He brushed back his sweat soaked blond hair. Even though it was short now it was hard to get out of the habit of pushing it back from his eyes. He pulled the metal helmet back on. Missiles had come pretty close in the last volley, and the last thing he wanted was to be hit in the head without the protection the helmet afforded.

Although not exactly commanding, at just under 6′ Andrew always cut a striking figure, his boyish good looks never failing to turn the heads of many of the women, and quite a few men come to that, whenever he walked into a room. He always thought of himself as an ‘Andrew’, even though most people soon got to calling him ‘Andy’. With a surname like ‘Hoch’ it was inevitable, he supposed. If he had heard that joke once …

He used a mirror to look around the corner of the townhouse he was stood behind. No point in risking his neck by looking directly across the small square at the old church, which was the objective of the mission. He had tried that before on another outing, and nearly paid the penalty for such foolishness. Who would have guessed the opposition would have been expecting him, even before any shots had been fired from his vantage point?

He had to think for a few seconds. Everything was of course reversed, being viewed in reflection not directly. The square was deserted now, the old fountain in the middle still running, but almost forlornly, with no passers-by to admire it or drop coins in the pool at the bottom, as they had when the town was alive. There was an old magazine lying on the cobblestones, its pages dirty and torn and flapping now and then in the breeze which was blowing softly down the narrow streets which lead from the fields at the eastern side of the town into its centre. He smiled to himself as he recalled an old sitcom he had watched, with one of the characters, a reporter, who carried a battered teddy bear and a child’s sandal with him ‘to add a bit of human drama to a scene’ if it wasn’t already there.

The church looked deserted but you never could tell, and besides he doubted his superiors would give him such an easy mission. The bell tower was probably now a gun emplacement. There was a garage opposite which had also drawn Andrew’s attention. That looked deserted too, but would be an ideal spot to set up a machine gun or two, to catch anyone crossing the square to attack the church and to cut them down before they could reach it.

Behind him the radio squawked that Squad Two had reached the cover of the houses on the opposite side of the square and that all was well so far. He hadn’t liked sending this team under the command of an inexperienced corporal, but with his sergeant major out of commission, and needing his other two sergeants for the assault itself, he hadn’t really had any choice in the matter.

“Sergeant, take a team round the back of that garage and secure it.” He barked the command, even though it was quietly spoken and the sergeant was close anyway.

“Yes sir,” came the reply, and his sergeant and a team of eight others slipped out of the group to start stealthily making their way round the back of the buildings surrounding the garage so that they could come at it from the rear, and hopefully with no prior warning.

“Sergeant Flynn?” he called for his other sergeant. “Can we get a grenade into that bell tower, do you think?”

“With a launcher, sure” came the drawled reply. Sergeant Flynn was the only really experienced member of the team Andrew had. He had served time in Iraq, and in Afghanistan before that, in the American army before transferring to the Werlder Force when the US eventually joined the alliance.

“Do it,” Andrew said, and watched while the command was relayed to a gunner, who clipped a grenade to his launcher in readiness to shoot it into one of the dark openings of the tower. Andrew took another glance round the corner with the mirror.

He was horrified to see that the team under the corporal had already started across the square towards the church. They weren’t exactly running, but they didn’t seem to be hurrying either, and there was no cover for them to make use of. Before he could react at all, there came the sound of heavy machine-gun fire from the church’s turret, soon joined by lighter weapons from the garage. The giveaway flashes from the guns and lingering smoke would have told Andrew where they were placed, if he hadn’t already guessed.

There was more small arms fire from the direction of the garage. At the same time the gunner stepped around the corner and launched his grenade at the bell tower. It exploded with a pop – not as loud as Andrew had expected, no doubt the thick walls had absorbed some of the impact, but as the tower was built to help carry the sound of the bells to the town below, so it did with the noise of the grenade unleashing its deadly force. The heavy machine-gun stopped instantly, and the bell tower returned to its previously seemingly peaceful existence. The smoke billowing out of the turret was already subsiding. The small arms by the garage rattled on a few seconds longer, then stopped too.

“Squad Three, garage secured, no casualties, over.” Andrew recognized the voice of Sergeant Johanssen through the electronic distortion of the shortwave transmission on the radio.

“Good sergeant, well done,” he replied into the microphone that was held out by an eager private. “Now, stay there and provide covering fire at my command for the assault, okay?” “Over,” he added, after a second’s pause.

“Okay sir, will do, over.”

“Over and out.” He didn’t have anything else to add just now, but appreciated the opportunity Sergeant Johanssen had given him nonetheless. That it was standard procedure anyway was a thought that was buried way back inside his head.

He looked at the eight men in the open square. The attacks on the garage and the bell tower had come too late for them – they were out of the game now – he had to assume they would be dead or badly injured, and would be of no more help in securing this objective.

He thought briefly what a waste of his men it was, after all that training and preparation to be taken out so easily, and pointlessly. ‘His’ men. It was strange. They had only been together a few weeks but it was hard not to think of the men under his command as ‘his’. He quickly stopped thinking about his fallen comrades. It wouldn’t do them any good right now and was distracting him from the task at hand – securing the church.

“Sergeant Flynn,” he commanded. “Take a squad of men to storm the church. We’ll provide suppressing fire from here and from the garage. That should keep their heads down while you and the team cross the square.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, shouting instead his orders to the men that would remain with him to provide the covering fire which should allow Sergeant Flynn’s team to make it across the square to the relative safety of the church walls.

“Ready, Team Two?” he said into the radio mike. He got an affirmative answer from the other end. It wasn’t Sergeant Johanssen he didn’t think, but another one of the team. The response was too short to be sure of the voice. No doubt the sergeant was already readying his squad to fire the rounds which everyone hoped would keep the assault team safe.

“Okay, go,” he yelled into the mike and to the troops around him.

Immediately the sound of rifles and machine guns sprang up to cut through the quiet that had returned to the small town’s streets. The heavier rat-a-tat of the single heavy machine-gun in each team could clearly be heard over the lighter pings of the other arms.

The team under Sergeant Flynn began their attack, the sound of their boots falling on the cobbled square muffled by and almost lost to the noise of the firing.

There was no return fire from the church. The grenade had obviously done its job in the tower, and the two teams’ shots were keeping down anyone inside the building itself.

Bullets were spattering against the stone walls of the church, making bits of dust rise up in indignant surprise. Andrew longed to be one of the men running towards the church, but knew his job was to stay where he was and supervise the assault from his relatively safe vantage point.

He watched, as grenades were thrown through windows and the big wooden doors were forced to open revealing the dark confines within.

“Cease firing,” he called to the men around him and into the handheld mike. Straight away, the sound of shooting that had surrounded him stopped. It stopped coming from the direction of the garage too. He couldn’t help the team out there any more by shooting. He would only be risking hitting his own men. Now it was really up to them.

“Sergeant Johanssen,” he spoke almost softly into the radio, but knew his instructions would be heard clearly enough at the other end. “Take your team and support Sergeant Flynn.”

He watched as the troops moved out from the garage and quickly across the square towards the church. The sound of small arms fire was still sporadically coming from that direction, but there was no indication of shots being fired at the second team now moving across the cobbles.

Soon, the gunshot sounds had ceased completely. The town returned to the almost eerie silence that had dominated it only a few short minutes before.

“Objective secured, sir.” Sergeant Flynn’s voice cut through the silence and provoked a small cheer from the surrounding men.

“Good, Sergeant, well done. Any casualties?” Andrew almost held his breath while he waited for the reply.

“No sir,” it came straight back. “There were a dozen of them holed up here but we got them all.”

Andrew felt good. The objective was secured and he could relax a bit. It was a great pity about the eight men in the second team that had been hit but there was nothing to be done about it now. He knew it had been a mistake to trust their safety to that young corporal, who had no doubt wanted to make an impression so had unwisely led the first assault, unordered and unwanted as it was, but what else could he have done? Sent a different team? The corporals with the other teams were just as inexperienced but maybe didn’t quite have the same attitude as that other corporal had. He struggled, for a second or two, to remember the corporal’s name. Ngomo, that had been it. A promising guy from South Africa. Keen as mustard and nice as pie. Shame he had let himself down so badly.

He gave the order to the rest of his team to cross the square, and join the troops already in the church. He was halfway across himself when a single shot rang out. Immediately, the sniper’s round was answered by the men around him, rifles and light machine guns pointed towards the window the shot had come from in one of the townhouses overlooking the square.

He looked down at the red patch on his right arm. Man, that hurt! He wasn’t sure, but thought it had probably hit the muscle.

The sound of shooting around him stopped as abruptly as it had started. The house they had been firing towards was still now. He and the men started again towards the church, though one or two of them continued to glance back at the window, wanting to reassure themselves that one of their attempts had found its mark.

Once inside he signalled for his radio operator to join him. The old church’s interior was cool compared to the heat outside, and the chamber they were now stood in had a musty smell to it.

“Get me Command,” he ordered, and was soon presented with the mike.

“Command, sir,” said the operator, a guy from Mexico if Andrew remembered correctly.

“Command? Charlie Company here, over?”

A voice at the other end answered that it was indeed Command, and that he should continue with his report.

“Objective secured. We’re stood in the church now, over.”

“Well done, Lieutenant,” said the Major’s voice at the other end. He recognized the clipped English accent straight away. Funny, how so many of the officers in the Werlder Force were British. Andrew guessed it had to do with both the size of the British military before the forming of the alliance, and the fact that Britain was one of the first to join.

“Stay at the church until you’re relieved,” the major continued.

Andrew went back to the old wooden door and drew a cigarette out of the pack in his breast pocket. He knew he shouldn’t, but it was just about the only vice he had now.

The flame danced in the light breeze that billowed now and then across the square, the air cooling him down after his earlier exertions, but the Zippo lighter did its job and he was soon pulling smoke from the cigarette into his grateful lungs. He felt slightly dizzy. This was the first one he had had today, even though he had been nervous as hell about the mission to come. He was determined to cut down, give up even, if he could. The days of smoking being an acceptable pastime were long gone, and he often felt now like he supposed heavy drinkers had felt when that had become socially taboo – almost an outcast.

He looked up as a sergeant major from the Command Post cut into the sunlight before him.

“How did I do, Sergeant Major?” he asked. His voice was plaintive, even with childlike, but he couldn’t help it.

“You’ve been shot,” came the reply.

“Only in the arm. The right one too … I’m left-handed.” He wanted to grin. His cheeky grin usually got him out of a lot of trouble but he felt now was not really a good time to use it.

“In the leg too.”

He looked down at the tell-tale red patch on his lower left leg, just above where the boot ended. He hadn’t even felt that one. He assumed it must have been caused by one of the volleys that had come just as they were crossing into the town, at the start of the assault.

“It’s only a scratch,” Andrew muttered.

“Lucky it wasn’t a live fire exercise, otherwise you wouldn’t be taking it so lightly,” the sergeant major continued. “You had eight men down – five dead, three badly injured. Apart from that, you did quite well. Secured the objective at least, which is more than some have.”

“Yes, we won’t be making that mistake again … I hope,” said Andrew, looking at the eight men now standing sheepishly in front of him. Their greens were covered in the tell-tale red splodges left by the paint balls, and he was sure there’d be some painful bruises later, if there weren’t already, to remind them of their earlier folly.

He wanted to shout at them, to berate them for acting so stupidly. But, of course, they were only following the orders of the corporal and couldn’t be faulted for that. It was his fault, his and the corporal’s, and no amount of recrimination would change that fact.

He remembered what he had been taught about praising in public and bollocking in private, and decided to have the conversation he needed to have with the corporal later. There wasn’t an awful lot of point anyway. This was the last exercise so even learning from it wouldn’t help in the outcome of the decision that was to follow. And Andrew felt sure he knew what the decision for this particular corporal would be.

“Take your men back to base, then report to the major, okay Lieutenant?” The Sergeant Major’s tone was almost kindly as he spoke.

“Will do, Sergeant Major,” he said and turned to leave the exercise field.