Rexburg Burning, Part Two

A dispatch from the front lines of post-America — continued from Part One

Timur’s camera was angled past the front-left side of the Stryker, when he saw several dull smoky flashes, one of them beside a house not twenty meters in front of them. He cried out in alarm just in time for two projectiles to smash into the front of the Stryker, each exploding with a terrible clang and boom.

Contact report!” He shouted into his mask, nearly stunned by the force of the blasts on the hull and the pressure wave that rushed through the interior an instant later.

This is Ghurkha Six!” Chavez shouted. “Contact report! Taking fire, multiple shooters! RPGs and small arms!”

The contact reports came flooding in as two more explosions rocked the Stryker, and Timur looked out from the camera feed, half dazed, watching lines of bright tracers reach across the sky, some passing close overhead, others terminating in a hailstorm of ricochets all along the Stryker’s hull and turret.

Ghurkha Six, this is Ghurkha Five. Taking fire and dishing it right back!”

Timur panned the camera towards the Puma that led their push into the town. The IFV’s autocannon thumped and grenade machine gun rattled, and he watched the muzzle flashes send half a hundred explosive shells into the houses nearby. Drywall crumbled and glass shattered as one home in particular was rapidly demolished, first its front and then its entire roof collapsing into rubble.

Ghurkha Five, this is Six. Confirming inbound fire as RPGs and MGs. Nothing heavier, yet. Looks like we’re dealing with more effin’ militia!”

Timur twisted around to check on Kim and Patrick, but a series of too-familiar, higher-pitched shrieks obliterated his concern. He flinched and winced as half a dozen explosions rocked the Missoula Regiment vehicles.

Ghurkha Three, this is Six! They’re gunning for us with mortars, now. Take point, and hit back with grape as you see fit. Let the APS take care of these damned AT-5 shots.”

“Affirmative Six! Any idea why the local net ain’t workin’? The radio freqs are gettin’ too noisy!”

The roar of a Leopard tank’s engine revving to maximum power came through Timur’s headset, and he looked out of the camera just in time to see Ghurkha Three maneuver around the Stryker and Puma, its seventy-ton bulk crashing through two pickup trucks parked on the street in front of a well-manicured blue home.

Some distance past the Leopard, Timur’s eyes caught the distinctive flash of more anti-tank weapons firing across the gap, but an instant later two ugly puffs of smoke appeared between attackers and defenders, and he heard the report of the Leopard’s active protection system firing what amounted to a giant radar-aimed shotgun, clouds of pellets detonating the inbound warheads.

Then more mortar rounds crashed all around them, and the camera feed went dead.

“Damn it, we lost part of the Rista mast!” Chavez shouted, then Timur heard her call out over the radio as he switched to a different camera. “Ghurkha team, advance! Move to Point Brick, and… ”

A shrieking sound passed overhead, then a moment later terminated in a thunderous bang that ripped open the entire street-facing side of the nearest house.

Hell, Six, this is Ghurkha Four! They’re shooting from behind now, and this bunch has got Javelins!”

Chavez hissed something obscene before replying.

Ghurkha team, push on hard and fast! Queen, Dazzle, I want suppression fires from startpoint four-three point eight-two zero by one-one-one point seven-six-eight, then two hundred north, and two hundred east. Burn everything in that square!”

“Um, this is obviously a planned ambush, don’t you think?” Kim shouted, and Timur heard fear and frustration in her voice. The Stryker’s engine revved up, and with a lurch the vehicle accelerated. He heard Queen and Dazzle confirm the coordinates over the radio.

“So why we aren’t getting the hell out of here?” Kim asked, still shouting to be heard over the cracks and booms outside. “Instead of driving forward?”

“Got two choices with an ambush.” Chavez replied, yelling herself, and Timur flinched as more booms crashed all around them, and then he heard a vicious screech, the sound of an anti-tank round slipping through the Leopard’s defense system only to be deflected by the tank’s thick hide.

“Both involve escaping the kill zone asap!” Chavez continued, “If you trip the thing early enough, before you are full-on in the bad guys’ kill zone, you fire off every weapon you have all at once and pull right the hell back while they duck behind cover. But if you don’t, then your best bet is to attack into the ambush. Use the fact that they’ve revealed their positions and intentions, and turn the thing around on them! Beats the other option — holding in place, taking what they throw at you on terrain they chose for the fight!”

Ghurkha Six, this is Mustang Six. Mustang One and Mustang Two have reached Point Nightingale. Taking small-arms fire from the ground floor and roof. Sending dismounts in to clear up to roof level now. Be advised, they have hunter-killer teams with ATGMs driving in behind us, trying to ring us in. Recommend calling in helo support immediately.”

“Agreed, Mustang Six. Ghurkha Team will fight through and secure Point Brick. We’ll reassess there. But my gut says we’re gonna hafta do a Thunder Run, and tell Stalin to ‘urrah’ his arse here double quick to make sure we don’t end up getting swarmed. No telling how many of these militia varmints we’re dealing with here!”

“I said,” Kim repeated, “why not take option A, and pull back out of here? There’s no way you expected this much opposition, unless you were bs-ing us at the briefing!”

“Nope!” Chavez replied. “But now that they’re here, I’ma gonna kill ’em all. Sure, the storm sounds bad out there, but if this is all they’ve got to back up their claim to this pissant town — they’re done. Won’t be much of the place left in the end, but won’t be many of them left either. I ain’t passin’ up this opportunity, now they’ve thrown down a gauntlet and forced my hand!”

With a lurch the Stryker turned left down a new road, and a few moments later it turned left again, slowed, parked, and the back ramp began to whirr its way down. Timur and his friends acted automatically, checking their rifles to make sure they were loaded with lethal rounds, then cradling the boxy weapons they dashed across a brief open space and into the relative shelter of the foyer of an abandoned elementary school.

The four Scouts spread out, all pointing their weapons down the hallways leading off the school’s foyer. Timur checked his map to confirm what he thought he’d seen while evacuating the Stryker: Two teams of dismounted infantry from the Pumas had already entered the school, and were about to complete their sweep through the two-story building, checking the rooms one by one.

The sound of gunfire and explosions sounded again and again, echoing across the embattled town. North of their position, at the Rexburg hospital — Point Nightingale — blue icons denoted twenty fighters in bugsuits moving methodically through the building. Red icons flashed into life as they encountered and reported resistance, only to quickly disappear as the blue-icon teams swept through the building. The radio was so awash in contact and status reports that Timur quickly lost track of them all.

“Point Brick is clear.” called out a man in a bugsuit, pulling off his mask as he ran up to where Chavez crouched, doing computer work while her teams secured the area. Timur wondered why their local network had stopped working. “No contacts here. Ghurkha Five is on the roof, and they’re reporting quite a show — helos are wrecking the neighborhood just north of the hospital, and our artillery is burning the one behind us. Think we’ve got this one beat, Chavez?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. There’s a whole hell of a lot of them, and they were reasonably prepared. More are probably moving to engage. Which probably means we’ll be seeing more Javelins, once they figure out our path of advance and set up local ambushes. Damn, I didn’t want this op to turn into a furball!”

“Then like I said,” Kim replied in a firm voice, turning to stare at Chavez and lifting her visor, “we should get out of this hole of a town while we can. You people have all kinds of jets and artillery, right? Why not just let them take care of these militia people while we drive on out of here?”

“Sorry, Kim, won’t work — contact reports I’m reading indicate they’ve got a lot of anti-tank missiles. Javelins, which are a lot like our Spikes, and nasty business for anyone mounted up in a steel box. We try to pull back, and we’ll have to cross a ton of open area. Way too much! We’ve only got four Leos with APS, and our Strykers and Pumas are vulnerable — and…”

All units, contact report: They’ve got SAMs! Confirm two Stinger launches, one helo heading back to base with moderate damage.”

“Damn!” Chavez growled. “Damn, damn, damn! Ugh, the Deserets must have handed off some of the good stuff to these guys as they pulled back. The militia that attacked down south had much crappier equipment and got eaten alive by Tania and her Havoc jocks.”

“No.” Chavez continued, shaking her head. “We try to pull back over that open country, we will take losses. They may have negated our speed advantage in this damned suburban warren, but these pricks aren’t the regular Deseret army. They won’t have the same level of discipline or tactical proficiency. We can take ’em in-close, where they can’t throw swarms of Javelins at us, and have to rely on this RPG and small arms bullshit. So we treat ’em to a Thunder Run, like Baghdad in ’03 or Lahore in ’25. So! Kids, I know y’all gonna hate this, but here’s how this’ll go from here on: I’ma leave our gimpy Rista Stryker here with the scouts on the roof, and they’ll keep an eye on our flank, ambush anyone trying to come around and hit us from behind. We’ll pack into the combat Stryker with the good guns, and push up towards Main Street, then head west. Mustang Six will push west too, and we’ll parallel our way to the airport. Let ’em keep trying to pick at our flanks with potshots — we’ll just go take out their HQ. Which, based on the electronic intel I’m being fed on my special channels, is over by the airport. Again I say, vamos!”

Timur almost didn’t get up to follow her, seeing that Kim wasn’t getting up to move, and wanting to give her support. But Patrick, with a loud and fearful sigh, did. Slowly. Timur raised his visor and looked into Kim’s dark eyes. She shook her head. He shrugged. And after watching Patrick get up and walk after Chavez, he did the same. Kim, shaking her head, followed soon after.

A minute later they dashed across the school playground and strapped into the back of the Combat Stryker. Timur plugged into the external camera feed, and a red targeting indicator suddenly appeared on his visor, bullseye pointed towards the western horizon, through a gap in a cypress hedge and out across a field, beyond which Timur could make out the shapes of civilian vehicles careening back and forth along a wide avenue.

“Timur,” Chavez said, reaching across the aisle to whack at Timur’s shoulder. “Ghurkha One’s gunner got hisself all concussed on the drive in, so he’s hanging back here. You’ve done well enough on the range exercises the past few weeks that I’m designating you our gunner for the rest of the ride. Patrick, Kim, spot targets and call ’em out for Timur to engage! We’re in too delicate of a position to let either of you play with air or fires support, but if something happens to me, you take those roles back over and do your best. Now, on we go, to beat this silly ambush and show these militia twits what real fighters can do!”

Timur had noticed that whenever Chavez lapsed into a sort of redneck patois, that was a sure sign of stress. He wondered if there was something else she wasn’t telling them, but then the detonations of another half a dozen mortar rounds along the hedge sent wood splinters pinging off the Stryker’s hull, tearing him from his thoughts.

The Stryker surged forward with a sudden jerk, and the roaring engine sent the wheeled vehicle north from the elementary school, down another suburban street. While the gun camera displayed directly to Timur’s visor, to accurately control the vehicle’s weapons required a more substantial control mechanism than his haptic gloves alone. Clutching what amounted to a video game controller, he panned the gun camera from side to side, watching the targeting reticle lag slightly behind the camera’s center point. Timur stared so hard into the digital display that his eyes soon began to ache. He started to be able to feel them darting from side to side in their sockets, fiercely intent on any and all windows, walkways, and hedges — anything that could offer an enemy cover, seeking always for any hint of movement.

This is Mustang Six. Report Point Nightingale is now secure. Leaving Scout team at summit for overwatch and moving west to join the Thunder Run as requested. Be advised, Ghurkha Team, there’s a whole lot of movement coming up from Point Frat. Suggest dropping the Hammer on the area to suppress.”

Chavez swore before replying.

“This is Ghurka Six. Affirmative, Mustang Six. Palantir, do we have a secure connection to Hammer Three? Our local net is being jammed, but radio commo is still up.”

Palantir didn’t reply, but the Mjolnirs assigned to offer them air cover were listening in.

“Ghurkha Six, this is Hammer Three. Palantir is busy with opfor aviation games off to the south. Grizzly Five is maintaining the radio link despite their jamming. We’ve been monitoring the situation and are already inbound, and have Point Frat’s coordinates locked in. Ghurkha Six, please confirm your position to ensure we don’t leave with any regrets.”

Chavez complied, and a moment later Timur heard the distant roar of low-flying aircraft approaching.

This is Hammer Three, Ghurka Team, your positions are confirmed, and we’ll keep well clear. Be advised, Grizzly Six marks four civilian-type vehicles coming at you from the west, less than two hundred meters out!”

“Timur!” Chavez shouted. Timur spun the turret to the left, and a moment later the Stryker entered an intersection, where the driver slowed to give Timur time to assess the situation down the street. It didn’t take him long. The four vehicles were already screeching to a halt behind some kind of crude barricade made of parked cars and piled tires, and rifle muzzles flashed, sending bullets pinging off the Stryker’s armor. And then he saw two pairs of young men dressed in camouflage leap out of the back of the trucks, and begin assembling a pair of Javelin anti-tank missiles, plugging the command modules into the missile tubes.

Timur depressed the trigger more out of instinct than conscious thought. He held it down for two seconds, then released, shifted the targeting reticle slightly, and did it again. And a third time. The Stryker rocked rhythmically and his ears throbbed as the autocannon fired bursts of explosive shells, tearing apart metal and flesh with equal aplomb.

The sound of a Leopard tank firing its own massive cannon startled Timur, and seeing that his targets were no more, he slewed the Stryker’s turret back towards the north, just in time to see the tank fire again, blasting someone’s suburban home into fragments. From the house next door there came a flash followed by a terribly a loud bang, and Timur heard the screech of another AT-5 round glancing off the Leopard’s turret.

Timur didn’t wait, but sent half a dozen bursts from the autocannon past the Leopard and into the structure. Glass shattered, beams splintered, and then another blast from the Leopard’s cannon sent what was left crumbling to rubble and dust.

The Stryker seemed to shudder and sway, and the sound of yet more contact reports began to sound like an unintelligible stream of echoes indistinguishable amidst the firecracker-like detonations to their south.

This is Hammer Five. Just dumped a few tons of cluster on Point Frat. We’ve got secondary explosions all over the place — they must have been using some of the old university buildings as ammo dumps. Be advis….

An obscenity followed, then chaotic shouting over the radio, culminating in a loud bang. Half a second later Timur saw the dissipating trail of smoke on his camera feed.

This is Hammer Six. Five is okay, just down an engine. Buggers have way too many manpads down there! But there’s about a square kilometer of real estate that just got blasted to moonscape, so that’ll keep your southern flank reasonably clear for the time being.”

Chavez’ reply was drowned out by the sound of the Stryker’s engine revving again, and with a lurch the vehicle pulled out of the intersection and raced after the Leopard, which had picked up speed as it dashed on towards the next intersection.

Flashes from another house sent tracers plinking across the Leopard’s hull and turret, ricochets bouncing at random away from the point of impact. Timur knew he was in the best position to help, and moved the targeting indicator to the front of the offending home. A few bursts later, and the flashes ceased.

Then more flashes and tracers came from a house on the other side of the street, and Timur twisted the turret to engage. But there was no need — the Leopard got there first, and another blast of buckshot annihilated the structure. An SUV caught in the blast burst into flames, and Timur shut his eyes out instinct, forgetting that his visor would automatically compensate to protect his vision. When he opened them again, he realized that he had inadvertently rotated the turret, and it was now pointed directly to the Stryker’s right-hand side, camera zoomed in on the front window of another home.

“Oh hell, Timur… ” Kim said, shock clear in her voice.

He saw them too, and pulled his finger away from the trigger just in time, heart thumping as if it wanted to burst out of his chest. Two faces, very small faces, peered with wide, terrified eyes out the front window of the home. Timur froze for what felt like an eternity, staring in shock. The window slid out of view as the Stryker drove on, but not before the faces suddenly disappeared, pulled by unseen arms away from the danger of the glass window.

Concludes in Part Three