Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
Ben turned first to Cooper, then to Anna, and after a moment, started laughing. “All right, all right. Enough. I get your point. Well, Bruno probably, and I stress ‘probably,’ won’t try this tactic against us again. But we can’t be sure. From now on, everybody stays on low alert at all times.” Ben stood up and stretched. “Let’s go prowl some.”
The charm that Casablanca once held was forever gone. The city that once boasted a population of over two million had been looted and savaged so many times it was nothing more than a mere shell of what it had once been. And it had once been quite impressive. Casablanca had once been the economic capital of the nation. It had been the center of trade, industry, and finance. And it had been a major port handling goods of all kinds.
Now it was a dying city, and of the people who were left, many were sick and terribly malnourished.
Ben and his team walked the streets for a time, but it was not pleasant. Every window at ground level in the
stores and shops had been smashed by looters and rioters. The stench of death lingered everywhere, hanging over the city like a stinking shroud.
Lamar caught up with them, and motioned for Ben to join him by the side of his vehicle.
“What’s up, Lamar?”
“Ben, we’re perhaps seventy-two hours, max, away from a major health problem here. There are hundreds of dead bodies rotting in houses and shacks all over the city. We can’t use fire, we’d have to destroy more than half the city.”
“So it’s up to the Rebels to remove the bodies and dispose of them?”
“That’s what it comes down to, Ben. And it has to be done quickly or we’re going to have real problems on our hands.”
Ben glanced to Corrie and she nodded and got on the horn.
“Do you want the troops who do the job in full protective gear, Lamar?”
“I want them buttoned up, Ben, using air tanks. I’ll issue them gloves … the new cut-resistant type. I just got them in.”
“This is that serious, Lamar?”
“Yes, Ben,” the doctor said very somberly. “It’s that serious.”
“What are you holding back from me, Lamar?”
“You’ve all been inoculated, Ben. It’s just these poor damn refugees are bringing all sorts of bugs, and with the troops handling rotting bodies, I want them buttoned up. If there was anything else, Ben, I’d level with you.”
“All right, Lamar. We’re going to be here for awhile, aren’t we?”
“Yes. We certainly are, Ben.”
Rebel teams began clearing the city of dead rotting bodies within an hour after Ben and Dr. Chase spoke. Doctors worked with the team, ordering some of the shacks in the city carefully burned… with stacks of dead bodies inside. Ben didn’t ask why the selective burning, but he had his suspicions. They spelled: Cholera.
Black stinking smoke spiraled into the sky as the shacks began going up in flames.
“How come we have to do this?” Cooper asked. “How come those living here didn’t do it?”
“I guess many are afraid to touch the bodies, Coop,” Ben replied. He shook his head. “I really don’t have an answer for you.”
“Always us,” Jersey added her two cents into the conversation. “It always comes down to us doing the dirty work.”
Ben couldn’t argue that. She was right.
“Because we will do it,” Beth said.
“Are any of the troops bitching about it, Beth?” Ben asked.
“Oh, no. They just do as ordered, boss. Fight, march, or burn or bury the dead. It’s a job.”
Anna looked around her at the shacks that butted right up against what had once been enormous wealth. “What a shithole,” she said.
Ben didn’t argue that, either.
When he got back to his CP, he found Paula Preston pouring over a stack of old newspapers that someone had found on board ship and brought ashore. The papers had been used as packing material before leaving the port in the SUSA and these had been left over.
“Catching up on the past few years, Ms. Preston?”
“Please call me Paula, General,” she said, looking up.
Ben noticed she was wearing new glasses-army issue. Chase had seen she made all the stops.
“All right, Paula. That’ll make it easier. I’m Ben. I really hate formality, especially in the field. Are the stories in those papers shocking to you?”
“Somewhat, yes. So much has happened in America in such a relatively short time.” She fixed him with her new magnified gaze. “You and your, ah, Rebels have been busy, haven’t you?”
She pointed to the stack of old newspapers. “Those reporters don’t think very highly of either you or the SUSA, Ben.”
Ben smiled at the woman. “Our system of government works, Paula. While the states outside of the SUSA flounder about, struggling to get on their feet, so to speak, the SUSA is functioning smoothly, with full employment, the lowest crime rate in the world, factories, farms, ports, railroads, stores, shops, and a smooth-running government that is truly made up of and for the people. That’s why those hanky-stomping reporters don’t like us. We didn’t crawl out of the ashes of destruction, we came out heads high and working together.”
She returned his smile. “Hanky-stomping, Ben? What a unique expression. I assume you mean liberals?”
“That’s right, Paula. The people who did more to screw up America than any other group.”
“I can see we have hours and hours of delightful discussion about politics ahead of us, General.”
Ben grunted noncommittally at that, not knowing exactly what the woman had up her sleeve. But he had a hunch, and the thought didn’t thrill him all that much.
Again, she pointed to the stack of newspapers. “There is nothing about China or South America in those papers, Ben.”
“We don’t know much about what is happening in South America, Paula, except that nations there are embroiled in civil wars. As for China …” He shrugged his shoulders. “We don’t know what the hell is happening over there. You probably know more about die Mideast than we do.”
“The Israelis settled their difficulties with those Arab nations who wanted war with diem.”
Ben chuckled. “I just bet they did. And settled it per-manendy, too.”
She frowned. “War is not always the answer, Ben.”
“In their case it was. And for them it was inevitable. And I could have told die rest of world what the outcome would be. We’ve signed an alliance widi Israel. They’ll be joining us in die fight against Bruno Bottger.”
“That does not come as any surprise to me. I certainly can’t blame diem for diat decision.”
Ben leaned forward, putting his big hands on die old, beat-up table diat was serving as a desk. “What did you mean, Paula, by the statement ‘we will have hours and hours of delightful discussion ahead of us?’ “
“Just diat, Ben.”
“I’m staying in Africa, Paula. You’re going back to America on die next ship out.”
“No, I’m staying here.”
Ben leaned back in his chair. “Oh? You mean here in Casablanca?”
“No. I’ll be traveling widi you.”
“The hell you say!”
She smiled sweetly at him. “I have twice spoken to President Jefferys and to Secretary of State Blanton, General. Also to the leaders of the EUSA, the NUSA, and the WUSA. They all thought it was a very good idea for me to stay and assess the political climate here. President Jefferys, who seems to be a very nice man, by the way, and an extremely intelligent one, said he would be speaking with you shortly about his decision.”
“Oh, he did, did he?”
Ben muttered under his breath.
Paula frowned and gave him a very odd look. “I beg your pardon, Ben? Surely, I must have misunderstood. Did you just refer to your president as an asshole?”
“What the hell are we going to do with her, boss?” Corrie asked, after Paula had left the CP.
“I have no idea. I ought to send her over to Therm and let him deal with her.”
“Then she’d have access to Emil,” Jersey said. “You really want that?”
“Oh, God, no.” Ben sighed. “Well, I guess we’re stuck with her.” He paced the room for a moment, then turned to his team, his face brightening with a smile. “We could always sneak off in the night and join the Scouts up ahead.”
“Sure, General Ben,” Anna said. “And an hour after we were reported missing, every ‘copter and plane in North Africa would be up looking for us, in addition to hundreds of troops and eighteen highly pissed-off batt corns.”
“Well, it was just a thought.”
“Speaking of Thermopolis,” Corrie said. “I just spoke with him. The subject was Emil Hite.”
“Do I have to hear this?”
“Yes. Emil and his followers are now wearing the traditional dress uniform of the French Foreign Legion, complete with kepi.”
“Where the hell did they get those?”
“Therm says he thinks they brought them over from the SUSA.”
“Where the hell did they get them over there?”
“I don’t know. But Emil is quite a sight to see, so says Therm.”
“I hope we’re spared that sight.”
“He’s carrying a sword,” Corrie added with a smile.
“I don’t want to hear any more.”
Laughing, the team left Ben’s office and Ben stood by the window for a time, staring out. Then he smiled, thinking about Emil and the many antics the little con artist had pulled over the years. Ben’s smile widened when he thought about the thousand miles that separated them.
The last American leaving Casablanca shipped out on the evening before Ben’s 1 Batt was due to pull out of the city, heading for Marrakech. There were several dozen Europeans sailing with the Americans. They chose not to return to Europe, preferring to take their chances in America instead. Scouts had reported that Safri was burning out of control, deliberately set ablaze by the gangs after looting the city. The Rebels would head for Marrakech, then over to the coastal city of Essaouira. After that? … it all depended on what the Scouts, working far ahead of the main column, reported back.
Ben had placed Paula Preston in the center of the column, with the medical personnel. She and Dr. Chase had hit it off from the first, and it kept her out of Ben’s way.
William W. Johnstone
The Rebels did not see one living soul between Casablanca and Marrakech. They passed through afew long-deserted villages, and occasionally spotted the bleached bones of animals and humans, but nothing else.
“Scouts are reporting farming going on in the Haouz Plain,” Corrie reported. “And the city has a home guard that have successfully battled the gangs. They’ve also kept the population down to a controllable level, one they could manage to feed, to one degree or another. But they’re desperately short of medical supplies.”
“What kind of shape is the airport in?”
“Clear and ready for traffic. Six klicks west of the city. Scouts are there now.”
“Head for airport, Coop.”
“On our way, boss.”
“Scouts have home guard directing us around the city,” Corrie said.
Ben said, “Corrie, have the Scouts alert the commanders of the home guard and the officials of the city that the airport will be where I’ll set up my CP. I would like to meet with them as soon as possible.”
“And the city’s doctors, as well.”
“Ten-four, boss,” Corrie said, a smile curving her lips. She had already done all that. Corrie knew how to stay a few steps ahead of Ben. The team had been together so long, they could usually anticipate the other’s moves.
As the column began approaching the far outskirts of the city, there were burned out hulks of vehicles and houses either burned or pocked with bullet holes.
“I don’t see any brass twinkling in the sunlight,” Beth observed.
“They’re picking it up for reloading,” Ben said. “By now they must be desperately short of gunpowder and lead … and everything else needed for survival.”
They were, as Ben soon discovered.
A CP had been set up for him about half a mile from the airport, in a reasonably clean and undamaged building. MASH units were swift in setting up, and the cooks were at work within half an hour after the column halted.
Planes started coming in within the hour, offloading medical supplies, clothing, and food.
“We could have held out for perhaps another month, General,” the commander of the home guard told Ben, speaking in French-accented English. He was a former army officer, born and reared in the city. “Six weeks max. We’re nearly out of everything.”
“Who is supplying the gangs, Colonel?” Ben asked.
“Bottger,” the colonel was quick to reply. “The Nazi bastard’s goal is to control all of Africa. And the truth is, he isn’t promising so much that he can’t deliver. He may be a first class son of a bitch, but he’s a smart one.”
“What is he promising those who follow him?”
“Food, medical care, and certain of the more intelligent of them high positions in the governing of their respective nations. And it’s working.”
“The bastard is smart, isn’t he?”
“Or he has very good advisors.”
Ben shook his head. “No. I’ve fought Bottger before. He runs the show, be assured of that. He’s very intelligent, but also very arrogant. And that arrogance is going to be his downfall.”
“I would very much like to be there when you kill the man, General Raines.”
“Perhaps you will be, Colonel. Who knows? But one thing is for certain.”
“I didn’t travel all the way to Africa to shake the bastard’s hand.”
While supplies had dwindled to the critical point in the city, the residents were in far better physical shape than their counterparts in the other North African cities Ben and his 1 Batt had visited.
“When the Great War came, everyone raced off to the port cities seeking a way out,” a local doctor explained to Ben. “They became grossly overcrowded with not enough medicines or food. The sanitation systems were overworked and either poorly maintained or not maintained at all. And that is fertile ground for disease.” The man shrugged his shoulders. “You saw what happened.”