Every time I go to Amazon it bowls up Keith McArdle's books, suggesting very strongly that I would like them. That I should buy them. That I should tell everyone about them.
McArdle's series, which starts with The Reckoning (The Day Australia Fell), continues with Aftermath, and I have the first chapter to share with you.
It seems the sort of yarn that would appeal to Mr Havock.
“Reports suggest 40 Commando supported by the Royal Navy have driven Indonesian invaders away from the coast in Queensland. The war in Australia is all but won.” – Yorkshire Post (UK)
The half-rotten corpse that had once been an Indonesian soldier lay prone, riddled with maggots. SGT Craig Linacre knelt slowly beside the stinking mess, rifle cradled across his chest. The large exit wound at the back of its skull showed the fatal wound. Craig could see what was left of the decomposing brain beyond. But what interested him more was the soldier’s webbing. The pouches appeared full and might hold valuable information. Wary of booby-traps, Craig tied a rope to its belt buckle and moved back, feeding the rope out as he went.
Taking cover behind a nearby boulder, the special-forces soldier looked across at Matty in the near distance and nodded. CPL Matty Nasution gave thumbs up, before returning his attention down the barrel of his weapon, giving cover. Taking a breath, Craig pulled hard on the rope. He felt the weight at the other end shift and knew the corpse had rolled over. Good, no booby-traps so far. Bringing the rifle into his shoulder, Craig was stepping out from behind the boulder when the corpse exploded. He was thrown to the ground, winded. In a few seconds he climbed back to his feet, dazed, yet instinctively scuttling behind the boulder. The charge had obviously been rigged with some kind of delayed detonator.
Shaking the fogginess from his brain, Craig peered around the boulder and saw a pair of half rotten legs – from the knees down – lying beside a crater. Nothing else remained of the corpse. Gaining Matty’s attention, he signalled they were moving out. The explosion would have been heard from kilometres around, and if there were any Indonesian soldiers still in the area, they would be moving towards the explosion.
As the pair of SAS soldiers slowly made their way through the brown, dry, waist-high grass, several dull thumps could be heard in the distance. The men paused, taking a knee to listen.
Soft wind teased the surface of the grass for acres in every direction. Then a high-pitched shriek, growing in volume, shattered the peaceful deathly quiet.
“Cover!” roared Craig, diving to the ground as artillery rounds exploded nearby.
An Indonesian artillery battery had zeroed its guns in on the corpse, waiting for the booby trap to be triggered. If they fired fast enough, they‘d be able to take out an entire platoon. Maybe more.
Pushing himself into a crouch, Craig was deafened by a ringing screech in his ears. He looked across at Matty, who was shouting something. No sound reached Craig.
“Go!” Matty’s lips formed the word. “Go!”
As the ringing in his ears began to dissipate, he heard more thumps in the distance.
“Go!” he heard Matty screaming loud and clear. “Go!”
Sprinting through the grass, the pair heard a familiar high-pitched shriek as artillery rounds streaked down onto their position. The rounds slammed into the ground exploding between the two men with devastating effect.
* * * * *
Pain wracked Craig’s body. It felt like he’d been in a cage fight. Groaning, he pushed himself off the ground, spitting dirt from his mouth as he moved into a crouch. Patting down his arms and legs, he checked for injury, but nothing seemed broken or bleeding. Spotting his M-4 nearby, he reached for it, checked it over before cradling it across his chest.
Matty lay prone nearby, motionless. With a grunt, Craig moved to him, squatted beside him and checked for a carotid pulse. With relief he felt a strong pulse and patted Matty’s cheek.
“Hey mate,” Craig muttered. Patting the skin of Matty’s face Craig spoke again. “Oi! Matty, time to move mate.”
There was no response.
“For fuck sake,” Craig said, knowing time was of the essence. He was strong enough to drag Matty perhaps five hundred metres before being forced to rest and find concealment. That distance was not enough to clear the current area which would more than likely be crawling with Indonesian soldiers within the next hour.
Craig slapped Matty’s face hard. “Oi, dickhead!”
This time there was a groan and slight movement in one leg.
Unceremoniously rolling Matty over, Craig slapped him again. “Wakey wakey,” Craig said, casting a glance over Matty’s body checking for obvious injury or haemorrhage.
More dull thumps reverberated in the distance.
“You’re fuck’n joking!” snarled Craig.
Picking up Matty’s weapon, he tucked the rifle into the unconscious man’s chest webbing. Grabbing Matty under the arms, he dragged him as far as possible before the distant shriek indicated artillery rounds were inbound. Dumping Matty, Craig dived to ground, buried his face into the dirt and hoped for the best. The barrage fell slightly short of their position, exploding on and around where the Indonesian corpse had been.
When the last shell exploded, Craig slowly climbed to his feet, body still aching. Keeping as low a profile as possible, he dragged Matty away from the area. Three more artillery barrages hit, some close, others not so much, showing the enemy gunners were making small elevation changes to ensure maximum coverage. By the time night began to fall, Craig, now exhausted, had dragged Matty close to a kilometre out of the area and had found a small depression in the ground where he had chosen to lay low for the night.
Setting up a Claymore anti-personnel mine facing towards the most likely enemy approach, he kept the clacker, the device used to detonate the explosive, tied to his right hand. Inadvertent detonation was near impossible, as the clacker had a safety catch of sorts. The safety catch was easy enough to disengage with a single hand, meaning the mine could be fired within two seconds. Filled with seven hundred steel ball bearings embedded in composition explosive, the weapon was designed to injure and maim rather than kill. One wounded man required two others to carry him, effectively taking three soldiers out of the fight.
Should enemy stumble upon their position, seven hundred ball bearings would whistle through their ranks at knee height, before Craig opened fire. If the Indonesians did find his position, more than likely, Craig would be overrun and killed along with the unconscious Matty. But at least it would be a bittersweet victory for the Indonesians.
Eventually the artillery fire stopped. Before long, the sun slid below the horizon and dusk arrived, the light beginning to fade. Craig checked Matty every five minutes. He felt for a pulse, listened for breath sounds and while light remained, continued checking for any obvious sign of blood seeping through his clothes. He placed Matty in a lateral position so that if he vomited, at least it wouldn’t compromise his airway.
He slung Matty’s weapon across his back and shoved the unconscious man’s spare ammunition into his own half full pouches, so that if a fire fight started, at least he’d have plenty of ammunition. Craig was conscious of the fact that he and Matty had been inserted on the understanding that they were to patrol out of the area themselves. No friendlies were looking for them. The Australian Blackhawks were no longer operational. They had been decimated within the opening weeks of the invasion. The Royal Marine choppers that had inserted the SASR patrol would be busy on other taskings, infilling, exfilling, resupplying or providing air support for Royal Marine Commandos or Special Boat Service (SBS) soldiers on the ground.
Craig found the first few hours easy to remain alert. The majority of the time, he stared through the night vision goggles, ever watchful for enemy movement. Every fifteen minutes he pushed the goggles up, away from his eyes, allowing a minute or two for his vision to rest, before lowering them back into place. Apart from the chirping crickets, the night was silent. A far cry from what Craig expected. No Indonesian soldiers had arrived to investigate.
Slowly crawling to the opposite side of the small depression, Craig watched. Every hour he changed position, moving between the four compass points around the circular depression in the ground. It was past midnight when he began rubber necking, exhaustion attempting to claim him. He had not experienced a decent night’s sleep in more than three weeks. Craig lost the fight, cheek resting on his weapon, breathing softly as sleep embraced him. He did not hear the vehicles approach. Did not see the headlights in the near distance. It was the slamming of the car doors that broke Craig’s slumber. He was immediately alert, adrenalin responsible for his fast response. He pushed the night vision goggles up and away from his eyes, instead using the night vision capability of his weapon mounted scope. He watched the Indonesian soldiers exiting a number of four wheel drives to swarm the area where the booby trapped corpse had been lying earlier in the day. No problem, he was close to one kilometre away, and at night it would be near impossible for them to track him.
His heart sank a second later when he heard dogs. A series of aggressive barks broke the still night. German Shepherd, he thought. A goddamn military dog.
“Fuck,” he muttered to himself.
He hoped his track had gone cold by now and the dog was incapable of finding his scent, but anything was possible. Flicking the night vision goggles away from his eyes, Craig stared down the infrared scope of his weapon and settled the target reticule over the dog’s body.
For close to ten minutes, he watched the animal seeking his scent without success. Happy that the dog was no longer a threat, Craig slowly swept the weapon’s infrared scope across the gathering of Indonesian soldiers. They were all armed with military grade automatic weapons; most with their native SS1, which was the standard assault rifle of the Indonesian Army. Some, however, held the Steyr, used by the Australian Army. No doubt taken from dead Australian soldiers. A wave of anger warmed Craig. He counted the vehicles, seven in total, all four wheel drives, one of them a Land Rover. Thirty enemy soldiers in total, and one clueless dog. Craig smiled, allowing the target reticule to settle over the animal once more. It was not particularly well-trained. Over such a short distance, and regardless of the hours which had passed, any tracking dog worth its salt would have found his scent, faint as it may have been, and worked towards him .
The scent of a human was given by dead skin cells drifting from the body, and a good scent trail in perfect conditions with little wind, rain or snow, could remain in place for more than a week. If tracked by dogs, the most secure place was on high ground, particularly on the peak of a mountain, where the wind was more likely to change directions easily, move in obscure patterns and scatter a person’s scent in random, un-trackable arrangements.
Craig had no such luxury. If the animal were testament to any true formal training, it would have made a bee-line straight to him. Thankfully, although it had obviously been given some informal instruction, the German Shepherd still had a long way to go before it would join the ranks of the true tracking dogs.
Sweeping the infrared scope across the Indonesians once more, Craig settled the target reticule over the chest of a man wearing a bandana and holding an SS1 across his chest, with a pistol holstered on his hip. He was the only man with a pistol, and was also the only soldier talking and gesticulating angrily at the others gathered around him in a half moon. The leader; the leader of any group of soldiers, whether it be a corporal or a general, was always discouraged from advertising their status, particularly out-bush, as they would always become the first target of a sniper team or a deliberate ambush.
There was a loud groan beside Craig and Matty rolled over.
“Fuck me dead,” Matty said, holding his head.
Craig shot a glance at the soldier, “Welcome back, now shut the fuck up,” he hissed.
Matty crawled up beside Craig. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked, still nursing his head.
Craig did not answer, instead returning his attention to the night vision scope attached to the top of his weapon. Staring down the scope he saw that the Indonesians, to a man, were all staring in his direction. The dog was barking and carrying on like it had rabies. Then a torch was turned on, and several enemy soldiers began walking towards them.
“Shit,” whispered Craig. “It’s on, mate.”
It was at that point he realised Matty had slid down onto his back, holding his head and groaning.
“You right, mate?” Craig whispered, tapping Matty’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” he managed between groans. “Gotta killer headache.”
Returning his attention to the weapon’s night vision scope, Craig saw that the enemy had halted whilst the dog handler took a knee, wrestled with the barking animal for a moment and then released it from the leash.
The German Shepherd now had no need of scent trails. The dog was intelligent enough to marry up the sound of Matty’s voice with the scent trail it was unable to find so recently. It zeroed in on the Australians’ position, sprinting towards them.
Ignoring Matty as he rolled around groaning and muttering meaningless phrases, Craig settled the weapon’s target reticule upon the dog’s chest. The sooner he killed the animal, the greater the area the Indonesians would have to search in order to find the Australians. He knew from previous reconnaissance that none of the enemy were using night vision goggles, and if they had them, were probably now out of usable batteries.
Lying silent, continuing to ignore Matty, Craig waited and watched as the German Shepherd sprinted towards them. He willed the animal to veer away, to become confused and return to its master. He tried to avoid killing dogs where possible. But the animal made a bee-line straight towards him. Tongue lolling from the side of its mouth, the animal began barking in a staccato of noise, which was Craig’s cue to fire the shot. There was no squeal or howl of pain. The dog simply dropped to the ground like a used doll. The dog’s barking had hidden Craig’s silenced weapon, and with the animal now dead, the Indonesians still had no idea exactly where their enemy lay.
Craig had no idea what the Indonesians were shouting, and thought better of asking Matty, who was now lying prone, still holding his head and snoring softly. Something was wrong, Craig knew instinctively. He had worked with Matty through operations in Kosovo, East Timor, The Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Never had he seen him act like this.
The Indonesians retreated to the vehicle as more orders were shouted. A mortar tube and base plate were unloaded from the rear tray of the vehicle and setup within a matter of minutes. Then a mortar round was fired with a dull thunk, heading almost vertical. A loud pop was followed by daylight in a square kilometre area as the illumination round activated. Craig pushed his head closer to the ground and clenched his right eye firmly closed. If the night vision from his master eye was destroyed, he would be unable to use the night vision scope attached to his weapon.
“Happy new year!” roared Matty, now lying on his back, arms splayed out beside him. “What a light show! Give me a beer ya jack prick!”
Craig dived on top of him and pushed his hand over Matty’s mouth.
“Shut the fuck up!” snarled Craig. “You wanna get us bloody killed?”
Matty muttered something, but the noise was rendered into a slurred mash of sound beneath the palm of Craig’s hand.
Within minutes, Matty had rolled onto his side and deteriorated back into sleep, snoring softly. Craig knew something was very wrong. Ensuring the Indonesians were still confused as to their exact location, Craig took the time to send a text burst transmission via the PRC-112, a radio slightly larger than the size of a man’s hand, requesting an immediate medical evac and air support. Almost three minutes passed before a secure text appeared on the radio’s LCD display:
“Exfil your loc 5 mikes.”
Five minutes until exfiltration. Craig silently berated himself for not requesting exfil hours before. However, in his defence, he had been told the British choppers were flying to the limit in support of Royal Marines and SBS troops on the ground in the area. Any requests, he had been instructed, would either be refused flatly or could take up to two hours to fulfil.
Five minutes to exfil. It did not sound long, but in current circumstances it would feel like an eternity. Craig still clamped his master eye shut against the bright illumination round fired by the mortar. He remained silent and still, praying that Matty continued to sleep. Now with the dog neutralised, apart from the faint splutter of the flare as it drifted towards earth, there was silence. One sound, one word uttered too loud would alert the Indonesians to their whereabouts.
He could hear them muttering amongst themselves. Peering through the blades of grass into which he had buried his face, Craig saw the Indonesians looking in all directions, still oblivious to his whereabouts. The dog handler was distraught, he noticed, feeling sorry for the soldier. Craig loved dogs, and hated killing them. Tonight had been the second time in his career he was forced to kill a dog in order to protect his patrol. The illumination round slowly faded out, the dark night once again closing in around them.
Matty was now lying supine, breathing loudly. Craig moved to him.
“Wake up, mate.” He patted the man’s face. “Matty, wake the fuck up!”
“You got that beer bro?” asked Matty, his speech slurred.
“No, mate, no beer,” whispered Craig. “We’re in the shit, we’ve been compromised. Air support and exfil are inbound. They’re a few minutes out. How you feeling?”
“Exfil?” Matty roared with laughter.” What the fuck? What, are we playing Call of Duty? Wanker!” He laughed again. “Bring me a bloody beer!” he shouted.
The Indonesians were hissing amongst themselves and looking in Craig’s direction. He left Matty giggling and muttering to himself on the far side of the depression. Lying prone and staring down the night vision scope attached to his weapon, Craig watched the enemy soldiers push out into extended line and advance toward his position. In the background, he saw the mortar team, consisting of two soldiers, preparing another round, more than likely a second illumination round. Now they knew the general direction in which the Australians were hidden, a second illumination round would kill all hope for Craig and Matty. They would be found and overrun in less than a minute.
Two dull thumps from Craig’s silenced weapon and the two man mortar team were no more. The Indonesians, apart from three, went to ground and returned fire. Bullets hissed and cracked less than a metre above Craig’s head. Ignoring the return fire, he settled the target reticule over the chest of the first of the three men still standing, firing un-aimed shots from the hip. Squeezing the trigger, Craig watched the man fall from sight. With the number of organs and vital arteries in the chest and upper abdomen, one bullet in or around the chest area could do so much damage. The second man dropped as fast as the first. The third soldier dived to the ground before Craig took a sight picture, although he released several shots into the long grass where he thought the soldier had landed.
Rounds slashed through thigh-length grass metres from Craig, or snapped above their position. He remained prone, holding his fire, allowing the enemy to deplete their ammunition. One Indonesian stood and ran forward. Reacting in less than a second, Craig took a sight picture and fired, the bullet passing through the man’s intestines and exited his back in a bloody swath. He fell to the ground howling in agony.
Feeling the PRC-112 buzz in his trouser pocket, Craig pulled the device out and read the infrared screen.
“Spectre 3 inbound, 1 mike out, mark friendlies.”
The AC-130, or affectionately known as the Spectre gunship, was a heavily modified C-130 Hercules, a heavy-lift aircraft operated by the United States Air Force. Along the left side of the aircraft were two 20mm cannons, one 40mm cannon and one 105mm Howitzer artillery gun. The pilot wanted Craig’s position marked so that his crew would not inadvertently fire upon him.
Opening a pouch and keeping his head down as enemy fire continued to rip through the air metres above him, Craig pulled out an infrared strobe, activated it and tied it to the back of his webbing. Thus, lying prone, the strobe would be facing skyward, flashing an infrared pulse twice per second.
A moment later, the infrared LCD of the PRC-112 displayed the pilot’s response, which consisted of two words. Two words which brought relief to any patrol in the middle of nowhere, outnumbered and in the shit:
Although the enemy fire was loud, Craig still heard the soft rumble of the Spectre gunship high above him. The pilot would begin a left pylon turn, bringing all the aircraft’s guns to bear upon the Indonesian position.
Trace seemed to streak out of thin air 5,000ft above him, followed closely by the roar of the 40mm cannon, sounding like the deep howl of some enraged dinosaur. The rounds hammered into the Indonesians. Craig felt the thump of massive bullets smashing into the ground.
“What a bloody light show!” Matty roared with laughter, splayed out on his back again, watching another long stream of trace rounds pouring from the AC-130 towards the enemy position below.
The Indonesian fire had mostly stopped, although some must still have been alive as the Spectre gunship continued its destruction. A bright flash from the sky destroyed Craig’s night vision. The boom of the 105mm gun followed a second later but was quickly overshadowed by the ever increasing screech as the artillery round descended towards earth, on target for the enemy position. Exploding with deadly efficiency, chunks of earth rained down around the Australians.
Apart from the distant hum of the AC-130 high above them, the area was silent. Craig ensured the infrared strobe was still securely fastened to his back before crawling forward. Staring through his weapon’s night vision scope, all he saw was the empty enemy vehicles parked several hundred metres away. Knowing that their engines would now be cool, he was not sure the gun crew of the AC-130 would be able to see the four wheel drives.
Attached to the barrel of Craig’s weapon was a small rectangular infrared laser pointer. The device was used for indicating an enemy position to close air support assets that may have overlooked a particular area.
Lying still, he lased the middle vehicle and waited. Close to ten seconds later, the mighty 40mm gun spoke again, explosive rounds hammering through the vehicle and turning it into a piece of scrap metal. Flicking the laser off, Craig allowed his night vision to recover. Minutes later, he stared down the scope. Two vehicles were destroyed completely; the remaining pair seemed relatively unscathed. Lasing the furthest vehicle, Craig waited half as long before the 40mm opened up again, rounds slamming through the remaining vehicles with violent ferocity, rendering them useless.
Matty was breathing noisily, although not quite snoring. It sounded more like his tongue had relaxed back in his throat. Craig moved to him and rolled him onto his side, which seemed to help. Something was wrong and the more time passed, the greater confidence he felt calling for a medivac was the correct decision. Craig crawled back to the rim of the depression in the ground and stared down the night vision scope towards the former enemy position. Nothing moved. The vehicles were decimated; one of them was alight, the hiss and pop of melting paint, upholstery and rubber echoed gently out over the silent plain.
His concentration was so deep that Craig barely heard the helicopter approach until it was slowing and descending less than twenty metres from his position. Even before the chopper touched the ground, a medic and two soldiers were running towards him carrying a stretcher between them. Noise, time and situation precluded any thorough questioning as to the events which had occurred. Matty was simply lifted onto the stretcher, the medic tapped Craig’s shoulder and then they were running back towards the helicopter.
“Fuck me!” shouted Craig as he climbed aboard, the scream of the chopper’s engine deafening him.
A headset was pushed into his hand. Taking off his combat helmet, he promptly placed the headset over his ears, inhaling a breath of relief as the noise was dampened. With the helicopter on strict blackout, Craig used his weapon’s night vision scope to look for, find and ensure that Matty too was wearing a headset. He was. Unconscious or not, the last thing he needed was permanent hearing damage. The stretcher was strapped to the floor of the helicopter with Matty buckled to the stretcher.
Noticing a cord attached to the headset, Craig followed it with his fingers until he found a communication plug. All he needed to find was the comms jack into which to plug it. A firm hand grasped his shoulder, probably one of the loadmasters, who had night vision goggles attached to their helmets. The load master grabbed the jack out of Craig’s hand and following a half second burst of high pitched sound, he was listening to the crew’s conversation.
“—I hear you, just not sure,” said the American voice. “That dude got comms yet?”
“Roger that,” said another voice. “Hey pal,” said the same voice. A hand tapped Craig’s shoulder. “Pal, you gonna need to fold the boom mic down in front of your mouth. “
Craig found the mic and pulled it down to his lips. Following the comms cord with one hand, he found the small box. Pressing the transmit button, Craig said, “Thanks for the exfil.”
“You’re welcome, guy,” the broad American voice said, which was probably the aircraft captain. “I’m in contact with the Spectre. They’ve spotted an artillery battery off to the west. That one of yours?”
“No, mate, not ours,” replied Craig. “They’re the fuckers responsible for this whole mess!”
“Roger,” said the pilot.
Feeling the seat straps dig into his shoulders and belly, the chopper banked hard away from the exfiltration area. In the far distance, Craig saw the faint, flickering outline of the AC-130 Spectre gunship as every gun on board opened fire upon the Indonesian artillery battery below. The Indonesians had no chance of survival. They had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He almost felt sorry for them. Almost.
“How’s Matty doin’?” he asked.
“Is that his name, hun?” it was a woman’s voice.
“Matty’s not in a good way,” she sounded distracted or busy and probably was, he realised.
“Okay,” Craig replied, trying to sound calm. “Will he be alright?”
There was no reply. Craig felt anger and fear welling in his chest, although he remained silent. The chopper descended violently and turned hard to the left, before levelling out. Craig brought his weapon to bear and looked through the night vision scope to see treetops whipping by close beneath them.
Christ, don’t hit a power line, he thought.
“Will he be alright or not?” Craig asked.
“Look hun, I don’t know. He’s got a dilated right pupil and weak grips on his left hand. He has diminished consciousness. I’m suspecting he’s haemorrhaging on the right side of his brain. He’ll need a CT scan and possibly burr holes drilled into his skull. I won’t lie to you. He can survive this, but it’s gonna be a close call.”
Craig didn’t say anything. He knew it had the potential of being serious, but he now realised the situation was critical. He might lose a brother tonight. He felt numb, unaware of the seat belts digging into his body as the chopper turned. He was oblivious to the door gunners calling out fast approaching structures, trees or power lines over the intercom and was clueless as those same obstacles whipped by only metres beneath them. Everything seemed to be a blur.
The dull impact as the chopper touched down upon the deck of USS Ronald Reagan brought Craig out of his reverie. To the east, the sky glowed a faint gunmetal grey, silhouetting the mighty aircraft carrier. Before the pilot began the shutdown procedure, the medics had carried Matty’s stretcher clear of the aircraft and were running. Unstrapping, Craig unplugged his headset, pushed himself clear of the chopper and sprinted after them. One of the door gunners tried to stop him, but he broke free of the grip.