Lee Qiang came about to see a Chinese soldier bearing down on him. He instinctively reached for that which wasn’t there; his rifle was pinned under him, the strap torn off his harness. Without thinking, Lee Qiang pulled his pistol from his thigh holster and fired a dozen rounds into the man’s legs and groin. Whatever words or screams the East Alliance man may have uttered were lost in his sophisticated helmet-mask.
There was a whole bunch of enemy soldiers pressing toward the gap between the two Magdas. Pablo wasn’t shooting at them.
Pablo wasn’t there anymore—just his machine gun, propped against the rock.
Lee Qiang rolled a frag at the enemy and grabbed the dead Chinese as his cover. Shrapnel slammed into the man’s flesh and armor, making the limp body shiver. Lee Qiang pushed the corpse off, rose with the rifle pressed to his shoulder, swallowed the wave of nausea tickling his throat, and aimed. Two enemy men were still alive, one leaning lazily against the open trunk of Magda 6, pawing bloodily at Five’s unused weapons mount, the other pulling back, hunched, disoriented.
Lee Qiang shot the one standing just under the chin. The spray of gore was phenomenal. He then calmly aimed at the wounded one and fired a dozen rounds into the man’s back. He was done reloading before the man sagged to the ground.
And now, time to check my own injuries.
He patted himself for fresh blood, bone protrusions, mentally scanned his body for agony and fire. There was nothing. He must have passed out from overpressure or the noise. He didn’t feel like he was bleeding inside, but it was hard to tell in a state of shock. The body protects itself, pushes survival to the top of the list.
Nothing to be done about that now. If he was leaking under his skin, he was as good as dead.
Most people assumed special forces had extra-human skills. The truth was, special forces were better than ordinary troops in specific elements of combats. But what made them special wasn’t just the one-to-one prowess and skill. It was the ability to endure extremely difficult situations without breaking down for much longer-than-ordinary grunts. Panic, fear and fatigue killed more easily than bullets.
Stay calm, focus, destroy your opponent.
Despite severe losses, the Golden Horde was still a coherent, deadly body of men. They were fighting, trying to cover one another, keeping their flanks safe, pulling back so there would be no gaps where the enemy could sneak in, coming together so they could help the wounded and communicate more easily.
Surrender was not an option. No one had any illusions.
In the best case, they would be tortured for information before being killed.
Dying in combat was a much better, much simpler option.
“Team leaders, report status.” He trotted back to their small L-shaped shelter formed by the armored hulls of their two functional Magdas.
The replies were not encouraging. More than half the men were incapacitated or dead. And the enemy armor was coming closer every minute.
“Gustav, what about the ZTs?”
“About seven kilometers.”
Cem joined them, keeping invisible until only a short distance away, a wizard in a ghillie suit. He looked unhurt. Without a word, he reached into the back of an SUV, grabbed a handful of clips for his sniper, and slinked away. Fearless, quiet, focused on his task.
Bolek was hanging a plasma bag from a door handle. He was still working on Andrzej. The man’s head was lolling rhythmically, left right. The medic coughed, then looked at his palm. No blood, luckily.
“Those Soviet tunnels sound appealing all of a sudden?” Lee Qiang said, looking at Lip. The man’s head was bandaged, a red spot blooming on the left side.
“No, but we have no fucking choice,” the captain growled.
Sveta was watching him carefully. She was smeared in blood, but it didn’t look like it belonged to her.
There was another whistle, and they all ducked at the same time. The mortar landed on the other side of Magda 8. The SUV saved them, taking the brunt of the detonation and shrapnel.
“Damn!” Gustav hissed. He was sitting inside the vehicle, and the windows blast-side were peppered with cobweb hits, but he seemed okay. “The radar’s offline.”
They had just lost contact with the enemy tank column. No airborne assets either.
“Danny, talk to me,” Lee Qiang said, his mouth full of dirt. He realized he was thirsty. He tried to sip water and only sucked air; there must be a bullet hole in his harness.
“Five’s beaten up pretty bad.” He chuckled. “Got someone’s face stuck to one of the wheels—it’s flapping red onto the camera lens with every turn—and I’m down to the last handful of rounds. But it can still drive.”
“Not there yet.”
“Change of plan. Get back here.”
Lip did not object. They could stay and die—or brave the Soviet-era bunkers.
“Danny, where are you?” Le Qiang asked, aiming to the left. The muzzle swayed wildly.
“About a hundred meters from you guys, back.”
Danny rushed over, his mobile RC kitbag making his moves ungainly.
Lee Qiang looked at the drone operator. “I need you to stay and delay. We are going to attempt a retreat to… here.”
“And we need to stop those tanks,” Lip added.
“I’ll do it,” Juraj said on the global comms. “Got four missiles left; should be enough.”
The gunfire wasn’t as intense as before, but it was still pretty heavy. Maybe the enemy had pulled back and was waiting for the reinforcements.
“You stay online and we’ll figure out how to get you guys back.”
Danny shrugged, focusing on driving the drone back to their position. “Five’s got juice for perhaps another two hours. After that, it’s scrap.”
“You keep one Magda; try to lug back. We take the other, load the wounded and head toward the bunker complex. The rest follow on foot, two lines, staggered action.”
“Cem, you cover our asses.”
“Mamuka, Olaf, rig the area,” Lip added.
The two mercs took a few moments to kit up with explosives, then moved up toward the burning wrecks. They would load the dead friendlies into the cars, thermite whatever wasn’t in flames already, and then plant several mines around the vehicles and in the grassy field. Nothing delayed enemy action like a well-placed sniper—or explosives. The East Alliance troops would waste precious time while the Golden Horde retreated.
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
Magda 8, despite an almost direct mortar hit, seemed to be in the best shape, so it was designated as the medevac vehicle. Bolek and Vitaly began loading the injured. Marc refused, even though he had trouble sitting.
Then something hit Vitaly with a meaty clap, and he dropped like a sack of grains.
Bolek knelt by the other medic, and after a few tense seconds, just shook his head.
Five whirred by, a compact 6×6 ground platform covered in gore and scratches. It was a gruesome if pleasing sight. The machine gun was smoking, a section of the barrel glowing dull, deep red. Danny was already replacing the ammo boxes. There was no time to set up any other weapons onto the drone.
The staccato of supersonic cracks intensified. The enemy was making another push, again on the right flank. Maybe they didn’t have a good picture of the battlefield either, because the left side was all exposed. Lee Qiang didn’t argue.
“We’re going,” Gustav announced once Bolek gave it a green light.
“See you there, or see you in hell,” Lip said.
The Magda drove away at a slow but steady speed. Mercifully, no ATGM flew their way.
The remaining men checked in on the comms. Mamuka and Olaf finished rigging up the remaining gear. The convoy line had been booby-trapped. Juraj had found a depression in the ground almost two hundred meters farther back, and was setting up. Cem was… Where was Cem? The sniper had also positioned himself behind the friendlies, so he could give the AT specialist the safety he needed. Magda 6 sat almost halfway in between them, like an anchor.
“Team A, half a click, west,” Lip said, moving off at a crouch.
“Shishka time,” Juraj said and fired the first missile. There was a loud whoosh, and the tandem-warhead sped away, invisible except for the tiny silver glow of its motor. They heard the thud of the explosion almost fifteen seconds later, but they couldn’t see where it had hit.
Lee Qiang glanced at Marc. The legionnaire was wiping his mouth; he had just vomited. “You okay?”
“Good.” He looked at Sveta. Now, what? Cuff her? Tether her to him like a disobedient child? Let her run alongside and maybe get lost? What if she got hit by a stray bullet?
He felt a strange obligation toward her. Maybe it was his sanity trying to reassert itself. In this madness, it was the only thing human—and humane—he could still do. Keep her alive, because she was a prisoner, and she had rights. The rest of the Golden Horde were too busy to argue, but if they somehow survived this, they would come back to it.
Deep down, he also knew that without her help, they stood no chance in hostile, unknown territory.
“Put on a vest and a helmet,” he told her.
She did not turn squeamish when she ripped the body armor from Vitaly’s corpse and donned it.
Lip’s group was lying low in the ocher grass, invisible from the distance.
“Team B, your turn.”
Five opened fire, Cem’s thunder rifle belched, and then their small knot was trotting. In Lee Qiang’s mind, the pace of his small, bloodied group felt awfully slow. His ankles wobbled. The ground felt hard, harsh, and unforgiving, and he could feel the sharp stones under his feet. He was struggling to breathe. The world pulsed with the blood in his temples, turning gray and dark then brightening up. He was looking around, trying to see the rest of the men, and each time, he almost lost balance.
Sveta was at his side, keeping up. She had a large medibag strapped over her narrow shoulders and two smaller bags in her hands.
Marc was struggling, but he would not admit it. He fell once, cursed, and was back up, limping after them. The air sang with bullets. No mortars. Blessedly, no more mortars.
“Doing good here,” Danny reassured them.
“Two hits,” Juraj said. “The enemy platoon has stopped.”
Cem wasn’t saying anything, probably timing his breathing. But Lee Qiang was the least worried about the sniper. It was his job to operate deep behind enemy lines. This was what men like him lived for.
They reached Lip’s team, and Lee Qiang found himself on his knees. The initial rocket explosion had messed him up. He would need Bolek to check him. And examine Marc, too; the man might have a collapsed lung from the energy transfer.
“Team A, off we go.” Lip was dashing off again, a wiry, resilient, touch motherfucker, despite his age. Whatever conniving, war profiteering, and crime he had done in his career, it was all hidden behind a facade of pure professionalism. The man was focused on being the legendary mercenary that he was. Lee Qiang had no doubt the old scheming bastard would re-surface, but not now. Not when the odds were against him.
The beauty about statistics-obsessed criminals was that they were sometimes rather predictable.
And you? Are you predictable? he asked himself. He looked at Sveta.
The scene of the ambush was now a curtain of dark smoke. You couldn’t see the dead bodies anymore, or the well-hidden mercs. The combat was now just a choreography of flames and bullet pops.
A line of white smoke dropped from the sky, landing somewhere to the east. Then another. The enemy was laying down a smoke screen, trying to blind Juraj so their remaining tanks could continue their advance. Then there was a loud bang. It sounded like a frag.
“Our turn,” Lee Qiang said when Lip okayed their half-a-click leg. Thirteen or fourteen more hops like this, and they would reach the bunkers. If they found them. If they were empty. Or safe to use.
If Sveta hadn’t lied to them.
The possibilities for an inglorious end to Operation Putain were endless.
Somehow, he felt she wasn’t lying.
They trotted again, running over a flat and treacherous ground, legs sinking into holes obscured by the parched grass, thorns cutting through their trousers and scratching their legs. The air was too hot, too dry, and Lee Qiang could feel blood on the back of his throat like resin trickling down a tree bark. They panted, sweated, moved painfully slowly. 10K or even 20K morning runs were easy. Five hundred meters under full gear, stress, and blast pressure damage were a bit more challenging.
“We are at the designated coordinates,” Gustav spoke. “It’s just endless steppe. What am I looking for?”
Lee Qiang stopped, went into a crouch, catching his breath. He ignored the furious waving from Lip. Sveta was also winded, but impressively little for someone who claimed to be a milcom engineer. Maybe not so much for a forward intel operative.
“Look for air vents. They’ll look like large boxes, or something like tree stumps,” she said.
Gustav didn’t reply for a while. They resumed their trot. Sveta moved with just a bit of stiffness. Lee Qiang knew she understood what would happen if her words proved false.
“Got it. There’s a bunch of these at even intervals. There’s a depression here… looks like an entrance to some shithole.”
“Wait; do not enter.” Lee Qiang looked back toward the burning cars. “Team A, got any artillery there?”
“A 51mm hand-held,” Olaf answered. “Will lob some at the enemy.”
“Good man. Watch where our guys are. Do not shoot less than 100 meters from their position. Danny, Cem, Juraj, got it?”
“Understood. Gonna put my helmet on,” the sniper said with a serious tone. Maybe he was being serious.
It was an eerie feeling running with friendly mortar zooming above your head. The 51-mil didn’t pack too much explosives, but it was still a dangerous close-support weapon. Olaf fired the eight rounds he had in quick succession, just as Team B reached the first kilometer mark.
“Here we go again,” Lip said, and his element was running into the distance.
“Five is done,” Danny announced a couple of minutes later. “The fucking barrel melted.”
There was a rumble. Imperceptible at first, then getting louder, more pronounced. It was the sound of a large turbo-diesel, moving 50 tons of composites and steel over flat ground. The armor was coming closer.
Something fired. It was probably a 135mm smoothbore. The explosion was a distant thud. Something whined. It was probably a missile, ejected from a sealed canister on Juraj’s shoulder. The sound that followed was like a sledgehammer hitting an anvil.
They were running again. Behind them, white and black smoke mingled, dissipating in a thousand crooked arms. There was a tank there, turning toward the burning convoy, purring hesitantly as the driver slowly approached what was for them the enemy position. The big cannon belched, and Magda 6 turned into a slag.
“Shishka time,” Juraj said and fired his last round. It was a close-range hit. But the heavy ZT-24 still traversed its turret and fired back. Juraj did not respond again on the comms.
“Putain,” Marc said. They all felt the same helplessness.
“Cem, Danny?” Lee Qiang wheezed. He stopped running again. If the tank saw them, they were dead. There was nothing but flat ground for the next six kilometers.
“Lick, use the KOS.”
Lee Qiang shook his head, even though he knew the captain couldn’t see it. “No.” It does not work like that. I need 10 calm minutes to connect and program the target coordinates. Then the satellite, depending on where it is, needs anywhere up to 37 minutes to align and fire. Another two to eight minutes for the payload to arrive. And then it’s going to be a minimum of 37 tons TNT equivalent when the payload strikes.
“Then we’re fucking dead,” Lip said, rancor tainting his voice.
The tank was coughing black smoke. More than just the engine revving up. It was gushing through the barrel. Maybe the ATGM had penetrated and hit the ammo magazine. Lee Qiang raised his binoculars. The crew was jumping—
The turret detached in a massive, brilliant flash, followed by a secondary explosion.
Or maybe we’re not fucking dead.
The distant sound of assault rifles and machine guns died. The smoke dissipated, but no other tanks showed up. Juraj must have disabled the other vehicles. Something exploded, and it was probably one of the APERS mines the mercs had left behind. Good.
Half a click after half a click, their two ragged teams ran, walked, and dragged themselves closer to the old bunkers and away from certain death. The more time passed, the more they felt like they may have escaped the foe. For now.
“Where are you guys?” Cem asked on the comms, breaking the silence.
“A kilometer from the objective, due east. Danny?” Lee Qiang asked.
“I don’t know.”
They reached the bunkers as the sun was setting. It was easy to miss the entrance. There wasn’t a road that led there, and only 100 meters away, you wouldn’t notice the depression and the natural ramp that led down toward it.
The concrete was crumbling, cracked by winter ice, pocked with rain, and eaten by fungus. There was no door. Only a black void leading underground. It raised a thousand wild stories in Lee Qiang’s mind, none of them pleasant.
Gustav had set a defensive perimeter as best as he could, manning a machine gun, aiming over the plains. Coming through the tall grass was Cem, no longer hiding. The sniper reached their position, and without losing a stride, jumped onto the roof of Magda 8 and settled in the nest of broken equipment like some happy wild cat that had found its perfect cardboard box.
Bolek was busy with the wounded laid down on the sloping ground. One half of Team A was unloading the SUV, the rest digging in. Team B staggered past them and spent a few minutes just resting, gathering their breath—and resolve.
Lee Qiang accepted the water and a protein bar from Mamuka with a quick nod of thanks.
Lip gave him a hard stare but said nothing.
Marc was watching the darkness almost with defiance. “Putain,” he said at length, his breathing strained.
Lee Qiang stood up, dizzy. He approached the captain. “What’s inside?”
Lip just shook his head. “We will soon find out.”
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Army (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.