48: crack, behind the scenes
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Silence except for the rhythmic beeps of the stereo device, the low noise reverberating throughout the entire room. The group of three soldiers and one civilian is situated in a dark, dingy military shelter on the outskirts of District 37, hundreds of miles away from the Paramus Sea. They’d stayed here for the past three days and they look rather comfortable, too, donned in layers upon layers of cotton shirts, wool sweatshirts and hoodies.

The First Unit doesn’t give an aura of mercenaries when dressed so casually. Rather, they look to be retired folk, slouched down and with their feet propped up on the dining table. Yoo Seok is the epitome of lazed and uncaring, his one elbow propped up on the seat rest, his other hand holding a lightweight brown book. Some kind of old novel with the pages wrinkled and all. How he dug that up is a mystery.

“Why!” Jae repeats himself more insistently, throwing his hands up in restlessness. “Why is the Colonel not responding?!”

Jae is rigorously tapping on the transceiver, pressing all the buttons at random, hoping he could contact any squad that has sighted their team colonel in the past few days. The young soldier doesn’t look like he knows how to even operate the device – it was mentioned to be a new model – but Jae, always an improviser, has a way of doing it regardless.

To his side is a more knowledgeable but just as distressed Li Jiayun, her frantic eyes growing wider per each incorrect press of a button – “I don’t think it’s that one,” she tried to tell Jae earlier but to no avail. The young man insisted that it had to be at least one of them and if not, then what do they have to lose?

Li Jiayun, in charge of communications by default, tried to give the young man pointers on how to operate it. To be frank, it’s not that Li Jiayun ever wanted to be their tech and comms person, but Colonel Yang had randomly designated her to the job two years ago. He had tossed her his handset, waved his fingers at her, told her to “take care of this for me” and so she did.

The good and naïve soldier Li Jiayun had handled the peanut gallery with no troubles and now, after a long while of being under the irresponsible colonel’s wing, she’d gotten used to this type of… again, irresponsibility. Colonel Yang is great in battle but not so much anywhere else – an unfortunate point that all of his soldiers had found out just one day into enlistment.

Missions are difficult and training sessions are even more difficult, points subtracted if the ordinary private cannot scale up a hill in under five seconds. The colonel is selective of his soldiers and for good reason – if they couldn’t accomplish such a “trivial” task, then they wouldn’t be able to survive out here in the wild. Combat Unit One is a special designation unit traversing in the most hazardous conditions, trekking up not just hills but mountain peaks.

Of the few dozen recruits, half dropped out and the other half met… honorable deaths.

The worst is, although Colonel Yang is a great fighter, he’s a terrible instructor and an even worse… human being. An underestimate, really, considering how he once made Jae limp miles with a bloodied leg. Just in case he was infected.

“Ten meters away,” he had told him with a dismissive wave. “If you don’t turn in half an hour, I’ll consider you cleared.”

A very rational way of thinking, but certainly not socially nor ethically appropriate. It is very unfortunate that, for whatever strange reason, Colonel Yang always has this irrefutably dominating aura that spurs more vigor than hate. A marshal of war he is, magnetic and so self-assured in poise that his boasts carry renewed strength.

He also carries a sense of security.

Two years ago, the colonel’s absence would’ve brought upon utter turmoil. Now, however, as the three remaining soldiers of Unit One try to figure out how to use a new version transceiver (without a manual), the atmosphere is more than easygoing.

“That knob is for frequency control,” Li Jiayun says earnestly as she watches Jae’s struggle. “I think I studied this model once…. You turn it clockwise to adjust higher, counterclockwise to lower. Then, you do a long push on the tune button… Oh, these turns on the side are for volume balancing and the other one is—"

A loud pop and then a fizzle, the screen of the transceiver suddenly shutting down black. Jae gasps out loud and Li Jiayun darts her eyes around in horror, a trained response to look for the colonel when things go wrong.

“It stopped working,” Jae says in shock. “D-Did I b-break—”

“You turned it off,” Yoo Seok informs him to the side. “You didn’t break it.”

They try turning it back on again but to no avail. The device still seems to be attached with the proper pieces – the antenna is as good as new – and everything should be fine, or so Jae says.

“I can’t turn it back on.” He pushes the button five more times for good measure. “Is it really not broken—”

“It’s not,” Yoo Seok immediately says.

“Oh.” Jae nods. “That’s good.”

And so, everyone dismisses the potentially broken apparatus only a minute later. No one cares to recheck or confirm, not even Ming Tang who’s hidden away in the corner of the room, reading an old paperback novel. They’d gotten used to his presence – or his lack of presence, rather – and had basically adopted him as a member of the team.

“Everyone…” Jae begins solemnly, putting both hands on the table, pushing away Yoo Seok’s feet, “if by any chance, the most infinitesimal of chances, that the colonel doesn’t return or contact us in a week then… what… what should we do?”

Li Jiayun starts biting her lips in heavy contemplation. “We… Should we go back to the Nexus? We would have to report to Command and then…”

“Then they’d write him off as deceased,” Yoo Seok tells her. “If they haven’t written off all of us already. It’s a better choice to wait another week.”

“But we would be neglecting our duties,” replies the redhead. “I don’t know if that’s a proper action to take. It is imperative for us to report our locations so that Command can keep track of our movements and provide support if necessary.”

Yoo Seok puts down his book and asks her, “Why?”

Li Jiayun blinks at him, not understanding the implication. “Ah, the faster we get reinforcements, the quicker we’d be able to regroup, resupply and procure a transport vehicle. We are also low on MRE rations so—”

“What I mean is we are not obligated to,” Yoo Seok says, his tone kept monotonous but still carrying weight. “Reporting our location would merely speed up an unnecessarily annoying assignment. Perhaps you’ve internalized obligations to serve the Nexus, but our small unit of three plus one child is unable to save the human race.”

Jae chimes in, “Oh… hyung means, in less sophisticated words, that we can slack off neatly and no one will know.”

Li Jiayun nods slowly. “I understand, but… although we may not save the human race, we should make an effort to bring back research specimens. Perhaps one day, we may be able to conquer through radiation.”

“Hm,” the young man leans back against his chair and replies simply, “also understandable.”

“Besides…” Li Jiayun’s face turns complicated. “I—”

“You have family,” Yoo Seok finishes for her. “You need to pay your father’s medical bills, and treatment for cancer is extremely expensive.”

“Not so much expensive as it is unnecessary.” She gives him a soft smile. Her pretty features are lit up through kerosene lamps, and it is only at times like these that she seems a normal young woman. Not a battle-hardened mercenary she was slated to be. “The Nexus has no obligation to care for my father if I am not in the First Unit. It is not that I have an… obligation to serve either, but…”

“We all have our personal motives,” the man tells her simply.

“What is yours?”

Yoo Seok picks the book back up again. “I don’t exactly have one.”

Even when acquainted for two years, the members of the unit aren’t close. They’re companions, not friends and though they’ve shared some smoke and drinks, details of their private life are kept at bay. There are unspoken questions that linger between them, always, but background checks aren’t necessary for soldiers who may die the next day.

“I’ve wondered…” Li Jiayun ponders over her words. “About Colonel Yang’s motive. He clears every mission without fail and yet, he… doesn’t seem to, um, care much for it. I don’t know his background nor does he speak of it.”

“Who knows,” Yoo Seok replies, flipping a page of his novel. The title of it is grayed out from heavy use and neglect. “That’s why we should wait it out. Let him figure out whether he wants to head to the Nexus with a hybrid on tow or…”

He props his elbow on the seat rest again, assuming his previous posture of indifference. His white shirt hoists up by the buttons, clinging onto dips of muscle. Yoo Seok holds certain poise that matches his alpha physique, but he isn’t conventionally braggart nor is he overbearing. A true neutral. He does, however, still exude an aura of firmness.

“Or if he’d rather run away.” Yoo Seok suddenly breaks character and gives a snort – not quite a chuckle, just a small exhale of air that is still more expression than he has on a daily. “A perfect opportunity to integrate with Noah and his feline friends. Radiation therapy, if you will, for his alpha medical condition. Free of charge.”

Pindrop silence.

The kerosene lamps are close to flickering off. There isn’t a response until ten seconds later, when Jae clears his throat. “…Did you laugh just now? Are you trying to crack a joke?”

Yoo Seok meets eye contact and then tilts his head. “Is it not funny?”

“…I-I guess it was?” Jae replies and then, sensing the incredible awkwardness, he immediately switches topics. “Ah, yes, about Noah…? Colonel Yang has an interesting way of showing affection, I think, so even though they argue a lot, I’m sure their relationship is going great. I mean they haven’t broken up yet so—”

“—What?” Li Jiayun sounds flabbergasted. “They’re d-d-dating?” She takes a moment to think about the apparently preposterous idea before adding, “…I-I guess it’s always been strange how uh, kindly the colonel treats Noah. It… It makes sense? But the thought of Colonel Yang—no, I’m not commenting on the colonel’s moral character, and while he is a charismatic l-leader, he is also a little overbearing in nature—no, I mean he’s…"

As Li Jiayun goes into an off-tangent rant to herself, Yoo Seok asks with some surprise in his tone, “Since when?”

Ming Tang makes himself known as well. He looks up from his novel – novels, considering the young teen had accumulated a bookshelf of them in the last ten minutes. “What relationship?”

“Y-You know…” Jae starts blushing whole-face red. “I saw them… doing… that.”

“What’s that?” Yoo Seok asks, his dark-brown orbs lightening in curiosity. “I find it improbable that a man like Colonel Yang would ever seek dynamic relationships outside the bedroom. Not only did he mention the impracticality of them, he also—"

“I tried to tell you last time!” Jae almost screams in agony. “That they were doing… unspeakable things outside of the bedroom, a-as in literally outside our room! In the dining area! You ignored me and went back to sleep so I thought you didn’t care—I mean, Colonel Yang can sleep with whoever he wants, but I mean isn’t Noah infected…?! And Noah is an omega so he needs to be careful and use pro—”

“You knew he was an omega?” Yoo Seok raises a brow in surprise. “Since when?”

“I-I knew too…?” Li Jiayun pipes up beside them, scratching the back of her ears. A fidgety habit. “Since um, a while ago. Day one, actually, when I dressed his wounds inside the storage room. There was a really distinct scent that even I, as a beta, could tell. The pheromones faded shortly after.”

“…Day one for me too,” Jae says with some awkwardness. “When I found him covered in snow. But his scent disappeared really quickly as well, and I thought he might be on heavy suppressants. Normally, his blood would’ve given it away but… it was so cold my senses were numbed.”

“Day one as well,” Yoo Seok responds. “When I first saw him. Alpha intuition.”

Ming Tang looks to the three soldiers. “So all of you knew except for that other guy? Why can’t he figure out something so obvious?”

“…” Li Jiayun opens her mouth to think of an excuse for her colonel. “I-In Colonel Yang’s defense, I don’t believe Sergeant Hannes knew either, as he’d always had an unfortunately insensitive sense of smell.”

“In Colonel Yang’s defense,” Jae nods fervently, trying to come with an excuse as well, “he hadn’t bothered to dress up Noah’s wounds when he was first transported to the shelter, so I think he dismissed the thought entirely.”

“In Colonel Yang’s defense,” Yoo Seok finishes up, “he’s merely an idiot.”

Now, unexpectedly, the group of four collectively share knowledge that Yang Rong, for all his worth, is undoubtedly the most ignorant of them all. News of the colonel’s scandalous tryst with Noah in a candlelit night, however, remain up for speculation. As Jae narrates his full experience of witnessing them do the deed, Yoo Seok remains unconvinced and Li Jiayun opts to dip out of conversation altogether. She remains confused and silent in the corner with Ming Tang, who hands her a paperback novel to quell her mixed thoughts.

Nobody comments about how a twelve-year-old boy is more mature than the fumbling Jae and the so-shocked-she-got-an-out-of-body-experience Li Jiayun.

“He was… Noah was giving him a…” Jae’s face turns even redder if that were possible. He tries to narrate the story but his hand gesticulations are not helping his case. He flails his arms around like a fish and says defeatedly, “…You know. That.”

“Interesting,” Yoo Seok comments as he watches the various expressions on the younger soldier’s face. “What else?”

“I-I don’t know!” he cries out. “I’m not a voyeur!”

“You should watch it closely next time,” Yoo Seok tells him and whether or not there’s a hint of tease in his tone… It’s up to Jae’s imagination. “You may learn a thing or—"

“Anyway!” Jae cuts him off abruptly. “They’re dating! And now they’re shipwrecked, stranded and lost in the middle of nowhere we know about. I-It’s romantic? Things will be great?”