A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 08

“Every time I allow somebody to fire,” Arosamena told Jimenez, “that firing battery’s life in measurable in minutes. I never saw or anticipated what that kind of air superiority could do. I’m sorry . . .”

“Not your fault,” Jimenez assured the gunner, adding a hearty slap on the back. “You would be doing better, Legate, if we were allowed to use our air defense and if we could use everything at once. Since we’re not, and we can’t, you just have to mark time and wait for a target that’s worth losing a battery or platoon over.”

“I don’t know that I’ve seen anything worth losing a battery over,” Arosamena said.

Jimenez shook his head. “It’s not really the damage to the target we care about, but the overall threat and the friction we inflict on the enemy by making that threat credible.”

“Yes, sir. That’s what doctrine says, sir.” Arosamena didn’t sound like he had a lot of faith in doctrine.

I’m not too sanguine about doctrine, either, Jimenez thought. And, just like Standish, I wonder why Fernandez didn’t find out and let us know about the reconstituted para brigades. And I wonder what else he’s let us down on.

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

The General Staff building, Estado Mayor in Spanish, was, if anything, even more thoroughly wrecked than Jimenez’s brownstone headquarters in Cristobal. That was to be anticipated. Moreover, it had been anticipated, with widely scattered concrete fortified camps having been constructed long since, to hold and shelter evacuees from the main building. Sub-camp C held about half of Legate Omar Fernandez’s organization, to include the hard interrogation section headed up by Chief Warrant Officer Achmed al Mahamda. He was a Sumeri immigrant to Balboa, expressly recruited for his peculiar expertise more than a decade prior, and sheltered from paying for his crimes on behalf of the old Sumeri regime ever since. It was said of Mahamda that he could make a rock weep and, given two rocks, could extract the ultimate truth from both.

If this was an exaggeration, it was not much of one.

The screams coming from a chamber to the south of Warrant Officer Achmed al Mahamda’s office seemed to make the underground, concrete lined tunnels reverberate. Fernandez shuddered with sympathy. Not that he didn’t detest the men undergoing interrogation; he did, just as he’d detest any native-born Balboan caught spying for the enemy. This detestation, though, was coupled with a measure of admiration for how long this particular set of captives had held out.

Even at that, Mahamda hadn’t gotten everything. Fernandez knew, and took considerable personal satisfaction in knowing, that between seven and twelve spies from the Rocaberti camp had been reintroduced to Balboa. He’d be more sure of the numbers except that the prisoners were still lying about them. He knew some of the methods of reintroduction, ranging from parachute drop, to submarine, to simply walking across the border or, in one case, coming in via a Castilian diplomatic passport and, in another, as a notional member of a news organization. He also knew their mission hadn’t been either espionage or direct action, but to re-establish contact with sundry spies already in country.

But I don’t know who is still at large. With names, real names, I could come up with pictures. With pictures we’d have the last of them rounded up within the week. But those miserable bastards simply won’t give up the same stories on the names. Fucking . . .

Fernandez let the thought die. Best I remember that just because I think somebody is wicked, wrong, evil, a traitor, a swine . . . that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s any of those things, or is any less dedicated to his cause than I am to mine. If there weren’t . . .

The thought was interrupted by a long and heartrending shriek of utter agony.

Ah, that sounds like the young captive.

Fernandez turned his wheelchair toward the interrogation chamber, using the small stick on the right arm to direct it forward. What I can order Mahamda to do I can make myself watch.


The boy–and he was just a boy, no more than eighteen–hung by his wrists from a rope running through a hook overhead. His wrists were behind him. His shoulders strained near to dislocating. Mere inches below his outstretched toes, his feet twitched and danced to find purchase on the floor. Tears ran down his face, while snot poured from his nose. The three streams joined somewhere below his lower lip, the mix dripping from his chin onto the floor.

The thing is, boy, thought Mahamda, that this is the light stuff. It can get a lot worse, and will, unless your story and the stories of the others come to match.

Mahamda barely glanced over as Fernandez silently rolled in on his powered chair. The chief didn’t often come to watch and, when he did, Mahamda was fairly sure it was to punish himself for the punishment he had inflicted.

Reaching out one hand to grasp the boy by the hair, Mahamda visually signaled an assistant to let the rope down a bit, enough for the boy’s toes and the balls of his feet to rest on the floor. It wasn’t entirely unprecedented when the boy’s sobbing increased at even that much relief from the pain.

Pulling back on the prisoner’s hair, thus raising his face, Mahamda said, not ungently, “It can only get worse from here, Sancho. You’ve had the tour. You know what awaits you. Why don’t you tell me the truth? You know you will eventually.”

Mahamda, naturally, had no particular moral issues with lying to the people he tortured, especially if the lie might reduce the amount of torture he had to apply, which reduced the risk one of them might die before spilling his guts.

“The others,” he said, “have broken, boy. Whether from having their nuts squeezed in a vise or a blowtorch applied to their feet; whether from the dental drilling or the rack or Skevington’s Daughter; they’ve all broken. Still their pain goes on because you won’t tell me the truth.” The warrant seemed most distressed at this, for all one could tell from his voice.

“You want their pain to stop, don’t you, Sancho? Sure, you’re young and healthy, you can take it for a while longer. But old Pedrarias? He’s just this side of death from the pain.”

In fact, Emilio Pedrarias had died under interrogation, but no sense letting the boy know that.

Mahamda let the boy’s hair go, then signaled with his chin for his assistant to turn the wheel to raise him off the floor again. The screaming resumed, with new intensity.

“We’ll leave Sancho here to think a while, especially to think on what his comrades are enduring because he refuses to speak the truth.”

As Mahamda left the chamber to confer with Fernandez, he said to his assistant, “Don’t pull on his legs yet or start the raise and drop routine.”


Outside the torture chamber, shaking his head, the Sumeri warrant said, “Sayyidi, I’ve been in this business a long time. I honestly don’t think the poor shit knows anything beyond what he’s said.”

“So why are you continuing?” Fernandez asked. “Piping the sounds into someone else’s cell?”

“Yes, sir, with a ten-second delay. Sometimes it helps. And, besides, I could be wrong; he just might know something significant.”

“Any insights from the others?”