Yefim had rhotacism.
Back in Poland, when Lee Qiang had been growing up, such a speech impediment would have earned a child a lifetime worth of beating. Probably in all the Slavic countries.
The fact Yefim was still very much healthy and alive in Sector 8 meant the childhood bullying had prepared him well.
They sat in the man’s house, in what would technically be the living room, drinking too-sweet tea from small crystal glasses.
It was surreal.
“Kaliningrad, Stockholm,” Yefim repeated and smacked the back of his right hand against the palm of his left. “Poof. Gone.”
The villager had a radio. And just that morning, through static and an occasional echo of what sounded like Kazakh folk music, he had heard that the two cities had been nuked. No detailed explanations or reasons, just cold facts.
And I thought we were looking to end this war.
He did not know why anyone would seek to escalate. It did not profit any side. Not even Shishka, despite his madness. But maybe, just maybe, he had been pushed into a corner and forced to act. Or maybe it was the KOS-1 attack that had precipitated the rest of it. Lee Qiang only partly blamed himself. He had seen the ballistic missile trails and the satellite debris before he—Sveta—had launched the orbital strike.
The village had no known name, and they had not asked. It sat in between two marked places on their outdated maps. Pokrovka and Novosergeyevka had both been abandoned, most likely shortly after the nuclear explosion. They’d left with haste, and yet the villagers had taken anything valuable or edible with them. Left no transportation, not even a squeaky wheelbarrow.
They had expected outright hostility from any person they met, but strangely, Yefim had waved at them in a friendly fashion when he saw them approaching through the field, thick clouds threatening rain, and then waved them in.
The situation had all the right elements to be a trap. But Galileo showed no movement and no one fired at them as they approached. With two men on guard outside, the rest huddled in the living room. Yefim’s wife served them tea, and their daughter sat on a bright red wooden chain in the corner.
The girl looked mentally handicapped.
“Is there anyone else in the village?” Lip asked gently. Lonya translated.
Yefim shook his head. “Only my family. The other cowards all fled. But I told them, we have seen the mushrooms before; it’s nothing new. They said the radiation can make you sick.” He waved dismissively. “I’m strong like twenty years ago.”
Lee Qiang glanced at the daughter. He wondered if he could spare a package of iodine tablets.
The house smelled of unwashed bodies. But it wasn’t just an ordinary stink. This was the musky odor nurtured over many years of carefully cultivated lack of hygiene. The smell of hair, leather, and moldy carpets.
Remember, only lunatics live in Sector 8. Don’t look for reason and compassion. This man is being polite; that does not make him a saint.
Strange how the mind worked. After a while, if someone wasn’t trying to outright murder you, you might almost think of them as a friend. It was an illusion of combat fatigue and stress, and he knew he must not succumb to it. He rehearsed his special training lessons; he tried to keep focus on what they were doing here.
It’s not over yet.
“Here lads, radishes,” Yefim’s wife offered, placing a polka-dot pot on the tablecloth. It brimmed with red and purple roots.
Rich in vitamins and radioactive isotopes.
No one reached out.
Undeterred, the woman brought out onion soup, bread, and something beef-like. In any other place, it would have been a majestic feast. They had spent the last quarter of eternity hexing up pasta and rice from their dwindling rations. While those essentially constituted warm meals, their bodies yearned for something that had not been processed and vacuum-packed to expire on the last day of the apocalypse. Army meals were perfect as far as nutritional science went, but their intestines didn’t like cold food for so long.
I don’t remember seeing any cows, Lee Qiang thought.
Well, the man had invited them in, a worldwide sign of hospitality—or gruesome crimes. To refuse would be an insult. But there could be any number of toxins in the food, intentional or unintentional. And no matter how desperate their situation was, there were things Lee Qiang would never eat.
“Beef?” Marc asked.
“Donkey,” Yefim said and chuckled. “Stepped on a mine, poor thing. I pulled the shrapnel out.”
Marc shrugged and started eating.
“Good. Your breathing is not right. You need the soup,” Yefim said.
Marc grunted. The rest of them took their time, dithering. If Marc decided to be the brave food taster volunteer, they might as well let him do the job.
“What is it? Ribs? Got broken ribs?”
Yefim plowed on. “We can take a look. I got a roentgen machine.”
“Why do you have it?” Brezhnev asked, holding a piece of bread in front of his mouth.
“I was a veterinarian before the war. People who come to me to help them with their livestock. Human flesh, animal flesh, it’s the same to me.”
“No,” Marc said.
This is insane. A dream. Lee Qiang could not imagine what it would be like to survive for a whole decade in Sector 8. What kind of man you became. But he was already seeing the erosion of his own judgment and professionalism. Subtle, like a tiny crack in the facade of a wall. He was still capable of seeing it. Soon enough, it might not matter.
Marc was showing no sign of imminent death. Yefim did not look concerned as he ate his wife’s food. They had stumbled into this village by accident. They didn’t even have it on the maps. If someone wanted them dead, there were easier, less elaborate ways to get the results.
Lee Qiang tasted the soup. It was heaven.
“Your wife?” Yefim asked, pointing at Sveta with his spoon.
A dangerous question. “Yes.”
Yefim nodded. “Good to have a strong wife. Keeps you healthy.” He laughed. “Raisa, get the vodka.”
“We must refuse,” Lee Qiang said. It was probably filtered aviation fuel or similar atrocity. “But we thank you for your hospitality.”
Yefim half-smiled, half-winked. “Be nice to everyone, you live longer, I say.” But his stance changed. It was obvious he expected a spontaneous payment for his goodwill. Lee Qiang did not object. If there were more Yefims in Sector 8, it would be that much less insane.
A vibration made the soup in his bowl crease in concentric rings.
He heard the slicing beat of a helicopter rotor several seconds later.
Deathly silence descended on Yefim’s home.
“Incoming helo, bearing 020 degrees, two clicks,” Olaf shouted from outside.
They rushed out, spreading among the empty houses and their yards, the flashback of Mamuka’s death making their muscles twitch. Yefim joined them, shading his eyes as he scanned the leaden sky. The men were all tense, and the question of having been set up by this man and his family burned on their tongues. Onions and betrayal. But no one shot him yet. They might need to question him or use him as a hostage.
Yefim did not look concerned. Only curious. Nothing about him spoke of any knowledge of danger. Just the casual wariness of a Sector 8 person. His daughter and wife were still inside.
Lee Qiang briefly wondered if they should have stayed inside. But then the house would become a trap, and a single well-placed rocket would kill them all. Being outside made them easier to spot but also harder to hunt individually, and they could lose themselves among the buildings and sheds. Being outside also signified innocence in that they did not need to hide.
They waited, weapons ready, all too aware they did not possess anything big enough to take down a flying platform. Cem had rested his sniper rifle against the fence, kneeling, trying to aim up.
The helicopter soon became discernible. It was a Hind.
Shit. A gunship.
No. It was a Hind variant. Old, reliable workhorse. Unarmed. Painted brilliant white. A special radiology sampling model.
Odd. Alarming. But also not signaling death right away.
The helicopter was flying in a straight line at an altitude of about 200 meters, heading toward the nuke location. There was nothing about it that indicated immediate threat. Except its presence was enough to make Lee Qiang’s neck tingle.
The question was, who owned that helicopter?
Lee Qiang remembered the early days of the war. The European Crisis, the Greco-Turkish war, the disbandment of NATO, the American involvement, and the sinking of the USN 7th Fleet, and then the protracted, brutal global chaos with more than 200 belligerent factions. The war that had seen the national borders of 43 countries erased. More than 7,000 aircrafts shot down by sophisticated air defense systems over Russia’s four consolidated time zones alone. The extreme recession and financial turmoil gripping the major powers. 130 million dead and counting.
Air forces were one of the notable victims of the conflict. They worked well, as long as you had the massive, expensive infrastructure to support them. It had come down to a few helicopters and swarms of drones, thousands of them, small things that could fly from anywhere to everywhere and even drop a bomb or two.
Seeing a helicopter meant someone was brave and powerful—or stupid—enough to risk a daytime flight over the Ural mountains.
Logically, it made sense. Warlords would have the means to buy an odd airframe and keep it flightworthy. Colonel Abdulaev had his. Lee Qiang had expected that. But this one was a highly specialized model. A well-proven gunship frame. If the owner was willing to send a reconnaissance model to sample the mushroom cloud, he may have more.
Smells like Shishka.
But then, the elusive leader of the Alliance was meant to be focusing on the campaign to the south. Of course, he did not have to be physically present in the theater of operations, even with the satellite grid down. He might not even be in the sector. He might not even be alive. He might not even exist.
That did not explain Kaliningrad or Stockholm.
Forget about politics. There’s a base out there with at least one airworthy helicopter. Most likely several more. A rare RkhR example probably means a whole squadron of Hinds. A forward base of operations crammed with goods.
It could be their taxi home.
Or a nemesis to avoid on their retreat back to friendly territory.
If the enemy was willing to fly this helicopter after a nuke attack, he might also use the aircraft to search and hunt after enemy units. A special forces infiltrator group, for example, just like theirs. Evading tanks and infantry through a maze of forests and mines was one thing. Evading gunships was another. And without anything big enough to shoot them down, it would make their chance of surviving this madness that much lower.
“Want to shoot it down?” Yefim said suddenly.
“Shoot the helicopter down? Do you want it?”
Lee Qiang could not hide his surprise. “You have an AA launcher available?”
Yefim nodded, like it was the most natural thing. “Yes. Let me show you. I’ve got an Igla and batteries and everything.”
The man led them around his house toward a small tools shed. There was a stack of logs under a heavy camo tarp to one side of it and a chicken coop—but no birds—on the other. Yefim opened the shed and pointed proudly.
Lee Qiang stepped in. The shed smelled like mushrooms and armpits. Leaning in a corner were three RPO-A Shmels—a very neat thermobaric weapon with the equivalent punch of a 155mm shell—and a single Igla-M. He looked at the rocket launchers first. Their last service date was more than eighteen years ago, and with a shell life of one decade, it was not worth risking it.
The AA missile was also an old thing. The battery pack had corrosion eating one of the corners. It was unsafe.
“How much?” he asked, so he wouldn’t have to insult Yefim.
“Fifty million rubles. But you must be quick; the helicopter will soon be out of range.”
Lee Qiang smiled. “I’ll pass. Another time.”
Yefim shrugged, waited impatiently for him to step out, and then locked the shed again.
Lip had a bemused expression on his whiskered face. The two of them exchanged glances.
Do we try to find out where that helo base is and storm it? Lee Qiang signaled with a minute tilt of his chin skywards.
Lip blinked slowly, which meant no.
Desperation led to bold decisions. They needed to leave this shithole fast. They needed a doctor. Marc probably required a surgery. Hitchhiking back home in a Mi-24 flying NOE under radar and around known West Army air defense systems sounded like a reasonable endeavor in their current situation.
“Why not?” Lee Qiang whispered as he stepped close to the captain. Yefim had gone to the front of his house, pointing at the helicopter, trying to convince Olaf and Ollie to buy his out-of-warranty missile stock.
“If I need to die, I’d like it to happen on solid ground,” Lip said.
“It’s a fair point.” Lee Qiang conceded.
“We don’t know how far the helo base is. Or where. We don’t know anything.” He paused. “Did you ask your girlfriend? Or was it again something the colonel failed to mention?”
“I will ask,” Lee Qiang said, trying to keep anger out of his voice. “But if the enemy feels it is safe enough to take off, this means there shouldn’t be any AA sites around here or any fresh nukes.”
Lip’s stares were hard. “Unless they are fools. You want to trust cannibals and drug lords with your life?”
Already have. “I’m going to talk to Sveta.”
“I’ll see what else Doctor Zhivago has to sell us.”
She stood to the side, close to the small parcel of radishes. She did not look comfortable.
“Another omission in telling us important things,” he said, and was surprised that he did not sound bitter. Only tired.
Sveta pressed her lips. “I don’t know about that helicopter.”
Is she scared of my reaction or that she does not possess knowledge of a force in Sector 8 still capable of fielding and servicing rotary-wing aircraft? “And what about Stockholm and Kaliningrad? Shishka’s getting nervous?”
“That’s not Shishka’s work,” she said with solid conviction.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Why now? What would be the point?”
Guessing the decision-making logic of a madman. “What would be the nearest suitable location for a FOB?”
“Most likely Ufa or Oktyabrsky.”
Way too far. And not where we need to be. He didn’t know what else to say to her.
Lip sensed their little conversation was over. “No quads, no offroad bikes, not even bicycles. Not even a horse-drawn cart. He does have usable lithium batteries and first aid kits with normal expiry dates. Canned food, too. And he wants money.”
“Money is good,” Lee Qiang agreed. Money is sane.
“And he still insists on giving Marc an examination.”
Lee Qiang frowned. “Where does he get the electricity?”
A crooked smile touched Lip’s lips. “Runs his own generator. This Yefim is a crafty bastard.” The smile vanished. “What do we do about that helicopter?”
Lee Qiang looked west. “Yefim!”
“Where did that nuke land?”
Someone might be moving against Shishka. Someone else was distracted enough to risk an NBC helo flying in daylight to inspect the incident. Whoever that was would be busy figuring out why a nuke had gone off in their area rather than chasing after a few smelly characters in generic camo uniforms. It might even be Shishka who flew that thing, except that Sveta looked genuinely surprised.
Fuck this. I just want this nightmare over.
It was time to go. The longer they stayed the more vulnerable they were.
“We’ll get going, Yefim,” Lee Qiang told the man as Lip and Brezhnev packed fresh supplies and the hospitable villager counted the thick wad of rubles. “Thank you.”
“Come again. Next time, it’s peace, and we drink vodka!” His face turned conspiratorial. “Tell me, was that Shishka?”
Whether that meant the nuke or the Hind or both, Lee Qiang wasn’t quite sure. But things were really getting out of control, and the one thing Shishka had always had was total and complete control of the sector.
“Shishka’s dead,” Lee Qiang said.
They left, heading in the wrong direction for a good two clicks before turning northwest again. A sullen but mercifully dry sky watched them go.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain photo, by Karelj), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.