A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 37

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 37

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”

–Virgil, the Aeneid

Tauran Defense Agency Headquarters, Lumière, Gaul, Terra Nova

One entry in the spreadsheets and reports given her by Vladimir puzzled Jan Campbell deeply. What, she wondered, is an SPM-7b? It’s a fairly recent purchase. It doesn’t have a motor. It has no caliber. It seems to use a kind of fuel cell. It comes in a . . . hmmm . . .

She took the file with her as she left her office. Captain Turenge, deep in her own number crunching, looked up but said nothing as Jan left.

And why would they need twenty-four of them? And why are they so expensive?

The elevators in the old building were iffy, at best. Jan took the nearest set of stairs, then clop-clop-clopped down their granite risers to the basement, to where the open source, which was to say, globalnet-connected, computer room lay.

Houston, loafing outside his own office, saw her and instantly ducked out of view.

Flashing her badge at the attendant, she neglected to sign in. Instead, she went straight to one of the small closets that held a computer each, and logged in with a spurious account she’d set up for herself some months prior.

SPM-7b, she typed in.

Hmmm . . . nothing. Let’s try SPM alone, no numbers . . . well it’s not likely to be a Kashmiri civil decoration or a band from Wellington. Mmmm . . . okay, narrow it to SP. Nope. Okay, expand to “SPM Volga.”

Bingo; a spacesuit or, rather, two dozen of them. And new, apparently, based on the price. Hmmm . . . almost latest model . . . and maneuverable in zero G. Now how often do the Balboans buy new? Must be important. But why in the name of the mythical purple-suited Elvis would Carrera need space suits. He’s done a lot–credit where it’s been earned–but a space program he doesn’t have. Planning ahead? Well . . . he does plan ahead, but this is an order of magnitude more. This is like planning for powering the planet with magic unicorn farts. You can set up all the fart collection stations you want, but since there are no unicorns . . .

She considered contacting the Volgan agent, Vladimir, from the computer in front of her but decided, No, that might be a needless risk. I’ll use my computer at home, after work. However . . .

Campbell carefully removed the sheet from the file, folded it into a small package, and tucked it down between her breasts.

***

It was late when Turenge and Campbell decided to call it a day. The more they’d delved the more difficult things had gotten. After all, “What does i’ mean,” Turenge had asked, “when you find an entry for five-‘undred and seventy-two eighty-five-millimeter barrels but can only find about ‘alf that many carriages.”

“Ask an artilleryman,” was Campbell’s parting advice.

Mostly as an indicator of personal esteem, but also to maximize her productive workday, Janier had arranged for a driver for Campbell. That poor sod had little to do after fetching her of a morning than wait around, ready to take her anywhere she wanted. Fortunately, there was a nice little brasserie not far from the headquarters, with waitresses pretty, saucy, and well-built, so the driver didn’t feel too abused. An occasional lunch purchased for the door guards, too, and he could count on early warning of when la petite fille écossaise would need transport.

He was, in any case, standing by at the side door when Jan emerged. She’d come to take that for granted by this point, but still rewarded her driver with a brilliant smile. He held the door for her, closed it, then walked around to the driver’s side. While he walked, she sniffed. My God, heavenly. What is that . . .

“It was a late lunch special, madame,” the driver said. “Two for one, so . . .”

Merci,” she said, rather warmly, while thinking, Good because I am not only a wretch of a cook, but too busy tonight to go out.

By the time city traffic permitted her driver to pull up near the door to her apartment complex, in reality an old mansion that had been subdivided, a light rain had begun to fall.

“Don’t worry about the door, Marcel,” she said. “No need for both of us to get wet.”

“As you wish, Madame.”

Flinging the door open, Jan ran for the awning over the main door. Inside, she was greeted by the rather fine stone and plasterwork of a bygone era. She had never really acquired a taste for that kind of finery, though. Oblivious to it, she entered the main lobby elevator and punched in her floor.

A thumb-driven lock clicked open. She entered, automatically nudged the door shut with her hip, then went to sit down at her computer desk.

Opening the system, and then logging in to the email address Vladimir had given her a password for, she composed a message that read, simply, “Why twenty-four spacesuits?” Then she saved the message as a draft and signed out. Fifteen minutes later she signed in again. There, under her own draft, was the message, “We haven’t the faintest clue. Let us know if you figure it out.”

Isla Real, Balboa

A heavy shell landed outside the even heavier bunker Colonel (Brevet) Wu had taken over to serve as a command post. Wu really wasn’t sure why he and his little command were still alive or uncaptured. They had us. They still have us. Why didn’t they finish us off?

Wu had landed on the island as a major, but a combination of casualties, failures on the part of the generals and colonels commanding the landing, plus his own determination and an unusual helping of luck had seen him survive to be promoted by Admiral Wanyan. He had, in any case, made the only real gains of the landing that were not quickly wiped out or later abandoned as untenable.

By the evening of that first day Wu had had about five thousand men under his shaky command. By the next day, another three thousand badly shocked stragglers had crept in. They continued coming, too, for the next week, in dribs and drabs. At the moment he, a mere brevet, which was to say not even a real and permanent, colonel, had a decent sized division under his command. And Admiral Wanyan was talking about jumping him yet another grade, to brigadier general.

And the Balboans still ought to be able to toss us into the sea if they pushed matters. But they’re not. They’re not even interfering with the nightly supply run, twelve to twenty helicopter that bring me the thirty-six tons I need and without which we begin to die.

And then there’s this. Wu looked down at an official-looking certificate which had been brought through the lines by a parlementaire and which read:

“The Timocratic Republic of Balboa is both proud and pleased to award to

Major Wu Zixu

Of His Imperial Majesty’s Marine Corps

The Cruz de Coraje en Acero”

This was followed by a fairly accurate rendition of the actions on the day of the first landing and signed by Legate Puercel, the man who was, apparently, in charge of all the defenses of the island and the Mar Furioso coast, near the capital.

Wu shook his head. And over on my desk is a unit commendation for everyone involved in the landing who made it off the ships; they called us “Task Force Wu.” Does an enemy get to tell you what your unit is called? And the men have taken it up since the Balboans distributed copies, with translations, all along the front.

They’ve also offered me a four-hour ceasefire, if I need that much, to either turn my badly wounded over to them, evacuate them to a single ship which must be identified in advance, or at least fly in or land enough medical personnel to care for them.

Wu heard a knock. It was nearly silent, just as one would expect on concrete. It was former sergeant, now Sergeant Major Li, who had become something of a right-hand man since the day of the landing.

“Yes, Sergeant Major?”

“We’ve worked out the details of the evacuation with the enemy, sir. One square kilometer of beach and the ship–the Qin Shan is apparently seaworthy again–will not be engaged from eighteen hundred hours to midnight. And, yes, they expect we’ll use that window for out nightly supply run and said, ‘That’s fine, what’s a mere thirty-six or so tons of supply?’ How do they know shit like that?”

Wu, again, shook his head, then offered, “Prisoners? Maybe some deserters?”

“They also warned us that, rather than let it go to waste, they’re going to use their artillery to paste the shit out of everything else we hold.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.”

“These people are fucking weird but I don’t think we should be fighting them.”

“Maybe. Have the word passed to expect a pounding.”

***

In a different part of the island fortress, deep underground, well covered by concrete and steel, likewise well-guarded, were the former High Admiral of the United Earth Peace Fleet, Martin Robinson, along with the former Marchioness of Amnesty, Lucretia Arbeit. Both had been captured in Pashtia years prior, and wrung for any secrets they might know. They were not normally allowed to speak to one another and never alone.

For quite some time they’d been both somewhat unhealthy and pasty white, from never seeing the sun. Eventually Fernandez had placed sunlamps in their quarters, along with providing Vitamin D supplements. Even with that it couldn’t be said they looked healthy, for all that each looked to be fairly young.

Lack of exercise had made each of the prisoners go somewhat to fat for a while, though they’d never become exactly obese. For the last several months Fernandez had provided a Legion physical training expert to whip them back into shape. “Whip” was actually very much the right term as the normal response of any flagging on their part was, “Warrant Officer Mahamda’s assistant is waiting to see you.”

They’d both met Mahamda, the Legion’s chief interrogator for hard cases. They also knew that what that meant, non-euphemistically, was that he was the chief torturer. It was amazing how much further and faster someone could go on an exercise bike if he thought the alternative was a session in Mahamda’s chambers, perhaps strapped tightly to a dentist’s chair, with the mouth held open by an adjustable framework, a drill whirring away, and no Novocain in the offing. Being sent to the assistant was not an improvement; the current assistant lacked Mahamda’s finer sensibilities, as well as his humanitarian instincts and feelings.

The island, itself, was the legion’s home, if any spot on the planet could be said to be. It had also been their main training base. As such, it had once boasted a battery of tailors to prepare uniforms for young officers and old centurions. Most of those were now either with the colors or evacuated to one or another refugee camp. Two, however, had stayed on. These were, even now, measuring Robinson and Arbeit for new uniforms, based on their ragged old ones and using insignia salvaged from those. The old uniforms had been seriously trashed in the course of their capture and early imprisonment. Indeed, Fernandez, on Mahamda’s advice, had left them in the same clothing for months to help break their spirit. For many years since they’d worn only the simplest prison garb.

“Do you dress to the left or dress to the right, Admiral?” asked one of the tailors, in Robinson’s cell. He actually had to think about it, it had been so long since he’d had a fitting. Then, too, the prison garb was sufficiently baggy that the question of where to hang one’s testicles had never quite arisen. After a minute’s though he’d answered, “Left . . . I think.”

The tailor had duly noted in his notebook, Left but leave some extra room just in case.

“How long until the uniforms are ready?” asked the tribune, Ernesto Aguilar, in charge of the project and the prisoners. Aguilar was a secondment from the Escuela de Cazadore to Fernandez’ organization, and before that a secondment from the Fourteenth Cazador tercio to the school. He’d been out of the line and working on this project so long that most back in his home unit had probably forgotten he existed.

“Two days,” the tailor replied. “For this one. I can’t say about the woman.”

“That’s quick. Why couldn’t I ever get my uniforms done up that fast?”

Shrugging, the tailor said, “It’s not like we have OCS and CCS” –Officer and Centurion Candidate Schools–“cranking out signifers and centurions in job lots lately.”

Aguilar shrugged preposterously broad shoulders. He’d been a big man, at least in Balboan terms, before Fernandez had grabbed him. The physical training regimen they’d been put through–he and the other thirty-five most carefully selected Cazadores–had put a great deal of muscle on since then.

Only twenty-three of the thirty-five would be going on the mission, assuming it was given clearance to proceed. There were three pilots over and above needs, plus nine extra grunts.

And I am so not looking forward to the final selection, thought Aguilar. They’re all great guys, even all my friends, and we’ve all been getting ready for this since about two years after we finished up in Pashtia. I wish we had more or better transport.

“You done with this one, Señor?” Aguilar asked of the tailor.

“Si, done, at least, until two days from now when I bring them back.”

“Okay.” Aguilar turned his attention to the Earthpig. “Admiral, you have an appointment with your physical trainer. Please don’t disappoint him.”

 

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