“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.