Fucking Orenburg was still there around them, a torn postcard of destruction, obscured by the wilderness. At the bottom of what looked like a dry irrigation canal, there was a convoy of abandoned cars all sunk deep in sandy ground. Plastic bags of rubbish poked through the grass, spangles of red and blue against the sunburnt carpet. Higher on the west bank, there was a bus.
The rust-splotched husk was lying on its belly, the axles half-sunk into the ground, leaning slightly toward the incline. The old thing had burned down, and was mottled reddish-black all over. There was a patina of lichen-like growth climbing up its sides. Inside, the plastic chairs had melted, forming a frozen river. Even now, even with his senses dulled by illness and the ashes, he could smell the waxy, phenol stench.
The plan was to stay put till the morning.
The bus painted a conspicuous target. It also made a poor choice for cover under normal circumstances, which was why they had chosen it. Their foe would not expect them to hide inside a rusty tin coffin. There were a thousand other rubble-and-trash features more likely to hide a small team of enemy troops. Orenburg was an endless maze of destruction, and the bus was the first thing you’d avoid.
It was radioactive, too.
But they all knew it. Another sleepless night, and they would be dead. Maybe not right away, but it would catch up with them very quickly. Sickness, fatal mistakes that a rested mind would never make. Terribly, terribly risky so close to the recent combat theater, but it was the logical thing to do. The sane, healthy thing to do. Pushing on would just make them easy targets for the next batch of enemy forces.
And yet two of the men would have to stay awake for another two hours.
Lee Qiang drew the last watch. He smiled bitterly.
“Someone’s been buried here,” Brezhnev commented, tapping the ground with his boot. That there might be a mine there was a distant thought.
“I don’t care,” Lee Qiang muttered to himself. He surveyed the terrain, his knees buckling and locking of their own accord. He climbed into the bus, his hand slipping on the crumbling handhold. His whole body was a balloon of pain. He nodded at Sveta through an empty window frame.
He swallowed more antibiotics and vitamins, drank the one remaining probiotic, crawled under a naked bench frame, and willed himself to sleep.
His body obeyed instantly.
“You certainly have a perverted sense of loyalty,” Lip said, coming over to his side.
Ah, the unfinished business. At least it didn’t take too long.
Captain William Smythe didn’t like to leave things unresolved, bless him.
Lee Qiang pretended he hadn’t heard. He waited until the captain walked into his view. “Lip,” he said, trying to keep his voice neutral.
“I said, you have a perverted sense of loyalty,” the captain insisted.
Lee Qiang did not move. “Meaning?”
“What was that shit in Orenburg yesterday?”
Lee Qiang had woken from his deathlike slumber feeling refreshed and dazed at the same time. There was a pool of rancid spit and murky sweat on the bus decking where he’d slept curled in a ball. His whole body ached and he stank from deep, rank fever sweat. His underwear and shirt felt like someone had slapped cellophane to his skin. He was drenched through and starting to feel uncomfortable, only it wasn’t the chill of being sick anymore. It was the tingle of water and salt drying on his body, and the pre-dawn wind singing through the skeletal frame of the rusty bus.
He took his 15 minutes before the watch to clean himself. Rinsed the shirt with water and soap and let it dry stretched over four chem lights pushed into the ground like tent pegs, washed his face and neck with sanitary wipes, took a long piss, drank a full liter of water, and then relieved Ollie.
Nothing had showed up on the horizon during the night, except the dull glow of a torched city—and the birds. Come the first bruised morning light, endless flocks. Some of them were charging the dissipating column of smoke, now a darker-than-the-sky towering tree of gray, enjoying the thermals. Or maybe gloating over the human misery.
Their short, sweet detente was were coming to an end—in more ways than one.
Lee Qiang knew what the captain wanted. In a way, this confrontation had been inevitable since the first second they had met.
“You seem confused, Lick Young.”
Lee Qiang just waited.
“You should have handed the girl over.”
“There was no guarantee they would have stuck to their end of the deal.”
“No, but they might have. Your decision dictated a guaranteed battle.”
Lee Qiang rose from his sentry position, stretching his muscles. They felt hollow, spent. “She is our prisoner, and we have a duty. We chose that when we took her alive. And so far, she’’ proven very useful.” He had not mentioned her help with the KOS.
That was not just any radio technician’s luck.
“Or maybe she is just a plaything for the Alliance soldiers.” Lip bore with utter ease, all casual disappointment. Lee Qiang remembered that look from their first incident.
“I am not giving up strategic assets,” Lee Qiang said, feeling somewhat silly for saying that. But then he recalled why they had sent him on this mission. Because he was willing to risk everything for the mission. And the captain, deep deep down, was a businessman.
“You are confused, Lick.”
Lee Qiang looked at the other mercenaries. They were watching. But they did not look intent on intervening just yet. Maybe they did not understand the full dynamics of what was going to happen. Or maybe they followed some bizarre code of honor, and this was the captain’s game.
The situation made him angry. They were fighting for their survival. This little show was utterly pointless. And petty.
No, it’s not pettiness, he corrected himself. It’s malice.
“I think it’s your Chinese blood.”
Here we go.
“Maybe you think, you might get all friendly with the locals. After all, you’ve been pampering your Chinese whore—”
The bullet was on its way. The nerves in Lip’s arm had already fired, and the signal was coursing down the arm, twitching muscles. When it reached the index finger, it convulsed, squeezed the trigger, and the pistol fired a single round, intended for Lee Qiang’s exposed face.
Only Lee Qiang had already charged the captain, getting inside his reach, pushing the arm wide, and drawing his own weapon. He placed the muzzle under Lip’s front armor, just above his groin.
Lip looked surprised. But he did not move.
Gut wounds were often deadly, even if one had a surgeon at hand. The bullet would go through the captain’s bladder and most likely his colon. He would die from the injury, one way or another.
“Are you done?” Lee Qiang asked him.
Lip raised his eyebrows. His eyes shone with disdain.
Lee Qiang lowered the pistol, pressed it against the captain’s thigh, and fired.
Lip just collapsed.
The Golden Horde watched him warily. They were ready to shoot. Except their captain was in the way, lying on the ground, grimacing, gripping his leg in both hands.
“The captain is injured. He needs assistance,” Lee Qiang said. “Quick.”
Brezhnev came over first. He cut the trouser leg carefully, and pulled the fabric open. Lee Qiang knelt by his nemesis, helping the sergeant.
There was a double ring welt on the captain’s swollen skin, a burn mark from the barrel. The entry wound seem to be cauterized. There was blood dripping on the other side, where the round had gone through.
“You seem to be in luck, captain,” Lee Qiang said, feigning surprise in his own voice. “The bullet’s gone out, didn’t fragment. The exit wound is tiny. No arterial damage, and no bone damage. You are one lucky bastard.”
I could have killed you. Instead, it’s up to you now, bastard. You’re injured, so if you can keep up with the rest of us, you live. If not, it will be the weakness of your spirit that kills you, William Smythe, not the AP round from my 9-mil.
Lip swallowed a curse. But he knew the odds. He rolled his eyes as Brezhnev pushed a compress against his leg. His face lost some color, but then he recovered quickly. A sneer crept onto his lips. “You really are a special breed of mongrel.”
“Much obliged,” Lee Qiang said. “Does it hurt much?”
Lip started laughing. They all did. It was an animal response to a prehistoric hierarchy game. One that went way before special forces training and gunpowder weaponry.
Lee Qiang leaned closer. “They say leg injuries can lead to erectile dysfunction.”
“I’m just saying. Try this again, and I will kill you.”
Lip was weighing his words. “You said the same shit the last time.”
Lee Qiang smiled. “No. I said I would shoot you.”
Lip sat up, grimacing. He scooped the bloody earth under his leg, rolling it between his fingers until he held the mangled jacket between his forefinger and thumb. “I’m going to take this with me, have it recast, then have you shot with it one day.”
Lee Qiang nodded, and patted the captain on the shoulder. “One day.” He stood up.
The mercs were watching him with a mix of hatred and something like mild respect. Just the right kind of blend any worthy team leader of psychopaths earned. If you wanted to lead a pack of wolves, you had to be the one with the most vicious bite.
Brezhnev put a carbon mesh cast around the captain’s leg and tightened the straps. Lip cursed under his breath. Next, the sergeant offered pain killers, but the captain refused them. He tottered up, trying to hide his agony. Gingerly, he applied weight to his injured leg, made a few cautious steps. The mesh cast distributed the pressure away from the injury.
Now we both have equal chances of survival, captain.
His own leg was stiff. The bruising was massive, but it hurt mostly when he sat or knelt. All in all, he was lucky.
Eddie was in a similar predicament. Marc worried him the most, though. He had the lowest odds of making it out alive, even if his lucky armor stopped all bullets aimed at his heart.
“The major and I are friends now,” Lip announced in a grim voice, reaching out for a neck-hug. “Good chums all around.”
“That we are,” Lee Qiang intoned, faking a grin, letting the captain embrace and shake him. Perhaps he had finally earned some of their respect. Sad it had to be this way, but it had to be this way. And it had taken only two bullets to get there. One for Mirza, and one for the captain.
I’ve seen and done worse.
“Good; now let’s move.” Lip hobbled forward, walking to the small pile of his gear. He had a telescope cane in his backpack. They all had one. Its primary use was for climbing and descending steep hills, to reduce the pressure on the knees when walking under full combat weight. Now it would serve for a bullet injury, too.
Lee Qiang saw Sveta. She was watching him, her face a carefully crafted mask. He walked over to Marc. The lieutenant was pale, but he did look amused by the little shoot-a-friend earlier. Lee Qiang was impressed with the man’s tenacity. “How are you?”
“Putain,” Marc said.
“We will need water soon,” Cliff spoke, checking their inventory. Every day before setting out, they did a quick check of their food, ammo, and medical supplies. Every day, the backpacks became lighter. They still had enough purification tablets, enough painkillers and gauze. Their battery-powered kit was running almost flat. They would need electricity soon, too.
Not that it was of any great use in this desolate hell.
The positioning satellites were still offline.
Lee Qiang intended to cover at least 10-15 kilometers today to get away from Orenburg. While it was extremely likely everyone on the enemy team had been killed in the bombardment, some might have pulled through, especially people inside armored vehicles and the artillery battery, which was probably tens of kilometers away. Waiting for them to come around and renew their pursuit was not a smart thing to do.
But there was one more thing he had to do.
He walked up to Sveta. Her eyebrow twitched when she saw his expression. He didn’t like what he must do, but he promised himself he would hurt her if she lied to him.
“Who are you?”
She looked at the other mercenaries. They were busy with their own thoughts, injuries and gear, but with one ear cocked to their tougher-than-expected-proven-worthy major. Judging, assessing, being utterly clever. Only the game was up.
“Svetlana Zhang, Colonel, East Alliance Military Intelligence, Strategic Command.”
Finally things make sense. He felt a knot untie in the pit of his stomach. “What were you doing at that abandoned power plant?” He repeated the question she had rebuffed and evaded a thousand times before.
“We were setting up a backup communications center. The…army command was planning a major offensive, set for June 22. It included a coordinated attack against global communication networks along with a sustained ground offensive.”
“So the satellites no longer working, that’s part of this?”
She nodded weakly.
“We got ourselves a big fish,” Olaf said.
“Shut up,” Lee Qiang warned. Back to Sveta. “How did you get access to KOS-1?”
“I was given access by Colonel-General Cheong, Head of Strategic Command.”
“If needed, it could be used and deployed even if the West Army retaliated and disabled our own central command grid.”
Best lies are partial truths, he thought, feeling annoyed. She had manipulated him all too well. Managed to gain his trust when he’d aimed the other way around. But he was glad he had not let Lip kill her after the first investigation. She was a valuable asset. High-ranking POWs were always useful.
And so far, she’s saved your skin twice.
“Likes the cock, and yet still blinded by pussy,” Lip said, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Poetic.”
Lee Qiang didn’t have brain capacity to feel insulted by the captain. He was trying to process the information Sveta had shared. No way to corroborate her words. But the circumstantial evidence did favor her story. Or maybe she was wickedly smart, and she was a great storyteller. Used what she could find along the way to create her own web of illusions.
As always, the West had underestimated Shishka. While they were busy with their ill-fated manhunt, he had staged a huge offensive. Perhaps this was just a reaction to or retaliation for Operation Lake Placid. But Shishka wasn’t impulsive. Or short-sighted. He was a strategist, and he would have planned this campaign in thorough detail. Operation Putain just happened to take place at the same time.
Something flashed, dimmed, flashed, roughly behind and to the left of him, he thought.
It felt like an amateur photographer snapping a crappy red-eye photo in a room full of wooden-faced people, except they were out in the open, and the sun was up.
There were few things that could outshine the sun.
“Don’t look,” he said almost instinctively, and closed his eyes hard, even though it was probably pointless.
A few seconds later, he opened them and scanned the horizon.
Somewhere to the north-northwest, a white-and-gray pyroculumus mushroom cloud was rising, bubbling up, widening into a sphere, surrounded by a condensation ring like a crown. A stem of the same filthy white color was feeding into the cloud. The spectacle was both fascinating and terrifying.
“Was this part of the offensive?” Lee Qiang asked.
Sveta shook her head.
TO BE CONTINUED …
For comments, please head out to Goodreads!
Image credit: US Gov (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.