Over many tens of thousands of years, human motor skills and reflexes evolved as a response to biological threats, long before any technology made things faster than neural signals could move the muscle tissue. The average response time to a visual stimulus is about three-quarters of a second, or half that for people who are alert. That does not sound like a lot until you take into account other factors, like rocket motors.
A typical anti-tank missile flies at about 250 m/s. This means it will clear about one and a half football fields in the time it takes the human brain to register and respond to a visual signal. It’s a metallic object the size of a bread loaf, jumping football field lengths as fast as you can blink.
Even if you can see it coming, you have no time to react.
You can’t dodge missiles.
Lee Qiang never even saw it coming.
One moment, they were riding in the Magdalena, following a gravel path.
The next moment, the world was dark gray, and it sounded like a TV station had just gone offline.
Time plays tricks when you’re shocked, so he didn’t know how many seconds passed before he understood what had happened.
“We’ve been hit,” he said into the mic, and pushed the door open.
He rolled out, coughing. There was blood trickling from his nose and mouth. Colors pulsated at the edge of his vision. Smoke was billowing out of the car.
He looked inside. Yossi was dead, cut in half by the explosion. In the back, Andrzej and Bolek were not moving. They were covered in shards of glass and metal.
“We’re under attack,” someone whispered over the comms. Lee Qiang didn’t know who it was.
He looked up and down the line and saw Magdas 2 and 7 engulfed in flames. The convoy had stopped, and the men were trying to deploy in the field on the right side. Calm, deliberate action, but there was a brittle edge to it. There had been no warning of the ambush.
Shishka must have had enough.
Lee Qiang reached into the back and dragged Andrzej out. The man was breathing, but it was impossible to know if he had internal injuries. Close-proximity detonations were dangerous. There was no blood leaking down the sides of his body armor.
He pulled Bolek out next. He was one of their three medics, so his situation was crucial. The Golden Horde all had first-aid training and almost passable paramedic skills, but nothing could replace the expertise of a true professional.
Bolek’s eyes blinked open. “What the…”
“Are you hurt?” Lee Qiang rasped, dripping blood from his nose on the man’s uniform.
Bolek wagged his fingers, and most likely his toes. “I’m probably fine.”
Lee Qiang grunted. “Good, then see to the others.” He pushed a pair of fast-clot tampons into his nose, spat the blood tickling the back of his throat, and edged closer to the end of the vehicle. The smoke made it hard to see what was happening.
Something whistled, and instinctively, Lee Qiang buried himself close to the ground. Dirt burst up in a hot shower maybe twenty meters behind him. He could hear the shrapnel and stones raining on the damaged car.
“Putain, I’ve got two dead,” Marc whispered on the comms.
Another round landed, about 50 meters away. Mortars, probably 60mm by the look of it. More dirt. His eyes stung. With fumbling fingers, Lee Qiang quickly donned his daytime googles. A different type of patter filtered through the heart monitor beep in his ears. A rain made of bullets. Rifles firing, a staccato of fury.
“Danny, you there?”
“Get Five firing.”
Vehicle Four bucked, jumping off the road. Lee Qiang winced as he saw the heavy Magda moving, its left side caved in by a fiery punch from an ATGM. The warning receivers were all silent. The enemy was probably using old line-guided weapons to avoid detection.
“Team leads, sitrep,” Lee Qiang croaked.
“Fucking cunts. We’re fine,” the captain rasped, finally coming online.
“Two dead,” Ollie said. So Rudy must be gone.
“I’ve got one dead,” Lee Qiang said. He glanced at Bolek and Andrzej. “One injured.” At least.
Nothing from Magda 4.
“Yuri’s dead,” Brezhnev said.
“Team Six, two dead,” Ivan panted over the line. “Wounded. Need help.”
“We lost Slobodan,” Marc said.
“We’re okay,” Gustav reported in the last car.
Another mortar landed, spraying them with hot dirt and gravel. Lee Qiang tried to steady his aim, but his hands were shaking. He might be concussed. He looked across the gravel track, but he could not see the foe yet. Somewhere to their left, across the entire arc, there was an enemy with missiles and artillery, and aiming pretty well.
His hearing was coming back. The buzz had become a fly’s whine. And then he could hear the electric motor of their ground-operated drone pushing into the grass field. It opened fire with a mounted 12.7mm machine gun against whatever Danny was seeing on a mast-mounted thermal imaging camera.
“Ollie, give us some eyes,” Lip said. Neither Kite nor Dragonfly had been flying. The small drone was malfunctioning, and the strong wind had forced the bigger bird back for early recharging. The little mishaps of life.
In retrospect, they shouldn’t have been driving.
In retrospect, everyone was a damn genius.
“Working on it.”
The Golden Horde, those who still lived, were pulling back, coming closer.
Lee Qiang looked behind him. A low depression, some kind of a valley, and then a sparse forest several kilometers to the southwest. Hardly the terrain you would want to be retreating over under heavy fire.
Kite took off.
Lee Qiang reached for his IVCS tablet. It was intact and still talking to the cars’ grid. He had the bird’s eye view of the battlefield now.
The enemy had prepared this ambush well. The soldiers were wearing thermal camo, invisible to the imaging sensors in the drone’s camera. The only thing that showed was the glow of rifle barrels and the thread-like streamers of bullets. Farther back, there was a single tube, brilliant white on the monochrome background, lobbing rounds their way.
Smart foe was never good.
But then, the fact that they had intended to stay unseen until the last moment meant they had no heavy weaponry. That was why the radar had not seen anything. An airborne drone would probably not have seen the ambush team anyway.
Some consolation, that.
So infantry only, then. Easier but not with half the platoon injured.
The mercs were slowly recovering, returning fire, zoning in on their opponent. The hollow thrums of 40mm grenade launchers spread down the line. Cem was firing, too, his thundergun unmistakable even against the deluge of lead and mortar explosions.
“They are trying to flank from the east,” Lip said.
“If any vehicles are still intact, get them behind the damaged cars,” Lee Qiang said, kneeling in the grass, watching the battlefield from above. With his head ringing and strobe-lights playing German techno at the edge of his vision, it was a disorienting feeling.
Magda 8 left the convoy line and swerved into the thorny grass field, carefully navigating around prone men. The last thing they needed now was to have someone’s legs pulverized under the wheels. It stopped just behind Lee Qiang’s car.
“We have a fucking problem,” Gustav said in the driver’s seat. He was bleeding on the right side of his face. “Reinforcements coming from the south. Strong radar signal, could be armor. About 17 clicks.”
Even if we wanted to retreat, we cannot now.
Lee Qiang looked around him again. Nigel, one of the medics, was treating Ivan, who was resting against the hull of Magda 6, his head bobbing randomly. He couldn’t see Vitaly, their third medic.
Where’s Sveta? Lee Qiang thought suddenly. She had been riding in the fifth car. “The prisoner?”
“Fuck the prisoner!” Marc shouted.
We need her, Lee Qiang realized with growing dread and nausea. She was the only one who might know where to go. With outdated maps, insufficient satellite feeds and minefields, everywhere, they stood no chance in a running retreat.
He was moving, hopping over toward the fifth car. There was a large puddle of engine oil under the Magda. The front end was all mangled. Not sure what to expect, he opened the heavy luggage area door. Cowering amidst the upturned boxes of combat rations, contraband, and winter gear was Sveta. She might be listening to some pleasant classical music, but she must have felt the hit.
She did not look hurt.
Lee Qiang yanked the hood from her head. She closed her eyes hard, turning her head away. Then, she slowly opened them, full of fear and confusion. Lee Qiang tore the headset away, unlocked the cuffs from her hands—not easy with his shaky fingers. He let her remove the gag herself. There was saliva all over her chin.
To her credit, she said nothing. Just waited for his instructions.
Bullets pinged everywhere.
“Are you hurt?”
She followed him and went prone in the prickly grass just below the road line.
Something heavy caliber tore into the still-open trunk door. A piece of ceramic spalling exploded, covering them in fine dust.
“We need an escape route,” Lee Qiang said. He placed the map on the ground close to her nose. “We are here.” He pointed at the last red marker dot he had placed before the attack.
If she contemplated her luck and chance of survival at that moment, she didn’t show it. She focused. Once or twice, she looked up. A mortar slammed into the ground maybe 30 meters away. Lee Qiang saw Nigel slump.
“Nigel’s down,” Ivan groaned, barely conscious himself.
“Sveta, work with me,” Lee Qiang tried to keep his voice even. He wasn’t shooting at the enemy, and that meant one less gun directing firepower against the foe, but he believed this was more important. If they could find a more favorable defense position, where they could regroup and treat the injured, it was more valuable than a few quick rounds.
“Danny, talk to me,” Lip said.
“I’m gonna punch through their lines and try to get behind them,” the drone driver reported.
“Five’s solid. Got another 300 rounds of ammo.”
“Get that cunting mortar silenced.”
Lee Qiang removed the bloody cotton from his nose. He was struggling to breathe, and it was making his judgment even more difficult, despite the pain in the back of his skull. If Five had survived the initial attack, maybe Magda 6 was drivable. “Marc, check Vehicle 6. See if it’s running.” The Frenchman bit off a curse, but then Lee Qiang saw him running in a crouch.
Something hit the already-burning second car, showering white sparks everywhere. The grass caught fire.
If they had to leave the cars behind, they would have to thermite those still not on fire, Lee Qiang realized and checked his vest. He had one grenade for the task. Every man should have one on his person. They would also need to grab as much gear, food, and medicines as they could. Some of the men were already risking the line of fire, removing ammo and rations from inside the remaining Magdalenas.
“Fuck!” Danny cursed.
“You all right, mate?”
“I’m fine. Almost got my head blown off.”
Lip was coming over, bent double, reloading casually. “Talk to me.”
Sveta was still looking at the map, around, map, around. She was ignoring the captain.
Lee Qiang said nothing, just waited. He knew she knew the odds. If she hesitated too long, someone would put a bullet in the back of her head, and this time, he would not be able to stop them.
“There’s an old Soviet bunker network, about 7-8 kilometers from here, due west.”
“We’ve got two, maybe three ZT-24s bearing our way,” Gustav said.
“Bunker network?” Lee Qiang spoke in the girl’s ear, trying to make himself heard over the deafening gunfire noise. He didn’t feel like shouting. His head hurt fiercely.
“Underground storage… and nuclear testing, I think,” Sveta said.
He didn’t like it. Sounded like the perfect trap. Even if there was no one in the tunnels, old military facilities were always considered haunted. Not by ghosts so much as by leftover mines, weird bacteria, wild animals, and crumbling support structures. No running water, no heating, no light, and only one way out.
But what choice did they have?
“Lip, your thoughts?”
The captain shook his head. He leveled his rifle against Sveta’s temple. “Find a better one.”
She actually grabbed the hot barrel in her hand and moved it away. “There isn’t anything else here.”
“Find it,” the captain said, and almost sounded desperate.
Lee Qiang rubbed his neck. The pain ebbed a little. Maybe his trauma wasn’t that serious. He looked at his GPS. It was still working reliably, and the enemy wasn’t jamming.
At this point, he had a difficult choice to make, and it wasn’t just about surviving this ambush. It was about the validity of the mission as a whole. Casualties were a price of war, but there was also the acceptable limit before you aborted and headed back, tail between your legs. He didn’t know how Lip felt. After all, he was just a mercenary.
They could try to break through the enemy lines and head back to Sector 7. About 750 kilometers on foot. Or they could head southwest, toward Sector 6, still a good 600 kilometers away. Or continue southeast, deeper into Sector 8 and closer to China. Closer to a semblance of civilization and massive enemy troops presence.
Fight or flee?
Bolek was dragging another wounded man behind Magda 8, which provided some cover from the zipping bullets. Nigel had come about, and was trying to press a chitosan-gel gauze over his own shoulder. Ivan was trying to help and failing.
A pre-mortar whistle. Lee Qiang, Lip, and Sveta ducked instinctively. The shell landed very close, showering them in dirt and pebbles.
Lee Qiang rolled over, brushing the debris from his neck and ears. Sveta was blinking rapidly and puffing. Lip was kneeling, his helmet blown off his head by the blast, grimacing, touching a finger to his left ear. It was gushing blood like a sheet of satin. A piece of shrapnel had sheared the top end with neat precision.
Sveta noticed and reached toward the captain’s vest. He grabbed her wrist with his the bloody hand. “Your first aid kit? Let me help.”
Lee Qiang looked toward Nigel again. The medic was gone. And so was Ivan. Whatever remained wasn’t human anymore.
Marc drove the limping Magda 6 close by, forming another shield around their little command center. The car was riddled with heavy caliber, most likely armor-piercing 12.7mm and 14.5mm, and there was smoke hissing from under the engine hood. The former legionnaire stepped out and got hit in the chest, falling down with a muffled and familiar curse on his lips.
Lee Qiang crawled over. The Frenchman was gritting his teeth, breathing in short pants, flailing like an overturned turtle. Lee Qiang couldn’t see any blood, but there was a tear in the vest, and a mushroom-like dent in the ceramic of the front plate underneath.
“My ribs, putain,” the lieutenant groaned.
“Take it easy. You’re fine.” He rejoined the captain and their prisoner. She was deftly binding the captain’s head, both of them lying low, blood turning the grass slick and shiny. “Sveta, look at Marc next. Do not try anything foolish. One and only warning.”
Lip wagged his finger. Lee Qiang leaned closer.
“Lick Young, what about the KOS?”
Sveta’s composure cracked, just a little. Lee Qiang pretended not to notice.
“Not for this.” Only Shishka. Besides, they were too close to the enemy.
Lip winced as Sveta rolled the gauze.
“Golden Horde, we consolidate and push back,” Lee Qiang announced on the comms. “Ollie, get the other bird up, no matter what. I want to know if they’re flanking.”
We cannot retreat. Seven or eight kilometers was an easy distance for well-trained men, even on foot over rugged terrain and loaded with kit. But under fire and bleeding, it was an impossible distance.
He crawled back up the gentle slope, toward the bubbling pond of burning tire and fuel from Magda 7. The acrid stench made his stomach roil. A torrent of bullets was flying through the gap in the convoy line, where the sixth vehicle had been. He could see the enemy now, hi-tech helmets with embedded situational awareness displays, anti-laser visors with ballistic glass, and even the breathing kits for extra endurance. These were the Chinese elite forces. Not random cannibals from Sector 8.
The East Alliance troops were focusing most of their effort to the right, toward the front of the convoy. Aiming through the shimmering flames, Lee Qiang fired. One of the soldiers fell down. Side shots were more difficult, because the target presented a narrower silhouette. But side armor was usually much thinner than frontal and back plate. If a bullet under the armpit, it usually went through.
A 40mm grenade air-burst over a knot of enemy troops, scattering them like bowling pins. They did not get up again. There was a moment of relief as the volume of death from the other side dropped for half a second.
Lee Qiang crawled to the tail end of the burning Magda. He scanned left. He saw Pablo rushing toward a large rock on the other side of the dirt road. He set his machine on it and fired an entire belt, aiming somewhere across the field.
Cem was still shooting, belching thunder. Good.
“No more ammo,” Danny said. “Coming back. Fuck, I’m gonna run them over.”
Five wasn’t a big thing, but it weighed almost two hundred kilos, and it could mangle a man if it rammed at high speed. The designers probably hadn’t imagined it as a battering weapon.
“Good man,” Lee Qiang said. He realized his nose was bleeding again, and his lips tasted hot salt. He aimed across Pablo’s line of fire, scanning for movement, a change in the wind-swept ocher-and-burnt steppe grass and thorn. Anything that moved got shot at, three carefully aimed rounds.
“Suka, fucking enemy is just on the other side of the cars!” Brezhnev roared.
Then something arced over to their side, an apple—no, a grenade—and the world went white, black, silent.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US DoD (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.