A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 18


“In the first assault on Vicksburg, Grant’s theory (when an enemy is disorganized an assault will overwhelm him) broke down, because he failed to realize that a mob of men entering an entrenched line is automatically reorganized by the actual trench they occupy. They are no longer a mob. In place they are a line of men, nearly as well organized, and far more securely protected, than when they were in line in the open field. There is no possibility of manoeuvre, their tactics are reduced to the very simplest form; for all the men have to do is to turn about, and open fire on the advancing attacker.”

–J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant

South of Parilla Line, Balboa

I have got to get back and report in that the Volcano is ready, thought Sergeant Juan Sais, sheltering with Espinal in one of those rare patches of thick growth that happened sometimes when the fall of a tree left a light-permitting hole in the jungle canopy overhead. The fallen trunk, half rotten and more than half buried, had new plant life–the beginnings of a sickly gray-green progressivine colony–growing from and feeding on its mass. It provided a modicum of cover to go along with the concealment of the copse. That said, it was rotten enough that Sais had his doubts about just how much cover it might provide, were they to be spotted by the enemy.

And it stinks like a corpse.

It had been a long, hot, and miserable crawl just to get to the concealing plant life, with Tauran patrols thick on the ground. Sais’ and Espinal’s lungs still heaved with the effort, which made talking difficult. Sais could still think, though, and did.

The fucking Taurans are too many. That asshole Carrera has fucked this up right properly. Still, must report in. But, I don’t know; can we get through to report in?

There was a flurry of firing ahead, the surprise of which made the sergeant shudder. The shots were a mix of the Balboans’ distinctive F-26 rifles, distinctive mostly for having such a high rate of fire, when set to auto or burst, and the deeper sound of weapons that had to be Tauran, for lack of anything else they could have been. The sound was muffled and distorted, partly by the trees and partly by the undulating, almost bare surface of the ground. And, fortunately, given the state of the tree behind which they sheltered, the fire was directed in some other direction; all they heard were muzzle reports, not the crack of bullets passing close by.

From the little copse in which he and Private Espinal sheltered, Sais watched as a group of Taurans–Sais figured them to be for a squad or so, sheltering down in a draw–looked up from heating their rations. The Taurans glanced in the direction of the firing, then shrugged it off, turning their attention back to whatever they’d been doing. Sais couldn’t tell what that was until a minor shift in the wind brought with it the aroma of some kind of hearty stew.

Jesus, has it really been two days since we’ve eaten anything?

Concerned with the more immediately important task of getting something to eat, the Taurans didn’t notice Sais licking his lips and giving some serious thought to trying to take on the Tauran squad to steal their food.

Nah . . . can’t. maybe if I still had the other half of the team.

Three days ago had been when a Tauran thousand pounder–well aimed or just lucky, Sais couldn’t say–had killed the other two men in the team and obliterated their shelter, most of their equipment, notably the radio, and their stockpile of rations. He and Espinal had had their one carried ration, but that had stretched only a day.

Sais still didn’t understand how the thing hadn’t cracked the Volcano it had been his job, his and his team’s, to fill and arm.

Fact that I’m still here suggests it didn’t. Doesn’t prove it, though, and slow leaks are possible. We need to get back to let higher know that the bomb might be defective . . . or might be defective now, after the near miss. And we need to avoid capture, too, because we can’t risk the enemy finding out about the Volcanos.

I wish I could be sure . . .

Sergeant Sais was sure of only a few things at the moment. He was sure he’d set his team’s Volcano properly, both the timer and the digital code. Or, as least, that the test set said it was all fine and functional. Best I could do. He knew half of his team was dead. Fortunately, they were not captured, but then half-tonners don’t take prisoners. He was pretty sure he and his remaining man, Espinal, were going to be dead, too, pretty soon.

Sais was also sure that, if the Tauran troops he could see between himself and safety noticed him or Espinal, there’d be no getting away from them.

Espinal, able to see everything Sais could, leaned toward the Sais’ ear and whispered, “I don’t . . . think we can . . . get through . . . Sergeant. I really . . . don’t.”

Not trusting his own straining lungs to make a soft enough answer, Sais shushed the boy with a finger to his lips. Then, in agreement, he shook his head. A couple of deep breaths further and the sergeant said, “We’ll . . . hole up here . . . for now . . . behind this tree. Tonight . . . we try . . . to get through.”

“Mines?” asked Espinal.

Sais shook his head and shrugged. Sometimes you just have to take your chances.

Log Base Alpha, so called, Balboa Province, Balboa

What are the odds? thought Tribune Ramirez, staring down at the hole where the battery kitchen used to be. A Tauran thousand pounder had done for that, along with the battery’s cooks. They hadn’t even found enough of them to bury. Deformed pots and ruined kitchen utensils, being stronger than flesh, had survived well enough to dot the landscape.

The tribune, standing on the crater’s lip, was flanked by his much-chastened executive officer and first centurion. Of whatever treatment they’d gotten at the hands of Fernandez’s department, neither one would say a word.

Eight guns I’ve got, thought Ramirez, and sixteen barrels for them, plus in effect two headquarters bunkers, mine and FDC, plus three for supply. So they manage to hit the one thing I only have one of? There is no justice. If the troops didn’t get a couple of days training in cooking for themselves in basic, we’d be screwed. As is, though, since cooking for oneself is pretty damned inefficient, and, since we’re not infantry, tanks, or combat engineers, we get unit rations a lot more than combat rations . . .

“Excuse me, Señor,” queried a voice from behind the tribune, “but is this Ramirez’s battery?”

The voice was an interesting combination of old, weak, and thin, and decidedly female, but with a curiously firm edge to it, as if the speaker was quite used to having her own way. Ramirez turned in surprise, as did Top and the exec. There, standing before them, was a tiny woman, really tiny. How old she was he couldn’t tell. Wrinkles and steel gray hair suggested she was quite old, but bright blue eyes, a thin teenaged girl’s general shape, and an unbowed back suggested she might be younger than she looked. The old woman was accompanied by two much younger ones, likely in their middle teens. Good looking kids, they were, too. Those stood well behind her, dragging a small cart behind them.

“I’m Digna Miranda,” the old woman announced, “and I am a lot older than you think. These two”–Mrs. Miranda’s head flicked once each, left and right–“are my great-great-granddaughters.”

“Ah, yes, madam,” Ramirez said, recovering from the surprise. “What can I or my battery do for you?”

“Nothing,” she replied, “we’re here to do for you.”

The tribune cocked his head to one side, quizzically. The legions had had field brothels for the troops overseas, but none here at home that he knew of. Of course, the old woman could be a madam and the two young girls . . . but, No, they just don’t look the type.

“Huh?” he asked, unintelligently.

“The call came out for people who could cook. We can; we ran a small restaurant in the city. We’d been taken over by the government anyway, catering to a couple of the bomb shelters. That was hot, miserable, and boring. Worse, with most of my male descendants out defending the island, it was too damned hard. So, hearing the call, we volunteered.”

“Do you have orders?” asked Ramirez.