A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 32

The heat was less oppressive when at sea, when certain vents could be opened to allow at least a fresh breeze to circulate through the ship. Even then, though, the passengers and crew had to be quiet as church mice when outside of the rec center. And the breeze wasn’t generally enough to make up for the lack of air conditioning; it merely turned Hell into Purgatory.

Though he couldn’t go on deck, Ham did cheat a bit. He was allowed up on the deck below the bridge and there, standing at a porthole, he fiddled with the venetian blind, a cheap plastic thing, to watch what was going on topside.

What he saw was what he had seen at the previous ports visited, young men–well, boys, really–unloading humanitarian supplies for hundreds of thousands of Balboa’s displaced children from the ship to waiting trucks on the long pier. He didn’t bother counting them, but knew from previous practice that anywhere from perhaps twenty-five to as many as one hundred and twenty of the boys, plus one or two dozen men, would not leave the ship, but would, instead, disappear into its sweltering bowels where bunks, uniforms, and arms awaited. Ham was pretty sure he recognized a couple of them from the Cazador Club at his previous military school, Academia Militar Sergento Juan Malvegui, near Cristobal.

The old man sometimes speaks and acts as if I am his peer or, at least potential peer. I have my doubts. I know I can plan small things, and sometimes have a good idea that ought to be obvious to just about anyone, but I cannot quite see myself planning ten or more years out–who knows when he began?–to prepare a clandestine amphibious assault ship, and special light infantry clubs in a half dozen military schools to man that ship, plus refugee camps to hide the boys until needed, plus a hidden reserve of helicopter and hovercraft pilots . . . and those are just a few of the high points.

Other things, even Alena the witch can’t guess at. But I remember Legate Fernandez bringing the old man a black box, some kind of electronic control or computer for something, and the excitement that caused. Then, too, I know that he didn’t put to death the Earthpigs’ high admiral, but has him and one of the other Earthpigs prisoner somewhere.

What I don’t know, and what even Alena the witch doesn’t know, is what all those things have to do with our target.

Assembly Area Maria, Santa Josefina, not far from Hephaestos, Balboa

Scales change in the jungle, scales not only of distance but of time. Everything is slower, everything more compact. This was as true of the base built near the border between Balboa and Santa Josefina as it was anywhere else. This was mostly because, while little but large trees grew at ground level, those trees were indeed large, as well as thick, and tended to cut off the observer’s view relatively quickly. Thus, for example, the base the Tercio la Virgen dug for themselves not too far from the border was only about three kilometers across. The defenses were, however, quite dense.

The base wasn’t really about defense though; indeed, the defenses, as compared to those further west, were rather rudimentary. Rather, it was about attack or, more specifically, providing support for an attack.

There was nothing in the way of Tauran ground forces nearby. There was a small airport, with a runway just slightly over the minimum for the Tauran Hurricanes based in the country. That airport, the Aeropuerto Jaba, however, was almost never used by the Taurans. This did not mean, of course, that they could tolerate its possession in enemy hands.

There was more than the airport to make the place special, too; not long after the Great Global War about six hundred Tuscans had migrated to the area to make a living in agriculture. Their influence still held true in several key particulars; the children spoke like La Platans, which is to say Spanish with a deep Tuscan accent; their culture remained Tuscan, and they were one of the few groups in the country who, by and large, supported the Tauran Union’s presence.

“So, we’re going to teach them a sharp fucking lesson,” announced the tercio commander, Legate Jesus Villalobos. “We’re also going to teach the Taurans a sharp fucking lesson while we’re at it.”

Villalobos’ command group, down to the maniples, stood around a sand table built in the dirt just outside of his dug-in headquarters.

“This,” Villalobos said, using a stick to point to the town and the airfield, “is the physical objective, San Jaba. Note the highway, Highway 126, that connects the town and its airport with the capital to the east and the road to Balboa to the north. San Jaba doesn’t really matter to us; it’s just bait. What does matter to us are the Tauran forces here”–he pointed to the battalion facing Balboa across the Rio Naranja–“and here, near the capital. We want to kill a couple of hundred of each. That, the destruction of their reserves, is our actual objective.

“How? The short version is that we’re going to send out the First Cazador Maniple to screen Highway 126, plus the feeder roads and trails. Cazador commander?”

“Here, sir,” answered Tribune Madrigal, commanding one of the two Cazador maniples in the tercio.

“That’s harder than it sounds. Consult your map; there are a lot of feeder roads and trails. Also, you are not to be seen while occupying your screen line, and you are not to let the civilians escape. I want you to carry enough mines to make use of the roads risky and iffy. Lastly, you need to cut the phone lines and disable any cell towers that service the area. And you are not to be seen, doing it. Clear enough?”

Madrigal raised a single eyebrow. “Clear, sir.” But bitching hard to pull off. “When can I leave?”

“Twenty-three hundred hours, tonight, which is about twenty minutes after the first moonrise. I think you’ll probably need a little illumination, even though it has its risks. Also, all of you, note that we’re out of Balboa now, so the Global Locating System should be functioning reasonably well if you need it.”

Madrigal nodded, thinking, Okay, that sounds a little better.

Villalobos continued, “First Infantry Cohort?”

“Here, sir.”

“For you, job one is surround the town and take the populace prisoner. Job two is turn them over to the service support battalion, which will be rolling into San Jaba right behind you. Job three is move east, but behind the Cazadores‘ screen line, and set up a very large ambush. ”

“Then kill the Taurans when they roll into it?”

“Correct,” answered the legate. “I want maximum feasible loss of life here. I want a roach motel, where the Taurans check in, but they don’t check out.”

“Got it,” answered the cohort commander, looking down to peer intently at his acetated paper map.

“Third Cohort, your job is similar, but you’re skipping the town entirely and moving directly to set up an ambush just south of the town of Agua Dulce, either side of Highway 126.”

“Both infantry cohorts can move out of the base area not earlier than midnight. Also note that each of you will have a river behind you, with a bridge. I want the bridges wired for sound, with a demo guard in place, just in case things turn against us and we have to scurry.”

“Now . . . artillery?”

Container Twenty-one, Beloretsk, Volgan Republic

Eighteen long-range bombardment Condors, and the crews to maintain and launch them, had been parachuted into Volga from the ramp of the militarized airship, Casamara. To everyone’s surprise, the container’s parachutes had all worked flawlessly. Previously, everyone aboard the airship or watching from the ground or sea had felt the anguish of watching a critically needed container full of war materials plunge into the Shimmering Sea, not far from the small port of Mataca, Santa Josefina.

They’d been met by an odd character with an odd walk, the walk being the result of having lost both legs on a raid in Santander, the legs having been replaced by high-end prosthetics. The character, Anton Pavlov, and no relation to the Volgan aviation officer, also called “Pavlov,” was a warrant officer, one who had been medically retired as a sergeant, but then elevated, sent home, and remaining on the clandestine strength of Fernandez’s organization. He’d seen to it that the eighteen Condors and the ground crews were loaded on trucks and scattered into rented barns and warehouses across some forty thousand miles of territory. None of them but Pavlov actually knew where all the Condors had been stashed. Moreover, the crews had been split up into three groups, such that the loss of one would not interfere with the continuing program of launches to sting the Tauran Union into helpless fury.

None of them, not even Pavlov, knew how many launch sites there were. None even knew how many of the Condors had been manufactured, let alone the number of drone versions.

Number Twenty-one of this package, however, they knew everything about. It sat, fueled and armed, just outside a barn on a former collective farm, now gone pretty much to seed.