A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 35

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 35

Escuela Maria, Madre de Dios, San Jaba, Santa Josefina

When you engage in an atrocity against mostly innocent parties, thought Legate Villalobos, it’s at least a minor balm to your conscience when your victims are cultural foreigners.

As if to punctuate the thought, there came a brief and ragged rattle of musketry, followed by the mass screams of what sounded like women and children. As if on cue, because it was on cue, a San Jaban man, hands tied behind him, was led out between the blue- and beige-painted square pillars that held up the gate and this end of the covered walkway, flanked by two guards, with a third pulling on a rope leash around his neck. The future victim tried to maintain dignity, and kept an admirably stoic face. Yet dignity was hard to maintain when every pull of the rope caused a stumble.

The irony of doing the court-martials in a school dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the executions in a play yard nearby, all by a regiment named for the Virgin Mary, was not entirely lost on Villalobos. I do wonder what she thinks of all this.

He decided to follow along. If I can order it, I can at least force myself to watch it. I’ve already spent enough time watching the “people’s tribunals,’ in any case.

The informal little procession followed the street west, past a tree line to an open field, that field bisected by a creek, and with a few stout individual trees growing here and there. Some playground equipment, a brace of see-saws, a jungle gym, and brightly painted, polychrome merry-go-round were there as well.

Incongruously, a firing squad, six men and a tribune, stood at ease in a line, perhaps fifteen meters from one of the trees.

A crowd of women and children were waiting and wailing, held back from coming closer by a line of rifle-wielding men. Villalobos saw, too, that a camera followed a small party, just two men, dragging a body bundled up in a sheet along the ground. They passed by the line of soldiers, depositing the bundle among the women and children, and then retreated to lay another sheet at the base of the tree, then waited for the next delivery.

Back amongst the crowd, the women, some of them, bent over the sheet. The wailing instantly grew to a crescendo as the cameraman turned his and its attention back to the tree. The sound dropped as some of the women and boys cradled the body gently, lifting it to bring it home.

Villalobos shook his head; he was not a man without pity.

The next victim, the mayor of the town, was led to the tree near the firing squad. The rope remained around his neck, but was given a turn around the tree, and then used to tie off his torso.

Then came the commands “. . . apunten . . . Fuego!”

The crowd moaned between the words, which moaning changed at the final command to a long shriek as Villalobos’s soldiers fired. The body was battered against the tree, then slumped into the ropes. Villalobos thought the man might still be breathing, a guess confirmed when the tribune commanding the firing squad marched to the tree, drew his pistol, and fired a single shot into the mayor’s head, spraying blood, brains, and fragments of bone out the other side.

And what was your crime, Mister Mayor?” thought Villalobos. You spoke in public in support of the current government and the Tauran Union forces here. It was possibly understandable, but was completely impermissible. Tsk.

Villalobos noted the cameraman stopped to change the batteries on his camera. Necessary, I suppose, given the power required to send the record to the globalnet from here.

Task Force Jesuit Headquarters, Rio Clara, Santa Josefina

The name, officially, was Tauran Union Security Force-Santa Josefina. The alternate name, Task Force Jesuit, for “SJ,” had begun more or less as a joke, but then stuck. That General Marciano was, himself, a religious man, probably helped with the sticking.

Watching the video of the murders–formal murders, yes, and with a degree of protocol attached, but murders nonetheless–caused him to wince at each command to fire. It was made worse, somehow, that the people being shot on screen were, by blood and culture, his own. He even shared a language with the older ones, though only half a language and most of an accent with the younger.

And I know why they’re doing it, too. At least I think I do. It’s to bait me in, to make me take some portion of my overstressed pocket division and try to stop the killings. If I don’t try, the TU and the local government–and here Marciano made a small pause to mentally spit–look weak and helpless. If I do try and lose we look worse. Even if I try and win– and I do not like our odds for beans here–I doubt I can save many of the condemned.

A phone rang with the peculiar rattlerattlerattle of a field telephone. The duty officer picked it up and answered it, before announcing, “President Calderon for you, sir.”

“Have it transferred to my quarters.”

***

Claudio rarely tried very hard to hide his contempt for both Santa Josefina and its president. He didn’t try now, either. No sooner had Calderon begun to berate him for his inaction over San Jaba, then the general began beating his phone on his desk. He stopped briefly to ask, “Have you got the message, Mr. Calderon?” before beginning the beating again. He went through this routine three times before the president shut up and apologized.

“Good. Now what do you want? . . . Yes, I am getting a relief column ready . . . no, I don’t need anything from you . . . .if you had wanted to help, you should have started building your own army so that I’d have more than a short battalion to throw into this . . . no, in fact I may not launch the relief column . . . yes, you should get to work on a time machine . . . or you can ask the Federated States to commit troops to your defense, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am busy today.”

After a brief knock, Marciano’s operations officer, Stefano del Collea, asked, “Are you too busy to talk to a charming young lady, General?”

It was a sufficiently silly question that Marciano replied, “Send her in.” He was rather surprised to see the beautiful young woman he knew as Esmeralda, High Admiral Wallenstein’s cabin girl become aide de camp.

Before he could so much as utter a greeting, Esma pulled a communicator from her pocketbook, saying, “My High Admiral has information she wants to give you that you need to have, sir. This was the only way she thought she could safely get it to you.” Though it wasn’t all that safe for me.

“Let me talk to her, then, please. And, Stefano?”

“Sir?”

“No word of this, and bring me a map and some alcohol pens, would you?”

“Sir.”

***

“So an ambush on both the high speed avenues of approach into the town, and an anti-helicopter ambush close to the town?”

Khan answered, “We really think so, yes, General Marciano. Do you have the means to fight through them?”

“No,” he answered. “If I had even half my command available maybe, but about a third of it is guarding airbases for the war in Balboa, and for which my forces were not increased. Another third is engaged in containing the guerrillas in the south and, since their message spreads by non-physical means and their arms by clandestine ones, not having a great deal of success. The remaining third is mostly stuck facing Balboa to the northwest, though I had thought to break away a task force of a couple of companies for San Jaba. But that’s not enough, is it?”

“Not really my area of expertise, General,” Khan replied, “but, on the face of things . . . just a guess . . . probably not.”

“Can I speak to Wallenstein?”

“I’m here; I’ve been listening.”

“At least somebody is,” Marciano said, not bothering to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Since you are listening, High Admiral, can you get Janier or the World League or somebody to send me about twelve thousand more men, half of them in the form of eight or so infantry battalions and three more artillery? Because, with guerrillas growing up behind my so-called lines, with the people getting a graphic demonstration that we are not going to win and that the price for our not winning will be death to those who supported us, with that worthless shit Calderon unwilling to raise an army to help us . . . well . . . without those troops I’m going to have to pull back to the capital region and try to hang on to that and the port. Anything else is soon going to be beyond my powers.”

“No promises. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

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