Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
“How wonderful for you,” Ben said acidly.
Jersey gave Marilyn Dickson a very contemptuous look and spat on the ground.
Marilyn fixed Jersey with a haughty gaze and then ignored her.
“Nice to know you ladies are going to get along,” Ben said, deliberately antagonizing them both.
“It came as quite a surprise when we learned you were allowing us to accompany you, General,” Stan Travis said.
“I’d rather have you with me than have to waste time hauling your asses out of trouble.”
“We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves, General,” Marilyn said.
Jersey laughed at that.
Ben verbally stepped in before Marilyn allowed her ass to overload her mouth and Jersey popped her … something Jersey would do in a heartbeat. “You people ready to pull out?”
“We’re ready whenever you are, General,” Ford said. “What’s the next stop?”
“We’ll travel from here over to Mansoa, then Bam-
badinca, with stops along the way. Wherever the people need us.”
“Looking for trouble along the way, of course,” Marilyn stuck her lip into it.
“We’re always ready for trouble, Ms Dickson,” Ben answered evenly, although if she could have seen his inner thoughts concerning what he would like to do to her neck she would have run shrieking into the jungle. “We’re an army, not a pack of wimpy-assed left-wing liberals who faint at the mention of a gun.”
Marilyn curled her lip at him and walked off. Jersey pranced along silendy behind her for a few meters, doing a pretty good imitation of a prima donna carefully avoiding the mud puddles.
Ben’s team laughed at the sight. Marilyn stopped and glanced behind her. Jersey was standing innocendy, a smile on her face. “Go away,” Marilyn told her.
“With pleasure, lady.”
Marilyn minced on, with Jersey once more resuming her imitation.
“Amusing, in a crude sort of way,” Stan said.
“That’s us,” Ben said cheerfully. “Crude. Awfully crude.”
Ford looked at Ben for a few heartbeats, then smiled faindy. “Come on, Stan. We’d better get ready to move out. Wouldn’t want to be left behind, would we?”
The press walked off and Jersey rejoined die team. “Twenty-five of those buttholes to put up widi. How long will they be with us, boss?”
“The duration, I guess.”
“Wonderful,” Jersey said. “Sometime between now and then that bitch is sure to stumble and fall on her face right in the mud.”
Ben walked back to the wagon, chuckling as he walked. He hoped Ms. Dickson never got too close to
a large mud puddle while Jersey was around. Although, that would be quite a sight to see …
There was nothing left of Mansoa. Not one building remained of the village. The Rebels pushed on to Bambadinca, or rather, what was left of it. It too, like Mansoa, had been destroyed. In Bambadinca, Ben’s 1 Batt linked up for a day with Nick Stafford’s 2 Batt. The two huge battalions would travel together south down to Mampata. There, Nick would veer off to the east and Ben would continue south.
“Starving and sick people,” Nick told Ben. “It’s been a depressing run so far.”
“I’ve got a hunch it’ll only get worse the further south we go,” Ben said.
“Says here there is excellent food in Mampata,” Beth read from an old travel brochure. “French food.”
“Not anymore,” Corrie called. “Scouts report the town is in ruins. Looks as though it’s been deserted for a long time. Water is still good though.”
“Where have the people gone, General?” Ford McLachlan asked, standing a few feet away.
Since the question had been posed in a civil tone of voice, Ben answered it civilly. “I don’t know, Ford. All my battalions have run into the same thing.” Ben’s eyes narrowed as a gaggle of press types strolled up to join Ford, including Marilyn Dickson and Stan Travis. “Gangs might have driven them out or killed them, or taken many of them to sell in the newly flourishing slave trade. They might have died from disease or malnutrition; probably a lot of them did. Many of them fled to the cities … and died there.”
“And many of them were forced to turn to a life of petty crime in order to survive and your troops shot
them down like rabid animals and killed them,” Marilyn ran her mouth.
Nick quietly slipped away from the growing crowd and beat it back to his battalion. He had seen Ben lose his temper a couple of times while dealing with certain press types, and it was not a pretty sight.
Ben ignored the woman’s comments. “Other than the explanation I just offered, I don’t know what happened to the people. I can add this: for several years we have had rumors-those rumors now confirmed-that after the Great War, millions of people died here on the African continent.” He cut his eyes to Marilyn. “Long before we arrived.”
“General,” a reporter that Ben did not know asked, “Who is paying for this massive military operation of yours?”
“The SUSA is covering part of the cost,” Ben replied. “The newly formed United Nations and participating countries is picking up the rest of it.”
“But you are not here as peacekeepers, officially sanctioned by the UN as such?” another asked.
Ben shook his head. “No, we are not.”
“You are here primarily to deal with the growing threat that Bruno Bottger and his army presents to the free world, is that it?” another asked.
“Yes. That is our primary mission.”
“But General Bottger says he would welcome the press in his country,” another reporter stated. “He says he will show that the nations under his control have prospered, and there is no rampant starvation there.”
“Feel free to go anytime you wish,” Ben came right back. “But by all means, ask the general if you may travel unescorted throughout his territory, asking questions of anyone. How about doing that?”
“The general says there are still many gangs prowling
the countryside, and that would be dangerous for us,” the reporter replied.
Ben laughed, devoid of humor. More and more, his suspicions that Bruno had a large hand in what was happening back in America were being confirmed. “I could have told you that would be his reply. A few years back, the dictators of Libya and Iraq-to name two countries-basically said the same thing. If you care to recall.”
“Are you comparing General Bottger to those dictators, General?” Marilyn asked.
“Bruno Bottger is worse than Hitler ever thought about being,” Ben told the crowd. “Hitler is the man’s idol. Bear in mind, I’ve fought this bastard off and on for years. Believe me, I know him far better than any of you. The man is the personification of evil.”
“But we only have your word for that,” another liberal jackoff popped.
“Oh, shit!” Jersey muttered under her breath.
Several more knowledgeable reporters quickly stepped away from the reporter who had just let his ass overload his mouth.
Ben held his famous temper under control … sort of, and for a moment only. He smiled at the young man, guessing the reporter to be in his very early to possibly mid-twenties-probably just out of college, with his head crammed full of socialistic bullshit from egg-headed professors who had never had a firm grip on reality in their entire life. “That is correct to a degree, sonny-boy,” Ben said softly, the crowd straining to hear his words. “You only have my word. But that remark tells me you know nothing about world events, and probably very little about anything else. My advice to you would be to keep that flapping blow-hole of yours closed until you have the ability to see and report, fairly, both sides of every story.”
Ben turned to Corrie. “Tell the troops to mount up. We’re out of here.”
Ben turned and walked off without another word.
Jersey fixed the mouthy young reporter with a gaze from her dark obsidian eyes. There was a lot to be read in that look, and most of the reporters read it accurately. Unfortunately, the young man, Alex Marsh, was not yet worldly enough to understand he had just implied that General Raines was a liar.
Not a very smart thing to do.
The Rebels passed through many small villages on the way south to Mampata, but most were long deserted and falling down.
“Where the hell did all the people go?” Cooper asked, as they crossed the bridge over the Rio Corubal River and headed for Quebo. At Quebo, they would cut south once more and cross over into the Republic of Guinea.
The Rebels had found no signs of mass graves, and since leaving the north, no signs of mass slaughter in any of the villages along the way.
“I don’t know, Coop,” Ben replied. “What I do know is we’re less than a month away from the rainy season. And when that hits, we’re going to be slowed down to a crawl and worse, we’re all going to be miserable.”
“Says here,” Beth said, lowering the travel brochure, “that in some parts of Guinea, the rainfall can be torrential from May to September, with many roads closed during that period.”
“If it gets too bad, we’ll just hole up,” Ben said.
“And then, Jersey,” Cooper said with a grin, “you and me can play house.”
Jersey told him to go commit an impossible act upon his person.
“I just can’t figure Mampata,” Anna said. “Not a
skeleton to be found, not the first sign of any fight. But the people were all gone. It’s weird.”
“Here’s something just as weird,” Corrie said. “Scouts are reporting that Quebo is deserted. Not one sign of life.”
“Damn!” Ben whispered. “Corrie, signal we’re stopping. Tell the Scouts to hold up.”
That done, Corrie asked, “Bad feeling, boss?”
Ben shook his head. “Not really. I don’t know. Maybe. Hell, I just don’t know what’s going on. And these mysteries about deserted villages and missing people are beginning to bug me.”
Cooper stopped the big wagon and Ben got out, waiting for the HumVees carrying his company commanders to come to the front of the column.
“I want everybody in full body armor,” he told his CO’s. “Button up. Heads up.”
Ben looked carefully all around him. It was perfect country for an ambush. For a few seconds, Ben thought it might be deja vu: a halted column, then ambush. But nothing happened. “All right, people. Let’s move out.”
A few miles north of the Guinea border, the guerrillas sprang from their ambush, cutting the column in half.
The Rebels jumped from trucks and hit the ditches, taking up defensive positions. They didn’t know who they were fighting, but whoever it was had opened the dance; now it was time to pay the fiddler.
“Any of our people take hits?” Ben shouted to Corrie, over the ratde of gunfire.
“Half a dozen. I don’t know how bad.”
“How about the reporters?”
“None of them hurt. Just scared.”
Bullets sang their deadly song as they passed over the heads of the teams, the lead slamming into the side of the big wagon. The nine-passenger wagon was bullet-proofed, but the exterior was really taking a beating.
Then somewhere out in the mangroves and marsh the ambushers opened up with heavy machine guns, the gunfire coming from both sides of the road, all up and down the stalled column.
“Mortars,” Ben ordered. “Lay the pickles to them. WP and HE. The tops of that marsh grass will burn, so let’s give them some fire and create some smoke for us. If we stay on this road, we’re going to get creamed. If this keeps up, we’re going to have to get out there among ‘em and mix it up.”
Within thirty seconds, the thunk of mortars could be heard and the ground on both sides of the road exploded, the willie peter igniting the tops of the grass. The WP arched upward, then returned to earth and struck cloth and burned into living flesh of the ambushers. Through the thick smoke and gunfire, muffled screaming could be heard.
The Rebels had set up their big .50’s and were pouring out the lead. The tank commanders had swiveled their turrets, lowered their main guns, and were roaring out death and mayhem. The Bradley Fighting Vehicles and APC’s were hammering out 25mm rounds from their chain guns. The sound was nearly overpowering and conversation was impossible.
The lightly armed ambushers soon realized that if they continued the attack, they would die. They broke it off and began fading away into the marsh and swamp.
“Cease fire,” Ben ordered, and gradually the sound and fury died away. A sullen, smoke-permeated silence setded over the land.
“CO’s want to know if they should press the attack,” Corrie asked.
“No,” Ben said. “Hold their positions. It’s the attackers’ country, their land, not ours. They know it, we don’t. To follow would be foolish.”
“We’ve got some dead,” Corrie announced.
“Bodybag them and put them in trucks until we can clear this fucking swampy area. Ask Chase if the wounded can take the ride out of here.”
Seconds later, “Affirmative, boss. But not for any extended length of time.”
“All right, let’s get these flattened tires changed and mount up and move out. Goddamnit!” Ben cursed. “I hate not knowing my enemy. See if we can drag some prisoners out of that swamp. Maybe we’ll get lucky this time.”
A dozen miles down the road, the Rebels came to a village, the buildings still standing, but the homes and few businesses devoid of human life.
“Check it all out for booby traps,” Ben ordered. “Then see to the wounded ASAP.” He looked all around him at the still and silent village. “Damn, I hate mysteries. I never did like mysteries. They bug me.”
“Who attacked us back there, General?” a reporter asked, walking up.
“I don’t know. We did take some prisoners and they’re being questioned now. Maybe we’ll find out, but the odds are we won’t.”
“What will you do with the prisoners after you’ve questioned them, General Raines?” Marilyn Dickson asked. “Shoot them?”
Ben sighed. “I doubt it, Ms. Dickson. We’ll probably patch them up as best we can and leave them behind.”