A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 11

HAMS Typhoon, South of Cristobal, Shimmering Sea

Alone in his suite–spacious by shipboard standards, and prettified a bit, but still gray paint over cold steel–where he could expect not to be disturbed, Janier took the communications device and pressed the button to contact the commander of the space fleet, far, far, overhead.

The voice from the communicator’s small speaker–husky, but very, very female–seemed positively buoyant. “Marguerite speaking, Bertrand. Things seem to be going swimmingly from up here. How can I help you?”

She was always fairly easy for me to deal with, thought Janier, but, I confess, she’s gotten to be a real joy to work with since she took up with Her Imperial Fragrant Cuntedness.

That last thought, perhaps a little unkind, referred to the High Admiral of the United Earth Peace Fleet’s lover, Xingzhen, the Empress of Ming Zhong Guo. Of indeterminate age, the Empress was, Janier admitted, almost painfully beautiful. And steeped in sin and vice. I hope she is sincere with Marguerite; the woman deserves some happiness in life.

With an audible sigh, Janier began, “How many times before have things seemed to be going ‘swimmingly,’ my dear High Admiral? Yes, it’s working. Yes, inverting the normal procedure from airborne followed by airmobile to air assault, rapidly reinforced by airborne, may yet get me into the history books, it’s working so well. Why, I am practically Napoleon reborn.”

That last was spoken sardonically; Janier had long ere now decided that he was not Napoleon, nor even too very great. He’d been finding for a while that a touch of humility worked somewhat better for him than had arrogance.

“I don’t trust it,” he blurted out, “not in the slightest.”

“Because it’s going too well?” asked the disembodied voice.


“Well, Bertrand,” Marguerite stated, “this is your area of expertise, not mine. But I can tell you, as I often have, what I can see from up here.

“The enemy is retreating into his works as quickly as his legs and wheels–where he has wheels–will carry him. We’ve intercepted–I am sure your own people have, too–any number of panic-stricken radio transmissions. Via recon skimmer I can see some dozens of artillery positions, abandoned or destroyed or both. There are a fair number of bodies and, if no one’s told you, your forces are capturing prisoners, in some numbers. A few hundred, anyway.

“He’s fighting hard where he has a chance; that much I agree on. But, Bertrand, is that not itself an indicator that he was taken by surprise?”

The Gaul mulled that. He knew that he was reluctant, genuinely and sincerely reluctant, to expect any tremendous success from his generalship. But, maybe . . . just maybe, the disasters of recent times were flukes. It is not necessary for me to think I am Napoleon for me to have confidence in what abilities I do have. Is it?

“It could be so, High Admiral,” Janier conceded. “Very well . . . we’ll proceed as we have been. But I would like a couple of things cleared up, if you can, that my staff is unable to.”

“Go ahead, Bertrand; ask . . .”

UEPF Spirit of Peace, in orbit over Terra Nova

Wallenstein didn’t need a communicator; Janier’s voice came through the ship’s comm system, emerging from a speaker built into Wallenstein’s quarters’ wall.

Like Janier, Wallenstein preferred to take messages from her opposite, in this case ground-bound, number in the privacy of her own quarters. This, formerly somewhat spare, she’d taken a woman’s touch to decorating. It now held various decorations both from back home and from down below. Unwilling to be even partly responsible for the death of a beautiful flying creature, she had, instead, a wonderfully carved Trixie, made of silverwood, but with brightly painted indented lines. It was, perhaps, her favorite piece. The air filtration, purification, and refreshment system didn’t like dealing with smoke, but she still had a couple of candelabra which held a trio each of fragrant tranzitree wax candles. Her desk, like the carved bird, was also of silverwood, though unpainted. On one wall hung a saber-tooth’s skin, complete to head and long, wickedly curved, fangs.

Though she took some messages in her own quarters, Wallenstein didn’t feel the need to be completely alone. Both Xingzhen, her lover and the Empress of Ming Zhong Guo, and Esmeralda, her sometimes cabin girl, rapidly evolving to aide de camp, were present, as was Khan, the husband half of the pair, and Khan, the wife, who was somewhere behind Xingzhen, hidden by covers, on the bed. The ivory-skinned empress lounged in an embroidered green silk robe on her left side. Esma, on the other hand, sat on the edge of a well-padded swivel chair, permanently affixed to the deck through the carpet. Khan sat at the admiral’s desk, typing data into her computer, which data was reflected on the wall screen

That screen, mounted at one corner so all could see it, was large. It was not nearly so large as the locally manufactured Kurosawa filling an entire wall in the main conference room. On the screen was a map of Balboa and Santa Josefina, along with their surrounding waters.

“Go ahead, Bertrand; ask. If we can see it, I’ll tell you.”

“Have they moved any of their armor,” Janier asked, “either against us or against the Zhong landing?”

Marguerite scowled at the screen as she answered the air. “I can’t tell you where it is, Bertrand, but I can tell you nothing’s moved. Hmmm . . . let me clarify. It’s got to be mostly in their log base or in the city. Those are the only two places where they could be hiding the, we estimate”–she cast a glance at Khan who held up two fingers and mouthed, legions–“two legions of armor, based on”–again, she looked Khan-ward, then gestured in the direction of the speaker.

“General Janier, this is Commander Khan. We counted some hundreds of tanks, and over a thousand infantry fighting vehicles coming off the ships. At least that many. Plus, something over a hundred self-propelled guns, again, at least. That, with what they already had on hand, tells me that they have the equivalent of two of your mechanized or armored divisions . . .”

“I already knew that, Commander.” Janier’s tone, despite his interruption, was much more deferential to the spaceborne field grade than he was likely to have been with one of his own. “I have some sources of my own, after all.”

“Yes, General, I’m sure of both.” Khan’s tone was, likewise, much more deferential to the groundling barbarian than was his wont. That could be attributed to the value the high admiral placed on said barbarian groundling. “I mention it so you can be certain; we counted those things off the ships, such as we could, and followed them as far as we could.

“Unfortunately, they played a shell game with us, so we lost most of them in transit. It shouldn’t be a surprise; we were trying to keep track of over twenty thousand pieces of equipment and containers.

“How the hell do you play a shell game with a forty-ton tank?” Janier demanded.

“Among other methods, airships,” Khan answered. “We can’t see through them and when they’re over a ship we can’t see what comes off the ship. Same when they get over a parking lot. And then we don’t know what they unload, when they unload, especially when they might make a dozen or twenty stops on the way. If we’d had eyes on the ground, or on the ships, of course . . .”

Khan let the thought trail off. No use in reminding the general just why we no longer have any eyes on the ground.

He continued, “The ones we didn’t lose are suspiciously ill-placed, so I can’t say what they mean exactly, except I am inclined to think they mean nothing, that we were allowed to track them to delude us into thinking we were doing well.”

“You mean,” asked Janier, “whatever we think the ones you’ve been able to track portray, they certainly portray no such thing?”

“Yes, General, that’s what I mean. On the other hand, we’ve done considerably better in identifying which of the protected points the Balboans gave out hold your soldiers they’re keeping prisoner, which are medical facilities, and which are nothing at all.”

Janier snorted. “No clue about which ones are covering up those tanks and guns you lost?”

“No, General,” Khan said, “except that we don’t think Carrera’s used any of them for an illegal purpose.”

“No, he’s just hiding those tanks and tracks you can’t find among them.”

“No, General, we don’t think so. Really, we don’t. We can’t get any magnetic or heat signature consistent with a major piece of equipment from anything within two hundred meters of the protected points the Balboans announced. That does allow you to bomb. Except . . .”

“Except,’ supplied the Gaul, “we would need to use precision guided munitions to bomb so close, small ones and a lot of them. Worse, we’d have to use PGMs that don’t use the global locating system, since the Balboans can apparently sabotage that. And we don’t have them to use. Or not enough of them, anyway. And laser guidance is almost useless in the jungle, while television guidance isn’t all that great either.

“Anything on their air defense umbrella and the aerial fleet they used to humiliate us?”

“Sorry, General,” said Khan. “Those are even deeper hidden than their tanks.

“We do have some better intelligence for you, Bertrand,” Marguerite said.

“You could hardly have less,” Janier sneered, then said, with apparent sincerity, “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for.”

Hmmm . . . I suppose I haven’t quite eliminated the old me.

“What is it you have?” he asked.

“Santa Josefina,” Wallenstein said, ignoring the previous sally, because, after all, The bloody Gaul really is trying.

“I can pinpoint the locations of anything above a platoon-sized organization from the second regiment of Santa Josefinans, the one that used to be glaring at Marciano over the minefields east of Ciudad Cervantes.”

“Why there and not here?” Janier asked.

Khan took the question, answering, “It was a case of preparation, control, planning, and time. They were able to prepare in Balboa to screw with our sensing, because they had control of the ground, the time to do it, and the means to do it. Santa Josefina . . . they didn’t. Santa Josefina’s always struck me as a sideshow, true, but they also just didn’t have the means to do any serious preparation, either.”

“Okay,” Janier agreed, “that’s useful. Can you get it to Marciano, directly or do you want to funnel it through me?”

Wallenstein didn’t answer right away, thinking hard for a short moment. Eyes roamed the corners of her quarters until falling, at last, on Esmeralda.

“We’ll send it down to Marciano, Bertrand,” she said. “You have enough to do.”

“Thanks,” Janier agreed. “Marciano might find it insulting to get the information from me. He’s an independent campaign, after all. And besides, he has time in grade on me.

“And then, too . . .”

“Yes, General?” Wallenstein asked.

“In thinking about it . . . well . . . frankly, this is the part where we were vulnerable. If they moved their armor now, they could catch us scattered, in poor positions, under-supported, in an absolutely crappy supply situation, with no defenses prepared. Yes, even in the jungle. I’ve already learned that tanks can still be useful in the jungle.

“But, in any case, I mean that the knowledge they are not committing their armor is as valuable, not least to my piece of mind, as anything else you could have told me.

“And it means one other thing.”

“What’s that?” Wallenstein asked.

“I suspect that Carrera made a mistake.” Janier gave a tentative laugh, followed by a much fuller one. “Even if he’d intended to put on a mere show of resistance around Cristobal, once he had us here and vulnerable he should have struck. So maybe, finally, finally, the son of a bitch made a mistake.”