Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
thugs and insurgents and what have you took the women and young girls and then killed everybody in sight before pulling out. Scouts think it started late yesterday. It’s pretty grim along the way. The carrion birds are having a feast.”
“We’ve all seen it before,” Ben said quietly. “I’ve been expecting it. Corrie, get the flatbeds with the earth moving equipment up here. We’re going to have to scoop out some mass graves.”
“Again,” Cooper said.
“Yes. And I’m afraid it won’t be the last time we do it.”
Asilah and Larache had been spared the slaughter, but the next town down the coast, Ksar el Kebir, took the full force of the outlaws’ savagery.
“The Great Fortress,” Ben said, speaking through the mic in his gas mask. Ben and team stood just inside the first houses and shops of the old city. “That’s what this city used to be called.”
“Didn’t help them much,” Anna said.
Bodies lay everywhere in the twisted and grotesque final throes of death. Black carrion birds were busy ripping out dead flesh and pulling out yards of intestines. Huge bloated flies hummed all around the Rebels.
“The fleeing gangs couldn’t have killed everyone,” Ben said. “Bump the Scouts and find out where the survivors are.”
“They’re hiding in little pockets all over the city,” Corrie informed him. “They want us to move on and leave them alone.”
Ben didn’t change expressions. “Do they want us to bury the dead before we go?”
Dr. Chase had driven up from his position in the center of the column and was looking strangely at Ben.
“They want us to go,” Corrie repeated.
“Mount up,” Ben said. “Let’s go.”
“Ben …” Chase said.
“Mount up!” Ben ordered. “I’m not going to nursemaid these people. If they don’t want our help, that’s fine with me.”
“Not everyone feels that way, General,” the voice came from behind Ben.
Ben turned around. A man and a woman stood looking at him. A nun and a priest.
“The survivors are frightened,” the nun said. “They don’t know who you are. They’ve just been through a terrible ordeal.”
“Won’t you stay and help us, General?” the priest asked.
“Get these people some protective gear,” Ben ordered. “Have your doctors check them out and bring them up to date on everything, Lamar. We’ll start burying the bodies.”
Father Joseph and Sister Mary had been checked out and brought up to date on their shots. They both had taken hot baths and were dressed in clean clothes when they met with Ben about two hours later. The sounds of earth-moving equipment gouging out pits in the ground grumbled throughout the edge of the city. Rebels were working in the city, gathering up the bodies and trucking them to the mass grave sites. The chaplains that traveled with each battalion were offering up prayers for the dead.
“You’re Americans, aren’t you?” Ben asked, waving the man and woman to chairs in the makeshift CP.
“Yes. We’ve been here since before the Great War,” the priest replied.
“Are there more Americans in this area?” “Several hundred, at least. At last count.” “You’re both educated people,” Ben said. “There
must be shortwave equipment in this city. Why didn’t you start transmitting, sending out trouble calls. Somebody would have rescued you. We would have if we’d received a signal.”
“This is where our work is,” the sister replied. “We have people who depend on us.”
“If there are Americans here, why didn’t they make an appearance in Tangiers?”
“They’re mostly concentrated in Casablanca,” the priest said. “About two dozen or so are in this immediate area.”
“Only a few. Most are business men and women who were trapped here when the Great War erupted around the world. During the past couple of years, nearly a hundred have fled the southern part of the continent, getting away from Bruno Bottger and his Nazis.”
“We assume that is why you’ve come to Africa,” the sister said. “To fight the Nazis?”
“That is correct, sister,” Ben replied. Ben looked at the priest and the nun. Both had told Dr. Chase they were in their mid-fifties, but time had not treated them well. Chase had told Ben the pair were not in good health. “And to do what we can for the people on the way down to the fight.”
“It’s a noble gesture, General,” the sister said. “God will surely reward you for your efforts.”
“For saving lives or for killing as many criminals and Nazis as I can?”
Both the priest and nun frowned, the priest opening his mouth to speak, then thinking better of it.
“Do you feel up to leading a patrol to where the Americans are hiding?”
“Oh, yes!” the sister said. “We can do that now.”
Ben motioned to a Rebel and die soldier led the pair
away. Ben stood up and looked at Corrie. “This bunch should be a sight to see, Corrie.”
“What do you mean, boss?”
“Isolated for a decade and never made the first effort to communicate with the world outside of this area.”
“That does seem strange, doesn’t it?”
“Very. Hell, they could have thrown a bottle with a note in it into the ocean and it would have reached us years ago.” Ben walked to the open window and sniffed. “The stench of death is fading. Our people are working fast.” Ben didn’t ask what the tally of the dead was. He just knew it was high.
“I guess punks are the same all over the world,” Jersey said, walking into the room. “I’ve talked with some of the survivors. Their stories are pretty damn grim.”
“Any idea where they’ve taken the women and kids?”
“To sell to slavers,” Jersey said, a sour expression on her face. It’s a booming business.”
“History repeating itself, I suppose,” Ben said.
“Who are they selling the people to, boss?” Cooper asked.
“I don’t know, Coop. People of very low moral fiber, to be sure.” He glanced at Corrie. “Have there been any reports of our people being fired on here?”
“Negative, boss. The city is clear of any resistance. At least so far,” she added.
“I have a strong hunch the gangs have gone,” Ben mused aloud. “But they should have reached Casablanca by now and done their dirty work. Yet our flyovers show the city has not been touched. So where the hell did they go?”
“Maybe hidden along the highway setting up an ambush for us?” Cooper suggested.
Ben opened a map. “That would be an incredibly stupid move on their part. Yet,” he muttered, “you never know. You just never know …”
Ben asked the Americans if they wanted transport out of the country. The only two who elected to stay were the priest and the nun. Ben did not argue the point with them, saying only, “It’s very doubtful that we will ever be back this way.”
“We’re doing God’s work, General,” the priest replied. “We’ll stay.”
“Your option,” Ben said. “We’ll leave you with medical supplies, plenty of food, and wish you good luck.”
The Americans were driven to Tangier and put on board a ship readying for the voyage back to the SUSA. The Rebels pulled out of Ksar-el-Kebir the next morning. No one mentioned the priest and the nun.
The Rebels stayed with a secondary road that ran along the coast instead of following the main highway which cut inland and offered too many great places for an ambush.
Kenitra had met the same fate as Ksar-el-Kebir, although not nearly as bad. In Kenitra, the citizens had banded together and made a stand against the hordes of thugs and punks and malcontents who always surface after a disaster of any kind. With the Rebels bearing down on them from the north, the gangs could not afford the luxury of a prolonged battle with citizens, and had cut out for parts unknown.
By the time the Rebels arrived, survivors from Rabat were trickling in. The rampaging gangs had struck Rabat in full force just a few hours after leaving Kenitra, and while Rabat was a much larger place, the citizens there were not as prepared as those in Kenitra and had suffered terrible casualties.
“We’ll be here for awhile,” Chase told Ben.
“Take as long as you need, Lamar. We’re in no hurry.”
“Oh, I will, Ben,” the chief of medicine said with a smile. “Count on it.”
Ben and his team and a unit from his personal platoon of Rebels took a couple of days to tour part of the city, but soon gave it up and returned to their quarters. It was too depressing, for the city, once a thriving place of over half a million people was rapidly falling into decay and ruin. Most of its citizens were barely hanging on at the very edge of survival.
The museums and finer homes had been looted, the libraries sacked, the books ripped apart and burned.
There was not a dog or cat or rat to be seen anywhere in the city.
“The people ate them,” Ben said. “That is why I forbid any mascots to be brought along.”
Ben and his team checked all the embassies and consulate buildings, in search of anything that might tell some sort of story as to what happened. They found only looted buildings and rat-chewed bits of paper.
“Nothing,” Beth said one hot and humid afternoon. She threw a wad of paper back to the floor of the embassy building.
“Same here,” Anna said. “It’s almost as if time just stopped for these people.”
“Maybe it did,” Ben mused aloud. “Perhaps the end came so quickly they didn’t have time to do anything except run or die.”
“But if they were killed,” Cooper asked, “where are the bones?”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know, Coop. Eaten by animals, maybe.”
“Or eaten by …” Corrie shut off that thought before the words could leave her mouth.
“Yeah, Corrie,” Ben said. “I gave the same thought some consideration.”
“Shit!” Cooper breathed, a disgusted grimace on his face.
“But we have no proof of that,” Ben quickly added. “And probably never will.”
“I doubt it’s something the survivors would be willing to talk about,” Beth said.
“I damn sure wouldn’t admit it,” Anna offered. “I was hungry many times back in the old country, but …” She made a disgusted noise and walked outside.
“Let’s see what the intel boys and girls have managed to put together,” Ben suggested.
“We’re getting there,” a Rebel intelligence officer told Ben later that morning. “But it’s slow going, piecing together paper that has been shredded.”
“You have anything?”
“Food riots, for one thing. People running in blind fear, for another.”
“Running in fear … from what?”
“Don’t know, General. But it seems there was a general panic. And this was after the Great War … several weeks after the war. We’re sure of that. That’s about the only thing we’re sure of at this point.”
“It’ll probably turn out to be one of those mysteries that will never be solved,” Ben said. “And we have had a few of those over the years.”
Ben returned to his CP and spent the rest of the day doing paperwork. That evening he met a few of the
Americans who had remained in the city and assured them they would be granted safe passage back to America.
None of them impressed Ben very much and after they had left, he dismissed them from his mind.
Jersey and Anna strolled into his office later that evening and Anna plopped down on a battered old couch. “It’s boring, General Ben,” she announced.
“Typical teenager,” Ben said with a laugh. “You have to be entertained all the time.”
“I agree with her,” Jersey said. “And I’m no teenager. So far, this has been a milk run.”
“Well, it has been boring,” Ben agreed. “But that can’t last forever. These gangs number in the thousands. They don’t dare try to slip into Bruno Bottger’s territory; he’d shoot them on sight. We’ve got them between a rock and a hard place. Sooner or later, they’ve got to turn and fight. Probably before we reach the Senegal and the Niger rivers. And there, folks, is where I suspect we’re really going to hit some hard fighting …”
The other members of Ben’s team had wandered in and were listening.
“… Those countries have been cut up into sections-tribal hatred, warlords, dissident army factions. You name it, and we’re going to run into it.”
“So we had better enjoy this more or less calm while we can, huh, boss?” Cooper asked.
“That’s about the size of it, Coop.” Ben cut his eyes to Corrie. “Did those additional water and fuel trucks arrive?”
“They just pulled in, boss.”
“Good. We’ll sure need them. Once we pull out of here, it’s fifteen hundred miles to the next port. That’s at Nouakchott, in Mauritania. And there is a lot of desert between here and there.”
“And not many people?” Anna questioned.
“Not many, Anna.” Again he looked at Corrie. “Any word from Nick Stafford’s 18 Batt?”
“He’s running into the same thing we are,” Corrie replied. “Starving people and looted towns. It’s the same thing all across to Ike. Somebody really did a number on North Africa.”
“South of here we’re going to see starving people by the thousands,” Ben said, then added grimly, “Or find the bones of thousands.”
“What the hell is with this country?” Coop asked. “I mean, I can understand up here, it’s desert. The land’s no good. But south of here, it’s fertile.”
Ben stood up and walked to a window, gazing out for a moment. “You don’t really want to get me started on that, Coop. So let’s just call it bad land management.”
The Rebels did what they could in Rabat, then moved on down the coast to Fedala, better known as Mo-hammedia. Then down to Ed Dar el Baida, better known as Casablanca. There they almost got caught up in their first food riot.
“Put warning shots over their heads!” Ben ordered, as the mobs of starving people surged toward the Rebel column. “Now!”
The mob paused, hesitated for a moment, then began moving toward the column again. Additional Rebel tanks rumbled forward; armored personnel carriers joined then. The mass of starving humanity stopped.
“Have the interpreters tell them we have food and medical care,” Ben said. “But if we don’t have order, we’ll move on.”