Days of Burning, Days of Wrath – Snippet 03
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Carrera said. “The Tauran Union Expeditionary Force was under a bombardment that may as well have been nuclear.”
“I never thought especially well of the major, anyway,” said the RSM. “But we…all of us” – there was a worse shudder, this time, and maybe an impossible glisten in the eye – “we mostly collapsed. For a while, anyway, we did.”
“Then don’t be too hard on yourselves, either. I’m telling you, that bombardment was as fierce as anyone has ever faced. There no shame for anyone in whatever it did to them. None whatsoever. I mean that.
“And, besides, you bounced back well enough, didn’t you? This will help some more.
“Excuse me a moment,” Carrera said, reaching into the satchel. From it he selected by feel a can of legionary rum. This he pulled out and set on his knee, then reached in for a P-15 folding can opener.
“I’ve got a cup for myself,” he said, genially. “You folks?”
“I do,” answered Cleric. “RSM, where’s yer own? I’ll fetch it.”
“That’s the real legionary stuff?” Ayres asked, then told the corporal, “In my pack; where else?
“We captured some early, not long after we landed, but haven’t seen any in a while. It’s pretty ferocious.”
“It’s supposed to be cut with water, yes,” Carrera said, working the can opener to create two thin slices in the top of the can of rum. “And it’s strong, but you could mix it in with loose shit and be sure that all you were drinking was the shit; no microscopic bugs would survive it. And it doesn’t do bad things to your arteries, like the purification pills do.
Cleric who, by this time, had retrieved Ayres’ enameled tin cup and his own, passed the two cups over.
Carrera hesitated a moment. “Hmm…let me think…48 ounces…call it about…ah, fuck it, we’ll make it healthy; there’s not enough for everyone to have a decent last drink no matter how I ration it. Or…how many men still fit, RSM?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir.”
“I understand,” Carrera agreed, “but surely that only counts if I am going back.”
Shaking his head, Carrera answered firmly, “No. I’ve had enough. I’ve done enough. I’ve been at the core of wickedness beyond your wildest imaginings, always for what seemed a good reason, of course.” Carrera’s eyes grew distant for a moment. “Yes, it always seemed like there was a good reason.” He shook his head, recovering composure. “And orders I’ve already given are going to add considerably to what I’ve already done, too.
“In about…” he consulted his watch, “call it thirty-five minutes, now, the bombardment’s going to start again, much heavier though, this time. If you men are willing to stand it and die to the last man then I’d be proud to stay here and die with you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, sir,” said Ayres. “Not your regiment. Your honor isn’t involved.”
“It’s not about my honor, RSM; it’s about what I said. I’ve just had it. If I could have talked the Die-hards into surrendering then maybe, just maybe, I’d have brightened my soul enough. But I can see already that that’s just about impossible. So here I stay.”
Ayres remonstrated, “Sir, we can’t surrender. Our colonel had us bring the colors with us here. ‘Colors that aren’t risked are useless,’ he said, ‘meaningless and valueless.’ I suppose he had a point. But just surrender and give up the colors that are – at least in parts of them – over four hundred years old? That came from Old Earth with the regiment? For an enemy’s children to point at and gloat over? Not a man here but wouldn’t rather die than live to see that.”
“I see,” Carrera agreed, reaching to take one of the tin cups. Into this he poured a couple of fingers of rum, maybe two ounces’ worth. He handed that cup to Ayres, saying, “now be sure to cut if fifty-fifty or it will be undrinkable.” He filled up the corporal’s cup to the same level, but without repeating the warning. Then he took his own cup and canteen their pouch, poured, put the can down, and then added a good deal of water to it.
Taking a sip he announced, “Perfect. Now where the hell, RSM, did you get the idea that we’d take and keep your colors?
“It’s just not our way. There’s not even a slight trace of honor or glory in humiliating a foe who fought hard, well, and bravely. It would demean us, make the victory cheap and hollow.
“No, no, RSM; if the Fifty-seventh decided to spare itself to fight another day, maybe against an enemy that really needs a good dose of killing, it would march out of here with its colors flying, drums beating – my warrant is trying to scare up some drums, but I can’t promise – and a bullet each held in their cheeks.”
Ayres looked intently into Carrera’s face and saw no guile there. Without first bothering to cut the rum, he took an unhealthy slug, then began to cough uncontrollably. After a thorough back pounding from Cleric, the RSM asked, “Are you serious?”
Carrera stared him straight in the eyes and answered, “Never more serious in my life.”
“So fill up your glasses,” Ayres recited, softly, “And show your regard, by drinking the health of each jolly Die-hard.” A more gingerly sip followed that.
“Cleric,” said the RSM, “round up for me the senior non-com in each company.”
“Best be quick, Corporal,” Carrera added. “And take the rum and cigarettes to pass out!”
To Ayres Carrera added, “there’s not really enough rum to go around, but my warrant officer, Jamey Soult, should have more by the…”
“Soult, is it, sir? Soult?” Ayres began to laugh near uncontrollably. In between guffaws, and he could get the words out, “Of fucking…course… it would have…just have…to a be a Soult…who’s going to…. watch us surrender….a Soult!”
One of these days I’m going to have to ask someone what’s so funny about this regiment surrendering in front of a Soult.
Soult answered, “Roger,” then replaced the microphone on its hanger and leaned back against the side of the Ocelot. The fucking Pied Piper, he thought, scowling as he leaned arms folded, against the hull of the Ocelot he’d retrieved. There hadn’t been enough room in the four by four for all the rum and cigarettes. He thought he heard singing, too, but, if so, it was very soft. It grew louder though, as the singers began to emerge from the sound-absorbing trees and stumps.
In the warrant’s view, Carrera marched out of the smoke and mist at the head of a column of Anglians. Between the column, three across, and himself, a color guard carried and escorted two banners. The Anglian rank and file…Well, them and the others who attached themselves to them, they’re shot up pretty badly, a good chunk of them, but no one’s letting anyone fall behind and anyone who needs help, a friendly shoulder or whatever, is getting it. And, I guess I did hear…
“…a rampart or guarding a trench
Neither bullet nor bayonet our progress retards,
For it’s all just the same to the jolly Die-hards….”
I don’t know how he gets away with this shit, I really don’t. But I suppose I’d better produce the rum and cigarettes he asked for. Oh, and tell him that the package to the ALTA was delivered, safe and sound.