“Shit,” Phil whispered. “I knew they had a fucking drone up.”
I didn’t answer, but scanned the road carefully. Once again, thanks to the woods, we were far closer than we should have been, but the spotlights weren’t pointed at the woods, not yet, and the rising growl of the helicopter, along with the rumble of the armored cars’ diesels, seemed to have drowned out what little noise we were making. Slowly, carefully, I eased back deeper into the shadows, Phil doing the same.
Looking up and down the road, I didn’t see a good spot to cross. The six armored vehicles were spaced out along the road. They were too close to slip through, and too spread out to find a good spot to go around. At least, not with that helicopter closing in. Two klicks of open country separated us from the border at its nearest point, and that would have entailed going through Leuba.
As urgent as it was that we get the information back to Poland, we weren’t going to do anyone any good if we went charging out there and got killed or captured. And as confident as I was in my team in combat, the numbers out there on the road were telling. Especially with armored vehicles mounting remote-operated machineguns. Doesn’t matter how good you are, bucking a stacked deck like that is just going to get you killed.
“Back into the trees,” I whispered as Phil got close enough. “We’re going to have to lay low and wait.” I knew as well as he did that that could still go very, very wrong. We had maybe three square miles of woods to hide in, and they were crisscrossed with trails and bike paths. And the leaves were falling. We were on the clock, whatever we decided to do.
Whatever I decided to do. We might be a team, but I was still team leader, and democracy in a combat situation is always a bad idea. The buck stops here. I could, and would, take input from the team when possible, but at the end of the day, the decisions were mine.
Don’t think that’s power-tripping. It’s one hell of a responsibility, especially when more than the other eight guys on your team have their lives in your hands.
The two of us moved slowly and carefully back into the trees. We hadn’t overpenetrated into the open field, but the trees were still thin enough that if we moved too quickly, we might well still get spotted. The eye is drawn to movement, which is why stalking is often so slow and painstaking.
So far, they hadn’t turned those spotlights on the treeline. So far. If they were set up on that road, it meant that they suspected that somebody was running around in the woods around Görlitz. If they started actively hunting, I was sure that those lights were going to come into play.
The question was whether they were in place just to watch and wait, or were actively looking for us. I didn’t think we’d done anything to compromise ourselves, so I expected that they were just in place as a tripwire.
Time would tell. I just hoped and prayed that I was right. If they were hunting us, this was going to get real ugly, real fast.
We got back to the rest of the team, and I signaled for everybody to get low and get camouflaged. Nobody asked questions; they had heard the helo. And a recon patrol was rarely the time or place for asking questions about tactical decisions, anyway. Everyone started finding a tree or a bush to hide in or under.
I found Scott, grabbed his shoulder, and whispered into his ear, so close that he could probably feel the heat of my breath. It sounds uncomfortably intimate, but when you’re trying really, really hard to be as silent as possible and still communicate, you don’t have much choice in the matter.
“Border police on the road, with armored vehicles and spotlights,” I whispered. It almost wasn’t a whisper; it was more of a subvocalization, so quiet that I could barely hear myself. “Helo overhead. We’re going firm and seeing if we can wait them out.”
He didn’t reply, but just nodded. I moved back toward Phil, peering through the trees toward the road.
I could see the faint glow of the spotlights, though the trees masked most of the illumination. This was going to have to be good enough for the moment; we were only a few dozen meters back in the woods, but we were in a band of trees that surrounded another open field behind us, ringed by walking paths. With that bird overhead, we would risk detection trying to move around it, never mind crossing it.
I found a spot just to Phil’s left and got down under a fallen birch. It was relatively newly fallen; there were even still leaves on the branches. I got down as low as I could, all but tunneling under the trunk. I carefully started trying to arrange the branches over me to look as natural as possible while keeping most of my profile obscured.
Camouflage is something you do, not something you wear.
The birch was partially propped up against the aspen next to it, giving me a bit of room for not just myself, but my ruck. It also meant I could get behind my rifle, pointed back toward the road. Just in case.
Then I went as still as I could, listening and waiting.
The helo went overhead, the stabbing beam of the spotlight filtering through the limbs of the trees, the growl of its rotors vibrating in my chest. It was flying low, looking for something or someone. But we were half-buried in the forest floor, and there was still enough overhead cover that the light couldn’t reach us, at least not enough of it to identify a man lying in the shadows.
It continued along the line of the woods, sweeping the spotlight back and forth, receding away from us, the snarl of its rotors gradually dying away. Looking over my scope, I watched the treeline just before the road.
The glow of lights remained. Now that we weren’t moving, and the helicopter had passed, I could hear a bit. There was the faint murmur of chatter among the Bundespolizei. Even if I’d spoken more than the bare minimum of German, I couldn’t have made out the words.
But the fact that we could hear them was already a bad sign. With the helicopter’s covering noise gone, we had to stay very, very quiet, or they could hear us, too.
Time passed achingly slowly and horrifyingly quickly at the same time. I lay there, my body stiffening up, as the helicopter went back over, heading back north toward Görlitz. Then it came back again. It seemed to be running racetracks up and down the border, shining that blinding spot at any area that might provide some concealment for a recon team.
And all the while, the forest around us was getting brighter, as dawn came closer and closer by the minute.
I was cussing silently, using words that I was probably going to have to go to Confession for, the longer we lay there. Without comms—and trying to get a comm shot with the German border guards within spitting distance was going to get us compromised, we had no way to get word back about what we’d seen. And given the amount of activity that the Poles were monitoring across the border in Germany, the blow could fall at just about any time.
Provided that it wasn’t all theater, like the fake laager we’d found. In which case, I had little doubt that there wasn’t another attack planned, somewhere else.
But we couldn’t get that information to Hartrick or General Reeves just sitting there in the dirt and the leaves. And the closer that dawn got, the more likely it was that we were going to have to stay there in our impromptu hide site through the whole day.
And that was assuming that the Germans were going to move on once night fell again, rather than get relieved by another group.
Darkness gave way to dim twilight, then to a rosy-tinged glow, and finally to full daylight. The helo had moved away, but we were still stuck in place. There was no way to get across those fields unobserved in daylight.
I wracked my brains as I lay there. It wasn’t as if I had a lot else to do. I had to think of a way to get past those border guards once it got dark. Unfortunately, it was looking more and more like there was no way but to fight, and that was a losing proposition.
Pound for pound, I was confident that we were the deadliest men in eastern Germany at that point. But pound for pound only counts for so much. There comes a point where sheer weight of numbers comes down on your head, and then you’re screwed.
Clouds started to move in, turning the morning light wan and gray. A breeze passed through the woods, stirring the leaves and biting through my sweaty fatigues. There hadn’t been time to pull on the warming layers inside my ruck, nor had it been advisable with the enemy that close. The chill began to get painful, adding to the already unpleasant stiffening of muscles that had been under duress and then had to go still for a long time.
Even so, none of us moved, none of us complained, though I was sure that Phil had a whole pissed-off litany of hate and discontent going through his head. So did Jordan. Phil was a bullshitter who would have an entire speech in his head just because. We’d probably hear it later, if we got out of this alive. Even if we were captured and shuttled off to a German prison, we’d still hear it.
Jordan was just bad-tempered. He made me seem like the soul of niceness. And that’s saying something.
The morning dragged on. Spatters of rain seeped down through the leaves. And I started to get more and more tense.
I hated just lying there, waiting. It’s the hardest part of any combat operation. Recon ops are arguably worse, with the necessity of stealth. Endless, dragging hours of stillness and silence, nothing to do but scan your sector, trapped in your own mind.
As much as I hated to think of it, given the timeline, we were going to have to move back the way we’d come once night fell, and find another way around. It was going to be a long night; we’d have to loop miles out of our way to find another way across the border, but there was no helping it. We couldn’t push across at Leuba while the border guards were holding the road.
I just hoped that they didn’t have detachments strung out all the way along the border. It seemed like it would have been prohibitive from an expense and manpower perspective, but it wasn’t a possibility that I could afford to discount.
Then, as late morning edged toward noon, our options narrowed to zero.
Some of the voices started getting louder. I froze. Not that I was moving much at all, but I even stopped breathing. Some of the Bundespolizei were coming into the woods.
I couldn’t see them yet, but I could sure hear them. They weren’t trying to be stealthy; branches were snapping under their boots and they were chatting. They sounded nonchalant, though with German it can be hard to tell.
I hoped and prayed that they were just stepping into the woods to take a piss, and that we hadn’t given ourselves away.
The first of them appeared through a thinner spot in the trees, and any hopes that they were just moving to the treeline to relieve themselves vanished.
They weren’t dressed for the woods, not really. Dark blue fatigues with black combat gear doesn’t blend in well. While most of the regular EDC military forces had switched to the HK 416 series, these boys and girls were carrying older G36Ks. They were also black, in contrast to our camouflage-painted OBRs.
More Bundespolizei appeared on either flank. They were sweeping the strip of woods alongside the road, spread out with about five meters between them. And one of them was walking straight toward my hiding place.
Damn it, damn it, damn it. We had nowhere to go, and no way out except shooting.
I still held perfectly still, though my rifle was pointed right about at the oncoming German border guard’s midriff. Maybe, just maybe, they might pass us by. It wasn’t likely, but given the odds, I needed to wait until the very last moment before opening the ball.
But that son of a bitch didn’t move to one side or the other, didn’t slow down. He kept walking right toward me, looking around, nonchalant but alert. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but he’d been ordered to be on the lookout, so he was searching the woods, even though his G36 was held with the muzzle pointing at the dirt.
He was less than ten yards away when I couldn’t wait any longer. He wasn’t going to walk on me, since I was halfway under a fallen tree, but if he went around, he was going to stumble onto Greg or Phil. If he went around the tree to my left, he was probably going to trip over Greg. And then it’d be all over.
In a situation like that, it’s better to seize the initiative rather than wait and react. Gunfire at ten yards is unforgiving.
So, I tilted my rifle up, my eye to the scope, which I had dialed back to 1x, put the crosshairs on the bridge of the man’s nose, and squeezed the trigger.
The thunder of the shot was shockingly loud in the quiet of the forest, even given the noise that the Germans were making tramping through the undergrowth and the fallen leaves. Bits of leaves and grit blasted away from my muzzle as the bullet blew his dark blue beret off his head, snapping his skull backward with the impact and spraying a fine red mist behind him as he dropped.
The echoes of the shot hadn’t even started to die away when a ragged volley of 7.62 fire ripped out of our little perimeter, smashing into the bodies of the closest Bundespolizei. I hadn’t been the only one with his finger on the trigger.
I shifted targets quickly, even as the first man hit the loam, rolling halfway onto my left side and shifting my rifle over to target the next man down the line. He was already falling, two of Phil’s bullets in him, and as I quickly moved to the next, Tony got up on a knee and laid down a roaring burst of machinegun fire, sweeping the muzzle of his Mk. 48 across the line to the south. Bodies dropped, either diving for cover or getting cut down by Tony’s fire.
“Up!” I roared, clambering out from under the fallen tree. We had the initiative for a moment, but if we hesitated, we’d lose it. And that meant getting cut to pieces. Our sole advantage at that point was that the woods went right up to the edge of the road, so we’d have some concealment as we attacked the patrolling vehicles.
I just hoped it would be enough. It would get us closer than we could across the fields, but then only speed, surprise, and violence of action would get us close enough to neutralize those mounted machineguns.
I went around the trunk, my rifle in my shoulder, and pivoted to my left far enough to shoot a blue-clad border guard who had lagged behind a bit, and was just coming through the trees. We were right in the middle of their line, with bad guys to our right and left, and they weren’t really prepared for it. Jordan and David were hammering more shots off to the left, and Tony and Scott to the right; I heard a heavy thud off to the right as Scott put a 40mm grenade into the middle of them down the way. Then I was moving and didn’t have time or energy to take note of everything that was happening off to the flanks.
I sprinted past the body, which had stopped twitching, and skidded to a knee behind a tree just beyond it. My chest was heaving; going from staying stock-still for hours to sudden, violent movement, isn’t ever easy, no matter how hard we trained for it. I still kept my rifle up and concentrated on slowing my breathing and my heart rate down as I scanned the woods ahead.
Right then, they were clear. The Bundespolizei had patrolled into the woods on-line, and we had just punched right through that line. If they’d been properly trained at all, they were going to regroup and come at us quickly, but right at that moment, we had nothing between us and the road.
Phil and Greg sprinted past me, Phil moving faster since he didn’t have the radios on his back. More sporadic gunfire was echoing through the woods to right and left, but it was dying away as the shocked Bundespolizei went to ground and tried to figure out just what the hell had just happened.
Then I was up and moving again, dashing forward toward the road, now visible through the trees and bushes ahead.
There was a single, faintly boxy ENOK LAPV sitting right in front of me. A single man in blue was standing behind the hood, a radio held to his face, shouting in German. I could just make him out through the branches in front of me. He didn’t react, so apparently, he couldn’t see me.
I dumped him with a bullet through the eye and he disappeared behind the hood as he dropped.
The remote machinegun turret on top of the LAPV was starting to turn, but I was less than six yards away. With a surge of speed, my legs pumping and my lungs burning, I sprinted the rest of the way to the vehicle, getting under the turret’s arc of fire as I slammed against the door.
I didn’t take the second to catch my breath that I might have. The rest of my team was still out there in the woods, still shooting at the handful of Bundespolizei who weren’t biting the dirt, and so I ripped open the back door. Fortunately, they’d figured they were secure enough, and hadn’t locked the doors once they’d left the vehicle.
The gunner inside looked up at me in shock and reached for her G36K, but it was out of position and I already had my rifle leveled.
The gunner was a short, stocky woman with blond hair pulled back but sticking out under her beret. She stared at me for a second, as I covered her with my rifle.
I’ll admit that I hesitated for almost too long. My parents might have raised me to be a good little progressive drone, but I’d gone another way in my adult life. I’m as old-school as it gets, now. And shooting a woman didn’t sit well with me.
But whoever that German girl was, she didn’t apparently know that or care. She frantically started scrabbling for her rifle, got it loose, and started to bring it up.
So, I shot her.
It wasn’t a hard shot. Mechanically-speaking, anyway. It was quick. I blew her brains across the armored glass behind her and she slumped, held up by the seat.
I felt a little sick. I’ve killed more than a few people. Every one of them was shooting at me or mine, or otherwise presented a clear and immediate threat. That woman was no different. It didn’t keep my stomach from rebelling at killing her.
I reached in, despite the revulsion I felt at what I’d just had to do, and dragged her body out onto the road. There wasn’t time to do anything else; the team was getting to the road, and there was another LAPV within line of sight, just to the northeast. If I didn’t do something, we could still get torn apart.
I got behind the turret’s controls and spun it around. The seat stayed put, but the image on the screen moved as I rotated the remote turret above. I put the crosshairs on the LAPV’s windshield and pressed “fire.”
The MG-5 in the turret rattled and roared, brass cascading down the vehicle’s armored sides, and bullets started to punch starred craters in the armored glass of the other vehicle’s windshield. I knew that 7.62 wasn’t going to penetrate that, but I wasn’t intending to try. Instead, I walked the line of bullet impacts up the front of the LAPV and into the other remote turret.
While remote turrets are somewhat hardened, they aren’t generally as armored as manned turrets, which is kind of the point. And they are reliant on cameras and sensors, which is their biggest weakness.
My burst hammered at the turret, blasting bits of metal spall and smashed paint off. I laid into it, the rounds chewing into not only the framework and the cameras, but also the exposed MG-5 itself and the wires controlling it.
More fire was lashing the vehicle from the woods, keeping the handful of foot-mobile Bundespolizei under cover as the rest of the team came out of the trees. “Get in!” I yelled. “Clown-car it! We’ve got to get some distance!”
It wasn’t the most orthodox of solutions, but it would have to work. Especially since I could already hear the growl of helicopter rotors. That damned EC-135 was coming back.
The LPAV only had seats for four people in the cab, but there was an open cargo compartment in the back, and we’d find a way to squeeze five into the cab.
Phil was the first one to the vehicle, and he clambered behind the wheel, while Jordan got in the passenger seat, keeping the door open and his rifle leveled through the “V” so that he could shoot down the road ahead of us. David got to the door, looking in as Greg closed in behind him, and grimaced.
“Ah, man, I’m gonna have to sit bitch?”
“Shut up and get in!” I snarled, before Greg could helpfully offer to take the middle himself. David did as he was told and clambered in, ruck and all. I was hunched over, myself, my nose far too close to the gun control screen, thanks to my own.
I felt the vehicle’s suspension sag slightly as Tony, Chris, Reuben, and Scott stuffed themselves into the back compartment. “We’re up!” Scott yelled, almost drowned out as Tony fired another long burst up the road. At almost the same time, Jordan blasted off a trio of shots in the other direction.
“Close the doors and get inside!” I roared. “Phil, go!” I was already pivoting the MG-5 in the turret toward the sky, looking for the helo.
Phil hauled his door shut, then threw the vehicle in gear and mashed the accelerator, twisting the wheel to go off the road. Jordan swore loudly, yanking his rifle back inside before his own door rebounded off the strap that kept it from opening all the way against the hinges and slammed shut.
The faint hammering sound of Tony’s Mk. 48 echoed faintly through the armor; he was laying down cover fire to our rear, even as Phil powered us through the trees on the side of the road and set us bouncing out across the barren field between us and Leuba. While the vehicle was heavy, the suspension was pretty stiff, and I bounced off the overhead as Phil went tearing into the field, flooring the accelerator and hitting every single furrow as fast and as hard as possible. The bouncing was horrific, and I hoped that the guys in the back were holding on.
I could barely see what was on the screen. “Slow down, Phil!” I yelled. “I can’t shoot at shit!”
“We’re in the open!” he protested. “If we slow down, we’re sitting ducks!”
“We’re not going to outrun that helo on the ground!” I retorted. “Slow down so I can at least get close!”
He definitely didn’t want to, and I could understand. We were in the middle of a field, with trees to our left and wind turbines ahead of us. There was no cover, and a helo might have rockets. The other LAPVs didn’t have heavy enough weapons to penetrate the armor, but that helicopter might.
He did slew the vehicle halfway around before he slowed, putting the bulk of the armor between the guys in the back and the machineguns up by the road. I slewed the turret around as fast as I could, searching for the dark dot of the EC-135.
There. It was coming south from Görlitz, just above the trees. I set the crosshairs on it, adjusted slightly for range, and fired a burst.
Unlike our weapons, the MG-5 was loaded with the standard NATO 1-4 tracer to ball load, so the path of the bullets was easily seen, as the red streaks reached up into the sky toward the bird.
My range estimate was slightly off; the tracers arced toward the earth, under the helicopter. But that was apparently quite close enough for the pilot; he quickly veered off, dove for the treetops, and raced back north before I could adjust.
“Get us the hell out of here, Phil,” I said. Even before the last syllable had left my lips, he was turning us back toward the border and gunning the engine again. More machinegun fire followed us, but it was wild and wide of the mark, especially as I swiveled the turret gun back toward the rear and joined my own fire to Tony’s. It wasn’t going to be accurate as we plowed across a tilled field, but it was better than nothing.
Greg hadn’t been idle. He’d pulled his ruck off on his way into the back seat, and had it on his lap. “I think I’ve gotten through to Bradshaw,” he reported. “They’re waiting for us.”
I just nodded as we bounced and roared past the white wind turbine, still being chased by tracers. The Bundespolizei seemed content to pursue with fire alone; they weren’t in a hurry to cross that field themselves. They’d gotten a hell of a shock, and hopefully they were keeping their heads down. They hadn’t quite been ready for our counterattack. And Bradshaw and his Triarii infantry section, backed up by Polish Army, were right on the other side of the border, waiting to come get us, along with the pair of Polish Mi-24 Hinds circling menacingly in the east.
Leuba loomed ahead, a small, one-street village dominated by a towering, medieval stone church. As far as we knew, there weren’t any Bundespolizei or Bundeswehr forces in there, but we weren’t going to take chances; Phil was already bearing south to go around. Bradshaw would meet us at the border, just on the Lusatian Niesse River.
Behind us, the gunfire died away. Either they’d given up to lick their wounds, or they just didn’t want to tangle with those Hinds without calling for air support.
As we drove east, I hoped that we could get the hell away from the border before that air support showed up.