Knaves over queens, p.29
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.29

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘Here’s your toy back, sir,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t mind a set of those myself.’

  ‘Tell you what,’ the captain said. ‘I’ll give you that set when we get back to Hermes and report them lost. You saved us a lot of blood and sweat just now.’

  The captain reached for the goggles and started stowing them in their pouch again.

  A few yards to their right, the Lion looked back at the airfield in the distance and sniffed the air. Then he held up a hand and froze. ‘Something’s not right.’

  Rory followed his gaze. There was no movement he could make out with his naked eyes despite the illumination from the fires. ‘What—’ he began. Then a fusillade of gunfire from the direction of the airfield cut him off. Rory could hear the supersonic crack of bullets screaming past them in the darkness. A machine gun opened up, green tracers reaching out to them like laser beams from a science fiction film.

  ‘Down!’ Major Singh shouted. He whirled around and dived for Rory. The SAS captain was closer to him, though, and just a little bit faster than the Lion. He grabbed Rory by his web gear and yanked him down onto the ground. Rory saw some of the tracer rounds skip on the rocky soil nearby at a shallow angle and bounce off in various directions. The SAS captain let out a strained little grunt and tumbled to the grass with Rory. Next to them, the SAS men dropped prone again and started returning fire. The reports from their rifle shots were deafeningly loud. Rory groped for his submachine gun, but found that he had dropped it, and the rounds snapping past his head made him disinclined to look around for it right now.

  ‘I’m hit,’ the SAS captain said in an almost conversational tone. Rory looked over to the man to see the expression on his face. He didn’t looked panicked or in pain, but surprised.

  Major Singh appeared next to them. He grabbed Rory by the belt with one hand and the SAS captain’s web gear with the other. Then he hauled them both off the ground and dashed away from the incoming fire. Rory didn’t even have time to yelp in surprise. Even with four hundred pounds to carry, Major Singh was twenty-five yards behind the line of SAS men in a matter of seconds. There was a little depression in the terrain, and the Lion deposited Rory and the SAS captain in it carefully. ‘Medic to my position,’ he shouted, a deep and sonorous roar that momentarily cut through the cacophony of the gunfire.

  Two SAS soldiers came out of the darkness and dropped next to Rory and the captain. ‘You hurt, sir?’

  ‘I don’t think so.’ Rory patted himself down to check for bullet holes, but came up clean. ‘But the captain’s hit.’

  ‘The enemy has a concealed trench line parallel to the northern runway edge,’ Major Singh said. ‘A very well concealed trench. I didn’t see it until they moved their GPMG up into position, right before they opened fire. Contact Glamorgan and have them send a barrage. Tell them to shift their fire a hundred yards north from the last volley.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ the SAS soldier said and dashed off. The other SAS man had taken off his pack and was already working on the captain, whose surprised expression had at last shifted to one of extreme discomfort.

  For a little while when he had rendered the Argentine aircraft inert from a distance, Rory had felt as if he had his thumb on the scale, that he was making a difference. Right now, that feeling had dissipated completely. He tried to stay as low to the ground as he could. All around him, the SAS were shooting at the Argentinian defenders. The troop with them was made up of only a dozen commandos, and one of them was wounded on the ground in front of him, but it seemed implausible that eleven rifles could produce such world-ending noise. Rory felt as if he had been dropped into the middle of World War Three. He had no idea what to do or where to be.

  Major Singh didn’t have any problem working out his role on the battlefield. With the captain out of commission and the major with another troop on a hill several hundred yards away, the remaining SAS men deferred to the Silver Helix agent without hesitation.

  ‘Fall back to Boat Troop’s position by squads, bounding overwatch. And what is that blasted destroyer waiting for?’

  As if on cue, the first shells from Glamorgan’s renewed barrage exploded at the edge of the airstrip, and this time Rory felt the tremors of the detonations travelling through the ground below him. They were like hammer blows from a very pissed-off deity – the short, sharp whistling of an incoming shell followed by the concussion of the high-explosive fragmentation warhead. The small arms fire from the Argentinian defenders instantly slackened off and then faded into silence.

  ‘They’re getting back under cover,’ Major Singh said. ‘All squads, disengage and rally at the exfiltration assembly point. We have forty-five minutes to reach the aircraft.’

  ‘Come on, Archimedes.’ The big Sikh walked up to Rory and pulled him to his feet. ‘You made this a victory. Let’s not have the enemy turn it into a defeat.’

  The SAS captain in charge of Mountain Troop had been shot in the lower back. He was unable to stand or walk, and they had brought no stretchers to carry out the wounded.

  ‘You lads get back to the helicopters and leave me here with a few flares,’ the captain said, his face a grimace of suppressed agony. ‘I’ll make sure the Argies find me. I’ll see you all in England when this bloody war is over.’

  ‘That is a load of noble nonsense, Captain,’ Major Singh said. ‘Corporal, give the man his second morphine dose. I will carry him back with us. And there will be no discussion about this. Now get a move on, everyone. There isn’t any time for St Crispin’s Day speeches right now.’

  They speed-marched across the dark landscape faster than Rory had ever marched before. The SAS squads took turns guarding the rear of the spread-out column, and every five minutes they switched places. That meant they had to cover four times the distance Rory did, but he was still close to the limits of his physical endurance. Next to him, Major Singh strode along without any signs of fatigue, even though he was carrying the wounded SAS captain. They had left their mortars and all their heavy ammunition behind, and every other man just carried a weapon and a light assault pack. Nobody knew exactly how large the Argentine garrison was, or whether they had the fortitude to chase a squadron of elite SAS commandos across the island in the dark, but the SAS men all went by the book as though they had a thousand angry enemy marines on their heels.

  They reached the helicopters with just ten minutes left in their exfiltration window. The major in charge held brief tactical counsel with the troop leaders and Major Singh, but everyone decided to proceed with the exfiltration rather than return to the airstrip to attack the defenders again and attempt to claim the field entirely. Rory had never been so relieved in his life as when they boarded the Sea Kings and took off for the relative safety of HMS Hermes.

  The mood on the flight back to the carrier was very different from the ingress. The men were laughing and joking as if they hadn’t just exchanged live fire with the enemy in actual battle. The wounded SAS captain was doped up on morphine, but conscious, and he gave Rory a weak thumbs-up when he saw him looking.

  ‘You’re a bloody hero, sir,’ one of the SAS sergeants sitting across the troop compartment shouted to Rory. ‘You won’t have to buy a pint for yourself again until we’re back in Portsmouth. The Special Air Service will make sure of that.’

  Rory smiled and returned the commando’s grin. He was glad to have played the role he had. It had felt good and right, exactly the sort of thing he had hoped to do when he had joined the Silver Helix. He had saved lives and used his ace power without hurting or killing anyone. But when he looked at the SAS captain who had taken a round to the back to keep him safe, his satisfaction was considerably tempered.

  Phase IV: Bomb Alley

  North Falkland Sound, May 21st, 1982

  During the days after the Pebble Beach raid, Rory was treated like a celebrity in the fleet, and for a little while he came close to believing that he deserved at least some of the applause.

  The Pebble Beach mission had been a resounding s
uccess. Rory had destroyed all six light attack aircraft and four reconnaissance planes. The shelling from HMS Glamorgan had taken out the ammo and fuel dumps. There were still Argentine troops on the ground at the airfield, but those were of little concern to Admiral Woodward and his staff, now that the Argentinian air threat from that part of the islands was completely neutralized. And thanks to Rory – Archimedes, as everyone now called him without hesitation – the operation had gone down with no British casualties except the wounded SAS captain, who had been flown out to the hospital ship to be airlifted back to the UK.

  ‘The Black Buck raids tore up the runway at Stanley, and our lads are flying combat air patrol around the clock between us and there,’ the admiral told the assembled staff officers at the invasion briefing. ‘Thanks to Archimedes, the enemy will have no use of landing strips on the islands any more. Whatever airpower they bring to bear will have to come from the mainland, and they will be at the very limits of their operational range. Therefore, we are accelerating the invasion schedule to beat the winter weather. Operation Sutton begins tomorrow at 2300 hours. We will land 3 Commando Brigade as planned at San Carlos and work our way south from there once we have established a beachhead.’

  He turned his attention to Rory, who was starting to get used to being the centre of attention. ‘Archimedes is going to land with the Royal Marines commandos on Fanning Head at San Carlos and take a position on the high ground overlooking Falkland Sound and the inlet of Port San Carlos,’ he said and indicated the places on the projected wall map. ‘They expect us to land at Stanley, on the other side of the island. It will take them until daybreak to realize that we’re coming from the opposite side. But once they do, they’ll send the rest of their planes from the mainland bases to bomb the landing craft. They will throw everything they have left at that beachhead. Your job is to make sure they don’t succeed. Our ships will have little space to manoeuvre in that narrow sound. You have demonstrated that you can disable those aircraft faster and more reliably than the Seacat missiles from the surface ships. Drop their planes out of the sky before they can release their bombs.’

  This was on a different scale from Pebble Beach. That raid had been a squadron of SAS, only forty-five men and two helicopters. This was a full-scale amphibious landing, five thousand men plus equipment, ferried onto the landing beaches by dozens of ships. It would be a target-rich environment for the Argentines. But the admiral’s esteem of Rory had risen immensely since Pebble Beach, and the rest of the officer corps on Hermes had treated him with far more respect and deference than before. Nobody had addressed him merely as ‘Sub-Lieutenant’ since that night, and Rory didn’t want to give them a reason to doubt his abilities. Besides, the frigates and destroyers supporting the landing craft would have their own air defence missiles and guns, and the marines would bring shoulder-fired ones to shore when they landed, so he took comfort in the knowledge that he was far from being the only anti-air asset for the landing.

  ‘We’ll keep the lads safe,’ Rory replied. ‘Whatever it takes.’

  ‘You are an asset now. I will send you out with D Squadron again. They’ll be tasked with clearing your observation post and keeping you safe.’

  ‘What about Major Singh, sir?’

  ‘Major Singh will be needed to augment and assist 2 Para when they land at San Carlos. Have no fear, the SAS lads will take good care of you. Just make sure you make it worth the investment. We are scrapping one of the recon missions at Darwin to free up D Squadron for your use.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’ The thought of going into battle this time without the reassuring presence of the Lion nearby made Rory anxious. But Silver Helix or not, he was still a junior officer, and when the admiral told you to jump, it was best to be in the air before asking for an altitude parameter.

  ‘This is it. If we do this right, we’ll have the Union Jack flying over Stanley again within a week or two. I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but I’d rather prefer to be on the way home once the bad weather sets in down here. See to your units and prepare for executing Operation Sutton in twenty-eight hours. Dismissed.’

  D Squadron, 22 SAS Regiment, seemed to have adopted Rory as their personal ace and good-luck charm. They kitted him out in the same gear they were wearing, which was considerably better than what the Paras or even the Royal Marines were issued with. The submachine gun he received was integrally suppressed, they fitted him for splinter protection armour, and – as promised – he got his own set of night vision goggles. When they boarded their helicopters for the main assault after nightfall the next day, Rory felt a little better knowing that he was protected by the best the British Armed Forces had to offer, but the memory of the brief but violent engagement at Pebble Beach kept the fear simmering in the back of his brain. The raid had been a prelude. This was full-out war, everything they could put on the board against everything the enemy had. Rory spent the last few hours before the start of the operation writing the letters he had been holding off on since they left Portsmouth. Before, he thought they’d bring bad luck and maybe cause the event for which they were contingencies. After Pebble Island, he had changed his mind. One letter to his parents, one each to his siblings, all crafted as well as he could to soften the blow of his death, should it happen, and give them something to remember him by. It was much harder than he had expected, harder even than gearing up for the battle itself, and when he had finished, he felt emotionally drained.

  They took off from the darkened deck of Hermes an hour after local sunset. Before Rory stepped through the door of the Sea King, he looked out over the ocean to starboard, which was full of ships, all running with dimmed position lights. So many ships, so many lives at stake.

  The weather was better on this flight. The Sea King didn’t get buffeted as it had in the raid a week earlier, and Rory kept most of his dinner in this time. He knew most of the men of D Squadron by name and sight now, but he still missed seeing Major Singh. This would be the first time out on his own as a Silver Helix operative, and naturally it would be in support of the biggest amphibious invasion the Royal Navy and Marines had staged in almost forty years.

  Their target zone was a hilltop called Fanning Head. It overlooked the San Carlos estuary, where the amphibious landing ships would soon be making their way to shore, slow and vulnerable and loaded with hundreds of Royal Marines and Army paratroopers. As they approached the hilltop, their escorts, smaller and more nimble Gazelle helicopters, rushed ahead to scout the landing zone. Rory sat near the front of the Sea King’s cargo bay, close to the cockpit, so he could see outside through the front canopy. Out of the darkness, tracer rounds reached up, streams of glowing fireflies, and connected with one of the Gazelles just as it crested the hill. The Gazelle banked hard to the left and dropped out of sight.

  ‘Incoming fire!’ the pilot shouted. ‘Going evasive. Hang on to something, lads.’

  The second Gazelle, somewhere out of sight on the port side of their Sea King, opened fire with its rocket pods. The unguided rockets streaked towards the hilltop, but Rory didn’t see the results of the impacts because their pilot had initiated a sharp banking turn to starboard. The helicopter raced down the slope of the hill, away from the incoming fire.

  ‘We’ll have to abort!’ the pilot shouted. ‘There’s Argie infantry on the hilltop.’

  ‘You put this son of a bitch down right now!’ the SAS major in charge shouted back from his jump seat just behind the cockpit bulkhead. ‘We’ll take care of the infantry.’

  ‘Ten seconds,’ the pilot replied without argument.

  ‘Lock and load!’ the major shouted. All over the cargo hold, SAS soldiers cycled the bolts on their submachine guns.

  ‘You stay between me and Corporal Park,’ the burly sergeant sitting next to Rory shouted. ‘Do what I say when I say it.’

  The helicopter touched down hard. The corporal sitting next to the nearest sliding door was out of the craft even before all the wheels had fully settled, and the rest of the section p
iled out of the Sea King after him. Outside, there was immediate small-arms fire.

  ‘Come along now, right behind me.’ The burly sergeant pulled Rory along, and they left the cargo hold. As soon as they were outside, the sergeant pushed Rory into the prone position.

  ‘Don’t get up unless someone tells you to,’ the sergeant said as he took up a firing position close to Rory. ‘And you bloody well better hope they tell you in English and not Spanish.’

  The fire-fight was brief. There was only a small Argentinian team on this hilltop, and they only put up token resistance in the face of opposition from a full SAS squadron. Some fell, most of the rest ran, and a few surrendered when they saw they were outnumbered and outgunned. The SAS men secured the hilltop and stripped the Argentinian soldiers of weapons. These were the first enemy troops Rory had seen face-to-face. They looked tired and haggard in the light from the SAS field torches.

  ‘Left us some gear,’ one of the SAS troopers said. The Argentines had set up an observation post – three tents, a few trenches, a mortar pit, recoilless rifle positions, and a number of radios connected to a twenty-foot antenna that was whipping in the stiff breeze.

  ‘Signal the naval gunfire support that we have control of Fanning Head,’ the major ordered. Everything the SAS did was efficient and businesslike, right down to collecting and stacking the discarded rifles from the surrendering Argentinians.

  ‘Two and a half hours until daylight,’ the major continued. ‘Time for you to set up your stuff, Archimedes. I guarantee you that these skies will be thick with aircraft as soon as the Argies work out where the landings are.’

  They had brought three different sets of observation binoculars and tripods in the Sea King. The SAS unloaded the gear and helped Rory set everything up. This was equipment usually built for artillery observation, but today Rory had a different use for it. He lined one of the high-powered binocular tripods up so he could see down a large part of the length of Falkland Sound, the most likely approach route for enemy aircraft. The other two went to face to the west and northwest respectively. This way, Rory had two hundred degrees of magnified vision from this spot. The SAS manned a security perimeter, and three of them set up their own radio sets. They were ready for action just as the sky in the east started getting light. Overnight, dozens of amphibious ships had moved to the shoreline of the inlet below them, and almost as many frigates and destroyers were out in the Sound, screening the vulnerable troop carriers. The retaking of the Falklands had begun in earnest.

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