Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
“So you haven’t stayed inside the safe zone?”
“Of course not. Come on.”
Ben kept his expression bland during the short tour
of the clinic, but inwardly he was badly shaken. Standing outside in the warm sunlight, he removed his surgical mask and said, “It would be far better if those people in there could be gently assisted into death.”
“That’s being arranged as we speak, Ben,” Lamar said.
“Good. You’re sure this virus is not airborne?”
“Yes. My people are sure of that.” Lamar sighed. “Ben, we can help these people in the short run, but when we pull out? …” He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness.
“I’m certainly open to suggestions, Lamar.”
“Ben … I don’t know the answer. Hell, we can’t even adequately feed and take care of the medical needs of the people in America.”
“Put a Band-Aid on it and hope for the best, I suppose. There really isn’t much more we can do.”
Ben nodded his head. “I’ll get the warning out to the troops about sexual encounters with the locals.”
“Do that, Ben. I can’t stress how important it is.”
Back inside what was being called the safe zone, Ben was pleased to see how well-behaved the locals were, patiently standing in line to receive food, then medical attention.
He had Beth take down the warning Chase had asked for. She would radio the ship and they would type it up and make copies for distribution among the troops.
When that was done, Ben wandered down to the docks, his team with him. Therm and his 19 Batt were ashore, and Rebet and his 6 Batt were about to come in. Equipment was being offloaded: HumVees first, then APC’s and tanks, followed by huge tanker trucks. Several miles from the shoreline, out of sight of land, and perhaps unfriendly eyes, huge tanker ships waited. Several others had left the SUSA days before the main
convoy. They would travel around the Horn and come up on the other side of the continent and then track south, supplying those Rebels on the east side of Africa with fuel.
Thousands of Rebels were now ashore. Ike was already swinging his 2 Batt around and getting ready to move east. Dan would follow, then West, then Georgi, as other battalions came ashore to take their place. Ben had figured that the sight of so many well-armed Rebels would take all the fight out of any guerilla group or gangs of thugs that might have resistance on their minds; Ben had figured correctly. Scouts reported that bands of armed men and women, gangs of various sizes and strengths, were leaving the city and heading south post-haste, deserting the city like rats from a sinking ship.
Ben glanced as Therm strolled up to stand beside him. “Well, you told me you always wanted to visit Africa, Therm. Here we are.”
“Some people maintain it’s the beginning of humankind, Ben.”
Ben grunted his reply to that.
Therm laughed at Ben’s expression. “I think I’d better change the subject.”
“I think that would probably be best, Therm.”
“Where do you want my 19 Batt?”
“When we get cranking, I want you right in the middle of the line, between and very close to two battalions. I don’t know which ones that will be as yet. But you’re going to be getting reports from east and west, so you’ll stay busy. And take Emil with you.”
“Somehow I knew you were going to say that.”
“You’re the only one who can control the little con artist. And we both know that when the chips are down, Emil and that idiotic bunch of his will fight like devils.”
“Okay, Ben. There’s some of my equipment coming in. I’ll see you around.”
“I certainly hope so. Take care. And tell Rosebud hello.”
Ben walked up and down the docks for a time, stopping when Ike approached.
“I figure three days until we get enough equipment ashore for us to start pulling out, Ben. All the battalions will be ashore by dusk, and I’ve ordered floodlights to be set up so we can unload around the clock.”
“I know that Bruno has something of an air force. I just wonder if he might try an air attack.”
“I doubt it, Ben. His spies back stateside will have told him we have a pretty good air defense system. Besides, that would be a long jump for his people unless they had refueling capabilities. And our satellite pass-overs have never shown anything even resembling that.”
“So you think we should keep our little secret under wraps for a while longer?”
“I do, Ben. No point in opening that package until it’s necessary.”
“I agree. Besides, we don’t have that many.”
“Yet,” Ike said with a smile.
“Yeah,” Ben returned the smile. “Yet.”
Both men left the topic at that. Neither felt comfortable discussing it openly, for only a few dozen people outside of those directly involved even knew of the project. It was probably the best kept secret of the past one hundred years. Not even Ben’s team knew.
The men separated, Ike leaving to check on when his tanks would be offloaded and ready to roll off the docks, Ben to just wander around.
Ben walked down to the slip where one of the cargo ships carrying his battalion’s big boys was docked and was pleased to see a row of main battle tanks lined up
and engines rumbling. Just behind the tanks, towed howitzers were lined up, ready to be hooked up and pulled away. Ben glanced at his watch. The offloading was running hours ahead of schedule.
Ben walked over to a tank commander. This was a combat zone, and she did not salute. “We’re ready to roll, General. Just waiting for some fuel trucks to join us.”
“The staging area is not yet secure,” Ben told her. “It’s being readied now. You should be rolling off the docks within the hour.”
“Yes, sir. Looking forward to it.”
“Radar reports nothing in the air within five hundred miles in any direction,” Corrie said, after listening to her headset.
Ben smiled. The Israelis were standing true to their word and had stood down their air force until the offloading was complete. They would take no part in this North African campaign, unless Ben asked for their help-and that was something he had no plans to do at the present time.
The Israelis had stabilized the mideast region for which Ben would be forever grateful.
But the Israelis were very anxious to join Ben when he reached the northernmost lines of the territory claimed by Bruno Bottger and his Nazis. Ben smiled at that thought. It would probably have taken World War IV to keep them out of it. Mention Nazi to a Jew, and he was ready to fight.
However, that campaign lay months in the future; no point in thinking about it now.
Ben’s growling stomach told him he had missed lunch, and he waved to his team. “Let’s go get something to eat, gang. We’re just in the way down here.”
Ben stood by the side of the highway and watched as the battalions rolled out, heading east. Ike’s 2 Batt was spearheading the drive, followed by Dan’s 3 Batt, West and his 4 Batt, and Georgi and his 5 Batt. Ike had nearly two thousand miles to travel before he could turn and begin the push south.
The column was miles long and moving slowly over very bad roads; roads that had not been maintained for years.
When the last vehicle had passed Ben’s location and disappeared into the dust, Ben rode back into the city and up to Dr. Chase’s headquarters and into his office.
Lamar looked up from a mass of paperwork he was wading through, bitching all the time. He threw a pencil down on the paper-littered desk and stood up. “Glad to you see, Ben. I’m about to go nuts with all this paperwork. Let’s take a walk and get some air.”
Chase disliked paperwork almost as much as Ben did.
Outside, Chase said, “We’ve got a handle on things here, Ben. We’re gradually beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“The overall condition of the city’s residents?”
“Poor. Very poor. But there isn’t much more we can do. When we pull out, they’ll go right back to near starvation.”
“We can’t support the world, Lamar.”
“I know that, Ben. All we can do is prop them up and move on. How long before Ike reaches the eastern borders?”
“Two/three weeks. That enough time for you?”
“Plenty, for what we can do. Still no word from that Nazi bastard down south?”
“Not a peep.”
“Do you find that strange?”
“Not really, Lamar. He’d be a fool to launch any sort
of ground attack against us here, while we’re thousands strong. Besides, he knows our satellite passes would pick up any massive ground movement. He wants us close to his home territory, where he’ll have the advantage of knowing the terrain and keeping his people supplied. The man is an arrogant bastard, but not stupid.”
“Supplies will be a problem for us, won’t they, Ben?”
Ben shook his head. “Not really. There will be times when fuel might get dicey, but that’s about it. The advance teams we sent over pinpointed dozens of underground fuel depots that had never been touched. Once we get down to Bruno’s northern lines, we’ll set up positions and slug it out for a time, feeling each other out.”
“Of course, that’s several thousand miles away,” the doctor pointed out.
“Several thousand very difficult miles, old friend.”
Lamar glanced at his watch. “Well, I’d best be getting back to this damnable paperwork.”
“Tell me when your people have done all they can do with what they have, Lamar.”
Lamar nodded. “Tell the truth, we’ve just about reached that point now. We’ve already shut down and packed up several MASH units on the outskirts of town. Planes will be coming in tomorrow with medical supplies for the push south. We’ll be ready when you are.”
Back in his CP, Ben opened a map of Africa and looked at the outline of the continent, as he had done at least twenty times a day for weeks. He smiled, thinking: Nothing on the map has changed.
“And not much will have changed once we’ve gone,” he muttered. “At least not for any length of time.” He closed the map and stood up. “To hell with it! We’ll do the best we can. No one can logically expect us to do more.”
“I’ve wished the few doctors in the city good luck and left them medicines and vaccines,” Lamar said to Ben. “I closed the last aid station yesterday afternoon. We’re ready when you are, Ben.”
“We’ll be pulling out in one hour. Ben smiled. “But you knew that already. You just wanted an excuse to come up to the front of the column hoping I’d invite you to join the spearheaders, right?”
“Screw you, Raines!” Then the doctor laughed. “Only half true. I did want to come up for a moment, but I have absolutely no desire to ride up here and invite somebody to put a bullet up my butt.”
“That would take a hell of a marksman considering the size of your skinny old ass, Lamar.”
“That’s it, Raines!” Chase said in mock affront. “I refuse to stand here and be insulted by die likes of you. Good-bye!” Lamar turned away, then paused and looked. “Take it easy up here, Ben.”
Ben smiled at Lamar and the doctor returned to his HumVee and was gone.
Ben walked to the big nine-passenger wagon that had been shipped over and got in just as the lead tanks were pulled out. He smiled at his team and winked at his adopted daughter, Anna. He looked at Cooper. “Okay, Coop. Let’s head soudi.”
“What’s going to happen to those residents back there?” Jersey asked, as Cooper pulled into place in the column.
“I don’t know, Jersey. The land around the city isn’t worth a damn for farming. But the country did have a hell of a fishing industry before the Great War. You saw the fishing fleet, rusting and rotting dockside. They’re either going to have to cope, adapt, or move.”
“Or starve,” Cooper added.
“That is certainly an option for those who decide to stay,” Ben agreed.
“Not much demand for exotic carpets in the world right now,” Beth said.
“We didn’t get to do much sightseeing,” Cooper said.
“Personally, I didn’t want to,” Anna spoke up. “And neidier did very many of the troops I spoke widi.”
“You didn’t do much wandering around either, boss,” Jersey stated.
“No, I didn’t,” Ben admitted. “I guess I didn’t care to view what I consider to be a hopeless situation. Not any more than I had to, that is.”
“What’s the next major city?” Cooper asked, turning his head and directing the question at Beth.
“Rabat. Ribat al-Fath, originally. It used to be some
sort of religious retreat, according to this visitor’s guide.”
“Big city?” Corrie asked.
“Over half a million before the Great War.”
“Wonder how many now?” Anna asked.
“Maybe a hundred thousand,” Ben answered her. “And flyovers report the population is in bad shape. Then it’s Casablanca.”
“I saw that movie one time back at Base Camp One,” Anna said. “I enjoyed it.”
“I think everybody loves that movie, Anna,” Ben told her.
Beth opened a map. “Then we go to Safi and then cut across to Marrakech. Right, boss?”
“That’s the way I’ve got it figured, Beth. Then we’ll backtrack and see what’s happening in Essaouira and then down to Agadir. We’ll follow the coastline highway all the way down to Laayoune and then cut across the Western Sahara to Bir Meghrein, in Mauritania.”
“Faraway places with strange-sounding names,” Jersey said in a quiet voice.
“That’s a line from an old song, Jersey,” Ben smiled the reply. “Hadn’t thought of it in years. But you’re right.”
“They’re not going to make it, are they, boss?” Corrie asked. “The people, I mean.”
“The strong will. The weak will die. If they’re left alone, and they probably will be, the strong will soon revert back to many of the old ways. They lived for hundreds of years in that fashion. The younger, smarter ones will leave, go to Europe or America.” Ben waved a hand. “But hell, I could be way off base in my thinking.”
“Scouts are reporting there’s been one hell of a slaughter in the towns and villages along the way to Rabat,” Corrie said abruptly. “The gangs of punks and