Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
“Goddamn miserable country,” Jersey bitched. “Why in the name of God would anyone in their right mind willingly choose to live here?”
“You were raised in the desert,” Cooper said. “I thought you liked this?”
“That’s what you get for thinking, Coop,” Jersey came right back. “What was that last village we passed through?”
“Guelta Zemmur,” Beth told her, fanning herself with a magazine.
“We’re in Mauritania now,” Ben said. “Crossed the
border a few miles back. Bir Moghrein is a few miles ahead.”
“Which used to be called Fort Trinquet,” Beth injected.
“A French Foreign Legion outpost?” Cooper asked.
“I guess so. The brochure doesn’t say.”
“What does it say?”
“Not a whole lot. One paragraph stating that there is nothing there.”
“How far to some vestiges of civilization?” Jersey asked.
“About a hundred and thirty miles,” Beth replied. “Give or take twenty or so.”
“And that would be? …” Anna asked.
“Is there anything at … whatever you called it?” Corrie asked.
“What a shithole,” Jersey muttered.
There was even less at Bir Moghrein than the travel brochure mentioned-nothing but the skeletons of a few dozen long dead humans, their bones bleached white.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Cooper said, looking all around him.
“For once I agree with Coop,” Jersey said.
“What do you think, Doctor?” Ben asked the Rebel doctor who had been inspecting the bones.
The doctor stood and looked at Ben and Lamar Chase, the chief of medicine, who had just walked up to stand alongside Ben. “Disease and starvation would be my guess. Possibly bad water. There are no broken bones on any of these remains. No bullet holes in the skulls; skulls have not been smashed.”
Rebels had been testing the water supply; what there
was left of it. “Water’s bad,” they replied. “It’s been contaminated.”
“Well, let’s get the hell out of here,” Ben said. “We’ve got a long dry pull ahead of us.”
There were about five hundred people left in Zouerate, and they were all in bad shape.
“Used to be almost twenty-five thousand people living here,” Beth stated softly.
Lamar had been observing his doctors check over the people. He left the tent and walked over to Ben. “About twenty percent of these people are dead and don’t realize it,” he said. “They are too far gone for us to be of any help. Ravaged by disease, lousy diet, bad water. If the others remain here, they’ll all be dead within a year. There is just nothing we can do.”
“Very few babies and young children,” Ben observed.
“Most were miscarried or stillborn,” Lamar said. “Those that weren’t, died within a few days or weeks of birth. The mothers just weren’t strong or healthy enough to carry them to full term.”
“And you suggest we do … what?”
“Nothing. If the people insist upon staying here, we’d be wasting time and supplies.”
Ben looked at the commander of the engineer company that traveled with the column. “Can you get the locomotive running? That’s the only way we can get them to Atar.”
“Providing Atar wants them,” Chase injected.
“I think we could get it running,” the engineer replied hesitantly.
“Corrie, have you received anything out of Atar?” Ben asked.
“Nothing, boss. Flyovers show it’s not much better than this place.”
“Damn!” Ben said.
Another Rebel walked up. “The people say they don’t want to leave here,” he said. “They’re firm about that.”
Ben shrugged. “All right. We can’t force them and I won’t stay here and nursemaid them. Let’s get the hell gone.”
“Just like that, General?” the familiar voice of Paula Preston reached Ben.
Ben turned. “Yes, Ms. Preston. Just like that. We don’t believe in helping people who don’t want to help themselves. That is part of the Rebel philosophy.”
“I doubt it.” Ben turned his back to her and said, “Mount up. We’re out of here.”
Atar was like a beautiful garden flourishing in the middle of nowhere. There were gardens on every patch of ground that would grow anything, and the date palm groves were well kept. When Ben told the local militia commander of the situation in Zouerate, the man merely shrugged.
“We know,” he said, and let it go at that.
Ben did not press the point. It was not his country and certainly none of his business.
The commander was a former army officer who, before the Great War, was stationed at the military base in Atar, and who still wore part of his old uniform, with the rank of colonel on the collar. He sensed Ben’s plight and smiled apologetically. “At this stage, General, we can only help those who will make some sort of effort to help themselves. To do more would be a waste of our time and our precious resources.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, Colonel. I think you and I are going to get along. How about joining me for some hot food and conversation?”
“It would be both a pleasure and an honor, sir.”
The airstrip at Atar was long enough and in good enough shape to handle cargo planes. The town had several doctors, and all the people needed was medical supplies, and that did not take long. Considering all that had happened, the citizens were in relatively good shape.
The Rebels soon shoved off toward Nouakchott, on the coast.
The colonel had warned Ben that conditions in the capital were grim: “Ahundred, a thousand times worse,” to use his words, than before the Great War. And Ben knew from studying old reports that they had been dismal even then.
When it became the nation’s capital back in 1960, it was an extension of the old walled city. The city was originally designed for about fifteen thousand people. By the time the Great War came, the population had swelled to about half a million. The colonel had told Ben the population now was probably over a hundred thousand.
But it was nothing more than a place for people to come and die, and the stench could be smelled for several miles.
Ben studied the Scouts’ reports on the city for several minutes, after listening to taped transmissions from the pilots doing flyovers.
“Corrie, what do the ships’ captains say?”
“They’ve had to beat back boarders,” she reported. “Finally they had to leave the harbor and head out to sea to avoid being overwhelmed.”
Ben glanced at Dr. Chase. “Give me your opinion, Lamar. It’s going to be a medical decision … at least in part.”
The chief of medicine grimaced. “The humane thing to do, the moral thing, the right thing, I suppose one could say, would be to enter the city and start seeing people. But we’re going to lose troops if we do that.
How many looters and thieves did the sentries have to threaten, warn, and finally shoot last night?”
“About a dozen.”
“Multiply that by about a hundred thousand and you have the story.”
“Your autopsies showed what, Lamar?”
“The people are ravaged by disease. TB and cholera are rampant. The water is bad, they have no sanitation facilities, bodies are rotting in the streets. Rabies has reached epidemic proportions. If we did manage to get in without losing five to ten percent of our own people attempting to beat back those rioting for food, we would only be prolonging the inevitable. It’s my opinion that in a year, it’s going to be a dead city … no matter what we do.”
Ben nodded his head wearily and looked at a Scout. “Can you get us around the city, without getting too close?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve found a route that misses the city by miles. We won’t get anywhere close to it.”
“All right,” Ben said with a sigh. “Let’s head for Senegal. There is nothing we can do here.”
“Wise decision, Ben,” Lamar said, and headed back to the center of the column.
No one had much to say for an hour after bypassing the city. It’s not easy to leave over a hundred thousand men, women, and children to die, not even for the battle-hardened Rebels of Ben’s 1 Batt. But the Rebels realized they had no choice in the matter. The situation in Nouakchott was hopeless.
The change in landscape was subtle at first, but there was a definite change as the long column crossed over into Senegal, heading for the city of St. Louis, which
was once the capital of Senegal and Mauritania, until the countries officially split in the 1950s.
There was a good port on the west side of the island, and the airport was usable, after some cleaning up. Scouts radioed back that the situation there was nothing like what the Rebels had found in Nouakchott.
“Let’s radio the city we’re on our way in,” Ben said.
The first roadblocks the Rebels encountered were miles from the city, manned by some sort of home guard: the first line of defense against the roaming gangs. The home guard was protecting their fields, which were planted with vegetables of all sorts.
“Day and night, General,” a well-spoken, middleaged man who was commanding this detachment said. “The people try to steal what is not theirs to take. We don’t want to shoot them, but warning shots no longer have any effect.” He shook his head. “We have to survive.”
“I understand,” Ben told him. “And if you let one in, soon there will be one million storming the gates, so to speak.”
“That is correct, General. And then no one will survive. We are strong enough to keep the hordes out, but not strong enough or well armed enough to go out into the countryside in force to hunt down and kill the gangs.”
“We can help you solve that little dilemma,” Ben later told a group of civic leaders, after the problem was repeated to him at a meeting. “But let me make one thing very clear: we are not peacekeepers, ladies and gentlemen. When we go after an objective, we don’t play war games with rules. We smash the enemy, we grind them down into submission, and we take damn few prisoners.”
That was met with broad smiles and affirmative nods.
Ben returned the smiles, thinking: Now we get down to doing what we do best. “Consider it done,” he assured the group.
“We hunt them down,” he told his company commanders, “and we kill them. We take prisoners only as a last resort. We will not offer them surrender terms. The only thing to do in this country, and probably every country we visit, is to rid them of the gangs that are the major stumbling blocks toward their rebuilding. We came here to help those who have the desire to help themselves. So let’s do it.”
The Rebels trapped the first bunch of thugs and hoodlums in the ruins of a village about thirty miles from the city. After the helicopter gunships did their thing with rocket and machine-gun fire, the Rebels moved in and finished the job. They took no prisoners but did leave two very frightened gang members alive, cowering among the torn and mangled dead.
Ben stood over the two men and stared down at them. Through an interpreter, he told the men that if they wanted to stay alive, they’d better run far and fast, don’t ever come back, and warn other gang members if they wanted to live, to do the same.
The two men took off running and did not look back.
“Count the dead,” Ben ordered.
Nearly two hundred were tossed into a shallow mass grave scooped out by ‘dozers.
The Rebels moved on.
With Mike Stafford swinging his 18 Batt around north to south near the border, and moving west, Ben and his 1 Batt working east, the gangs could either go north into the desert, or south. Or they could stand and face the Rebels and make a fight of it … and die.
Most chose to run south.
All over the top of North Africa the same scene was
being repeated. The gangs of criminals were meeting a force unlike anything they had ever encountered. A force of savage warriors who seemingly operated without rules, killed without emotion, and took very few prisoners. Bruno Bottger had not warned them about the Rebels.
Within two weeks, the area between St. Louis and Matam was declared clean of gangs … and the residents slowly began moving out of the crowded cities and towns and back into the countryside, in an attempt to pick up their lives and begin anew.
Ben and his 1 Batt headed south, toward Dakar, hugging the coast, while Mike Stafford and his 18 Batt worked south toward Bakel, following the river that separated Senegal and Mali.
Dakar, Ben was warned, was a mixture of gangs and decent citizens, all trying to survive through the hard times: the former through criminal activities, the latter by legal means.
All that was about to change with the arrival of the Rebels.
“The Yoff Airport is in pretty good shape, all things considered,” Ben was told, after receiving reports from Scouts and from flyovers. “A day’s work and we can have it up and operating. The port is in good shape.”
“About a hundred different gangs operating out of the city. Protection, extortion, slavery, strong-arm stuff-you name it and they’re doing it. And doing well with it.”
“Will the locals work with us in bringing a halt to it?”
“Doubtful, General. Just like the old days back in the States, they’re scared to cooperate.”
“Well, then,” Ben said with a smile. “I guess we’re going to have to show them how it’s done.”
The Scout laughed. “Somehow, sir, I just knew you’d say that.”
“Yes, I know who the hoodlums are,” the merchant spoke through an interpreter. “Every one of them. All of us along this block know their identity. But if we cooperate with you, they will kill our families. No, sir. I cannot do it.”
“They can’t kill your families if they’re not alive,” Ben told the man.
The merchant stared at Ben for a long moment. “That would be the only way this city will ever know peace and prosperity again, General.”
“That’s the way we operate. We don’t play games with criminals.”
“They have guns and grenades,” the merchant said, but Ben could tell he was wavering.