Chapter 1: Bde Comd's intent
'The Rhinos will depart at o-eight hundred hours and move to sector six. That's grid reference A345, R681.' There was a moment of clattering as section commanders moved their plates out of the may to make way for their data slates. The rest of the Squadron carried on eating their evening meal.
A few tables quietly were quietly continuing in their own conversations. These tables contained Guardsmen from other units and weren't involved in the briefing.
It was common for Commanders to hold briefings in the mess hall. It was one of the few times they were guaranteed to have most of their command in the one spot.
Carlos shovelled the last of his meal into his mouth and made a few notes on the timings for the next days operations in his notebook. Glancing up, his gaze met the gaze from a new addition to the troop, Leena, sitting several tables away.
He smiled at her and she averted her gaze, blushing slightly, only to look back a few seconds later. Still smiling, Carlos dipped his head in greeting. She dipped hers briefly in acknowledgment, before turning her gaze to her plate as she toyed with her food.
A strong shove almost knocked Carlos off his seat and he looked sharply round at his friend Plaid.
'What?' He whispered.
Plaid waved a fork at their commander, who was still speaking. 'Pay attention' Plaid whispered back.
Realising that he had missed a fair bit of important information, Carlos endeavoured to keep his attention focused on the matters at hand. Yet he couldn't help but sneak another quick glance towards the new guardswoman in B Company. She lifted her head again and caught his glancing look. She swiftly looked away, a definite smile on her face.
A big cheesy grin spread across his face as he turned his attention back to the commander, who paused in his briefing.
'Did I say something funny trooper Carlos?' Sixteen heads swivelled in Carlos's direction at the Commanders question.
Carlos swiftly wiped his face into a blank slate. 'Err.', he cleared his throat and continued. 'No sir, it was a grimace. Swallowed my food to fast, heartburn, Sir'
The Commander continued to stare at him in silence.
Sweat started to sprout all over Carlos's body, a cold shiver ran down his spine in dread. Then to Carlos's relief, the Commander carried on as though nothing had interrupted him.
Slowly letting his pent up breath and the panic it contained, out through his nose as quietly as he could. Carlos thanked the patron Saint of soldiers for surviving yet another close shave.
The Commander finished his brief and gathered his notes.
The troop Sergeant addressed his soldiers, 'Listen in! BRACE UP!' The troop came to attention in their seats. The Sergeant saluted the Commander. Returning the salute, the Commander picked up his briefing papers and left the mess tent.
Sergeant Dexter waited till the Commander had left the tent, before speaking again 'And relax.' Shoulders slumped around the tables and troopers finished their meals or collected their plates as they prepared to leave. Before the level of conversation rose further, Sergeant Dexter had yet one more order. 'CARLOS! Your ugly mug on me now!'
Carlos caught Leena's gaze as he stood and rolled his eyes in resignation. She laughed at his predicament and her smile tempered his annoyance at the undoubtedly impending punishment.
Chapter 2: Concept of Ops
The talk around the tables was muted as the troopers ran through lists and inventories in their heads or sorted out the inevitable admin problems that always surfaced at the last minute. Carlos picked up his tray and moved away from the hotplates, the aroma rising from the plates making his stomach rumble in anticipation.
He looked around the tables already occupied for any sign of Leena and failed to spot her diminutive form. Feeling his mood take a dive, he headed for the closest empty table and slumped onto the bench, the hot meal in front of him no longer seemed so appetising.
Tempted as he was to push his plate away half eaten, he persevered and ate all that was on the tray. He had spent enough time in the Guards to know that he would be grateful for the sustenance later on in the day.
He checked his watch. He'd better get a move on unless he wanted to be late. Making his way back to the counter, he racked his tray and its dirty dishes with the rest of them and walked swiftly back to his sections tented accommodation.
The section were already formed up outside and were preparing to leave when he arrived. Hastily diving inside, Carlos made his way to his bed space and the equipment laying on top his bed. Slipping the las-rifle sling over his head, he slipped into his combat webbing and slung his patrol sack over a shoulder. The las-rifle, he slung over the opposite shoulder.
Almost running, Carlos caught up with his section and tagged onto the end of the ragtag bunch as they headed towards the vehicle marshalling yard.
The transport Rhinos were already lined up, engines running and ready to go. Squad leaders were busy directing their charges into the Rhinos troop holds. Being at the back, Carlos watched as his fellow troopers filed into the rapidly filling Rhino transport. Just before it was his turn, the Loadmaster held up his hand, the Rhino was full. Checking his load out form, the Loadmaster checked the various Rhinos destinations and activated his Vox. After a brief conversation, he turned back to Carlos
'Rhino Echelon Victor 12 has room.'
Carlos nodded in thanks as he looked for the Rhino with EV 12 on the side. It was easy to spot and Carlos lopped over to it. Making his way to the back, it indeed have room. He removed both rifle and patrol sack from his shoulders as the Loadmaster moved to the side to allow his access. Carlos slipped into the dark confines of the Rhinos troop bay.
He slumped into the seat and fastened his restraints. He grounded the butt of his las-rifle on the floor, placed his patrol sack on his lap and looked up into a beaming smile. Carlos was taken aback, and then the smile shyly spoke.
The darkness lightened as his eyes adjusted and Carlos tried to make out the face framed by the combat helmet opposite. It was Leena.
'Oh!' A goofy smiled across his face. 'Hiya!' Carlos suddenly felt good about the world. He laughed out loud. 'Come here often?'
Leena started to shake her head then realised the stupidity of her answer. Blushing she dipped her gaze and adjusted a strap that didn't need adjusting.
A figure dropped into the seat next to Carlos, but he paid the new arrival no heed. It could have been The Eternal Emperor and still he would not have torn his gaze from the face opposite.
Leena looked up from her strap tightening and blushed under his gaze. Carlos felt as though he was twelve again.
A few more bodies piled in and the rear door clanged shut, swamping them in darkness. A crunch sounded from the front, the vibration running the length of the chassis and the Rhino lurched forward.
'Grind it, if you can't find it!'
As the Rhinos movement smoothed out, the Loadmaster turned on the internal lights and checked that the load doors were properly sealed and dogged. The Rhino gently swayed on the paved surface, the running gear easily absorbing the bumps. Too noisy to even attempt a conversation, many of the troops wriggled into vaguely comfortable positions and went too sleep.
The Rhino turned right down a rubble strewn road. Even though he was strapped in, Carlos still placed his booted feet against the opposite bench seat to brace himself. It also allowed him to stretch his legs in the cramped confines. It also brought his legs in contact with Leenas.
The Rhino swayed around another corner. The cacophony from the twin engines a steady drone in the ears.
Leena adjusted her own position and braced her own feet against Carlos's seat. This increased the amount of contact they had against each other. Carlos felt his blood start to race.
Dropping a hand from his las-rifle barrel, Carlos placed it on the highly polished leather of Leenas boot. She still wore that teasing little smile that he liked so much and she made no move to remove his hand. He walked his hand down her boot with an index and forefinger. He stopped at her laces and tugged at a loose end.
Leena laughed, the sound lost against the Rhinos engine noise and kicked his hand away, waggling one of her own fingers in admonishment. Boot free of his mischievous fingers, she placed it back against his seat. Carlos dropped his hand back onto her ankle, the furthest up her leg he could reach without stretching uncomfortably in his harness. Leena again made no move to remove the extremity. Carlos was happy just to leave his hand be, enjoying the warmth emanating through the material from the leg underneath. Leena, likewise, was happy to let the hand rest there. Its closeness stirred something within her and was all too aware that had he been able, she would have allowed his hand further up her leg. How far up, even she was not sure.
Chapter 3: Situation, enemy forces
The Rhino deftly followed the one in front. Moving past ruined and destroyed buildings. The only clue to their former glory the mounds of rubble they had become. Vermin, large and small, darted amongst the rubble and slabs of ferrocrete, searching out the bodies of the dead entombed within.
The Navigator checked their position against the map and looked out into the wasteland. She made her way to the driver and tapped on his shoulder, pointing to the left as they approached a junction in the piles of debris. The driver dipped his head in understanding and followed the Rhino in front down the left the left fork. Some of the other Rhinos in the convoy peeled off down the right fork.
Making her way cautiously to the rear, the Navigator attracted the attention of the Loadmaster. She held up a hand, palm out, all digits spread. The Loadmaster raised a thumb in reply.
Making her way back to her position, the navigator removed a set of goggles hanging on a peg, next to her charts. Giving the lenses a quick wipe she slipped them over her helmet and settled them securely in place. She looked out one of the Rhinos many vision slots. Another junction was coming up. She tapped on the drivers shoulder again, and placed an upraised thumb in his field of view. Not taking his gaze from the road, the driver removed a hand from the control yolk and returned the gesture. The Navigator patted him fondly on the shoulder and headed back to the middle of the Rhino and the cupola in the roof.
With a couple of deft twists revealing a high degree of familiarization and experience, the navigator threw the hatch open. Harsh sunlight lanced into the tight confines of the Rhinos interior. The Navigators goggles darkened in reply as she climbed up the rungs and took position behind the heavy bolter on the roof. Slipping off the bolters muzzle cover, she took a firm grasp of the cocking handle and pulled the stiff working parts to the rear. When she reached the limit of travel, she allowed the handle to jump forward, chambering the heavy round.
Rhino's were dropping out of the convoy and slowing to a stop at the side of the road. EV 12 slowed and pulled over as well. Other Rhinos continued to thunder past on route to their own drop offs.
The Loadmaster doused the lights, more out of habit than necessity and released the locking bolts. As the Rhino started to slow, he activated the ramp. Bright light swept into the darkened troop compartment and all the guardsmen looked away as the harsh light speared painfully into their eyes.
Regretfully, Carlos removed his hand from Leena's leg and dropped his feet back to the deck, releasing his harness at the same time. Leena was slower, showing her lack of Rhino experience.
The tail gate hit the ground the same time the Rhino stopped, a common sign of an experienced Rhino crew. Those closest to the door grabbed their kit and swiftly moved out to the side of the road.
Carlos stood, grabbing one of the overhead handles awaiting his turn. Leena tried to stand, but found herself momentarily tangled up in her harness. By the time she was free, it was almost Carlos and her time to disembark.
Carlos Looked towards Leena as she finally struggled free. Her face was so close, the temptation to great. He leant forward and kissed her briefly on the mouth and leapt down the ramp, seeking out his squad.
It was a brief kiss, chaste, a mere brushing of his lips against hers. Yet for Leena, it felt as though someone had just discharged forty thousand volts through her body rooting her to the spot. A rifle butt crashed into her spine, all but sending her sprawling down the loading ramp. She fought desperately to keep her balance, catching the smile of amusement on the Loadmasters face as she staggered past.
Facing beaming red in the embarrassment of standing still at the top of the loading ramp like a lemon, she looked for the rest of her squad and avoided everyone's eyes. Some of which twinkled with amusement, some with contempt.
The two squads shook themselves out into patrol order, the Rhinos providing over-watch. Carlos's squad, consisting only of veterans, sorted themselves out without fuss or verbal command and started out on their patrol almost instantly.
Leena's squad took a few more minutes as they sorted themselves and their kit out.
The Rhinos patiently waited until Leena's squad sorted themselves out and started to move away before raising ramps, securing top weapon mounts and shutting top hatches. Tracks turning in opposite directions, the Rhinos spun on their axes and headed back the way they had come.
Carlos adopted his usual position in the patrol without command as the squad walked along either side of the road, allowing time for muscles to warm up and eyesight and hearing to adjust to the new environment.
Carlos let his gaze wander over the rubble piles, not focusing on any particular point. Like most of the veterans he relied on his subconscious to filter through the streams of data provided by his eyes. The subconscious was better suited to filtering the data for errant information, noises, objects, creatures where they shouldn't be, anything out of the ordinary. It wasn't foolproof, but it was reliable, especially within a veteran squad all using the same method.
As the squad settled into rhythm, they filtered off the road into the rubble piles, spreading out, but never further than hailing distance, or out of vision for more than a few seconds. Footing was treacherous and the patrol slowed further still.
Eyes watched them from the shadows, some, flickering in reflected light, others, as dark as the holes they lay in. The patrol paid the watchers no heed, more wary of the wastes larger predators.
Not all the buildings had been reduced to piles of rubble and twisted metal. Some, seemingly against all odds, were almost hospitable. These bastions of a by gone era of peace, were known to have blind sides and each was approached warily in that zone. As each building was reached, the squad broke into clearance teams and swiftly set about securing each room.
The wasteland was a snipers paradise and each vantage point had to be checked regularly for signs of use or passage.
Swiftly moving into the last room, Carlos gave it a cursory once of as his over-watch protected his back. The room was clear. He gave his over-watch the nod and his signal was passed down the hallway. Satisfied of his safety, Carlos gave the room another closer inspection. The room was bare of furnishings; anything that could be removed had been done so a long time ago by scavengers, before the area had become too dangerous, even for them.
Keeping well away from the windows and in the darkness provided by what was left of the roof, Carlos let his las-rifle hang by its sling as he opened a pouch and removed his bino's. Setting the cold and slightly damp rubber against his cheek and brow, he studied the landscape. Nothing stirred, bleak, desolate, and unforgiving.
He dropped the bino's from his face and mad his way back into the hallway. Gerry was still looking out the windows in his room opposite.
'Possibly' replied Gerry.
Carlos stopped putting his bino's in his pouch and set the aperture back to his eyes.
'By the remains of wall that resembles a Sentinel walker.' Supplied Gerry.
Carlos swept his sight picture rapidly over the ground till he found the described wall. 'Seen.'
'To the right and forty yards behind.'
Carlos adjusted his aim and didn't see anything, but waited anyway. A figure stepped into view cautiously and moved out of sight behind another rubble pile. The figure was too far away to be accurately identified. He pulled the magnification back. Figures popped into view between the rubble. Patrol spacing.
Not dropping his binoc's or his gaze, Gerry spoke again 'Ours.'
'I'd say so.' Agreed Carlos, before stowing his bino's and heading downstairs.
At the ground floor Sgt Dexter was pouring over a recent aerial map of the area. Carlos studied it for a moment to get his bearings than stabbed his finger down. 'Foot patrol heading in, ' Carlos moved his finger across the map 'this direction.'
'Gerry' agreed Carlos 'never misses a thing.'
Dexter Opened the cover on his data slate and checked the information on the screen against the map. '8 troop, their motoring. Hopefully not fast enough to miss anything. Okay! Pack up and head out.'
The patrol moved back into line and carried on.
After four hours, they stopped at another partly ruined building. Once the house was cleared and a perimeter set up, ration packs were removed from pouches and hastily consumed. The ones that had eaten swapped out with those on perimeter watch. The vox-operator called in a sit-rep.
Nothing to report, all quiet.
Fed and watered, the patrol carried on.
Chapter 4: Scheme of Manoeuvre
Carlos and his squad approached the rendezvous and pick up point. They were early, but the other patrol was already on location. Sitting on the remains of a marble column, he fished out his water bottle and took a small sip, swirling the warm liquid around his dry and dusty mouth before swallowing it down a parched throat.
They still had some time to wait before the Rhinos arrived, so he stretched his back and turned to face the sun, feeling its harsh warmth dry the sweat from his face. After a moment, he became aware that he was being watched. Carlos leaned back forward and opened his eyes to see who was watching him.
Leena dropped her gaze when Carlos turned his own towards her. A stone lay at her feet and she toyed with it for a moment before looking back up.
He watched as she averted her gaze, deciding that two could play at that game. She looked up after a moment, their gazes connecting. If they hadn't still been on patrol he would have walked over to her. However, he liked to think he was a consummate professional and made a strict effort never to mix business with pleasure. He felt his blood rise and looked up into the sky in an effort to quell his rising ardour. In the distance a flock of birds were flying to god knows where birds flew too. He looked back down to see if anyone had spotted their transports yet.
He looked back up so fast he almost gave himself whiplash. Birds? They looked more like mortar ... oh shit!
'INCOMMING!' Carlos was screaming at the top of his lungs as he raced across the open ground. Faces turned in his direction at his sudden scream, some wondering if battle nerves had claimed yet another victim. Some looked up.
There was a moment of silent inactivity where the only sound and movement was coming from Carlos. It was only momentary. Then suddenly troopers in both squads were running in all directions.
Leena was still staring up into the sky when Carlos dipped a shoulder and powered it straight into her stomach. His shoulder pauldron connected with her stomach armour plate with a crack so loud that heads turned in their direction.
Pain lanced down arm and spine as Carlos managed, just, to keep his footing under the impact. His back screamed in agony as momentum threw Leena over his protesting shoulder. Not pausing, Carlos used every muscle at his disposal to power up the side of the rubble pile, praying that his footing remained sure.
The air was filled with a high pitched screams as the mortars descended upon their location.
Reaching the crest of what once was a building; Carlos launched them both over the ridge without any thought to what lay on the other side. Leena parted company with his shoulder as they tumbled head over heels down the other side. They crashed to a stop at the bottom as the first mortal shells hit ground and detonated.
Immediately, the air was filled with dirt, rubble and noise.
Picking himself up and bleeding from several cuts, Carlos grabbed Leenas patrol sack and hauled her to her feet.
'RUN IF YOU WANT TO LIVE!' Now every part of Carlos screamed out in agony. Leena, winded from Carlos's impact could hardly breathe let alone stand.
Large chunks of shattered masonry were now landing around them, tossed into the air by the high explosive mortar shells.
Carlos just wanted to collapse into a tight ball of agony, the desire for life proved to be stronger. He dragged a dazed Leena with him as he tried to put as much distance between them and the impact zone as possible.
He knew how the attacks went from experience. First the high explosive rounds and then the air burst shrapnel. The HE was to disoriented and scatter, the air burst shrapnel would then follow and flay the flesh off anyone not under cover. One of the few semi-demolished buildings was in sight, the doorway a teasing invitation.
Something struck his arm; something else ricocheted off his helmet, all the time Leena was dragging him to the ground. A voice whispered in his ear that all he had to do was let her go. Let her go and he could save himself.
He fought the voice and despaired at the fact the doorway seemed no closer, no matter how much energy he expended into reaching it.
A shell landed nearby, showering them both in dirt. Carlos closed his eyes and focused on placing one foot in front of the other as hell dropped about him.
The blow jarred every bone in his body and he dropped to his knees in shock.
Eyes closed, he had walked into the buildings wall. He pulled himself to his feet and dragged Leena after him. The dark interior of the building was momentarily illuminated in the flashes of detonating HE.
The building shook as a shell landed close by. Something collapsed in another part of the structure. Carlos dragged them further inside. He gratefully spotted a staircase and all but crawled towards it.
Leena was no longer assisting and was gibbering ball on the dusty floor. He let her go and crawled past the stairs and all his prayers were answered. Set into the wall under the stairs, was a small door partially open. He wrenched it open further, revealing the small cupboard space underneath the stairs. He cautiously looked inside. Something had made its lair inside, but crucially, that something wasn't in residence.
Entering, he gave it a slightly more intensive search. Satisfied he dropped his Patrol sack and webbing harness, laying his bashed las-rifle on top.
'Finders keepers' Carlos was aware of a sudden silence 'Oh shit!' He hobbled painfully over to Leena, who was still huddled in a ball, crying faintly and grabbed her by the shoulder straps of her combat webbing.
Ignoring the resurgence of pain, he unceremoniously dragged her towards the small space under the stairs, the barrel of her las-rifle scraping across the floor in a screech that any other time would have set his teeth on edge.
The muscles in the backs of his legs screamed in protest. He ignored them, focused purely on getting Leena into cover. Grateful to a level he never thought possible, he dragged Leena into the cupboard and shut the door as tightly as he could get it.
Finally sinking into an exhausted pile Carlos listened to the sound of rain on the building and in the just vacated hallway.
Only it wasn't rain. It was tiny little razor sharp flechettes sowed by air burst munitions. They could strip the vegetation from a forest in minutes, or the flesh from a trooper in seconds.
He listened to the patter of death, which was deceivingly relaxing and to the crying of Leena.
Chapter 5: Service support
His muscles started to seize and stiffen while he stung all over from a myriad of tiny little cuts and abrasions. He wanted to go to sleep, but long hours of training refused to let him be.