Operation Overlord had turned into a real bitch, and Dick loved it! This was supposed to be a simple excursion to remove a warlord who was abusing the locals. The problem was that the warlord and the locals were ETs who had 4 arms and eyes all around their head. This gave the warlord's soldiers something of an advantage in a stand up fight, but it didn't take long for the engagement on Ixler to become a guerrilla-type war. Furthermore, the terrain was mostly swamp or marsh, or else dense woods. To the advantage of the humans, the Ixlerns absolutely hated to wade through swamp water. That much swamp water made them itch, and even 4 hands weren't enough to scratch every place that itched when they really got wet. Furthermore, when you used all 4 hands to scratch itches, you didn't have a free hand to hold a gun.
The humans were issued a "rubber" suit which kept the water off well enough, so they were able to operate in the swamps where the Ixlerns refused to go. Even the marshes were a problem for the Ixlerns, because they had no easy way to tell whether or not the water in the marsh was contaminated with enough swamp water to be a problem. The upshot was that the humans could retreat to the marsh or swamp when they got into trouble, thus escaping the Ixlerns.
This operation had been mucked up from the beginning! Sauna had troops scattered around the galaxy fighting brush-fire wars for whoever could pay the heavy change Sauna charged for her mercenaries and could show a reasonable justification for the fighting. Sauna did not support fighting for any sort of conquest, even though the real reason for the mercenaries was so they could have something fun to do. The people of Sauna had a natural life span of about 300 years, virtually all of it in the peak of physical strength and energy. With reincarnation a proven fact, Saunans tended to get bored with the sedentary life style and sought excitement. War could provide that, so they organized themselves into a planetary society of mercenaries. The problem, in the case of Ixler was that Sauna's forces were stretched a bit thin, but the king of the country known as Murmar made such an impassioned plea for help that Sauna's government gave in.
The force sent to Ixler was made up of recovered wounded from other battles who were anxious to get back into a fight. The resulting force was really undersized for the job at hand and made up of a mix of troops who didn't know each other and were not used to working together. Furthermore, there was a shortage of APCs, tanks, and helicopter gunships because they had already been sent to other battles.
The troops sent to Ixler had been issued a new rifle with a stun ray setting, as well as a conventional bullet, so the troops were ordered to use that form of the weapon, set for 4-hour stun, whenever possible. As much as possible, the humans wanted to stay on the good side of the locals, and killing them off seemed like a bad idea, even if they were reincarnated. The small fusion pack in the gunstock provided the power for the ray, so there was no chance of it running dry on the troops. The troops sent to Ixler universally preferred the stun setting, because that way, they would never run out of targets to shoot at nor enemy to dodge—it just increased the fun!
Anyway, the powers that be who were running the human show on Ixler began to smell a rat. All of the information supplied by the king had begun to fall apart under close scrutiny once the human intel people were onsite. Therefore, Dick was sent as the leader of a squad if 8 troopers to infiltrate the headquarters, a castle, of Umlaut, the local warlord. They were instructed to capture some person of high rank and bring him back to intel headquarters for questioning.
That's why Dick's patrol was sneaking through the muck of a marsh that guarded the back side of Umlaut's castle. All 9 of the people in the squad were in seventh heaven; this was why they had enlisted in the first place. They were all adrenaline junkies, and this sort of adventure was what they lived for. Currently, it was well after dark, so they thought that they could gain entry without being seen. The humans had night vision glasses, but the Ixlerns didn't.
They sloshed through the marsh for nearly an hour before they reached the back wall of the castle. The wall was guarded by sentries who walked the path on the wall, but observation had shown that there was enough time to get at least two people up on the wall between passes by the sentries. If the humans could get two people on the wall, they could stun the sentries with an extended time setting and have enough time to get in, capture their prisoner, and get back out before they were interrupted. They had brought a large plastic bag to encapsulate their prisoner to keep him from getting wet.
They reached the wall and prepared to climb it after the guard made his next pass. They had to wait about 10 minutes before they could shoot their grappling hook onto the wall. The hook was made of plastic so that it would not make a clatter when it hit the stone of the wall. They gave the sentry 3 minutes to move far enough down the walkway before launching the grappling hook. It caught on the first try, so two troopers were sent scurrying up the rope to secure the wall for the rest to follow.
The sentry must have been walking in his sleep, because he never reacted to the humans as they climbed over the wall. Once everybody was up, they stowed the grappling hook for later use and made their way into the castle. They needed to hurry since they had taken longer than they had planned and it was getting closer to sunrise than was comfortable. They ran down some convenient steps and soon were on the ground inside the castle.
They hugged the wall and moved toward a nearby doorway. The only plan they had for the castle was a copy of an ancient drawing of the castle layout when it was built about 400 years before. This drawing had come from a text book and was not to scale, but it was all they had.
Castle security was really lax, they saw very few guards and they were easy to avoid. The squad managed to get deep into the castle without being seen and found the area of the bedrooms of the higher officials of the warlord's entourage. They made their choice of prisoner by the simple means of entering the first unlocked bedroom door they came to. Dick stunned the sleeping person with a 4-hour burst and they wrapped him in the plastic bag, with only his head sticking out so that he could breathe.
One of the squad members picked up the prisoner and slung him over his back. The patrol retraced its entry route to get back to the castle wall. They went over the wall using the grappling hook again. Dick sent four people down the rope and then used the rope to lower the unconscious prisoner in his plastic bag. Dick sent the other four troopers down before going down, himself.
Once they all reached the ground, they returned to the marsh and made their way back to intel headquarters. They were congratulated on accomplishing their mission so effectively and efficiently and were dismissed to bed.
The next morning, when the prisoner regained consciousness, he was questioned thoroughly on a number of subjects. It turned out that Dick's squad had captured the perfect information source, the seneschal (general supervisor) for the castle. The intel officers were stunned by what they learned: the humans had been conned!
True, Umlaut was leading a revolt against the king of Murmar, but the king had lied through his teeth. The king was a despot who didn't deserve to be allowed through the front door of any decent person's home. The king kept his peasants in near slavery, and Umlaut was trying to free all of the serfs, as he had already done for his own people. In fact, the locals were such fierce and tenacious fighters because the had been recruited from the freed peasants and didn't want to be returned to their former life of near slavery. The commander of the humans called an immediate halt to the operations against Umlaut's army and arranged through the seneschal a meeting with Umlaut for the next day.
The result of the meeting was that the humans switched sides! Not only did they switch sides, they refused to return the money paid them to come to Ixler. The allies arranged for joint operations, and the humans went on the offensive against the crooked king. Dick was pleased to receive orders for him to take his squad and attack a heavily defended OP (Observation Post) that was in the way of the main line of attack by the allies. In fact, the whole squad was pleased to receive this rare honor of leading a major attack.
Dick got his people into position at the base of the hill holding the OP. The whole enemy position could have been leveled with a little well-placed mortar fire, but where's the fun in that? Besides, the allied brass wanted to preserve as many lives as possible, since most of the troops were conscripts. The hill was steep, but not too much so to climb, so Dick sent 3 troopers and his assistant squad leader up a shallow gully while he took his 4 other troopers up the hill through a growth of trees.
Sooner than Dick had expected, his detail was spotted and started to draw fire. The trees were doing a good job of shielding the humans from more than occasional rifle fire. Dick's plan was to draw the attention of the defenders so that the other group could slip in on the OP unnoticed until it was too late to counter them. As a feature of his plan, Dick's people didn't make the effort at concealment that they normally would, but showed enough to draw fire, though they did not do anything deliberately suicidal.
Things were going well as the humans slowly made their way up the hill, until some spoilsport at the OP started rolling fragmentation grenades down the hill. These grenades were not stopped so easily by the trees, so that several of the humans would have received serious wounds had it not been for their very effective body armor. Mostly, all the grenades accomplished was to make the humans very annoyed at the lobbers, so Dick gave permission to switch over to bullets whenever they had a shot at them. Otherwise, the humans stuck to a 4-hour stun setting, except for the bastards who wanted to play hardball!
They really needed to do something about these grenades, so Dick signaled for his people to spread out more, now that they had the attention of the people in the OP. He sent Jean to his left to work through a particularly dense growth of brush, figuring that she couldn't get through without attracting a lot of attention because of the shaking bushes. If she could draw enough fire, they might be able to pick out the grenade lobbers and eliminate them from the fight. The rifles used by the humans had grenade launchers, but that was more killing power than they really wanted to use; however, Dick's troops would resort to them if it became necessary.
PING! The noise of a bullet bouncing off your helmet sure did get your attention! It also meant that you might be getting careless. Dick knew from personal experience that the body armor the humans used was not failure proof; his previous wound had hurt enough that he didn't want another one.
Aha! One of his people had picked off a grenade lobber. Maybe, that would stop that shit! Nobody wanted a massive grenade wound. Most people chose death over recovery in a badly damaged body; it just meant a few years as a baby and child—aggravating, but not as bad as going through a few hundred years minus an arm or a leg or some such. Oh, well, that's what pushed the adrenaline they all craved.
They were getting near the crest of the hill, so where were the other people coming up the gully? Dick hoped they made it pretty soon, since he didn't particularly want to charge into a machine gun muzzle. No way was body armor going to stand up to that kind of pounding, so the cavalry needed to get there pretty soon. All of his people had made it this far, but about one more foot of climbing was going to put them in front of that machine gun.
Dick held his people back, waiting on the other group. He had about decided that he couldn't wait any longer, and they would have to charge that damned machine gun, when the sound of battle changed abruptly. He finally heard over his radio, "Sarge, we made it! We're inside the OP and shooting at everything that moves, but we could use a little help."
"On our way! OK, everybody, over the top!" The humans burst over the edge of the slope and charged the OP, shooting madly in all directions. Dick thought, "Well, here goes nothing!" as he charged head on at the machine gun. The machine gunner got off only 2 rounds before he was dropped by a stun blast from Dick's assault rifle, but those two rounds both clipped Dick. One hit him on the right side, below the ribs, and the other clipped him on the left side, high enough to catch a few ribs. Both bullets tore through Dick's body armor and flesh, but neither was a fatal wound. The wound on the right just tore skin as it went past, but the other hit hard enough to break 3 ribs, though that bullet had dissipated enough energy by then that it couldn't get past the ribs it broke. The shock of the impact was enough to knock him unconscious, so somebody else had to call for medical evacuation. By this time, the OP was taken and Dick was the only one seriously wounded.
Dick regained consciousness after surgery, a bit woozy, but not in pain. A nurse told him, "You were lucky, soldier. If that bullet had gone past your ribs, we would have been fitting you for a body bag. As it is, the regenerater will have your ribs completely mended by tomorrow morning, and the autodoc will probably release you back to duty by noon. You will have just enough of a scar on each side to uphold your bragging rights; they should get you a couple of free beers."
"Thanks, nurse, and I love you, too," Dick said with a grin.
The next day, as Dick was leaving the hospital tent, he received a message to report to the CP (Command Post). Dick walked into the CP and reported to the sergeant at the front desk. "I'm Sgt. Richard Jones. I have orders to report for reassignment. Any idea what kind of shit I'm gonna catch?"
"No, Jones, I haven't a clue. Have a seat, and I'll tell the Colonel you're here."
A few moments later, the sergeant returned and said, "The Colonel will see you now. Come with me."
Dick reported to the Colonel, who said, "Have a seat, Lt. Jones. You did a spectacularly good job in taking that OP 2 days ago."
"Thank you, sir, but don't you have me confused with somebody else? I'm a sergeant, not a lieutenant."
"You're a lieutenant, now. You have done such a good job in leading a squad, that we want you to take over a platoon. Don't worry, this won't take you out of the line of fire, it'll just give you more toys to play with!
"We want you to lead a detachment to break some of Unlaut's people out of a POW camp. The conditions there are deplorable, and those people need to be rescued. You have three days to come up with a plan.
"Now, if you will allow me, I want to be the one who pins on your new rank."
"Thank you, sir. I'm speechless."
"There, now you are officially an officer and a gentleman! See SSgt. Kelley about your new billet. A messenger from intel will be around to see you this afternoon with the information we have on the POW camp. Good luck. I know you will do a good job."
"Thank you, sir."
Dick picked up what information he could from SSgt. Kelley and left to find his new quarters. Like every other human on Ixler, he was sharing a tent. In this case, he was just moved to a different one from the squad tent he had been using. Somebody had been on the ball, his gear was beside his cot waiting for him when he showed up. He introduced himself to the two other lieutenants in the tent, and they offered to show him where he could get some lunch.
When he got back from lunch, a messenger from intel was waiting. He said, "Capt. Davis thinks that you might have a better chance to work out your plan if you have a desk, so please come with me."
Dick was led to the intel tent where he met Capt. Davis and was assigned a temporary desk. The information they had and a map were delivered, and Dick set to work.