A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 12


“In all the trade of war, no feat

Is nobler than a brave retreat.”

–Samuel Butler, Hudibras

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

Carrera sat on a camp stool set up on a low dais, one that was still high enough to see the large map and its movable troop markers. His head hung. Hands folded, forearms resting on thighs, the slumped shoulders told of a man in the pits of despair from an unaccustomed defeat.

That image, their never-conquered commander in a blue funk, infected every member of the staff who saw it, which infection–“defeatism,” it was called–was passed on to everyone they came in contact with. Unlike normal, biological diseases, this one could be transmitted by radio and land line.

Moreover, he’d maintained something much like that posture during a just finished meeting with the ambassador from the Federated States, Tom Wallis, on the reasoning that, Wallis will have to report my demeanor and there are enough Kosmos and Taurophiles in his organization that they’ll get the word to where it needs to go.

Whatever visual image he presented, Carrera still listened carefully to reports from both Second Corps and Fourth Corps as their subordinate units, such as were exposed, escaped from the area of the Tauran incursion to either the safe area on and behind the Parilla Line or into Fortress Cristobal. As he listened, he watched the map being updated. He watched it discreetly, eyes hidden under brows, unwilling to show anything to anyone.

He almost blew his feigned disinterest when the first Tauran units bumped into the Parilla Line, and loudspeaker-borne reports of the action, punctuated with rifle and machine-gun fire, were broadcast into the operations room.

Really have to watch that, he cautioned himself. Really have to make sure that any transmissions coming out of here and intercepted tell of nothing but despair.


Ambassador Tom Wallis was just about to leave the compound to return to his staff car, thence to his not yet bombed embassy, when Fernandez stopped him for a brief word.

“I won’t insult you with an offer of either women or money, Ambassador,” Fernandez said, “but you’ve always seemed to true friend to us and even to our little political experiment.”

“I am,” Wallis answered. “I always have been.”

“Ah, very good. I was wondering if you might, then, manage to leave certain intelligence items where, say, somebody on both our payrolls could see them.”

Wallis barely kept from laughing. Well, of fucking course Fernandez has people in my embassy. Silly not to have.

Instead, with his face the essence of diplomatic neutrality, he asked, “What, specifically, do you want, Legate?”

“Satellite imagery, actually, of the Tauran air bases in Cienfuegos. Do they send you that kind of thing?”

“Not usually,” Wallis answered carefully. “When we get sent something like that it’s generally to put us in high dudgeon so we don’t have to just act angry or sympathetic in negotiations.”

Fernandez considered that, then asked, “Well . . . what if you asked for them to give you conviction enough to show us the hopelessness of our position, the better to restart the peace negotiations?”

“You have an evil mind, legate. But, you know, that might work.”

South of the Parilla Line

Foliage was scarce at ground level in the deep, dark jungle. Only with the death and rotting of an old tree, or the lightning-blasted sundering of a major branch, had enough light leaked through to allow anything much to grow, those places, and in the few Carrera had cleared allegedly, for housing and farming purposes.

Of course, now, what with the war and the bombing, there were a lot more places where sufficient light to feed life could leak through. A LOT more places. And, in some few spots, there was already the beginning of what might turn out to be substantial growth. Or might not, bombing schedule depending.

Tribune Ramirez lay in the dirt, the detachment from his battery strung out in the damp draw behind him. The tribune’s dirt-camouflaged face lurked behind a patch of thick grass, raised where the sun peeked through the canopy, caressing the spot on which the grass grew for a portion of an hour a day.

Ramirez stuck his fingers into a grass clump then spread them, forcing the grass apart just enough to peer through, as one might peer through a keyhole. It was not enough to be seen by someone distant on the far side. What he saw was a firefight. Rather, he saw the enemy side of it, their machine guns pounding, providing cover, chipping bark off trees and sending clods of dirt into the air, while riflemen and grenadiers lunged forward in short leaps and bounds. He didn’t recognize the uniforms, but the shouted orders sounded distinctly Teutonic to him. Worse, though the Balboan F-26 rifle and M-26 light machine gun put out rounds at a much higher rate than anything the Taurans had, he heard little of that rate of fire being slung toward the enemy.

He slowly moved his head left and right, making a few tiny changes to the sheltering grass as he did so. Eyes darted back and forth, engraving a replicable picture on the brain. Then he slithered back, with the mud forcing itself up under his uniform jacket and lorica as he did.

With curt whispers and a finger drawing in the muck, Ramirez illustrated what he wanted done. “Some of our guys are in trouble ahead . . .”–scratch, scratch–“the enemy is here”–point, circle–“We’re already on line, here”–point, scratch–“and about well enough oriented.”

Avilar raised one eyebrow. You sure about this, Boss?

“They’re our guys, we can’t just abandon them.”

The eyebrow dropped. Avilar, reluctantly at first, and then with determination, gave several curt nods. “All right.”

“Walk the line to the far end,” Ramirez said, pointing in the direction from which they’d come. “Tell the boys, fix bayonets . . . quietly. Full auto, not burst. I’ll lead. You follow, kicking any stragglers in the ass. We’ll charge. Screaming like maniacs, we’ll charge.”

Again, Avilar gave a couple of curt nods, then arose to a crouch and began walking the line down the draw, giving whispered orders even more curt than his commander’s had been.

Ramirez watched for a second, then took up his own rifle. Normally, being a tribune, he bore only a pistol, but he’d figured this mission might call for something heavier when he’d been ordered out, so had drawn a spare from his unit’s arms room. Everyone carried the same model bayonet cum wire cutters, so he hadn’t had to borrow one of those.

With one thumb, the tribune unsnapped the clasp, his hand covering the thing to muffle sound. Unnecessary? Who could say? But few if any soldiers in human history had lost their lives for being too quiet.

Not untypically, his heartbeat became much more rapid as his fingers closed around the bayonet’s plastic handle. The pounding came faster and harder as he maneuvered the blade onto the muzzle, seated it, and checked that it was firmly affixed.

Glancing down the line, Ramirez saw that Avilar had beaten him to the draw, despite having to walk and give orders as he did. How the fuck does he do that?

Oddly, the tribune’s heart rate slowed considerably after that. It went up again as soon as the centurion gave him the thumbs up.

Ramirez rolled to get on one knee, his left, with his right foot planted firmly in the muck. He took a final deep breath–and it might be final, at that–then launched himself up and over the lip of the draw.

His brother, the senior non-com of the aircraft carrier Dos Lindas, now interned in Santa Josefina, had taught him a battle cry once. The tribune used it now. Firing from the hip at a machine-gun crew about one hundred meters to his front, his men joining in almost immediately, Ramirez screamed, “BANZAI, MOTHERFUCKERS!”


Sergeant Major Ricardo Cruz prayed silently. At least when he was conscious, he did. When he prayed, it wasn’t for his life; he thought that was lost anyway. At least, the amount of blood he’d been coughing up suggested very strongly that this was pretty much it. Rather, he commended his soul to God and asked of his God that He should look to the welfare of his wife and children.

For doesn’t the song the cadets sing insist that God in His Heaven loves His faithful soldiers?

How the fuck did we end up like this?

Cruz asked the question, but he already had the answer. We never really trained for this. A little lip service, sure, but really, we trained for attack, attack, and attack some more. And we never lost while doing that. So, when it was the enemy on the attack, and we had no ambush ready, we fell apart a little. At least . . .