The steppes reached out to the horizon in every direction, the landscape unchanged since time immemorial. It looked barren, inhospitable, and even alien. Something was to be said for the men and women who called this place home.
Shadows shifting throughout the cabin, the passenger aircraft banked, internal pressure changing as the plane lined up on heading for approach to Astana International Airport.
Deckard closed his laptop computer. He had read nearly unblinking for the entire trip. Decades ago, Jarogniew had published a book about global geopolitics and the shifting paradigms that influenced long established cultural motifs. In that last thirty years, nearly every prediction he made in his massive fifteen hundred page tome had come to pass, by design or by coincidence, Deckard didn’t know.
The only sure thing at this point was that the man was as brilliant as he was ruthless.
The human terrain was what was really shifting. Ignoring borders, transnational groups floated above national sovereignty, power drawn from new centers of gravity. The Balkanization of the entire world occurred under the guise of modernization. Mini-states and micro-states competed with super powers on an increasingly level playing field.
Deckard closed his eyes and sat back in his chair, wondering who or what would meet him on the ground.
* * *
The Gulfstream 500 slowly rolled to the secluded industrial sector of the already secluded airport to meet with Deckard’s liaison. Decending down the folding stairs, the wind blew across the open plains, biting at his face. Standing in front of the commercial hanger were two men wearing black trench coats, with an airport baggage handler close by with a dolly.
Stepping towards them, Deckard shook hands with the nearest man.
“Jake O’Brien,” Deckard said, introducing himself under his cover name.
“Stevan Djokovic, Executive Officer.”
Mind turning, Deckard suspected the older Serbian man was responding with a cover to a cover. He knew this man, but from where?
Having loaded Deckard’s two black tough boxes off the private jet, the bag handler rolled the dolly into the warehouse. Korganbaev led the way, and the three began walking through the industrial pavilion and out to the street where a driver was waiting for them in a nondescript black van.
Climbing into the van, the driver and the bag handler finished loading Deckard’s equipment before getting back into the truck and taking off towards the Kazakh capital.
“Your first time in Astana?” Korganbaev asked.
“It is,” Deckard answered truthfully.
He had been to most of the ‘stans’, but this was a first even for him.
Djokovic lit a cigarette, neglecting to roll the window down.
“Did you retire from Sunkar or Arystan?” Deckard asked the Sergeant Major.
The tall Kazakh chuckled. “Sunkar, but we have recruits from both units, as well as the 37th Air Mobile Brigade.”
“I know you will be satisfied.”
“What kind of access will our unit have to the facilities here at the airport?”
“A hanger will be set aside for us prior to deployment. We have no dedicated aircraft at the moment.”
“How many men do we have assigned to us?”
“Four hundred and fifty-one. Full strength on combat troops but still lacking support elements. Mechanics, intel, supply, and such.”
“They’ve been in training for two months now?”
“Nearly,” the Serb interjected. “We will get you settled in your personal quarters and give you a tour of the compound when we arrive-”
“No need for that now. Take me to whichever platoons are currently training.”
* * *
Samruk International had its compound set up forty kilometers outside Astana proper, and as expected the conditions were spartan. A Soviet era warehouse, with the roof half collapsed, and a dozen surplus army tents served as the headquarters and barracks. Fans of fire had been established out into the empty steppes where training, when ammunition was available, could be conducted at any time. Open air toilets rounded out the facilities.
Directing the driver to the range, the Serb pointed towards where one of the platoons was using the shooting range. There wasn’t much to it, but you don’t need much to train. The troops were on line in the prone position with AK-47’s, taking careful, deliberate shots that punched through paper targets posted fifty meters down range.
“Which platoon is this?” Deckard asked, as they exited the vehicle.
“Third platoon, Bravo Company,” Korgan responded. “Led by Sergeant Serik.”
Deckard’s appearance stood in stark contrast to the rugged descendents of nomads and warlords now training for combat. He wore western clothes and trail running shoes while these men wore ragged boots and tattered fatigues, firing nearly ancient but still serviceable AK-47 rifles. A few of the Kazakhs looked in his direction, barely acknowledging him before returning to their task.
While Deckard passively observed the training, Sergeant Serik shouted orders and the men ceased fire. Clearing their rifles as one, they carried them down range for a target inspection and critique by the platoon’s senior NCO. Deckard followed behind, examining the paper bulls’ eyes himself. The shot groups were decent but not great, except for one talented young soldier. Deckard committed the kid’s face to memory. The battalion would need several sniper teams.
It wasn’t so much the marksmanship that he had come to see but the method of training and discipline of the troops. Having worked with indigenous soldiers all over the world, Deckard had seen much, much worse. These guys had potential.
Following the mercenaries back to the firing line, the gears were turning in Deckard’s head. Ideas and improvements would be discussed later once he had more than just a snap shot impression of the battalion’s operations.
Nodding towards the XO and Sergeant Major, they got back in the van, the two seeing the look on his face and wondering what was in store for them in the near future.
* * *
Looking more like the Kazakhs under his command, Deckard walked into the interior of the warehouse, covered in sweat and dust. The morning light streaked through the huge gap in the ceiling, reminding him of the amount of work that needed to be done at Samruk International.
The warehouse had already been partitioned off by the former Kazakh military and police veterans with plywood, sheet metal, and whatever else they could scrounge into makeshift offices for the battalion’s leadership and a war room consisting of a table and a ten-year-old computer. The rest of the warehouse was left open, one corner having been converted into a gym.
With his body warmed up from the five mile run in fatigues and boots, Deckard walked over to the weights, what Russian Spetsnaz units called the courage corner, a tradition that had obviously bled over to the Kazakhs, among many other influences from the former USSR.
Hitting the ground, he knocked out fifty pushups, alongside the Kazakh NCOs conducting their own physical training, and then followed up by sticking his boots under some dumbbells and executing a hundred sit ups. Next came a hundred flutter kicks, fifty dips on the dip bar, and a hundred squats. That was one set. Four more came after.
Taking a few deep breaths and stretching for a moment, he picked up one of the twenty-five-pound kettle bells. The AK-47 of fitness equipment. He began by doing five kettlebell swings before moving up to a thirty-five-pound kettlebell, then a forty-four, and finally a fifty-three. This made for one set. Two more followed.
Finally it was time for pull ups.
Legs feeling as if they were about to give out under him, he refused to show it in front of the mercenaries. It was his new found responsibility to provide an image of absolute confidence and strength in front of them. However, sitting down in his so-called office he knew he would be hurting for it by the time tomorrow morning rolled around.
Last night had been fairly productive. After observing training, Deckard had called a team pow wow to meet the battalion’s leadership, which was basically platoon sergeants, along with the XO and Sergeant Major. After the troops went back to the tents to get some sleep, Deckard placed some calls on the satellite phone. As promised by his new benefactors from the Grove, several open lines of credit had been made available to him in New York, London, and Hong Kong.
While changing uniforms, he thought of what needed to be done. The former soldier wanted a full day to evaluate the organizational and equipment needs of the unit before placing any large orders. A few weeks was what was needed, but he didn’t have that long. Based on the conditions he had seen so far, he had already contacted contractors in Astana to deliver pallets of water, portable lavatories, and some metal workers to fix the collapsed roof. Next would be electricians to make sure the place didn’t burn to the ground, once the generators began showing up.
Looking at the situation as small manageable tasking blocks, the job in front of him looked fairly straightforward.
However, the truth was that Deckard had deep reservations.
* * *
The truth was that he was no George Patton.
The Kazakh mercenaries fanned out across the steppe in a linear L-shaped formation around a building mockup, isolating the objective while reducing the chances of friendly fire. The Kazakhs lay down in the prone with AK’s facing inwards while the assault team moved in a line towards the objective.
Deckard had shown up unannounced to watch the maneuvers, the Sergeant Major close at his heels.
The reality of the situation was that Deckard had never commanded anything even approaching this level. While a part of several Army Special Operations units, he had worked as a part of small teams of highly trained soldiers. Afterwards, he had mostly conducted singleton operations in rather austere parts of the world. Given the opportunity, it was an environment he had thrived in.
The assault team halted at the gaping hole left in the sheets of wood representing a doorway. The second man in the stack threw a rock through the door, simulating a grenade. Waiting a few moments, the assault team rushed through the door, each member making gunfire noises as they cleared the single room to let their sergeant know they were engaging invisible targets.
Commanding a battalion of hundreds of soldiers was something else entirely. It meant tracking operations, training, and personnel on a very detailed basis. It meant training meetings, intelligence meetings, and meetings for meetings. Paperwork and teleconferences. Death by power point. All the things he had avoided like the plague.
With the objective secured, the assault team moved out of the mockup, and the team leader counted them back into the platoon to have accountability for everyone. At this point the sergeant ended the drill and instructed them to do it again. The men looked bored, and Deckard couldn’t blame them. Some of these guys had been doing much more advanced training and even combat operations in Kazakhstan’s Special Forces.
Watching them continue to drill on the objective, Deckard was already forming ideas for future training objectives.
“What is the purpose of this type of training?”
“Cordon and search operations. Weapon confiscation,” Korgan said shrugging his shoulders.
“Why focus on this specifically?”
“Not for us to know,” the Sergeant Major grumbled in his thick accent. “Instructions from the Samruk offices in Astana.”