Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
The local, who had joined the column at a village just north of the city, said, “They might take that the wrong way, General.”
William W. Johnstone
“If they do, and they rush us,” Ben said, with menace in his voice, “I’ll put a lot of them out of their misery. Be sure and tell them that, too.”
“Would you really do that, General?” the interpreter asked, worry in his words.
“You want to find out?”
“Ah … no, sir.”
“Then advise the people to settle down.”
The interpreter spoke quickly and the mob began slowly backing up. Several males stepped out of the mob, rocks in their hands. One drew back his arm to hurl the stone and the muzzles of several Rebel machine guns swung in his direction. The citizen suddenly had second thoughts and the rock dropped from his fingers.
“That’s better,” Ben said. “I just knew we could reach some sort of peaceful resolution to this altercation.”
The interpreter cut his eyes to Ben and whispered a small prayer under his breath.
“Did you say something?” Ben asked.
“I thanked Allah for sending us such a benevolent commander of the relief column,” the local answered quickly.
“I just bet you did,” Ben muttered. “All right, Corrie. Tell the troops to unass the vehicles and throw up a defensive perimeter. Once that is done, get Chase and his wonder-workers up here and have the cooks start cooking.”
The battalion was split along two streets, one, the Blvd. Ambassadeur Ben Aicha and the other along the Blvd. Moulay Ismail, both near the port.
“Quietly get the Americans gathered in one secure location,” Ben said to a Scout standing nearby. “Without using bullhorns and certainly without attracting a lot of attention. I certainly would not want to be accused
of favoritism or discrimination. That wouldn’t do at all.”
The Scout hid his smile. “No, sir. Of course not. Right away, General.”
“Really, now, General!” came the decidedly American woman’s voice from the side of the deuce-and-a-half. “These people are desperate and starving and you threaten them with guns and brute force.”
“Oh, shit!” Ben muttered.
Her name was Paula Preston and Ben knew the instant he put eyes on her she was going to be trouble. He climbed down from the bed of the truck and faced the woman.
“You figure it’s any of your business, lady?” Ben demanded.
“I certainly do, General.” Paula stuck out her chin. “I am the only remaining official from the United States Consulate office left in this city. So that makes it my business.”
“We’re not from the United States of America,” Ben informed her.
Paula blinked-stared at him for a moment. “Of course you are!”
“Sorry, Miss Preston, but we’re …”
“That’s Ms. Preston, General.”
“Of course. How silly of me. Ms. Preston, naturally. And if you ever marry, there will be a hyphen somewhere in there, right?”
“What do you mean you are not from the United States? Where is the American flag? Why aren’t you flying it?”
“I am Ben Raines, Ms. Preston. Commanding General of the Armed Forces of the Southern United States of America. The SUSA.”
Paula blinked about half a dozen times, opened her mouth, closed it, finally managed to ask, “You’re what?”
Ben sighed. “You really don’t know what has happened in America, do you?”
“We’ve had bits and pieces of information, General. But for the past several years, we’ve been virtually cut off here. There isn’t a piece of electronic equipment to be found anywhere in the city. All that was looted years ago. All the portable generators were taken. We have am/fm radios, of course, but no electricity and no batteries. We knew, of course, there was some sort of civil war in America. You mean? …” She tailed that off.
“Yes. The SUSA won.”
“Well …” Her tone was much more subdued. “I mean, where is the United States Military?”
“Rebuilding. Slowly. The United States is broken up into four sections now, Ms. Preston. The Western United States of America, the Eastern United States of America, the Northern United States of America, and the Southern United States of America.”
“That … is difficult for me to comprehend, General.”
“I suspect that in a few years, perhaps as soon as a few months, Eastern and Northern will become as one. There is talk of that now.”
Paula looked around her at the Rebels. “This is … well, a rather small force, General.”
Ben smiled. “What you are seeing now is just a small part of one battalion, Ms. Preston. I have nineteen battalions over here. We’re stretched out the entire top of Northern Africa, west to east. Working our way south.”
“Toward a fight with Bruno Bottger, General?”
“Yes. How do you know about him?”
“Refugees, General. I fear that Field Marshal General
Bottger has you outnumbered, sir. Even with your nineteen battalions.”
“The Rebels are always outnumbered, Ms. Preston. We’re used to that.”
“The … Rebels.” She nodded her head. “The Southern United States of America and the Rebel army. Then you fly the stars and bars of the Confederacy?”
“No. We do not. We fly the stars and stripes, Ms. Preston. We just don’t have as many stars as before.” Ben motioned to a Rebel. “Get Mis. Preston and the rest of her group to a secure area, please. Corrie, inform Dr. Chase of their presence.”
“You have women in combat roles, General,” Paula remarked, after looking for a moment at the Rebels.
“Yes. The SUSA is virtually discrimination-free.”
“You have African-Americans in positions of high authority?”
“The President of the SUSA is a black man, Ms. Preston. Cecil Jefferys. The vote was overwhelmingly in his favor.”
“I am very confused, General. I thought …”
“I know what you thought, Ms. Preston. A lot of people jump to conclusions and make that mistake. Look, go with the sergeant here, and get cleaned up, some hot food in you, and then checked out by our doctors. We’ll talk more later, all right?”
“Certainly, General. I look forward to news from home.”
“Outside of the SUSA, Ms. Preston, I’m afraid it’s pretty grim.”
“Why am I not surprised at that news, General?” For the first time since their introduction, the woman smiled … sort of. “We’ll talk at length later, sir.”
Ben watched Paula lead the small group of Americans away, following the Rebel.
“Boy, is she in for a shock,” Jersey said.
“Yes,” Ben replied. “She sure is, Little Bit. A very drastic shock.”
“She’d be very attractive if she was cleaned up and did something with that mop of hair,” Beth remarked.
“I hadn’t noticed,” Ben replied, then looked at his team in mock surprise when they all burst out laughing at that statement.
Beth had been correct: Paula was a very nice-looking woman. Ben guessed her to be in her late forties. She was dressed in clean army camo BDUs (which were too big for her), and she had cut her hair (or somebody had done it for her). She seemed somewhat subdued as she sat down in the chair Ben offered her in his hurriedly cleaned out and very temporary HQ.
“You feel all right?” Ben asked.
“What? Oh. Yes, thank you. It’s just that I’m not used to being clean and well-fed, that’s all. I have an appointment with the doctors in an hour. They’ve set up one MASH unit for the Americans alone.”
“We’re Americans, Ms. Preston,” Ben reminded her gently. “And I am a firm believer in looking out for our own. Anyway, I am told that a great many more Americans than anticipated are coming out of the woodwork, so to speak.”
“Yes. There are a great many among the newly arrived refugees. And some of them are mercenaries.”
“Oh? That is interesting. American mercenaries?”
“A few. I would say, from the reports I just got no more than an hour ago from locals, there are perhaps a dozen or so. The rest are Europeans.”
“Well … yes.”
“Uh-huh,” Ben said with a smile. “All of them white?”
“Why … yes, as a matter of fact, they are. Is that something of importance?”
“Oh, it might be, Ms. Preston. It just might be.”
“I’m ahead of you,” Jersey said, standing up. “I’ll alert Coop and the others.” She walked swiftly from the room.
“That is a, well, very attractive young lady,” Paula remarked. “In a … savage sort of way. And I don’t mean anything derogatory by that, General.”
“I’m sure Jersey wouldn’t have been offended. She’d probably think it was funny. She tends to scowl at times when she’s around people she doesn’t know. And for her size, she can be very intimidating. As for her complexion, she’s part Apache Indian.”
“Ah … Native American.”
“Anyone who was born in America is a native American, Ms. Preston.”
Paula opened her mouth to come back at him for that politically incorrect remark. Cooper stepped into the room. “I think we’ve got trouble, boss.”
“Yeah, so do I, Coop. Get set up.”
“What do you mean, General Raines?” Paula asked.
“Get under that old desk, Ms. Preston,” Ben told her bluntly. “And stay there.”
“I beg your pardon!”
A spray of bullets from an automatic weapon ripped into the building, knocking plaster from the walls and sending up clouds of dust. Paula let out a squall of fright and hit the floor, quickly crawling under the desk.
“You were right on the money, boss!” Jersey yelled, sliding into the room on her belly and crawling over to a window. “They’re Bruno’s people and the bastards are all over the city.”
“How many, Jersey?”
“They’re battalion size, boss. And it appears they’ve
hidden weapons and plenty of ammo all over the place. Looks like we’re in for a fight.”
“Well,” Anna quipped from her position at a far window. “I did say I was getting bored.”
“Our people are pinned down in small groups all over this section of the city,” Corrie called, after talking with platoon leaders. “But as it stands now, Bruno’s people haven’t produced any heavy weapons.”
Ben waited until another twenty seconds of gunfire ceased, coughed at the dust falling all over everybody, then said, “Anna, you and Beth bring that Big Thumper over here to the front window. Start spraying those buildings across the street. We’ve got to have some relief. Coop, how’s it looking from the rear?”
Cooper had his SAW (squad automatic weapon), ready to bang and he nodded his head. “They’re back there, boss. But so far they’re staying low and quiet.”
Anna and Beth began hammering at the building across the street with 40mm grenades, many of which sailed through the windows. Those enemy troops who had taken up positions in buildings began exiting out the back, straight into the machine-gun fire of two main battle tanks. At least two squads of Bruno’s Nazis went down in five seconds, torn to bloody pieces.
The tanks reversed their turrets and bulled their way through the buildings, taking up positions in front of Ben’s HQ.
“Tell one of them to cut down the alley and take out that building directly to our rear,” Ben said.
Three minutes later, the MBT was tearing the building apart with 120mm HE cannon fire.
All around the section of the city occupied by Rebels, tanks and APCs were rushing to the aid of trapped Rebels, and making very short work of Bruno’s people, who really had only two options, since they could not run: surrender or die.
Most chose death.
The fight was savage and relatively short once the Rebels recovered from the shock of the unexpected attack from what they assumed to be hungry refugees. Recovery for the Rebels did not take long.
When the last holdout had been killed, and the area declared safe and secure, several prisoners were brought to Ben. Paula had crawled out from under the desk and had been escorted over to a MASH tent, where Rebel doctors had resumed business as usual. They were accustomed to working with battles raging all around them, but this time the refugees had panicked, forcing the doctors to call a halt to their examinations and shot-giving.
“What gave us away, General?” a man who had identified himself as a captain asked, standing in front of Ben.
“Just a hunch, Captain.”
“What will happen to us now?”
“I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with you.”
“I demand …”
“You demand nothing!” Ben shouted at him. “You’re all in civilian clothing. I could shoot you as spies and be in full accordance with the old Geneva Convention concerning treatment of prisoners captured during wartime. So don’t waste your breath telling me what you demand.”
“Are you going to shoot us, General?” the captain asked, in a much less harsh and demanding tone.
“I doubt it. I probably should, but I probably won’t.”
An expression of great relief passed over the captain’s face. He had very quickly realized that he had pushed Ben over the line.
Ben asked the captain a few questions. Each time the man responded by his name, rank, and service number. Ben finally looked over at the guard. “Find someplace to lock them up until I can decide what to do with them.”
The prisoner gone, Jersey asked, “What areyou going to do with them, boss?”
“Probably keep them locked up here for a month with an arrangement to have them turned loose at the end of that time. I certainly am not going to shoot them. Corrie, alert all the other battalions as to what happened here and to be on the lookout for infiltrators.”
“I must be getting old and careless,” Ben mused aloud. “I’ve never underestimated an enemy. I should have anticipated something such as this.”
“Yeah, you’re real ancient, boss,” Cooper said sarcastically. “You want me to order up a wheelchair for you?”
“\eah, General Ben,” Anna said. “And I wish you’d stop with all that drooling. Maybe we should have a nurse with you around the clock.”