Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
The ambushers pressed the attack for another couple of minutes, dien abrupdy broke it off, fading back into die swamp and the stunted trees.
“Hold your positions,” Ben ordered, Corrie repeating the orders the instant diey left his moudi. “Where the hell are die gunships?”
“On their way.”
“Tell diem to strafe everything that moves on eiuier side of the road.”
Helicopter gunships, which had been circling the city of Banjul, some miles away, began roaring overhead, machine guns clattering and rockets tearing up the swamp.
Still more ambushers died in the air assault.
“Tell the tanks to strafe the bodies in the swamp with machine-gun fire,” Ben ordered. “I don’t want some dying asshole to take a Rebel with him with his last breath.”
.50 and 7.62 caliber machine-gun fire ripped the swamp for a full minute before Ben ordered a halt. “Wounded?” Ben asked.
“Two wounded, minor. No Rebel dead,” Corrie reported.
“Good. Now shove that damn stalled truck off the road and let’s get the hell out of here.”
While the vehicle blocking the road was being shoved off into the swamp, Corrie said, “Two prisoners, boss. They just crawled up out of the swamp. Both of them hard hit, not expected to make it.”
“All right. We’ll hold up while intel gets what they can from them. Then toss the bodies back into the swamp.”
“Done,” Corrie responded.
“The Scouts near the city yet?”
“As close as they dare get. The city is jam-packed, to use their words. The dead are piled up in rotting stacks outside the city. The residents try to burn the bodies, but are usually not entirely successful. They get the top of the pile, those underneath rot. There are absolutely no sanitation facilities; they were pretty lousy before the war, when there were about fifty thousand people here. Now there are about ten times that number.”
“Damn!” Ben said. “Got any more good news?”
“The city is a breeding ground for disease. Not even the gangs of punks want anything to do with it.”
“This is why the people back up the road looked at me so strangely when I said our next stop was Gambia. I should have pressed them for details. All right. We’ll bypass Banjul; give it a wide berth. We’ll hold up just inside the Guinea-Bissau border and wait for Nick to catch up. He’s supposed to be in Bansang late this afternoon or early in the morning.”
“Right. I’ll bump him now. Oh, the two prisoners just died without saying anything.”
Before Ben could reply, Chase came walking up. “What’s this about Banjul, Ben?”
Ben very quickly summed up what Corrie had told him.
Chase nodded. “That ties in with what a doctor told me back in Banjul. But he said it was all rumor. He could confirm nothing.”
“Bypass it, Lamar?”
“I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t save every human being on the continent. It’s a noble thought, but impossible for us.”
“I know, boss. Tell the captain of the ship bringing the reporters’ supplies to push on, or sail on, whatever sailors do, down to the port of Bissau. Tell the charter plane bringing in the press to hold off until we are sure the airport can handle them.”
“That’s right, Corrie.”
Chase looked at both of them strangely, then said to Ben, “She can read your mind? God, poor girl!”
The going was so slow through the tiny country that many times the Rebels chose to walk alongside or behind the trucks rather than endure the torturous ride.
“What a choice,” one Rebel was heard to say. “Blisters on my feet or blisters on my ass.”
William W. Johnstone
Ben only smiled when he heard that. He knew that the time for a commander to really start worrying was when the troops stopped bitching.
Despite the terrible roads and the slow going, Ben and his Rebels make it across the tiny country without further incident. As to who was behind the failed ambush, Ben never found out. The Rebels had gathered up many of the weapons used by the ambushers and they were in good shape, and, as Ben was quick to point out after looking at several of the bodies, so were the boots. Good gear can tell an experienced field commander much about a unit.
Nick Stafford and his 18 Batt reached their objective without running into trouble, and they reported that while Bansang was no paradise, the people there were making a great effort to climb out of the tragedy of war and resume some degree of normalcy. Nick and his people would stay for a few days, his doctors seeing, as much as possible, to the needs of the people. Nick and his 18 Batt would then have to travel east over to Basse Santa Su before cutting south and eventually make it into Guinea-Bissau … which used to be known as Portuguese Guinea. The other battalions were keeping pace with Ben’s 1 Batt, although the west-to-east line would appear very snake-like on any map.
Ben’s Scouts reported that the city of Bissau was coping, and while the citizens had suffered at the hands of gangs, the gangs had fled upon hearing that the Rebels were fast approaching the city. The reputation of the Rebels was quickly spreading all over the continent. Ben knew that eventually the hundreds of gangs would band together under one leader and make a stand of it-they would have no other choice.
During a rest break, Paula found Ben and sat down on the ground across from him. “I’ve just spoken with
some of the reporters. They think you’re deliberately stalling to keep them out of the country.”
Ben screwed the cap back on his canteen. “I don’t give a damn what they think, Paula. I did what I did for their own safety. If they haven’t got enough sense to understand that, to hell with them.”
“You really hate the press, don’t you, Ben?”
“I don’t have much use for a lot of them. But hate? … No, I don’t hate them. What I hate is to see the press going right back to being what they were before the Great War. Those outside the SUSA, that is,” he added with a smile.
“What do you mean?”
“They were biased then, they’re biased now. It was the press I believe, who, back before the Great War, coined the phrase ‘hate groups’ to describe many, if not all, of the militia groups that sprang up across the country. I knew many people who belonged to various militia groups, and very few of them hated the government. They disliked the direction the government was taking, which was to the left. They were opposed to the government wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year. They knew that many departments and agencies of the government were not necessary. They disliked the big bloated bureaucracy the federal government had become. They disliked the fact that government was snooping around in the private lives of its citizens. If one got his or her news solely from the national press, the average citizen would think every member of a militia group, or a tax protest group, or any kind of group who had the courage to speak out against government was evil. The evening news and the broadcast news magazines-so-called-became a joke to millions of Americans … and I include myself in that group. There was no fairness, no balance, no presenting of both sides of every story. Now to be honest about it,
William W. Johnstone
some of the militia and other protest groups were filled to overflowing with nuts and cranks. But not the majority. The majority were decent, honest, working, taxpaying men and women who felt they had no voice in the running of government … which they didn’t.”
“There was always the ballot box, Ben.”
“It wasn’t working. In the last national election before the Great War and the following revolt by citizens, only about forty-eight percent of eligible voters bothered to vote. That’s how bad it had become in America. Many people just gave up, believing, correctly to some degree, that their vote didn’t count and didn’t matter in the long run. They believed, again correctly to some degree, that big government was going to do what big government wanted to do, and to hell with the millions of Americans who were opposed to it. Revolution was inevitable, Paula. If the politicians had not been so far out of touch with the average citizen, they could have seen it coming. Should have seen it coming.”
“But the war came instead.”
“It sure did. And right on its heels, open rebellion by Americans who simply refused to go back to the old ways.”
“America never really recovered, did it, Ben?” she asked softly.
“It recovered just fine for us, Paula.”
“A few weeks ago, you said you felt that sometime in the very near future, or words to that effect, that the EUSA and the NUSA would soon become as one. Do you really believe that?”
“Oh, yes. I know that talks were underway even before we sailed. I’m not supposed to know that, but as you have stated, very little escapes my attention.” He smiled. “And we have a very good intelligence network.”
“I’m sure you do. And will the SUSA ever agree to return to the Union?”
“Doubtful. The eastern and northern sections of the country are going right back to the old ways just as fast as die liberals an steer them. And that is something we will never do.”
“What if, once America is reunited, the leaders try to force the SUSA to rejoin the Union?”
“They won’t. The politicians might bluster around and poke out their chests and talk tough, but that’s all it will be. They know better than to attempt to use force against us.”
“Why? Nearly your entire army is over here.”
“Paula, I won’t hesitate to use germ warfare against any enemy of the SUSA. And I have the stockpiles and the delivery systems ready to go.”
“You wouldn’t do that!”
“The hell I wouldn’t, lady. Those of us who conceived and followed this dream worked too damn hard and sacrificed too damn much to see it destroyed. That will not happen. Do you know what MAD means?”
“I can but assume you are talking about the old cold-war term meaning Mutually Assured Destruction?”
“That’s right, Paula. And you be sure and remind your asshole press buddies about it. I say remind, because they already know. If die United States ever does become united again, and I suspect they will, probably sooner than I think, and tries to move against us, I will defend the SUSA down to the last missile, the last canister of airborne sickness and death, and the last drop of Rebel blood. I will destroy any country who elects to wage war against us.”
Paula visibly paled under her tan. “I have never heard such a deadly warning behind any person’s words.”
“You’ve got that right. And I mean every word of it.”
She stared at him for a few heartbeats. “You say the press knows of this?”
“Sure. But they think I’m bluffing.”
William W. Johnstone
“And you don’t bluff, do you, Ben?”
“Not when it comes to the SUSA.”
“But Ben, the people who live outside the SUSA won’t be the ones who make war against you … if war ever comes,” she added.
And Ben knew with those words, his lingering suspicions about how much Paula really knew had been confirmed. On the same day they’d met, while she was being checked over by Rebel doctors, Ben’s intelligence people had slipped into the basement at the consulate office. They had found extensive shortwave equipment, a huge portable generator, and fuel to last for years. They had found medicines and emergency food … among other things.
The next day, the consulate offices had been gutted by a fire, everything destroyed. Again, Ben’s people had gone there while Paula was out. The fire had been set by someone. No doubt in Ben’s mind who had set the fire: Ms. Paula Preston.
What Ben didn ‘t know was who she was really working for. He did not believe she was working for Bruno Bottger, for his people back in the States had checked her out and she was indeed an employee and official of the State Department, and she had indeed been stranded over here shortly after the Great War … or somebody fitting her description had. There was no way to really check that, for her fingerprints had been on file in Washington and that city no longer existed. Her family-mother and father-had lived just outside Washington; they had been killed when the nation’s capital went up.
Ben and his intelligence people felt she had been in contact with the state department all along, and that probably some of the so-called “refugees” were also state department employees. If that was true, and he
felt it was, what was her game? What the hell was she up to?
“They support the administration of their respective governments, Paula,” Ben finally answered her. “And they have rejected the Tri-States philosophy of government. Which is certainly their right,” he added.
“Which means? …”
“They would probably support a war against the SUSA. Most of the people, that is.”
“I hope a civil war never happens, Ben.”
“You better do more than hope, Paula. You’d better pray it doesn’t.”
Mike Richards, head of the Rebel Intelligence, had at first balked at going to Africa, but in the end he relented and had been with Ike’s 2 Batt. He joined the column at the border and immediately pulled Ben to one side.
“Paula Preston is a ringer,” he said flatly.
“Yeah, Mike. I finally put that together the other day. I’ve had my suspicions since day one. Who does she work for?”
“State Department. Been with them since she got out of college.”
“Something about to pop back Stateside, Mike?”
“Not anytime soon. But there are rumors of some sort of action being planned against the SUSA.”
Ben was silent for a moment. “Mike, am I so hated my enemies back home would align themselves with Bruno Bottger in an attempt to defeat or kill me?”
That startled even Mike Richards, something that was not easy to do. “Jesus, Ben … I haven’t even considered that.”
“Well, consider it, Mike. Tell your people back home to start digging.”