The long, flat of Manchuria had been a place for empire building and empire breaking in days long past. The native steppe peoples rode into mainland China and history, where they created a great empire that eventually transformed them as much as it transformed the Han. The Japanese had taken it for its mineral and industrial wealth and renamed it Manchukuo, their greatest conquest before their own empire was disassembled by American, British, and Russian forces. Even after the Second Impact, Russia and China clashed along the great borders. Russia desired what all other empires desired, wealth and industry. China wanted land for their massive population to expand. Manchuria was indifferent to all this, of course. It was only land, after all.

The steppes here, continuing on into fabled Mongolia, had once known snow, though the Second Impact had changed that, as it had changed many things. It could still be fever cold here, but frost and snow were transitory guests, if they came at all. Despite that, a decade after Third Impact, and small bits of frozen moisture seemed to gather and collect in this forbidden place, hinting at snows that would come again. It was a return to old things. The earth healed itself, as did humanity. All in it's own time.

Calm itself was transitory, however, and the calm broke loose as rotor blades beat down over the grass, and three vultures thundered through their air. They were low, beating the sound of their passage into the ground as they flew. There was no one to mark their passage, of course, but one must be careful. These were Russian helicopters, still functioning ten years after their owners had vanished into the Black Moon. They had new owners, with new mission, and new purpose. And they worked, that was important. Russian equipment was like that, designed and built to be abused beyond the breaking point and then some. It wasn't necessarily a demonstration of any great part of Russian engineering, though it did showcase the ingenuity and tenacity of it's designers. What it's better to say is, that wasn't the point. Russian equipment had to be expected to work for years, without reliable support logistics and in the hands of conscript troops. It was designed that way because they had no other choice. In the end, it was a testament to their ability that Russian equipment was often the first equipment seen in use again. If they only had the population, Russia could have conquered the empty world. Like everyone else, though, their population was a hit-or-miss thing, these days.

The lead helicopter of the three was Mil Mi-24 Hind, looking all for the world like a giant wasp. It's bulbous cockpit was occupied by two pilots, and it's spacious interior by eight well-armed men and one more. Flying escort were two Ka-50s, the single seat, double-rotor attack helicopter that the Russians began to produce in quantity to assist with the border clashes in China following Second Impact. They were called Tchornaya Akula…the Black Shark. They did indeed look predatory, with their angular cockpits and knife-like edges. It had been saved from obscurity by those border clashes, where the Russians needed more aircraft than the Mil Mi-28 could provide. The Ka-50, with it's single-seat design and already respectable reputation as a special operations support platform, helped fill the gaps. Thus, there were many out here, waiting for enterprising individuals.

"We are fifteen minutes out," a call came over the headsets, and the one who stood apart shifted. At his motion, the eight armed men checked their rifles and and equipment. Last minute checks, all around. The fifteen minutes came, and the fifteen minutes passed. The chopper began descent, touched down, and the side doors slid open. Eight men tumbled out, and the one who stood apart slowly stood and exited the helicopter. It was doubtful that anyone was here to secure this place from, but doubt was the slow death. Slow deaths could become quick.

They were still in the grasslands, but facing a utility shed. It was utility shed in the middle of nowhere, and that in itself was suspicious. The Chinese counted on it's obscurity to be its primary defense. There were some things that simply couldn't be hidden from those who know where, and how, to look. The one who stood apart knew. He knew many things.

The men advanced on the shed, the two Ka-50s circling overhead. The door was already open, and peering in, they saw a great plate set in the earth, a portal like that on a sub. A great, sealed hatch in the middle of nowhere.

"It's here," the lead man said, and the one who stood apart nodded.

"Open it," he called over the beating rotors. The men began placing high-temperature charges around the cardinal points of the hatch. When ignited, they would burn and convert into plasma slag, consuming their own mass with their intense heat and vanishing into thin air. Before that happened, though, they would melt through the restraints of the hatch, and open it for the plunderers. They lit the charges, and the smell of ozone and molten steel filled the air. The ozone made the eyes water especially, as the very oxygen around the charges was boiled away. After fifteen seconds, and dangerously close to the twenty-second lifespans of the charges, the fuses dropped through. Using crowbars, they lifted the smoldering hatch free. Flashlights came on, and they looked down into the shaft.

"Smells musty," one noted, "But that seems to be all."

"Geiger counter," the one who stood apart ordered. They lowered one down, the random clicks never rising and increasing. "Masks," the one who stood apart ordered, and for safety's sake, they all donned gas masks. They then descended into darkness. The tunnels below demonstrated the full budget and wealth the People's Liberation Army had lavished on this place, at least as far as China could afford following the loss of their coastal population and economy in tertiary tsunamis. That had all come back, but the wealth was still husbanded carefully. Earmarked for projects like the one this place was devoted to.

They marched through the hallways, leading the one who stood apart but deferring to his directions. He seemed to know where they should go, so they listened carefully to where he ordered them to move. As they walked, they passed empty uniforms, surrounded by residue of organic material long since rotted away. It would make a man nervous, but these men knew no such feelings. They were hard men, one and all, and that's why the one who stood apart had chosen them for this.

"Offices," the point man said, spying the double-doors the one who stood apart said would be there. They kicked them in, and entered a cubicle farm. An overhead light flicked sadly, and kicked itself on, some motion detector somewhere still working despite the ravages of time.

"That one," the one who stood apart said, pointing to a side door. They came up to it, finding it to be heavy and double-sealed. "Charges," the one who stood apart said, and they laced the door, stood back, and blew it. They walked in, to find rows and rows of sealed file cabinets. The one who stood apart pushed through, going to three in particular. Two of them had beyond the average seals, and one, on closer inspection, was not a cabinet at all. It was a locker. He studied them, and nodded.

"Take them," he said. The men pulled the cabinets and locker from the wall, and began to carry them back out. Two hurried ahead, back to the Hind where they retrieved a portable wrench and three-point anchor. They installed it as their fellows brought the lockers back to the hatch and lined them up below. One by one, they were lifted free and returned to the Hind. Once they were secure, the one who stood apart was satisfied, and gave the order to leave. The helicopter lifted off, and joined its fellows in the sky. Still at low altitude, they beat a course back north, vanishing over the horizon.

Once again, the steppes knew peace.