A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 01

A Pillar Of Fire By Night

By Tom Kratman


The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

–W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Near the Trans Balboa Highway Bridge, Rio Gamboa,

North of the “Parilla Line,” Balboa

From near silence the air was suddenly filled with the rising sound of sirens. At the sound Carrera’s heart leapt into his throat. Being emulsified by a Tauran bomber that doesn’t even know I’m here is not my preferred way to go out.

He forced himself to remain calm, then began following the signs to the nearest bomb shelter. That was also from where the sound of the nearest sirens emanated. This was a bunker in what the president, Raul Parilla, refused to hear referred to as anything but the “Gamboa Line,” but which everyone out of earshot called the “Parilla Line,” anyway.

I wish, he thought, we’d come up with some method to modulate the sirens to give some idea of how far out the attacks were. I wish we’d even thought of it. Or . . . then again . . . maybe not. There are only so many secrets that can be kept. Our having the ability might have gotten out. That might have started people wondering why it might matter to us. And that . . . no, let’s not even go there.

Since his return from the Isla Real–a return in every way less eventful than the near fatal trip out–Carrera had come under aerial attack. Let me think . . . must be thirty-five or forty times. For the most part, the bombing had shifted from the city and the island fortress out in the Mar Furioso, to the area in and around, especially to the north of, Cristobal. It didn’t take a genius to understand that that was the Taurans’ logical point of attack. It would have been obvious enough even without the bombing. The logistic needs of a modern army, on the planet of Terra Nova, demanded a major port. Cristobal, on the Shimmering Sea, was the only one available of any size, and the only one that was also connected to the road and rail net.

Walking the well-worn trail to the bunker, Carrera half raised one hand. Looking down at it, he noticed once again a slight tremor of the hand and of the fingers that ran from it. That wasn’t there six months ago. And if I’m doing that, what of the troops that have endured twice at much and don’t have the benefit of even knowing why they have to endure it?

He clenched the hand, opened it, clenched it and opened it again. By the second opening the tremor had gone. Whether that was a physical thing or the result of the routine, he didn’t know.

Just imagine if we hadn’t taught the Taurans a sharp lesson about “air supremacy” and the value of a high tech-low tech mix, coupled with unusual ruthlessness and an aviation branch that thought of itself more as flying infantry than as ever so precious knights of the air. Just imagine being under attack–oh, sure, a less intense level of attack–more or less continuously, rather than two or three or four times a day.

We’d all be trembling wrecks that no amount of routine or exercise would fix.

Course, buying us those breaks was hard on the Legion Jan Sobieski.

“Jan Sobieski,” the Sixteenth Legion, was the air force for Balboa, and completely subordinate to the ground forces.

At the end of the trail, at the entrance to a concrete bunker, a noncom of the Legion, an elderly corporal, stood directing troops to seats along benches or on the floor. There was a semicircular concrete overhang sheltering the entrance.

Between the overhang and the deep jungle shade, the corporal didn’t at first recognize Carrera. Putting a hand on his chief’s shoulder, the corporal said, “Keep calm. Take a seat along the right-side bench.”

Carrera removed the hand gently and said, “Any place will do, Corporal. As a matter of fact, let’s make sure we get everyone else seated before we join them.”

At seeing Carrera, his country’s Dux Bellorum, the corporal stiffened.

“And relax,” Carrera chided. “I can see you’re doing a fine job. But it wouldn’t do for the men to see either of us act nervous now, would it?”

“No, sir,” agreed the corporal. “But you being out here still makes me distinctly nervous.”

“I can go look for another bunker,” offered Carrera. “I don’t know if . . .”

As it turned out, there wouldn’t be time for that. The first Tauran bombs landed–Quarter tonners, would be my guess, thought the corporal, gulping nervously–at about the same time Carrera reached, “if.”

“Don’t think that will be necessary, sir,” said the corporal. His voice cracked once from nerves as he said it. “Don’t think it would be . . . shit!”

The near burst–well, “near” for a five hundred and fifty pounder–sent a shockwave-borne blizzard of leaves and twigs and dirt to pelt both men, even as the concussion induced a nauseating rippling in their internal organs.

“In, in, get inside!” shouted the corporal.

Always do what the man who seems to know what he’s doing says, agreed Carrera, silently, holding down his bile. He grabbed the older man and sprinted the few feet to the inside, half pulling the corporal after him. Once almost surrounded by the concrete the corporal turned back and looked out in both directions. Seeing no one, he slammed shut a heavy steel door, such as one might find on a major warship, then began turning the steel wheel that locked the door in place.

Which is precisely where that one came from, mused Carrera, though I can’t say which of the Volgan cruisers we scrapped provided it.

Turning back to the inside of the crowded bunker, the corporal announced, “Everybody get your canteen cups out. My tercio’s policy is to issue an extra rum ration with each bombing. So we do. Now me, I think we’re all well on the way to becoming alcoholic, but what the fuck do I know?”

Note to self, thought Carrera, as he reached behind to pullout his canteen and cup, find out whose idea that really is, the corporal’s or his tercio commander, or someone in between, and commend them . . . maybe . . . because note to self number two for the day; we’re getting the shit bombed out of us; figure out where the hell all that rum’s coming from.

Not too long after that point Carrera noticed something odd. Rather, he noticed two linked oddities. The sirens were still going. And he could still feel the bombs dropping.

One of the downsides, Carrera thought, to setting things up so that the enemy has to use pricey and rare precision-guided bombs if he’s going to bomb one particular area, is that he’s going to bomb other areas a lot harder, since he can. Oh, well.


Some distance to the north of Carrera’s temporary shelter, a group of construction engineers came out of their own shelter and, almost as a single man, cursed the enemy roundly.

In their view, a substantial bridge over the Gamboa River sagged at one end. “Motherfuckers,” said a corporal. “We just got that son of a bitch fixed, too.”

“Then we’ll get to fix it again,” announced the centurion in command of the detail. “Get your tools and the trucks and let’s get to it.”

“What I don’t understand, Centurion,” said the corporal, “is why we even bother. I mean, it’s not like we actually need these bridges, considering . . .”

“Shut the fuck up right now,” said the centurion. “What we need and don’t need isn’t your concern.” He raised his voice quite a bit, adding for the entire platoon’s benefit, “and the next man I see pretending to be walking on water, on his feet or on his hands, I’ll shoot him on the spot.”