The Territorial Defense troops were piling out of the Star 266 trucks where they’d pulled over on the side of the road, and the first couple of squads had already started to spread out into the woods as Chris and I rejoined Scott and the rest of the team. Scott and Arkadiusz had already deconflicted and linked up with the Poles. The two of them were standing near the lead truck, talking to Jaskolski while Reuben guided the Light Infantry point elements into the woods. It would not be a good thing if they stumbled on us in the dark and the wrong people got shot.

I glanced over the men and women spreading out into the trees. They were better equipped than the raid force had been, but that wasn’t saying a lot. Load bearing vests worn over bulky, early 2000s era body armor turned even the fittest soldier into a lumbering pear shape, and not all these boys and girls were lean and mean studs to begin with. They at least had night vision, monoculars mounted on old MICH helmets. The Territorial Defense Brigades had gotten a lot of the Wojska Lądowe’s old FB Beryl 5.56 AKs, as the regular Land Forces had switched to the Grot Cs.

But while their equipment was a bit better than the bare-bones 1960s stuff the raiders had been using, their training wasn’t great. Even as I watched, I saw a lot of them bunching up near the trees, and their small unit leaders were being awfully loud getting them sorted out.

The two of us walked across the narrow field, raising our NVGs so as to avoid getting whited out by the glare of the headlights, and joined Scott, Arkadiusz, and Jaskolski at the lead truck.

Jaskolski was dressed and equipped just like the rest of the Territorial Defense troops, though he had a PM-84 submachinegun slung in front of him instead of an FB Beryl rifle. Arkadiusz was still in his Wojska Lądowe cammies with his MSBS Grot C rifle and monocular NVGs, but otherwise was dressed and equipped a lot like we were. We’d run as light as possible. No body armor, NVGs on skullcap mounts, and only carrying ammo, comms, minimal med gear, and water on load bearing vests under the ghillie hoodovers we’d brought through Slovakia all those months before.

It felt like a small lifetime ago.

“Lech.” I stuck out my hand and he shook it. “Glad you got here so fast.”

“Mateusz.” Jaskolski was tall and lanky, and about ten years older than one might expect for a man of his rank. His English was about as fluent as my Polish, so aside from greetings and some basic small talk, we usually conversed through Arkadiusz. We also used first names, because as Triarii, we didn’t really have ranks, and Jaskolski was old enough and flexible enough that he just rolled with it.

He rattled off a string of Polish, and Arkadiusz nodded and turned to me. For all his stocky build, oft-broken nose, and pugnacious attitude, in the light Arkadiusz looked like a kid. He wasn’t; he’d been in combat in Kosovo. But he had a baby face that he tried to offset with a short, neatly trimmed beard. “He was waiting for this. After what happened in Pęciszewo, we were all expecting it to happen again.”

Jaskolski pointed as he spoke again. I caught a little bit of it, but not enough. “We will spread out and sweep the woods from here to the border. One squad from Fourth Platoon will move out onto the eastern flank, to make sure they did not slip past.”

I nodded. “We’ll stick with you, unless you want us to push up ahead.”

But Jaskolski shook his head when Arkadiusz translated. “No. You come with me.” He might not have been particularly fluent at English, but he still tried from time to time.

“Fair enough.” I wasn’t going to say so, and I knew that Jaskolski wouldn’t either, but none of us quite trusted the Territorial Defense troops’ target discrimination. Unfamiliar shapes in ghillie hoodovers in the dark could very well draw fire.

I keyed my radio. “Golf Lima Ten, Deacon. Hold what you’ve got. Once the Tango Delta boys and girls are deployed, we’ll join the sweep.”

“Great.” That would be David. “I’ve got time for a nap, then.”

***

We had just started moving when the Russian helicopters showed up.

Jaskolski, Arkadiusz, and I were just under the eaves of the woods, so we heard them first. I stepped out from under a tree, scanning the sky above the treetops with my PS-31s. I picked up the dark dots against the sky pretty quickly, especially since they weren’t running blacked out. That made some sense, considering the game they were playing. They were only moving to counteract “instability” on the Polish side of the line, after all. They totally weren’t flexing for an invasion or otherwise intruding on sovereign territory.

Never mind that that had already happened. Those saps we’d killed under the trees were expendable, after all. Pawns in the game.

As they got closer, I could start to make out shapes. No attack helicopters this time, though they’d flown Hinds and even a couple of Ka-52 Alligators along the border recently. No, this was a four-ship flight of Mi-38s. The massive replacement for the aging Mi-17 could carry thirty troops. That meant if this went sideways, our eight Triarii and sixty-two Poles were going to be facing a hundred twenty Russian regulars. Not to mention any irregulars who’d survived our ambush.

Jaskolski was on the radio. Arkadiusz translated without prompting. “They are already being lit up by air defense radars, and they are being challenged over the radio not to enter Polish airspace.”

I just kept watching as the four helos banked aside from the border and started to circle above the strip of woods that stood along the demarcation line between Poland and Kaliningrad Oblast. So, they weren’t going to cross the line yet.

Arkadiusz listened, his head cocked, as we kept advancing along the woods toward where we’d made contact with the irregular intruders. I glanced at him, and even through the faint fuzziness of my NVGs at that distance, I could see him grimace. “And there is a motor rifle company right on the other side of the border checkpoint.”

“Of course there is.” I turned my eyes back up toward the helos. They had flared, slowed, and started to descend. “Have they answered the radio at all?”

“I don’t know.” Arkadiusz looked over at Jaskolski, who had finished on the radio, and stepped it out, his stride lengthening as he headed toward the border. We hurried to keep up, as Jaskolski switched channels and started barking orders over the radio.

“It sounds like they are saying that they have reports of firefights near the border, and so they are ‘securing’ the border while ‘offering assistance’ to us if we need it.” I didn’t need to see Arkadiusz’s face to tell what he thought about that. And I agreed. It wasn’t exactly a new gambit. Start trouble while your own forces are conveniently staged within close proximity, and then move in to “restore order.”

I kept watching the helicopters as we continued alongside the woodline. They were definitely coming in to land. “Looks like they’re touching down about a mile north of us, on the other side of that strip of woods on the Russian side of the border.”

Jaskolski looked over at me, and Arkadiusz translated. He nodded tightly. “They will deploy and move right up to the border,” Arkadiusz said as Jaskolski’s orders started to get passed, shouted through the woods. The pace picked up.

“Or over it.” While Jaskolski had picked up the pace again, none of us were having any trouble keeping up. We were in better shape and carrying lighter loads than the Territorial Defense boys and girls. “If that happens…”

“Then we are between the hammer and the anvil, my friend.” Arkadiusz wasn’t translating; I wasn’t even sure that Jaskolski had heard me, absorbed in the task of controlling his two platoons spread across half a mile of woods. I couldn’t disagree with him, though. Even with three new divisions landing in Gdansk, between the Americans, the Poles, and the Slovak and Hungarian volunteers, nobody on our side was in any position to fight a two-front war. The Russian Army might not be on par with the old Red Army, but it was still more than we could handle, especially when facing the European Defense Council and their cronies in the west at the same time.

The helos had vanished behind the trees, though I could still hear their rotors turning. They were technically in Russian territory, so they weren’t going to drop the troops and pop smoke. Which might be a good sign, or a bad one.

If the Russians were looking for an incident…

We pushed through the woods, hurrying to get into position ahead of the Russians. I hadn’t said anything to Jaskolski about getting to the bodies before the Russians could—there was a fence between Poland and Kaliningrad, but it wasn’t tall nor particularly hard to breach. And if the bad guys we’d shot had already breached it, it wouldn’t be hard for the Russians to claim that it had been cut before they’d gotten there. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d had somebody shoot things up in Mamonovo, just to provide a little bit more justification. After all, if the Poles were letting disorder spill over into Russian territory, then the Russians would have to do something about it.

If that sounds far-fetched, just remember that the FSB, as it was called at the time, bombed an apartment complex in Dagestan to justify the Second Chechen War.

Jaskolski had started to lag behind the line. Not because he was winded, but just because he was trying to keep track of three or four radio channels at once. He noticed, and stretched his long legs out again to catch up.

We swept up the line of woods toward the border, the Territorial Defense troops managing to maintain a fairly straight skirmish line, though it wobbled a bit. I could still hear the Mi-38s on the other side of the line, but nothing had gone boom yet, and it didn’t sound like the Motor Rifles lurking near the border checkpoint had opted to open the ball, either.

We might still manage to keep this tamped down. Unless Ivan was dead set on creating a “security buffer zone” in eastern Poland tonight.

After another hundred yards, I started to push back into the woods. Jaskolski and Arkadiusz trailed me after Arkadiusz murmured something to Jaskolski, probably telling him that we were just about even with the ambush site.

Scott and Chris had joined me, most of the rest of the team having spread out among the Territorial Defense troops. Part of our reason for being out there was to do a bit of Foreign Internal Defense, helping bolster the locals’ training and stiffen up that flank in between missions.

It had been a couple of months since one of the hairiest missions I’d ever been on in my life. Flying deep into France to take out a chunk of the French nuclear arsenal—currently under EDC control, and therefore a clear and present danger, especially as the EDC had started rattling that saber following the failed coup in Germany—wasn’t something most men got to say they’d done. And Hartrick and Gutierrez had tried to get us some lighter work to keep us from burning out. The comedown from that mission had been a bear.

But we were one of currently three Grex Luporum teams in country, and there was a lot of work. The war wasn’t going away anytime soon. This was a few weeks of relative down time, but we’d be back into the really dangerous stuff soon.

So, of course, our “down time” meant trying to keep a second front from opening up. A front that we couldn’t win.

We were getting close, so I slowed down, scanning the forest floor as carefully as I was scanning the trees for signs of the enemy. I doubted that our erstwhile adversaries had had the guts to come back; the Poles were making plenty of noise that would warn them off. They’d already been hammered by someone they couldn’t see, and now reinforcements were on the ground. If they’d run from us, I doubted they were going to come back and tangle with a much larger force.

But what those regulars were going to do was another question.

There. I moved toward the dark lump at the base of a tree. One of the dead irregulars was sprawled on his face, one arm underneath his body, the other just kind of out to one side. It was impossible to see the blood on his dark cammies in the grayscale white phosphor image, but he wasn’t moving.

Jaskolski and Arkadiusz joined me. The Territorial Defense soldiers to either side of us slowed as we stopped, but Jaskolski waved them forward, barking an order at their squad leader, who chivvied his charges forward. Jaskolski wanted guns up on the border.

He turned the body over with a boot, and pulled a light off his belt. I flinched a little as he turned it on, but we weren’t exactly being covert at this point.

He played the light over the body as I flipped my NVGs up so they wouldn’t get whited out. The man had taken two rounds, one to the body and the other to the throat. His front was doused in blood, and his face was already gray.

He was wearing plain green, with an ancient Russian AK chest rig and an AK-74 lay next to him with no sling. The chest rig only carried three mags, which were now covered in pine needles and leaves, glued to the Bakelite with drying blood.

His sleeves were partially rolled up, revealing the extensive tattoos on his forearms. More crawled up his neck. Jaskolski bent to examine them, then snorted as he stood. “Chernyye Volki. Black Wolves.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice as he looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Original.”

That had been for my ears, I was sure, since he’d spoken English.

“Nobody ever said Russian thugs were all that inventive.” I spat. “Night Wolves, Black Wolves, whatever. Confirms what we suspected.” The Russians were being somewhat sneaky. Send the gangsters across, let them cause trouble, then move in in the aftermath.

I suddenly had an idea. “Have you got litters in the trucks?”

Arkadiusz was already nodding as he asked Jaskolski. The Porucznik frowned at first as he answered in the affirmative.

“Let’s grab a few of your people and move these bodies out. Take ‘em back to Braniewo. Take pictures of the identifying tattoos and make them public.” I shrugged. “Hell, put the bodies on display, if it works. Spread the photos around as much as possible. Make it obvious to everybody that the Russians were behind it.”

Jaskolski thought about it for a second, and started to nod, but then a radio call crackled. Arkadiusz tilted his head to listen, but Jaskolski was already hustling toward the border, snapping a quick bit of Polish over his shoulder.

That much I caught. The lead elements had reached the fence, and the Russians were already there.

We ran through the woods. I was moving a bit better than the Poles; I could see better. I got up to the fence a few yards ahead of Jaskolski and Arkadiusz.

It was a Mexican standoff. The raiders had cut the fence. There was a gap in the wire about two yards across. And a full squad of Russian Army infantry was deployed right on the other side, mostly down on a knee behind trees, weapons held ready. The Poles were similarly set up, though one of Jaskolski’s platoon leaders was standing in the open, facing the gap in the wire, barely ten yards from the nearest Russian soldier.

At a glance, the two forces didn’t look that different. In the dark, even the Russians AK-12s and the Poles’ FB Beryls looked almost the same. But there was a lot of history and a lot of hate packed into that little patch of woods, and a whole lot of deadly consequences if somebody opened fire.

I’d probably have been more comfortable playing with matches in a warehouse full of nitroglycerine.

I said a quick prayer to God and St. Michael that we all got through this in one piece.

***

Jaskolski and the Russian company commander started to talk, using terps, across the line. I sent Arkadiusz up to listen in, but pulled the rest of the team back into the shadows, to watch and wait.

“Shouldn’t we be up there?” Jordan had gotten surprisingly eager on this mission. Ordinarily, his cynicism and the tank-sized chip on his shoulder made him standoffish and suspicious—sometimes even within the team. And he’d run into enough stares from the Poles in the rural areas that his sensitivity to racism—which he’d come by honestly, thanks to an American chapter of the Fourth Reich—had been flaring up pretty badly in recent months. But between getting back to his Special Forces, Unconventional Warfare roots with the Territorial Defense Brigade, and the friendship he’d formed with a young man who’d been helping out on the fort in Gdansk, a half-Pole, half-Nigerian whose loyalty and culture were all Polish, seemed to be mellowing him out some.

It was about time.

“It’s a tossup.” Scott fielded the question before I could. A former Recon Marine, Scott was our team diplomat as well as my right hand. He was also better read than I was, and I read a lot. “It might settle things to let the Russkies know that Americans are watching, but on the other hand, they know who Triarii are, and it might only throw gas on the flames.”

That was a sticking point to our presence and operations in Europe. The Triarii was a paramilitary NGO started by Colonel Joaquin Santiago several years before, as unrest tore at the fabric of the United States and the nastiest irregular war in the world encroached across the border and crept north, while the politicians decided that their petty grievances were more important.

But we were just that—irregulars. As a Non-Governmental Organization, we weren’t going to be recognized on the ground as formal representatives of the US Government, because we weren’t. After the open attacks on US peacekeeping forces in Slovakia, we’d been granted a Letter of Marque and Reprisal to prosecute the war in the name of the United States, but we were still auxiliaries—even though that term hadn’t been openly used yet. We worked hand-in-glove with the Army and the Marine Corps most of the time, but if the Russians wanted to call us mercenaries, they’d technically have a leg to stand on.

Either way, having Americans, and American mercenaries at that, on the ground in Poland probably wasn’t going to calm things down. It could, if the Russians decided that having the Americans turn our baleful eye on Kaliningrad, especially with the USS Abraham Lincoln and her Carrier Strike Group sitting right off the coast in the Baltic, was a bad call. But American might wasn’t what it once had been. The evidence for that was all around us, and it had started in Slovakia. Especially since the cyber-attack had all but crippled the US at home, and coordination and logistics were still screwed, months later.

On the other hand, our presence might only exacerbate the situation. With the Russians pointing to American mercs on the ground, they could muddy the waters about who had shot who on which side of the line, not to mention simply accusing the Poles of bringing American killers-for-hire in to start trouble. That might give the Russian company commander the cassus belli he needed to push across the line. For “security’s” sake, of course. It might not fly in the long run, but he had a hundred twenty men to our seventy.

“Scott’s right. I think we’ve got a better chance of keeping things calm if we stay out of sight.” I watched the conversation unfold. I couldn’t hear much, and my Polish and Russian were both too rusty to follow what was being said even if I could have. “It’s out of our hands for the moment. Just got to watch, wait, and be ready to fight like mad dogs and get as many of these kids out as we can if things go pear-shaped.”

***

We waited as the night dragged on, and rapidly mobilized elements of the 9th Armored Cavalry Brigade scrambled from Braniewo and deployed along the border, while two elements of Polish Air Force F-16s and a pair of Polish Mi-24 Hinds started orbiting above us.

Things were getting tense. Even in the grayscale view I had of the world through my NVGs, I could see the growing agitation on both sides of the line. Even without seeing the Polish and Russian body language, I could feel things getting closer and closer to the tipping point.

And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it but wait.

But nobody had opened fire yet. And finally, as the sky started to lighten in the east, behind the woods, the Russian commander stepped back and turned to his men. A few moments later, they were fading back into the woods.

“Well, we’re not dead. Great start to the day.” Greg just grinned as I turned toward him, his mustache outlining his teeth beneath his NVGs.

“Shut up, Strawberry. It’s too early for your cheerful bullshit.” I stood up. “Let’s fall back with our friends, retrieve those bodies, and get back to Braniewo.”

Greg, though, wouldn’t be suppressed. Even as we started to pull back from the border alongside the Territorial Defense troops, he piped up again. “Technically, since we haven’t slept yet, it’s late.”

“Shut up, Greg.”

Thunder Run will be out on Kindle and Paperback on Feb 26

Thunder Run Chapter 2

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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