No one was allowed inside the tent while I considered my options. Staring at the propaganda flyer in my hand, I forced myself to face the unthinkable.
I might actually lose this war.
Impossible, the Emperor would say. From his vantage point more than four thousand miles away, knowing Hooded Cobra’s well trained coalition army was the largest military force seen since the Fall of humanity, he would be right. He had not seen what I had seen these past few days. In three brilliant maneuvers covering a mere two day period, this MAP enemy had literally decimated my forces, reducing them from 1,103 invincibles to 957 nerve-shattered, humiliated, fearful wrecks. Given a target they could see and hit, all of that negativity would instantly transform itself into a mighty dragon. But for now, the enemy had things all their way.
Obviously, this MAP was an acronym for the Mutual Assistance Pact we’d seen boasted on those border signs. But why had our spies not uncovered its existence during multiple years of snooping throughout the Northwest Territory? Either the small communities with their pathetic gate-closings were unbelievably unified or those upon whom we’d relied for intel had not tried very hard. Sickeningly, I began to suspect it was both. Or had some of our people found out about this MAP but been silenced on the spot? It’s what I would have done.
That brought me inevitably to yet another ugly suspicion. Our scouts. Even the enemy’s obvious skill after dark should not have been enough to allow the disasters of the past few days. Three of our best had been killed in running skirmishes with enemy scouts—MAP scouts, I forced myself to admit–yet those good men had all died well south of the posted border. Why no dead Hooded Cobra scouts since? Plenty of reported sightings, yet not one skirmish that drew so much as a drop of blood?
I should have seen it before.
“Sora,” I said quietly, “send the runners. I want every scout–every scout–assembled at the meeting ground in twenty minutes.” Inside, I was cold, neither fear nor rage but some icy fusion of the two.
Thirty minutes later, twenty-three men stood at attention as I rode into the meeting ground. Be late, make them wait. Speak from horseback so they have to look up to you. I brought Flame to a halt, saying nothing for a full three minutes, staring stone-faced at each man in turn as they kept their heels locked in formation. Noble Chinese every one, the cream of the crop, eyes straight ahead, yet I could feel the trepidation in them. At this moment, I’d rather be reliant on a contingent of Vietnamese and Koreans, blacks and Jews. Yet these were what I had.
“You are all cowards.” None of them had heard this tone from me. “You have become frightened of the enemy, this MAP who has used a mere handful of men to demoralize and decimate our army, who has infiltrated the camp with impunity, who has shown you that we fight a war against men rather than roll over sheep with impunity. You have failed in your duties. Rather than ranging twenty or thirty miles ahead of our infantry, rather than exploring our flanks to keep them secured, you have pulled up short. From the moment you realized a few of these people were greatly skilled in night fighting, you have trembled in fear. When you found and followed the tracks of three men this morning, you reported their trail lost just a few miles ahead, curiously enough at the brushy draw you feared to approach. Yesterday, you did not even find the pit trench that killed scores of our finest cavalry, including horses and men, reducing our horseback strength to less than half of what it was–and yet that trench was wide open, directly across the Fort Steel road, lurking less than half a mile ahead of our campsite for the night. In the heat of battle, I failed to realize your failure. Upon reflection, it is obvious; no more evidence is needed than the ambush itself. This morning, you were followed by men who have no fear, who saw what you did and reported back to me.
“I have failed in my leadership as well, but I cannot execute myself. Were I to do so, there would be no army. But I can balance the scales in another way. More than anything else, more even than my own failures which are beyond calculation, you scouts have caused the decimation of the Emperor’s Glorious Army. Therefore, you scouts–who have mysteriously suffered no losses whatsoever–will be decimated as well. Your Captain of Scouts will be executed. His two Lieutenants of Scouts will be executed. None of these three will be mercifully beheaded or shot. Instead, they will be hung, not with the long drop that snaps necks, but strangled in midair so they may suffer for a brief time. Be it so.”
I turned my back on them and rode away. Those sentenced to die looked around in desperation, then resignation. More than two hundred rifles were trained on them, but low, aiming for knees. They could not hope for quick deaths that way. Disarmed and bound, they were led to one side. Workers moved in swiftly and began digging, preparing the ground for the two great vertical posts and one cross-post currently being cut from timber bordering Roil River.
It disgusted me, realizing the Roil flowed farther from our eastern flank than the cowardly scouts had explored going forward. Had hanging myself been an option, I would have done it.
EIGHT DAYS LATER
“They’re coming.” I lowered the long scope from my eye, handing it Julia. “Should be here within the hour.” There hadn’t been any doubt, really. Not since Hoodie scouts had lost their timidity less than twenty-four hours after our fire-and-pit-trench ambush. However Venom Chang had done it, he’d inspired his eyes and ears. No longer balking at every pile of brush where we demon enemies might be hiding, his Chinese scouts were noticeably aggressive now. Our own people had inevitably engaged them in several scout-to-scout skirmishes during this past week, resulting in nine casualties on our side that ranged from a broken leg from under a fallen horse to a through-and-through bullet. The POS rifles we’d retrieved from their dead sentries were not, it turned out, entirely typical of their arms. No sign of anything of Before quality manufacture but nothing to sneeze at, either. At least a few scouts were now carrying rifles capable of putting bullets on target at three hundred yards. Thankfully, no high capacity thirty-round clips like our AK-47 carbines–either the two precious originals from the Library or the reverse-engineered copies analyzed and reproduced by the best metal engineers in Fort Steel, Fort 24, and the Badge, combined. But some Chinese did carry repeaters carrying ten-cartridge magazines.
Atop Ripple Ridge, our forces had been in place for days. Not dug in, exactly, because the Ridge was one long, continuous flow of volcanic lava, soft-crusty rock that crumbled at random under heavy human feet, let alone horses, but did not lend itself to foxholes. The stuff laughed at shovels. Only the Fort Steel road, passing over the ridge through a shallow saddle, afforded decent footing. Grunt said the passage had been thoroughly packed down, almost to pavement consistency, by traders rolling back and forth over the years. It was considered good luck for any trader to pay toll in the form of a wagon load of low-country clay, spread over the sharp, broken lava.
Thus, Ripple Ridge was misnamed. Like the former Black Hills of South Dakota, which were not truly black but only looked that way from a distance, the ridge did not ripple. Not nearly as much as traditional, smooth lava flows. It should have been called Jagged Ridge in honor of the boot-and-hoof slicing nature of its chief component. Or Battered Pumice Ridge.
Nor was it totally impassable away from the road. For horses, yes. Lighter humans on foot could make it, though they might lose a lot of boot leather during the climb. The oncoming Hooded Cobra army could not be expected to forge ahead blithely into the blazing muzzles of our shooters. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, Chang would make an effort to flank our position. And he would likely succeed through the sheer force of numbers. Not that we hadn’t done what we could to make it difficult for him. The disposition of our forces was, however, no more than a thin blue line. Two hundred and eighty men against at least three times that many. Better than our original five-to-one odds, but still. I had made the decision to bring our three machine guns–venerable M60 designs one and all–to bear for the first time. But there was a problem. Not the M60’s range; that was formidable. Not even ammunition, as Fort Steel had managed to supply us with nearly two thousand rounds. The problem was the link belts. Our top metallurgists could crank out plenty of cartridges but they couldn’t seem to get the links quite right.
As a result, we could expect “kinked link syndrome” jamming every forty rounds on average. Moss Feldman’s prize pig still had a few belts of reliable Before manufacture. As a result, he was set up in the saddle, just to one side of the road, with Sergeant Howard as his assistant gunner and every member of Banty Squad carrying additional ammunition belts. The former NYPD cop loved that shooter like other men loved women. He kept it whistle-clean, made sure the ammo didn’t get soiled with either dirt or oil, and was expected to fling a whole lot of intimidation downslope when the time was right.
Wickersham’s infantry and Grunt’s volunteers handled the other two quick-shooters, positioned at the far edges of our defensive arrangement. They would help discourage enemy flanking movements but I wasn’t holding my breath. There was way too much flank to cover.
Not every man was lying prone across the ridge, ready to riddle Hoodies from the high ground. Cavalry squads, including all five roving squads and seven groups of volunteers, kept three soldiers per squad back, holding horses, ready to retreat when (not if) I gave the command. We might–just might–beat the buggers back. But it would take a miracle and that wasn’t the plan. It was time to make a show of force, let the Emperor’s army see they were facing more than a mere handful of guerilla fighters. That, and let them also see our seven MAP flags, two big, five little. In order to keep them fooled as much as possible for as long as possible, twenty-eight fighters, ten percent of our total warrior force was held back, out of sight of the enemy. When a MAP soldier fell, and some would, a reserve soldier would immediately take his place, being careful not to let Chang see any growing gaps in our thin blue line.
The medical corps was set up farther back yet. We were truly blessed when it came to medics. Recent arrivals included none other than the Roost’s own reclusive Herman the Hermit, the gorilla-pumpkin man and herbalist extraordinaire…and blow me down, Fort Steel healer Laura Compton and her sixteen year old son. I wondered what Weasel thought abut that, his entire family leaving him to literally hold the fort while they rushed off to war. But I knew better than to ask.
Up front, we were the thin blue line, a term inspired by blue cop uniforms of old, appropriated by soldiers fighting under the blue MAP flags of today. Bulwark between good honest citizens and bad guys who would harm them.
Roughly speaking, Ripple Ridge covered a quarter of a mile, 440 yards, from base to crest. Our additional elevation would allow us to open fire at that range with our longer range rifles.
There was time and I was restless. I got up to walk the line, stopping to speak briefly with soldiers along the way, quiet words of encouragement and appreciation. How many of us would die this day? The Native Americans of old were so full of it. There is no good day to die. How many of us would live, suffering from missing limbs or other parts, fighting pain and nightmares for the rest of our days? So far, we’d lost seven scouts, dead and buried. Five more were wounded more or less seriously, three of them able to fight. Knowing it was wishful thinking, I tried to fix every man on the line in memory, willing them one by one to live through the killing hours of sunlight.
If Sergeant Julia Gunderson Jade, my first love and mother of our son…I would not think about it.
This time the scouts had gotten it right. Finally. Amazing what a few public neck-stretchings could do for motivation.
The ridge rose before us, dark and forbidding. Three hundred feet in elevation above the valley floor, give or take. At least four hundred yards of lava rock to cover before reaching the top. Wavy here, jagged there, providing too little of the cover the Emperoror’s Glorious Army would need badly. MAP was arrayed along the ridge crest, flags flying. Impressive at first glance.
Less so on close study. My people agreed with my assessment: Two hundred and twenty troops lined up along the ridge top, flags flying, but no way to know how many MAP had in reserve. One scout, deeply wounded in a skirmish with their scouts, swore with his dying breath that he’d made it all the way up there and counted an army of no more than three hundred soldiers, if that many. If he turned out to be right, I intended to recommend he receive an MSE award, Meritorious Service to the Empire. Emperor Chung would approve it without hesitation, providing a lifetime pension for the man’s widow.
“Pass the order,” I told my aides. “Open fire, lasers only.”
Our lead elements were still a full mile from those rifles lining the ridge top. Sadly, most of our precious laser rifles had been harmed in the pit trench attack. One had been dropped–by whom, I had been unable to determine–and its battery melted in the grassfire. Six had been kicked to pieces by the thrashing hooves of animals in agony, bent to breaking beneath thousands of pounds of crashing-down flesh, or otherwise disabled. Only three remained more or less functional, carried by three Chinese infantry commanders who’d proven their marksmanship with the weapons. This was appropriate. After all, they were Chinese scientists and engineers who’d produced the first-ever laser rifles, somewhere around the late twentieth or early twenty-first century. These were twenty-fourth century designs, the best ever produced, as enduring as the ancient chemical propellant weapons of the twentieth century. Nuclear powered, their batteries could last for a hundred years or more. How long our present arms would survive, who knew? But even a few long range shots should be enough to punch holes in the center of the small MAP army’s defenses and demoralize them considerably. On max power, they’d have to recharge after half a dozen shots but who cared?
A one-second pulse could burn completely through an elephant at this range. We were about to exhibit technological superiority, night walkers be cursed.
The scream came from my left, Grit Smith writhing out of position, his right sleeve smoking. On fire momentarily. “Gah-h-h! Wha-wha-what the–?!”
There had been no sound. Nothing seen except a hint of green flash in my peripheral vision. The enemy was still a mile away, twice the effective range of our machine guns. But not, I realized suddenly, out of range of Mace Smith’s Lapua .338 sniper rifle. “Get back!” I bellowed, flicking two small red hand-flags aloft, signaling the troops. “Lasers!” Few line soldiers had even heard of lasers, but all officers and every member of the roving squads had been briefed. I’d read about them in the Library’s vast collection of books gathered in the Armed Conflict section. We all scooted back from the ridge top a few feet, getting our heads down.
With three exceptions. Mace ignored my command, calmly taking aim on one of the laser shooters. They were easy to pick out through a scope, even at this range. Nobody else was pointing a weapon at us. His first round powered downrange and downhill as I realized Moss Feldman wasn’t moving either. He couldn’t. There was a two-inch smoking hole in his head, through and through, left eye to brain stem. I could see light pouring through where his brain had been cored, smell the stench of burning hair. His aide, beanpole Sergeant Slim Howard, should have retreated or, worst case, shoved his Lieutenant’s body out of the way so he could man the M60. He was doing neither. The man was on his feet, fully exposed to the distant shooters, screaming syllables that at first seemed to be gibberish.
Worse, I realized as I grabbed Feldman’s body by the ankles, pulling it back so the medics could retrieve it safely for the med-or-dead wagons. Much worse. I dove forward on my belly, taking charge of the old Jew’s precious machine gun. Howard was screaming an incantation, calling forth a wizard’s spell that pulled its power from the molten core of Earth itself. Every hair on my body leapt to attention, danced with the chills running up and down my spine, curdled my blood. But I had a job to do. Howard had lost his mentor and commanding officer, clearly causing him to snap. He would do what he would do. I left him to it, noting another smoking furrow mere inches from my left side as it dug through volcanic rock as easily as the devil light cored through the bodies of men.
Mace’s .338 fired again. I couldn’t worry about that; he knew his business. The M60 had an effective range of 440 yards or so. That did not mean it couldn’t reach out and touch anyone farther out, especially if the target was large enough.
At this moment, the attacking army was a large target indeed. Enemy soldiers were rushing forward, cavalry not in the lead but well behind. Chang was, it seemed, tired of losing horses. His infantry split into three groups, Jews charging toward our left flank, blacks to our right, Asians right up the middle. The Chinese War Leader had, I hoped, made a fatal mistake. His men now had to run–hard–for three quarters of a mile in full battle rattle just to reach the foot of the jagged lava flow. I elevated the M16’s barrel by guess and by gosh, tossing out three quick bursts, watching to see if men fell and where. Several did, a few rows back in the center Asian column. My finger squeezed the trigger in longer bursts, finding a rhythm, a garden hose spraying the lawn. Or mowing it, to be more precise.
The belt emptied. No jamming. Barrel hot but not out of action yet. Machine gunners, I had read, used to change out M60 barrels every ten minutes if firing at 100 rounds per minute, sustained, as I was attempting to do. I would have to keep on with this one until it either failed to work or blew up in my face. We had no spares.
Mace fired again.
Somebody handed me a fresh belt. I loaded it into the gun by muscle memory, not even looking at it. Slim Howard had captured my attention. He was growing, or at least he gave that appearance, fifteen feet tall now, broader, heavily muscled, dark of visage. His incantation screamed on, unabated. His hands faced the enemy, palms-forward at shoulder level, crackled with energy, lightning racing across their surfaces.
And then he released. His hands shot forward, a double palm strike. It wasn’t really visible as such, yet I could sense the horizontal bar of pure, dark energy slamming toward the enemy ranks. The Asian contingent. He had not taken his mentor’s death well.
The strike plowed into Chang’s lead elements, literally cutting them off at the knees, breaking bones, severing limbs. It was chaos down there. He had aimed to maim and his aim was excellent. The dark magic ran out of power after a second or two, but not before it had taken out at least a hundred Asian soldiers including every Chinese line officer except those leading the black group toward our eastern flank.
Such devastation should have stopped Chang’s army cold. Made them think twice, then three times. Caused them to retreat. Yet it had the opposite effect. Uninjured soldiers from all three enemy groups shot forward like they had rockets up their butts, finding triple the energy toward attack they’d shown mere seconds earlier. That was a problem.
Another problem was Sergeant Howard himself. “Slim!” Merrilee’s voice, desperate. “Slim!” Her mate was in trouble. He had that I’m-not-really-here thousand yard stare. Still standing erect, he swayed on his feet, his deadly hands hanging loosely at his side. “Slim!”
I had to act. We weren’t being overrun yet. The M60 wouldn’t mind cooling its barrel. All good, solid rationalizations, but Julia was there before me.
“Grant! Eckles! Howard!”
Howard blinked, coming back to himself. “Mommy voice,” Julia yelled over the sounds of battle, giving me a brief but flashing grin. “Works every time.”
Maybe so, but the sergeant needed more than that. I backed away from the ridge line, beckoning him to follow. When we were safely out of sight of the enemy, I whirled to confront him. “Fight now,” I snarled, “count your scars later.” For emphasis, I ripped off my shirt and turned, displaying the welter of white whip-scars criss-crossing my back. By the time I’d faced him again, putting my shirt back on, his eyes were wide. “Memento of my childhood slave years,” I explained, my voice curt.
He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. “Understood, Major. But I screwed up bad.”
“By killing a bunch of attacking enemy soldiers?” Scorn, laced heavy in my tone.
“No. Using dark magic. The spiritual cost, I’ll deal with that. But all I’ve done is poke the hornets’ nest. More of our people will die because I did that, because Hooded Cobra will fight harder. And no soldier from the Badge or the Gathering will follow my orders now.”
“Why not?” I didn’t have time for this but had to know.
“Wizards. Cuya County. Back East, the wizards are feared and hated, too dangerous on their home turf to attack. I’ve marked myself. And I’ve provided the Hoodies with a goal, a lone wizard they can go after without having to worry about a hundred of us.”
“All right. I got it. Let’s get back to the fight. Sergeant Jade!” Julia scooted over, attentive. “Tell the Bantys you’re in command of their squad for now.” She didn’t ask why, simply darted off on her mission.
“Sergeant Howard, you’re with me. No more wizardry, please, but the Barred Rocks couldn’t care less about your slip today. Let’s go shoot some turkeys.”
If we both lived through this, I suspected Slim and Merrilee and their kids would end up emigrating to the Roost. And why not? We had every other Norhtwest Territory weirdo living with us, starting with me.
The battle continued. More soldiers died or lost body parts on both sides, more Hoodies than MAP soldiers going down but our thin blue line getting thinner with every casualty. Grunt anchored one flank, Gilson the other, I held the middle. When the M60 barrel got hot enough to scare me, it was retired for the day, lugged back by two privates to be placed in the Armory Wagon. The other machine guns fell silent, joining mine. Hours passed. We pinned them down, shot the hell out of them, yet too many kept getting back up, coming on, yard by yard, using what cover they could find, leapfrogging up the pumice slope toward their objective, grim-faced and determined.
When the sun was high in the sky and every man, woman, and child on the battlefield had lost track of time, when our casualty count had risen to twenty-five killed or seriously wounded and I was considering pulling the plug anyway, the red hand-flags flashed from Captain Gilson. That flank would be turned if we didn’t beat feets right now.
I gave the command. More than two hundred and seventy people, infantry, recent volunteers, medics, soldiers living and dead, scuttled back and rippled away from Ripple Ridge, a horde of lemmings in reverse, choosing life over suicide. What remained were horse holders, mostly the children among us, safely back from the exposed ridgeline, plus just forty-six roving squad warriors acting as rear guard against the advance of enemies numbering in the hundreds. Not good, but we had kept the AK-47s in reserve. If Mace’s sniper rifle and Slim’s dark magic had removed the laser threat–which I believed they had–the shocking firepower of semiautomatic carbines equipped with thirty-round clips ought to even the odds.
If the Fort Steel products didn’t jam too often. Knock on wood. My knuckles rapped on the stock of my Kalashnikov without thought.
We kept them from the crest for another twenty minutes, enough for our fleeing army to put a mile or more between itself and the ridge. Then we fell back in a hurry, mounted up, and galloped out of range of their generally inferior shooters, turning in our saddles and firing one-handed, more to make them duck as they topped the crest than with real hope of hitting anything. There were exultant whoops urging us on, Hoodies overjoyed at finally achieving a concrete objective, but none of their bullets struck flesh. Every man jack of them was exhausted, gasping for breath, muscles trembling, and our big mountain-bred horses moved like the wind, putting distance between us.
They didn’t try to pursue. None of them had any energy left. None of them had thought beyond the ridge. I saw Venom Chang himself top the crest, resplendent in his red armor, majestic atop his flame-red sorrel. He appeared uninjured. With all the lead we’d thrown downrange, with him deliberately making himself such an appealing target, not even Mace or the wizard had been able to nail him.
Charmed life, that one.
We caught up to our people. They gave us grateful looks, relieved to have their cavalry and their commanding officers still with them. Except for Lieutenant Moishe “Moss” Feldman, former NYPD officer, survivor of the Fall, founder of both the Western Jewish State and the Badge, the eldest among us, senior statesman, mentor to many, senior warrior of us all, and my personal friend. His clay temple was still with us, minus the white-hot core sample taken through his skull, but Soul had left the building.
For now at least, the thin blue line had done its job. But at what cost?