An abandoned power plant.
No. Not abandoned.
“Turn around. We are going back.”
Lip frowned. “Come again?”
“Turn around. We are going back. I want to inspect that power plant we just passed,” Lee Qiang said.
There was a moment of hesitation. “Why?”
Lee Qiang rubbed a speck of dirt off the stock of his rifle. “I don’t think it’s abandoned.”
Their eight cars left the gravel path, circled back, and started a slow, careful progress toward the power plant about a kilometer away. Just before cresting the ridge that would silhouette them against the sky for anyone who might be in the would-be empty facility, the drivers stopped, hiding their vehicles behind a clump of trees.
They were close to the town of Yantishevo, but the real world also showed a couple of new settlements that did not exist on any map.
Lip patiently waited until Lee Qiang walked over to his side. “What makes you think it’s not abandoned?”
And why is that important, was the implied second question. Lee Qiang walked to a convenient lookout point and lay down in the grass. The Golden Horde were already doing the expected routine— securing the parameter, looking for traps, signs of ambush, and remotely operated explosives. The sniper and the marksmen were in position, covering both the front and rear sectors. The entire Team 8 was heading into the woods on the left so they could flank any enemy movement but also provide cover 90 degrees to the line of sight.
It took Lee Qiang a moment to find the power plant with his binoculars. An old, coal-fired thing, it didn’t look like it had been used in at least 15 years, or probably even since long before the war had started. Sheds with brittle asbestos roofs, old asphalt permanently smeared with coal dust, the snarl of dead transformers, giant coils of power lines overgrown with weeds, broken and boarded windows, rust, and graffiti. You could take the power plant and place it inside any horror movie, and it would be a great setting for a wicked government experiment with mutants.
Lee Qiang found the pea that had made his memory itch. If he’d not looked earlier, he would have completely missed it. A pair of trucks, painted in forest camo, parked just outside the power plant perimeter. They were very difficult to see from the road, but not impossible, due to the cracks and gaps in the wall that hugged the facility.
The power plant footprint was a neat square, carved out of the wooded hill on the south-facing side. Probably to shelter it from the wind, Lee Qiang hazarded. The region had very cold, unforgiving winters. It did not make sense to have exposed equipment.
Trust your instincts.
“A satellite dish, on one of the buildings. Looks new,” Lee Qiang commented.
“That’s a UHF antenna right there,” Lip added.
“No movement,” Cem said, his voice hushed.
Kite was flying about 600 meters above them, the whizz of its electric motors like a barely audible mosquito whine. And then there was another sound. Not the wind rustling the trees and the weeds. Not the birds. A human sound that did not fit.
The hum of an electricity generator.
The longer they looked, the more they saw. Nothing too obvious. But enough to convince them that there was someone in that power plant. On its own, that did not bother Lee Qiang too much. They had seen Sector 8 people swarm in ruins before, almost like scavengers picking flesh off the dead. Who knew what kind of demented, desperate, vile things they had been doing. Maybe just surviving. It didn’t matter.
This was different somehow. Different from the bleary-eyed children with rifles watching them from the outskirts of villages. Different from rifle-toting hunters squatting on their heels under the eaves of trees, smoking, observing, judging. Different from the odd military group they had seen here and there, both bloody and peaceful encounters ensuing.
This was… covert.
They had not seen covert in Sector 8 yet.
Insane, yes. Covert, no.
Danny had a vamp aimed at the power plant, trying to pick up and filter out human voices. He shook his head. But he did acknowledge the repeating frequency in the low hundreds, which matched the oscillations of a reciprocation engine, like a typical diesel generator spinning a dynamo.
“I think I see a surveillance camera. And there’s a fiber optic line running from one of the buildings and into the woods.”
The power plant was, for the lack of a better word, communicating.
No fence, no obvious mines, no checkpoint, no sentry towers, no sentries. Except for the odd comms device that didn’t share the moss growth and the rust factor of the rest of the facility, and of course, the two hidden trucks, there were no signs of human presence.
“Fishy fish,” Lip muttered. “As my fellow countrymen would say, I smell a rat.”
Lee Qiang could see the old, disused, wide-gauge railway track running out of the coal loading area and into the open, skirting the woods. It did not seem to be have been used in at least a decade. The enemy must haven known trains painted a pretty picture on the satellite imagery, and tried to avoid any undue attention.
Then he heard Chinese.
It was nonsense talk between two soldiers as they stepped out of one of the generator rooms and headed toward an area obscured from their view. But the feed from Kite showed it to be some kind of machinery shop.
Lee Qiang focused on the language. So far, they had heard mostly Russian, Kazhak, and Tajik.
“We could probably do that,” Enemy One said.
“It’s not worth it. We would have to blast a tunnel through the mountain,” Enemy Two countered.
“Just think of the possibilities.” Enemy One again.
“What do you say, Lick Young?” Lip whispered, eagerness touching his voice.
“This looks important. We should investigate.”
“We knock on the door, ask them for tea.”
“We take prisoners, if we can.”
It took another 17 minutes to prepare for the assault. Yuri and Juraj covered the roads, ready to blast any vehicle that approached. Cem had the satellite dish in his scope and waited for a signal to blast it. The jammers would be turned on simultaneously, and hopefully they’d drown the radio. That left the optic cable running into the forest, and it was up to Slobodan and Pablo to sever it.
Marc and Ivan had point, with two near-full-strength teams. Like the marksman, Danny was staying behind, ready to zip Five into action should there be a need for an armed ground drone.
Lee Qiang found himself kneeling about fifty meters behind Marc. He couldn’t really see, but he imagined the man’s hawk-shaped nose under the fine face mesh, broken and rebroken numerous times, adding the distinct nasal quality to the Frenchman’s swearing. The grass swayed wildly in the wind, twitching the eye.
“Team 6, ready.”
“Team 7, ready.”
“Sniper, I have the target in sight.”
The whispers went around, giving everyone the knowledge and confidence the assault was well coordinated. There could be no mistakes. This wasn’t an ordinary camp of drug traffickers, cannibals, or opportunists. This smelled of a real army presence, and it was as close to Shishka as they’d gotten so far on their Radioactive Silk Road adventure.
“Open fire,” Lee Qiang ordered.
A single 338 bullet ripped the satellite dish apart like a hammer smashing a porcelain plate. Half a second later, the first of three bullets slammed into cable anchor point and it fell off the building roof like a gossamer thread. Another mighty clang erupted somewhere above and behind Lee Qiang, and the surveillance camera exploded.
Lee Qiang looked at Ivan, who nodded. The jammers were working.
“You’re clear. No movement,” Lip said, staying behind at the observation point.
“You inside!” Ivan bellowed in Russian. “Surrender.”
“You are completely surrounded. Lay down your weapons and step out,” Lee Qiang said in Mandarin.
The answer came in the unmistakable language of Firese.
It wasn’t focused, but everyone instinctively hunched down. Body armor worked miracles, but so did stray bullets that burrowed in between the chest plate and shoulder pads, in between torso armor and the groin pad.
“And so it begins,” Lee Qiang muttered, mostly to himself, aiming toward the southeast corner of the power plant compound.
Marc lobbed a flash grenade over the crumbling wall. Pablo started shooting, ripping chunks of old concrete and moss from the plant grounds. Marc’s team started edging forward. The massive sniper barked again.
“Got one,” Cem said calmly.
“Team 2, covering fire.”
“Team 3, moving in.”
Lee Qiang dashed about twenty meters to a large rock just outside the perimeter wall. He waited a few seconds to steady his breath, then raised his weapon above the rock, aiming through a gap. Nothing yet. No enemy movement. But the gunfire was steady now.
“They are firing at us with a machine gun,” Lip said. “Second building on the left. Looks like a warehouse.”
Lee Qiang motioned for Yossi to move in through the gap. The merc cat-footed in, aiming at the nearby building. It had a long row of big, filthy windows below the roof line, most of them surprisingly whole. Andrzej followed and had to roll when a spray of lead slammed into the wall above and behind him.
“One of the enemies had climbed on top of the main generator building. He’s hiding behind the chimney stack,” Lip said.
“I see him,” Ollie confirmed.
“I see him,” Cem said, and his rifle belched again. “Missed.”
Lee Qiang exhaled loudly through the nostrils. He looked at Yossi and Andrzej hiding behind a small tool shed. They both nodded their impeccable health. Yossi raised a single gloved finger.
“Fucking machine gun,” someone said. Lee Qiang could not identify the speaker.
“Juraj, can you engage him?” Lip’s voice carried a dose of anger.
“Putain, do not shoot. We are underneath!” Marc yelled.
“Do not fire at the chimney,” Lee Qiang panted into his mic, trying to see around the corner of the building, his perspective of the power plant compound different from one safe and comfortable kilometer away. “You will collapse that thing on our men. No missiles. Only grenade launchers. Window shots. No bounces.”
“Pablo, give us some support, will you?” Ivan complained.
“Roger.” The 7.62mm machine gun volley lasted for almost 10 seconds. Flakes of plaster, asbestos, and glass rained from above as Pablo did his best to suppress the enemy counterpart.
Lee Qiang rushed in, blood pounding in his ears. He rolled through the dust and came to a stop against the shed wall. As a combat medic, Bolek followed last, but this time the enemy soldier did not fire. Yossi had the corner camera out, trying to spot the shooter.
“He is trying to flank us,” Lee Qiang said, and the world lurched. He knew someone had tossed a frag at them by the soft din in his ears and the slightest sense of confusion. The air was hot and full of dust.
“Team 3, looks like an enemy on the other side of the building.”
Andrzej rolled a flash grenade round the corner. Yossi did the same on the opposite side. Back to back, Lee Qiang and Bolek moved forward. Near, far, left, right. Lee Qiang saw a man in the East Alliance uniform reeling from the aftershock of sound and light, disoriented.
Lee Qiang shot him dead. Five rounds—four in the chest, one in the head.
He didn’t think about it. No emotion rose.
Magazine change. Always have one full. Always.
Bolek quickly dragged the body around the corner, taking the man’s weapon away, looking for transmitters and radios.
“I got him,” Cem shouted with glee. “The chimney sweeper is down.”
“I see two men at the northwest corner,” Ollie said. “They are heading out toward the trucks.”
Lee Qiang pointed toward the perimeter wall behind a fenced transformer block. Yossi was already running, with Andrzej and Bolek providing cover fire. The enemy machine gun was shooting again, and then there was a loud blast, followed by an overpressure wave, making Lee Qiang grunt. He saw a thick cloud of dust veil up from somewhere to the left.
“What was that?”
“Machine gunner down,” Brezhnev reported. “Forty mil,” he added.
“Two enemies, 100 meters, on the north corner,” Andrzej said.
“Team 2, do you see that?” Lip asked.
“Not yet. Wait. There!”
A concerto of supersonic whip cracks, throaty whistles, and almost soporific clicks. Until they hit near you.
“They’re down, they are down,” Ruddy slurred.
“Confirmed. Moving in to check the bodies,” Andrzej said. Another frag exploded somewhere. The deep rumble and bass of automatic rifles fired from inside buildings.
“Team 3, we’ve got your left side. Team 4 coming in; do not fire,” Mirza said, stepping through the gaps in the wall. Lee Qiang and Yossi joined the other two men. Outside the north section of the wall, the ground was soft, wet, never quite exposed to sunlight. Lee Qiang found himself wading ankle-deep in loam and pine needles. He could see the two trucks now. There were also several smaller, nimbler off-road quads parked in the woods.
Andrzej was kneeling above a dead man and aiming into the compound. Bolek was standing behind a tree, watching the wall corner, his bulky medic backpack jutting above his shoulders.
No other enemies showed up.
The fighting subsided. The almost incessant typewriter noise of death became erratic strokes, a single shot, silence. There was no shouting, no screaming, and no talking. Only the wind and the labored breath of 20-odd throats.
“There could be more inside, be careful,” Lip said.
“Anyone hurt?” Bolek asked, panting softly.
Silence. Good silence.
Lee Qiang waited for the team leaders to report back. No casualties.
Marc and his team were standing by an open, bullet-riddled door of a windowless generator building, by the look of it, with a yard full of half-broken, half-toppled ceramic insulators lurking behind like some eerie graveyard shift. The adjacent power line tower had no lines connected to it.
Ivan’s team converged on his position, aiming into the black frame of the building interior.
Lee Qiang was waiting opposite the open area in front of the building, his team behind him, their knees smeared in wet, muddy spots. He could see the heavy damage from the bullets, rendered to the facade. He had missed this part of the battle, but apparently a lot of gunfire must have come through the door.
Now the hard part, Lee Qiang thought. Storming buildings was never a fun thing. As a special forces operative, you were reduced to a player in a luck game. Your skills had no advantage over a desperate, cornered foe.
“Wait for my signal,” Lip said, apparently feeling the same despite the distance.
“Ollie, what gives?” Lee Qiang asked, coughing up juicy workout phlegm.
“Nothing moves out there, guys. I can’t see inside, sorry.”
“Danny, how wide is Five?”
“I don’t want to risk him indoors, sir,” the drone operator replied apologetically. “He’s not designed for that.”
They had plenty of technology, but nothing that suited this particular need.
“No movement,” Cem confirmed.
“Marc, you go first,” Lee Qiang ordered.
The Frenchman shrugged. “Putain,” he said softly.
“Do not shoot!” A squeaky voice erupted from inside the building, spoken in good, properly accented Russian.
Before they could fully consider the implications of the sudden announcement, something flew out of the door and landed on the ground with a clatter. It was a white flag. A proper flag. Apparently one prepared well in advance for this kind of situation.
“How many are you in there?” Ivan shouted.
“Just me!” the thin voice said after a short pause. “One. Just one.”
“Step out, very slowly. Arms raised. Eyes closed.”
Waiting for the East Alliance survivor to surrender was as tense as any battle. They had all fought in many difficult engagements, and they all fully appreciated the last-minute karma. No one wanted to die after the fighting was concluded.
With something almost approaching fear but that was in fact a highly heightened sense of self-preservation, they waited for the soldier to step out.
“Coming out. Do not shoot.”
A figured moved into the cone of daylight. Stepped out, just as instructed. Slowly, arms up, eyes closed.
In his adrenaline-drenched state, it took Lee Qiang something like a good two seconds to realize who—or rather, what—the soldier was.
Theoretically, it could have just been a very slim, girlish, pretty young man, but there was no mistaking it.
It was a woman.
“I surrender,” she said and opened her eyes.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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