Tools of the Trade 1

Tools of the Trade Chapter One

“Cheap ass piece of shit,” Com-spec Audie Madry said while holding down the send button and shaking her hand held transmitter. “Just like all the rest of the friggen junk Lucas Arms supplied us with.”

“That’s water over the bridge and under the dam by now,” said First Lieutenant Wesley Calvert looking at the rock strewn river gorge below. Looking back to the ridgeline he added, “And better watch you language Madry, cause I see a lady is about to join us.”

Lieutenant Constance Melbourne, the companies executive officer, tall and severe in her creased jungle fatigues stumbled over a surface root hidden by the fernlike growth covering the last part of the slope’s steep descent to the squads location a third of the way down from the ridge on top, and half slid, half fell, the last 10 meters before arriving seated on her rump and losing the helmet that had covered her long dark hair. She always kept her hair wrapped tightly into a bun, but now like the rest of her it was coming unraveled.

“Damn Ma’am! That must have hurt. Gotta watch those runners they’re all over up here.” Madry said as she extended a hand to Lt. Melbourne and helped the Company Exec to her feet.

“Can it Madry. I wouldn’t be here if you could keep in contact with that radio in your hand instead of waving it around like some kind of a joy girl with a pompom.”

“Sorry ma’am but this piece a’ … equipment won’t send and that’s what I did to fix it last time.”

Melbourne was pushing buttons and fiddling with the twistable controls of the same model communicator she had brought along with her, trying to establish contact with company headquarters but to no avail as absolute silence rewarded her efforts.

“Let me try it Ma’am,” Madry said reaching for the Exec’s radio.

Audie pushed transmit and nothing happened. Then she shook the unit and started waving it around and almost immediately a burst of static was followed by the excited voice of Corporal Kennerly, the company clerk. He was screaming for help.

The signal was in the clear and the panic was obvious, “Bravo Company, 3d 7th, respond anyone. We are being over run.” There was another burst of static and then the sound of exploding mortar rounds could be heard over the com unit’s speaker. “I say again. Mayday, Mayday. Enemy forces in sight, grid coordinates Delta Delta two one and Delta Delta two two. Suppressive fire. I say again suppressive fire.”

“What the fuck is that,” Calvert said, with no need to look at the map. “The asshole just gave out our coordinates and called in fire. Company headquarters is 400 klicks back on the other side of the ridge. I hope to hell nobody hears him.”

Madry had Melbourne’s radio working fine now, in fact they could hear the near immediate response in stereo as her original unit started working again also.

“Roger that Bravo, fire in the hole, time on target 97 seconds,” was the response from divisional support.

“Call em off! Call em off!” Screamed Lt. Melbourne, her voice lost in the din as Lt. Calvert shouted out, “Second platoon, into the riverbed now!”

And like a bolt of lightning he took off leading the charge down the rest of the slope in front of the squad’s position. As fast as he was Madry soon passed him by with a radio in either hand and her rifle slung over her shoulder. Calvert slowed a bit, just long enough to see how many of his men were following. Then full speed towards the bottom again.

Ex Command Sergeant Major Robert T Davis, now just plain Sgt. Davis, listened to the harried voices from his position 200 meters to the south and concealed behind a rock pile jutting out into the shallow almost dry streambed.

Davis waved at his short squad to cover all the while thinking, “Here comes the goat rope Bobby boy.” Suddenly the ground started heaving like a maddened bull and his ears rang to the simultaneous HE impacts. At least the idiots at Brigade had forgotten to include airbursts in the only Time on Target he had even seen them do even half right. Of course this time it was also another case of ‘Friendly Fire’.

“Maybe it’s time to get out of this Fucked up outfit Bobby,” he thought, not for the first time.

Before Madry, who was now leading from the front, could get all the way to the riverbed the HE rounds were falling over their former position with jagged chunks of blasted rock chasing them down hill. No one still up there was gonna’ make it out alive

The artillery let up after a minute but from the narrow shelf besides the river they could still hear coming through from Cpl. Kennerly’s radio, first the smaller explosions of grenades and bursts of automatic rifle fire, and then indistinctly what obviously were orders being given in a guttural sounding dialect, next a scream that cut off abruptly and Kennerly’s end of the transmission went quiet. Division artillery was back on line asking for results and additional spotting data but there was no reply, nor would there be one. Not even static.

“Kill it Madry,” Lt. Calvert said, “and keep it dead for now, no need right now to let anyone know a few of us survived. I don’t think the Calps can have a read on the squad’s location so I want absolute radio silence. If you so much as sync for burst mode the Calps will be all over us. Let’s not make it easy for em.”

He looked around, expressionlessly, at the 13 remaining members of his once full augmented platoon. Unless med-evac was forthcoming, and it wasn’t gonna’ happen today, four of the living probably wouldn’t be able to make that same claim tomorrow.

Wes Calvert had seen death before in the fighting that was so close to being finished, but this was the first time it was his unit that had taken the casualties in this kind of numbers, and that difference was something he hadn’t experienced and was something almost too much to bear. Almost.

Connie Melbourne made it down the slope with only minor tears and abrasions. That even surprised herself a little. The first thing she attempted after reaching the slightly sandy shelf bordering the riverbed was to organize impromptu medical care for the wounded. Calvert took it upon himself to go in the opposite direction and to try and re-establish contact with Sgt. Davis who was several hundred meters south around a turn in the cut‘s wall.

Melbourne sent a two man team upstream 100 meters as sentries. She knew that with the scramble from the main company bivouac up the ridge and then down the reverse side with shells on the way, she should have been about completely done in, but instead felt a adrenalin rush and was infused with a warm tension. It wasn’t exactly sexual but then it wasn’t exactly non-sexual either. Twice in that past year she had felt something vaguely similar to the way she was feeling now when in less dangerous situations. But this was far more intense and in some dark manner could almost be described as pleasurable. She clamped down on the thought saving it for analysis later. If she wasn’t a bit psycho she wouldn’t be here.

Senior in time in service to Calvert, she recognized that this was not the time to force the issue of who was in charge, even though from what she had seen of Calvert, he had always seemed rather more cooperative than confrontational, and as the last few minutes had shown, highly competent. These were his men and he knew their capabilities in a way that went far beyond her familiarity with their names and records.

There were a few things, which obviously needed a start on even before Calvert returned from locating Sgt. Davis. “Pilchard, Jameson, get some stretchers made so we’re ready to move out when Lieutenant Calvert gets back. Bryce and Higgins grab your gear and start over there,” she said pointing at a spot thirty meters to the north were the natural jungle cover on that side of the gorge, opposite their current position on the shelf reached almost to the streambed. “Try and find a path up top that we can manage while carrying wounded.”

Calvert was back with Davis and the other five members of the Sgt’s team a few minutes later, but by then Kaminski had already died, and that meant there were only three for the stretcher-bearers. After checking with Calvert, Melbourne called in the scout team. They all quickly loaded out and headed up to where Bryce and Higgins had disappeared. Footprints were swept away from the soft sand disguising any signs of their passage.

Fifty meters upslope confronting a split in the natural terrain and two choices for continuance Higgins rejoined the squad, Pilchard not far behind. He reported finding a possible route. Lt. Melbourne had Pilchard and Higgins remain at the junction with orders to wait an hour or until they heard sounds of pursuit before rejoining. Calvert headed up the rugged path as fast as he was able.

Another twenty minutes and half way to the top the sound of Calp voices and the noises made by troops moving rapidly could be easily heard coming from the direction where Davis’s lookout post had been. They were moving rapidly up the streambed and making no attempt to hide their presence. That was a sure sign they were in touch with observers on top the gorge wall that Calvert’s squad had been occupying.

“Lt., even if the Calps don’t know we are here they are damn sure gonna take a look at what the higher up idiots were shooting at,” Davis said. It’s decision time ‘Shoot or scoot”? Course scooting it the better way to stay alive

“I’ve been here before, believe me we wanna scoot. If it comes to shoot, we want to pick the place and the time. We can get up that sharp draw and out of here before they find us. Your call LT.”

Calvert’s face was tight, “We Scoot, scout the draw. If it doesn’t get us all the way up the gorge, send back a runner. No message from you and we are going to be right behind.”

“Possible route my ass,” thought Melbourne, as once more the stretcher-bearers switched places with fresher troops. But just as she was about to order a break lest they drop from exhaustion, through a gap in the foliage, a hint of sky and the top of the gorge wall could be seen. Five minutes later, almost to the top, she called the break and listened to Calvert’s report.

“OK,” said Calvert, “I have Sgt. Davis and two more out on point. They are on a no news is good news schedule. If we don’t hear from them the route is open, we get up on the plain into the forest and loose ourselves unless we can think of something else in the meantime.”

“Calvert,” Melbourne asked, “just what makes you think you can trust Davis to make the right decisions? I mean the man’s records are suspect and he will not talk about his past.”

Calvert looked calmly at her, “The eyes, I look in the eyes. What ever he is he is a combat vet.”

The wounded and the most of the rest were into the woods 25 meters away from the lip of the gorge. The terrain on this side was mostly flat but the cover was very thick. Sgt. Davis was at the head of the trail they had ascended and when one of the two men left below came over the edge. Davis pointed him in Calvert’s direction.

Private 1st Carl Pilchard, out of breath and panting, settled down and slumped against a fallen trunk. “Took em long enough but they finally sent about fifty to check out the path we used. They were slow and very cautious, ‘bout half our speed. Higgins and I had time to disguise the fork we were using and made some ambiguous signs indicating someone might have gone the other way. Then we dropped back but did make them going off in the other direction then we bugged out. Higgins is down slope a ways waiting.”

“Ambiguous,” Calvert grinned, “we’ll make a corporal out of you yet Pilchard.”

As Connie watched and listened to the interplay between the two men, two words came to mind, ‘Leadership’, and ‘Tactics’. She had never discussed it with him, instead she maintained perhaps a bit more than the usual distance she held between herself and others, but Melbourne had been responsible for pulling newly minted Second Lieutenant Wesleyan Loyola Calvert, from the replacement battalion and into Bravo Company, 3d 7th. The late, not to be lamented, Captain deVandermere had rubber stamped the selection without so much as reading it; something he also did with her intelligence reports. Calvert’s raw scores in both areas were so far out of the norm that they were effectively off the scale.

Leadership in a training situation was of course subjective but the Calvert’s tactical rating was something that if widely known would already be legendary and the cause of more than a few to wish him a quick comeuppance. He had had little chance to prove otherwise and one could be that good as the test scores said, but Connie had been willing to take the chance to find out how close they were to the truth and now there was nothing to do except find out for fair.

She didn’t bother sending the nearly recovered Pilchard out of earshot before turning to Calvert and saying, “Lieutenant, you know your men and their condition much better than I do. In light of the present conditions what would be your recommended course of action?”

Calvert hesitated just a moment, not as if he were thinking the problem through but more as if marshaling his thoughts for logical presentation. “Signaling for support is still out of the question. It looks like the Calps still aren’t sure any of us survived and are doing the normal soldierly things one would expect.”

The only reason the company was out here in the first place was to make it harder for the Calps to consolidate and to inflict as much damage as possible on retreating units working to make it back to an area they might hold long enough for an evacuation. This was supposed to be a mop up and Captain deVandermere had read the press clippings.

Just then Higgins came into view, running for all he was worth. We didn’t need to hear what he had to say to figure the Calps were on the way up behind him. We’ve got about five minutes to do something Calvert said and this is what it’s gonna’ be.

“Madry, get artillery back on line.” Then he spoke to Melbourne, “Have em carpet the entire gorge from side to side and 200 meters up and down stream. Be sure they pound the slope but make really sure they know we’re up here on the edge. I’ll stay with Davis and set out a skirmish line in case any Calps make it to the top. That attack on the company must have been out of desperation.

“I can’t see em spending any time hunting us up if they lose the troops already doing the job. Their gonna’ keep running and try for pickup. As soon as you’ve hooked up with the guns and got the fire started it probably would be best if you drew back with the wounded and put some distance between the gorge and the people left here with Davis and me.”

It was obvious once Calvert explained it. If they only knew it, hemmed in by the slopes on either side, the Calps were in a natural killing ground and of course there would be no pursuit, but she’d never even thought of breaking radio silence. In was true again, at least in her case, that in war even the simple things are hard.

“I’ve got division artillery Ma’am,” Madry said handing the unit over to Melbourne. Connie noticed in passing that it was set and locked for encrypted transmission. Madry seemed to do the right things by instinct.

“Is that you Melbourne, what the hell’s going on and where the hell is deVandermere? He’s been off the net for almost an hour. We‘ve all been fearing the worst.” Connie heard Major Breen from Division say, sounding more relieved than worried. “The last word here was some incredible story about being overrun.”

“God!…How to shut him up! Major stop, just listen!” Melbourne gave out the grid coordinates, “If we don’t get a fire mission soonest, the last 25 survivors of Bravo 3d 7th will be pushing up daisies along side the rest of Witherway’s heroes. The Calps are no more than 150 meters from our position but in the river gorge so bring it in as close as you can without landing anything on top on our side and we will be out of the blast radius.”

“Can you give us a marker seventy seconds after we salvo?” The real Major Breen was back in control.

“Wait one. . . Madry, Any chance of that?”

“Davis will have one Ma’am.”

“Affirmative but if that fire doesn’t reach here within the next couple of minutes you can save it because that’s all we got before the Calps get here and we start the dance.”

“We launch in ten. Seventy seconds Melbourne.”

Connie turned to Sgt. Madry, “Get Davis to get that marker ready.”

“Did you catch that Davis?” Connie was saying into the com unit as Madry ran towards his position just in case.

“Got if Lt.” Davis replied fiddling with the fuse on a 40mm mortar round.

Madry heard the reply and reversed directions. Melbourne gave the order to start moving the wounded. Right on time Davis hurled the mortar round by hand. The Calps were a little too close for a tube launch. It bounced 30 meters down slope and then went off in a flare of light mostly IR and kept emitting with barely a trace of smoke. The terminal guidance units in the seeker shells sent by divisional locked on to the IR signature and spread out in a preplanned dispersal for maximum saturation of the target area.

It was almost perfect, three flights of 20 rounds each coming in barely ten seconds apart. Eighty five percent of the shells within 3 meters of planed position. Six Calps somehow or other managed to survive long enough to reach the high ground. It didn’t do them any good at all.

“Sgt Davis,” said Calvert, “Let’s get the fuck outta’ here.”

“Roger that, LT, Roger that.”

When Calvert caught up with Melbourne and the rest he tried to say a word to each of the wounded as he passed them by making his way forward. Tongusu, was in a coma and wasn’t going to last another hour without med help. “Have you called for relief?” he asked when he reached Melbourne.

“Ain’t gonna happen today,” she said shaking her head. The Calps are using up every SAM the have left on the planet. Divisions losing 40 percent of everything they put into the air. They’re still picking at the fringes and supporting troops in action but we’re too far inside for them to send anything now. Colonel Harrow says they have help coming over from the capital but we’re on our own for at least another day.

“What I recommend we do now Lieutenant is find us some high ground that’s hard to climb and get on top. The Calps will be looking for the fastest ways out and won’t be looking for terrain that slows them down.”

Two hours later they had split into two groups and were perched atop hills a kilometer apart with a natural funnel for Calps running between. We didn’t have a plan yet but it gave us a wider detection radius for when someone came along.

They kept contact with divisional headquarters, listening mostly. The Calps, in full retreat were willing to do whatever it took to get out of the area. And that included spending an inordinate amount of effort on a unit that was more than happy to let them do the same.

The Calps weren’t about to make it easy. A major force was on the same side of the river that Calvert’s people had done their very best to draw away from. Wes called Sgt Davis in.

“How do you make it sergeant?

“Running ain’t gonna do it sir. But then neither is hiding and hopping they miss us. We have to become so annoying that the Calps decide they want to avoid us. And if that means it takes them longer to get out of here the pain is worth the gain.”

“Any thoughts on how to do that Sergeant?” Calvert asked him.

“One thing does come to mind. If we actively go after the first unit we see that we are likely to be able to deal with, those that follow up might figure us as stronger than we are and choose to leave us alone. Not much but all I can see to try.”

“Near as I can tell about twenty five leading a full company,” Davis said. They’re makin’ tracks and are only a couple minutes behind us.”

“Have every one that’s got em lay out rifle grenades Sgt, and get your 40’s primed for five rounds apiece. This has got to be quick.”

They had chosen the first target well and even though they had Calvert’s men outnumbered, the Calps were moving so fast that they didn’t have the recon teams out that should have found the squad and dealt with it. Now it was too late. They did manage to send out word that they were under attack before the firefight was over. The rest of the troops following behind went around. They were intent on finding the fastest way out of Dodge.

After that the squad was skirted, and left alone and stayed up high. Two weeks later the war was over. “Still no pickup, we had to get back to the capital on our own. There was no brass band to greet us when we did.”

Finding a place to stay was hard enough. Next Lieutenant Calvert needed to find a way off planet and a job that would keep what was left of the unit together and that looked to prove far tougher