Chris was on point, about five yards ahead of me, when he suddenly froze and put up a clenched fist.
I followed suit instantly. When you’re in hostile territory, you pay attention to what your point man does. While every man in a small team has to be alert at all times, the point man is the team’s eyes and ears.
And while we were still on the Polish side of the line, I definitely considered where we were “hostile territory.”
Staying in place, I scanned the woods around us carefully. We’d switched night vision in the last month, having gotten a new supply shipment in when the convoys carrying the Army in had arrived. I wasn’t entirely sure about losing the thermal capability, but the clarity and the depth perception the PS-31s provided were a lot better.
Unfortunately, even with the better NVGs, I couldn’t see what had prompted Chris to halt.
The woods were dark, despite the faint lights from Mamonovo about two and a half miles to the north. We’d picked a new moon on purpose. The PS-31s turned the darkness into pale grays, but they couldn’t show me what I didn’t have a line of sight on.
Then I heard it. A faint rustle through the trees, somewhere ahead of us. I’d been tracking the rest of my team by sound as well as sight since we’d crossed the border out of Poland, about two miles away from the border checkpoint, so I’d noticed when the signal to freeze had been passed back and we’d all stopped moving. Someone was ahead of us, moving through the trees.
And they were coming closer.
Chris looked back at me, turning his head slowly and pointing to his twin-tube NVGs before pointing roughly due north. Then he held up four fingers, clenched his fist, and held up four fingers again.
Eight men. Due north, coming toward us.
I acknowledged and signaled for him to get down. I started to lower myself to the ground, even as I turned back toward Greg and repeated the signal. If we were close enough to hear them, they were close enough to hear us, and it was therefore too late to try to move away. There were a lot of fallen needles and leaves on the forest floor, and moving through it without making a sound was difficult at best.
I eased myself down on my belly, carefully lowering myself so as not to make too much noise, keeping my LaRue OBR held ready, though I didn’t get on the scope, instead scanning just above it. My helmet was already weighing my head down, though the 31s were a lot lighter than the PSQ-20 thermal fusion goggles we’d been using.
I didn’t dare twist around to look back—it would make too much noise—but I had more than enough confidence in the rest of my team by then. The Grex Luporum Teams were the Triarii’s elite already, and we’d gathered enough combat experience since all hell had broken loose in Slovakia almost a year before that some things had simply become second nature.
Movement drew my eye. I turned my head a fraction of an inch to see better.
The man stepping carefully through the trees was lightly equipped, just like we were, though he wasn’t wearing NVGs. A soft patrol cap was on his head, and he had what looked like an AK-74 in his hands. The next man who appeared out of the woods behind him was dressed and equipped almost identically.
They were damned close, and we weren’t exactly in the best of ambush spots. But that was why we drilled hasty ambushes.
After a moment, I could see that they weren’t quite walking straight toward us. They were going to pass by about ten to twenty yards away. Which was good, but this was still going to be a knife fight in a telephone booth.
Even so, I wasn’t inclined to let them waltz past us. I could still smell the smoke from Pęciszewo. It was a bitter, metallic smell on the spring air, even attenuated by distance and the woods. There hadn’t been much wind since that village had been hit, so the stink of burned wood, plastic, tar, and flesh had lingered in the air.
Chris had dropped where he was, still facing north, though he’d rolled partway to his side to cover the oncoming shooters with his OBR. I had gotten down in close to the same attitude, since I hadn’t known for sure where the bad guys were, and I was kicking myself a little for it. Behind me, I knew that the rest of the team had turned to alternating sides before getting down. It gave us three hundred sixty degrees of security without having to clump up into a perimeter. We’d practiced it for a long time now, because it worked in the bush. And the men behind me—at least half of them—were in position to light the raid force up without needing to move.
I slowly and quietly pumped my fist toward the shadowy figures as they moved through the trees. Hasty Ambush Right. I lay there for a few moments, giving the team time to pass the signal—presuming Greg had seen it, which I was sure he probably had, having already noticed that we were in a tight spot—and for the “little green men” to walk all the way into our kill zone. Finally, as the sixth man came alongside me, I rolled to the side and brought my OBR to bear, tilting the rifle so that I could pick up the offset red dot in my NVGs.
The dot settled on a dark figure in fatigues and soft cap, carrying a PKP machinegun. I let my breath out, carefully eased the selector to fire, and squeezed the trigger.
After the quiet of the woods, the crack of the suppressed shot was still devastatingly loud. The rifle surged back in my shoulder, but my position was good enough that it barely threw the dot off, and I saw the man crumple as the bullet tore through his armpit, ripping apart his heart and lungs before exiting out the other side. He fell without making a sound, his knees giving way and dropping him on his face.
A heartbeat later, the rest of the team opened up. Ripping reports echoed through the woods—though the shots were a lot quieter than they would have been without the suppressors, there’s no way to make a supersonic bullet silent. The first seven men in the file were all smashed off their feet in a couple of seconds. At that range, we could hardly miss.
For a brief moment, nothing more happened as the echoes died away. A faint groan signaled that not everyone in that lead element was dead. I might have heard a muttered curse in Russian, somewhere ahead of us. But the shocking violence of what had just happened would take a few heartbeats to sink in.
We had to move while that happened. We were way too close to settle in for a slugging match, even if I’d been sure that we had the numbers for it. The advantage our NVGs gave us only went so far.
“Chris! Peel left!” I was still close enough to hiss the words instead of shouting, since the shooting hadn’t really started in earnest yet.
I was already getting up, though that consisted more of rolling to my stomach, doing a half a pushup, and getting my feet under me. I stayed low, quickly getting behind a tree just to my right. It was a low fir, so it provided more concealment than cover, but it was better than nothing.
Chris didn’t get up immediately, but shifted his position slightly, dug a frag out of his vest, pulled the pin, and lobbed it toward the Russians as hard as he could. At almost the same moment, gunfire erupted ahead of us, muzzle flashes flickering in the dark and the distinctive rattling reports of Kalashnikov fire split the night. Bullets tore through the air overhead, chopping branches off trees and smacking bark off the trunks to rain down on our heads.
A moment later, Chris’s frag went off with a tooth-rattling thud, and at least one of the AKs fell silent as screams erupted in the night. The fire got wilder and even less focused—they hadn’t known for sure where we were to begin with, thanks to the suppressors. The frag hadn’t told them much.
Chris got up, snapping a fast pair of shots at one of the muzzle flashes, then he was turning and burning, scrambling past me as fast as his legs could carry him, threading between the trees toward the rear of our formation. Bullets nipped at his heels, but the bad guys couldn’t see well enough to hope to hit him except by sheer luck and volume of fire.
I gave him a handful of heartbeats, then I rose up, shouldering my own rifle, finding a figure crouched halfway behind a tree but facing entirely the wrong directing, spraying gunfire out into the woods. I slammed two rounds at him, glanced to my right to make sure I wasn’t about to accidentally get shot in the back, then I was up, turning to the left and sprinting after Chris, careful to steer off to the side just enough that I wasn’t running into any of my teammates’ line of fire.
Greg cranked off four rounds, the harsh but muted cracks sounding right behind me as I ran past him. Two more shots later, and he was coming after me.
I ran down the length of our Ranger file, passing Chris where he’d taken up a position behind an ancient, hoary oak that we’d passed on the way up only a few minutes before. I hooked around behind him, finding a towering spruce about four yards beyond and to his right, and threw myself down behind it.
Someone was yelling in Russian, trying to get control of the situation, but these guys weren’t Spetsnaz. The discipline wasn’t there. The more we shot at them, the more they shot at shadows they couldn’t see. I tracked in on a flickering muzzle flash, got eyes on a man doing the “rice paddy squat”, spraying fully automatic fire at the trees in front of him, let out a breath as my dot settled on his silhouette, and fired. I didn’t have a chance for a follow up shot. His head jerked back as my bullet punched through his brain and he fell over backward, his Kalashnikov falling silent as the signals from his brain to his trigger finger were suddenly cut off.
I hadn’t been trying to shoot him in the head, but I’d take it.
Greg opened fire from off to my right. We were forming a sort of echelon right as we fell back, giving the entire team better fields of fire while spreading out and making ourselves harder targets. It was another maneuver that we’d practiced enough that it just sort of happened.
We’d had quite a bit of time to practice since we’d gotten to Europe. And a lot of it had been in real-life, live-fire combat situations like this one.
I reached for my radio as Jordan ran behind me, huffing a little. Aside from Tony and Reuben, who were packing our machineguns, Jordan was the most heavily laden. He had the med bag on his back.
With Jordan falling back, Tony was suddenly in the clear. He went to work.
The stuttering chatter of the suppressed Mk 48 was a lot quieter than even the lighter AKs, but the effects were devastating, especially at that range. I saw two men get shot to rag dolls in two bursts as Tony cut their legs out from under them, bullets tearing through their guts and lungs as they fell. Then he was up and moving, David taking up the fire for a moment before following suit.
“Shorty, Deacon.” I was glad that my voice was still level and calm, and I wasn’t breathing too hard. Firefights might have become common enough that they were simply another day at the office, but this had been a little too close for comfort already.
“Send it.” Arkadiusz Gniewek, callsign “Shorty,” was currently the unofficial ninth member of Grex Luporum Team X. We’d brought him in with his commander’s okay to act as our liaison with local Polish law enforcement, military, and militia. He was a short, scrappy bastard with a nose that looked like it had been mashed flat quite a few times, but he spoke fluent English and Russian as well as his native Polish.
“Fall back to the rear and get on the horn to Porucznik Jaskolski. Tell him we need backup in the woods just north of Podleśne. Incursion from Kaliningrad, foot mobiles, unknown numbers.” My Polish had gotten a lot smoother in the last few months, though I was still far from fluent. Which was part of why we had Arkadiusz with us.
“Roger.” A moment later, he was sprinting toward the back, having jumped the stack a little, turning and burning while Reuben was still laying down hate with his own Mk 48. Reuben was technically our secondary medic, but when Dwight had been killed in Slovakia, he’d taken up a machinegun, quoting the old aphorism that, “The best medicine is lead downrange.”
I had a shot at another figure running from tree to tree, but I held my fire when I realized he was running away. The incoming fire had slackened considerably already. We’d killed quite a few, and the rest were starting to waver, since they still weren’t sure where the deadly fire was coming from.
Bad idea, sending your boys with no night vision. But it fit what we’d seen so far.
Arkadiusz was on the radio, speaking rapidly in Polish, too fast for me to quite follow. The harsh cracks of suppressed 7.62 NATO fire was making it hard to hear, too.
I took stock for a second. Scott was just starting to move, firing five fast shots into the trees before getting up and sprinting toward Chris, panting, “Last man,” as he passed. He angled behind us, heading for the rear and the easternmost tip of our new echelon formation.
We were now down behind cover, in a staggered slash across the narrow strip of woods that led south from the border between Kaliningrad Oblast and Poland. The interlopers were no longer capable of laying down any coherent fire. We were still taking sporadic bursts, but they had no targets from what I could tell, and they were shooting at phantoms under the trees. We probably should have kept falling back, but I thought we could hold our position until backup got there. If they’d pushed, we would have continued to break contact, but instead I decided to hold what we had.
“Golf Lima Ten, this is Deacon. Hold your positions and cease fire unless you have a target.” I’d have needed to shout to make myself heard without the radio, and that could have unnecessarily complicated the situation, giving the enemy a clue as to our whereabouts. As long as we were ghosts in the darkness, they’d be uncertain and tentative, which would buy us time.
I got a chorus of low acknowledgments and double squelch breaks. We stayed where we were, down on our bellies in the leaves and needles and ferns, some of us peering through our sights over fallen trees. Arkadiusz was still on the radio, but it sounded like he was making progress.
Furtive footsteps crunched in the leaves and needles, and a moment later Scott whispered from a few feet away. “Deacon, you good? You hit?” Scott was my assistant team lead, and he was doing his job. We weren’t quite what I’d call consolidated yet, but there was a lull in the fight, so he was filling in where he could, lest one of us bleed out quietly without anyone knowing.
I had to check myself. I hadn’t felt myself get hit, but I’d seen men utterly ignore fatal wounds before. But I didn’t seem to be leaking anywhere. “I’m good. Check on Chris.” I didn’t look back, but kept my eyes on the woods, watching for a renewed advance. Scott slapped my boot softly and headed for Chris’s position.
I heard low murmurs from over there as Arkadiusz duck-walked over to me and got down behind a tree stump, in the prone behind his MSBS Grot C. “They are coming.”
“Good. How many?” I shifted my aim to cover what might have been movement, but I didn’t have a shot.
“Two platoons. Porucznik Jaskolski is not fucking around.” He wasn’t wrong; the 43rd Light Infantry Battalion of the 4th Warmian-Masurian Territorial Defense Brigade was already stretched thin, with detachments patrolling most of the coast, the border, and the cities of Braniewo and Pieniężno, while already understrength. Getting the Territorial Defense Brigades up to fighting snuff was proving more difficult than anyone had hoped, especially given the body blows that Poland had taken since the previous fall.
That was part of why we had two Triarii Grex Luporum Teams out in the northeast of Poland, when the most immediate threat was coming from Germany in the west. The Poles had other enemies, as well, and while the Russians had intervened to our benefit during the battle for Gdansk, that most decidedly did not make them friends.
Especially not to the Poles. To the Poles, no Russian was ever going to be a friend.
“How far out?” I had my own estimate in my head from what I knew about Jaskoski’s unit, but that was just that—an estimate.
“Fifteen minutes. He’s had them on standby every night for the last week.” Arkadiusz sounded a little sympathetic, and I could understand. Those boys had to be tired as hell.
But with raids hitting the small farming villages along the border with Kaliningrad about every other night for the last week, Jaskolski had reason to be a hardass.
The Russians were insisting that it was the work of criminal elements and “Polish terrorists trying to stir up trouble with Russia.” We all knew better, but it was providing them with justification for the growing military buildup in Kaliningrad. And it was making the Poles nervous.
I thought about the timing and the lay of the land for a moment. I couldn’t see any movement ahead of us anymore, though a few of the intruders were still firing random bursts of AK fire into the trees in our general direction. We were going to lose track of them soon, certainly within less than fifteen minutes. And if they had a leader who was remotely smart, we might just get flanked if that happened.
It was unlikely, given the skill level I’d seen so far that night, but far from impossible. And I’d learned not to underestimate glorified monkeys with guns a long time ago. The least-trained, least-disciplined thug can sprout some serious animal cunning when the chips are down.
I got up and moved up to join Scott and Chris. “Scott, stay here with the boys and keep an eye out for those Territorial Defense guys. I’m going to take Chris up along the edge of the trees and see if we can’t keep eyes on our little buddies up there before they give us the slip and pop up somewhere we don’t want them to be.”
“I’d say they already did, but I’m with you.” Scott scanned the forest, his voice still low. We were all still talking quietly, barely above a whisper—and that actually doesn’t carry as far in the woods at night as a whisper does—so that we didn’t give our position away any more than we already had.
I whispered the five-point contingency plan that we always did—we could all recite it in our sleep by then, but we still went through it anyway, just in case—gave his shoulder a squeeze to acknowledge his thumbs up, and tapped Chris. “Let’s go.”
He got to his feet and we faded into the dark, hunting the survivors we’d left behind.
They’d made tracks. We found the bodies, but their buddies were long gone. The two of us continued about another two hundred yards toward the border without catching up with them. Though when we paused, I could almost swear I still heard movement ahead of us.
When a column of headlights appeared on the road to the west, coming from the general direction of Braniewo, I signaled Chris to turn back. We hadn’t heard shooting, so they hadn’t flanked the rest of us. At least, not yet. Though from the noise they were making, I didn’t think they’d be flanking anyone anytime soon.
I could imagine the welcome they’d get back in Kaliningrad. They’d failed, rather miserably. And I doubted there was a lot of brotherhood between the Russian Army and whoever these clowns were. Otherwise, they would have been better equipped.
“Weeb, Deacon. Opposition appears to have called it a night from where we are. We’re moving back.” It was time to link up with Jaskolski and mop the rest of this up.
I just hoped the night was over with, and we could go back to our temporary berthing in Braneiwo and get a few hours’ sleep.
But somehow I doubted it was.