Authors: James Hunt
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic
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Table of Contents
Heat blasted the back of the sailor’s neck, where the damp humidity extracted beads of sweat as the tender from their main vessel rocked back and forth in the light chop near the shore. Oars splashed and pushed through the waves and current, the crew in sync, keeping a steady pace. Dean Mars looked to his left and noticed the light shade of green on Jason’s face, leaning over the side of the hull.
Boots splashed into the shallow waters, and the crew lugged the tender onto shore, their legs wobbling awkwardly in the thick sand. Up and down the rest of the coast, the small crews of six made landfall, the sailors taking their swords, rifles, and ammunition to the tree line of the jungle for cover.
Jason leaned up against the trunk of a tree then promptly bent over, emptying whatever his stomach held of breakfast. While the rest of the family never seemed to have any trouble with the ocean, Dean’s youngest brother never managed to get his sea legs, no matter how many times he set foot on the deck of a ship.
“You’d think I’d be used to it by now.” Jason wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then reached for his canteen and rinsed the taste of bile from his lips. “Lance would be having a field day with me right now.”
“He won’t give you as hard a time as the sea did.” The mention of their brother shifted Dean’s thoughts back home. They hadn’t received any word of his arrival or whether Rodion had attacked. The thousands of miles separating him from his people and the rest of his family had worn at the resolve in his decision to leave with so many ships and men.
“Done redecorating the bushes?” Gabriela Ponce had snuck up behind them. For a woman, she dressed more like a man. Her eyes were just as wild and untamed as the thick black mane of curls that fell down her back. “My men are waiting for us.” The bunch of rebels that had sailed with them to the Panama coast followed her, their eyes still watching both Jason and Dean skeptically.
Dean nudged Jason with his elbow. “Do you think it was wise to leave Ruiz with her men?” While the former Brazilian president was behind bars, guarded, and shackled, the man still had influence and money.
“She hates him almost as much as she hates me.” Jason spit on the sand, his legs still slightly wobbly once he let go of the ballast that was the coconut tree. “And besides, we left a unit there to keep an eye on things.”
“Right.” Another decision Dean had second-guessed. With the Chinese still occupying most of the Pacific Islands with their fleet, pummeling the Australians, and Rodion’s men marching on their own territories, he was going to need every soldier and ship that he possessed. Keeping some of their resources in Rio and Lima to keep the South Americas stabilized wouldn’t help win the battles to come.
Different sizes and patterns of leaves and branches pestered Dean’s face and body on his way through the thick Panama jungle. The air was moist, and he pulled at the shirt clinging tight to his skin like Velcro. A clearing finally opened up, where a small camp had been constructed. A few dozen soldiers wielded rifles and machetes, and the smell suggested that they’d been in the location for some time. Gabriela spoke to them quietly, shaking hands, making the rounds. Dean had kept a close eye on the way the men interacted with her. She held their respect.
“The soldiers Ruiz sent to hold the canal don’t have the numbers or resources to keep it for much longer.” Gabriela motioned to the camp. “My men have been raiding their supply lines and attacking their perimeters to check for weak points for weeks.”
“Do they know about Ruiz’s imprisonment? And the coup?” Jason asked.
“We told them, but they don’t believe us. One of the reasons I wanted to parade his head on a stake around the country.” Gabriela tossed Dean a dirty glance.
“Ruiz still serves a purpose to us alive.” Although, truth be told, Dean had no affection for the man. Ruiz’s army had slain a number of his men in battle, not to mention trying to kill his youngest brother. “Do Ruiz’s soldiers have artillery?”
“Yes.” The rebel that spoke had scars that covered his face, chest, and arms, and a few fresh wounds, hastily wrapped in tattered rags. “The main force is concentrated near the front gates. It’s the most susceptible to penetration.”
“And the least susceptible location?” Jason asked, reading Dean’s thoughts.
“The high walls surrounding the canal make it difficult to scale, but not impossible.” The rebel pointed west. “We found a climbable route, but it’s slow going. Only one man at a time can make the trip up.”
“How many soldiers do they have?” Dean had brought a force with him that could easily take the front gate, but he wanted to minimize the number of casualties. If all they needed to provide was a distraction, they could do that from a distance.
“No more than sixty, and their garrison is running low on ammunition,” the rebel replied. “They’ve shot at us sparingly.”
“Gabriela, you take your men to the location along the walls; thirty should be sufficient.” Dean turned to Jason. “Take our men and start making your presence known. But make sure you stay out of cannon range.”
“Use your ships,” Gabriela said, cutting in.
Dean had noticed the rebel general didn’t appreciate being drawn into battle plans in which she didn’t have a say, and while he did admire her ability for leadership, he knew she was rash and at times too blunt in both her speech and her strategy. “I don’t want to risk damaging the canal. If something happens to one of the levees, then all of this will be for naught.” The thought brought another to light. “In fact, that’s something Ruiz’s men will know too. They might try and take the levees down if they know they’re going to lose. Jason—”
“Don’t push too hard. Got it.” Jason disappeared with their soldiers and one of the rebel scouts to guide them to the front gates.
Dean followed Gabriela, and she hung back, stopping him. “Where are you going?”
“You should stay with your brother. Make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”
“He can handle himself.” Dean brushed past her, following the rebels into the thick of the jungle.
Halfway to their destination, cannon fire echoed through the trees. The group hastened its speed, jogging through the jungle. Dean dodged past tree limbs and jumped over roots, rocks, and holes, his arms and legs scraping against the unforgiving landscape.
Just when Dean believed the jungle to be never ending, the walls of the canal appeared, and he saw the small, jagged, vertical cut up the wall that the rebels had described. Panting, he placed his hand against the concrete, warm from the sun and vibrating from the artillery fire near the gates. Small footholds were spaced above, some farther apart than others but close enough to make the climb manageable.
“You have to be careful toward the middle.” The rebel dropped his pack, taking nothing with him but the sword in his belt. “The holes become shallow, and it’s hard to get any type of grip.” He hopped up, scaling the wall with ease.
Dean watched the order and placement of the rebel’s feet and hands. The movements were effortless, even when he arrived at the difficult middle section. In less than a minute, he was already to the top, and after checking to make sure the coast was clear, he motioned for the next person to climb. Dean watched a few more times, making sure he had the pattern down before he attempted to follow. The wall itself was nearly thirty feet high, built by the old engineers before the Great War, and while the fall wouldn’t kill him, it would surely break bones.
Finally, Dean rotated into line, throwing the rifle strap over his shoulder and keeping his sword tight in his belt. The long scabbard was cumbersome on the climb, scraping against the wall and getting in the way of his foot a few times. The spaces grew farther apart, and he stretched his arms, the tips of his fingers barely clinging to the holes.
The wall rattled from the cannons, and the vibrations reverberated through Dean’s limbs and the flat of his stomach. Each climb up sent a burn through his muscles, and the next tremor that shook the wall caused his foot to slip, and he dangled from one hand three quarters of the way to the top.
Dean swung left, aiming his hand for the open groove, but his fingertips only grazed the small ledge. Using the momentum, he swung again, this time with enough propulsion to make a grab for the hole. Arms and legs shaking, Dean pulled himself over the edge, his face red with exhaustion and soaked to the bone in sweat.
Inside the walls of the canal, there was nothing but dead grass and long, broken slabs of concrete, weathered by time, sea, and storms. A worn staircase sat to his left that led down to where the others had gathered behind a slab of concrete, a fallen remnant of some larger structure that no longer stood.
Most of the rebels only had swords, and the few who did possess rifles or pistols packed their muzzles tight with lead and powder. “No guns until they spot us. We want to keep the surprise as long as possible.”
Gabriela was the last to make the climb, and once she made it over to the group, Dean made it a point to try and not undermine her in front of her own soldiers. “The garrison will be the first structure we pass that’ll have any type of guard or opposition. We want to take them out quietly to avoid being pinned back from the front gates. Let’s move.”
The repeated cannon blasts provided good cover for their quick shuffle down the canal, and Dean continued to catch himself staring into the massive levees used to transport ships across the narrow patch of land. Nearly all of the original equipment had been replaced; whatever circuitry used to operate the canal was now supplanted by either men or mules.
Dean and the rebels walked a tight line to the water’s edge of the canal as they moved to the garrison. With all of the attention at the gate, the guards by the armory were too inflated with a false sense of security at the height of their walls to watch their backs. Dean had his hand over one guard’s mouth and the edge of the blade into his throat before he realized what had happened.
With four slain bodies on the ground, Gabriela and her rebels raided the garrison, taking any and every gun they could get their hands on. A few moderns were inside, and they were the first to go despite having no ammunition to load them. It was rare to find a rifle that didn’t require the use of powder.
The guards at the gates were in a frenzy, blasting their relentless cannon fire over the walls and into the jungle, their sporadic aim making the artillery more of a fearful deterrent than an effective killing machine.
Dean tucked himself behind one of the wooden barracks and waited for the others to move into position then looked to Gabriela for the signal. When she dropped her arm, everyone jumped from cover, blanketing the guards’ backsides with lead.
The gunfire decimated nearly a quarter of Ruiz’s soldiers before they realized they were under attack. And just as Dean thought they would, they began directing their cannon fire within the walls of the canal, killing the invaders at the expense of blasting the precious structure to pieces.
Gabriela and Dean marched the rebels closer, rendering the cannons useless in their defense. Rifles and pistols were fired then dispensed, and steel was drawn.
Dean burst through a cloud of smoke, sword in hand, and cut down the first soldier in his path with one swing of the blade. The acrid powder from the cannons burned his eyes and stung his nose and lungs with every breath.
Even with the number of Ruiz’s soldiers already fallen, the rebels were still outnumbered, and Dean found himself fending off two assailants. They approached from opposite sides, and Dean kept one shoulder pointed at each of them as they circled. They lunged at separate times, Dean parrying back and forth, and after each attack they’d sling back out of reach, the soldier to his left a half second slower than the one on his right. And that’s whom Dean went after first.
Dean lunged, the clang of steel ringing together as he smacked the enemy’s blade from his hand. Quickly, Dean spun around, deflecting the comrade closing in on him and guiding the tip of his own blade into his own man. With a look of shock on the guard’s face, Dean sliced up from belly to throat, and the two men dropped together, their blood pooling as they choked on their last bits of life.
Dean flicked his wrist, slinging the blood from his blade, and moved on to the next fighter. His sword danced like the conductor’s wand of an orchestra. Each movement held a purpose, and each slice brought forth the howl and screams of the symphony that was dying men.
Gabriela and a few of the rebels made for the gates, hoping to let Jason’s men inside to help finish the job, but the majority of the guards had retreated to the gates to offer their last stand. Blades parried back and forth, and the faces of the soldiers fighting on both sides strained in the concentrated discipline of combat.
Dean joined Gabriela and the other rebels, adding his steel to the cause. The guards stuck close together, blocking out any advance that would break their human chain around the gates. Each jerk and motion from either party triggered a spasm that wavered through the rest of the groups. The shouts and clamor grew louder on the opposite side of the gate; Jason and the rest of the men had gathered, hungry to help finish the job.
With Dean’s patience running thin, he powered his way through, using the blunt force of his blade and strength to push two of the guards back, opening a hole in their defense. While Dean kept the two at bay, pinning them up against the wall, the other rebels used the space and broke through the ranks, flanking their enemy and bringing an end to the standoff.