It occurred to me that I might not see our son again before I died. Young Hubert was growing up without his parents even now. If Michael and I fell in battle, he would be an orphan. The odds against us were not good, especially since the Barred Rocks intended to strike first and most frequently. We more than any other MAP personnel would be in close contact with those who fully intended to take our lives en route to taking our freedom. As a mother, I should have felt bad about that. I did not. Our lives were of secondary importance, far behind number one. If we could bleed the invaders sufficiently, weaken them enough, the defenses of each home community might well be able to hold.
That would be enough. Mellie Tipton Smith was mother to the boy, perhaps more than I was, lacking only blood to bind them. My sis was a doting aunt. The majority of Souls at the Roost revered Michael as the savior who had led them from bondage to the promised land. We would not be forgotten.
Here on the warpath, Jess was a skilled teamster, reasonably competent rider, and dangerous fighter. She was not exactly an outstanding cook, nor did she wake up fully alert after day sleeping as we did. “Hobbling the spare horses will be help enough,” I told her. “I’ve Gwinnie and Pet as assistant chefs.” After supper, once the sun was down and dusk deepening, Rooster Squad would be heading on south. We’d picked up the remuda at Fort Steel where they’d been held awaiting the day they’d be needed. Going out on maneuvers with only one horse per rider worked just fine. Trying that in an all-out bloody war would not. Even if our opponents aimed at us rather than our mounts, there were always stray bullets and soldiers with lousy aim or inferior firearms. I’d hate to lose Midnight. Would in fact grieve for him if he was killed before me. No more than that, though. We Gundersons, long before I became a Jade, had been horse ranchers and big game outfitters for decades. All of us knew horses died, sometimes miserably. We hated it as much as any bleeding heart city dweller might, but we learned to live with it or else. Compartmentalization. Daddy Russ taught us as children, reciting the lyrics he couldn’t sing. Or if he did sing, it sounded like bullfrogs croaking. Said it was a marching song used by American soldiers, back in the Before days
When stuff happens, do not dwell
Step right up and give them hell
Sound off, one, two
Sound off, three, four
Sound off, one, two, three, four
One, two, three-four!
Except of course the real word wasn’t “stuff” and there were more verses, all of them far raunchier than that one.
The three approaching riders we’d been watching turned out to be two of the Library guards plus none other than diminutive Sallie Noehm, out in broad daylight for possibly the first time in her life. Certainly she’d never ridden a horse before. It showed. There weren’t that many miles between our Cemetery Ridge campsite and the Library but it must have seemed a world of distance to her.
What could be important enough to get a Noehm so far out of her comfort zone?
Michael helped Sallie from her saddle. The pair huddled up for a few minutes before my mate gestured toward me and the girls. Clearly an invitation to supper. Sallie shook her head, brown curls flapping, indignant. Boosted back atop her mount, she turned the horse around clumsily, sawing the reins, and headed back toward the city ruins, eager to get under cover before the light failed. It would be close.
My beloved Major Jade waited until we’d all eaten before explaining. “Sallie cracked the code. These,” he held up a pair of goggles that resembled nothing so much as the multifaceted eyes of a fly, “will let any human see at night, just as good as Milo can. We only have these two sets, but by the time we make contact with the enemy, I want every one of us to be proficient in their use. Sallie says they take a little getting used to, but once you’ve managed that, they’re pure magic. Centuries of technological development went into these babies. The Wraith 2300 was designed to withstand combat conditions. She thinks they might even withstand a direct hit from a bullet, but we’re not going to test that theory. Not intentionally, anyway. They’re stealthy, meaning they don’t put out visible laser light, red dots, like the very first inventions did, hundreds of years ago. For power, they steal the energy from sunlight even on a cloudy day, and store it for night usage. The only question is, does the enemy have anything similar? We don’t know, but we’re going to find out.
“For now, let’s saddle up. We’ve still got nearly 500 miles to go to reach the border.”
That should be plenty of time, covering 30 miles or more every night as we did. Seventeen more nights in the saddle should get us there ahead of Venom Chang’s army, easily. I had at least two and a half more weeks to live.
As sick at heart as I was about the necessity of pointing my squad mates at other night-blind humans so they could slaughter them like so many sleepy, roosting chickens, I was still mightily relieved to see my fellow Night Riders practicing diligently with the Wraith goggles as we traveled south. It spread the guilt around. Shared the burden. My position as night point man was hardly threatened but the responsibility for defeating (killing, let’s call a spade a spade) as many as eleven thousand Hooded Cobra soldiers, most of them probably fighting because they would be summarily executed by their own superiors if they didn’t…I no longer felt like Satan himself. A major demon, maybe, but not the head of the hierarchy. Plus, if I was no longer available, the squad would still be able to see in the dark with those fly-eye bits of magic.
We’d all tried them on. Curiously, some people took to them like ducks to water and some didn’t. I couldn’t touch the blasted things. Donned them once and was rewarded with a screaming headache that didn’t completely go away for days. Most of the others got along with those hi tech things just fine. The Bliss girls giggled a lot at first, pretending to be giant flies stalking each other, play-fighting over carrion rank enough for the laying of millions of fly eggs. Those kids had a weird sense of humor.
Swako could use them but felt they were more trouble than they were worth. “Been following you around for too long, I guess,” he explained. “I ain’t saying I got cat eyes in the dark like you do, but my other senses have surely sharpened up. Looking through those techie things, I get distracted. Forget to pay attention to hearing and smell, the touch of a breeze on my cheek, the subtle tremor of the earth. So no thanks. I can feel people’s positions now, sense the coldness of a snake if it’s within fifty feet of me, draw back from a pit trap, avoid all sorts of nastiness. Wraith goggles limit me.”
It comforted me a bit, knowing I wasn’t the only one who hated those things.
As the nights passed, we kept covering ground. To Michael’s surprise, especially after we passed Trickle Creek, men kept trickling down out of the hills to join us. Trickle down waranomics, he dubbed the phenomenon. How the word had spread so thoroughly was a mystery to all of us. Somehow the tiny unnamed villages, the lone farmsteads, even the reclusive hill people who were almost never seen…volunteers came from all of them, riding everything from decent saddle mounts to sorry plow mules or the slow but dependable shank’s mare.
Those last, the walking civilians, had to be transformed into an organized infantry unit, though for the moment they’d continue bearing the arms they brought with them. Rusty old Before shotguns, halfway decent rifles manufactured at Fort Steel, homemade bows and crossbows. The poorer among them carried wood axes and long knives or spears of varying quality, few of them pleasing to look at but all of them sharp. Most of the men who carried them were capable of living off the land indefinitely and they weren’t giving up this land without a fight. By the time the last roving squad joined us, riding from the mountains after a quick supply run to Fort 24, our new recruits numbered one hundred and forty-three strong. Three more, I realized in some surprise, than the total of our combined standing army. I had not known there were that many rustics out there.
At our Major’s request, the old trader and cofounder of Fort 24, the redoubtable giant, Grunt himself, gladly undertook the unenviable task of whipping these people into shape, forming them into an effective fighting force. The six-foot-six Lieutenant with the bullet-wounded butt would be marching the bunch one day, teaching them to fight as a unit the next. Which would give them no more than a week of real training, two at the most, before they arrived at the border. “I don’t mind doing this,” he told Jade. “Besides, when they complain I’m pushing them too hard, I can just point to my rear and tell them: If I can stand it in my mid-sixties with half an ass, their candy behinds can cowboy up. The shame will keep them going. Besides, it’ll be redemption of sorts. Too few of my Fort 24 people get the message even now. We should have been able to contribute at least fifty men, all by ourselves. As it is, we barely rounded up twenty. I’m so ticked off, a small part of me wouldn’t mind seeing my home community ravaged, burned to the freaking ground. Except for the Sentinels and Gunderson family who are top soldiers with us and a few dozen really good people back home who simply don’t have the manpower to contribute. The rest of them are a bunch of lazy, sniveling, lily-livered cowards. It was tough enough just filling our original draft allotment. Marshall Bledsoe did his best to enforce the conscription order but whole clans hid their draft dodgers from us. When this is over, I intend to see a whole bunch of those sorry buggers pay, one way or another. Tax ’em to the eyeballs, maybe, plus a few good months of forced chain gang labor. If I can get the rest of the Council to go along with a resolution like that. Some of them aren’t any better.”
I’d been present at that conference and had remarked drily, “Tell us how you really feel, Jake.”
He’d grunted in response, giving me a dirty look. The man was seriously not happy with his own people, the largest population in all of MAP. “Hardly more than two generations following the Fall of all humanity and already going soft. It’s all me, me, me. They think they’re safe up there and couldn’t care less about MAP as a whole. Idiots.”
Present company excluded, of course. The members of his squad were as tough, patriotic, and determined as could be. Every one of them was serving as cadre now, sharing the burden of training grass-green recruits with their Lieutenant. At my suggestion, Major Jade had agreed with Grunt’s suggestion, promoting the Bull Squad’s corporal to sergeant and every private to acting corporal. It had to be done. The new guys wouldn’t have taken orders willingly from soldiers who held no more rank than they did.
Then Michael had field-promoted his mentor to Captain, just like he’d done with Worrell Gilson of Fort Steel. “A man in command of this many men can’t be running around as a Lieutenant.” Big Jake, unlike Worell, had shown no surprise. “Hnh. Appreciate it, Major. But we’re gonnna have to bump you up to Colonel pretty soon, eh? Seeing as how you’re running a total show of more than 280 men.”
“We’ll see,” Michael had replied. “I’d rather whip this Chang fellow as plain old Dawg, the ex-slave. Think what that would do, how much face he’d lose.”
Grunt had guffawed at that. “Major Dawg,” he’d snorted, “you have a truly devious mind. If all this promoting stuff is done for the day, I’d best get back to work. You’re going to need the Bulls sooner rather than later.”
The rest of us, four roving squads now, moved on south with an increased sense of urgency. It would be up to us to slow the oncoming Hooded Cobra juggernaut for as long as we could, hopefully long enough for Grunt to hammer our last minute volunteers into some semblance of a guerilla force. The Major had no intention of fighting straight-up. It was time for dirty tricks.
To that end, our own Barred Rocks had incorporated three fierce-eyed Gunderson men into our fold. Julia’s big brothers didn’t need much training, having made their living in the mountains from the time they could walk. Plus, they were used to taking orders from their autocratic father, Russ “Hair Man” Gunderson. There was a tense moment when Michael informed them that they would either hop when their kid sister said frog or be assigned elsewhere, but in the end they bowed to the wisdom of that rule. Julia had been fighting at her man’s side for years. What’s more, she had killed, which they had not. And she had the rank. “Guess you’re the boss of us, Sergeant Jules,” they’d agreed, albeit with some reluctance, and that was that.
It occurred to me that Rooster Squad was an extreme family enterprise, far more so than any other fighting unit. Michael and Julia, husband and wife. Four Gundersons, counting Julia. Three Smith brothers. Two Bliss sisters.
Whether that would in the end turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing, only time would tell.
We reached our southern border on October second, bathed in balmy sunshine, blue sky overhead, just a hint of breeze. The terrain here consisted of low, rolling hills, the long established Fort Steel slash Gatorville road winding between them, following the path of least resistance as all such major trade routes do. No sagebrush here; yellowed grasses for the most part, interspersed with occasional small stands of juniper or solitary pine trees, far from their brothers. As usual, Roil River was less than an hour’s ride east of the road. Running creeks were few and far between at this time of year. Grasshoppers were plentiful enough to make the ground seem twitchy. Thankfully, most of the rattlesnakes were already denned up for the winter, though every now and then we did come across a straggler, which we killed and ate. On campaign, no available food was ever wasted. Especially a protein source. Swako and the Bliss girls even feasted on grasshoppers.
The rest of us passed on the hoppers, at least for now. Snake meat yes, bug crunch no.
Three of our scouts were waiting to report. The enemy was no more than forty miles away, marching north steadily, covering as much as twenty miles on some days, as little as ten miles on others. Chief Scout Chick Kounihen, lean and grizzled, part Native, filled me in. “Best estimate is they’ll cross our line three days from now. You cut it pretty close.”
“Miss is as good as a mile.” In truth, it scared me when I realized how nearly we’d come to missing the target.
“We’ve lost two good men so far. Took out three of theirs, but that’s little consolation to our people’s widows. I put the long range telescope you gave me to good use. Watched them for three solid weeks, lying so far back they never spotted me. They march twelve abreast, three columns of four. By my count, a hundred twenty cavalry, all Chinese. Near a thousand infantry. In the center, all Asian. Not all Chinese, I’m thinking, but all Hooded Cobra natives. On the right–their right, that is–black troops with Chinese officers. On the left, white men, the Jews I reckon, with their own officers. Some of the Chinese officers look like they’re carrying some sort of weird rifle, maybe those light-shooters–”
“Yeah. Those. Couldn’t tell if they’ve got night vision gear or not, but every man jack of ’em is armed with a shooter.”
I thought about that for a good long while, Chick waiting patiently. You had to know patience if you figured to be any good at recon. “Armor?”
“Couldn’t be sure. They’ve got what look like helmets. No way to tell how effective they might be or what they’re made of. No leg armor. Jackets look like they might be a little harder to pierce than cloth. Boiled leather, maybe. Which I’ve only heard of, not seen. Doesn’t look like anything that’d stop a bullet, but a blade? Maybe.”
“In camp, they do post ’em, but not as many as we would, considering the size of their army. They camp up fairly tight, regular rows, command tent in the middle. Downright pretty, all those white canvas two-man tents in perfect order. Ring of eight or ten around that tent, so sneaking an assassin in to take out the war leader would be a suicide mission, Nothing for the camp followers who only hang back a mile or so during the march a. Pretty arrogant there, seems to me. They’re not even digging in a perimeter, though I reckon that’ll change once we hit ’em hard enough. Two dozen sentries, posted singly, roughly a hundred feet apart, fully encircling the encampment, no protections whatsoever for most of ’em. Not even a foxhole. Shift change once a night at midnight. Near as we could tell, none of the sentries patrol the perimeter. Seems like they have orders to hold position, stay quiet unless something moves in their sector, and cover fifty feet to either side of their posts.”
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
Sitting ducks. Or standing dodos, about to go extinct. Unless they did have night vision gear, in which case…. “Thanks, Chick. Get some sleep and a hot meal, then get back out there. If they don’t change course or come up with any obvious surprises–oh. War Leader Chang. Where is he during the day?”
“Not at the head of his troops, if that’s what you were hoping. He’s a big man, should be an easy target, but he stays well back in the middle of the Hooded Cobra column unless there’s something interesting for him to look at up front. That kind of surprised me. Didn’t figure a proud fella like him would want to eat that much dust. I’m thinking he may be smarter than he is proud, so watch yourself, Major. In any case his bodyguards surround him, cover every inch. Human shields. He won’t be easy to take out.”
I felt the excitement rising within me, a flood of adrenaline coursing through my veins. It was finally happening. I could sense it in Sora’s demeanor as the Japanese swordsman trotted his horse back between columns, bringing me news.
“War Leader.” He pulled his steeldust gray to a halt and bowed in the saddle, a gesture of respect he somehow made look dignified.
“What?” Impatience. I would need to curb that.
“It might be best if you saw for yourself, honorable Chang.”
So. This should be interesting. I spurred my flame-red stallion forward–the only stud we had. No one else in the Emperor’s Glorious Army was allowed to ride a purely red horse or an uncut, either one. Luck Dragon snorted with excitement under me, catching fire from my own emotions.
The natives had drawn a line in the sand, to quote an old saying, though there was no sand here. Before us, painted on boards attached to a post next to the Fort Steel road, the bold but foolish sign announced,
FOES KILLED ON SIGHT
“Ah.” I sighed with relish. “They will try to resist. Finally, a true conquest.”
No one else spoke. I had not sought their opinions. “Chop it down.”
An axe was brought. The woodcutter was efficient; the post toppled with no more than a few strokes from his gleaming double blade. My pleasure vanished when the heavy shouldered man toppled on top of the fallen post. The report of the rifle seemed a long time coming. Fifty riders peeled off immediately, spreading out and charging the low hill from which the shot must have come. They found nothing; the enemy was long gone.
One shot, one kill, I thought. One shot and move. I had expected neither that level of skill nor a weapon capable of putting a bullet on target at that range. It looked like at least eight hundred yards. Not quite half a mile but certainly more than a quarter.
My bodyguards surrounded me, anxious. I was not anxious. I was, however, suddenly aware that I had been put on notice. Not one of my men could have made that shot.
“Burn the sign,” I said, “and move on.” Lost in thought, I returned to my center-of-column position almost automatically. Aside from my three missing scouts, which did not count–scouts die–the defenders of this land were real to me now, and they had drawn first blood.
However, there were no more incidents. I sat comfortably in my camp chair at sunset, listening to the pleasant sounds of a well ordered camp, watching as the sun dropped behind distant mountains. Scattered clouds turned golden, then flaming red, followed by rose-violet, shading down into dusk. I locked the red into my memory. Red, the color of good luck. Red at night, sailor’s delight. There would be good weather tomorrow. We had passed two separate places where an ambush might have waited, yet there had been no more gunfire.
Quite possibly, this so called Mutual Assistance Project was a one trick pony.
Waiting was hard. Mace’s success with the Library armory’s .338 Lapua sniper rifle had us all jacked up at first, but now it was dark and this night belonged to three two-man hit teams. Julia, Jess, and the Bliss sisters all being considered men in this context. It made me dry-mouthed, knowing we were splitting up for the night’s work, but her argument had been persuasive. She was just too good with her sword and I was just too good with my Sedlacek special spears. Milo would get Swako into position, leaving the dwarf to make his final approach without vision enhancement of any kind. Stereotype be damned, he was packing his long handled axe, with Grit Smith staying back thirty yards or so, cradling an AK-47 in his arms and ready to cover his partner’s retreat if necessary. One of Julia’s brothers, Thorn Gunderson, was backing her up. I didn’t think I could have handled us being separated if her brothers hadn’t showed up to join the fray. Sandy Smith partnered with me.
It would have been easier on our emotions to get after it early, but caution prevailed. We didn’t know yet if our targets were equipped with night vision devices. Most importantly, the moon wouldn’t set until an hour or so after midnight. At least I’d been able to insist on taking the farthest end of the encampment, the butt end of the army, between fighters and the less disciplined civilians. Milo, Swako, and Grit were positioned so our Night Seer would not have to participate directly in the slaughter of his fellow Jews.
Julia and I didn’t much care who we killed. The enemy was the enemy.
Sandy couldn’t see farther than the end of his arm but he’d done plenty of night work, dating back to childhood. He stuck to my six like a burr to a saddle blanket as I eased forward, soft-stepping in the moccasins we reserved for night attacks. I went prone beside a clump of brush and put the small telescope to my eye. So far, so good. Of the several sentries I could see, none seemed to have anything covering their eyes. I squeezed Sandy’s shoulder and rose carefully, ghosting forward. Stalking the quarry and making the kill was never in question. Keeping the victim from crying out did, however, limit things a bit. A low strike, angling upward through the diaphragm, would do the trick…but we didn’t yet know what those jackets were made of. Besides, you had to be in front of the guy for that maneuver. Not a good plan. Kidney shots threw most humans into shock immediately but there were exceptions.
Throat? Soft target, tough angle from behind.
That left the brain. Take out a soldier’s control center and it was all over. We’d all practiced the move every chance we got, but I was the best at it. Getting it right required the razor sharp spear point to hit the top of the neck to one side of the spine–so as to avoid the bony skull–going in deep, hard, forward and upward and slightly inward, all at once. Grit Smith was second best in the squad, but not up to my standard. Besides, I’d killed with these short Sedlacek Special spears before.
My first three targets dropped like flies, bing-bang-boom, making a little noise as they hit the ground but not enough to unduly alarm their neighboring sentries. In each case, I relieved the fallen sentry of his shooter and cartridge belt, handing the hardware off to Sandy before moving on to the next post. It was a wonder my partner didn’t clank, as loaded down as he was.
Sentry number four either possessed better awareness or I slipped up somewhere. He was a big man, an Asian of some sort, wild-eyed as he spun to face the terror coming at him from the dark. His carbine came up fast. I almost couldn’t reach him in time, the tip of my weapon desperately swinging, not close enough to thrust correctly, not daring to throw. Purely by accident, the blade sliced across the back of his trigger hand, severing tendons before he could squeeze off a shot. He dropped the shooter. His reflexes were greased lightning; his off hand had a long knife out of its sheath before my thrust drove into his right side, somewhere between a couple of lower ribs. grating on bone en route. It was the shock to his liver that slowed him down just long enough for me to finish closing the distance between us. There was no more time to maneuver the spear. my right hand shot forward, a spear hand to the neck that struck the carotid artery, a Dim Mak strike that wasn’t quite right and severely jammed two of my fingers.
I shook it off. There was no time to waste.
Breathing hard but keeping it quiet, I fought to ignore the pain in my digits–not a patch on some of the whippings I’d endured as a child slave–and finished the job, slicing the fighter’s throat. He was the only kill I felt bad about that night. Whatever else he might have been, the big man was a true warrior. I felt like I’d murdered the brother I never had.
It was not until first light, the time of shift change, that the various bodies of slaughtered sentries were discovered. Swako, Julia, and I had gotten all twenty-four guards, leaving a Walking Dead skeleton patch atop each corpse. Julia had decapitated her targets, not caring which way they were facing when she took their heads with her two-handed sword. She spent more than an hour sharpening the blade after the night’s bloody work. Swako, guided he said by the sounds of men breathing, had done something similar with his axe–except that, not having night vision goggles, he’d sometimes missed by an inch or two, cleaving a skull rather than separating it from the neck. From our layup point some two miles distant, I watched through my best spotting scope. A group of Chinese that had to include War Leader Chang inspected each kill. He would easily know that three, and only three, killers had struck his first line of defense. He would also understand that his entire camp had lain wide open to attack for several hours, yet no attack had come. He would be wondering: Was this strategy on our part or proof that we were too low in numbers to be a real threat?
Moss Feldman had suggested using the machine guns, his M60 and the two rapid fire shooters from the Library, on first contact. I’d demurred. The machine guns worked well enough but we only had so many belts of ammunition. They were also obvious targets, once revealed. I wanted to wear Chang and his soldiers down bit by bit, revealing the existence of our most powerful weapons only at the last when the enemy was weakened, scared, reduced in numbers and jumping at shadows.
We would not hit them tonight, nor would we hit them twice in the same way. Three squads, well rested and snorting for blood, would see about giving them something to think about during daylight hours while we Night Riders slept. Few things are more powerful fear-inducers than the unknown. Our psychological warfare campaign had begun.