The fact that the Triarii trucks were running blacked out probably saved their lives.
Most of the stream of fire went high, bullets cracking over Bishop’s head, though a few smacked into the hood, front fender, and frame with earsplitting bangs. Two rounds punched through the windshield, spiderwebbing the glass.
A hammer blow hit Reisinger in the helmet. He almost lost control of the vehicle as his head was smacked partway around, throwing his NVGs off. “Fuck!”
The bellow was the only way Hank knew that his driver was still alive. He’d heard the impact and seen Reisinger’s head jerk under the blow, but unless they dealt with that belt-fed, they were all dead.
Bishop hadn’t waited, but immediately opened fire. The Mk 48 roared for a second, before Reisinger jerked the wheel as he got hit, throwing Bishop’s aim off. Shell casings rattled off the truck’s roof as it swerved hard to the right.
Hank reached out to grab the wheel, more afraid of a rollover than getting shot. But Reisinger was still holding onto the wheel, and rapidly getting control again, though he was still swerving toward the right-hand shoulder. He was clearly not happy. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!”
Reisinger braked hard, just as Bishop opened fire again. The second vehicle, a RAM 2500 with another gun mount in the back, pulled up next to them, as Hank piled out, scrambling into the lower ground and brush at the base of the cut.
He almost bit it as he ran down into the ditch, trying to stay as low as possible. Bishop and Coffee were both laying hate, their machineguns alternating bursts, the muzzle flashes flickering in the dark as they raked the enemy position with streams of fire. The incoming fire had slackened considerably.
Hank, along with most of the rest of his section, had his rifle suppressed. It had taken some still-illegal machine shop work, but after San Diego, he’d been determined to make it happen. He still didn’t have the materials or the know-how to replicate the fancy machinegun suppressors that the Grex Luporum Teams got, but just having the rifles suppressed helped. Especially if they were on NVGs and the bad guys weren’t.
With Bishop and Coffee up on the guns, the drivers couldn’t bail. They did, however, pop the doors just far enough open to brace their rifles and open fire.
As the bulk of the rest of the squad joined him in the brush, Hank looked for their ambushers, but the low ground, the brush, and the curve of the high ground to his right had put them out of sight.
He almost got up to move up the ditch, but he hadn’t survived as long as he had by going “hey-diddle-diddle, straight up the middle.”
Craning his head to look up through his 14s, he gritted his teeth. This was going to suck.
“Faris, stay here with Fernandez, Moffit, and Vega. The rest of you, on me.” Slinging his rifle on his back and cinching the sling down, he started to scramble up the steep slope of the cut.
The first part of the slope wasn’t bad. But it got steadily steeper toward the top, to the point that he was almost on his belly while still standing up. The loose dirt and rocks tried to slip and slide out from under his boots, and defied his efforts to crawl up with his gloved hands. The others were having almost as rough a time.
Every time he reached higher, the loose earth slipped a little more. He was panting and sweating already by the time he finally got a hand on the flats, and even then, he could feel himself slipping off. He lunged forward, scrabbling for something, anything, he could use to drag himself up off the slope.
His fingers grabbed a rock, and he clamped down on it, pulling himself up. The rock started to move, and he felt his left boot, lower down, start to slide again. He threw himself up and forward, almost managing to hook his knee over the lip of the clifftop. But while he missed, he’d gotten high enough that his chest rig hooked, momentarily holding him in place. He grunted, crawling forward even as the lip of dirt holding him up started to crumble under him.
He low crawled forward, slithering onto the desert floor on top of the tableland on his belly, before rolling onto his side and pulling his rifle around. The others were crawling up onto the flats behind him, LaForce already getting up on a knee.
Hank followed suit, though he stayed as low as he could, raising himself up just high enough to see over the sagebrush and creosote bushes. A small cluster of buildings lay just ahead, a house, barn, and outbuildings. If he was remembering right, that would be the Barrios place.
As the rest of his maneuver element joined him, he started moving forward, staying low, his rifle at the low ready. He hadn’t seen any silhouettes, and the Barrios place was quiet, dark, and still, but it didn’t pay to take chances when you’re on open, flat ground without any appreciable cover for over a hundred yards.
The Triarii spread out, angling toward the Barrios place to form an echelon facing the low ground where the ambushers’ belt fed had been set up. The gunfire below had died down; the bad guys must have fallen back in the teeth of the withering fire Bishop and Coffee had laid down. Hank was still inclined to sweep through the ambush from the flank rather than try to drop back and push through the killzone.
Another gunshot rang out, answered immediately by a pair of nearly-simultaneous ten-round bursts. The echoes rolled across the desert as the Triarii descended the slight rise from the Barrios place toward the next cliff, around the corner from the killzone.
They got lower as they moved forward, until they were crawling the last few yards to the edge of the cliff that bordered the finger they’d climbed. Hank could already see part of the shallow arroyo to the right of the road, where the enemy was hustling away under cover, bent low to avoid the gunners’ notice.
If they had really been fleeing, he might have let them go. But they weren’t.
Whoever had set this up had known what they were about. It was a long way to see on the old PVS-14s, but he could just make out the backup positions they’d dug in another couple hundred yards down the road. The initial ambush had only been the first step.
Getting flat, he angled his M5, finding the offset red dot in his NVGs. It was a hell of a long shot for a red dot, but as long as he could see the targets—and he had the dot dialed way down for just this purpose; it wouldn’t eclipse their silhouettes in its bloom—he had a chance to hit them.
Bracing his elbow to steady the rifle, he let out a breath, his finger tightening on the trigger, the break coming just as his lungs emptied and stayed that way for a split second.
The shot cracked out across the desert, followed shortly by another three as fast as he could re-stabilize the sight. He had a MAWL laser mounted on the rifle’s forearm, but it was getting to the point that he couldn’t be sure the bad guys didn’t have night vision, in which case that laser would just point right back at his position.
To his right and left, a ragged fusillade tore out across the desert, the suppressors deadening what would have been the echoing booms to a ripping series of harsh cracks. Several of the dim figures in the distance dropped.
“One-Two, Actual, move up.” He had to take his hand off the rifle, momentarily silencing his own fire, so he could key the radio. “Bad guys are moving to fallback positions about two hundred yards further up the road.”
“Roger.” He couldn’t hear over the suppressed gunfire, but a moment later, he could see the two gun trucks rolling forward on the highway, Bishop and Coffee still leaning into their guns, searching for targets.
Bishop opened fire first, spotting movement. His Mk 48 roared in the night, hammering the lip of the arroyo. Though the bad guys were small, dark, indistinct shapes in the dim, green-tinted image in front of Hank’s eye, he could see two more drop. The rest were hunkering down.
He scrambled up onto his feet. “Flank right.” The rest of his element ceased fire and started to follow suit, as he headed around the top of the high ground, following the contours of the tableland, falling back to put most of the slight rise at the crest between him and the bad guys. He shuffled his feet slightly as he went; it was too late and too cold for rattlesnakes, but he really didn’t want to get stung by a scorpion in the dark in the middle of a firefight.
The rest of the element fell in behind him, in more or less a ranger file. He kept looking over his shoulder at the Barrios place, just in case. It would be too easy to get overly focused on the bad guys down in the arroyo and lose track of their surroundings. It didn’t appear that the enemy had any flankers out, but they’d planned ahead enough to have an ambush waiting for the convoy after they’d hit the squad at Terlingua.
These guys ain’t amateurs. They’re dangerous.
He could still hear alternating bursts of gunfire. With the initial contact shock over, both Bishop and Coffee had gotten a lot more cautious; their bursts were shorter and farther apart. They were only shooting when they had targets, keeping the bad guys pinned in their holes.
They only had so much ammo in Lajitas, and resupply could only be expected about once a month.
He kept his pace up as he moved, careful to maintain awareness of both the enemy’s position and the gun trucks’. Combat maneuver often boiled down to a game of angles, and he didn’t want to over-penetrate and put his squad into a position where they were aiming at each other.
It didn’t take long. He found a draw leading down, partially sheltered from the enemy’s fallback position, and turned down it, getting lower as he went, weaving between the clumps of brush and prickly pear. He still couldn’t entirely avoid them in the dark; he winced as a spine went into his calf as he brushed past what he’d thought was sagebrush, but that clearly included some cactus.
Another burst of gunfire hammered out ahead, answered by the throaty roar of one of the 7.62 machineguns. The bad guys were still kicking, and from the sounds of it, they weren’t happy that the tables had been turned so fast.
Shouldn’t have fucked with Triarii, assholes.
As he reached the bottom of the draw, instead of making the rest of the men behind him fan out, he turned right and started to move along the base of the slope behind him. LaForce followed, the rest of the maneuver element getting online without having to do anything but follow the man ahead.
About fifty yards from the arroyo, Hank turned left and started to advance.
He lowered himself to his belly after a couple paces and started to crawl. He wanted to finish this quickly, and that meant getting close.
It took a couple of minutes to close the distance. Just short of the arroyo itself, he paused, reached down, and keyed his mike four times. Shift fire.
Bishop and Coffee both opened up on the arroyo for a pair of long bursts, then ceased fire. And that was when Hank and the maneuver element struck.
Gathering his feet under him, Hank heaved himself up onto a knee, his rifle already in his shoulder and canted, his eye finding the red dot through his 14s, looking for targets.
Four men in jeans, t-shirts, and plate carriers were still hunkered in the arroyo, arguing in Spanish. Two more lay sprawled in the bottom, unmoving. Several wires led down from what had to have been IEDs emplaced on the road, and what looked very much like a Milkor grenade launcher lay in the dirt next to one of them.
Hank put his red dot on the man farthest to the right and shot him twice, once center mass, the second time in the head. He must have been wearing plates; the first round slammed him into the dust with a gasp, before the second smacked the ball cap off his head and spattered dark fluid against the dirt and rocks underneath him.
By the time he dragged his muzzle toward the next man, it had all been finished in a crackling storm of suppressed gunfire. The enemy hadn’t even gotten a shot off.
The echoes died away, and Hank scanned the arroyo. A couple of the bad guys were still twitching, one still gasping out what was left of his life. From the sounds he was making, though, he didn’t have long.
“One-Two, this is Actual.” He was scrambling down into the arroyo, keeping a very careful eye on the bodies, just in case. “We’ve got probable IEDs emplaced on the road. Go ahead and fall back about five hundred; we’re going to clear them out the old-fashioned way.”
“Roger that. We’ll be on the other side of the high ground.” Faris had been one of Hank’s problem children when he’d been a squad leader; he’d been generally lazy, conceited, and far too quick to take failures out on his subordinates. Strangely, after San Diego, he’d been a lot more reliable, and hadn’t even bitched too much about being taken off the squad leader slot.
At least, not when Hank had been within earshot.
Hank crouched down in the arroyo as the rest of the maneuver element took up security positions. Two belt-feds lay atop three ammo crates, and four sets of wires led down to what looked like homemade clackers, rather than the cell phones that he’d half expected. Granted, cell service down by the border was spotty, at best, since the attacks on the grid, so the clackers were probably more reliable.
“One-Two, make sure you’re carefully checking your surroundings before you stop.” He gathered up the clackers, peering down the road. “We don’t know how many IEDs they might have buried and daisy-chained.” He thought a moment before Faris answered, then turned to LaForce. “Etienne, take Taylor and Evans and sweep this side of the road back to where that first belt-fed opened up. Just in case.”
“Roger that,” both men echoed at almost the same time, LaForce in person, Faris over the radio. LaForce and the two men mentioned got up and started to carefully move down the arroyo, toward where the high ground met the side of the road. Hank waited, listening and watching the desert. The gunfire off to the north seemed to have died down; a few pot-shots still rang out, but they might just be militia shooting at shadows. The attack seemed to have pulled off.
He wondered at that. Was all of this set up just to try to draw one squad into an ambush?
If so, he suspected that they’d need to get back to Lajitas posthaste. Nobody would set up this elaborate a feint if they didn’t have some kind of follow-up in mind.
“Actual, One-One. We’re clear. Give us a minute to get some cover.” LaForce clearly wasn’t eager to be anywhere near the road.
Before Hank could reply, his radio crackled with a different voice. “Tango India Six Four, this is Mike Actual!” Grant’s voice was distorted, with a lot of rasping background noise, but none of that could disguise the gunfire in the background. “We’re under attack! We need you back here now!”
Dammit. I fucking knew it. “This is Actual. Everybody get flat, now. Going loud in five seconds.” He gathered up the clackers and took his own advice, hugging the inside of the arroyo wall before he started mashing the clackers shut.
The night erupted with a series of catastrophic booms, lighting up the desert with brilliant flashes before the clouds of dirt and smoke rained debris down on the road. The concussions were painful even from behind cover.
“One-Two, Actual. Get up here.” He stood up as the last of the pulverized rocks pattered down out of the night sky. “And pick One-One up on the way. We don’t have any time to fuck around.”
Fortress Doctrine is out on Friday.