Days of Burning, Days of Wrath – Snippet 18

It was also crawling with antaniae, the septic-mouthed winged quasi-reptiles that fed on the young and the weakened and the foolish.  Though they looked reptilian, the Mandarin name for them translated out to, “Genetically engineered murder pigeons.” 

Maybe worse, the air was alive with mosquitoes, their numbers swollen beyond reason by the stagnant water collected in innumerable shell craters.  While there hadn’t been an outbreak of the worst Terra Novan jungle diseases, a good quarter of the Zhong ashore had malaria.

After the pasting they’d taken the previous night, the men of the task force, mostly Zhong Imperial Marines, breathed a sigh of relief that the shelling had dropped to nothing more than an occasional bit of harassment and interdiction.  Some of those shells were monstrous so the sense of relief was limited.  They were entrenched, of course, and had been since shortly after arrival.  A shallow, scraped out trench for fine for the snipers their enemy used so plentifully.  For a nearly three hundred pound shell – as many of the mortars on the island were – with a payload of seventy-five pounds of high explosive, the shallow and thin trenches were fairly useless for anything like a near miss, let alone a hit. 

The headquarters itself was not in a trench, nor in one of the ramshackle bunkers the Marines had thrown together using whatever local materials could be scrounged.  Instead, former Major – now Colonel and perhaps soon to be General – Wu had taken over one of the very stoutly built bunkers the Balboans had so liberally dotted the landscape with.  The redundant tank turret above even worked, after a fashion, though it had had a rough enough time that the mechanism squeaked and screeched outrageously whenever anyone tried to move it. 

Outside a handful of simple wooden crosses, tied together with communications wire, marked where most of the previous occupants, a few boys with Down Syndrome, had been buried.

Wu’s senior non-com, though in practice something more like his executive officer, Sergeant Major Li, shook his head every time he passed those simple grave markers.  More than once Li had stopped to render a hand salute. 

There wasn’t any time for any such dramatics at the moment, though.  Li burst into headquarters carrying a parcel of newspapers from the Federated States.  Some Balboan had passed them over under the protection of a white flag. 

“It’s true,” Li announced, tossing the papers on Wu’s makeshift desk.  “The Taurans have been knocked out of the war.  We’re on our own.”

Wu picked up the first of the papers and read the headline.  Good thing I studied English in school.  He wasn’t actually surprised at the news of the crushing of the Tauran Expeditionary Force.  Though the lodgment was blocked from a direct view of the mainland, they’d all been treated to the sound of what was probably the greatest artillery bombardment the planet had seen since the Great Global War.  There had been some doubt – be honest, thought Wu, a lot of wishful thinking – that maybe it had been the Taurans pounding the Balboans. 

But, no, not a chance.  The Balboans are the only ones who use artillery like that anymore.  As we should well know from our own reception here.

“Maj…uhh, Colonel?” asked Li.

“Yes, Sergeant Major?”  Wu was pretty sure he already knew the question that was coming.  He’d been asking himself the same thing.

Li hesitated, then asked, “Can our country take these people on, on our own?  Can we fight the war to a successful conclusion on our own?  If not, what’s the point of sacrificing the boys who’ve done so much already?”

Ordinarily, Wu and Li would have worried about one or another of the three branches of the secret police, and especially of the Juntong.  There had been members of that organization in the landing.  Somehow, none of them had seemed to survive. 

“Are you counseling surrender, Sergeant Major?”

“No, sir.  I’m really just asking what we should do?”

Wu drew in a long breath of air tainted with too much high explosive.  “Top, I just don’t know.”

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

It was cool down there, in the thick-walled concrete of the briefing room.  Even so, it smelled musty, as if some of the jungle fungus was preparing to colonize, or had already colonized, the nooks and corners of the place.  A thin whine told of filtered air being pumped in from above. 

Even filtered and chilled, the air was damp. 

Above the stage was a screen showing what those in the business called a “TPFDL,” or “Time Phased Force Deployment List,” matching troops to be moved with assets anticipated to be available to move them, over time. 

Carrera had left his staff out of the briefing, for the most part.  They were all busy as could be just redeploying troops to face and eliminate the main Zhong lodgment in the east.  The only man in the audience besides the Duque was Omar Fernandez, the paraplegic chief of intelligence.  And he stayed on a landing in the back where his electric wheelchair could safely travel.

Dan Kuralski turned away from the slide showing on the glowing screen behind him and continued, “…so, in summation, Patricio, we can move two infantry legions to the island over the course of about a week, minus a good deal of their heavy equipment, but add to their artillery all the heavy multiple rocket launchers.  Can probably knock the Zhong into the sea in maybe a day, two at the most.  They’re not really dug in especially well.”

“The fortifications they’ve captured all face the wrong way, and they’re on the thin edge of survival anyway.  By the time that’s done, we’ll be about two days shy of ready to eliminate strike their lodgment east of the capital.  We can redeploy one of those legions back in time to participate, too.”

Carrera placed his left hand on his right bicep, then proceeded to stroke his chin with his right hand, thoughtfully.  “There’s one problem with that, Dan.  Just like I didn’t want to exterminate the Tauran troops here, I want the Zhong available as a weapon to use against their government.  I was hoping you would have some means to induce surrender…”

Kuralski shook his head.  “They’re not the surrendering kind, really.  We get a deserter or two every now and then – well, maybe every few days – but, in the main, they’re hanging pretty tough…admirably tough, really.”

“Any chance they’d accept a cease fire until certain other matters” – Carrera’s eyes shifted heavenward – “are resolved?”

Kuralski shrugged.  “Wu might…or might want to.  He’s got nothing to reply to our heavy artillery with, poor bastard, and is losing at least a hundred men a day to it.  How long he’d survive the attentions of the Juntong, though, is anyone’s guess though.”

“There probably aren’t any Juntong on the island, except for three we’re holding as POWs,” Fernandez piped in.  “Those three and the deserters we’re interrogated made it pretty clear that the Zhong troops have taken every possible opportunity to get rid of anyone they suspected of being in the secret police.  Indeed, that’s how we got those three; they were fleeing for their lives from what was pretty obviously an existential threat.”

“Any of the other deserters Juntong?” Carrera asked.

“I doubt it, Duque.  Those three made it very clear who they were, right up front, and begged not to be tossed in with the general population.”

Carrera leaned back in his movie theater-style chair, clasped hands over his belt, and began to twiddle thumbs.  He once again cast his eyes generally skyward.  “Is Flight Warrant Montoya, perchance, still alive and available, Omar?”

Headquarters, Task Force Wu, Isla Real, Balboa

“You want what?”

A parlementaire from the Balboan Fifth Corps, Rigoberto Puercel, commanding, stood blindfolded inside the concrete bunker where Wu made his headquarters.  The poled white flag under which he’d approached the front line stood propped against a corner.