Commander Lip sure didn’t waste time.
He tried to kill Lee Qiang the very next day.
They were riding an APC to the front lines for a routine inspection and familiarization. It was one of the new prewar models, a Kismet urban warrior, with an anti-tank mesh on both sides. A squeaky clean example of a dwindling inventory.
The hull was jam-packed with fresh meat, recruits from the last two batches assigned to the captain’s command. Two of them, 1st Platoon Lieutenant Benny and the sour-faced 3rd Squad Sergeant Mirza, sat on the top, breathing in the hot, oily fumes that gushed out of the shrouded engine grille.
They all had short-wave helmet comms, so they could communicate above the rattly crunch of tracks and the throaty whine of the massive engine. But they weren’t talking. Lee Qiang was watching the route, one eye on the devastated, shell-blasted neighborhood, one on the captain.
Lip pretended to be looking along their route. Utmost focus and nonchalance.
A clue right there.
Then, almost innocently, Lip pushed, just as Lee Qiang had expected.
The crumbled concrete and the exposed rebars should have left his face and chest smeared on a nameless street of a ruined city. Another sad, sudden casualty of war.
Instead, he rolled with the shove, sliding off the carrier as it veered sharp to avoid hitting the corner of a building. He landed hard—that couldn’t be avoided—and the ammo clips jostled his ribs and kidneys, but otherwise, he was unhurt.
The APC churned asphalt for another fifty meters before it stopped. Then, slowly, it reversed toward him.
Lip had a look of genuine concern on his ugly, bastard face. “You fell off, Lick Young?”
“Not the finest of roads, Captain.” Lee Qiang brushed dust off his uniform and vest with his left hand, the right firmly pressed on the hand grip of his bullpup-design rifle. Perhaps the demonstration wasn’t over.
“Maybe you should ride inside then, with the rookies, Lick Young.”
Lee Qiang popped the joints in his stiff neck. “I just might next time.”
“Come up.” The captain extended his hand, beaming mollification and friendliness.
Lee Qiang grabbed the arm, wrung his fingers tight around the glove and the sleeve, put his boot on the APC track, and then let it slip. With all the force he had, he pulled down, gravity, gear, and his own weight, and tried not to smile when the captain’s face slammed into the anti-tank mesh. It was a dull, satisfying sound.
Lee Qiang forced himself to frown rather than smile. “Ugh. Watch out.”
Lee Qiang tutted. “Dangerous business, riding APCs. We should both travel buttoned down.”
The other two officers were staring at him with a mix of curiosity, bitter amusement, and hate. But their hands were far from the grips of their weapons, so Lee Qiang relaxed. Only a little.
Bleeding generously, Lip tried to straighten up, but Lee Qiang held hard and would not let go. Their arms trembled with effort as both pulled their way.
“Attempt something like this again, and I will shoot you,” Lee Qiang whispered, teeth gritted, a smile pasted on his lips.
“Let go, you mongrel bastard,” Lip growled, his red smile just as wooden.
“Look, you hurt your face, Captain. Should I call you Torn Lip from now on?”
Lip said nothing. He just glowered. Reduced the strength of his grip.
A truce. I can accept that. Lee Qiang released the captain’s hand, and clambered up onto the armored vehicle without help. He ignored the lieutenant and the sergeant.
Lip was dabbing his face with a FAK gauze. The flare of anger in his eyes was gone. He had lost this round, and he did not intend to fret about it. A pragmatic psychopath, Lee Qiang noted. From the captain’s perspective, there was nothing personal about the incident. It’s just that Lee Qiang happened to be the person involved.
“May I help?” Lee Qiang asked.
Lip eyed him suspiciously, then raised his chin.
Carefully, Lee Qiang inspected the wound. Just a nasty laceration, no broken tooth or cartilage. It would be another scar on the captain’s mangled face. With the Kismet jostling under them, he gingerly applied a dab of silicone glue onto the injury, and roughly patted the captain on the back.
“Like new. Fit for a wedding. You’d make a dashing groom.” He then remembered the captain’s military record.
A dashing groom…again.
Lip adjusted a strap on his vest. “From which side of your family did you get this fine wit?”
“Must be my father’s,” Lee Qiang replied with a modicum of honesty.
The APC rumbled down the rubble-packed streets, splashing through gray puddles of mud, concrete dust and rainwater, with ruined skeletons of buildings lined up on both sides. They passed several checkpoints with regular army troops on station, armed with assault rifles and RPGs.
Lee Qiang carefully watched the soldiers’ expressions as they nodded or waved the Kismet by. Adoration, respect, fear. The ordinary men loved the Golden Horde. Probably because they represented something they themselves could never be.
Perfect, scrupleless killers.
The vehicle growled to a stop behind a long wall of thick gunfire-screening pillars, covered with an anti-spalling net on the “friendly” side, their tops chipped away by countless shell and sniper hits like the edge of a carpet chewed on by a rabbit. There were tiny, camouflaged gaps between the slabs, with machine guns, missiles launchers, and rifles snugly placed, their operators watching toward the enemy lines. The firing emplacements were surrounded by multiple rings of L-shaped gabions to minimize damage from any penetration by enemy shaped-charge rounds.
In this part of the world, in this sector, in this forsaken city, the two sides kissed each other like fierce lovers, locked in some masochistic dance that never stopped. A flattened, heavily mined section of the city proper separated their troops from the East Alliance forces. Crackly music of sporadic gunshots echoed in the background. It was a constant noise that the mind quickly filtered out.
Few cities had the honor of sharing borders. Most were wholly consumed by one side or the other. Close combat scenarios were a rare nightmare, which was probably why the Golden Horde were set to operate in this area.
The APC lowered the rear ramp, and the soldiers filed out, left and right, taking positions. Lip stood on the back hull, watching them with a disproving eye.
“You!” the captain shouted suddenly and pointed.
One of the soldiers looked up, frowning, almost stumbling over. “Sir?”
Lip jumped down, approaching the man with a dramatic saunter. He put a hand on the man’s collar. “Tighten it up, son. You don’t want blistering hot cases down your neck, now do you? Ear plugs, where’s your ear plugs? You’ll be disoriented when people start shooting next to you. Gunfire isn’t the same in the urban setting and open field. Sound bounces back off the walls, makes it ten times more intense.”
Without waiting for a response, Lip moved on to the next target, another soldier with a flaw or three, in his bearing, clothing, or both. He commented on seemingly petty things, slapped a man for wearing an exposed watch, thumped a skull of a man with a haircut too long to his liking.
Lee Qiang studied his subordinate-cum-lethal-rival carefully, trying to learn as much as he could. This man was dangerous, calculating, intelligent—and strangely caring for a psychopath.
“Fucking amateurs,” Lip commented, coming back from his hazing round, a tiny lisp from his injury creeping into his voice. “They sent me boys too young to wank.”
“Why do you accept them then?”
Lip grimaced. “I’m a patriot, that’s why.”
Of what. It was a strange notion, being a patriot in an army that had long lost territorial, ethnic, and political cohesion in the past nineteen years of warfare. But Lee Qiang knew the reasons.
The army command paid the Golden Horde to re-train the troops. They would allocate some of the infantry and special forces units to Lip, so they would get proper war education from the most notorious mercenary unit, and ultimately accelerate and enhance their combat survival.
Cheaper that way.
Lip always had his hardcore veterans with him, but he rotated one half of the strength with regulars, typically men with some experience and maybe an odd combat engagement or two, but no deep, brutal understanding of the horrors of professional killing.
Lee Qiang watched the soldiers, still awkward with the situation, uncomfortable in a ruined city they did not know and probably couldn’t really spell even if they could figure out the Uzbek letters, among people they couldn’t really trust. These were not their friends from the bootcamp or the advanced weapons and tactics training. Lip’s warriors were grim, hostile characters twice their age. Mad, accustomed to casual savagery, and utterly at ease in this grimy hell.
Keep track, Lee. Pay attention.
He did pay attention. He wanted to learn the ins and outs of the company, how its officer cooperated, how the troops listened.
He would need that for what lay ahead.
Meanwhile, Lip had found himself another victim. “Tighten the laces.” Then another. “Are those regular sunglasses?” He tore them off the man’s face and crushed them underfoot. “I don’t have the luxury of sending you to a surgeon to pick shards of glass from your eyes when a piece of rock hits you in the face. You will find yourself a nice ballistic pair. With a proper polaroid, anti-reflective, anti-laser coating. Got it, son?” He snubbed the man’s lip with his fingers.
Once his second bout of fury died down, Lip walked over as if nothing had happened. “Amateurs.”
“I am impressed, Captain.”
Lip nodded sagely. “I knew you would be.”
“The fact that you’re still alive and no one’s murdered you in your sleep yet is quite impressive.”
Lip just grunted. “Let me show you around, Lick Young.”
Lee Qiang followed after the mercenary, two steps behind, mindful of any sudden movements that might get him a black eye or a bloody nose.
The front line positions were heavily fortified, with HESCO bastions stacked several units deep and high, backed by a zigzag of extra gabions to break off blasts and shrapnel. Bremer barriers and anti-tank hedgehogs created narrow, controlled alleys that allowed the defenders to concentrate their fire on slow targets. There were cameras and remotely-controlled machines guns hidden among the fortifications, constantly searching for movement on the far side of the city. Drones, the one remaining air asset everyone had in abundance, flew above the city, providing detailed video surveillance, thermal imaging and radio jamming.
The shooting was sporadic but essentially constant. Soldiers tried—and bet—on who could bring down one of the little crafts. Sometimes it ended with such enthusiastic display of firing that their own lead eventually came down raining on the men’s heads.
There wasn’t much to do in the stalemate that had developed over the last few months, so the officers did their best to keep the men busy and alert and still gain some combat experience. It usually meant patrolling endlessly, manning the shooting posts, or harassing the enemy with pot shots and blind fire. But there was always the risk of artillery and snipers.
The stalemate would not last for much longer.
The army command could not afford it.
The situation also made Lee Qiang wonder why the HQ would commit Unit 4, such an expensive and precious asset, to housekeeping a ghost town in one of the less important sectors. But William Smythe was a very clever, resourceful fighter. He sure had a hand in a lot of decision making—and whatever dark enterprises ran in Kungirot, if the city could still be called that.
Lee Qiang did his best to keep a passive face as he took in the details. He was particularly interested in the interaction between the regulars and the paramilitary, as well as the civilians, but he had not seen any non-combatants just yet. He knew they were there, lurking in the shadows.
“What is the nominal strength of the city garrison?” Lee Qiang asked.
The captain smiled, then winced as he stretched his half-scabbed lip. “You don’t need to ask me that, you know the numbers yourself.”
“How many vehicles do you have?”
Lip inclined his head. “I’ll make sure you get a nice printed reported by sundown.”
The captain was being borderline disrespectful. Not quite the bargain they had struck yesterday. Lee Qiang considered punching the captain, just for good measure. But he wanted to spend the first few days learning, rather than teaching—more than was necessary.
A deep, slow ripple of a 0.5 machine gun erupted not too far away, answered by echoes through the streets. The general mood did not change—except among the newcomers, who were still a bit dazed, still rather alert.
This is such a waste of time.
“Let me ask you something instead, Major.” Lip said in a low tone.
“What is it?”
“What are your orders?”
Lee Qiang did not blink. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Lick Young. Why are you here?”
I don’t know. But I know it is going to be something big and serious. “When it becomes relevant for me to share information with you, I will.”
Lip snorted. “I see. Well, wise commander, how do you like the frontline?”
“When was the last time you tried to breach the enemy lines?”
“Four months ago.”
“How profitable is the smuggling trade in Kungirot?”
Lip frowned, a well-practiced expressions. “What’s your point, Major?”
“Just get on with your morale speech, and let’s move. I’ve seen enough. I want to inspect the northwest district, too, and I want to talk to the city commander. What’s his name?”
“Indeed.” Without waiting for the captain’s cynical remark, Lee Qiang walked back toward the Kismet. Lip bit off a curse and then went back to his troops, launching another dramatic speech full of numbers and statistical probability of mutilation, relishing the sound and cadence of his own voice.
Lee Qiang wanted to disagree, but there was logic to the captain’s maniacal flair. Before he exposed the fresh troops to real fighting, he wanted them to smell and feel the frontline. Hard without shedding blood, but Lip was trying, and seemingly doing well. Not a bad tactic, and one of the many reasons why his company was so revered in the army.
None of that really matters, though, Lee knew, liking his deployment less and less by the minute.
This was just a short, polite prelude to something sinister, and the worst part was, he himself had no clue what it would be. But sending him here to take charge of the Golden Horde meant one thing.
It was going to make hell feel like the finest spa.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US DoD (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.