Rexburg Burning, Part Three

Dispatch from post-America, 2041, the front lines of the second American civil war. Continued from Part Two

“Timur! Those were kids! Oh my god, those were kids! I thought this place was supposed to be evacuated? Why are there kids here, Chavez?

Timur didn’t have an answer. But as she shouted, Kim must have accidentally activated the radio, because her last words came out flattened and distorted by static.

“The hell?” Timur felt more than saw Chavez whip around to stare at Kim. “The hell you say?”

Half a dozen mortar rounds, then half a dozen more, crashed down onto the roofs of homes and vehicles all along the street, churning more drywall and glass into dust and fragments. The Leopard pulled out into the center of the next intersection, then turned its turret and fired at a target Timur couldn’t see.

All units, this is Ghurkha Six. Report immediately if you spot any civilians in the area!”

Timur stared out the gun camera. The Leopard’s hull turned to the left, and then the tank disappeared from the intersection, heading down Main Street. A few seconds later the Stryker reached the intersection and turned to follow, only to be struck by a hail of bullets fired from a group of nearby homes.

The area around the intersection erupted like a volcano, homes on either side of the Stryker raked by a torrent of autocannon fire from the Pumas that were following close behind. Glass and drywall and wood and shingles rained down all around them, sending clouds of chalky dust into the air. With a lurch the vehicle pressed on, following the Leopard through the lead storm, moving steadily west down the street. Pulling up the tactical map Timur saw that Jackson’s team was now two blocks to the north, also heading west, into Rexburg’s commercial district.

Ghurkha Six, this is Mustang Six. Confirm multiple sightings of civilians. Rexburg has not been evacuated. I repeat, we have civilians present. Rexburg has not been evacuated! All units, do your best to discriminate targets before firing!”

This time, Chavez’ string of escalating profanities lasted a full minute. Timur and Kim and Patrick all turned their visored faces to stare at one another. The intelligence had been wrong. The Deserets had occupied Rexburg, but not evacuated it. The town was supposed to be home to more than ten thousand people. How many had been able to leave before the battle had begun?

Timur saw teams of militiamen appear on three different second-floor balconies along either side of the street. Three bazooka-like AT-5s were hoisted onto shoulders, two pointing at the roof of the Leopard, one pointing at the roof of their Stryker.

Armored vehicles were not heavily armored on top. Timur felt his heart pound as he realized he had no choice. He raised the barrel of the autocannon as high as it could go and raked the second floor of each structure with autocannon bursts.

“Chavez! Why are we not getting out of here?” Kim shouted, waving one of her arms wildly, as if trying to catch Chavez’ attention. “We have to get out of here! We can’t trap these people in the middle of this!”

As if in reply, with a terrible crack and boom an AT-5 fired from a house less than ten meters away, impacting the sloped front of the Stryker’s turret, ricocheting off with a clang but still sending painful shockwaves through the interior. Half an instant later, one of the Pumas tore the home apart with its own autocannon.

This is Ghurkha Six to all units. Continue Thunder Run! Push west to Point Lindbergh. Grizzlies confirm EM transmissions matching profile of forward Deseret headquarters. That is our objective. Fight through, but remember the presence of civilians, and do what you can. See you all on the other side. Six out!”

“No!” Timur heard Kim shout, but though he felt the same, he knew the protest to be futile. It was like an old nightmare was coming to life. This wasn’t his first time in a firefight, surrounded by civilians who had no part in what was happening to them, who could do nothing but hope and wait for the madness to end. People with guns had just decided to fight over the bit of real estate they happened to call home. They were now little more than minor details of the landscape. Which, as bullets flew and shells burst, could only sit there and suffer the consequences.

“We have to leave, NOW!” Kim insisted, shouting.

For the first time since they’d met her, Timur realized, Chavez was truly angry. He could hear the fury in her voice.

“We. Can’t!” Chavez spat. “We can’t. For the same reason we couldn’t before. We try, they mass and almost certainly kill some of my people as we try to escape across open terrain. We give them a single moment to breathe, to reorganize, and we’re screwed. The only way out of this mess, is by punching right through.”

“God damn you and your glib bullshit!” Kim shouted. “So you only care about your people, and nobody else?”

“God damn the Deseret militia and their using civilians as shields!” Chavez shouted back. “And yes, right now, the only people I care about are my people. Don’t like it? Then get out and walk home.”

For a brief instant, Timur actually thought Kim would. And then more mortar rounds came down, the Leopard fired its cannon once, then twice, and more homes crumbled to dust.

Timur took a deep breath and kept fighting, shoving his dismay down into a deep dark place. He didn’t know what else to do. The Missoula Regiment column pushed steadily down the street, now actively tearing apart any structure that offered the slightest hint of sheltering militia fighters. Timur soon lost count of how many buildings he saw torn apart, ticky-tacky losing to high explosives every time.

Can someone tell me where those effing mortars are shooting from?” Timur heard Chavez shout. “Better yet, kill ‘em!”

Ghurkha Six, this is Queen Six. Got ’em locked in, finally. They’re firing from Point Hole, and we’re sending a return package in three… two… one… ”

The structures around them began to change, and Timur could tell that the Thunder Run had moved into the commercial district at the center of town. Timur saw another half a dozen militia teams appear on the tops of several two-story buildings. He and both Pumas raked the rooftops with explosive ammunition, sending those that survived scrambling for cover before they could even fire their weapons. He noticed that the Stryker’s reserve of explosive autocannon ammunition was beginning to dwindle, and he had only a dozen or so bursts left.

Chavez must have been checking his status, because he heard her voice just as he remembered that the Stryker was also equipped with a grenade machine gun, which would serve just about as well as the autocannon at this range and against these targets.

“Timur, switch to armor-piercing, and throw in some grenades for good measure if anybody don’t go down straight the hell away! Helos report scratch militia barricades, tires and trucks, all down main street, and hunter-killer teams taking shelter in structures along both sides, but tungsten rounds on the autocannon will go right through these buildings like a knife through cheese, and keep heads down even a full street over! Tanya and her gunships are prepped to go in and clean out the area, but they need us to work some magic to discourage any pricks with manpads from looking up at the sky long enough to take a shot.”

He sent two or three bursts of armor-piercing rounds through each building as they passed, listening as the crews of the Havoc attack helicopters flying to their north marked targets and fired their own autocannons and missiles, adding to the hellfire being dumped on the Deserets. Thud after thud, crack after crack, bang and screech and rumbling and radio cries filled his ears, all merging into a mass of indistinguishable noise.

The Missoula Regiment ripped through the center of Rexburg like a cybernetic tornado. The chaos only grew as they made their steady way west and in the dust and smoke and terror it soon became difficult to distinguish between Deseret militiamen and the groups of civilians who every now and again could be seen dashing like frightened ghosts through dirty haze, trying to escape from the path of the battle.

Just as the column finally exited the commercial district, now only a kilometer from its objective, a nondescript pickup truck exploded only a few meters from the leading Leopard. Timur gasped as the seventy ton-vehicle was thrown almost a meter into the air and to one side, smashing into a line of parked cars with an awful screech. Pieces of its dismembered rubber track smacked into the front of the Stryker, and Timur heard both Kim and Patrick shout in alarm.

Goddamnit, Brigitte took a hit! They’re using IEDs, now! Hell, Brigitte, you okay? Do you read?”

It took so long for a response that Timur assumed the crew was dead. Following the Missoula Regiment’s standard protocol, every remaining vehicle in the column opened fire at once, spreading lethality all three-hundred-sixty degrees around their position. Timur, firing past the stricken tank, sent hundreds of grenades and bullets into all of the nearest structures. The sound of the Stryker’s own weaponry merged with the firing and impacts of all the others in the area.

This is Ghurkha Six, Ghurkha Team, cease fire, cease fire!” Chavez called out. “I’ve got eyes-on Brigitte and her crew exiting their vehicle. Pack ’em in to the Pumas! When they’re secure, we turn and head north. We’ll join up with Mustang Team, and make the final push. Grizzlies report the Deseret HQ is set up in a church this side of Point Lindbergh. Move up, knock ’em down, and smoke ’em out!”

Timur was shocked to see all four members of the Leopard’s crew clamber out the back of the vehicle, then dash across the intersection to the safety of the Missoula Regiment column. Fortunately, none of the surviving Deseret militia teams that had to be nearby were apparently willing to pick their heads up to take a shot. Which was exactly the point of the barrage the surviving vehicles had just unleashed. Anyone nearby who wasn’t smart enough to keep their head well down during that barrage was probably dead, whether militia or civilian.

The vehicles moved out again, and Timur heard the throbbing sound of helicopters come faintly from overhead. He checked the tactical display and saw that four Havocs, now missing most of their missiles but looking no less lethal for that, were hovering overhead, as if daring the Deserets to fire at them. They provided cover, shooting their autocannons and what rockets they had left as the two columns merged, and Ghurkha Six took position just behind another Leopard tank, whose APS shot down one inbound AT-5 round after another as they made their final push to the Deseret headquarters.

Two hundred meters west of the church, the vehicles emerged from the suburbs. They were met with a storm of bullets, fired from crude fighting positions dug all across a children’s playground at the edge of a rather vast parking lot stretching all around the steepled three-story structure. Moments later, flashes and streaks of smoke indicated that the church itself functioned as a fighting position, and only the APS systems on the three Leopard tanks now pushing forward to cover their more vulnerable companions kept them safe as the last desperate Deseret defense fired one Javelin anti-tank missile after another at their assailants.

The Leopards ignored the infantry in the playground, leaving them to the Pumas and Strykers that fanned out behind, moving steadily forward and firing the last of their dwindling autocannon reserves at the closest defenders. Grenade machine guns barked more frequently than before, dropping clusters of explosive shells across the Deseret foxholes, many of which had been so hastily scraped into the dirt that they offered virtually no protection.

The tanks almost lazily blasted apart several clusters of trucks that were scattered across the parking lot like little island fortresses where the Deserets apparently thought they could make a stand. The Havoc gunships supported the tanks in showing them how wrong they were, while the Pumas and Strykers took care of several large militia teams that rushed on-scene from the north and south. And suddenly, amidst it all, as Timur frantically moved from target to target, firing off the last of his ammunition, and Patrick called out targets for one of the helicopters that had taken damage and lost some of its key sensors, Chavez actually began to laugh.

Good on you, Jackson!” Chavez called over the radio. “I didn’t even think to bring the Warlocks to the party. Niana, give ’em the dragon’s breath! Hit ’em baby, one more time!”

“You got it, Sandra!”

Timur was also surprised to see the engineers’ large and relatively vulnerable Warlocks pull up to the edge of the parking lot. And then they fired their demolition cannons, sending two, then four, then six thermobaric rounds through the side of the commandeered church.

It burned. The first detonations tore the roof apart and sent the white steeple crashing to the ground below. The next four simply added, quite literally, fuel to the fire, as their wicked payloads spread devastation across the remains of the tormented structure. The ignition of their combustible fuel sent shockwaves that shredded wood and crumbled marble, while simultaneously consuming the oxygen the occupants needed in order to breathe.

Neither the church nor the Deseret occupants could survive such an assault. Those that could run outside did, only to charge into a hailstorm of bullets and shell fragments. Many wore what Timur took to be a militia uniform. But some had to have been civilians.

The sun was beginning to settle in the west when the battle finally ended. Slowly, the guns fell silent, as the Deseret forces dwindled and died. Mostly, in vain. One group, a dozen desperate young men, charged a Stryker and actually destroyed it with plastic explosives jammed against the hull before its two crew members could escape. None of the attackers survived, but in the process of taking their revenge three members of one of the Puma dismount teams were struck by a pair of explosions, origin unknown, and even a thick armored carapace couldn’t protect one of them from the fatal concussive force of the blast.

When it was over, the infantry dismounts herded all those willing to surrender into a wide circle only a few meters away from where the church’s remains smoldered. Timur sat in his seat, utterly exhausted, as the Stryker’s driver parked the vehicle about a hundred meters from the edge of the circle. At first he didn’t leave the vehicle along with Chavez and Patrick and Kim. He had a mind to simply stay there and rest, alone and wrapped in dark thoughts, but a burst of shouting startled him. He unhooked his restraints, and cradled his rifle as he exited the back of the Stryker, wondering what was happening now.

Kim and Chavez stood, arms locked together, wrestling. For a brief instant, Timur thought they must be roughhousing, though why they’d do such a thing in this time and place, his tired mind couldn’t comprehend. But then he heard the fury in Kim’s voice.

“Why… did… you… make us… do that?!” Kim growled, over and over, struggling to shove her opponent backward onto the ground.

Chavez didn’t reply, she just twisted sideways, and tried to throw Kim to the asphalt. But Kim was ready for it, and with a sudden surge of strength she changed her grip and threw herself against Chavez’ waist. Both fell to the ground, bugsuits impacting with a loud thunk.

Kim, though, managed to fall on top. And immediately, she began pummeling Chavez’ helmet with her fists. Chavez, still, made no reply. She just grabbed first one, then the other, of Kim’s wrists, and held her in place, hard, as Kim tried to struggle against her grip.

“Why… did… this… happen?” Kim growled in frustration, then uttered a string of vicious curses, desperately angry at being unable to strike Chavez any more.

“Watch your mouth, kid.” Jackson said, stalking up, his visor raised and mask unclipped.

Kim ripped her arms free, but instead of striking Chavez again, she simply shoved herself to her feet, lifted her visor, and glowered menacingly at Jackson. Who calmly raised an eyebrow, and glowered right back.

Chavez stood up and removed her helmet entirely. If she’d been harmed by the assault, Timur could see no sign, though she did rub one of her temples and stretch her neck slowly to one side.

“Thanks, Kim, because I needed another traumatic brain injury.” Chavez muttered.

Kim swore at her, then pulled off her breath mask and swore again.

“I’ll let the obscenities stand.” Jackson said. “Because for once, someone is using profanity in an appropriate context, and not just substituting for their own lack of vocabulary. But watch your mouth anyway, scout. Unless you want to follow up trying a beat-down on Chavez with one on me.”

“I might!”

Chavez shook her head. “Don’t, Kim. Jackson takes his fights seriously. And you already wore yourself out on me. Don’t worry, I can take it. And, believe it or not, I do get your rage. I don’t blame you. You’d better believe I’m pissed too. I call bullshit on the entire operation! Damned Deserets… if I’d known they were this serious about playing militia games, I would have cut straight to the chase and nuked the bastards all the way back to Salt Lake City. Damn all militias to the pits of hell! Two “Ls” or one!”

Timur watched as Chavez stalked towards the circle of captured Deserets. There had to be hundreds, Timur thought. He was surprised that many had survived at all. Kim stared at her, then called after her.

“What is it with you and militias? We could have gotten out of here, but you wanted to push on!”

Chavez whirled around and shot such a lethal glare back at Kim that even she stopped mid-breath, not adding what she had clearly intended to. Then Chavez whirled again, and stalked the rest of the way over to the captives.

“Your lack of knowledge is getting irritating.” Jackson said to Kim, but tilted his head in such a way that Timur knew he referred to the three of them as a group. “You should know the answer to your question. And stop blaming Chavez for this. She took the path that minimized our casualties. You’d do the same, if you were her.”

“The hell I would!” Kim shouted.

“The hell you would.” Jackson replied, shaking his head. “You really need to get some perspective — Chavez is probably the most loyal person I have ever met. It’s why I helped recruit her to the Company, and why when I was her CO back in the day I always relied on her. She’s one of those unique people who is absolutely loyal to her people, whomever they are. And you are her people, now, which means that she’ll be absolutely loyal to you. In return, the least you could do is trust her judgment. Whatever her strange ideas about war and the world, know this: when people fight, other people get caught in the middle. Always been that way. No way around it. The moment the Deserets decided to occupy this village without evacuating it, this was bound to happen. We really thought they would evacuate it. If we had known, we would have gone about this very differently. But we didn’t know, and so it unfolded as it had to, once the militia made its choice.”

Timur could tell that Kim wanted to protest, and as some of his energy returned he gained more of a mind to protest along with her. Not that he entirely disagreed with Jackson, for once. But there was no time. Chavez now stood in front of the captives and began to speak, her voice amplified by the breath mask that she now reaffixed, and that coupled to her closed visor made her look cold and alien, a demonic judge passing sentence on the damned.

“Well.” Chavez said, her voice like ice, addressing the defeated Deserets, who stared at her, eyes hollow and half-seeing. “Well. Apparently, you jackasses, you morons, you idiots, haven’t learned a goddamn thing from the past fifty years of militias doing ridiculous things. Well. Now you pay the price. Although I do my very best to ignore any Company policy I don’t personally agree with, my bosses have been getting on me lately for failing to fulfill my quotas. See, we have to recoup the costs of dealing with fools like you somehow, per Company policy. So I’m supposed to be sending a fixed number of folks annually to join the bonded labor market. In case you yokels hadn’t heard, rich folks in Singapore and Shanghai and Dubai and Corsica and Chicago really just like having indentured servants around. People to clean the drains, and trim the grass, and raise those pesky, spoiled kids. I mean, back when they all decided that they didn’t want scary immigrants to do those jobs, ’cause they have, like, rights and stuff, this became inevitable, didn’t it? Rich folk ain’t gonna trim their own hedges, y’dig? At least, not when they can contract with a third party to provide low-cost — ah, services, I’m supposed to call them.”

Chavez paused, and glared for a long time at the crowd, comprised almost entirely of young men. Some, Timur realized with a shock, were altogether too young. Chavez cleared her throat.

“You, Deseret militia, I pronounce to be an illegal fighting force. You are protected by no treaty, no formal status agreement, and thereby have no rights whatsoever. You are all formally categorized as bonded labor, and as soon as we can arrange transportation, you will be transferred to the nearest facility equipped to handle a few hundred young men foolish enough to believe that an old religious legend would actually protect them in the real world. And as you go, remember this: the people, the innocent people who died here today — their blood is on your hands. You opened fire, you violated the terms of our ceasefire with the Deseret Nation. You’ve been used, and now you pay the price. If ever any of you are fortunate enough to return to your homes in Provo and Pocatello and Salt Lake City, you should work to hold those who sent you here accountable for their crimes.”

In the darkening eastern sky, the shapes of a dozen Stallion helicopters appeared, growing ever larger until the whump-whump of their rotors merged with the higher-pitched whump-whumps of the Havoc gunships that continued to fly in lazy circles around the ruined church. Jackson and Chavez instructed the teams that had cleared Rexburg to establish a defensive perimeter, in case any surviving militia teams tried to free their comrades. Then, along with Timur, Patrick, and Kim, they boarded a helicopter and flew, without speaking, back to Yellowstone.

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Coordinates described in the narrative can be looked up on Google Earth if you are nerd like me who enjoys tracking the course of the battle on a map.