Shaxi led his column through the cluttered rear of the combat area. The road network was decent, allowing his formation to finally speed up and stretch its legs. He had hastily restructured the battalion's internal march order so that the could personally guide the deployment of the three tank companies by laser-delivered morse. The mechanized infantry company was to follow be prepared to clear flanked and overrun positions or provide point defense. The battalion's rear services trailed, with instructions to break off the road when the battalion deployed into company columns, but remain mounted and ready to go.
His small staff and company commanders had worn solemn faces as Shaxi attempted to give them adequate verbal orders. Nothing in their training had prepped them for this sudden acceleration of events. Fear showed openly on Bo's face, his mouth opened partway, revealing slightly buck teeth that made him look hopeless. Pang, Shaxi's most reliable company commander and a good improviser, looked ten years older from lack of sleep. The last tank commander, Xia, stood slouched, grumpy, declaring with his body language, "This is a dog-shit briefing, and we all know it." Xia was cynical, but at least he was competent. Lan, the mechanized infantry captain, looked like he expected something to eat him alive. Shaxi knew that the mechanized infantry officer expected to recieve the dirtiest tasks and the least thanks, but there was no time for coddling now. Shaxi did his best to answer their worried questions, even as his circle of knights tried to phrase their queries in words as tough and masculine as possible.
The column passed battery after battery of guns and howitzers, their tubes raised as if in salute from the midst of broken orchards ur under hurriedly erected infrared-absorbing camouflage nets in open fields. The road passed a medical station where wounded soldiers lay in rows upon the ground. Comms vans and yet another bunching of prisoners filled a sports field at the edge a burning village, and uncollected corpses littered the streets.
As they exited the cluster of smoldering houses, the artillery preparation began. The volume of fire increased the air pressure so much that Shaxi felt his ears pop. The effect was solidly reassuring; Shaxi almost believed the artilleryman's earlier words about killing everything on that ridge before the tanks showed up.
The country had opened out into dry, rolling terrain, and Shaxi saw a sweeping green ridge running east and west, six or seven kilometers in the distance, astride the battalion's line of advance. Orange fire began to erupt from the green earth, as though the ridge had suddenly become volanic.
Shaxi checked his digital map and looked to his right for his sister battalion. A shattered mechanized infantry company appeared to be regrouping, and Shaxi went cold for a moment, afraid that the First Battalion had been hit in transit. But a moment later, he saw their company columns drawn up in a grassy valley beyond the tattered subunit. Everything appeared intact and ready. The lone mechanized infantry company was probably getting ready to leave after being relieved of local defensive duties.
Shaxi hurriedly extended the tank's laser transmission module from the turret and stood erect in the turret. He hit a key on his tablet, ordering prebattle formation, company columns abreast. Then he ordered his driver to slow down so that the trail companies could come up after crossing the bridge. In the middle distance, the wall of smoke and infrared obscurants looked dense enough to gather in his arms. Shaxi led Xia's company off the road, watching Pang hurry to catch up on the left. Pang's company briefly disappeared in a depression, then reappeared exactly where it should be.
Shaxi looked right. Bo was on the right, on his own for now, but Shaxi felt it was the best position for the boy. He would have an entire battalion on his right flank, and the bulk of his own battalion on his left. All Bo had to do was drive straight, keep up speed, and shoot at enemy vehicles. At least for now, Bo seemed to be in control. Scattered small trees staggered his company slightly, but the frontage was approximately correct. And beyond Bo's line of armor, Shaxi could see First Battalion breaking out of a line of trees and hedges from a parallel route.
Shaxi tried to gauge the distance to the wall of smoke, then punched another message through the optical transmitter. He ordered his driver to slow, allowing the tanks of Xia's company to overtake them. On the right flank, First Battalion surged visibly ahead, almost trying to pass through the line of obscurant. Shaxi signaled an increase in speed to 50 km/h, hoping the company commanders were paying attention.
The local roughness of the terrain tossed Shaxi against the rim of the hatch, and he steadied himself as best as he could. The smoke and artillery fire were still two kilometers out but already felt too close. Shaxi dropped the laser transmitter back into roof of the turret. The next command would be given over the radio.
As his tank crested the low ridge Shaxi saw that First Battalion had begun to pull hard to the right. He scratched his head at the developing split in the assault line, but then saw a wind gap opening in the smokescreen, exposing the center of their formation. The artillery had stopped firing smoke rounds too early. Shaxi looked to the rear, searching for an artillery observation post, but there was none.
The textbook response called for Shaxi to guide his battalion to the right, to maintain contact with the lead battalion at all costs. He nuzzled the microphone closer to his lips. But he could not order Bo into the gap. Whoever drove up between the parting curtains of smoke would be the magnet for aimed fire from the entire enemy line. They would likely die in seconds. And, so with the wedding photo of Bo and Maomao suddenly vivid in his mind, the major relented.
Shaxi glanced left to check on Pang, and he noticed a terrain feature that he had not noticed on the earlier hasty look at the map. The ridgelines on which the smoke had settled threw a long spur to the northeast. It was obvious now, on the battlefield, that the finger of high ground would hide any American counterattack until it reached the rear left flank of the Chinese regiment. All the Amerians would need to do would be to allow the Chinese to move past the spur into the trap. On the other hand, it offered Shaxi an opportunity to take the Americans in the rear, if they had failed to cover their far right flank.
Shaxi decided to take a chance, and as he spoke his first words, American artillery fire began to crash just behind his formation.
The Americans knew.
"Mustang One, Three, Five, this is Mustang Actual. Amendment to combat instructions. Three, move left six hundred meters. Get on the reverse slope of that spur. Use smoke. Follow it in behind the American positions." Shaxi paused. The enemy artillery had not yet adjusted to hit them; the smoke was working after all. The Americans were guessing, executing preplanned fires. Shaxi now felt more confident in his gamble. Then he found he could not remember the call sign for the mechanized infantry. "Xiao Lan... Xiao Lan, you follow Three. Stay close to him. Both of you, get on their damned flank and roll them up. Call me if you have trouble. Acknowledge please."
"Mustang Actual, this is three. We're losing contact with First Battalion."
"Damn it, I know that. Just get up on that ridge and kill everything you see. Meet me on the far slope. Do you understand?"
"This is Three, executing now."
"Mustang One, Five... let's get them. Into the smoke, fire at will."
"Five, acknowledged." That was Bo; Shaxi could hear the nervousness in the boy's voice.
"Actual, your hatch is flapping."
Shaxi reached out, trying to snag his hatch cover. The jouncing of the 60-ton machine as it moved cross-country made it difficult. Shaxi remembered how his first training exercise had ended with a crushed hand from trying to do the same thing. Finally, he caught the big steel disk and smashed it down, fastening it.
Shaxi felt as though he had suddenly plunged underwater in the sealed belly of the tank. Trying to keep some connection with the real world from within his fully sealed vehicle, he leaned his forehead against the cowl of his optics, but now the smoke shrouded his vision as well.
The tank suddenly jolted hard, seeming to lift to the side. Then it stopped. The shock smashed Shaxi's brow hard against his periscope. He began to curse his driver, just as the tank resumed movement.
The smoke grew patchier. Shaxi's ears rang, but he didn't know why.
Faster, he thought. Every nerve in his body seemed to scream for more speed, yet he knew that he could not afford to pull the line apart any more than the movement in a cloud of smoke would already do. He resisted the temptation to order an all-out charge, fearing that, in the confusion, they would soon begin killing one another if they became disorganized.
"Target, right, two thousand," the gunner called.
Shaxi looked right. A tank in oblique profile, firing towards First Battalion, clearly visible in a corridor between waves of smoke. Shaxi had missed it.
"Load sabot." Shaxi heard the auto-loader whine into action.
The tank rocked back. The breech jettisoned a fat red casing, and the reek of spent ordnance filled the crew compartment.
The round missed.
"Load sabot," Shaxi shouted, forcing himself to go through the precise verbal and physical motions.
The regimental net scratched like an old phonograph record. "This is Tiger Actual. I'm in deep shit. Ambush, ambush. They're all around me!
First Battalion was in trouble. Shaxi half listened for a response from the regiment, but none came. Shaxi realized there was nothing he could do for his sister battalion except to fight his own fight as well as he possibly could. But it troubled him that no reply from Min or one of his staff officers.
"Range, fourteen hundred," Shaxi said, focusing with all his strength. The American tank sat perfect on the aiming point. As he watched it began to swing its turret around.
A splash of flame lit the American tank. The turret stopped turning.
"This is Five. Mustang Actual, this is Five. I've lost two tanks."
Bo. He sounded near panic.
"Keep moving, Five. Just keep moving. Fight back. You're all right." But Shaxi knew the boy was not all right.
"This is Tiger Actual, calling any station. I need help!"
"Tiger, this is Mustang. I hear you, but I'm in the shit myself."
"Mustang, can you reach Min? They're tearing us to pieces."
"I'll try, but I haven't heard a thing." Shaxi cleared his throat, rasping at the fumes inside the tank.
"Ringmaster, this is Mustang Actual." Static. "Ringmaster, this is Mustang Actual--Tiger has encountered an ambush, Ringmaster, do you copy?"
No response. Shaxi decided to focus on more pressing concerns. "Target, eight hundred," as another tank appeared. Shaxi could feel cold sweat dripping from his helmet as they played this deadly game of hide-and-seek between the billows and eddies of smoke. "On the right." His gunner began to rotate the big turret.
"Wo de tian a! They're killing us all!" It was Bo again. Shaxi knew beyond any doubt the boy had lost control now.
"Bo," he replied, ignoring the callsign. "Get a grip on yourself. Fight, or they will kill you." Shaxi remembered the loneliness and self-doubt of the boy in the early morning, but he could not pity him; he felt only anger. Bo had a job to do, and all of their lives depended on it.
"Seven hundred... fire!... selecting... sabot up... adjust to six-fifty... fire..."
Shaxi's tank suddenly emerged from the smoke into the painful clarity of daylight. In his optics, he saw three American tanks and four of his own in a murderous shoot-out at point-blank range. As he watched, the tanks wiped each other out in suicidal combat. The last American tank seemed as though it would live, then suddenly halted and hurled its turret skyward an engine fire found the on-board ammunition storage.
"Smoke grenades away!" Shaxi screamed, slamming his hand down on the big white button below his commander's viewport. "Target..."
His gunner fired. "Got the bastard."
Shaxi suddenly remembered Xia and felt a cold fear creep up his spine. "Three, can you hear me?" Shaxi called, his desperation rising. Static.
"Where are you, Three?"
Instead of Xia, Bo came back on, pleading for help. Shaxi coldly ordered him off the net. An enemy tank appeared in his optics, so close his driver had to stop to avoid a collision.
"Target dead ahead." Shaxi's voice cracked with stress.
"He's too close!"
"Just fire!" Shaxi's field of vision filled with the blast effects. When the smoke cleared, Shaxi could see burning, flailing enemy crewmen desperately opening hatches, then slowing into stillness before they finished their climbs out of the wrecked vehicle. Shaxi felt nauseous, then felt bile rise in his throat. He forced himself to swallow it back down.
"Mustang One, this is Mustang Actual... is that your element mixed up with the Americans on the crest?"
"This is One. I'm still in the smoke. It must be Five up there."
At the mention of his call sign, Bo started talking again. He was weeping. "They're all gone," he said, "everybody's gone."
Shaxi's gunner screamed. An American tank had its gun tube aimed directly at them.
"Point blank, fire!" Shaxi did not even know what kind of round, if any, was loaded.
A burst of sparks dazzled off the mantlet of the American tank's gun. A moment later, the enemy vehicle began to pull off its position without shooting. Shaxi sensed a kill and methodically directed his gunner. The next shot stopped the American tank, and smoke began to climb from its deck.
Shaxi realized Bo was still crying into the battalion net, as though he had lost his sanity. Shaxi found himself almost screaming at the boy, even wishing the Americans would kill him, just to stop him from whimpering. He feared that Bo's panic would become contagious.
"Bo," Shaxi said, disregarding the last callsign discipline. "Xiao Bo, take command of yourself. You're still alive. You can fight back. You're all right."
But the young company commander had begun to babble incessantly. Shaxi could not even be certain Bo had heard him.
Suddenly, Shaxi lost his temper. "Bo, if you don't shut up, I'll shoot your tank myself. Do you understand me, you cowardly piece of shit?"
For the moment, Bo dropped from the net. Shaxi's driver barely avoided colliding with another Chinese tank in a last pocket of smoke. The driver halted to let the other vehicle pass. Shaxi used the pause to help the gunner replenish the autoloader's ready rack. The fin-stabilized sabots that felt so heavy in peacetime exercises now felt feather-light. Shaxi was momentarily surprised at his newfound strength.
Bo called again. This time his voice was marginally more rational. "They're behind us," he cried. "I have enemy tanks to my rear."
"We're behind them, you dumbass," Shaxi called back. "Just shoot."
The driver stepped on the accelerator again, throwing Shaxi off balance. As soon as he recovered, he tried to piece his unit back together over the radio.
"One, where the hell are you?"
"Can't talk," Xia answered. He sounded out of breath. "We're in fighting it out with an entire company. I think they lost their way in the smoke."
All right, at least Xia was still alive. "Mustang Three, this is Mustang Actual." No answer. Shaxi wondered if he had squandered an entire company, and his best company, at that, by sending them around the spur. He ordered his driver to heat for a copse of trees that sat slightly higher than the tank's present location. As the vehicle moved Shaxi watched the treeline carefully.
An American infantry fighting vehicle fired an anti-tank missile in a wide miss, then bolted from the grove like a flushed rabbit. His crew was already reacting more quickly; his driver knew enough to stop the tank, and the gunner already had the target in his sights.
The American IFV exploded in a spectacular bloom of flame.
"Get in amongst the trees and halt," Shaxi ordered. He had lost control of his battalion amongst the smoke and fighting, but he did not see how he could have done otherwise. Now he could only hope and gather what remained of his battalion to him. He did not even know for certain who was winning. If the radio net was to be believed, the fight had been a disaster, yet here he was, hull-down atop a broad ridge, with a trail of destroyed enemy vehicles to his rear. It was hard to make sense of it.
At any rate, there was a perceptible change in the level of combat in the immediate area. A pocket of quiet grew around his tank. He tried again to contact Pang, hoping that his position on the high ground would offer better reception.
"Mustang Three, this is Mustang Actual, what's your status, over?"
Pang replied promptly and clearly, as if he had never been out of touch. "This is Three. I'm behind them, clean, hidden in a treeline. Shooting them one after another as they pull off. At least ten kills already. It's just like firing on the range." Shaxi could detect more than a hint of pride in his voice.
"None. They never saw us coming. They must have been totally fixed on the fireworks in front of them. We ran right through their artillery batteries and drone controllers."
"Niu bi. When you're done at your current location, I want you to sweep back to the northwest, towards me. Close the trap completely. I'm up on the ridge. Just watch what you're shooting at."
So perhaps things were not so bad after all. Shaxi felt a tremendous satisfaction in having sent Pang around the enemy's flank.
"Mustang One, this is Actual. Status?"
"Wait. Load sabot! I'm still in the shit, but it looks about even."
"Are you all right?" Shaxi was mildly surprised at Xia's good fortune.
"Yes, all right. But Bo's gone. Fire! I saw his tank go up, catastrophic kill, turret flying like a soccer ball and everything. The last three tanks of his company died in seconds. They came out of the smoke at an angle, driving right up between my tanks and the Americans. It was really a matter of seconds."
Shaxi felt a momentary twinge of guilt at wishing for the boy's death. Then he forced that emotion back down, too.
"All right," Shaxi called. "Just stay off the crest of the ridge. Three's coming in behind them now."
"I heard your transmission to them. Congrats, Three."
Pang replied. "Thanks."
Shaxi switched over to the regimental frequency. "Tiger Actual, this is Mustang Actual."
"Target, left" Shaxi's gunner screamed.
"Hold it, that's one of ours," Shaxi said. He tried the regimental net again, this time calling for the trail battalion.
"Rhino Actual, this is Mustang Actual."
No response. Where was everybody?
Shaxi unlatched his hatch cover and shoved it up, hard. Unreasonably, he felt that if he were out in the open air, he would have a better chance of reaching someone.
"Comrade Commander," the gunner called, trying to stop him.
Shaxi ignored the tug on his uniform. The air, laden with the acrid residue of the artillery barrage, of the smoke and the tank battle, was nonetheless marvelously fresh after the poisonous fumes in the vehicle interior. The noise of the battle was still there, but at a reduced volume. Then Shaxi noticed a black, smoldering scar on the side of his turret. There was a meter-wide break in the reactive armor modules that gave the appearance of a mouth with a few teeth knocked out. Shaxi suddenly remembered the tremendous jolt that had shaken the tank so early in the fight. His stomach rose up again as he realized how close he had come to dying, then thought of the burning enemy crewmen. This time, Shaxi did not fight it.
Xia's tank, leading five others up the hillside, caught him vomiting over the side of his turret. Several of these tanks also bore visible scars where the reactive armor had saved them.
Shaking his head, Shaxi nuzzled the microphone again. "Mustang One, this is Mustang Actual. Put your tanks in the woodline just below my position. Cover the saddle you just worked up and the ridge to the west."
Six tanks, Shaxi thought, plus his own. Seven. And Pang had reported no losses at the time of his last transmission. So fifteen, out of twenty-six.
Bo was gone, and it sounded like the greater part of his company had gone with him. But Shaxi hoped that a few of them, at least, would show up alive and well as the last smoke dissipated.
Shaxi called Pang. "Three, what's your status?"
At first, there was no response. Shaxi was just about to try again when Pang responded.
"This is -bzzzt-. I can't talk now, I'm in it hot."
Shaxi's newfound confidence began to dissolve.
"Three, I've got seven tanks up here. I'll come over. Where are you?"
"It's all right," Pang answered. He sounded annoyed at the suggestion that he needed help. "We're just shooting as fast as we can. We caught their reserve right in its ass end."
Shaxi breathed a sigh of relief. "One, this is Actual. Prepare to move."
Shaxi knew that they had the Americans now. He wanted to finish the job, but he was worried at the complete silence on the regimental frequency.
"Ringmaster, this is Mustang Actual, can you hear me?"
"Mustang, this is Poplar. I hear you clearly."
Shaxi had no idea who Poplar was. He tried again.
"Tiger, Rhino, this is Mustang. Everything alright?"
"This is Poplar," the unidentified voice insisted. "We're regimental artillery. The attack has failed, it's all over. Air and fire strikes hit Rhino as he was moving up. Tiger never reached the American positions. All of the tanks are gone, it's all over."
"Bullshit," Shaxi said. "We're in behind them. They've pulled off the eastern portion of the ridge. We have their positions under lockdown. Now we're going to roll them up, east to west. Can you support us?"
The net was silent. Then:
"Mustang Actual, this is Dragon Ten. Do you hear my transmission?"
The transmitter was clearly very powerful. Whoever Dragon Ten was, his voice dominated the static and distant stations on the net.
"I hear you."
"Execute your decision," the godlike voice commanded. "We will support you. Antitank helicopters are closing from the west at this time. You roll up the Americans from the east. Be prepared to mark your positions with flares. I will stay on this net. If you have any problems, call me immediately. Stop transmission. Poplar, you will still answer to Ringleader. But priority of fires is to Mustang Actual, is that clear?"
Shaxi no longer had any doubt about the identity of Dragon Ten. It was the major general leading the entire division.