A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 09

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 09

The Sumeri shook his head, saying, “Nothing beyond what I’ve already sent you.”

“Any chance it’s all a fake,” asked Fernandez, “or a mere distraction?”

“No way for me to be sure,” admitted the warrant officer, “but I am sure that they don’t think so. People do not put up . . . well . . . unless their name is Layla Arguello, of course . . . anyway, people do not put up with what these men have put up with unless they believe it’s for a purpose they consider among the highest. I think we have to take them at face value, as the enemy’s main effort in trying to restore their old intelligence network here.

“And if it’s obvious and we crippled it quickly? Well . . . sir . . . it’s not like the Tauran Union has proven to be all that competent to date.”

“They’re invading pretty competently,” Fernandez countered.

“That’s operations,” the warrant said, “not intel. In intelligence matters they’ve been pretty poor so far.”

“Point,” conceded the crippled legate. “Unless we don’t catch the somewhere between none and five infiltrators still at large. In that case, they may prove competent enough.”

“Point,” agreed the Sumeri.

South of the Parilla Line

The battery commander decided to walk point himself. He had no one more qualified, at hand, in any case. It was a function of having a largely citizen-soldier army–technical expertise tended to be thin and narrowly focused at the top.

Tribune Alfonso Ramirez had only two officers in his battery, himself and his exec, the latter back with the rest in so-called “Log Base Alpha.” All but one of the centurions were back there, too, with the sixteen shipping containers and eight guns the battery had dug in under the jungle canopy.

The other three guns, the three the battery had held before the first Tauran invasion, were out here, likewise dug in, along with just enough men to minimally man them, a tiny cell from the fire direction center, and a quantity of ammunition well over what they were likely to need. The ammunition was actually dug in better than the guns were, with the fuses stored separately and dug in better still.

Unlike back at Log Base Alpha, there was no overhead cover for the guns here. All they had were the radar scattering camouflage screens, simple pits, a few fighting positions, and some crawl trenches. Even the fire direction center wasn’t properly built, though the logs overhead might be adequate to shrug off cluster munitions and their small bomblets. And there were some small personnel scrapings in the sides of the gun pits, which might or might not have served well enough to the same purpose.

The detachment’s greatest and best defense, though, as the battery commander ruefully admitted, was that they hadn’t fired a round, simply because no one had asked.

And now, with reports of Tauran fingers closing in around the detachment, it was time to go, without even that one shot of defiance having been fired.

“Sucks, boys,” Ramirez admitted to the one junior centurion and eighteen enlisted men with him, “but there you have it. I’ve asked permission already, which was granted. It’s time to go. Or will be in an hour, when Second Infantry is in position.

“Centurion Avilar?”

“Sir.” The junior centurion was on the tall side, taller than his commander, in any case, and of a medium brown complexion. A nose broader and lips fuller than the national norm for mestizas told of somewhat more mixed ancestry than most. He was probably the second-best centurion in the battery, after Top, which was why Ramirez had him along on this detached mission.

“I’ll take point. You take tail. Make sure to take the sights with you and to bury the breechblocks.”

The centurion nodded, sadly, then called off three names. “You rats will leave last, in order of march, with me. Get the shovels and dig out a small pit, fifty meters west of gun three, half a meter deep.”

Si, Centurio.”

Turning back to his commander, Avilar asked, “What about the radio the Fifty-second Tercio left with us, sir? I know what they said, but . . .”

“They said ‘leave it,’ so leave it,” answered Ramirez.

Avilar was inclined to argue, but it might be one of those close hold, hush-hush, dumb-assed officer things, so, Maybe better not. The tribune usually knows what he’s talking about.

***

Avilar gave a thumbs up to Ramirez. From a civilian or a private it would have meant little. From a centurion it meant, “All personnel present or accounted for. All weapons accounted for. All personal gear packed and on the troops’ backs. All non-firearm serial number items present and accounted for and on the troops’ backs. All radios but one are on the troops backs. Field phones and their wire is collected and on the troops’ backs. I have the sights. The men have sufficient food and water for the trip, and are healthy enough for it. They’re camouflaged to standard. Loads are more or less evenly distributed, allowing for different levels of fitness. The gas is drained from the tanks for the auxiliary propulsion units of the guns. Etc. Etc. Yes, that, too. Etc. And that. Etc. Trust me on this, Boss; I took care of it. We can go on your order.”

Saves so much time, thought the tribune, when you can just count on the routine shit getting done routinely.

He raised the flaps of his lorica, his legionary issue silk and liquid metal body armor, and ran the zipper down the bottom without quite undoing it. The thing was miserably hot just sitting there; doing any kind of labor in one was right out. But we’ll have to, just to get home.

Then he turned north, consulted his compass, and said, over his left shoulder, “Follow me.”

All around, a rising noise in the jungle gave Ramirez the sense–correct, as it turned out–that most or all of the detachments that had been posted forward of the Parilla Line were likewise pulling out and heading north to shelter.

Then came the warning shout from Avilar, the ferocious scream of the incoming Tauran jet, and the pummeling impact of rockets on the old position.

“Twelve o’clock!” the tribune shouted. “Two hundred meters.”

As Ramirez turned his eyes forward and began to sprint, he saw that Avilar and three gunners had already passed him by.

***

Within the first mile, every eye in Ramirez’s small detachment was scanning through the small gaps in the thickly interwoven jungle canopy overhead, every ear straining to hear through the muffling tree cover the harpy’s shriek of incoming bombers. A mile after that they found the smoking, cooked remains of what was probably an infantry squad, dismembered, burned, with a naked, blackened, armless torso impaled on the ragged stump of a tree branch, overhead. The torso dripped blood down the stout, bomb-sharpened stump of the tree branch on which it hung. Half a mile further, the party went to ground at a crescendo of small-arms fire, coming from ahead.

Even the normally phlegmatic Avilar exclaimed, “Fuck!” at that.

 

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