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The enemy had been through here last night. They had snuck past the perimeter sentries by using the sewers to conceal their movements. Penetrating the outer defenses, they had planted a bomb in the armory. Someone should have thought of guarding the sewers; someone should have place guards on the armory; someone had screwed up big time.
The area was secure in theory, but Tanik wasn't counting on the enemy not having left any snipers or saboteurs. Now it was his job to go into the sewers and find out where, and what, they led to.
Tanik looked back at his recon team through calm, controlled, sad gray eyes. His eyes reflected what he wanted his men to think he felt. He wanted them to think that he was calm and in control of every situation, no matter how desperate. That was his job, to give orders and remain confident to reassure his men; they did the real work. The eyes also held a trace of sadness. He couldn't stop it, much as he tried, it slipped in, insinuating itself in his mind and reflected in his mind. Men serving under him had already died or lost limbs in this conflict, and he knew that there were more casualties to come.
Tanik knew in this in his mind, but his heart couldn't accept his brain's logic that this was a war and men would be killed, maimed, and crippled for life fighting in it, on both sides. He blamed himself for every death and injury; knowing in his mind that he couldn't have prevented it, but his heart haunting him with the possibility that the young man lying dead in front of him might still be alive if he had been more alert, if he had noticed the sniper, if he yelled out the warning a second earlier, if he had done something, anything, to prevent the deaths of these boys he had sworn to himself that he would protect. He still thought of them as boys, though most were his age or older.
Responsibility for the safety of his boys weighed down on him, and failures to keep them alive put even more pressure on his thin shoulders. It showed on his face. Tanik's sea gray eyes were dull and clouded with fatigue, and deep blue-black bags under them, making it seem like he had been punched. Too much time spent inspecting the base's perimeter and the obsessive checking and rechecking of equipment had left little time for sleep. The pressure of responsibility seemed to have a physical property as well, weighing him down, and giving his exhausted body a drooping wasted appearance.
His recon team reached the manhole cover and carefully moved it aside. Tanik shined his flashlight down through the hole, while the rest of his team waited anxiously. The pale white beam of his flashlight passed over the dank corroding concrete walls, down to the wet floor, and over the slimy green-tinged stream of what was probably mostly water in the center of the sewer. "Stratin, McDowd, you're first". The two men shouldered their weapons and climbed down the slippery ladder to the sewers. For a few seconds their flashlight beams scanned the area and then Stratin whispered, "Clear". Tanik climbed down and looked around. The walls were covered in dark, sickly green algae, and the floor was slick with water, which reflected his light, creating little ripples shining white as the flashlight passed over them.
Behind him Trooper Porter slipped on something and fell with a wet thud to the floor. "Shit," Porter whispered, conscious even in embarrassment of the dangers of shouting. "Probably was shit," said Tanik extending a hand and helping the fallen trooper to his feet. Porter sniffed the air a few times and gagged, "Definitely shit".
Tanik removed his pack, careful to set it down on his boots instead of the feces covered floor, and took out a roll of duct tape. "Here," he said handing it to Porter, "Use it to attach your flashlight to your gun, you'll want both hands free if this gets ugly". Porter nodded and a loud tearing sound echoed through the narrow tunnel as he wrapped the duct tape in several loops around the flashlight and the muzzle of his gun. Tanik winced every time one of his men tore the tape from the roll, knowing that the noise would be heard by anybody with a hundred meters.
"All right, let's move out," said Tanik as the last of his team finished strapping his flashlight to his gun. The team split into two teams of five, one on each side of the stream of sewage floating lazily between the walkways. Stratin and McDowd took point for their respective lines; Tanik followed fifteen feet behind Stratin, giving him a sizable safety zone if Stratin tripped some surprise the enemy had left behind.
The squad moved forward slowly and carefully, wary of their own echoing footsteps and listening intently for the footfalls of their enemy. Water dripped down from the ceiling and landed in the stream with a hollow ploink. The smell of sewage was overwhelming; Tanik had taken to breathing through his mouth in order to avoid smelling it. The tunnel reeked of rotting fish, human and animal waste, and a hundred other incredible and awful smells, which combined to create a new ubersmell, specially designed to cause the optimum amount of nausea in anyone who so much as whiffed it.
They had gone at least a quarter of a mile when Stratin stopped and held up a hand to signal the column to halt. Stratin dropped into a crouch and edged forward. After a few moments he had moved out of the small patch of light provided by the team's flashlights. Tanik waited five minutes in an agonized blindness to what was happening. The not knowing was what infuriated him. If he didn't know what was happening than how could he protect his men? What if Stratin did something stupid and got himself killed? There was nothing he could do and it was driving him insane. Suddenly Stratin reentered the pool of pale white flashlight beams. Tanik almost shouted at Stratin for taking so long, but held his frustration inside as he rushed over to the soldier and demanded a report. "I heard some faint voices ahead sir so I went to investigate. There's a huge room where about a dozen of these sewer tunnels intersect about 300 meters away. It looks like they're using it as a command post sir. They've got a bunch of desks, cabinets, and computers and such set up there, and people kept running in and out with pieces of paper". "Probably trying to escape from our shelling and air strikes," guessed Tanik, "How many men guarding it". "There were probably about twenty or so armed men in the room, and another twenty operating the computers."
Tanik reviewed the information in his head. If they attacked they would have the element of surprise. His ten men could probably take out most of the armed guards in the first few seconds if they did it right, and Tanik knew they would. The problem was that he had no idea if the other tunnels held more enemies who would rush in when the shooting started and crush his squad with overwhelming numbers. If the attack worked though his team would have beheaded this part of the city. With their command post down, units in the field would flounder without orders, providing a precious period of time in which an attack could overwhelm the disorganized enemy and take this part of the city.
"Tradek, can you reach command," Tanik asked of Trooper Tradek who was carrying the squad's radio on his back. "No sir, this tunnel has been playing Hell with the signal. I wouldn't be able to deliver a clear message sir". "When was the last time we passed a manhole to the surface?" "There's one about 50 meters up ahead sir," piped up Stratin. "All right, were attacking that command post. Tradek, you'll wait at that manhole with Spriker, when you hear the shooting start then get up there and send a message to command informing them that the enemy command post for this area has been destroyed." Tradek and Spriker nodded in affirmation and the recon team moved forward.
Up ahead Tanik could see light coming from a side passage of the tunnel. "Switch off your flashlights," he whispered as they closed in. When they reached the door Tanik gave final orders, "We'll toss in a few grenades first to thin them out, then Porter, Stratin and McDowd will go to the right with me and we'll catch them in a crossfire".
Three fragmentation grenades rolled into the room, their metallic tinkling barely audible over the bustling noise of the command post. Someone inside did see them though and shouted a warning, a fraction of a second later the grenades exploded and the shouts became agonized screams.
Tanik ran into the room and veered right, closely followed by Porter, Stratin, and McDowd, the rest of the squad sprayed fire indiscriminately across the room. Sporadic return fire ripped through the smoke from the grenades and carved holes in the wall behind him. Diving he reached the cover of a stack of metal cabinets, his men right behind him. Stratin and McDowd took up firing positions and poured shot after shot into the men running frantically for cover.
Tanik peeked his head over the cabinet. The center of the room was a mess of broken desks, shattered computers, scattered papers, and bloody corpses. He estimated that about thirty enemy soldiers had been taken out in the opening seconds as they were caught out in the open as the grenades exploded and the room filled up with murderous flying lead. The survivors were sheltering behind several overturned desks and cabinets on the opposite side of the room. He spied an overturned desk with several dead bodies around it that offered the perfect angle to direct fire into the enemy position. "Stratin, McDowd, stay here and provide cover fire. Porter, you're with me". Sprinting towards the cover of the desk, Tanik saw an enemy soldier pop up from behind a cabinet and take aim at him. Firing from the hip, Tanik shot a short burst at him; the first shot went wide, the second hit him in the shoulder, the third hit him in the face. The man's head practically exploded in a shower of blood under the force of the hellgun shot.
Tanik and Porter had almost reached the desk when Tanik heard a thud and a grunt from behind him. Turning, he saw Porter falling to the ground, a pool of blood expanding rapidly from underneath him. Tanik dropped his gun and grabbed Porter's collar with both hands, dragging him along as fast he could, the body leaving a streak of crimson blood. A bullet hit the ground next to Tanik and another whizzed so close to his head that he felt the rush of air. Several more shots impacted around him, and then he was behind the desk.
He reached for the emergency first aid kit taped to the side of his helmet, ripped it off and grabbed a shot of morphine. Porter had been hit in the armpit and the bullet was lodged somewhere in his chest. Tanik looked at the rapidly bleeding wound and stuck the morphine in. Suddenly Porter's eyes widened with shock; Tanik spun just in time to catch the rapidly descending metal, table leg on his left wrist. He screamed in agony as the bone cracked under the impact. Fighting through the burning pain, he drew his long bladed knife from its sheath on his calf and brought his feet up underneath him so he was now squatting. He had put it there for easy access, but had never expected to have to use it in combat. The "dead" man raised his arm for another strike and Tanik spun his leg around, catching the man behind the knee and toppling him to the ground. Tanik jumped onto the prone man and drove his knife deep into the man's chest with all of his rage driven strength, twisting the knife back and forth violently until the man stopped struggling.
Without even pausing to retrieve his knife, Tanik turned back to Porter, and the rapidly growing puddle of blood surrounding him. Tanik grabbed a fistful of bandages and pushed them all into the profusely bleeding wound. Bright red blood quickly soaked through the meager bandages offered by his first aid kit so Tanik ripped a huge piece of cloth off of his pant leg and stuffed that into the wound. More blood dribbled around through the improvised bandage, soaking Tanik's one good hand in the warm blood of his friend. Porter coughed and more deep red blood spilled out of his mouth. A moment later the blood stopped pumping out of the wound in Porter's armpit; Tanik was filled with hope before he realized that Porter's chest was no longer rising and falling. Desperately he reached his bloody hand to Porter's neck to check for a pulse, nothing.
Gradually Tanik became aware that the shooting had stopped and Stratin and McDowd were rushing over to him. "Sir, we've driven them off, but they'll be back soon. We've got to get out of here quick. Tanik nodded and stood up. Spying his knife still imbedded in his attackers chest he reached down, drew it back out, and sheathed it. He looked once more at the dead man and noticed that he wore a colonel's insignia on his shoulder.
His recon squad rushed out of the devastated command post and up out of the manhole, where they hid in a battle scarred building.
Tanik stared at his bloodied hands and wondered if it had been worth it. They had destroyed the command post, and the area would now likely fall. But had it been worth Porter's life, had it been worth the lives of the enemy soldiers that he had killed. He stared at his bloodied hands and wondered if he could have saved Porter if he'd noticed that the colonel wasn't dead, if he had been able to start applying pressure to the wound sooner. His brain told him that the wound was too deep and would have proved fatal even without the delay; but his heart still haunted him with the possibility. Tanik stared at his bloody hands and wondered if it had been worth the lives lost. Half an hour later, when the tanks rolled in, easily overrunning the disorganized enemy, he still didn't have an answer.