“How are you?”
“Nervous,” Sveta said.
Lee Qiang smiled. “That facade finally crumbling, eh?”
Sveta made a wry face. “I have seen prisoner exchanges before. Sometimes they go badly wrong. I’d rather be crossing the Volga River in a Taifun. At least there I had the feeling of being in control.”
Is that what’s bothering you? Lee Qiang wondered. That you are no longer in control? That you cannot manipulate anymore? That you’re going back to your side, which may not look fondly on your getting captured?
“Thank you for seeing me,” she continued.
Lee Qiang shrugged. “Well, this is the last opportunity.”
She titled her head slightly. “Perhaps we will meet again.”
Lee Qiang blinked slowly, trying to hide the genuine sadness he felt. “That’s unlikely.”
“When the war is over?”
“That could be decades,” he said, moved by her sudden naivety.
Unless it was trickery, in which case, he was the naïve one.
She shrugged, carefully imitating his earlier gesture. “Decades then.”
“Okay. But I hope to be proven wrong and this ends sooner.”
Her eyes were sharp. “The question is, who wins?”
Lee Qiang knew he had no good answer to that. “Are they treating you well?” He carefully chose his words, aware that the little room was monitored with cameras and microphones and closely watched by human guards just waiting for a cue to step in and take the prisoner back to her cell.
“Extremely well,” she said, and there was no note of sarcasm in her voice. “Because of my status, I have my own cell and my own outside time. It’s a little bit lonely, but then, I have books and a TV. More than I could have hoped for.”
She had listened to him. Cooperated with the interrogators. Shared all she knew, or least so much that the army intelligence was busy checking and double-checking the data and finding the evidence satisfactory enough that they didn’t feel a need to stick needles into her veins or subject her to any number of unreliable torture methods.
In turn, that had helped soften the blow in his own interrogations. The army command was largely sympathetic to his failure. They called it lessons learned, which meant there was no need to sharpen the guillotine just yet.
Shishka was a smart, resourceful devil.
He had launched his own offensive shortly after Operation Lake Placid had commenced. The counterstrike in the south was only the latest phase in the wider campaign. Shishka’s renewed war effort spanned all sectors. The Golden Horde had encountered only a small slice of the fuck pie that had become of Asia and Europe.
First he had retaliated for the Dragon-4 satellite strikes by crippling half the civilian and military infrastructure over the northern hemisphere—pretty much any orbital vehicle he could detect and target. Then he had attacked deep into Europe and the North American Federation.
But that was the good news.
There were still no confirmed reports on the nukes. The intel was split between a rogue job by lunatics or one of Shishka’s generals trying to assert his own independence. Neither boded well for the future of the war. So far, the West Army had refrained from firing back with its nuclear arsenal. But the response to the next attack was going to be in kind.
Sveta was adamant that it was not Shishka who had fired those missiles. She believed her leader did not see any benefit in creating even greater chaos. He needed an accountable enemy to win a victory over. He needed the West to still be in control of its legal framework to capitulate. He could not fight anarchy, she claimed.
Bizarrely, it made sense.
If not Shishka, then who?
Lee Qiang didn’t like the outcome of those nukes, but if that meant Shishka’s grip was weakening, maybe the war could be won sooner rather than later. Maybe the West could force Shishka to sue for peace before he lost grip over the Alliance.
For some reason, he knew that was wishful thinking.
If we count on luck for Shishka to disappear, we might as well crown him Genghis Khan the Second and let him have the whole of Asia.
“Are you going back?” Sveta asked, shattering his lurid train of thoughts.
“Sector 8? Not if I can avoid it. I am not keen on going there.” But I will have to.
“You are a good man, Lee Qiang. War changes people. But you…you have integrity. I like that.”
Lee Qiang glanced at his watch. Three more minutes with Sveta. Seven hours and fourteen minutes till she was exchanged back to her side. In between, he had another round of conversations with the military intelligence.
As a prisoner of war, Sveta had been extremely lucky. In its latest push, the East Alliance had successfully encircled the 40th and 56th army divisions north of the Kaplankyr reserve, taking captive more than 6,700 soldiers and 544 officers, including four generals. They were willing to go forward with an immediate exchange of their own men held captive on the west side, almost 9,000 souls. Some had been kept in filthy camps for years. Some had merely endured a few short weeks of comfortable questioning.
The army had tried to keep her captivity secret, but then the East Alliance had produced a list of all their missing personnel from the past two months, asking for their return. The wrangle of negotiations had narrowed the list down, pruning out the dead and the truly missing, as both sides revealed they had some high-ranking captives alive and in good condition.
Apparently convinced there wasn’t much more Colonel Zhang could tell them, command had decided to let her go. She wouldn’t be the only colonel; there were nine on the list, three others resurrected for the exchange, the same way the East Alliance had suddenly discovered some high-profile prisoners in its own camps.
It filled Lee Qiang with disgust. But also hope.
The two sides were talking. Using language instead of just guns. Prisoners were given legal status. They weren’t just meat for an insatiable grinder.
I guess I am still getting used to the reality. Maybe the shock of Sector 8 would never leave him. Maybe he had become a lost soul, too.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Thank you again,” she said.
He wanted to shake her hand, but that was not allowed. So he waved, once at her, once at the hidden guards to open the door and let him out. He did not look back as he stepped out.
The army intelligence peon was annoying.
He had a whiny, nasal voice, and he spoke English with a slurred accent. Probably Dutch. He was also someone asked to do the boring work that no one else wanted, because this interrogation was nothing more than a pointless formality.
They sat in an office in the Sovetsky District of Kazan. If he looked through the window, blastproofed with sellotape, he could probably see the Berkut temporary internment camp, crammed with prisoners waiting to be loaded onto buses and ferried to the exchange point roughly 100 kilometers east, on the would-be tri-border between Sectors 7, 8, and 9.
Only the window was behind him, and turning away from the peon would only make this farce longer.
Sveta may have already left.
There was no point to this last interrogation. The peon was a field operative with limited authority and limited intelligence, literally, and he was doing a checkbox exercise for someone further up the chain. Lee Qiang had already been debriefed in Sofia and in Kiev, and doing this again in what was essentially a Combat Zone 1 city was a hassle.
Complaining was pointless. Arguing was pointless.
He waited for Peon to continue his bullshit exercise.
“Why did you not choose to head south?”
“I already told you, because the renewed enemy campaign prevented us from doing that.”
Peon pinched his lips, wrote something on his computer. He was a slow typist, or maybe it was deliberate. “And when was this?”
“I told you already.” Lee Qiang wanted to leave the office. Instead, he carefully consulted his own notes to make sure he did not accidentally blurt out anything wrong, and he’d have to sit through this nonsense again.
The dates were tricky, though. After the convoy ambush, it had been hard to keep track, drowning in exhaustion, desperation, and enemy lead. But he believed he knew the full sequence of events, especially since the time of the Sharlyk nuke was easily accessible public knowledge.
He repeated his answer.
Peon was silent. “Well, that makes sense.”
“And you said your prisoner…Colonel Zhang warned you about the campaign?”
“Major, please cooperate. I’m just doing my job,” Peon complained.
I am too irritable. This is war trauma. I have been affected, just like everyone else. “Sorry.”
“Now that does not make sense.”
Lee Qiang frowned. “I’m not following.”
“Did your prisoner have any access to communications?”
Does not make sense… His mind buzzed. Something roiled in his stomach. “Of course not.”
“Are you sure? Could she have somehow communicated with the Alliance command?”
“When we took her prisoner, we checked her thoroughly. She had no electromagnetic devices on her or even under his skin. Besides, none of us had any communications. The satellite grid was down. What’s your point?”
“How did she know?” Peon asked.
“About the attack?”
“She mentioned the early preparations for the campaign—”
“Yes, yes,” Peon slurred with his Dutch accent. “But Colonel-General Cheong ordered the Bersalkelmes campaign only nine days earlier.”
How did she know? Another punch in the gut. “Meaning?”
“We were lucky to intercept the message. The original plan of attack was toward Yekaterinburg. But Cheong had changed it. It was to throw us off, as we were already staging forces in Sector 9 to meet the offensive.” Peon looked at his computer. “The timeline you mentioned does not make sense.”
Lee Qiang swallowed.
He forced himself to relax. Perhaps it did make sense. After all, Shishka could have shared his plans with the military intelligence. He had sent Sveta to prepare backup communications centers prior to the commencement of the campaign.
“Did Cheong act on his own?” Maybe the general had rebelled against Shishka.
“No, there were direct orders from Shishka,” Peon insisted.
“So, Major.” Peon was agitated. “Based on the intercepted message, these orders were given almost two months ago. The general only revealed them recently, and we think there might be a leak in the Alliance chain of command.” He shrugged. “In addition to the sources we have.”
Lee Qiang’s throat felt tight. “So you know where Shishka is?”
“No, we do not. Not yet. We’re trying to figure it all out and map how the enemy communication cascaded through the ranks. Meanwhile, it would help if you could go through the exact timeline of your operation, because, based on what you shared with us, and what we know about Colonel Zhang, some of it just does not make sense.”
Lee Qiang froze.
No, it does. Your conclusion does not make sense.
I am so stupid.
He jumped, avoiding grazing the desk underside with his knees by pure luck. “Contact the exchange point right now. They must prevent Colonel Sveta Zhang from being released to the enemy,” he heard himself say. His words had a disembodied, flat tone.
Peon frowned. “No, Major. Impossible. We are jamming the area, so there will be no—”
Lee Qiang was already running, ignoring Peon’s protests. The half-healed leg was burning, but he didn’t have time for pain.
Outside the building, the knot of sentries and off-duty soldiers looked at him with surprise and the surly, bored hostility of low-rank infantry, alarmed by his wild actions. When they realized who he was, they relaxed a little, but they were still tense.
Lee Qiang looked around.
“A car. I need a car,” Lee Qiang mumbled. “Now!”
“You drunk, fellow?” someone yelled.
Lee Qiang ran over to a camo-painted UAZ Tigr-M parked on the corner of the building. As per protocol, the car had been reversed into its spot, so the driver could quickly roll out if needed. He looked inside. There was no key in the ignition. “The key to this car, right now!”
“The driver’s gone to take a shit,” one of the soldiers nearby said weakly, looking curious and worried at the same time.
“Fuck. Get him! Now!”
Three soldiers dashed in different directions, searching for their comrade. Another reached for his radio, so he didn’t appear idle.
Lee Qiang scanned the nearby streets. No other vehicles. Nothing. Worse, the men didn’t understand his urgency. He wondered what he could do to stop the prisoner exchange.
Nothing wise came to mind.
Seconds oozed by. He could hear a hundred tolls of his heart in between each tick of his wristwatch. The twilight world stood as his mind raced, trying to relive the weeks in Sector 8 through the lens of the new, terrible knowledge he had. It was overwhelming.
Peon came out, panting, looking displeased. “Major, what the fuck was that?”
“We must stop her.”
“Major, you’re not making sense!”
Lee Qiang squared his jaw. He could not say it out loud. He must not. Get a grip, Lee Qiang. “Call Berkut. Tell them to stop Colonel Zhang from leaving. Please don’t argue. Just do it.”
Bless him, Peon did not argue. He stepped away and dialed a number on his mobile.
Lee Qiang knew ordinary milcom would not work. Prisoner exchanges were extremely sensitive business. No one wanted remotely operated booby traps, drones, or spies at the exchange point. The area would be heavily jammed and tightly controlled. It was going to be strictly old copper telephone lines, with an army of bureaucrats overseeing the trickle of information.
There would be no going back once the procedure started.
Time slipped away. Peon was still on the phone. The driver was still shitting, taking his time. There were no other cars anywhere in sight.
Lee Qiang wanted to run, hijack a car, anything. But he would not get past the first checkpoint in a civilian vehicle.
The waiting was agony.
Peon came back from his call. “She is not in the camp anymore. Left on a bus about an hour and twenty minutes ago.”
The driver finally showed up, walking with a leisurely swagger of a low-intelligence conscript, dragging his heels on the asphalt. “What?” he said, oblivious to rank and urgency.
“Give me the key,” Lee Qiang barked, words tumbling out of his mouth.
The man instantly sobered, obeyed, his hand cold and wet.
Lee Qiang jumped in, banging his elbow on the floor radio. Then he realized he had never driven in this city before. It was getting dark, and he had shuttered headlights to navigate the blackout-out roads strewn with barricades.
I’m losing it. I must stay focused.
“What are you doing?” Peon asked, holding the door frame tightly.
“You.” Lee Qiang waved at the confused driver. “You know the roads here well?”
“Grew up here,” the man said, which probably meant yes. His friends had the right instinct of looking worried.
“You know the road to Grakhan?”
“Yes…” the driver replied before he realized he should plead ignorance.
“Drive me there, right now,” Lee Qiang ordered, trying to keep his voice steady, calm and slow.
“I can’t, my shift—”
“You drive now, or you go to prison,” Lee Qiang growled, trying not to holler. He shuffled over to the passenger’s side, scraping his tender leg on that damn radio. Fuck.
The driver muttered a few curses, but he knew this was trouble he could not avoid. He got into the Tigr and fired up the engine.
Lee Qiang tried to remember the name of the interrogator. “Lieutenant Jaap, get in. Use that phone; get the army command to clear the roads. You, what’s your name?”
“Pavel,” the driver said, his tone bitter.
“To Grakhan, Pavel. Right now. Drive like someone’s shooting at us.”
Peon sat in the back. His face was creased with annoyance and deep anxiety. Perhaps the man finally understood what this was all about. His head bobbed as Pavel floored it, the reliable if underpowered engine screaming.
“Slava, we have a problem…”
Lee Qiang didn’t listen to the phone conversation. He was looking at the streets, willing the narrow, claustrophobic stretches of the half-ruined city to roll by faster. Pavel was driving madly, the tires squealing. No one stopped them as they roared past checkpoints. Soon, even the weak lighting disappeared, and they were the only car racing down the M71 highway.
The sky had an eerie purple tinge. The landscape was getting darker, losing depth, becoming a wallpaper of shadows and silhouettes. The cracked road surface wobbled under the wheels. It would be impossible to see shell craters. They might crash and die unceremoniously in a ditch until foxes or crows found their broken bodies.
The voice in the back stopped abruptly.
“I’ve lost reception,” Peon said.
Pavel was driving with maybe 15-20 meters visibility from the narrow slits of his dimmed lamps. It was like charging into a snowstorm. All he could see was a narrow cone of knobbly asphalt and a million motes from mosquitos and flies.
It all made sense now. In retrospect, everything did. Sveta’s knowledge of the bunker infrastructure. The KOS-1 codes. Her ability to steer them away from lethal danger. Her uncanny style. Of course she wasn’t just an ordinary radio operator. He had always known she was…more.
He just couldn’t ever imagine how much more.
The three of them didn’t talk. It would be pointless. He was too angry to phrase coherent sentences. Pavel needed every shred of concentration to get to the exchange point. Lee Qiang’s eyes watered from strain as he willed the horizon to bloom with light. There would be projectors illuminating the fields outside the town where the prisoners would be congregated, numbered, signed off, and then marched off in the opposite directions toward the friendly side.
He glanced at his watch.
It was happening right now.
The UAZ bounced and skidded, and Pavel drove with single-minded determination. Impressive for a low-level grunt.
Lee Qiang’s head started to hurt. Deep, pouncing, throbbing pain in his temples. His throat was dry. His pelvis hurt from the strain in his abdomen and leg muscles. The clock needles edged onwards, minute by minute. He wanted to scream. They were powerless. Blind, deaf, and mute. The entire area was completely saturated with electromagnetic noise to prevent any tracking of tonight’s activity. It had all been orchestrated beautifully. No one wanted any mistakes.
Move faster, please.
It was two hours and twenty-three minutes later that he got past the seven checkpoints and into the restricted area of the exchange point. Camp Goodwill, they called it. The town of Grakhan was in chaos, with thousands of repatriated soldiers being filtered and syphoned through security and medical checks.
No enemy prisoners, though.
The last had been transferred over to the East Alliance nineteen minutes ago.
According to the records, Colonel Sveta Zhang had been returned to the enemy side at 21:03. Forty-one minutes ago.
Lee Qiang sat on the ground, exhausted, drained, empty.
He had failed. Truly failed. Operation Putain had not ended with his return a month ago. It had failed tonight, forty-one minutes ago.
When they let Shishka get away.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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Image credit: US DoD (public domain photo), used for illustration purposes only and not associated in any way with the image creators.