Blockbuster

By: Tony Stark

The roar of ChiCom fighters overhead was the first sign that something had gone terribly wrong. The thuds of air-dropped ordnance in the distance were the second. Then the artillery started raining down, the screams of his fellow soldiers ringing in harmony with the screams of the airburst rounds pounding 3rd ID’s position on the 12th parallel. The Rock of the Marne stood strong in the face of overwhelming Chinese firepower. It felt like forever, enduring alternating  salvos of drone swarms and conventional artillery as the PLA probed their fighting positions. The sweat, salt, and sand obscuring his vision while he tried to get a feel for his cratered surroundings. The constant concussion waves knocked most of his AR feeds offline, so he was largely left relying on his own two eyes in the early dawn of the jungle. A dismount squad leader in A co. 3-15 IN out of Ft. Stewart, Sgt Spire wasn’t too fond of sitting out in the open, but that was doctrine. The APS on their IFV’s required a 30m safety distance and sitting, cramped, inside one when taking fire risked losing too much firepower with one lucky hit. His squad’s fortifications were impressive but even with the ample construction time and resources provided, they could only withstand so much. It was around this time that the McMaster MBTs down the line started returning fire, their optics could see out three times as far as Spire’s or his Schwarzkopf IFVs. The jungle terrain was treacherous, but the PLA bombardment had opened up a few lanes of attack that Spire realized almost immediately. He called up what he saw and had his soldiers adjust their fields of fire accordingly, he was tremendously calm under pressure. 

At first, the rhythmic tank fire soothed his nerves, he couldn’t quite see the whole battle but he hoped the lack of return fire meant that the tankers were hitting their targets and repelling the advancing PLA.

Vietnam was not the jungle it had been during the Americans’ first war in the country, decades of economic growth and political opening urbanized the country famous for rural insurgency. Still, miles outside of Cam Ranh Bay, Spire’s soldiers found themselves in incredibly dense jungle that would be considered impassible for armored vehicles by most. But someone, somewhere had remembered the lessons of Vietnam’s former colonizers, and feared infiltration through the jungle that would lead to the encirclement of the city to Spire’s southeast. And with the different environment came different weapons and gear. Spire’s squad was outfitted with equipment mostly conditioned for the harsh jungle climate, or that was what the labels promised. In truth, his electronics and optics still suffered under the incredible heat and humidity, not to mention the damage it did to his most casualty producing weapon: the M15A1 Railgun. The M15A1 was the first generation of railguns that could be assembled, transported, and fired by dismounted infantry. It was, however, incredibly difficult to maintain under fire. The M15A1 fire a tungsten carbide round that required the assistant gunner to wear an exosuit to carry a combat load. Not only was the round heavy but the barrel had to be changed out after every round, and in this climate an AG would also have to carry 3-5 barrels for consistent, effective fire. While Spire’s squad was far enough from the beach for the salt air to be less of an issue, it was a serious problem when his battalion first landed. Spare parts for the exosuits and the guns themselves were in short supply, and the salt air and humidity ate away at the supply long before the battle had begun. New supplies were supposed to arrive with the American fleet, but the PLA arrived first. 

More than anything Spire needed his M15s to stay online for as long as possible, they were his only AT weapon and it could punch through the dense jungle with the force of an elephant at 2000m. At that distance, he had to rely on his two UAV operators to guide his gunners on target. A Javelin couldn’t punch through the jungle canopy but the advanced thermal optics on his reconnaissance drones sure could. The drones’ optics package combined thermal optics with ground-penetrating radar to calculate a firing solution for the gunners who had little more than 200m sight on the clearest days. As the tank volleys continued, Spire’s hopes vanished when reports of enemy movement within 1500m meant that he wouldn’t be able to keep his men out of the fight. At least he held the high ground. 

Before he could order his gunners to engage, Schwarzkopf's to his left and right started firing. Still no machine gun fire though, meaning Spire could feel more confident that what his drone guys saw was what everyone else was seeing: no PLA infantry. The 50mm cannons on the Schwarzkopf would do serious damage against the medium tanks he expected the PLA to field in the jungle. The PLA tanks outranged the Schwarzkopf but performed poorly on when shooting on the move, thus giving the advantage to the dug-in soldiers of 3-15 IN. The challenge would be when the ChiCom infantry moved in. Sure, Spire now had excellent fields of fire for his automatic riflemen thanks to the enemy barrage, but he was now exposed to enemy rifle fire at a distance that he was not comfortable with. The splintered jungle and burned out brush meant the element of surprise for his dismounts was now lost in the hundreds of meters instead of the tens. 

The intensity of cannon fire from the Schwarzkopfs and McMasters died down about an hour after the first reports of the enemy at 1500m. It seemed that 3-15 IN had successfully repelled the PLA’s first attack. Comms were full of overconfident elations, his idiot PL the loudest of them all. He proclaimed them to be the 21st century “300” Spartans against the eastern hordes. Spire wondered if his LT knew how that movie turned out for Leonidas and his men. Still, Spire took the time to have his soldiers switch out on security and get some food and water in them. Spire was less confident than he was worried about the next attack. The first one, despite its length, seemed far less intense than he expected, he confided in his team leaders. He wondered aloud if the “assault” had merely been enemy reconnaissance-in-force. It did seem odd that with the airspace still contested, the PLA would mount an offensive. In all of the previous PLA attacks that Spire had studied, they did not push their main force forward until air superiority at the strategic and tactical levels was achieved. Spire’s drones were still in the air and the F-35s were still flying out of the airbase to the southwest. He wasn’t sure about orbital ISR but he hadn’t seen the sky come crashing down around him yet. 

As the sky grew dim, so did the odds of a peaceful night for Spire. His drones were actively fighting off PLA hacking attacks and the sky roared with PLAAF and USAF engines engaged in combat far above Spire’s position. And as the sun set and the moon rose, Spire decided to break out the stim packets for his entire squad. He couldn’t afford even one sleepy-eyed soldier right now, even if stims were only advised for movement and assaults. The stims kept soldiers alert and focused without the side effects of caffeine, but that didn’t mean they were without their downsides. The reason they were only meant for assaults and movements was that soldiers under the influence of the stims in defensive positions often became too trigger happy, and at night the stims greatly increased the risks and power of autokinesis. Still, he’d rather have trigger happy soldiers than ones that fell asleep while the PLA approached his position.

The other minor benefit of the early morning barrage was Spire had a better view of the world above. He’d always loved stargazing, and war didn’t change that. He was far enough from the city that light pollution didn’t matter and he could marvel at the faint glow of the Milky Way. The only obstruction of his view being the occasional orange arc of some war machine passing overhead, reminding him of the dark reality below. He wondered if some PLA squad leader was doing the same as he on the other side of the battlefield, but quickly shook it off, humanizing the enemy did him no good. He continued to count the stars and satellites in orbit above him. 

***

At some point he was woken up by one of his TLs, helluva time to take a bad stim.  But what he saw when he first opened his eyes struck fear in his heart and kicked his system into overdrive. 


The sky was falling right on top of him. The real attack was about to begin. The all too familiar “burning in the skies” of satellites catching fire in the stratosphere overtook the glow of the Milky Way. Spire wondered if this was what the dinosaurs had seen before their demise. 


Right on cue, his drone operators reported taking fire from enemy quadrotors, the sky lit up with multi-colored tracer fire as the drone operators engaged in dogfights inches above the jungle. The scream of artillery overtook the noisy jungle and the concussive forces of PLA shells once again rocked Spire’s position. His platoon’s tracks started engaging, the cannon fire competing with the bursting shells for what was left of his hearing. With his drones down, the range on his M15s was limited to the no man’s land and the shitty FLIR optics that could see just beyond that. His AR feeds were down again from the artillery bursts and his situational awareness restricted to his own senses. The barrage continued for nearly two hours, followed by a seeker drone swarm that was pushed back by the A co’s cyber team from the HQ platoon. The rest of the night belonged to the tanks, still no enemy infantry in range or even sight. 

Soon the stars went the way of the American ISR in local orbit and disappeared. The blazing tropical sun bearing down on Spire’s squad with an intensity near that of the enemy’s artillery through the night. He was beginning to think about his secondary battle position, and if his idiot PL would ever make the call. He hoped the CO would force it down the fool’s throat. If the CO was even still around. Comms were still acting fucky and Spire had not yet heard word of the unit’s casualties from the bombardment. A few of his men were rattled and a couple had minor shrapnel wounds, but all were fit to fight. He had trained them well, unfortunately the rest of his company had not been so lucky. 

In his later morning meeting with the PL, he was informed that not only was the company reduced to 60% combat effectiveness, but at least two of the platoon’s 50mm guns were in bad enough need of repair that they had to be taken offline. The jungle climate was wreaking havoc on machine and man alike. 

Spire’s squad spent the better part of their day performing the usual tasks like weapons and fortification maintenance, but only so much could be done to secure themselves from the next barrage. What remained unclear was why there was even another barrage to be waited upon. Spire had fully expected to be hit by the main Chinese force last night. All he could hope was that whatever was holding off the ChiComs lasted long enough for the fleet to arrive. 

***

Around 0200 local the American fleet arrived off the coast of Vietnam. The PLA’s coastal missile batteries disabled by American special operations forces. Immediately, the Ford CSG went to work hammering the PLA-occupied coast, the arrival of additional orbital ISR helping guide the American planes and missiles on target. The MEF meant to hit the beaches and encircle the PLA north of the 12th parallel gunned for the coast a few dozen miles north of Sgt Spire and 3-15 IN. Unfortunately, they never made it. 

When the PLAN underwater sensors picked up the American fleet a few days earlier, the Southern Fleet dispatched attack subs from Hainan carrying the new Piranha drones to lay a trap. But it wasn’t until American orbital ISR reserves were flying over the 12th parallel that the trap was sprung. First the sky fell, blinding the American forces from above, enabling the Piranhas to deploy unnoticed and strike the American fleet. The underwater swarm drowned the MEF on its way to the beaches, then sunk the American subs and the Ford aircraft carrier, leaving the quiet PLA diesel-electric subs to feast on the remaining American surface vessels. Thousands dead in a few minutes, with most of the remaining sailors and Marines captured or left to the mercy of Poseidon. With the obliteration of the American fleet, the PLA could now conduct its own amphibious encirclement. 

The only reason Sgt Spire found out about the fleet’s demise was because the BN master gunner owed him a favor and Spire pried the intel out of him when he came to look at his platoon’s damaged 50mm cannons. Sgt Spire saw the despair on his face as soon as the MG came to the line. Battalion and brigade leadership was running around like its hair was on fire, no one knew what to do, and no one wanted to tell the front line companies for fear of what it would do to morale. Spire was in shock, he hadn't expected the fleet to arrive before the main attack but losing the fleet entirely left him at a loss for words. With the American fleet gone, what was the PLA waiting for?

***

Just around dusk, the first concussions of PLA artillery rang throughout the jungle, except they didn’t land on Spire’s position or anywhere near him. No, they landed to the east. And then they crept closer. Spire nightmare continued when he realized what was happening. The Chinese were never going to attack across the 12th parallel line...they went around it just like MacArthur in Korea. His PL refused to believe this, he believed his Spartans would stand fast, and he refused to believe Spire’s story about the fleet. He was just about to knock the PL to the jungle floor when he noticed sporadic tracer fire kicking up about 200m to his northeast, and it was intensifying. He guided the LT’s gunner onto the treeline, there was about a squad sized force running towards the 12th parallel. And...what was this?

They had friendly IR strobes on their shoulders. 

What the fuck?

He immediately hopped on comms and called for the line to hold its fire, and then he confirmed with the other tracks, they too saw the IR strobes.

Again, what the fuck? 

No American forces were supposed to be north of the parallel, and he didn’t recall being briefed on any reconnaissance parties being sent across by higher. 

Then someone new came up on comms. It had to be the unknown friendlies. How the hell did they have their freqs?

The comms were still fucky, so Spire could only make out every few words, but he heard enough to invite them over for tea. 

“... this...Shaw...DA 555...got incoming...commend...hell...Say again...Captain...ODA...run like hell!”

All Spire heard was “run like hell!” and he wasn’t waiting for his PL to make a decision. He hopped out of the track and had his squad pack up and destroy what they couldn’t carry. When the rest of the line saw this, they did the same. They’d all heard the same message. When an ODA tells you to run like hell, you fucking run. 

Before they could disembark the first shells hit their position, catching most of the platoon in the open and knocking Sgt Spire down the hill and into no-man’s-land. 

When he came to, he found a muddied and bloodied brunette standing over him, screaming at him to get on his feet. He grabbed her arm and tried to catch his bearings...his ears were still ringing...then he saw the Captain’s bars and the special forces dudes taking cover behind her. 

He put two and two together. 

Before he could say anything, she threw him on her back and they ran for the treeline, dodging friendly and PLA fire as they escaped no man’s land. 

***

Major Andrew Daniels tossed the AR visor onto his desk in his tiny, windowless Pentagon cubicle. This was his third viewing of the Spire file and he hadn’t gotten any of the answers he wanted, only more depressed and frustrated with each viewing. Spire was by all accounts an excellent NCO, even in the face of overwhelming odds and incompetence. He had performed far better than just about anyone else that Major Daniels had watched in the month since the Battle of Cam Ranh Bay. He’d lived the demise of so many Americans that he now questioned his own life. Most of them inspiring to anyone in uniform for their sacrifice, but the Spire file was something different. It was the only complete documentation of the fall of the 12th parallel. Spire was a phenomenal soldier, he was a hero, but he wasn’t a protagonist. 


No, the mysterious Captain Shaw was the real story. He had to find her.