Grunt, Chapter 99: High Tech in Flyover Country

From the Foreword to The Hooded Cobra War: Terrain and Tactics, by G. E. “Slim” Howard:

Neither Emperor Chung nor his charismatic War Leader, Venom Chang, ever understood the people they were fighting in their drive to conquer the much smaller MAP forces of the Northwest. The vast majority of Empire citizens were descended from people who’d lived their early lives in densely packed New England seaboard cities. These cities, before their ultimate destruction had for centuries contained many thousands of sardine-canned humans per square mile. Politically, they were overwhelmingly in favor of Big Government and uniformly scornful of the Flyover Country rubes in states like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Success was measured by one’s rung on the Government Service ladder or, for the less fortunate, one’s rank in any of a thousand lawless inner city gangs. Or both. More than a few gangstas ended up in politics.

All, excepting only Chung and Chang themselves, could be easily crushed into shape by peer pressure. All, including Chung and Chang, accepted as a given that size matters, that a few hick farmers could never be able to stand up to the Emperor’s Glorious Army.

When the last of the Upheavals rumbled to a close and the land had been remade almost entirely, the barest remnant of humanity lived on in Flyover Country. The Fall of humanity had been, for them, within a hair’s width of an extinction event. But there was one crucial exception to this rule: Of those few hundred who did survive, nearly all of them worked in or near trillionaire William Johnson Schenk’s town, the moderately urban center known locally as Last Chance City. There were farmers and ranchers in the area who brought their livestock, grain, and produce to LCC. There were engineers by the hundreds, construction workers by the thousands, service workers by the tens of thousands–most of them drawn from relatively local talent. Montana Technical College at Butte, Montana, boasted about the number of alumni who found jobs with Schenk. Welding schools in Mobridge, South Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, provided men who could run perfect beads on everything from sheet aluminum to bridge girders. Finally, world class scientists were recruited from all over the globe, only a few of them working secretly on the development of capriosi vilify, the virus credited with killing off 99.98% of all humans on planet Earth. (As reported widely, cap. vilify was eventually perfected by a team working in Germany, not the United States. Some Last Chance City scientists did, however, assist in that effort.)

Thus were two entirely dissimilar cultures destined to clash in what became known as the Hooded Cobra war. Though their memories were short or missing altogether, the original Northwest Territory communities of Fort 24, Fort Steel, and Fort Confluence were seeded by refugees from Last Chance City, a goodly percentage of them packing I.Q. levels of 180 and above. Steel and 24 added a healthy leavening of self reliant individuals who sprang from people of the land, those who understood life, death, the language of soil and sky, wind and weather, getting by on nothing but pure grit and redneck fixes. Fort Confluence, high on brain power but lacking men with common sense, did not last long.

Yet their genes lived on. In the end, that was what counted. The new breed had its share of bootlickers but far more crossbred, stubborn, wily, dead-smart, flat-out-tough survivalists in its ranks. On the whole, they were nearly a new species, a quantum leap forward in human evolution.

Darwin’s Law triumphant.

With five years of warning, the westerners, members of the newly formed Mutual Assistance Pact (MAP), set to work. Lacking numbers, their leaders considered every day before the onset of war to be a day of grace, a day they could sprint farther forward in a crucial arms race. MAP had the Fort Steel foundry, already functioning, turning out weapons and ammunition. The new community known as the Badge hosted half a dozen men experienced in machining and forging, adding their knowledge to that of Fort Steel’s. This push for war technology contrasted sharply with Emperor Chung’s approach, which was to simply explore Before city ruins for what could be found, ignoring invention.

In fact, the Empire had no clue it were even in a race at all. The analogy was not Genghis Khan meets the Great Wall of China. The analogy was Attila the Hun meets G.I. Joe.

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VENOM CHANG

“You are sure?”

“Yes, War Leader.” This Scout Leader might last a while. He ranged widely, controlled his fear of both the enemy and me, and brought back intel reports that had so far proved reliable. “MAP is scouting at no more than half strength. And the one we suspect is their Scout Leader has not been seen for days.”

Absentmindedly, I rubbed the knotted muscle at the back of my neck. “And their main force has left this natural bowl?”

“Yes. In a hurry, or so it would seem. The place is littered with discarded gear. Everything from worn out horseshoes to a raggedy tent canvas full of holes.”

“You did not ride explore this former campsite? Only glassed it?”

“I did explore the site, War Leader. Left my command outside and walked through from one end to the other. If there were booby traps, I felt I was best equipped to avoid triggering them, and to read the signs left by their army’s retreat.”

So the enemy was still running, staying well out of reach of the Emperor’s Glorious Army. “Leave us,” I said. “Go get your men fed and change horses. We march in two hours.” When the Scout was gone, I turned to Sora.

“I do not like it,” I said to the Japanese swordsman.

“Nor do I.” The Skilled Man knew my remark was an invitation to speak. “What we cannot understand, we cannot anticipate. What we cannot see coming, we cannot kill. The mind of this MAP general is a mystery, closed to us. His strategy, at least until now, has been to bleed us bit by bit. That much is clear. His tactics are not so clear. He has never used the same one twice. I do not think the Scout Leader is wrong about MAP retreating from this bowl. It does not sound like a wise choice for a pitched battle, being somewhat defensible but easily surrounded. The only thing we can know for sure is his determination. I do not see him running forever.”

“Nor do I.” I studied the map before me. He may be running for the cliffs. They are only a few days ahead. He might hope we are foolish enough to come straight up the road after him since the rocks are too sheer and high to climb on the one side while the river runs close by on the other.”

“And legend has it mutant monsters roam the thick woods on the river’s far side, devouring those they can catch and infecting the rest with radiation sickness.”

“Such is the legend.” No one knew if radiation sickness was really contagious or not. It wasn’t like any nuclear physicists existed in today’s world to assure us of the truth of the matter. But people believed. “The cliffs are for another day. Today we ride wide of the road, through the bowl where the way has been scouted. From the Scout’s report, the main road has definitely been mined at that point.” The signs had been subtle but, in the Scout Leader’s opinion, definite. He had not dared ride the road past the bowl.

Flame seemed to enjoy the fine, crisp day as much as I did. Brisk, but not cold enough to see one’s breath. No wind. Only a few inches of snow on the ground here, heavily trampled as Sora and I led the way through the natural bowl–a caldera, he called it, left over from ancient volcanic activity–and out the other side. Safe and sound, no booby traps. The fleeing MAP army really had left a lot of debris behind. They were traveling light, not carrying any junk. It was good to be first when there were no bullets flying. A screen of Scouts forged on ahead, gathering visual information, prepared to flush out any hidden sniper, even at the cost of their own lives. Good men, now. I began to relax, to think ahead toward those cliffs. That would be the place MAP would make its last stand before the population center known as the Gathering. Couple hundred black apes living there. I looked forward to removing them from the equation. Their bench fort would make a fine rear base from which to launch our final push toward Fort Steel.

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MICHAEL JADE

Mace was the sniper. I was the spotter. Wearing our snow linens, lying prone in snow hides just under half a mile from the caldera, we watched Chang’s army wend its way through the bowl. “I could nail him this time,” he said quietly. Meaning Chang, still wearing bright red armor, still riding that bright sorrel stallion, but out in front of his bodyguard squad, a perfect high-color bullseye against white snow backdrop.

“Do you play chess?”

“What are you talking about?” Chang and his swordsman had exited the caldera now, cavalry following, infantry behind the horses.

“I don’t either, but I’ve watched others. The point is to trap your opponent’s king tightly enough that he can’t escape one attack without running into another.”

“Yeah? So?”

“So there are two basic ways to play the game. Either pin that king down while there are all sorts of enemy fighters still on the board…or chop away at his people until none are left and then clobber him at your leisure.”

“And you’re saying….”

“I’m saying we can chop the head off the Hooded Cobra now, but if we do, the war may not be over. There will still be hundreds of armed enemy soldiers out there and without Chang they’ll be unpredictable. I’d rather we remained the unpredictable ones, wouldn’t you? How would you like to face the prospect of six hundred new bandits running around loose, eh?”

“Ugh.”

“Ugh. Any time now. Wind approximately one mile per hour, from the west. You know the range.”

Two seconds later, the .338 Lapua spoke. Okay, technically it’s a .338 Lapua Magnum, but that’s a mouthful.

The hypersonic round screamed downrange, hitting a busted-tree saddle dead center, coring through, slamming into the compression charge buried under the snow. The explosion was pretty, gouting snow twenty feet in the air, tossing saddle remnants around. That was only the beginning, igniting det cord that circled the caldera at more than 100 miles per hour, completing the full circuit in less than twenty seconds. Along the way, it lit fusees that lit blasting caps that lit dynamite that touched off hardened steel containers of an emulsion explosive the Boom Heads called Merry Christmas. The soft-topped containers, more than two dozen of them angled in various directions, blasted twelve hundred Nails each toward, into, and through flesh and bone. Nails with a capital N, wickedly snelled on the tips, body rippers going in or coming out.

This was what had gotten Weasel’s home-loving ass out of Fort Steel. The Boom Heads had finally solved the problem, developing and manufacturing det cord that couldn’t care less if it was wet or frozen. Extreme heat might be a problem, Weasel reported, but we weren’t going to worry about that at this time of year. Just keep the stuff away from fire and we’d be fine. It had taken three freight wagons to hold all the ordnance and we’d used it every bit of it, right here. There wasn’t any place better. The Nails filled the air with barbed death and screaming men. No dead horses this time; I’d chosen to have Mace touch off the Nails of Hell with the lead Hoodie elements already in the clear and the tail not there yet.

In a word, the Emperor’s Glorious Army was gutted. Literally, in many cases.

Chang and the swordsman were not hit, or at least not badly. At the first boom, both men had bent low over the necks of their horses, spurring like mad, the remaining cavalry hot on their heels.

“Ten o’clock,” I reported calmly. Though those in the caldera would have been deafened immediately, three enemy scouts had been close enough to us to hear the Lapua fire. They’d intuited our position and were charging our way. I fired first, my .358 Winchester sending 200 grains of Silvertip hollow tip through the left hand scout’s chest. One shot, one kill. Mace took out the guy on the right. We had both, I realized, forgotten all about my earlier kill the horses edict. The remaining scout decided discretion was the better part of valor, skidding his mount to a halt, spraying snow, spinning around, launching back the way he’d come. I worked the lever on my Winchester. Mace worked the bolt on his Lapua. The fleeing horse and rider both went down, leaving Mace and me to argue for years about who’d hit what.

Then we got the hell outa Dodge. Shoot and scoot. Forty yards to where our horses were tied. Into the saddles and gone before the cavalry could catch us.

Later, we would find out we’d killed or incapacitated 303 Hoodie soldiers. Chang was down to not much more than 300 fighting men, with no one–not even a camp follower–to tend the wounded.

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SORA, the SKILLED MAN

“Give the order.”

I left the tent without saying a word. What was there to say? I went to each company commander personally, told him what must be done. As the sun dropped and colder air settled in for the night, men wounded too badly to fight were taken in small groups, carried just far enough to the rear to be out of sight. Their throats were cut and they were left to die. It was no longer about conquest. It was about survival. We could not spare a single soldier to play nursemaid to the fallen.