They were through. Major Wang Shaxi had crossed the DMZ along the great holes the Korean II Corps had blasted not two days prior. Now it was time to finish the job and reach the Bukhan crossing sites.
The radio reports from his forward element had not begun to prepare Shaxi for the scene in the valley below him. He had painfully worked what was left of his battalion--now designated as a forward detachment to the last two divisions in Ma Shiwen's 63rd Group Army--through the confusing network of roads southeast of Kumhwa. There had been airstrikes on the small city, and funnels of black smoke rose high into the blue sky behind his tanks. Shaxi labored to keep clear of the action there, following the path blazed by Pang and his reconnaissance company. Their mission was to reach the Bukhan at Gapyeong, and not to get bogged down in local actions unless it proved absolutely unavoidable.
Captain Pang had reported to Shaxi about the backed-up traffic north of Hwacheong, which was along the main highway artery Shaxi hoped to exploit. The company commander had become emotional over the radio, searching for adjectives, describing the scene up ahead in apocalyptic terms. But Shaxi had only his mission in mind. He had ordered Pang to stop acting like a nervous little virgin and keep moving.
As Shaxi's tank broke over the ridge the view forced him to halt his march column. Pang had not been succumbing to emotionalism. Stretching across the landscape, barely three kilometers to his west, civilian vehicles packed the vital highway, all struggling to move south. There was so little vehicular motion in the jammed-up lanes that, at first glance, the column seemed to be at a complete standstill. But once his eyes focused, slow nudging movements became apparent, really more nervousness than actual forward progress. Along what had once been a northbound lane, a column of military supply vehicles smoldered where they had been caught in the open by Chinese airpower. here and there, clusters of wrecked or burned civilian cars and light trucks further thickened the consistency of the traffic flow. Some vehicles had evidently been abandoned by panic-stricken occupants, and on both sides of the road, a straggling line of civilians with suitcases, packs, and bundles trudged along. Shaxi judged that this was the last wave fleeing southeast from Kumhwa and the border areas, trying to get across the Bukhan to an imagined safety less than fifty kilometers away. It was a pathetic scene, but Shaxi forcibly reined in his sympathies. The enemy would have put the Chinese people in a similar condition, if not worse, if they had pushed north of the Yalu. He doubted a South Korean or American tank battalion commander would have wasted as much thought on the situation as he had already done. He pictured his enemies as fascist-leaning mercenaires, fighting for money, unbothered by human cares.
Shaxi gave the order to move out, deploying cautiously into combat formation to facilitate a safe crossing of the high fields that tapered down to the highway. He still had no heavy air-defense protection, and he worried about getting caught in the open. He ordered the artillery and drone battery to remain on the ridge, covering the movement of the tanks and IFVs. As he saw the line of civilians stretch into the distance, his heart fell sharply. He had imagined that, once in the enemy's rear, the roads would be clear. Now he could not see how he to remain on schedule.
But Shaxi figured that, at a minimum, he could hug the refugee column, exploiting them as passive air defense. The enemy would have to bomb their own people to hit Shaxi's tanks. Shaxi was far from certain the American officers would hesitate for long, but it offered a better chance than driving through open fields all day long. Shaxi wondered if the Americans had perhaps even planned this, using the South Korean people to slow down the progress of the Chinese Army on the roads. Well, he would use this weapon against them, too.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rena. She did not fit here, but her image would not go away. She scolded him, flashing her high Uighur temper, demanding that he see the mass of frightened humanity down on the road as a crowd of terrified individuals, deserving of safety and protection. But Shaxi's focus on the mission soon shut out her voice.
His tattered battalion unfolded from the high ground and the crown of trees, opening into a quick, if somewhat ragged, battle formation. The self-propelled guns sidled off to firing positions; the drones went into the air, and his tanks and infantry fighting vehicles plowed towards the valley floor in a long, waving, ripple of steel.
Tanks sprayed dirt and mud in their trails as they maneuvered across the declining slope. Turrets smoothly wheeled to challenge the flanks. Shaxi saw only the readiness, the will to combat, ignoring the unevenness of the line. He knew that his demanding approach to training, despite the resentment it caused, had paid off. And moreover, the warriors who had survived the morning's engagement had a changed feel to them now. Shaxi could feel it even through the thick blocks of reactive armor. It was, he knew, the feel of men who had drank the blood of their enemies, and liked the taste.
Along the highway, still more than a kilometer distant, the refugees on foot began to run at the sight of the skirmish line of Chinese armor. First a few of them ran; then other runners gathered around the first clusters like swarming insects, most discarding their last possessions.
The response surprised Shaxi. It had never occured to him that this slow river of humanity should be afraid of his battalion. The idea of intentionally hurting them had never crossed his mind. For a moment, Rena came back, and he saw the world through the fear-widened eyes of the South Korean refugees; Rena's voice was now interspersed with imagined screams.
Shaxi finally relented, and was about to redirect his formation toward a secondary road heading off to the south, when the first muzzle blast flashed from across the valley.
Beyond the stream of fleeing civilians, an enemy force of unknown size either had been waiting in ambush or had just reached the wooded ridge on the opposite side of the valley. Other muzzle blasts flared in quick succession, and Shaxi's tanks maneuvered to take advantage of the sparse local cover. They had been caught fully exposed on the slope.
On his right, Shaxi saw one of his tanks erupt, its turret lifting like the top of a volcano. Some of his platoons had begun to fire back, but the enemy was at extreme range, and they would have to halt to have any hope of hitting their targets.
A dull boom; then another of his tanks burned. Good gunners, Shaxi thought. The bastards.
His first instinct was to stop and pull everyone back up into the treeline. His ridge was considerably more commanding than the one occupied by the enemy.
"Attention," Shaxi called into the battalion net. "Do not return fire unless you have positive ID'd a target. Captain Xia," he said, dispensing with callsigns, "you are to pick out targets for volley fire. Artillery, you and the drones are to suppress the enemy position along the treeline. Captain Lan, you are to--"
Shaxi froze, then stared hard into his periscope. The enemy was leaving the treeline. It was senseless. They had good, concealed, firing positions. Now, they were putting themselves at the same disadvantage Shaxi's vehicles were in.
Then he got it. They were trying to draw fire away from the refugee column. Again, Shaxi was startled by the perception of what his battalion was trying to do. But he did not waste time on moral philosophy. The enemy had just told him, frankly, where their values lay.
"Everybody," Shaxi called over the radio net. "All tanks and fighting vehicles, forward now. Full combat speed, get in among the refugee traffic. Captain Lan, dismount your men and use the cars and trucks for cover. Fire smoke grenades and move, quickly. All tanks, battle line on the highway. Now!"
His vehicle lurched forward at his command. Shaxi triggered the reloaded smoke grenade canisters and drove headlong into the rising puffs. His vehicle bounced wildly, but Shaxi was able to grab the hatch lever and push it open. The smoke made him cough, but he did not want to seal himself in the belly of the tank. After losing control of the morning's fighting, he was afraid to lose control of this engagement as well.
Beyond the thin screen of smoke, the column of cars soon blocked the enemy's fields of fire. Shaxi looked quickly to the right and left, unsure how many tanks should be there now, but satisfied with the grouping he saw. Quick armored infantry fighting vehicles nosed their sharp prows in among the tanks, losing drill formation in the headlong dash for the highway.
Shaxi's tank roared through an area of low ground from which the column of automobiles on the built-up road actually stood higher than his turret. Then the tank slanted back upward, heading for the multi-colored line of fine Korean cars. The last civilian drivers deserted, leaving doors wide open in their haste. Shaxi's tank shot up over the berm of the road and slammed down on the pavement of the highway. His driver only halted the tank after its frontal plating had crumpled a small white van.
The meadow beyond the road had filled with running figures, their bright luggage like confetti thrown over the green fields. The refugees scrambled toward their own forces. But now the tables had turned. The enemy tanks had lost the race to the road, and they stood embarrassed in the open fields, uncertain sentinels attempting to cover their own. Shaxi could see the enemy unit was weaker than his own after all, its vehicles scarred by combat and spread thinly across the long slope.
"Get them!" Shaxi screamed into the mike, "get them while they're in the open. Don't let them get away. Platoon commanders, select targets for volley fire." He felt himself bursting with adrenaline; Rena's voice was almost completely gone.
Satisfied with his battalion's positions, he closed the turret hatch. "Target," Shaxi said, dropping into his position behind the optics. There was a tank at a perfect oblique angle, a clean flank shot. "Range, eleven hundred meters."
"Eleven hundred meters."
"Correct to eleven-fifty. Selecting sabot."
"Eleven-fifty, sabot loaded."
"Fire." Shaxi's tank rocked backwards, and before it settled, the enemy tank dazzled with sparks. A moment later, its turret flew skyward. Without looking down, Shaxi high-fived his gunner. Then he scanned the fields for another target.
His optics found a changed scene. Most of the civilians had dropped into the high grass, caught in the middle of the battle. Shaxi saw one running group jerk into contorted positions and fall. Someone had intentionally gunned them down.
"Comrade Commander, target!"
Shaxi saw the tank. Lumbering down, as if to rescue the surviving refugees, its long gun fired above the bodies prostrate in the grass. It looked like a defiant, protective lioness. Shaxi understood, even sympathized with the commander of the enemy vehicle. The maneuver was brave, but suicidal. Shaxi fixed the target with his laser rangefinder.
His headset grew chaotic with a litany of calls, mostly cocky variations of "target neutralized". Shaxi tuned them out until he had fired on the lone, brave enemy tank. Two other tanks also fired on it in quick succession, and one of the three shells struck the magazine, sending the entire hull skyward and flipping the tank over. With all its hatches now stuck in the earth, what surviving crew remained would be trapped and burned alive.
The surviving enemy vehicles pulled back into the distant treeline, only to be finished off by Shaxi's supporting artillery battery and drones, their anti-armor submunitions and guided missiles raining down like tiny balls of lava.
The firing of tank guns disappeared. It was a swift engagement, determined by the single factor of Shaxi's tanks beating the enemy to the highway by around half a minute. Shaxi searched the horizon for any last targets, but all of the visible enemy vehicles remained stationary, either blazing or smoking heavenward. Then he watched as a lone civilian rose and ran up the hillside, only to be tossed about by sustained assault rifle fire. Shaxi watched as though the action was simply a scene from a movie. Then he snapped back to his senses.
"Cease fire, cease fire!" he shouted. "I will personally shoot the next man who fires on a civilian."
He opened his turret, climbing up into open air only to be greeted by choking black smoke. At first, he thought his tank was on fire, that it had been hit and he had not even realized it; then he saw that a car had taken a round for him and burned just to one side of his roadwheels. The heat seared Shaxi's cheeks. His vehicle, already battered, now wore a cloak of black soot.
The continuing volume of small-arms fire alarmed Shaxi. There was nothing left to shoot at--and there were far too many shouts and screams.
He dropped back into the turret, ordering his driver to reverse out of the gasoline fire beneath them. Then he called his subordinates and ordered them to get their men under control, to halt all firing immediately. The firing did not stop. In a rage, he stripped off his headset and drew his personal defense weapon as the tank stopped in the low ground beside the highway. Then he climbed out of the turret and jumped down from the tank, trotting towards the greatest density of noise.
As he walked, submachinegun at the ready, he saw countless automobiles on fire, or wrecked in their last, desperate attempts to flee. Between drifting curtains of smoke, islands of clarity revealed dead and badly wounded drivers and passengers, slumped over steering wheels or spilling from opened doors. Other civilians lay scattered about the highway, some of them pancaked by armored treads. A thin woman's flowered skirt lofted on the wind, dropping high up on the back of her sprawled legs. Shaxi clenched his teeth, then released the safety on his weapon.
Beyond the next drape of smoke, Shaxi surprised a group of mechanized infantry troops with a young girl. They had torn off her skirt and panties, leaving her clad only in a blouse, and they were teasing her, driving her screaming from one man to another. The girl wailed in mortal terror, and the men, his men, laughed. Then one of the soldiers pushed the others aside and began pawing at her blouse while fumbling with his pants, and the girl shrieked in a foreign language.
Shaxi fired at the ground, putting the bullet very close to the girl's tormentor.
All of the men turned to face him, one even lifting his assault rifle. As soon as they recognized an officer, they all straightened, backing away as if it was only an accident that she and they were in the same place. The soldier who had raised his weapon quickly lowered it.
"You bastards!," Shaxi shouted at them. "Shameless... inhman... scum! What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
None of the soldiers responded. Shaxi cursed himself empty, then could find no sensible words to express himself, and a difficult silence enveloped them. He almost launched into an angry series of platitudes about their duty and the mission and trust of a PLA soldier. But this was all too immediately human and terrible for classroom phrases.
Shaxi collected his breath, shaking his head in disgust. "All of you. Get back to your vehicles. Now."
The soldiers obeyed immediately. Shaxi watched them go, submachinegun pointed at their backs. He did not fully trust these strangers now.
And yet... they were his soldiers. They had fought together, and more importantly, would undoubtedly be forced fight for each other again and again before the war ended.
Shaxi safetied his weapon and turned to the girl, embarrassed more by what his soldiers had done than by her nakedness. He took care to look only at her face, which was red and terrified beyond the range of normal expression. Shaxi picked up her discarded clothing, holding them out to her. She backed nervously against a smashed car, as though she expected Shaxi to become her next tormentor.
"Go," Shaxi said, pushing the bundle of fabric into her hands. "Get out of here. Your people are up there," he pointed, wishing he could tell her in her language.
"Go," he barked. He did not know what else to do. There were still shots and cries, and he had no doubt that his experience of what his soldiers were really like had not yet come to an end. He wanted to get away from here, away from this lost girl. But he was afraid to leave her alone.
The girl hurriedly dressed and backed away; Shaxi turned around and began walking down the highway. Then he heard her scream again. He found her at the edge of the highway, facing the now-silent ridgeline from where her would-be guardians had come. She had stopped at a drainage ditch trailing away from the raised berm at the other side of the highway. In it was a tumbled clutter of dead bodies.
Shaxi felt his stomach crawling up his throat again. He forced it down and turned to the girl, expression softening. "Go," he pleaded, pointing the way with his weapon. Visibility was far too good, despite the residue of battle smoke, and he worried that enemy aircraft would descend upon them like the wrath of a vengeful God. He knew he had to get his troops back under control, to get moving again.
The girl finally understood him. She began to pick her way down between the corpses. As her foot touched one of them, the body moved with a life of its own, and Shaxi realized that, surely, there were many wounded along the column and out in the field. But he had no assets to cope with that issue now, and he still had a mission to fulfill. He struggled to shut his mind to the rising guilt.
The major stepped back behind the cover of an abandoned vehicle and watched the girl leave. From behind, her thin legs reminded him, uncomfortably, of Rena. As she worked her way up through the field, someone fired a single shot; the girl flung an arm into the air, as if waving to someone in the distance, and dark blood splashed from the hollow under her shoulder. An instant later she collapsed, disappearing in the shimmering grass.