LONG GRASS CAMP, EARLY DUSK
The army was subdued yet, strangely, stronger than before. The burial detail had slogged into camp half an hour ago, exhausted, their nerve stretched to the breaking point. Five dead officers rode on pole-and-canvas litters shouldered by infantrymen, the carriers trading off every five hundred steps. Gravediggers were hard at work, slicing through sod, creating five separate graves. No mass pit for those who’d been platoon commanders. They might not have been the best of the best, but they’d been Hooded Cobra. Three Chinese, two Jews. They would be laid to rest side by side, drums beaten in their honor before the Emperor’s Glorious Army moved out again.
War Leader Chang, accompanied only by Sora, walked the camp perimeter. He was not concerned about snipers. Not here. Not while there was still light. Here the grasses grew as tall as a man’s shoulder, an abundance of autumn-dry fodder the likes of which none of them had ever seen. No sniper could shoot through that.
Sentries had been increased fourfold. Only fifty feet between posts now, down from one hundred. Two men per post, up from one. Venom Chang paused at each of these posts, giving the sentries a few encouraging words, clapping them on the shoulders as he moved on. “You don’t like the look of that tall grass all round us, soldier? Neither do I. Would you rather march on another three hours past dark to reach the end of this? No? Neither would I.” The men did not verbalize questions but it seemed their War Leader could read minds. He also had something different to say at each post, never once repeating himself. “We grieve for our fallen, sentry, but they make us stronger. Until now, we had never been tested. Keep us alive until the morning.”
His rounds complete, the War Leader retired to his tent, allowing his assigned bodyguards to take up their positions encircling the canvas. Hooded Cobra’s top commanders arrived soon after, sitting on the dirt for this conference. There was only one camp chair, reserved for Chang himself. A small folding table stood in front of the chair, normally covered with journals, charts, maps, and miscellaneous notes. This evening it was bare.
“Green light, gentlemen.” His voice was quiet, calm, focused. It made those who knew him extremely nervous when he was like that. “We came waltzing up here without a care in the world and now the natives are picking us apart, piece by piece. Death by a thousand cuts. I need your thoughts.”
“Afghanistan.” The speaker was Major Thomas Bell, top commander of the WSJ contingent. Short, stocky. A student of history.
“Indeed. For thousands of years before the Fall, that country was invaded and occupied by countless powerful nations. Almost always, the invaders had the technological edge. How could they not? Afghanistan was a nation of tribal conflicts, poppy farming, goats, and not much else. But the Afghanis were tough and they knew how to take advantage of the inhospitable terrain and climate. Many natives were killed in the various wars. Government was blatantly corrupt at every level. And yet they persevered. These northwestern people are, I think, not unlike the Afghans of antiquity.”
“Bull.” The Chinese sub-general disagreed vehemently. “I have studied this Afghanistan of which you speak. That dry, stony, dusty place has little in common with these lush lands full of grasses, a true temperate zone, trees, bushes, creeks and rivers. I do not see the analogy.”
And so it went. The arguments, interspersed with occasional agreements, continued for hours. Venom Chang listened patiently, allowing the discussion to flow through his awareness. Though he did not particularly care for these meetings, he’d found himself able to extract gold nuggets from the conversational sand, making the effort worth it. Not until night had fully fallen did he cut the blather off and tell them how it was and how it was going to be.
“Gentlemen, thank you for your input.” In other words, shut up now. Daddy’s talking. I can summarize in a single sentence. The enemy is picking us apart like vultures feasting on a buffalo carcass.” He paused to make eye contact with every officer in the tent, his voice still quiet, still deadly.
“Bottom line, we’ve advanced a mere twenty-nine miles beyond the line these flyovers claim as their border.” These days, no one knew where the term flyover came from originally but all understood its meaning. Synonym for basket of deplorables. Scum of the Earth, grubbers in the soil, lacking intelligence, culture, and pretty much everything else except natural resources. “The score is natives 30, Hooded Cobra 0. Our only kill is one. Lousy. Horse. According to our spies and the maps they generated for us, we still have two hundred miles to go to reach our first objective, the community known as the Gathering, composed of cowards who fled from 13 Bloody Crips when it was still a worthless, gang infested sewage lagoon. At this rate, our strength would be seriously reduced before we even got that far. It’s another 450 miles from the Gathering to our primary objective, the foundry at Fort Steel.
“Not that the news is all bad. The men had become overconfident during this long campaign with almost no resistance. The losses have given them a much needed attitude adjustment for which we can be thankful. Adjustments are being made swiftly. Our enemies may shave bits from us but our core is solid. Best of all, the enemy is using guerilla tactics. You don’t do that unless you’re badly outnumbered. We will–”
Seven men startled. Only Sora, imperturbable as ever, seemed immune to the horror blossoming from that warning bellow. Surrounded by tall grass as they were….
“FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!”
By right of rank, Venom Chang was first through the tent flap. Every perimeter sentry was involved now, ninety-six voices in panicked choir. To the south, in the army’s rear, orange flames darted skyward. A curved crescent. No accident. A major attack. Between the army and the camp followers, Chang thought. The mob of washer women, tailors, butchers, herdsmen, latrine diggers and whores were camped even farther south, a good half mile away from the military itself since soldiers had started getting killed. That caution might save their lives this night. The evening breeze had turned into a night wind, hardly a gale but more than enough to whip the fire toward–
There was only one chance. Not the Roil River. That lay more than a mile to the east, with no way of knowing what pitfalls the terrain might hide between here and there. They would have to run. But not in blind terror. Sticking to the road, where the grass had been beaten down and ground to dust beneath the hooves and wheels of numerous freight trains over the years until it was packed hard, never mind the ruts. The War Leader’s mind worked furiously, considering. The enemy was herding them. There would be shooters ahead somewhere, dug in and protected from the onrushing flames. No matter what he decided, more men would die this night.
“Form up!” His voice of command was unmistakable, cutting through the men’s fear. Their leader was taking charge and that was all that mattered. There would be no time to strike the tents. “Packs and weapons only!” Years of drilling under his command paid off; the men were obeying with alacrity. A few minutes were lost as the cavalry bridled and saddled their mounts. That could not be helped. Without saddles, too many weapons would be left behind. He did not intend to lead his men to slaughter naked.
Sora hastened to his side, leading Chang’s red horse as well as his own gray. It was time to go. The two men mounted. From the saddle, he was much more visible to his men. “Cavalry, forward-trot! Keep your eyes peeled! There will be fighting!” He let the mounted warriors get moving, then turned in the saddle, addressing the infantry. The three long columns of four were under control but looking decidedly nervous. Licking flames had spread to join each other to form a huge fiery wall, most of the smoke invisible as it launched into a starless sky. Temperature was dropping fast. It would snow within hours, the first of the season, but not soon enough to save them. Tongues of the Dragon, he thought, but this dragon allied with the enemy, not with Hooded Cobra.
“Forward, march! Triple time!” Soldiers had known the dreaded double time pace for eons, a relatively easy jog. Triple time was his own invention, or at least he thought it was. A lope, really. The flames were no more than five hundred yards behind the rearmost soldier but the men moved out smartly without yielding to panic. Venom Chang expected to lose a few more cavalry when the enemy opened up but they would find they had bitten off more than they could chew this night, Tongues of the Dragon be damned.
“Sergeant, call roll.” I continued to watch the wall of flame roar forward, away from us. If the fire caught Chang’s army, I would witness the screaming death dance of twisted marionettes, human torches. I had ordered this, had personally contributed as well. There was no looking away.
Julia’s voice rang out. “Bliss, Petula!
“Present!” Our littlest warrior was alive and well. I breathed a sigh of relief. Each of us assigned to Arson Duty had utilized a technique well known to the ancient Plains Indians. Drag a bundle of fire behind your horse–a pony, in the case of the ancients, with flaming buffalo hide often serving as the bundle–and lope along. A handful of warriors could set an entire prairie afire that way, which they often did. Occasionally as a war technique, more frequently as a way to clear old vegetation from the land, allowing spring to sprout a carpet of fresh green grass.
Moments latter, roll call was complete. Nobody missing. Milo, riding with us, could have eyeballed the group and reported more quickly but that was not his job. The bugs, as we’d begun calling our two precious pairs of night vision goggles, were with Mace and Sandy this evening. “We’ll need to ride wide to the north,” I observed. Coming straight up on the rear of a singed army sounded like a really bad idea. “Milo, lead on.” The wind hitting the back of my neck was starting to drop beyond comfortable to chilly. Had Hooded Cobra been just one day slower, this trap would have been entirely useless, the tall grass country buried under a blanket of snow. Speed kills, I thought. Especially tonight.
My brother and I knelt behind the earthen bulwark that had been thrown up nearly three years earlier. Thirty yards ahead, condemned Banty Squad soldier, Private Chad Berger, crouched in his hastily dug foxhole, his eyes barely above ground level as he watched and listened. Wearing the bugs, Sandy and I could see Berger clearly. As for the enemy, there was only sound. Rooster Squad’s cattle herding fire leaped high into the night sky, a beautiful sight if you were into that sort of thing. The natural firebreak in front of us, an average eighty yards wide, was composed mostly of surface shale, inhospitable rock that was hopefully enough to stop the fire cold before it reached us. If the flames did somehow jump the break, a few wind-carried sparks crossing the open space to ignite the grass on this side, Sandy and I would be fine. Situated just far enough from the Fort Steel road to be invisible to commercial traffic until we needed it, our fortified post was nothing but bare dirt. As long as we could stay low and avoid breathing too much smoke, we’d be fine.
Same for Berger, though he’d not be alive long enough to find that out. Positioned in a rare spot soft enough for digging, he was armed with more loaded rifles captured from Hooded Cobra than Major Jade had first promised but had no defense against my .338 Lapua sniper rifle. No matter what he did this night, he would neither escape nor be captured alive.
Between Berger’s foxhole and the leading edge of tall grass, roughly fifty feet into the open, a huge “trench trap” stretched across the road, extending nearly four hundred feet–slightly more than a hundred yards–to either side. The sweat equity engineering feat had been Grunt Sedlacek’s brainchild. That area had originally been covered in grass, not barren rock. A huge task force, more than two hundred civilians from Fort 24 and the Gathering, plus a handful from Fort Steel, had labored alongside eighty infantrymen for an entire summer. Leaving only enough cover to hide the secret from travelers, they had put in their “summer shift,” for which they were paid well. After the basic trench was finished, the civilians returned home, well compensated for their labors. How the secret had been kept for this long…well, that surprised me some. The promise that anyone who talked would be either hung as a traitor by MAP or turned into a slave by the Chinese, that might have had something to do with it. More likely, it was the closing of the communities, with traders kept at arm’s length. Few Fort 24 or Gathering citizens cared to leave home unless it was absolutely necessary.
Only a few months ago, after the Fort Steel road was closed to all nonmilitary traffic south of the OrgaMins, had the final touches been added by our infantry. Concealing grasses were scythed flat, leaving defenders with a clear field of fire. The two halves of the trench had been joined together with a cut across the road itself. Freshly sharpened stakes had been coated in feces and buried upright in the bottom of the trench from end to end. No mercy. No joy, either, among those soldiers who had to smell the stuff until the job was done.
Nothing was new in any of this. Hundreds, even thousands of years ago, humans had taken down dangerous animals and two legged enemies this way. But it would, we hoped, be new to Venom Chang. He was, after all, a city boy at heart.
Country folks can survive.
All that had come under the heading of Excellent Planning. Being able to use fire to chase their army, however, came under the heading of Mighty Good Luck. Had the enemy arrived in weather unsuitable for fire, or had they marched this far during daylight hours, we would still have fought here, but we’d have used more–possibly all–of our men, and far more MAP soldiers would have inevitably died.
“Here they come,” Sandy hissed.
Sure enough. Pushed by the running men behind them who were in turn being pushed by the flames, Chang’s cavalry burst out in the open like a fat girl popping her girdle, spreading to either side of their leaders the instant they cleared the grass. Their horses were galloping, white-eyed, picking up on their riders’ terror. Behind them, towering flames, smoke rolling overhead, heat they could feel on exposed skin. Ahead, nothing but flickering shadows. The first wave didn’t even see the trench before they fell into it, horses and men alike screaming as stakes impaled them, chest, gut and groin. With my long rifle, I held fire, waiting, hoping for a shot at Venom Chang himself. To my right, Sandy likewise held his fire with the AK-47, one of the two originals Michael Jade had found in the Library. Somewhat to our surprise, even Berger held his fire, waiting for the right moment.
Which came soon enough. At ten feet in depth, the pit trench staked the first horses and men thoroughly, but others, unable to stop, piled atop their writhing bodies. Still others smashed down on the second layer. It wasn’t long before the first cavalrymen, standing atop a pile of corpses, managed to climb from the pit.
Berger opened up. Men fell. Others fired back, guided by the muzzle flashes of Berger’s weapon. Sandy began picking them off. His Kalashnikov was a center-of-mass shooter at two hundred yards. At eighty, my brother was good for a head shot, two times out of three.
I continued to wait, scanning back and forth, keeping an eye on the condemned private as well as both ends of the trench. Berger was still holding his own despite being a prime target for the enemy. Sandy began to get incoming rounds as well. I worked on those, using the sniper rifle to take out Hoodies who targeted my brother, one by one. With my shots being less frequent, my position was spotted less often. When a soldier did manage to send a bullet my way, I popped him in return. But there were a lot of the buggers, especially now that the infantry was exiting the grass as well. They were led by two men on horseback, one animal a flashy sorrel, the other a steeldust gray.
Venom Chang and his bodyguard. I couldn’t believe my luck. Eighty yards. Slam dunk. Never mind that he was moving. I drew down on him, stopped my breath midway, squeezed the trigger–
–and missed. Chang had sized up the situation at the trench and ducked his head forward just as my bullet went whizzing through the hole in the air where it had been. Urging his horse forward, he’d saved his own life. The big sorrel didn’t even slow down for the trench full of dead and injured men and horses. He carried his rider cleanly across the pit, landing without breaking his stride. The man on the gray did the same. Without pausing, Chang charged Private Berger’s position, followed by the bodyguard. Another leap, soaring over the foxhole as the Chinese leader leaned sideways in the saddle, firing a carbine one handed. Quite a horseman to do that. I’d begun riding before I could walk, yet trying that maneuver would have dumped me on my head when the horse landed.
Speaking of heads, Berger’s disappeared as he ducked down, but he wasn’t dead yet. He popped right back up, swinging a rifle around toward the man on the red horse.
The bodyguard did not jump his horse over the man as his leader had done. Instead, he let the gray run past the foxhole while he leaped from the saddle, sliding to a halt on his knees, taking off Berger’s head with a slender, two handed sword. Private Chad Berger would not be popping up again.
“Damn,” Sandy muttered, referring to the swordsman. “He might be better than Julia.”
All this happened during the time it took me to work the sniper rifle’s bolt. Empty. Two more empty magazines on the ground, no memory of having swapped them out. I was out of ammo and hundreds of enemy infantrymen were crossing the trench or going around it the long way now, all headed for their leader. Sandy might get a shot at Chang with his AK, certainly would if I asked, but the bodyguard was already back on his horse and blocking our shot as if he knew right where we were. Which he probably did. “Time to get outa Dodge, bro.” I felt around for the last of my brass, Sandy gathered up his extra banana clips, and we scooted. Crabwise at first, till we were deep in the grass, then upright and double-timing it along the twisty escape route, back deeper and deeper in the grass, down a steep little slope into a hollow where our hobbled horses stood, ground-tied. We’d not dared trust them to ground tying only on this night. Their ears were pricked forward, glad to see us. At least they hadn’t spooked completely. We mounted up and headed out at a walk. There might be pursuit, but anyone coming after us into the grass would suffer from a decided lack of enthusiasm.
We covered half a mile or more before Sandy spoke. “Fire’s dying down already. Doesn’t seem to have moved for a while. I reckon the firebreak stopped it.”
“That’s good. Didn’t much feel like joining the Crispy Critter Brigade tonight.” I turned in my saddle to confirm Sandy’s observation. Yep. Things were settling down nicely. “I didn’t see any supply wagons, did you?”
“Nope. Just their regular backpacks and shooters.”
“Which means they’re likely going to be sleeping rough from now on. Might have a light ground cloth in a pack, but no tent.”
I looked up, then at each other. We both grinned. “Starting to snow, brother.”
“Sure would hate having to sleep out in the open tonight.”
“Aw, Mace, you’re going soft. Remember when we were kids, out hunting elk and a blizzard would catch us? We thought that was a plumb lark, now didn’t we? The elk were easy to track after the snow quit coming down. We always showed back up at home with meat.”
Neither of us mentioned Private Berger. We’d have to report to the Major, sure enough, but until then…. “You’re missing the point Sandy.”
“Yeah. Them elk didn’t have guns. Ol’ Chang’s gotta be thinking we’re no easy meat by now.” We rode on through the night, cheerful despite having witnessed all that carnage and having missed a chance at Venom Chang. Even Sandy’s admission that an enemy bullet had clipped one of his ears couldn’t dampen our spirits. We’d hammered ’em good and we were still alive. What more could any warrior ask?