A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 28
“It is courage, courage, courage, that raises the blood of life to crimson splendor. Live bravely and present a brave front to adversity.”
–Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)
Parilla Line, Balboa
The Balboans were pressing tightly, probably on the sound theory that the Taurans wouldn’t use artillery close enough to risk having to have to explain to somebody’s mommy why her little precious bundle of joy had been killed by friendly fire.
Never mind if we’re killed by enemy fire, sneered Verboom, so long as the generals and politicians, to the extent those differ, don’t have to explain anything . . . impolitic.
If the Taurans were, by and large, bigger men, the locals seemed to have made something of a fetish out of the bayonet. At least whichever unit this crew came from apparently had.
Verboom no sooner finished the thought than he heard a shout of panic from Coevorden, off to his left. He turned in time to see three Balboans, one still in the process of rising, charging from that flank. Van Beek, the platoon sergeant, was the first one to react positively. He put a bullet into the throat of the nearest man among the charging enemy. However, it was the tiniest fraction of a second before another from among the Balboans fired a short burst into van Beek’s lower abdomen, laying him out like a sack of fruit that could bleed red. Coevorden, on the other hand, still not entirely himself from his fall, reacted slowly as the Balboans neared to club range. Faced with a thrusting Balboan bayonet his parry was too slow. The bayonet entered his throat just under his Adam’s apple, and was then brutally ripped out the left side of his neck. Blood, thick and stinking, spurted out in four directions.
It was only as Coevorden’s dying body fell that the way was clear for Verboom to get a shot off. His first shot, spinning away as it left the muzzle, was also, naturally, yawing like mad. It hit the Balboan’s glassy metal and silk vest at an angle, denting metal without penetrating. The Balboan was knocked back half a pace.
The sergeant being frightened half witless, two of his next three shots went wild, while one again impacted the vest. Forcing calmness on himself, barely enough calm for the purpose, Verboom took careful aim at the Balboans head, firing a single shot that connected.
The last Balboan, seeing his two comrades fall, dropped his rifle and put up his hands. No sooner had he, though, than a bullet launched from somewhere behind Verboom took him in the face.
Werner’s instincts were to carefully avoid looking around to ensure he couldn’t see who had done it. After all, it wasn’t the time nor the circumstances for too close an adherence to the finer points of the law of war. Unfortunately, his instincts were overcome by his sense of justice. He looked and saw van der Wege, lowering his rifle and looking self-satisfied.
Men with their blood up, or half crazed with terror are not entirely accountable for their actions. But that private is still a worthless piece of shit.
So, Van Beek’s down as well as Corporal Coevorden. The way that bayonet ripped his throat out, he never had half a chance.
He spared the body a quick glance. Yeah, he’s certainly dead.
The arterial bleeding had stopped, not through either treatment or coagulation, but through simple lack of any more blood to squirt.
Looking over at van Beek, he saw the platoon medic working frantically. On the other hand, van Beek’s got half a chance if we can get him out to where we can get an aerial evacuation.
But I don’t know if we can, thought Verboom. Considering the whole shitty situation, I really don’t think we can. Fortunately, they’re not coming right at us anymore.
That whole shitty situation under consideration included not only the loss through hysteria of the forward observer, now being led by the hand by an hors de combat private, but the loss to a lucky mortar shell of the observer’s radio operator. This meant no possibility of responsive fire support to cover their withdrawal. The digital fire control device survived the shell that killed the operator, but, I don’t know how to use that fucking thing. What the hell were they thinking, taking people out of the artillery loop?
His own platoon’s radio operator was trying desperately to get through to the company, where the commander’s observer might be able to serve as a link between the platoon, in desperate need of fire, and the guns who could provide it.
Little brown fuckers aren’t letting up either. I think they’re . . . oh, shit.
That mental “oh, shit” was the sudden realization that the Balboan infantry–tough little bastards; you’ve got to hand them that–were working around the flanks to trap the platoon, or maybe the entire company, in a double envelopment.
“Goddammit, can you get through to company or not?”
“Just did, Sergeant. Here; the exec is on the other end.”
Werner pressed the talk button and waited for the beeps and blurts of synchronized, encrypted speech. “Verboom here. I am in charge of the platoon now. We’re almost trapped and need some fire support if we’re going to get out of here. Can the FO help?”
“Lieutenant Jansen here.” With the combination of encryption and known voices and persons it wasn’t strictly needed to use complex call signs. “CO’s hit; not dead and he’ll probably make it but he left me in command. I think you’ve been taking most of the pressure, Verboom, because we got back to our hold line fairly easily and with light casualties. Even the CO’s wound was mostly a result of him insisting on being the last man back. He’d still be out waiting for you and yours if he could be.”
“Yes, sir, I am sure the CO is just wonderful, a credit to every officer corps since officer corps began, but that doesn’t help me at the moment. Can you have the company forward observer translate my requests into calls for fire?”
“Like, in a fucking hurry?”
The exec didn’t answer. Instead, after a few seconds’ delay, came a voice Verboom didn’t recognize. “Lieutenant de Groot, sergeant. A word of warning before we begin; we don’t actually train on the old-style call for fire anymore, so I am going to have to ask you questions and punch the answers into my fire control device.
“Now, first off, can you give me your exact location?”
It had taken a while, and some false starts and dangerously off impacts, but shells were now falling along three sides of a box. Only the southern side of the box wasn’t being pounded, barring the odd, fitful, Balboan mortar salvo.
The shelling was thin, really. It probably wouldn’t have stopped men determined enough. But, Verboom figured, they’re probably as ready to see the last of us as we are to see the last of them. From their point of view, they won, so why get killed to turn a victory into a rout. I think.
That, however, didn’t stop the Balboans from firing into the area they could no longer attack bodily.
Crack. Crackcrack. Crack.
This shit’s getting old, too, Verboom thought. He looked behind the think line composed of the remnants of his squad and one fire team from another squad. The remainder of the platoon, including the walking wounded, were formed up to the north. Some served as litter bearers for such as Sergeant van Beek. One of the walking wounded still had the FO by the hand. Some, holding bandages that dripped red as often as not, crouched on their own for the command to go. Verboom gave it, then turned his attention back to the front.
“Yeah, this is getting old.”
He had two fire teams with him. One was five men, a little larger than normal, from his own squad. The other was composed of four from third squad. He thought it would be less confusing to keep their normal nomenclature, even though they were much reduced. Hence, after waiting about fifteen minutes for the wounded to make their escape, his first order was, “Third squad, bound back seventy-five to one hundred meters. Go!”
Werner got back with all but two of his rear-guard men whole and sound. One, he’d had to leave the body behind, what there was of it. The other he’d carried slung over his back.
The worst part is that he was alive when I draped him across my shoulder, but died while up there. I felt it happen. Horrible feeling. Horrible knowing. And for what?
Puerto Lindo, Balboa
Though he didn’t know it, and might not have cared if he had, Janier stood on precisely the same spot from which Patricio Carrera had watched the Megalodon, the first of its class of highly stealthy coastal defense submarines, or SSKs, begin its maiden test voyage. However, where Carrera had been quite nervous and troubled about the former, as well as disgusted at its late arrival, Janier was positively jubilant about the activity he was watching. Moreover, it was happening sooner than he felt he had a right to expect.