Waiting was the hardest thing for a soldier. Waiting for sentry duty to tick away so you could go back to sleep. Waiting for the weekend pass. Waiting to hear whether you’d qualified for the next stage in the training process. Waiting for news from your family or the estranged loved one. Waiting for the enemy to do something.
That was the worst.
It was basically admission that your life was no longer in your control. You were a puppet. Circumstances would determine what someone else would do, not you, and you would react to their choices. Sometimes an arbitrary decision between enemy troops turning left or right at a road junction. Or a bored idiot stopping for a smoke and noticing something not quite right. Waiting for your target to step into the crosshairs. Waiting for a signal to engage. Waiting for the civilians to drift away before you could call in an airstrike. So many choices, and none yours.
Like mines, waiting did not discriminate between good soldiers and bad soldiers, between the grunts and the elite, whether you were intelligent or just a barely functioning tool with sufficient motor skills and civil obedience to be entrusted with a weapon. Waiting was cruel. Waiting went for the core of your mind, digging into the deepest fears. Waiting made you start analyzing and over-analyzing. The smarter the merrier. The problem was, you could never defeat yourself.
Lee Qiang had learned to wait.
He had learned how to keep himself calm, how to maintain concentration, how not to bleed energy on fruitless thoughts and paranoia, how to zen into an almost semi-conscious state where you wait for an animalistic trigger to respond. Some called it meditation. Some called it stupidity. Lee Qiang envied those born with stupidity as their default. They usually found the waiting less exhausting. But he had mastered it. He had become a virtual chameleon at it.
He hated it nonetheless.
The rumble of mechanized infantry was quite loud now, reverberating through the broken organ pipes of the destroyed city, bouncing everywhere, making the armor column sound both nearer and farther than it was, masking the direction of their progress.
Lee Qiang was on a rooftop of another half-ruined building, not too far from the sniper, wondering if the old concrete was going to give in and he’d end up buried under a ton of radioactive cinders, asbestos, and plaster. The cool air helped, making his overheated, tired brain respond with renewed vigor and clarity.
The enemy formation was large and modern. They even had a combat engineering vehicle, with a complicated, sophisticated v-blade and mine rattler in the lead, clearing rubble. Following were five ZSH-27 IFV, closely resembling the Kismet: boxes of thick, composite armor, active defense, and remotely controlled turrets with 14.5mm cannon. Behind them, five thin-skinned APCs.
“Fucking Orenburg,” Lip said. He was observing the foe through his NOD from across the block.
“Maybe they will go away,” Lonya said.
“This could be a stroke of bad luck,” Ollie added.
Lee Qiang turned toward the stairwell. He motioned for Sveta to approach. Crouched low, she joined him at the broken lip of the flat rooftop, wrapped in a thermal blanket. He was painfully aware of the fact he was woozy, and that she could push him through the gap, 15 meters down onto a mesh of rusty rebars and wickedly sharp-edged rubble. He handed her his goggles.
“Shishka’s men?” He could not see any insignia. The resolution wasn’t that good.
“Most likely. Few independent units in the sector have heavy armor.”
“Are there any troops stationed in Orenburg?”
“Not sure. I don’t know.”
Was that a lie? Lee Qiang sighed. “Let’s go down.”
They waited for the enemy to approach—or go away.
No such luck for us.
The noise rose and ebbed; the engines whined and grunted and chugged and sputtered. It was a chorus of big diesels, the clang of rubber-padded tracks chopping into cracked asphalt, the squeal of armor brushing against buildings and exposed steel, the crush and mangle of concrete.
Cem was giving them updates. The column had spread into a semicircle, and it was very obviously and not coincidentally coming toward their position. Not quite rushing, but it did not feel like a stroke of bad luck.
More like a complete wank off.
The Golden Horde were ready. Still, silent, weapons aimed at the enemy, including the four rockets they still had. Tandem-warhead, unguided stuff. Not as heavy or powerful as ATGM, but still good enough for close engagements. Except they wouldn’t do much damage to Kismet-class vehicles.
A flicker of hope sparked in Lee Qiang’s heart. Maybe this was a local contingent and they were coming back to base. There was no reason why Orenburg couldn’t be a staging area for some Alliance regiment. Who knew how Shishka thought of and rationalized the disposition of his troops?
“Show yourself,” a megaphone-wrapped voice called in Chinese.
Not a coincidence then.
Lee Qiang touched the mic on his helmet comms. “Mandarin. They want us to step out and wave.”
“Let’s see what these fuckers want,” Lip said. His tone was laced with distrust. The captain did not like that he would not be able to understand the conversation.
Lee Qiang was aiming through a chest-sized hole in an exterior wall of a collapsed building, his body pressed against the rubble in a way that reduced the pressure on his neck and shoulders and gave him maximum stability. He was aiming at a knot of enemy soldiers milling in front of a ZSH about a hundred meters away.
“Identify yourself,” he said in a clear voice. It carried well enough.
“Identify yourself,” Megaphone challenged back.
“I asked first.”
“I have armor,” the enemy taunted.
“IFV are shit in an urban setting, so how about you tell me who you are and what you want?”
Megaphone relented. “4th Mechanized Brigade. And you?”
“There’s no such things as independent in Sector 8,” Megaphone chided. “You have to be aligned with someone.”
Lee Qiang did not look at Sveta. She was lying on the ground to his right, hiding behind a pile of rubble.
“We’ve got some hot stuff to sell. You boys want heroine and x? We got some.”
There was a chatter of Mandarin, but he wasn’t sure what the other soldier said over the buzz of vehicle engines.
“And we give you what?”
So far, amicable, polite. Maybe these men just wanted to barter. They did, however, choose a rather odd time to do that, but then, a killer deal was a killer deal, and if you could surprise the other side, you could get a nice discount.
“How about you give us one of your green dragons there.”
Megaphone laughed. It was a practiced, humorless gesture. “You give us the woman, and we give you the IFV, what do you say?”
Lee Qiang’s blood chilled. He looked at Sveta. “Lip.”
“They will give us one of their carriers in exchange for the prisoner.”
“So they know we got her.”
That meant there was an observer sniper team in Orenburg, and it had flagged and followed them since they had arrived. Maybe even more than one team. The fact the enemy had not fired meant they weren’t sure who the newcomers were.
“Well, that bitch has played us right,” Lip said after a few seconds.
No, captain, you misunderstood. Language context is everything. “I do not think they are interested in her as a member of the East Alliance military.”
Sveta’s eyes glinted.
“Oh, like that.”
“What do you say, Independent?” Megaphone shouted.
Lee Qiang flexed his hand on the pistol-grip of his rifle. “Cem, do you see anything out there?”
“Negative. If they have lurkers, they are as smart as we are. Low-vis thermal clothing and such.”
“One mouth less to feed,” Lip said.
Sveta could not have heard what the captain said. But she stirred. “I’ll go.”
“No fucking way,” Lee Qiang said, and he meant his words both for her and Lip.
“Come again?” Lip grated.
Lee Qiang realized he was breathing hard through his nostrils. “We’re doing a lot of things, but we’re not trafficking in human flesh.”
“You’re gonna fucking get us all killed,” Cliff said.
“Everyone shut up,” Lip exploded. “Just me and Lick Young on the line. Why do you care so much about that girl? She’s useless. We learned what we could from her, and if we get the armor, we can drive home from here. We don’t need her help anymore.”
Why do I care? Because that’s what separates me from the scum and misery of Sector 8. “Hold on!” Lee Qiang tensed his shoulders, heard a ripple of pops down his spine. “If you want to get rid of her, we pop a bullet in her forehead, right now. But we’re not giving her over so she can be a whore to a hundred soldiers. That’s not happening.” He tried to ignore the fact she was there, listening to every word he said. “She can still help.” I can get her to talk, to share more information.
“How about we vote,” Lip said.
“And I thought we had meritocracy here. You always choose the hard way, Lick Young.” Lip sounded sad. But resolute. “All right. We do it the hard way.”
“Sorry, no deal. I can give you drugs, but no girl.”
Megaphone wasn’t listening anymore. The enemy was gearing up for a fight.
The waiting was over.
The first AT rocket, courtesy of the Golden Horde, never reached the ZSH. The active system fired its flechettes and destroyed the incoming warhead. The enemy infantry had dispersed through the streets, away from the lethal radius of their own defense umbrella.
The second AT round glanced the sloped frontal armor plate, spilling most of its molten jet against the hard composite carapace, leaving a brilliant arc shooting over the top of the vehicle and up the street. The IFV deployed its smoke screen and started reversing. A second ZSH began firing from its turret, the 14.5mm steel sausages chomping through the rubble. It wasn’t directed fire. It was an avalanche.
Pulverized cinder rained around Lee Qiang as incendiary rounds tore through the old buildings with ease. He fired a volley at a crouching figure across what used to be a street junction before pulling back, dragging Sveta behind him.
The third rocket came from a side angle and slightly above, slamming into the turret on ZSH Number Two and mangling it. The cannon went silent. Behind the dissipating curtain of smoke, one of the APCs was elevating its own barrel, but it could not reach high enough to spray the AT position.
The other vehicles were firing now, smaller-caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers, lobbing 30mm frags everywhere. The green-tinted NVG sky turned into a freak show of lights.
Infantry had an advantage in close-quarter battles. But it just wasn’t going to be enough. They didn’t have enough heavy weaponry to disable the armor. To make it worse, the enemy soldiers were coming forward, slow and confident under that barrage of supporting fire.
Lee Qiang tossed a slow-burning mag flare down the street. It bloomed into a small star, and would fizzle for about two minutes, completely saturating the thermal imaging and light amplification devices.
He dashed across a lane of rubble, hit the wall with a grunt, his sense of balance syrupy and imprecise, and then waved for Sveta to run. She dashed as he covered, looking for anything that moved among the ruins. There were no Alliance troops around just yet.
The advantage of being few against many in a chaotic urban setting was that the probability of someone popping in your sights being a foe was high. You also had more targets than the opponent.
The disadvantage was that you were few against many.
“Team, report status,” he coughed into the comms.
“General fuckery,” Lip said. “Marc and I are converging toward Armageddon Boulevard, over.”
“Heading down Doomsday Avenue, two blocks up,” Ollie said.
Short-breathed replies came back. Everyone was alive.
They had sketched up a rough retreat plan, naming streets as best as they could and using Cem as their navigation guide. From above, the desolation made some basic sense. On the street level, among the rubble and weeds and the destroyed, overturned husks of cars, it was hard fighting your way. The NOD played with your sense of distance, narrowed down your peripheral vision, and just made you outright queasy.
The gunfire was sporadic, but when it came, it came in volumes of noise and mass. The exploding volley of grenades sounded like popcorn, boosted a hundred times. Pieces of brick and concrete blocks were flying everywhere.
Lee Qiang heard Mandarin. He tried to lower himself to the ground, with a solid pile of rubble to screen him. Instead, he ended up on his back, facing the way he’d just come from. Something had hit him in the shoulder and spun him about.
“You’re hurt,” Sveta said.
He flexed his fingers. “No, I’m fine.” The armor plate under his LHB was digging into his collarbone. It was probably deformed from a bullet hit, but it had done its job and absorbed the energy. He took a fragile moment to get his bearings back, pushed down a wave of fever-induced nausea, and aimed, knee down in a cold puddle of water. He fired.
The Chinese soldier fell like someone had yanked his reins, legs kicking spectacularly. The second man behind rushed for cover. Lee Qiang’s bullets sprayed around him. There was a hammer-like rattle of a 14.5mm cannon and the street behind him erupted in showers of dirt and asphalt chips. He wasn’t sure if the IFV was aiming at him. But he did not move.
An AT rocket—their last—left a white trail down the street, and then there was a brilliant bloom on the left, just beyond a corner. Lee Qiang could not see if it’d hit the vehicle.
“Got him,” Olaf said with grim satisfaction.
Lee Qiang saw the enemy soldier from earlier leave his cover, heading for a half-standing building on the right. Lee Qiang aimed for a gap in the rubble, and when he saw the man for a brief half-second, he fired. The way the man’s legs moved meant he probably had hit him, but he wasn’t sure.
Their small group was converging, making sure they were not flanked or surrounded. Lee Qiang saw Eddie. He was limping.
He spotted the captain and lieutenant. Both were kneeling at what was the southeast corner of Hell’s Crossing, using a large rubbish container as their shield. It would not stop a large gun.
“Lick Young, I think it’s time you used your magic wand, don’t you think?”
Lee Qiang realized what Lip wanted.
At the moment, it did not look like an unreasonable request.
KOS-1 was a strategic weapon. But then, so was he. And if he died, his amazing commando feat and months of covert work would die with him. He would reveal his hand, but then, Operation Putain was in tatters anyway. They would get Shishka some other time.
Provided they all lived.
The last time they had been attacked, they had a full-strength unit, they had vehicles. Now they had injuries and small arms only. They could probably evade their enemy for a few days, with their food and water and medications slowly running out, and eventually they would be found and slaughtered. Sparta and Alamo were inspiring war academy stories, but they ended up with the underdog being killed.
Lee Qiang sat down at the edge of what used to be a communal park. The low wall was still intact, almost invisible among wild bushes. The vegetation would obscure his heat signature, and the soft earth would hopefully absorb shrapnel from any grenades that landed nearby.
He reached into his harness. Sandwiched between two extra plates of ceramic was a small metal box, and inside it, wrapped in a copper-wire mesh, was the satellite uplink for KOS-1. Hopefully, targeting satellites were still in orbit, or they would need to wait for the weapon platform to appear over the horizon. It could take a lucky single orbit or as many as fourteen.
Sveta watched him, her face impassive.
The sounds of battle choked him. He tried to ignore them. He began dialing. He knew the sequence of instructions required for the uplink by heart. But with his mind deprived of sleep and drowned in poisons of high temperature, he struggled.
“I’m hit! Fuck.” It was Ollie.
They were slowly, systematically being killed.
“Lick Young, stop wanking about.”
“I’m thinking of you, that’s why it’s taking time.”
Something exploded 50 meters away. Dust and pebbles washed over him and Sveta. She was so close he could smell her, well, he could if his nose did its job properly. His neck itched. He scratched it. There was something sticky and showing black on the NOD on his gloves. Blood.
Second after agonizing second passed.
He finally got a successful connection.
Now where to target?
With the modern systems out of action, they could calculate their position within about one kilometer. This wasn’t too bad, because KOS ordnance had a very neat 90-meter CEP and 450-meter lethal-blast radius for its lowest-yield payload. That translated into a grueling two-kilometer retreat, just to get under the 50% chance of being obliterated by an orbital gun. On foot, under fire, loaded with gear, bleeding, exhausted.
Another grenade hit the crumbling shell of a two-storey house on their side of the park, spewing a cloud of debris their way, caking them in fine white powder. Probably radioactive and carcinogenic. Sveta started coughing.
He handed her a first-aid compress, and she put it on her face, covering her mouth, nose, and eyes.
“Lick Young, use that cunting thing!”
Fuck it. “Done.” He had said the word too early. The targeting system would not acknowledge his code.
He had been locked 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.