“Friendlies coming in,” I called over the radio.
“I’ve got you,” Tony replied. “Come ahead.”
It was almost dark. As thick as the woods were in that part of Slovakia, we’d had to move very carefully to avoid the locals, not to mention the occasional peacekeeper or militia patrols. It had taken slow, methodical movement, slipping from cover to cover, often halting to stay put and just watch and listen.
Phil got to his feet and started toward the ancient barn. Built of plastered stone and graying, aged timber, the roof was starting to sag and the base was overgrown, but it was still solid. I suspected it had been standing for at least a couple of centuries. It probably would still have been in use if not for the turmoil that had engulfed Slovakia over the last few years.
I carefully scanned the surrounding woods and the open field beyond for a moment, despite the fact that I knew that Scott had security set and the drone up. The abandoned farm sat right at the no-man’s land between the Belgian peacekeeping sector and one of the few, small, Loyalist Slovak Army sectors. While what was left of the Army that hadn’t gone over to the Nationalists after the initial riots was still outwardly loyal to the shaky government in Bratislava, that loyalty was in question among many of the peacekeepers, especially the Germans and Belgians. None of this would have been happening if the Slovaks hadn’t already had enough of both Brussels’ financial demands and the forced immigration, mostly of young Kosovar, Bosnian, and Syrian men. To that end, most of the EDC peacekeepers made no secret of the fact that they didn’t trust the Slovak Army.
Which made the uneasy borders between zones the best place to hide out, even though it had meant one hell of an infiltration from Hungary.
(Continued from Escalation Chapter 1)
Seeing no movement, nor the hulking silhouettes of armored vehicles on the road, in the fields, or against the treeline, I followed Phil toward the barn.
Tony was right at the door, though set back in the shadows, his PSQ-20 thermal fusion NVGs down in front of one eye. He was on a knee, his own Mk 48 held over his thigh. Unfortunately, the NVGs weren’t all that conducive to staying down in the prone. They tended to sag, making it extremely uncomfortable to crane your neck to see.
I slipped inside, making sure not to step in front of Tony’s muzzle. Not because I expected the thickset former SF Weapons Sergeant to shoot me by accident, but because it just wasn’t a good habit to get into. And if somebody did pop out of that treeline, that split second it would take to get out of his way could be fatal to us both.
Scott was hunkered down in the darkened corner, away from the doors, behind a nest of comm gear and the drone control console. It hadn’t been fun, lugging that crap in from Hungary, but it had been useful.
He looked up as I crossed to join him. His vaguely Asian features were still camouflaged, despite the fact that most of us had sweated most of the cammie paint off on the infil. Knowing Scott, he’d pestered the rest of the Bravo Element to reapply their cammie paint before he’d even gotten the comms set up all the way.
I was sure that David and Chris had appreciated the reminder, and told him just how much they appreciated it in no uncertain terms. After all, nobody in this team was an amateur.
“Dry hole,” I said, as I sat against the wall, leaning my rifle next to me. Dwight, Jordan, and Greg filed in behind me and found positions in the barn where they could easily switch out with the guys on security when the time came. “But you knew that already.” I grabbed one of the water bladders that Scott had filled and purified and drank greedily. It had been a long movement.
“But it might have pointed us in the right direction,” Scott said. My assistant team lead was all business in the field, despite the Japanese manga I was pretty sure was shoved into his pack somewhere. He turned the tablet he was using around and tapped the screen to shift windows. I peered at it, seeing a satellite map of southwest Slovakia on the dimly-lit screen, with several bright red dots pulsating on it.
“Shortly after you hit that ambush, Borinka lit up like a Christmas tree,” he said. “At least three more Persons of Interest, too. I don’t think they were expecting to get hit so soon.”
“I wasn’t expecting the leash to get taken off the BCT that quick, either,” I replied. “Are you still tapped in? Are they finally on the hunt?”
He shook his head. “I am, and they’re not. The official line is that ‘other avenues are being pursued.’ They’ve been authorized to start patrolling their AO again, but the ROEs sound like they’re stricter than ever. And that appears to be at the behest of the EDC.”
I snorted in disgust. I remembered a time when the US was the top dog on the block, and sure as hell would never have kowtowed to the French and Germans. Of course, that had been when I was a kid. The fact that everybody was at each other’s throats back home had pretty much made that a thing of the past. Half the government would kowtow to Satan if it pissed off the other half.
Which was why the Triarii existed in the first place.
We weren’t a PMC. Not really. Some of the op-eds back home that called us a militia weren’t that far off. Colonel Santiago had started building the network that would become the Triarii in order to counteract some of the lawlessness that was becoming par for the course back home. As he started to understand just how bad things had gotten, the network’s purview grew. And grew. And now we were the paramilitary force that we were, starting to fill in the blanks outside the borders of the United States as well as inside.
Why “Triarii?” I know. I thought it sounded weird the first time, too. But the triarii were the third rank of the old Republican Roman Legion. The oldest, most experienced, and most ferocious fighters, who were the last-ditch rank, the last guys to get stuck in, when the hastati and the principes hadn’t done the trick.
Once I learned that, it made sense. We were the third rank. We were the last ditch.
Which was why we were in Slovakia. The Colonel had decided that it was a good test of our expeditionary capability, on top of which, he was pissed about the fact that an American soldier had been snatched off the streets of Bratislava and was being held hostage while the US peacekeepers in the country sat on their hands.
“Well, then,” I said, “We’re still on mission.” If the Army had indeed taken up the hunt, we were under orders to back off and observe. The Colonel didn’t want us potentially butting heads with the Army. For rather obvious reasons, revealing our presence by making contact wasn’t high on our list of “good ideas.”
While cell phone tracking had advanced a lot in recent years, it still wasn’t a precise science. We could pick up when a phone pinged off a tower, which gave us a location, and Scott knew how to set the drone to simulate a tower, allowing us to do some triangulation. But it was still going to give us only a general idea of that location, and that was assuming that we were tracking the right phones.
I took the tablet and studied the readout. There were definitely some phones on there from the target list that the intel cell had put together. Mostly Syrians. This was going to get interesting.
I checked my watch. We didn’t have a lot of time; as soon as the first shot had been fired, Specialist England’s life expectancy had taken a nose dive. But we wouldn’t do him a damned bit of good if we went in exhausted and started making mistakes. None of us had slept in almost thirty hours.
“Rest plan for three hours,” I said. It wasn’t going to be enough, but it was going to have to do. “Everybody down except for security on the doors.” It was a risk, but we needed the rest.
We’d plan and move in the wee hours of the morning. It was a tight planning cycle, but it was one we’d trained hard for.
It said something for the Triarii special operations—or Grex Luporum—training cycle that even a guy like me could become a team leader.
I was never a Recon Marine. Don’t get me wrong; I tried. Not just out of spite, either, not that my parents would have understood. Nor would it would have made anything worse than it already was. The screaming when I had announced that I was going to enlist in the first place…let’s just say that it’s a good thing I was a hundred miles away at the time. Mom couldn’t throw anything at me.
See, I didn’t come from a military family. I came from the opposite. Both my mom and dad were hard-left lawyers, and I was going to be a good little activist clone. Until I wound up with a roommate in college who was a Marine Sergeant bucking for a commission.
Bart didn’t put up with my bullshit, and challenged every assumption I made. Within three months, we were fast friends and I was already talking to the Marine recruiter.
I don’t think I’ve actually talked to my folks since then. In my more bitter moments, I think that that’s not necessarily a great loss.
My enlistment wasn’t anything to shout about. I did four years as an 0331, a regular grunt machinegunner. I tried to get to the Recon screening, or MARSOC Assessment and Selection, probably six times each. My command wouldn’t hear of it.
That was why it didn’t take much persuasion to get out after my four years were up. Just before I had to decide whether I was going to go on terminal leave or sign the reenlistment papers, Bill Vagley, who had gotten out six months before me, told me about the Triarii.
I’d known that I didn’t have the background or the qualifications for the Grex Luporum Teams. They were looking for guys with at least four years in a special operations unit.
But I’d been determined. The Triarii were my second chance, so when I got called out for applying for the Grex Luporum—Wolfpack—teams without the requisite experience, I doubled down. I swore up one side and down another that I’d do whatever I needed to; I’d catch up. Brian Hartrick, the chief cadre, had been skeptical, but let me try out, just for having the balls to do it in the first place.
The next six months had been the most grueling of my life. But I passed.
It hadn’t been an easy road from there to my own team. Hartrick was still my section leader, and if there was anybody who wasn’t going to give me an inch of slack, it was him. He’d made me pay for signing up for the teams in selection, and nothing had really changed afterward.
Now, it seemed that the team leader who’d gotten in through sheer brass was spearheading the Triarii’s first overseas op.
If I’d only known.
I woke up painfully as Scott shook me. An hour and a half of sleep is never enough, and when you’ve spent most of the previous thirty hours planning, preparing, hiking a very long way, and getting in a firefight, it’s even worse.
Stifling a groan, I sat up. “Everything’s quiet,” Scott whispered. “The cell pings haven’t moved. Hopefully that doesn’t mean they already killed him.”
“Only so much we can do,” I whispered back. “Get some shut-eye. I’m going to start planning.” He nodded in the darkness, lit only by the faint glow from the tablet’s screen, and lay down against the wall of the barn.
I took the tablet, wincing. Everything hurt. Not that I had expected to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed. That hadn’t ever been the case in the infantry, and it sure as hell hadn’t been in the GL teams.
Borinka wasn’t far from Marianka. It was smaller, little more than a one-street village nestled between wooded hills, overlooked by a ruined castle.
I glanced around the barn, double-checking that everybody who was supposed to be awake was, and then I hunkered down over the tablet and started to plan.
A little over two hours later, we were all awake and Alpha Element was getting ready to go back out. I’d given my quick brief, and everyone had had a chance to look over the terrain. The general mission profile was the same as it had been; we were just a little bit lighter on ammo and a lot shorter on sleep.
“As long as we can find the hostage this time and not get sidetracked trying to save everybody,” Jordan grumbled.
“Are you really sure you want to save the hostage so bad, Jordan?” Phil asked. “After all…”
“If you finish that sentence, I will cut your fucking throat, Twig,” Jordan snarled. “I’m not even playing.”
“Damn, Jordan, why you gotta be so sensitive?” Dwight drawled. “It’s a joke, man.”
“Racism ain’t no joke to me,” Jordan snapped. “I’ve had enough of Phil’s ‘jokes.’”
“Really?” Scott put in. “Fuck, it’s like fucking high school again. Grow up, both of you.”
“Motherfucker,” Jordan began, but I cut him off.
“Knock it off,” I hissed, exasperated. It wasn’t the first time Jordan had pulled this shit, but it needed to be the last. “Not the time, nor the place. Phil, quit poking the bear. Jordan, grow a fucking Rhino liner and shut the hell up.” I glared at him, though it was hard to see in the darkness of the barn. He returned my stare, though I could feel it more than see it, but finally relented.
“Fine,” he said. “As long as Twig shuts his fucking mouth.”
“Enough of this shit,” I snarled. “We’re in the field, on a mission. Fucking act like it.”
“Come on, guys,” Greg said, with his usual earnestness. “Game faces.”
“Shut up, Greg.” Greg was once of the nicest, most cheerful guys around, certainly in the teams, but the last thing I needed at the moment was for this to turn into a team meeting. He was right, but we needed to get moving and get to Borinka.
Scott was finishing packing his ruck. We weren’t going to leave anyone in the barn this time; he and the Bravo Element were relocating to a site near the ruined castle. The rear security element, consisting of Dave, Chris, and Reuben, were already joining us near the front door.
“Is Jordan getting his panties in a wad again?” Reuben asked.
“Leave it, Reuben,” Scott muttered. The last thing we needed was for Jordan to start feeling like he was being ganged up on. Reuben wouldn’t get overtly racist just to push buttons, like Phil would, but he’d made it abundantly clear during the entire workup that he figured getting bent out of shape over skin color was stupid.
Of course, Reuben hadn’t had his mom beaten to death by white supremacist thugs, but he still had a point.
I was just glad that Dave hadn’t stuck his oar in. Our resident shit-talking Mexican with Short Man Syndrome would just have poured gasoline on the flames.
“We’re moving out,” I told Scott. Not only would it put the simmering dispute to rest, at least for the time being, but we were short on time. It was going to be a long trek back toward Borinka, and we needed to take advantage of every moment of darkness.
I pointed at Phil, who nodded silently and slipped out through the barn door.
Escalation – Maelstrom Rising Book 1 is now available on Kindle and in Paperback on Amazon.