“To your three ‘o clock!”
Deckard shouted over the assault net as he ran but it was already too late.
Five treaded vehicles burst from behind the slope and rolled onto the airfield, their turrets scanning in all directions for targets. Then the slaughter began. 12.7 anti-aircraft guns mounted on the tanks opened fire, yellow flashes bursting from the muzzles as anti-aircraft rounds began tearing into Fedorchenko’s platoon.
Deckard hit the ground, hoping to avoid being detected by the tanks. He was out in the open in the middle of the airfield, just like Fedorchenko’s men. He watched helplessly as a half dozen of his men burst into pieces, turning the snow red, as they tried to run. The gray colored tanks rolled across the airfield, the rotating turrets on top had 12.7 DShK machine guns loaded into the cradle. Deckard noted to two rectangular radar dishes sticking from the sides of the turret like ears. There was also a sensor suite on the gun platform for thermals. Two of the tanks locked on to other targets, Samruk’s second platoon over at the barracks, and took off on a new trajectory.
Fedorchenko’s men had beaten an embarrassing and chaotic retreat to find some low ground to take cover in after their number were thinned out as they crossed the airfield. They were still in danger of being over run by the armored vehicles in seconds as the tanks were not about to be slowed down by Kalashnikov fire.
Deckard panted, his body already covered in sweat from the brief run. The great irony of the arctic was overheating inside all of your cold weather gear. Fedorchenko’s men were staring down three tanks and no matter how badass a Infantrymen you were, enemy armor could steam roll you in a heart beat without air support. That was when Deckard had another dumb idea.
He might be able to peel one of the tanks away from Fedorchenko’s platoon so that they would face two instead of three, maybe even giving them fighting chance. Getting to his feet Deckard unloaded on the closest tank, about a hundred meters away, with his AK-103. His rounds sparked off the side of the tank, drawing its attention. The treads on one side of the tank reversed while the other continued forward, making a sharp right turn towards Deckard as the gun turret was already seeking him out.
As the tank swerved towards him, Deckard sprinted, but not in the opposite direction. He ran straight towards it.
Crazy as it sounded, Deckard knew that trying to out run the tanks was pure suicide across open terrain. His only chance was to charge it, knowing that the machine gun had limits to its elevation angle. His hood flew off his head as he ran directly at the tank, sweat running down his neck, when thick gray smoke suddenly burst all around Fedorchenko’s position as his men deployed thermal smoke grenades. The tank was now facing Deckard and he was staring right down the barrel of the Russian anti-aircraft gun.
Deckard dived forward as the DShK opened fire.
* * *
The Russian robotic tank swung towards the two new Samruk International recruits. It was only their second mission with the company and they were already being run to ground by robots with machine guns.
Maurizio and Jacob were quickly separated from the rest of their platoon as twin tanks suddenly assaulted the barracks and opened fire on the Samruk International mercenaries. So much for following the clues and unraveling the mystery of what happened to the base on Kotelny Island, the answer had become immediately clear to them.
The Italian and the Danish mercenary did what all the others had done, the only thing they could do, run and try to find cover. One of the tanks homed in on them, firing bursts that chewed through the snow next to them. By zigzagging a few times they had managed to avoid being cut down in the open snow drifts, the computer targeting programming that the tank used clearly had a hard time leading targets, but they both knew they only had seconds before the machine gun fire walked into them.
“This way,” Jacob said, grabbing Maurizio’s sleeve. They cut a hard left and descended down a snow bank. Both mercenaries tripped in the knee deep snow and rolled down the embankment. Both men flopped through the snow, the tank quickly bearing down on them.
Maurizio lay on his back at the bottom, looking up at the ridge as the automated tank rolled over the edge. The turret swung towards them. The former Italian counter-terrorist operator rolled the stock of his Kalashnikov into his shoulder, ready to go down in a blaze of glory. Both mercenaries fired ineffectively at the vehicle.
The turret tried to lock onto its targets as the tank platform it was attached to began to slide in the snow. The DShK opened fire, 12.7 rounds spraying right in front of the mercenaries. Then the tank lurched again and began sliding down the embankment. The European mercenaries continued to fire, cycling through their 30 round magazines. Their bullets smacked into the tank armor, the turret, and the machine gun.
Now the robotic tank was sliding down on top of them. Maurizio struggled to his feet. Grabbing Jacob with both hands he pulled and pushed him out of the way as the tank rolled over in the snow. It flopped down just a few feet way, crushing the turret under the tank platform. The tank treads spun, but with the vehicle flipped upside down it was going nowhere fast.
The Dane and the Italian looked at each other with wide eyes.
“Che palle,” Maurizio whispered.
What a ball breaker.
* * *
Bullets ripped just inches above Deckard and slammed into the snow covered runway, stitching a burst across the tarmac that kicked up ice and debris. Deckard slid forward on his forearms as the toes of his boots slid, attempting to gain purchase on the ice. He got halfway up, stumbled forward, fell, and the tank was on top of him. The mercenary laid as flat as possible, tightly gripping his Kalashnikov.
His ears rang as the tank rumbled right over him, the clanking treads passing on either side of him.
Seeing daylight again as the tank passed, Deckard sprang to his feet, ran a few more paces to catch up with the tank as it searched for new targets, and jumped.
His hand seized a thick rubber cable looping down from an antenna on the back of the tank. With a sudden jerk, Deckard was lifted off his feet and dragged behind the tank. With the AK slung over his shoulder, Deckard reached out and grabbed the cable with both hands. His gloves had a good grip, but his hands still slipped around inside them. Knowing that he was all out of options, Deckard ignored the pain in his shoulders, gripped the cable tighter, and climbed hand over hand.
As he gripped the antennae mast and pulled himself on top of the tank, he saw over his shoulder that Fedorchenko’s employment of smoke grenades for concealment had worked, confusing the tanks while Samruk’s Gustav gunners began reeking havoc. It looked like they had already scored a mobility kill against one tank as it spun in circles on one tread, the other disabled.
The tank cut a turn, nearly throwing Deckard off as he hugged the antennae mast. From the sensor array, he knew immediately what he was looking at. It was not a manned battle tank but rather a deadly remote controlled one. It was a unmanned vehicle, receiving signal commands from the antennae that he clung to. The Russians called these types of tanks a Mobile Robotic Complex, and this particular model was nicknamed the Wolf-2. Good for protecting arctic infrastructure since robots never got cold like soldiers do.
Since it was a robot, Deckard knew he didn’t have to actually destroy the tank. All he needed to do was make it blind and deaf by disabling its sensor array. Robots were a lot easier to game than human beings since they operate within such strict programmed parameters, like the way he easily got underneath the attack angle allowed by the mechanics of the machine gun turret. A human operator would have known better.
The tank was circling around, scanning for more targets. Deckard climbed across the top of the vehicle as it sped across the runway, moving towards the radar dishes mounted on the turret. Reaching for his chest rig, he began freeing a hand grenade when the Wolf-2’s radar locked onto a target. The entire gun turret swung around to fire.
Deckard hardly saw the DShK barrel coming as it slammed into his chest. Picked up off his feet, his legs dangled in the air off the side of the tank as the barrel began spitting fire.
* * *
Nikita threw himself through the doorway as automatic gunfire ripped the walls down around him. Between bursts, he could hear the clank-clank-clank of the tank treads, then another burst of anti-aircraft rounds that poked holes through the walls of the barracks that were about as big around as his thumb.
First Fedorchenko’s platoon got hit out on the airfield and then a minute later Sergeant Shatayeva’s platoon was getting pounded at the abandoned barracks. The soldier housing complex was made up of adjoining compartmentalized containers that had been elevated on stilts to keep them above the snow and ice. The barracks had already been torn apart when they got there, the gory remains of frozen Russian soldiers decorating what was left of their living quarters.
Now the entire complex was being turned into a giant gerbil maze filled with Samruk mercenaries trying to find concealment as the tank’s radar guided machine gun sought them out from below. Nikita cursed himself as he came up on a knee. He poked his head out thinking that his camouflage uniform would keep him from being spotted.
It was called chromacamo. Extremely expensive and only available in limited numbers, chromacamo was a type of ‘smart’ camouflage that changed color to match the the soldier’s environment. Nikita had first experimented with it during a mission to Mexico, but now the entire sniper and recce section made use of it.
Camouflage worked great at keeping the sniper concealed from drug traffickers, terrorists, and enemy soldiers, but this was a different ball game. The thermal and radar system on the automated hunter/killer tank below skipped right passed the optical illusion created by camouflage. It was designed to deceive the human eye, not a robotic one.
The radar or thermals on the mobile robotic platform must have picked up on something because another long burst of autofire began tearing through what was left of the facade left holding up the roof. Nikita rolled left with his HK 417 rifle in his hands as more holes were punched through the floor. The entire barracks was disintegrating right out from under him.
Climbing through a ragged hole in the far wall, Nikita escaped out the back. A narrow cat walk led him to a metal ladder. Slinging his rifle, he began to scale it up to the roof. The tank was on a war path and running away would just earn him a bullet in the back. Up on the roof he caught a gust of arctic wind to the face, snow flakes whisking over his goggles. Then he caught sight of a dozen other mercenaries up on the rooftops of the adjacent buildings. They were all laying low without adequate weapons to address the problem below.
One of the American mercenaries was on the radio, hissing into the mic to the mortar section that had been getting set up near where the Carrickfergus made its landing. Not that calling in a fire mission was even possible. They were just meters away from the tank below and mortars rounds would rain down right on top of them.
Nikita crept to the edge of the roof and risked a glance down. The tank was still clanking between the barracks buildings. It locked on to something for a second and let off a couple rounds. They could always wait around for the tank’s magazine to empty as it lit up suspected targets, but who knew how many friendlies would be killed in the process?
With 7.62 rifles, they might be able to take out the thermal and radar targeting sensors if they focused enough coordinated fire on them. But from their vantage point, he had a better idea.
“Grenade,” Nikita said to the others. They looked up at him as his uniform changed colors from white to gray, matching the metal roof of the barracks. Each of the mercenaries yanked the pin on a hand grenade.
A dozen hand grenades rained down on the robotic tank below. Blast after blast ripped across the tank in a shower of sparks and brown smoke. Some detonated harmlessly in the snow but others landed on top of the tank. The armored portions were unaffected, but several blasts left the radar ears on the side of the gun turret torn to shreds.
The tank drove along in short stunted bursts, rocking to a stop, trying to lock onto targets, then driving along for a few more meters. The computer brain inside the vehicle was unable to function properly with its eyes and ears taken out.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” the American mercenary yelled over the wind to Nikita. “Then mortar this place with willy pete,” he said referring to white phosphorus rounds which would burn everything to the ground.
Nikita paused for a moment. The veteran sniper was realizing that his old tactics and techniques were not working anymore. The environment was different. The enemy was different. The rules had been changed without anyone telling him and he wasn’t adapting fast enough.
“Da,” Nikita replied. “Burn it.”
* * *
Deckard clung to the DShK barrel as it flung him through the air. He almost slipped off again when the gun turret lurched to an immediate stop and opened fire. Looking behind him, Deckard hopped backwards and landed on the front of the tank. His chest was tight like someone had just whacked him with a baseball bat. Actually, it had been a machine gun barrel but he would worry about how black and blue he was some other time.
Initially, he had planned to destroy the antenna mast. Interrupting communications between the tank and whatever control mechanism it had might do the trick, but now that he was in front of the tank he had access to an even better target. In front of the gun turret, below the barrel was a ammunition drum loaded with the 12.7 machine gun rounds that fed into the DShK on a metal link belt.
Reaching into a pouch on his chest rig, Deckard produced a door charge. The segments of explosive cutting tape were designed for punching through doors so that assaulters could rush inside and clear a building. It would do a good number on the tank turret too.
Peeling off the plastic strip off the adhesive glue on the back of the charge, Deckard slapped it onto the ammo drum. The DShK ceased firing, then scanned for another target, causing Deckard to duck under the barrel before his head was taken off. Working quickly, he strung in the initiation system, a line of shock tube connected to a ignitor with a pull pin.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the tank he was on had locked onto Fedorchenko’s position. In a few moments he would probably be lit up by his own men when the tank started shooting at them. Two burning tank hulks were laid out in front of the platoon already and he had no doubt that they were already shifting fire to the third one.
Deckard put his finger through the pin on the ignitor and rolled off the side of the tank.
His boots came down first, absorbing some of the shock, then he landed on his side, bouncing painfully on the ice. Twisting and turning the pin on the ignitor, the chemical reaction in the shoc tube caused it to blink neon blue for a micro-second.
The turret blew sky high.
Deckard cringed as the DShK actually separated from the turret and went spinning through the air. The tank rolled to to a halt and what was left of the machine gun landed somewhere behind him. Under his jacket, Deckard was saturated in sweat. He struggled to catch his breath as he got up and examined the damage. There were three smoking tank husks out on the airfield. The other two must have gone to hunt down his guys at the barracks. At least he didn’t hear them shooting, giving him some hope that they had already been taken out.
“Both platoons,” Deckard said into his radio. “ACE report.”
ACE was a military acronym which stood for ammo, casualties, and equipment. It was a very brief report that small unit leaders sent up to higher to inform their leadership as to how much ammo they had left, anyone who had been killed or wounded, and the state of their combat gear and weapons. As he waited for the reports to roll in from his platoon Sergeants, Deckard walked towards Fedorchenko’s position. They had found refuge in a small depression from which they had masked themselves with smoke grenades and fired Anti-Tank weapons. Still, Deckard knew it was going to be bad. He had seen the aerosol spray of blood in the air himself.
“2nd Platoon,” Shatayeva reported in from the barracks. “Five magazines per man, two KIA, up on weapons and equipment.”
Deckard took a deep breath as he neared the lifeless bodies of his men laying strewn across the airfield.
“1st Platoon,” Fedorchenko’s voice said over the net. “Four magazines per man, seven KIA, one Gustav destroyed.”
Deckard stood in front of the first body he came across, understanding why one of their Gustav recoiless rifles had been destroyed. One of the newer group of guys, Marty had also been cut in half by DShK fire. He was a good dude from 1st Ranger battalion. Now he lay on his back with his arms sprawled out and bent at the elbows like claws. His mouth was left ajar with ice clinging to his short beard. There was nothing they could have done for him.
Not far from him was another corpse. Deckard knelt down next to him. Frank had been with Samruk International since the beginning, one of Deckard’s first hires to the company. He had been a Special Operations legend, at least among those in the know. Having served in the Ranger Regiment’s Ranger Reconnaissance Detachment and then in the Intelligence Support Activity, he had pulled off some very hairy assignments.
Only to be snuffed out in an instant on the arctic tundra.
Standing up, he looked over to see Pat approaching.
“I know. We just got our asses kicked.”
Deckard looked back down at the body.
“They laid a trap for us Deckard and we walked right into it. Whoever they are, they’re damn good. They hacked those robotic tanks, had them turn on their own operators, and then had them lay in wait for whoever gave chase. Listen Deckard,” Pat continued. “I know you’re in a bad place right now, but you better reach on down and grab your balls because this shit over the last twenty four hours just got real.”
Deckard opened his mouth to say something, but Pat was already walking away, his legs from the knee down already disappearing into the the swirling snow that gusted around them.