Lee Qiang remembered his grandfather’s stories. He had been an electrical engineer working in the Middle East in the 1980s, dabbling in some rather expensive projects in Libya and Iraq, and then later, in the 1990s, in Afghanistan. Grandad would proudly boast, sober or drunk, that he’d been one of the few Polaks with a passport and an unrestricted travel visa back in the day, before the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
And he had seen some rather gruesome things, which he had shared with his grandson the day he was accepted into special forces training.
Mostly from Afghanistan. A torn country that was run by tribes and warlords. Ordinary people had done their best to survive while well-armed groups continued their bloody feuds. There might be no money to build roads or schools, but there was always plenty for tanks and bullets.
Sector 8 had the same effervescence. It was a vast, complex criminal syndicate, and its entire focus was to channel the trade of war any which way. Sadly, the world was willing to pay. Even the West Army was more than glad to participate in this great, dark effort, as long as they could reap their profits and then use them to buy more weapons to fight the East Alliance.
But even for them, it was getting out of control.
The facts belied common sense. But logic and rules did not apply here. Shishka had a powerful grip on his officers, from the generals all the way down, and it was an impressive show of force and dominance. And this sector—it was the showcase of his madness and brilliance. Lee Qiang could not rely on his experience to guide him to the enemy leader.
He needed to figure out his motivations first. Understand his methods. Then perhaps the odd villages, the black trade markets, and the abandoned power plants with communications gear would start making sense.
How does one man command so much fear? How is it possible for Shishka to remain in control of the entire East Alliance, hiding somewhere in this cursed sector?
Something to ask Sveta when he interrogated—no, spoke—to her next time.
“I think it’s a ruse,” Andrzej plowed on. “Just a figurehead to divert our attention from their command echelon.”
“Perhaps,” Lee Qiang cautiously agreed. “But then our own generals wouldn’t have any reason to play along with this deception, now, would they?”
“We haven’t seen any real army bases yet,” Andrzej complained.
“That bothers me too,” Lee Qiang said.
“We need to—”
“That guy is taking pictures,” Mamuka said, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.
At the side of the road, a man was photographing occupants in the passing cars. He stood in front of a large crowd of soldiers. It looked like some kind of a checkpoint.
And then, at the same time, it didn’t.
There were way too many men for a small barricade on a narrow road. If anything, they were a liability to one another should they start shooting. They also didn’t have the listless, bored look of grunts wasting time, wearing in their boot heels. They looked almost enthused.
“Let him. We are just four businessmen,” Lee Qiang said, contemplating.
“Unless they have some rather big database of names and pictures,” Mamuka grumbled.
Lee Qiang realized the men were tense. This wasn’t their typical professional behavior. “Stay calm. If they wanted to shoot, they would have done that already. They are taking pictures of everyone. Maybe to scare people. We are here to talk shop and make money.” The understanding clicked into place. “And so are they.”
Another soldier was policing the car traffic with the practiced air of a big boss. He waved the mustard-colored Lada Samara in front them through. Predictably, he flagged their Magdalena down.
The traffic “warden” walked over with a confident stride. He motioned with his chin for Lee Qiang to roll the window down. Lee Qiang obeyed, but their inch-thick alumox window only offered a small gap at the top when lowered.
“How is it going?” the soldier said in decent Russian.
Lee Qiang was relieved that the other men in the car could all understand the language. They would be far less happy with Chinese. “Going well. You?”
That chin wanted to push through the gap like the snout of a hungry dog. “What have you got?”
So this is how it works. All right. “What do you need?”
The soldier licked his lips. “Got any chocolate, cigarettes?”
Slowly, Lee Qiang reached for his small box of goodies they kept in the front for just these kind of encounters. He handed a half-pack of Turkish unfiltered to the man. The man held on to it as though it was precious. It also meant he had one less hand to wield weapons.
“So what are you buying?” the warden prodded.
“That helo out there, can you sell it?”
The warden actually laughed. “No, that’s not for sale.”
Lee Qiang tried to look disappointed. “Tell me who I can talk to.”
But the warden wasn’t listening. He had stepped back and was looking down the road.
Raising a curtain of ocher dust, a convoy of vehicles was pushing down the narrow track, coming their way. Lee Qiang calmly watched the procession, counting. Five 4×4 armored scouts, four tracked AFV, two white-painted trucks that might have belonged to the UN once, another AFV, and then an ancient AAA with four 23mm cannon.
You wanted real army, here it is.
Shishka, are you here?
The vehicles moved past and then stopped opposite one of the Tatar Chic houses. Lee Qiang replayed the memory of the route. There was a warehouse on the other side of the road, and the armored cars seemed to be turning into the parking lot.
The warden was back. “Well, if you’re not buying, what are you selling?”
Lee Qiang let the silence draw for a moment. “Heroin, 2,000 dollars per gram—”
“No money.” The soldier waved his hand. “Gold. Goods.”
And this is where hope dies, Lee Qiang realized. He was back in medieval times. “I want that helicopter.”
A sour look on his face, the warden walked away to consult with someone.
Lee Qiang rolled the window back up. “Lip. A convoy of armor just rolled into this place from the east. Not sure if you can see them on radar due to clutter. About 300 meters behind our position, bearing roughly 310.”
“Roger. Is that our maid of honor?” the captain chirped.
“Will update. Over.” Lee Qiang killed the comms and rolled the window down as the warden returned, tailed by a tall, somber man with a pocked face.
I want to talk to management, Lee Qiang thought, feeling bemused. So whatever he had in mind outranked the little guy, and now the more senior staff was here.
“Helicopter is not for sale,” Pock said, his Russian heavily accented. “Want to buy something else?”
Lip and he had rehearsed “mingling scenarios” a couple of times. Their basic idea was that the enemy would not kill them if they thought they could make a nice profit. The only question was what they could bargain for that would not warrant too much suspicion.
They didn’t try to hide the fact they were outsiders. They had just to be friendly outsiders. A fringe group from the West or a loosely affiliated faction that needed some honest weapons to help their cause.
This is a marketplace, so you ask for the stuff you wouldn’t find at your local kiosk.
“Ballistic missiles,” Lee Qiang said after a while. What’s the best way to bait Shishka? “Something like 150-200 kilometer range. CEP under three meters. Solid propelled. Mobile launcher. I will need five or six.”
Pock grimaced. “Got artillery if you want. I can sell you B-300 and B-350, even with chemical—”
“Not interested.” Lee Qiang cut him off.
There it was, greed versus suspicion. Silence. Calculations. Contemplation. Greed. And yet more authority overstepped. “Come back in a week. I will ask.” Greed always wins.
And that was it. The easy part was done.
“Thank you for your help.” Lee Qiang handed over a 100g bag of heroin as a token of goodwill and future cooperation. It was a handsome fee for some quick roadside assistance, but they wanted to make sure no one fired an RPG into the back of their Magda when they turned around.
Generosity was good for business.
Mamuka took them around the Market, circling back toward the houses. They followed a different street this time, a dirt lane marked by cargo containers, approaching the warehouse from the north side. There were soldiers everywhere, resting, talking, or just sullenly watching traffic. Real grunts, these.
On the right, there was a used appliances shop, two seedy brothels that would make a Bangkok veteran blanch, and a coffee bar. It almost looked semi-normal, with people sitting out, drinking, weapons casually slung over the back of the chair or laid across their laps. A dog crossed the street, slinking into the bush of wild raspberries hugging the corrugated steel fence of the warehouse.
“Gents, the enemy has a drone in the air,” Lip announced.
“For us?” Brezhnev wondered.
“Maybe it’s for the convoy. The same way we do. But if it follows it needs to go down.”
“I’ve got it,” Danny interjected. “The drone paints fine on the radar. I have Five locked on.”
In the Magdalena, the four of them looked at the high-def feed from their rear-facing roof camera, captured while they were stationary. They had to be quick about this before anyone started getting too curious.
Some smart uniforms, probably East Alliance officers, had gone in and out of the first compound. This was their first taste of “official” in the sector. It almost felt like the normal world of warfare they had expected.
Then another man stepped out, and there was a change in the atmosphere. Everyone looked tense, and even though the video footage could not convey emotions so well, it was obvious that whoever this person was, he commanded presence.
Good enough to warrant an assassination attempt.
“Lip, check the feed. This could be our HVT.”
Two minutes later, the captain called in again. “Confirmed; that’s your boy.”
Now, the tricky part of being a recon came into play. They had identified Rasim, but they had to mark him somehow. Keep track of his movement. What if he went back inside, and never showed up. Or drove away in an armored car?
Better yet, hitched a ride in the old Mi-8 parked out there.
I could program KOS-1 to drop a missile here, and the problem would be solved.
But it would be risky, and he did not want to waste his strategic asset on anyone other than Shishka. Lee Qiang wished the army forces were not so depleted. Or that he could actually call in a precision strike. No, they would have to handle this on their own.
“What do you suggest?” Lee Qiang asked the team before Lip offered his advice. Outside the coffee shop, a man with a tray loaded with empty glasses was looking at them. Lee cracked the window open again, pushed his fingers out and wagged them at the coffee man.
The mercs were cool and reserved, as he’d expected. “Paintball him with poison,” Brezhnev said. “Can probably do from 100 meters.” A silent and fast pellet that looked like bird-shit splatter when it exploded. It was a very convenient way to murder someone, especially in a tightly watched crowd. It also allowed for a quick, improvised attempt.
Lee Qiang recalled the hundreds of crazy, imaginative ways of assassination he had been taught. Brute force firepower was easy. So were artillery, IEDs, and other high-explosive solutions. But they also required a lot of preparations and knowing the target’s movement in advance.
If you could, you would mark the target with a beacon. Made it easier to spot and single out. Lee Qiang did not believe they could do this here. But it would allow for a quiet extraction. What they sure didn’t have was time to plan this, or any way of knowing where this target was going to be next.
“Mortar?” Andrzej suggested.
That could work. But it required luck and precision that wasn’t guaranteed in a lobbed shell.
“Guys, Ollie and I had a chat,” Lip spoke. “We could rig Kite with a silenced gun and get it up there. Try to take the target out from the air.”
“What do you want?” the coffee shop man said in Kazakh, then repeated in Russian.
“Four coffees. Black as night,” Lee Qiang told him.
“How you paying?”
“I’ll give you half a pack of cigarettes.”
“One it is. Got any rahat lokum?”
The waiter snorted and went back into his small establishment.
“We can try that,” Lee Qiang said over the line. “How close does the drone need to be?”
“About 300-400 meters. I can compensate for the vibrations and the depression angle,” Ollie said.
“All right, the target is marked. Ten minutes. You guys leg it out of there.”
“We need our coffee,” Lee Qiang said.
The guys in the car actually snickered.
The waiter was back. Lee Qiang opened the door. It was a small gap, only large enough to slide the cups and the payment. Even so, he had his left hand on the grip of a pistol. Payment first, it seemed. He handed over the Turkish cigarettes. The man surrendered his share. With only one hand, Lee Qiang reached out and back four times.
The aroma of coffee filled the car. The four clear plastic cups rested on the wide aisle, untouched.
“Do we drink that?” Brezhnev said.
“I think we have enough isotopes in our blood as it is,” Lee Qiang said. After all, the whole act had been just to buy time. “Mamuka, take us out of here.”
No one followed them or stopped at the checkpoint as they left the Market.
“Kite’s airborne,” Ollie reported.
“Once we engage, I want that helicopter destroyed,” Lee Qiang said.
“Seen any artillery radars by any chance?” Lip asked.
“No. But you should jam nevertheless.”
Was that Shishka? Lee Qiang wondered. Maybe, maybe not. It was hard to know. But killing the HVT would definitely annoy the foe. Another step toward achieving the goal of Operation Putain. At some point, the East Alliance leader would have to come out of his lair.
There was an old ICBM site roughly 75 kilometers southeast, and they intended to go there next before heading to Baikonur. With the blast-hardened underground tunnels and storage area, it was an ideal site for a madman to setup his base.
A supervillain and his secret hideout.
In the back of Lee Qiang’s mind, urgency fretted, twiddling its thumbs, counting off days. Summer was an elusive season anywhere in the Asian steppe. You could all too easily forget how harsh and unforgiving the winters were. The Golden Horde had all the equipment to cope with the cold, but no one wanted to stay in Sector 8 into the winter. Food supplies would become a problem—even now, their supplies of fuel and rations were down to about half. A lack of permanent lodging was a bigger problem still. Sleeping outside sapped your will, night by night. If they had to remain in the sector for much longer, they would need a base of operations. Take over an abandoned village, perhaps. Maybe even hire some locals to help them. All the while growing the cult that Lip was the East Alliance leader.
Then we all lose our minds and become another gang of lunatics worshipping Shishka.
They drove down the narrow road, painfully aware of the minefield markings on both sides. If they were ambushed here, they would have nowhere to go but forward or back. And an ambush was likely to block one of those.
“You’re clear. The drone is not following.”
Will the enemy spot and react to Kite? Will Rasim still be there once the drone reached the target coordinates? Lee Qiang wished there were more clues of Shishka’s whereabouts. He wanted heavy military presence, top-notch communications equipment, brigades of tanks and artillery. He wanted the enemy to behave like he was supposed to. The notion that the yellow-toothed coffee shop waiter or Pock could actually be him was unnerving.
“Stop for a moment,” Lee Qiang ordered.
The Magdalena rumbled to a gravelly halt. Lee Qiang stepped out, made sure there were no wires attached to the post and its macabre display, and then kicked the skull into the grassy field. He took the coffees and tossed them away. He stepped back into the car and nodded at Mamuka.
“Approaching the enemy LNL,” Ollie said in a singsong, storytelling voice. “Zooming in. Eyes on target.”
“He’s down.” Lee Qiang watched passively as the supposedly important enemy figure collapsed, standing in a circle of his subordinates. Then the expected panicky commotion from everyone around. Few men were looking up. Even now, most people did not have the instinct to expect death from above.
The scene blurred as Ollie began his retreat. There was a crackle of gunfire. Sporadic. Growing in intensity. If they were firing at the drone, it was impossible to know. The small craft was flying 130 degrees away, and would circle around only about ten kilometers out.
Next Lee Qiang heard the thuds of mortar rounds landing. Explosion, a two-second pause, another explosion. He looked back and saw a column of smoke rising. Black, oily smoke. Probably fuel. Something solid had caught fire. Well, it was all they could do.
Pursuit may already be coming, but if they were lucky, the enemy wouldn’t really know what hit them, and would have nothing on their monitors. Lee Qiang knew that Lip was already packing, with a few anti-tank and anti-personnel mines left behind as a souvenir.
They reached the tail of the rest of their little convoy within minutes. Silently, they merged and drove on. No one spoke. They all had one thing on their mind: Was that Colonel Rasim or Shishka who’d died earlier?
They might never know.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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