A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 24

“In that briefcase,” said Vladimir, “which is my personal gift to you, is enough information to get your bosses off your back. It is neither everything you want nor everything we know. We do, after all, have an interest still in selling our arms, and the more TU soldiers the Balboans can kill with those arms, the more profit we can make. But, for an old friend, why not?”

“How much of it is lies?” Campbell asked.

“Why none,” he answered. “Though do be careful of half-truths that can be wholly misleading. And watch out for some oddities I, personally, cannot explain.”

“Why give this to me at all then?” Jan asked.

“Longstanding affection?” he offered, a broad and insincere smile beaming on his face. At her scoffing snort, he said, “Not buying that, eh? How about so you’ll owe me a favor when the time comes? How about because we don’t think it, for the most part, matters? That we think in this case the material aspects of the war are the least important?”

“Not very Volgan of you.” It wasn’t clear whether she was speaking of the favor or the claim of irrelevance.

Vladimir shook his head. “No; no, it isn’t.” He didn’t make it clear either. Indeed, he found the whole idea uncomfortable enough that he decided it was time to end the meeting. Before he took his leave, however, he passed Jan a business card with an email address, and a written password. “If you need to get hold of me, sign in to that and leave the message in the draft folder. I’ll get it.”

IV Corps Headquarters, Fortress Cristobal, Balboa

The air, for a change, wasn’t shaking with the impact of enemy ordnance. This was unusual enough to be remarkable, and some had remarked on it. Still, the assault could recommence at any time, so the sensitive communications equipment stayed mostly in the stifling command bunker. Hence it was there that Jimenez spoke calmly into a military field telephone that someone had spliced into the remnants of the landline system. Sarita Asilos, seated at her usual workplace, watched adoringly as he did.

“No,” he said, “no, I know this isn’t a small thing. It’s a big one. And I’m not prepared to offer anything like what it’s worth to me personally. You know I can’t surrender Fort Tecumseh. And I can’t and won’t surrender Cristobal. All I can offer is a truce for both of us to evacuate our wounded and for me to put in medical supplies . . . .why don’t we have enough there already? That’s a good question, Chaplain, and someone is possibly going to lose a good chunk of his ass over the answer. I can trade some medical material, because apparently, we have plenty here, and I’ll toss in a can of legionary rum if that will seal the deal . . . six cans? You don’t need medical supplies but six cans and you’ll arrange it . . . oh, you can only try. All right, Chaplain, but obviously if I can’t get the truce I can’t deliver the rum.”

I know it’s a joke, but I will, by God, get him the rum if he can get me the ceasefire. If necessary. I’ll float it to their side in a balloon. Ooops . . . not supposed to even think about those, am I?

“Yeah, sure . . . I’ll be standing by here. Just let me know. But hurry, Padre; there are good men on both sides in needless pain . . . Yes . . . I know you know that. Jimenez out.”

“Will it work, sir?” asked Asilos.

“Fifty-fifty,” the legate answered. “But I believe the Anglian minister when he said if it fell through it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

“I’m going outside for some fresh air. Call me when the phone rings.”

“Yes, sir,” Sarita answered.

Nice girl, Jimenez mused, idly, as he turned and began to walk the twisting, turning half above ground tunnel to the shell of a building that covered the tunnel’s exit. A trench through the former floor of the building led from the opening to the ripped -up asphalt of the street. There, more trenches had been cut, a mix of torn-up asphalt, gravel, dirt and sand being piled to either side to allow safe enough movement when half bent over.

Jimenez followed the trench to a sangar that faced north, one of a half dozen expressly sited to let him–or, should it come to that, his replacement–see and sense the battlefield.

It didn’t seem like much of a battlefield at the moment. To the east, piece by piece, the pounding was lifting from Fort Tecumseh. Quick work, if that’s the Anglian chaplain’s doing. And, if it is, I’ll make it twelve cans.

To the north, few aircraft flew, no bombs exploded, and the Tauran artillery had gone unaccountably silent. Even the aircraft sounded to be helicopters, perhaps under a bit more strain than usual.

Jimenez heard a small sound behind him. He turned to see a familiar shape or, rather, two of them. The larger shape was Asilos, who had apparently tracked him down. The smaller was a roll of wire she reeled out behind her.

“It’s the Anglian chaplain,” she announced, handing over the handset of a phone she’d hung from a strap across her back. It was then that Jimenez saw she’d pulled an operator’s headset on. Into the boom mike she said, in pretty fair English, which he hadn’t known she could speak, “Legate Jimenez will speak to you now.”

“Jimenez, Padre.”

Sarita heard the Anglian say, “Well, I’ve got you your truce. And you can come by small boats to bring over medical supplies and pick up your wounded. But we’re having some communications trouble on this end so it will be some hours before I can be certain everyone here is on board with it. If you don’t hear from me otherwise, sunrise is when it kicks in and it will last four hours.”

“That will be fine, Chaplain,” Jimenez answered. “Now, where can I deliver your booze?”

“I’m going to take a small boat out into the middle of the bay,” the Anglian said. “I’ll be the only one wearing a clerical collar. You can give it to me there . . . .if you insist.”

The chaplain couldn’t see Jimenez’s confirming nod. He did hear, “I do, and I’ll send someone trustworthy. Oh, and good work on getting the artillery lifted off Tecumseh. I’ll order ceasefire except in point self-defense on our end as soon as we finish here.”

“That wasn’t my doing,” the Anglian said. “That was . . . well . . . you’ll see in just a bi’–”

Indeed, Jimenez saw it before he heard or felt it. Suddenly the night sky was lit up from dozens of locations, as if by strobe lights. He immediately dove into the bottom of the sangar, pushing Sarita down with him, eliciting from her a shocked scream. The sound followed along about a minute later, distant enough and from enough guns–Artillery, it must be artillery–that it was more a rumble than a blast.

But not aimed at us; the noise of the shells would have arrived before the muzzle blast. So what is . . .

That question was cut off by the scream of jets, both overhead and to west and east. Interspersed with the shriek of the jets was another sound, crisper than the first wave, but more distant.

In that moment Jimenez understood two things. One was that an attack was ongoing, probably aimed at what the president refused to call the “Parilla Line.” About that he couldn’t do much. The other was that he was laying atop Corporal Sarita Asilos. Must have shielded her with my body automatically; dumb ass.

Closely related were the facts that the breasts her uniform hid fairly well were, in fact, unfairly impressive under the material, and that this was all most irregular indeed.

“There’s no one else here,” she whispered into his ear.

Jimenez hesitated a moment before answering, “Just my conscience.” He then sighed, before using his arms to push himself backwards, off of her, to his knees, and then onto his booted feet.

He bent to give her a hand up, saying, “Some different time and place, maybe, we can continue this . . . conversation.”