The bullet hit the passenger-side window, leaving a cobweb-like impression.
Lee Qiang glanced back in annoyance, knowing the starburst would sit directly in his field of vision. He was kneeling in a ditch on the side of the road, looking toward a cluster of farmhouses at the far end of a gently sloping field. It overlooked the narrow gravel track and the marshy stretch of reeds toward the river, giving the owner a good view and control of the approach.
The Golden Horde had all stepped out when the IED went off—just as the bumper detector sounded alarm—and taken defensive positions, trying to figure out how to handle this ambush. It didn’t look like a major clusterfuck, but it was a threat they could not ignore.
“Some choose to barter, some choose to shoot,” Yossi said in his lilting accent.
“Putain,” Marc swore over the comms.
“Ollie, talk to me,” Lip growled.
“Six men outside, unknown number inside. No heavies. And they’re shooting at my drone.”
The supersonic crackle of small-arms fire sounded like very loud insects, the occasional round pinging off their armored vehicles and rocks.
It was their third day in Sector 8, and their first incident. All other meetings and encounters with the locals had been peaceful. Costly but peaceful.
Lee Qiang raised his head, just above the wild grass stalks. “Pablo, I want you to lay down fire from the riverside. Cem, I need you to cover that barn.”
Cem “Arif” started crawling forward, his Ghillie suit making him almost invisible against the grassy terrain. Pablo “Picasso” trotted down the road, hunched low. One operative from each car fired a handful of rounds to distract the enemy.
“Let’s drop a sixty mil on their heads,” Sergeant Mirza suggested. He seemed to be the one always in favor of artillery solutions. Oddly, he did not have a nickname.
“Not yet. We don’t know what they’ve got in there,” Lee Qiang said before Lip could give his opinion. As tricky as a firefight situation was, he had to assert his dominance over the company. The captain did not argue. He might be three different types of bastard blended into one, but he was a professional warrior.
“Why are the fuckers shooting?” Harry, from the fourth car, asked.
“Some people have no manners,” the captain said.
Lee Qiang didn’t like the nonessential chatter, but he didn’t interfere. He wanted to understand how these men work, and so far, he had no complaints about their combat skill. Everyone was calm, focused. They were conserving their ammo. No one was taking any chances.
“Captain, Major,” Danny “Dundee” hailed. “Do we get the Five out of its slumber?”
Lee Qiang frowned. It took him half a second to remember the endearment they used for their remotely-controlled weapons system.
Lip didn’t say anything, which meant he deferred, and Lee Qiang appreciated it. “No. We leave it for when there’s proper need.”
“Supporting fire,” Pablo announced and fired. A deep, satisfying three-second volley swept over their position. A brief pause. Another three-second burst. The enemy fire wavered for an instant.
Team 4 dashed forward, bent low. They advanced maybe 15 meters and dropped back into the tall, wild grass. The bullets zinged above their heads.
Pablo was shooting again, and the gunfire from the other side abated. Team 2—minus Ollie, who was cradling his UAV terminal and piloting the Kite—and Team 6 rushed forward, moving slightly ahead of their comrades.
“I see one… two men inside the barn,” Cem told them.
“Drop them,” Lee Qiang ordered.
The 338 Lapua Magnum sounded like God belching, drowning all other noise. It was a meaty, metallic clank that meant destruction wherever it landed. Then the second shot.
“And they are dead,” the sniper said.
Pablo was firing again. Lee Qiang looked at his team. They set off.
The world was a blur of green and russet, wind rush and labored breath mixing. No matter how short the dash, your throat always constricted. Lee Qiang dove, kicked his legs high up to break his fall, and jiggled his elbows to get more stability. He sighted down the red Illum Ret gunsight, but he only saw old houses with corrugated roofing, a lonely willow tree, and the swaying swath of grass.
“Team 1 and 8, stay behind. Team 7, advance to the left,” he groaned into the mic.
Captain Lip did not argue.
“Stoppage, Putain,” Marc cursed.
“One down, Suka,” Brezhnev said, matching his friend’s fervor.
The big sniper sneezed again. Another kill for Cem.
Battles usually had an exponential chaos curve. They became awfully frantic very quickly, and then they died off just the same. At some critical point, one of the sides lost cohesion and initiative, and it broke down. Suddenly, it was rather quiet, the sounds of insects, the river and short breaths the only perpetrators of the calm.
“Anyone hurt?” Lee Qiang asked.
“All quiet on the eastern front,” Ollie said. “No movement.”
“Team 4, we’re going in,” Mirza said. Crouched low, his men went to check the farm.
“Team 7, flanking. We got you in our sights, guys,” Marc spoke with surprising clarity. “Cem, do not shoot, we’re coming into your view, now.”
“I see them,” the sniper said, his voice distorted, probably by the position of his cheek against the stock.
“Check,” Pablo said.
“Team 1, move forward,” Lee Qiang ordered. He saw Lip stand up and walk over, wary but not stooped. He didn’t like that the captain was being careless, but he was going to forgive this little act of vanity. After all, Lip delighted in casualty probabilities, so this situation probably counted toward being safe.
“Team 5, we are going to inspect the IED damage,” Brezhnev said.
“10-4.” Lee Qiang waited for the captain. He stood up, looking at his maverick subordinate. There was a glint in his eye, but he said nothing. After we wrap this thing, it seems.
Stepping into an enemy base was always a big risk. Trip wires, traps, explosives. Poison, disease, suicide squads—there was an endless number of post-combat dangers that a quiet battlefield offered to the unwary.
Right now, Lee Qiang was more worried about “electronic” noise. Bugging equipment left behind, hidden cameras taking pictures and transmitting their faces across the entire sector.
Luckily, paranoia was never an issue with ultra-risky spec ops assignments.
Cars 1 and 8 had turned their 50KW jammers toward the farm. Those were good enough to quieten any cellphone reception or satellite signal. Under the helmets, they had their faces covered in soft, gold-cloth veils. You could see and identify each other well; they didn’t impede the breathing, barely obstructed the view, and played Devil’s tricks with visible-spectrum cameras.
Best of all, you didn’t need sunscreen or anti-shine creams. Those always made Lee Qiang’s skin itch like chickenpox.
“Eight men, all dead.” Mirza gave the report after the team made a slow round of the houses, a mine detector in one hand. He was now kneeling by one of the dead, wearing gloves and examining the man’s wallet. “An expired Turkmenistani ID, a broken condom, and no money.”
Next body. “Chinese, but he don’t look Chinese, got a few dollars in his pocket. Sweet irony.”
Next. “No ID here.”
It went on for a few minutes.
The rest of the Golden Horde moved up.
“They don’t look Chinese,” Yossi said, and, almost as an afterthought, looked at Lee Qiang.
“Ollie, anything moving?” Lip asked.
“What did they attack us?” the captain asked.
Lee Qiang knew the question was directed at him specifically. “There could be any number of reasons. Because we violated a rule we did not know. Because someone wants to test us. Because someone is not happy with our presence in the sector. A coincidence of war madness. All of it.”
Lip looked up. There was only one drone out there, but with modern surveillance, the enemy could be watching this farm from a long way off.
“Do you think it’s Shishka?” Lee Qiang asked.
Lip wiped sweat from his forehead. “Unlikely. He wouldn’t dispatch this lot to take care of us. Team 8, anything on the radar?”
“Nothing like a well-aimed artillery round to end this mission prematurely.”
Ivan “Cherno-blin” was checking out radiation hazard with his portable counter. The amount of possible traps was enormous. An artillery strike was easy. Lee Qiang could think of at least twenty different ways to ambush their group, make them seemingly win a short battle, and then kill them in the lull afterwards. Chemical agents, bombs, poison, a second-wave attack. The options for mutilation and death were endless.
But the farm was quiet, and it did not try to bite them.
There were no animals, only the sign of long habitation by a small group of men, with their associated food, filth and entertainment.
“Lonya, what’s the status?” Lip asked.
“Minor shrapnel damage. No penetration.” Whoever had planted the road-side bomb hadn’t done a good job. The device had detonated early, ahead of the first car, and the blast had merely rocked it gently.
“Any unexploded crap lying about?”
“So, how did you like your first baptism of fire with the Golden Horde, Lick Young?”
The smugness in that voice could cure cancer. “How did you like it, Captain?”
Lip stepped closer. “You did well. I have no complaints.”
Lee Qiang waited.
“But you can give my men more independence. They know what they’re doing.”
Cem was coming their way, swaying with the weight of his big rifle, his camouflage making him look like a bulky straw man.
Lee Qiang took a sip of water from the hydration bag in the back of his harness; he had a double-valve straw poking out of his left shoulder strap. “Luckily, I won’t need to give them orders. Noted.”
Satisfied, Lip nodded and walked to check the skeleton of a rusted tractor, an ancient thing that had seen its best days during one of the later Soviet five-year plans.
“That thing is slightly radioactive, sir,” Ivan warned. “Best not touch.”
It seemed the danger had passed, but the operatives were all alert. Men were holding defensive positions, looking out toward the marshy land and the road, and Kite buzzed above their heads, performing lazy figures of eight. Pablo was still hiding in the grass, slapping mosquitos off his face and cursing in succulent Argentinian Spanish.
Lee Qiang looked at the magazine he’d used during the combat, now tucked in one of his pouches. He had fired maybe 10 rounds. He looked at the Golden Horde, analyzing his actions—and theirs—during the brief engagement. The language, the communication, their posture, their methods, his commands. It wasn’t bad at all. He was certain they would have refused his orders if they felt they were silly. But maybe the captain was right. He should let them do their thing. And observe.
Like Lip had done. Let him do his thing while he observed.
He could have shot me in the back, Lee Qiang realized suddenly.
The captain was looking at him. That smugness, that glint in the eye, still there.
“Nothing of value here, just some food,” Mirza proclaimed, done with the scavenging and the inspection of the houses. He had stacked their prize on the ground; several cans of pickled onions, fish and beetroot, sealed half-kilo packs of halwa, a box of stick lights, another of hexamine tablets, a fishing rod, and two acid-led car batteries. The men had been here for a while, but probably not for too long. This wasn’t a permanent camp.
“The question remains: Why did they shoot?” Ruddy asked, lisping.
“It’s fucking Sector 8,” Harry said.
Lip clapped. He turned his throat mic off. “What now, Major?”
Lee Qiang knew they had to mop this up. “The bodies?”
“We can either burn them or leave them to rot, but we don’t have time to bury them.” Suddenly, he smiled. “If some Alliance folk come a-wandering by, what do you think they’ll find?”
Lee Qiang knew this was another test. Perhaps it was the wrong time and place for it, but Lip wasn’t known for being subtle or considerate. “We use the same standard issue 6.5mm ammo as the other side, so there shouldn’t be any overly suspicion about that. Can’t explain the 338 easily though.”
“Wanna pry lead slugs out of the corpses?”
“No. It would be even more suspicious.”
Lip blinked sagaciously. “A real Sherlock Holmes.”
Lee Qiang considered punching the captain. Reinforce the lesson instilled during the Kismet accident. But he let it slide. “If anyone comes nosing, this is just a botched up OK Corral.”
“OK Corralski,” Lip said.
You’re trying to push me. All right, I will squeak. “Given the circumstances, we should do our best to give our foe the respect he deserves. Leave the bodies to whatever local vermin lives here. Set a bouncy under one of the bodies so it goes off when moved.” Or rots enough. No harm done there. “Two more in the field at random positions, preferably toward the approach here and… there. We slice their ears off and toss them into the river, give the crabs a nice dinner.”
Lip pursed his lips. “That will do.” He turned his mic on.
Did I pass? Lee Qiang wanted to ask, just as he delivered the punch.
Lip clapped again. “All right. We wrap this up, ten minutes. Harry, grab me some APERS from the car, will you. And a knife.” Once he had the blade in his hand, he gestured, his brows arching.
“No, thank you. I’ll let you prepare the dinner.” Without waiting for the captain to respond, Lee Qiang walked over to their raid stash, picked the box of fuel tablets, and walked toward his car.
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.