Staff Sergeant Elias Martinez had just checked the quick release affixed to the bow of the partially-deflated Zodiac for the third time when something made him look up.
There was a towering figure standing at the base of the CH-53’s ramp. Martinez instinctively straightened, then yelled for the rest of his team. There might be plenty of big Marines aboard the USS Boxer, but there was no mistaking the silhouette of the MEU Commander. Colonel John Brannigan cut an altogether different figure. There was something about the way he carried himself that set him apart and made him immediately recognizable.
What was surprising was the fact that the Colonel, with the squat form of Sergeant Major Santelli beside him, was in full kit. Helmet, NVGs, plate carrier, mags, radio, blowout kit, rifle, the works. He looked like he was ready to climb right on the bird and insert alongside Martinez’ Force Recon Team. Which was unheard of, and something that Martinez suddenly found he more than vaguely dreaded. No team leader wants an officer looking over his shoulder on an op, let alone the Colonel.
“Bring it in a minute, gents!” Brannigan boomed, managing to make himself heard over the racket of the Boxer’s flight deck. The team clambered over the soft-ducked Zodiac and the rest of their gear until they were gathered in a tight semi-circle around Brannigan and Santelli. They were a group of dark specters in the dimness of the flight deck, yards away from the superstructure’s lights, already kitted up and cammie-painted for the upcoming op.
“I wanted to meet up with all of the teams before you stepped off,” Brannigan shouted. “You boys are going to be the envy of the entire Marine Corps, you know that? You’ll be the only infantry Marines in the Fleet with an armored vehicle kill to your names, probably for years to come!” He reached out and shook each man’s hand. “I just wanted to stress one more time that we’re all counting on you. Yeah, me included. My ass is going to be on the lead bird going into the target village, so if you gunfighters don’t take those Shilkas out, I’ll be one of the first ones getting burned down. So go get your kill on! Good hunting, gents!” He shook Martinez’ hand last, looking the Staff NCO in the eye as he did so, nodded once, and then turned and motioned to Santelli, jogging toward the next ’53 aft, where Team Two should be loaded up and ready to go.
“Let’s go!” Martinez yelled. “Wheels up in,” he checked his watch, “three minutes!”
As the team clambered back on the helo, Sergeant Frank Able, Martinez’ Assistant Team Leader, leaned in to shout in his ear. “Did you see the Colonel’s rifle?”
“Yeah,” Martinez replied. Brannigan had been carrying an ancient, battered M4, with a lot of the bluing worn off. It stood out in a unit that had already mostly transitioned to the newer M27s. “That’s the way the Old Man rolls. The word going around the Lance Corporal Underground says that he threatened to throw any officer overboard if he caught them with an M27 before all of the shooters had ‘em.”
“Damn,” was all that Able said, before he scrambled up and over to get into the CH-53. He did a quick head count, then gave Martinez the thumbs up. Martinez passed the same signal to the crew chief, and a moment later the big helo was surging up off the deck and into the East African night.
Brannigan watched the three CH-53s, each carrying a Zodiac and a Force Recon team, dwindle into the night, and checked his watch. All on schedule, so far. He pressed his mouth into a thin line. “I never should have gone to the dark side, Carlo,” he said to his short, stout Sergeant Major, who was standing at his side, just outside the Boxer’s superstructure.
“Hell, sir,” the other man replied, his thick Boston accent noticeable even when he had to raise his voice to be heard over the racket of the flight deck’s operations, “if you’d stayed on the enlisted side, you’d be right where I am right now, probably working for some stick-in-the-mud careerist who wouldn’t even have stepped out of the COC to see the teams off.”
“Colonel Brannigan?” a familiar voice called from the hatch. Brannigan grimaced as he turned around.
“What is it, Colonel?” he asked.
“Sir, are you really going through with this?” Lieutenant Colonel Eikenberry asked. “Shouldn’t you be in the COC to coordinate?”
“No, I should not,” Brannigan replied. “And that’s the last I want to hear on the matter, is that clear?”
Eikenberry stiffened. Brannigan supposed he shouldn’t blame the man. He’d been brought up in a command climate that had stressed “management” over “leadership.” Brannigan had been determined to buck that trend ever since he’d “gone to the dark side” and gotten a commission. It was a minor miracle, not to mention the fruit of some serious cunning and careful ass-covering of his own, that he’d managed to get pinned as a Colonel at all, with his attitude. But he had, and he’d be damned if he let somebody like Eikenberry make him change his ways.
“Is that all, Colonel?” he asked.
Eikenberry looked like he had a lot more to say, but he apparently thought better of it, especially with both Brannigan and Santelli staring at him, and more of the Marines and sailors nearby beginning to take notice. This wasn’t the place for such a confrontation, and Eikenberry, as much of a stuffed shirt as he might have been, was enough of a professional to know it.
He also probably suspected that if he overstepped his bounds, Brannigan was not above laying him out. There were stories.
“Yes, sir, that’s all,” Eikenberry said.
“Good,” was all Brannigan said, as he turned back to where the deck crews were beginning to get the Ospreys into place for the next phase.
The crew chief looked back at Martinez and held up a hand, fingers spread. Martinez nodded, then turned to the rest of the team and mimicked the gesture, yelling, “Five minutes!” He could barely hear himself over the scream of the helicopter’s engines, and he knew that most of the team couldn’t hear him, either. But they could see the signal, and they returned it, as one. It had been a long flight, but it didn’t look like anybody had nodded off. They were too keyed up. This was everything Colonel Brannigan had said it would be.
The briefing had been succinct. The Gama’a al-Mujahidin had taken twenty of the International Medical Aid Society’s doctors and aid workers hostage, and were presently holding them in a village ten kilometers south of the coast. The local government wasn’t lifting a finger, in large part, it was suspected, because they were in bed with the radicals. Which was also why they had their air defenses placed along the coast and active, though they claimed it was to defend their nearby Army base. The fact that the ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns just so happened to be sited directly between the MEU and the hostages—and several dozen miles away from that same Army base—was not lost on anyone.
The Force Recon Platoon had gotten the fun job. They got to sneak in and take out the air defenses ahead of the main assault force that would be going in after the hostages.
With the five-minute warning having been passed, the Marines stood up and started getting ready. Everything securing the Zodiac except for the quick release at the bow was removed. Fins went on wrists. Everything was quickly double-checked; nobody wanted to be “that guy,” and lose any of his kit in the ocean.
The crew chief held up two fingers. They were almost there; two minutes to the drop point. Able took his spot on the ramp, to act as cast-master.
Then they were down to thirty seconds.
The bird swooped in low, flaring and coming to a hover. The pilot was good; Martinez had done this with some who weren’t that great. This one held the helo almost precisely rock-solid at ten feet above the water, slowly creeping forward at ten knots.
Martinez yanked the quick release. With the Marines helping it along, the Zodiac slid down the ramp and into the midnight-black water. Immediately, Able started waving the rest of the six-man team out after it.
Martinez and Able went out together, each jumping off at an angle to either side of the ramp, throwing their hands and their swim fins over their heads as they went. The warm salt water briefly closed over Martinez’ head as he hit, then he was up, dragging his fins on, and kicking hard for the boat. Behind him, the CH-53 was pulling for altitude, banking away to avoid getting too close to the coast and the deadly 23mms waiting in the dark.
It was quick work to get all six Marines on the Zodiac, inflate the boat the rest of the way, mount the engine, and get it started. Then, carefully checking the compass, Martinez took the tiller and started them in. They had four klicks to go, and they had a deadline to hit.
Half an hour later, the coast was a dark line on the horizon in his NVGs, and he was cold. Despite the warm night, the sea breeze against his wet cammies was sapping the heat from his body. Martinez was quietly thankful that they’d be making landfall soon, so he could start moving around. Being wet and cold sucks, even in the tropics.
He slowed the boat as they got nearer, scanning carefully for any sign of the enemy on the shore. They were still too far out to see anything but the slightly blacker outline of the land, though. “Bailey, Moen, go!” he hissed.
The two junior men on the team rolled backward into the water without a word, and were soon lost in the gloom as they kicked out for shore. Two scout swimmers could get ashore and look around a lot more easily and stealthily than a Zodiac could. They’d go ashore, make sure it was clear, then signal to bring the boat in.
They were on too tight a time schedule for the two Marines to swim back out to the boat. The raid force would be inbound in another two hours.
The wait still seemed to take forever. The boat drifted and bobbed on the waves, as the Recon Marines silently stared toward the dark line of the beach. Both Bailey and Moen were strong swimmers, but it still takes time to cover five hundred meters, let alone get through the surf zone.
There. An IR flash blinked three times on the shore. Either the swimmers or the boat had drifted a little, but they were close enough. Martinez cranked the throttle on the Zodiac’s engine, and started the boat puttering in toward the shore.
The beach was smooth sand, and it was quick work to get the boat pulled up and into the grass just beyond the high-tide line. Bailey and Moen were both in the prone in the grass, holding security.
Martinez looked around. There wasn’t a lot of brush, even after they got off the beach. There were a few acacia trees, but their utility for concealment on the beach was minimal. And there wasn’t time to bury the boat. “We’ll have to pull it up into the grass and cover it up as best we can,” he whispered. “Pull up some of the clumps of grass farther away.”
He knew he really didn’t have to say that. He knew his team well from the two years they’d been in the schools and workup phases. Dozens of training patrols and inserts meant that they knew what to do like it was second nature. Plus, even the junior guys had a couple of Battalion deployments under their belts, even though those had been Marine Expeditionary Unit floats not unlike this one—a few training ops, liberty ports, and lots of boredom at sea.
They took as long as they dared to get the boat as concealed as possible, especially while maintaining security. If the locals were patrolling the coast, things could get ugly before they even got close to their target Shilka. But there was no sign of any movement near the beach, though they did see headlights go past on the Coast Road a couple of times.
“Good enough,” Martinez finally decided. He pointed to Bailey. “Lead out.”
Bailey had taken a few moments to get his bearings, and he nodded and started moving. Spreading out, the rest of the team fell into formation behind him, NVGs mounted on bump helmets and suppressed M27s ready. Martinez and Sheldon each carried one of the AT-4s that they had brought along, zipped into waterproof bags to keep the salt water out. Both anti-tank weapons were presently out of the bags and slung across their backs.
In planning, Martinez had deliberately set their landing site about halfway between two of the Shilka positions, in order to, hopefully, minimize their chance of detection. After assessing their position, he was pretty sure that they had ended up a couple hundred meters closer to their target than he’d planned. He didn’t bother to get angry about it, though he knew more than one team leader who would. Tides, currents, and an unfamiliar beach would have their effects, and it was a waste of mental energy to concentrate on anything besides taking that AA position out and exfilling out to sea again.
Movement should have been relatively easy; the terrain was about as flat as it could get. The devil, as always, was in the details; the ground was mostly soft sand, which made for treacherous and difficult footing, especially in combat gear. It took every ounce of self-discipline not to just start slogging away, head down and teeth gritted, after the first half-klick.
Twice Bailey had to throw up a hand to call a halt, the entire team sinking to the ground as another car passed on the Coast Road. There was a lot of traffic on the road for East Africa in the middle of the night, but there was nothing to be done about it at that point but do what they had to do to stay out of the headlights.
They had gone about a kilometer when Bailey raised his hand again, sinking to a knee in the sand. Martinez moved up next to him.
The younger Marine pointed. Martinez followed the line of his arm, and just made out a building, about two hundred meters ahead. The moon was down, so even through NVGs, there wasn’t a lot of detail readily visible, but it looked like a simple, square, cinder-block structure with a flat roof. Pretty standard for that part of the world, which meant it could be somebody’s storage shed, or it could be somebody’s house. There was no way to tell.
Martinez pointed down toward the beach. They had to give the building a wide berth. They couldn’t afford to risk detection, not at that point in the game. Bailey nodded and led off again.
There was a bit of a drop-off at the upper limit of the beach, where the high tide had worn away the sandy ground. It was enough to provide them with some concealment, so Bailey stuck to it, at least as far as it went. Each step was still getting painful, as they had to shuffle through the sand with the weight of their gear and weapons trying to push them down as they went, but they made decent time anyway.
Finally, Bailey stopped and sank to a knee again. He didn’t have to point. Martinez had seen the distinctive silhouette ahead at the same time he had.
The ZSU-23-4 is a squat, tracked monster, with a wide, boxy turret and four bell-mouthed 23mm, radar-guided cannons clustered together in front. It can be hell on vehicles and personnel as well as aircraft. And this one was sitting on a jetty, sticking a hundred yards out into the ocean, its cannons angled up and out to sea, its radar dish elevated and scanning.
The vehicle’s position was a problem; their AT-4s had a limited range, and they were going to have to get pretty close to that jetty to fire accurately. And there was a good chance that the Shilka’s crew was not alone. From where they knelt, Martinez couldn’t see anything besides the hulk of the self-propelled AA gun itself, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t local soldiers hunkered down somewhere close by, providing security.
He looked back and gave the signal to rally up. In moments, the team was in a tight circle, weapons and eyes trained outward.
“We’re going to have to get close,” he whispered. “Best bet right now is to crawl. It’s gonna suck, but if we can get within a hundred yards of that jetty, we can hit the Shilka at the same time we take out any outer security they’ve got set up.” The time crunch was starting to chafe; he wanted more time to recon the objective. But the Colonel had made a good point in the initial briefing; they only had so many hours of darkness, and the whole thing had to happen quickly. It was audacious and risky, but Brannigan had decided that the risk of compromise was too high to insert the teams early, just to hunker down for a day before hitting the Shilkas. And now that he was looking at the mostly-barren terrain of the coastline, Martinez had to admit that he’d had a point. Hiding places would be few and far between.
The word was that the Colonel wasn’t just a mustang, but had been a Recon Marine in his enlisted days. Which suggested that he knew what he was talking about. Martinez, like most enlisted Marines, was inclined to think that that had been a long time ago, but at the same time, if Brannigan was going to be on the lead bird, he wasn’t like most officers, including most mustangs. The point that the Colonel’s ass was going to be on the line along with the rest of them went a long way with the team leader.
Spreading out on-line, the team started to creep forward. Not everyone on the team had made it to the Scout/Sniper Basic Course, but Martinez and Able were both HOGs, and had made sure that their team knew how to stalk. They didn’t have recon rucks on for this mission, so that made it easier, and there were spots where there was enough bunchgrass in the sand that they could high crawl on their hands and knees, but crawling for distance is just miserable, no matter how you cut it. With sand working its way into every crevice, fold, and orifice, it becomes even worse. If they hadn’t been sugar cookies before, they certainly were by then. Keeping the grit out of their weapons was getting to be next to impossible.
The closer they got, the more Martinez tensed up, and he knew that Able and Simmons, at least, were doing the same. There had to be security out. The bad guys hadn’t just parked that Shilka on the jetty and left. They had to run into something, sooner or later.
But as they closed in, passing about a dozen boats pulled up on the beach, they still didn’t see anything. No lights, not even any cigarette glows, which would gleam like stars in their NVGs in the dark.
Martinez turned, to see Bailey motioning to get his attention. The point man saw that he had succeeded, and pointed toward the end of the jetty. Martinez had to raise himself up, slowly and carefully, to peer over the dune in front of him and its crown of bunchgrass.
There was a two-and-a-half-ton truck parked on the end of the jetty, about seventy-five meters from the Shilka. So, there was security in place. Or some semblance of it. There was no movement around the truck, and no sign that anyone was up on sentry duty.
Martinez crouched back down and circled his hand over his head. Rally up. Bailey and Simmons passed the word, and soon the team was back in a small, tight knot, barely concealed by the sand dunes.
“Sheldon and I will move up to take the Shilka,” he murmured, subvocalizing into first Bailey’s, then Simmons’ ears. He didn’t want to take any chances of being overheard.
In a way, as much as it sucked, this was more exhilarating than any other op he’d ever been on, and he’d been to Afghanistan, just before the drawdown. They were doing Recon shit. The kind of Recon shit that they had listened to stories about, stuff the old Vietnam guys had done. They were alone and unafraid in enemy territory, about to wreck house. It didn’t get any better than this.
Still, Martinez was a pro, and a combat vet. He knew all too well how easily this could go pear-shaped. He wasn’t taking it lightly.
“Simmons, you and Able have the truck. If anybody starts jumping out of it with a weapon, waste everybody.” He got acknowledgements and finished up with, “Bailey, Moen, you guys have rear security. Make sure nobody sneaks up on us and shoots us in the back. And Moen, get that radio up and get ready to send the brevity back to the Boxer. The Old Man wants to know just as soon as this Shilka’s down.”
It took a few more seconds to establish the rest of the contingency plan, including their fallback rally point in case they had to break contact and run. Then it was go time. Martinez briefly checked his watch, careful to shield the green glow with his hand. It was 0147. The raid force’s go time was 0230.
Then he was up and moving, crouched behind the beached boats, his eyes on the ominous silhouette of the ZSU-23-4 up on the jetty. Sheldon was right behind him.
The boats would have provided good concealment, a good place to take the shot, but they were still too far away. There was a chance they could hit their target as far out as five hundred meters, but it was too risky. The AT-4 wasn’t that accurate. Martinez wanted a hard kill. Fortunately, Simmons and Able were working their way through the darkened beach shanties, about fifty yards inland from them, in a good position to provide covering fire if they got spotted. Because they were going to have to go down onto the beach, where they would stand out like bugs on a plate, sugar cookie treatment or no.
The closer they got, the more Martinez felt the urgency to just get set and take the shot. If somebody stuck his head out of that Shilka’s hatch and spotted them before they were in AT-4 range, they’d be pink mist. A 23mm wouldn’t leave much in the way of remains.
Finally, there were no more boats or dunes to hide behind. Getting up and slinging his M27, Martinez pulled the AT-4 off his back, prepped it, came to his feet, and sprinted out onto the sand.
The sand shifted and dragged at his boots, slowing his dash. His rifle swung and beat against his legs. He heard a shout from the truck, immediately cut off by the muted, but still harsh snaps of Simmons’ and Able’s suppressed M27s. Then he was in range. He didn’t dare try to close any farther. He dropped to a knee in a shower of damp sand, brought the AT-4 to his shoulder, cocked it, took the safety off, and triggered the PEQ-16 mounted on the forward rail.
The AT-4’s iron sights were going to be next to useless in the dark, so they had fitted the 84mm recoilless weapons with the lasers, though Martinez wasn’t too sure of the process to zero them. After all, it wasn’t like you could fire the AT-4 to check the zero. It was a one-use weapon.
The IR laser painted a faint beam through the humid coastal air, but splashed a brilliant spot in his NVGs on the Shilka’s flank. He waited a second, until Sheldon’s dot joined it. Then he mashed the firing button.
The projectile roared out with a flash and slammed into the Shilka’s hull, just above the tracks. Sheldon’s rocket hit the turret ring, so close to Martinez’ shot that they made one tremendous thunderclap as they hit. The two impacts formed a single, blinding flash.
The turret didn’t go flying, somewhat to Martinez’ disappointment. But in a few moments, thick black smoke began to belch out of the vehicle, above a sullen orange glow of flame that shone brilliantly in the dark. The Shilka was dead.
There was a sudden rattle of AK fire from behind them, quickly silenced. His ears rocked by the AT-4s, Martinez couldn’t quite make out Simmons’ and Able’s suppressed gunshots in reply, but as he slung the tube and brought his own rifle to bear, he saw a gomer with an AK fall out of the cab of the truck up on the jetty. Another one was crouched around the far side of the cab, out of the other two Recon Marines’ line of fire, but as he started to come around to spray rounds at where he’d seen the titanic flashes of the rocket fire, Sheldon spotted him and double-tapped him.
The man fell, but then started to get up. He still had one hand on his AK’s grip, and blasted a long, wild burst out at the beach. Martinez and Sheldon dropped flat as the bullets snapped overhead, and Martinez put four fast shots in the man’s general direction. When the AK fire stopped, he heaved himself up to a knee and fired four more times, until he was sure the enemy soldier wasn’t going to be moving again.
“Break off,” he snapped. “Back to the rally point.” Their job was done; they needed to get the hell out of Dodge, and get word back to the Boxer.
“Sir? We just got a message from Team One. ‘Macallan.’” Corporal Jamie Lewis stopped and listened. It had to be rough, trying to hear the radio over the noise of the Osprey’s idling props. “Wait,” he said. “There’s Team Three. ‘Buffalo Trace.’”
Brannigan resisted the urge to grin. Leave it to Marines to make all of their brevity codes the names of either alcohol, sports teams, or porn stars. “Any word from Team Two?”
“No, sir,” Lewis replied, the handset pressed against his ear. “Still nothing.”
Brannigan nodded, and thought for a moment. Staff Sergeant Holmes would do the job if he could. But the enemy was also undoubtedly alerted now, with two of the Shilkas having gone up in smoke. “Screw it,” he decided. He reached forward, tapped the pilot on the shoulder, and gave him a thumbs-up. Then he keyed his own radio, which was on the Battalion Tac channel.
“All Kodiak units, this is Kodiak Six,” he called. “Crazy Horse. I say again, Crazy Horse.” The odds of anyone listening in on a SINCGARS channel, out in the middle of the Red Sea, were minimal, but Brannigan hadn’t gotten to where he was by being sloppy. He’d use the brevity codes as they’d planned. They used less time, anyway. In planning, he’d set codes for each contingency; “Crazy Horse” meant that the two outer AA sites had been neutralized, and the center one was either still active or unknown. The pilots knew the course to fly in that case.
Seconds later, the Osprey pilot was pulling up and away from the Boxer, the LHA’s lights dwindling behind and below them in the early morning darkness on the sea. The rotors took a moment to transition from vertical to forward flight, and then they were howling across the water, heading toward the dark line of the coast ahead.
The ten Ospreys formed up in a flying wedge, heading for the coast. They weren’t moving as fast as they could have; the Osprey’s cruising speed is around 240 knots, and the raid force was holding to about 160. That was so that they didn’t outrun the six AH-1Z Vipers that were going to provide the bulk of their air support. The Ospreys had GAU-17 miniguns slung underneath them, but Brannigan wanted the heavier rockets and 20mm cannons the Vipers could provide.
It still only took moments before they were “feet dry” over the shore, roaring over the Coast Road. Brannigan looked out one of the side portholes and saw the blazing pyre on the shoreline that only minutes before had been a ZSU-23-4. “Good job, boys,” he muttered, too quietly for any of the Marines around him to hear over the racket of the Osprey’s engines.
The crew chief got his attention. “Five minutes!” he yelled in the Colonel’s ear. Brannigan nodded, turning back toward the rear of the aircraft.
“Five minutes!” he bellowed, holding up one gloved hand, his fingers spread. He started working his way back toward the ramp.
“One minute!” The ramp started to lower. In his NVGs, he could see the dark dots of the acacia trees flying by underneath them, seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. They were coming in low and fast, just as he’d asked the pilots. The Ospreys were beginning to slow, and the Vipers darted ahead. Faint flashes lit up the desert as the attack helicopters made their first runs on the targets picked out as probable defensive positions the day before.
“Thirty seconds!” The first tin-roofed cinder-block houses were beginning to flash past beneath them, now less than fifty feet under the Osprey’s belly. Out over the ramp, Brannigan could see the dark, ominous shapes of Dash Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten spreading out, moving to the cordon positions around the village.
Then they were on target.
The target compound consisted of little more than a long, two-story, cinder-block building set inside a six-foot outer stone wall. Three of the ten Ospreys swooped in on the compound; Brannigan’s bird headed to the roof, while the other two hovered over the courtyard, throwing fast-ropes off their ramps.
Brannigan, true to his word, was the first man off. The Osprey had not actually set down on the roof, so he had a three-foot drop, but he landed smoothly, without embarrassing himself by sprawling on the roof, bending his knees to cushion the impact. All the gear made him top-heavy, but he’d concentrated. It wouldn’t do for the boys to see the Old Man do a face-plant right off the bird. Brannigan stepped out of the way of the ramp, bringing his M4 up.
Just as he did, the GaM react force apparently decided that that was a good time to run to the roof to try to repel the attackers.
Half a dozen men in white cotton trousers and sleeveless shirts, equipped with an assortment of old, ratty AK chest rigs alongside a few newer setups, carrying an equally rag-tag collection of G3s, AKs, and an RPG, ran onto the flat roof, coming out of the single door that led below.
Brannigan didn’t hesitate, but snapped his rifle up, put the IR laser on the first man’s chest, and squeezed the trigger. The AK-wielding terrorist, who was gawking at the massive tilt-rotor hovering just overhead, its twin propellers limned with static discharge in the dust, took the first round standing up. He was apparently too surprised to even realize he’d been shot.
Brannigan’s next five rounds, which walked up the man’s chest and into his skull in the space of less than a second, laid him out. His rifle’s suppressor hid the muzzle flash, and reduced the reports to muted pops, all but completely drowned out by the Osprey’s roar.
Brannigan pressed forward, leaning into his rifle, swiftly transitioning to the man with the RPG, knowing the threat that he posed to the bird and every Marine in the two companies on the raid. Another series of four fast shots smashed the man off his feet, the last one going through his eyeball from about ten feet.
By then, the first infantry Marines off the bird behind Colonel Brannigan had cut down the others in a crackling storm of fire.
With Santelli, being the last man, having just jumped off the bird, the pilot pulled pitch and headed for a holding pattern above. Brannigan waved briefly, then got to work.
Though there wasn’t much for him to do, not at that point. The village wasn’t appreciably different from the models they’d built based on the overhead imagery, and the companies, platoons, and squads all had their jobs to do. As Brannigan stepped out of the way, two squads from First Platoon, Charlie Company, flowed through the door, stepping over the bodies along the way. At least one corpse got an insurance round to the head as the Marines went past.
With the other squad spreading out on the roof, including the four machine gunners from Weapons Company, Brannigan moved to join Santelli and Lewis near the center of the roof. Now came the hard part. He had to hold what he had and coordinate the rest of the raid, as much as it needed to be coordinated.
Not for the first time, he regretted not being down below, in the stack, especially as the booms of flashbangs rattled the building, followed by the rapid snaps of suppressed M27s, and the muffled shouts of, “Clear!” But that wasn’t his job anymore, as much as it pained him. It hadn’t been for a long time. So he concentrated on doing his job, standing up to get a better view of the overall situation, ready to drop flat if a sniper took a shot at him.
The village was in chaos. Several fires were burning from the Viper strikes, and there was shouting and weapons fire coming from all directions. In the distance, the Ospreys circled, mostly above the still-prowling Vipers. The attack helos were still staying low, searching for something, anything, to shoot.
Marine Viper pilots are almost as aggressive as the infantrymen.
A sudden storm of unsuppressed fire roared out from the southeast edge of town. It sounded like rifles and at least one machinegun. A Viper immediately buzzed over, but hung back until somebody down below called it in. A moment later, the hammering of the helo’s 20mm silenced the machinegun, though sporadic rifle fire continued for nearly a minute before being drowned by a ripping, crackling snarl of suppressed Marine rifle fire.
“Kodiak Six, this is Kokanee Two-Five,” the familiar voice of Staff Sergeant Claude Desmond came over the radio.
“Send it, Kokanee Two-Five,” Brannigan replied immediately.
“Six, we’ve just cleared out a pocket of resistance in a house on the southern edge of the village,” Desmond reported. “Be advised, they were all wearing National Army uniforms, and carrying what looks like issued weapons. And they had a radio.”
“Do you know if they got a message off?” Brannigan asked, and wanted to kick himself as soon as the words left his mouth. Of course they got a damned message off. They had plenty of time.
“Unknown, Six, but my guess would be that it’s likely,” Desmond replied diplomatically.
“Copy,” Brannigan said, keeping the frustration out of his voice. “Any survivors?”
“Negative, Six,” was the unsympathetic reply. “All gomers KIA.”
“Roger.” He glanced back toward the door leading down into the target building. Hopefully First Platoon found the hostages soon. While he had every confidence that his Marines would be able to fight off the best that the National Army could send at them, he wanted to get the hostages out and get back to the Boxer. That was the mission. A lot of the grunts, particularly the younger guys, would be disappointed at missing a fight that big, but they didn’t know how far Brannigan had already stuck his neck out just to get them this far.
He scanned around again, looking for any sign of a counterattack forming that he might have to divert men to deal with. As he did, he stopped suddenly, his gaze fixed on the hills to the south of the village. He reached up and twisted his radio knob to the air freq.
“Remington Four-Three, Kodiak Six,” he called, addressing the lead Viper pilot. “Can you make a pass over that hill to the south of the ville, the tallest point? Tell me if you see anything?”
“Roger, Kodiak Six,” the pilot replied, “no problem.” A moment later, one of the AH-1Zs banked sharply away from the village and climbed a couple hundred feet, heading for the looming, black hulk of the hill.
A moment later, two things happened at once. A bullet snapped past Brannigan’s head, close enough that he could feel the shockwave on his cheek, even as he instinctively ducked, dropping to a low knee on the roof. At the same instant, something streaked up from that same hill, toward Remington Four-Three.
“Kodiak Six, Remington Four-Three!” the pilot barked over the radio. “Be advised, we have just taken RPG fire from that hill! Count at least fifty foot-mobiles, and what looks like a camp on the far side of the hill.”
Brannigan’s mouth thinned into a tight smile. Unless they had more surprises up their sleeves, fifty men on foot were going to be easy prey for his Marines, provided the air support left any of them for the grunts.
“Remington Four-Three, Kodiak Six. You are weapons hot,” he sent, though he knew he really shouldn’t have to. They’d taken fire, and therefore were entirely justified in returning it.
The Viper pilot didn’t bother to reply. His only acknowledgement was the ripping roar of his 20mm, brilliant tracers stabbing down at the darkened hillside. A moment later, his Dash-Two, Remington Four-Four, swooped in low for another gun run, sowing devastation among the fighters now scattering across the hillside.
But whoever had taken a shot at Brannigan wasn’t among them. He suddenly felt a vicious blow to the side of his helmet, and ducked lower. “Sniper!” he bellowed, making sure all the Marines on the roof could hear him. “Everybody get your asses down!”
He quickly high-crawled to the edge of the roof, intending to get an eye over the parapet and try to localize the sniper, either to take a shot himself, or call in air. The Vipers had to be getting close to the end of their ammo, but the Ospreys’ GAUs hadn’t fired a round yet. Two of the machinegunners were already hosing down likely hiding places in the nearby buildings, replying to the sniper fire with ripping roars of fire from their LSATs.
Before Brannigan could reach the edge of the roof, Santelli was hitting him on the leg. “Sergeant Vasquez has secured the hostages!” the Sergeant Major yelled. “He’s coming up for pickup!”
As Brannigan turned to acknowledge, the first of the First Platoon Marines came out of the door and back onto the rooftop.
And the sniper got lucky.
The Marine—Brannigan couldn’t quite see who it was—staggered as the crack of the shot sounded nearby, barely audible in a momentary pause in the machinegun fire. Then he dropped to the roof.
“Get down!” Brannigan bellowed at the Marines coming up the stairs. “Sniper!”
He wanted to run to help the Marine, and spared half a second to pray, sincerely and intensely, that the man wasn’t dead. But the best thing he could do at that point was do what he could to eliminate that sniper. Because now he had a direction.
Easing his NVGs above the parapet that encircled the roof, he scanned the surrounding village. The shot had come from the southwest, not the hill to the south, which the Vipers were still working over in a snarling storm of fire, dust, and smoke. And the nearest high ground to the southwest was a good klick away. It was possible, but he doubted any of the local shooters were that good. So he turned his attention to the buildings, looking for the ones that his machingunners hadn’t already worked over.
There. Just before another bullet cracked overhead, he caught the flash in the darkened window of a taller building, right on the outskirts of the village. His M4 might reach that far, but he doubted it, especially in the dark. And he doubted that the M27s would do much better. The LSATs could hit it, but he had a better idea. He was still on the air frequency, so he keyed the radio.
“Remington Four-One, Kodiak Six,” he called. “I have a target.” He spared a glance at the compass affixed to his watchband. “From my position, one-nine-seven degrees, eight hundred meters, three-story building.”
“Good copy, Kodiak Six,” the pilot chirped. Whoever was flying Four-One sounded like a high-school kid. “We’ll take care of it.”
With a deep, snarling buzz, the two Vipers banked in and proceeded to pound away at the target building with the last of their rockets, following up with 20mm gun runs. By the time the second run had finished, the entire front of the building had collapsed in a cloud of dust, obscuring the wreckage in the darkness.
There was no more sniper fire.
“Kodiak Six, this is Trash Hauler One-One,” the lead Osprey pilot called. “Be advised, we are seeing lights on the coast road, moving this direction. A lot of them. They are still at least ten klicks away, but it looks like reinforcements are inbound.”
“Roger that, Trash Hauler One-One,” Brannigan replied. He turned back toward the door leading down inside the building.
The Marines were mostly still down in the stairwell. The downed Marine’s squad leader and the corpsman were crouched over him, as Brannigan ran, crouched over in case there were any more snipers hiding out there in the dark, to join them. The fallen Marine was still conscious, though his plate carrier had been pulled most of the way off and half of his combat shirt cut away. His side was drenched in blood, showing black in the pale image of the NVGs.
“How is he?” he asked.
“He’s hit bad, sir,” the corpsman replied. “Took the round right under the armpit. I don’t think it hit his heart or lungs, but we need to get him back to the ship and a surgeon fast. There’s only so much I can do out here. I’ve got a chest seal on the wound, and I’ve got a needle-D prepped and ready but we really need to get him back to the hospital.”
Brannigan nodded, and looked at the squad leader, Sergeant Teague, even as Staff Sergeant Collier came out of the stairwell, along with Lieutenant Bradley. Some of the SNCOs might have been chafing a bit at how “hands on” their officers were acting, but part of that was Brannigan’s influence. He’d be damned if he’d pass on “managerial” officers to other units. His men were going to be leaders, damn it. And, so far, he’d mostly succeeded. He’d ridden his officers hard to win their Marines’ respect, rather than simply demand it.
“Status, Lieutenant Bradley?” he asked.
“We have the hostages, sir,” the lieutenant replied, taking a knee next to Teague. “All accounted for. No hostile prisoners, though.”
“Just as well,” Brannigan said. He was going to have enough to deal with in the aftermath of this op without having to explain local detainees aboard the Boxer. “Bring ‘em up, but make sure they stay low. That sniper still might have buddies out there.” Backing away, he switched back to the tac frequency. “All Kodiak units, Kodiak Six. Glenlivet, I say again, Glenlivet.” The Colonel could use whisky names for brevities, too. “Glenlivet” was the code for, “Mission accomplished, move to LZs to load up and head for the barn.”
He switched back to the air frequency. “Trash Haulers, we will be ready for pickup in two mikes. Remingtons, keep the bad guys busy for us, will you?”
“Roger that, Kodiak Six,” Remington Four-One replied.
Almost like clockwork, the Ospreys swooped in, twisting their props skyward to hover just over their designated Landing Zones. Brannigan stepped over to help get the wounded Marine onto the bird, followed by the hostages.
It’s gone so smoothly so far. Please, Lord, get us off this coast before anything worse goes wrong.
John Brannigan had been a warrior for far too long to expect anything to go entirely according to plan.
He stayed where he was on the roof, battered by the Osprey’s brutal downward rotor wash, sandblasted by the grit the props were whipping off the roof, until he could see the other birds pulling for the sky. The roof was empty by then, except for himself and the hovering Osprey. With a brief, curt nod, he jumped up onto the ramp, getting one boot up onto the non-skid and hauling himself up the rest of the way. He gave the crew chief, now stationed at the ramp, a thumbs-up. Last man. The chief spoke into the intercom, and the Osprey began to climb, up and away from the now burning, bullet-riddled ruin of the village.
They hadn’t gone far when Lewis was tugging on Brannigan’s sleeve. “Sir, we just got a message from Team Two,” he yelled in the Colonel’s ear. “They are mission complete, but are pinned down under fire, and cut off from the beach.”
Brannigan glanced forward, where the wounded Lance Corporal Clark was lying on the deck. Time was short, but he had a responsibility to those boys down on the ground, too. He started working his way forward, stepping over and past knees, boots, M27s, and two LSATs, carefully moving around Clark’s supine form, until he got to the cockpit.
“We need to divert to Shilka Position Two,” he shouted to the pilot. “Some of my boys are in trouble, and need some support.”
“This ain’t a gunship, sir, and we’ve got a casualty aboard,” the copilot protested.
“Don’t try to bullshit me, son,” Brannigan replied. “We’ve got a minigun and a 240 mounted for a reason, and it’s more than that team on the ground has. Take us in.” He stayed where he was, but motioned for Lewis to hand him the handset, cursing the multiple tac frequencies that went along with combined arms warfare. The recon teams were on one channel, the Battalion Combat Team was on another, and the birds were on a third. And that was after he’d ranted and raved to simplify matters as much as possible.
Lewis handed him the handset and he flipped his right-hand Peltor headpiece out of the way, pressing the black plastic to his ear. “Tiburon Two, this is Kodiak Six,” he called.
The answering radio call came after a moment’s delay. He could hear the rattle of gunfire in the background. “Kodiak Six, Tiburon Two,” Staff Sergeant Holmes replied.
“We are inbound to your position with air support, Tiburon Two,” Brannigan said. “ETA two mikes. Give me a sitrep and a position. We’re going to lay waste, and I don’t want you boys getting burned down by accident.”
“Roger, Six,” Holmes answered. The man’s voice was calm and professional, but there was an undercurrent of relief in it. “We are five hundred meters east of the burning Shilka, and one hundred meters south of the coast road. We are taking fire from dismounts and a pair of technicals that are still on the road, between us and our BLS.” The Boat Landing Site would have been where their Zodiac was concealed. “Our position is marked by IR strobes.”
The Ospreys were coming up on the beach fast. Leaning forward and peering through the windscreen, Brannigan could just make out the strobes, along with the flickering muzzle flashes coming from the technicals ahead. “Good copy, Tiburon Two,” he replied. “We’ve got you. Stand by.”
He pointed. “Technicals and dismounts on the road,” he told the Osprey’s crew. “The team is marked with strobes. Kill everything that ain’t the team.” He switched his personal radio to the air freq and repeated the instructions. If the Vipers still had any 20mm left, this was the time.
The pilot acknowledged, and brought the Osprey into a wide, sweeping turn, aiming to come in on the road from the west. Brannigan braced himself in the cockpit doorway, bending his knees to maintain his balance against the maneuver. A moment later, the pilot leveled off, and bore down on the road and the dimly visible shapes of the Toyota pickup trucks, flame still stabbing from the machineguns mounted in the beds.
The underslung GAU-17 7.62mm minigun opened up with a deep, growling buzz. What looked like a solid line of red light reached out from the Osprey’s underbelly and tore a ravening line of destruction down the coast road. The closest technical exploded under the hammering impact of that stream of high-velocity metal. A moment later, the second truck suffered the same fate. The driver hadn’t had time to process the incoming threat enough to even attempt to evade.
Then they were past, and the pilot was pulling for some altitude. The rain of death from the sky hadn’t ended, though, because Trash Hauler One-Two was coming in right behind, sowing more raving, fiery death among the men on foot who were now scattering and trying to find cover after their heavy support had suddenly blown up.
The Remington Vipers swooped in next, hammering away with their 20mms, doubtless cursing the Colonel, the Osprey drivers, and anyone else who had poached what they considered their rightful targets. After another minute, there wasn’t much shooting going on, because there wasn’t much moving down there anymore.
“Tiburon Two, Kodiak Six,” Brannigan called. “Status?”
“Kodiak Six, Tiburon Two,” Holmes answered. “If there’s anybody still alive up there, they won’t be for much longer. Targets are all down, burning, or suppressed.”
“Good copy. We’ll run racetracks overhead until you boys can get to the beach and out on the water. Any friendly casualties?”
“A couple of us got trimmed, Six, but we’ll live,” Holmes replied. “Thanks for the assist. We’ll see you back on ship. We are Oscar Mike.”
“All of my boys come home, Tiburon Two,” Brannigan said. “Them’s the rules.”
Below, the six Recon Marines got up and started moving toward the beach, dark figures encrusted with sand and dust, visible from above only by the flashing IR strobes on their shoulders.
It took a few minutes for the Marines to get to the beach, get their Zodiac turned around, and launch. The Vipers, nearly out of ammo and getting low on fuel, headed back toward the Boxer. Brannigan kept the Ospreys circling, determined to make sure that the Recon team got well offshore before the motorized column of government troops coming down the coast road could get too close. Once the boat was a good hundred yards off the beach, he finally gave the signal for all aircraft to return to base.
He let out a deep breath. That could have gone so much worse.
“This is a fucking disaster, Colonel.”
Brannigan sat back in his chair and eyed General Mark Van Zandt, whose angry face was filling the VTC screen. Van Zandt was actually five years younger than Brannigan, but the two men had gone different routes. Van Zandt had entered the Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant. Brannigan had been a Gunnery Sergeant before he’d gone to OCS.
“You gave me orders to secure the hostages and get them out of the country, sir,” Brannigan said evenly. “I accomplished the mission, with only three Marines wounded, and only one of those seriously. So, kindly explain to me how this is a ‘disaster.’”
“Your men killed over two hundred National Army troops, Colonel,” Van Zandt snarled. “Government troops were strictly off-limits in the Rules of Engagement. President Haroun has already lodged formal diplomatic protests, and is bringing a complaint to the United Nations. And with that many corpses to show, it’s not something we can pass off as GaM propaganda.”
“ROE included ‘hostile act/hostile intent,’ sir,” Brannigan pointed out. “And those government troops were engaged in direct support of the Gama’a al-Mujahidin forces. And you know it just as well as I do.” He stabbed a finger at the screen, momentarily failing to give a damn that it could be construed as insubordination. “The only reason for those Shilkas to have been sited where they were was to shoot down any force attempting to rescue the hostages. And if that wasn’t enough, have President Haroun explain why there was at least a company of government troops in the exact same village where the hostages were being held, apparently doing nothing until we moved in to rescue those hostages, at which point they opened fire on us.”
“The word we are getting from the President’s office is that they were moving into position to attempt a rescue at dawn,” Van Zandt said. When Brannigan raised an incredulous eyebrow, the General’s expression didn’t change. “This has created a major diplomatic incident, Colonel. I’ll be honest with you. The fact that you succeeded in rescuing the hostages intact is the only reason that Washington is not demanding that you be relieved for cause.”
That, and the fact that the MEU’s cruise is almost over, and it would be much less hassle to just let us head home and shit-can me afterward. He also didn’t really buy the “major diplomatic incident” nonsense, either. Haroun was a big fish in a very, very small pond, nothing more. This was just the excuse being used by people who simply wanted him gone.
“I can’t guarantee that there won’t be later legal repercussions, Colonel,” Van Zandt said officiously. “But I’ve been assured that you will be allowed to retire, after you have handed command over to Colonel Linkous.”
They don’t want it to go public. A court-martial would turn into a circus. I’ve got too many witnesses, too many Marines who saw what was really happening on the ground, who saw the National Army defending the GaM terrorists on the ground. The narrative would fall apart if they let us have our day in court.
Brannigan briefly considered fighting it, demanding a court-martial. It was his right, after all, under the UCMJ. Sure, it would turn into a shit-show. He had too many political enemies, especially among several younger men with stars on their collars. But he suddenly found that he was tired. Until one more thought occurred to him.
“Fine, sir, I get the message,” he said. “But I’ll only go quietly under one condition.”
“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands, Brannigan,” Van Zandt warned.
“Bullshit,” Brannigan snapped. “You just said it yourself, Headquarters Marine Corps doesn’t want this to really go public.” Which probably wasn’t entirely fair. It was more likely Congress that didn’t want it to go public. There were still a few warriors left at HQMC. “So fine. I’ll retire. On the condition that none of my Marines gets scapegoated for dead National Army troops defending GaM terrorists.”
Van Zandt glared at him for a moment. “That’s a rather nasty veiled accusation, Brannigan,” he said.
“Oh, was it too veiled?” Brannigan replied, finally losing his patience. “Fine. I’ll make it explicit. I will not be party to scapegoating enlisted men and junior officers ‘for the reputation of the Corps.’ If there has to be a sacrificial lamb, it’s going to be me, because I gave the orders, and I led the assault on the ground. Is that explicit enough?”
Van Zandt stared at him from the screen for a moment, before finally putting his head in his hand. “Damn it, Brannigan, why do you have to be so difficult about this?”
Because you gave me a mission along with ROEs that made that mission impossible, sir.
“I mean, seriously?” Van Zandt continued, jerking his head up to glare out of the screen. “What the hell were you doing on the ground in the first place? That’s not the place for a MEU commander.”
“Do you remember the OCS motto, sir?” Brannigan asked. He knew Van Zandt had been an ROTC cadet, rather than an Annapolis ring-knocker. “It says, ‘Lead By Example.’ Tell me, how the hell was I supposed to do that from an air-conditioned COC, fifty miles from the action?”
“I am well aware of your complaints about recent Marine Corps leadership procedures,” Van Zandt said tiredly, “which is another reason you’re being allowed to retire, instead of turning this into a media circus.” He sighed. “Fine. We’ll concoct some story about bad intel, unfortunate accidents, etc., etc. State’s going to hate it, but we’ll make it work. Is that enough? Will that get you to agree to retire, and end this quietly?” And get out of my hair? The last was unspoken, but Brannigan picked up on it anyway.
For a long moment, Brannigan just stared at the image of his superior officer. He and Van Zandt had known each other for a long time, and while they had never been friends, they had never exactly been enemies, either. It still remained that Van Zandt was a careerist, always keeping his own reputation and advancement in mind, while Brannigan was still in uniform for the same reason that he had signed up twenty-three years before. He was a warrior. Always had been, always would be. He ultimately cared far less about his own career than he did about the fight, and his Marines.
But along with that warrior ethos came a strict sense of honor, one that he had felt was rarer and rarer in the modern officer corps. And the idea of concocting such a lie to cover the corrupt President Haroun’s ass for supporting terrorists stuck in his craw.
But at this point, what am I going to do about it? If I go public, they’ll do whatever they need to do to shut me down. Either way, my career is over.
“Fine, sir, you win,” he said heavily. “Once we return Stateside, and I pass command on, I’ll retire. No news conferences, no trial, no memoirs. I’ll quietly disappear, and the diplomats can sweep all of this under the rug, where it won’t interfere with their neat, tidy theories about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this part of the world.”
Van Zandt didn’t comment on Brannigan’s final, bitter pronouncement. He had what he needed. “Glad to hear it, Colonel,” he said brusquely. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that it had to come to this.”
No, you’re not. The VTC ended.
Brannigan sat back in the chair and stared at the overhead for a moment. Just like that, twenty-three years was coming to an end.
Now what the hell am I going to do with myself?
The story continues in Brannigan’s Bastards #1 – Fury in the Gulf, coming to Kindle and Paperback in November.