“I have no access.”
“You’re taking the piss.”
Why did I think the enemy would be stupid and incompetent? Just because I managed to screw the lead security developer?
There could be a million reasons why the system refused him entry. It was unlikely the Alliance space command changed things too often, but they just might. Security codes, protocols, ciphers—there were infinite possibilities.
Lee Qiang didn’t have time to indulge in self-pity.
This was going to be one hell of a battle to the death.
Sveta was at his side, dripping isotonic drops into her eyes. Blinking furiously, she moved close and took the small satcom pad from his hands. He should have pushed her away. Reacted in some way. He just stared. For the moment, the hail of lead and shrapnel disappeared. He was a man in stupor, his heart beating way too fast, his head swollen and top-heavy, his perception of the world coming with a lag like a satellite uplink.
She punched in the right code.
KOS-1 was live and armed.
He looked at her.
She nodded weakly. “I don’t want to die here.”
Was it thanks for saving her life? It did not matter. Action now, questions later. But nothing about the girl surprised him anymore.
He carefully dialed in their coordinates. The Alliance space command would know someone had accessed their orbital weapon. This would be his one chance to use it. So he decided to fire all twelve missiles.
He plotted a firing pattern that resembled the six-point star. He wasn’t quite sure where the bulk of the enemy was, but it did not matter. The blasts would overlap, with the most powerful ones out and the lesser-yield ones inside.
Twenty-nine minutes to impact.
“Lick Young!” Lip shrieked.
“I was kidding. We’ve got twenty-nine minutes. Let’s go.” He handed Sveta a breather mask.
They had to be two kilometers away if they wanted to escape death. No one needed convincing.
Battered, bruised, bloodied, weak, the Golden Horde started their retreat. Four men covering, four hobbling. Lee Qiang tried to adjust the dented armor plate, but it kept digging into his skin. He was sure there was a big, blotched hematoma there. He didn’t have the full motor range of his arm.
He sucked water out of his harness body-countered canteen. He felt dehydrated and feeble. He wished there was ice to slide down his collar to cool down his burning body. A building column snapped in half like a grissino, probably hit by a 14.5mm round. A head-sized chunk of hard-packed debris landed close to his feet. The streets hissed and pinged with shrapnel.
Marc had Eddie in his grip, guiding him away from the chaos. The injured operative stumbled, hitting his chin on a jagged piece of masonry. A line of black blood started dripping. Marc helped remove his helmet and started bandaging the cut. Brezhnev tossed a smoke and then a flare, trying to provide some cover for his buddies.
Lip was shooting steadily, focusing. Ollie lobbed a 40mm grenade.
Return fire was withering. Grenades, cannon fire. The street—this one had no name—erupted in geysers of stone, asphalt and dirt. There was an almost permanent cloud of dust in the air, making the NOD flicker, as if they needed another reason to feel disoriented and nauseated.
They need to keep moving. Wherever. Just keep moving.
The one good think about fucking Orenburg was that it was a wasteland. The rebars and sharp concrete were a death trap to tracked vehicles. The enemy armor could shoot, but it could not move fast. The infantry were careful not to advance too far and leave their support behind. Much like them, they seemed to be fighting in unfamiliar territory. The volume of fire came in gusts, like a gale, sudden and powerful, then silence as the two sides disengaged, probing, checking, trying to figure out the next vector of attack.
Wherever Cem was, he tried to help coordinate. He called out streets—lanes with less rubble running through canyons with more rubble. And then suddenly, there were empty areas, like forest glades, swept clean. Probably epicenters.
Lee Qiang didn’t care. He focused on putting his feet down, finding solid purchase on the treacherous ground, his muscles trembling and burning, screaming. They wanted to give way, and all he wanted to do was collapse. Rest for a few precious moments. Give his body a moment to cool down. He wanted to rip open his harness, to tear at his shirt. But he did not dare.
Marc fell, bringing Eddie down, hard.
“Oh, Putain.” The Frenchman rolled onto his back, moving his arms and legs like an upturned turtle.
“Are you shot?” Lee Qiang shouted. Tried to shout. His voice was thin, his throat full of resiny phlegm.
Marc rolled the other way around. There was smoke coming from his backpack. Something massive had slammed into him, maybe even set off ammunition in his carryall. Olaf lay down on the ground, aiming with a machine gun. But no one was chasing them. There was still a lot of gunfire, only it was directed elsewhere.
Lee Qiang could hear no supersonic cracks, but he could hear deep booms.
Had he lost perception of time? Was the satellite computer inaccurate? No. There were still seventeen minutes left. So what, then?
Cem came online. “Guys, heads up, there’s a new party approaching from the north. Mechanized infantry, about two dozen vehicles, probably three hundred men. They have long-range artillery support. 155mm by the look and sound of it.”
“Keep still,” Lip said, trying to restrain Marc. Sveta shuffled over. The captain did not stop her. With deft hands, she started unfastening the burdock straps on Marc’s harness.
“Who are they shooting?” Ollie mumbled, his speech slurred from the bandage round his jaw.
“Eddie, you okay?” Brezhnev was shaking the operative, who had not stood up since falling down.
“Looks like the newcomers are targeting the other guys. Artillery landing on the outskirts, close to our original position. About a click away.”
Fifteen minutes. They had to keep moving.
“Do we have friends here?” Cliff asked.
“Probably more enemies, only we’re down on their priority list.” Lip said, pinning Marc down. If the ex-legionnaire was injured, it didn’t look fatal.
“You’re fine,” Sveta said and showed him the mangled round. It was most likely a 7.62mm piece. His back armor had stopped the bullet. A second time the man had survived getting shot.
“Get up; let’s go.” Lip was pushing the merc up. “How’s Eddie?”
Brezhnev was strapping a lightweight combat cast to Eddie’s leg. Lee Qiang could not see the man’s expression, but it probably matched the one Cliff had worn when tending to Mamuka. Hopefully not.
“You will have to run,” Lee Qiang said.
“I will,” Eddie muttered.
The air whistled, and then the night became thunder. The big shell had landed perhaps a hundred meters away, but to Lee Qiang, it felt like someone had clocked him in the ear. The ground visibly shook and a big cloud of dust came gushing through every crack and pore in the ruined city, smothering them in thick, billowing powder.
They walked like blind men through pitch-black darkness, their night-vision equipment powerless against the thick wall of particles. Then the dust settled, and they continued their retreat. Eddie was lagging behind, 50 meters, a hundred meters. But whenever one of them stopped, he just shook his head. He’d make it or he wouldn’t, but he sure wouldn’t kill others, and he wouldn’t be put down like an animal.
For half an instant, Lee Qiang genuinely wished he had gotten to know these men a little better. Gained their trust. Seen past the official records of shady history and gruesome crimes. They had rather convoluted loyalty for hired swords.
This was the roadside ambush repeated all over. Only now, there was no refuge at the end of the journey. Instead, there was going to be a rain of fire.
What if you step on a mine? a slightly less exhausted part of his brain asked.
No time for that, he argued with the blob of fuzziness in his brain. Chance of dying to a mine: low. Chance of dying to a big fucking orbital weapon: 100%.
KOS-1 low-yield missiles had three linear warheads, set to detonate with a delay on impact and at an altitude. The three sections were designed to separate about 300 milliseconds before destination, and they would hit roughly 10 milliseconds apart. With the terminal velocity of 3 kilometers per second, this meant the first warhead would penetrate about 30 meters underground before setting off a 100 kg charge, in addition to its already impressive ballistic energy. The on-impact section carried a 250 kg HE filling, while the air-burst element had 500 kg of explosive and 90,000 marble-sized steel balls.
The bigger missile worked on the same principle, except the numbers were different. The penetrator and the impact unit were 1,000 kg in weight, while the airburst warhead contained an impressive 2,600 liters of a fuel-air solution.
The fireworks were going to be…massive. Lee Qiang wasn’t sure what was deadlier, the wave of displaced mass from the impact, the ground blast, or the overpressure and heat from the air explosion. Whatever it was, he had dispatched almost 700 tons TNT equivalent of chemical and kinetic energy to their position.
It was going to be a mini-nuke, only a little bit cleaner.
“Cem, where are you?” Lip shouted, his sentence coming in three pained bursts.
“With you guys,” the sniper panted.
Lee Qiang felt the world go black then turn bright again. Black, bright, black bright. Blood was pounding in his temples. He might just die from a heart failure. The army had some studies on how soldiers performed when sick, but no one had tested flu patients with full gear and any serious running.
When the timer chimed, Lee Qiang stopped and turned.
If he was going to die, he might as well see it.
Nine seconds later, the first missile landed. He thought he’d seen the incoming missile as a line of heat in his goggles, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe it was just his imagination.
It was impossible to tell the three detonations apart. For him, it was just one giant bloom of brilliant white. Then the other eleven missiles struck, 45 milliseconds apart from one another. Enough for the brain to register the ripple of the meteor strike.
The mercs all went down and cowered.
Hot air swept them, followed by a rain of debris. Something hit Lee Qiang in the back of his leg. His mouth formed a scream, but there was no air in his lung for the sound. His helmet sang with impacts from rubble, mercifully only the size of pebbles and gravel. It was impossible to see. They were in a sandstorm.
Probably inhaling a lifetime worth of isotopes and asbestos.
Soon, breathing became hard. The air was too thick and it didn’t have enough oxygen. It wasn’t the collapsing shockwave. That had already happened in the first second. This was just Orenburg, and there was more of it in the air than on the ground.
Suck it. Not literally.
They waited for the waterfall-like noise to subside, which meant most of the flying rubble had landed and would not mangle anyone’s head.
A series of strained responses came back.
They started walking, one tiny step at a time, kicking up pulverized city remains like they were snow. The Golden Horde headed west, away from the destruction. Visibility was maybe 20 meters, but it slowly got better as the heavy dust and ash settled and the sky to the east began to brighten.
No one shot at them.
For the moment.
Lee Qiang’s leg throbbed. He didn’t think his muscles were too damaged, but it was hard to know in his state of fever-muddled shock and weariness. The pain soon subsided and became a numbing warmth all over. The leg felt leaden, his steps imprecise.
He wasn’t the only one dragging his feet. They all shuffled stooped, exhausted, their lungs poisoned with toxic airborne silt, their brains slow from oxygen deprivation. They were all strong, fit men—but they had just fought a night’s worth of combat followed by a mad sprint under full gear in a meteor strike.
He remembered reading about an old early millennium US military operation in Afghanistan. It had involved a rescue mission at a dizzying height of about 5,000 meters. The support force had inserted via helicopter, and had to cross a mere 800 meters to their stranded comrades. It had taken them twelve hours. The lead soldier had stepped out of the helicopter, run 10 steps and collapsed breathless.
He felt like that right now.
They stumbled on.
After a while, they stopped. And dared turn back.
There was a giant, bent column of dark gray smoke rising above the ghost city, easily several kilometers high, the telltale fireball donuts already smeared wide and shapeless. The wind was taking it southeast. The pink sky was covered with this ugly smudge, like a child’s greasy fingerprint on a wall. It trailed into the distance.
Fires on the ground, dozens of them, fed black tendrils into the towering plume. A pall of dust still hovered over the area, almost like morning mist, except this one was brown and colored filthy cinnamon.
The mercs were kneeling, trying to catch their breath, but it felt like a collective asthma attack. Everyone was covered in Orenburg flour. They looked like melancholy Santas, with fine powder in their beards, eyebrows and hair. Even though they had covered their faces, the dust had gotten everywhere. The goggles had somewhat stopped the ashes from getting in their eyes.
Pathetic, raccoon-looking Santas.
“You okay?” Lee Qiang whispered to Sveta. He wanted to put his hand on her shoulder but stopped himself. It was a silly gesture. Besides, the last thing a person out of air needed was someone touching their back.
“You okay?” she asked him back.
Lee Qiang remembered the dull, pulsating pain in the back of his leg. He wasn’t sure if he had a fever anymore. Either it had broken or his body had switched into a zombie state where he didn’t really feel much. But he felt twitchy, weak, uncoordinated. He fished a bar of dark chocolate from a pouch, peeled the wrapping, and ate it.
Eddie was limping toward them, a good 300 meters away. He was a ghost in a dust veil, the sun making the floating ash and dirt particles glitter like a cheesy music clip or cheap porn. Marc was sitting on a piece of rock, wiping vomit from his lips and nose.
Cem joined them next. He had a stiff gait too, and there was blood on his ghillie. He said nothing, just lay down on the ground, staring up at the sky. Lee Qiang noticed the captain’s good ear was bleeding. He touched his own lobes, and they were sticky. Ollie had bloody sideburns, too.
Sveta rinsed her mouth with water, and then drank greedily. There were spots of blood on the front of her uniform.
She had access to KOS-1… “Fifteen minutes,” Lee Qiang croaked. “Then we move on.”
“How far?” someone—he wasn’t sure who—asked.
The chocolate felt good down his throat. “We regroup four clicks to the west. Who has the tail?”
“I’ll take it,” Cem said from his prone position.
“Anyone need medical assistance?” the captain said.
They snorted and laughed, sounding like geriatrics. Marc joined them, then turned somber, touching his ribs. Lip wiped his nose on a sterile gauze. The snot came out sooty dark. Blood and dirt.
“Your leg is bleeding,” Sveta told him. “Let me see.”
Lee Qiang wanted to object, but he lowered himself to the ground. It was hard not to fall asleep right then. The world spun, with an audible chime. Or maybe it was inside his head.
“You need to take your pants off,” she instructed him.
Gently, Lee Qiang unstrapped his leg armor and the thigh holster, and slid his pants down. He could see the massive bruising on the adductor. Almost like an allergic reaction to an insect bite, a hundred times bigger. The skin was gashed, the hairs curled into spikes with crusted blood.
He was aware of the stares around him.
“China girl,” Cliff said. “I think he got a bullet in his ass. You wanna check that, too?”
“A rectal exam.” Olaf snickered then coughed.
“You like the finger up your arse, don’t you?” Lip taunted.
Lee Qiang grimaced as Sveta cleaned the cut, the world around him gray and spinning gently. He shrugged off the joke. Maybe it was meant as an insult, maybe not. He’d heard worse.
He looked at the captain. The man’s face was blank.
Lee Qiang understood immediately what this was all about.
“No more than any other man.”
They laughed and wheezed some more, the madness of their situation forgotten for a moment. Sector 8 was just a crazy idea. Orenburg was a city on a map somewhere. They were eight men and a woman, drowned in delirium, fatigue, and radioactive dust, savoring a quiet moment.
That would not last.
They were vulnerable. If the enemy attacked them now, they would probably end up dead. Everyone had their limits.
Fifteen minutes went by in a flash. Then they were up, and walking, tottering. A fresh breeze picked up, and Lee Qiang relished the cool touch on his skin. He was sweating profusely and there were black tears of it coming down his face.
It took them almost three hours to cover the humble four kilometer distance.
Lee Qiang found himself on his knees twice, heaving. Marc fell and cut his face, but wouldn’t let anyone near him. Olaf dropped his rifle, and looked surprised when the wide strap tugged on his harness.
We must push on.
They were still in Orenburg, but this was the city periphery. Blast-swept fields, tree husks turned to cinders and mummified where they stood, all facing away from the nearest nuke epicenter. To the east, the smear of smoke and dust had become a random blotch against the cloud-dappled sky.
Lee Qiang hawked and spat. It came out green. His hands were shaking, he noticed.
He looked at his sorry team. “We move on.”
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: MoD (OGL v1.0 license), adapted and used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.