Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner
Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 19 - When Comet Fenwell crashes into the Pacific Ocean one October day, it spells the end for most of humanity. Those that survive find themselves in a greatly changed world filled with different morals and the same old urges.
Caution: This Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa Ma/ft Fa/ft Consensual Reluctant BiSexual Science Fiction Post Apocalypse Group Sex Sex Toys Violent comet crashes into earth story, end of civilization story
"Sir," Corporal Wilhelm, the leader of third platoon, spoke up hesitantly.
"What?" Stu asked, annoyed at being interrupted while making attack plans. "Do you have something to add?"
"Well, sir," Wilhelm told him, "we don't... uh... have quite enough men to do what you're planning."
"What?" Stu asked, glaring at him. What the hell did he mean, not enough men? He had five fucking platoons didn't he? One less than he had started the battle with, but still five.
"My platoon is down to about sixty percent strength," Wilhelm reminded him. "I only have twenty-five guys left after the air raids last night and sniping runs the day before. And I was already understrength to begin with. I also lost one to desertion last night."
"I'm in the same boat, sir," Sergeant Lima, of first platoon reminded. "Remember, my men took the brunt of that first attack and those two napalm runs. I have only twenty-eight left."
"All of the other platoons are understrength as well," Stinson added, wondering if maybe he should have just shot the crazy son-of-a-bitch a few minutes ago when he might have been able to get away with it. He had been close, very close to doing it. Only fear of Barnes and what would happen to him upon his return to Garden Hill had kept him from it. After all, he had no proof of what had occurred between Stu and Colby. "My reorganized platoon only has thirty-six men, including myself."
Stu took a few deep breaths, looking at the men around him, seeing their doubting expressions. Now that they had said it aloud, he realized that they were right - they did not have the numbers that he had thought they had. And he should have known that! Hadn't he been the one to conduct roll call that very morning? It had to be the fatigue getting to him. He had only had about six hours of sleep in the last three days.
"Forgive me," he said, his mind clicking along. "You're right of course, I don't know what I was thinking. But in the end, it doesn't really matter."
"It doesn't matter?" Stinson asked.
"We'll reorganize again," Stu said. "We'll move our men around so that each platoon has twenty-eight people. The rest will be in the reserve squad that will provide covering fire. That's fifty-six men on each flank to get around the outside of those hills and into the enemy rear. That will be enough."
"Sir..." Stinson started, not the least bit confident in this plan.
"It will be enough," Stu said. "Remember, they're sitting up on those three hills over there. We're not going to rush right into them; we're going around to the back where they're not protected. But we need to do it fast before they think to shift their forces around. So let's get it done. Here's the plan..." He began to talk.
Though none of the leaders liked his plan very much, they listened.
"Okay," Brett said as he looked at the mass of Auburn soldiers down below. "It looks like they're gathering into two larger attack groups. They're gonna try to outflank us again."
Jason was half watching the instruments on the panel to make sure they didn't drift up or down from the hover and half watching the view outside. Inside, Brett's hands were instinctively keeping them rock solid in place, the altimeter and the forward airspeed indicator not moving a micrometer. Outside, the plans of the militia were obvious even to him. The tiny figures below could be seen to be gathering into two distinct groups. They were marching either to the east or the west of their central position, moving through the trees and behind the hills outside of the sight of the friendly forces in the trenches. They left a small group of ten men or so in the center but the rest were taking up positions well to the outside.
"Matt, Chrissie, Michelle," Brett said into the VHF frequency. "Get ready to shift positions. They're planning a flanking attack on both sides of you, looks like fifty or so men on each flank."
All three platoon leaders acknowledged his transmission and told him they were standing by for movement orders. Brett took his eyes off the view outside and consulted the map, pulling it over to him from Jason's lap and trusting him to keep an eye on their flight status. "All right," he said into the radio, his eyes tracking over grids and trench numbers. "Michelle, move your platoon over to grid Delta 7 and spread out equally through trenches 20, 22, 23, and 25. If they move forward from their push-off point, the troops gathering on that right flank are going to come directly at that position."
"Copy, Brett," she said. "We're on the way."
"Be sure to have at least one automatic in each trench if you can," he advised.
"Did your replacement for Helen show up?" he asked next.
"Affirm, Janice Milligan took over her gun. We're ready to rock."
"Good," Brett said. "Get going."
He looked at the map again for a moment and then back outside, comparing the features on paper with the terrain where the troops on the left flank were gathering. He traced the most likely avenue of advance around the hill where Matt and his platoon were currently in place. "Matt," he said after a few moments of thought. "I want you to deploy to grid Delta 2 and occupy trenches 3, 5, 7, and 9. That'll give you a good spread to hold them against the left flank attack."
"On the way," Matt said.
Brett continued to stare downward for a few moments, continuing to allow Jason to monitor the instruments. What he was doing was yet another gamble and this time it wasn't such a sure thing. He had just spread out the two flank guards to a point far away from Chrissie's position. If this gathering below was a ruse designed to trick him into doing just what he was now doing, the entire force of the militia would be able to quickly switch back to where they had been and drive right at Chrissie and her people. 120 or so men attacking a single, unprotected position at once would surely overwhelm them, even with air support. He did not like leaving so much to chance. He did not like having to guess whether or not the fatigue that the militia commander or commanders had to be experiencing was preventing them from coming up with a complex plan like that. Was there anything to be done about this?
"You okay, Brett," Jason asked, taking his eyes off the panel to look at him. "You seem a little... well..."
"Hesitant?" Brett asked, giving a weak smile.
"I'm all right," Brett said reassuringly, troubled both by the gamble and by the fact that the troops he was commanding were obeying his orders so blindly. "I'm just trying to think through something. We never have a General Patton around when we need one."
"What do you mean?" Jason asked.
"Never mind," Brett told him. It was never a good idea to let the troops know that their commander was having doubts. "I'm just a little tired like everyone else. Am I still on VHF?"
"Yeah," Jason confirmed. "And you're starting to drift forward a bit. Might want to pull back a little."
Brett glanced at his forward airspeed indicator and saw that it was indeed starting to creep up a hair. "Thanks," he told him, making the correction and stabilizing them once more. He keyed up the headset again. "Chrissie, you there?" he asked.
"Right here," she said, her own voice sounding more than a little tired. "And I have two fresh replacements for my casualties as well."
"Copy that you're up to strength again. I'm gonna spread your platoon out a little bit to try and get you closer in to where the action is going to be. Split in two and occupy the trenches to the east and west of you. That'll be 12, 14, 15, and 17. Once you're there you'll be able to provide a little crossfire on both sides of you. However, if they change their minds and come up the middle, you're gonna have to try and hold the whole shebang back until the flanks can get back over to reinforce you."
"What do you think the odds are that they might try that?" Chrissie asked, obviously uncomfortable with the though of holding the whole shebang back with only 27 troops.
"Slight," Brett assured her. "But this is war and anything's possible."
"Copy," she said. "We're moving."
Brett watched them move. From the friendly positions the Garden Hill soldiers began to scramble out to the rear. They looked like ants leaving an anthill from his altitude. They moved quickly, not quite in formation, trotting back for sixty or seventy yards and then moving parallel to the trench network towards their new assignments. Brett, watching from above, could plainly see that the hills and trees of the terrain were between they and the peering eyes of the enemy. He was reasonably certain that the shifting of forces would be unobserved and therefore unexpected.
It took the better part of ten minutes for all of them to make the shift. During this time Brett saw no noticeable change in the Auburn formations, which were still in the process of moving themselves. "It looks like we pulled it off," he told Jason. "Now let's get Steve on the horn and tell him to get another egg ready for us. We won't drop it yet, we'll just hover up here with it to intimidate them."
Jason grinned. "I'd hate to have you fighting against me," he said, reaching for the radio controls.
Brett returned the grin silently, only hoping he was worthy of this praise.
Brett touched down a few minutes later, reasonably confident that the battle would not start without him. While Steve and his crew wheeled over another napalm tank and began to attach it, Brett stepped out of the helicopter, leaving the engine running. He stretched his cramped muscles, feeling a little twinge in his back. "I'm gonna go drain some fluids while we're down here," he told his own crew. "Be right back."
He trotted across the parking lot, his feet splashing through the perpetual puddles in the asphalt, and in the side door of the community center. He headed for the nearest bathroom, which was just off the staircase, and went inside. It was very dim in the room, the only lighting coming from a small window over the urinals. He ignored the stand-up fixtures and went instead to the stall, where the inevitable hose assembly and bucket of water was in place for ease of flushing.
After draining his bladder into the toilet and going through the flushing procedure, he went back out into the hallway. Instead of heading back to the parking lot right away, he headed in the other direction, towards the makeshift hospital room that had been set up in the former conference room. He opened the door slowly and stepped inside.
The room had been stocked and set up well in advance of the battle. Ten cots or rollaway beds had been placed side by side in rows with only narrow corridors between them. In one corner of the room a large shelf had been constructed and it was full of linen, bandaging material, IV bags from the helicopter, and various medications. Currently only one of the beds was occupied. Susan Michaels lay with a sheet and blanket pulled up to her mid-chest, just above her breasts. She was awake but appeared to be heavily medicated. Her eyes were half-lidded and, despite the wound she had suffered, there was a slight smile on her face. A heavy trauma dressing had been taped to her right shoulder. Little spots of dark blood stained its otherwise white surface. Hanging from a makeshift pole on the left side of the bed was an IV bag. The tubing ran down to her left arm. Janet, who had been moved from the childcare detail to the medical detail for the time being, was sitting in a stool next to her.
"Hi, Brett," she said, smiling a little as she saw him. "What are you doing down here?"
"We're down getting another air strike ready," he replied, "so I came in to tap a kidney. How we doing in here?"
"I'm hangin in there," Susan said, her grin widening a bit. Her words were thick and slurred, as if she was drunk. "I can't move my arm any more but Janet here gave me some really good dope to help me out."
"Oh yeah?" Brett asked. "Did you give her some of the morphine?" El Dorado Hills, though they had not volunteered to allow their physician to fly out for the battle, had donated considerable medical supplies for stabilization and pain control. Morphine, Dilaudid, and Demerol - all heavy narcotics - were among those staples.
Janet nodded. "And a few other things," she said.
"She let me burn a joint in here," Susan said. "Some of the good shit too. I'm flyin higher than you were."
Brett laughed a little. "I'm glad you're feeling okay, Suse," he said, reaching down and giving her good hand a squeeze. "I'm sorry you had to get shot up to have it happen."
"Fuckin bullet just came flyin in there," Susan said. "Boom, and next thing I know, I'm bleeding all over the damn place. Some soldier I am."
"It's not your fault you got hit," Brett told her. "You did good out there. You guys threw back that first strike and put a serious fucking hurt on those assholes."
"Good," she said. "I only wish poor Helen would've been as lucky as me. I saw her when they brought us in." She shook her head a little, a tear forming in her eye.
Brett had noted the absence of Helen in the room when he came in. "Did she go easy?" he asked Janet.
"As easy as could be," Janet told him. "She was still awake but couldn't breathe very well. I... well... I gave her morphine to quiet her." She paused a little, a tear forming in her eye as well. "A lot of morphine."
Brett put his arm around her and gave her a comforting hug. "That's all you can do, Janet," he told her. "It's better that way."
"I know," she said softly. "I just wish I knew why we're going through all of this. Why are those men attacking us, killing our people and making us kill them? What's the point of it all? Haven't enough people died from the comet?"
"I don't know, Janet," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me either."
They stood that way for a moment, Brett's arm around her, both of them silently watching Susan, who had lost track of the conversation and was staring intently at a Thomas Kincaid reprint on the wall.
"I'd better get back up there," Brett said at last, breaking the embrace. "Part two is about to start."
"What kind of casualty count are we looking at?" Janet wanted to know.
He shrugged, unable to give her even a guess. "As few as possible I hope," he told her.
"Another napalm canister on the chopper, sir," Corporal Andrews said, pointing up at the aircraft that was just now spiraling up to altitude from the direction of the town.
"Jesus," Stu said, shaking his head and looking at it with fear. "How many of those fucking things do they have?" He was gripping his rifle closely as he lay on his stomach behind a fallen log three hundred yards from the center hill held by the Garden Hill bitches. Around him, on both sides and utilizing every piece of cover they could find, was every man that had not been sent out to accomplish the flank attacks: a grand total of ten uninjured and twelve that were too wounded to participate in the attack but well enough to fire a gun. He and this rag-tag understrength collection made up the new fifth platoon of the militia and their job would be to put covering fire on the center hill during the attack.
"What should we do?" Andrew asked fearfully, wanting very badly to bolt and run as far away as he could.
"Hold here until they start to close," Stu said, lifting up his radio. He keyed it up. "Heads up everyone," he said into it, transmitting his words to all squad and platoon leaders, "the chopper is back in town and it has another canister beneath it. Keep an eye on it and scatter if it tries to close with you. Remember, do it organized and that thing can't hurt you. Panic, and it'll kill you."
No one acknowledged his words but he knew that everyone had heard them. He continued to watch the helicopter and it's deadly cargo, waiting for it to start an attack run. But it didn't. It simply took up a watching position over the Garden Hill positions and went into a hover.
"Come on, asshole," Stu challenged. "You want to hit us, then do it."
The chopper didn't budge. Soon Stu was forced to conclude that it was holding its canister in reserve. Probably, he figured, because they didn't have any troops near the main concentrations to fire the tracer rounds that would ignite the napalm. Maybe they were even now moving those troops over!
"Sir?" Andrews said, breaking his concentration a little.
"Shut the fuck up," Stu barked at him. "I need to get this attack rolling before they think to shift their positions around." He keyed up his radio again. "Stinson, Lima, are you in position?"
"We're formed up over here," Stinson's voice said. He was in command of the troops hitting the left flank. "What's the word on that helicopter? Is it going to hit us again?"
"I don't know what the fuck its gonna do," Stu barked into the radio. "Do I look like a fuckin psychic? Just get ready to move in."
There was a crackle of static on the frequency and then a prolonged pause with the carrier open. Finally Stinson's voice replied: "Sure, we're ready when you give the word."
"Good," Stu said. "Lima, you there?"
"Here, sir," Lima, who was a little greener than Stinson, replied instantly. "We're in position and ready to advance."
"All right," Stu said. "We're going to start putting fire on that hill in front of us to keep their heads down. Once you hear our gunshots, both of you move in. Keep me advised on your progress. I want to be standing on top of those fucking hills looking down at a bunch of dead bitches in less than thirty minutes."
After both leaders acknowledged his orders he turned to his own men. "All right," he told them. "Let's start shooting."
They opened up, most firing single-shot rifles, a few with semi-autos, and Stu with his fully automatic M-16. They peppered the ground on the hill before them, the concussions from the shots stinging their ears. They had absolutely no idea that there was not a soul in occupancy on the hill they were firing at.
On the flanks the two groups of fifty-six men heard the echo of the fire reach them. Their commanders gave the order - in both cases with a distinct lack of enthusiasm - and they stood up and began to move. They formed up loosely, as they had before, with no clear point position and with their numbers spread widely, only a few layers deep. They moved at a near run, their weapons held at the ready, their eyes searching the terrain before them for the telltale flash of weapons firing. Though they were anxious, none of them thought that they were going to be fired upon until they were well forward and starting to come around behind the outside positions that had pasted them so soundly in the first attack. They were at the far end of the range of those hills. None of them, not a single one, seriously considered the thought that their enemy might have shifted place to put themselves in front of them once more.
"They're moving in," Brett's voice announced over the VHF radio a moment later. "Estimate fifty to sixty troops heading rapidly towards both flank positions. Matt, Michelle, get ready for them. You should have a visual any second now."
Michelle spotted her quarry first, or at least one of her women did. Within a few seconds, everyone had spotted the line of dirty soldiers trotting towards them through the mud and around the trees. Weapons came to bear and safeties were clicked off. Everyone felt the anticipation of battle slip away to be replaced by the almost relieving adrenaline rush that came with the actuality of it.
They watched silently as the line continued to close in, not needing to assign targets since everyone already knew their sector of responsibility. Michelle gave no last minute reminders to her troops as she had the first time. Her troops were veterans of this technique now and to do so would be insulting. Finally, after three agonizing minutes, the first of the enemy crossed the three hundred yard-yard barrier.
Michelle waited until nearly half of them had crossed over and then gave the order: "Riflemen, fire at will."
Rifles began to crack and bullets began to fly downrange. Even before the first bullet hit, the enemy were diving into the mud. Before the second volley was sent out, they were returning fire.
Within one minute of the first shot from Michelle's position, Matt's position a half a mile to the west opened up on the group advancing on them as well.
The second battle had begun.
Four of Stinson's men had been taken down with the initial volley and an additional two since then. Now everyone had found reasonably good cover behind rocks or trees. Stu's voice was screaming over the radio, demanding to know what the hell was going on but he ignored it for the moment. He fired a short burst at one of the flashes coming from the hill, knowing he probably wasn't hitting anything but doing it anyway.
"Goddammit, Brandon," he shouted at one of his corporals, "easy on that automatic. Bursts you asshole, bursts! Don't fire a whole fuckin clip off at once!"
Brandon ignored him completely, slamming another magazine in and firing half of it off with one trigger pull. Perhaps the first three bullets went where he had aimed them but the rest flew well over the top of the hills as the barrel was forced up.
Stinson ignored the fact that he'd been ignored and turned his attention elsewhere. Two of his squads were still lingering in the rear, where it was reasonably safe. "Sanders, Jackson," he barked at the leaders of those squads. "Get your people the fuck up here and help us put fire on that hill! Get in the fuckin war why don't you?"
They at least did as he ordered, bringing their understrength squads up to covering positions. One of them, a young private from the Grass Valley raid, didn't move fast enough or crouch low enough and was drilled with two bullets. Stinson shook his head a little, wondering just what the hell was going on. What were they doing out here, having a gun battle with a bunch of women? What was the damn point?
"Stinson, Lima," Stu's voice barked from the radio once more, "what the hell is going on out there? Report!"
"Asshole," Stinson muttered, ducking as the next volley of fire came rolling in from in front of them. The tree he was hiding behind took several shots right on the other side of his head. It was becoming such a common occurrence that he hardly jumped. He pulled out his radio and keyed up. "Stinson here," he said, shouting into it so he could be heard over the noise of gunfire, "we're taking fire from the hills at our one o'clock. I estimate platoon strength up there at least."
"Who is firing from up there?" Stu demanded. "They don't have that many people!"
"Well they sure as shit dug them up from somewhere!" Stinson yelled back. "Or maybe we're imagining all this fucking lead flying at us!"
"You watch your mouth with me," Stu said angrily. "Remember who you're talking to!"
"I remember," Stinson said. "We're pinned down at the moment but seem to be safe. The fire has slacked off some. I've got seven casualties."
"Hold in place for now," Stu told him. "And conserve ammo if you can. Lima, are you there? What's your situation?"
Lima's voice came on the air a moment later. He was very excited and gunfire could be heard in the background. "We're under fire from the hills," he yelled. "We're also taking crossfire from the left! I have nine dead and four wounded!"
There was a long silence over the airwaves as Stu pondered this new information. Finally he came back on. "Stinson, Lima," he said, "you need to move your troops forward. Split your commands in two and advance half at a time! One group gives covering fire while the other group moves forward and then you do it the other way."
Stinson looked at his radio in disbelief for a moment. Around him, those squad leaders that had radios were looking at theirs as well. Was Stu insane? Advance into that fire? The bitches hadn't even pulled out their automatic weapons yet.
"Stinson, Lima, Goddammit, did you copy me?"
Stinson keyed his radio up, not sure what was going to come out of his mouth. "Stu," he said into it. "With all due respect, we'll take very heavy casualties if we try to advance against them. They're behind heavy cover and they have automatic weapons."
"I agree with Stinson, sir," Lima cut in before Stu had a chance to reply. "I'm not sure we can take this hill with the troops we have available."
"Now listen up, you two," Stu growled back at them. "You will advance to those hills now! At this very fucking minute! We need to take them and get rid of this resistance while we have a fucking chance to do it, before they shift their forces around again and make it even harder. The covering fire from the static half of the advance will keep their heads down while the other half moves. You won't just be charging into a slaughter. Now fucking do it or I'll see every one of you that lives through this hang when we get back to Auburn! Or better yet, I'll fucking shoot you myself right here!"
There was another pause and then Lima's voice said: "Copy, sir. We'll be moving in."
Stinson continued to stare at his radio, shaking in fear and rage.
"Stinson," Stu's voice barked, "did you copy your orders?"
His men were looking at him, waiting for him to do something. Finally he did. He was naturally the type to avoid confrontation with others, particularly those in power over him. True, he had become somewhat more aggressive over the course of the march, he had even mouthed off to Stu just now. But when push came to shove, when the time for a real decision came, he found himself unable to deny the authority. "I copy," he said into the radio. "We'll be moving in shortly."
He actually heard the collective gasp of his remaining men as he said these words. He could feel the burning of their murderous glares upon his face. He was suddenly very scared, and not just of being killed in battle. But he allowed no fear to show on his face. Calmly, he turned to them. "You heard the man," he said evenly. "First, second, and third squads, get ready to advance. Fourth and fifth squads, get ready to lay down some covering fire."
Nobody moved, they all continued to glare at him. He stared back. "You guys want to mutiny?" he asked them. "You want to disobey orders and pull back from here? Go ahead if you dare. Just remember, you may be saving your asses for the moment, but we have to go back to Auburn eventually. You'll live through the battle but you'll hang for mutiny."
Uncertainty showed in most faces at his words. They realized there wasn't really much of an option. As perverse as it sounded, their best chance of long-term survival meant rushing into the onslaught of rifle fire.
"Let's get it done," Stinson said, sensing the change in mood. "We don't have all fuckin day. Fourth and fifth, covering fire!"
A rifle popped from one of the men, sending a bullet towards the Garden Hill positions. Another pop followed. Soon, nearly twenty rifles were firing at them.
"All right," Stinson said over the tactical radio, "first, second, and third squads, move in!"
They obeyed him. Though they had been on the very verge of mutiny a moment before, thirty men now pulled themselves to their feet, hefted their weapons, and began rushing forward.
The covering group fired as quickly as they could, plastering the hillside with bullets in an attempt to keep the enemy's head down. It worked to a certain degree but not quite as well as was hoped. The flashes of return fire still appeared only not as intense as the initial barrage. Men in the advancing platoon began to fall. Two of them fell down about thirty yards in and then another three went quickly after this. One more crashed to the ground at about the fifty-yard line.
"Get down," Stinson ordered over the tactical radio. "Get down and take cover!"
The men didn't have to be told twice. They hurled themselves into the mud and found whatever piece of shelter they could from the rain of lead that was hitting them. No sooner had they settled in however, than bullets began to plink in from another direction; from the hillside to the right of them.
"Goddammit," Corporal Givens, one of the squad leaders from the advancing half of the platoon, yelled into his radio. "We're taking fire from our two o'clock. They've got us in a fucking crossfire again!" Even as these words were leaving his mouth, the man to the right of him suddenly gasped and slumped forward as a bullet smashed through his shoulder and into his chest.
"Hold in place," Stinson yelled back. "Start putting fire on the hill in front of you! The sooner we make it to that hill, the sooner they stop shooting at us."
Givens heard this and shook his head in disgust. "What the fuck are we doing this for?" he mumbled to himself. To his men, he yelled: "Covering fire on the hill, right now!"
The rifles began to pop as the lead group took over the job of keeping the enemy occupied. Stinson gripped his rifle and looked at the men with him. "Let's go," he told them. "We'll advance to the left of Givens' group and take up position fifty yards in front of them. Go fast and keep low."
They began their dash. Stinson, as any commander would do, waited until they were all under way and then brought up the rear. His feet pumped up and down and his back cried in protest from the hunched over gait. Mud splashed up over his legs and onto his feet. He stepped over the top of the bodies that had fallen in the first advance, not giving them a second glance, not even Private Landau, who was still screaming for help. Two of his men went down with body shots before they even reached Givens' position. But it was when they passed this point and began to move into new territory that the punishment really started. The defenders on the hill opened up with their automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
Stinson clearly saw the rapid, flashbulb-like flashes from the gaps in the cover. He kept running. Three of his men were peppered with bursts of fire, blood flying out of holes ripped in their backs, brains flying out of smashed skulls, bodies thumping into the mud. He stepped over them and kept going. Two more men were mowed down - one with legs cut out from beneath him, one with a gut shot that exited just above the buttocks. Stinson himself felt a sting across the side of his face, had an impression of something whizzing just under his ear. It took him a moment to realize that a bullet had just kissed him, digging a furrow in his face but not penetrating. He ran faster, wanting desperately to dive down and take cover.
At last it was time. When two more men were down and the rest were sixty yards closer to the hill, he gave the order. "Down! Take cover!"
Within a second every last one of his men was face down in the mud, scrambling for cover.
Stinson found shelter behind a large rock. A bullet zinged off of it, chipping a piece of stone free. He touched his face and his hand came away bloody. His body tried to react to the thought that he had come within a millimeter or so of having a bullet drill right through his face, but he refused to allow it. This wasn't over yet. He pulled out his radio and keyed up. "Givens, are you there?"
"Here, sir!" Givens' voice replied.
"Advance to the left of us," he ordered. "Same drill. We'll keep fire on the hill for you."
"Yes, sir," Givens answered, obviously not happy about this order but not protesting it either. "We're moving in."
Stinson looked to his men. "Covering fire!" he screamed.
On the other side of the battlefield, Lima's group was advancing as well, although they were taking a few more casualties. The left side of Chrissie's platoon was in a better position to provide a crossfire and Chrissie, taking advantage of this, had most of her automatic weapons shifted over there. This forced Lima's group to place their covering fire in two different directions at two different targets. It also forced them to make shorter hops. In all, Lima's group lost sixteen men in the first hundred yards, nine of them killed outright, the other seven lying defenseless in the mud, bleeding from their wounds and, in some cases, pleading for help from their comrades.
But still they advanced, steadily closing the gap between the positions they had held all morning and the hills beyond where the Garden Hill defenders were entrenched.
Back at the main line, where Stu and his covering platoon were still uselessly firing upon empty hills, Stu was listening to the reports on the radio and becoming excited. Sure, the casualties were a little heavier than he'd expected, but they were advancing. They were going to take those hills and rout those bitches all the way back to the walls of the town. He had every confidence that he would still be inside of that wall and in possession of that community center within two hours.
High above, Brett, Jason, and Sherrie watched the steady, though costly advance as well. As before it seemed almost surreal watching from 2000 feet over the action. All they saw were flashes from the weapons, a haze of smoke over the area, and the tiny figures of men dashing through the mud or crouching in it. Brett could see that the group attacking Matt's position on the left flank was having a much harder go of it than the bunch attacking Michelle on the right. Part of this was that they did not seem to be as ably led. Another part of it was that Chrissie's left side positions, being closer, were putting much more accurate fire on them. He could also see that it would soon be time for the friendly forces to pull back.
"They're closing too fast with too many surviving men," Brett said, looking as the covering group jumped up and began to dash forward. "On both sides but particularly on the right."
"Are they gonna take the hills?" Jason asked, a little alarmed by the thought.
"They're not gonna take them," Brett replied, "but it looks like we're going to have to give them away in order to avoid close contact. We need to delay this a little if we can, give our people time to pull back."
"We have the napalm still," Jason said, telling him nothing that he didn't already know.
"Yes we do," Brett agreed. "Get Michelle on the VHF. It's time we took a little more active part in this thing. Chances are, they're too busy down there to notice what we're doing."
"Right," Jason said and immediately he began hailing Michelle.
"Sherrie," Brett said, looking back at her for a moment, "get in position. I want to drop on the group that's covering after the next advance."
"You got it," she said, crawling across the floor.
Brett slowly turned to the right and then began to gingerly move in a large circle, bringing the helicopter around to the side of the men on the ground. As he expected, no one on the militia's radio frequency sounded an alarm at his movement, so wrapped up in the battle were they. He looked below, his eyes making quick shifts from the terrain to his instruments. Down below the next dash was just taking place, with the group in the rear rushing up to leapfrog their cover positions.
"Right there, Sherrie," Brett said. "That group of that's in motion. As soon as they hit the dirt to take over covering fire, we'll egg them."
"I got 'em," Sherrie said, her voice shaky but determined.
"Michelle here," Michelle said in his headset in response to Jason's hails. The stutter of gunfire and a few screams could be heard in the background. "Are you gonna give me an air strike?"
Brett handled the communication now that she was on the air. "That's affirm," he told her. "I'm gonna drop on the covering group. Get ready to light them up."
"Changing mags now," she said. "Hurry it up! They're getting a little too close for comfort and we're taking casualties! We're gonna have to pull back from here in a minute."
"Copy," Brett said, watching as the advance came to an end and the group - minus three more of its members - dove to the ground once more. "We're moving in now. As soon as the shit flies, start your pull back to trenches 23, 26, and 28. Do it by the book, wounded out first, pull out the rest in thirds with heavy covering fire."
"By the book," Michelle confirmed.
Stinson was lying behind a small rise, firing his automatic at one of the flashes before him, trying desperately to take the Garden Hill forces down a few notches before they killed every one of his men. They were still over a hundred and fifty yards away and already he had lost nearly twenty of the original fifty-six that had made the attack. Would they be able to press the advantage even if they did make it up there? It seemed less and less likely by the yard.
"Fuckin clusterfuck," he mumbled, firing another burst and having his action lock open, indicating an empty magazine. He ejected it to the ground, not bothering to pick it up, and pulled another from his pack. He felt only two more in there. Would that be enough? It would have to be. He slammed it in place, closed the chamber, and then fired another short burst. Ahead of him the front half of his platoon was just about to take cover again.
Vaguely he registered that the helicopter had moved from the position it had been in a minute before but somehow he did not assign alarm to that observation. There were so many other things that could potentially kill him and his men in the next two minutes that the helicopter was near the bottom of his list of things to worry about. Nor did he pay any attention to the frantic hails of Stu on his radio. He barely even heard them. The fucking prick probably wanted to have a Goddamn status report while they were in the middle of the bloodbath that this battle was turning into. Fuck him. He could have his motherfucking report when it was over. The thought that Stu might be seeing the helicopter positioning itself over the top of his men and that he might be trying to issue a warning never came close to crossing his mind.
Up ahead, the charging group finally reached the limits of their advance and threw themselves down where they began scrambling for trees and rocks to hide behind. They were five less the number that they had started that charge with, three of them dead on the ground, two of them screaming on the ground but incapacitated. As Stinson watched, a burst of automatic fire reached out and finished the job on one of the wounded ones that had been foolishly trying to get to his feet.
"Fucking idiot," Stinson muttered, feeling a fleeting moment of sadness and then dismissing it. He looked at his men and took a few deep breaths to brace himself. "Let's go!" he yelled at them. "Leapfrog to the left. Now, now now!"