Vernon White was just glad that they were in the truck and heading up into the mountains. It promised to be a rough ride, as the old, Soviet Ural truck had clearly seen better days, but at least he and the rest of the team were in the covered bed and out of sight. Max, Travis, and especially Sam, lean and crooked as he looked, blended in with the Russians in Kyrgyzstan far better than a tall, muscled, bald-headed black man. Bishkek had been bad enough. Kochkor had been far worse. Even the rest of the team had caught stares there. The Kyrgyz themselves weren’t Russian, and all the MMPR Special Projects team were either too pale or too dark.
He looked around the inside of the truck bed. Max hadn’t changed much since their first mission together, in that ill-advised trip into the Anambas in the South China Sea. He never tanned, instead turning bright red for a few days before returning to a “lighter shade of pale.” He’d always been hefty, and that hadn’t changed, no matter some of the austere environments that Mitchell Price’s special tasks had taken them to.
Sam hadn’t changed much, either, except to get skinnier and more sullen. He’d never been a particularly personable individual, and if he hadn’t been as good on the ground as he was, the rest of the team might have kicked him to the curb a long time ago.
That, and the fact that he knew things that Mitchell Price didn’t necessarily want getting into the public sphere. Better to keep him close and well paid.
Travis, the new guy, wasn’t one that Vernon had quite figured out. He was quiet, almost as pale as Max, with a reddish-blond beard that almost covered the mag pouches on his plate carrier. He stuck out like a sore thumb, and Vernon still didn’t know exactly what had qualified him for the Special Projects team.
It was a continuing sore spot with Price. While the man had pulled the survivors out of the Anambas, calling in all sorts of favors and spending a shitload of money in the process, they’d had a problem with how little information he pushed down to his contractors back then, too. He always had a master plan, but they were always left trying to guess what it was while they carried it out.
One of these days, the debt we owe him isn’t going to be enough.
Sure, they’d done some good work with Price, following up on the highly sensitive information they’d retrieved from Yuan’s body on the island. The former PLAN frigate captain turned pirate had been using that information to blackmail Beijing to keep the PLA off his back. From some of what they’d found in that blackmail file, there was a good reason.
Vernon didn’t know if more of that information had led them to Kyrgyzstan or not. He suspected so, since what little information Price had handed down had echoed what had led them to Chad and the Humanity Front’s biological weapons experiments there, a couple years before. He didn’t know for sure if it was the Humanity Front up in these mountains, but some of their intel fit the profile.
His eyes strayed toward the front of the truck, where Price was in the passenger seat next to their guide, a local named Boren. Boren bothered him, had ever since he’d joined them planeside in Bishkek before heading down to Kochkor, where they’d linked up with the rest of their support element—all local, of course. The man seemed a little too sly, a little too eager to please, while being unable to disguise the fact that he knew something his clients didn’t. Vernon didn’t trust him.
“I know.” Max had followed his gaze. The big man wasn’t just cursed with pasty pale skin and a spare tire that never seemed to go away, no matter his diet or exercise, but he had a surprisingly high-pitched voice for his size. “I don’t like it either.”
“Like what?” Travis looked over at them, his eyes a little wide. Sam just looked disgusted and turned his eyes out the back of the truck as they trundled up into the hills. There wasn’t much to look at. Just the rolling hills already starting to show a dusting of snow as they climbed higher, out of the valley dominated by the massive lake of Issyk Kul. The landscape was open and desolate as the truck rocked and creaked its way higher into the Tian Shan mountains. But Sam apparently thought it was more interesting than trying to explain things to the FNG.
Max leaned back against the sidewalls. “We’re way out in the cold here. We’re way too close to Russia and China to get the whole MMPR—and affiliate—operation out here.” He jerked a thumb toward the cab. “That means we’ve got to rely on local contractors, just to keep our footprint small. But local contractors aren’t always all that reliable, and if you can pay them, somebody else can, too.”
“Who’d be paying them out here?” Travis’s words were a little disturbed as they went over a bump or a rock, and everyone in the back was bounced painfully off the slat seats.
“Russians. Chinese.” Vernon ticked his fingers off. “Whoever’s got the resources to reopen an old Soviet base that nobody seems to have much data on, without the Kyrgyz government looking too deeply into it.” He shrugged. “Take your pick.”
“You think it’s a trap?” Travis’s eyes seemed to get even wider, if that was possible.
Max shrugged. “It’s certainly possible. We’ve seen it before.” He grinned and patted the Gilboa M43 hanging between his knees. “Welcome to Special Projects, kid.”
Sam muttered something and spat over the tailgate, just in time to almost take the steel lip in the chin as they hit another bump in the poorly-paved road.
They didn’t make it much farther than that.
Vernon recognized the growling roar as it passed overhead and shook the truck, even as they lurched to a stop. He’d been around or in too many helicopters not to recognize it.
He also recognized that it wasn’t a Kyrgyz Mi-8 or Mi-24. It was too quiet. And when he ducked his head to look under the canopy, he saw a lean, sleek shape, sporting not only a fast-moving main rotor but also a pair of pusher propellers on the ends of double wings. He’d never seen a bird like that before.
That kind of narrowed down who was up there. There weren’t too many organizations that would have that kind of next-gen tech in the Tian Shan Mountains.
He and Sam were already lifting their rifles as the shooters, dressed in unfamiliar green, gray, and brown camouflage and carrying squared off, blocky rifles, started to pile out of the helo. He opened fire, dumping 7.62×39 rounds toward the helo, as Max went between him and Sam, diving over the tailgate without bothering to try to drop it.
Vernon heard Max hit the ground, even as the strange shooters scattered and returned fire, bullets zipping through the canvas near his head, one of them hitting the hoop overhead with a loud bang, scattering splinters over him. Sam followed Max out as the big man scrambled off to one side and opened fire from the prone near the two rear wheels. The truck wasn’t going to provide any cover whatsoever, and if the door gunner behind the minigun just ahead of those twin wings opened up, they were going to be mincemeat.
Fortunately, the shooters appeared to have been caught by surprise when the Special Projects contractors had opened fire. They returned fire wildly as they dashed for the brush on the sides of the road, giving Vernon the chance to get out while Sam and Max maintained covering fire.
So far, this fight had rapidly degenerated into a wild spray-and-pray, but as long as that minigun stayed silent, Vernon was going to count his blessings.
He hit the ground hard but maintained his balance, then threw himself off to the left and flat on the ground as more bullets smacked into the truck where he’d just been. He could hear more fire from the front of the truck, but didn’t dare look behind him, as he sighted in on a man in full cammies, plate carrier, high-cut helmet, and balaclava, all in that matching, green, gray, and brown pattern, sprinting toward a rock just uphill. Vernon’s shot caught him mid-stride, and he stumbled, the follow up taking him through the throat. The man tumbled onto his face, both gloved hands going to his neck.
The roar of a second bird intensified behind him, as Price bellowed, “Peel left!” Despite all the time the PMC magnate had spent in offices and meeting halls over the years, the man had proved to be surprisingly skilled in the field, but right then, Vernon had to take his eyes off the enemy for a second to figure out which way left was supposed to be.
He couldn’t see Price, which meant he had to be on the other side of the truck. But he could see the second helicopter, or hybrid, or whatever it was, as matte black as the first, circling overhead. It looked like the bad guys had tried to block both sides of the road before their target had turned out to be a little pricklier than they’d imagined.
Sam was moving already, and Vernon was quickly glad that he’d pushed up just slightly, because it meant Sam could get between him and the truck, without moving in front of his barrel. He took another shot at a running camouflaged shooter, missing by a hair as the man dove onto his face behind a fold in the ground.
There wasn’t much cover aside from microterrain, but the sheer volume of fire flying in both directions was brutal, and both sides’ accuracy was suffering from it.
Sam sprinted a few yards and threw himself flat, as Travis started to try to make his own dash. He didn’t get far. He’d just passed Vernon when a bullet took him in the side with a thwack that Vernon could hear even over the gunfire. His choking scream died quickly as he dropped.
Max sprinted past then, followed quickly by Price. At almost the same time, as the second helo growled overhead, the door gunner opened fire on the truck, a stream of tracers tearing through the vehicle lengthwise with an angry, buzzing roar, sparks and pulverized metal flying as the old Ural was practically cut in half.
At least we’ve only got shooters on one side, now. Vernon gasped in the thin air as he ran for the creek bed off the side of the road, where Sam and Max were already set up. Another round snapped past his head, alarmingly close, just before he dove through the low bushes along the bank and into the mostly-dry gravel bed.
They were now out of sight of the enemy, but all it would take would be one gun run from one of those helos, and they were dead.
The gunfire had momentarily died down, as neither the Special Projects contractors or the enemy shooters had targets. Right at the moment, Vernon couldn’t see either helo, but he could hear them clearly enough.
“Where’s Boren?” Max didn’t look over his shoulder as he asked the question, having positioned himself where he had a narrow window through the brush where he could see the road just behind the smoking ruin of the smashed Ural.
“He tried to grab my weapon as soon as the birds showed up.” Price’s voice was bland and slightly wry, despite how hard he was breathing. “He didn’t survive the attempt.” He was digging in the go bag at his side, finally coming up with the satellite phone they’d brought, hitting the speed dial for their QRF. Vernon didn’t think that there was a hope in hell that the Quick Reaction Force was going to get there in time, but what else were they going to do?
Sam took a shot at a moving figure trying to run up to the high ground above them, and the shooter disappeared. “They’re trying to flank us.”
“They won’t need to with those birds in the air.” Vernon had eyes on one, watching as it banked around to the south, turning back toward them. It was surprisingly quiet, and with those pusher props, it was fast. He watched it, wondering if he could get a round through that windshield. He wasn’t nearly as confident in the 7.62×39 to get a kill shot on a moving helo’s pilot as he might have been with a heavier round.
He also wondered just why they hadn’t simply burned them down with those miniguns as soon as the fight had started. He had his suspicions, and didn’t like them much.
Price threw the phone in the dirt with a curse. “Those sons of bitches. The signal’s getting through, but they’re not picking up. Must have been bought off.”
Before anyone could make the observation that naturally followed, that weird, fast moving helo roared by, the gunner tearing through the brush with a long burst of minigun fire, just off the creek bed. All four men ducked as they were showered with debris.
“Mitchell Price!” The voice on the loudspeaker had a faint French accent. “You are cut off and alone! Surrender, and you will not be harmed!”
“Fuck off.” Sam, true to form, wasn’t inclined to go quietly into that good night.
Price wasn’t going to react that quickly, though. Vernon glanced at him, and saw that their boss was frowning, looking down at the dirt in front of him as he thought it over.
Looking up at the helo as it circled back around—or maybe it was the second bird—he couldn’t help but think that surrender was not their best option. He didn’t believe that they “wouldn’t be harmed.” Not with this bunch, if they were who he suspected.
“I’m sorry, gents.” Price looked up and around at them. “I might have gotten us in deeper than we were ready for, this time. It was just supposed to be recon.”
Sam’s look of disgust was eloquent enough.
“I’m who they want. I’ll do what I can to protect you.” He started to stand up.
Vernon’s mind was racing. They’d been sold out—he was pretty sure of that. And the timeframe meant that he couldn’t be sure it was just Boren who’d been behind it.
It had become obvious over the last few years that while Price might hold onto as much control of his PMC empire as possible, there were elements within it that were less than trustworthy. It was possible that Boren and his little company had been paid off in advance just to call ahead and warn about anyone showing too much interest in the abandoned Soviet base. But the fact that they knew it was Price…
He grabbed the phone, as Price put his rifle down and stood up. Fortunately, he had the number memorized. The one man he’d really, truly trust with all their lives, even though he’d sworn he’d never go back to the private military contracting world again, not after the Anambas.
Sam was spitting curses as he flipped his sling over his head and put his rifle down. The bird was circling around again, descending toward the road, and more of the shooters in their unfamiliar camouflage were starting to move up. The phone rang in Vernon’s ear, every passing second feeling like an eternity. Come on, come on.
It went to voicemail. “Dan, it’s Vernon. Look, we’re in deep shit. I need you to get in contact with a retired Marine Colonel named John Brannigan. Tell him that we’ve been taken hostage, and that the target is in an abandoned Soviet base in Kyrgyzstan.” He rattled off the coordinates quickly, as the helo landed on the road and the shooters closed in. “I’m about to get rolled up, so I can’t tell you more, but tell him that it’s our old friends from Chad. Hector Chavez, with John Paul Jones Consulting, will know how to contact him.”
Then they were too close, and he had to drop the phone. It was over.