They needed rest.
But they couldn’t rest. Not yet.
Lip had probably recited these numbers a dozen times to “rookie” teams over the years—a lack of sleep was a powerful enemy. A full day without sleep rendered you 15% less efficient. Two days, it was 70%. Three days, you had one in three chance of injuring yourself with your own weapon. The longer you went without rest the more dangerous it became. They were all hurt, exhausted, and have not drank or eaten enough. That made the math even more unfavorable.
And then there were the wounded.
On average, ninety years of combat medicine statistics speaking volumes. For every serious case, you needed 2.3 healthy people to supervise and take care of the injuries. In their current state, the Golden Horde were a big handful of healthy soldiers short.
The night had fallen and the stars blazed above, thousands of them, crystal clear in the open field with no artificial lighting or pollution.
Everyone was busy. Without vehicles, they would have to carry gear in their backpacks, 30-40 kilos each. That made for cumbersome movement and slow progress. The surviving members of the Golden Horde sat around the depression facing the bunker entrance, carefully rearranging the items in their LBHs and carryalls. Taking out stuff they might not need. It was a tough gamble. Special forces always packed smartly, planning carefully what they might require. There wasn’t much to throw away.
But the bare minimum called for food, ammo, and medical supplies. Thermal clothing and space blankets. Water purification kits, a Geiger counter and—the most difficult of all—valuable barter. No one wanted to carry cigarettes or alcohol. Gold was too heavy. But they needed something for the long road ahead.
The busiest of all was Bolek, their one surviving medic. He was going around, checking up on everyone, trying to figure out how much they could ignore the light injuries and trauma. It wasn’t easy.
Everyone had taken a solid beating in the ambush. Well, apparently, except Sveta and him.
Now, that’s fucking convenient, isn’t it?
A small group of men was facing out, watching for any movement. The enemy had not continued pursuit. Yet. The fact they had tanks meant they would be back soon. Even if the ambush company had been decimated, someone would come around to check why.
With their IR-absorbent camo, the Chinese would be very difficult to spot, especially at night.
Lee Qiang sat on the ground, gently massaging his neck, probing for contusions or swelling. Nothing. The pain in his skull was receding and his hearing was almost completely normal. He had escaped without even a tiny scratch.
He went back to stripper-clipping bullets into empty magazines.
Bolek came over, holding a small pen flashlight in his hand. He wore latex gloves smeared in blood. “Look here,” he said. “Close your left eye. Right. Follow the light.” He sighed. “You are good.”
“And the rest?” Lee Qiang asked, loading the clips into the wall pouches of his backpack.
“Not so good. Marc has a broken rib, and I’m afraid it may have grazed his lung. He could end up with a clot. Andrzej is not stable. His blood pressure is dropping, and it might be abdominal bleeding. Brezhnev got a bullet through his forearm, but there’s no fracture. Tony has been shot twice in the right leg, no artery damage, and once through the right shoulder…”
The medic continued, reading from his mental list.
Lip walked over and sat down. “Give us a minute, doc.”
Bolek moved off and continued his checkup round.
“You noticed Sveta’s reaction when you mentioned the KOS?”
Lee Qiang rubbed his chin. “Yes.”
“She definitely isn’t just a radio monkey,” the captain said.
“No, she’s not.”
“I don’t trust her,” Lip added, his voice low and dangerous.
“Neither do I. But she knows the game. If she betrays us, she dies. She will do her best to help us.” Until the first moment she sees a chance to escape alive. Lee Qiang had no illusions. But for the time being, she had bought them a brief respite from death.
“So what’s the plan, Lick Young?”
That was a difficult one.
Abort the mission—or continue?
“What do the statistics say about this, captain?”
Lip snorted. “Forty percent dead, another 57.5 percent wounded, including three men who might not live to see the dawn. That’s a pretty bad one. Don’t recall reading any literature on similar fuckups.”
“We should head back,” Lee Qiang said.
“So Shishka wins?” Lip said with a sneer that wasn’t too convincing.
“We go back, we heal, we regroup, we head out again.”
Lip squinted, as if the weak lighting of their improvised camp was making him see things that weren’t there. “You are less of a ball licker than I thought. But it’s still quite remarkable how you managed to get out of the fight without even a wee scratch on your pretty mongrel face. Or your friend’s.”
Lee Qiang was suddenly aware of the weight of his pistol in his thigh holster. “It would take a superpower to fuck up the statistics that well in my favor, don’t you think?”
The captain shrugged, feigning innocence. “All I’m saying, the Golden Horde pride themselves on being a family. Today, you showed remarkable care for an enemy, and when you had the chance to use that satellite, you decided not to. Twice.”
“KOS-1 is a strategic weapon. I’m not wasting it on small arms combat.”
“We lost almost half our unit today,” the captain growled, no longer casually innocent or amused.
“Most of them in the initial attack. What we need is better armor and active ATGM countermeasures. Not an orbital weapon that takes an hour to deploy.”
Lip was silent for a while. Then he deflated. “Next time.”
Lee Qiang nodded. “Next time.” If there is a next time.
There was a flicker of light inside the bunker entrance. Olaf and Cliff were returning from their inspection tour. The men switched their torches off as they stepped out.
“Overall, the tunnel network is stable,” Cliff spoke. He was a quiet operative, an engineer by profession. “There are some cracked walls, but there does not seem to be any imminent danger of collapse. Elevated radiation, probably due to radon gas. Ventilation is pretty good, and the air chimneys don’t seem to be blocked. No wild animals. No people or corpses. So far.”
Lip got up. “How far do the tunnels go?” he asked, approaching Sveta.
Sveta tried to look small. “I’m not sure. The Soviets had an underground supply line from Aralsk to Begimbet. This could be part of the wider network, so it might be linked. I don’t know.”
She is stalling.
Lee Qiang also stood up, feeling protective all over again. His head lurched in protest, but then he did not walk over. He had roused enough suspicion as it was. He did not need to antagonize angry, wounded men any further.
He stepped over to the bunker entrance. The air inside had a cooler, wetter feel. He could see the little white LEDs on the ground where the two operatives had placed them. White for go, red for stop. It would also help them backtrack if they needed to.
Ancient, faded Cyrillic writing on the pocked, rust-weeping concrete had long lost form or meaning. There were sharp edges of iron reinforcements protruding from the walls. Hooks where electricity lines or lamps would be placed on the ceiling. Snapped-off guard rails. Placements for blast doors and machine guns. Obscured by almost seventy years of neglect.
They could go in and disappear. But what then? Would the enemy follow? What if they got lost inside the tunnels? What if they stumbled on an active, maintained section, and had to fight their way in the cold dark? What if the Soviets and the Kazakhs had used the tunnels to dump radioactive fuel waste inside?
But if they stayed in the open, with a single semi-functioning car and so many wounded, they could cover maybe 10-15 kilometers a day in the best way. They stood no chance until they reached the wooded areas of central Russia.
“Magda is in bad shape,” Gustav said, adding bad luck to their predicament. “Shrapnel’s gone through the engine sump and the gearbox. It will probably run another 200 kilometers before the oil all leaks out and everything grinds to a halt.”
And we need it for the wounded, Lee Qiang thought. Gustav was giving him a hostile look.
Normally, it wouldn’t bother Lee Qiang. But they were in survival mode now. Slowly, the instincts would displace logic and discipline. A cornered animal only had one option. Even special forces had their limits.
“We are aborting the mission. Heading back.”
No one commented. They all knew how badly they had been hit, and that going forward would be pointless. It wasn’t about duty, money, or anything like that. Pure and simple survival odds.
Now the part they will like even less.
“We should split the team,” Lee Qiang added.
“Why?” Brezhnev called, stacking cans of meat and protein bars into his carryall.
Lip was just waiting for the answer. They had not discussed this at all, but despite having his ear mangled, the captain still maintained his cool. He was sporting his annoying poker face.
“Gustav and Bolek, you get the wounded and drive southwest. Link up with the friendlies when you can. The rest of us will go into the tunnel and strike west to Sector 7.” It would force the enemy to follow two trails rather than one, and give the injured some chance to survive this mission. Lee Qiang felt better knowing they would extract over the familiar territory of trans-Ural Russia. He already had some understanding of the terrain and the dangers they would face.
Brezhnev did not respond.
“Agreed,” Lip said.
Lee Qiang hid his surprise. He had expected the captain to disagree. Massaging his neck, he looked up at the sky. He saw a shooting star. Then another. And another. It looked a comet trail. Then, a longer-lasting streak that flared and then ebbed in intensity.
An ICBM that got shot down?
Almost simultaneously, there was a pop followed by a hiss to the northwest, and the night sky turned brilliant white from an illum mortar, slowly descending on a parachute. A second flare went up several kilometers farther south.
The enemy was back in action, and it did not intend to let the night hours go to waste.
“Putain,” Marc said.
No rest. The mortars were still a few kilometers away, but it didn’t bode well. They couldn’t set up their usual night cover. They radiated heat and would paint a lovely target on a drone’s camera. And that drone would transmit their coordinates to an artillery battery, and they would be maggot food without knowing it.
“Time to go,” the captain added. He glanced toward the tunnels. He looked at Sveta. He looked at Lee Qiang. His expression said: If you’re not going to, then I will.
“Sveta,” Lee Qiang said, kneeling at the girl’s side. His weapon was resting casually against his knee. “The tunnels. Is there an exit on the other side?”
“Yes,” she said after a while. “Yes. Several exits. Farthest out about seventy kilometers.”
Even as a prisoner, she is still fighting us. “Are you sure?” he warned her.
“The tunnel forks should be marked sequentially. Odd numbers left turns, southward, even numbers for right turns, north. Letters for storage facilities. We need ‘Tunnel 16223.’”
“And what about the pursuit? Will they follow?”
“Not too many people know about the bunkers and the tunnels.”
Lots of useful information for a radio monkey, indeed. He knew she wasn’t happy, but it kept her and them alive. He helped her up. “Let’s go then. Grab your gear.”
The men had lowered the back bench in the SUV and were placing stretchers inside, trying to secure them with zip cables against the vehicle’s frame. Cliff was helping remove the damaged roof structure. It would just add unnecessary weight. In its place, he stretched a thermal screen to reduce the vehicle’s signature as much as possible. Bolek was attaching IV lines to the ceiling hooks inside. It was going to be a very improvised ambulance. The wounded men went in next.
Five men and two caretakers.
Marc refused to leave with the injured. “Putain,” he said, shaking his head.
They were down to nine men and a woman—an enemy.
The Magda came to life with a metallic screech from an engine low on lubricants. The estimated range was probably too optimistic. But it was the best they could do at the moment. No one needed a reminder what it all meant. Getting captured was not an option.
Gustav slowly drove the vehicle out of the depression and into the field. The SUV suddenly looked big, exposed. He couldn’t drive too fast, but soon enough, the engine noise faded away.
“Ladies first,” Lip said, pointing toward the bunker. But he wasn’t looking at Sveta.
Lee Qiang felt a flare of anger. He instantly knew it was misplaced. Fatigue was setting in, making him jumpy. He tried to ignore it, even though he knew he would not like the consequences of over-exhaustion later on.
“We stay together, all of us,” Lee Qiang said. “One group, within visual contact. We don’t know if radio will work underground. If anyone feels unwell, they inform the person in front of them. We rotate leads every fifteen minutes. We will discuss sleep and rest in four hours.”
Another illum went up, even farther south.
The enemy did not seem to be flying drones. That was refreshingly disturbing.
The mercs were laying down mines again. There was no point lugging them along and they would slow down the pursuit for a while.
“This smells like a big fucking trap,” Lip whispered, standing at his side.
Lee Qiang could smell the man, sweat, dirt, crusted blood. “We have no choice.”
“It’s not the first trap I’ve walked into,” the captain said. “But I don’t know the odds.”
“She doesn’t want to die either. I would reckon our chances are better inside than out here.”
“It will have to do.”
Lee Qiang powered on his GPS to make sure he accurately marked their starting point. He frowned. There was no signal from the satellite. He switched to the backup channel, then to the civilian frequency, and then to the old and defunct GLONASS. Nothing.
“Lip, check your nav.”
“The cunt gives me no signal,” the captain replied after a short pause. “Marc, Lonya, what’s our position?”
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. The fiery fragments in the upper atmosphere were probably satellite debris. Someone had shot down a dozen satellites. Shishka was getting really angry. “We will switch to old starnav.” And that’s why the East Alliance has no drones in the air right now.
Maybe it wasn’t their side who had destroyed the GPS coverage over central Asia. But then, it was impossible to know with Shishka.
“This is getting fucking worse by the minute,” Lip growled.
“Here we come,” Eddie said, clipping his combo flashlight to the side of the front grip, and recalibrating the gunsight on his rifle.
“Cut the shit,” Ollie said. His eyes were bloodshot and his cheeks dappled with burst capillaries from overpressure.
Olaf took the lead, having scouted the first section of the bunker. Lee Qiang went second, with Sveta in tow. He had tied a fishing line to her waist. It felt petty, but it reassured him. One by one, the men walked or hobbled into the tunnel, ducking instinctively even though the ceiling was relatively high. The cooler feel of the air made them lose sense of where they were. The darkness erased time.
As agreed, they progressed slowly but steadily, Olaf calling out his steps and moves, announcing tunnel junctions when they happened, describing features when he saw them. So far, the tunnel only branched into storage rooms of some kind. Everything look old and disused, but it didn’t feel decrepit. They used ordinary flashlights because night aids were useless in the tunnels. Soon enough, they passed the last mark from the previous entry.
Someone coughed. It sounded like Marc. Olaf dropped a fresh LED on the ground. Bringing up the rear, Cliff was marking the passage with an IR pen, just in case. They all had a variety of little beacons on their body so they could identify and find one another if they somehow got separated. In the faceless darkness, the reflective strips of clothing and tiny radio chips felt meaningless.
There was a knob of mad curiosity in Lee Qiang’s head pulsing amidst dull pain and sensory deprivation. He wanted to witness more of this huge complex, to read into the minds of the Soviet military, to figure out what kind of plans and fears they used to have back in the Cold War era. But he also knew that there was no time for this.
Soon enough, they rotated. Lee Qiang found himself at the back of the column. He had Sveta in front of him. Every time, the nylon leash tugged, there was a burst of monetary panic in his gut. He wasn’t claustrophobic; he had even trained for deep sea diving and submarine operations, but these old catacombs made him uncomfortable.
Another rotation, and he had the captain behind him. He could feel the judgment boring into his back. And questions. And doubt.
They shuffled on.
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.