“Well, ain’t that bloody marvelous,” Lip whispered.
Yes, but what now. “What can you tell us, Cliff?”
The engineer was holding the Geiger counter toward the blast. It did not show any elevated readings, beyond what they expected to find this close to Orenburg. “We did receive an initial dose of infrared and gamma. Does anyone have any burning sensation on their skin or impaired vision?”
A rounds of negatives came back from the group.
Cliff nodded. “Now, the tricky part, how far is that thing? And how powerful?”
“Was that a ground or airburst detonation?” Lee Qiang asked.
Cliff grimaced. “Hard to tell. Usually, if the mushroom stem is white, it’s airburst; if it’s brown or dark gray, it’s a ground explosion.”
The one billowing up on the horizon was filthy bone-gray. Not really telling.
“Was that even a nuke?” Brezhnev said.
There was a double flash, Lee thought, but maybe it was his brain convincing itself. Hard to tell.
“Most likely yes.” Cliff suddenly looked around him, almost like a grazer smelling a predator. Everyone was getting a little fidgety.
“How far?” Ollie mumbled, his face still splotched purple and yellow from the ambush days ago.
“Hard to tell.”
“Fuck! You’re supposed to be a fucking expert,” Ollie exploded.
“Calm down,” Lee Qiang said. “Stay focused. We need to figure out how dangerous that cloud is, and what our next action is.” And no less importantly, who had just detonated that nuke and why.
The wind picked up. They tensed. But it was just an ordinary wind from southwest, not a wave of radioactive dust from the northwest.
“I can’t determine the distance,” Cliff said. “We don’t know the yield, or the type of the device, or the altitude it was set off to explode at. Or the temperature. The hotter it is, the higher it goes.”
Lee Qiang took a deep breath. “What should we do now?”
Cliff swallowed. “Well, if this was a ground detonation, there would have been a seismic wave. Those travel fast, so even if this happened 200 kilometers away, we would have felt it by now. The fact we did not means either the shock was too faint to notice or this was an airburst.” He paused, thinking. “Airburst is better. Less fallout. If we’re far enough from the blast and thermal damage, we should be okay.”
“Are we far enough?” Lip asked.
We wait for the firestorm and the neutron slush? Lee Qiang watched the cauliflower rising higher and higher, expanding, bubbling. It must be at least 10 kilometers tall. Most likely much more.
“I would say yes, but we should ingest iodine tablets just to be on the safe side. Short-lived isotopes will be a primary concern, especially in the first two days. After that, the radiation will fall by a factor of about 100.”
“I don’t have any in my backpack,” Sveta said.
Lee Qiang handed her a package. “Here you go, Colonel.” She kept her eyes down.
Lip stepped closer. He smiled dryly at the girl. “So, who did this? Shishka?”
The protective instinct that had been with Lee Qiang ever since they had taken her prisoner did not wake. He watched passively as the captain did his questioning.
She swallowed a tablet and shook her head. “No. This was not planned.”
“How do you know?” Lip pressed.
“We wouldn’t be setting up ground communication stations to have them rendered useless by a blast,” she replied, her tone defiant.
Does it smell like smog? Lee Qiang wondered, recalling a dusty memory of an NBC warfare lecture he had never wanted revived. It must be his imagination. But radio would be tricky for a while because of the air ionization, and the EMP would probably have messed up sensitive equipment. Not that he had anything to use and check. The positioning satellites were down, and they had nothing to talk with the army command.
A textbook definition of fuckery.
“Maybe someone wants Shishka removed, and they took their shot,” Lip said.
Lee Qiang understood what the captain was trying to achieve. But if he had fooled or baffled Sveta, it did not show on her face.
Or maybe it was not about Shishka.
It’s us. Me. I had delivered the KOS-1 payload. From a distance, it looks just like any other mushroom cloud. Maybe someone decided it’s nuke season again, and I triggered their appetite for blood.
Could this be the West Army reacting to Shishka’s campaign? Or was this an opportunistic one-off? Had one of Shishka’s general rebelled? Or was Shishka quelling a rebellion the way only a first-class lunatic would?
Fuuck, his brain sang.
A few tense minutes past. They stood, because there was no point trying to outrun the after-effects of a nuclear explosion.
Running from death just makes you winded when it catches up with you.
Luckily, the ground did not shake, there was no hot, acrid blast of air from the northwest. It seemed the mushroom was far enough. There would be fallout in the coming hours and days as the heavy particles settled. A distant worry.
“Just when my lungs were getting better,” Marc said in a strained voice, and laughed at his own joke. “Putain.”
Lee Qiang looked away from the cloud.
The world suddenly felt small, like a badly assembled prop to a bigger, more sinister stage. With that huge mushroom there, they were Lilliputians in a macabre play, waiting for the curtain to go down. The rusty, burned-out bus looked like an item from a nightmare. The dry canal, the abandoned cars, the rubbish, the ruined landscape, the ghost city. It was ridiculous, and he was in the middle of it. The birds were gone. Probably spooked by the explosion flash, or maybe it was the sudden flux in the electromagnetic spectrum.
“Gather your gear.” Nukes or no, they had to get away from Orenburg. Continue their retreat toward friendly territory. The initial plan was to head to Samara. But now they would need to go southwest, to Astrakhan. It wasn’t ideal, but he really hadn’t accounted for random nukes going off in Sector 8.
The Golden Horde packed in silence. Every now and then, one or another would steal a furtive glance toward the mushroom cloud. It was hard to ignore it. It was difficult to accept the reality
What do I like more, mines and cannibals or radiation poisoning?
They were part of this game now. There was no escape. Only a slow, agonizing trudge from one danger to another.
“Change of plans, boys,” Lee Qiang said. “The road home is blocked. So we will take a detour.” He laid out the map on the ground. They knelt around him—weak, stiff, injured men. His own leg refused to bend, and he had to shimmy himself down.
“We will head to the Caspian Sea coast, and join the—”
“You cannot,” Sveta interrupted him. She was standing to the side, looking at the map above their heads.
Lip cocked his head. “Come again?”
She waited until she had their undivided attention. “You cannot. Shishka…is moving the bulk of his forces there. There will be…there is a concentrated offensive against the West Sector 6.”
She is playing us, Lee Qiang thought. Was he disappointed? Annoyed by his own incompetence? By trusting an enemy? And yet, she had provided them—him—with vital information that had saved their lives several times now, and it seemed she intended to do that again. Divulge secrets about her own side to help them. But was that a breach of loyalty, a hostage syndrome, or just selfish desire to save her own skin? He wasn’t sure he could tell anymore. His confidence in being able to manipulate and influence people felt eroded. Even more so that he had allowed himself to be blinded by a woman. It wasn’t a matter of sex that normally applied in these situations. He should have been immune to charm.
And yet, like a fucking white knight boy scout, he had blundered straight into the trap.
Is it because she is half-Chinese? Because she was a mongrel like him? If that was the answer, he did not deserve his rank, his position. He did not deserve to lead a team of special forces. He did not deserve anything, because he was a fool.
She might be withholding the truth, she might even be lying, but when she does speak, her information is reliable.
Focus on that, then. Keep the emotions at bay. Forget about Shishka. Bring the survivors back. An East Alliance colonel was a decent prize for a failed operation.
“You will know the disposition and movement of troops; we can slip through,” he countered.
Sveta shook her head. “It will be too dangerous.” Trust me, her silence pleaded.
He sighed. “All right. So where do we go then? West?”
Bearing 321 degrees.
“You’re fucking kidding,” Lip said, snorting hard. A bubble of snot escaped from one nostril.
“And what’s happening in the West?” Lee Qiang asked, but he knew the answer.
Sveta grimaced. “Mines.”
Lee Qiang rubbed his forehead. There was a pain budding above his eyes, quickly, suddenly. Minefields the size of a small country. Unless they intended to crawl on their knees and elbows, with a detector between their teeth, there wasn’t any going home that way.
He stared at the map, feeling dumb. There was Sharlyk—not too far from the nuke, maybe it had been the target, maybe Shishka was there?—and then there was the long way they had taken on their way to Orenburg the first time.
What now? Wait for the radioactive dust to settle? That would mean the grass and any water and food sources would be heavily contaminated over the wider region. Charge and hope to miss the fallout rains? Wait here, and maybe the enemy that had attacked them in Orenburg would show up again? Or the other enemy? Stay put, lose time and more supplies and still get soaked in fallout radiation?
Or head south and brave the divisions of the East Alliance forces.
But that was extremely risky, too. If the attack proved successful, the army command could fire a nuke to pacify Shishka.
He didn’t want to believe Sveta, but he knew she had outlined the least bad option. He hated himself for knowing that. It was like getting kicked in the balls. That first instant between shock and hollow pain. The knowledge that it was going to hurt.
A song rose in the back of his mind. Maybe it was desperation, maybe leftovers from his fever, maybe madness, or maybe just the way the human mind worked when it faced impossible odds, it dug deep, searching for answers.
Going south was going to be a death sentence. Without vehicles and anti-armor weaponry, they stood no chance against the well-organized combined arms units of the East Alliance. They would not be able to fight tanks or outrun mechanized infantry. Crossing into friendly territory would be impossible.
He wondered if the army was ready for Shishka’s campaign.
It’s too late. If Sveta has told us about it, it’s already happening.
He briefly thought about breaking every protocol and phoning the army command over radio, once it became possible again, then instantly reconsidered. No one would believe a random, incoming message; no one would accept an unsolicited connection on a secure channel, even if he knew the frequencies. No West Army officer would risk exposing the security of their communications network because some lunatic claimed to be a friendly spec ops.
There would be no help and no relief.
It was not his problem. He had to focus on his small group and how to survive.
“Cliff, what’s going to happen if we get close to that?”
The engineer stared at the mushroom cloud like it was personal. “Assuming it’s 50 kilometers away, we should try to keep the distance. Go as far west as we can, and around. No way to predict the winds. There are going to be concentrated deposits of Strontium and Cesium. That’s the primary concern.”
“How do we contain it?”
Cliff pinched the bridge of his nose. “We can tear up a tent or two and prepare makeshift galoshes so that we don’t pick up too much contaminated soil on our boots. Gloves on at all times. Breathing masks. Stay put when it’s raining. Avoid thick foliage. Definitely avoid any vegetables.”
“Find a transport and get the fuck out of here,” Ollie said.
“Putain,” Marc agreed.
Lee Qiang marked a dot on the map. “Let’s head to Pokrovka. Try to get there before nightfall.”
“What did we do in Pokrovka the last time?” Eddie asked, his eyes pressed tight. His double chin—the lower one made from red-and-black scabbing from his stumble in Orenburg—looked nasty.
“We didn’t,” Lip said. “We skipped that one.”
Some luck. Maybe the locals would not greet them with machine gun fire.
After the nuke, though…
Lee Qiang walked over and collected his shirt off the pegs. It was still damp. The rusty bus suddenly looked nice and cozy. His stomach rumbled and knotted. It felt like hunger, but it was just hollowness after an illness and too many antibiotics.
Maybe it was anxiety.
A strange feeling for a special forces guy.
It all went sour after we found the girl. Like sailors of old, we should have heeded the tales. No women on board. Bad luck, that.
She was waiting for him a few meters away, looking wary.
“Colonel, any other surprises we should know about?”
“You can call me Sveta.”
“I never thanked you for you did in Ore—”
“You did,” he cut her. “You punched in the right code.”
She nodded, as if she had forgotten about it.
He didn’t understand her need to make things right now. What was the point? He didn’t find her attractive sexually, and the farce was up. What else was she hiding, and hiding so well?
He didn’t want to know. He was tired.
“We are enemies, but we are also human beings,” she rallied on. “And what you did was noble. I respect that. I respect you.”
Lee Qiang grunted. “Single file. Watch for those mines.”
“I’ll take the tail,” Cem said. Lee Qiang realized the sniper had not said a word during his fight with the captain or after. In a dark scenario playing itself out in another black recess of his mind, he wondered what would Cem “Arif” do if it came out to a shooting match between him and the mercs.? Would he pick a side?
“Onwards, cripples,” Lip said, taking the lead, the mine detector strapped to his good leg. He chuckled.
It was infectious. They all started laughing, a tense, terse kind of laughter that sounded like a bunch of foxes.
The captain blazed the trail, refusing to go any slower because of his injuries. He knew the odds, and he would not let numbers beat him. Eddie followed, sensing that if he lagged behind, they would not be waiting for him. A cruel, simple rule.
Lee Qiang found his own stride painful, but as his muscles warmed up, it became a dull, itching sensation, not unlike exercise overburn. Sveta was behind him, and as the wind blew, he could smell her sweat, her hair, and he thought, maybe even her emotions. But he couldn’t decipher the scents.
Marc’s breathing was laborious, but he wasn’t coughing. Lee Qiang knew the Frenchman was dousing himself with cough inhibitors, antibiotics, and painkillers. Then came the rest of their small, battered group: Olaf and Ollie with their welts and bruises, Brezhnev with his shoulder wound, and finally, Cem, who seemed to be handling this catastrophe with cool aloofness.
Lee Qiang tried to ignore the dissipating mushroom behind him, growing in the corner of his eye. Like a sentinel, it rose and watched and following him as he headed for another village of desperation and madness.
Operation Putain was a failure, but it was far from over.
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.