Chapter Eleven

The vibrations caused by exploding mortar rounds shook dirt loose from the ceiling.

“Do it.”

Richie pulled the pins on the dual primed initiation device, setting off the double strand of detonation chord taped in a circle around the stone wall. Deckard had personally supervised to make sure that this time P was not applied to the breaching charge.

The overpressure was intense. The assault teams bore down with earplugs firmly in place, the force of the explosion knocking most to their knees and a few off their feet. Deckard slammed one boot down on the floor and pushed off, sprinting fifty meters to the breach.

Sure enough, the charge had crumbled the stone wall. The rocks having been stacked on top of each other without any mortar being used meant that it didn’t take much. Glancing back to ensure the assault teams were on his heels, Deckard stepped through the breach. The blast had taken out a few bulbs in the hallway, leaving him in the shadows.

One of the insurgents leaned out of a doorway down the hall, investigating the blast just in time for Deckard to gain target acquisition with the VSS rifle. Two rounds center mass dumped him on the ground for someone to clean up later.

The Samruk assaulters stepped through the breach, stacking up along both walls. Deckard took the first door on his left, tossing in a FMK2 hand grenade. A few seconds later the combination of recrystalized hexogen and TNT exploded, turning the grenade’s metal body into fragments that shot out in all directions in a fifteen foot radius. Flowing into the room before the smoke cleared, Deckard cleared the right corner, the Kazakh behind him clearing the left.

As the rest of the assault team entered and cleared their sectors, several Afghan terrorists struggled out of their cots with blood streaming from their ears. Breaking down their sectors of fire, the assaulters fired two rounds apiece from their AK-103s into the enemy before they had a chance to reach for dusty pistols and rifles.

Deckard joined the Kazakhs in a preliminary search of the room while grenades were detonated outside by other assault teams. Kicking over beds and overturning carpets produced nothing of immediate interest.

Lining up on the door for an organized exit, Deckard was about to call them out into the hall, when one of the PKM gunners opened up. A few screams later, and one of the Kazakhs yelled to the machine gunner pulling security down the corridor. The gunner yelled something back, and the stack flowed back into the hall.

Stepping over several fresh corpses, the assault team leapfrogged passed another team clearing what looked like a kitchen area and lined up on the next available doorway. With the second man in the stack preparing another frag grenade, the gun team picked up their machine gun and ammunition, coming up alongside to provide cover fire as needed.

The assaulter winged the fragmentation grenade into the room and waited. Without warning, one of the insurgents came running through the door, trying to avoid the blast. The lead Kazakh slammed the muzzle of his AK into the Afghan’s chest, knocking him back through the door as the grenade detonated.

This time Deckard was the last in the stack and patiently followed the mercenaries as they took their points of domination inside the room. Striding through the door, he felt like the entire room was flashing in slow motion. The muzzle flash of an enemy’s AK-47 blinked like a disco strobe light in the dark as he blasted away, 7.62 rounds spraying everywhere. Deckard sidestepped out of the door as quickly as possible, the Kazakh standing to his side dropping to the ground like a marionette that had its strings suddenly cut.

The remaining assaulters turned their guns on the muzzle flash, emptying magazines at the threat. Riddled with bullets, the insurgent was punched backwards by the hail of gunfire. As the mercenaries secured the room, Deckard moved to evaluate the injured assaulter. No need. He realized, the enemy’s shots had caught him in the face and neck.

Deckard made a mental note that this room needed to be searched and marked for demolition. The walls were stacked nearly to the ceiling with wooden crates showing dust-covered Cyrillic writing. He recognized most of them as being ammunition crates, mostly for PG-7 rocked-propelled grenades and 7.62×39 AK rounds. Others he wasn’t so sure about. Blasting the stanchions that ran down the center of ammunition depot would probably do it.

The commandos quickly took turns loading fresh magazines into their rifles before Deckard yelled out to the machine gun team.

“Coming out!”

“Da!”

Back in the corridor, Deckard glanced down the hall. The barricaded entrance to the bunker complex at the end would lead outside. He was surprised how fast they were clearing and advancing through the complex, even with six assault teams leapfrogging each other. Collectively, his team cringed as another group let loose a grenade across the hall.

Reaching over and grabbing the PKM gunner to bring him down the hall with them, Deckard was preparing his assaulters to take the next room, when an Afghan calmly walked into the middle of the corridor from the room at the end of the hall.

Everyone shouldered their weapons just a moment too late as the terrorist leveled an RPG-7 launcher in their direction and pulled the trigger.

* * *

Chuck Rochenoir had lived his life by some very simple words.

When in doubt, shoot from the hip and go with what you know.

Hence the six lines of green parachute chord, tied to the web gear of each PKM gunner on the support by fire line. After all six guns went cyclic on the target area for fifteen seconds the former SEAL yanked the strings, signaling them to cease fire.

Next he pulled the string tied to the first gunner and let him fire for five seconds before pulling the string tied to the second gunner. When gun two fired, it was the signal for gun one to shut down. After another five seconds he tugged on the string tied to gun three, and the process continued all the way down the line as they swept the enemy with a powerful base of fire. Chuck would continue to use the ‘dopes on a rope’ method until the machine gunners gained more experience. Eventually they wouldn’t need him or the parachute chord to dump huge amounts of coordinated fire on the enemy.

With their barrels beginning to glow in the darkness, the titanium frame Russian machine guns were proving their worth, alongside the gunners themselves. Assistant gunners reloaded and readied fresh belts of 7.62×54 rimmed ammunition during down periods. Meanwhile, each gunner actively tracked targets, carefully using the red arc of his tracers to walk his fire less then a dozen meters in front of the advancing assault line.

By the time the enemy was out from under the onslaught of machine gun fire, the assault line composed of two entire rifle platoons would be right on top of them.

Chuck was laughing on the inside.

* * *

Kanat grabbed the rifleman, pulling him backward to stay parallel with the rest of the assaulters on line with each other. Some of the mercenaries were getting over excited and scrambling ahead of their comrades, sending the platoon sergeant into fits of rage, barking corrections as the assaulters stalked forward.

Arriving at the first of the enemy positions, the platoon sergeant reached into his pocket, retrieving a chem stick. Snapping it mixed the chemicals inside, causing it to glow bright orange. Hurling it across the objective, he gave the signal to the support by fire line to shift fire.

Seeing the tracer fire move from their immediate front to lay suppressive fire deeper into the objective, the platoon sergeant yelled to the riflemen to sweep and clear. Second and Third Platoon advanced forward, individual squad leaders taking change and clearing stone pill boxes and mud huts built into the side of the mountain, finding plenty of fresh corpses created by mortar and machine gun fire.

In between the rapid bursts of PKM fire, individual rifle shots could be heard as the Kazakhs double-tapped downed enemy combatants, assuring that the dead were truly dead.

Kurt Jager terminated a brief conversation with Chuck over his Motorola radio and ducked as a grenade exploded, showering him with rock and debris. More rifle fire was exchanged in the distance. Having established a foothold within the enemy’s fortified positions, they would now wait for weapons squad to displace themselves to somewhere that they could better support the assault. The objective area was simply too big to be adequately covered by a static support by fire line.

Kurt yelled to several Kazakhs and pointed out where he wanted them to pull security until Chuck arrived. Taking cover behind a dirt berm, the mercenaries almost immediately began taking enemy fire. Stepping over the bodies of several insurgents that the sniper team had eliminated before they arrived, Kurt moved to a DShK heavy machine gun mounted on a tripod.

Thankfully, the enemy had been deprived of the opportunity to use it against them, but now he had to act fast.

Reaching into his cargo pocket, he pulled out a flex linear charge he had made out of detonation chord, deciding to improvise a bit to destroy the machine gun before moving on. The last thing they needed was an insurgent getting behind them as they continued to clear the area and man the 12.7mm heavy Soviet cannon.

Kurt wrapped the door charge around the barrel and affixed the time fuse in place. He was just about done with the square knot when he heard someone shout in Pashto.

A single shot cracked in the darkness.

The German shuddered, expecting an impact.

Turning, he saw an insurgent on the roof of a hut ten meters away pitch forward over the edge and crash into the ground below, taking a long dirt nap.

“Watch yourself,” Piet’s voice said over the radio.

Kurt shook his head, finishing the preparation of the explosives as Chuck and his PKM gunners came shuffling toward him, ducking their heads as green tracer fire crisscrossed the night sky.

“Chuck, glad you could make it.”

“Wherethefuckarethesemotherfuckers?”

“We should keep three guns on our right flank, so we can hold the high ground. Detach the rest of the guns to the assault squads for immediate support by fire. The terrain looks rough ahead.”

“Got it,” Chuck said. “I’ll take the three gun teams and leave the other three with you, so you can explain it to them.”

Kurt nodded in agreement.

Chuck Rochenoire policed up his men and headed uphill, eyes already scanning for a new place to station his men for the duration of the assault.

Turning away from the DshK, Kurt began speaking in Russian to the remaining machine gun teams, knowing that lost time meant the assault lost momentum. Seconds later, the Kazakhs acknowledged their understanding and began to break off to find individual squads.

Standing up, Kurt was about to call Chuck over the radio, when something heavy rolled between his feet.

* * *

They stared like idiots as the rocket propelled grenade soared over their heads, leaving a faint plume in its wake. The PG-7 anti-tank projectile continued on its path, spiraling down the corridor before smashing into the wall on the far side of the escape shaft they had entered from and exploded.

In the narrow confines of the bunker, the pressure was overwhelming, knocking the mercenaries off their feet as more shrapnel was flung over their heads. Struggling back up, the Afghan dropped his RPG-7 launcher, looking as surprised as his opponents were. The confusion quickly turned to anger as the Kazakhs sighted in and sent a barrage of fire into him.

The terrorist was practically turned into a sieve by the time it was all over.

The Kazakhs were still checking faces and testicles with their hands to make sure everything was still there in the aftermath of the blast, when Deckard started yelling and forcing troops back to their feet, grabbing them by the collar.

As near as he could tell, the bunkers were more then half clear, but a glance back at the remaining mercenaries told them they were taking casualties in the process. If they lost the initiative for even a moment and the enemy was able to launch an effective counter attack, it was all over for the Samruk men. They had nowhere to retreat but to a tunnel that was impossible to defend from.

“Doorway left! Doorway right! Go!”

The assaulters surged forward.

More grenades were hurled into the uncleared rooms, simultaneous explosions jarring Deckard’s fillings. The American jumped in the nearest stack, moving into the next room. Inside, two insurgents were sprawled out on the ground, lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling. It seemed that the FMK2 grenades were worth the ridiculous invoice Deckard had been given for them.

A third terrorist attempted to stand, but was quickly put back down by shots from three AK-103s and Deckard’s VSS rifle. Outside, the staccato bursts chattered back and forth. The rumble of explosions shook the walls, showering them with debris. Deckard whistled. The chamber was packed to the gills with poppies ready to be processed into opium.

Another assault team bounded past as they exited through the door to move deeper down the corridor. Deckard was stepping out into the hall, when Frank literally ran into him with a sheen of sweat coating his face.

“We got him,” Frank panted. “ Khalis. MIK, and his boyfriend, too.”

“Oh, well,” Deckard lamented. “At least he died doing what he loved.”

Frank snorted.

“Make sure you get a picture of him and DNA.”

“That’s fucking disgusting, I’m not doing it that shit.”

“I mean a blood sample, you fucking idiot-”

Screams were suddenly drowned out by gunfire.

* * *

Kurt Jager slowly opened one eye, then the other, before lifting his head up off the ground.

When the grenade rolled between his feet, the former sergeant had leaped to the ground, covering his head with his arms and hoping to avoid the inevitable blast. It never came. Looking at the Soviet pineapple grenade, Kurt reached out and picked it up. Pulling the pin, he hurled it back at the enemy.

The explosion rewarded him with the satisfying smell of sulfur. It permeated through the air, alongside the screams of dying insurgents.

By now Chuck had reset the support by fire line. The machine gun teams opened up, holding the triggers down, significantly reducing the amount of incoming enemy fire as the insurgents were again forced to the ground to avoid the wall of lead cutting through the air above them.

Knowing it was time to move, Kurt pulled the pin on the initiator, beginning the burn sequence on the time fuse.

Alibek and Kanat could barely be heard above the gunfire, but the men got the message and once again began to advance. Jumping over the sand berm, Kurt and his adopted squad moved with one of the PKM gunners bringing up the rear. The terrain quickly narrowed into a single winding path that clung to the side of a cliff. He suspected it was much the same for the other squads as they cleared laterally, sweeping around the mountainside from one enemy position to the next.

During a break in machine gun fire, he heard something sliding down the cliff face and halted the squad. Pressing up against the side of the crumbling cliff wall, the mercenaries watched as the bodies of two insurgents slid off the cliff, flailing like rag dolls, recent victims of Chuck’s machine gunners in a kill zone somewhere above them.

Inching along the path, Kurt rounded a bend and found himself face to face with another sandal-wearing insurgent with a Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle in his hands. Both gunfighters brought their weapons into play, Kurt beating him by a wide margin and drilling the man with three shots into his chest. Dropping his rifle, the insurgent slid off the cliff to be reunited with his comrades somewhere below.

A little more cautious now, the squad moved forward, all too aware that they were channelized along the mountain trail with nowhere to go, a suicidal leap of faith down the mountain excluded.

Back at the stronghold they had left behind, the charge set on the DShK exploded. Combat created a strange kind of time distortion. It seemed like they had been on the trail for a hour already, but in reality there was only a minute of time fuse to burn before the charge went off.

Rounding the next bend in the trail, Kurt afforded a quick glance around the turn before exposing himself. Sure enough, there was a sandbagged fighting position, three insurgents present and manning a ZSU-23 anti-aircraft machine gun. Nestled into the mountain face, it was out of the line of fire of Chuck’s PKM crew.

Leaning back, he whispered in the lead Kazakh’s ear, explaining the situation and plan of action in Russian before telling him to pass the information back to the rest of the squad. Hopefully it didn’t result in a game of telephone where the tail gunner in the rear got a story about Genghis Khan’s army sitting in a foxhole.

“Piet?” Kurt whispered into his handheld radio.

“The boys are a little busy. We got buggers crawling all over the mountain.”

“Can you handle a few more?”

“Where are you?”

Kurt flipped on the infrared strobe light strapped to his assault rig.

“I just switched on my strobe.”

“I’ve got you. Whole squad lined up on there, huh?”

“Look to your left from my strobe.”

“A couple gun barrels in there, I think.”

“Two barrels, one gun. A ZSU.”

“Ah.”

“Three bad guys, too. Give me a moment to get ready.”

“Make it fast. Nikita is the only thing stopping the squad below you from being overrun.”

Kurt palmed one of his grenades. Holding down the spoon, he yanked the pin.

“When you’re ready,” he said, keying the radio with his free hand.

Almost immediately a single shot thundered out from Piet’s bolt gun. His concealed position in the rocks gave the remaining the enemy little hint as to where he was located. The survivors began shouting in excited Pashto as Kurt lobbed the Argentinean grenade into their fighting position. Half a second later, Piet fired a second shot, cutting off the Afghan’s conversation; a second after the grenade detonated ending any notion of it.

Tausend dank,” the German called back.

Piet responded with something in Afrikaans that Kurt couldn’t understand.

Moving in, the squad rapidly captured the insurgent position, finding it occupied by two corpses shot through the head and another riddled with shrapnel. Kurt put the PKM gunner facing forward to take on any new threats while he decided their next move.

Without any more explosives he did the next best thing to disable the massive anti-aircraft gun. Detaching the linked 23mm rounds, he lugged them to the side of the cliff and hurled them over.

Muzzle flashes were lighting up the night, tracer fire flying in every direction. So much gun powder was in the air that it wafted in with a nauseatingly sweet smell that seemed to stick to their sinuses.

A barrage of RPG rockets streaked over their heads.

Kurt wondered how much farther it was to the bunkers.

* * *

Chuck winced as one RPG whooshed just a few feet over his head before the second rocket hit the ground in front of the firing line, raining shards of rock down on them. While trying to blink his eyes and see through the toxic cloud left in the anti-tank round’s wake, a third rocket exploded and threw him on his back, everything blinking out, going dark.

Coughing and wiping dust out of his eyes, the former Navy SEAL felt like he was moving in slow motion, his mind struggling to keep up with his surroundings. His hands ran over his body, out of instinct more then anything, checking for holes. Forcing himself to focus he looked at his hands but didn’t see any red.

Looking back he remembered where he was.

A single PKM gunner was holding down the trigger, sending a constant volley of fire down range while the two other machine guns lay silent. Despite the nearly blinding flame shooting from the muzzle of the lone PKM, Chuck found it strange that he couldn’t hear anything.

Arm over arm he high crawled forward until he laid his forearm down on something hot. Retracting his arm in pain, he saw that he had crawled on top of one of the PKMs or what was left of it, the receiver hopelessly bent by a rocket propelled grenade.

Closer now, he saw the bodies of two gunners and one assistant gunner. The remaining AG was rolling back and forth holding his face. There was nothing Chuck could do for him at the moment. If someone didn’t start putting more fire down range, they’d have more dead and dying friendlies on their hands.

Manning the remaining PKM, Chuck conducted a functions check on the weapon, his mind struggling to remember the procedure. Racking the bolt back and forth a few times was the best he could manage under the circumstances. Digging through the dead AG’s kitbag, he found what was left of the 7.62×54 linked bullets.

To his right the remaining gunner ceased fire, smoke coming off the barrel as the Kazakh was also sent digging around for more ammunition.

Chuck slapped the fresh belt in the feed tray, slammed the feed tray cover closed, and racked the bolt to the rear.

Looking down the iron sights, he targeted an insurgent in the distance, only visible as a silhouette under the moonlight, but the outline of the RPG-7 was clear enough. The tube primed with a fresh rocket.

Pulling the broken wooden stock tight into his shoulder, Chuck went cyclic.

* * *

Adam ducked back behind the boulder as AK-47 rounds kicked dirt into his face.

Lower on the side of the mountain his squad had found themselves in relatively open terrain, even if it sloped at a vicious angle, making it difficult for the troops to maintain their footing. Only a few lonely boulders and shallow depressions offered them any cover as the insurgents hammered them, apparently determined not to lose any more ground.

“Right side! Bound!”

On taking fire, the squad broke down into two assault teams. Adam and his team leaned out from behind the rocky outcropping and fired on the enemy positions. It looked to him as if the muzzle flashes of several enemy rifles had blinked out permanently but he wasn’t sure.

The second assault team leaped out from the depression they had lain prone in, sprinting forward to a pile of rocks that had gathered at the base of the cliff to their right flank. Meanwhile, their only PKM gunner moved up behind them, searching for his own position.

Once Adam heard the automatic fire of the PKM, he signaled to his men that it was time to move. With their counterparts laying down suppressive fire, the team ran forward, bullets still kicking up geysers of dust around their feet.

When they collectively huddled behind the only boulder in otherwise open ground, Adam was relieved to see they had all made it, even if one young kid’s face was covered in blood from god only knew what. At least he was still on his feet.

On each side of the boulder, a Kazakh got in the prone while another took a knee beside him. Leaning out from behind cover, they fired high and low. When one of the kneeling mercenaries went dry on his AK and had to reload, Adam pushed him back, taking his place. They continued to sweep gunfire at known, likely, and suspected, targets until the PKM gunner came up behind them, pushing Adam and his buddy out of the way.

The gunner went cyclic again while the other fire team found relief in a nearby ditch created by weather erosion. Finding their new positions, the assault team joined the AK fire stitching several insurgents across the middle, weapons falling from lifeless hands.

“Let’s go,” Adam ordered taking the lead.

His team rushed forward, finding another small gully created by rainwater; it was knee deep at best. By now incoming fire was reduced to the occasional crack that sent dust showering down over the edge of the ditch.

“Grenades!”

The Kazakhs looked back and forth, not understanding until he pulled an FMK2 grenade from his chest rig and pulled the pin out. Tearing through chest harnesses, the Kazakhs primed their own grenades and waited for Adam’s command.

Five frag grenades arced through the night, coming down on top of the bastion. Explosions knocked down haphazardly built stone walls and tore the insurgents limb from limb.

Amid the pained screams coming from their front, the other assault team made one last bound before the entire squad formed a skirmish line and stalked across the enemy position, double-tapping bodies to make sure, while in a few cases delivering a final coup de grace.

Halting the squad, Adam ran down the assault line, physically lifting them up and placing them where he felt they could best pull security in case of an enemy counter attack. Finding the young kid with blood gushing down his face, he pulled out some gauze and began wiping his head down, looking for the source of the bleeding.

They turned in unison, as it sounded like strikes of thunder were slamming into the side of the mountain.

* * *

Deckard sunk the blade into the terrorist’s throat until it stopped at the hilt.

Cutting through the thick muscles around the neck was somewhat more difficult then most people expected. Slicing the rest of the way through the enemy’s carotid artery, Deckard grabbed him by his dishdasha and cast the insurgent aside.

The Kazakh who had been pinned underneath the insurgent got to his feet.

He looked pretty good for having a near-death experience or two.

With Frank distracting him, some of the assaulters had gotten spread a little thin. By the time he caught up with them, one of the mercenaries had already been sideswiped and taken to the ground.

Down the hall, assault teams looked back at him, giving the thumbs up. The bunker complex was clear. Finally.

“Alexander! Medic!”

The platoon sergeant came rushing forward, his right hand covered in blood. Pulling out a pair of medical shears, Deckard grabbed the Kazakh commando by the arm and sliced off his shirt sleeve. Alexander grunted, just now noticing the bullet crease across his forearm that was pumping a steady flow of blood.

Deckard began applying a field bandage while glancing up at Alexander’s bloodshot eyes.

“We need security,” he said, nodding. “Security. Casualties? Bullets?”

“Medic, yes.”

Securing the bandage with its metal fasteners, Deckard patted the sergeant on the shoulder.

“Go.”

The platoon sergeant took off, making sure his men pulled security rather then just standing around. Barking orders, squad leaders began to report in with any injuries their men had sustained and how much ammunition had been expended. Deckard already knew they had several fatalities.

“Frank?”

“Yeah,” the Army veteran said, sticking his head out a door.

“Start collecting whatever you think is relevant.”

“Already on it.” Then as an afterthought, “We got a couple prisoners here, too.”

Evidence exploitation was specifically not included in the Operations Order. They were supposed to kill and destroy everything they found. Scorched earth. His handlers didn’t want him collecting up hard drives and documents, much less interrogating anyone.

They wanted him in an intelligence black hole and it wasn’t his place to ask questions. He had other ideas.

“Shit, how the hell did that happen?”

“Guess they missed a couple guys during the initial sweep who had tried to hide.”

“Remember that for the AAR.”

Alexander came stomping back. What followed was an impossible to follow dialog, for any casual observer, that took place in English, Russian, and sign language, but the point was made. The troops expended about two magazines each. There were seven injuries, two dead. The platoon medic was working on the most serious injury.

Motioning for the platoon sergeant to lead the way, Deckard followed him to a critically wounded Kazakh, lying on the ground in the insurgent’s kitchen area. The American stood back, silently observing.

The casualty had been shot through the abdomen, the bullet punching straight through his chest, leaving a ragged exit wound. The commando gasped, struggling to breath. Using the plastic packaging from a field dressing, the Kazakh medic taped it over the exit wound before pulling out a fourteen-gauge needle and carefully sticking it between the second and third mid-clavicle line below the collarbone.

A whoosh of air escaped from his chest cavity, a successful tension pneumothorax treatment that decompressed the chest cavity. As if someone had waved a magic wand, the casualty began to breath normally again. If the medic was able to keep his patient alive all the way to the field hospital in Bagram, Deckard would make sure both the medic and the former Green Beret who trained him received a bonus.

Deckard turned around, examining the other casualties that had been consolidated in the kitchen for triage and treatment. Some cuts and non-life threatening gunshot wounds; the five Kazakhs would survive. It was the final casualty that concerned the Samruk commander.

“Richie, what the fuck?”

“Bullocks, you bloody bastard,” he gasped.

“That’s a real gusher you got there.”

The demo expert looked down at the mostly cauterized burn across his shoulder.

“One of those fucking barbarians of yours got too close when we were clearing a room,” he spat through clenched teeth. “Got caught with his muzzle flash.”

“Hold on a sec,” Deckard said, sympathetically. “Let me help you with that.”

Reaching down, he grabbed Richie by the ear and painfully dragged him to his feet.

“Does it feel better now?”

“I’ll slot the whole lot of you wankers!”

“We don’t have time for you to start sandbagging on us. Gather up whatever demo you distributed to the platoon. I want a line main down the corridor. You can probably find enough mines and rockets in the stockpile they have here to sympathetically detonate and bring the roof down. Got it?”

Richie stormed out of the kitchen, ego bruised, but reputation still about par for the course.

Back out in the hall, Deckard grabbed several Kazakhs who were standing by for further orders.

He had no way of knowing the status of the assault topside, but it was time to open the bunker doors and find out.

* * *

The only way was up.

One of the Kazakhs leaned against the cliff face, making stirrups with his hands.

Putting a hand on the merc’s shoulder to steady himself, Kurt stuck a booted foot in his hands and sprung upwards, searching for and finding purchase on a rock sticking out of the dirt. Scrambling up, he found himself on an embankment that looked to offer an easy way forward over open terrain.

Leaning over the edge, he gave his squad the thumbs up to begin climbing up.

Offering his hand, Kurt helped the next Kazakh up the slope, preventing him from sliding back down. Grabbing him by his belt, the German’s bicep flared as he lifted and flung him onto the embankment. The Kazakh stood up, dusting himself off, when the hand of god seemed to swat the mercenary right out of the air, literally tearing him to pieces.

His face now splattered with his comrade’s blood, Kurt rolled out of the way as large caliber rounds tore apart the ground he had occupied a fraction of a second before, churning up a cloud of dust in their wake.

The noise was deafening, twin barrels chewing apart everything in their line of fire. What had become sporadic bursts from the support by fire line now ceased completely, the assault’s momentum lost.

Kurt rolled right, finding concealment if not cover behind a few rocks piled on top one another. Stealing a glance at the enemy’s hard site, he confirmed what he already knew from sound alone. Another ZSU-23, so named for the dual 23mm anti-aircraft cannons, now turned on unarmored ground troops to ruthless and morale-depriving effect.

With its crew spinning the gun turret’s wheels, the cannon rotated, raking the side of the mountain with fire, causing both platoons to find immediate cover or be taken apart like a holiday turkey. The ZSU was roughly one hundred meters away over sloping but open ground. A frontal assault was out of the question.

“Piet,” Kurt called to the sniper team leader on his radio. “Do you see that other ZSU?”

“No, the elevation is too high. We can’t see it from here but can sure as hell hear it.”

Kurt considered his options. At any moment the ZSU gunners were liable to see him, and he didn’t have any illusions about a few rocks protecting him from twin streams of 23mm bullets.

“Mendez, this is Kurt. Fire mission, over.”

“Kurt, this is Mendez. Fire mission, over,” the radio crackled.

“Grid mission,” Kurt said, looking down at a topographical map. “42S 1350 7595.” He rattled off the most accurate grid possible under the circumstances. Reaching into the pocket sewn onto the shoulder of his fatigue jacket, he retrieved the Silva compass he had carried since his orienteering days as a teenager. “253 degrees.”

The compass only read degrees, so Phil would have to convert the number to mils for use by the mortar teams. Really it was the least of his problems. The anti-aircraft gun chopped away at the mountainside with a hailstorm of automatic fire.

He had a fat finger trying to read digits and analyze terrain features in the dark with just a small red lens flashlight. At any rate he was definitely into the red with this one.

“Danger close. Anti-aircraft cannon, no overhead cover.”

“Roger.”

The pause seemed to go on forever while he waited for Mendez to get his guns aligned.

“Shot, over.”

“Shot, out.”

“Splash, over.”

Kurt’s jaw tensed. There was a certain margin of error when using mortars at over a klick away from you of about three hundred meters. He was a hundred meters from the intended target.

The 82mm HE round went wide, landing to the right of the ZSU-23. Kurt blew out his cheeks. Not that he didn’t have faith in the mortar section or anything.

“Splash, out. Left two hundred meters.”

It was hard to adjust fire at night with limited equipment. He could have Mendez fire an illumination round first to light up the area, which would give him forty seconds or so of light to make adjustments, but in the meantime who knew how many hidden mercenaries he’d be buddy fucking if the light revealed their positions and subjected them to more then half a minute of fire from that cannon?

He’d just walk the rounds laterally until he got them behind the gun and then walk them in.

“Shot, over.”

“Shot, out.”

“Splash, over.”

The mortar round exploded smack dab behind the ZSU.

“Splash, out. Drop fifty meters. Fire for effect.”

“Drop fifty. Fire for effect.”

While the mortar tubes could be heard bellowing in the distance, the rounds themselves didn’t whistle as they soared overhead.

Three 82mm mortar tubes hung ten rounds apiece in rapid succession, the high explosives detonating all around the ZSU, rocking the gun and its crew with blast after blast that lit up the night, casting spooky shadows across the rocky ground.

By the time Phil and his boys were done, there probably wouldn’t be enough of the bad guys left to soak up with a sponge.

* * *

“Let’s go, lift that cross bar,” Deckard ordered, stepping forward to help the five Kazakhs struggling with the heavy wooden beam. With a final grunt, the six of them were able to lift the beam from the metal braces it sat in and drop it on the tunnel floor.

The twin metal doors sounded like nails on a chalkboard as they were pushed open. Deckard gave the halt sign to the Kazakhs with a closed fist and began walking towards the mouth of the tunnel. Linking up with friendly forces in the middle of a firefight had an exceedingly high probability of some kind of blue on blue incident going down. Friendly fire usually wasn’t.

Confronted with a series of ninety degree turns, he snaked through the passage, which was wide enough to drive a truck through. The turns were designed to prevent Uncle Sam from launching a cruise missile straight into the mountain fortress through the front door. Feeling his way through the darkness, he could hear the occasional crump, crump, crump of mortars.

The fight wasn’t over yet.

Turning the last bend, Deckard could see the mouth of the tunnel and flipped on his radio just in time to hear someone who sounded like Mendez making a transmission. It was coming in garbled and undecipherable, due to him still being underground.

The ground shook hard enough to knock Deckard to his hands and knees. His first thought was an earthquake, until he registered thirty or more mortar rounds striking a position that couldn’t be more then fifty meters from where he stood.

As the tunnel flooded with dust, a supporting beam jutting across the ceiling fell free, shaken loose by the onslaught outside and landed with a crash inches from Deckard’s head.

Coughing and spitting out dust, he snapped a green chem stick and tossed it outside the mouth of the tunnel, giving the all-clear signal.

“Any station on this net,” he choked out, “this is Samruk Six.”

“Hey, O’Brien. This is Kurt.”

Apparently call signs had fallen by the wayside during the fog of war or something.

“You see my green chem?”

Shisa. Is that you?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you okay? There was an anti-aircraft gun right next to the opening of the tunnel. I didn’t even know it was there until you mentioned the chem you just threw out.”

“I’ll live. Move up and secure this area. As soon as that’s done, I need you and Adam in here.”

“Roger.”

“Got it,” Adam’s voice came over the net.

Standing at the entrance to the tunnel, Deckard watched sunlight creeping over the horizon, casting long shadows across the mountains. It created a panorama that looked like a Nicolas Roerich painting. The infiltration and assault had taken all night. With pilots unwilling to fly into such a hotly contested area during daylight, they were stuck out in the hinterlands until nightfall.

Motherfucker.

* * *

Reconsolidation and reorganization took nearly an additional forty-five minutes. Deckard knew that it was common from past experience. The entire company was spread out over difficult terrain. All troops had to be accounted for. Wounded needed to be identified and treated. Dead needed to found and gathered in a centralized location.

After writing the final numbers down on an index card, his eyes seemed frozen on the figures. Twelve dead, twenty-three wounded. Most of the wounded were ambulatory, but three, included the sucking chest wound he had observed earlier, were urgent surgical.

Sliding the card into the front pouch of his assault rig, Deckard knew the mission was far from over. Not until the helicopters set down at Bagram Airfield would he even begin to let his guard down.

Looking over his shoulder and down the corridor, he could hear the muffled sounds of Adam interrogating the two prisoners in a side room. The walls of the hallway were littered with empty crates and what looked like oversized sardine tins, all three platoons having replenished their AK magazines from the enemy stockpile. Richie directed the several Kazakhs assisting him in setting the charges, linking them off the line of detonation chord running down the hall.

Piled at the mouth of the tunnel were several crates of recovered 82mm mortar rounds.

“Richie, how long?” Deckard shouted down the hall to him.

“Five minutes,” Richie shrugged.

“Kurt,” he said, walking into the kitchen area that had been converted into the casualty collection point, “do me a favor and tell the platoon sergeants I want all three platoon moved out of here. Find some fortified areas outside to hunker down in until nightfall and move the dead and wounded there. We’re going to demo this place in ten minutes,” he said, adding a buffer to Richie’s estimation.

“No problem,” Kurt said looking up from one of the wounded Kazakhs he was tending to.

“How is Chuck?”

“Concussion. He’ll be okay in a few days. When you suffer that kind of blast, your brain gets bounced around and bruised pretty bad. That’s why he looks drunk right now.”

Looking across the room, Charles Rochenoire did indeed look like he’d been on all-night bender, and if Kurt had not vouched for the salvo of RPG fire he was in the middle of, Deckard probably wouldn’t have believed the concussion story.

Supposedly, a Kazakh corporal had found Chuck wandering around the mountain absentmindedly with a PKM, firing at any rocks or sandbags that looked at him the wrong way.

“I also want Third Platoon to carry those recovered mortar rounds down to Mendez and then reinforce the mortar section.”

“That’s a hike.”

“I don’t want to leave him out there by himself all day. If need be, he can collapse back to our position. I don’t like splitting our forces in half, anyway.”

Moving back outside, Deckard took a knee as Third Platoon came pouring out behind him, carrying the crates of mortar rounds. The men looked tired but motivated, several of them walking wounded. Deep down he knew they were better then he deserved.

“Mendez,” he said, keying the radio. “I’m sending Third Platoon down to you with a resupply.”

“Ah, okay,” the mortar section leader paused. With the sun cresting above the horizon, he probably hadn’t waited a moment longer to light up a smoke. “Cool, I’ll be waiting for ’em.”

“Roger, out.”

Deckard watched Third Platoon as they made their way down the mountain on the donkey paths, the mercenaries growing smaller as they got farther away until they looked like a line of ants. By then First and Second platoon were emerging from the bunkers, carrying the dead and dying on improvised stretchers. Chuck stumbled along with them incoherently. Frank brought up the rear. His assault pack was overflowing with potential intelligence sources he’d found on the objective.

“What have you got?”

“A laptop, a few hard drives I pulled out of computers, bunch of documents, a couple Thuraya satellite phones, took down serial numbers off of everything including the lot numbers off the ammo crates.”

“Don’t let that pack leave your sight. I want you and Adam all over that shit as soon as we get back to Astana.”

“Right on.”

“Alright, get up there and assist Kanat and Alibek for now.”

“Groovy.”

Frank grunted, following the Kazakhs up to another fortified area they had found.

Deckard moved back inside, personally checking each room to insure that no one was left behind. All he found were the bodies of insurgents with flies crawling across their lifeless eyeballs.

“Adam,” he said, finding the ad hoc interrogation room. “Move those two jokers out of here with the rest of the company. This place is about ready to go.”

The two prisoners had had their hands tied with some rope as they were not carrying flex cuffs or other conventional restraints. One of them was a grimy looking creep; the other an older guy with a beard.

“Alright,” he responded momentarily, switching from Pashto to English. “Too bad. I’m about done with these guys. We could have just left them here and dropped the roof on them.”

“I can give you a few more minutes.”

“Nah, I’ll get them out of here.”

“Have it your way.”

Adam led the two Afghans out at gunpoint while Richie was uncoiling time fuse towards the entrance.

“Is this shit going to work?”

Richie gave him a what the fuck look.

“Awesome.”

“You ready, boss?”

“Do it.”

Richie turned the pins on the fuse igniter, and with a snap and fizzle, the time fuse began to burn.

“Three minutes,” Richie announced.

“Three minutes until detonation,” Deckard announced over the net as they cleared the tunnel entrance.

Following the same path as the two platoons, they climbed past the wreckage of the ZSU-23 that Mendez had mortared. Distracted, his eyes were drawn to the ridge line above them. They had good coverage from where they were but no vantage point at the summit of the mountain.

“Piet?” he called into his radio.

“Yes?”

“Think your snipers can cheat forward up to the top to the ridge and give us eyes on the other side of this hill?”

Static hissed over the radio.

“Yeah, give me a minute to get the boys moving.”

“Roger, let me know when-”

Deckard’s words were cut off as gunfire smacked the ground on both of his sides, the muzzle flashes clearly announcing the enemy gunfire from the ridge above them.

The action continues in chapter twelve.

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