“Shishka time,” Juraj said.
Lee Qiang could not—despite the situation—help but smile.
The shaped-charge missile hit the truck on the right side, shearing the wheel clean off the axis, the molten jet of metal setting the rubber on fire, slicing through the engine block and spewing out in a shower of golden sparks on the other side. Like a great beast, the truck ground to a halt.
Of course, Lee Qiang could not have seen all this; it happened too fast for the human eye to register, but his camera caught everything.
Miraculously, the two men had survived, and were running away without looking back.
Predictably, the driver in the second vehicle slammed on the brakes so hard he made his 6×6 Ural skid sideways. As soon as it stopped, the crew fled, following their fleeing comrades.
Magdalena 6 sped toward the disabled trucks. It swayed and jostled over the uneven terrain. Once the team reached the two vehicles, the operatives sprayed some of orange-colored fire extinguisher powder, specially designed for high-temp metal-and-paint combat situations, onto the smoldering cabin and the decapitated wheel of the first truck, and calmly started pumping however much diesel was left in the 400-liter tank of the second one.
But it had to be done.
Five minutes. Lee Qiang started the countdown.
The 300-odd-kilometer journey from Matvevka to Orenburg had taken them eight days—and it still wasn’t finished. Part of that was weather, with torrential summer rains flooding the crumbling roads, turning mud into vomit, washing anti-tank mines out of the ground. All of a sudden, hundreds of square kilometers of minefield maps were no longer relevant. And they drove holding their breath around heaps of rusted explosives, piled like skittles.
Part of that was a necessity of their presence in Sector 8. Slow progress, constant recon, looking back to see if any tanks followed. Bad asphalt and worse stream crossings.
But then, the bulk of the time had gone into making people believe that Shishka was there.
In Preobrazhenka, they had stopped and given every person they could find a thousand dollars. It wasn’t much, but the symbolic gesture went beyond the monetary value. They also gave chocolate to the two underage prostitutes, who came over toward the end of their little courtesy visit.
“Shishka takes care of those who are loyal to him,” Brezhnev said just as they left. Lip stayed in the car, like a camera-shy celebrity, hiding behind the tinted windows.
No fuel, though.
In Podkolki, hardly ten kilometers away, they bought a lamb from one of the locals. They figured the younger the animal, the better; it wouldn’t have time to chew up too much of the radioactive grass. They declined the offer of cured meat.
What type of meat? Lee Qiang thought, and he didn’t like the beady stare in the man’s hollow face.
Still no fuel. And no grand speeches.
Their third visit required a change of tactics. They rounded up the villagers, and explained to them, in two languages, no less, how Shishka was not happy with them. The fear was palpable, and it disturbed Lee Qiang more than their little show of bravado and intimidation.
He remembered his early days in the special forces and the two-year marathon that also included heavy class presence in which they learned about the circumstances of combat as much as they trained for it. One of the courses was called Morality 101, and it discussed the finer elements of being a special operative.
By their nature, the spec ops worked abroad, away from their country, law, customs, and culture. Often as not, mission success relied on how well the troops integrated with the local populace, especially during longer assignments. It wasn’t just the matter of language; it was also the subtler nuances of religion, honor, and respect. The instructors had hundreds of examples, dating back to the mid-20th century, with Angola and Rhodesia and Afghanistan, taking apart the work of most of the famous militaries. In a nutshell, without local help, you were doomed.
The only problem was, they were not supposed to be foreign troops.
We’re foreigners pretending to be locals. We don’t have to be nice.
After that, they raided a drug lab, blowing it apart with explosive charges. They robbed a handful of trucks carrying food, machine parts, and still more drugs. They severed a telephone line, poured gravel into the fuel tank of a diesel generator at the outskirts of a village—there wasn’t any fuel anyway— stapled a handful of pointless war propaganda posters on a couple of houses, and confiscated a money printer from a house in Yablonevi then had it squashed with hammers.
They also talked to people, smiled, laughed, handed out generous amounts of money over seemingly trivial information, and most of all, listened. The lie that was Shishka 2.0 slowly spread its roots.
They killed people, too.
Morality 201 was all about not killing non-combatants. But one of the reasons why the Golden Horde were chosen was their moral ambiguity alongside their high professionalism. Not that law meant anything anymore, but Lee Qiang wanted to convince himself that it existed somewhere, in the headquarters of the West Army and in some dark corner of his heart.
That wasn’t good enough for the mission.
So he had charted out the rules of engagement well before setting foot in this mad hellhole. Anyone wearing a uniform was an enemy. Anyone involved in an effort that helped the East Alliance was an enemy. Anyone that fired them was… well, that was an easy one.
Still, he didn’t like watching the nine drug lab technicians executed—bound with plastic cuffs, blindfolded, and made to kneel. It had to be done. Shishka wasn’t a forgiving type. Mercy would destroy their elaborate ruse. In a more civilized time, this would constitute a war crime. But martial law, declared a good fifteen years ago, helped those with a heavy conscience get over their qualms.
He also knew what Lip would do if he showed weakness.
To the captain’s credit, his men behaved well. They did not molest anyone, did not steal, did not harass, and did not try to make his job any more complicated.
They were nervous, but no one had come unhinged—yet. It was an encouraging sign, because quite a few of the operatives had psychopathic tendencies and a colorful criminal record. Petty violence wasn’t that common among special forces, but it almost always, naturally, inevitably crept into the ranks, particularly during longer, more dangerous assignments. Men started behaving erratically—shooting animals, toying with insects, practicing bizarre little things that would make no sense at any other time.
The Golden Horde were a top-notch example of professionalism.
One minute and thirty nine seconds.
Attacking enemy vehicles was a tricky business—especially if you intended to scavenge what was left afterward. Then there was the risk of enemy retaliation. The moment you fired, you exposed yourself, and from that instant, it was a race against time and modern means of acoustic, thermal, and radar detection. But it also let you probe enemy readiness, defenses, technology, and organization.
On their roundabout odyssey to Sharlyk, they had also engaged three other vehicles and a small camp just to see how the foe would react. The first was a missile strike from 4,000 meters using Five. It had taken almost half an hour for the Sector 8 military to notice and inspect the damage. No one fired back or chased them. The second time, they used mortar from roughly five kilometers away, and again, the enemy just ran about like a headless chicken. After the camp attack, two tracked APC dispatched from a small base about 15 kilometers away. It had taken them almost 35 minutes to arrive and then turn back. Only during the fourth attack did the enemy respond relatively quickly, with a fast-reaction patrol of four machine-gun-armed jeeps and a pair of drones that circled around the attack area.
Despite the mediocre organization by their foe—it could be an ugly ruse—Lee Qiang and Lip took no chances. “Pinch” engagements were allowed to last only five minutes, and Cars 1 and 8 painted the target with their jammers throughout. Radar and Kite provided cover, and if anything was sighted within ten kilometers or any artillery detected, the Golden Horde would abort the raids.
“We’ve got about 270 liters,” Ivan said. “Coming back.”
An extra 170 km range per car, give or take, Lee Qiang thought.
“I feel like an extra in some shitty dystopian movie,” Danny said, and chuckled.
Shishka may be deranged, but his control over the sector was uncanny. He funneled the traffic to a handful of roads, allowed only a trickle of cars and fuel so it was easier to track them—or destroy them if need be.
We should just send 10,000 gold-painted Zhigulis over the border, as a gift, and see what happens.
It also made their work harder. Any movement was suspicious—eight heavily-armored top-tech civilian vehicles with a dark, musky scent of military this deep inside the sector even more so. But it also worked in their advantage. Paranoia was a double-edged sword. Rumors were like wildfire, like mines swept in the flood. And whenever there was doubt, Lee Qiang wanted to be the first to pull the trigger.
Often as not, they fired first. Kite scouted, they chose their targets, then fired from a distance and watched the fireworks. But then sometimes, they deliberately avoided attacking juicy targets, trying to add an element of randomness into the equation. Lip loved that he was building this complex unpredictability formula.
Orenburg was just 30 kilometers away. In the last day, they had been fired upon three times and initiated combat twice, including the little fuel piracy.
They distributed the jerry cans among the cars and continued their journey southeast.
The mercs were silent as they approached the city.
The rural road gave way to a highway, mud and sandy-like dirt banked high on the shoulders, years of nature creeping over the neglected human infrastructure. At first, there were trees growing on the sides, providing some cover in the flat, open, exposed ground, but then the vegetation fell back. They found themselves driving on a ghost road through a forest of matchstick sentinels, crisped trees held together by heat-hardened husks. The road signs lay on the ground, half-melted in post-nuke firestorms.
The Geiger counter read 37 mSv annual.
“Are we getting a lot of radiation here?” Mirza broke the silence.
“Trivial. A whole year spent here would be like a torso CT scan,” Ivan said.
Something—a fox—crossed the road ahead of them, spooked by the sudden noise. The sky buzzed with birds. Somewhere ahead, Orenburg waited.
Lee Qiang realized they were still technically in Europe. The city was the border between the two continents, and by crossing the Ural River, you crossed to the other side. West versus East. The symbol of this war. It wasn’t a coincidence that it had been nuked so heavily.
Even before the tactical warheads obliterated the place, it had already been razed to the ground, captured and then relinquished by both sides a dozen times, carpet-bombed, napalm-bombed, cluster-fucked, blasted by ballistic missiles, and made unrecognizable even to those who had fought on its streets. The nukes had merely cleansed the place. Tried to stop the spring.
The signs were still there.
Craters where bombs had hit the highway. Dead vehicles, crumpled into rusty slags, lining the road and lying half-sunk in the fields around. It was hard to tell what they were before, expect for an odd tank that still had its turret. Overgrown with weeds and creepers, with birds nesting on top of the scorched metal skeletons.
They merged off the highway and onto the short R248 ring road that skirted the city, driving past orderly blackprints of suburbs, the houses all gone. The concrete foundations, like relics of an old Roman city, were all that was left. Any other time, Lee Qiang would have liked to visit Orenburg and witness the destruction. But there was no time for that.
“Doesn’t look like a nuke went off there,” Yossi said, watching the pockmarked road and the hazy outline of what used to be Orenburg.
“Not one, five,” Lee Qiang said. “Ruddy, picking anything on the radar?”
“Too much. It’s all clutter.”
“No zombies,” Twist said and chuckled. A wave of taut laughter crackled over the comms.
Lee Qiang remembered watching online footage of would-be authentic zombie attacks, taken by imaging cameras, much like the one on Kite, and shot from a helicopter, with the narrator screeching to be heard over the turboshaft whine. Bad production. And those zombie attacks always seem to occur in Russia for some odd reason.
“I think there’s a vehicle ahead of us. Looks like it’s moving.” Ruddy spoiled the fun.
So far, the encounters with the enemy had followed a pattern. Either population centers or combat. They hadn’t yet been through the lonely-cowboy-meets-lonely-cowboy situation yet. They could stop, but the road was awfully exposed. A sniper hiding in the grass off to one side would have a field day.
“Yup. It’s a truck,” Ollie confirmed. “Looks like a typical 5-ton variant.”
“We’re slowing down to 20 kilometers per hour,” Lip said.
Technically, the truck was a target. But they had no intel, making any attempt to engage it dangerous. If they attacked without thorough preparation and recon and someone else witnessed the event, they would have labeled themselves as a hostile force deep inside enemy territory. The attack could go wrong for many reasons. The biggest was one was not knowing what the truck carried. It could be explosives. It could be Sarin.
They wanted to draw attention to Shishka 2.0, but the circumstances had to be right. This was a gamble, and if they bet wrong, it would be lethal.
Lee Qiang saw the vehicle when it was about 500 meters away. Coming closer. Painted dark green, no insignia. Nothing in Sector 8 had insignia. There was no need.
It had the bed covered in tarp, so they couldn’t see if it carried anything. Three people up front. Nondescript faces. They were curious, but they did not seem alarmed or suspicious. Perhaps they were wondering about the strange eight-car convoy. Might be the sight of civ-cum-military Magdalenas, but there was nothing special about them per se. Tons of countries and militaries, including the East Alliance, used them, as well as many smugglers and traffickers. It was a perfectly adequate choice for war entrepreneurs.
“Ollie?” Lip barked.
“Ghosts and foxes, sir. I can’t see anything. But the city is one giant pile of rubble, and I don’t know what might be there.” Camouflaged snipers and cannon, covered in IR-absorbing paint and nets, waiting for some fool to expose themselves.
The truck didn’t try to speed up, swerve, or anything. Just simple curiosity there.
“We say hello,” Lip said. Three seconds later, Mamuka honked once.
Two seconds later, the truck driver flashed the lights and waved.
They drove past each other peacefully. Just men about their business, nothing more.
Lee Qiang looked back. The truck was empty. Out to get supplies, perhaps. But where from and where to?
Do not try to reason madness, his mind warned him. The rules and logic you know do not apply here.
For a moment, he wondered how precarious and silly their situation was. Half a dozen guided missiles fired from a helicopter would turn them into mincemeat, end the saga right then and there. For all its sophisticated armor and electronics, the SUV was just a can on wheels, with quite a lot of laminated glass and not enough ceramic-hardened metal.
The lack of solid data and communication also bothered him. What did HQ know? What did Shishka know? Had they been exposed from Day One, and was this just one big game? Maybe Shishka was tormenting them, watching his own private show on survival.
Nothing special about this one, Lee Qiang. You’ve been there. Waiting for the informant in a dark alley, wondering if they will turn rogue or not, wondering if they will keep their promise, lose nerve, or if they’ve been had by the secret police. Walking through streets where a thousand wary locals could become a mob with machetes. Landing on an airstrip, waiting for the night sky to flare up with ack. Putting your life in the hands of luck and hopefully sound intel.
They had planned this as well as anyone could. They were doing something no one had tried yet in this war. And the Golden Horde were the best people for the job.
He looked out of the window, toward the city. You could not see much. Dead trees, weeds, rubble, ancient trash half-buried under tough vegetation, old cars and armored vehicles singing their rusty lament as the wind licked their gaping, mortal wounds.
Soon, the city was behind them.
The tension eased a little, but they still felt exposed, with stretches of neglected fields on both sides and a perfect view for any opportunistic missiles specialist to practice his art guiding a warhead against a convoy of cars. Or a tank. Or an artillery crew. The options for a horrific death were endless.
Kite zoomed left and right, searching. There were no hot targets.
The bridge over River Kapgalka was intact.
The town of Mayorskoe watched them from the other bank. It looked deserted.
“We need to cross,” Lee Qiang stated, standing in the dirt at the shoulder. A hot, humid wind washed his face. There were perhaps ten thousand birds in the air, enjoying the thermals, flying above the bend in the river. Herons and ducks by the look of it. The cacophony was incredible.
The bridge wasn’t the original construction that had spanned the two sides; that one rested in the water, forming a new island in the inlet. It was a new thing, smaller, narrower, made from engineering equipment.
Everything looked… empty. No sign of humans anywhere. Just wild growth and birds and old ruins. Lee Qiang used the binoculars, but they revealed nothing. Neither Cem nor Slobodan saw anything. Ollie had taken his drone higher up, so it wouldn’t collide with the birds, but he also reported nothing suspicious. No bunkers, no strange obstacles on the side of the road that could be massive IEDs, no checkpoints, no machine gun nests, no people. If the bridge was rigged, it was done expertly. If someone wanted to ambush them, this was the perfect spot.
“Well, fuck it,” Lip said and sat back in his Magdalena.
Fuck it indeed. “If we draw fire, we do not stop until two clicks past Mayorskoe. Then we regroup. If we cannot advance, we pull back to the south toward Sakmara.”
“Agreed,” Lip drawled.
The metal paneling of the bridge clanged massively under their wheels, tossing the SUVs about, drowning all other noise. Even if they were fired upon, they wouldn’t know until they saw a bullet hit. One by one, the Magdalenas drove across and sped on, without looking back. Kite hovered above the river band, watching.
There were no incidents. If Shishka knew about them, he had other plans.
Jokes subdued, they drove north in silence. Lee Qiang wondered if the contact in Sharlyk would still be there, and whether they should even consider meeting him. It might be too dangerous.
Shishka’s plans decided it for him.
Only about 15 kilometers from Orenburg, the highway ended in a minefield. It was a brand new one, and it did not show on their maps. The road forward was blocked with hedgehogs and barbed wire that extended well into the fields. Signs in Russian and Mandarin warned about the danger. Lee Qiang thought he could see a handful of big anti-tank mines, neatly arranged like curling stones at the side of the road. Probably another rain flood wash-up.
“Putain,” Marc contributed.
After a short deliberation, they drove east.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: SHAPE NATO on Flickr (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.