1900 Hours local
"I'm gonna fuckin' kill somebody."
Glover stirred from his half daze to peer through the dim light at Muldoon. "What's that, Sir?"
"I said I'm going to kill somebody."
Glover shifted his back to avoid something digging into his back from the pack he leaned against.
"Well I suppose that is the whole reason we're here, no?" Glover fired up his small cooker to boil some water for tea.
Muldoon looked hard at Glover for a moment. "No, I'm talking about bloody squadron. Those bastards have really boffed us on this one. I mean, they're not even running CAS any more. They're strictly running combat air patrol, so why the bloody hell are we still here yompin' with these blokes?"
"I don't know sir, I just goes where I'm told."
"We've been here how long? Two days?"
"Seems like ten weeks to me."
They were sitting in the darkened basement of a damaged apartment building. Around them, others from battalion sat or stood in small groups, monitoring communications gear or peering over paper maps or holos. Faces were eerily lit by the displays. Most, however, were trying to grab some sleep. In the corner, two wounded men were moaning softly under the attention of a medical orderly. Outside, the rumble of fighting continued unabated, punctuated occasionally by burst of closer firing, or large explosions.
"Well, somebody is going to get it when we get back. Why I..."
"Tea sir?" Glover held out a mug of steaming liquid to Muldoon.
"Tea? Glover, we're stuck here in this shithole of a city, fighting with the infantry, schwabs no less. Max is dead, and we're more than likely soon to follow him, probably in the clutches of one of these ghoulish beasts. Meanwhile the rest of the squadron's kicking back sleeping in cots with their finger up, and you think all that can be made better with a cup of tea?"
"Can't ‘urt, Sir" Glover didn't disagree with the Lieutenant, he just was too tired to care at the moment.
Muldoon shook his head a grinned, then grabbed the cup. "Thanks." he took a sip and promptly scalded his lips. "Christ!"
"Careful now, it's hot."
Another figure descended the stairs to the basement and picked his way around the groups of men looking closely for someone. Eventually the para made his way to the two Aussies and squatted. "Lieutenant Muldoon?"
The man unslung some kit from his shoulder and placed it at Muldoon's feet. "Sir, you are going to be needed for an operation Second Kompanie has been tasked with.
"Are the Raptors flying? I haven't heard anything."
"No, Sir. But the 504th will provide us gunship support."
"Well that's Lt. Grant. He's your liaison."
"I'm afraid he's dead, Sir."
"What? How's that?"
"Killed in an accident. Some short rounds from fire support landed on his observation post. Killed the whole team. I do have his equipment though. Colonel Rölle said to give it to you. If you would follow me I'll take you to the staging area where the Kompanie is currently located. It is about three blocks from here."
"What time are they moving out?"
"I don't know, Sir. You'll be told at the briefing. Soon, I expect."
"I thought you guys were in rest."
"We were. A company of UN Marines had made planetfall and relieved us as TF reserve, but once the Kra'Vak counter attacked they were put right into the line. We are the last reserve. Come with me, Sir. We must be going."
Muldoon cast a hopeless glance at Glover then stood up and donned his pack. He was sore all over. They split up Grant's and followed the para. There was a several minutes' walk along the darkened streets. They moved hunched over, hugging walls, careful not to silhouette themselves. Still, a stray round impacted a meter above Glover's head showering him with bits of plasticrete. It was with great relief that they entered the basement of yet another abandoned building.
In the larger room the survivors from Second Kompanie worked busily in small groups preparing for the mission. The para pointed Muldoon and Glover over to the far side of the room where Plummer and the command group sat on the floor, with a holo of the objective neighborhood between them. Plummer was talking so they waited quietly. Their attention was focused upon a single large building, which sat astride of a traffic circle. A large park lay behind it.
"Excuse me, Sir, but I'd like to make a suggestion?" The thin blond haired Sgt. Atkinson of engineers held a small knife in his hand like a pointer as he sat cross-legged on the floor beside the commander."
Well, I'd advise against getting into the building from any of these doors. If I were defending the place I'd have all of the ground floor exits either booby-trapped or covered with fire. I can rig a breaching charge and we can open hole in this building back here, let's say. That will put you right in the middle of the ground floor."
"How long would it take you to affix the charge?"
"Shit I can have the charge pre-rigged before we leave here. We'll carry it in two sections and slap it up in a fifteen seconds."
Plummer studied the map. "Can you place the charge here?" He pointed to an inside corner.
"I wish we had actual blueprints to this building," he muttered.
"Sorry Herr Hauptman," said his communications sergeant. "But our database does not include this building. It was not built at the time of the last update."
"Very well, go ahead and construct the breaching charge. We shall enter here. Ahh, Leutnant Muldoon. I'm glad you could accompany us. Have you been briefed on the operation?"
"Very quickly. The Kra'Vak have launched a counter attack at several places along KG Hannibal's sector of responsibility. However, here, a particularly telling stroke has managed to sever our axis of advance. The Kra'Vak were very wise in choosing their objective. They've seized this crossroads complex which blocks all attempts to relieve the advanced units. Note that the Kra'Vak also artfully blocked this route on the far side of the park with demolitions in several places forcing us to either bypass to the north, directly into more of their defensive positions, or force a direct assault against the buildings they have seized."
"How many are there?"
"Unknown but it is estimated that there was at least a company-sized unit in the initial counter attack. Though we've already spotted about 20-25 bodies. Regardless, Second Kompanie has been ordered to seize this intersection and reopen the lines of advance."
Muldoon looked around the room and the reduced Second Kompanie and cringed.
"Yes I know what you are thinking. We are a little understrength. 62 to be exact. Now on to task organization. I've split Second Kompanie into three groups. Security, support, and assault. Sturmfuhrer Jensen will lead the security element. His men will break into several smaller groups and secure our flanks and rear. He is also coordinating with some of the units already in the area to ensure we have completely isolated this intersection from enemy interference."
"Leutnant Wegner leads the Support group. They will provide the fire support for this operation, isolating this building from the rest of the enemy positions and keeping them suppressed as we assault. You will be with this group. You will control fire support from the artillery as well as one AV72 that has been opconned to us from the 508th."
"Finally I will lead the assault element. Once we have isolated this building my group will breach and clear this building. With this building in our hands, the other two known enemy positions will fall quickly. Then we can get on with this war."
"We are still working out the details but Gerfreiter Bas will fill you in on what you need to know in order to plan your part of the mission. In one hour we will give the final briefing, conduct inspections and move out so there is not much time. Go plan."
Muldoon squatted in an alleyway surrounded by other paras. Only the darkened rounded shapes of their helmets were visible as they waited in line to move forward. Howling wind from another incoming sandstorm battled with the sounds of fighting throughout the city. Above, the mottled glow of the aurora punctuated was by sharp flashes from the space battle. It reminded Muldoon that the whole world and the heavens too, had gone mad on this night. Not only were humans and Kra'Vak locked in a deadly struggle above and below but the planet itself seemed to sense this and joined the fray.
Muldoon shifted his legs around to prevent them from cramping. Hurry up and wait. Being buried somewhere in the middle of the line, he had no idea what was going on and Plummer had enforced strict radio silence. At least he wasn't tired anymore. Plummer, realizing the grave state of fatigue the men were in had authorized the release of stims. The stimulants promised a good four hours fighting at peak efficiency followed by another two at degrading levels until they would be flat out dead tired...or just plain dead.
While he was thinking that thought, the man in front of him rose and disappeared. Muldoon was taken by surprise but tapped Glover to follow him, ensuring that Owen passed the warning down the line, then scrambled ahead to catch up. For ten minutes they slowly skirted through a confusing maze of narrow alleys and street crossings until they came to a clearing that Muldoon recognized from the briefing as the park. On the other side would be the objective. He knew it was here that the paras would split into their three groups and move out.
At the head of the company column were Jensen and the security teams. These left first counted out personally by Plummer. Each to a prearranged position. The rest would wait fifteen minutes until a single pre-selected signal was received. Ahead, bursts of steady firing erupted from those tankers and infantryman that had remained in contact with the Kra'Vak at the objective. Overhead a bright flash lit the sky for nearly twenty seconds and all watched fascinated as what appeared to be a large fireball streaked across the sky shredding off small fireballs until it disappeared from view. The deathknell of another ship. Theirs or ours, he wondered. It made him realize how little whatever they did down here mattered, as their true fates were being decided by whatever was going on above them.
Muldoon was awakened from his thoughts by a tap on the shoulder. It was their time to move. The Support element, twenty soldiers, was itself broken into three teams. Two heavy weapons groups, and Muldoon's observer detachment, which included himself, Glover, one other para, Marburg, and a two-man sniper team.
Marburg led them out. They crossed the darkened road and slipped through a breach in the fenceline into the park. Here they were in another world, with heavy vegetation, and fields of hardly mosses cut with walking paths. While he knew it provided them cover, Muldoon found the walk through the park scarier than moving through city blocks. He had no idea of where he was going but Marburg seemed to know what he was doing.
Eventually they reached another fence. Marburg signaled for them to wait, then disappeared. Moments later he returned and called them together. "This is it. Hop over this fence and stay low, there's a small building then we will need to crawl behind some rubble to get to our position. You will recognize where you are as soon as we get over the fence and out of here. And the objective is to our right about two hundred meters up. You can't miss it." Marburg looked to the sniper team. "This is where you two split off. He said something to them in German.
"Jawohl." The two men disappeared deeper into the park.
Muldoon clumsily followed Marburg over the moss-covered fence, lost his balance and fell headfirst onto the ground. The frame of his rucksack jammed the back of his neck and for a few short seconds he was afraid that he'd just paralyzed himself. Owen dropped down directly on his back making the situation worse, but in a moment he was being hauled up, dazed.
"You OK, Sir."
"Shhh, let's go." Muldoon peered around and got his bearings. He realized where he was and followed along on all fours as they moved past some rubble and torn up ground to the building ahead. The rucksack continued to bang his bruised neck. There was a hollow burning sensation in the pit of his stomach. Fear. A series of cracks exploded above him and he flattened out. Marburg looked back. "Don't worry, that's ours."
Ours? How the fuck does he know that?
Marburg led them through a collapsed wall into a three-story building. They picked their way through furniture, rubble, and abandoned momentos to the third floor.
"Stay away from the windows, you can see just as well from back here. Pick out the best observation point."
"Owen, get the gear out and set up."
Muldoon found a vantagepoint where he could see the objective. The building looked like a curved black monolith. There was no evidence of inhabitants though he didn't expect that the Kra'Vak would be hanging out the window. Two other soldiers joined them on the third floor. They were tankers.
"Hey you guys. You're the FO from the 3rd RLS?"
"Yeah that's us. Lieutenant Muldoon."
"You don't sound German."
"I'm attached from the OUDF."
"Oh, well I'm Sergeant Luddy, 4th Hussars. This here is Sergeant Juran Just coming up for a quick coordination. Do you guys know the current situation?"
"Can you fill us in?"
"Sure. You can see for yourself that building three hundred meters down the road. The big one? The locals call that the Gerber building. The ‘Vaks are in there, but don't ask me how many. We've tried to probe them with fire to see if they'll give away their positions but they don't. There are two other positions: that far, tall building over there, and the one at the end of the park directly on the other side that also have ‘Vak positions. They do all the return fire. The few times they've opened up from the main positions have cost us dearly. There's three dead IFVs and two dead tanks out there. Looks like a regular reclamation yard. Whoever is running their defense is a clever bastard."
"Any other known positions?"
"Not that can support the ones in the Gerber building. Our perimeter is established two blocks on either side and we've held their attempts to reinforce at bay. So what's your plan?"
"We have teams moving into position now. The intent is to isolate the two support positions with fire and obscurants. Then a separate group will make a direct assault against the building and clear it."
"I don't envy those guys."
"What can we do to help?"
Marburg spoke up. "I will go back with you and coordinate what fire support you can give us. We are in communications with our Hauptmann."
"No problem, I've got two tanks and two IFVs that we can pitch in with. I guess when the assault starts the ‘Vak will have to respond, then we can hammer them."
"Yes. I also have some AV72s and a few tubes from the 34th in direct support."
Marburg held a hand to his ear and cocked his head sideways. "Everyone is in position. The assault elements are moving to their jump off points."
Muldoon fiddled with his speaker control of his helmet and realized he had turned it down too far. "Shit. In that case we'd better get ready."
"Good Luck." Marburg nodded and followed the tankers down stairs.
Atkinson eyed the open space warily. This was the one part of their approach route where they would have to dash into the open. While it wasn't in the line of sight of either the objective or any of the other known Kra'Vak positions, that didn't make him feel any less edgy. He was at the front end of the Assault Party formation, with only the two point men ahead of him. When they came to the danger area, Plummer sent out a man to either side to provide security. When they were in position, he gave a wave and the point man dashed across the road. He took four steps and fell still. A split second later there was the crack of a railgun. Everyone hugged the deck. Without hesitation the slack man ran out into the open grabbed the point man by his harness and began dragging him. He too fell over atop him followed by another crack.
"Hold your fire," ordered Plummer.
Judging from the sound, Atkinson believed the shot had come from his left. From his point he could not see anything. He crawled over to Plummer's position, which had a better view down the road. Atkinson surveyed the building and rubble. The sniper could be anywhere.
"Do you see anything?" Asked Plummer.
"Damn we can not afford to be held up."
Atkinson surveyed the area with an experienced critical eye. he noticed one building, still intact which sat behind the corner building. Someone up there could not only see down this street, but also the main avenue where the Hussars positions were.
"I bet the fucker is up there."
"Sir, I have an idea where he might be, but can't confirm it without him taking another shot." Atkinson activated his Thermals.
Without hesitation Plummer ordered another man to cross all the way to the other side. The para shed his pack, backed up down the alleyway and started at a dead run. He burst upon the street, vaulting the two dead bodies. A third crack rang out but missed the sprinting soldier. He made it to the far side and began dutifully clearing a space in the opposite building for the assault party.
Atkinson saw a brief barely perceptible movement from window two stories down from the top. "Got him! Baker Seven this is Echo one, over."
Muldoon jumped as the voice boomed in his ear. He had turned the volume up too high. "This is baker Seven."
"We have a sniper holding us up. I have a fix on his position but it will have to be a polar plot since I'm sure you can't see him."
"Roger, Polar plot."
"I'm activating my beacon, number zero zero nine. Do you have it?
"Wait one. Owen?"
"Looking, Sir." Glover called up the company registry on the Fire direction computer. In it all the beacon IDs for the men in Plummer's company were registered. He called up 008 and saw the blip superimposed over the tactical map. "I have him, Sir."
"OK we have you Echo one."
"Well here's the problem. I can give you a bearing but once I activate my laser to get an exact range, He may see it so you will need to move fast with the data. He's in a building at a magnetic bearing of zero four five from my position. Maybe two hundred meters."
"Wait one." Said Muldoon. Owen contact the DS battery and give them all the info save the distance from Echo One When they're ready I'll have him Lase the target then pass that last piece of data over.
"Yes, Sir." Owen made the call. Several moments later he gave thumbs up. The battery had been standing by in direct support anyway.
"Echo One we are prepared to copy."
There was slight delay. He's at 295 meters from my positions same azimuth."
Glover relayed the date. Five seconds later, over the artillery freq he heard: "Shot over."
A little readout next to the tactical map displayed a checklist of what was expected of him during a manual fire call. "Shot out."
A second later what sounded like a freight rail roared over head. The sky lit and a series of explosions deafened them. The target was nearer than they realized. "Splash out," said Glover.
Atkinson saw the bright flash and the explosion. When it subsided the target was gone. Excellent. "Baker Seven this is Echo one. Target destroyed. Thanks!"
With a wave Plummer ordered the group forward. On the way across they dragged the two dead paras with them and left them on the far side. There would be time to get them later.
Plummer carefully moved his men through the ruins, making sure to position them away from windows, holes or other openings. This was the jump off point for the assault. Forty meters across the street lay their main objective, the Gerber building. It's huge black marble appearance made it seem a monolith. It had a few chunks blown off, but with most of the artillery and ortillery gone, and no air support, blasting the building out of existence was not an option.
Once everyone was in place and set he gave the signal to open up with the support fire. This way relayed through Wegner to the various teams and other units firing from the opposite side of the Kra'Vak perimeter. At once the supporting Kra'Vak positions came under intense direct fire. Moments later artillery shells began to fall also guided in by Muldoon's team. The barrage continued for several minutes until Wegner gave the code word, which shifted some of the fire onto the main objective. Second Kompanie mortars began to lay down obscurants between the support positions an the main objective, thus effectively cutting off and isolating the Gerber building from the rest of the Kra'Vak defensive perimeter. Two rockets whooshed over head and smashed into the upper floor of the building. That would be the Av72s. Debris rained down into the street. Heavy fire was now directed at suspected enemy positions within the building though the Kra'Vak response remained silent.
Plummer could wait no longer. Atkinson was staring back at him waiting for the word to go. he nodded and pointed towards the building. Atkinson shouted something to his engineers and they were up and running across the opening. Plummer raised up and motioned other teams forward and he too was running across the open. He felt terribly exposed. The crossing seemed to take minutes when it was in fact only seconds. . Atkinson and his two engineers set about fixing the breaching charge to the wall at their desired point of entry. It looked like a large O-ring, a little over one meter in circumference. Assault teams stacked up on either side of the intended breach. Shouting over the din, he waved them back along the wall a safe distance as his two men completed their work. Everyone was hugged up against the wall of the building covering openings. After Plummer reached the relative safety of the wall, he squatted next to it and looked back to e the rest of the assault element crossing. Whatever had kept the Kra'Vak in the building muted was gone for they opened up with a deadly hail of fire which felled half of the remaining men as they crossed. Two large explosions along the building showered them with debris. One huge piece nearly took off the head of a para that had just made it across. His relieved look wiped off his face in an instance with a 5 kilo-chunk of marble. More explosions followed as the support elements concentrated their fire on the Kra'Vak who had exposed themselves.
"Fire in the hole!" Came a shout and they all cringed as the breaching charge detonated. The ground shook, dust and debris filled the air. Plummer saw Atkinson wave his hand and the initial teams button-hooked themselves through the breach to secure the immediate inside. A moment later a hand waved the others forward. As Plummer entered the darkened breach he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of something falling at his feet. There was a tremendous explosion and he was thrown forward. Luckily he had just entered the building which shielded him from most of the blast. Hands grabbed at him and hoisted him up and away.
"Somebody threw a grenade down on us, Sir! Looks like everyone left out there is dead!" Atkinson was shouting.
"The breach is secure. Ready to move forward." Plummer cast a glimpse around. Down at one end of the small hallway he saw two of his men in position. Two more held a similar station along the other end. Atkinson squatted beside him with his two engineers. Two other paras had made it inside and were securing the breach.
Well the plan is kaput, thought Plummer. He was short of men. The building was too big.
"What do we do now, Sir?"
"Let's get the hell out of here. Find the stairwell."
Atkinson signaled his two engineers forward.
They moved forward and quickly found the stairs. Much rubble partially obstructed the entrance. They looked back unsure.
"Go Go! Raus Raus!" Called Plummer. He was anxious to get away from the breach.
They disappeared into the stairwell and signaled back an all clear a moment later. the entire group entered. A part of the ceiling had collapsed in on the stairwell but they were capable of negotiating the mess. Once they got to the second floor, the point men again halted for orders.
"Get into the hallway and find us an empty room! Quickly!" The lack of radio communications Plummer's helmet was unnerving.
They nodded, looked at each other and button-hooked in. Two others followed to the doorframe and covered them.
"We have to get somewhere where we can collect ourselves and make a new plan."
"Understood", said Anderson. "But where are all the Kra'Vak?" There was no sound of movement of firing within, though the raging firefight could still be heard outside.
"I don't know and I'm glad they haven't shown themselves. Our small party would be wiped out in a moment."
"Kommen Sie!" Shouted the men from above.
They climbed into the second floor and followed the signaling point men into a room. Another of Atkinson's engineers pointed to a room in the back. "In there. It's clear."
They moved into the back room, an office of some kind. Atkinson signaled two men to secure the outer door to the hallway, the rest squatted or sat in the room panting from the ordeal of getting in. Plummer had his helmet off and was inspecting the connections. When Atkinson gave him the Thumbs up, he put it back on. He had regained his composure somewhat.
"Very well, let's figure out what to do."
Rölle sat in the cramped command vehicle observing the fighting on the battle plot. Despite the loss of some Satellites, TF intelligence had managed to get four UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) into the air and between all the sensors had patched up a respectable picture of the fighting, lost when the Kra'Vak first counter attacked.
"Have you reestablished contact with Second Kompanie?"
"Jawohl, Herr Oberst, but not with Hauptman Plummer. They can't reach him inside the Gerber building."
"Are they dead?
"Unknown, it seems to be some sort of enemy jamming interference."
"Have you located the source?"
"It's coming from about ten different spots throughout the city."
"Well why haven't we shut them down with fire?
"Impossible, we haven't the assets and they are all engaged with direct support. "
"Redirect 50% of our fire support to suppression of any enemy jamming sites. We'll just have to make due without them for a while."
"Jawohl, Herr Oberst."
"Captain, any news of the battle going on in orbit."
"Very little, Sir. The fleet seems to be totally engaged at this point. They've little time tossed us news reports."
"Unacceptable. Get up to Lubber with a priority request for a situation report. And send them ours also. I must have information."
Rölle went back to studying the battle. At least half of his screens were still dead. He manipulated the three dimensional tactical map to best observe the reduction of the Kra'Vak salient. His forces had successfully isolated the Gerber building from its three support positions, which were being reduced simultaneously. But that big gray monolith still stood astride his axis of advance, silent and foreboding despite the tremendous fire being poured onto it.
Perhaps the most fascinating views were those provided by his Aufsklarung, or reconnaissance troops. Each carried a digitized vidcam datalinked back to TF control. With these he could see a first person view of the fighting, though more often than not one found themselves looking at the ground as the soldier took cover from enemy fire.
His forces were now fully committed. There were no more reserves. Fighting at the tip of the allied advance was a fierce as it was at the salient. Somebody had to give way soon.
"Captain, get my gear, we're going down there...."
Go to Caught in the Grinder (Part 4), chapter 11, of Röt Hafen
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection