On the ground, at night, Germany didn’t look all that different from Slovakia. The differences lay in details that might not have been all that readily apparent to someone without our recent experience.
Aside from a dog barking down by Schönau-Berzdorf, it was deathly quiet. No distant thunder of artillery rumbled. No small arms fire rattled. There weren’t even any aircraft to be heard in the sky.
The lights were still on in Görlitz to the north, casting an orange glow against the low clouds overhead. Unlike the all-too common flickering light of burning towns and villages in Slovakia, it was a steady illumination, adding to the ambient light that our AN-PSQ-20 fusion goggles had to work with. It made navigation through the shadows of the German woods quite a bit easier.
That same quiet was making me suspicious. The entire landscape around us seemed asleep and dead. Given that every indicator that intelligence had gotten in the last few weeks was pointing to Görlitz being the staging point for a major offensive aimed at Poland, there should have been more activity.
Phil Kerr took a knee next to a mostly-bare tree. The fall had been colder than the Poles said was normal, and the leaves were falling fast. It was a bit of a disadvantage for us; we needed that foliage to cover us from the air.
Not that there seemed to be anything in the sky but the owls, that night.
“This is creeping me out, man,” Phil whispered as I knelt next to him. “I can’t even hear any drones. It’s like they’re not even keeping an eye on the border.”
“Oh, they’re keeping an eye on it,” I replied. “They’re just being careful about it.” I glanced up at the sky. If there were drones up there, they were the high-altitude, stealthy variety, that we wouldn’t see or hear until it was too late. And there wasn’t nearly enough overhead concealment to keep us hidden if there was.
The truth was, it was still odd. Most mechanized formations used a swarm of small, low-altitude recon drones in a sort of bubble around them, extending their eyes several hundred meters. The drones were cheap, they were easy to recharge, and they were a lot easier to keep tabs on at a tactical level. The bigger, high-altitude jobs usually piped their feeds back to theater-level control hubs, and then had to be sent to the end-user TOCs. They had their place, but for a battalion-sized mechanized unit to have no close-range drones out was just weird.
I peered through the boles of the trees ahead, but we were still too far back in the patch of woods north of Jauernick to be able to see our first Named Area of Interest, which recon flights on the Polish side of the border had tentatively identified as a mechanized battalion assembly area. It wasn’t a FOB; we’d be able to see it from a mile away if it had been; the Bundeswehr seemed to be lighting their bases up like Christmas trees for security.
Phil’s unease wasn’t misplaced. After all, we were in enemy territory, and when the enemy started acting unpredictably, that was usually bad news.
It had been three weeks since we’d crossed the border from Slovakia. Just shy of four weeks since we’d helped the Slovak Nationalists fight the Loyalist Slovak Army, which had been acting under the orders of the European Defense Council, to a standstill in the city of Nitra.
Five weeks since the EDC had quietly declared war on the United States along with anyone else who would stand in their way. Five weeks since they’d massacred two battalions of American soldiers in their FOBs.
A high price to pay for one platoon interfering in a massacre that the EDC wanted to happen.
Of course, world wars had started for far smaller incidents.
It had been a grueling trek, fighting and running to the Polish border. We’d arrived battered, strung out, and exhausted, and we’d lost Dwight along the way. We could have used a rest. But there’s no rest for the weary. Not when the Poles, the Triarii, and the US Army were worried that the EDC was going to invade Poland next. That was why my Grex Luporum—“Wolfpack”—team had inserted across the border to get eyes on the suspected gathering EDC forces.
We weren’t alone; two more GL teams had landed in Poland in the last ninety-six hours, along with our section leader, Brian Hartrick. Elements of 10th Special Forces Group were playing Recon Ranger farther north, but all the intel weenies were convinced that Görlitz was the place.
Unfortunately, nothing that we’d seen on the ground so far matched up. But that’s what reconnaissance is for; to confirm or deny what command suspects is happening on the ground.
“Let’s keep pushing up,” I said quietly, still scanning what I could see of the sky above us. “No point in turning back now.” We hadn’t actually seen a threat that might compromise us; we just had the heebie-jeebies. And getting the creeps had never been sufficient reason to abort an op.
Of course, sometimes the onset of the heebie-jeebies foretold that something was about to go very, very wrong. Nobody who’s been in a combat situation for long ever discounts the sixth sense. Sometimes the brain puts clues together subconsciously, warning of danger that is still yet to be directly observed.
Given what we’d just gone through in Slovakia, none of us were expecting things to go smoothly.
I looked back at the rest of the team, mostly only visible as faint thermal silhouettes in my fusion goggles. I could still identify each of them, though, even partially obscured by the trees. Some of that was because we’d trained so hard that I knew where each man was supposed to be in the formation, some of it simply came from knowing them as much as you can get to know a man when you’re spending days in a hole in the ground with him.
Jordan Durand was taller than any of us, long-limbed and long-waisted. His ruck was also a bit bulkier than the rest of ours, on account of the extra medical gear he was carrying. Greg Larkin was shorter, thicker, and had an antenna sticking out of his rucksack. Greg was Mr. Friendly and our primary comms guy.
Tony Barnett had moved up in the stack, bringing his quiet bulk and the firepower of his Mk. 48 machinegun more centrally in the team. Dwight’s massive, bearish presence was as missed as his own Mk. 48.
David Reyes was the smallest of us, even smaller than Phil. When stealth wasn’t an issue, he had a bad case of small-man syndrome, coupled with “shit-talking Mexican.” Contrary the usual infantry logic, he wasn’t a machinegunner. He was the secondary comms guy, though, which meant his pack wasn’t light, either.
Reuben Ayala was probably the biggest Mexican—sorry, Texican; he couldn’t stand being called Mexican—I’d ever seen. He was almost as big as Tony. In the light, he looked kind of soft, but that was an extremely deceptive appearance. His ruck was almost just as packed with medical gear as Jordan’s.
Chris Benjamin and Scott Hayes were in the rear. Chris was a former SEAL and our second scout/rifleman. He and Phil were my jacks of all trades. Chris was half a head taller than Scott, my Assistant Team Leader, and noticeably thinner. Scott was watching our six intently, only turning to check that we weren’t moving again.
“We’re going to be out of the woods in another hundred yards,” Phil whispered back.
I nodded. I knew what he meant. I turned back and slipped through the trees to put my hand on Scott’s shoulder.
“We’re running out of forest,” I whispered, “and the objective should be in that field right over there. Keep the rest of the team back here. I’m moving up with Phil. If we take contact, we’ll be coming right back to you with a quickness. If we’re not back in an hour, fall back to the last rally point. If we’re not there in six, get back across the border and report in.” It was all common-sense, standard operating procedure stuff, but when you’re right in the enemy’s backyard, and any friendlies are going to have to actually invade another country to come get you, it doesn’t pay to get complacent. Every detail counted, and any missed detail could get us all dead, or put us in some German version of a black site for the rest of our natural lives.
Scott nodded and quietly repeated back what I’d said, just to make sure nothing got garbled. I gave his shoulder a squeeze to signal that he’d gotten it right, and we were moving out.
As Scott disseminated the plan to the rest of the team, Phil and I dropped our rucks and started out of the little hasty security perimeter that we’d set up.
Leaves crunched under our boots no matter how carefully we stepped. In the eerie quiet of the German night, every noise seemed magnified, and my palms were sweating in my gloves despite the coolness of the autumn darkness. I kept my Larue OBR’s buttstock in my shoulder as I scanned the trees around us, ready to snap it up and put a 7.62mm bullet into the first threat that presented itself.
The trees ahead started to thin out and Phil slowed, placing his feet more carefully, scanning intently between steps. We were in the belly of the beast, looking for the enemy. We did not want to stumble on the bad guys accidentally.
I could see through the trees to some of the fields ahead, backlit by the lights of Görlitz just over the rise. And unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, I was catching glimpses of the dark shapes of vehicles in the narrow, lighter gaps between the tree trunks.
Phil stopped, just inside the treeline, and lowered himself prone. I moved up next to him and did the same, scanning the fields in front of us.
Pfaffendorf lay just off to our north, a handful of lights twinkling in the night. And straight ahead, to the northeast, lay the low, dark silhouettes of armored vehicles. A lot of armored vehicles.
I was counting even before I settled prone in the leaves and ferns. We were right in front of a mechanized infantry company, their twenty-four vehicles arrayed in a circular perimeter. Just past them I could see two more companies on the gentle slope rising up toward Görlitz, arrayed in similar formations, though the entire battalion—I was already pretty sure we were looking at a battalion assembly area—was laagered in a rough ellipse, facing generally toward the east and Poland.
It looked like we’d hit the jackpot. The recon flights had identified this field as a battalion assembly area, along with another five around Görlitz, and what might have been yet another five farther west. Two brigades, it looked like, ready to launch across the border into Poland.
But something was still off. And the more I looked at the formation less than seventy-five yards away, the more it bugged me.
We were way too close. This position was what was generally referred to as “overpenetration” in the reconnaissance profession. We tended to prefer to be closer to a klick away, if possible. The closer you got, the more likely you were going to be detected. The woods and the general lay of the land had required us to get this close, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.
And yet, we should have been able to hear something, see some kind of activity around the assembly area. Security should have been set, even on German soil. This close to the Polish border, particularly after the fight in Vysokà nad Kysucou, only about three weeks before, there should have been radio booms up and regular reports being passed between vehicles. Never mind the absence of the close-in recon drones that Phil had already noticed.
I peered carefully at the vehicles, turning up the thermal overlay in my fusion goggles, and my suspicions increased.
None of the vehicles were running. Not one. They were slightly warmer than the fields around them, just because metal hulls get warmer in the sun during the day, but not one of them was glowing as brightly in the thermal imaging as they would if their diesels were turning over. And as I squinted at the silhouettes, I started to notice something else.
“This isn’t regular Bundeswehr,” I whispered, my voice so low that it was barely audible in my own ears. “Look at the vics.”
“Those aren’t Pumas,” he agreed. “They look like…ah, hell, my AFV identification’s a bit rusty.”
“They’re Marders,” I said after a moment. “Marders and M113s.” The Marder had first been introduced when there had still been two Germanies. It had been phased out in favor of the Puma most of a decade ago. And the M113s, old American armored personnel carriers, were even older. They were Vietnam-vintage.
“Son of a bitch,” Phil whispered. “Marders, M113s, no movement, no engines running…”
“It’s a decoy laager,” I said. “I’ll bet there’s nobody even on the vehicles.” The Bundeswehr peacekeepers and the European Defense Corps forces we’d fought in Slovakia had all been using the newer equipment.
Phil didn’t say anything more, but my mind was going a mile a minute. We needed to get this info back across the border, ASAP. If the EDC was stacking mothballed equipment near Görlitz, it meant they wanted the Poles and the Americans to think that this was the threat. Which meant that the hammer was getting ready to fall somewhere else, while Brigade Combat Team 7 and the Polish 11th Armored Division were staged less than fifty miles from here, waiting.
I stayed where I was, digging the small digital camera out of my chest rig. We Triarii tended to be somewhat suspicious of technology; most of us had been burned by some vital, mission-essential piece of gear taking a dump at the worst possible time. But sometimes, certain things needed to be used regardless. Digital cameras were considerably more compact than film cameras, and could take better pictures with less light.
Of course, nobody made the damned things without screens that lit up like a spotlight when you aimed them. I’d taped this one over and taped a bit of fiber-optic to the top to act as a sight. I’d practiced with it enough to be confident that I could take the pictures I needed without needing to see the screen.
I hastily snapped a dozen shots of the company-sized group of Marders in front of us before stuffing the camera back in its pouch and getting up to a knee. Phil followed suit, without taking his muzzle off the vehicles. Decoy or not, we weren’t going to take chances.
“Let’s go,” I whispered. I was fairly sure that there wasn’t anyone within half a mile who could hear us, but again, good habits keep a recon man alive in bad places.
Slowly and carefully, we moved back into the woods, turning back regularly to check that we weren’t being followed.
Once we were back into the trees, we sped up slightly. We needed to get this info back, and then we needed to extract. I felt a renewed sense of urgency as we moved; with only three Grex Luporum teams in Europe, I suspected that we were going to be hopping soon.
It took minutes to get back to the rest of the team. Phil took up a position next to our rucks, while I moved back to join Greg.
“Got some photos to send,” I whispered. “Get the HF up.” Since the cyber attack that had, apparently, leveled some sixty percent of the US power grid, all satcom had been down, as well. And the less said about trusting any local cell phone networks, the better.
Greg already had his ruck open, half a dozen bits of gear on the ground around him that he’d dug out getting access to the radios, and an antenna up. “I’ve been trying,” he whispered back. “I can’t get a sync with the TOC. Or any other station we’ve got programmed in.”
“Are they down?” I asked, though I figured I already knew the answer.
“One?” he said. “Maybe. Seen it before. Somebody forgot to change batteries and let the PRC-150 die. Nobody could get comms for hours.” I was about to head him off before he got into story mode, but he continued. “All of them? Not a chance. We’re being jammed.” He grinned, his teeth bright beneath the caterpillar of a mustache he insisted on growing. “Raspberry!”
“Well, pack it up,” I told him, before he could quote half of Spaceballs. Ordinarily, I’d join in, but we were in a hide site on the wrong side of the line. “We need to get moving.”
He started pulling the antenna down while I moved back toward Scott. It would take Greg a minute to pack up; he wasn’t the most organized guy in a hide site, but he was good enough at the comms stuff that it kind of offset that particular quirk.
The funny part was, Greg didn’t even especially like being the comms guy. Just goes to show, if you’re good at something you don’t want to do, don’t let your team leader find out.
I filled Scott in quickly. “Well, now,” he said quietly. “I honestly hadn’t expected that. Seems a little sneaky for the EDC.”
“They’ve used jihadi militias out of the Balkans, North Africa, and Syria to do their dirty work,” I pointed out. “They’re not above sneaky.”
“True.” Scott wasn’t shook up about it. He was always calm and level-headed, even when he was being flippant. “And we can’t send the info back, can we?”
“Nope. Greg thinks they’re jamming HF now.”
He nodded. “Still thinking the southern exfil route?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re going to have to step it out; it’s almost ten klicks to Leuba.” It meant that we could end up crossing in daylight, but the original contingency plan to stay in place in a hide site was out the window. There was no reason to be jamming comms over decoy positions unless they were planning on moving soon, and didn’t want us knowing that the assembly areas were faked. The jamming was specifically aimed at recon elements. I was increasingly convinced of that.
“Well, Greg better get his crap together, then,” Scott hissed, turning back to whisper over his shoulder so that Greg could hear it. “We’re burning darkness.”
“I’m almost packed up,” Greg replied, slightly too loudly.
“Shut your noise hole, Strawberry,” David hissed, as heads turned toward him.
I moved back to rejoin Phil and shoulder my own ruck again. It wasn’t quite as heavy as the one I’d carried into Slovakia, but none of us were skimping on survival and sustainment gear, never mind ammo, not after that nightmare.
By the time I had the pack settled on my shoulders, Greg was packed up and cinching down his own pack straps. I tapped Phil, and he got up and started moving. We had a long way to go.
The park south of Berzdorfer See, or Lake Berzdorf, was a good place to try to slip through at night. During the daytime, it would have been a nightmare; the place was a tourist attraction, even during the current crisis, and there would at least have been locals taking advantage of the many trails and recreational spots throughout the woods. But in the middle of the night, on a long, cloudy, chilly night like that one, the place was deserted. We were able to make good time, even given the meandering route that Phil had picked to keep us in the trees as much as possible. I know I wasn’t confident that there wasn’t a high-altitude drone watching us, especially given the jamming that was cutting us off from our headquarters in Poland, and Phil was clearly thinking along the same lines.
It was still getting close to 0500 by the time we started getting close to the edge of the parkland. We needed to move if we were going to get across the Obere Straẞe before it started getting light.
That sense of urgency was only getting stronger as the growl of helicopter rotors broke the deathly silence of the night so far, off to the north. And we didn’t have to listen for long before it became obvious that the bird was coming our way.
Phil came out of the thicker trees ahead of us, and suddenly froze, throwing up a fist. I followed suit, sinking to a knee next to an aspen.
I didn’t need Phil to tell me what he’d seen. I could see it myself well enough.
There were half a dozen blocky armored trucks, mounting what looked like machineguns, stationed on the road below us, with groups of armed men and women facing the woods. Spotlights were sweeping the treeline. And that helicopter was closing in, another spotlight shedding a cone of brilliant illumination below it.
The EDC might be elsewhere, but the Bundespolizei had apparently been alerted, and were looking for recon troops.
And they were between us and extract.