Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 09

“Okay,” Rodermund shouted, “that’s enough. He might not understand us, but he’s responsive, and he’s military or something like it. And even if he isn’t Radio Snork — hell, he’d be talking his snout off in English and German if he was — Colonel Paulsen could still be right: he could provide us with the common context by which we can establish communication.”

Ezzraamar surveyed the room, affecting wary surliness. Regardless of what these humans hoped or thought, they would not be “establishing communications” with him any time soon.

“Can’t say I’m too optimistic about the chances of learning his lingo,” Rodermund was continuing. “You ask me, it’s a long shot. And the benefits are too damn intangible. Not like getting our hands on those recce cars, as Clive calls them. Finally we’ve got some easily repairable mobility that doesn’t gobble fuel like these damn helos. But trying to find, isolate, and grab Radio Snork?” He shook his head. “Frankly, I don’t understand why Pat Paulsen, and the two of you” — he shot a hard glance at both Isaac Franklin and Rich Hailey — “all thought that taking any captive was worth the added risk of the last mission. That was nuts. But rearranging our whole operation to optimize the chances of getting Radio Snork himself? That was certifiable.”

Franklin produced a small, slanted, maroon cap with a shield insignia on the front, smoothed it over his hair. “Well, sir, I think Colonel Paulsen made a pretty sound point when he observed that ‘the only folks who have answers to all our questions are the ones we’re fighting.’ And he’s probably right in guessing that even if we didn’t bag Radio Snork, then someone in their military is likely to think at least some of the same ways we do, have some of the same concerns and culture — ”

“Really? And how will we find out if they do?” Rodermund jabbed a finger toward Ezzraamar. “He shows no interest in cooperating.” The silver-maned human kept staring at him through the bars of the cage. “And then there’s their annoying tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Or never.”

“Well, that’s kind of how we started this whole show, Colonel.”

Rodermund rounded on Franklin. “‘We?’ We started this? None of us who are left have any reason to take the rap for starting these hostilities, Lieutenant. As for what happened during those first miserable weeks, well, — yes. Although once we were set on this course, it’s not like we’ve had much choice in the matter.”

Rich Hailey smiled what seemed to be his characteristically crooked smile. “Seems to be our lot in life, sir: messing around uninvited in someone else’s back yard. And in the shit because of it. At least we don’t have to keep saluting the assholes who sent us here.”

Rodermund grunted. “Well, I guess that makes it better than Laos. Sort of.”

“Somalia, too,” Franklin added. “But at least there we mostly knew who we were fighting, and why. We need a better sense of that here.” He looked at Ezzraamar; the human’s strange two-colored eyes — a tinted irises swimming in seas of white — were not hostile. At all.

“Well, Pat Paulsen certainly agrees with you,” Rodermund allowed. “And it’s making my hair turn grey. Well, it would, if it wasn’t already white.” He sighed, rubbed his eyes. “Frankly, the only reason I agreed to go on that back-and-forth baiting spree he concocted was because he is absolutely, inarguably right about one thing: we can’t do this forever. Not without all eventually winding up the way Greek Nick and Wally did in that last town.” He stared into his empty c-rat can. “I give us a year.”

“You really think we’ve got that long, sir?” Rich Hailey’s face was still bent by the same lopsided smile.

Rodermund shrugged. “I am ever an optimist, Captain. And I have to be, just to keep going every day. We’ve done our best to keep caching captured supplies, but we still don’t have enough. We’d have to hit five more towns like that last one before we managed to become self-sustaining.”

“And if we did, then what?” Franklin sounded surprised, as if this topic was new to him.

Rich Hailey glanced at Rodermund, who nodded: a permission to share information. Arseniy and Emmett Owen came closer as the captain gestured off beyond the edge of the map, at someplace far to the south and west. “We leave the gameboard. We deedee mau for the equatorial islands, Ike.”

“Except everywhere is the gameboard, now,” Franklin replied, frowning. “It’s not like the locals are ever going to be cool about all the bodies and raided towns we’ve left behind.”

“That’s why I wonder if it makes any sense grabbing one of their soldiers,” Rodermund added with a sigh. “Seems like we’re way past talking. Hell, it always seems like we’re past that point — first ‘Nam, now here.”

There was noise at the mouth of the cavern: loud, agitated mutters and the clack and rustle of gear being readied. The humans reached for their weapons, had them in hand and safeties off by the time another of the striped-camo soldiers came rushing into their rearmost alcove: Sergeant Robert Lane. “Snorks on the way. They’ll be in the tangle-foot within five minutes, and that single-strand wire won’t hold them for long.”

Rodermund pounded a small, white fist on the table. “Damn it, this is –”

“Sorry, sir; not done. Airmobile of some kind is flanking us to the north. Thought it might be fast movers, at first, but now I’m thinking something more like a jump jet. A big one.”

“Guess they’ve got air assets, after all.” Owen drawled, checking the grenades on his web-gear and moving closer to the cage, his weapon coming up slowly.

“What are you doing?” Franklin asked.

“Nuthin’.” Owen said in the same odd, slow tone. “Securing the prisoner.”

Rich Hailey cut a sharp glare at the smaller man. “Take one step closer to that cage and I will have your ass, Sergeant.”

“Don’t mind me, Captain.” Owen seemed personally injured by the rebuke. “I’m just getting ready to do whatever turns out to be necessary.”

Rodermund banged his hand on the table. “That prisoner is the least of our worries right now. Our base here, those recce cars: it’s all foobar, now.”

“Boo coo foobar,” Owens agreed with a nod. “Time to spin up and sky out?”

Rodermund shook his head. “Can’t. Too risky, now that they’ve got air assets.”

“But –”

“We saw the wreckage of a goddamned spaceship that wasn’t much bigger than a Phantom. So anything they’ve got in their inventory will probably junk our birds like slow-moving tin foil.” He glanced at Hailey, who was already activating their perversely large radio set.

Owen sighed. “So, the choppers and our other gear: destroy in place?”

“Not destroy,” Rodermund corrected. “Abandon. I’m not wasting time and risking lives to blow material that the snorks can’t use anyhow.” He turned to Rich Hailey. “Captain, you’ve passed the word?”

“Base Camp has been informed that we are withdrawing. Contingency Papa Two.”

Rodermund nodded, turned to the others. “You officers split the men into teams of three. Any bigger and they’ll make too much noise, leave too much of a trail. Give them the compass heading for waypoint two, and get them going, one NCO or officer per team. Teams reaching waypoint two are to dig in and wait for the eagle flight from Base Camp.”

Arseniy frowned. “We do not simply regather at waypoint and march back to Base Camp?”

Owen was already dumping various components out of his rucksack — they appeared to be related to hygiene and grooming — and was replacing them with additional magazines and water containers. “If we go back to BC Dante directly, we’re leading the snorks straight to where we live. So we rendezvous at a groupment point and then wait for the cavalry, which will clear the surrounding area and then extract us. Textbook recondo.”

Rodermund looked up from his own hasty preparations. “Make sure it happens that way, Sergeant. You and the other lurpers share what pointers you think valuable before you cut everyone loose.”

“Copy that, sir. One question: fighting rearguard. Do we ask for volunteers?”

“Negative, because there will be no fighting rearguard. Everyone bombshells out of this place ricky tick. We can’t afford heroes; there aren’t enough of us. Now get the men moving.” Rodermund turned to Franklin, gestured at Ezzraamar, who had spent the last three minutes no longer wondering if he was going to die, but simply when. “The snork: your recommendation?”

Franklin swallowed. “Let him go, sir.”

Rodermund shook his head. “Rich?”

Ezzraamar had the distinct impression that whatever the ever-calm human captain suggested would be the course of action followed.

Captain Hailey shrugged. “Cut him loose, Colonel. We don’t speak their language, but it’s our one opportunity to send a clear message: that we’d rather not kill them, given the choice.”

Hearing this, Ezzraamar was stunned, so much so that he was certain he could not experience a greater sense of surprise. But that assumption was disproven in the very next moment: Rodermund nodded, his silver mane waving. “I agree. But we’re going to leave him in the cage. That way, he can’t run to his pals and cut down our lead time. Now, let’s move.”

And, Hailey shouldering the radio and Franklin scooping up the map, they ran for the cave mouth, beyond which, when Ezzraamar strained his ears, he could detect the faint whine of approaching high-speed turbojets. In vertical mode.

Someone was coming. And soon.

But whom?