The massive Antonov-125 cargo carriers came in low and slow, one behind the other as they approached Nansang Airfield in southeast Burma.
The Ukrainian-built aircraft were scrubbed clean, engine decals missing, airline stencils fabricated, serial numbers non-existent. The six airplanes had been completely rebuilt at a little-known airfield in Colorado by mechanics and engineers who worked for a shadow air force that specialized in deniable missions.
With the An-125 being the second largest cargo carrier in the world, behind its big brother the An-225, it was difficult finding reliable pilots with hours on airframes of a comparable size. Most of the pilots and crew were sheep dipped from US military service and employed by front companies after giving up their duty positions on the C-5 Galaxy military transport airplane. A few other crew members were repatriated members of the Russian Air Force.
Soldiers of fortune.
It was the world’s second oldest profession. Unlike the oldest, they didn’t earn their pay on their backs, but sometimes a soldier for hire had to question his career choices. The condottieri were mercenary captains fighting on behalf of the Italian city-states as far back as the thirteenth century, and while the players had changed, the job remained much the same.
Today, private military corporations existed on the global stage, hiring themselves out when and where strife existed. They were war’s entrepreneurs.
With the aircraft blacked out, the troops felt like they had been swallowed by a leviathan, trapped inside the dark belly of a metallic beast. Deckard sat on the hood of one of the assault trucks, wearing a radio headset that allowed him to follow time hacks called out by the pilots.
“Ten minutes out.”
In the past someone like him would have found himself trapped between warring barons, heartless Venetian banking cartels, and the papacy. Now it was a labyrinth of ethnic-based autonomous militias, non-governmental organizations, and the death throes of a Western empire.
Burma was the home of many peoples who had historically resisted any and all forms of governance, to include the ruling military junta. The Kachin Defense Army, the Kachin Independent Army, the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army, the National Democratic Alliance Army, the Pa-O National Army, the Shan State Army, and the United Wa State Army were just a few of the tribal militias that existed in the region, not including state-based actors. The SPDC, Task Force 399, and Chinese intelligence were sure to be thrown into the mix as well.
Examining his map with a red lens flashlight in his hand, Deckard mentally overlaid the dubious territorial boundaries of each militia.
In the near future the very notion of a state would become obsolete, hemorrhaging credibility and forcing local people to look for local solutions. Burma, Somalia, Nigeria, Germany, and even the United States would carve itself into enclaves, each with its own private security contractors hired to maintain stability and enforce laws.
In his travels, Deckard had seen the future, and it wasn’t pretty. Societal breakdown and reorganization was no longer a far-flung idea restricted to the impoverished world or abstract futurist predictions, but one already becoming a global reality.
“Five minutes,” the pilot informed him over the headset.
The present was rapidly catching up with future.
“Five minutes!” Deckard yelled, waving his hands to get everyone’s attention. No one could hear him above the sound of the engines but understood when he held up five fingers.
The assault vehicles were ratcheted down to the floor of the aircraft with heavy duty nylon straps. The ratchet straps would prevent the trucks from rolling around and crushing someone while in flight, but the Kazakhs needed to be ready to pop them the second they hit the ground.
Wheels screeched as the plane finally set down on the runway. The mercenaries immediately popped off the ratchet straps and quickly rolled them up before stowing them in the storage compartments on the trucks.
We’ll need them for the trip back, Deckard thought to himself, cynically, if any of us make it back.
As the An-125 peeled off the runway and onto the parking apron, the next cargo carrier was coming in right behind them. Everyone was still holding their breath. If their operational security had been compromised and someone was waiting at the end of the runway with one of the anti-aircraft missiles they had been told of, then this mission could be over before it began.
Sliding its massive frame into position, the pilots announced they were set, even as the rear ramp was opening. Deckard put the headset aside and ordered the Kazakhs to drop the second portion of the ramp into place. Two metal struts bridged from the end of the ramp the rest of the way to the ground, clanging loudly as they landed.
Drivers turned the ignition, starting their engines, gunners already in place and assaulters quickly taking their seats. They were primed, butterflies in their stomachs, wondering what to expect in the darkness outside.
Headlights remained off as Deckard motioned for them to disembark and begin rolling down the ramp. The first assault truck bounced as it maneuvered from the first section of the ramp and onto the struts before rocking again as it hit the tarmac. A few dozen trucks regurgitated themselves out of the airplane before Deckard followed the last vehicle out on foot.
The final assault truck halted, and several Kazakhs got out to help Deckard remove the struts and slide them back inside the aircraft. The entire sequence of events had been rehearsed again and again with the trucks sitting inside fuselage mockups made of plywood back in Kazakhstan.
Five other Antonovs were now lined up perfectly on the parking apron alongside them as they unloaded a battalion’s worth of vehicles. A few minutes later, the entire unit was on the ground. As platoon sergeants and company commanders took over, the pilots were already turning and preparing to take off. They’d be hanging out somewhere more secure until Samruk called for exfil.
Meanwhile the vehicles were getting lined up on the side of the runway in a quick staging area for accountability before beginning movement. The three companies had been split up among the six aircraft, so it was important to make sure everyone was in the right place. The difficulty in not having officers was that Deckard, Korgan, and Djokovic had to split up and act as company commanders for the duration of the mission.
Just as the last Antonov lifted off, Deckard initiated movement. Illuminated by an overcast moon, the mercenary battalion skirted around the edge of a small village before cutting onto the main road junction.
The combat operation called for a complete blackout. Drivers drove, looking through night vision goggles with infrared headlights turned on to help them see at night. The PKM gunners in the turret had the best field of view and could help the driver navigate, relaying directions by radio.
At the intersection the battalion silently split off. Alpha and Bravo Companies took a right heading north on National Highway Number Four while Charlie Company, being led by Djokovic, turned left on Highway Forty-Five.
Keeping a good separation between vehicles, Alpha and Bravo crept up to fifty miles an hour on the straightaways, making good time for the moment. It was important not to drive faster then they could see, especially when driving with night vision goggles on. With the driver deprived of depth perception, an obstacle in the road could quickly lead to disaster.
The central lowlands made for pretty easy driving, with gently rolling terrain and fairly well built roads. Only occasionally did they have to slow down to snake back and forth down a ravine to cross a bridge over a river. The high rate of speed also kept the commandos riding in the open air rear area of the truck cool from the humidity.
“Band-Aid One, this is OB-One. Radio check, over,” Deckard said, keying the truck’s encrypted radio hand mic from the passenger seat of his truck.
“OB-One, this is Band-Aid One. I read you, Lima Charlie; how about me?”
Dr. Nick the Dick was supposed to be ready to accept casualties the moment the main element hit the ground if need be.
“I got you, Lima Charlie. What is your current status, over.”
“We’re green and waiting for your call, over.”
That was a call he seriously didn’t want to make.
* * *
Piet scanned the scenery as it flashed by.
Leaning back in his seat, he took grim pleasure in the knowing that while he was exposed in the back of the assault vehicle, at least if he were shot, the round wouldn’t go through his chest and kill the guy sitting behind him, thanks to the bullet-proof ceramics of the seats.
The .300 Winchester Magnum sniper rifle sat resting on its rubber padded stock between his feet. He’d spent the last few weeks with his six man sniper section out in the steppes, getting familiar with the new rifle and collecting data for their log books.
Craning his head around, the South African looked through the assault truck’s rear window at the guy in the passenger seat, eyeballing the back of Djokovic’s head.
* * *
Jean-Francois leaned back in his seat, the Kazakhs sitting next to him holding their AK-103 rifles close. The air smelled fresh after recent rainfall, reminding him that monsoon season had already moved in.
He was still assigned to Alpha Company, headed north with the battalion commander.
Speeding through the disputed Shan State, he could see thatch-roofed villages nestled into the jungle through his night vision goggles. It felt good to be back. Previously he had been farther south in the Karen State, battling it out with the Burmese Government’s death squads.
In 1950, Chinese nationalist forces, sponsored by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, invaded the Shan State in eastern Burma. Their reign of terror included tax collection, forcibly conscripting local men into their so-called secret army, and forcing the Burmese to grow poppies.
This resulted in the Burmese Government forming an alliance with Shan warlords to fight back against the Chinese insurgents, using military equipment purchased with opium money. And thus began the Opium Wars, a low intensity battle that had never really ended, with one faction or the other struggling for control over the poppies and the convoys that carried them to the surrounding nations.
With the current leader of the UWSA, Saya Peng, indicted by a grand jury in Brooklyn, New York and facing mounting international pressure, including a second conviction in absentia in Thailand, he had finally been convinced by the ruling junta to stop trafficking the poppies. Peng forcefully relocated thousands of the Shan civilians south several years ago, setting up factories and beginning to produce yaa baa methamphetamine pills instead of farming poppies. Being of Sino-Burmese lineage and well connected to the underworld on both sides of the border, he easily obtained the necessary precursor chemicals from China.
After sixty years, no one could imagine the Shan without a narcotics-based economy.
Frank had filled him in on the rest during the flight.
The UWSA had grown stronger then the junta’s military under Peng’s leadership. When Peng refused to unify his people with the government forces, they sent in troops to disastrous effect. The junta was left with little option. Acknowledge and cede authority to Peng, or attack once more, this time with newly acquired chemical weapons from North Korea, an option that would have brought down even more heat on the regime from the United Nations.
This was where foreign mercenaries entered into the picture. Some entity, somewhere, had cut a backroom deal with the Burmese government.
Frank had assured him that this mission wasn’t part of some kind of ethnic cleansing on the SPDC’s behalf. They were taking down an exceedingly violent drug cartel, but his old friend had still tap danced around who had hired them.
Looking at his watch, he saw that Charlie Company would be reaching their Area of Operations soon. Gripping his own AK a little tighter, the Frenchman knew this mission was going to get ugly fast.