A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 27

Poor bastard, he thought once again. For reasons he wasn’t even aware of he aimed himself at the repetitive plea, half his squad, he assumed, still following. Ahead, the artillery had stopped landing. Whether this was because the FO was in control of himself again, or the guns had bigger and better tasks, or because they’d simply run out of ammunition, Verboom couldn’t guess. It didn’t really matter anyway, since the smoke hung around still, blocking unaided sight between Verboom and the ridge that was the day’s objective. Occasional burst of fire lanced out from the dense cloud, but whether it was aimed via a thermal sight or just random shooting, Verboom couldn’t tell.

Slithering forward, still, Verboom came to his first shellhole. Though it hadn’t rained in the last twelve hours or so, the bottom of the crater was rapidly turning to mud. He decided to wait there briefly–it’s as safe as anywhere–and let his squad, what there was of it, join him.

The hole was large enough to accommodate Verboom and his short fireteam in fair safety. However, Coevorden and his entire team also showed up and began to slither into the muck.

“I thought they carried you to the rear,” Verboom said.

“Maybe a hundred yards,” Coevorden replied. His eyes seemed to lack a degree of focus. “That’s how long it took me to recover from hitting my head–well, recover enough; it’s still ringing and swimming–and get them to turn around. It took a little longer to get that piece of dog shit, van der Wege, moving forward again.”

Another Balboan shell, probably in the eighty-two-millimeter range, buried itself in the dirt fifty or sixty meters away. The resultant plume of flying rocks and dirt not only pelted the squad but reminded Verboom of why they had to keep pushing on.

“Please . . . please . . . please . . .”

Balboan fire again lashed out: Crackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrack.

Another body appeared at the edge of the crater. The platoon sergeant, van Beek, peered down at them. “Lieutenant Kranz bought it,” van Beek announced. “Must had been instantaneous. The FO’s gone sort of catatonic; he was looking right at the lieutenant when his head exploded. The radio operator for the observer is handling our calls for fire. You have no idea how lucky you are, by the way. The radioman stopped the artillery from dropping a package of white phosphorus approximately on your heads.”

Van Beek looked directly at Verboom. “I’ve got the rest of the platoon behind me. Company commander is somewhere back there, too. Move due south by bounds. I’ll keep as tight on your tail as I can. Got it?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Verboom said.

“Good. Now move out.”

“Right. Coevorden, overwatch. Bravo Team, let’s go.”

Moving from prone to a low crouch, Verboom could see that there were likely enough craters, at least as far as the still-hanging curtain of smoke, for them to leap from one to the next with minimal exposure to fire.

“Come on!”

Bravo Team followed close on Verboom’s heels, and still bunched in a tight little knot. Doctrine–anyone’s doctrine–often overlooked practicalities. In this case, as a practical matter, spread out would have taken time and risked greater exposure, while sticking together got them to the next hole rather quickly. All dived in.

“Get up on the lip,” Verboom ordered. “Overwatch.” He turned to direct his voice in the direction from which they’d come, shouting, “Coevorden! Go!”


Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

“No fucking artillery,” Carrera insisted, waving a glass of whiskey with his left hand.

“Those men are being butchered up there, Duque,” the chief of staff insisted. “They need something to get the Tauran guns off their backs.”

“No. Fucking. Artillery. They’ve got mortars; they can use those.”

“Mortars won’t reach for the counterbattery work they need.”

“End of discussion; no fucking artillery support.”

“But . . .”

Carrera’s eyes flashed in a fair imitation of psychosis. “MPs? Military Police! Put this man under arrest and bring him to Legate Fernandez.”

The cell went deathly quiet, half at Carrera’s outburst and half at the mention of the dreaded name. MPs–it was their job, along with the main band, to guard the headquarters–came in and led an apparently shocked chief of staff out to an awaiting vehicle. Just about everyone else tried to pretend they’d heard nothing as well as trying very hard to look like they were totally rapt in the work in front of them. It was especially shocking in that the arrested chief of staff was Dan Kuralski, who had been with the legions since the beginning and was known to be one of Carrera’s oldest and dearest friends.

One boy, though, a young signal corps signifer, maybe nineteen or twenty, had the guts to ask, “Well, how do they stop the Taurans, then, Duque?”

“With guts and bayoneted rifles,” he answering, striding off to his own quarters, whiskey still in hand.

Jamey Soult, Carrera’s driver, bit his lower lip and shook his head. His boss wasn’t supposed to be like this.

North of the Parilla line, Balboa

Verboom looked down in infinite pity at the Balboan soldier, still smoking and with the better part of his face and both his eyes burned away. Unconsciously, he shook his head at the waste of it all. The kid–well, maybe he’s an old man, he’s too badly burned to tell–kept alternatively keening and mouthing, “Por favor . . . ayudame . . . por favor . . .” but lacked the energy and wind to shout anymore. His legs spasmed and hands fluttered without any control, splashing mud for a short distance around.

Taking one knee, Verboom thought, I’d hope, if our positions were reversed, someone would do as much for me. Then he placed the rifle’s butt to his shoulder, took extremely careful aim, and squeezed off a single shot. The bullet entered the victim’s face just to the left side of what had probably a nose. A two-inch plate of skull detached from the head, flying upward and sideways for several feet, before spinning back down to the muck.

“God zegene,” Verboom whispered, taking the rifle from his shoulder. God bless.”

“Was that necessary, Verboom?” asked van Beek.

“I think it was,” the former replied. “Even if he could have been saved by our side or his, saved for what? To be a blind, one-man freak show. I follow the golden rule; that rule demanded this.”

Van Beek looked into the shell crater with its now still and silent body. “Maybe so. We’ll let it go for now. Orders are to set up a hasty defense and look into what defenses we’ve found.”

“Already doing the first part.” Verboom inclined his head to his left rear, saying, “For the other . . . well . . . over there there’s a small wooden crate that’s been buried open side out to look like the firing port for a bunker. But it’s just a wooden crate. There are some shallow scrapings behind us; but you probably saw those. There are some bumps that are nothing more than shipping containers covered with sandbags, rocks, loose dirt and grass. I haven’t seen anything else.”

There was a sudden burst of that distinctively fast Balboan rifle and machine gun fire, following by a long, blood-curdling scream of naked aggression. Van Beek and Verboom looked up to see shadowy figures emerging through the smoke, charging while firing from the hip. Both dived into the hole containing the remains of the late Balboan burn casualty.

“Fix bayonets!” shouted van Beek. “Fix bayonets!”

Bella Vista, Balboa

In the temporary command post, Janier watched as an enlisted man updated the map. He also listened very attentively to the reports as they rolled in from across the front. The Balboans were using mortars, but there was no artillery. They were meeting his thrusts head on, hand to hand and bayonet to bayonet. They were also beginning to infiltrate to the sides of his probes, indicated, It’s just about time to start pulling the troops back before they get cut off.

Most importantly, he’d been forced to the conclusion that, after all, the Parilla Line faced north, not south. No mines, limited wire, very few positions sited to fire toward us, and those, by reports, of relatively recent and somewhat shoddy construction.

So . . . okay, I’ll stifle my doubts. And continuing bringing the rest of the armies ashore. And continue preparing for a push to the capital.

Shaking his head, Janier muttered, “You’ve disappointed me, Patricio, you really have.”

Pointing to some graphics on the map, he told his operations officer, “Begin the pullback to what we want to keep as jumpoff positions. Don’t try to control it from here, just give control of a slice of the artillery to the subordinate commanders and let them extract themselves as best they can, while they can.”