They all sat in the soundproof room. It was musty and hot, and the portable A/C unit did little to cool the tension. The rest of the equipment was there too, including the awful recording of some WWII French sonnet.
Three platoon lieutenants, nine sergeants, one captain, and one outsider.
Lee Qiang knew this briefing wasn’t just a preparation for a difficult mission. It was also a test.
The Golden Horde studied him, trying to crack the enigma of Major Mlody, their new and untrusted leader. For his part, Lee Qiang was trying to figure out if these men were trustworthy. He did not doubt their military credentials. He doubted their intent to use them.
He focused on the mission details, what few he had. “There are about 41,000 civilians living in Sector 8 in small, isolated communities. Villages and a handful of larger towns. We must assume that every single one works for Shishka, in some function or another. At the very least, they will be informants, if not active combatants.”
“And how many of those are there?” 3rd Plt Lt Leonid “Brezhnev” asked.
Lee Qiang consulted his log. “Unknown disposition of forces. Estimated at less than 7,000.”
“That’s still about 200 times more than we will be,” Sgt Borislav, 2nd Plt, 2nd Sqd, said, and then spat. His phlegm landed softly on the soundproofing wall foam.
On paper, it did sound strange that Shishka would maintain only one or two divisions of troops in the cursed sector, as it was large, with a very long border. But it also allowed him to keep tighter control of the situation. Fewer people meant fewer chances for betrayal or confusion. Any large movement of troops would easily be spotted.
Not that anyone wanted to move any troops into Sector 8.
Except a company of diehard mercenaries.
“Shishka could be hiding in any one of these villages. In fact, the intel suggests he will probably try to pose off as a civilian, maybe a smuggler.”
“Do we have any trusted sources in the sector?” 2nd Plt Lt Rudy asked.
“Do we know what Shishka looks like?”
“Do we have his genetic sample? Anything? Hair?”
“What do we do know, then?”
“He is rumored to be of medium height and build, in his early 40s. That’s all we have.”
“All this fucking technology, and all we know we are going after some guy.” Lip said, adding his own spice into the cauldron of tension.
“Why not just plow Sector 8 over with tanks and missiles?” The sour-faced Mirza suggested.
“Putain, that’s been tried before, remember,” Mark “Putain”, the French sergeant running the 1st squad in Rudy’s platoon, jibed.
“Over twenty percent of Sector 8 has been mined. There are only thirty-nine roads cleared for safe traffic,” Lee Qiang said, trying to stave off pointless bickering. “Besides, Shishka has an additional five divisions on reserve in the other sectors. Hence the need for subtlety. Hence us.”
They didn’t like that he referred to himself as one of them.
“So what’s the plan?” Lt Benny said, somewhat impatiently. He sat farthest away from the A/C clangy purr.
Lee Qiang looked at the notes again. It had taken him three hours to assemble a coherent version, having to use five kinds of different communication media to get all the bits and pieces and the printed one-time encryption pads he’d brought with him, before he had a mission briefing worth sharing. Even so, it was full of ifs and unknowns.
“The only part that has been detailed out is the insertion. After that we’re on our own.” They waited for him to elaborate. “We will enter the sector using civilian vehicles of our choosing. We need to be mistaken for some of any number of smugglers and traffickers that do the same thing every day across the sector.” Lee Qiang glanced at Lip. With the captain’s expertise in this area, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“To help us, the HQ has planned three diversions.”
Everyone knew that the West Army wanted Shishka dead. It was no secret.
Killing Shishka was Priority Number One for the West Army. Doing this undetected was the key.
As far as bounties went, Shishka’s was the most outrageous one ever proposed in the history of humanity. Whoever managed—reliably—to bring about Shishka’s death would be rewarded with 100,000 square kilometers of land in Central Asia, leased in its entirety for 100 years. That meant huge reserves of minerals, fossil fuels, and other vast riches.
No one had taken the offer yet.
Not a single soul.
No fake deaths, no rumors, nothing.
“First, the army will insert a four-man spec ops team in Sector 7, somewhere near Balakovo. These men have the same mission as we do, except someone will tip off the enemy about their whereabouts roughly two days in. After that, they are on their own.”
Someone cursed under his breath.
Lee Qiang didn’t like the treason element, either. But he preferred someone else to be on the receiving end of the military politics shaft.
“Second, the army will commence a major assault in this sector in exactly ten days’ time. That’s also the amount of time we have to prepare, to sort out the necessary weapons and equipment we may need, and to move to our insertion point. The assault will include heavy artillery bombardment across a 50-kilometer front in an attempt to dislodge the enemy from around the Bersakelmes lake. Our troops will also be supported by the airforce, including a high-altitude spec ops paradrop behind the enemy lines, tasked with sabotage and counter-intel. The enemy should be led to believe this diversion is to allow the four-man team to insert unnoticed.”
Lip was making his own notes, Lee Qiang noticed.
“Third, the ballistic command will attempt to shoot down the two Dragon-4 deep reconnaissance satellites the East Alliance has over the region. There are no guarantees.”
Their biggest worry would be from drones and UAV rather than satellites, but this was also meant to confuse the enemy into thinking they were being blinded against something massive, something the satellite imagery would be able to see.
“Lastly, the weather conditions are expected to be heavy, low clouds and rain, which should minimize the presence of enemy airborne surveillance. But weather being weather, there’s no counting on it.”
“How very dramatic,” the captain observed.
“Once we infiltrate, the mission is open-ended. No duration limit, no engagement rules. We are to stay in until we’ve finished the job. We should expect hard, cruel people along the way, so we need to plan on being as self-sufficient as possible. Captain, this means you will ultimately decide who the selected men are, based on their skills for this particular part of the mission.” No more than 30 people total. That was one of the few close-ended facts about this whole deal.
The captain tapped his nose with his pen. “We will not be able to hunt, I understand.”
Lee Qiang shook his head. “No. The wildlife is heavily contaminated. No mushrooms either. We will need to adopt a vegan diet or obtain food from the locals. This will mean lots of currency and barter.”
“We will sort out the details later,” Lip said, almost impatiently. “Water?”
“Safe to drink.” He corrected himself. “As safe as it can be.”
“Overall radiation exposure?”
“Varies from one area to another. The annual exposure levels vary between about 9 mSv, which is what you get in Finland normally, and 41 mSv close to some of the nuke epicenters. Roughly between three and ten times the normal exposure. Shouldn’t pose any long-term risks this way.”
“No wonder Shishka feels comfortable living there,” Mirza said.
“He was there when the levels were a hundred times higher,” Lee Qiang reminded him.
“Crazy Chinese fuck.”
The Golden Horde tensed. Lee Qiang didn’t care.
“What about communications and support?” Rudy inquired.
“No and no. For security reasons, we will not transmit anything back. And we won’t get any support.”
“And I was hoping for a cruise missile to do the dirty job for us,” Brezhnev complained, closely mimicking his commanding officer in style and sarcasm. Lee Qiang noted that all of the Golden Horde members had the same nonchalant, disrespectful streak toward life’s circumstances. But their methods, reasoning, and skills varied considerably.
“If there was an easy way, it would have been done already. This crazy Chinese fucker,” Lee Qiang emphasized, “has eluded every attempt to track him down. We don’t even know what he looks like. There have been more than a thousand assassinations against various targets, with cruise missiles, laser-guided missiles, Polonium tablets, snipers, and air-fuel bombs, and none of them turned out to be Shishka. We’re talking targeted killing missions that I was cleared to know of. The man lives in a radioactive wasteland.”
He realized the audience was waiting for something more.
“For fuck’s sake.”
“So it requires a more personal touch,” Lip said, and then snickered.
“When reaming is needed, who’s best for the job?” the Frenchman sang.
“Golden Horde!” they all chorused.
“All right,” Lip said, flipping the pages back to the beginning. “So, Lick Young, this is indeed some major assfuckery, this mission. The worst part is, I don’t have enough to evaluate the risk factor and the success probability, and that irks my English arse.”
“This is all the information I have. We have a hard date, a few hard environmental facts, a limit on the number of operatives, and the insertion. The rest is up to us to decide.” Again, the mercenaries didn’t like his use of the pronoun.
“Don’t get me wrong, Lick Young, I like daring missions. That’s what we’re all about. But any honest military task must have three elements—the plan, the backup plan, and the disaster plan. From what I see here, no one will ever acknowledge that we’re doing this, no will send any support if things go wrong, and, in fact, no one will ever know if things go wrong.”
“And no one will blame you if they do go wrong,” Lee Qiang emphasized.
“What’s really bothering me,” the captain continued, ignoring the comment, “is you.” All the eyes turned at him. “You’ve not trained with us. You’ve never fought with us. You don’t know our protocol, our signs. You don’t know how we do things. We don’t know how you do things. Your credentials mean shit. I need to see you function out there, deprived of sleep and food, fighting for survival in the dark and the cold. I need to see you drunk, with a whore under your sweaty armpit, with a knife in your hand skinning a prisoner during questioning. Until then, we have a conundrum.”
Lee Qiang was silent for a moment. “I can’t possibly do all that in ten days. For one thing, we don’t have any prisoners around, and I’ve not seen any whores, either. So unless you can volunteer for both, I will not be able to satisfy your professional curiosity, Captain.”
Marc was the first to laugh. The rest quickly joined.
Lip was staring at him intently. You scored one point there, Lick Young, his eyes said.
“So what real value do you bring here then?” Borislav “Pencil” pressed.
I’m here to make sure your sweet captain does not get sidetracked. I am here to make sure he does not become Shishka II once this mission is over. I’m here to make sure you all behave like human beings. I’m here to make sure this operation succeeds.
He could not tell them that. Nor the full breadth of his military expertise.
Instead, he gave them the official line, “I’m fluent in Mandarin.”
The sergeant looked unconvinced. “That’s it?”
“With more than half the population in Sector 8 being Chinese, that’s significant.”
“What about your weapons skills? Or your command style?” Borislav persisted. They had all seen the sanitized version of his army profile, but they obviously weren’t impressed. Perhaps he was a highly decorated soldier, perhaps he had participated and led some of the most daring missions in the past two decades, but none of that made him what they wanted or needed.
With the Golden Horde, it was all about survival.
Captain William Smythe prided himself on being able to keep his men alive, no matter the mission, no matter the odds. He believed in statistics, and his showed the lowest casualty rate of all specially nominated units in the West Army. Bringing in an outsider meant increased the mortality rate for his men.
Lee Qiang knew what they wanted to hear.
You won’t get us killed, mongrel, right?
He could not promise them that.
But the army command had known, right from the start, that this would be the clincher with Captain Lip. He would get around everything else, and he would obey orders, but he would not tolerate arbitrary risk in his company.
Lee Qiang had to give them something else.
“We could… will have… limited air support. Unofficially, that is.”
Lip steepled his fingers.
In 2034, I infiltrated the Alliance’s strategic command and replaced the guidance and control module for their Kinetic Orbital Satellite with a modified version, activated by my own personal cypher and voice. I can rain down death from the sky, where and when I need it. And it’s so very unofficial. The West Army doesn’t have access to the satellite, per se. Only I do.
“I have friends on the other side.”
It had taken him seven months to gain access to the facility. Seven months, lots of software coding skills, and a passionate relationship with one of the programmers. “When the time comes, we will have a precision strike capability.” He had not lied when he told them they would have air support. This element would come from the enemy.
And a bit above the atmosphere.
The captain frowned. He was doubtless running through the list of known artillery systems operated by the East and trying to figure out the ranges in and around Sector 8. “What kind of capability?”
No one said anything for a while. Lip was doing the necessary math. He was reevaluating the odds.
“Unless there are any other questions, jibes or jokes, we’ve done enough for this meeting. Captain, I want you to split your staff into teams, based on their trade and skills, so they can design different aspects of our mission. As you can imagine, it is imperative that you maintain confidentiality about this operation, but not too much. This means creating the necessary diversions and excuses for breaking up your own company and taking away a number of your veterans on a covert assignment in a way that is consistent with your normal mode of work. If the mission goal is leaked before it begins, it will be aborted. The Golden Horde will be disbanded, and the task of killing Shishka will go to some other unit, to happen at some future point, under different circumstances. If we get discovered when we cross into Sector 8, we will die. I’m sure you can handle the statistics, Captain.”
“One thing.” The Frenchman raised his hand.
“What do we call this thing?”
Lee Qiang didn’t have to think long. “Well, since you mentioned it, let’s call it Putain.”
Marc rolled the swearword a few times off his tongue, each time with a different intonation. “Putain. Putain. Putain. I like it.”
“Vote,” Lip said.
They unanimously approved the name.
As they filed out, Lip patted him on the shoulder. “Another point, Lick Young. Well done. Keep scoring; you’ll need them all.”
Lee Qiang watched the captain saunter out of the room, already looking for problems and defects in how he imagined the world around him.
Let’s get this bitch done, he thought, and followed.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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