“Maybe you use some of that gay charm to talk our way out of this?”
Lee Qiang put a hand on Lip’s shoulder and loved the fact the man flinched ever so subtly. “Not sure if that’s going to work here, but thank you for your suggestion.”
There was a bridge.
Flowing lazily under it, the Volga River.
Guarding both banks was a shady bunch of troops in mismatched camo and a serious stock of weapons.
There were not that many bridges still intact over the mighty river. Even in peacetime, most of the traffic has been regulated by shallow-draft ferries, and with the war raging, those had virtually ceased to exist. Too expensive to operate, too easy to target, thousands of tons worth of metal that could be used for other purposes.
The bridges that remained were heavily guarded, like the one near Oktyabrsk. The city itself was a husk of dark ruins, but the crossing was operational. The enemy had carefully dispersed its forces on both sides of the river, with the near bank covered in mines. It was a clever setup, and obviously designed to deter any West Army forces from moving in. Amphibious and engineering forces would be allowed to freely deploy into and across the river, but then, when they emerged on the other side, slow and vulnerable, they would hit the minefield, mud, and withering fire.
The eastern approach was guarded by 10 men. They had a mortar position, nicely encircled in a waist-high wall of sandbags. Next to it, there was a Baran-K all-terrain vehicle with a recoilless 82mm gun hanging over the engine hood. On the far bank, about 200 meters farther away, Lee Qiang could see two machine-gunners sitting on the slope, smoking, their scoped 7.62mm DPKs lying in the grass next to their feet. Higher up, closer to the barbed wire checkpoint, were at least a dozen soldiers with assault rifles.
It was not a formidable threat for a well-rested, fully armed, and uninjured body of special forces. In their weakened state, they weren’t sure what to do next. The one thing was certain: they had to get across.
But bridges were the perfect killing zones.
Even a single cool-headed man could pin down an entire company with his gunfire. The bridge railings served like conduits for the bullets. You had nowhere to retreat, and there was always a chance of the entire structure collapsing under you.
They had spent the last three hours watching the enemy position. Only a single civilian car had come through, unchallenged. It was a Kazanavto Taifun caravan, an impressive name for a less-than-impressive vehicle, just like the one they had stolen yesterday.
Lee Qiang wasn’t proud of what they had done, but it was a matter of survival. Stop the car, kill the driver, take his vehicle. A matter of necessity rather than smart planning. The car had no armor. It was a tin box, and with all of them cooped inside, a deadly trap. They had found no less than thirteen bullet holes from whatever previous escapades its owner had gone through. The rear bench cloth was shredded. The windshield had been taped over to keep the spiderweb of cracks from spreading further.
Not knowing the roads, the population, or the situation, they had traveled slowly, carefully, five of them sharing the front and back seats and the other four sitting in the luggage area, the back door swung open. They had weighed the front bumper with sandbags to regain some traction, as the steering wheel felt like a sponge skidding on ice. The Taifun only had petrol for another 40-50 kilometers, but they had shaved off three or even four days’ worth of limping by taking it and driving through ghostly, ruined villages, navigating by hand, compass, and luck, using the known maps of minefields to steer the sluggish car away from certain death.
And now they faced a dilemma.
Pretend to be civilians and drive up to the barricade, or abandon the car?
Combat logic called for approaching by foot. But it also meant a confrontation. Inevitable, because there was no other way across within a reasonable distance. Using the car still meant going past the enemy men, but they might be less inclined to shoot an overloaded car. Or maybe more inclined. That was the problem with Sector 8. Past experience in similar encounters meant nothing.
But the idea of having wheeled transport was enticing. Fifty kilometers in their condition meant at least two days of still more fear, tension, weariness, and the cold of night. Two more days of radiation coming down with the soft, persistent late-summer rain, making the Geiger meter chirp nervously as it counted and added fresh milli-Sieverts to their health bill. It was an x-ray scan worth of tissue damage every day now. The wind was blowing and spreading the fallout northwest, into their path. They should stay put, avoid the needle-like drizzle.
Altogether, they had to leave Sector 8.
At the moment, their rusty little Kazanavto felt like a lifebelt. Friendly territory was only 60 kilometers away. They might even be able to reach a known contact before the car seized.
But first, the bridge.
“Any chance you can work some of your criminal magic?” Lee Qiang asked.
The captain licked his chapped lips. “No. This isn’t my area of operation.”
Oktyabrsk was a good 100 kilometers south of where they had inserted. Still, Lee Qiang had hoped Lip might have some connections or contacts in this region. He ran an impressive network, but apparently, even that had limits.
Also, there was no way to reach anyone. Satellites were down and mobile reception was a dream, even though the dead driver had an ancient phone with him. It was mostly point-to-point military radio, with barely any chatter. Lee Qiang wasn’t sure if the nuke had knocked out the communications, if the enemy had deliberately jammed or disabled various sources, or if people had simply gone into hiding with the opening of this new campaign. Maybe it was all of it combined.
Lee Qiang was also thinking ahead. If they survived this mess, they would have to announce themselves to the friendly forces. The army did use several analog ciphers and methods of identification exactly in the case of a complete comms breakdown, but finding troops willing to listen and talk to their superiors when challenged might prove difficult.
“How do we tackle this bitch?” Marc said, his tone strained. Whatever was festering in his lungs, under a swath of skin blotched blue with hematomas back and front, he was still alive, still keeping up. He took medicine and cradled his rifle with a tight grip to prove that he could shoot back if they tried to put him down or leave him behind.
“Brute force is always an option,” Lee Qiang said. He just wasn’t sure they had sufficient firepower to blast through.
“I have an idea,” Sveta said.
They looked at her, mistrust and hope making their expressions sour.
“I could talk to them,” she added. “They will not shoot a woman if they think they can fuck her first.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Colonel,” Lip said, looking indignant that she would even dare suggest something so audacious.
She might have a point, Lee Qiang thought, instantly feeling ashamed that he seriously considered using Sveta as flesh-and-blood bait to secure their passage, even if it was her idea and she was willing to volunteer for this dangerous trick.
She was also too valuable as a prisoner to just let go, even briefly. Most importantly, he no longer trusted her. No, it was more than just mistrust. He had always believed she would use the first viable chance to escape and that she would fight them in her own way till the end. But since the KOS incident, it wasn’t just the cold, brutal logic of a trained professional. Their adventure had become pure survival. And Sveta was becoming desperate. She might even try something that would get her killed, along with the rest of them.
But her idea was good. Better than the hours of quiet pondering through the lenses of a binocular.
“These are irregular, you say?” Lee Qiang said.
“Yes. Not East Alliance. Just some opportunistic militia,” she repeated patiently.
“Here’s a new plan…” Lee Qiang began. Once, he was finished, he looked at his ragtag bunch of psychopaths. “What’s the vote?”
Lee Qiang’s heart hammered in his chest. He almost believed he could see it thumping against his double-layer ceramic armor vest. He was driving the Taifun, all too aware how clunky and flimsy the car was and that he would need a good few seconds to extricate himself from behind the steering wheel if shooting started.
Sveta sat at his side. Covered by a camo blanket were Brezhnev in the back and Ollie in the vast luggage area of the caravan. Cliff and Olaf had their 40mm grenade launchers trained at the Baran ATV with its 82mm cannon and the entrenched mortar position. Cem was sighting the men with his massive rifle. Marc, Lip, and Eddie, were making slow progress on foot, following behind the car.
They were exposed, vulnerable. It was impossible to know how many more troops were in the marshy stretch of land by the river or in the birch and poplar woods on both banks.
100 meters. No bullets. A good sign.
“Do it,” he ordered, his voice constricted from the adrenaline running in his blood, making his throat tight.
She was only wearing a green undershirt and her nipples showed through the cotton. The windshield didn’t have any sophisticated UV coating, so it was quite transparent from the outside. The overcast sky also helped reduce the glare, and the curious guards at the bridge checkpost could see there was a woman in the Taifun.
Twenty meters. Lee Qiang let the car crawl, let them see the details.
Murky, bearded faces frowned, then one or two started smiling. Stupid leers. Good leers of distracted soldiers.
If she shouts a warning, we’re all dead. She can do that if she wants. She can stop us now.
“Stop there, boss,” one of the irregular instructed, waving the car down with an impatient pat, eyes deeply focused on the small pair of breasts. Sveta hid her emotions well. Lee Qiang had no idea if she was frightened or disgusted, but he was ready to shoot her in the kidneys if she so much as blinked the wrong way at the militiamen.
Lee Qiang brought the Taifun to a halt at what he hoped was the correct position—so as not to obstruct the view for Cem, but also to block the recoilless gun from shooting at the sniper.
In the line of fire.
“What’s going on, boss?” the lead man asked, his face beaming with excitement.
Lee Qiang shot him in the face with his silenced pistol. Aimed at another man, fired three rounds through the windshield. Another, two rounds through the side window. Then he pushed it out and rolled to the ground, reaching for his main weapon, lying flush at the outer side of the driver’s seat.
Sveta only reached down for the Kevlar vest and held it tight in front of her chest and face.
Brezhnev tossed the blanket away and fired his assault rifle, shards of plexiglass and wisps of smoke shooting everywhere. It sounded muffled on the outside, but it was a terrible din inside. He saw Sveta sitting with her eyes closed, but she hugged the armor tight so she did not get her arms clipped by Lonya’s shooting.
Ollie jumped out and tossed a flashbang at a small knot of confused soldiers. At the same moment, a 40mm grenade landed square into the mortar pit, throwing up a cloud of misty red dirt and white sparks.
Half a second later, the second round hit the Baran. The two crewmen in the front exploded out of the car like shreds of a giant balloon. The gunner simply dropped down like he had just dozed off, his body going limp.
“Now!” Brezhnev shouted, and kicked the rear door open on the right side. Sveta crawled out through the driver’s side, collapsing at Lee Qiang’s knees. Her face was bruised by small cuts from the glass, her neck singed by what might be an ejected casing from his pistol. She looked somewhat dazed from the point-blank noise, but she did seem to hear and react to what was happening around them.
Lee Qiang tossed a frag at a soldier crabwalking to his side of the car, crouched low. The man flew as though someone had yanked him sideways with a rope.
The men on the far side were scrambling.
Cem was firing.
Lee Qiang saw a splash in the river. Someone may have fallen off the bridge. Then a couple of HE grenades landed on its narrow, lethal stretch, spraying concrete dust and metal shrapnel.
There were only a couple of enemy soldiers left on the east bank, pulling back. Brezhnev tossed a frag. Ollie tossed another flashbang. Lee Qiang waited for the confused men to emerge behind the all-terrain vehicle, but the grenade must have killed or wounded them.
Brezhnev was running toward the 4×4. Ollie was shooting down the length of the bridge.
The return fire from the DPKs was like hail. The world exploded in chunks of earth and mud and torn hessian. Lee Qiang grabbed Sveta by her collar and dragged her behind the Taifun. The engine block might stop the bullets. She had donned the armor now, her arms and shoulders spotted with dirt and broken stalks of grass.
“Run toward the mortar pit. Hunker there and wait for my signal.”
She hesitated for a second, then nodded. She sprinted off, fast, precise, sure-footed.
Brezhnev was dragging the dead gunner off the vehicle. Ollie hopped over to support him, firing at the bridge. Lee Qiang sighted the machine-gunners through the bridge’s guard rails and started shooting, trying to dislodge them. Some of his bullets hit the rusty metal and zinged off.
“Marc, Lip, Eddie, position?” he asked.
“Two hundred meters,” the Frenchman wheezed.
“On my way. Olaf is supporting,” the engineer panted, his voice as uneven as his stride.
The two DPKs stopped firing almost at once. They had probably run out of ammunition, and they had not timed it so that one weapon would continue firing. He used the lull to run forward, joining Brezhnev and Ollie. Sveta was kneeling behind the sandbags, just as he had told her.
She might reach for a gun…she might try to flee.
Focus on the battle.
Clearing the east bank had been relatively easy. But now, the putain part.
Once Cliff took his position, Olaf did his running. Cem would join them last.
The Baran was dripping blood and oil off its dark olive skin, like some kind of mechanical sweat. The vehicle had been disabled by the 40-mil. But the cannon was serviceable, and Brezhnev was cranking the azimuth lever to bring it facing west. The sergeant knew what he was doing. All of them had trained to operate pretty much any known weapon platform in the world.
“Firing!” Lonya shouted as a warning.
A wall of air pressure slapped Lee Qiang in the face. Dust billowed around him, and if he weren’t wearing his ballistic mask, it would feel like someone had scratched his eyes with sandpaper. Good eye and ear cover were critical for efficient combat.
The round slammed where the two machine-gunners had been a moment earlier. Lee Qiang couldn’t see them anymore. Either they had retreated or Brezhnev had blasted them away. The sergeant shouted the warning again and fired another shot. It slammed into the end of the bridge, with no visible damage to the enemy soldiers positioned there. But they sure would not be happy with a recoilless cannon trained at them.
“What ammo do you have there?” Ollie asked.
“Only HEAT, blyat,” Brezhnev lamented.
“Exhaust,” Cem said. “Watch out guys; 2 o’clock, 300 meters from your position.”
They arched their necks like birds, scanning the other bank, looking through the dissipating cloud of dust. Lee Qiang found the mark. It looked like exhaust plumes, soot and hot air making a shimmering mirror-like effect. They couldn’t see the vehicle making it and the popcorn party of rifles made it impossible to hear. But it was something heavy, with a big engine. Never good news.
Brezhnev aimed the cannon. An AFV emerged from the bushes.
The 82mm round slammed into its right track. One of the skirt armor plates flew a good 50 meters into the air. But the old Type 89G was still operational and training its turret toward them.
“Hit the ground,” Lee Qiang growled.
A torrent of 30mm rounds swept them, raking from left to right—the mortar pit, the open ground, the Baran, their still functioning Taifun. The noise was debilitating, penetrating through his ear plugs and into his skull, making him queasy. The air was thick with dirt, and clots of earth and chunks of metal ripped off the all-terrain like wet paper.
Cold pain zapped him, and he dropped the grip of his rifle. He was hit.
Pushing the anguish away, he tried to focus, to assess the situation. He saw Sveta on the ground, curled like a child, her left arm listless and bloody by her side.
He looked up at the smoking ruin of the Baran vehicle. Brezhnev was dead, his head gone.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Marine Corps (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.