If you'd asked Josh Chang a year ago how he wanted to spend his 32nd birthday, he wouldn't have been able to manufacture an image in his head. However, if you asked him now, on his actual 32nd birthday, he would have been able to tell you how he didn't want to spend it.
He was sure his ankle was broken. When the truck he was driving had been hit, it had rolled over three times before slamming into a tree. The dashboard had come down hard on his right foot, pinning it to the floor -- when he wrenched it to free it, he heard it snap.
Still, he'd managed to make it out of the truck and into the woods, just like he'd been trained to do. Even through the pounding rain, he could hear them after him -- a Chinese special operations detachment. He knew who they were because he'd spent the last month getting close to them, pretending to be a mechanic in their camp. They called themselves the Yaoguai -- the Demons.
Jason Chang was good -- very good. He'd been an Army Delta Operator in Afghanistan before joining the Central Intelligence Agency. He'd taught SERE courses and was the three-time Army Combatives champion, 2012-2014. All of that training and skill, and Jason knew he wouldn't be able to escape from the Demons alone.
Josh was unarmed and far from any US Forces -- he was in the woods a good 50 miles south of Bol'show Nimnyr (formerly Firebase Copperhead), which had fallen to the Chinese more than a year ago. Help wasn't coming -- the closest American forces were at Firebase Zulu, more than 50 miles away -- assuming Zulu was still there.
His 32nd birthday was about to be his last, but he figured he'd take as many of the Demons with him as he could.
The Demons would fan out, he knew, and search the woods for him. He just hoped they fanned out far enough. Josh hunched down behind a broken tree trunk and listened.
The first Demon walked past him on his left. Josh waited until the man was two steps in front of him before he moved, wrapping his left arm around the man's throat and winching it tight with his right arm. The Demon opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out -- Josh twisted, quick and hard, and snapped the man's neck.
The Demon had only a QSZ-92 pistol and a long, wicked knife, both of which Josh took. He'd killed their radio man, apparently -- though he knew it was probably hopeless, he placed the earbud in his ear and tuned the man's backpack radio to channel 1-9 Victor. He slipped on the throat mic and toggled the radio.
"Any American forces, come in. This is Ghost Six."
In his ear, a burst of static.
"Repeat, any American forces, come in. This is Ghost Six."
Static again, but then --
"Ghost Six, this is Raymond 1-0, we read. Ident."
"Ident 4-1-7 Tango Bravo Delta."
"Ident confirmed, Ghost Six. What can we do you for?" the voice on the other end was casual, drawling -- North Florida, Josh guessed.
"Pursued by multiple hostiles. Injured, with critical Intel. Request assistance."
"We're a weather bird, Ghost. Air support is negative. Hold one."
Josh dragged the dead Demon under the fallen tree trunk and crouched beside him, eyes and ears open and scanning for the rest of the detachment.
"Ghost Six, we've got a volunteer offering assistance. We'll be over your position in 0-2 minutes. Hold on, Ghost."
Josh didn't hear the weather plane -- a C-130, he guessed -- but a few moments later, he saw the parachute. So did the Demons, he noticed, as they fired on it. Their tracers lit up the night, and he saw several rounds hit the chute. It folded and dropped.
"Shit," Josh grumbled.
"Yeah. Glad that wasn't me," came a voice from behind him.
Josh whirled, pistol up, to see a man in woodland fatigues and a helmet. He was a white guy, shorter than Josh at five and a half feet, and extremely muscular. The white guy grinned.
"You can keep the pistol if you want, bud. But I brought you something a little more fun," the man said, unslinging an M-4 from his back and handing it to Josh.
Josh took the M4 and noticed the man's uniform -- he was an officer, a Major. Air Force. The insignia on his sleeve showed a dagger, lightning, and a parachute and read "Combat Weather Team, USAF, Airborne."
"The parachute I saw?" Josh asked.
"Duffel bag full of junk. Static-lined it from the bird -- I didn't pull my chute until I had to."
"Good plan. Major --"
"Cooper. Call me Coop. Here, put this on," Cooper said, pulling a woodland camo coat from his pack and tossing it to Josh, who shrugged into it and put the hood up. Cooper put on a pair of UltraVis goggles and looked around.
"How're we looking?" Josh asked.
"Not seeing anyone in the immediate area. My guess is some of 'em went after the dummy parachute. Don't expect the situation to hold, though. You said you were injured -- are you combat effective? Can you walk?""
"Hurts like a bitch, but yeah."
"The bird radioed back to Zulu. They're sending someone, but we have to meet 'em halfway. The guys after you, they come in a vehicle?"
"Light Assault and a CDM."
"How far back?"
"Half a mile or so."
"That's where we're going, then," Cooper said, unslinging another M4 from his back, then handing his UltraVis goggles to Josh. As Josh put them on and activated the night vision, he saw Cooper put on another pair.
"Right. You lead the way, I'll keep an eye on our backs," Cooper said.
"Roger that," Josh said, moving back the way he came as quickly as he could. He couldn't hear Cooper behind him, but every time he looked back, the short, muscular man was there, moving in a low crouch with his M4 at the ready.
"So where'd you come from?" Cooper asked in a low whisper.
"Copperhead," Josh whispered back.
"That means the guys after you --"
"The Demons. Yeah."
"Well, hoo-fucking-ray," Cooper grumbled. "How many?"
"Fifteen. Killed one, so fourteen."
"They'll have found the parachute by now, so fourteen pissed-off Demons. Fun," Cooper said, chuckling.
"What were you doing out this way, anyway?" Josh asked as he stepped over a fallen branch.
"My job. Monitoring this storm system," Cooper said.
"Wait. You're a weatherman?"
"No, a weatherman is that goofy motherfucker with the plastic hair on the Channel 4 News Team. I'm a meteorologist."
"Fine. A meteorologist. And you volunteered to jump into a hot combat area?"
"Yep. Also my job. Otherwise, Airborne school, SERE, AST, SOWT, and all those other acronyms would've been kinda silly," Cooper said.
Josh shook his head and opened his mouth to say something, but he didn't get the chance.
"Get down!" Cooper hissed, and Josh hit the ground. Cooper was already firing by the time the first bullets flew past Josh's head and slammed into the tree next to him -- Josh turned and brought up his M4.
He could see the Demons, rendered in bright green by the UltraVis goggles, heading towards them at a run. There were nine of them, but Josh could see Cooper had already dropped five. Josh fired his M4, dropping two more before the Demons scattered and took cover.
"Move, move," Cooper whispered.
Josh felt Cooper's hand on his shoulder, pushing him forward. Josh ran as fast as he could on his junked ankle, Cooper right behind him all the way as bullets slammed into the trees around them. A round grazed Josh's shoulder, but he kept moving.
"Road up ahead. I see the LAV. Think they left the keys in it?" Cooper said, coughing.
"You all right?" Josh said as they climbed into the Mengshi light assault vehicle.
"Yeah. Caught one to the back, but the armor stopped it. Cracked rib, probably. You drive, I'll shoot."
Josh started up the Mengshi and slammed on the accellerator as Cooper threw a few high-explosive grenades at the CDM, rolling them under the vehicle as the two of them tore off. The explosion went off a few seconds later.
"You think that'll immobilize the CDM?" Josh asked.
"Probably not," Cooper said, "but we might get lucky. Besides, this thing's faster than them by a long shot."
Cooper emptied a clip behind them as the Mengshi sped off down the road, and Josh heard shouting as more Demons took rounds. In a few seconds, they were up to 65 miles an hour, and Cooper stopped firing.
"Keep going this way. It'll link us up with the M-56 highway -- that'll run us straight north to Zulu," Cooper said as he sat in the passenger seat and strapped in.
"Let's just hope we don't pick up any more patrols before then," Josh said, shaking his head.
"You speak Chinese, right?"
"Kinda my job."
"Keep on the radio traffic. We might pick 'em up before we get to 'em."
"Good plan," Josh said, nodding.
* * *
"Thirty miles to Zulu," Josh said, checking the GPS on the Mengshi's dashboard.
"Shit. We should've heard from someone by now," Cooper said, pulling his radio from his vest and toggling it.
"1-0 CWS," he said into the radio.
"This is 1-3-8 Ranger, 1-0. We copy," the response came back instantly.
"You got a fix on us, 1-3-8?" Cooper asked.
"Roger. We're encountering some light resistance on the M-56 twenty miles north of you. Russian rebels. Shouldn't take too long to punch through. UAVs show your path is clear until then, though. Keep on comin'," the radio crackled.
"Well, you heard the man," Cooper shrugged, putting the radio back on his vest. "Straight on."
"We're low on fuel, here. I don't think we'll make it 20 miles," Josh told him.
"Well, let's hope they clean up the Russians before then," Cooper said.
"Hey, what time is it?" Josh asked.
Cooper checked the watch on his wrist.
"Hmm. Still my birthday."
"Oh. Happy Birthday. Uh, you can keep the M4 as a present," Cooper smirked.
Ten minutes later, the Mengshi sputtered to a stop. Cooper and Josh scanned the area with their UltraVis goggles -- it was clear and quiet.
"Looks like we walk from here," Josh sighed.
"Hold on," Cooper said, checking his watch. "Five minutes."
"Why five minutes?"
"Can't make a guy walk on a busted ankle on his birthday," Cooper said, grinning.