A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 14

Log Base Alpha, so called, Balboa Province, Balboa

Avilar was still away, taking care of some details with graves registration and seeing to the men put in hospital. He’ll be along within an hour or so, Tribune Ramirez thought.

Exhausted as he hadn’t been since Cazador School, Ramirez dumped his lorica and load-bearing equipment, leaned his rifle on a stump, sat down on a short stack of ration boxes, and then leaned his back against the corrugated metal of the repurposed shipping container that, buried and sandbagged, served for his battery headquarters. The chill metal was almost a shock against the commander’s sweaty back. After a few moments of reveling in the sweet cool of the shelter, he asked of his small battery headquarters staff, “Where’s Top? Where’s the Exec?”

The company clerk’s eyes rolled. The supply sergeant cleared his throat. Commo began to whistle. The battery chief of smoke started to say something, then clammed up.

“It was a simple question,” said Ramirez. “I want an answer. I . . .”

“They’re under arrest and on charges,” said the chief of smoke, Optio Rosario.


“Charges, sir. They put up a sign saying who and what we were. A big sign. ‘Morale,’ the XO said.

“Within two hours of the sign going up, some of Legate Fernandez’s people had shown up.” Everyone, including Ramirez, felt a little shiver at that name. “Next thing I knew the XO and Top were in cuffs, being marched off, and the sign was being taken down. We’ve still got it, hidden away. Then the tercio commander came by and chewed my ass on general principle. He said he’d try to get them out and get the charges dropped, but he wasn’t sure he could.”


At the word, as if on cue, the sirens began blaring.

“Shit,” cursed the chief of smoke, “another goddamned air raid.”

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

“They don’t know anything,” was Warrant Officer Mahamda’s judgment. “They don’t even understand what they did wrong. That’s good, isn’t it?”

Fernandez began chewing his lip, let his chin drop nearly to his chest, and thought about that question before answering. Do I take Mahamda’s judgment on this? I think so; he’s probably–no, certainly–the best interrogator we’ve got, for any level of interrogation. As for those two ninnies and their fucking sign . . . it’s . . . not actually their fault. Any instructions to avoid advertising what’s in the “Log Base” would themselves be advertisements that something’s in the “Log Base.” Besides logistics, that is.

I suppose I was asking too much when I told my people to go out of their way to make sure no paint went in there? It was a silly cover, anyway, like someone was going to be able to paint a sign that could be seen from the air, through triple canopy jungle. And, anyway, who would have predicted that, in the absence of paint, someone would sit an artistically inclined private down, with a one- by two-meter piece of clear plastic and a shitload of alcohol pens, and have that private spend two weeks drawing a sign . . . with pens? Jesus. Just Jesus.

And what do I do about it if someone, say, one of those spies I haven’t been able to catch the trail of, saw it? I suppose there’s nothing I can do.

Maybe a little disinformation? Provide enough paint for everyone to make a sign, but have them all advertise themselves as something very rear echelon? No . . . that’s suspicious in itself.

Ignore it, let them go with an ass chewing, and hope for the best? That might actually be best.

“You didn’t . . .”

Mahamda shook his head vigorously. “No, sir. With people you think might be innocent and are your own? Terrible idea to put them to the question. Ruins them forever and makes even the most loyal men turn.

“No, I just interrogated them separately. Didn’t even give them the guided tour of the instruments and techniques. Well . . . really didn’t need to; just about every custodial interrogation has torture somewhere in the background, working on the mind of the man to be interrogated. It’s only the really dumb ones who actually need the tour; them, and the ones who believe the propaganda about, ‘Who? Us? We never use torture.'”

“Good . . . good. You did right, Achmed.”

The Sumeri immigrant beamed. “Thank you, sir. Every now and then even my job allows a little charity.”

Fernandez nodded, as if he mostly agreed. “Send them to my office in half an hour. I’ll put the fear of God in them and send them on their way.”

“Yes, sir. Half an hour.”

Fortress Cristobal, Passage Point #2

At this portion of the perimeter, there were three gaps in the wire and mines. Other sections had other gaps, some more than three, some less. There wasn’t a lot that could be done about the wire, though more wire was stockpiled nearby, along with caltrop projectors. Scatterable mine packs were emplaced to close the gaps in the minefield.

At two of the gaps, shells were falling with whistles and shrieks. At or above the ground, they blossomed into flowers of fire and smoke and whizzing shards of razor sharp steel. The third gap, covered by smoke, the enemy seemed not to have discovered yet.

By that third gap, half sheltered in a trench, Xavier Jimenez took his chances. Ashamed to take cover in one of the concrete bunkers, while men of his command tried to get to safety, Jimenez had to, just had to, share the risk. With him were a couple of secondary members of his staff and, for a radio bearer, the female signaler, Sarita Asilos.

Hmmmph, thought the Fourth Corps commander, I can take the risk by my own choice, but the people with me didn’t get a lot of choice, did they.

He turned to the female soldier carrying his radio, Sarita Asilos, saying, “Leave the radio with me, Sarita. You get back to the bunker.”

“No, sir,” she answered. “You’re out here; it’s my job and my duty to be out here, too.”

Jimenez took a deep breath, preparatory to emitting a bellow. Then he looked at the plea written on the girl’s face: I may not be an officer but I’m as good a human being as you are, so don’t shame me by sending me to shelter.

Sighing, Jimenez nodded. The thought of that beautiful face being mashed into so much strawberry jam was difficult, but . . .

“Okay . . . okay, you can stay. Just keep low, will you?”

“Thank you, sir,” the woman answered. “I will.”

Jimenez alternated between shouting out encouragement to the men entering the fortress and talking over the field phone to his artillery commander, Arosamena, the latter struggling to keep a smoke screen up while preserving his command.

The men trying to get in also had to try to squeeze their way between the incoming shells, the churned-up ground, and the bullets, only one in five a tracer, that scored the air overhead. This crew were La Platans, part of the newly designated Thirty-ninth Tercio, Marines, hence somewhat elite. At least they were doing about as well as could be expected in dealing with something –artillery shells–that they had no hope of fighting.

Jimenez suddenly became aware of a pale soldier, young, and about as tall as himself, standing in the open trench with him. In the cover of the trench, the soldier saluted. Jimenez returned it.

“Sir,” the newcomer said, speaking in that La Platan Spanish that might as well have been Old Earth Italian, “Lieute . . . I mean Tribune Pereyra, reporting, sir. These are my compa . . . .maniple’s men coming in.”

“Are you the commander?” Jimenez asked, suspicious that a commander might seek shelter before his men.

He relaxed when the La Platan answered, “No, sir; I’m the exec. My commander’s out with them. He’ll be the last in, I think . . . assuming . . .”

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

Carrera stood up from his camp stool, took the couple of steps off the dais, and exited the operations room. Warrant Officer Jamey Soult, his driver, was waiting, not far from the entrance to the thick-walled concrete shelter.

“Need a lift, Boss?” Soult asked.

“Yeah, Jamey,” Carrera answered, climbing into the unremarkable staff car. “Take me to Fifty-second Deception Tercio, in Subcamp D.”

“Wilco,” Soult replied, starting the vehicle and easing out from under the camouflage and radar scattering screen overhead. “What, if it’s okay to ask, is your business with the Fifty-second?”

“Nothing specific,” Carrera replied. “I just want to get a general feel for how much bait the enemy might be taking.”