This had been a church once, although to what god Aiden wasn't sure. The roof was shot through with years of abandon and months of shelling. It was night outside, but there was a strange orange glow that passed through the gaps in the roof and provided just enough light for the statues to loom out of deeper shadows, hands outstretched. Aiden wanted to just get this over with.
Behind him, Jor flicked his light on. The church was less frightening and more pathetic when lit, but the beam didn't cover everything, and the province of light always bordered the unknown. There were no signs of habitation, but Aiden still kept his gun pointed straight ahead. His finger tapped the trigger as if to make sure it was still there.
It was a simple assignment – eliminate two enemies who had escaped from the round-up operation earlier and fled into the cavernous chamber underneath this old holy site. In the capital they were doubtlessly discussing how barbaric the enemy was, to violate the sanctity of this holy place in pursuit of their aims. They didn't talk like that in Aiden's garrison. The righteousness of their cause was assumed, or maybe it just didn't matter. The only question worth discussing was how to carry it out.
Jor pointed his light at a heavy door to their left and nodded. That had to be the passage to the underground. Aiden pulled the door open with both hands. Thin steps lead down into the darkness.
As was usual, Aiden let Jor lead. They were technically the same rank, but Jor had been fighting for a lot longer, having lied about his age and snuck into the forces at sixteen. He seemed a man among the boys. He was clean-cut and thick-voiced, giving off the air of a hero in the old stories, and his dark eyes seemed like a weapon in themselves. Rumours and stories travelled around the company, tall tales about Jor escaping from a nest of enemies and single-handedly gunning down five men, or six, or eight if the teller was not concerned with plausibility. There were also stories about foreign conquests, enemy women knocked off their feet, sexy spies who had let Jor slip between their sheets. If Jor resented having to carry Aiden and the other recruits to victory, he didn't show it. He just pressed forward, with the fervour of either a zealot or a beast.
There was a moment where Aiden thought the steps would last forever, but then the soft dirt floor came into sight. Aiden didn't understand the faith of these savages, who worshipped in dank caves and bogs. A large statue of a grotesque, monstrous god dominated this chamber. Jor flashed his light around the vast space they found himself in. The light fell, too late, on the bomb.
Aiden never saw the flames, or at least he could not remember it. There was a force knocking him off his feet and pulling him to the ground with a vicious snap. It was distantly related to the feeling of helplessness when his brothers knocked him around with impossible force in childhood games. Aiden's mouth filled with smoke, and his ears forgot the concept of sound. He felt for a moment as if he was underwater, and it was strangely peaceful. There was a slight buzzing sound, but that could be ignored. Then the buzzing got louder, and more painful, until it felt like an alarm waking him out of his sleep. He had to get dressed and turn out, the same as he had turned out in the early morning every day since he reached majority.
Aiden shot up, but there was no stopping the buzzing. He tried to roll out of bed, but he was not in bed. He was on the ground, and there was no light at all. Why couldn't he open his eyes? Aiden reached up, trying to feel his eyelids, and ended up poking himself right in the cornea. That just added to the number of pains that he was slowly awakening himself too.
A moment later, he had gathered his bearings enough to remember where and why he was here. He also remembered that Jor should be here with him. He called out to him, but couldn't hear his own voice, much less any response.
Aiden tried to move forward, only to find something in front of his feet. He tripped and sprawled out on the ground. Not his finest moment, but it did seem to shake some of the cobwebs loose. He could hear Jor saying ... something. What language was he speaking?
It was his name. Jor was calling his name.
Finally, Aiden's mind came fully back on line. He was in a very dark place. The light had presumably been taken out with the explosion. Was the enemy here? Rumours around camp said that they could see in the dark. Were they waiting silently for the moment when Aiden and Jor finally had hope, only to shoot them in the back of the neck?
Jor's voice was coming far to his right. Aiden crawled over to the sound, not wanting to trip on any more debris. He felt childish and slightly humiliated, travelling on all fours, but that was what he had been trained to do in combat situations. He probably should have been closer to the ground, though. The roughness of the cave floor bruised his palms.
Aiden knew that he was getting closer to Jor, but didn't realize how close until he bumped into him. All of a sudden he was in close with another man, feeling his breath on his neck. Both seized each other in a combat grip, in case it was an enemy combatant, but they realized the situation quickly enough.
"Aiden?" Jor said.
"I'm right here," said Aiden, as he extracted himself from the hostile embrace. "Are you okay?"
"I think I twisted my ankle," Jor said. "But nothing serious. What about you?"
"Nothing broken but my concentration," said Aiden. "Jor, what the fuck just happened?"
Jor had a certain tone of voice when dealing with rookie mistakes or institutional stupidity, and he was certainly using it now. "It was a trap. Bad intel on our part, I suppose. They led us right in here and set that bomb off. They were probably hoping to get a whole platoon of us. Good thing we're short staffed."
"Fuck them," Aiden said, letting his hatred against the enemy swell.
"Wish we were smart enough to do the same thing," Jor said. Even if patriotism wasn't a big production around camp, this went a little bit too far – it could be taken for criticizing superior officers. Still, it wasn't like Aiden was in any situation to write him up.
"So how do we get out?" Aiden said.
"I expect we won't."
"That staircase was the only entrance to this cavern," Jor said. "And from what I saw before our light got taken out, the whole thing was caved in."
Panic hit Aiden in a wave, followed immediately after by the shame of being afraid of death. This was precisely what they were supposed to have drilled out of him at the academy. But what else was there to feel, down in the pitch black? If there had been a sliver of light creeping in, maybe there would have been hope.
He felt something on his thigh, and instantly started up, reaching for his gun. But of course, it was only Jor.
"Relax. Nothing here but ghosts."
Aiden sat down. He wanted his cigarettes. Of course, he had left them in the camp, sure that he would be back after fifteen minutes of routine searching and routine finding nothing. It was a small thing, or at least should have been, but nevertheless his lips itched with the need for a smoke.
"Can you touch me?" Jor said.
"Just put an arm around me. So that I know where you are, and I don't feel like I'm floating in a void here."
From anyone else this request would sound insane and somewhat insecure, but from Jor it sounded perfectly normal – in fact, the only reasonable course of action. Aiden leaned up against one of the cage walls and edged over until he felt the warmth of Jor's stomach against his. He then stiffly placed an arm over his comrade's shoulder. He wasn't sure why he felt uncomfortable, but he did.
"Do you think we have oxygen in here?"
"There's got to be a crack somewhere. If not..." Aiden could feel Jor shrug. "We'll know soon enough."
Aiden moved to get up. "There has to be a way out."
But Jor grabbed him by the arm and tugged him back down. "Just wait."
Of course, Jor was injured, but he was acting strangely. Gone was the bold but level-headed Jor who demanded respect and made even his superiors follow his plans. Instead there was a wistful ineffectual man with a thin voice who, if Aiden was not mistaken, was trying not to cry. Aiden patted him on the back, a movement made all the more awkward by Aiden's arm scraping against the stone wall.
"What did you do before the war?" Jor said.
It was a strange question, and one that Aiden had never been asked before. There was nothing before the war – just training and waiting for the inevitable. He had been born a soldier and would die as one, most likely later this afternoon. Some of the other boys had different backgrounds, but they didn't talk about them. That was the pact: you got to give up your past, as long as you gave up everything else.
"I was in the academy," Aiden said.
"I don't mean like that. I mean like – your last day before majority. What did you do?"
Aiden's pulse quickened. Surely he couldn't get in trouble for that. How would they even know? "I attended the ceremony. That's all."
"Bullshit. Everyone has some wild indulgence on their last day. Tell me yours."
Was Jor mentally well? Perhaps there was some kind of gas seeping through the chamber, diluting his senses. If they were to have this conversation, it should be at a bar on a day's leave, not in such dire surroundings. But there was something in Jor's voice – a kind of beseeching – that Aiden couldn't ignore.
"I had two huge bowls of ice cream," Aiden said. "It cost me all of my savings, and I reported for duty the next morning with an awful stomachache. But it was worth it."
Jor chuckled. "I forget how young you are, sometimes."
"Not as young as I was then." So this was how it was going to be – Jor laughing at his inexperience yet again. "What about you? If you're so sure that everyone has a big blow-out before they go, what was yours?"
Jor got quiet all of a sudden. "I shouldn't talk about it."
Aiden gestured to the darkness around him, before realizing that Jor wouldn't be able to see his hand motions. "Jor, it's all right. I won't tell anyone, and there's no one else here but the shadows." Aiden rubbed his shoulder to assure him that whatever was said between them would not leave this cave – if only because neither would they.
"I grew up in the far east of the Empire – very liberal, you understand," said Jor. His voice was measured, but not like a politician making a prepared speech. These were words he never thought he would say out loud. "There was kind of an understanding there, that boys would develop very close relationships, and if those relationships got physical, then, well – it could be overlooked. Some even thought it was healthy. I had a friend, and--" More hesitation, more struggling to find a language. "--we did things together that we were only supposed to do with girls. But on that last day, before I was going to get sent off, it was the only time we really – well, there's no need to be obscene."
Aiden's first reaction was a trained contempt. No wonder Jor had made such a show of bravado – he was hiding this sick weakness inside him all along. An invert, a queer man from a queer place that shouldn't really be part of the empire at all. But it was hard to reconcile the idea of inverts he had received in dirty jokes with the hard, deep-voiced man who lay cleft in his arm. If anything, Aiden himself would more fit the classic profile of the deviant – thin, with a lilt that crept into his voice no matter how hard he tried to keep it out.
"Are you trying to upset me?" said Aiden.
"No. Just trying to tell a story, about me," said Jor. "I guess it wasn't really much of a story."
"No. But neither was mine."
Jor leaned in closer to Aiden. There wasn't much closer to get, to be honest. He rested his head on Aiden's shoulder. It was strange, Aiden thought, and again there was a vague feeling that he should be repulsed. But no matter what was in Jor's past, he was a real man now. Aiden was sure that he was just trying to stay conscious, letting another body support as much of his weight as possible. That had to be it.
"Have you killed anyone, Aiden?" said Jor, in a faint and wistful voice.
"Yes," Aiden said. "I mean, maybe not. I don't know. We had stopped a suspicious vehicle, and the guy wouldn't get out, so we all started shooting ... I don't know whose bullet actually got him. It was a lot more confusing than I thought it would be."
"I know," Jor said. He stroked Aiden's thighs, perhaps a consolation. There was really no justification for his closeness, for the wetness of his lips just a centimetre away from Aiden's neck. But if this was a come-on, Jor certainly had an odd idea of flirtation. "My first time wasn't like that. It was friendly fire, if we're being honest. One of our own came charging out of a burning building, covered in soot, and I thought it was the enemy. Well, I didn't think, to be honest – I just fired. My commander gave me a chewing-out, and I was sure that I was going to be court-martialed. But nothing happened. Hell, if anything he was actually nicer to me afterwards – sent me on all the important missions."
"Maybe he was trying to get you killed," Aiden said.
"The thought has crossed my mind. But I think he actually thought I could handle them. Wouldn't hesitate."
Aiden became aware he was erect. All of a sudden he was twelve again and was popping a woody in the least appropriate place imaginable. Was this death? Or was it Jor, rolling his fingertips across Aiden's uniformed legs? He should get Jor to stop. He really should. But Jor seemed so pitiful, a masterful slab of man reduced to sad helplessness. He was vulnerable. Almost feminine, but not. In those moments, intimacy seemed not just acceptable, but required.
"So, you and this friend ... when you were kids..." Aiden tried to find the words, without even knowing the question he was trying to ask. "How did you, uh ... do it?" Despite all the dirty, disparaging jokes, Aiden really had little clue as to the mechanics of what two men did together. Or a man and a woman, if he was being honest.
By touch alone, Aiden could feel Jor's lips curl into a grin. "Do you want me to show you?"
Aiden shocked himself by saying "Yes". And then Jor's hands were on his head, turning it ever so gently. Aiden could feel the presence of another face so close to his, so strange. Jor's nose slipped by his and then there were soft and warm lips that were somehow Jor's and somehow kissing him.