When you think you’ve seen everything.
“Do not shoot,” she repeated.
“Everyone, hold your fire,” Lee Qiang instructed over the comms, his mind on fire. “This could be important.”
“Check,” Cem acknowledged.
“On your knees!” Marc ordered. He spoke urgently but did not shout.
Within seconds, Marc’s team was searching her, looking for explosives, beacons, hidden electronics, poisons, weapons. They undressed her, dressed her again in plain overalls, and strapped a positioning chip to her ankle. A few seconds later, the woman was cuffed behind her back and gagged. She had a headset strapped to her ears playing classical music, and a bag thrown over her head. Team 7 rushed her out of the compound and toward the Magdalenas.
“Lick Young, what gives?” Lip asked, a tinge of genuine curiosity in his voice.
“We’ve got a prisoner. Bringing her over,” Lee Qiang reported.
“Did you say her?”
“You are still clear, guys,” the captain said after a short pause. “Nothing hot on the radar.”
“No movement,” Cem confirmed.
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. He wanted to take his helmet and mask off, but he would not do that until safely out of the combat zone. “We must assume that the enemy did manage to alert their base and that reinforcements are on the way. We have fifteen minutes to inspect the power plant and leave.”
The tension among the men was obvious. Scouring a bunch of buildings without any foreknowledge of the layout, defenses, traps, and survivors was a nerve-wrecking, slow business. But they understood the importance of the assignment. This wasnt just any ordinary camp.
Working in pairs, the men burrowed into the buildings, the comms afire with chatter, each corner and door reported and marked with an IR pen. True to her word, the woman was the only survivor of the battle. There was no one inside. And no hidden dangers.
They rigged the power plant with several microphones and cameras—portable, generic types with a battery life of about a week. Danny placed a relay about 600 meters from the facility to capture the signals and bounce them a further 15-20 kilometers should anyone come searching. And just to make it more interesting for the foe, they placed several charges inside different buildings, and several tripwire mines outside the perimeter wall. A bounce mine went under the quad bikes. Lastly, the trucks were also set to trigger explosives when the cabin doors were opened, but not before the mercs pumped all the remaining fuel out.
Just before leaving, Lee Qiang paint-sprayed “SHISHKA WAS HERE” in Russian on one of the building walls. He didn’t know if anyone would read the message, or take the bait, but it did not matter. They could only control their own actions, and this was part of Operation Putain.
One whore of a mission, so… whore away.
As always during and immediately after combat, Lee Qiang moved about slightly hunched, the expectation of an artillery shell exploding in their midst ever present in his mind. You could never exclude that, no matter how fast or quiet you were. Someone like Shishka would have zero qualms attacking his own positions if they were compromised.
Friendly fire and mistakes weren’t out of the question either.
14.3 percent of all artillery strikes land on the wrong side of the battlefield, he imagined Captain Smythe narrating in his thick, working-class English accent. Those numbers have not got down much since the early 21st century, despite significant advancement in precision strikes and real-time FAC updates.
“Thirteen bodies. They all look Chinese,” Yossi said, huffing. “Four of these do not look like hardcore combatants. I guess at least two drivers and maybe two communications technicians.” He bent down to pat the bodies for documentation, phones, money, and anything else of value. It all went into a metal-foil bag.
“We’ve got a bunch of laptops here,” Brezhnev said, his team—minus the sniper—having joined the after-party. “Do we take them with us?”
Lee Qiang considered. “No. They could be set to track. Try to pry the hard disks out. And get the batteries if they are compatible.”
“Four minutes, guys. All clear so far. No sign of trouble,” Lip said.
“Prisoner secure,” Marc reported a few seconds later.
Lee Qiang sipped water. Most likely, there was a lot of valuable intel in this facility, but they could not risk staying. His head was swimming with thoughts and questions. What were they doing here? Why did they have a woman in their group?
It was fairly uncommon for women to serve in the East Alliance, and they rarely ever left the home front, whatever it was now, two decades later. Still, despite significant losses and heavy shortages in manpower, the Alliance did not really field female soldiers. Lee Qiang could not recall a single encounter where he’d come across a body of a woman in uniform.
Was she some kind of a sex slave?
He walked the line of bodies, looking at their blood-drenched uniforms and their combat gear. Well-equipped. Standard issue front-line kit. But four of the men did not have a full vest. They must have fought because they’d had no other choice.
The first of Magdalenas parked outside the power plant entrance, waiting. The Golden Horde rushed to load the spoils: fuel, ammunition, combat rations, medikits, intel, and specialized gear that was either worth using or analyzing.
Well, they had collected what they could. It was time to go.
Lee Qiang gave the abandoned power plant once last glance and then hopped into his car.
They stopped for the night roughly 100 kilometers southeast, inside what used to be the Republic of Kazakhstan before the war, choosing a secluded spot off the M-50 road, one of Sector 8’s mine-free routes. They had a decent view of the area, no one was likely to sneak up on them undetected, and there were no natural obstacles that would prevent them from retreating if needed.
The placed five Magdalenas in a wider circle with motion and thermal sensors in between them. The other three formed a U, an impromptu interrogation camp.
The mercs were still busy setting up. Their two mechanics were checking the SUVs for any damage and rolling IR-absorbent blankets up and above them so they would not paint a pretty picture on someone’s long-range scanner. The gunfire detector arrays also went up, meshes of sophisticated microphones that could detect a rifle shot within an arc degree and about five meters distance out to two clicks. The arrays also hooked up into Five’s weapon system, so if it alerted the drone could automatically return fire, a choice between 40mm grenades, and 0.5-cal lead or not-so-lethal illumination flares.
The woman sat in a folding chair, her back arched awkwardly with her hands zip-tied behind her back, her head titled slightly, a common posture for people deprived of eyesight for a while. They had not spoken to her yet. Strangely, or not so, she had not panicked, asked any questions, begged, wept, or did anything of that sort.
She just waited.
Calm and well trained, it seemed.
There were only going to be three men present. Ivan, who had had FSBinterrogation training; Enrique, who had a psychology degree and had worked for Interpol before it’d been disbanded; and Lee Qiang. He was there mostly because he was fascinated.
That and his Mandarin.
And because he wouldn’t let this be handled without him.
Ivan removed the bag from her head, removed the headset, and ungagged her. She sat there, a calm expression on her face, eyes closed.
Curious, that, Lee Qiang thought. Then she opened them slowly. Ivan waited until she looked lucid enough, then cut the plastic cuffs off her wrists. She raised her arms above her head, hiding the pain of blood-swollen hands remarkably well.
“Listen to me carefully,” Ivan began in Russian. “You are a prisoner. You are held at an unknown location by a heavy force of armed professionals. There is no chance of escape, and no one will come searching for you. We fully control the situation, and you must cooperate. Do you understand?”
Enrique sat there, staring at his laptop screen; he had an IR camera trained on the girl’s face, watching for any thermal reaction.
Ivan took a deep breath. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
“Yes please,” the woman said.
Ivan tossed a halwa bar at her. Then a bottle of water. Without hurry, she drank and ate, apparently not too uncomfortable with her situation.
Lee Qiang watched her. Curious features. She had the round Slavic face, but with more prominent cheekbones and a chin that spoke of Far East heritage, not unlike his own. She wore her hair cropped short, almost boyish. Young, her skin clean and without blemishes, wrinkles, or scars. Soft brown eyes that looked uniquely out of place. Pretty, too.
She might be part-Chinese, Lee Qiang figured.
“So, what languages do you speak?” Ivan asked after a while.
“Russian, Chinese, English,” she said, munching on halwa.
“We will conduct this interrogation in Russian,” Ivan said, almost too quickly. Lee Qiang noticed the look on the man’s face. Even in the dark, he did not miss the shadow of mistrust. The Golden Horde still did not really trust him.
They don’t want me to talk to her in Mandarin, because they don’t believe I will share everything I learn from her.
“This is how it goes,” Ivan continued. “My name is Ivan and I will be asking you questions. I expect you to answer them fully and truthfully. If I suspect you are evading, delaying, or withholding vital information from me, I will administer you with a benzodiazepine injection, which will decrease your inhibition and increase your sensitivity to pain. If I still am not convinced you are being fully cooperative, I will physically hurt you. Very painfully. Do you understand?”
She nodded with a mouth full of halwa.
Ivan lifted a sealed metal-foil bag into his lap; it contained everything the woman had on her when they’d taken her captive. “Your name, rank, and unit.”
“Sveta Zhang, 1st Lieutenant, 55th Milcom Battalion, 14th Division, East Alliance.”
An officer, Lee Qiang marveled. That was… unique.
“Date of birth?”
“March 30, 2021.”
Young, but not so young.
“O RhD positive.”
“Did you like the music?”
Sveta frowned. “Huh?”
Ivan smiled, pointing to the headset. “Did you like the music?”
She shrugged. “It was good. A little loud and repetitive after a while, but quite calming.”
“What were you doing at that power plant?”
“Setting up a communication center.”
“My superiors did not share that with me.”
Ivan pursed his lips before he typed down her answer. Lee Qiang looked at Enrique’s monitor. The color of her skin did not change.
“How many of you were there?”
“Fourteen, myself included.”
“And who were the rest of your unit?”
“Several specialists, a few radio technicians. We weren’t a fighting unit.”
Ivan did not acknowledge her last comment. Instead, he had spilled the contents of the bag onto a small folding table. Money in three currencies, a roll of gold coins, two IDs in the same name that matched the one she had shared, birth control, water purification tablets, radiation poisoning tablets…
She looks very healthy, Lee Qiang thought. Almost immaculate.
He stared at the rest of her inventory. A pen that did not transform into a killing device, several SIM cards but no phone, a plain old compass. If she had carried anything more sophisticated, she had discarded it before surrendering. And then perhaps purposefully retained these.
She is no communications officer, Lee Qiang figured. She is an intelligence operative.
He kept silent for now.
“So, where is Shishka?” Ivan asked.
“I don’t know,” Sveta replied.
Ivan slapped her. It wasn’t a powerful blow. It was deliberate.
She blinked, hiding her surprise. But she said nothing else.
Ivan and Enrique were carefully studying her expression. Lee Qiang leaned back, feeling somewhat uneasy with Ivan’s method. Strange, because he had done his share of interrogations, none too pretty. He stood up and walked briefly out from under the IR cover but stopped short of the sensor circle.
Modern battlefields were stressful. Roughly fifty years ago, you could spend the night pretty confident that there wouldn’t be anyone painting your balls with a laser. Now, a missile could come whistling from 100 kilometers away and you would never know it. The knowledge that the dark canopy above could be so invisibly deadly, especially at night, weighed heavily on an infantryman’s shoulders. It was almost depressing. Fortunately, most of the heavy air assets had been expended in the first decade of the war, including the ancient, mothballed Cold War era reserves.
Almost hesitantly, Lee Qiang looked up at the sky.
Perfectly clear without the urban and industrial pollution in the way.
A single dot was moving across the sparkling blanket. At first he thought it was a comet, but then it did not disappear.
It was a ballistic missile, arcing from somewhere in the East to a distant target on the other side. Or maybe it was anti-satellite missile, revenge for a similar deed by the West several weeks ago. The war still raged on. But it was easy to forget the intensity and the urgency of it in this eerie, deranged place.
Lee Qiang went back and sat down. Ivan had waited for him. Sveta was looking at him intently, as if seeing him for the first time.
“You seem to know very little. What was going to be the purpose of your comms center?”
“I am not sure, but I think the army command plans a major military operation for a push southwest, and this was going to be one of the staging bases.”
Ivan rubbed his forehead with a gloved hand. “You think or you know?”
“That equipment back there isn’t good enough for anything major. You’re lying.”
“I am not lying, Ivan,” Sveta countered, almost boldly. “I am telling you what I know.”
“It’s not enough,” Ivan said quietly.
“That is what I have.” She matched his tone.
“Why should we let you live?” Ivan said.
The woman did not respond immediately. “I don’t know.”
Ivan was good. Very good. And like any good interrogator, he did not bluff.
Lee Qiang didn’t know why, but the notion of putting a bullet in the back of her head suddenly made him queasy. After all, that was what they would have done with any male prisoner: extracted the information they could and then killed them.
“Give me something, Sveta,” Ivan almost pleaded. “I don’t want your death on my conscience.”
“I… can give you all the communication codes that I know.”
Ivan shook his head, disappointed. “Those are useless. Changed all too often. No modern equipment has been hacked in years.” Sighing, the merc reached for a silenced pistol.
And now you stand and watch a man murder a pretty girl, a grim narrator said in Lee Qiang’s head.
He swallowed. And did not move. There were more than twenty Golden Horde members behind him. Expecting him to betray them.
“I also have the ballistic missile protocols,” she added hurriedly.
For an instant, Enrique lost composure, his eyebrows climbing. Even Ivan looked taken aback.
Lee Qiang tried to quickly piece together everything he knew about the East Alliance. An old power plant might not accommodate all the needs for a massive campaign, but it could be an excellent relay for mid-flight guidance updates for ballistic missiles, especially if the enemy’s satellite network was out of action.
Shishka was faster and smarter than they had believed.
She is an intelligence officer. And probably much higher ranking than she claims. Which meant she had rehearsed interrogation the same way any special forces operative rehearsed weapons assembly and disassembly in total darkness.
Ivan suddenly looked outclassed.
Lee Qiang rose again and left the interrogation. He knew Ivan and Enrique would wait. He had already made his decision, but he wanted to talk to Lip. Needed to talk to the captain.
Lip was cleaning himself with unscented hygienic wipes, naked from waist up and apparently oblivious to the evening chill. He was slim, with wiry, corded muscles and a fine patina of silver chest and arm hair that reminded Lee Qiang of 1970s cinema stars. His torso was covered in tattoos, made in cheap blue ink and sporting a message that probably made sense to football hooligans. Then there were scars, a whole lot of them. Stab wounds, bullet wounds, the snake of an appendicitis operation.
Lip was rubbing down his armpits. “Did you get her number, then?”
Lee Qiang ignored the joke. “We don’t kill her.”
Lip frowned, as if he’d heard something completely baffling. “Why?” he asked at length.
“Because she knows more than she’s telling us now, and it will take a lot of time to glean everything. Ivan will not be able to complete his interrogation tonight.”
“We do not have a lot of time, Lick Young.”
“On the contrary, we have an infinite amount. Our mission is open-ended. And with her, it might actually get an end. I believe she can lead us to Shishka.”
Lip pouted. “Swooned by a pretty face, are we?”
Lee Qiang stepped closer. “Your eloquence never ceases to amaze me.”
Lip sobered. “Are you convinced?”
“As much as I can be. She is not a typical soldier. One, she is a woman. Two, she kept her calm like any pro. Three, she knows how to conduct herself in an interrogation. Shishka sent her to set up that base for a reason. She must be highly skilled and highly trusted.” And her mixed origin and sex allow her to quickly blend in among civilians if needed.
Lip clicked his tongue. “All right, Major. But she is going to be a fucking nuisance. When we’re on the move, she goes into the boot, and we rotate her between Cars 5 and 7.”
Lee Qiang noticed Rudy standing behind the captain, brushing his teeth and trying to smirk.
“She travels bound, blindfolded, and ear-muffed.” Lip put a used towel into a small nylon bag. “Now you will excuse me; I should utilize this bag to the fullest.” He didn’t have to, not on this mission, not in Sector 8, but for some reason, the captain insisted on doing it. Must be some odd game of statistics and paranoia.
Lee Qiang patted him on the shoulder. He noticed the flash of annoyance in the captain’s eyes for being touched with a dirty glove after he had just cleaned himself. Or just for being touched. It did not matter. Lip went to shit, and Lee Qiang went back to the interrogation.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: SHAPE NATO (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.