We paused in the open, shocked at the sudden change in direction. We couldn’t turn around - we were in the assault - so what was the trooper running away from?
‘Turn around!’ the trooper repeated angrily.
We still hesitated, until the platoon commander emerged from the trench, heading in the same direction.
‘Fucking turn around!’ he yelled, gesturing angrily.
I turned back to the line of confused troopers stretched out behind me.
‘Withdraw!’ I ordered.
There was no time to peel backward, or come up with some other effective method of transforming our charge into a retreat; running backward from an assault wasn’t something troopers practiced.
I ran backward along the line, hurrying my men to follow suit with frantic waves of my arms, crying, ‘Move back! Move!’
We withdrew back to the slope in a ragged formation, chased by the platoon commander and spurred by the crack and hiss of passing darts.
The sergeant major was waiting in the same dip that I had been lying in moments ago.
‘What’s going on?’ he demanded, as he saw us dropping back over the slope, the battle still raging behind us.
I held up my arms. ‘I don’t know!’
Mr Barkley didn’t stop as he descended onto the slope, sprinting past us both with his team in tow before turning at a right angle, moving in the direction of Two Section’s position on the left.
‘Change of plan!’ he shouted, ‘Follow me!’
None of us hesitated, breaking back into a run as we followed the platoon commander, traversing the slope whilst keeping out of sight to the enemy on the hill plateau.
I quickly realised what Mr Barkley was doing - though I wasn’t exactly sure why he was doing it - he was changing the direction of our assault so quickly that he didn’t even have the time to mark it on the platoon net. Sometimes a commander saw something - a chink in his enemy’s armour - and it was up to him to grasp the opportunity … to seize the initiative before that opportunity was lost. He would tell me what I needed to know as soon as he could.
‘Cut the net!’ I hissed back to my section. ‘Go silent!’
The green crosshairs that marked the troopers in my section swiftly disappeared, and every trooper powered down his rifle as we sought to minimise our electronic signature; if we were going to change the direction of our assault, then it was critical that we didn’t give the game away.
As we ran, I noticed large, dark shapes descending onto the foot of the hill, and I realised that the first company of Guardsmen were landing in their dropships, their approach having been covered by our attack, as well as the bombardment from the saucers. Using the landing zones we had marked, the fresh soldiers would soon be charging up the hill to take over the battle, directed toward us by Four Section.
Mr Barkley stopped after two hundred metres, turning to face the plateau once more. I realised straight away that an assault from our new direction would put us right on top of the two additional bunkers that Two Section were engaging.
‘Three Section’s trench is small,’ he said, as I skidded to a halt beside him, followed swiftly by the sergeant major. ‘But the two bunkers here are part of a larger trench network. They’re preparing to counterattack from here, going for Two Section. I want you to assault, straight up and onto that position. No fire support. Weapons powered down until the last minute. Catch them out. Understood?’
I nodded. ‘Understood.’
Mr Barkley looked to the sergeant major - who lay amongst the grass behind us, looking slightly irritated by the sudden change in plan - ‘Sorry, Sergeant Major,’ he said.
He held up a hand. ‘No apologies, boss. You do what you do. I’ll make sure Two Section know what’s going on, and then bring them up as the reserve once you make your break in.’
‘OK. Thank you.’
The sergeant major doubled away, his team of troopers following close behind.
So, it was another full-frontal assault, but this time as part of a platoon flanking manoeuvre. The enemy, having seen Three Section assaulting on the right, would not be expecting us to suddenly change the direction of our attack; at least I hoped that they didn’t.
Mr Barkley cast a glance down the hill, to where the Guard were disgorging from their dropships.
‘Once you reach the enemy trench, continue to assault until you reach your limit,’ he instructed. ‘Don’t over extend. I’ll have Two Section and the Guard hot on your heels. This will be the entry point through which we’ll drive the Guard like a wedge. We’ll crack this hill open like a nut!’
‘No dramas, boss.’
Wasting no time, I beckoned my section to close up toward me, and then quickly explained the plan to them: we would move as far forward as we could before forming up ready to assault, and would then bound forward in fire teams, mine moving first whilst Puppy’s Delta fire team gave cover.
I then started up the hill, moving up as far as I dared without becoming exposed onto the summit. I dropped to one knee, holding my arms out either side of me to direct my section into extended line. They fanned out rapidly, my own fire team forming up with Myers on my left and Skelton and Griffiths on my right, and Delta fire team forming up on the far left.
I looked around me, holding out a down-turned thumb, and then pointed toward the red crosshair that marked the nearest bunker: enemy - that way.
The hand signal passed rapidly along the section line.
A hand gripped my shoulder, and I realised that Mr Barkley was right behind me.
‘Launch when ready,’ he whispered.
‘Charlie, prepare to move,’ I hissed, leaving a pause for my fire team to ready themselves. ‘Move!’
We sprinted forward, weapons raised as we zigzagged toward the red crosshair that menaced the centre of our visor displays, just over the rise of the hill.
I fell to the ground after no more than ten metres, anxious not to draw too far away from Delta.
‘Down!’ I hissed.
My fire team followed suit, dropping onto their belt buckles with barely a sound. Seeing this, and without any need for a verbal command from me, Delta broke cover moments later and bounded forward. They went firm the moment they came in line with my fire team, so that we were back in our original formation.
‘Move!’ I hissed again, and my fire team charged forward again.
This time I spotted the bunker at the end of my bound, its crumbled roof flashing with sparks as darts occasionally struck it - Two Section were still suppressing the position, albeit with far less ammunition. I became acutely aware that I was running into friendly fire, and hoped that the platoon commander and sergeant major knew to stop it before I came too close.
The bunker had already been reduced to little more than a smouldering crater strewn with rubble by the saucers. I couldn’t make out if it was attached to another trench, and no additional red crosshairs appeared to mark enemy spotted by my visor, so I scanned the bunker through my sights as I waited for Delta to complete their bound, wondering if anybody was there at all.
Then I heard something. My headphones were amplifying a sound coming from somewhere around the bunker: somebody whispering.
I didn’t say a word to initiate the next bound, instead I used a sweep of my arm to wave my fire team forward, accepting that there would be a slight pause for them to respond to the sudden change in communication. It was worth the risk.
I had barely moved forward a couple of metres when I finally gained a view into the bunker and saw that there was indeed a trench connected to it, but it was what was inside the trench that caused my eyes to widen in surprise. Tens of Loyalists were crammed into the trench - maybe an entire platoon of them! They were crowded so tightly that some of them were crouched side by side, poised as if preparing to attack - they hadn’t expected an attack from a different direction.
You wouldn’t think that a man could express emotion through a visor in the dark, but those men did as they turned their heads up to look at me. First there was shock, and then there was horror - all within the tiny fraction of a second that it took for me to power up my rifle, my finger then flicking down toward the trigger.
I didn’t have time to switch to automatic - a firing mode on our rifles that we seldom used due to loss of accuracy - instead my trigger finger went into overdrive as I fired round after round into the mass of bodies.
A millisecond afterward, three more weapons opened fire as my fire team joined me, including Skelton’s mammoth which roared as it hacked into the hapless Loyalists.
Some of them tried to fire back, but it was hopeless, they were caught in a hail of steel darts, and those that didn’t get hit were knocked backward by those that were, or were pushed backward by those trying to flee.
I leapt over the ruined bunker, storming into the trench, with my rifle still firing. I stabbed a man with my bayonet as he attempted to free himself from under a fallen comrade, whilst Myers stepped past me, the magnets of his rifle screaming next to my ear.
Stepping over the dead, we stabbed and hacked at the press of desperate Loyalists as our assault onto the bunker quickly descended into a slaughter.
A couple of Loyalists clambered out of the trench and tried to make a dash for safety, only to be cut down by Skelton and Griffiths. Covering outside of the trench, they allowed for Myers and me to focus upon clearing along its length, treading upon a gruesome carpet of bodies torn to pieces by magnetised steel.
The wash of adrenalin that had carried me through the encounter subsided. I remembered to activate the section net, knowing that there was no longer a need for silence. If the enemy hadn’t known where my section was, then they did now.
‘Puppy, close in, mate!’ I ordered. ‘You’ll see me in a trench. Shit-loads of enemy dead!’
Myers and I quickly stalked toward the far end of the trench, twenty metres along its length where it split at a T-junction. Keeping his knees as bent as his muscles allowed, Myers kept a low profile as we approached the junction, allowing for me to stand slightly higher and aim above his head. Though it was risky for us both to fire, this position gave me the added advantage of being able to pull him out of the way and shoot if he took a dart or if his rifle magnets failed.
‘One-Zero-Alpha, this is One-One-Charlie - position clear,’ I announced, keeping my voice hushed. ‘I have a large number of enemy dead. I think it was a platoon preparing to assault.’
‘One-Zero-Alpha roger,’ the platoon commander responded quickly, a hint of surprise in his voice. ‘Confirm you have an enemy platoon preparing to assault?’
‘No,’ I corrected. ‘I have destroyed a platoon preparing to assault.’
There was silence on the net. I imagined for a second the platoon commander’s bewilderment. He had anticipated a Loyalist counterattack, changing the direction of our advance in order to catch them off guard, but even he could not have imagined his gambit would pay off so spectacularly.
I didn’t have time for Mr Barkley to answer, though. I had been given the instruction to continue clearing until I reached my ‘limit’ - that being the point where my section couldn’t stretch any more without becoming vulnerable. He had effectively given me the green light to keep attacking until I couldn’t go on any more, or until somebody pulled back the reigns to stop me.
I gripped Myers by the shoulder and stopped him a metre back from the trench junction. Glancing back over my shoulder, I looked past Skelton and Griffiths in search of my Delta fire team.
The other half of my section were just dropping into the trench, and as I watched, Thapa landed awkwardly on one of the dead Loyalists, rolling his ankle and collapsing amongst the bodies with a startled yelp.
‘Get up you nutter,’ Puppy scolded, as he landed behind him.
This was no time for sympathy. He yanked him to his feet and propelled him up the trench toward my fire team.
Wildgoose froze just before he leapt into the trench. He snatched up his sniper rifle and fired at something ahead of him, the sudden blast from its powerful magnets causing all of my fire team to jump. Holland then opened fire with his mammoth only a second afterwards, and the two troopers quickly dove into the trench to take cover from the unseen threat above our heads.
‘What are they shooting at?’ Griffiths asked from behind me, as Puppy’s fire team clambered over the bodies to take up fire positions. Wildgoose was frantically pointing outside the trench, indicating to Puppy what he had seen.
Skelton followed Wildgoose’s pointing, scanning across the plateau. ‘I don’t know …’
‘Andy!’ Puppy called out to me. ‘There’s more enemy in the trench - reference my mark!’
A fresh red crosshair flashed on my target display, placed by Puppy over the net. The distance was less than ten metres, suggesting that the enemy spotted by Wildgoose were around the corner to my left.
There was not a moment to lose. I had no idea how many more Loyalists were around the corner.
I snatched a grenade out of its pouch, prepping the timer for one second. I didn’t want the Loyalists to throw it back. I then thrust it forward, holding it directly in front of Myers’s face so that he could clearly see the timer. He gave an exaggerated nod, indicating that he was happy for me to throw.
I tossed the grenade around the corner, throwing it with enough force to cause it to bounce along the trench to our left; our headsets beeped, removing the need to shout out in warning.
We braced, though not for fear of the detonation, but because it was the detonation that gave us our cue to launch.
The grenade exploded with a thump that shook the ground beneath my feet and caused my bones to rattle. Wet mud spattered across the junction in front of us.
We sprang forward, rounding the corner as though we were joined at the hip. Skelton and Griffiths quickly followed, mirroring us in the opposite direction.
The new section of trench continued for another twenty metres, before turning sharply to the right, but there was no enemy to be seen within it. The crosshair placed by Puppy floated harmlessly in front of me, right by the small crater blown out by my grenade. Whoever Wildgoose had seen had made a run for it.
‘Clear left,’ I said quietly, just loud enough for the other members of my fire team to hear.
‘Clear right,’ Skelton replied in turn.
I looked back over my shoulder toward him and Griffiths. Their section of trench was identical to ours, except that it turned to the left at the end.
My section couldn’t split to attack in opposite directions, otherwise the two fire teams wouldn’t be able to support one another, and so I would need to continue in one direction or the other, with Puppy leaving at least two of his men behind to hold the junction so that the enemy couldn’t sneak up behind and cut us off from the rest of the platoon.
I weighed up my options, knowing that I couldn’t simply stall the attack whilst I waited for the platoon commander to direct me. I remembered the orders he had given me: once you reach the enemy trench, continue to assault until you reach your limit. Don’t over extend. I’ll have Two Section and the Guard hot on your heels.
I didn’t need to look for Mr Barkley. I had no doubt that he was behind me somewhere, watching my assault onto the trench whilst planning his next move, and the sergeant major would be bringing Two Section around to join us, their fire support position no longer being necessary.
It was pretty obvious that the left-hand trench connected to the other bunker. The red crosshair that Mr Barkley had used to mark it still hovered in that direction, and I could just about make out a faint wisp of smoke hanging in the air above it - no doubt the result of the attack by our saucers. On the other hand, the right-hand trench appeared to snake away toward the centre of the hill, most likely connecting to the warren system beneath us. The platoon of Loyalists had probably emerged from there, I figured, since I couldn’t imagine such a large force being kept out in the elements all night long when there was perfectly good cover underground.
In my mind, it made more sense to advance to the left, securing the final bunker before going firm and allowing the next unit to push on to seize the warren entrance. Bypassing the bunker and the potential enemy it contained was unwise.
The time I had taken to consider my options was less than a couple of seconds, and now that I had chosen my course of action, there was nothing else to do but go for it.
I flicked onto the section net. ‘Puppy, tell the boss I’m going left! Follow on and drop a pair on the junction!’
‘Will do!’ was the swift reply.
I heard shouting as the message was passed back. Though Mr Barkley wouldn’t be too far forward, he would be close enough to communicate verbally with my section - just in case he had to pull back the reigns. He was a leader of men, after all, and nobody could lead by hiding at the back.
‘Skelton, Griffiths, follow on,’ I ordered, and then gave Myers a pat on the shoulder.
We trotted along the trench, keeping our heads below its grassy walls with our weapons trained onto the bend ahead of us. Following on behind, Griffiths kept his rifle pointed outward, whilst Skelton covered rearwards with his mammoth; we weren’t about to get caught out like the Loyalist platoon we had slaughtered only a minute ago.
Behind us I knew that Puppy would be moving forward with his fire team. As I had instructed, he would leave two troopers to hold the junction, whilst he and one other followed on behind me. Unlike us, his men would be stood erect, covering outward across the plateau of the hill - during trench warfare it was the job of the rear fire team to cover the open ground above us, removing the risk of enemy counterattacks from outside.
We were halfway along the trench, when something suddenly caught my eye - an object flying through the air in an arc toward us. It took us a fraction of a second to realise what it was.
‘Grenade!’ I hollered, and we dove to the ground in a splash of muddy water.
I barely had time to feel it soak into my combats before the grenade exploded somewhere above me. An instant cloud of smoke engulfed us, and tiny pieces of burning phosphor rained down into the trench, hissing in the rain.
I knew within milliseconds that it was a smoke grenade, and that fortunately for us it had landed somewhere outside the trench - but that didn’t mean that we were safe. Grenades were rarely used to kill - they were used to shock, to stun, and to mask movements … the Loyalists were close by, and they were up to something.
‘Get up! Heads low!’ I shouted, quickly pushing myself up from the muddy water and scrambling to my feet. I raised my rifle again to point down toward the corner of the trench, my vision slightly obscured by the smoke that poured into it from the cloud hanging above us.
‘Mammoth - into the smoke!’ Puppy ordered from behind me, and his order was swiftly followed by an extended burst of fire into the smoke outside the trench. If anybody had been using it to cover an attack from above, then the rapid spray of darts would end their counterattack abruptly.
There was another mighty bang and a flash as another grenade exploded without warning, causing us to duck down again instinctively. Puppy’s mammoth stopped firing as everybody dropped down inside the trench.
‘Fucking hell!’ one of them shouted, in a mixture of annoyance and fear as they cowered from the blast.
‘Screw the nut!’ Myers exclaimed through gritted teeth.
I hefted my rifle upward, pointing it up at an angle toward the north and selecting a high explosive grenade on my launcher. It was a stab in the dark, but if the small guided missile saw the enemy thrower, then it would make short work of him.
I never managed to fire the grenade, though, because just then a black object landed inside the trench, right on the corner, splashing in the mud ten metres ahead of us. My eyes widened in horror.
‘Shit the …’ Skelton hissed.
‘Down!’ I shouted, and once more we dived for cover in the mud. Remembering my last head-on encounter with a grenade, I tucked my chin tightly against my chest, allowing the water to lap against my visor as I pressed it into the earth. Myers was in front of me, but there was no way I could protect him.
With a dull thump the grenade detonated, tossing clumps of mud over us.
No warning icons flashed on my visor to warn me that I was injured - not that I would have noticed if they had. I knew that somebody was throwing the grenades from nearby in an attempt to slow us down, or as a prelude to a counterattack. Either way I wasn’t going to allow my attack to stall, no matter what they threw at me. The enemy seemed more intent to throw grenades at us - a ploy which would only work if I chose to stay where I was.
‘Go!’ I ordered Myers, hefting him to his feet.
Stunned by the grenade that had exploded in front of him, and perhaps even more surprised by his own survival, Myers stood. I shoved him forward, and we rounded the corner, weapons raised.
Nobody was there. The trench continued for another twenty metres again, this time turning left. I quickly glanced over my shoulder. The remainder of my section were up and moving, spread out along the length of the trench, hugging the wall for protection against the grenades.
Another grenade exploded nearby, and Myers hesitated, looking to see where it had landed.
‘Keep going!’ I hissed urgently, and we ran toward the next corner. I drew another grenade from one of my pouches as we ran, tossing it over the top of the trench in the direction of the bunker; two could play at their game.
Taking a firm grasp of Myer’s daysack, I stopped him and waited for my grenade to detonate.
Several darts cracked overhead just before the grenade exploded, but I didn’t have the time to wonder where they had come from, I was committed to the attack - and I had the taste of Loyalist blood in my mouth.
Under a hail of mud and rubble, we stormed around the corner.
Myers was the first to shoot as a bloodied Loyalist soldier tried to get to his feet, the supersonic dart knocking him back into the mud. The bunker itself was only five metres in front of us, and we quickly swept into it, stepping over the rubble as we advanced. I shot a man as he cowered in the corner, and before I managed to switch my aim, another Loyalist fell to his knees just outside the bunker - a dart fired overhead had brought his escape to a swift end.
As I swept the bunker with my rifle, it quickly became apparent that many Loyalists had attempted to climb out when I threw my grenade and had been cut down by Puppy’s fire team. Their terror had caused them to forget that the outside of the trench was always covered. They would have fared better against the grenade.
‘Position clear!’ I shouted.
Whilst the message passed verbally along the trench, I switched to the platoon net, seeing that there were no more trenches leading away from the bunker.
‘One-Zero-Alpha, this is One-One, position clear. No connecting trenches. It’s a dead end,’ I announced.
‘Roger,’ Mr Barkley replied instantly. He would redirect the next assaulting section to the right, continuing our clearance of the trench system until the Guard arrived.
Skelton and Griffiths quickly took up positions on the edge of the bunker, looking outward just in case the enemy decided to attack - I doubted that would happen, somehow - the Loyalists had taken a kicking, and the small group of them that had holed-up in the bunker were only doing so out of desperation.
Myers took a knee in the middle of the bunker, running his hands over his body in search of any wounds.
I suddenly remembered the grenade that had exploded close to him. Adrenalin could cause him to fight on, despite suffering life threatening injuries … I knew, because the same thing had happened to me.
Without a word I crouched next to him, looking him over. There didn’t appear to be any blood on him, not that I could see, and his combats hadn’t detected any injuries. Since my section net was now live, casualty information had to be passed directly to the rest of the platoon.
Though it was hard to see his face in the dark, I thought I saw the young trooper’s lip quiver; he was pretty shaken.
‘You OK, mate?’ I asked, running my hands over his helmet in search of holes or cracks.
‘I thought that was it,’ he said, blinking disbelievingly at his vital readings on his datapad.
‘The blast of the grenade was absorbed by the mud,’ I explained, snatching his arm. I pulled it toward me so that I could have a look at his datapad for myself. He was fine.
He nodded. ‘I know, but God, that thing was right in front of my face!’
‘What do you want, a medal?’ Skelton joked from his fire position on the edge of the bunker.
Puppy emerged from the trench, stepping over the rubble. ‘Everyone alright?’
I looked up at him, releasing my grip on Myers’s arm. ‘No casualties.’
‘Blinky’s done his spine in, though,’ Skelton said, a hint of humour in his voice.
Myers shot him an angry glance. ‘Cheers, mate,’ he said sarcastically.
There was nothing angry about the exchange between the two comrades - if anything Skelton’s dark humour would probably do Myers some good, keeping his mind off his near-death experience. Telling jokes and making fun of each other was the way that troopers coped with the stress and horrors of war; it reminded them that they were still human beings.
Puppy stooped over the young trooper, the light of a distant explosion flickering across his visor. The FEA artillery had started firing.
He patted him roughly on the helmet. ‘Chin up, mate. We’re almost done.’
I decided not to remind them that we were far from done. We had barely started.