Light at the end of the tunnel.
A promise of salvation. Or a gruesome, violent death.
It was amazing how quickly the human body and mind could adjust to new situations. Going into the damp darkness of the mold-smelling bunker network had felt like exploring one’s own coffin. After four days of tense, numbing blackness, there was almost a peaceful sense to the underground passage. Lee Qiang knew it was his brain trying not to go mad.
Sveta had revealed there were seven known exit points to the network, some linking to disused roads and railway stations, others leading into the flat countryside. This meant the enemy would need to make a guess or try to cover all seven of them. If they had any knowledge of the infrastructure to begin with. Lee Qiang believed Sveta when she’d said there were few people in the Alliance who knew of the bunkers and the tunnels.
Still, he could not shake off the feeling of unease as they approached daylight. They had no sensors; they couldn’t know what waited out there. It could be just empty fields. Or an army, arrayed in a half-circle, waiting to unleash all manner of death against them.
With some luck, they would end up close to the A-36 road and then follow it toward Orenburg. After that, it would be a matter of survival and subterfuge getting back to friendly territory. Scavenge food, steal a vehicle or two, the usual deal of “Behind Enemy Lines 101”.
But getting out of a tunnel wide enough for two adults—without any armor or load-bearing harnesses—was a tricky start to that deal. No matter how skilled they were, all their combat experience became nothing inside that narrow, pocked concrete frame. Even the finest spec op was just a beautiful target for any shooter out there.
They sat in some sort of a loading area about fifty meters from the exit, resting before the dash. Food, water, relieving themselves. There used to be some ultra-narrow gauge rails running here, but the metal and the supports had long been taken away, probably sold as scrap or melted. What remained behind were lines with less mold and rust than the rest of the bunker’s floor.
There were 70 kilometers of similar leftovers in the tunnel east of their position. They had gone past rooms that had probably stored ammunition or machinery. Stared up air vents full of bird shit and tumbleweed. Explored the shorter, narrower tunnels before marking them with red LEDs.
The Soviets had built this thing to last, possibly as a weapons facility cum nuclear attack shelter. There used to be power and heat generators, but they too had long disappeared. In a few places, some of the wooden beams still leaked oil. Electricity cables and light fixtures were gone. Even the sewer holes had been cemented over. All that remained were rust- and piss-eaten tin walls that no one had bothered removing.
And then there were the barrels. Plastic drums, waist high, with metal bands. A few of them had their tops loose, and what was inside looked like isolation wool and leaves of bent lead. The Geiger counter chirped more loudly when they came nearby. It was nothing alarming or deadly, but it told them exactly what was inside. No wonder the barrels had been left untouched.
Lee Qiang tried to imagine what this facility had looked like alive. He failed. His brain didn’t paint images that well in the darkness.
Their small group huddled close, considering their options. Sveta sat outside their cycle, her face passive. Lee Qiang did not doubt for a second that she was listening, absorbing the information, learning all she could.
Like the entry point 70 kilometers away, the tunnel ended in a bunker formation. Only, on this side, the bunker rooms were all bricked up. They couldn’t get into the machine gun nests to check on the area.
“We could fire a 40 mil set to air burst. That might clear the nearby radius. Or we go for smoke and flash to blind them,” Mamuka was saying.
“Only if they are within 15-20 meters from the entrance. Any farther, it won’t be effective,” Brezhnev argued, eating pickled cabbage from a can.
“Ollie, you got the snake cam?” Lip asked.
The drone operator nodded. “Yes. Always.”
“What’s the longest you can reach?”
“About ten meters.”
“We could do that,” the captain continued. “Periscope the snake, get a three-sixty, figure out what next.”
“Cem, you got a spare camo? Give it to Ollie so he doesn’t reflect heat.”
“Sure.” The sniper reached into his bag.
Lee Qiang had a paper on the floor, with the hypothetical layout of the exit drawn. He sketched a few red lines on it. “If it’s clear, we charge. Left first, then right, staggered formation, five seconds, then drop down and cover a ninety-degree arc. Overlapping.”
“If it’s hot,” Lip added. “We charge nevertheless. But we use mini-frags to clear the ground as best as we can. How many anti-tank rockets do we have?”
“Four,” Cliff said.
“All right. That’s it; we’re ready,” the captain said.
Everyone did their last weapons checks. They all loaded tungsten-tipped armor-piercing rounds. They didn’t normally use them because they had a less optimal ballistic profile against human flesh than ordinary munition, but if there were Chinese special forces out there, they wanted to be able to punch through sophisticated laminate armor.
Would she dare try to escape now?
“You step ahead of me, you run five meters and then drop down. You do not move until I tell you. Do you understand?” Lee Qiang said in a low voice.
Someone snorted. There already was a joke going about that she had wanked him off in the tunnels. A semi-healthy type of teasing for now. Nothing sinister or malicious. Yet.
“Marc, you all right?” Lee Qiang asked, trying to defuse some of the attention he and the prisoner were getting.
“Putain, stop asking,” the Frenchman replied, irritated. But no one could ignore the wheezing, especially when he slept. He was taking antibiotics and doing regular breathing exercises, but the symptoms were not abating.
Go, Lip mouthed.
Ollie crawled up to the entrance, covered in a camo suit, staying well in the shadows. He extended the little camera, an optic cable inside a sturdy, hardened plastic coating. He coaxed and twisted his end, and the snake rose above the grass and thorns. They could all see the camera view on their monitors.
The field was empty. No people out there.
It was hard to know how far the quiet desolation ran. With the camera only about 50 centimeters from the ground, it didn’t see too far. There could be a tank parked half a click from the bunker entrance. But not having anyone lurking nearby was a good start.
Ollie folded the camera. The men lined up. They rushed.
Sveta did as he’d told her. Lee Qiang keep his head down, shielding his eyes from the sudden glare of light. It was overcast, drizzling softly, but it felt like brilliant sunshine. The men staggered out, going down on padded knees, scanning, aiming, ready to unleash fire. Eddie and Olaf had the rockets ready. A few slow, tense seconds passed as their bodies anticipated the impact of supersonic bullets. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation. During a special voluntary phase of advanced training, Lee Qiang had been shot in the chest and the back with 9mm ammo so he would know what it felt like. Wearing a double Kevlar vest helped him not die and remember the lessons, but a lot of men still ended with bruises and cracked ribs, usually earning a week off which they spent sleeping and whoring rather than drilling from dawn to midnight. Radical training with radical results.
Outside, there was no need for violence.
It was quiet.
They expanded their circle another 10 meters, but stopped there so they would not be stretched too thin.
Ollie spring-launched a Galileo—a small full-circle camera with a corkscrew mechanism—into the air, and it took about half a minute coming down from the top height of about 25 meters. The camera view wobbled, but they still managed to see the surrounding terrain well.
The terrain was not as flat here as it was on their way to Baikonur. There were small hills and ridges breaking the horizon line. Not too many trees. No settlements. No enemy presence. Lee Qiang checked the positioning system. It was offline. He wondered how Bolek and Gustav were faring. But they had agreed to maintain absolute silence, so there would be no answer to that mystery for now.
They started heading north in a single file, about 10 meters apart, with Sveta closely in tow behind him. The first man had a portable metal detector strapped to his shin. It had limited range, and it wouldn’t detect everything, but it might warn them if they were about to step into a mine field. They didn’t know their exact position, and wouldn’t know until a clear-sky nightfall, but the highway was there, and hopefully a cluster of small villages they could raid on their way back toward Orenburg.
That was the plan.
“Tell me about Shishka,” Lee Qiang said after an hour of silence.
“What do you want to know?” Sveta said.
“What’s he like?” He could not see her face, her reactions. All he had was the sound of her voice.
“I’ve never seen or met him. But there are many rumors.”
“Do you think he’s chasing us? Did he organize that ambush?”
She was silent for a moment. “No.”
“How do you know?”
“We’d be all dead already.”
“So what makes Shishka such a great leader?” he asked.
“Well, yes. The rumors.”
“He plans everything. A thousand things, all at the same time.”
Lee Qiang tried to imagine the mind that ran this madness. “It isn’t such a great kingdom.”
Sveta chuckled. “If you think his goal is to have this wasteland for a kingdom, it isn’t.”
“What is it, then?”
“Who knows what Shishka really wants.”
“So he’s a man who makes no mistakes, then?”
Silence again. “He does. But he always makes it through. You cannot plan everything.”
Half the team dead, another quarter injured. “No, you cannot.” However, what you do once things go sour makes all the difference.
They walked north.
“What did you do before the war?” Sveta asked him after some time.
Lee Qiang smiled to himself. “I was too young to remember.”
The yellow grass gave way to some kind of yellow stone and lake-like sediments of minerals. It felt like walking on the surface of an alien planet. Harsh, unforgiving and eerily quiet.
Their first night out was difficult. Cold, with a strong wind that did its best to try to defeat the latest in thermoinsulation technology. The stars overhead told them they were about 13 kilometers west of Lake Shalkar, but whether the town still existed was an unknown. In the morning, they would continue due north toward the road. It would be the most convenient landmark and offer the greatest chance of finding transportation.
Sitting under the clear sky left Lee Qiang feeling exposed, his mind tuned to the wonders and advantages of stealth fabrics. The only consolation he had was that the enemy was less likely to fly drones with the navigation satellites knocked out. But that would not stop long-range cameras from zooming in on them.
The enemy had not followed up their chance to destroy the Golden Horde from four days back. Either they had given up or been directed elsewhere. Not knowing made Lee Qiang nervous. He pushed it down and focused on the journey ahead.
Lee Qiang sat to the side, trying to wipe the yellow cake powder from his face. The fine dust got everywhere. Cem was lying on the ground, chest down on a sandbag he’d filled to relieve pressure from his arms and shoulders, and meticulously oiling his rifle. He worked with a weak red light.
“Cem,” Lee said.
“Your nickname is Arif?”
“What’s the story behind it? I mean, it’s not as colorful as some of the rest.”
Cem never moved his eyes from the parts and the cleaning kit. It was a specialized set of oils and fabrics for his gun; using ordinary flannel or brushes would ruin the delicate mechanism. “Turns out I look exactly like this Turkish actor from about 50 years ago. He was also named Cem, go figure, and he had this funny space character called Arif.”
Turkish sci-fi, Lee Qiang thought with soft amusement. Who would have guessed.
“And what’s your nickname?” The sniper paused. “Other than what captain coined for you.”
He couldn’t reveal that. “I don’t have one.”
“Everyone has one.”
“It’s Lick Young, I guess.”
Cem harrumphed, not pleased.
Building trust and a sense of kinship. Essential in small teams operating under high risk, the psychology manuals read. He wasn’t doing the best job, he decided. Lee Qiang looked at his prisoner.
Sveta was the one person in their group who did not seem to have any prejudice about his heritage or style. That did not mean she wouldn’t kill him given a chance, or betray them all, and he did not expect any less from her. But when they did talk, she was pleasant. Either utterly, utterly professional about her predicament, or just good-natured that it didn’t bother her.
“Have you got a nickname?”
She shook her head.
Lee Qiang’s wrist watch vibrated once. Guard shift change. He and Marc were on. Lee Qiang dried his skin, donned a thin balaclava under his helmet to keep his head warm, put his gloves on, and headed out to the perimeter position.
They had two hollow-frame titanium folding chairs, which could also be disassembled and quickly transformed into an emergency stretcher. Standing still for two hours was painful, so you started pacing about, and that painted you as a nice target to anyone watching with a night scope. They could time your movement, figure out your pattern. Being still required more focus, but you were the one watching for movement rather than creating it.
He wrapped himself in the camo blanket and sat down. Marc was on the other side of their small camp, and they had their own frequency so the others could sleep. He could hear the operative breathing like an old man, his breath shivering with infection.
They would not have much warning if someone tried to sneak in. Their passive defense consisted of five trip sensors with a wire stretched at ankle height roughly 25 meters out. It wasn’t much, but men slept better knowing no one would cut their throats. The sensors had a powerful psychological effect.
Lee Qiang also had his own alarm to wake him if he dozed—there was a balance sensor in his helmet, so if he nodded, it would ring, and the wrist watch would alert him if his heart rate slowed down too much. The battery indicator stood at 47%. Good for another week or so. Then they would have to find electricity and a compatible socket to recharge.
Through his night vision device, the neon-green world stretched endlessly, ending in a black pool dotted with marbles. The picture was never still, shimmering as pixels brightened and dimmed. More than two hours, and your mind started feeling queasy.
Quadrupeds sometimes slinked over the plains, but they never got too close to the humans. Smart animals.
Lee Qiang wondered how long it had been since he’d had sex or even masturbated. He could do it right now, under his thermal poncho, and no one would be any wiser. But it could jeopardize the team. So he kept his hands still. Strange how the body worked. Procreation was so deeply ingrained in the DNA, it would do anything to assure the continuation of the species, and it meant taking abnormal, insane risks. Once you climaxed and rationalized your situation, it would feel ridiculous, but in the heat of the moment, logic disappeared.
Two hours chimed away. He and Marc returned to the camp. Lip and Cem replaced them. Lee Qiang lay down near Sveta, trying to be quiet. He saw the glint in her eyes. She was awake.
“You should sleep,” he whispered.
“I don’t need it.”
“You won’t function well without sleep. You will become a liability.”
“I only need about two hours. I’ve been like that my whole life.”
Lucky you, Lee Qiang wanted to say. “No ill effects?”
She shrugged, one shoulder pressed to the ground. “I don’t dream.”
Lucky you. “See you at dawn.” He closed his eyes. At first, he was hyper-alert, hearing every breath, cough, scratch, and fart. The wind, the distant call of animals, the fidgeting of armored men turning in their fitful sleep. But then, seconds or minutes later, almost like lying into a pool full of honey, he lost sensation of time and place, his body became a fuzzy blob of warmth, and he drifted into dreamland.
When he woke up, he couldn’t remember what he had dreamed, but he swore there had been sex involved.
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.