August 14 2020 - Seoul City, Republic of Korea

Being quick paid off. Hiroku Sato darted across the hallway into the next alcove, followed close by a hail of bullets. After a quick check (chest, arms, legs... crotch) to make sure he hadn't been hit, he poked his rifle around the bend and triggered a burst to put some heads down as his squadmate came across.

Xian Ling hissed as he flattened against the alcove, clutching his shoulder, where the armor had shattered. He slid his free hand under and checked it - no blood. He was still holding his rifle with that hand too - the armor had taken the hit. Ling stripped away the broken plate and gave Sato a thumbs up.

"Faster next time. Right. High-low. Three, two, one..." Sato took a knee and peeked around the corner as Ling leaned out above him. Sure enough, there was the holdout; leaning awkwardly around his own corner, but already sighted in. For a moment time stood still as Sato squeezed his trigger... the next thing he knew Ling was standing over him with a worried look on his face, grabbing Sato's vest.

"What, what the...?" Sato felt his chest pounding - it was like he'd been hit by a gorilla. Ling smiled.

"The vest stopped it, you're all right!" Ling rapped him on the helmet and dashed up to the corner. Sato's breath slowly returned and someone else pulled him to his feet from behind. More men hustled up to the corner and vanished around the bend as Ling covered them. Then he noticed the other guy, the one that had shot him in the chest plate. As it turned out, Sato had shot him in the jaw and there wasn't much left from that point up that was recognizable. It would have turned Sato's stomach three weeks ago, now it was more of a morbid curiosity. Funny what a war does to a person's perceptions.

"Sgt. Sato, we've got to catch up if we don't want to lose the squad, come on."

Sato shook it off. First time for everything. Hopefully it was also the last time he would have the pleasure of being shot, but it could have been worse. He glanced again at the holdout as he stepped over the mangled corpse.

"Lets go." The squad was just making the next turn. Sato and Ling covered the rear as the squad advanced again. There was no gunfight that corner, nor in any of the side rooms they checked out, but they all knew what was coming up after the halls, and this was the last hall. The control room for the uplink would be the final line, and the enemy could have anything waiting in there. The point man, Sato couldn't tell who from his position, tried to feed a snake cam under the door, but the seal was airtight. Direct assault with no recon was the only option.

"Red squad set for main control." Lt. Naguyo called up over the platoon channel.

"Copy red, took you long enough. Red and Blue on my signal," That was Captain Zhou, "three, two, one, mark."

Breaching charges threw the door off its hinges and into the room, closely followed by Red Squad. Sato itched to look over his shoulder toward the fight but kept watching their six and backpedaled towards the control room. There was the staccato burst of 6.68mm rounds and at least one person screaming for a moment, but by the time he reached the door it was all over. He scanned the room before posting up at the doorway. Maybe ten Chinese soldiers were strewn about, and two of their own lay on the floor, already being attended for what it was worth.

There were stacks of explosives set in the corners of the room, thankfully still in their packaging and not yet deployed. There was enough there that Sato didn't care to imagine what would become of him if they had gone off when his Squad blew the door in. Half of the consoles in the room were shot up, completely gone. Of the remaining ten or so, another six were shorting out. Trashed.

But even in its current state the uplink was back in their hands. Sato was glad to be down there even though the fighting was tough. Back up topside the rest of the 1st was fighting to push out the Chinese from this particular block of Seoul and it was hard going. Their platoon might be cut off and the Chinese could mount a counter-attack on the uplink at any moment, which is why he was so studiously watching the corridor.

Private Ling took a knee across from Sato.

"So, Sergeant, how long are we going to be in this particular hole?"

"Shut up Ling, you know the answer." Sato growled. Ling knew damn well that Sato didn't know how long they'd be there. "How's your arm?"

Ling shrugged. "Plate took the hit. I'll get an impressive bruise but no battle scar for the ladies."

Sato rolled his eyes.

"You still want a scar?" That was Cpl. Misuro, Sato could tell from his signature gravelly voice and matching sense of humor. He was gripping his knife in its sheath.

"I didn't even say I wanted it in the first place!" Ling protested, hands waving in the air. "I should go grab a piece of that plate, though. Souvenir." Misuro grunted.

They ended up staying in the uplink for another two hours while regular forces arrived to take over. One of their men, Pvt. Tanaka, died on the floor of the control room. The other man was medevaced out with a bad gut wound, but Sato thought he would live. None of the Chinese made it, he was sure of that. Everyone knew the stories, had seen the videos of captured Rim soldiers being executed by Chinese officers. After those videos got out, the Chinese just seemed to have a hard time surrendering.

When they emerged from the uplink, Seoul was burning. It was almost midnight, the fires cast a red glow in the smoke-filled sky. Rubble and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Bodies were still out in the open as well; no time for them yet. At least there weren't any wounded still out. Not right here, anyhow. Sato could hear the fight, only a couple blocks away, clearly. He didn't feel any urge to run and lend a hand at the moment; that enthusiasm had died along with half his squad in Cuwong two weeks ago. That fight made even this one look easy. He could still smell that battlefield, still saw it when he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He doubted it would ever truly leave him.

Thankfully the battalion was regrouping around the uplink they had just cleaned out, so 3rd platoon didn't have far to go to set up their perimeter for the night. They set up shop at a roadblock thrown up by one side or the other, posting sentries and clearing out the stores on either side enough for some improvised bunks. A few enterprising soldiers appropriated some bedding from a nearby hotel and distributed it as they could. Sato was on the barricade when it was handed out and wasn't there to stake a claim. It was still warm out though, whether that was because it was still August or the fires were just putting out that much heat he didn't know.

The fight died down markedly during the night. Gunshots would pick up every ten minutes or so, sometimes sparking a brief exchange of automatic fire, but nothing lasted longer than a few minutes. Artillery drizzled in constantly on the Chinese. It had been a few days since the last Chinese guns were silenced, a fact Sato was deeply grateful for. There was nothing like enemy artillery to ruin the day, and all Tiger Brigade's elite units, like Sato's, were artillery magnets. It was a distinct downside of being on the Rim Coalition's premier fighting force. A resupply drone arrived not long after they settled down bearing a number of ammo cans and water - that was an upshot of being in Tiger Brigade.

It was a quick night. Sentry duty claimed two hours, and the unit was up and moving by seven. Between that and the waking nightmare that life had been for the last few weeks, Sato managed a couple hours of sleep. He stretched as he woke up, stiff from sleeping in his armor. His chest throbbed where he'd been shot the night before. Checking on what was left of his fire team; only three other soldiers where once there had been eight, he had to kick Ling twice to get him up.

"Ugh, leave me, I don't want to go to work." Ling groaned from beneath a thick blanket. "I think I'm sick, sergeant, I'll be going to sick call..." Ling's sense of humor was awake, even if its owner wasn't up yet. Sato often wondered if his humor had become a defense mechanism lately - Ling's hometown in Taiwan had been overrun weeks ago, and there was no news on his wife or the rest of his family. Only rumors of the brutality of the Chinese regulars. Women, children, they were subject to whatever the Chinese pleased. It was not a happy thought and Sato often muttered thanks that his girlfriend was still safe in Akita, a prefecture in North Honshu.

"What, have you caught the flu little Ling?" Pvt. Matsui joked, as he checked his rifle. Matsui was the newest member of Sato's team, only about three months old to the unit.

"I wish.." Ling said, throwing off his blanket and rising to his feet. "What I wouldn't give for a ticket to the rear."

"Mmm. Nurses in the rear." That was Misuro, his voice carrying from the other side of a shelf filled with sports accessories. Sato and the others on his side exchanged a look... Did Misuro plan the double meaning? before breaking out in belly laughs. Didn't matter.

They ate on the move, nibbling on bits of old rations and drinking from their water bladders as they moved up the streets. The frontline was close, so they moved tactically, by sections, scanning the rooftops as they went. Word came down through their platoon-internal frequency that the day's objective was an enemy strongpoint. Not just any strongpoint, either; City hall was their next target. The Chinese were digging in for a last stand there, what was left of their army had been trapped in Seoul for a week now and showed no signs of surrender. As long as the Rim's Navy and Air Force kept the Chinese from launching another fleet and landing reinforcements, the Chinese expeditionary force was done for.

They would launch the assault from the central post office, and move building to building clearing them out as they swept North towards city hall. 1st battalion was only one of a dozen attacking all along the line, and all the stops were coming out for this attack. That meant armor support, choppers, CAS... the works. It was enough to make Sato sick, because they only rolled out that kind of firepower when the infantry, i.e. him was going to make a near-suicidal attack.

It only took about ten minutes to reach the post office. A company of regular Japanese soldiers had occupied the building, keeping a careful watch on nearby Chinese positions. As Sato's platoon moved in, they got a mixed reaction from the current occupants. Some stared at their uniforms and gear jealously, others took heart at the sight of special forces. Sato immediately felt self-conscious and tried to act serious, giving his section a stern glare and hoping they would get the message as well. Sato and his men checked their gear as they waited for the word to go. Their rifles were Korean models, some of the newest models yet circulated.

The K12 was chambered for 6.68mm, which made it difficult to find spare ammunition sometimes, but gave it a better stopping power than the standard NATO 5.56mm still used in most of the Pacific Rim Alliance's nations, including Japan. But Sato hadn't looked back ever since it had replaced his old Type 89. The K12 was a bullpup design built with customization in mind. The whole rifle was modular and could be retrofitted to become almost anything. Sato's rifle had a snub barrel and folding stock, with a adjustable zoom red-dot scope on top. The rifle also had an integrated infrared laser for night ops. Some men carried new Japanese Type 8 SMGs, which fired 4.6mm caseless, an even rarer ammunition, but invaluable in close quarters. Most of the units in Tiger Brigade were fully outfitted with a mix of those two weapons.

Sato also normally carried a variety of stun, frag and concussion grenades, but his supply was down to scavenged Chinese grenades at the moment. The heavy weapons squad was still packing plenty of anti-tank rockets and air-burst rounds though. Hopefully they would take some pressure off of Sato and his men. In the meantime, he was on the lookout for grenades and had eyed each corpse on the way to the post office. A bunker-cracker sonic charge would have been ideal here but again, they'd been used up in the first week of the attack on Seoul.

His helmet's visor had a crack running down the right side and the HUD was offline until he could get it replaced. It was the third day he'd gone without, since a brick had landed on his helmet during a shelling. Thankfully his night optics were spared - he checked those briefly. He tightened down his armor and pads, and swapped out his radio battery for a fresh one. Then, furtively, he tugged off a glove and slid his fingers into his shoulder pocket, where he kept a picture of his girlfriend, Shinju. He ran his fingers over the photo, and he could see it in his mind's eye. Should have married her. If only he could get through this war, he'd change that.

He tugged the glove back on.

"Ready?" he asked his men. It still felt a little unnatural to have his own section, even though it felt like he'd had it for a lifetime. Ever since his old NCO had lost a leg at Cuwong, he'd had the fire team and that promotion he'd always wanted, as well, even if he didn't have the time to grab new insignia for it yet. Ling, Misuro and Matsui nodded back, and Sato keyed his mic.

"Two, this is Red31, ready 1."

"Check, 31." Came the reply from Platoon-Sergeant Katsuo. The other sections called up their status as well, in a steady stream of radio traffic. Sato could pick out each voice and match a name, a face, even though their call signs had changed as the platoon had taken losses over the weeks. Each time someone called up, he could see their predecessor as well... men he'd trained and lived with, in some cases for years. Brothers, dead or gone. Each one was still a pang in his chest. When it was done he silently cursed the Chinese, cursed the politicians, cursed whoever he could assign blame for the war. The Chinese were the most accessible group, though. They had been so arrogant in their attacks, so reckless... It was easy to see all that in hindsight, as he stood poised to pry them out of Seoul for good, of course. In the first week it was a nightmare for the Rim. Taiwan and Korea hit out of nowhere in a blinding air and sea assault, Chinese subs just outside Tokyo... The Koreans had a large standing army, but it was facing the wrong direction, North, when the attack came from the West over the sea.

It was a stunning move and had left Sato in a state of shock when he heard the Chinese were just outside Seoul only a day into the war. His unit was catapulted into action on the Korean peninsula, but nobody truly expected the situation to improve - they dreaded the inevitable entrance of North Korean forces, forever poised, to make good their long preparations on a weakened foe. Which is why the whole hemisphere was shocked when the Chinese entered North Korea a week after landing in South Korea. In a broadcast, their aging ˜beloved leader' explained that the Chinese had demanded passage through their sovereign lands, and declared war on the PDRK when they had denied their request. Sato suspected there was more to the backstab than that, but the good news was that not only were the North Koreans not coming to finish them off, they were the de facto ally of the Rim now, like it or not, and were mauling the Chinese reinforcements meant for Seoul.

"Be advised, ten minutes to go-time. Fang co. will be rolling in; we make our move in platoon sequence starting as soon as they pass. Odd squads today."

"You heard the Lieutenant." Sato motioned with a chop of his hand to the doorway they'd be sprinting out of, pre-empting the gripes he knew were coming. Captain Zhou loved to send the men in platoon sequence, which was fine it you were in second or third platoon, but if you were in first, it meant you were point man of the company and first to get shot. Lt. Naguyo at least changed the first squads to go each day, alternating evens and odds. All of which didn't help Sato and his buddies, since they were in red squad and it was the first, thus still going out there first. Sato didn't need them griping in front of regular army though, that was a sure way to bring Plt. Sergeant Katsuo down on them like a hammer.

"If you haven't heard we're moving up in ten minutes," Sato said to a regular-army sergeant standing nearby.

"Right." the man said, and started spreading the word down the line. Sato watched as the men poised themselves by windows and firing points, checked ammo and clutched at their weapons.

"If this is a post office, where's all the mail?" Ling asked. Sato and the rest stared at him.

"Maybe the Chinese used it as toilet paper Ling, ****, I don't know." Sato mumbled.

"I'm just saying, shouldn't there at least be some envelopes around here, or -" Sato cut him off with a glare.

"Right. Let's kill some Reds." He said, cocking his rifle. Since he'd already had a round chambered, a single round popped out and onto the floor. Ling glanced down at it sheepishly. Sato had little doubt the ejected round bit had been staged.

"Sometimes I wonder," Misuro grunted. Platoon Sgt. Katsuo glared at the three of them. Maybe he'll forget in the fight. Sato hoped. Otherwise it would be an ***-chewing later on... Sgt. Katsuo never forgot though.

"Get set." That was Plt. Sgt. Katsuo. Sato continued watching him prowling up and down the line. The post office was a little too crowded at the moment for Sato's liking, but with two companies of men, depleted as they were, crammed in there was no room to spread out. Except outside, of course.

Sato and his men stacked up at a large window. Or, at least what used to be a window, and now was a large opening in the wall. It was knee high and well over Sato's head - as long as he didn't trip on the way out it was no problem. The soldier at the window backed off to let Sato's section get set.

Sato eyed his watch as the minutes dragged on and his heart started pumping.

"One minute out." There was a chorus of clicks as safeties were flipped off.

"Thirty Seconds." Sato could hear Ling mumbling a prayer in mandarin. Sato whispered "thirtyseconds," to the soldier. All around the room men tensed up as the distant rumble of engines suddenly grew.

"Go-time. 1st platoon, after Fang Co., on my mark." Lt. Naguyo managed to sound calm.

The rumble of tanks grew to a roar as the first one took the corner. Then, the world exploded. It was impossible to keep track, but Sato knew everybody had just opened up. The Chinese must have let loose with rockets and machine guns, the tanks fired their main guns, massive rail guns that ripped through the air with the clap of a giant's hands, Sato could see the regulars and his own men open fire, and he could hear the scream of incoming artillery raining down on the Chinese. His teeth rattled every time a main gun fired or a shell exploded, and dust filled the air with each shot.

"Ready... Go!" Somehow the Lieutenant had kept track of the passing tanks. Sato sprang out of the window and into the street, doubling over as he ran. Over his head a rocket screamed past and into the window of the building across the street, exploding inside. Sato ran headlong into the smoke and dust.

He was on top of a Chinese soldier before he knew it; the kid was grabbing feebly at a throat wound that was obviously fatal. Sato ended it with a tap of his trigger before rushing into the next room, rifle up. Chinese soldiers were standing in the middle of the room, looking at another door. Sato's section took them down before they knew it. A moment later, another squad burst in through the door that had captured the late Chinese's attention. Sato could tell from their mottled black camouflage they were in the 12th battalion, and he had no doubt they immediately sized himself and his men up by their gear and rust-and-black angular patterns.

"Damnit!" the other point man swore, as his team came through. Sato just kept moving, his men close behind, up the stairs to the next floor, pausing only to lob a grenade onto the landing above. Charging in after the explosion, he almost tripped over one writhing enemy before he slinked through the door and off to the side. The second floor had used to be a department store, apparently, but behind all the racks of fashionable clothing the Chinese had set up firing positions looking out the windows and across the street, and were enthusiastically exchanging fire with Sato's friends across the street.

"Grenades," Sato growled, ducking behind a table stacked high with ration crates. "Close, mid, long." He said, pointing to each man in turn. They each pulled out a different grenade and pulled the pin. "Now!" Sato threw his own grenade into the biggest clump of men he could see and ducked down behind the table. The resulting explosions sent clothing, splinters, mannequin bits and flesh flying everywhere.

"Second floor east, check fire." Sato spoke into his radio, before re-emerging from behind the table and advancing down the line. There wasn't much left, and the few men that remained were still stunned and were easy marks. Sato almost shot a mannequin dressed in a Chinese uniform; a decoy that had done these particular soldiers no good.

Sato sighed with relief as he reached the end of the room. They could set up here to cover the next dash across the street. Other squads were rushing up the stairwell to clear out the upper floors.

"All right, Misuro set up there," he pointed to a window lined with sandbags and blue jeans, "Ling set up-" One of the Chinese soldiers silently rolled over, clutching a grenade not two meters away. Sato saw him release it in slow motion, and the next thing he remembered was a brief moment of red pain all up and down his right side before blacking out.

Sato woke up three hours later in a cot, with an oxygen mask on his face, feeling numb and warm all over. When he tried to move though, a man appeared over him with a face mask and held him down again.

"What, where..." He mumbled through the mask.

"Take it easy, sergeant. You're fine. You're going to be fine."

Slowly the room came into focus. Other men on cots surrounded him, wrapped in various bandages and either laying still or moaning quietly. Sato pulled himself up and looked down his body in a moment of panic... everything was still there, that was his first worry. His legs was wrapped in several spots. His right forearm was bandaged as well.

"Armor stopped a lot of the shrapnel, sergeant. There was a lot of bleeding but nothing too bad. That and your helmet stopped a fragment with the radio, I'm afraid its broken. Moderate concussion to the head as well, but nothing we can˜t treat." the man pointed to the helmet, laid over his bloody armor at the foot of his cot. The radio was shredded.

"Visor was broken anyway..." Sato managed to mumble. The man smiled weakly and moved on. Sato laid there, wondering what he'd missed... and if his men were all right. If it hadn't stopped a chunk of shrapnel he could have used the radio, but in the other hand he was glad it stopped the fragment instead of his skull. He'd just have to wait and rumor-fish until he could link back up with the unit. Sato felt a drowsy haze wash over him and his eyes fluttered shut again.