APAGear II Archives Volume 1, Number 4 March, 1999


Faceless Names

Rick Horton

My eyes opened instantly. My burning sockets felt bloated with exhaustion. A filthy, pasty sweat from the heat of the jungle clung to my face and neck. My stomach ached with hunger. There were no sounds. Nothing. No birds, no hoppers, no insects, nothing. Only dead silence. At first, I thought I had become deaf in my sleep. Somehow, I knew that that this moment of peace was almost over. I felt exposed and unsafe. As slowly as I could possibly move, I slid my hand over a few inches and checked my rifle. The squish of the mud adjusting under me was unlike any sound I could imagine. This tiny noise became huge and seemed to carry forever. I laid the weapon across my chest, as ready as I could be.

Glancing across the corner of the rain poncho that covered me, I could see that my mates were still lying quietly in the shallow depression that was our only hope of concealment from the enemy. Few of us had ever been this deep in Mekong territory, and none had ever been this sure of our own imminent deaths. I wasn't scared, I was too numb to be scared. I only wanted it to be over. Something primal kept me from just standing up and screaming "shoot me!" as loud as I could. I just want to sleep in my own bunk.

Corporal Eid's unsecured jacket pocket had ruined months of exhaustive planning and preparation. Eid was not the first to be killed. I saw the guilt and horror in his eyes as Eid watched Ranger Tadsen jerk uncontrollably, the bullets only pausing to do fatal damage as they passed through. Corporal Eid died moments after Tadsen. Sergeant Shreed, Ranger Sandridge, and Senior Corporal Mau were also cut down in the crossfire. That left me in command. I wasn't quite sure I could hold this unit together the same way Sergeant Shreed did. With two more seriously wounded, I was just glad they didn't get me. Only a few hours later I would discover the most overpowering guilt possible. It was a unique feeling of regret that rapidly faded into numbness. To most those names were just that, names. Those people will forever occupy space in my mind.

Only two weeks before, my existence been complex and full of life's little dramas. I had my share of problems just like everyone else, no less, no more. I had moral arguments with myself. I had a drinking problem. I was concerned about losing my hair. Now, there was nothing, only survival.

Waiting there, my mind began to wander again. I began to ponder just how small my life felt at that point. I tried to remember the details of my existence, only weeks old. Although I couldn't even remember Corporal Eid's face, I had no problem visualizing his wife and children. Most, but not all, of us were single, as the lifestyle wasn't very family-oriented. I had last seen them at the Regimental picnic. His wife was pushing his sons on the playground swings. I remember a group of kids chasing each other around, pointing their fingers at one another and shouting, "die snake! BAM!" We all laughed. Now someone would have to tell those kids that daddy wasn't coming home.

The sound was dangerously close. It was the tiny ping of metal on metal, a completely unnatural sound that would carry for hundred of meters in this terrain. My adrenaline shot through the roof. Turning my head slightly, I could see the look of regret on Corporal Zweep's ragged face. He had managed to get his rifle snagged on his webbing. That was the sort of mistake made by lazy amateurs in a routine training. This was life or death.

I felt a tapping on my foot. Corporal McCredie was signaling me. Turning my head slightly I could see a sick, twisted grin on her face. I'm quite sure that she had snapped at that point. Her bottom lip and chin was crusted with blood. She had managed to slam into a tree branch at a full run on our initial retreat. Her bloody grimace and our present situation, made her seem more evil than any armed Mekong. Using hand signals she indicated "enemy." She had spotted Mekong infantry to our east. I slithered to the gully's edge to get a look for myself. There they were. Although we were probably outnumbered ten to one, I felt somewhat calmed by actually seeing them with my own eyes. At least we knew where they were. Previously they had been an unseen threat, waiting to strike when we were most weary. I quickly surmised that they must have been fresh and inexperienced. Their movement was unskilled and equipment far too standard. They had to be reinforcements. The troops we had encountered previously were surely veterans. I was not so afraid of the actual troops themselves. I was more concerned with what might be following them. More importantly, was the mental state of my mates; I was pretty sure I was in the best shape of the bunch, which wasn't saying much.

We had taken on larger units before and walked away, for the most part. Of course, previously we always had medivac in the neighborhood, and extraction teams on standby. This situation was different, we were alone. I offered a short prayer to Mamoud that I be killed instead of wounded or captured. We would have to carry our wounded out.

I was hungry for some cawfee and biscuits.

We quickly reorganized as much as we could with out making too much noise. Our makeshift ambush was pretty impressive considering we there were only eight of us, and we were shot up. Only our sniper team had managed to retain their packs during our rout. The rest of us had been forced to abandon ours. As Mamoud would have it, our spotter, Ranger Grynsh, was toting most of our defensive equipment, including most of our "Dervish" anti-personnel mines. The Dervish mines were the first thing we set up when we stopped. We were hoping our ambush wouldn't be needed, that the inexperienced troops would pass us by. The mines were set for remote detonation. They would explode when Ranger Grynsh was ready. We chose that option over proximity fuse detonation. It was a tough decision. Of course, every decision at this point was tough.

The Mekong troops were a mere forty or fifty meters to our east and conveniently clustered up when the first mine went up. My head was down, but I could envision the carnage anyway. I had seen the results of that hideous creation far too many times. It would spring into the air about two meters and shower a fifty-meter area with ceramic anti-personnel fletchettes. It was a horrendously loud explosion. The ground shook, and the Mekongs went berserk. Total chaos. The second Dervish mine went off. I pulled my head up and started firing. The Dervishes had already done the catastrophic damage we desired to their unit. Aside from Corporal McCredie, our unit was firing short, well placed bursts to conserve ammo. McCredie's Cunningham LMG, on the other hand, was furiously spewing metal in their cardinal direction. The smell of chemical propellant was overwhelming. Of the hundred or so Mekong soldiers, less than dozen were left moving. It was a bloodbath. They were lying in the open, terrified and confused. The Mekong troops that had enough experience to run for cover were being killed by Ranger Nechvatal's sniper rifle.

A white hot flash scorched my back and neck. The accompanying thunderclap was earsplitting. I could barely hear my mates screaming obscenities and pleas for help over the ringing in my ears. Our firing ceased. We had been hit by indirect fire from a mortar. I heard its report the second time it unleashed. It missed by several meters. I dreaded the conclusion that the mortar carrier was probably moving quickly. My blood pressure dropped, I saw it before I even heard its engine.

The Jager was moving in a zigzag diagonal pattern, its back-mounted mortar bouncing up and down. I guessed that it was too worried about northern anti-armor weapons to stand still. Fortunately for it, we didn't really have any. It brought its massive rifle to bear on our position and began to open fire. The slapping of the autocannon rounds through the leaves above us was somewhat macabre. The impacting bullets kicked up dirt all around us. Nechvatal began pitching smoke grenades to cover our westerly retreat. It was time to run again.

The mass exodus from the ravine seemed to move in slow motion. I could see Senior Ranger Peevey running, head down, rifle dragging on the ground behind him. He was suddenly engulfed in a maroon mist as momentum propelled his limp corpse into the mud. Senior Corporal Collins went for cover, her mangled arm dangling beside her. Her calm facial expression betrayed the fact that her body was being ripped apart by enemy fire. The rest of us dodged back into the gully to avoid the deadly enfilade. It was obvious; another Mekong platoon had set up a perfect crossfire. The counter-ambush was to the north of us now too. We were pretty much fucked.

The autocannon fire from the Jager had slowed somewhat, the smoke grenades keeping us concealed. I was fairly sure the only reason the gear hadn't charged through the smoke was the possibility of anti-gear mines and such. It was a wise decision on his part, as we did actually have one such anti-armor mine. It was almost the last piece of equipment left. Senior Corporal Vanderberg had already begun arming it. His face and hands had been badly burned during the initial retreating firefight, but he was still in good enough shape to set an explosive. We set it on the front side of the gully, right in the middle of our position.

We were ready to try to move again. The remaining six of us prepared as many grenades as we could, smoke or otherwise. We needed to slow the enemy's fire, or this was our last stand. McCredie began laying covering fire with her machine gun, Corporal Zweep's launcher pumped out a pair of grenades, and the rest of us pitched our grenades. The constant pummeling of the enemy fire became choppy. We moved. My crouched run got me to a cluster of jungle ferns about 30 meters out. I looked back to see McCredie still in the gully, firing madly and screaming insults, her face lit with the pulsing orange glow of the weapon's muzzle flash.

The comparatively monstrous Jager appearing out of the smoke above McCredie was very surreal. She turned her weapon towards it at point blank range. Metal slugs flattened against its armor like mud. As it was preparing to lash out at her, the Jager stepped down into the depression. The detonation of the anti-armor mine probably spread bits of both of them out a kilometer in every direction. The concussion and resulting shrapnel from the blast ripped Ranger Grynsh apart too. His corpse landed only a meter or two from me. I was hit badly. I had blood in my eyes and mouth, and everything was spinning. I began to run through my confused haze. I don't know how far or for how long I ran. I just ran. North, south, east, west, I didn't care.

I awoke on the jungle floor. I didn't move. My left eye was swollen shut, but I managed to open my right one. It was dawn. The enemy's dawn was the same as mine. The light of Helios streamed in through the gaps in the canopy. Although I was thousands of kilometers from home, the light of my homeland was comforting. The morning was so calm and peaceful that I didn't really think about the fact that I should have been dead already. I sat up, almost forgetting that I was in the Mekong Dominion. I wasn't anywhere near the area of the previous firefight.

A calm but stern French voice startled me. "Put your hands on your head!" I turned my head slightly to the right as I raised my hands. The MILICIA scout's rifle was leveled at my head. His partner behind stood behind him, guarding the area and their pair of ATVs. Although my remaining eye was not functioning all that well, I did manage to focus on an oddity. I was wearing a woman's shiny platinum bracelet on my right wrist. This was not a normal piece of my combat load. I had to push through the fog in my mind to remember where I obtained it. It belonged to Ranger Nechvatal. It was his mother's. I remembered how he misplaced it one night when we were on standby. He had a berserk fit because he couldn't find it. This was a sterile mission he wasn't even supposed to have it with him. I couldn't figure out why I would have taken it from him. I must have cracked at least a slight grin when I realized that he probably put it on me.

The scout's partner limply dropped to his knees, and calmly planted his face in the dirt. My "friend" with the rifle barely heard him hit the ground. He turned casually, and began to say something when the front of his flak vest suddenly bulged outward, jolting his body with it. He crumpled next to his partner.

I sat there for a surreal minute or two. Movement in the brush brought me back me back to a state of awareness. Nechvatal and his sniper rifle emerged carefully, obviously pleased with himself. His bracelet kept me alive. I would not have allowed myself to be captured. He helped me up. I gave him his bracelet back and shook his hand. I didn't like being bait, but then again I never really liked Nechvatal either.

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APAGear II Archives Volume 1, Number 4 March, 1999