A soft melody drifts throughout. The start of it is smooth and mellow, a low hum that lifts the emptiness of the shed. It’s a tune of wind and nature, of low tide seas, sandy beaches and sunrise. A shame that the environment doesn’t account for it. Each vibration, each tingle is mixed with the howling gale outside. The onslaught of snow doesn’t end.
In a small section of the shelter pod, a man sits playing the piano. His seat is out of place and obviously not adjusted for height; he towers over the instrument, struggling with each press of a key. The picture itself is odd: a big, grizzly-looking man on a metal chair, playing with a dilapidated, wooden piano. He doesn’t have “piano” hands, not the kind that’s said to be open, relaxed and nimble. He still plays well, however.
“It doesn’t fit your image at all,” says the observer to the side.
Hannes chortles. “Wasn’t expecting a shack like this to have one.”
Yang Rong stands with a toolbox in one hand and a carbine in the other. He sits cross-legged and places all sorts of things on the floor – bore brushes, solvents, cleaning patches. He says offhandedly, “Probably procured decades ago. No one cares to manufacture them anymore.”
“An antique, then,” Hannes whistles. “You think it’ll sell?”
“To some rich kid in the city.” Yang Rong casts a long glance at it. “Though you’re on your own if you plan to lunge it five thousand miles down south.”
Hannes sighs in remorse. “Kids like you don’t know entertainment.”
"A career in music was never offered to me,” the colonel replies. He disassembles his firearm, first removing the magazine and then double-checking the chamber. “I assume the same for most of us here.”
“Yeah.” Hannes looks at him with indecipherable eyes. They’re even darker in candlelight. “Yang Rong, you’re too young.”
The other man raises a brow as he pulls off a pin, setting it aside to take off the bolt carrier. “Did you smoke something strange?”
Hannes ignores his comment completely and stretches his arms. “…A pity. Only twenty-seven and already forced into your title. You haven’t experienced the finest things in life. For example, my childhood was the greatest it could be. Have you ever seen the country when it wasn’t divided? When there weren’t domes in place of homes, when skyscrapers weren’t deconstructed.”
“I have,” Yang Rong replies. “I’ve read about them.”
“There was no responsibility when I was young. No war.” Hannes stares at him. “No fearing for our lives every second of every day. That was a normal childhood.”
Yang Rong sighs. “We’re fighting for normalcy.”
“We’re not,” Hannes denies. “This is the new normal.”
Yang Rong busies himself with the disassembly. The buffer spring is the last to be taken out of the rifle. His expertise with weapon-handling really shows when he concentrates. He’d done this countless times. From disassembly to cleaning and back to assembly, each step is careful yet efficient.
It’s not until the final click of the magazine, five minutes later, that the silence is broken.
“Did you think about it?” Yang Rong asks suddenly. “About returning to the inner city. Your service is about due.”
Hannes had started to smoke a cigarette. The whiff of it is particularly strong when there’s little ventilation. He tosses the lighter around with one hand, fiddling with the sparkwheel as distraction.
“I will go back,” he responds finally. “But there is nothing left for me.”
“Become a musician or something,” Yang Rong tells him. “Hold concerts, make some money, then just laze around until you die of old age. That much comfort should be good for you.”
“Then what else?”
Yang Rong looks at him questioningly.
“You, me, Yoo Seok, the little kid Jae and even little Li. We’re all fucked up in the head.” Hannes offers him a cigarette. “If we don’t die from radiation or field injuries, the trauma will get to us eventually.”
Yang Rong refuses it. He doesn’t often smoke. “I’d rather die of old age.”
Hannes looks at him, grins, and holds out a fist. “Well, I do enjoy being alive. There are things I want to do.”
Yang Rong receives it with a grin of his own. “Like what?”
“Like sleeping with every omega in the city,” the other man replies with an awful wiggle of his brows. “I need to enjoy myself while I’m still able.”
“Not even the gene banks want your DNA,” the colonel scoffs. “Hasn’t your dick shriveled up already, old man?”
“What about you?” His sergeant nudges him playfully on the side. “Donate your sperm once in a while. You’d be able to get good money from it too, you know.”
“Then you should find a partner. You will regret not enjoying yourself while you’re alive, Rong Rong. People like us die early, you know. Hey hey…” Hannes pulls him closer like he’s whispering some government secret. He really doesn’t want to drop the topic. “Between you and me… Omegas aren’t your type at all, right? If you knock one up by accident, you won’t be able to bear the responsibility of children.”
“It’s not that.” Yang Rong flicks him away like he would dirt. “I can’t have children.”
“…Oh,” Hannes snaps his fingers as he sees enlightenment, “You’re infertile?”
“…I’m not. Fuck you.”
About ten minutes later, Li Jiayun opens the door and interrupts the indecent conversation. She had politely knocked beforehand. The whole squad, after years of service together, had more or less figured to not be in the vicinity when their sergeant and colonel are in the same communal space. Some had learned the hard way – Jae, for example, had walked into an awkward birds and bees conversation, which was more of Hannes describing, very explicatively, his first lay.
It started off decently but it only went downwards – literally, from the initial vulgar hand gestures to an eventual demonstration of the male genitalia. They were comparing sizes, to be more specific, not an extremely uncommon topic among arrogant alphas, but also not one that anyone wants to walk into. To make matters worse, red-faced Jae hadn’t made eye contact with either of them for weeks, and the other recruits, who are no longer present today, experienced firsthand what sort of working environment it was.
Truth be told, talks on sex and the like are very ordinary. Being on the field year after year is bound to take a toll on physiological needs. While citizens of the inner city enjoy several kinds of entertainment, those who dwell outside and military troops, especially, have little to no access to taverns, bars and hostels. It would be rare to even spot a living person outside the domes.
“Colonel Yang, Sergeant Hannes.” Li Jiayun steps inside the room. The scent of meat wafts through the air and quickly engulfs the small room. “We’re serving dinner.”
Hannes drools at the umami and instantly bolts up. “We haven’t had fresh meat in months. What a fucking time to be alive!”
“It’s caribou,” Li Jiayun says happily. “Yoo Seok and Jae managed to slay one earlier. The radiation hadn’t penetrated its outer layer, so we were able to skin it and carve out portions of the meat.”
“Risking their lives for the sake of dinner,” Hannes sheds fake tears, “truly honorable men.”
He’s already out the door in a second. Yang Rong gets up as well, slinging the firearm behind his back. “I trust you all have taken precautions during the process?”
Li Jiayun nods fervently. “Yes Colonel! Gloves were worn, and we are certain it hadn’t touched any part of our bodies.”
“Good. Though the radiation index is low, the possibility of transmission is not unheard of,” he says. “There have been tragedies, after all.”
“I will do my utmost for your safety, Colonel Yang.”
Li Jiayun talks like a top student, like her words are out of a tape-recording and like she’s always reading off a “how-to” guide to address her superiors. She probably had the entire thing memorized when she first enlisted. A very good soldier she is, but Yang Rong is never strict with such insignificant talks of status. He bears the title of Colonel and sure, he’s earned that rank and very much deserves the recognition too, but it hardly matters to him whether he’s a commander or a foot soldier. Li Jiayun is aware of course, but it doesn’t deter her from being so polite.
“Have you checked up on him?” Yang Rong clarifies a second later, “The little prisoner.”
“He was still asleep when Jae went to check this afternoon,” she replies.
“Is he hibernating? How long is he going to sleep?”
“…I don’t know?” She seems genuinely pressed to answer. “Patients who suffer from a concussion may show post-symptoms that take weeks to months to recover from. Though his external injuries seem to be recovering well, he is also showing signs of a coming fever. He may be out for another few days or even a week.”
“So delicate? By the time he recovers, the organisms we’ve gathered will be rotten beyond recognition. We can’t wait that long.” Yang Rong ponders his next words. “Do you think we can transport him while he’s asleep? If he makes a fuss, we can tape his mouth and knock him out again.”
The redhead coughs and says instead of answering, “A beta’s healing capability should not be compared to those of alphas, especially not to yours.”
“Still, he needs to eat. I’ll wake him.”
Yang Rong pauses at the doorway. It’s unknown what he’s thinking, but he’s thinking seriously from the way his eyes are turned her direction, looking but not exactly focusing. “Xiao-Yun, how old are you this year?”
Li Jiayun replies, a bit confused. “I am twenty-two.”
“So young.” Yang Rong is off in tangents and his subordinate can’t keep up, nor does she understand where the conversation is heading. “You are from the inner city?”
“I used to reside by the border.”
“How was it like?”
“It was…” she finds the right word, “normal. As normal as it is for any beta.”
“Education, work…quality of life?”
“Average. The opportunities are not abundant for someone of my social status.” They don’t normally chat about these things – their lives outside the military, their lives before they had met. The topics were always limited to one mission then the next. They speak of miscellaneous, of course, but not much anything personal. Li Jiayun continues, “The lifestyle isn’t bad. We can even be called lucky.”
“You are lucky?”
“I am. There are many betas who hadn’t been granted access the cities at all. They were outcasted two decades ago. Even now, if they don’t fulfill some criteria – if they’re not intelligent enough, skilled enough, or if their abilities are just not needed… Well, the Nexus is economically resourceful.” Li Jiayun isn’t uncomfortable speaking about it, though there’s some tenseness in her posture. She shakes her head and says, “Topics like these, I think Jae would know more about.”
Yang Rong nods. “Thank you.”
“You aren’t from the city, Colonel Yang? Someone of your standing must’ve grown up in the—” The redhead stops herself from prying and quickly waves her hands. “A-Ah, I didn’t mean to be so nosy…”
Yang Rong replies anyway, patting himself on the chest. “Your daddy’s been in the field for so long, he had forgotten most of it.”
“Once in a while, Yoo Seok would bring back those popular books that circulate in the city.” Li Jiayun is endearing when she’s trying to be helpful. Yang Rong relates her to a small hamster, what with her dyed fiery hair and big, round eyes. “Jae might have kept a few copies. Sergeant Hannes also keeps other types of magazines – if you would like, I can ask for them?”
Yang Rong ruffles her hair. “Good.”
“Should I ask for the pornographic magazines or the books?” she asks curiously.