A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 02

Volcano Number Nine, south of the Parilla Line, Balboa

Number Nine was located in a recently abandoned legion housing area, not far from where the twin highways connecting the capital and the port of Cristobal crossed. No one but Carrera really knew if the housing area had been built to hide the Volcano, or the Volcano had been placed there to take advantage of the fact that a housing area was being built.

If Carrera and the corporal were nervous under the bombing, that was as nothing compared to the crew of the Volcanos.

The Volcanos? Think of a–well, “large” is hardly an adequate description so . . . think of a ginormous fuel air explosive bomb, hidden, often under fairly recent construction though sometimes buried just out in the jungle near a suitable access road, big and powerful enough to be a fair equal to a very small nuke. Indeed, they were more powerful than some nuclear weapons and had the additional benefit that, where a volcano went off, there would be no free oxygen in the area for a significant period of time.

The basic shells had been laid long since, years since in some cases. This was starter explosive, an oxygen booster, incendiaries, and some additives. The rest of the mixture, the fuel, had only recently been added, by tankers, during the lull that accompanied the now ever-so-obviously failed peace talks. Thus, even though each crew for a Volcano had a decent shelter, once the tank of their Volcano was filled, survival of a premature detonation was most unlikely.

That said, a premature detonation was, itself, just as unlikely. The things had been designed for considerable stability. They had two mechanisms for detonation, radio command–which nobody expected to work, really–and seismic. The former took a special code and an extant antenna while the latter took the kind of shaking that only a near miss from a large bomb or shell could provide. Even then, there was a timer that had to be set and had to run to allow either to work, and, at that, only at certain times after it ran. They were intended to be emplaced, and then set to arm themselves at a later time or times, and to be detonated on command when expedient.

“None of which,” muttered Sergeant Juan Sais, himself from a maniple of the Fourteenth Cazador Tercio sufficiently secret that even its number was secret, “cheers me up in the slightest. If this thing goes . . .”

A nearby private fed a small morsel from his rations to a trixie, an archaeopteryx, that had adopted the team, or at least its food, over the past several weeks. Nobody minded having trixies about; they helped keep down the population of the never sufficiently to be damned antaniae, the septic-mouthed moonbats, that infested the planet.

The trixie was actually rather a beautiful creature. Thisole, a juvenile, most likely, was brightly feathered, and maybe two and a half feet long, including tail feathers. It had probably been a semi-domesticated mascot for the housing area, before its abandonment.

“What was that, Sergent?” asked the private of Sais. With his boss, the boy sheltered in the earth-covered bunker.

“Nothing, Espinal,” said Sais. “Just cursing the enemy.”

“Curse them for me then, too, Sergeant.” He opened his can of chorley tortillas fully, and showed it to the Trixie, which squawked its disappointment. “See, told you, birdie, that there was only so much.”

Indignant, the Trixie took off for a higher and safer plane.

Sais did curse the enemy, then, which didn’t seem much to bother a low flying Tauran fighter bomber as it laid a carpet of bomblets all across the area, driving the team deeper into their earthen hole.

That’s one good thing, thought Sais, raising his head and brushing dirt from his hair, after the storm of steel had passed. If they had clue one about what we were, it wouldn’t be useless bomblets they were dropping, but heavier ordnance to shake up, wreck, or prematurely detonate the Volcano. Thank God for small favors.

Hide Position Sierra Two-Nine, Cristobal Province, Balboa

The Fourteenth Cazadors was actually a rather diverse tercio. Besides the men for the Volcanos, a limited number of what might be called “shock troops,” foreign internal defense teams, a hostage rescue maniple, maniples for deep recon, strategic recon, nation building, and this and that and whatnot, it also included some small numbers, no more than a couple of hundred, of stay-behind reconnaissance troops.

Some of the latter were on islands out in the Mar Furioso. Still others monitored the expanding lodgment of the Zhong, after their mostly failed attempt at capturing the Isla Real. There were also a few teams along the coast of the Shimmering Sea, just in case.

The majority of the stay-behinds, though, were in Cristobal Province, north of the city of Cristobal, and well south of the Parilla Line. They were emplaced in hides both carefully and cleverly designed, but also put in places that no one in their right minds would want to be stationed or to station troops.

Cleverly? There were subtle sumps dug that were fed by the thinnest excavations practical, to provide water and flush away waste. This wasn’t that hard in a place with over twenty feet of rain a year, one where even the dry season could be pretty wet. There were pipes that led down to substantial bodies of water, usually stinking swamp water, so that the wastes would not be noticed. Sound and seismic proofing framed the shelters, even as the radar scattering metalicized strips in the trees above could be expected to foil ground-penetrating radar. Food was stored in both the main shelters and various caches. Cooking by flame was right out, but they each had a small, fuel-cell-powered cooking unit, expected to be sufficient to heat one meal every other day for . . . well, for long enough, if they didn’t overdo it on the light that also ran from the fuel cell. Air was let in via a bamboo pipe system, with a pump that ran off the fuel cell, as well. There was also a backup hand pump, but nobody wanted to depend on that. Carbon dioxide was, somewhat like the waste, removed by gravity, though spread out, where possible.

Carefully? Some hides were sited in the middle of dense clumps of the black palm the Noahs had so negligently or maliciously transferred from old Earth, for example. Others sat in excavations near swamps with the entrances under water. One was up in a hollowed-out crevice in the jungle-shrouded face of a seemingly unscalable cliff. Indeed, of the twenty-two three- and four-man teams scattered about the area, not so much as one team was anyplace where they might have been expected to gather any information more important than the number of mosquito bites on Sergeant So-and-So’s posterior or the number of lice on the carrier pigeons they kept in cages.

“And that’s the beauty of it, boys,” said Sergeant So and So, more commonly known as Sergeant Virgil Rojas. “Here we don’t get bombed. Here, when the enemy comes, we don’t–well, we probably don’t–get hunted for.”

“I still don’t see the point of it, Sergeant,” said Cazador Domingo, who was, any way you looked at it, too big to be a comfortable fit in the cramped bunker and practically had to be hauled out the entrance bodily, even when the hinged tree stump covering the entrance was tilted out of the way.

“Well,” said the sergeant, “try this, Domingo. As long as the enemy is not here, which higher will know as long as we keep sending in reports when asked for, then they must be somewhere else. Isn’t that clear?”

“No, Sergeant. Sorry, Sergeant.”

“Then try this: Knowing where he isn’t gives a very good idea of where he probably is.”

Domingo glanced around the walls of the hide. His gaze seemed to go past them to the miserable and inhospitable swamp outside. “We don’t need to be here, Sergeant, to know nobody else is stupid enough to be here.”

“Point,” agreed Rojas, with a shrug. “Still, you never know.”

“Okay,” said Domingo. “Do you mind if I go topside for a bit while I can?”

“Nah,” Rojas shrugged, “go ahead. One of us, even one of us your size, isn’t suspicious enough to compromise the position, provided we don’t go up too much. There’s too many other people doing too much other stuff in places a lot more important. Go on; we’ll be stuck in here almost all the time soon enough.”

As Domingo slithered out the narrow passage to the tilting tree, the third man of the team, Cazador Flores, breathed a sigh of relief. Domingo simply took up too much space.