Sveta walked with a funny, stilted gait. She must have been stiff from the ride in the boot—as Lip liked to call it—of the car, and probably nauseated from having her sensory deprivation. There was a scowl on her pretty face, mirroring the one on Lip’s chiseled, whiskered features. He was waiting impatiently for her to waddle over.
The captain pointed at the large binoculars, resting on a solid tripod in the middle of an old industrial rubbish heap, half-buried under weeds. “What’s there?”
About five kilometers away, where the binoculars zoomed in, there was some kind of a town. The place wasn’t marked on the maps. It didn’t really look like a town. More like a makeshift market. Perhaps a military compound of some sort.
“It’s called the Market,” Sveta said.
“What happens there?” Lip swatted a fly off his cheek.
“People trade… mostly military gear. Heavy stuff. Artillery systems, missiles.”
In the heart of Sector 8, there was a mall, a small voice narrated in the back of Lee Qiang’s head. He sat on the engine hood of his Magdalena, the metal warm under him.
“What kind of missiles?”
“All kind of missiles,” the girl replied.
“Who runs the show there?” Shishka was implied in the question.
“Colonel Rasim Abdulaev,” she replied after a short pause, as if reading from a mental list. “Ex-Tajik Air Force. He is well connected, even with your side.”
Lee Qiang would not be surprised if the West Army procured some of its weaponry from the enemy. To some people, war was just pure, simple business. It had nothing to do with sides or ideology. And the longer the conflict dragged on, the more people signed on to this new, nihilistic view of warfare.
If we don’t stop Shishka, we might need more nukes.
“Is he officially East Alliance?” Lip pressed.
“Rasim Abdulaev is independent,” Sveta gave as her answer.
Unless Colonel Abdulaev is Shishka, a crazy thought sparked in Lee Qiang’s brain. Operation Putain weighed on his conscience. There was no guilt or despair in his soul. There was just… weight. The enormity of this undertaking.
They had to find Shishka. Identify him. Kill him. Wait for the two weary factions to return to the negotiation table—and then they would be able to finally claim their mission finished and return to friendly territory. But what if they never found him? Or they killed him without knowing it? What if Shishka just disappeared? Would the Alliance generals be willing to risk his wrath and cunning and send feelers of ceasefire to the other side?
What if no one ever confirmed the man’s death? Or some impostor took his place? Well, that would not be too far from what we’re trying to do.
If Shishka knew—cared—about their provocations, he did not show it.
Fascination gripped Lee Qiang’s mind. The deeper they went into the sector, the farther behind they left civilization and rules and logic, the more pronounced the madness became. Strong leaders were not a new thing. Throughout history, individuals had held countries—empires—in a steel grip of terror for decades. Ruled undisputed. Challenged the world order with their whims and paranoia. But no one had done it without showing their face. Tyrants and dictators had always featured prominently in the public view, where their power and charisma could be seen.
Shishka was invisible.
And yet half the world lived under his shadow, and half of the world’s nuclear arsenal rested under his fingers.
It’s a mad game. And no one dares blink.
Well, it was up to him and the Golden Horde to solve the impasse.
Not always a cheerful thought.
Right now, he felt rather annoyed. Whether it at Lip’s questions or the uncertainty looming ahead, he wasn’t quite sure.
“What’s the enemy strength?”
“It varies. Usually 200-300 men, plus a range of armored cars. I don’t know exactly,” Sveta said.
“And where is your unit’s base?” Lip asked. In one variation or another, they had all asked her that question a dozen times. And they would keep asking, because they were unable to get anything from the hard disks and documents they had confiscated. Encrypted or irrelevant, one way or another.
“Baikonur,” Sveta said in a calm voice.
“What were you doing at that abandoned power plant?”
“Setting up a communications outpost,” she replied mechanically.
“Enough,” Lee Qiang said, catching the captain’s attention. “Focus on the task ahead.”
The entire company tensed. There it was again. The outsider was telling them what to do. But Lip had promised not to undermine his authority, and he tried really hard to keep that promise. “So the colonel is independent. How does that work?”
“I am not sure,” she said. “But it works.”
If there’s one independent faction in the sector, there could be more. Lee Qiang saw his own thought reflected on the captain’s face.
They could avoid the Market and go elsewhere. Head south to Baikonur.
Only it wasn’t that simple. They couldn’t let chance keep them stranded in Sector 8 forever. They had to be methodical, precise, relentless. And that meant taking risks. Going into a twilight-zone weapons shop. Bait Shishka.
Kill Colonel Rasim Abdulaev.
Lee Qiang could already see a rough plan forming in his mind. The subsequent chaos would flush all sorts of filth to the surface. If independent forces started doubting Shishka’s goodwill or whatever order he had in place, they might turn against him. Or at the very least, it might generate enough mistrust and noise for them to expose him. It was a feeble hope, given the fact Shishka reigned like a god over his domain, but they couldn’t let it slip.
Something… something might eventually bait Shishka out of hiding.
The questioning was over. Lip grabbed Sveta’s upper arm, ready to take her back to the Magdalena.
“Please,” she said in a soft voice, completely devoid of any bitterness. “I… You keep me in the dark so much; it’s very hard. Can I stay out in the sun for a few minutes? Please.”
Lip glanced at him.
Lee Qiang nodded. He thought he heard one of the operatives behind him snort.
Rudy led the girl away, out of earshot.
Several men were watching the roads and the fields, others were resting, others yet exercising, using jerry cans and ammo boxes as weights. They all felt frustrated by the inability to move freely, so in any spare moment they had, the men did something to burn off the energy.
“We don’t have sufficient or reliable intel, we don’t have the layout of that place, we don’t know the strength of the enemy forces, and we don’t know what to expect,” the captain grumbled.
“I will go,” Lee Qiang said. He spoke in a low voice, but even so, enough mercs heard him. From the corner of his eye, he could see their reaction. Mistrust, surprise, perhaps a shadow of admiration for his willingness to risk his own skin.
They came over, bunching around him. Like all tightly knit groups of special forces, there wasn’t any formal hierarchy—he was the sole exception to that. Perhaps under any other circumstances, he would lead the Golden Horde with more merit in mind. Alas, he had to be the bastard they needed him to be. Less merit, more cracy, then.
“Why?” Pablo asked. Normally, the man was quite amicable, almost too good-natured to be a hardcore merc. But Sector 8 was slowly getting on his nerves, like everyone else’s. The spring of humanity was creeping into their souls.
“Because I’m the only one who speaks Mandarin.” And because this is fucked up. Lee Qiang opened his map. He drew a dot where the Market was. “We take in a single Magdalena. Four men. We go in to trade drugs for weaponry. Simple exchange.”
“All right,” Lip said. It was a difficult decision—one might say almost too emotional for the captain—but he tried to make it sound like he saw only pure logic in Lee Qiang’s words.
“Short mission. Call it four hours. Pure reconnaissance. We identify the colonel and evaluate if it’s feasible to take him out.”
“It’s not going to be enough time,” Brezhnev complained. But no one else objected.
Lee Qiang was scanning the terrain features, up around, down at the map. Flat, open land. Not the best for covert operations. Anyone would see them coming from a good few kilometers away—and likewise, any extraction would leave them exposed to enemy fire for a long time. Minutes in practical terms, but it would be a deadly gamble.
“We setup a base right here. It’s a defensible spot. ATGM out. Snipers and Five in the field, out one click. No airborne drones, as it will be too risky. If we encounter a problem, you support us with 60 mil until we can safely exit the combat area. If we cannot, you come and get us.” Rescue from a heavily defended urban area? That sounds like a tragic story.
The faces around him were grim. They did not like ad-hoc crap.
Improvisation was critical to any spec ops. But so was proper, careful planning. Missions sometimes took weeks, even months to put together. Laser-sharp coordination between different army branches, hundreds of hours of training. They had nothing. Just hope that they would be able to paint their target and somehow take him out conveniently.
Madness begets madness. Sector 8 methods.
“I don’t like this cowboy bullshit,” Brezhnev repeated.
“Do you want to rot in this fucking sector forever?” Lee Qiang asked him. Well, it was a moot question. Even with top-notch morale and the discipline that the Golden Horde had, indefinite mission duration really meant several months in the best case. After that, the mercs would start asking themselves what they were doing here, why they were taking orders from a half-Chinese mongrel, and solve everything in a big, quick bloodbath—provided they didn’t die of cancer, starvation, or land mines sooner.
The time bomb ticked on.
They have a hundred reasons to hate me and to want me dead. But not yet. Not today. Not here.
“Suka,” Brezhnev cursed and kicked the grass.
“I don’t like this anymore than you do,” Lee Qiang said with what he hoped sounded like sympathy in his voice. “That’s why I’m going to lead this.”
They didn’t really like his moment of drama and self-sacrifice. But it made sense. The mistrust stayed, wavering between his knowledge of Chinese and his willingness to lead the assignment.
“The rest of the team?” Lip asked. He was looking at Sveta, some distance away, chatting quietly to Rudy.
“Blyat, I’ll go,” Brezhnev said after a short pause.
Mamuka and Andrzej also volunteered. They all spoke fluent Russian, so it made sense.
As they started preparing, Lip went about rearranging the teams. Magda Four would be their ride, because Number Three—Lee Qiang’s one—spotted a nasty cobweb bruise on the front right window; too suspicious for a first venture into unknown territory.
They started unloading the car, removing weight and precious cargo that would not be needed for the task. A few extra goodies went into the boot, including a range of disguised explosive devices. Mamuka and Panagiotis, the two drivers, exchanged nods, and then swapped places.
Lee Qiang carefully checked all his magazines, making sure they were full. He went through his identification documents, fake IDs, paper money, water purification tablets, antibiotics. Not knowing what to expect in the market, he added anti-radiation pills and atropine injectors and patted his body armor, making sure all the straps were tight and secure.
The other three men were doing the same, occasionally going away to briefly talk to other mercs, consulting about weapons and systems they were taking with them. Essentials went into personal harnesses, including spare water, rations, and plasma. No one wanted to think too much about the nightmare scenario of being found in the middle of a hostile town, whatever the Market was, but they made sure they had enough to survive for a week or two on their own if they had hide somewhere or flee into the countryside.
This was the first time they were having a proper spec ops task since the beginning of Operation Putain. The stuff Lee Qiang had trained and lived for. A small team. Reconnaissance. Impossible odds. Colossal risks. Questionable chance of survival.
He felt oddly calm about it. He didn’t worry about being left behind, abandoned by his teammates out of some cruel act of revenge or spite. He didn’t fear death. What bothered him was that he was going into a combat zone that obeyed different cosmic rules from the ones he knew. Every other time he had risked his life on a covert assignment, he had known what to expect. Not the details, but the reality of it. Not here.
Rudy led Sveta back to the car. She glanced his way. There was gratitude in her eyes.
Another forty minutes bled across the hot sky. Kazakhstan had blistering summers and freezing winters to match.
“We’ve got your back,” Lip said. Any rancor or personal agenda he had was gone. He was pure professionalism again.
“Here, you’ll need this,” Yossi said, holding a tiny hamsa amulet in his hand. “A spare.”
Lee Qiang smiled, took it, and stepped into the Magdalena.
The bleached human skull perched on a wooden pole by way of greeting didn’t bode greatness.
Their Magdalena was following the dusty trail to the Market, sailing the sea of tall, wilted grass. Minefield posts sprouted from the ground roughly two clicks out. There was traffic queuing ahead. The sudden intensity of life surprised him. After days spent traveling empty roads, driving through old, burned villages, the Market felt almost too busy. His mind reeled, seeking the ghostly solace of wilderness and desolation.
This deep inside enemy territory, inside the sector, there was a much higher chance of meeting Chinese-speaking troops. It would not have done any good to send just Lip’s men. Without Mandarin, they would probably arouse too much suspicion. It would have been too risky. Lee Qiang knew his geographically-flexible looks made him reasonably inconspicuous anywhere between Armenia and Korea.
He let slip a tiny curse in Mandarin, framing his thoughts in his mother language.
Ollie’s birds were on the ground for the moment. It was too much of a risk sending them over a thick center of armed men. That would just alert the enemy. Besides, machines could never quite replace the human touch. They were doing it old style, resorting back to what had always been the primary task of any special forces group—reconnaissance.
Their one Magdalena continued the slow approach to the checkpoint, riding behind half-a-dozen ancient ex-Soviet cars sputtering oily exhausts. The rest of the team waited almost five kilometers away, ready for combat. Cem and Slobodan had deployed on foot into the patchy grassland.
This new road wasn’t marked on the maps. Nor was the other one running perpendicular to it, going into the Market. Both looked like they have been plowed off with a bulldozer, the excess dirt left in two long streaks on the sides. Filth, discarded tires, and wildflowers competed for space.
Sector 8 has a life of its own. Things grow in the spring.
The lack of valid, up-to-date intel worried him, and it wasn’t just the satellite imagery. The lack of communication with their base made him feel constricted. In a way, they were blind, and every day that passed hid crucial information that could save or jeopardize their lives. Lee Qiang had no idea how Operation Lake Placid was progressing. Had there been any breakthrough elsewhere? Was the enemy mobilizing or using its strategic assets?
They couldn’t risk any phone calls home. It was too dangerous.
The one consolation he had was that there were no roving patrols in the fields around. The last thing they needed was an armed off-road bike to stumble on their location or a curious APC firing its machine gun by way of greeting. Nor were there any drones in the sky. The enemy was quite complacent.
Lee Qiang used the dusty crawl of the car column to check the surroundings as much as he could. He saw probably a hundred trucks, parked in tight formation—tankers and ordinary five-ton variants. Behind them, standard 20-footer shipping containers were stacked into a neat wall, sections covered in random camouflage netting. A lone soldier sat on his elevated throne, heels down, a rifle across his knees, smoking vigorously.
The makeshift Market had a sentry tower, but it was empty. To the right, there was a fenced-off area, but he couldn’t see what was behind it yet.
Lee Qiang was thinking about the mission. They had not provoked Shishka yet. Or if they had, his methods were so elaborate that his genius and planning eluded Lee Qiang. They also hadn’t come across any real military installations. No real army bases. Just these crazy little places with their black trade and deranged people.
“Suka. Will you look at that?” Brezhnev said.
Lee Qiang could see around the stacked containers now. The enemy had a helipad.
And it wasn’t empty.
The helo was also of Soviet origin, painted silver and green with faded markings. But it was connected to an APU and grounded, and it even had big red FOD pads inserted in its two engine inlets. Professional work. The machine was flyable. It didn’t have any external weapons, but the notion of having to contest with a helicopter was a game changer.
“Lip,” Lee Qiang said over the encrypted comms channel. “These guys seem to have a rotary here. Looks operational. Mark our location. About 250 meters, bearing 194. If I give a signal, you lob four or five 60-mil at it before it can take off.”
“Roger,” the captain replied.
A helicopter. Colonel Rasim’s personal taxi? Or was Shishka around?
The soldiers at the checkpoint were Chinese and Indian mercs. Well-armed. They did not stop them. Mamuka drove on, following a rusty sedan into the maze of containers, tents, and camo-striped prefabs.
Lee Qiang kept watching, trying to figure out what the people in this place did. They looked busy, but it was an illusion. Any place with lots of troops looked busy. No soldier wanted to catch the attention of his superior by appearing to be idle.
There were civilians among the armed men. Civilian-looking, Lee Qiang corrected himself. It was difficult to know for sure. But he didn’t see anything obscene or violent. He had come prepared. He was ready to block his emotions and eerie images of human flesh on display. He was ready to ignore prostitutes, child warriors, and other horrors that Sector 8 could cook up for him. But the Market had none of the savagery on display so far, except for that bleached skull. People were bustling, trading. Food stalls, weapons stalls, watermelons, tanks. A resupply base, reimagined in Shishka’s view of the post-nuclear world.
Good. Because he was here learn about the enemy.
Maybe get a hint where the East Alliance leader was.
Drop a seed of doubt as to his power and control.
Kill Colonel Abdulaev.
“This is like a museum,” Mamuka commented.
Parked on the side of the dusty track was a Scud-B TEL, another relic, with an empty launcher, bullet holes in its windshield, and ex-Soviet Afghani markings.
Was the missile trail I saw several nights ago launched from this vehicle? Lee Qiang wondered. No, unlikely. The enemy wouldn’t have a facility to fire old, liquid-propelled missiles.
But it was another note he made.
“Elevated radiation here. Looks like 34 mSv annual,” Andrzej said, watching the counter on the dashboard.
Lee Qiang glanced down at the readout. A nuke must have gone off not too far from here. Or someone was playing with isotopes. Neither option was comforting.
They passed a row of houses, looking relatively expensive and well-kept, built in the neo-Oriental style, or as one of his friends called it: Tatar Chic. Walled off, with cameras and guards. Most likely the colonel lived here. But Lee Qiang’s first thought was: Shishka?
“Do you think he exists?” Andrzej said.
Lee Qiang realized the question was directed at him. Since he’d killed Mirza, the mercs largely avoided non-essential conversation with him, the rift of mistrust among them deepened by the death of their comrade. Andrzej was the only one who did not look too bothered by the incident. I’m riding in Mirza’s car, in his seat. “Who?”
Good question. Nothing about Sector 8 made sense. It didn’t look like a war zone. It looked like the ravaged remains of a dysfunctional country, where gangs of murderers spent all their efforts fattening up their criminal enterprise.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
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.