A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 30

No doubt who’s still in muddy scraping, either. Got to give them credit, too, though, for sending someone to arrange to give us our bodies back . . . and the worst of our wounded.

The thought of the dead gave Verboom another involuntary shiver.

Completely unbothered by his shivering, the mosquitoes still landed for their feast on Verboom. They also quite ignored the insect repellent with which he’d doused himself. The repellent was some new stuff, without much smell to it to a human’s sense of smell. If the bugs smelled it at all it was tolerably hard to notice.

Again dropping his clacker and flicking his fingers at one particularly bothersome pest, Verboom noticed the smell of explosive, a very distinctive solvent-like aroma, clinging to his fingers from handling the two directional mines he’d set out.

Hmmm . . . I wonder if they’re attracted by that? Something’s got them riled up, sure as hell. I wonder if the Balboans–he cast his eyes northward, in the general direction of the enemy defensive line–have figured out some way to make them worse, too. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

Lying in the mostly quiet ambush position, course du jour at Chez Buggy, and with the cry of the antaniae–mnnbt, mnnbt, mnnbt–sounding in the distance, Verboom thought, It’s a defensive line, a deep and strong defensive line. Okay, we always knew that. But who the hell puts a defensive line on the wrong side of the river, and why? Makes no sense. Makes as much sense, anyway, as laying out in the . . . oh, oh . . .


Sergeant Sais wasn’t aware of the first warning, the absence of close animal sounds, until he got the second, a brief whiff in the shifting breeze of something like solvent. It couldn’t have been natural, but it still took half a second for him to recognize what it came from.

Automatically, Sais began to raise his F-26 rifle. “Fuck . . .”

If he were going to say anything else, the words were lost in the twin explosions that shattered the evening stillness. In that instant, time seemed to slow down to a crawl.

Sais felt a half dozen or so small impacts on his unarmored legs, two more on his left arm, and one in his neck. Some numbers, too, seemed to hit the plates of his lorica, the Legion’s silk and liquid metal armor, while still others he thought he felt burying themselves in the silk.

Pain wasn’t instantaneous, neither after seeing the explosions nor even feeling the impact of those fifteen or so pellets. Before pain came shock, then rage. Only after that, did Sais begin to feel the burning of the hot bits of metal buried in his flesh. He never really did notice the blood that began to leak from his wounds.

The rifle’s safety was already off. Indeed, it hadn’t been on since about the time they heard the first word of enemy parachutists. At the first stroke of the trigger, it began to spit out 6.5 mm full metal jacket. That fire was answered by at least one machine gun and seven or eight rifles.

As he had been trained, Sais’ first instinct was to charge the ambush, screaming and firing like a maniac. He could scream, and did. He could fire, and the F-26 spat out its nearly two thousand rounds a minute. Charge he could not do. When he turned to assault the fire-spitting line to his left, his legs simply gave way under him, tumbling him into the moist earth below. It was that fall that, at least for the nonce, spared his life by dropping him below the enemy’s line of sight. Something tore his night vision goggles from his face as he fell.

Espinal, on the other hand, had been saved from major perforation by the fact that his sergeant’s body had stopped all the pellets that might have hit him. He’d been trained, too, to assault the near ambush. He did so, unintentionally leaving Sais behind. He was out of the kill zone, unhit, in a matter of about two seconds or perhaps a bit less. If he’d hit any of the ambushers in his wild firing charge, he didn’t know about it.

But where’s my sergeant? the boy wondered, once he’d gone about seventy meters past the ambush and found a tree to hide behind. In a lull in the firing, Espinal heard foreign voices, Taurans, shouting something harsh and guttural. Then he heard his own name, weak and indistinct, but clearly in Sais’ voice, followed by a few bursts of fire, accompanied by one of the Taurans screaming.


For a few moments–long moments, to be sure–Sais lay stunned, face down in the dirt, while tracers streaked just barely overhead, impacting the banks of the draw to either side of him. He was far more emotionally aware of them, of their flashing and cracking and dull thudding into the dirt, than he was intellectually.

It was the pain, especially the pain from the wound in his neck, that brought him around to a more acutely intellectual sense of, Jesus Christ; they’re trying to kill me!

“Espinal!” shouted the sergeant, as he took what passed for aim in the night. His point of aim was a series of flashes, about seventy meters to the front. He pressed the trigger twice in rapid succession, causing the rifle to spit out at least nine or maybe as many as a dozen bullets. He must have hit something, because one of them screamed.


“I’m here, Sergeant,” the boy shouted back. “I’m coming back for you. Hold on!”

“NO!” That was distinct and didn’t sound especially weak. Neither did the ripped-cloth bursts that followed. “Just shut up, boy, and run for it. Let them know we accomplished out mission, and the issues with that. Now go.”

“But . . .”

“Goddammit, private, go!

Estado Mayor, Sub camp C, Ciudad Balboa, Balboa

A profoundly nervous Jamey Soult knocked on the door to Carrera’s suite in the sub-camp.

“Come in,” came the answer.

This was a relief. Given his mood, I wasn’t sure he’d be willing to see his wife, let alone me.

“You okay, Boss?” Soult asked, padding in on quiet feet and shutting the door behind him. Carrera sat in a comfortable reading chair, staring at an old-fashioned paper map and a clipboard with some papers–reports, I suppose attached to it. He looked up at Soult, directly, a questioning expression on his face.

I expected him to be half drunk but . . . well . . . if he’s had anything to drink it’s tolerably hard to tell. Soult looked down at a table sitting just to the right of the entrance. A full glass of whiskey sat there, still. He didn’t drink any of it, as far as I can tell.

“No, Jamey, I didn’t have any more than a sip to cover my breath in case anyone got close enough.”

“But the glass, Legate Kuralski, the refusal of artillery support. Boss, you and both know we’ve got more guns dug in and ready than . . .”

“Don’t say that out of this room. Don’t even think it. In fact, when you leave here I want you to look like a mix of disgusted and hopeless.”

“But . . . why? I don’t understand.”

“It’s Fernandez’s idea. He says there are still enemy informers, spies, in plain language, among us. He insists there’s no way he got them all, even though he thinks he’s rounded up the bulk of them So we’re making use of them, or him, or her, or however many. Movement is tightly controlled, so no one is likely to see what Logistics Base Alpha really is. Rumors, though, somehow always pass unimpeded. I’ve been setting up a rumor mill that I am demoralized, lost, depressed, and rapidly climbing into a bottle. Fair chance–no, a better than fair chance–that my opposite number on the other side will hear of this within, oh, call it two days, at the outside.”

Carrera passed Soult the clipboard. “Only four people in the world I ever trusted completely, Jamey; my late wife, Linda, Lourdes, Mitchell, and you. Read it.”

Soult read. It was a compendium of reports from stay-behinds in the occupied area. Fully a third of them said, “Last report for a while.” Another third said “negative report.”

“Why, ‘last report,’ Boss? And where did they come from, and how?”

“In some cases, because a group of Taurans are sitting on top of their hideouts so they couldn’t risk coming out. Some came by directional radio, rather, radio with a directional antenna. Some came by radio lifted by a balloon and floating, this time of year, out to sea. A few came by carrier pigeon, too. Yes, really.

“Turn the page.”

Soult complied, then asked, “And this is?”

“It’s a report of estimated tonnage landed at Puerto Lindo.” Carrera smiled broadly then. “They’re sending not everything they can spare, but everything they have. Fernandez’s tame Druze, Khalid, along with the other men we have there, is going to have a fine time in the TU, very, very soon.”