Once I was strong and believed, now I am small and unbelieving.
–Anonymous German Soldier in Stalingrad, 1943
The dream always starts the same way.
A drop of rain seeps through the shattered rock-block beams that now serve as a ceiling, and falls into the child's eye. The rain is deadlier than the tank shells that blew the upper storeys of the housing block to rubble, better able to penetrate the building and kill the inhabitants.
This is how: A biowarfare spore, gengineered in a corporate lab and released during the Eurasian war, has survived for forty years in the water cycle. It has been dried to dust and picked up on the wind, laced the clouds, and fallen to earth over and over until, at last, the spore contacts human tissue. The spore's cortex ruptures, spilling its gengineered payload.
From the child's eye the payload travels to the mother's hand, and from her hand to all her children. Within twenty minutes they are all dead. Spasming, wheezing, kicking, dying. It takes the family longer to asphyxiate than it took the spores to produce fast and extreme anaphylactic shock, making every tissue bed in their bodies uncontrollably swell.
Setzen, Eversen, Sokolai, Stolnik, Eberstetten, Ereli, and Steinfelde stop drinking the rain water.
They have been told they are immune, that the fast biowarfare agents are tuned to specifically kill human beings, and they are only dogs built to superficially resemble human beings. They are not sure whether or not to believe it, because the corporate labs that gengineered the spores, and later told the world that the spores were a safe way to end the war, were the same labs that later gengineered the dogs, and told the world that they and many similar products under development would be ethical, willing slaves. Not many people believe the claims Estian Incorporated used to make, these days.
There is no water in the house except for the rain. When the revolution began, the water was cut off. By the time the brothers had barricaded themselves in the house—they call it that, though it's actually a small apartment block—there were only rusty dregs in toilet cisterns. The water boilers had been siphoned dry, and the plumbing was so empty it did not gurgle.
There is an empty bucket, lying beside the dead eldest child. On the second day the family in the basement had been drinking from it, and offered to share with the brothers, even if they were dogs, because there was a story in their holy book in which a woman gave water to a dog and was blessed for it. Other than that, the people of Tajikistan do not like dogs, and they do not like the brothers. The brothers had politely refused. After all, the family were civilians, and the brothers had been hired from their home, far away in the Middle American Corporate Preserve, to protect civilians.
The buckets lasted the family until the third day, when the revolution ended. The family did not want to leave the building, after the revolution's end, because the revolutionaries had lynched their father from a street light when he came out to see if it was safe to leave.
Drip by drip the bucket fills with rainwater. Setzen watches the surface of the water dance, his mouth dry.
He has spent ninety-six hours killing people. He has not slept. His judgement is fuzzy. He and his brothers used their guns to kill the revolutionaries who came to remove them from the house. He and his brothers used their fists to kill the revolutionaries who came to remove them from the house. He and his brothers used their teeth, their feet, their knives, bricks and pipes torn from the walls, scavenged grenades, and a bottle of cleaning alcohol to kill the revolutionaries who came to remove them from the house.
The reason the revolutionaries killed the family's father is, he thinks, that bottle of cleaning alcohol. The brothers should not have set that revolutionary alight and thrown him from what was left of the third floor, but the revolutionaries did not fucking understand that they would never take the brothers out of the house, alive or dead, because the brothers were dogs who had been genetically engineered to kill human beings more quickly and efficiently than even the biowarfare agents could.
But no matter how deadly Setzen is, he is also thirsty. He has not had any water for four days. He has not eaten in four days. Four sleepless days, in which he has killed fifty-seven people.
Sixty-two, including the family, if he alone were responsible.
The dream, up to this point, is factual memory. From here on it diverges with what really happened.
Setzen is afraid of the water. He feels like he will piss himself, he feels like the fur all over his body has been set alight, he feels like a real dog—a four-legged dog—that is about to be kicked. He is afraid.
Setzen drinks the water. At first everything seems to be all right. He laps it up with his tongue, and his tongue does not swell. His heart does not race. His throat does not close up. He can breathe easily. The water tastes cool and fresh. For the first time in days he is not thirsty.
The rest of the brothers join in, lapping at the rain, holding tin cans up to the drips, shuddering in fear of the spores until they have sipped enough water to feel the cool, clean sensation of water in their mouths. Their thirst is quenched, and they forget to be afraid. They decide, after guilty discussion, to move the family to the latrine corner of the basement, which has already been fouled, because the corpses are soiled with leaking shit and there is nowhere to bury them. They cannot throw the corpses from the third floor position until nightfall, because they will have to expose themselves to snipers.
Brothers upstairs cry out that there is an incoming assault. It is time to fight. Setzen feels glad. He cannot fight the biowarfare spores, but he can fight the enemy.
A bullet bores into the top of his head, splashing blood and pink-grey slime out of his caved-in skull, and crashes into the poured concrete floor beneath Setzen.
This really happened. The revolutionaries had taken control of the government and deployed the sympathetic remnants of the Tajik army's special forces to kill the brothers with hypervelocity armour-piercing rifles—which could also penetrate crumbling rock-block beams, if properly aimed with wall-penetrating radar. Setzen was really dead.
But Setzen didn't drink the water first, it was Sokolai. That is what is different, that is what makes it a dream, that is why Sokolai can dream of the fresh taste of the cold water, and why he dreams of Setzen's head being broken through with agony so terrible that Sokolai cannot even dream it, only scream as he wakes up, scream and howl like an animal, as though he is experiencing unimaginable pain. Sokolai is not experiencing that.
He is experiencing what it feels like to be powerless to help his brother Setzen. To be powerless to help himself.
There were four windows. Sokolai moved from one, to the next, to the next, to the next, all without exposing himself. A smooth roll of shoulder against paint, ducking beneath the sill, edging back into the room, back again. There was a good line of sight on the street from three of the windows, but the fourth one was on the other wall, showed him the neighbours.
The neighbours weren't going to attack. The neighbours were having a barbecue.
The neighbours were out in their yard, under equatorial sunshine, throwing a garden party on gengineered green lawns that were soft underfoot, walking happily around talking to each other, and Sokolai was inside, alone, seeing broken glass everywhere it wasn't.
There was a car in the street, and there were three people inside, and none of them were revolutionaries. Sokolai was sure of that. There weren't any revolutionaries in the car, or even in the country. The three people in the car weren't revolutionaries, but Sokolai had to check. Had to squint, had to stand there with his heart thumping and his tail slack and his fur on fire and a tight feeling in his guts until he had seen that one of them was black, and the other two were white and pale-pink coloured, too pale-pink to be Tajik. Tajiks were pale-pink-olive coloured, different enough that Sokolai could tell in full sunlight, similar enough that he couldn't in shadow.
Sokolai moved from window to window, and watched the car drive itself away, its three passengers unaware that they'd been watched by a gengineered monster with a hunting rifle locked in his gun safe. He'd tried to give the ammunition to one of his brothers to keep, but his hands had shaken and his mouth had grown too wet and hot, like he needed to pant the heat out of himself, and he hadn't been able to bring himself to do it. So he had the rifle and the ammunition, and he knew, roughly, how to aim so the bullets would still hit the three passengers in their heads even after being knocked off course by breaking up on impact with the car roof.
"Socks?" Ajay always called out softly, before knocking. The thumps at the door didn't startle Sokolai. "Can I come in?"
Ajay came in. He had a tray with cookies and milk on it. "Heather and Limmy are picking out a movie. They wanted me to ask if you'd join us, but I knew you'd say no, so, I brought you a snack instead." He smiled, beautifully.
Sokolai knew, every time Ajay smiled, why Ajay and Sokolai's foster-brother Michael had been in love for so long. Michael, whose family had adopted Sokolai after Estian Incorporated had been legally outmanoeuvred and forced into emancipating Sokolai rather than selling him into slavery, had always loved a pretty smile. Michael had, in fact, taught Sokolai how to smile when they were both eight years old.
Sokolai tried to remember how to smile, but just then, he couldn't. "Thank you," he murmured. "You're right, I don't want to watch a movie."
"It's okay." Ajay kept smiling, bright enough for the both of them, and set the tray down on the side of Sokolai's bed, pulling a dent in the perfectly folded sheets. "Anyway. Here's a snack, so you don't have to sneak around."
"Thanks," Sokolai repeated.
He watched Ajay smile and leave the room, and Sokolai couldn't quite remember how to smile.
He could remember learning. Michael had stuck his fingers into the corners of Sokolai's mouth and lifted them, and that was the first step to smiling, and somehow in the years between childhood and adulthood Sokolai had forgotten all the steps after that and smiled when he felt happy.
Now he couldn't remember how. Maybe because he didn't feel happy.
It was nice, being called "Socks." It reminded him of Michael. Michael and Ajay and Heather and Limmy had all been a couple, one of those couples where there are four people instead of two, but while Sokolai was working in Tajikistan Michael and Ajay and Heather and Limmy had broken up, and when he came home Michael was living somewhere else, and Sokolai didn't have anywhere to live, so Ajay and Heather and Limmy had let him move back in even though Michael had moved away.
Sokolai missed his brother Michael. Sokolai had more than five hundred brothers all exactly like him, and only one—Michael—who wasn't the same at all.
Sometimes, in the dream, it was Michael in the house in Tajikistan. Michael who got hit in the eye with the drop of rainwater, and swelled up and died. Michael, who sipped the water first, and convulsed so hard he bit his tongue off. Michael, who got shot in the head in that one happy moment where it felt like there was a fight on its way, a fight to win.
Sokolai ate the cookies.
Sokolai drank the milk.
Sokolai checked the windows, couldn't stop himself, couldn't do anything to shake the invasive paranoia that made him go and look, made him check, as if there'd be a guy climbing up who Sokolai would need to stab, to kill, to rip and tear—
Sokolai took the tray back to the kitchen.
"Socks? Are you sneaking around?" Heather squinted over her shoulder, next to Limmy on the couch.
It was uncanny. She was almost as good as Sokolai when it came to noticing people, but Sokolai could smell people closeby, and he didn't think Heather could. He'd been quiet, though. Hadn't made a sound. And the screen was on, volume up. You wouldn't think anyone could hear past it.
"Yes," he said at last, leaning around the door frame. "I was just putting the dishes back."
"Come and sit with us," Limmy said, shuffling to the side, making space by climbing up into Ajay's lap.
"Okay." Sokolai sheepishly clambered over the back of the couch, slumping down among all of them, amongst their love and care and kindness, their warmth.
Heather ruffled his fur between his ears, like a dog, even though she had to stretch up high to reach.
"How'd you know I was sneaking around?" he asked quietly, while someone struggled with a sailing boat's ropes on the screen.
"Hm? Oh." Heather smiled. "You're so big you block the Internet signal, a little, standing in the hall. The movie loses a frame or two, the resolution drops a little bit."
"Really?" Ajay tilted his head, squinting.
Limmy slid bonelessly down Ajay's lap, until his head was at stomach level, and his heels were on the floor. "Too small for us to notice. It's all her genetweaking, her scrambled brains."
Heather stuck out her tongue. "My parents cared enough to give me the best, even before I was born. I'm not even slightly scrambled, and neither is Socks." She stretched up and kissed his fuzzy cheek. She stopped, though, looking up at him.
Ajay leaned in from the other side, kissed Sokolai's cheek too. "It's okay, Socks," he said gently.
It wasn't okay. He couldn't sneak past Heather watching a movie. He couldn't do what she did to see if someone was in the hall or not. He couldn't protect them if the revolutionaries came, he couldn't protect Michael, he couldn't protect anyone, nobody else understood how much danger they were in because they weren't paranoid shell-shocked messes.
Sokolai wasn't crying, or anything. But they all knew what it was, when he went stiff like that, when he stared, when he had his ears perked up high to listen. They all knew.
"It's okay, Socks, it's okay," Limmy said, head now in Sokolai's lap.
Maybe Sokolai was part of the couple that had four people in it, even if he always slept alone, and never kissed back. He wasn't sure. He was sure about one thing. It wasn't okay. He very, very gently pushed Limmy's head out of his lap and stood up.
"It's not okay," he said.
"It's really okay, Socks, it's—"
"It's not! So stop saying it is."
"Why isn't it?" Limmy asked, voice hardly a whisper from where he lay sprawled on the floor.
"I'm not supposed to be like this!"
Ajay sat up straighter, mouth a hard, thin line. "Be like what?" he demanded.
"Socks. . ." Heather reached out to him. "You're not defective."
He stood still, afraid that if he moved he'd hurt them. That if they touched him, he'd hurt them. "I was made to be brave," he whispered. "I'm supposed to be brave, but I'm not, and you treat me like that's okay. It isn't."
They held him like he was one of them and said they loved him.
He didn't hurt them. He was still afraid.
The purpose of checking the windows was survival. The purpose of making sure his gun was clean was survival. The purpose of eating food was survival. The purpose of drinking water was survival. There wasn't any purpose except survival.
Clean the gun clean the gun clean the gun. Guns could jam. Sokolai's gun had jammed. He had taken that gun from the dead revolutionary's hands, on day two. He'd had to break the revolutionary's fingers, because the revolutionary had been dead just long enough that his hands were stiff but not so long they were soft, and the gun wasn't very clean, and it had jammed, and he could have died. So now he had to clean the gun.
The gun was a hunting rifle. The one he'd taken from the revolutionary's hands. Except revolutionaries carried Kalashnikov assault rifle ripoffs, so why was Sokolai cleaning a hunting rifle?
He felt confused.
That was dangerous. Being confused meant not knowing what to do. Not knowing what to do made him vulnerable. If he didn't know what to do, he could die. He didn't mind dying if it was a choice he made, when he took a risk, when he decided to be brave. He didn't mind dying if he decided to die.
He could decide to die.
He sucked on the hunting rifle's barrel. He spat it back out.
He'd heard a loud noise, like a mortar round, and he didn't want to die. He hadn't decided to die. He didn't want to die. He could be brave if he knew why he was dying but if the bullet came through the wall and burst open his head he wouldn't know why he was dying and he didn't want to die. He would happily die if he did so trying to protect Ajay and Heather and Limmy and Michael, but if he died he couldn't protect them and he didn't want to die. He couldn't taste cool clean water if he died, he didn't want to die.
The loud noise came back. A bang on the door.
He had to protect Limmy he had to protect Limmy he had to protect Limmy he had to protec— "Fuck off! I'm cleaning my gun," he yelled, raw-throated.
The door stayed shut.
Nobody was coming in the door, nobody was coming in the door, he'd fucking kill anyone who came through the door, nobody was supposed to come through the door or the windows fuck no the windows the glass was broken they could get in quietly, nobody was watching the windows where was someone to watch the windows where was Setzen? Setzen was supposed to be watching the windows no wait no fuck Setzen was dead Sokolai had to watch the windows.
The street was clear. No bodies hanging from street lights. When had that been cut down? Nobody had cut it down, Setzen hadn't gone out to cut it down.
Setzen cleaned the gun. Guns could jam, if they weren't cleaned.
Somewhere, a small voice told him he wasn't Setzen. The voice was the part of him called Sokolai, the part that said words and thought things and had feelings and killed people and used reflexes and was a person and fuck that part of him, Setzen hated that part of him because that part of him wasn't even strong enough to stop him from checking the windows when there was nobody out there, nobody trying to kill him.
Eversen hated that part of him too. Eversen was sitting on the roof under a pile of rubble making sure nobody snuck up on them. Eversen wasn't dead, Eversen wasn't even there, but that didn't matter. None of them had been given names until they'd been emancipated, they'd been given squad designations like Black-Four and Grey-Seven and Yellow-Ten, and if one of them died in training they were replaced and the replacement was Black-Four or Grey-Seven or Yellow-Ten instead. They'd been mass produced, a factory run of clones, that was how it worked. It worked so well that even after fourteen years of pretending to be individual people with names they could go to Tajikistan without preparing and fight better than the special forces, because special forces were only intensively trained for two years before being deployed, and they'd been trained since before they could remember thinking in words. They were all the same. Exactly the same. So it didn't matter if Setzen was dead, Sokolai could be Setzen instead.
Stolnik didn't agree.
Stolnik said he was behind the door with Limmy, and that Limmy and Ajay and Heather had called him over because they were worried about Sokolai, but Stolnik didn't believe that for an instant.
Stolnik knew he was using the dead family's shirts to bind their legs together so they'd be easier to carry without flopping all over. Sokolai knew that was what Stolnik was doing, and Sokolai trusted Stolnik. They were part of a team, part of a group working for the same goal, and Sokolai's part in that group was to clean the guns, and his brothers were doing all the other things that had to be done, and Stolnik should stop staring at him and go and do what he was supposed to do which was get the dead family ready to toss out of the house.
"We're out of the house, Sokolai."
"You're off schedule," Sokolai told Stolnik.
Stolnik wasn't doing what he was supposed to. Stolnik was just standing there, looking at Sokolai. Sokolai had trouble thinking about that, so he put down the gun and started looking around for a shirt in his dresser drawers. Stolnik had to tear up the shirts. That was what he was supposed to do, so Stolnik found one and started ripping it up.
"Stop it, Sokolai," Stolnik said.
Stolnik kept tearing the shirts because that was what he was supposed to do to survive. If they kept the family's bodies down there they'd rot, spread diseases—maybe the brothers couldn't catch those diseases because the family were human, but they'd been gengineered to be fairly close to human, and dogs could probably get sick from decaying dead bodies, couldn't they? Or because they were scavengers, maybe they couldn't?
"Stop tearing up your shirts." Stolnik took Stolnik's hands and held them, and then Stolnik didn't know who he was anymore or what he needed to do to survive.
If he wasn't supposed to do that, what was he supposed to do?
"I'm having trouble focussing right now," Sokolai managed to say. It took an effort because making noise meant you could be overheard, and that meant someone could triangulate your position off the sound of your voice and shoot you, and Sokolai didn't want to be shot, he didn't want to die.
"Sit down." Stolnik took dog and made him sit down on the bed.
When dog had been very little, had been too little to think properly, he had thought that all barking was just barking and you had to bark just right. Hadn't been aware that barking was mostly words, words that could go together. Dog hadn't understood that standing in Grey-Four's place meant that he was Grey-Four all of the time, not just when he was standing in Grey-Four's place in training. Hadn't understood he was a person.
He'd only been "Sokolai" at the Emancipation, and nobody had explained anything then, either. He'd thought it was some kind of new training exercise, and then they'd told him he was a seven-year-old child and that he had to go and live with a family, but there were new words he'd never heard before like "she" and "her" and "mother", and.
And Sokolai got confused sometimes.
He held his hands over his eyes while Stolnik picked up the hunting rifle.
The hunting rifle k-tanged, the noise it made when the bolt was thrown back with a round loaded, and the unfired round landed on the sheets, bounced twice.
Stolnik stared at it. "You loaded the fucking gun?"
"What's the point of owning a gun and not loading it?" Sokolai asked, unsteadily.
Stolnik didn't reply. Just took the ammunition, and the hunting rifle, and the knife on the table, and went downstairs for a bit, then came back upstairs with Ajay's smell faintly on him, like they'd been talking. The smell went away fairly quickly, Sokolai's sense of smell wasn't very good. Almost human.
"Were you going to kill yourself?" Stolnik asked.
Sokolai didn't answer.
"I could smell your spit on the barrel. You put it in your mouth."
Sokolai still didn't answer.
"None of us have killed ourselves, you know. I don't know why, and I've thought about it myself sometimes, but not one of us have actually done it."
"We ate them."
Stolnik didn't answer.
"We changed our minds because we were hungry and gutted them like deer and threw their guts out with the shit buckets, and we ate them."
Stolnik still didn't answer.
"Why don't I feel bad about it? I'm supposed to, I know that, and I don't. Why am I caught in paranoid fear for my life, when I'm safe, and why don't I give a shit about cutting open an eleven-year-old girl and eating her fat, just because her corpse was fresh and we'd already thrown the revolutionaries' bodies off the third floor?"
Stolnik got up and shut the door.
"Why do I feel bad about the wrong thing? Shouldn't I feel guilt? I feel guilty, I guess, on an intellectual level, but I don't face up to it. Shouldn't I be having nightmares about that, instead of about Setzen dying?"
Stolnik came back, and leaned against the wall between two of the windows. Sokolai fought down the urge to get up and check them.
"Well?" Sokolai asked.
Stolnik let his jaw go slack, slung it left and right until it clicked, and finally shut his mouth. "Did you get implants or did they put you on the hormone patch?"
"I got implanted testicles in high school," Sokolai said. "Did you get those?"
"I think we all got new balls, eventually, but I was on the hormone patch for awhile." Stolnik stared at him. It was a little like looking in the mirror. "I met this guy who said he worked as one of our trainers, once, out in Colombia. He said they cut our balls off so they could regulate our brain development."
Sokolai stared back.
"He said with the right mixture of puberty and drugs, they were going to fuck with our brains so we wouldn't respond to emotional trauma, wouldn't develop post-traumatic stress disorder, just wouldn't give a shit. Not about death, dismemberment, not about eating meat crawling with maggots, nothing." Stolnik tilted his head slightly. "When did they give you implants?"
"I didn't get balls until I was seventeen," Sokolai said. "I was on the patch until then."
Stolnik shook his head, and shrugged. "They got it half right with you, I guess."
"Personally, I threw up. I mean, I kept her down for an hour or two, but as soon as I was alone, taking my shift on the third floor, I threw up."
"Cried like a baby about it, too."
"That help?" Sokolai clasped his hands together. Stared at the floor.
"A bit." Stolnik's jaw clicked, unseen. "Cathartic. Think about it, feel it, deal with it."
Sokolai stretched out his fingers. Squeezed them back together. "I didn't cry."
Stolnik came closer. Patted Sokolai's shoulder.
"I always figured I was a coward. Didn't confront what I did. Ran from it. Made myself a monster." Flex his fingers, squeeze his fingers. Over and over. Something to focus on. "But I guess I was already a monster, and the cowardly part was thinking I wasn't, huh?"
"We're all monsters, Sokolai. That's how they made us."
After talking to Stolnik, Sokolai still wanted to kill himself. Make Sokolai go away, really go away, not just get confused and think he was dog, or one of his brothers. But it turned out that Estian Incorporated hadn't made him to kill himself. After all, a product that destroyed itself wasn't any good, was it? Maybe that was why he was more afraid of dying like that, hurting himself, than he was of machine gun nests.
So Sokolai went to Azerbaijan, when the crowdfunded civil war kicked off, and the population all chipped in to hire mercenaries to kill their president.
It was a kind of democracy, and it was a kind of suicide. The first teams into the country went in with the government fully aware of why they were there—after all, you didn't run a crowdfunding campaign for millions and millions of New Dollars without it being fucking obvious what it was for. Except the army was too incompetent to kill him.
Oh, Sokolai tried. He volunteered for all the risky shit, all the shit he could die for happy. Pulling his wounded brothers in out of sniper fire, distracting UAVs and automated turrets so someone else could get a lock, but he couldn't bring himself to switch off his chameleon gear, couldn't bring himself to step out in front of a gun.
He wondered, sometimes, whether or not it was the devil who made him. If the Catholics were right, and there was a hell, surely it had to resemble being set on committing suicide, and being too much of a fucking pussy to actually do it.
The house ahead was a good firing position. Clear all around, great sightlines, thick walls. He wanted to die, but a churning need to survive in his gut pushed him onwards with the rest of his brothers on the patrol. So far Sokolai had seen two of his brothers die—they'd tried for a medevac, but had been unable to get them out in the six hours stabilizing them had bought—and fifteen get taken to one of the field hospitals they'd snuck into Baku's underground parking lots, but so far he hadn't had that kind of luck. Maybe he'd have that kind of luck in the house. It was worth trying.
Edane opened the door with a 23 millimetre shell from his Light Anti-Materiel Weapon that shattered the lock, and Sokolai kicked what was left of the door down, pushing in first, ahead of the others.
A man in a tactical facemask, a goggle-eyed collection of six lenses winking as he looked up, gun rising, died before Sokolai could stop himself from pulling the trigger. It had been a reflex, pure, simple, perfect. If he'd been any slower than that, the man would have killed him. But the man was incompetent, and so was his friend on the far side of the entry hall, who fell back into a row of mail delivery lockers like a split water balloon, body and black uniform visibly warped around the 23 millimetre shell that must have detonated just right to splash the friend across the tiles like a bucket of paint.
It was quiet, while they checked the bodies. Sokolai smiled, thinly.
"I'm going to find a position up near the roof," Edane said. "If they bring the tanks, I should be able to knock 'em out if I can get an angle on the top armour. You coming?"
Sokolai shook his head slowly. "I need five. Give me a minute to eat something and I'll be up with you."
"Sure thing." Edane slapped his shoulder, and went through the shattered glass security door to the house's stairwell. The house, the house was more of a small apartment block, to be honest.
Sokolai shut his eyes, and took a deep, deep breath. He could smell raw meat and charring and sewage. He smiled again.
He felt happy. He could smile, just like Michael taught him. He didn't know why he felt happy. Was he supposed to feel happy?
He lifted the dead man's phone, and thumbed on the translation program his EWAR kit had installed. The last outgoing message blinked into English.
Khadija, you must not be afraid, daddy will come home when everything is safe.
No, daddy would not be coming home. Daddy was lying on the floor with his head puddled out, like Setzen's.
Sokolai shut his eyes, hard, and thought about Setzen. Thought about it until his heart shuddered in his chest and he was so afraid he felt like his body was too tight, and he looked at the phone again. Searched around for a family photograph, and compared the man in the picture to the ruination of blood on the tiles at Sokolai's feet.
Sokolai hated himself.
Sokolai wished he hadn't had to kill the man. Sokolai wished the man had given up like the other Azerbaijani soldiers. Sokolai wished the man had stayed home with his family.
Sokolai's eyes were wet. He wasn't crying, but they were wet.
He lifted his own phone, went to the nearest window, checked for the enemy, went to the next window, letting part of himself just move, live, breathe, do everything needed for survival, while he called home. The phone rang twice, and Michael picked up.
"Yeah? It's good to hear from you. The gang called, asking about you. Aren't you, like. Over there?"
"I am." Sokolai wiped at his eye, and rested his head against the window frame, staring across at the mouth of a street between two buildings, waiting for the enemy. "This. This is a weird question, but you taught me how to smile, and, and I think I'm figuring out some of this myself, but. Can you teach me how to cry? I'm not a monster if I can cry, right?"
"I. Jesus, Socks. I don't know. We could give it a shot." Michael was quiet, for a little bit. "Are you okay, Socks?"
"I— I might be. Listen, when I get home, you, you have to teach me. Okay?"
"I have to go now. Bye."
"Bye. Take care of yourself."
"I will." Sokolai killed the connection.
Then he went upstairs, and helped Edane to kill seven more combatants. By the time he'd killed the fifth, he didn't care much about it anymore, he didn't give a shit, they were just targets, but Sokolai took photographs with his rifle's camera.
Later, when he'd learned how to cry, looking at the pictures would be cathartic.
For now, Sokolai let himself survive.