Authors: James Rouch
The second survivor was in a bad way, with an ugly gaping wound in the side of his head that their largest field dressing couldn’t completely cover. Leaving him with the black, they returned for a last check.
Clarence stood and concentrated. ‘Do you hear something?’ He listened, but all Dooley could hear was the tree crackling outside, and an occasional ticking from the remaining engine as it cooled. ‘Let’s get out, this can is brewing up.’
As he went to leave, Dooley stopped abruptly and looked at a tangle of wire and distorted metalwork. He reached in and pulled a couple of loose sheets of aluminium aside. ‘It’s the Sarge!’
Master Sergeant Windle was still alive. He had fallen from the commander’s seat and been almost completely hidden by the mass of metal that the external explosion had forced back and wrapped around him. His injuries were terrible, but he retained a measure of consciousness and limply gestured with his remaining hand to Dooley.
Even uniting their efforts, there was no way Clarence and the big man could free the sergeant from the tangled metal. Smoke was filtering into the compartment, and the pool of blood on the hull floor was beginning to boil. The stink of burning rubber now swamped all other smells.
A gaping wound in his throat had deprived the sergeant of speech, but he pointed repeatedly to Dooley’s slung Colt Commando submachine gun and then to himself. His meaning was abundantly clear. Understanding that he was trapped, and aware that the craft was burning, he didn’t want to be still alive when the flames reached him.
‘Shit. I can’t do that. What the hell does he want to go getting himself into a mess like this for?’ Dooley half-raised the short-barrelled version of the M16, then lowered it again.
‘It’s that or leave him to burn. We’ve still got to get the other two back to the Cow.’ Clarence looked at his watch. They’d already been gone too long. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Oh Jesus. Killing him would be like killing our luck.’ The Colt was heavy in Dooley’s hands, its metal and plastic wet with the sweat of his palms. He looked at Clarence, sensing that the sergeant’s eyes were still on him.
‘You want me to do it?’
Small spurts of red flame came from an electronics panel at the back, adding further urgency. Dooley snatched up a .45 automatic from the floor and tried to fit it into Windle’s hand, moulding the stained fingers around it. The moment he let go, it fell from the nerveless grasp and clattered back to the floor.
‘Yeah, yeah you do it.’ The big man stepped aside. Clarence borrowed Dooley’s submachine gun, refraining from using his own rifle for a task such as this. He pushed the tip of the flash suppressor to within an inch of the dying man’s open mouth, and fired. The noise in the small metal com- partment was painful.
As the back of his head flew off, Windle’s body arched forward in a spasm. The dead man’s teeth clamped hard on the barrel as the muscles of his jaw locked.
At the moment of firing Dooley was already going out, now he looked back to see the sniper struggling to extract the weapon from the face of the corpse.
‘Come on, it’s burning.’
‘Do you damn well think I don’t know that. Your blasted sergeant won’t let go.’
Acrid smoke from burning wiring filled the skimmer with fumes that made breathing difficult. A section of the floor was taking on a wrinkled semi-molten look. Grey brain matter boiled like foam in a never ending stream from the eyes of a severed head.
Hurrying back in, Dooley put his foot on the dead sergeant’s face and, as Clarence wrenched the weapon back and forth, teeth snapped and splintered and it was suddenly free.
Pushing one and carrying the other survivor they raced back to their transport. Even as Dooley, last to board, was stepping on to the ramp the craft lifted and they were under way again.
‘Rinehart, you’re a lucky shit.’ Abe Cohen kept saying it as he watched Hyde binding two field dressings arranged side by side to cover the gaping hole in Nelson’s head. ‘When a clean-living boy like that gets hit, and even old Windle buys it, how come a bum like you sails through with only a few scratches ? Hell, this shitty war is all mixed up.’
‘Must be on account of my fine and wholesome nature. I guess God is just smiling down on one of his favourite children.’
Dooley leant across and leered into the black’s broad features. ‘Oh yeah, then how come you had treatment for a dose of the pox last year. Tell me, Jango, where does that fit in with ‘wholesome’?’
‘That’s a damned lie. I ain’t used that weapon in such a long time I don’t reckon it could fire any more.’ His leer matched Dooley’s.
‘Let’s have some quiet in here. This is Indian country, we could run into trouble anytime.’
‘Hey, Major, that weren’t no boy scout troop we tangled with back there.’
Dooley was ignored. Officer and sergeant were busy conferring over a large scale map.
‘We should be able to cross the river here.’ With his little finger Hyde indicated a spot seven miles down stream from Gifhorn. ‘If we do it there we avoid having to cross the Oker as well. If we travel parallel with the bank, once we’re over it’ll bring us to the camp.’
‘OK everybody.’ Revell reached for his 12 gauge assault rifle. ‘I want you all on your toes. We’ll be slowing for a river crossing in about ten minutes. I’m hoping we can make it without trouble but…’
The skimmer shuddered and lurched sideways under the impact of a massive blow. As the lights went out, the last thing Collins saw was Corporal Howard arching back from the radar console with a huge hole in his chest.
‘Shut your bloody noise. Shut up.’ Hyde’s voice boomed out of the darkness. The confused babble of curses and shouts that had filled the compartment the instant after impact ceased, but Revell still had to shout to make himself heard above the crash and clatter of loosened panels and external stores, when he realised the internal communication system had failed.
‘Keep moving, into those woods dead ahead. Get us in there.’ Intermittent showers of sparks from exposed wiring in the ruins of the scanner console provided the only illumination. By the erratic light Burke could be seen fighting to keep the skimmer on course. The smooth ride was gone, the craft dipped continually to one side and bucked at every minor undulation. All of Burke’s skills couldn’t prevent the Iron Cow travelling with a peculiar crab-like motion.
‘The buggers have taken off some of the ride-skirt. We can’t go far like this.’ Saplings began to snap before them as they plunged into the woods. Others, more pliant, scraped noisily under the buoyancy tanks beneath the cabin of the rushing vehicle, to whiplash back to an upright position after its passing.
Another high velocity tungsten-tipped round zipped past, losing fractions of its armour-defeating speed with every bough it sheered and trunk it clipped.
Blue flame showed briefly among the spark-lit innards of the radar console, before Cohen at last managed to score a direct hit with a well directed squirt from a fire-extinguisher.
The continuous minor collisions stopped as the craft slewed across a rutted track, and then its front dipped violently as it nosed over the edge of a steep decline. Turbo-fans screaming in reverse, the skimmer slithered down out of control. There was a succession of heavy bruising impacts and jumps as the vehicle defeated and ran over several large trees, throwing the men about; then a cascade of hail-like sounds as masses of stones and gravel pummelled the metal hull. A final jarring collision that brought Libby tumbling down out of his turret and the Iron Cow came to rest.
Revell lunged forward to prevent Burke from reversing them off whatever it was that had at last arrested their mad career. ‘Let’s see where we are first.’
The driver’s screen was still working, but with its limited field of vision revealed nothing but a section of steeply rising bank immediately in front of them. It was liberally dotted with substantial trees whose gnarled exposed roots bound the mossy slope together.
The view he obtained using the all round infra-red facility in the turret was more informative.
They had come to rest in a shallow stream bed, against the still massive remains of a storm-toppled elm, at the bottom of a steep-sided ravine. Behind them, a. number of uprooted trees marked their descent.
Using the periscopes, Hyde had been carrying out a similar inspection. ‘Looks like as good a place as any, Major, to stop and see what the damage is.’
‘I agree. Post two men with the MG at the top of the slope behind us, where they can keep a watch on that track. Then I want a damage report, and fast.’
The beam of a torch flickered across Corporal Howard’s ruined torso to his white, blood-flecked death mask. His body still lay where it had originally come to rest, wedged between the ammunition boxes and a bench. For a while the light hovered about the wide-eyed face, then moved on as Hyde turned to the holed scanner board.
‘He was our only electronics man. Burke’s OK with engines, and Libby knows the hardware of any weapons system, but circuits and silicon chips ...’ Hyde shook his head.
‘Cohen…’ Revell didn’t get to finish the sentence.
I’ll get on it right away, Major, but I can’t promise a lot. Shit,’ another pencil line of light flickered on as Cohen sat in the operator’s seat. ‘This looks like an MBT has been driven through it. I think maybe a heartfelt prayer would be as use- ful as a soldering iron.’
Cool clean air flushed the interior clear of smoke and stench as Libby and Collins went out. They splashed through the ankle-deep water and then immediately tackled the steep slope.
Encumbered as he was by six one-hundred-round belts of ammunition, as well as his own rifle and a satchel of grenades, plus a spare barrel for the machine gun, Collins was trailing by some yards before they were out of sight of the skimmer.
While Dooley and Rinehart set about extricating Howard’s body from its awkward resting place, the others began the inspection of their transport. The lists of damage suffered became steadily longer.
Hyde’s finger tapped the edge of the large irregular hole below the port engine pod. ‘Looks like it was deflected when it hit the engine-mounting bracket. The shell went down and ripped the skirt panels off, the bracket went through here travelling upwards at about forty-five degrees, penetrated the inner hull and went straight through the guts of Howard’s scanner.’ ‘And then straight through Howard’s guts.’ ‘Shut up, Burke.’ Hyde stood up. ‘We can replace the damaged and missing skirt panels, but there’s nothing we can do about the engine mounting. It’s not just that we don’t carry any, the studs were snapped off, it’ll be a workshop job.’ ‘She’ll still motor alright though?’ Looking closely, Revell could see bright unpainted metal where the bracket had been ripped away.
Hyde let Burke answer.
‘Might be a bit more vibration, and if we start clouting a load more trees then I can’t say how long the other four will hold, but she’ll motor. I’d prefer not to go above fifty though, if it can be avoided. If it does break loose it’ll tip us over and we’ll burn for sure.’
‘How about you, Cohen, what’s your news ?’ It was only because he could see the unnaturally humped shoulder line, the distinctive silhouette of a flak jacket, that Revell could identify who was on the ramp. The darkness beneath the overhanging foliage of the trees was almost total.
‘Some good, some bad, Major. You could say our eyes are gone but our ears are still working. We’ve lost all visual systems except the turret and cupola infra-red, and the driver’s image intensifier. But if I rig up what’s left of the hostile fire locator and active radar detector so they’ll give an audio signal instead, we’ll still know when someone is looking at us, or chucking shit in our direction. We just won’t know where from and how much, but it’ll be better than nothing.’
‘How long will it take?’ Sparks trailed behind the red dot of the major’s cigarette butt as he flicked it away. It died with a faint hiss among the damp stones at the water’s edge.
‘If someone holds the torch for me,(and provided I don’t run into any fresh problems, an hour, it won’t be pretty, but it’ll work. Only someone of my genius could do it, it ain’t exactly a standard conversion.’
‘Save the patting yourself on the back for when you’ve made it work. OK, you can have Rinehart.’
The major bent down, cupped his hands under the surface of the shallow water and splashed his face. He dried himself on the sleeve of his camouflage jacket. ‘How long ‘til dawn, Sergeant.’
‘Two hours. Are we still trying to make it tonight, Major?’ ‘Can we get to safe ground in the time we’ll have left after Cohen has fixed the board ?’
‘If we don’t run into any more problems, yes. But there won’t be any margin for error.’
‘Then we’re still trying to make it tonight.’ Revell looked up at the invisible umbrella of leaves eighty feet above their heads. ‘That won’t give us any cover from multi-spectral reconnaissance if the Reds send over sky-spies, and there’s a chance they will after tonight. Our best bet is to be far away when they get round to looking.’
A match flared beside them as Burke lit a cigarette. ‘What the hell are you still standing about for?’ Hyde turned on him. ‘Get those spare skirt panels off the roof. Are you waiting for me to bloody do it for you?’ ‘On me own? By me self? Those things weigh a ton.’ ‘Seventy-nine pounds each,’ Sergeant Hyde corrected. ‘And what about the water ? I’ll catch me death of cold.’ ‘You’ll catch something in a minute.’
Revell was just going back into the skimmer, and heard the exchange. ‘He can have Dooley to help him, Sergeant Hyde.’
The big man came splashing through the water muttering obscenities. ‘I was just going to have a crap. Why didn’t you lot keep your mouths shut till I’d finished?’ ‘Because at the moment I don’t want the stream dammed. Now stop the backchat and get on with it.’
‘Do you think you can make me if I don’t want to?’ Dooley straightened up to his full six-foot-four and towered over the sergeant. Burke’s voice floated down from above. ‘If you want to start chucking weight about, give me a hand. I’m fucking rupturing meself up here.’
Dooley didn’t look up. When he turned away from the sergeant to unfasten a tool locker, out of the corner of his eye he saw Burke standing on the skimmer’s roof with two of the heavy metal-bound skirt panels held high above his head.