A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 26

About a kilometer and a half to the other side, another company of Haarlemers likewise walked forward, likewise with the rest of their battalions following along.

As a reconnaissance in force goes, this seems sufficiently heavy on the “force” part.

The rumble of artillery grew steadily, not only because they were closing on the objective, but, so Verboom thought, also because the artillery seemed to have picked up the pace, delivery of shell-wise. However, the sound of the explosions changed, too.

We must be within about four hundred meters, he thought. Those shells are on delay. Indeed, to prove the point Verboom saw through a recently created break in the vegetation overhead–jets, I suppose–and to the south a great plume of dirt and rocks rising to the sky. In seeming response, the trees about two hundred meters to the left were suddenly denuded of foliage as a Balboan bombardment–Werner thought he could count a dozen or so distinct explosions–detonated among them, rather than bursting through.

“Haul ass!” shouted Lieutenant Kranz. “Two hundred and fifty meters, then take up a support position!”

Bella Vista, Balboa

And there’s an indicator to mark down on the side of the “we out-thought the enemy” ledger, Janier mused. If the artillery we captured were only a show, a bit of bait, they’d be pounding the shit out of our men all the up to the Parilla Line. They’re not; the little bit of indirect fire they’re throwing out is scattered, thin, and not very effective. Moreover, the counterbattery people are not only silencing it quickly, but they tell me it’s only mortars. So maybe, just maybe . . .

Janier had a sudden thought. Pulling his communicator from a side packet, he called Wallenstein. She answered immediately, “Yes, Bertrand?”

Does the blonde bitch never sleep or is this as important to her as it is to me?

“Marguerite, I won’t ask what you’re still doing awake, but since you are awake what are you seeing on the ground?”

“Nothing much,” she replied. “We’ve had to pull our skimmers back to protect them from your attack. But where they are, they can see in a few places increased medical activity, ambulances and such.”

“No holes appearing suddenly in the jungle canopy?” Janier asked.

“Only the ones we watched your jets and artillery make.”

“Troop movements? Armored vehicles?”

“We couldn’t hope to pick up soldiers on foot,” she replied. “The whole area is practically a beacon of refined metal and electronic activity. But none of the serious metal is moving, no. We’d pick that up, we think, for all the deception Carrera has put in front of us.”

“You mean you can’t tell the difference between forty tons of warmed up scrap metal and forty tons of tank until one of them moves?”

“Yes. And, tell you the truth, we probably can’t always tell then. But if we got enough metal moving, a thousand tons or so, say, we’d see and know that. And there isn’t any.”

“Any electronic intercepts?” he asked. “We’ve been getting nothing that made any sense, other than a request for a short truce on humanitarian grounds. My staff thinks it’s because they’re using nothing but land line.”

“Same and same.”

“It’s not suspicious, is it, Marguerite? Everything is exactly as it should appear? And I am just being paranoid?”

“I don’t think actual paranoia is possible when dealing with the Balboans,” the High Admiral returned, or, at least, when dealing with their commander. “But, yes, this time it still looks like you outfoxed them.”

“It is looking that way; even I am forced to agree. Let’s see what our reconnaissance shows up.”

Parilla Line.

Verboom’s point man, Corporal Coevorden, found the first wire the hard way. Running at a breakneck pace, his left shin hit it about 12 inches above the left foot. He tripped and went flying forward, landing on a crisscrossed patch of single strand wire and bolshiberries that held him, a bit torn and bleeding, about a foot over the ground.

“Tanglefoot,” Verboom shouted. “Alpha Team, cut through to your corporal and recover him. Bravo Team, bayonets as wire cutters and follow me!”

While Verboom was doing the only thing there was to do, clear the obstacle to his front and recover his man, Lieutenant Kranz moved to the edge of the wire, directing the other two squads of the platoon to the left and right to provide overwatch to the breaching party. With the platoon leader came the forward observer. Kranz put him to artillery work. Looking between the trees he saw the beginning of a rise about a hundred and fifty meters to the front.

Pointing to the rise, he said, “I need smoke between us and that.” The FO went prone, looked up, and immediately got to work on his digital device, punching in the shell and fuse combination he wanted and the to and from grids for the screen.

“Hurry the hell up,” Kranz demanded.

“The mission’s in, sir,” the observer said, “but lots of people are calling for fire right now we got a few . . . oh, wait . . . we’ve got a ‘shot, out,’ sir, and a splash in twenty-eight seconds.”

“Twenty-eight seconds is a long time to . . .”

Kranz never finished his sentence. His head simply exploded from the impact of one or more bullets in a very short space of time. The cloth-ripping crackcrackcrack that followed suggested it was more than one that hit him.

Kranz’s brains and blood scattered over the observer, dotting his uniform, face, hands, and digital fire control device with little bits of sticky red organic matter. The FO screamed like a little girl confronted with ultimate horror, before beginning an uncontrollable bodily tremor. The scream was loud enough for the point of the platoon to hear it.

Even with the FO out of commission, hopefully temporarily, the smoke shells began to fall and blossom, white phosphorus at first, followed by shells containing a mix of hexachloroethane and zinc oxide. Somewhere ahead an enemy soldier screamed more horribly than had the observer, a long, continuous shriek that never lost its volume for longer than it would take a man to suck in another breath. A fragment or several of white phosphorus, the fire that is almost impossible to put out, had probably landed on his skin. The scream went on and on.

Jesus, thought Verboom, leading the way through the wire one strand of tanglefoot or one bolshiberry vine at a time, would somebody put that poor, sorry bastard out of his misery? He also had to remind himself that only the fruit of the bolshiberries–green on the outside, red on the inside–was poisonous.

Snip, twang, snip, twang, and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Verboom realized there was no more tanglefoot, or none he could see, ahead of him. Separating them, he resheathed his bayonet into its scabbard, then slid the whole into the oval of nylon webbing that held it to his belt. His next thought was mines. Maybe mines. The thought was pushed aside as another small salvo of Balboan mortar shells impacted in the trees behind him.

“There might be mines,” he muttered, “but I know the indirect fire is there and getting closer. I’ll go with the threat I know about.”

Still, there were mines and then there were mines. The most dangerous–whether fixed directional or bouncing – were likely to be on trip wires. From a cargo pocket Verboom grabbed a can of aerosol string and aimed it directly to his front. A short burst of the stuff shot out maybe ten feet, but then hung on the grass well above where a tripwire was likely to be found.

What the fuck was I thinking? Of course, it’s not likely to do much good there.

Resigned to the risk, Werner cradled his rifle in the crook of both elbows and then began a very slow and deliberate crawl forward. The occasional Balboan shell landing behind tended to force him to speed up, unwisely. It took a major act of will to keep his advance to something that allowed him at least a fighting chance to see and sense mines, tripwires, and other kinds of traps. The fact that he didn’t run into any made this harder still.

Crawling in the tropic heat was hard and sweaty work. While taking a reluctant break to catch his breath, Verboom looked behind him. One fire team seemed close on his tail, but he couldn’t see the other one. He risked a shout out, “Where the hell is Alpha Team?”

“They dragged Corporal Coevorden to the rear. My crawling shit van der Wege joined them.”

Dumb shits; he couldn’t have been that badly hurt. Deal with them later, because I can’t deal with them now.

“Okay; let’s move out again.”

Ahead, the formerly screaming Balboan seemed to have settled on a heart-wrenching, “Por favor . . . por favor . . . por favor . . .” It sounded to Verboom to be just what it was, please . . . .please . . . please . . .