Muldoon hugged the ground with the other paras around him as firing erupted all around them. There was a major firefight under way to their front. His team was with the third platoon. They lay in a gully out of immediate danger, fulfilling their role as Plummer's reserve.
At that moment, Muldoon saw Plummer bent over double running back to the third platoon leader. They crawled to the top of the gully and had a quick discussion. The captain tapped the young man on the shoulder and then slid back down the embankment. He spied Muldoon and ran over. He had to shout to be heard over the din.
"Lieutenant. Go with third platoon. They're going to flank this position here and lay a base of fire from the top of that knoll. When you get up there, start directing some fire support."
"Yes sir!" Plummer ran back up to the point of firing. Muldoon passed the word onto his two men. They looked on with wide eyes and dry mouths, flinching and cringing at each nearby explosion. At the top of the embankment, Muldoon could see the lieutenant talking with some of his NCOs and pointing. They called up two men. and instructed them also. They scurried up the gully. The rest of the platoon was called forward. Muldoon crawled up also and didn't like what he saw. In front of them was an open area, flat with a sand bottom approximately fifty meters across. On the far side was another hill with many folds and draw cutting into it. They were to get across the open area and up that hill to a position where they could fire down upon the enemy position. Occasional fountains of dirt were kicked up in the open area before them. It seemed a long way. The word was quickly disseminated to the platoon. Though their visors were down, Muldoon could see the fear in everyone's expressions. Some were tight lipped almost in a grimace. Other, like the platoon leader for instance, had their moths agape and gasping for air as if out of breath.
When the squad leader gave the thumbs up the platoon leader spoke into the radio. Up the gully the two soldiers popped opacity grenades and tossed them out into the open area. Once the smoke to their right was fully developed. The platoon leader gave the classic follow me sign and took off at a dead run. The rest of the men followed.
Muldoon scrambled to his feet, slipping once on the loose rock embankment and pranging his knee. Then he was up and running. Enemy firing picked up and the sandy bottom of the open area now looked like a small pond in a rainstorm as small and large fountains of dirt kicked up around them. Ahead of him, a man fell over. A second bent to grab his arms and drag him, but was knocked over also. The angry buzzing and whipping of incoming fire was overwhelming. Muldoon wanted with all his being to throw himself on the ground and burrow into the sand, but he knew that if he did that he was dead. Instead, he focused on the far side of the opening and ran at full speed, shutting out the horror around him. It seemed to take forever, as the far side gradually drew near. He realized it was only seconds, but it seemed like ten minutes he was out there exposed. When he finally reached the far side, he threw himself down behind some rocks and crawled into a draw, oblivious of the scrapes and cuts from jagged rocks. Overhead it sounded like every gun in the world was firing on full automatic with the rounds passing inches over head. Muldoon lay silently for a second with eyes closed, thanking God.
"Bloody Hell!" Glover lay beside him panting wildly. "I think I left my lunch back there." Paras were running bat them bent over double they were moving up a draw which lead up the side of the hill.
"Where's Max?" They both looked around but didn't see him. Glover peered back over the rock and saw him laying motionless fifteen meters away.
"Jesus! he's still out there." Muldoon joined him at the edge. and spotted the Corporal. Glover was pulling a strap over his head and taking off equipment. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I'm going to get him, but I can't run fast with all this shit on." Muldoon looked back out to Max. He wasn't moving. Dirt was still being kicked up from enemy fire. Muldoon doubted his luck on a second exposure but found himself stripping off equipment nonethe less. When they were both ready, Muldoon nodded and they took off at a run. Angry bees buzzed over their head from the fire. Muldoon, looking to his left, could see the smoke thinning out. They arrived at Max. Muldoon grabbed a leg, Glover an arm, and they dragged the motionless corporal back to safety. Just as they were over the rocks a burst of fire erupted before them knocking them over. Muldoon felt stinging pain on his chin and cheeks. He kicked his legs and dragged Max over the lip. Glover made it also.
"You're bleeding!" Muldoon pulled off his glove and felt his chin, which was wet with warm sticky blood. That last burst had kicked up shards of rock and debris, which had cut painfully into his face. Glover rolled Max over and activated the small vitals reader on his chest. Nothing. Maybe it's broken. He felt for a pulse and his fingers slipped over the wet greasy neck. He felt through the gore but there was no pulse. At the base of Max's throat was a hole with bits of bone and flesh and cartilage protruding. Sticky blood clung to his fingers.
"Max!" Glover unbuckled Max's helmet and pulled it off. As he did, a gelatinous matter dropped out the back. Glover hadn't noticed a small hole in the back of his friends helmet. "Jesus!"
"Cripes, what a mess!" Said Muldoon. "Get the designator off of him. We have to leave him. He was shaking the distressed Glover's shoulder. The din of firing increased up the hill as third platoon reached its position. "Come on we need to call in an airstrike on those fuckers."
Glover passed a hand over Max's eyes, closing them. With his night vision the blood looked like a dark shadow spreading over his friend. He grabbed the target designator and ran after Muldoon.
"Two-one, Six-six. Move your platoon to the south of that position and lay down a base of fire. Break. Three-one Bring your mounts up close under the cover and assault that position with One-one. How copy?"
"Two -one Roger.""
Rölle watched on the battle net as the surviving vehicles from A Troop carried out Scott's orders. He switched to Luddy's viewer and observed as the vehicles maneuvered under the massive barrage of MARS fire and artillery. Luddy had directed the vehicle to a hull down position overlooking the action and was handing off occasional targets to Poglich. Apart from that there was only the sound of the Triton's engine humming in the background. None of the din from the fighting carried through to Ršlle's headphones. Just the detached dispassionate voices of Scott's professional soldiers relaying message traffic over the net. Every so often there would be a shout of exited comment from this tank commander of that squad leader, but overall it was very business like.
Rölle switched over to Second Kompanie's action. Plummer had maneuvered a platoon to a flanking position to the left and above the first Kra'Vak battle position. He followed along as airstrikes were guided in on the enemy position. Gorsky's power armor troops had made their way behind both enemy positions and had cut off any hope of escapee for the enemy. Despite casualties, things looked well in hand. Now to await word on the 504th.
"Man, I'm ready to get...it...on."
Sergeant Rasper Pugh, looked over to Private Molt sitting across from him on one of the UV260 Boxcar's web seats. The tall broad-shouldered soldier was leaning forward with his rifle, muzzle pointed down, between his legs. He had a huge cocky grin on his face, as contrasted with the other infantry around him, more grim in demeanor.
Pugh shook his head and laughed at himself. Molt was one of the newer members of his squad, and had never seen combat. This would be his first action. Was he ever that wet behind the ears? Pugh though not, but then again that was twelve years and many fights ago. The whining engines of the Boxcar lifted them gently off the ground and slipped into formation with the rest of the 504th's birds. The black night betrayed no sign of the two dozen skimmers in close formation, flying a few meters off the ground. All lights were off. It would require night vision to see the boxy angular shapes of the Boxcar transport skimmers, escorted by two pairs of AV72s as they dashed through the mountain valleys on their wide flanking maneuver to secure the eastern exit to the pass. For a moment they popped up high enough for Pugh to see flashes and n occasional string of tracers form the action at Anvil Massif. Good keep them fuckers busy. Less trouble for us.
He grimaced as the Boxcar took a sudden dip to the ground. While he had faith in the crew's ability to navigate the treacherous flight path in pitch darkness behind enemy lines, there was always accident. Fuck it. It's out of my hands so there's nothing I could do about it. He glanced up to the cockpit and watched the red instruments and readouts and the two pilots. They sat still, with their hands on the controls. Occasionally one would look left or right. Nothing but blackness out the windscreen. A third crewmen sat behind and between them observing instruments. Two more manned auto cannons on either door. Two squads sat on the web seats in the troop bay.
The crew chief, sitting between the two pilots, twisted around in his seat and held up one finger to him. Pugh nodded, flicked down his NODS and turned them on. Instantly he could see the alien terrain rushing beneath him all in a green hue.
"One minute!" He shouted. Second platoon's transports split off from the main body.
The men perked up from their thoughts. Some made last minute gear checks.
"Make sure you keep your weapons on safe until we unass the bird," he reminded them. With all these nervous troops, it wouldn't do to have an AD (accidental discharge) right in the skimmer. The crew chief might not appreciate that.
The skimmer popped up above the ridge and Pugh could just see along one edge of the door a series of flashes coming from the approximate direction of the LZ. That would be the final pre-landing bombardment from orbital support, MARS, artillery and the AV72s. The skimmer banked steeply as it turned to it's landing approach. The crew chief tapped Pugh on the shoulder to get his attention and then showed him two fingers held closely together.
"Thirty seconds! Seatbelts!"
The troopers unbuckled their restraint harnesses and leaned forward in their seats. They were at their most vulnerable now and anxious to get onto the ground, where they would once again be in control of their destiny. Pugh saw that most were looking at him. He couldn't see their eyes, but he sensed the nervous excitement about them. "Hooah!!" he grunted.
"Hooah! Came then ingrained response back. Some stomped the muzzles of their weapons of their feet, in an attempt to psyche themselves up. Outside the open hatch, Pugh could see two other skimmers in formation. Now the ground rushed up and the deceleration caused him to lean into the man to his left. There was a terrible flash and explosion just before they hit he ground, as the next skimmer over was hit and pancacked the final five meters into the ground. The ship hit so hard that it broke in two with the aft section tumbling forward and exploding. Pugh's own skimmer set down without problems amidst the sound of explosions and firing. The men exited the skimmer as trained running off to each side and falling prone at least twenty meters away. The Skimmer lifted off as quickly as it landed, spun and banked away to the west keeping low. Within a minute the platoon was down on it's own, with only the stricken skimmer now burning fiercely remaining. Pugh got his bearings, saw that they had been landed precisely at the right coordinates, then shouted for his men to make the cover of the foothills to the north. The ground here was covered with moss and other vegetation. Pugh shouted for corporal Underwood to take his team and see if they could help out anyone in the downed skimmer. Pugh, knowing that the platoon leader was on that bird, assumed command. He then directed the platoon into their positions, and denoted fields of fire for the heavy weapons. Their job was to establish a blocking position here at the mouth of the pass. To the east the terrain flattened out. He could see Ršt Hafen in the distance. part of the city was burning. Occasional lightening flashes denoted incoming ortillery as it struck the city almost a minute later, the thunder would roll over them. It was an amazing sight.
To the west, further into the pass, there was a major battle in progress. That would be first and third platoons attacking the enemy battle position. A pair of AV72s passed slowly overhead and stopped at the ridgeline popped up and fired several missiles before moving on. Whatever had shot down the skimmer had been already destroyed by AV72s.
"Pugh, Underwood here." called the corporal on the net.
"It's a mess, I've got four people here unharmed. Mostly third squad. There's another three more seriously injured and everyone else is dead, including the Lieutenant."
"Jeez." "Yeah, well fuck 'im, he was a dickhead anyway." Remarked Underwood callously. "Too bad about the rest though." "Look, grab who and what you can and get them up here. I'm sure the hogs can see that burning wreck all the way to the city." "On the way." Pugh returned to inspecting the platoon positions. Near the top of the hill was the area defense section. They six-man team had manhandled the launcher to this position which overlooked the wide expanse to the city. it sat on a tripod and mounted six two-meter long tubes that held hyper velocity surface to air missiles. A cable snaked away from the launcher to a small control unit. From their the control unit was connected through datalink into the area defense net, central controlled from orbit. It could fire it's missiles at targets not acquired by the ground crew. A second cable left the control unit to a small dome shaped sensor which sat twenty meters farther up hill right on the crest. "What's the status on that thing?" Asked Pugh. "It's up." Answered one of the operators.
Pugh moved along to one of the two Sledge positions and reviewed their fields of fire to ensure that the pre-arranged killzone was covered. Both were attached from battalion and he hadn't worked with either crew before, so it didn't hurt to check. A third had been destroyed in the downed skimmer. He walked back down the hill and inspected each of first platoon's two remaining Shrike (a GMS/L or guided missile/light system). They were ready also. Satisfied with the platoon's deployment, he moved back to the CP. There, Corporal Lomas, the platoon's EWIS man (or wizzo as he was known) was setting up his kit. The man's hands were shaking badly, having been one of the few survivors from the crash. He was missing his weapon.
"Hey Harry, you OK?"
Lomas was sobbing as he fidgeted with his equipment. "No man, I'm not okay. You ever been in a crash? That was the scariest shit that ever happened to me. I don't know how I survived. My back is fucked up something fierce. I swear to God, you should'a seen it. I seen Bowman's head come right off. God!"
Pugh knelt beside him. "Hey, Harry. Relax man. You made it, that's all that counts. Now take it easy and get that thing working. I need your head in the game. Don't worry, your down and your safe now."
Lomas looked up at him, reassured by Pugh's words. He took a deep relaxing breath. "Thanks Sarge. I'll get this thing working."
Pugh patted him on the helmet and smiled reassuringly. "There you see. nothing to worry about."
Lomas looked up at him and grinned, just as his head exploded.
Pugh was thrown back in surprise, his face and visor covered with Lomas' brains. He scrambled back and rolled over, then flipped up his visor. There was no sound or shooting.
At the sound of the solitary crack, two others scrambled over to the CP and helped Pugh clean off his visor.
"Sniper! Attention everybody, we got a sniper in the rocks somewhere. Did anyone see anything?"
There was another crack followed by a loud wailing cry towards the far end of the perimeter.
"I got a man down, followed the call by second squad leader. Something blew his leg off!" The screaming continued.
"Shut that fucking guy up", said Pugh. "Everybody stay down. Try and determine his location." Pugh looked over at Lomas' console. He remembered that one of the functions was the ability to track incoming rounds. Maybe it would work in spotting a sniper. "I don't suppose any one of you know how to work this thing?"
There was another crack, followed by a call from Underwood. One of his men was dead, shot through the head.
"Goddamn Sarge, this guy's picking us off one by one. We gotta get out of here!" The young private got up on all fours as if he was going to make a run for it.
Pugh, propped up on one elbow, planted a boot in his chest and kicked him over. "Sit the fuck down!" He whispered vehemently. "If you're nervous count your toes. Leave the masterminding to me." Then onto the net. "Does anyone see anything out there?"
"Pugh, Hall. I almost got him. The thing doesn't make much noise but just a feint click which is nearly masked by the crack. He hasn't moved, the arrogant bastard. Ya'll gimme one more distraction. I need him to take another shot."
"Underwood, you copy that?"
"Yeah I got it. Wait one."
There was another burst of firing down the hill, which stopped abruptly, replaced by a scream. Pugh shut his eyes tight against the nightmare. I'm getting my men killed one by one!
"Got it!," said Hall in a low but excited voice. "I have him pinned down to a roughly five meter square area. He's due west of the position, about 75 meters in a small stand of rocks surrounded by vegetation. Shall I designate him for you, Sergeant?"
"No, don't. He may be able to see that. Just keep an eye on the area and wait a sec." Pugh left the CP and scampered up the hill to one of the missile position. He found the two operators hugging the ground.
"You two. Swing that launcher around. Get ready to fire it, range is about 125 meters. Hall is going to designate it with his laser. When you see it, fire. He's got the sniper spotted. Understand?"
Pugh crawled to a second missile position and repeated the instruction. He'd blast the sniper out. He crawled down to one of the PPG positions where he would direct its fire. There was another crack but no one was hit.
"Corporal Dingo, see if you can work a few guy on the other side of the ridge and move them up quietly maybe 25 meters. Get ready to kill this guy if he runs over the top."
"Let me know when they're in position."
There was a wait of four of five minutes. In the interim another man was killed. Pugh knew that if his plan didn't work they may have to abandon the position, which could put the whole op plan in jeopardy. The weight of responsibility on his young shoulders was almost unbearable.
"OK Pugh, they're in position."
"Hall, when I give the word, youÉ" There was a few beeps behind him and then a flash of light as the area defense launcher came to life. Two missiles shot out of their tubes, flew straight up 100 meters, then sped off to the north over the ridge. Two more missiles followed five seconds later. Suddenly the entire sky was lit up like day. Had it not been for the emergency flash cut off capability in his helmet's visor Pugh would have been blinded for life. He knew at once that a nuke had gone off. He had time to yell "Down!" and perhaps ten seconds elapsed before the shock wave hit.
The detonation had come from the north, over the ridge, which saved most of the platoon from instant death. The air displacement from the explosion slammed the breath out of him as he was lifted of the ground and slammed back down. Through the thunder, he could hear shouts and screams. Rocks and debris gave way uphill. Something hit him in his head and nearly knocked his helmet off. Above him, and behind the platoon in the open valley to the east a huge wall of dust and debris raced by. Soon it subsided. Pugh raised himself to his knees and elbows, felt dizzy and collapsed into unconsciousness.
Gorsky was getting a count on his men, having just eradicated the last Kra'Vak resistance on BP3. He was anxious to finish up this battle. Though the Mark III suit could theoretically go 48 hours if necessary before replenishment, 24 hours was uncomfortable enough. He was in a hurry to pull his men of the line and get them out of their suits for a while before they started suffering casualties due to fatigue.
His suit instantly dampened the dazzling flash, and the computer voice reported. "Warning possible nuclear detonation at 020." One of his platoon's immediate action drills was react to nuclear detonation and he knew it by rote. Gorsky instantly dropped behind the largest thing he could find, which was a boulder one hop away and rolled onto his stomach. Most of his men would be on the lee side of the explosion but he did have two men up atop the ridge in the direction of the blast. The shockwave was violent enough, with steeper walls and looser rocks than at Pugh's position, A much worse avalanche occurred. Several huge rocks rolled by him. One hopped over the boulder he was hiding behind and landed on the back of his legs. Once the shaking subsided. Gorsky reached back and pushed the heavy rocks off of his undamaged legs. Thank God for the suit, he thought to himself. How many times had the said that before?
He ran a quick self-diagnostic, ensure everything was still in the green, then went off to collect his platoon. There was no signal from his men on the other side of the ridge.
"All stations this net stand by for FLASH report." Said Lubber control. "Flash Report. One. Low to medium yield nuclear detonation occurred coordinates, approximately Papa Juliet Four-One-One-Seven. Time: Zero Five Three Eight. Time of delivery: Zero Five Twenty-eight. Yield: unknown. Method of Delivery: Airburst. Prevailing current winds, out of the south-south east at 28 knots. Radiation threat: Moderate for the next two hours with diminishing levels by late morning. Recommend all personnel enable protective posture four until further notice. Unit medical personnel must commence anti-radiation regimen within one hour. Further information to follow. Lubber out."
To Rölle, the detonation was less traumatic, thanks to the Triton IV which was wrapped around him. He contacted Wesreidau at the TOC.
"Major, what do you know about the attack?"
"Herr Oberst. I hope you are safe. The area defense grid picked up two low flying enemy attack craft approaching from the north at 0522 and tracked them inbound to the battle area. A node at the eastern entrance to the valley engaged them. As soon as the missiles impacted the lead ship there was a detonation. I've just received additional data from orbit, which confirms two simultaneous detonations. Both were low yield, tactical weapons. Best estimate was that they were on their way to nuke the pass, having failed to hod their defensive positions. We were lucky and caught them when they were still 10 kilometers out. Also the terrain itself masked most of the explosion."
"What about communications and data-links?"
"Everything is operational, Herr Oberst."
"And the area defense net?"
"There are a few gaps, but we have fighters are on station and covering the holes while we plug them."
"C company, 504th was hard hit. Reports are still coming in but between the attack and the company involved is under 50%. 2/RSL-3 is at 50%. 3/RSL-3 is at 60% and A/4th Hussars is at 75%."
"Per SOP each unit should have sufficient drugs on hand to begin the required regimen and of course everyone has had their prophylaxis before drop. The medical staff is monitoring the the radiation levels but given the prevailing winds they are not expected to be an issue after this morning. Within two hours we'll have sufficient medical resources to handle decontamination and the treatment regimen."
"Well the pass is secured." Said Ršlle. "We will consolidate and reorganize here. Bring up the rest of the 4th Hussars and push them through. We need to get as much ground traffic through here as possible before they try to close the pass again."
"Agreed, Herr Oberst. I will expedite the movement. There is something else you should be aware of."
"No. 1 Squadron is operating on six aircraft with another two expected to become operational by early afternoon. All requests for additional space-borne fighter support have been denied. Colonel Robson has all his fighters on Combat air patrol, but that means little or no support for the ground forces "
"Denied? Why? Don't they realize what we are facing down here?"
"Apparently the fleet fighter arm was hit hard during their part of the action. They can't spare us any."
"That's bullshit. Get me linked through to von Bulow. I'll take care of this in a minute."
"Admiral von Bulow was killed during yesterday's fleet action. Admiral Bellamy is in command."
"What? Von Bulow dead?"
"Yes. When we have a chance I'll brief you on the battle, it was quite hard fought. Shall I get you through to Admiral Bellamy?"
"It may take a short while, Herr Oberst. I will initiate the communications and contact you when we have him."
"Very well. I'm going to survey the troops. I should be back at Dora in two hours. I want a battalion commander's meeting no later than nine. We'll review plans for the next phase of operations. I'll expect a full status report on each unit. Ršlle out."
The Triton was sealed at this point so there was no need to wear masks as protective posture four called for. Ršlle removed the CVC helmet and rubbed his temples. Fatigue was a real factor at this point. He looked up and saw Luddy was holding out a mug to him. Poglich was asleep in his seat.
Rölle blinked his eyes once and stared at the mug. The aroma wafted past his nostrils. That alone was enough to perk him up.
"Yes, of course." He took the mug and sipped at the hot brew. "Most excellent, Sergeant."
"Everything under control, Colonel?"
"Not really, but then again this is war. Things are not supposed to be under control."
Luddy regarded him oddly, leaning forward and studying his collar.
"What?" Asked Ršlle.
"Just checkin' Colonel."
"Your rank. You make too much sense to be an officer. You sure you ain't no sergeant?"
They both laughed at that.
Go to Charlie's Cat, chapter 9, of Röt Hafen
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection