Southwest of Mombasa, Kenya
One week later
Major Yuri Vladimirovich Borbikov hated this hot, filthy, nothing part of Africa, but he was ready to die for it.
And as he looked out over the jungle and down the hill to the flatlands below, he thought the odds were stacked in favor of his doing just that today.
The forces arrayed against him were preparing to attack this very morning, and all intelligence reports indicated they would advance up the hill, destroy everything in their path, and take this position. Borbikov and his men could slow them and bloody them, but ultimately could not stop them.
Nine kilometers distant, hidden from his view by a thick jungle wood line, a coalition of French, Kenyan, and Canadian soldiers waited with helicopters and armored personnel carriers. Their artillery was in place and their multiple-launch rocket systems were ranged on Borbikov's position. The Russian didn't know the enemy's total strength exactly, but his intelligence reports indicated his small force might be outnumbered seven to one.
Borbikov's communications officer and a dozen troops stood or knelt with him on the roof of this two-story cinder-block building and peered out through narrow partitions in the wall of sandbags erected to protect a pair of 82mm mortars set up behind them. This fighting position wouldn't survive twenty seconds of concentrated shelling, but Borbikov chanced coming up here because he wanted to look out over the battlefield himself: an officer's wish for any last bit of intelligence before the commencement of hostilities.
Yuri Borbikov was in command of a company of specially trained troops, members of the 3rd Guard Separate Spetsnaz Brigade of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Eighty-eight men in all, they were dispersed now in their defensive positions, manning machine guns, mortars, shoulder-fired rockets, and air defense weapons.
There was a larger contingent of Russian paratroopers here as well: two companies from the 51st Guards Airborne Regiment, five hundred men strong, and while they weren't as well trained as the Spetsnaz unit, they had spent the last five weeks digging in and preparing for the attack that had seemed more inevitable by the day, and Borbikov fully expected the boys from the 51st Guard to fight valiantly.
But he knew it would not be enough. The major was a highly trained infantry officer; he'd graduated at the top of his class from the coveted Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Moscow, and he had been here in-country long enough to have an almost perfect tactical picture of the battlefield.
And all his knowledge told him there was little chance he could defend this hill for more than a couple of hours.
The Russians had been cut off for the past three weeks and were low on food, water, and other provisions, and there was no way they could be resupplied from home, because the French had brought in significant numbers of Mistral surface-to-air missiles to prevent just such an attempt.
Borbikov knew defending this location might mean death for himself and his men, but he strongly preferred death to dishonor. He was a true believer in the Russian Federation; he'd long ago bought into the notion that the West was continuously plotting against the interests of his motherland, and he felt surrender here today would bring disgrace on himself and his troops.
To Borbikov, this fight was about honor, but to Russia and the West, this fight was about the wide, flat, and barren strip mine that lay on the top of the hill behind him.
Russia had sent troops to defend a few square miles of rocky scrubland and jungle in a remote part of Africa because something had been found under the dirt here in southeastern Kenya, and that something had been determined to be necessary for the survival of the Russian government, economy, and military.
Experts said the concentration of highly valuable rare-earth minerals here was like nowhere else on earth. Fully 60 percent of the world's known supply of eleven of the seventeen essential minerals was thought to be under the soil and rock just behind the Russian lines. Russia now held this ground because the country had discovered, purchased, and developed the mine, and even though the Kenyan government had invalidated the contract after accusations of corruption surfaced and ordered the Russians to vacate, Borbikov knew Russia would be crazy to relinquish it without one hell of a fight.
The standoff had been ongoing for five weeks when Kenyan and French authorities informed the lieutenant colonel in charge of the mine's defenses that time had run out. The lieutenant colonel reached out to Moscow and waited for orders.
The Kenyans and the French soon notified the defenders of Mrima Hill that the sovereign territory of the Republic of Kenya would be retaken by force without delay.
That call had come five hours earlier, just after midnight, and despite the fact he and his men were seriously outnumbered, Yuri Borbikov was ready to get to it. Five weeks of waiting and talking were over. He was a man of action; at this point he considered fighting a welcome diversion from the boredom of the siege.
In the distance now he heard engines, and his ears were tuned to listen for the sound of the inevitable firing of artillery as the softening-up stage of the attack began.
But it was a different sound altogether that he heard: the metallic creak of the stairwell door as it opened behind him. Borbikov turned around, ready to scream at one of his men for leaving his defensive position. But it wasn't one of his men. It was Lieutenant Colonel Yelchin of the 51st Guards Airborne Regiment. While Major Borbikov was in charge of the Spetsnaz force here, Yelchin had command authority over the entire mine and all the troops.
Borbikov caught his acid tongue before it let loose something he would regret, and instead said, "I'm sorry, Colonel, but this position is not safe. The artillery could begin at any time."
Yelchin stepped up to Borbikov's sandbagged overwatch. "Good news, Yuri. There will be no attack. We have been ordered to lower our weapons and go to Mombasa to await transport back to Russia." He grinned. "It's over."
Borbikov leaned back against the sandbags, utterly stunned. "Chto?" ("What?")
"Da. Moscow has worked it out with the Kenyans. We have four hours to pack and vacate. We'll obviously have to leave some of-"
"Sir, did you explain to Moscow that we can repel the coalition attack? At least the first wave. We can hold them off, target their antiair missiles, and if we get lucky, take them out. Once we get resupply from our aircraft, additional Spetsnaz, and airborne troops, we can-"
The colonel interrupted the major. "I did not explain any of that, because this is a political decision, Yuri. The tactics weren't discussed."
"Sir, you know the Kenya Defence Forces. Even with help from the French, they aren't ready for a fight. Their tanks are from the 1960s, their artillery is unreliable shit from Serbia, and they won't expect the fury they'll face when they come up this hill."
"They aren't coming up this hill. We are going down it. Four hours."
Borbikov muttered to himself. "Unbelievable."
Yelchin regarded the special forces major now. "I get it, Yuri. You actually want to fight."
"And you don't, sir?"
"What I want is to get the hell out of this shithole and back home to my family. I want to eat real food and drink clean water." He pointed to the blazing morning sun. "I want motherfucking air-conditioning!"
Borbikov did not hide his disdain now. "Air-conditioning, sir?"
The lieutenant colonel softened a little. "Look, Yuri. Your passion is admirable, as is your bravery. But we do what we're told."
Colonel Yelchin turned and left the roof without another word.
Four hours later Major Borbikov sat high in the command turret of a BTR-90 armored personnel carrier, the fifth vehicle in the long column leaving the mine. His back was ramrod straight, his shoulders broad, and his head high as they passed the forward positions of the French and Kenyans.
If Borbikov had been in command, he told himself, this would have gone down differently. Much differently. The major would have ordered his Spetsnaz forces and the paratroopers to fight for every last inch of the mine, they would have booby-trapped the buildings and the equipment, and they would have held out for as long as they could. And then, when the battle was lost, when Borbikov and his valiant comrades were all dead, the citizens of the Russian Federation would have known the mettle of its army, and the West would have known the danger that just a few hundred committed Russian soldiers posed.
Borbikov knew his death in battle would have brought honor to the rodina.
But he wasn't in command. Yelchin was in command, and Yelchin obviously couldn't wait to get the fuck out of here.
As his vehicle reached the bottom of the hill and turned onto a dirt road that would lead to the A12 Highway and the coast, Borbikov passed a large contingent of Kenyan, French, and Canadian troops sitting in or on their armored vehicles, staring down the surrendering and retreating Russians with utter contempt. A small herd of rail-thin oxen shuffled lazily among them in the heat.
The Kenyans were chanting and laughing. Hard to hear over the BTR's engine at first. Borbikov concentrated on the sound till he could make it out.
"Ishia, Russia, kumamayo! Ishia, Russia, kumamayo!" Over and over and over.
Borbikov didn't speak Swahili, but he could guess the chant was something along the lines of "Hey, Russia, get the fuck out of here."
Borbikov heard a sudden commotion up ahead, men shouting in anger over the rumble of the armored vehicles, and then he saw something slung through the air in the direction of the APC in front of him. Men riding on the BTR-90 ducked down, but no one raised weapons. Borbikov himself reached for his radio transmit key, but before he triggered it, he was slapped hard on his right side with something wet and sticky.
He looked at the soldiers standing there, right off the road. Several French paratroopers had trenching tools out, and they were slinging something in the air toward the passing vehicles, laughing hysterically as they did so.
The major touched his finger to the slop on his neck and cheek. Held it up in front of his goggles to get a better look.
Fresh, wet ox dung.
Borbikov glared back at the men throwing shit in his face, his chest still high and his chin still up, but inside he raged. He'd fought in the Caucasus and in Ukraine and in Syria, and he'd never suffered the shame of retreat, much less indignities such as this.
Looking into the eyes of his enemy here, and then into the eyes of his own troops around him, he realized something.
Everyone here thought this was over.
But not Yuri Borbikov. No . . . this was not over. He made a vow to himself right then and there that yet another chapter to the Mrima Hill saga would be written, and he would write it.
Yuri Borbikov would be back, and Russia would be the ultimate victors here, slinging hot shit on the vanquished Westerners and Africans as they retreated in shame.
West Coast of Taiwan
Two years later
Thursday, 22 August
A sliver of moon slipped out of the clouds just as the dark forms emerged from the ocean, fifty meters from shore. Two dozen jet-black wet suits shimmered in the moonlight and moved forward through the low surf.
The men scanned the dunes in front of them through waterproof night observation devices, breathing heavily as they did so. The twenty-four heavily laden men were supremely fit, but they were not immune to the effects of the nearly four-mile swim from the submarine.
Once on land and satisfied their ingress had remained undetected, Captain Chen Min Jun slung his rifle on his back and took an infrared buoy from a mesh gear bag. He turned on the device, then tossed it in the water, setting it adrift in the light surf. The wet synthetic-rope shore cable slipped easily from his grasp as the buoy floated with the flotsam back out to sea. Chen pushed the stake at the other end of the long cable into the sand, then blinked salt water from his eyes, lowered his waterproof night-vision goggles, and confirmed the buoy's invisible light could be seen in his specialized optics.
Chen turned to his men. All twenty-three knelt in the sand now, still scanning the isolated beachfront with their own night-vision devices, their rifles arcing back and forth with the movement of their eyes.
The captain whistled softly, a gentle birdcall, and all eyes turned to him. He said nothing. He just raised his hand, then lowered it with a flat palm while pointing away from the water.
The team stood in unison, moved up the beach across the moonlight, weapons sweeping for targets all the way to the mangrove and palm jungle that welcomed them with the sounds of tree frogs and crickets, covering the soft sounds made by the men's footsteps.
One by one, the men melted into the foliage.
The unit found a clearing after twenty minutesÕ push through the triple-canopy jungle. Captain Chen knelt in softly blowing grass and looked into the dark sky as he extended the thin wire-mesh dome antenna of the radio. The instrument was equipped with a digital terminal port, and he plugged in his small tablet computer, tapped a few keys, then waited until it made its connection with the uplink. Chen then pressed the button that read ÒburstÓ and the waterproof tablet blinked red, then green, indicating it had completed its task.
Reliable Chinese computer technology, thought Chen as he folded the antenna up and looked out at his second-in-command, just a few feet away in the grassy clearing. Chief Sergeant Class 3 Liu stared back at him, awaiting orders. But Chen was in no hurry. He was calm. His training had always stressed the most important virtue of a special forces officer: patience. He took his time now, reflecting on what his team had just done.
With only two dozen men, the Sea Dragons unit of special forces of the People's Republic of China had invaded Taiwan.
The Sea Dragons were stationed in the Nanjing Military Region, just across the Strait of Taiwan from the enemy island nation. The unit was revered by other PLA soldiers and duly celebrated by their leadership. They were the only unit in China allowed to wear all-black uniforms with a patch bearing the inscription "The Front Line," due to their special mission to remain always prepared to invade Taiwan.