Ignoring the wounded, Lee Qiang tuned his mind back to the fight. They had to neutralize the armor first. If they did not, they would all die.
He tried to close his fist. It worked. He opened it. A spongy feeling, but his muscles responded. His sleeve was drenched with blood. The fabric was ripped in two places where the shrapnel had cut through.
Lee Qiang rose, using his left arm to pull himself up against the greasy side of the all-terrain vehicle. The cannon breech was closed. Lonya must have reloaded a fresh shell before the Type 89 fired. Lee Qiang positioned himself behind the gunner sight, aiming the iron at the AFV.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Ollie laying down support fire, keeping the bridge force down. The enemy armor was moving toward the crossing, not affected by the first shot, it seemed, the unstabilized cannon barrel wavering on and off their position. It wasn’t firing again, probably because the driver was waiting for the dust to settle so he could figure out if a fresh volley was needed. Whatever the man in the turret was thinking, Lee Qiang couldn’t thank him enough for keeping his 30mm trumpet of death quiet.
If the AFV blocks the road, we’re dead.
So many “ifs” led to their demise. It was a mean game of odds.
His bloody fingers slipped on the tube, but he finally got his forefinger to touch the button trigger. It was a very soft mechanism to avoid disturbing the cannon aim. A good thing, because he didn’t have it in him to apply more than a feather’s pressure.
Recoilless did not mean serene. There was still a nasty blast of gasses from the section of gills at the end of the cannon tube, and the clap of pressure rocked the vehicle. The round hit the turret ring, and there was a brilliant flash. A second later, orange and black smoke gushed through the ruptured hull and the Type 89 stopped moving.
Lee Qiang jumped off the vehicle and rushed toward Sveta. He knelt at her side and tried to slide his backpack off, but it was difficult with his reduced dexterity. She was conscious, breathing in small gasps, crying. Her nose was bleeding, too.
“Talk to me,” he whispered, his mouth full of cordite and bile.
“I think my collarbone is shattered.” She looked at him. “Take care of yourself.”
It wasn’t self-sacrifice. It was logic. He tore into a bandage with his teeth and pressed the adhesive pad to his elbow, then started rolling the self-expanding, absorbing tissue around his upper arm. Marc and Lip joined him, the lieutenant’s face blue and gray from breathless effort. Lip snorted, but then helped bind his arm.
No sign of Eddie. No, he was there by a dead body of a Sectorian, hunched low, shooting.
Lee Qiang winced as the captain dressed his wound, working quickly, expertly. He wasn’t looking at Sveta.
He can kill me now if he wants to.
His pistol was on the right thigh, out of reach. He couldn’t use the assault rifle this close if the captain decided to settle his grudge. He couldn’t defend himself with just his left arm, no matter how good he was in close combat and how sharp his reflexes were.
But Lip’s eyes were cool.
He meant what he had said about recasting that bullet.
“Stop being such a wanker,” Lip said. “The shrapnel barely grazed you.”
Lee Qiang grunted his thanks and started working on Sveta. Something sharp and jagged had torn through her collarbone. It was a bad wound. He cleaned the skin of dirt and gravel, used the silicone glue to seal the tear, and then wrapped her in gauze. Then he used the carbon mesh cast to make her back and arm immobile.
Time slowed. He immersed himself in the grim work.
Sveta was whimpering, crying. But it was with pain, not fear.
“Are you going into shock?” he asked her.
She wiped the corner of her eye with a dirty knuckle. “No. Just angry.”
He tightened the cast and she gasped. “You have to keep up with me. Do you understand?”
Around them, the gunfire continued unabated. They were all there now except for the sniper. Olaf was lobbing his remaining 40mm grenades at the far bank, shooting up fountains of dirt. Cliff was scavenging the dead militiamen, looking for ammo and maybe an AT rocket. He strapped a Chinese assault rifle with an underslung 30mm launcher much like Lee Qiang’s over his left side and pocketed silver-and-yellow shells into his grenade pouch.
“Changing position. Five minutes,” Cem announced.
It looked like ten, no more than fifteen, men left on the west bank, lying down, suppressed but still willing to continue fighting. They were not retreating. Crossing the two hundred meters of bridge space was going to be hell.
Lip tossed a smoke on the left side. Ollie and Cliff used the screen to take position on the slope, very close to the minefield, just on the other side of a barbed wire. They could dominate the entire left flank from there. Good.
Marc dashed to the bridge, making himself scarce behind the last guard rail pillar. It wasn’t an ideal position, but any bullet would first have to pass through 20 or 30 aluminum and iron sheets before it reached him, unless he got killed by an unlucky ricochet. Marc gathered his breath and then aimed diagonally at the right side. That left the center exposed.
But it was better to run in the middle than close to the sides. There were always more bullets close to walls than in the open area.
“Twenty meter hops, one running, others covering. Is it understood?” Lee Qiang said.
“Halfway over, Cliff and Marc, you move to the middle. Ollie, you’re last,” Lip added.
“Sucks to be me,” the drone operator said, but his voice was resolute.
“Cem, are you in position?”
“Just behind you,” the sniper said. He was an almost-invisible hump of ghillie grass close to the mortar pit, calmly setting up. “Anyone gets their head higher than 50 centimeters, they are mine.”
“Cover,” Lee Qiang said, and started running. Sveta was just behind him.
He dropped down, kicked his legs up to keep his pelvis from smashing into the asphalt, and started shooting. His arm was still weak, but the tight bandage allowed for a better transfer of energy through the muscle. Good enough to use his rifle, maybe not so for other things.
Lip was there. Then Olaf. Eddie.
The air whirred and cracked and whistled with bullets. Some pinged into the metal railings, others bounced off the road. The noise was disorienting. Lee Qiang kept his eyes up. Tunnel vision. The enemy was to the front and there was no point thinking about hypersonic ballistics. There was nothing he could do to stop a round.
Waiting for Marc and Cliff felt like an eternity. But all he could do was wait for the two operatives to run past him and then drop into a firing position some twenty meters ahead of him before he could move again. Sveta was directly behind him. She was awfully exposed with only the single armor vest and not even a helmet. All of her protective gear and her pack were with the rest of the team.
Lee Qiang glanced behind him. He saw Marc tottering like a fat child, drugged and sick and refusing to die, tough bastard. Bullets sang above him, an erratic lament of sadness and popcorn.
“Cunting cunt!” Lip hollered.
The captain was hit.
Lee Qiang wanted to toss a smoke, but he didn’t dare. It would just obscure the enemy from them, and prevent the rest of the guys from supporting. He crawled over, aware that Sveta was now an easy target for the enemy soldiers.
Lip was groaning, rolling on his back. Lee Qiang grabbed his vest, and started undoing the burdocks. He saw three bullet marks on the armor—chest, thorax, and slabs. It was the last one that had penetrated the ceramic, and the captain was leaking blood on a shitty road in the middle of a fucking madhouse.
“What?” Lip said. It was a challenge. Leave me.
Lee Qiang hauled the armor off. It was hard work with his weak hand and the gunfire. He started patching up the captain. The stream of curses was Shakespearean. But that was good. If Lip had air and stamina to curse, his injury wasn’t too bad.
“You daisy. What are you doing?” Lip groaned.
“Saving you, so you can recast that shitty piece of tungsten you’re carrying with you.”
“You fucker. I always knew you couldn’t resist me.”
“I’m going to carry you to the other side so you feel indebted for the rest of your life.”
Lee Qiang wasn’t sure how serious the bullet wound was, but it didn’t look pretty. He could see the knob of mangled metal lodged in the flesh. The bullet had not fractured. That was good. “Forgive me.” He jabbed his hand and pried the little mushroom out. Lip was screaming, spitting, tossing.
Something exploded. It sounded like a grenade, and the bridge was a noise funnel. Lee Qiang didn’t know how far it was. He didn’t care. His mind was floating. He probably no longer qualified as a special forces soldier, but this was no longer just a mission. This was raw struggle. And somewhere in his core, underneath brutal discipline and cold logic, a piece of him felt a need to save this ugly soldier struggling and bleeding under his shaking fingers.
Lip’s eyes turned. He passed out, then came about seconds later. Lee Qiang already had a quick-clotting bandage pressed on, and it was working its magic. A small grin touched his lips. His first field intervention, and it seemed to be a success.
Marc passed them and fell on his knees, the padded protectors the only thing that kept him from shaving off his caps on the hard asphalt. Cliff looked tired, but he moved with a steady, if slow, gait.
“Let’s move,” Lee Qiang told Lip and hauled him up. “Sveta, after me. Ollie, you’re next.”
The captain tried to walk, but he was unable to stand straight and kept sagging against Lee Qiang’s shoulder. He reached and grabbed and squeezed right where his arm injury was. Fire and breathless agony made the bridge sway like a rope.
You shall not faint, Lee Qiang told himself and chuckled.
Oh, his blood was over-poisoned with trauma juices.
They had almost crossed the entire bridge. It was close combat now. He could see the eyes of the enemy soldiers. They shot at each other like savages, almost tasting the acrid flames from the muzzles. A flashbang went off and the image of the world tripled, colors separating. The blast from a grenade made him stumble. Lip fell on top of him. Their helmets connected. His teeth hurt.
Lee Qiang rolled, shaking the captain off, replaced a clip, and fired again. The nearest militia man crumpled.
The fire suddenly stopped. Three soldiers were retreating, running.
Cliff fired his last 40mm after them. It exploded in a shower of sparks and dirt. One of the figures sagged. Cem’s powerful rifle cracked. A second man dropped down. The sniper fired again, and then it was ghostly silent.
The battle was over.
“Ollie, you there?” Lee Qiang croaked, shattering the smoky silence.
“Taking care of Lonya and the Baran.” A flare of brilliant fire erupted as the thermite grenade detonated. “I’m gonna bring the Taifun over if it’s still drivable.”
Lip laughed suddenly. “Sure, bring it.”
Cem walked past their position, heading toward the open ground. The sniper was relentless.
A minute later, the rattly sound of the Taifun sounded like the trumpets of a majestic cavalry troop in a western movie, riding to their rescue. The engine whined and the car definitely had far more bullet holes in it than before, but it still seemed to be mostly undamaged. Now and then it ticked, skipping a beat.
With agonizing clumsiness, they moved away from the crossing, taking position some distance from the disabled AFV in case any ammo cooked off and popped the turret out of the hull ring. Its crew did not seem to have managed to escape. The other bodies looked like drunkards lazing in the grass after a picnic.
It was a morbid, almost happy scene.
Olaf and Cliff were pragmatically picking the carrion.
Marc vomited from exertion. Sveta was standing, swaying, her hair plastered with sweat and blood. Lip also managed to get up, but he couldn’t really bend or twist his torso. He looked like some awkward robot.
“We’re properly fucked, aren’t we?” Eddie said, limping over, eyes checking the knobbly ground rolling out into the distance past the bombed out town.
“’Tis but a flesh found,” the captain intoned, and giggled at his own joke.
Ollie drove around the bodies, careful not to snag the tires or the sump on any sharp metal or an unexploded grenade pin. He stopped the car with the squeal of under-serviced brakes.
“We will need to kick the windshield out,” Lip commented.
Cliff was stacking useful weapons on the ground—rifles, an RPG, the two DPKs and their ammo boxes, spare belts, first aid. He shouldered his West-issued rifle and started arming himself with the Chinese 6.5mm gear.
Eddie traced a hand over the crumpled corner of the engine hood and the smashed-in wheel arch of their Taifun. A cannon round had torn through, but with the small 1.3 liter engine in the front inside a large-volume bay, there was plenty of room to dissipate the explosion without damaging anything vital.
Maybe they had some luck after all.
“I shall name you Tiffany,” Eddie said.
They all chuckled, even the unusually grim Cem. Sveta was wearing a semi-shocked smile on her lips. Her eyes were shrewd, though, as always, never missing anything.
Ollie stepped out and tossed his Galileo up. The little copter-camera revealed no immediate reinforcements. They couldn’t hear or see anything. If an enemy force was bearing on them, it was smarter than they. And if someone fired artillery at them just then, it wouldn’t matter much. They couldn’t really fight anymore.
Lee Qiang found a bullet hole in his detachable terminal. Well, with the GPS grid down, it was useless anyway, and the battery had been depleted. Marc was on all fours, heaving again. No one approached him.
They drank water. It tasted chalky. They wiped blood and bandaged scratches they hadn’t noticed in the heat of the battle. They checked their more serious wounds to see if anyone was going to deteriorate in the coming hours. But they all seemed stable. Hurting, exhausted, but alive.
In Lee’s combat-weary mind, the air on the west side of the Volga river somehow smelled better. More…earthlike. It had a fresher tang to it. Almost like they were going to leave Sector 8 soon and be back where things made sense. Finally wash the grit and the radioactive dust from their skin, get proper sleep in real beds, eat real food, get real doctors to look at their injuries and inject them with a year’s worth of painkillers and antibiotics.
Then rest for a few days, and start preparing for a new mission.
Shishka was still out there somewhere. Maybe the person was dead, but the idea lived. And Lee Qiang swore that he would see it killed.
Are we all mad? he wondered. One glance at his battered group told him that they were.
What Lee Qiang wanted was to slump into the crammed back bench of the Taifun and close his eyes. But they could not move out just yet. They had to wait, make sure they were not going to be counter-attacked. If the enemy was coming, then it was best met from a superior defensive position. Or any defensive position.
We might all be bleeding, but on the positive side, we have fresh ammo and rockets!
And the bridge was a strategic defense position. They could stop anyone on the east bank and use the marshy inlets and the slope of the west bank to disappear if heavy reinforcements showed from the west. Any armor would struggle to follow and chase them through mud. In a game of hide and seek, they had an excellent staging ground.
He realized he had stepped close to his enemy. Sveta just waited.
“Well done,” he said. “That was very brave of you. And smart.”
She said nothing for a long time. Her breathing was fast, shallow. She was obviously in deep pain. “If there wasn’t a war between us, and you were…not…you would be someone I would have liked to know better.”
She is doing it again. Manipulating me. “Me, too.”
Time passed. They waited, their bodies shivering from exertion, blood turning crusty on their faces, flies and mosquitos wandering over for a quick lick. The river had that omnipresent hum, and there were sounds of birds in the rushes. Once the atomic cloud had settled, the birds had returned. To Lee Qiang, it felt like a positive sign.
There was a crackle of burning paint and metal from the Type 89, the rustle of wind, an occasional cough and wheeze from Marc, a pained grunt from everyone else. They held their weapons close, trying to keep the aim steady, and waited. Ollie tossed the Galileo up every three minutes.
No one came. Civilians or military.
“We move,” Lee Qiang said at length. Quietly, they loaded up into the bullet-riddled car and started down the last stretch of road out of hell.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US Army Europe (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.