where the convoy had stopped. None of the vehicles displayed any insignia or flag to reveal to whom the cargo and passengers they carried belonged. Although Chen was surrounded by Chinese soldiers, this was distinctly not a People’s Republic Army operation. It wasn’t the operation of any government. Just one man who could pull strings and get whatever he wanted. A general of the Republican Army, a contingent of soldiers, medical supplies, transport, a village of test subjects. He didn’t need money to buy these things. Kelly G. Shaw just needed words.
In his peripheral vision, Chen saw General Tsang Ju-tsao step out of the middle humvee. At six foot and sixty-five years old, Tsang was big enough to inspire legends and live up to them. From the parents of dock laborers, Tsang had been barely a teenager when Chiang Kai-shek was forced from rule by General Mao Ta-Tsung, but he had taken up the arms of a fallen soldier and supported the communist party, shooting down Imperials as if they were game hens. He quickly rose through the army ranks, wholeheartedly spouting communist doctrine as if it was religious lore. During the Cultural Revolution, he had personally relocated an entire village of people overnight. Over half the village didn’t survive.
Chen’s parents had escaped the Cultural Revolution, and had told him about Tsang. They described him as a monster. The soldiers around him looked upon their commander with awe in their eyes and respect in their posture. To them, he was a glorious example of obedience and honor.
So why is he here, doing something so lacking in honor as this?
Behind Tsang, the answered stepped out. Kelly G. Shaw. Several inches smaller than Tsang, Shaw was not physically impressive or imposing. With a round face, unmanageable brown hair and brown eyes shielded by glasses, he looked more like what in America they call a nerd. He could have easily wandered into any crowd and been indistinguishable from everyone else. And Chen was sure Shaw knew this.
Your greatest enemy is the one you cannot see.
With Shaw at his side, Tsang promenaded down the line, inspecting each soldier and snapping corrective commands. As Tsang neared, Chen refocused ahead of him and applied slight pressure to the palm of his glove. Immediately, the optical filament wound up underneath his hat and indistinguishable from his hair began transmitting images from directly in front of him to a microprocessor sown into the underside of his shirt.
Tsang stopped in front of him, peered at his expressionless face and with a quick sweep took stock of his uniform. Shaw watched from behind him, smiling bemusedly. What was funny, Chen didn’t know. But he forced his own grin down. He’d just caught the culprits on video. When the duo had turned back for the convoy, Chen did allow himself an upturned lip. He was sure they’d be stopped now.
Tsang stood in front of the line and cupped his hands behind his back. Shaw continued on to the convoy and listened from there, his eyes traveling from soldier to soldier as if searching. Chen quickly wiped away his grin.
“You will all be given your orders,” Tsang’s voice roared out in Cantonese, perfectly enunciated and devoid of emotion. “You have thirty minutes to complete it. At that time, return here for your final shot. Sergeant Wang, proceed.”
Tsang snapped and whirled on his heels back to Shaw. Shaw continued examining the line, and stopped on Chen. He lingered there, his lips curling more as his eyes narrowed. Chen was staring straight and caught the odd grin in his peripheral so he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. A shiver ran up his back. It could just be a coincidence, but he had a healthy enough sense of paranoia to dismiss that.
Tsang and Shaw reboarded the humvee and the entire convoy was bouncing off down the road a few seconds later. Sergeant-in-arms Wang stepped forward from the beginning of the line and began barking off a list of men and their accompanying duties. Chen snapped out of his paranoia to listen intently, his mind focusing to find one specific duty.
“Tsui, secure remaining biohazards for transportation.”
Chen immediately recalled an image of Tsui from his memory. A small boy, only nineteen and two inches shorter than Chen who only stood at five feet eight. He was a good fighter, and his mastery of tae kwon do was regularly tested and yet to be beat. But he was young, trusting, and very respectful of his elders. Chen knew he’d have no problem removing the boy from his post.
He heard his own named called but had no intention of carrying out his task. It was just something menial and unimportant. Not only was Chen a new appointment to General Tsang’s crew—thanks to a little ingenious computer hacking—he had also spent the last month demonstrating his inability to handle any tasks of real importance, often relegating himself to cook duties. No one ever suspects the cook. He knew he’d probably receive some sort of discharge once they got back to Beijing, but Chen had no intention of being with the squad that long.
Wang ordered dismissal. The line broke up and scattered themselves throughout the dead village. Chen trotted off, his peripheral vision trailing Tsui as the boy headed off to the tents rigged behind the blinds.
If everything went according to plan, Chen wouldn’t be with the squad for more than another hour.