“What the hell are they doing?” Lip growled.
Lee Qiang shook his head. “No idea.”
They had stopped because the road ahead was blocked. Someone was fighting someone else.
There was black smoking rising in a lazy column from the next valley, about three clicks to the north. Sounds of sporadic gunfire echoed to their position, the pot noise of assault rifles and the woodpecker gargle from machine guns. Now and then, something massive went off, followed by a dull thud of an artillery round hitting a target.
They couldn’t really see the fighting, because a big tracked vehicle sat in their path, perched on a hilltop like a protective mother hen. It was a GUZ-57 SPAAD, and its impressive 57mm cannon could chop their Magdalenas like salami.
So far, though, the vehicle had not trained their way. It did elevate its barrel once or twice, and traversed the turret about 30 degrees E-NE, but had not shown any interest in what sat to the south of it. Apparently, that was the friendly side. Not taking any chances, Yuri and Juraj, the two AT specialists, had locked their missiles on the GUZ. If it started looking their way, it was going to burn.
Lip stood with a leg perched on a rock, watching toward the smoke screen through his binoculars. Cem was lying on the roof of his car, nestled among the tents and camo netting, scoping across the valley. Ollie had grounded Kite, figuring it was too hot, but he had the smaller Dragonfly airborne instead. Only it had no imaging, so the footage didn’t show them all they needed to know. It was also hard to estimate the enemy figures. More than 20 and a towed artillery piece was all that Ollie could tell them so far. Something was burning fiercely; looked like an APC with a plenty of diesel in its tanks. Smoke veiled, and men looked like ants scurrying through the grass and around the old, decrepit village houses.
The Golden Horde had dispersed, ringing the stopped convoy, taking good, defensive positions. Whoever was trying to kill whoever else on the other side of the valley had not paid them any attention yet.
Lee Qiang raised his own binoculars, sighting the GUZ as a reference point and then sliding the view to the right. The lens had a built-in rangefinder and were covered in a soft anti-reflection mesh. Snipers took it as a personal challenge to shoot anything that glinted, and Lee Qiang loved both his eyes very much.
They could just give up and go back, Lee Qiang reasoned. But that meant an almost 650-kilometer detour, due to the state of the roads and mines and mined roads. It also meant driving through some of the nuked towns, and he was not keen on that. If the countryside population of Sector 8 was a rough, wild bunch, those that still lived in ghost cities were the deranged animals.
They needed to go to Matvevka. Lip also had a semi-reliable contact in Sharlyk who might provide them with supplies at a reasonable cost. Both Lee Qiang and Lip agreed that it was also where their mission would start in earnest.
Captain Smythe would be reborn as Shishka.
But first, they needed to get past this mess.
“Movement,” Cem said.
Everyone tensed, becoming slightly more focused.
“About two clicks, bearing 340. Looks like… well, fuck it guys, it’s a gold-painted Zhiguli.”
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all,” Lip said, looking toward a tiny target beating dust off a narrow tractor trail that ran just out of the eaves of a sparse hornbeam forest to the left.
Lee Qiang frowned. His first thought was, Shishka.
His second was, Would Shishka really be that crass?
“I see four footmen. About a click away. Just emerged from the woods. Don’t look alert. They are walking our way.”
Lip snorted. “Do they know they’re outnumbered?”
The focus among the mercs became even sharper. As one they shared a thought: What would make the enemy so confident they didn’t mind openly, brazenly approaching an unknown force that outgunned them four to one?
Stupidity, insanity, or a lack of better judgment?
Or just poor recon?
Greed, Lee Qiang wrote on the top of his self-bet list.
The Golden Horde had done their best not to present a juicy target to whoever was wasting ammo on the far end of the valley. The Magdalenas were parked off the main road, fairly well obscured by the shrubbery and a clump of wind-swept trees that grew just below the ridge. Anyone coming from the other side would see one, maybe two SUVs and no more than a dozen soldiers. Not unless they had eyes up in the air, but Dragonfly was the only drone in sight-and-hearing distance.
Lee Qiang watched through the binoculars. The newcomers were armed, walking at a slow, energy-conserving pace in a loose formation. They did not look like particularly concerned—or aware—that there was a 30-men-strong force ahead of them. But then, the gold car probably meant they had been spotted.
The soldiers wore the typical East Alliance uniforms, deep green hues with charcoal insets. They had no rocket launchers or machine guns, only assault rifles. The car dashed past them, and the passengers waved, rifles and all. The footmen waved back, obscured by the cloud of dust.
“They are definitely coming our way,” Lip said.
“Stay alert,” Lee Qiang said. He wanted to tell them men what to do, then stopped himself. “Cem, do you see any snipers?”
“We’re clean this side of the valley.”
“Let’s wait, then,” he said with a sigh, and flipped the safety on his rifle.
The Zhiguli honked when about 400 meters away. It was a short one, almost like greeting. Definitely not keen on hiding. Or shooting first. But that didn’t mean anything. The gunfire and the occasional cannon thud to the north clearly set the mood.
Lip stepped closer. “Wanna do the talking?”
“Depends what language they speak.”
Lip kicked a stone. “If they’re Russians, we let Brezhnev do the talking, all right?”
Lee Qiang nodded. “Agreed.”
The old VAZ slowed down a crawl. Then it lurched and stopped, but not before sliding back a meter or two. The loud crank of the handbrake sounded like machine gun fire. The doors opened, and four more East Alliance soldiers stepped out.
Unkempt, unshaven, swarthy complexions of central Asian origin and too much sun. Eyes that spoke of greed and nonchalance. No fear. These men believed they had the situation under control.
Lee Qiang quickly assessed the soldiers; one had two fingers missing on the left hand, another had a neck dappled in burn scar tissue. No Frankenstein limbs or tentacles. For people living in a nuked area, they looked reasonably healthy.
“Who are you?” the front passenger asked in bad Russian. He was short, stocky, with silver in his beard.
“Independent,” Brezhnev responded, standing in the middle of the gravel path. He mimicked the man’s stance, arrogance, and the non-professional way he held his rifle. A fully extended arm, hand on the pistol-grip—it took a lot of strength to heft the weapon up, and you lost time, balance, and energy. But Leonid would let the rest of the Golden Horde handle this if needed.
Silver raised his chin, as if the word carried special meaning. “Independent.” He pointed behind him. “They were independent, too. Wouldn’t obey the law.”
Whose law? Lee Qiang thought incredulously.
“Who is this?” Silver jabbed his chin.
Lee Qiang knew the unfriendly gesture was directed at him and Lip. He obviously understood rank.
Lip spoke no Russian, but he understood the meaning of the question. He spat at his feet.
“We don’t know anything about those other guys,” Lee Qiang said, taking over from Brezhnev. “We want to go through.”
“The road is blocked,” Silver stated, as if it was an act of higher power.
“We trade?” Lee Qiang suggested, keeping his tone neutral.
Silver glanced at the driver. Taller than him, and slimmer, with a squashed potato nose. They whispered something between them. Lee Qiang thought he lip-read the word drugs, but it was hard to know with those silver whiskers in the way.
“What you’ve got?”
Ah, greed. “Are you running the show?”
Hesitation. “Yes, I run the show.”
No, you do not run the show. Lee Qiang shifted his weight. “Where’s the big boss?”
Brezhnev pointed toward the fighting. “C’mon. What do you need? Drugs, pornography? We got it all.”
Silver glanced past Leonid, looking toward their SUVs. “Got womens in there?”
Lee Qiang cringed at the man’s pronunciation. But then, grammar was probably the least of his worries in Sector 8.
Brezhnev waved dismissively. “No. A smoke?” He offered a pack.
Silver stepped closer and took the whole thing in a grubby hand topped with some impressively dark and horny nails, then browsed a cigarette out with his lips.
“What porno you have? Chinese?”
“Good stuff.” Brezhnev rallied. “European stuff. Classic. Remember Valentina?”
“Ah, Valentina!” Silver tossed his head back. The rest of the gold car crew laughed.
Lee Qiang suppressed a brittle smile. Some things were timeless. But then, only one woman had made into history as being the first actress to consummate sex with a robot and then die due to a grotesque mechanical malfunction during live streaming.
“Show me.” Silver curled his fingers.
Dirty Harry stepped forward, carrying one of the barter laptops. He flipped the lid open and showed some of the clips, balancing the small device in his gloved hand. Whenever Silver tried to take the computer, Harry moved it away. The man was getting irritated.
“Wanna watch more, you let us pass. No trouble.” Brezhnev was more insistent, matching the man’s mood.
“Five laptops,” Silver negotiated.
“Two,” Brezhnev said, feigning anger and displeasure, looking ready to walk way.
“The GUZ is turning our way,” Juraj announced calmly.
Lee Qiang bit off a curse, and exhaled.
Brezhnev jumped out of the way. In a second, fifty bullets hit Silver and his band. They collapsed like dolls without strings. The guided anti-tank missile whooshed out of the launcher, arcing high, the front cap flying like a frisbee. The round was almost too fast to see except for the bright shimmer of its motor. It slammed into the anti-aircraft gun in a brilliant display of color and dust. The turret ceased traversing.
Cem fired, making Lee Qiang’s ear pop, despite plugs. He was shooting at the four men, now only about half a click away.
Pablo dashed forward, setting up his machine gun on a rock. Slobodan followed, running to the left. He knelt by Brezhnev and sighted toward the distant group, now beating a retreat. Cem fired again.
Brezhnev had his gun aimed at the car, the engine still idling, but there was hissing white smoking eddying through the bullet-riddled grille. Two to a side, four operatives moved forward, weapons aimed at the dead soldiers. One by one, they disarmed the corpses and dragged them back.
Cem fired. “Enemy down. One left. Fucker’s gone into the trees; can’t see him.”
“I see him,” Slobodan announced from his position. He fired, one-two. “He’s down.”
Lee Qiang realized he hadn’t said anything.
Didn’t need to.
Dragonfly buzzed back, landing on the road hard, skidding, one of its struts snapping. No time for pleasantries. The risk justified the sacrifice. Within seconds, Ollie had Kite up, and its imaging camera was feeding back the combat situation to the north.
“No hidden assets. The combat situation unchanged. A small group is beating a retreat from the village. Enemy advancing in a semicircle from the south. Looks like a 100mm gun supporting. Wait. Two jeeps with recoilless. Didn’t see them earlier. Fifty or sixty men total.”
Numbers that could spell trouble if they decided to investigate why their mother hen had gone to sleep all of a sudden.
“We really need to go through that village,” Lip emphasized.
“We do,” Lee Qiang agreed. He wasn’t looking forward to a protracted battle. He had no idea what the enemy wanted, and he expected no reason to come out of their actions. He had tuned in his mindset to the madness of Sector 8, but it still bothered him.
“Whoa,” Ollie exclaimed, just as a line of tracers rose toward the drone, glowing white on the thermal imaging screen. Lee Qiang saw the camera view blur wildly as Twist had the drone banking away sharply to avoid getting hit. Then he saw the tracers fly high, colored red in real life.
After a few seconds and a good kilometer away, Kite stabilized and Ollie started zooming in on the battle again. “If they fire again, I’m pulling out.”
The mercs were loading up into the cars, getting ready to move. The two AT-specialized soldiers remained in the field, waiting. Cem and they would be the last to get in.
Lee Qiang pulled his map out—you always wanted simple, analog things in battle; unlike electronics, they couldn’t suddenly lag or misbehave, and they never ran out of battery—and watched the terrain information. Through or around Matvevka. Bad roads either way. Mined sections.
He looked down then up, correlating map information with reality.
“We’ve got their attention, for sure,” Ollie said, a harbinger of bad news. “Looks like a group breaking up, heading our way. I see a mortar, looks like an 82mm piece, cold. And they’re spraying heavy-cal machine gun fire everywhere. Can’t see more from this range.”
“Let us know if they crest the ridge,” Lee Qiang said.
“Do I engage?” Cem asked, sighting on toward the lifeless SPAAD.
“Anything that moves.”
“I see a second eighty-two. No crew.”
Mortars, Lee Qiang thought. Not good. A shell could just drop, with maybe half-second warning, and they’d be swimming in shrapnel.
Lip came over. From the corner of his eye, he was watching Slobodan and Pablo pull back. He nodded. “This one is turning out to be a hot date. Alternatives, Lick Young?”
“We go north, it’s more rugged, wooded terrain, but also more settlements. South, open terrain, perhaps slightly better and faster roads, or we can even go off-road if we must. But mines everywhere, and we will have to go near Orenburg.”
Lee Qiang watched the captain roll his eyes. Probabilities, probabilities.
And the contact in Sharlyk was not going to wait forever.
“Five eights in the tanks, eighty liters spare each, sir,” Mamuka, the driver of Car 1 reported.
Lee Qiang understood the subtlety of the numbers. The deeper they went into Sector 8, the less they knew. Resources became more scarce, the situation less predictable. Fuel and food were their oasis in this radioactive desert. The brittle certainty they could keep the SUVs rolling was fading by the kilometer.
They had enough to get to Orenburg, but no one wanted that.
Lip swallowed a curse. “So we punch through?”
Lee Qiang sighed. “We punch through.”
“Two prongs, we take 310 and 30, snipers and AT dead on at the Hens.”
“Captain, we set Five free?” Danny asked over the comms.
“Can it go through all that grass?”
“Maybe not fast, but still twice the normal combat pace.”
“Do it. I want explosive rounds to take out the mortars and the jeeps.”
“Fuck my sister,” Ollie exhorted. “They’ve got a tank!”
Everyone stopped moving.
“A tank,” Yossi said in his singsong accent.
“A fucking tank,” Eddie echoed him. The man’s north-England accent, refined and redefined through decades of living in fighting in equatorial Africa, made Lip sound like a TV anchorman.
Marc and Brezhnev swore at the same time.
“Looks like ZT-24.” Ollie continued his unpopular sermon. “Coming in from the north. They have the village under control. And they’re sweeping south now.”
ZT-24 had an impressive array of weapons. But more importantly, it also had mean composite armor and sophisticated active counter measures. It was a very decent system for a fucked-up sector.
Did that mean Shishka was in the neighborhood?
Lee Qiang looked at the captain. “South?”
Lee Qiang didn’t like what he had to say. “Teams 5 and 8 stay behind.” They had anti-tank weapons, a radar, and Cem would support them out to 2,000 meters. “Brezhnev, you’ve got this one. Yuri, Juraj, you toast anything that shows its face above that ridge there. Ollie, what’s the max transmission range for Kite?”
“About 14-15 kilometers.”
“You have 30 minutes then, you leg it and meet us.” The guys should have eyes in the sky for the entire time, Lee Qiang figured. The tank would not be able to follow at that speed, unless they were forced to go off-road, and then it would have the distinct advantage of mobility.
The drivers were already moving the vehicles back, trying to hide them among the vegetation. Cem had dismounted, waiting. The other men were breaking out the nets.
“Picking up anything on the screen, guys?”
“Nope, the land obscures the signal.”
“It’s moving our way, all right,” Ollie added.
Two minutes later, three-quarters of their convoy left, driving away from the village of Matvevka.
The tank never topped the hilltop, never presented its silhouette to the team. But it stayed there, a clear sign the way east way blocked. The infantry came to inspect the dead AAA, but they did not advance into the valley. No mortar shells dropped.
Warily, slowly, one team hopping forward a click then covering until they were all safely out of range of the 135mm cannon and the barrel-fired guided rounds, the remaining mercs pulled out without any incidents.
An hour later, the eight Magdalenas were driving south, toward the city famous for having been targeted with nuclear weapons a grand total of five times.
Operation Putain was turning into a real bitch.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Army (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.