This book should be available now, so this is the last snippet.
The Savior – Snippet 35
Abel could hear the sound of men screaming above. It seemed burst metal cannons made their own deadly shrapnel.
The remainder of his companies passed without incident. But now that the enemy knew they were headed up the Manahatet Valley, he had to hurry. He knew there must be wigwag between Sentinel and Tamarak. The other fort would be on the lookout for them, training their guns down into the narrow valley. Which is what he wanted.
Abel had no intention of continuing along the valley floor to make a target for them, but he needed a diversion to occupy the other fort’s attention.
“Timon, get Landry over here.”
* * *
“I first heard about it from an old Scout,” Landry Hoster told Abel. “They found it out when they were making those nishterlaub lucifers they love to carry around with them in the Redlands.”
Abel’s hand strayed down to the pack of lucifers in his tunic pocket. Old Scout habits never died.
“Then, as you know, the damn thing nearly got me kicked out of the Academy.”
Abel remembered: the entire level of student quarters had been enveloped that day by thick smoke streaming from Cadet Hoster’s rooms.
“I was worried they were going to hang you for heresy,” Abel said.
“Nah, but the priests tried to expel me. Got called up to the Tabernacle review court, all that mess.”
“And yet you walked out of there a free man, and whistling that annoying Delta jig you like.”
“‘Veronica’s Barrel.’ Twice-damn right I was.” Landry stood a moment as if remembering the song, then spoke. “They found me innocent of incitement to immorality. Case closed.”
“You were guilty by every Thursday school lesson I’ve ever sat through.”
Landry nodded. “It was Goldfrank.”
“The very same,” Landry replied, shaking his head in disbelief still.
This was something Abel had not known.
“The Chief Priest of Zentrum? He let you off?”
“He said no particular part of what I’d done involved nishterlaub. The fact that I’d made a stink and a spectacle wasn’t the matter at hand. He said it was up to him to decide if what my ingredients made when I put them together was nishterlaub. That was the only call the court could make.” Landry nodded. “And the guy let me off.”
“On a technicality.”
“Hey, I was glad to take what I could get.” Landry unconsciously fingered his unhung neck and shuffled to a more comfortable position in his saddle. “Anyway, I saved up my barter chits and made an even bigger one. Then you and I and Timon took it out to those wastelands you like to wander around in.”
“Hate that place. Creepy. But good for the purpose.”
It was a region north of Lindron of enormous stone blocks cut through with a crazed grid of gullies, and rock lying on rock.
The largest original settlement on Duisberg. A city of five hundred thousand people in its day, Center had told Abel. Transformed by the nano-plague of the Collapse into solid rock. The towers, no longer supported by concretized steel, toppled over, giving the area the appearance of an enormous battlefield filled with fallen warriors, each a colossus. This is likely where the name originated.
The perfect place to conduct a secret pyrotechnic experiment and not get caught.
“Timon said he was coming along to make sure we kept Edict, but I know he wanted to see something go boom.”
“Yes. He was disappointed it didn’t make more sound.”
“This one’s going to be bigger.” Landry’s grin became a smile of happiness. “This will be the biggest ever.”
* * *
The wagon floor was layered with percussion caps. Over this, Landry’s engineers sprinkled soda ash, a product otherwise brought along for gun cleaning. Then another layer of caps was laid down, each soldier in the brigade contributing half of the caps from his own cartridge box. This would, of course, cut in half the number of shots available for each soldier on the campaign. Couldn’t be helped.
Over this material, Lowry sprinkled several sacks of granulated Delta cane sugar. It was precious stuff, and the few nonengineer soldiers whom Landry ordered to help were agog at the seeming waste. Landry’s engineers, however, knew exactly what they were doing, and they poured the sugar with a cheerfully unconcerned attitude.
A final layer of soda about a thumb’s-length deep was poured over the second layer of caps. Then, from openings he’d careful drilled in the bottom of the wagon, Landry ignited his “infernal device,” as he called it. He took sticks as small as kindling wood from a prepared fire and slowly worked them into the bottom of the wagon through his access points. He’d laid a layer of ground moss on the very bottom to elevate the lower layer of caps enough to have some — but not much — air flow under them. The kindling ignited the moss, which smoldered rather than burned. The kindling coals and smoldering moss slowly heated the caps, setting off a slow burn in the powder inside them. They expanded, crackled open, spewing their innards into the soda ash. The tiny, slow fires in each cap produced smoke that must travel upward and escape. As it did so, the vapors combined with the soda ash and grew many times thicker. The vapors finally emerged on the top of the layers as a dense gray smoke, and lots of it.
Potassium chloride, bicarbonate of soda, sucrose. The recipe for an effective smoke maker, Center said.
“Get on!” said Landry to the team of daks harnessed to the wagon. They leaned into their traces, snorted dak snot from their blowholes, and lumbered forward, pulling the smoking wagon north along the Ferry Road. He and his command staff sergeant rode the seatboard and, if all went well, would be the only ones fully exposed to enemy fire.
Abel gazed up at the fortifications of Tamarak on the peak behind Sentinel. He detected the glint of two large guns, brighter even than the gleam from the assembled musketry.
This will be interesting.
The smoke from the wagon was pleasingly thick — thicker than any River fog Abel had ever seen. The contraption trundled along at the speed of the lumbering daks. The company sergeants ordered their troops up and, company by company, the Third made a quick march behind the smoke wagon.
The wind was light. The wagon’s smoke hung over roadbed. There should be no way anyone above would be able to see through it to locate individual men or even bunched units.
It didn’t take the commanders at Fort Tamarak long to realize this. The only choice was indiscriminate fire. This they laid down in volley after volley. The smoke wagon continued down the road.
Now the cannons above — there appeared to be two — were levered downward, lined up with where the Road would usually be had it not be covered by smoke, and fired. Ball after ball smashed into the roadway. Some balls were hollowed out, filled with gunpowder, and had fuses set within them. When these exploded, they might take out dozens of men at a time if they landed in an unlucky spot.
Fortunately, every spot was lucky, for there were no men in the smoke. For the Third was marching into the miasma, and then, after the distance of a fieldmarch, they moved off the road and sat tight. Rank after rank marched in — and sat down.
Farther along the road, minié balls, cannons, and fused balls flew into the smoke like a swarm of biting insectoids. Explosion after explosion lit up the thick billows with flashes of fire. But the explosions did not disperse it.
And they did not reveal that the enemy was shooting at absolutely nothing.
Under the smoke, the road was empty.
Tamarak, of course, took potshots at the smoke wagon. One lucky shot passed over the smoke wagon and almost hit Landry’s staff sergeant, but the man happened to be bending down to recover a dropped rein at the time, and it flew past.
While Landry was preparing his device, Abel had sent his mounted scouts — about ten in all — up the flank of the ridge that connected Sentinel with Tamarak peak, and now they’d returned.
He and Rigga, his Scout commander, conferred on the road at the base of the ridge as the last of the Third disappeared into the smoke.
“You were right, Colonel,” said Rigga — he was another of the Cascade reserve Goldies serving in the Third. Rigga was gasping from the hard-riding dash up the hill and back again. His dont, too, was wheezing through its breathing hole. Abel stayed far enough back to avoid the mucus. Dont snot was acidic and could burn flesh — not badly, but enough to hurt. Rigga gathered his breath and continued.
“There’s a good path along the ridge top, all right. Wide enough for two wagons. It connects the two forts.”
“Good,” said Abel. “Anything else?”
“Well, the whole place is a graveyard.”
“All along the ridge saddle, and up the two slopes it connects, pretty far up. Gravestones. Hundreds of them, all facing south I guess toward Zentrum. Some high as a man. Maybe thousands of them, now that I consider it. Looks like the whole of Progar gets themselves buried there.”
“Interesting,” Abel said. He turned to Timon. “Major Athanaskew, get the men roused and moving up the ridge. And let them know they’re to take cover when they get to the top.”
“Take cover where, Colonel?” said Timon.
“You deliver the message and I’ll provide the cover,” Abel answered.
A sea of gravestones, some high as a man. Perfect.