The bad guys suddenly started moving about an hour after sunrise.

We had eyes on two sides of the house from our hide site, and so it was impossible to miss when the front door slammed open and half a dozen men rushed out, bearded and armed to the teeth.  The only one who wasn’t in a rush was the guy with the Talib beard, wearing all Russian camouflage and talking into a radio.  We were so close that I could actually pick out a few of the Albanian words.

I was already nervous about being within a hundred meters of the target building, but having what looked an awful lot like a terrorist react force come rushing out made my guts pucker.  Only training and discipline kept me stock-still, though my hand was already on my OBR’s firing control, finger hovering near the trigger.  If we’d been made, it was going to get really loud and really messy, really fast.

We were also probably all going to die in the process.  Not to mention the hostage whom I was already pretty sure was tied up inside that house.

“Deacon, Weeb,” Scott Hayes’ voice said in my ear.  “I think I see what’s got ‘em all stirred up.  There’s company coming.”

I didn’t answer right away.  I was keeping my eyes fixed somewhere just above Camouflage Jacket’s shoulder as I inched my off hand toward the push-to-talk clipped to the strap of my chest rig.

None of us had wanted to set up so close.  Phil had been downright adamant that we needed to find some other way of handling the situation, as the night had worn on and we’d had to get closer and closer just to see the house through the trees.  The hills we’d hiked in through were heavily forested, and just the crunch of leaves under our boots had been excruciatingly loud.

And if I could hear the guy who I was pretty sure was Ibrahim Baruti, then he could hear me.

(Continued from the Escalation Prologue)

I reached the button and pressed it once.  I didn’t dare try to talk; squelch breaks were going to be about all I could do until the Kosovars, ethnic Albanian jihadists who had fled Serbia after the recent unpleasantness there, went back inside or we got in a firefight.  But the single break would tell Scott, in his cozy little lay-up site in an abandoned barn, ten miles away, that I was listening.

“There’s a formation of four M5s coming up the road,” Scott continued.  He was watching the drone feed from the little tricopter buzzing around at treetop level over the town.  “Can’t tell yet whether they’re heading for Marianka or Zàhorskà Bystrica, but it looks like the bad guys are getting ready for them in Marianka anyway.”

Shit.  I could feel Dwight glance at me from his position immediately to my left.  Everybody was on the same radio channel, so he’d heard it.  Dwight being Dwight, I knew he had something to say about it, but you don’t talk when you’ve only got five guys ghillied up and covered in leaves, less than a hundred meters from the enemy.

Three more bad guys came running out of the house just then.  One had a PKP machinegun over his shoulder.  Another had what looked an awful lot like an RPG-29.  They ran toward the far end of the town, while Baruti walked around the front of the house, leaving us in the clear for a moment.

And leaving me with a decision to make.

“What the hell?” Dwight whispered, momentarily relieved of the necessity to keep absolutely silent.  “I thought the peacekeepers were locked down after Slovenský Grob?”

“They were,” I whispered back.  “I guess that the lockdown got lifted since the poor bastards who decided to do the right thing got hauled back Stateside.”

“Or they’re here for the same reason we are,” Dwight muttered.  He was watching the house intently, his thick, pugnacious features hidden under his ghillie hood and a thick application of camouflage face paint.  The Mk 48 was in front of him, draped with another camouflage net that he’d brought along for just that purpose.

I glanced at the house.  It made sense.  Our intel didn’t have much good to say about Colonel Banks, who was commanding the Brigade Combat Team assigned to peacekeeping duties in Slovakia.  By all accounts he was a ladder-climber, and, shall we say… less than enthusiastic about sticking his neck out.  He sure hadn’t done a damned thing to step up for Lieutenant Randolph after Slovenský Grob.  But a hostage situation that was already in its third week might be enough to get him to pull his thumb out and send his men on patrol.

Carefully, I keyed my radio and subvocalized into my throat mic.  “Weeb, Deacon.  Does it look like that platoon is looking for our target?”  If they were, that was going to both simplify and complicate matters at the same time.

“Negative, Deacon,” Scott replied.  “These guys don’t look like they’re on the hunt.  This looks like a presence patrol.  They’re buttoned up tight and rolling like they don’t really have a care in the world.  I don’t think they’re expecting trouble from the locals.”

“These ain’t exactly locals,” I murmured in reply, even as I scanned the yard and the nearby houses.  Sure enough, there was quite a bit of movement.  Those M5s had kicked the anthill, and they probably didn’t even know it yet.  “Looks like a lot of Albanians and Arabs.”  Those Slovaks still in Marianka—I didn’t think there were that many left—were keeping their heads down.

“You get the idea,” Scott said with a touch of exasperation.  “I can see more of the streets than you can, and these guys are about to walk into a hornet’s nest.”

I heard a faint rustle of movement behind me.  “We’re here for the hostage,” Jordan muttered.

“Yeah,” I whispered back, even as I started to get my hands under me to get up.  “But we can’t just sit here and let those kids get slaughtered, either.”

I didn’t get up immediately; I was planning in my head as I watched the town and added up what I knew about the enemy’s dispositions.

We couldn’t get into position to flank the ambush being set up on the road, not in time.  Judging by what Scott had said, the American vehicles were already on the outskirts, and it would take us twenty minutes to work our way through the woods.  They’d be smoking hulks by then.

We didn’t have solid confirmation that the hostage was in that house, but we were going to have to take the chance.  We might not be able to head the ambush off, but we damned well could create a hell of a diversion.

“Dwight, you and Greg are the base of fire,” I whispered, as I got up on a knee behind the bush that we’d been hiding under.  “The rest of us are going to hit that house.  If we make it to the door without being spotted, give us a five count and then open up.  Try not to shoot where the hostage might be.”

“That’s some great advice, right there,” Dwight grumbled, settling himself more solidly behind the Mk 48.

The rest of the team was starting to move, though still keeping low and moving carefully.  It wasn’t quite time to go loud just yet.

“This wasn’t the mission, Matt,” Jordan whispered again.  “We’re here for the hostage.  If we’re blown now, then they might just kill the hostage.”

“And if he’s in there, we kill two birds with one stone,” I whispered back.  “Otherwise, we cause some noise and escape in the chaos.  They won’t know for sure that we weren’t just a security element for the peacekeepers.”

“They’re not that stupid,” Jordan hissed.

“Guys,” Greg whispered.  “The cell hits point to this place.  Matt’s right.”

One of the functions of the drone that Scott was controlling from the barn was cell phone tracking.  What had narrowed our search down to Marianka in the first place had been multiple targeted cell phones pinging around this very house.

“Jordan just doesn’t want to risk it to protect a bunch of white boys in the Griffins,” Phil said.  He was crouching at the edge of the bushes, his rifle already held across his knees, his eyes trained on the house.

“Fuck you, Phil,” Jordan hissed back, a real note of anger in his voice.  His face was painted green and brown, but was black as the ace of spades underneath the paint.  “That shit ain’t funny.”

I was starting to get pissed.  This wasn’t the time nor the place.  We’d been prepared to quickly plan the hit based on our recon, but this was turning into a debate, not a planning session.  We were all too old and too experienced to fall into this bullshit.

“Knock it off,” I whispered.  “It’s my call.  We’re hitting the house.  If England’s in there, we pull him out.  If not, we cause as much noise and chaos as we can before we get out, then fall back to Rally Point Hotel.  Any questions?”

There weren’t any.  I’d known that there wouldn’t be.  Their initial reaction had been something of a rational one; we were five guys about to go charging into a hotbed of Kosovar and Syrian militia.  None of these bastards were in Slovakia for good reasons, regardless of the European Defense Council’s platitudes about the “plight of refugees.”

And the fact of the matter was, that every one of us was a warrior.  We weren’t going to sit by and let more Americans get slaughtered if we could help it.

And we were more confident in our own training and skill than we were in the current US Army’s.

I started out, moving out of the bushes and skirting the treeline, trying to get some distance between my precious personal hide and Greg’s and Dwight’s line of fire.  The sun was still fairly low in the partly cloudy sky, so the light was dim enough that I was pretty sure I was still hard to see, looking more like a green and brown swamp thing than a man as I moved against the thick vegetation behind me.

The house was two stories tall, with a red tile roof and plastered walls.  Surrounded by a waist-high iron and brick fence, it was something of a sprawling estate for Marianka; clearly the original owners had been well-off.  But they were long gone, and it looked like Baruti had appropriated it for his own headquarters.

There was another treeline running down the edge of the field to the corner of the fence, and I slipped into it.  Phil and Jordan followed in trace, maintaining a spread-out file, weapons held ready as they scanned around us.  I was doing the same thing; we hadn’t had time to build much of a picture of the enemy’s pattern of life since the sun had come up, but the drone’s intel was painting a grim picture.  This well-to-do suburb of Bratislava had been turned into enemy territory pretty quickly.

I wasn’t running, but I wasn’t moving slowly, either.  With the peacekeepers getting closer by the minute, we were on the clock.  Despite my insistence, I hated going off half-cocked like this.  The rest of the team knew it, too, which was why I’d gotten as little pushback as I had.

We reached the fence without incident.  I could hear yelling in Arabic and Albanian on the other side as I took a knee, facing down the fence line, my OBR held ready while I waited for Jordan and Phil to catch up.

I heard the rustle as they joined me, then Jordan’s hand came down on my shoulder.  “Up,” he whispered.

I rose slowly, easing head and weapon over the top of the fence.  We were right behind the guest house in the corner of the back yard.  I couldn’t be sure that it was unoccupied, but the windows were dark.  We’d still probably have to clear it quickly.  None of us wanted to leave a pocket of bad guys behind us as we crossed the open yard to the main house.

As I covered, Phil put his rifle atop the fence and vaulted over it.  It was an easier barrier than some of the walls we’d trained on, based on compounds in the Middle East and Afghanistan.  Jordan followed, and then I was the last one over.

For a brief moment, we crouched in the shadows between the fence and the guest house.  I peered around the corner, seeing a single figure loitering on the back deck of the main house, carrying a FAMAS.

Whether it had come from a captured weapons cache or had directly been supplied by the French portion of the EDC was anybody’s guess.

Jordan was at my elbow.  “The house looks clear,” he whispered into my ear.  “The front door’s open, no lights, just crap piled in the hall and the living room.”  He’d peered into the window while I’d been scanning our target.

“Deacon, Weeb,” Scott’s voice crackled in my ear.  “Time’s up.  If you’re going to go, you’d better do it now.”

So, I leaned out around the corner and put a bullet into the guy on the deck.

The thunderous report of the 7.62 echoed across the hills around the town, shattering the early morning calm.  The dark-clad man with the FAMAS bullpup staggered, staring down at the widening dark stain on his chest for a brief fraction of a second before he crumpled, crashing to the deck with a thump and a muffled clatter as he landed on top of his rifle.

I was already up and moving as he hit the floor, sprinting around the side of the guest house and heading for the steps leading up to the deck.  A figure loomed in the doorway, and I caught a glimpse of a weapon.  I started to slow, bringing my own rifle back up to fire, but a shot cracked past my shoulder and took the man in the chest.  He fell backwards, into the house.

Then I was up onto the deck, my OBR leveled at the door, Jordan right on my heels, as Dwight opened fire on the front of the house with a long, roaring burst of 7.62.

The back wall was mostly big picture windows and the door.  There was no point in pausing; there was no cover.  Fortunately, Jordan was right there with me, and so we didn’t even slow down as we punched through the door and into the house.

I stepped over the fallen body in the doorway.  The man was in his death spasms, choking on his own blood.  I still kicked the old Skorpion machine pistol away from his hand as I passed, just in case.

We were in a sort of living room, or at least it had been.  The sectional couch and chairs were still there, as was the coffee table.  The pictures on the walls had been torn down, and the place was trashed.  There were piles of propaganda leaflets on the coffee table, as well as porn and what looked an awful lot like drugs.  A partial wall closed half of it off from the rest of the house, though the opening into the kitchen/dining area was wide open.

I went left, Jordan went right, and Phil darted in behind us, following me along the left-hand wall.  He’d paused to take that shot on the way, then rushed to catch up with the two of us.  A two-man entry was preferable to a one-man, but the more guns in the fight, the better.

More gunfire echoed outside.  It sounded like Dwight and Greg were in a medium-range firefight with somebody up near the front of the house; not all the fire was going in one direction.  We rapidly closed on the doorway; the living room was clear.

Jordan had hung back closer to the door, having moved only far enough to get his back to a wall instead of a window.  He had a lot wider field of fire than I did, even as I quickly crossed the room, angling toward the end of that partial wall, with Phil right behind me.  Jordan snapped his OBR up and fired, pumping three shots rapidly into the dining room.  The reports were deafening inside the enclosed space of the house.

He ceased fire just as I reached the end of the wall, and then I was committed.  Taking a breath, I stepped around, snapping my own rifle toward the nearest corner.

There was a stairway ahead of me, leading up into the second story, and a short hallway next to it, leading to the entryway and more rooms on the ground floor.  There was also a body at my feet.  A few feet away, I saw another Kosovar fighter with a SIG 550 in his hands, crouched and aimed in at the corner that I’d just rounded.

He was half-slumped against the wall, his rifle pointed off to one side, and off balance.  He’d apparently dived for cover as Jordan blew his buddy’s brains all over his jacket, but that momentary loss of balance was all the advantage I needed.

I drove my rifle toward him, barely picking up the offset irons alongside the shortdot scope, and blew a chunk of his heart out of his back.  The second shot, that scorched his beard with the muzzle blast as the bullet blew the back of his skull off, spattering blood and brains against the wall behind him, was little more than insurance, but it had been so instinctive that the twin reports almost blended into a single, catastrophic noise.

The dead man was still sliding down the wall, his rifle slipping from nerveless fingers, as another figure appeared at the top of the stairs, his eyes widening as he saw the weird, leafy apparitions with rifles standing over his fellow militiaman’s body.  He lifted the FAMAS rifle in his hands.  I had a split second to shift targets, throwing myself sideways as I did so.  Staying still was a good way to get shot.

He triggered a burst into the wall above Phil’s head, just before both of us blasted him.  He staggered, wobbled for a second, then fell face-first down the stairs, actually doing a somersault before he hit the floor at the bottom.

More gunfire erupted behind me as Jordan shot at somebody toward the front of the house, but Phil and I were already driving our way up the stairs, stepping hard on the body at the base of the steps as we went.

Press the immediate threat.

I drove up the stairs two at a time, only slowing as I neared the top.  I really didn’t want to get my head blown off by sticking it up without at least my own muzzle between my noggin and the bad guys.

Phil was right next to me, and we popped over the landing with our rifles leveled at the same time.  The short hallway at the top of the stairs was clear, for the moment.  We both surged the rest of the way up, as more gunfire thundered and echoed from the front of the house.

More shots cracked from the door to the right.  I started to angle toward it, though there was yet another open door right to the left.  The barking reports of gunfire were coming from that one, that made it a threat.

I didn’t have to say or even signal anything.  Phil, who was closer, moved right to the door, pausing just long enough to know that I was right beside him, then pushed in.

He was already shooting as he crossed the threshold.  I was so close behind him that my muzzle was right over his shoulder, but the man leaning out of the window, firing back at the treeline was already down, leaving a red smear on the white wall.  His rifle had fallen out the open window.

It took less than three seconds to ensure that the room was clear, and then we were coming out, this time with Jordan in the lead.  He went straight across the hallway, bursting into the room we’d bypassed, and I was halfway across the threshold when he called, “Clear!”

We barely paused, just turning and burning back down the hall.

As I came out, I glanced down the stairway, in time to see two men in dark clothes, chest rigs, and turbans start up the stairs.  I threw myself across the hallway as they opened fire, bullets chewing into the ceiling and sending bits of plaster raining down on us, and returned fire.  My first shot smashed into the smaller man’s collarbone, sending him reeling as the follow-up shot tore his throat out.

The snap of the bullet made the taller, skinnier guy flinch.  Which was when Jordan leaned out of the door and shot him in the skull.  His head snapped backward as he crashed onto his back.  Red started seeping from the turban wrapped around his head.

Everything went quiet all of a sudden after that.  We still pressed on to finish clearing the house, even as Scott said in my ear, “Deacon, Weeb.  The patrol’s halted short of the town.  Looks like they’re setting security and calling higher for instructions.”

Of course they are.  I acknowledged with a double squelch break.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The current US Armed Forces seemed to be even more hogtied in red tape and armchair quarterbacking than it had been when I’d been a Marine.

There wasn’t time to worry about it, especially as Dwight’s voice broke in.  “Deacon, Teddy.  Y’all kicked the anthill.  There’s probably a platoon heading your way.  I can keep ‘em back for a bit, but you need to wrap it up and get out of there.”

I didn’t answer immediately, because we were moving into the next room, at the end of the hall.  It was as empty as the second one had been.  I held up a hand to hold for a moment.  “Deacon copies all,” I said, as chagrined as always that I was breathing as hard as I was.  Close quarters combat gets the heart pumping harder than any run.  “Top floor cleared.  We’re going to check the rest of the first floor, then exfil.”

I had a sneaking suspicion that we weren’t going to find Specialist England, or if we did, we weren’t going to like what we found.  It was too quiet for anything else.

But as I nodded to Phil, he flowed out into the hallway and headed for the steps.

He hooked around the base of the steps as I stepped out to cover the opening onto the living room.  Jordan tapped me as he went past, and I turned to follow.

Two more bodies were slumped at the front of the entryway.  The door was standing open, with what might have been yet another corpse lying on the front steps.

There were two rooms on the side, a master bedroom and a bathroom.  It took seconds to clear both.  No more bad guys, and no sign of the hostage.  In fact, it didn’t look like he’d ever been there.

“This is Deacon,” I sent.  “We’re on our way out.”  I’d barely gotten the last syllable out before Dwight opened fire again, the rattling roar of the Mk 48 tearing the brief quiet to shreds.

It took moments to retrace our steps to the back, even as we started hearing heavier ordnance going off to the west.  It sounded like the militia had started engaging those Griffins anyway, and unless I missed my guess, they were getting some .50 caliber love in return.  Of course, the M5s had 50mm main guns, too, but the gunners were probably locked out of those for the time being.

In a way, I thought, even as we vaulted the fence again and faded into the treeline, the paralysis of the US peacekeepers was a good thing.  After all, it wouldn’t be good if they found out we were even in the country.

Read more in Escalation Chapter 2.


Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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