Operation Putain started three hours into Operation Lake Placid, with the morning sky streaked in lead and filthy white but no rain. Lee Qiang was happy they didn’t need to slog through mud on the very first day of their mission.
Assembled in eight Magdalena SUVs, they crossed the border into Sector 8. Well, the term “border” was deceiving. It implied a line, a fence, maybe a formal checkpoint, whereas in between the two territories, it was fluidly marked by a stretch of rugged land about 10-15 kilometers wide. Inside this buffer zone, wearing the wrong kind of uniform did not mean you’d automatically get shot by the other side.
Lee Qiang rode in the third vehicle, on the passenger’s side, watching the moving 2D map of the terrain marked with red areas that stood for known and suspected mine fields. His driver was Yossi, a bald-headed ex-Israeli Sayeret Matkal soldier. The first thing he’d done was hang a hamsa over the rearview mirror arm.
On the rear bench, two other operatives sat, watching the quiet, harsh landscape through the tinted, bulletproofed windows.
They were all heavily armed, which wasn’t at all suspicious for a well-organized band of smugglers. In fact, anything less would make anyone they met extremely wary. Still, on the last day before the operation, they had carefully sanitized all of their equipment of anything that would classify them as the West Army. For Lip’s men, ambiguous identity was a skill, so they had had relatively little work with their own privately purchased gear. They did huff and fret over all the extras they had decided they must bring.
And then there was the cargo.
Not knowing how long they would have to remain in hostile territory, they packed large quantities of fuel, food, medicines, and other vitals, all too aware that it would run out, sooner than anyone wanted. But they also carried 40 kg of heroin, 10 gold bullion stamped by the Swiss and Kuwaiti banks, state-of-the-art navigation and jamming kits, special ammunition, roughly thirty million dollars in three different currencies, digital coins, printed on paper, and more than 100 everyday items they might need to give to the locals in exchange for victuals or news. The list had been compiled carefully, so it included the stuff the people in Sector 8 would struggle to obtain on their own.
Through a net of informants more tangled than a cobweb, Captain Smythe had made some contacts with his partners on the other side, organizing several business meetings over the next two days. If anyone followed or tracked them, they would see a professional group of criminals ply their trade. But the route would take them deeper and deeper into Sector 8.
Except, they had no idea where to start.
Lee Qiang wished he’d had more time to familiarize himself with the mercenaries. He wasn’t sure about all their names just yet, especially the operatives, and less than an ideal picture of their abilities and personalities. They had only trained for a few short days, and it was mostly a test for him. They tried to trip him, injury him, humiliate him, and otherwise prove he’d be a liability. He ignored their vicious little jokes and responded to physical violence with a display of his own. He didn’t wait to exact his revenge. He wanted them all to witness his prowess and determination. It was a crazy, brutal game of cunning, power, and respect, and he showed them that he had enough of the former two to gain some of the latter.
Lip had abstained from any more attempts at murder.
Despite his limited knowledge of the unit, he had seen enough to know the extent of their combat experience. Their reputation was justified. The convoy moved with a good 100-meter spacing between vehicles. The first car had its front-bumper mine-detector activated. It had a limited range, only about 15 meters or so, but that should be enough to detect any roadside IEDs or leftover explosives.
Ollie “Twist” was flying his drone Kite above them, giving them a superior bird’s eye view of the terrain, tracking any movement with a thermal imaging camera. So far, the land was deserted.
They had debated bringing rooftop machines for additional protection, but then decided against it. The remotely operated turrets were heavy, and they would jeopardize their off-road capability as well as reduce the cargo capacity. Drugs, electronics, and gold were more important than bullets.
“There is a checkpoint one click ahead of us,” Lip announced from the first Magdalena. His and the last car had short-range radars. It wasn’t much, but it might at least give them some warning.
Lee Qiang looked at the map and the GPS overlay. They had traveled 31 kilometers. They were inside enemy territory now.
The road was crumbling, with no one to repair the winter frost and spring torrent damage, to say nothing of the bombardments from many years ago. The SUVs meandered, jostling left and right. The progress was slow, but it also gave them time to assess the terrain.
“Looks like seventeen men, two jeeps and an APC,” Ollie transmitted. “No ambush spotters or snipers, it seems, unless they are IR-camoed.”
They all took a moment to do the necessary math. Their windows could withstand small-arms and light machine gun fire. The door armor would stop 12.7mm and maybe 14.5mm rounds. But they were cannon fodder for anything bigger.
“We are expected,” Lip announced calmly.
The convoy stopped. Lee Qiang couldn’t see what Lip was doing, but they were soon on their way, the checkpoint sentries, a mix of far Eastern and local faces, giving them lazy, almost friendly nods, even though they could not see through the windows. The tracked vehicle parked on the side of the road was an old Russian IFV, with a 30mm gun.
Lip told them of the customs fine. A crate of Vodka, a hard disk full of Western pornography, and two wads of rubles and renminbi.
The exchange of money always made Lee Qiang happy. It reminded him of a conversation with his commanding officer several years ago, a dark moment suddenly brightened by a magnificent piece of logic.
Do you know why there’s still hope, Lee Qiang?
Because paper money still has value.
The war was a sordid, horrendous affair, but it was still civilized. Once money lost value, there was no more hope for humanity.
But this was only the first checkpoint, close to the mutual border. The deeper they went into Sector 8, the more primal it would become. Money would lose value at some point.
The silence did not last for much longer. The Golden Horde relaxed. They had passed the first checkpoint, and there hadn’t been any bloodshed. It was a good start. A few lame jokes traveled over the encrypted connection. Marc’s bad English accent and the liberal use of the word “putain” as the filler between sentences made everyone laugh.
The weak point in their mission. Finding Shishka. They had spent the 10 days breaking their minds, figuring out every little detail into how Operation Putain might unfold; planning for disasters, failures, fuck ups, cock ups, and problems; anticipating the enemy’s strategy and counter-strategy; and then devising complete new ideas. The only way not to die horribly and quickly was to not underestimate your foe. You assumed he was just as smart, or better yet, smarter, and then you did everything to try to survive his cunning, reach, and skill, especially when sneaking onto his turf.
They had it all, except… Shishka.
Having people rat on him was not going to work. There would be no betrayal.
Gaining his identity or whereabouts accidentally was not part of the plan. You never factored in stupid chance.
Could he actually be dead? Did he exist? The answer was whatever made a worse deal for you. So yes, Shishka was alive and well, and there was not going to be any quick reprieve from this never-ending madness.
So how do you search for someone with as much tangible evidence to their existence as any monotheistic deity?
You pray for a fucking miracle, that’s how, was Lip’s reply.
Then, they had sat down and thought a wee bit more about it, and come with the plan.
If you don’t know who Shishka is—you become Shishka.
Their mission was not going to be short. It wasn’t going to be easy. So they intended to make themselves as comfortable as they could in Sector 8. Assume the identity of the man with no face, the man with no name. You could not disprove the negative. It was brilliant. And it was going to get Shishka’s attention eventually.
In a way, Lee Qiang had known all along this would be the mission, but he had to let Captain Lip come up with the solution. They would become Shishka. Well, Lip would.
He would impersonate the East Alliance leader.
I just have to make sure he doesn’t get too comfortable with the illusion.
So he would make Lip into Shishka—and then finish Shishka. If Captain Smythe proved strong enough to step away, he would live. And if not, he’d die with the myth called Shishka.
It was a very filthy objective, but there was no other way. The East Alliance leader had outlived all other options.
There wasn’t much on Shishka—but they had loads on how he operated, his style, his character, the ruin and the despair he left behind him, the wealth and prosperity he bestowed upon his loyal followers. Imitating that was not going to be difficult. They just had to make sure they didn’t get killed in the process.
A crossroads. Where now?
A toss of a coin, that’s where.
Lip loved his probabilities. Nothing more so than randomness. He couldn’t control it.
“We go left, gentlemen,” the captain announced over the IVCS.
“Putain,” Marc bellowed, just to make them all laugh once more.
“We’re approaching the village of Mukhanovo,” Lip said. “We will refuel if possible. Engines hot. I want a point outside the village ahead and behind. Cars drive in circles unless topping. Avoid any street narrower than 9.4 meters, so you can U-turn if needed.”
“Twist, you see anything?” Brezhnev asked.
“Let’s see.” Ollie sped his drone ahead of the convoy. “Just a mess of houses and a few people outside,” he reported after about 40 seconds. “Nothing unusual. I will have to land to replace the batteries.”
“After we clear the village,” Lip said.
Lee Qiang looked at the little Geiger counter monitor attached to the dashboard. The counter was silent because the particle chirp was annoying, but it read a fairly harmless 17 uR/h. Because it was difficult to calculate the annual dose from such low hourly values, the readout also displayed the yearly exposure aggregate and various health thresholds.
Well, the nearest nuke epicenter was still some 60 kilometers away.
Lee Qiang had spent a lot of time wondering about the ordinary people in Sector 8. Their despair, their madness, their opportunism, their ignorance, their fears. He had tried to understand their reasoning and motives and always ended up with a headache. He knew he would not comprehend the newborn race of the war. The only thing he could do was to observe and look for signs of hostility.
He had expected harshness.
It still struck him when he glimpsed the first “Sectorian.”
Apathy wasn’t the right word to describe the stony face of the old woman he saw sitting on a plastic chair at the entrance to the village. Her eyes were shrewd and they saw everything. She cared, all right. But it was a regard one might have for a pointless background detail in a TV show. Insects and foliage or even tapestry might actually be interesting. This was something else. She saw not people and their vehicles. She saw threats, and currently, they did not tickle her survival brain.
There was an old 7.62mm assault rifle in her lap.
“We’re on Shishka’s watch now,” Lip reminded them.
Lee Qiang watched one of the Magdalenas stop. Brezhnev was the first man out. They could all hear him try Russian with a pair of younger men, close to what one might call the village square. Then Yossi took a turn, and he lost the sergeant from his view.
“They’ve got some diesel. They will sell it for 100 dollars per liter.”
“Greedy bastards,” Lip cursed. “OK, Lonya, check if it’s proper stuff or filtered piss, and then we’ll top up.” They hadn’t really spent much gas driving the 100 odd kilometers so far, but they couldn’t bet on the next available fuel point. The extra liter or three could be the difference between life and death.
Their second encounter of the enemy-kind ended up without trouble.
Some six kilometers from Mukhanovo, they stopped while Ollie replaced the Kite’s battery and plugged the spent cartridge into the solar charger on the car’s roof.
Lee Qiang took the opportunity to stretch. The air in Sector 8 smelled no different from the friendly territory. If anything, it might actually be cleaner, due to the dearth of people and industry. He glanced northeast, imagining a huge mushroom cloud climbing into the stratosphere.
Lip sauntered over, cradling his rifle. “Some fucking countryside, eh?”
“Some indeed. Fucking, too.”
“So tell me,” the captain whispered, “how did you get to have access to KOS-1?”
Lee Qiang smiled. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh, Lick, I would.”
“How are people holding up?” Lee Qiang changed the subject.
“The morale is always stars high among the Golden Horde,” the captain declared. “But it would help if we knew more, guessed less, and you decided to stop hiding facts from us.”
“I’ve told you all there is, Captain.”
“No, you have not.”
Lee Qiang sighed. There was no point arguing. “Remember our agreement, Lip.”
“Ollie,” the captain called. “All clear?”
“Good, then I’m gonna take a nice long piss now. I suggest you gentlemen all do the same. One at a time, though, and I’m first.” He stepped toward the roadside scree, unstrapped his Kevlar-reinforced codpiece, unstrapped his trousers, and started urinating with a long, satisfied groan. “Look at the side of that thing!” He pointed at a hairy caterpillar, crawling through the grass. “That’s some radioactive shit.”
“Impressive.” Lee Qiang glared at the silver and lead clouds, scudding low.
They did their share of numbers one and two, ate and drank, and then continued. Lee Qiang was happy they didn’t have to cover their tracks. Most spec ops missions had a strong clandestine element, and that meant zero traces on the ground. You carried your feces with you, you could not shower, you had to use special low-scent toothpaste, and even your boot soles had to match the local tread. It was quite exhausting, as the pre-combat discipline was grueling. The freedom in their current operation was fascinating.
It also told them how vague and dangerous their assignment was.
“Before we move on,” the captain said through the IVCS, “we’ve got a little business rendezvous 44 clicks from here, in Staryy Amanak. Three roads, one known to be heavily mined, the other two usable. Which way do we go? Which way, which way?”
Lee Qiang looked at the waterproof map he carried in a side pouch, the roads marked with colored and IR-reflective markers. They really had no intel. Another random choice had to be made. And with it the share of terrain, unexploded ordinance, and little places with crazy people and warlords.
“It’s 855 for us,” Lip said after he tossed the coin.
Lee Qiang glanced at the quiet, deserted landscape one more time before stepping into the cool, gently overpressurized interior of the Magdalena. The spring awaits us, he thought, and slammed the door shut.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Navy (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.