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Just outside Fort Lassiter
Home of the 18th Commando Regiment
Federal Republic of Belton
Most of the non-commissioned officers were married. It took some creativity and half-truths for some of them to get what was often referred to as the “Kitchen Pass” so they could go out with the boys. Lawson had to use one of his world-famous whoppers with his wife, telling her there was an op planned for the near future he’d be working late at the company, and he’d probably just crash on a cot there. Burbey told his wife that it was a mandatory unit event and spouses weren’t invited. Peterson wove a tale of woe about one of his men acting suicidal after a rough break-up with a girlfriend. He said he needed to stay with his subordinate to make sure he was okay. Lafferty, on the other hand, had recently finalized his second divorce and was officially a free man. Again.
The four of them had a table in one of the local dive bars the commandos liked to frequent. The wooden tables and chairs were covered in a thick coat of lacquer to protect it from routine scuffs and sloppy spillage. There were table games in the corner and music playing loudly. The place smelled of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, intermixed with a faint fragrance from the cedar paneling covering the walls.
The bar was reasonably busy but not too overcrowded and the staff was diligent in keeping up with the drink orders. The place was filled almost exclusively with men, with the exception of the staff. The girls waiting the tables were stocky and tough, most of them sporting tattoos.
The organizer—instigator really—of the evening’s gathering was Sergeant Joel Lawson, the Weapons Squad Leader and second-most senior NCO in their platoon. He was a black man of average size with deep brown eyes and platinum-blonde hair that he liked to dye often. In the field, he was the most focused and serious professional any of them knew. In the rear, he was the life of the party.
“Boys, we’re here tonight to celebrate the freedom of our friend Nate, who very recently secured his emancipation from a beast most foul. Now, if you will, please join me in a toast,” Lawson said while rising from his chair and raising a tall mug of beer.
“Cheers!” they said in unison before taking a long pull from the cold draughts.
“How much is this one costing you? Didn’t your last ex clean you out?” asked Burbey with a wry grin on his face, pushing up the thick dark-rimmed glasses that constantly crept down the bridge of his nose.
“Yeah, the first wife got the fuckin’ house and my old truck along with some alimony. Luckily, this one ain’t gettin’ shit. So I got that goin’ for me,” Lafferty said before spitting a long stream of tobacco juice into a nearby spittoon. Then he dropped a shot of liquor into his beer mug and chugged the whole thing down in a few deep swallows. He smacked his lips with satisfaction and ordered another round.
“How’d you get off so lucky this time?” asked Peterson who was fooling around with the huge razor-sharp combat knife he carried around everywhere.
“Easy, she had a better payin’ job than me for one thing. And the second thing was that she ran off with an officer.” Lafferty scooped out the wad of chewing tobacco from inside his lip and tossed it into the spittoon. With fingers still covered in brown saliva he plunged his hand into a bowl in the center of the table filled with bar snacks and stuffed some in his mouth. “It’s a win, win if you ask me. I got rid of the dirty whore and I kept my money this time.”
The waitress brought over another round of drinks and set them in front of each of the men.
“Thanks Tracy. Hey, did you know old Nate over there is a free man as of today? Just finalized his divorce,” Burbey said, draining his mug and reaching for the fresh one, his glasses sliding down his nose once again. “A girl like you could get lucky.”
“I’ll consider myself lucky if any of you deadbeats paid your bar tabs,” Tracy said, picking up the empty mugs from the table. “You guys gonna eat? Want me to bring you some menus?”
“Yes please, that’d be great,” Peterson said, sheathing the obnoxious knife and running his hand over the small patch of hair he wore on the top of his head.
As the waitress walked to the bar to fetch some menus, all four of them took a look at her rather ample posterior.
“I’ll bet that girl would be something else in the sack,” Peterson said, admiring the view.
“I don’t want to find out, she looks like she would have me begging for mercy,” Lawson said, carefully setting his mug down on one of the cardboard coasters. He smiled broadly and his white teeth seemingly glowed in sharp contrast to his midnight-black skin. “But you go ahead, she’s all yours.”
“Nah, can’t. I’m happily married.”
“If by ‘happily married’ you mean that you’re scared shitless your old lady would find out and then murder you in your sleep with your own knife, then yeah I buy it. Total marital bliss,” Lafferty interjected. After the shot and the beer, his cheeks were starting to glow with a slightly red hue.
“Fuck off, I love my wife. I wouldn’t cheat on her,” Peterson said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
“You mean you wouldn’t cheat on her again!” Lawson interjected. “Because the last time you did, she caught you in the sack banging her whore sister. She nearly cut your prick off with that fucking knife of yours that same night!”
The men erupted with howls of laughter, drawing attention from all the patrons in the bar. Burbey nearly choked on his beer and Lafferty almost fell out of his chair.
Peterson sat there with a scowl on his face, left with nothing to say on the matter.
The waitress came back and set menus on the table before refilling the bowl of salty snacks in the center of the table. “You guys want the usual, or are you going to actually look at the menus for a change?”
“Anything new on the menu?” Lawson asked.
“It’s the same thing as the last hundred times you came in here and asked,” Tracy said, wiping up some spilled beer with a bar towel.
“Then I think we’ll all get the usual then. Along with another round of beers,” said Peterson.
“And shots! We need more shots!” Burbey declared. “I feel the need to get fucked up tonight!”
At the bar the phone rang and the bartender answered. Nobody paid any attention to him until he hung up and turned the house music down. “Listen up everybody, if you’re assigned to 18th Commando, they just declared an alert for y’all. The message from your regiment is to muster within one hour. If that applies to you, please pay your bill on your way out the door.”
“Motherfucker! Just when I wanted to do a little celebrating!” Lafferty drained another mug of beer and grabbed his jacket. “Alright boys, let’s get the fuck out of here. Duty calls.”
All four non-commissioned officers finished their drinks and threw money onto the table. They joined the other patrons and headed straight for the door. All of them bitching the whole way and remarking about how they were definitely getting out of the army this time after their contracts were up.
It was the same thing they said the last time.
And every other hundred times before that.
B Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Commando Regiment
The skies over the Kingdom of Nace
2nd Lieutenant Liam Tucker’s head drooped, lolling from side to side as he slept sitting straight up. His seatbelt was secured and he was strapped in, along with the other forty commandos, into their mesh seats in the back of an Air Force cargo plane. The tight quarters and the humming of the engines put them all to sleep while flying late into the night, toward their drop zone. Like the others, he’d removed his heavy steel helmet and placed it on his reserve chute pack, situated just over his belly.
The booming voice of the jumpmaster snapped him awake. “Get ready!”
It was dimly lit in the back of the aircraft with a few small red lamps illuminating the compartment. Eyes were well adjusted and it was easy to see. Every one of the jumpers was awake now plopping helmets on their heads, and securing their thick leather chin straps. Seat belts were uncoupled and set aside.
Liam looked down the row of men packed into that tiny space to ensure that everyone was indeed awake and ready to move. All of the men in his platoon appeared to be alert, and most of them even appeared to be in good spirits. He could see that his non-commissioned officers were checking on their troops as well. Everyone was switched on.
The jumpmasters in the back of the aircraft opened the troop doors located on each side of the plane. “Stand up!”
Both long rows of men fought to get to their feet. They had been sitting for many hours now and their legs were stiff. Each of them was wearing more than their own body weight in parachute and gear and it was difficult to get out of their seats. Just standing was a minor miracle. Once they did, they faced toward the rear of the aircraft and the two open doors. The noise was now incredibly loud and almost drowned out the jumpmaster’s commands.
Each of them removed their parachute’s static lines and hooked onto the steel cables that ran the length of the cargo hold, just over their heads. They secured the safety latches on the static lines to ensure they didn’t pop off when exiting the airplane. If that happened, it would be a bad day. They all had a reserve chute, of course, but that wouldn’t matter on this jump since they were dropping at such a low altitude. If their main didn’t open, there would be no time to deploy a reserve chute. Liam wondered why they had even been issued the stupid things in the first place.
“Check static lines!”
They went through the arbitrary drill of checking the thick canvas cords secured to the cables, looking for frays or other imperfections. None were found.
The men checked their helmets, straps, backpacks, and weapons cases.
“Sound off for equipment check!”
Starting from the last men in line, they swatted each other in turn on the ass and shouted “Okay!” until it got to the very first man in line, right next to the door. The two of them on opposite sides of the aircraft both extended a knife-hand to their respective jumpmasters and sounded off with a loud “All oka,y jumpmaster!”
“Stand in the door!”
Liam extended his left arm straight out, presenting his static line to the jumpmaster. The NCO snatched the line, and then Liam stood in the open doorway, gloved hands grasping the frame. He looked out at the rolling countryside below, bathed in nothing more than starlight. His heart was really picking up the pace now and his mouth went dry.
Liam didn’t see the red light above the door turn green. All he heard was the jumpmaster’s command.
Just as he had done dozens of times before, he launched himself forward, out the open door and into nothingness. His hands firmly grasping his reserve parachute pack, he locked his feet and knees together, rigidly straight. As he had been conditioned to do in his training, he started to count. If the count went past the number “four” and he didn’t feel the shock of his main parachute open, he was supposed to deploy his reserve. A moot point on this night.
He was rewarded with a jolt when the parachute blossomed out, just like it was supposed to. He reached up and grabbed the risers with both hands and then looked around. As he descended, he could see everything perfectly, including the rest of men. The chutes looked like dandelion fluff drifting serenely toward the ground, bathed in tranquil silence. Everything was just as it should be so he focused on the next step, which was the inevitable encounter with the ground. Jumping out of airplanes is easy, it’s the landing that can be tricky.
He lowered his rucksack, which fell about twenty feet beneath him, still attached to a line. He then stared forward out at the horizon while bending his knees just a bit. He knew the impact was approaching, but he dare not look down for fear of unconsciously reaching for the ground and landing with extended straight legs. That would likely result in two broken femurs.
The impact came fast, and Liam rolled just like he should, suffering no injury. He unbuckled his harness and climbed out of his jump rig before gathering the rest of his gear. He removed his rifle from its case and shrugged on his heavy pack before scanning the drop zone.
Just a short distance away there was a dim light arranged in a familiar pattern. It was the Pathfinders who had arrived first and had established the rally points for them. Liam took off at a slow jog to link up at the pre-designated point and to get this mission underway.
The platoon moved out on a northerly compass-heading through sparsely wooded terrain. They were making good time and illumination was excellent, so navigating was easy. Just short of their objective in a shallow draw, Liam halted the platoon and set up a perimeter before taking a scouting party ahead to get one last look. He left his platoon sergeant in charge while he took the four squad leaders forward with him.
They only had a few hundred meters to travel. It was thinly wooded depression that offered a shallow defilade to hide in. The platoon leader and NCOs low-crawled on their bellies for the last stretch. Once there they pulled out binoculars and glassed the objective, seeing it for the first time.
They had seen aerial reconnaissance photos but now they were seeing it at ground level. It was a training camp for the Cheldan Liberation Front, nestled right smack in the middle of Nace, a country that didn’t enjoy friendly relations with Liam’s great nation. It also claimed it wasn’t a sponsor of terror and denied the CLF operated there. That was now demonstrably false.
The camp wasn’t all that big and located out in the middle of nowhere likely didn’t attract much attention. It was square in shape, surrounded by wire entanglements and an inner fence. At the corners were observation towers, manned and equipped with
heavy machine guns. On the south side were four barracks arranged in a neat row. In the center of the compound was a command post with small radio aerial tower located next to the mess hall. The supply room loaded with weapons and equipment sat alongside a modest aid station on the north side.
Liam could see guards in the towers, most appeared to be awake and alert. From his position he couldn’t see past the barracks and didn’t see movement on the inside. He could hear generators running and a men talking. It was late and, to his relief, the terrorist camp appeared to be largely asleep.
Liam and his squad leaders crawled back to the shallow draw. He produced a small notebook and a pencil and made some sketches, before addressing the NCOs. In hushed tones, he went over the plan again and pointed out where he wanted each of their elements during the attack. They acknowledged and remained in place to observe the objective and to act as guides once the lieutenant returned with the rest of the platoon.
The sun would be rising soon and time was of the essence. Liam had to move now.
At long last, the platoon was set. His weapons squad was located to the east with their crew-served machine guns. His two rifle squads were to the south, comprising “Assault 1” and “Assault 2.” Co-located with Liam in the platoon headquarters was his radio telephone operator and a couple of forward air controllers who had their own radio equipment. Everything was in position, and everybody was ready. He looked at the illuminated dials on his watch and waited as the seconds ticked away.
“Now,” he whispered to two Air Force special operators hunched over a set of maps with their radio handsets pressed to their ears.
In less than two minutes, a low rumble could be heard in the distance. The rumble grew into a roar as two Air Force jets came in low over a nearby ridge. The guard towers came alive and loosed long bursts of machine gun fire into the air in a vain attempt to take the planes out. They failed to get the proper range and lead on the fast-moving aircraft, missing them by a mile.
The jets dropped their heavy iron bombs from hardpoints. Tumbling downward, just as they had planned and rehearsed, the bombs detonated on the barracks filled with sleeping terrorists. The jets themselves disappeared over the opposing ridgeline as the buildings exploded, throwing chunks of debris everywhere. When the smoke cleared, Liam could see three of the barracks were flattened with one still standing, having taken only cosmetic damage to the exterior.
As smoke rose in the wake of the airstrike, mortars rained from the sky, pounding the camp. A siren sounded and men emerged from the remaining buildings, running in every direction, disorganized and confused. It was clear there were a few trying to take charge and get the situation under control.
The first round of mortar shells were high explosive but the second volley carried smoke. The forward observers adjusted fire and brought the smoke shells in to the south, between the perimeter fence and the outer protective razor wire obstacles. Once the smoke began to billow and obscure lines of sight, the Weapons Squad on the eastern flank of the compound opened up on full cyclic with their medium machine guns.
Sergeant Lawson, the Weapons Squad Leader, directed the suppressing fires on critical positions within the perimeter. He put a large volume of fire on the guard towers and shut them down almost immediately. Chunks of wood and tarpaper roofing splintered and exploded under the punishment of the constant stream of jacketed metal slugs.
When Liam was satisfied the smoke provided adequate obscuration and Lawson’s men had the enemy’s pinned down, he pulled out the whistle tied to a lanyard around his neck. He blew as hard as he could, sending a signal to all within earshot. The shrill noise pierced the sounds of explosions and gunfire and signaled the entire platoon.
Two four-man teams burst from cover and took off at sprint, headed to the razor wire obstacles on the southern side of the compound. Both groups were breach teams and they carried equipment, with rifles slung across their backs. Their legs pumped like pistons as they dashed forward, covering ground as quickly as possible.
Once there, the two groups threw themselves to the ground and set explosive charges in the wire. The smoke protected them somewhat from enemy observation but that didn’t stop them from fighting back. Shots rang out from within the camp and bullets whizzed by the breach teams while they worked. In less than a minute, the charges were set and the teams retreated, outside the immediate effects radius of their charges.
Liam observed with satisfaction when the explosives went off almost simultaneously, sending clods of densely packed dirt and razor wire skyward. The breach teams picked themselves up and charged forward, marking the fresh holes in the obstacle with white cotton tape. They ran into the smoke, toward the camp’s perimeter fence. Once inside, Liam lost sight of them.
The lieutenant filled his lungs full of air and gave two full blasts on his whistle. He stood and waved his men forward. “Let’s go, follow me!”
Two squads, designated “Assault 1” and “Assault 2” lunged forward. They ran in two single file columns to get through the wire before the smoke dissipated.
Running with “Assault 1,” Liam looked to his right and could see the Weapons Squad, in their support position, were still laying it on thick. The four gun crews on the high ground to the east continued to hammer away at the objective. Each gun took turns firing a burst, keeping pressure on the enemy, systematically, without exhausting their supply of ammunition. The tracers streaked down, and he could see that Lawson was walking their fire just in front of the assaulting squads.
Emerging from the smoke, they could see that the breach teams had ripped holes in the perimeter fence and marked them. They had taken some casualties, but the rest of the men were inside, on their bellies firing their rifles and tossing hand grenades. Their job was to get the others inside and they had done so expertly. Now it was time for the rifle squads to take over.
Sergeant Burbey took “Assault 2” to the right and waded through the shattered remains of the eastern-most barracks. They barely slowed down as they shot panicked terrorists and dispatched the enemy wounded scattered everywhere. A muzzle to the forehead and a quick coup de grâce was the final reward for the so-called “freedom fighters.” They pressed forward toward the mess hall where a few of them were holed up and making a stand.
Liam followed along with Sergeant Peterson and “Assault 1” as they prepared to clear the last remaining barracks. There was fire coming from the windows but it was erratic and uncoordinated. The squad went to ground as the automatic riflemen poured fire into the windows.
“Poore and Bradley you’re up!” Peterson shouted as he emptied his rifle, that obnoxious combat knife securely attached to his belt and lashed with a leather tie-down to his thigh.
“Moving!” Yelled Corporal Poore.
The two commandos bounded forward with satchel charges in hand, pulling the igniters along the way. They stood with backs against the wall, heads just underneath shattered windows while their buddies pumped fire through the open apertures only inches away. Once the fuses burned down to the point of no return, Poore nodded to Bradley and they tossed their packages in together before running like hell, away from the blast zone.
The entire squad planted their faces in the dirt when the demolition charges went off.
The walls blew outward in every direction and showered them all with shattered bits of wood, tin and glass. When they looked up, the last barracks was nothing more than a smoking pile of twisted metal, lumber, and dismembered bodies.
On the other side of the ruin, Liam could clearly make out the non-descript terrorist command post and administrative building. It looked to be of similar construction to the other structures, but had several generators sitting next to a large radio aerial tower. It matched the reconnaissance photos perfectly.
To the right was the mess hall where a group of CLF were making their last stand. Sergeant Burbey had maneuvered his squad around to the right flank and were making short work of them. As Liam watched, improvised fire bombs made of bottles, rags and scavenged benzine were setting the mess hall ablaze and burning the terrorists out. Much to his amusement.
Tracers from the support element of Weapons Squad had shifted to the north, pummeling the supply warehouse and aid station on the extreme end of the camp. This allowed some breathing room so “Assault 1” could press the attack. Liam ran forward, while Sergeant Peterson and the rest of his squad followed, right on his heels.
Liam could feel the intense heat of the burning barracks on his face and the sting of the acrid black smoke in lungs.
At the front door of the command post, the squad organized themselves in a “stack.” The platoon leader stayed out of the way while his NCOs worked their magic, leading their men just as they had countless times before.
Corporal Poore mule-kicked the flimsy wooden door and smashed it right off its hinges. Sergeant Peterson and Alpha Team poured in, scrolling in both left and right, covering every angle of the room. Liam heard the frenzied reports of gunfire as the soldiers cleared the rooms.
“Clear!” Peterson shouted. “Medic!”
An aid and litter team ran in before Liam could get inside. He saw a number of bodies sprawled on the floor, most contorted in death’s embrace. Private First Class Bradley was sitting in a corner with his rifle next to him, both hands clamped down on a wicked leg wound as he tried to stop the bleeding. The aid men took over and started applying a tourniquet and pressure dressings.
When the lieutenant reached the back room, he found his men already at work, looking for their prize. Next to the table containing a stack of long-range radios was a file cabinet. Peterson had already shot off the lock and they were pulling out files and stuffing them in empty backpacks. They couldn’t speak the local language , and they didn’t have time to search for sensitive information. They opted for simply taking everything. The intelligence dorks could sort it all out later.
“What the fuck is that?” Liam said, pointing to a large, steel reinforced container sitting on the floor next to the radios.
Peterson came over to see. “Well sir, I’m no expert but if I may hazard a guess, I’d say that that’s what they call in the industry a ‘safe.’ Some people use them for storing valuable items and such.”
“No shit, smartass. I meant, what is it doing here? There was nothing in the briefings about a safe, just the file cabinet full of documents,” Liam said with a thoughtful look, scratching his chin.
“El Tee, clearly there’s something in there but I’m no safe cracker. I think we got another satchel charge, we could blow it open and see what’s inside,” Peterson said as he reloaded his rifle.
“That won’t work, we’d probably destroy whatever’s inside of it. We need to take it with us.”
Peterson looked at the officer. “Sir, that thing is too heavy. We’ve already got wounded we need to carry out of here and a tight time-hack to boot. We’ll never be able to carry our men and that heavy piece of shit and still make our exfil.”
“We’ll make it. I’ll tell them we’ll need some more time,” Liam said, checking his watch. “It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it. Now, get some of the boys in here and haul this thing out.”
Peterson shook his head. “You’re the boss, whatever you say.”
Liam slapped Peterson on the back. “Come on, Lane, you worry too much. Now let’s police up our wounded and get the fuck out of here!”
The platoon fell back of the objective in good order, carrying their three wounded men and one heavy safe with them. The Weapons Squad continued to suppress while more mortars rained down from above. If there were any terrorists still left alive in the compound, they were given proper incentive to keep their heads down.
They ran to their original assault positions in the low defile. Each of them physically passed by the platoon sergeant Technical Sergeant Jeb Cooper, a wiry man with a pencil mustache. As each man passed by, Cooper slapped them on the shoulder and counted, ensuring they had left no one behind.
When the last of them made it through Cooper’s release point, they continued through sparse woods and arid scrub. They moved as quickly as they could while the leaders constantly made note of the time. Their window for extraction was growing smaller and they had to keep moving.
“Baker Actual, this is Baker 1, there’s been a development here and we’re going to need some more time, over.” Liam struggled to catch his breath as he spoke into the radio handset.
“Baker 1, this is Actual, what do you mean? What’s going on over there?” asked the company commander, Captain Tangier.
“Actual, this is 1, we found something on the objective with great intelligence potential. But it’s really heavy and we need more time to get it out.” Liam hoped he didn’t need to get into more detail, because his commander might tell him to leave it behind.
“Okay. got it, understood. Listen, those cargo planes are coming whether we’re ready or not. I can’t change that. I’ll do is change up the order of who goes out first. I’ll bump your platoon from first to last. That’ll give you some more time. But if you aren’t here by the time the last cargo plane lands, you and your boys are walking home,” Tangier said without any sense of irony evident in his voice.
“Roger, Actual. We’ll make it,” Liam said, trying to convince himself it was true.
“You fucking better. This whole mission hinges on getting that intel home. Baker Actual, out.”
After struggling to get across country over some difficult terrain, the men came upon a dusty road with several uncovered flatbed trucks parked there. Each of them had a pintle-mounted heavy machine gun. The vehicles were parked in a “herringbone” formation and the gunners were scanning in every direction, while the engines idled. The men on those in the vehicles were commandos and the trucks were their rides.
“Nice to see you ugly motherfuckers!” Liam called out to the men manning the flatbeds as he broke bush and motioned his platoon forward.
“Glad you could finally make it, dickhead, you sure took your sweet-assed time,” said 1st Lieutenant Dave Ashley, as he stood on the running board of the second truck, waving them forward. “You know, I’ve got a flight to catch and I’d hate to miss it on account of your casual disregard for punctuality.”
“A thousand apologies. We were having such a wonderful time with our gracious hosts back there, we didn’t want to leave,” Liam said, jogging up to the other officer, sweat soaking through his camouflage jacket. “In fact, it’s so nice here, I’m thinking about purchasing a summer cottage.”
Ashley just rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Let’s just get the fuck outta here. Okay?”
Tech Sergeant Cooper ignored the officers while he supervised the loading of his wounded men and the safe the lieutenant insisted they bring along. He hovered with the medics to make sure the men were stabilized for the drive. As the last of the rifle squads loaded up and got squared away, Sergeant Lawson and Weapons Squad emerged from the treeline; he and his men lugging medium machineguns, tripods, and other heavy equipment.
“Lawson, you up?” Cooper asked as the remainder of the platoon mounted the vehicles.
“Affirmative, all men, weapons and equipment accounted for. It’s been a long night and I’m ready to get back and have a cold beer,” Lawson said while smacking his lips and removing his helmet, exposing his dyed platinum-blonde hair.
“Lieutenant Tucker sir, I think we’re ready to go,” Cooper said, watching the last of his boys scramble up the gate of the trail cargo truck, assisted by his buddies.
“Understood,” Liam said to Cooper before turning to his friend. “Alright Dave, I’m expecting a lot from this limousine service you’re providing. If I feel a single bump during this trip, I will be letting your management hear about it.”
“I’m afraid we forgot to bring along the magnums of sparkling wine, but we’ll get you where you’re goin’. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.”
The small convoy of trucks bounced along the unimproved dirt road with a pair of armored scout cars well out in advance. The column snaked through the lightly populated province at high speed The passengers did their best to hang on. The trucks in the center and rear choked on dust. The men tied bandanas over their faces to help them breathe. Liam constantly looked at his watch when he wasn’t scanning the horizon for approaching threats; noting they were still on schedule, but it was going to be tight.
After getting tossed around for the better part of twenty miles in broad daylight with no cover, they could see their destination, a small local airfield that doubled as an airbase for the Nacian Air Force. As Liam stood and peered over the cab, he could see a couple of gun trucks guarding the approaches. They too, were commandos, and they had helped secure the airfield during the night while he and his boys raided the training camp.
They only slowed down as they pulled through the front gates and came to a halt near the air traffic control tower. The men quickly dismounted and got themselves organized into squads. The convoy commander had radioed ahead and a medical team was standing by. They went to work stabilizing the wounded.
“Thanks for the lift, Dave, that was much preferable to walking,” Liam said, dusting himself off.
“No problem pal, but next time I want the sexy mission. Running a taxi service isn’t what I signed up for,” Ashley said, jumping down from the cab of the truck. “I’m getting a little tired of you hogging all the glory.”
“You’re going to have to take it up with management,” Liam said before turning and seeing their company commander approaching from the terminal. “Speaking of which.”
“So, how’d it go out there?” Captain Ben Tangier was an enormous man with a square jaw, a barrel chest, and rolled up sleeves revealed hairy arms the size of small oak trees. He had close-cropped hair, dark brown eyes, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
“We took down the training camp without too many problems. I have three wounded but nothing life-threatening and we managed to score all sorts of documents. Including a safe,” Liam said.
“A safe? Is that what this whole delay was about?” Tangier asked, his head tilted.
“Yes sir, I believe there is something in there with great intelligence value,” Liam said as he removed his helmet and rubbed the top of his head.
“I hope you’re right. Anyway, several aircraft landed here already and I ordered the other platoons. There’s only a handful of us here left waiting for you. As soon as the last two cargo planes land, we load up and get the hell out,” Tangier said, watching the men unload the heavy safe.
“I appreciate you being flexible, sir. It’s been a long night.”
“No problem, now get your men squared away and . . . ” Tangier was interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance. “What the fuck was that?”
From the tower, the company commander’s radioman leaned over the railing and shouted to the officers below. “Sir, the scouts report they’re in contact. There’s an armor column headed this way!”
“Shit!” Tangier said as he brought his binoculars up and adjusted them. In the distance, he could see a rising cloud of dust and some tracers flying back and forth. “What’s the ETA on our extraction?”
“Thirty minutes!” shouted the radioman.
He put down the binoculars and turned to his lieutenants. “We need to buy some time. Both of you, get your people gathered up and deploy them on the mounted approaches to the south and stop that column. Liam, leave a squad here to serve as the company reserve. Any questions?”
“Fine, then move. Let’s get busy!” Tangier bolted into the terminal and raced up the stairs of the air traffic control tower.
“I knew this was too easy,” Liam said while topping off the magazine in his rifle and chambering another round.
The platoon dismounted Ashley’s uncovered flatbeds once again. The trucks only slowed and never stopped moving while Liam’s men jumped over the sides and rolled in the dirt. They picked up their gear and ran flat out to climb the small ridge just ahead. The road ran through a gap in the middle which created a natural bottleneck to vehicular traffic.
Legs burned and lungs ached under the strain as they charged uphill, racing to reach the summit in time. Off in the distance they could see the scouts screening and fighting a delaying action, doing their best to slow the enemy. They were mounted in armored cars, equipped with medium machine guns and not much else. They could do a lot of damage to infantry or thin-skinned vehicles, but not much to anything bigger. Unfortunately for them, there was heavy armor bearing down on them.
Liam glassed the terrain and got a good view of the action below. Two scout cars were hammering away at the lead elements of the armored column. The two scout vehicles were leap-frogging to the rear, covering each other as they displaced. He focused in on the enemy force and then spat on the ground.
“Coop, deploy the platoon in the rocks down below. Rifle squads on the flanks with Weapons Squad in the center. While you’re doing that, I’m going to try and get us some air support and mortars,” Liam said to Tech Sergeant Cooper, while reaching for the hand mike from his radio telephone operator.
“Will do, El Tee,” Cooper said.
“Baker CP, this is Baker 1, I’ve got visual on the enemy force advancing toward the airport, over.” Liam crouched behind cover and tried to catch his breath. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was just starting to get warm. His jacket was already soaked with sweat and clung to his body.
“Baker 1, this is Baker Actual, what’s the situation? Over.” Captain Tangier’s voiced crackled through the earpiece but his tone was even and businesslike.
“Roger, it appears to be ten armored personnel carriers and three tanks. They are advancing along the main road, roughly eight kilometers south of the airfield. They are Nacian Army. How copy? Over,” Liam said before releasing the transmit key.
“Baker 1, understood. You need to block that force. Extraction will be there soon, but we need to hold the airfield or the entire mission is a failure. Acknowledge,” Tangier said.
“Baker Actual, this is Baker 1, understood. We’ll make it happen. I would like to request air support and mortars at this time. Over,” Liam said.
“No can do on the air. They are tied up with air defense suppression and combat air patrols. I’ll get you those mortars. Stand By.”
“Roger, standing by.” Liam shook his head just before passing the hand mike back to his radioman. “Come on Wells, let’s get down there.”
The lieutenant and his radio operator climbed down to where the platoon was setting up. Just as he had ordered, 1st Squad was getting established on the left flank nearest the road, while Weapons took up the center, and Sergeant Burbey’s 2nd Squad settled in on the right. Sergeant Lawson was busy sighting in his machine gun crews while teams began loading the anti-tank rocket launchers. Normally Liam would have personally sighted in the heavy weapons and checked fields of fire but there simply wasn’t enough time.
The scouts fighting their delaying action bounded backward one last time, halting just in front of the chokepoint. They were pouring fire down the road to slow the enemy with little or no effect. As the lead scout car tried to make it through the chokepoint to safety, it took a hit to the engine compartment from incoming armor-piercing rounds and ground to a halt. The remaining scout car pulled up beside it and the disabled vehicle’s crew clambered on top. They sped through the gap and well to the platoon’s rear, headed to the airfield.
The Nacian armored personnel carriers were the wheeled variety with a turret up top armed with a large-caliber auto-cannon. They held a small crew and plenty of room in the back for a squad of infantry. They were effective negotiating terrain cross-country with phenomenal road speed. Three of them were barreling down the dirt track in pursuit of the commando scout car while the rest of their unit followed about 500 meters back.
The APCs came screaming along, their engines pushing them as fast as they could go. They were in a column, not spread out using tactical spacing. Once they got into range Lawson gave the signal and his anti-armor teams opened fire.
The rockets lashed out with a tremendous noise. They fired a volley of four. Two of them scored hits on the lead vehicle. It lost control, turned sharply to the left, and rolled over on its side. The troop hatch in the rear flung open and smoke began pouring out. The infantry in the back started scrambling out the door, trying to escape the inferno inside. Lawson’s machine gunners cut loose offering them no mercy. The bodies collapsed to the ground, riddled with bullets, before they could find cover.
Following close behind, the trailing APCs swerved around the wreck and passed through the bottleneck at top speed, bypassing the defenders. To their front, the Nacian tanks deployed on line, straddling the road, while the remaining armored personnel carriers halted. From their covered positions behind the rock outcroppings, the commandos could see the enemy infantry disgorge from the vehicles and deploy into a nearby wadi.
Lieutenant Ashley didn’t have a whole lot to work with. His buddy, Liam Tucker, was forward with a platoon of men who were lightly armed and ill-prepared to take on an armored threat. If they couldn’t stop what was coming down the road, then Ash was the last line of defense with the tools at his disposal. All he had were his mortar crews and four flat-bed trucks armed with heavy machine guns. It didn’t exactly inspire him with confidence.
The good thing was the commandos hand-picked their own equipment and those machine guns weren’t standard issue with the infantry. These particular models were normally procured for the Navy. The infantry guns were air cooled, with heavy barrels, and a slow rate of fire. The Navy versions were designed for anti-aircraft roles, were cooled with heavy water-jackets, and had twice the cyclic rate. They were also loaded with Armor Piercing Incendiary Tracer, which was nice.
He set the mortars just to the left in a small depression that protected them from observation and direct fire. They were unboxing crates of ammo and setting the proper charges. The crews were operating on their own fire support frequency, so he didn’t need to micromanage that operation.
The flatbed trucks were parked in the lowest ground available so just the guns were visible from a distance. He stood on the running board staring off into the general direction of Liam and his men. They were on the other side of a small ridge getting ready to take it right in the teeth. After a few minutes one of the armored scout cars came racing down the road in their direction.
A series of loud booms echoed in the distance, followed by automatic weapons. The mortar crews went into action, launching high explosive rounds into the air as the scout car came speeding past and on to the airfield.
Barreling down the road at top speed were two Nacian armored personnel carriers headed right at them.
“Oh shit,” Ashley said to himself before feeling a cold chill run down his spine. “I was only kidding about him hogging all the glory.”
The tank main guns sounded like thunderclaps when they went off, the muzzles generating huge clouds of dust while launching their shells forward at super-sonic speeds. The ordnance slammed into the platoon’s position, sending hot metal shrapnel and splinters of shattered rock everywhere. The APC gunners joined in with seven autocannon, pumping high explosive shells the size of a fist into the fray.
Friendly mortar rained from the sky and landed in and among the armored vehicles to no effect. The steel shell fragments splashed harmlessly off thick metal hides. The noise was terrific and men shouted at the tops of their lungs just to be heard. It lasted only a few seconds before Liam heard the first sickening screams from his men getting hit. Worse, he could see the Nacian infantry moving down a shallow wadi toward their right flank.
The commandos did their best to return fire but to no avail. Lawson’s men managed to fire another rocket but they were too far away and the missile missed by a wide margin. They tried to get closer but with all the incoming fire, they were effectively pinned down. They couldn’t advance and they couldn’t retreat. They were pretty well stuck.
The forward observer began to work his magic however, and he walked the mortar rounds over to the wadi. This resulted in a few enemy casualties but mostly just slowed them down. As the indirect fire came in, the Nacians took cover, and if nothing else it bought Liam and his men a little time. But the clock was ticking and that precious time was quickly running out.
“Now!” Lieutenant Ashley yelled, slapping his gunner on the shoulder.
The machine gunner loosed a long stream of Armor Piercing Incendiary Tracer, which signaled the others to do the same. All four gunners poured steel-core rounds the size of a man’s thumb at a rate of 1,200 rounds per minute. Every one of them focused on the lead Nacian APC.
The fire hit with such intensity that the frontal aluminum armor plating was literally torn away and rounds started bouncing around the inside the vehicle, shredding the crew and passengers in the back. The personnel carrier came to a rolling stop and belched thick black smoke that wafted lazily skyward.
The second one locked its brakes and fired back wildly, firing high explosive rounds in a long arc. The APC backed into a shallow ditch, attempting to find cover. The troop doors in the back flew open and the infantry squad inside bailed out, tumbling on top of one another as they did so.
The flatbed gunners ceased firing as suddenly as they had started, all of them running out of ammo at the same time. They scrambled to lift heavy cans of linked ammunition and load them into feed trays. This gave the Nacian APC crew precious seconds to orient themselves and get into the fight. The gunner targeted one of the flatbeds and the cannon spewed half a dozen rounds before finding the proper range. The unarmored truck blew to pieces, showering the landscape with chunks of hot metal and charred human flesh.
Captain Tangier had set up his company command post in the air traffic control tower and from there he had an excellent perspective to witness the fight. Between what he could see and what he could monitor on the radio, it was clear that they were seriously outgunned and they weren’t having much success in evening up the odds.
The fire support officer was poring over his map, busy processing fire missions for the mortars when he suddenly stopped, calmly setting his radio hand mike and grease pencil down. “Sir, just got a call from Thumper. They’re out of mortar ammunition, and they’re spiking their tubes as we speak.”
“Not good. Call ‘em and tell ‘em to stand by for instructions,” Tangier said before turning to the pathfinders who were acting as de facto air traffic controllers. “Okay, what’s the status on those birds?”
“We got two of them inbound, callsigns ‘Trash Hauler 5’ and ‘Trash Hauler 6.’ ETA in seven minutes,” the pathfinder said as he scanned the horizon. “You can just see them over there.”
“Tell them we need some more time, I’ve got men in contact down there and have to break contact,” Tangier said, looking out the window where the pathfinder was pointing.
“I already asked them Captain, they said that’s a no-go. They don’t have enough fuel to keep running racetracks in the sky and they need to set down now. If they don’t land immediately, they won’t have enough fuel to get us out of here.”
Tangier considered for a moment and then looked at the action below. Just then one more of Lieutenant Ashley’s flatbed trucks erupted into a plume of oily-black smoke and fire. “Tell them they can land but they’ll have to sit on the runway until I can get the rest of my people.”
The pathfinder raised both eyebrows. “I’ll tell them, Sir, but you know they’ll be completely vulnerable and exposed on the ground.”
“Just do it, damnit!” Tangier turned to Sergeant Lafferty, the 3rd Squad leader. “It’s time to commit the reserve, are you and your boys ready to earn your paychecks today?”
“Is a duck’s ass watertight?” Lafferty quipped, while scooping out the fat, stale plug of chewing tobacco he had stuck between his lower lip.
“That’s the spirit. I want you to link up with the mortars just over there. I’ll call them from here and inform them they will fight as dismounted infantry now.” Tangier pointed out the window to show Lafferty where to go. “Take your combined force and roll up that enemy infantry squad and then knock out that fucking APC. Then get your asses back here. Any questions?”
“Yeah. What about the rest of the platoon? They’re pinned down out there on the other side of that ridgeline. Somebody’s got to go and help,” Lafferty said, his shoulders squared and his face like granite.
“Sergeant, if you don’t take out that squad and the APC, rescuing the platoon will be the least of our worries. Got it? Now get moving!” Tangier was pointing toward the exit.
Lafferty grunted and bolted for the door.
Tangier picked up the microphone dialed in to the company command frequency. “Baker 1, this is Baker Actual. How are you boys doing out there?”
There was a lengthy pause before the response crackled over the speaker. “Baker Actual, this is 1. We’re getting the hell kicked out of us here. I’ve got at least two dead and several wounded. The enemy armor is standing off out of range of our rockets, and they’re pounding us from a distance. Plus, they’re maneuvering at least two platoons of dismounted infantry around our flank. Without mortar support we can’t hold out for long. How copy? Over.”
“Hang in there Liam. I committed the reserve to clear out the enemy forces in your rear between you and us. Once that occurs, we’ll withdraw you. Understood?” Tangier stared out the window and watched as Ashley’s truck crews and the remainder of the scouts jockeyed for position, hoping they could hang on just a little bit longer. He shifted his gaze to the horizon where he could now clearly see the two Air Force cargo planes coming in.
“Acknowledged. We’ll be ready, over.” Liam had to raise his voice in order to be heard over the background noise.
The tanks and APCs had reduced the volume of fire in an effort to conserve their ammunition, but they were still highly effective keeping the platoon suppressed. Up until a few minutes before, when they still had mortar support, the situation on both sides had boiled down to a stand-off. The minute the mortars quit shooting fire missions for them, the situation quickly degraded.
The vehicles weren’t advancing but the better part of an infantry company was. They reformed and moved swiftly through the low ground and some of them had managed to get into the rocks with them on the platoon’s right flank. Sergeant Burbey was dealing with them but it was only a matter of time before they would be overwhelmed. If they couldn’t keep that infantry at arms-length, it was going to devolve into hand-to-hand fighting. Bayonet fighting was often decided by the side possessing the most bayonets which meant the commandos were definitely going to come up short.
Liam bounded up to a cluster of boulders near the summit of the ridgeline. As he made the dash, a coaxial machinegun opened fire, and a hail of bullets kicked up clods of dirt all around him. He landed in a most undignified manner behind cover, flat on his face.
He picked himself up and onto his knees, before cradling his rifle and catching his breath. He was at the casualty collection point and all around him were men working furiously to save the lives of their wounded brothers. Orchestrating all of this was his right-hand man, Tech Sergeant Jeb Cooper.
“How’s it goin,’ Coop?” Liam said, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
“Not good, Sir. We’ve got three dead and six wounded. That’s nearly a third of us taken out,” Cooper said while he watched the medics patch up one of the boys.
“Can the wounded walk?”
“Two of ‘em can. The others need to be carried,” Cooper said, letting the implication of that sink in.
“We’ll need at least eight men. That won’t leave us with much left to cover our retreat,” Liam removed his helmet and considered his options. “It doesn’t look good.”
“What’s the word from the CO?” Cooper came over and sat down next to his platoon leader, the lines of exhaustion clearly etched on his face.
“He’s sent the reserve to deal with the enemy forces blocking our escape route. No telling if that’ll work.”
“Lafferty can handle it, he’s hard as woodpecker lips,” Cooper said.
“Yeah, you’re right. Get the wounded ready to move. Burbey’s holding the flank but he can’t do it forever. If we get any more casualties, we won’t be able to move at all.”
“I’m on it.” Cooper put his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Sir, it’s going to be okay.”
“I hope you’re right.” Liam plopped the steel helmet back on his head and buckled the chin strap. “See you soon!”
Liam darted back down the slope, moving from cover to cover, never staying exposed for more than a few seconds. He crawled the last few meters until he made it back to the center of their line. His radioman, Specialist Wells, was chattering away and taking notes, oblivious that his platoon leader had arrived.
A bit of movement caught his eye and he looked at the sky off to the west. Two large four-engine aircraft soared past, the sound of their engines audible over the noise of battle. They were clearly on final approach to the airfield to their rear. It was their only means of escape.
Time had just run out.
Liam prepared to issue the order to fall back when he heard the tanks and APCs throw their drives into gear. He peeked over the boulder he was using as cover and could see they were making a push. They must have seen the planes too and realized this was now or never. With the tanks in the lead, the column got back on the road started advancing toward the gap. As they drove, they increased their volume of fire and pelted the platoon’s position.
“Lawson, let’s go!” Liam shouted over the din.
“Sprake, Smith . . . on me!” Sergeant Lawson bellowed as he scooped up one of the rocket launchers.
All three darted from their positions and moved toward the left flank, closest to the road and the chokepoint passing through the ridge. Lawson and Sprake carried the launchers while Private Smith had the ammunition. They moved as fast as they could, drawing enemy fire along the way.
As they made their last bound, Sprake took a hit and tumbled. Without missing a beat, Smith scooped up Sprake’s anti-armor weapon and closed the distance with his squad leader. When the two of them made it into position, they loaded the rocket projectors and kept their heads down.
On the right, the enemy infantry assault intensified with renewed vigor. Burbey and his boys were laying down a thick base of fire and stopping it cold. Dead Nacian grunts littered the landscape and the whole platoon could hear the men in 2nd Squad whooping and hollering in delight every time they killed another one. They really did enjoy their jobs.
The armored column picked up more speed, only limited by the tanks in the lead. It wasn’t long before they came within range of the platoon’s anti-armor weapons but Lawson did not open fire. He and Smith stayed hunkered down behind a rocky outcropping, shielded from the enemy fire that only seemed to grow in intensity. Unabated, the Nacians pressed on, while the vehicle commanders buttoned up inside their hatches as they grew ever more vulnerable to small arms fire.
Liam’s heart pounded in his chest while he watched the column snake its way forward uncontested. If they got through that narrow pass and in their rear, then the entire platoon was finished. He didn’t know what the fuck Lawson was waiting for and he prepared to make the dash over there to fire one of those rockets himself.
The lieutenant got to his feet just as the first tank entered the chokepoint, but he froze in his tracks. Lawson and Smith popped up at precisely the same time and fired almost straight down onto the lead tank. Both rockets struck the armored behemoth in its most vulnerable point, on its roof where the armor was thinnest. The two rounds had shape charges on their nose caps which focused the lethal energy and pierced the vehicle’s thick steel hide going in through the roof and out through the floor. Once inside, the rounds created an overpressure that smashed the crew into paste and sucked some of their remains out of the exit hole. The tank came to a halt, completely blocking the chokepoint for the rest of the column.
The Nacian armor focused all their wrath on Lawson and Smith and blasted their stone outcropping. Luckily for the two commandos, their cover was good and they were reasonably well protected. They definitely couldn’t pop their heads up for another shot.
The second tank in the column, taking advantage of the suppression, slung its turret over the back deck and moved up to its slain comrade. Hatches popped open and two crew members leaped out and began attaching tow cables to the destroyed vehicle. They were moving as fast as they could to pull the wreck out of the way so the rest of them could proceed.
Before they could complete their task, the medium machine guns from Weapons Squad went into action. They raked the tanks and tore the two crewmen to pieces. The APCs shifted their fire, re-engaging the center of the platoon line, firing anti-personnel rounds in full automatic. The instant the personnel carriers shifted their fire to suppress the platoon’s machine gunners, Lawson and Smith popped back up and sent another volley down below and knocked out the second tank in line.
“Fuck, yeah!” Liam exclaimed while pumping his fist in the air. “That’s the break we needed! Everybody fall back. Release point is through the casualty collection point. Sergeant Burbey, you and 2nd Squad cover our retreat. Everybody move!”
Sergeant Lafferty led from the front and bolted through the low ground at a full sprint. The rest of the men with him struggled to keep pace. Some of them were starting to lag behind. He could see where Lieutenant Ashley was from the mark of his tracers and that’s where he intended to take his men.
Ashley had been desperately fighting for his life for the last few minutes. The APC had driven him into a gulley and the enemy infantry had worked their way around to finish him off. They botched their assault and Ashley’s heavy machine gunner was laying it on thick to drive them off. Everyone knew the ammo situation was critical. When that gun went dry, it was going to get ugly.
A few yards short of the enemy position, Lafferty threw himself to the ground and the others followed. The men of 3rd Squad, along with the mortar teams and a handful of dismounted scouts, crawled on their bellies the rest of the way, alongside him. The crusty NCO stole a quick peek just in front of them.
It was a Nacian mechanized infantry squad and they were using a wadi for cover. They were spread out, on line, and taking pot shots at the lieutenant’s truck and crew. He could see them preparing rifle grenades and a bipod-mounted automatic.
Lafferty pulled out a hand grenade and motioned for his men to do the same. The mortarmen and the scouts didn’t have any so the men of 3rd Squad passed around a few of their spares. The squad made a big show of it so everyone could see what he was doing and followed his lead. He pulled the safety pin and dropped it to the ground while holding the safety lever firmly in place. Then he released the spoon with “pop” and held it. The group cooked off their grenades for exactly two seconds before throwing them in unison, up and over, into the enemy position.
The fragmentation grenades detonated in unison which signaled the assault. Eighteen men bolted forward firing their weapons from the hip as they charged. They leapt into the wadi blasting anything that moved while screaming at the top of their lungs.
When the smoke cleared, they found themselves standing over the bodies of ten Nacian soldiers.
“You guys get to the airfield right now!” Lafferty said while reloading his rifle.
Corporal O’Toole, his assistant squad leader shook his head. “No way, Sarge, we still need to take out that APC.”
“I’ll deal with the fucking thing, you guys get out of here before it’s too late,” Lafferty said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plug of chewing tobacco and bit off a huge chunk. “That’s an order, goddammit!”
Without wasting another second, Lafferty was off again, leaving his men in the dust. He was careful to stay in the low ground and out of observation as he maneuvered his way toward the lone armored personnel carrier. It was playing a cat and mouse game with Ashley’s two surviving flatbeds and the scout car. The carrier would pull up, fire a burst from its autocannon and then reverse down into a defilade.
Running full out, Lafferty tossed away equipment that was weighing him down. He ditched his helmet, before tossing away everything else. He shed every extra ounce with the exception of his weapon, web gear and chewing tobacco. One had to have priorities, after all.
When he got close enough, he stopped to reassess. Sweat streamed down his eyes and his lungs ached. He spat tobacco juice into the dirt and double checked his rifle.
The vehicle was massive, with eight huge tires, a sizable turret up top, armed with an autocannon and coaxial machinegun. Thick plumes of black smoke rose from its twin exhaust pipes every time it displaced from its position. The turret smoothly scanned back and forth, using the optic mounted up top to locate its targets. It was a formidable machine and one that needed to be dealt with immediately.
The problem Lafferty faced was significant. The only weapon he had at his disposal was a rifle. He had used his grenades assaulting the mechanized infantry squad and he didn’t have a satchel charge. All he had was a bad attitude and a growing sense of irritation.
He crouched and started busting up the some of the dry clay at his feet with the butt of his rifle. He pulled out his canteen and poured water on the ground, mixed it with his fingers. Satisfied, he scooped up the thick mud and stuffed it into one of his cargo pockets.
Lafferty spit a long stream of tobacco juice onto the ground before sneaking in low, off to the left side of the vehicle’s hull. It wasn’t moving except for turret. He clambered up the side until he was standing up top. The crew inside had no idea he was there, as they were buttoned up, hatches firmly shut, and combat locked.
The irascible non-com reached into his pocket and pulled out the mud, then carefully smeared it all over the targeting optics mounted to the top of the vehicle’s turret. Satisfied, he stood, shouldered his rifle and waited.
A moment later a hatch popped open and the vehicle commander’s head appeared. The first thing the man saw was Lafferty’s dusty leather jump boots standing inches away. When he looked up, he found himself staring down the muzzle of the commando’s rifle. That was the last thing he saw.
The vehicle commander’s limp body collapsed into the turret. Lafferty stuck his weapon into the open hatch and started firing, emptying the magazine. He reloaded and peered inside, his weapon at the ready. In a pile was the APC’s gunner, riddled with bullets, next to his superior who sported a nice clean hole in the face. Neither would give them any trouble again.
As he prepared to climb inside, he heard another hatch open. He stood and swung his rifle around to engage the new threat. Emerging from the driver’s hatch was a young kid who couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. His hands were raised straight up in the air, a look of terror etched on his face. He was jabbering away in one of the local Nacian dialects—a language Lafferty did not understand—but he figured he understood the gist of it. The kid was surrendering and begging for his life.
The commando stared down the sights of his rifle and had them aimed right at the boy’s nose. Out of reflex and years of conditioning, his finger began squeezing the trigger. He stopped himself short. He took a short moment to study the fear in the kid’s eyes and let out a short breath before relaxing.
“It’s your lucky day kid,” Lafferty said, jerking his chin to the side. “Now beat it!”
The young Nacian soldier understood perfectly well. He tore the leather crewman’s helmet from his head, leapt to the ground, and bolted.
Lafferty watched him run for a moment before getting back to the business at hand. He climbed into the APC through the open hatch up top and wiggled his way inside. It was a tight fit, sharing what space there was with two fresh corpses. His eyes needed a minute to adjust to the low light inside but when they did he found what he was looking for.
He couldn’t read the local Nacian alphabet nor could he speak the language. Luckily for him, Nace imported most of their military hardware from Donubia and he could read some of that. To his delight, there was an ammo can bolted to the hull that read “thermite grenades.”
He reached inside and grabbed two, before pulling out heavy belts of autocannon ammunition and laying them out on the floor. Satisfied, he got ready to climb out but stopped short when he spotted the vehicle commander’s sidearm tucked securely in its leather shoulder holster.
“You won’t be needin’ that any longer,” Lafferty said before yanking the pistol from the holster and stuffing it in a pocket. “Don’t mind if I do.”
He struggled out of the hatch and squinted in the bright sunlight. Moving to the engine compartment of the still idling APC, he pulled open an access panel and tossed in one of the thermite grenades. Then he leaned over the open turret hatch and tossed the second one on the pile of autocannon rounds before jumping off the side of the armored behemoth.
The instant his feet hit the ground, he was off and running.
Captain Tangier and his headquarters element were still perched up in the air traffic control tower watching the action unfold below. He was looking through his binoculars and could clearly see the last enemy armored personnel carrier burning with thick smoke wafting toward the heavens. He could also see one lone figure sprinting away from the burning hulk, making a beeline across the open terrain, headed straight toward them at the airfield.
“I don’t fucking believe this,” Tangier said, binoculars still raised.
“What is it, Sir?” asked his radio telephone operator.
“It’s Lafferty. He just took out that APC all by himself.”
“No way,” the RTO said.
Tangier put the binoculars down and shook his head. “I can’t even make this shit up. That guy is a one-man wrecking crew.” He picked up the microphone and hit the transmit key. “Baker 4, this is Actual. You’re clear. Need you to take your two remaining cargo trucks and the scout car and retrieve 1st Platoon. Acknowledge!”
“Roger that. Moving time now,” Ashley responded.
Tangier watched as the reserve squad and its leader made their way back to the airfield while Lieutenant Ashley’s trucks went tearing off toward the distant ridgeline, kicking up huge clouds of dust.
Moving to the other side of the tower, he looked down to see both cargo planes sitting on the tarmac, engines running, propellers spinning, ramps down. The pilots had reversed the propellers to redirect their blast away from the rear of the aircraft, to facilitate loading from the ramps. Meanwhile, loadmasters and scanners were out on the ground to assist with the operation.
Tangier looked at his watch. “We need to get this show on the road.”
Liam’s men jogged, pushing exhausted bodies and parched mouths beyond their limits. Nearly every surviving member of the platoon was wounded to some degree or another but most could move on their own. Those who couldn’t were carried by the healthiest and fittest. To lighten their load, they left behind their heavy weapons, abandoning the rocket launchers and crew-served machine guns. As much as it pained all of them, they had to abandon their dead comrades. This was no organized withdrawal. They were running for their lives.
Even though all semblance of formation had dissolved and they ran as a gaggle of individuals, Tech Sergeant Cooper and a small team brought up the rear making sure nobody was left behind. Liam stayed in the center and helped carry the wounded while the unencumbered broke from the pack and made for the airfield.
“El Tee, check out what’s coming just up ahead!” Sergeant Burbey shouted between strained breaths, his thick glasses perched down on the tip of his nose, barely held in place with a piece of parachute cord tied around his neck.
To the front, three vehicles were headed their way, kicking up a gigantic cloud of dust, moving at top speed.
“Wells, give me the hand mike,” Liam said to his radio operator. “Ash, this is Liam, is that you headed our way?”
“Yeah, that’s us. Where the hell have you been? We’ve been trying to raise you on the goddamn radio for the last five minutes!”
“Sorry, brother, been a little busy,” Liam said, gulping air. “Listen, we blocked the pass but I don’t know how much time we have until the bad guys open it up again.” He wheezed while transmitting. “I’ve got over a dozen wounded and we need help or else we ain’t going to make it.”
“Acknowledged. Just hang in there, buddy, we’re on our way.”
Ashley’s trucks locked up their brakes when they reached 1st Platoon and the commandos wasted no time clambering on board. The wounded were roughly hauled up on the flatbeds and the men with superficial wounds climbed onto every available space, including running boards, hoods, and the sides of the armored scout car. With only half as many trucks as before, there wasn’t a whole lot of space but they made do.
Liam climbed up behind the cab and shouted to his friend through the open window. “We’re up, Ash, let’s go!”
Before the drivers could get their vehicles into gear every one of them saw Nacian armored personnel carriers emerging from the pass. They had cleared the two destroyed tanks, and were pouring through the chokepoint unopposed. To their horror, they could see the turrets slewing in their direction as the APCs charged forward.
Clutches popped, accelerators mashed to the floor and gear shifts worked furiously as the commandos pulled out. Their eyes were locked on the APCs who were picking up speed and pushing their vehicles as hard as they could. It was a flat-out race to the airfield at this point and whoever got there first was going to win the day.
The Nacian autocannons opened fire, chugging along and slinging high explosive rounds at the retreating commandos. The APCs did not have a stabilized firing platform and could not accurately aim while moving. The rounds flew wildly, detonating all around the trucks and the scout car trying to make good their escape.
The commandos were driving cross-country while the APCs drove on the road, all headed in the same direction. The flatbeds and the scout car pushed their vehicles as hard as they dared while tortured suspension systems jolted them with every bump along the way. The men held on for dear life, many nearly falling off as drivers swerved to miss large rocks, holes, and other obstructions. From their perspective, it was not clear who was going to make it there first.
“Holy hell,” Tangier said, staring through the thick panes of glass in disbelief. He clenched his huge hands into massive fists.
“Sir, Lieutenant Ashley reports that he’s got 1st Platoon and they’re headed this way but the enemy is through the pass and there’s no way to stop them,” said the radio telephone operator.
Tangier turned to find all eyes were on him. The entire command post was frozen in silence and looking to him for orders. He sighed. “Alright, everybody, clear out. Get on one of those planes . . . now go!”
Men snatched up weapons and other sensitive equipment before racing for the door. The tower emptied within three seconds with the exception of Tangier and his radioman.
“That means you too. Take the code book and leave the radio. Be sure to save me a seat,” Tangier said to his RTO.
“Yes, Sir, I’ll see you there.”
Tangier watched as the young specialist snatched up his helmet and carbine before darting down the stairwell. He produced a short length of rope and fashioned it around his waist and groin. Then he secured a steel snap-link to the front of the rigging.
Moving to the outer railing, he watched as the company headquarters personnel spilled out of the terminal and sprinted up the back ramps of the two cargo planes on the tarmac. It was hardly an organized affair but at least some of them were going to make it out. If they didn’t wait too long anyway.
Turning back to the south, he saw Ashley’s trucks going for broke and giving it all they had. They were gaining some ground and putting some distance between themselves and the Nacian armor but it wasn’t enough. When he spared another glance at the pass through the ridge, he could just make out a tank and four more APCs emerging.
It was right about then Tangier regretted he’d quit smoking.
Liam held onto the pintle mount of the heavy machine gun with every ounce of strength he had left. The truck bounced along at speed and all of them were getting thrown around like rag dolls. They dared not slow down. Not now, not when they were so damned close.
Up ahead they could see the chain-link gate steadily growing nearer and just beyond that, the terminal, tower and hangars. What really got their hearts pumping was the sight of those two beautiful quad-engine cargo planes sitting on the tarmac, engines running, and ramps down. It was mesmerizing. He snapped out of it when several high explosive rounds impacted to the left and right of their truck.
He could see the three APCs that had been racing them to the airstrip had halted to put more accurate fire on them. Those HE auto-cannon rounds that had been flying wide before were now landing entirely too close for comfort. To make matters worse, he could see more enemy vehicles had made it through the pass and it wouldn’t be long before they took over the pursuit.
Another explosive-tipped round went off to their right and sent hot splinters slamming into the side of the truck and the commandos piled on it. Men wailed in agony when hit. One slumped and rolled off, tumbling into the dirt. They watched in pained silence as they pulled away from their comrade, hoping and praying he was already dead.
The intensity of the incoming fire only crescendoed the closer they got to salvation and now the buildings up ahead absorbed some of the punishment as well. Everything around them seemed to blossom in puffs of white smoke, the sound of angry bees filling the air, punctuated now and then by the grinding of gears and cries of more wounded.
The trucks flew through the open front gate and sped past the terminal and out to the tarmac. Tires squealed and smoked as drivers stomped on the brakes, sending men piling up on one another in the backs of the flatbeds, and sending others on running boards and hoods, tumbling to the hard ground.
The men rolled off the flatbeds and all those who could dragged their wounded buddies with them. From the tower, Liam saw a radio set tossed over the railing fall to the surface and shatter into a million pieces. It was followed by their giant company commander who abseiled to the ground in a single bound from a rope anchored to the catwalk.
Tech Sergeant Cooper was running around like a madman, carrying and dragging wounded men up the ramps while frenzied medics worked in the holds, trying to keep the most seriously injured alive. The engines picked up RPMs and began to roar, reversing the props once again and blasting them all with exhaust gasses that were hot as an oven.
Satisfied his men were getting loaded, Liam turned and saw Ashley still in the cab of the truck. Climbing on the running board, he opened the door and found his buddy slumped over, eyes wide open, a gaping hole in his chest.
Without thinking he pulled his friend’s lifeless body from the truck and draped him over his shoulders. His legs nearly buckled under the weight but he managed to move. He almost made it to the ramp of the nearest cargo plane when a couple of his boys ran down to help him.
High explosive rounds started impacting the tarmac.
Ramps raised slowly and airplanes wheeled along in a truncated taxi. Within minutes without any fanfare at all, the engines roared, and they sped down the runway.
Holes materialized like magic in the thin aluminum skin, letting in the sunlight.
Many of them squeezed their eyes shut and said silent prayers when they felt the tires break contact with the ground and they finally became airborne.
Not a word was said for quite some time. The tension was palpable.
When Liam did open his eyes, the only sound was the loud humming of the propellers.
He looked over and saw the small safe sitting on a pallet, secured with cargo netting. And right next to it was the body of his friend, 1st Lieutenant Dave Ashley, covered in a tarp.
He closed his eyes once again, leaned forward and rested his face in filthy hands. He thought about taking the extra time to haul that safe, and how that additional time cost so many of their lives that day.
The thought haunted him, and one question kept playing over and over in his mind . . .
Was I right?
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