The village was not marked on any map.
It was a collection of half-ruined buildings, rubbish, and rust-eaten cars. There was an old tractor in the field directly south of the house strip and its cracked road, but it was sunk half a meter deep into the hard ground. The water tower had more holes than tin. The barn had gaping holes in the roof, probably caused by mortar.
Lee Qiang looked at Sveta.
She just shrugged.
The main road was about a kilometer northwest, behind a stretch of fallow fields and weeds and still more rubbish. They had spent a good morning hour watching—both the village and the road—before moving forward. Not a single thing moved. There had been no traffic on the A-36.
The nearest settlement should be a funnily named placed called Kompressornoe, several clicks north-northwest, but then there was this little thing in their path. Well, it was as good as any other, if they could find transportation or food. It looked deserted.
Which was why they approached with utmost caution.
The nearest house had a large backyard, full of tires, with a broken down fence. There were no windows, and the walls were pocked with bullet holes. To the side, someone had built a swing, using metal bars crudely welded together to create a post. The actual swing had no chains or rope, the way you would expect. Instead, it had two slightly thinner bars, stabbed through a tire.
Ollie tossed the Galileo device up again. He swallowed a curse when the wind carried it away and it landed close to the swing. But at least they couldn’t see any obvious traps or movement of troops from the high vantage point.
Lip led his half of the unit left, carefully checking out the buildings without entering. A coyote slinked out from the ruins about a hundred meters away, tail down, running away from the human intruders. That should be a good sign. Wild animals shunned humans.
Not always. Remember Pripyat.
Lee Qiang led his squad plus Sveta right, toward the east entrance to the village.
“I need to retrieve the camera,” Ollie whispered on the comms.
“I’ll get it,” Mamuka said, standing closer to the fence than his buddy was.
Cem stood some distance away so that he could support them if needed. Mamuka stepped into the backyard and picked the little camera. Then he looked up at the swing.
Lee Qiang knew what he was thinking. Pull ups. They had all been without exercise for a long time. Fear and long treks on foot could not compensate for the itchiness in their muscles, the need to stretch and strain them, to lift weights. The four days spent in the darkness had heightened the fidgety sensation in all of them, their injuries and scratches notwithstanding. It was also a good sign that their wounds weren’t serious.
But Mamuka waited, watching the northeast corner across the road. He waited until Lip announced all clear on his side. Then he pulled himself up, and started pumping.
Lee Qiang wanted to order the man back. But he knew how fragile the situation was. A stranger, a foreigner, who had tainted their sacred unit, who had killed one of their brothers, meddling yet again.
So he said nothing.
His silence killed Mamuka.
The operative finished a set of twenty-five reps, exhaled, and lowered himself to the ground.
The sound registered before reason.
Then, there was Mamuka on the ground, his legs missing. He raised his head, dazed.
“I’m hurt,” Mamuka said in a low, stunned voice.
Nobody moved. They wanted to help, but suddenly, every inch of the ground looked like a deadly trap.
“Mamuka hit a mine,” Lee Qiang said on the line, pushing his feelings away. “Cliff, you’ve got the detector. Come here. Quick.”
Cliff walked at a brisk if awkward pace, keeping his right leg bent in a way that willed the detector to detect. He stepped into the backyard and approached the injured merc. Mamuka wasn’t bleeding, his vessels constricted from shock. But that would not last long.
Cliff was already binding above the man’s ragged stumps with tourniquets. It was a hopeless gesture, more instinct than logic. They all knew what Mamuka’s injuries meant.
A death sentence.
“How bad is it?” Lip asked.
“Both legs gone,” Cliff said, slowing down. He realized the futility of his action.
No one said anything else. There was no need to.
Mamuka started screaming.
“Be quiet.” Cliff muffled the man with his gloved hand. Mamuka fought back, trying to remove the hand from his mouth.
“Fucking shit,” Ollie growled.
“Everyone, stay focused,” Lee Qiang said. “Watch the village.”
Mamuka howled and thrashed. Howled and thrashed. He was a strong man, stronger than Cliff.
You know what you have to do, Lee Qiang thought. Sad statistics filled his head, and he knew the captain had mirror thoughts on his side of this little shithole.
Every moderately- to severely-injured person tolled the attention of two 2.3 healthy soldiers. Without adequate medical attention, soldiers with one amputated leg stood only 14% chance of survival in the week after injury. Those with two, only 4%.
They could not save Mamuka and save themselves.
The ritual of misery and regret was a short, efficient one.
It was a cruel thing. But this was a cruel situation.
With a loud sigh, he cut the tourniquets with a knife.
Blood spurted from the severed limbs.
Mamuka was roaring, his face purple-red from effort and not enough air, his veins bulging, the pool of dark red growing around him and Cliff. The blood was soaking up Cliff’s trouser legs, almost like a fast-growing creeper vine.
“Get on the road,” Lee Qiang said. “Find solid surfaces to tread on.” There rarely would be just one mine around. “Cliff, throw the mine detector over.”
“I’m busy,” the engineer protested.
“Soldier, focus on those who are still alive.”
“Fuck you.” But he did toss the bloody metal detector their way.
Lee Qiang gave it to Ollie, who led them to the road. Sveta followed. Cem was already on the road, looking around like an eagle, his head moving while his body was perfectly still. Lee Qiang sighed with relief when he stepped onto the cracked asphalt. Getting killed by a mine was a humiliating, unnerving concept. It undermined skill and knowledge. It placed a man’s life in the hands of arbitrary luck.
And in their situation, it meant certain death.
If you couldn’t take care of yourself, you became a burden. That was not an acceptable combat risk.
“Someone’s gonna fucking hear us, and we’re dead,” Brezhnev muttered over the line, mostly to himself.
“Lip, you okay over there?” Lee Qiang asked.
The captain stepped into the street about a hundred meters up the road, and waved. “All clear. No sign of enemy presence.” Lip sounded grim.
“Keep quiet, Mamuka,” Cliff insisted, hands over his dying friend’s mouth. Mamuka’s howls were receding fast. He had already bled half his life into the backyard. The fighting receded. The merc was now just vaguely waving his arms, his motions erratic and imprecise.
Lee Qiang glanced at Sveta. She looked uneasy, but nowhere near as much as he’d expect. Another sliver of information for later.
Cliff was busy removing gear and weapons from Mamuka. Once finished, he walked over without looking down, no longer awkward or caring, every step a gamble. He was red tip to toe. He put the blood-dripping harness and pack down, and lunged.
Lee Qiang dodged the blow. “Easy now.”
“Cliff, stand down,” Lip warned. “Keep it cool. You’re a professional, not a bitchy little conscript.”
Mamuka was still moaning weakly, but he would be dead within minutes. In a way, leaving behind a wounded man went against every ethos of camaraderie and military spirit they had been taught. Except this was a raw survival mission now. They had saved those they could, giving up their one vehicle and reducing their fighting force to give the injured some chance of seeing it through.
No one liked what they saw. They still cared. That was good enough.
Lip wasn’t finished. “You took an unwarranted risk walking over like that. Don’t do that shit again.”
Cliff spat. He deflated a little. “Agreed, sir.”
“What the fuck just happened?” Eddie asked.
A soldier acted foolishly and paid with his life, Lee Qiang wanted to reply. But that would only make them hate him even more.
It was ridiculous how vulnerable and exposed they were at that moment. Shocked, angry, preoccupied, easy targets. They had to regain their composure fast.
From farther up the road, slightly behind Lip, a man stepped out of a shack. He had a big hunting rifle in his hands. He was old, and he looked angry. Half a second later, a stocky old woman joined him, shouting in a language that sounded like Kazakh.
What the fuck?
They were all too stunned to respond.
The man fired his gun.
Lee Qiang heard the pellets hit the wall and the drainpipe to his left. Cem fired back. The old man collapsed. The woman raised her arms, but she was still shouting. An incessant drone of words.
“He’s down,” the sniper said calmly.
“Cliff, cover the road. Ollie, watch the field.” Lee Qiang moved forward, rifle leveled at the old woman, her pudgy shape filling the gunsight circle. Sveta followed behind him, an invisible shadow. In fact, she seemed to be the only one entirely in control of her senses, and that bothered him.
Lip’s team had surrounded the woman. Brezhnev stepped forward, taking the rifle from the corpse. The woman continued her loud barrage. No one could understand her.
“Shut the fuck up, putain!” Marc yelled.
“Is there anyone else in there?” Brezhnev asked in Russian. It did not seem to help.
Marc hit her in the face with the butt of his rifle. She crumpled into a heap of musty, drab-colored clothes at the feet of the dead man. The corpse’s head was missing, blown to mist by Cem’s bullet.
Lip was covering the west side, eyes scanning the ruined buildings. They didn’t look so empty any more. “Marc, check the house.”
“Putain.” He tossed a flash into the house, then rushed in. Without a word, Eddie was at his back, covering.
“This is fucked up,” Lip whispered off comms, only for Lee Qiang’s ears.
“It sure is.”
Lee Qiang knew what the captain felt. Chagrin from allowing some crummy old fuck to discharge a bullet before him. He felt it, too. It just showed how frayed and exhausted they all were. It wasn’t a good sign of their chances of getting back home. Still a long way to go.
What makes special forces special is their ability to endure extremely difficult situations without breaking down for much longer than ordinary grunts.
But not forever.
There’s always a limit.
Eddie backed out. Marc exited. “All clear.”
They took positions between buildings, keeping to hard ground, watching, waiting. There was no one else in the village, or if they were, they kept viciously quiet and hidden. Wind sang through the rusty cars, glassless windows, and bullet-riddled walls. A bird or two called, but there were no other sounds.
“Ollie, give us another look.”
“Cliff?” the drone operator said.
The engineer handed the Galileo over. It was crusted over with blood. Ollie had to peel the red flakes from the camera before he used the little spring launcher to shoot it up in the air. They all watched the corkscrew flutter down. Luckily, this time, it landed in the road. The camera showed no foe anywhere within sight distance. The yellow-grass, yellow-dirt plains and ridges were soulless.
It was just their luck to stumble on some mines and some deranged old folk in a ghost village.
“We’re good,” Lee Qiang declared.
“Let’s see if there’s any food to be had,” Lip announced.
Sveta waited quietly in the shade of a house. Lee Qiang wasn’t comfortable leaving her behind, but he couldn’t drag her inside. He stepped into a village house. It smelled of unwashed bodies, leather, and rancid meat. There was a stash of cans—sardines—in a small cabinet, the latest dated 2014. He opened one, sniffed it, and put it away. Next he found carcasses, probably rabbit or coyote, hanging from rafters in a small shed, drying up. Eddie was digging through clothes, and he slashed the soggy old mattress in what was bedroom. He grinned when he fished out a bag of gold coins.
They also found bleached human remains in another closet, neatly stacked in a corner close to a pair of military boots, the steel cap dotted with industrial paint.
“We’re not taking anything from here,” Lee Qiang announced, and he savored the hot air when he stepped out.
There was a car in the garage of the next house, which looked drivable, but there was no engine under the hood. He found a whole pallet of old car batteries under a tarp outside. He found a dozen unsprung mouse traps with no bait. Eddie and Marc came back from their search, shaking their heads.
Sector 8 welcomes you to its delights and wonders.
Lee Qiang looked down the road. Behind the last house lay Mamuka’s torn body. He wondered if he should go back, take a last look at the dead man. Some obscure corner of his mind suggested that. The rest overruled it. That would be symbolic and pointless. Special forces made their eulogies and wills before their first mission. The sad and honorable ceremony had already been done a long time ago.
They regrouped. Cliff stank of blood.
Lip was standing close to Sveta, his eyes boring into her temple. If she was uncomfortable, she did not show it. “So, what should we expect next?”
Her eyes rolled up, trying to recall a memory. “Kompressornoe, I think.”
She knows the terrain well, Lee Qiang thought.
“And what sort of bullshit awaits us there?”
“I don’t know. I…never stopped there. I always traveled in a vehicle.”
The captain exhaled through his nostrils. “Is it deserted?”
“Hard to say,” she said.
The captain was asking the wrong questions. “Sveta,” Lee Qiang cut in. “Where should we go next?”
“The rural roads all converge with the main road anyway. A-36 is clear of mines.”
Stay close to the road and risk detection. If an army convoy drives by and see us, we’re fucked. But stay close to the road, and maybe steal a functioning vehicle.
Every town or village presented an opportunity. To find food, to find loot, to get oneself ambushed or maimed or killed. They could not avoid settlements forever. Only, at their current success rate, they would all end up dead eight villages later.
Lee Qiang opened his maps. Red showed known mine fields, mostly to the west and north, toward the shared border with the enemy, but there were still non-negligible areas elsewhere, deeper inside the sector.
What would Shishka do? How would he run this?
It made sense to mine roads—or leave them open so you could channel and monitor traffic. Long, empty fields were not particularly useful as mine fields. They had no strategic value. You wanted mines to block chokepoints, to slow down the enemy and funnel its troops where you wanted them.
“We’ll stay off the main road,” Lip announced.
Normally, it should be just a suggestion, an equal voice. Only it was a challenge.
If I side with Sveta, I look like a traitor. If I back down, I’m a weakling. Lee Qiang smiled. The reason he had been chosen to lead this mission was because he was better than Captain Lip.
His tolerance for insults was that much higher.
Lip gestured. “Ladies first.” This time, he did mean Sveta. “You put your dainty little feet down first, and if they happen to fly, we shall all be disappointed. Won’t we, Lick?”
Lee Qiang said nothing.
Marc knelt by the unconscious old woman. He dragged her off the road where there would be no ricochets and fired a bullet in her head from his side arm.
“We move on,” Lip said.
They moved on.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: pixabay/geraldsimon00 (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.