It had taken Lee Qiang the better part of his military career to develop and hone his philosophy on warfare. He was very proud of his epiphany.
War can be best described as Antonio Vivaldi’s most famous work, Four Seasons. With one exception. It starts with the second violin concerto. Summer.
War always starts in the summer.
Turbulence, thunder, followed by brief moments of respite before the symphony of death picks up again. Doubt and hope mixed, the knowledge that days are getting shorter. Strength and courage, too, because the human mind is a resilient thing.
Then comes autumn. It is a sad lament, broken by faint moments of optimism and a growing desire to see the fighting ended. The men are tired at this point, and the fighting turns more desperate, more brutal. The days are getting shorter and colder, like a candle’s burning wick.
Winter. Winter is Stalingrad. Stalingrad is winter. An unrelenting struggle for every last scrap of land, for the tiniest tactical advantage. It’s the unyielding battle of wits and character, the apogee of violence and despair. It is during the winter phase that men shed their skin of civilization. The honest and honorable perish. Stories of cannibalism and self-cannibalism become the norm. There is no more hope, only grim determination. Kill or be killed.
But winter isn’t the worst part.
You can still turn back. You can still resume normal life once the fighting is over. People who had lived through winter will put their weapons down and slowly rebuild their sanity. They still have some humanity left in them.
The worst that can happen is spring.
The dawn of a new humanity.
Spring is when you let war continue for so long that a new human emerges from the ashes and blood of the ruined civilizations. A new, lean, superior animal designed to outlive the perils of the spiraling catastrophe. A human born in a world where mercy and compassion are alien things. A human that has no moral fat, no scruples, no restraint. The only emotions are those of a survival machine, sharpened to perfection.
It is a bizarre concept, and unless you’ve seen it, you cannot understand it.
Once the war reaches the spring stage, there is no turning back.
It is at that point you must destroy all and everything.
Sector 8 was the birthplace of a new humanity.
It was where the army command decided to use nukes.
Eleven years ago, the two sides unleashed nuclear death over a 700-kilometer battlefront.
People had believed the response to roll over the world. Everyone had expected mankind to end. A great nuclear winter would engulf the globe, and the surviving billion would eat each other under a pitiless, dark sky that rained hot, radioactive dust.
It never happened.
If anything, the nukes were used to make sure the mayhem would not spread further. There was no strategic difference in the disposition of forces, no breakthrough achieved. Sector 8 was sacrificed so that the war could become civilized once more.
The war still continued, a low-intensity quagmire that seemed to have no end.
The West Army blamed Shishka.
The problem with spring is… there are always survivors. No matter what you do, some pull through. Even the nukes cannot weed them all out.
At a time when everyone fled Sector 8, one man chose to make the sector into his new home. No one knew his true name or identity. The Russians called him Shishka.
Undeterred by the risk of radiation, Shishka turned Sector 8 into his base of operation. His stupendously complex and rich criminal enterprise bloomed, unchecked, with no one to restrain him. He quickly morphed into a vastly powerful paramilitary leader, and then staged a coup against the Alliance and took control of the entire military.
Shishka became the enemy.
No one should have been surprised. But they all were.
If rumors could be believed, the two sides had been ready to end the conflict a few years after the Sector 8 purging, having exhausted their willpower and economies. Shishka’s appearance put an end to a hopeless dream.
And so the war continued, a slur of death and corruption. A conflict that no longer had shape or purpose. Only layers of filth. Those who thrived on filth, and those who died from it. And yet, far from the death zones and ruined ghost cities, the army still believed the tide could be turned. Sector 8 had gone over the precipice, but for the rest, there was still hope.
The war could still end.
Except… as long as Shishka lived, the army command argued and there could be no end to the war.
Shishka must die.
Simple logic, that.
Lip and he sat in a soundproof room, with a strong multi-frequency EM jammer in one of the corners. They had powered off their radios and satellite phones, batteries and kit apart. An ancient cassette player was spewing scratchy music so that no one could really hear or filter what was happening in the room.
Lee Qiang stared at Captain Lip. He had only told him two words.
He was fishing for a reaction. The mercenary was stone-faced. Not even a blink out of place.
“Why?” he finally said.
“Why what?” Lee Qiang asked.
Because you’re among that 2% of humans who have no combat fear and who relish in killing. Because you’re a natural-born warrior, and you have the most capable outfit in the entire army. Because you are technically not us.
Lee Qiang only focused on the middle part. “Best man for the job.”
Lip nodded slowly, sucking on his teeth. He was probably thinking about the payment he’d want for this assignment.
“The political and financial side of things will not be a problem,” Lee Qiang said.
“Is that so?” There was a sparkle in the man’s eyes. Nostalgia? Greed? Old memories re-surfacing? “Why you?”
Lee Qiang had expected the question. But he played by the captain’s rules. “Why me what?”
“You’re not one of my men. You do not have the right… synergy.”
“I will adapt.”
Lip sighed melodramatically, but it was a modest gesture compared to his usual style. His words compensated for any lack of theatrics, though. “I have spent the last two decades sculpting the Golden Horde into a proverbial David. I know my men better than I know my bastard children or their mothers. We are so intimate we’d make the ancient Greeks weep with joy, and that’s even without any proverbial buggering involved. Even our unit name is poetic. We can read each other’s minds. We have trained together to become a perfect war engine. You are an outsider, Lick Young.”
“I am aware of that.”
“I am the missing link you need for this mission, Captain.”
“I have something you lack.”
Lip was angry but also curious, Lee Qiang noted. It was quite difficult eliciting an emotion from him, a true emotion, but this was as close as he’d gotten in the past few days. “Pray tell.”
“Focus. I can finish this mission. You cannot.”
Lip rose, pacing around the little room. “Let me tell you something, bastard. I don’t know who thinks you’ve got the right skill for this job, and I don’t care. The only thing that matters is that you’re a drop of ink in my cup of milk, and unless I’m 100% sure you can live and breathe as one of the Horde, this mission isn’t happening.”
“Alas, we must leave immediately.”
“Then I will be forced to disband your unit. I will have to rely on other special forces. Unfortunately, that puts our success level probability at something like 0.13.” Lee Qiang paused, knowing the other’s penchant for statistics. “But it is what I’ve been ordered to do, and this is what I will do.”
“You will die.”
Lee Qiang brushed off the threat. “Perhaps. But come the morrow, if you and I aren’t committed to this mission, one way or another, there will be no more Golden Horde.” He hadn’t told the captain about the contingency plans, and there was no need to. Lip was smart enough to figure out the unseen details.
“How many of your men can speak a second language?” Lee Qiang asked, focusing on what he needed to know.
“All of them,” Lip said with something approaching derision.
“Half of them.”
Lip raised his chin. “Is that why you’re here?”
Lee Qiang did his best to look stone-faced. “We may definitely have a need for Chinese, yes.”
“I cannot trust you, Lick Young. You’re not one of mine.”
“And you’re a fucking mercenary.”
There was a pregnant silence, and then, the captain laughed. “You definitely have vim.”
“It comes down to this. You’re not sure I’m fit for your unit, although I’ll do my best to prove it. I can never be sure you won’t turn coat, being the slimy paid gun that you are. That makes us even. But that’s what I called MAB.”
Lip frowned. “MAB?”
“Like MAD, only better. Mutually Assured Bullshit. It’s a good starting point for our dysfunctional partnership.”
The captain went silent. This time, the sullen pondering took almost twenty minutes. He just stood there, rubbing his whiskered cheeks, thinking, analyzing, over-analyzing. He was trying to figure out the critical importance, necessity, and risk involved with this mission. Most of all, Lee Qiang knew, he was judging.
“So what do I get?”
There it was. The bickering was over. “This.” Lee Qiang handed him a note, the one he had been allowed to actually print. It wouldn’t really mean anything to anyone but Captain William Smythe.
Lip studied it carefully. His face did not move. Done reading, he gave the paper back. “All right.”
Tough fucker, Lee Qiang thought with admiration, knowing what was in that message.
Lip craned his neck. “My staff gets to be on this. We don’t do the standard army hierarchy bullshit here. Each man has equal say. It’s joint work.”
Lee Qiang nodded. This was typical in most special forces, and he wanted to see how the Golden Horde embraced the concept of military meritocracy. “Our mission is very simple. Beyond that, you’ll have all the creative freedom you need, Captain. However, I do expect you to follow my orders. They will be reasonable. They will not compromise your authority or jeopardize the unit. But this is army bullshit, after all, and I’m your commanding officer. I get the veto power and the ultimate say on what we do.”
“I can live with that.”
Lee Qiang realized it was his turn to show some courtesy. “And I’ll do everything I can to gain your trust, Captain.”
William Smythe blinked sagaciously. “It’s not gonna be easy, Lick Young.” Lip sat back down. “Now what?”
Lee Qiang stretched. “We have dinner, a strong coffee, and we start planning this bitch.”
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.