John couldn’t remember the last good meal he had eaten. His stomach was running on empty, the last stew that had passed his lips was probably heavy on rat. He had been glad to have it. Even now, on the eve of the attack, he remembered the stringy chunks of meat fondly.
A few hundred meters away a Russian battery of 2S-family self-propelled howitzers was firing with metronomic and murderous regularity into downtown Kiev, they were marked as his victims. An hour before he and Vasily had crept on their bellies to look at the battery. John had returned to his waiting band, and he pulled his sketchy plan out of his ass, a product of his long ago service as an infantry officer in the US Army.
The misplaced and worse for the wear soldier addressed his twelve person crew. He couldn’t say “man,” because two of the fighters were women. Women with balls bigger than a lot of men he knew. Girls who had volunteered for this suicide mission ten klicks behind enemy lines.
John had seen too many times what the 152’s could do.
They had to die.
John had laid out a “sand table,” a rough graphic illustration of the set-up, and he explained through his ‘terp and right-hand man Vasily what needed to happen. He frowned. Vasily’s English wasn’t as good as his last ‘terp, Wahab. But Wahab was dead, his bones forgotten in another shitty war. John gestured at the little layout and spoke.
“See the four rocks? They represent three arty pieces and a command truck.”
He waited as Vasily spoke Ukrainian in a low voice. He looked over his fighters, he saw nods. A good sign. He continued when Vasily stopped.
“There is an ammunition truck that comes and goes. If it appears, we will have to kill them. But the priority is the guns…”
John continued, his plan was simple. Four groups of three. Four vehicles. A security element. Vasily stopped speaking. John looked each of the fighters in the eye in the gathering gloom of twilight, then he dropped to his knees, took his rifle by the sling in his right hand and started to crawl towards the guns.
He didn’t look back to see if his guys were moving. He knew they would.
As he crawled through the muddy, loamy smelling cold forest floor, his path was lit by the strobes of the muzzle flashes. Each shot vibrated in his heaving chest, his breath came hard and fast. Motherfucker, he thought, you are too old and retarded for this shit. A branch poked him in the glasses. He held his swearing in with a mighty effort and concentrated on his crawl. It would be a fucking miracle if everyone got to the kickoff point without getting lost, even though the distance was less than two hundred meters.
The edge of the forest was their goal.
It took some unknown amount of vomit-inducing time and effort to reach the brush by the clearing. By the time John reached the attack point, every muscle in his body was jello, every centimeter covered in mud.
Everything but his weapon.
Very carefully, very slowly, John inched his long rifle forward. He took a deep breath and held it. Another. To his right he heard a faint rustle. He turned his head and saw a shape. It was Vasily. He couldn’t see his face, of course, but he saw his weapon. A nearly-comical crude tube with a bulging protuberance.
John breathed in again. He let it out. It was time to trust in the plan. His plan. The one that was sure to get someone killed.
From ahead, a flickering light. An orange-lit face, a glow.
Jesus fucking Christ, kid, he thought. That habit will get you killed. The two conscripts were the battery’s rear security element. Their PKM machine gun was on the ground. The crew was standing and smoking. Unfortunately, they were looking right at John and Vasily. Fortunately, they had comprehensively fucked their night vision.
As slow as molasses, John shouldered his outdated weapon. Long and wood, it was a relic from a war almost passed from living memory. Its name was PU, and it fired full-powered 7.62 rounds. John knew it was reasonably accurate, he had holed a few beer cans to try it out. Not quite a US M-24, but good enough.
As he brought the thick point of the German-style reticle up onto the base of his target’s neck, right above the top of the kid’s body armor, he thought it might actually be better for these conditions. Muddy, dark, and short-range. Sixty meters, tops. A clout shot.
But it had to be right.
John took a breath, let it out halfway and held it, as he tightened upon the crude trigger with his right index finger.
He was mildly surprised when the weapon fired. As it should be. The kid went down as if his strings had been cut, John tracked his very fucking surprised friend as he worked the bolt.
All hell broke loose.
As advertised, Vasily knew what he was doing with the RPG. The command truck, the Fire Direction Center and commo hub, blew sky high.
Everything slowed the hell down.
The other conscript dove for the PKM, he hit the dirt where he should have been in the first place. But John was ready for him. The tip of the thick black reticle rested squarely upon center mass of dummy’s helmet. He pulled the trigger and smacked the kid on his Kevlar with a full-force 7.62.
It really didn’t matter if it penetrated, which it did, because it snapped the boy’s neck.
John reloaded and tracked the gunner on fire-watch on the closest track. The flames from the blown command truck lit him fairly well, John could clearly see him swinging his gun to and fro, looking for a target. The little three-power scope on his Mosin rifle brought his contorted features into stark relief, John didn’t fuck around and he shot him in the chest.
Vasily swore mightily.
Jesus fucking Christ, John thought. Fucking rocket motor was bad! The RPG round that should have taken out the closest track hit sideways and bounced. Fucking Commie junk!
He reloaded. He needed to take down those gunners.
BAPBAPBAP. BAPBAPBAP. Thumb sized green tracers from a track’s NSV-T 12.7 streaked through the night, wildly. John sighted in on that happy fucker…
His peripheral vision saw movement on top of the track. There was so much gunfire that he didn’t hear the burst from the submachinegun that was fired point-blank into the gunner’s chest. Through his scope, as he shifted to the final gunner, he caught a glimpse of Daryna’s face. She dropped a grenade, an ancient F-1, down the hatch and jumped for dear life, smoking PPSh in hand.
The final and most distant gun revved its engine and started to move. John shifted his aim, but the gunner dropped down inside the vehicle. John’s final shot went wild.
He felt a tug on his foul tunic.
“Come, John! We chase fascists!”
John couldn’t help it, he laughed. What the fuck. He sprang to his feet and ran with Vasily, the man was jamming a PG-7 round into the launcher as he sprinted through the dark.
He wasn’t shitting me that the Red Army taught him how to use that thing, he thought, as he followed his new friend through the wild fight. Bullets snapped and whispered past as the two ran pell-mell through the flickering fires and caustic smoke. The 2S gun was pulling away from them, a snorting, lumbering black shape, when the engine revved and it lurched sideways.
A massive tree shuddered, there was an almighty clang.
John felt a hand on his tunic, yanking him to a stop. He heard Vasily’s voice.
“Hit tree. Now I take time. Not stand behind, please.”
So calm, John thought.
This time the rocket motor worked just fine. The track died and its crew cooked.
Vasily yelled something. He kept repeating it. John didn’t need to be a savant in Ukrainian to know what. It was time to scatter and be the fuck gone. The plan said for the survivors to split up and try to make it to the tiny village of Pivdennie Selo.
His Mosin rifle pumping, John got gone.
Who would shoot me first, he wondered. Nervous sentries or Russian conscripts.
Neither, it turned out.
A Ukrainian colonel let John, Daryna and Vasily drain his last bottle of vodka. They were the only ones to make it back to the misto-heroy, or hero-city.
Valhalla would have to wait.