Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 45


December Fifth
22:00 Hours

Stress cracks, battle damage and worn parts were common on all of the line equipment we were working on.  I’d introduced myself to the ‘lead wrench’ in the Transportation Company, who was under my command but hadn’t had the chance to meet personally. At first, he was under the impression that I was there to take charge, and as such, was a little more stiff and formal than he might have been otherwise.  Once I told him that I was there to work, and where could he use a hand, he softened up a bit and we discussed things that I had experience with. It was a little like a job interview, with the boss being interviewed by the employee. Short interview, fortunately. There was a lot of equipment to get through.
A half-hour of warm-up on the arc welder and I was back up to creating decent welds on heavy steel. It was rare, pre-War, that I’d had enough ‘practice’ to keep my skills up.  Hobbyist-level repairs didn’t lend themselves to honing anything close to expertise or speed.
The Transportation Company used some Third Washington’s repair equipment, but had salvaged much more equipment in Grand Island--the arc welder that I was using and the light-reactive helmet were an example.  Towed generators were moved up from the rail siding, fueled up and we were in business.
I was tasked with frame repairs and reinforcements on civilian-type trucks used by every unit in the fight.  Better-skilled men were working on tank hydraulic systems problems, electronics and optics systems failures, and replacing reactive armor.  A half-dozen of our newer Abrams went up against a single new T-90 Russian tank under command of a skilled tank commander, and five came back damaged.  The sixth was destroyed and her crew killed.  They fared better against the German and French armor in the field, according to the tankers, anyway.
Three and a half hours into some real labor, I was called back to reality.

“Colonel, sir? That Texan General’s looking for you,” Master Sergeant Cramer said after he saw me finish up a frame weld.

“Damn.  Just when I was getting back into my stride,” I said.

“She’s over there, sir.”

“Got it. Thanks, Dean. Maybe I’ll have the chance to get back down here sometime.”

“Anytime, Colonel. You’ve got a good hand with that stick.”

“Thanks,” I said as General Garcia approached.

“Hiding in the garage,” Garcia said with a smirk. “You men are all alike. Any chance to pick up a wrench.”

“Good to get some work done, General. Been a while since I’ve been able to do something mechanical. I’d forgotten how much I like to weld.”

“Need a few minutes of your time, Colonel. You had dinner yet?”

“No, ma’am. Wasn’t that hungry. Sounds good now though.”

“Meet me in the mess in ten.”

“Will do, General,” I said.

The mechanics had a wash-station of sorts, including some very Third World quality plumbing into an electric hot-water heater.  I made myself moderately presentable and headed over to the Lone Star mess tent.
The weather had really begun to turn, with low clouds coming in from the north along with the cold.  The wind hadn’t kicked up too much, but it was no night to be without shelter.

General Garcia was seated with a half-dozen of her senior staff, and rose to join me in the chow line when I entered the tent. We were served a couple slices of bread, beef stew, and canned peaches, and had a pot of coffee waiting for us at the table.  By the time we were headed back to the table, her staff had left.

“General, what’s up, other than the obvious?”

“Honestly, I need someone with some mileage on them to talk to. I’m fifteen years older than the next oldest person in this command. They aren’t exactly the minds I need to vent to,” she said. “My orders go against my grain, Colonel. We want back in the fight and we’re being told to hold fast.”

I thought about that for a moment. “No major military engagement in modern times has been successfully fought in winter weather, General.  Not to get out of line, but your troops could use some rest.  The equipment over in that bus barn is a bunch of patchwork repairs that are wrapped around powerplants that are way overdue for replacement, let alone simple maintenance,” I said, not enjoying the stew. It was awful.

“You agree with Austin and San Antonio then? When we’re this close?”

“I’m not a career soldier, General. However, what I see are tired men and well-worn equipment, poor real-time intelligence, unfavorable weather, and a thin and precarious supply line that could be disrupted by a single IED under a rail bridge or in a culvert.  Substantial gains have been made at the cost of a significant percentage of the men and women under your command and the command of allied units. Significant percentages, General. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five percent. Unsustainable losses against an overwhelming enemy force,” I said.  Not what she wanted to hear.

“Don’t get me wrong. These bastards need killing more than anyone in recent memory. I just think that the opportunity will present itself on our time, when we’re ready, and that a pinch of patience will pay off. They’re on the run. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for us to keep chasing them.”

“If we sit here, we lose the advantage.”

“If you pursue them without adequate force, you suicide, General, and even with these thirty-thousand odd troops, you’re pushing three-to-one on the downside of the equation. That doesn’t spell ‘win’ to me. There will be time, soon enough, to get back underway. Get these other Guard C.O’s together, get them up to speed on what all of these units have seen and what the S.A.’s doing. God knows I haven’t seen anything come through Command about anything like a plan to move east from here. Makes me wonder if they know who is where, and with what.”

She nodded, looking with tired eyes at the tabletop.

“Angela, you need to get some rest yourself.  Pushing yourself too hard does not equate to good decision-making.  Get a commander-level briefing going for tomorrow afternoon.  We may have Command communications back up by then; we might even have some sort of battle plan, who knows. You’ll know though, better than San Antonio or Austin, what these forces are capable of against the S.A. in the field conditions we have now, or will have in the next few days.  Ten or twenty-mile gains are done for until this weather lets up. The men can’t handle it, the equipment can’t either, and we could be walking over the top of a field of IED’s and never know it until things go boom.  It’s down to one to five miles, my guess, on cleared ground, until the weather breaks or until we have travel paths established.”

“You’re probably right. It pisses me off though.”

“Don’t be George Patton. Didn’t end well for him, General.”

“No it did not,” she said, pausing, and it appeared to me, finding herself in the uncomfortable position of realizing that she was probably wrong to continue pressing for the current pursuit of the S.A.

“General, do you ever ponder how your own decision-making process works?” I asked.

“I gather information and analyze it and decide. Why do you ask?”

“A logical process. But is the information you gather, factual, or predictive?  The reason I ask is that if it’s predictive, it’s not necessarily factual. I had a fair amount of time to ponder this, laid up after an accident. I did a little introspection into my own decision making process. It was seriously flawed. Here’s why,” I said.

“If it has happened, it’s fact. If it hasn’t happened, it’s a prediction and not a fact. Weeding out what has happened from what hasn’t isn’t easy but it is necessary. At least half of what my own decision making process was based on wasn’t based on fact. It was based on ‘feel’…on ‘emotion’….or on ‘prediction.’  I suppose I knew it was wrong, but it felt right. I had that answer all along, but I cannot for the life of me remember where I learned it or whom I learned it from. But I did learn it, years ago, along with remembering the key to the whole thing: Once you learn what the facts are, you need to give yourself enough time to let them sink in and only then can you make a decision.  Austin can’t do that for you. Neither can the big brains in San Antonio. You need to make your own decisions, here. You shouldn’t need to question your superiors, if they’re using a sound decision making process, but they’re probably not. They’re probably not trained to do so. That makes your lobbying effort—and I hate that phrase—that much more critical to the prosecution of the war. You need to make the case for pursuit—or not—on facts.  Until you’re ready to do that, you need some rest.  You cannot make decisions when you’re mentally unready to do so.”

“Colonel, you sound like my ex,” she said, taking a drink from her coffee cup.

“As long as I’m not on the receiving end of a cast-iron frypan,” I said. I noticed the winds picking up outside.  “General, if you don’t need anything else, I’d like to get back to my unit.”

“Thank you, Colonel. Dismissed.”

And so we waited, to learn the facts, and how to fight a war based on facts.

December Nineteenth
1130 Hours

For two solid weeks, Grand Island was the receiving zone for United States ground forces, and Third Washington was tasked with reestablishing potable water, temporary power, and helping feed and house the masses of troops.  We had staged sixty-five thousand troops out of Grand Island, almost all of them arriving by rail, and then within a few days, dispersed them across a two hundred mile long front, mostly by truck. During this time, we were unmolested by the S.A., and found nine civilians alive within five miles of Grand Island. All had been in hiding; all were part of the Resistance. Unlike other towns we’d been through and heard of, there was no sudden influx of civilians after the city was back in United States control.
General Garcia and her Lone Star troops had left Grand Island on December Tenth, accompanied by troops from Georgia and Arizona, and fifteen thousand Regular Army troops. They headed to Manhattan, Kansas, and would be joined by our First Washington….we hadn’t heard a single word of where they had been since we’d left Spokane. We assumed they would progress east toward Topeka, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. Thousands more headed north, toward Sioux City, Fort Dodge, and Minneapolis, with tens of thousands of men headed to Lincoln and eventually to Omaha.   It appeared, although it was never stated, that the U.S. strategy was to put the classic ‘pincer’ grip around the S.A., backing them up against the Mississippi, and eventually eliminate them.  That might work, if forces in the east could capture and hold the eastern side of the river, and then sweep up north.  It wouldn’t be long before we left Grand Island for the East.
Our communications were marginally better with new equipment and some serious jury-rigging on the part of our communications teams. In fact, they were pushing the equipment to its’ limit, sometimes with great success.  Our short-lived cell-phone experiment was over, until the EMP-damaged equipment could be replaced, along with the satellite network. We were getting by on not quite six hours rest in twenty-four.  I was usually getting by on less than that. 
We had no real idea on when an ‘offensive’ might start, the communications between Command and our units was cryptic, probably for good reason.  Grand Island’s supply stockpiles followed the troops out, to be re-staged down the line. The supply yard was dwindling daily.  I wasn’t really minding the relatively monotonous work. It didn’t involve getting shot at.

“Sir, patrol contact, due east, friendly dismounts coming in,” Private Ayers said, passing a slip of paper to Captain McGowan.

“Colonel, that’s a Ranger unit,” Gerry McGowan said. “One of ours. From Spokane.”

“Mike Amberson’s unit?” I asked. I noticed my heart rate had increased.

“Sure could be sir.  We’ll know in a half-hour. They’re on foot—we’ll get some wheels out there to bring them in,” Gerry said, signaling one of his assistants to get transport on the way.

“Do it,” I said.  I hadn’t heard anything about Mike’s unit either, since we’d pulled out of Spokane back in November.   “How many men, Mr. Ayers?”

“Seventy, sir, plus one civilian,” he said.  A Ranger company could vary in size, but should be almost two hundred men.

“Kittrick: Get medical ready, and figure out billeting. Gerry, get your intel group together for debriefing, Mr. Ayers, I suspect we’re going to need to get these Rangers direct contact with command. Work it out.  Questions?”

“No, sir,” I heard in unison.

“Good. Mr. Ayers, pull up a map in your spare time and get it on my monitor showing where the Rangers made contact.”

“Done, sir. Fifty clicks out, near the town of York, between Interstate Eighty and U.S. Thirty Four. Coming overland, sir.”

“Easy Three’s patrol point?”

“Yes, sir. Outer edge of the patrol limit, Colonel,” he said. Everything east of that point was no-man’s land. The S.A. still held Lincoln, and Omaha, that much at least, we knew.  
Communications during their return trip in was mostly directed to medical, requesting medevac of several seriously wounded men.  The helos that we might normally have had in Grand Island however, were three hours away, shuttling gear to other units.

It took almost two hours to return the Rangers back to Grand Island, which were among the longest hours I’d ever spent.

1330 Hours

“Gerry, direct the inbound traffic straight to Med Two on Charlie; Med one on Dog,” I said. “Corpsmen and surgical ready?”

“Yes, sir.  Doctor Willitson is prepped and ready. Remaining troops will head into the receiving cars for eval.”

“I’m heading out to meet them,” I said, grabbing my parka and helmet.

Outside, Sergeant Major Travis met me at the entry stairs. “Colonel, good to see you.”

“You as well, Chet. Been a couple of days.”

“Northern perimeter rotation. Not much to look at up there though, sir.”

“Your men ready in receiving?”

“Yes, sir. Food, showers, clothing, the works.”

“Outstanding.  Thanks,” I said.

“I expect these men will need it, Colonel. Any idea on what they saw for action?”

“Not a one. Rangers are behind-the-lines guys most of the time, I understand. I expect they created some havoc,” I said as I heard them approach from the southeast. “Here they come.”

Fifteen corpsmen appeared just as the Humvees pulled in next to the two medical cars on Charlie Six, and another dozen or more further west of us at Dog Sixes’ med car. The wounded, several on  stretchers, were quickly carried straight into the surgical car. At least twenty more men were ‘walking wounded’, and taken across the tracks to the main receiving area for new troops.  At least two corpsmen attended each, some holding IV bags.  I noted that one of our troops led a civilian woman over to the evaluation area.
I was looking for Mike’s familiar form, finally finding him coming out of the surgical car. He’d helped carry one of his stretcher-bound men in.

“Mike, good to see you,” I said.  He was almost unrecognizable through the grime and dried blood, and his face was now filled with deep lines. I could not imagine what he must have gone through. It hadn’t been a month yet.

“You too, Rick,” he said, taking off his banged up helmet. He had a field dressing on his head, above his left ear.

“Let’s get you over to receiving and get some warm food. And get that head looked at.”

“That and a shot of Scotch,” he said.

‘Thousand yard stare,’ I thought to myself.   “I can do that, too. We’re working on getting you a comm link to Command. I expect you’ll have a long debrief.”

“I expect so.”

Mike didn’t say a word as we headed to receiving.  Inside, his men were being swarmed over by corpsmen, food piled in front of them and hot drinks by the gallon. Coffee was not on the menu. No point in caffeine-loading before stand-down.

“We had a hundred eighty men going in,” he said numbly, standing and looking over his men, the unblinking, unfocused stare all too apparent. “Seventy coming back, one probably brain-dead. Probably lose two more due to blood loss.”

“Over here, Mike. Get some hot food,” I said, directing him to a small table out of the way, as one of the men brought a heaping plate of something appearing to be stroganoff.

“Thanks,” he said, disassociated from most of what was going on in the room, focusing on the plate in front of him. I’d seen post-traumatic stress before. I’d had it myself.  I was wondering if Mike would be dealing with that, or if this was just extreme fatigue. Gerry McGowan joined us, silently. Mike was halfway through his plate, and me through a cup of non-caffeine tea, before he spoke.

“Started out pretty solid. Inserted behind the lines on a low flying C-130, dropped us at little strip near Osceola, south of Des Moines. Found out the S.A. was a hundred fifty miles away at best.  Split up into teams, found a substantial resistance force already in place, damned near every farm. Good couple of weeks. Then the shit hit the fan. One of the resistance cells was S.A. infiltrators, reported everything that unit was doing up their chain of command. Started hunting us down, chasing us further west. Twenty thousand S.A. against us. Half of my men were gone in a week. Thought we were doing well to come back with what we did.”

“You probably were,” I said.

“You met any of them yet?” Mike asked, referring to the S.A. obviously. “I mean, spoken with them?”

“Uh, no. We’ve been shot at a few times. Never face to face.”

“Their line soldiers.   They’re messed up. Seriously. They’re absolutely remorseless. No conscience whatsoever. No care to consequence of action, except to kill absolutely everything in front of them. One of our corpsmen thought they were drugged or something. A couple of their wounded were left behind and we interrogated them before they died. Normally, you gotta understand…they kill their seriously wounded. It’s as if they didn’t feel pain. Then we captured a few more before we figured out that they let us catch them as bait. Used trackers on ‘em.  That really narrowed the hunt.”

“Mike, this isn’t your fault,” I said.

“I know that, Rick. But I don’t get why they let us go.”

“They let you go?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah. We were literally out of ammunition. Among our men I’ll bet there’s not five magazines with anything in them. After that, we’re down to knives and rocks. They just melted away one night and were gone. We were holed up for the last stand, figuring hand to hand and that’s it,” he said, finishing his plate and going after another placed in front of him as if it were the first. “They were gone come morning. Tens of thousands of them, just gone. I don’t get it.”

“I doubt anyone would, sir,” McGowan said. “Colonel Amberson, when you’re ready, I’d like to get a more in-depth debrief from you and your men.  I believe that our communications crews will have a secure link patched through to San Antonio around fifteen-hundred, depending on the satellite, sir.”

“Sure. That’s fine,” Mike said. “Whatever.” 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 44


December Fifth
05:00 Hours

Two eighteen-hour days were needed to clear the downed overpass from the tracks, and full-time work to then repair the crushed ties and rails, along with the downed bridge over the Platte.
Supply crews meanwhile, had shuttled almost all of Third Washington’s supplies further east to Grand Island, where ammunition was being expended at a high rate.   Along with our own men, the Marines and the Lone Star troops, California’s Golden Bear troops had moved south to reinforce the seriously outnumbered American troops.  The downside of the arrival of the Californians was that they were all but out of supplies when they hit Grand Island. More troops just meant less to go around.
I’d been up for an hour, and got a little exercise in before the day went completely to Hell. Our first dedicated resupply trains were due in an hour. The first would bypass us completely, and follow the Army-reinforced Burlington Northern repair crew up the line to Grand Island.  The crew had completed repairs almost all the way to the destination, but it was certain to find more damage closer to town.
The second train was virtually nothing but food, water, medical supplies and ‘civilian oriented’ relief equipment, along with two hundred relief workers from Oregon. They’d fill in for our departing crews as we moved out.  As usual, Charlie Six would move up-line first, followed by Dog Six, after Cozad’s supply train was unloaded. While that train was unloaded, a third supply train would pass Cozad and follow us toward Grand Island.  Within a few hours after that, large-scale troop trains would follow on. 
Grand Island’s small airport had been the home of several S.A. units, using the seven thousand foot runway to operate light aircraft used for command-and-control operations throughout the region.  Much of the rest of the city that once was home to more than forty-thousand, according to our advance units on the ground, resembled Dresden in the spring of Nineteen Forty-Five.
Civilians had evacuated to the Dakotas as the S.A. began their retreat from Denver, probably hearing about what was happening west of them.  Those that stayed, according again to our own troops, were S.A. faithful. The scorched earth philosophy of the S.A. was carried out as our troops encircled the city, S.A. troops defending the city and the many fires, only retreating when there was literally nothing left to defend.  Grand Island was not yet fully secured, but was deemed ‘safe enough’ for Third Washington to advance, resupply our many troops, and stage for further movement east.

The United States of America paid for that ground with the lives of another fifteen hundred men and women. 

05:40 hours

“Colonel, we’ve got a live one,” Gerry McGowan said as I entered the command car.

“You’ve got a WHAT?”

“Prisoner.  Caught him north of town. One of our inbound squads saw him out in a field. Nice enough not to try to fight back.”

“Where is he now?”

“Five minutes out, sir,” one of the communications techs said.

“Who got him?”

“Lieutenant Arkwell’s boys.  That wild bunch out of Chilliwack, sir,” McGowan said.   Third Washington had about a hundred Canadians in the ranks.  While our own men wouldn’t say anything in public about it, the Canadians were fierce.  They really wanted to be assigned to a front-line unit, and were first to volunteer for ‘point’ to a man. Most, I’d noted, were of Scottish lineage, if their surnames were any indication.  More than a few with red hair, as well.   They enjoyed their work.

“Make sure that he gets here alive, Captain.  Got a plan for interrogating him?”

“Yes, sir, but I’d like not to do that while we’re in transit.”

“How long you figure?”

“Probably a day until Command directs his transport somewhere west or south, unless they want to fly him out, Colonel.”

“So you have a few hours to make hay, Gerry. Get on it. You need some additional troops for intimidation, or a few civilians with pitchforks and mattocks, you just say the word. Just be sure you keep him alive enough for San Antonio or Austin to have use of him.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” he said, heading out of the command car, trailed by one of his lieutenants.

“Mr. Briggs, what’s the state of the union today?” I asked.

“Sir?” he didn’t know what to make of that question.

“Sitrep. News, boy. What’s the word?”

“Normal for a civil war, I suspect, sir,” he said, finally getting it. “Lot of requests from up-line for supplies, including our units.  Looking for evacs for the wounded on the outbounds, but they’re short of corpsmen. Wondering when we’re going to stage.  Overall, sir, they all sound pretty damned tired.”

“I’ll bet,” I said.  “Enough days straight in the field and anyone would be. Throw in winter weather and it just gets worse. We looking at any delay on getting underway?” I asked, knowing that he wasn’t going to be comfortable replying.

“Sir, I think Sergeant Major…”

“If I wanted Chet Travis’ opinion, I’d have asked for it.  And then he’d have checked with men in this car on the status of the load out and the engineers up front.”

“Yes, sir. Nothing on the boards showing a delay, Colonel.”

“Good. Remember that next time,” I said.

Gerry McGowan requested half-dozen men, three of whom were multilingual.  The prisoner was a mercenary, of European origin, but the Canadians couldn’t pin down a country of origin. With luck, McGowan could radio to us his findings. If not, we’d wait until he caught up with us.
The supply train had quickly passed Charlie Six, moving at a good forty miles per hour, about ten minutes past six. At oh six-thirty, we had a green board from all cars for departure, with Charlie Six quietly pulling out of town. The hundred or so miles to Grand Island ticked by, with little to keep me busy, other than things that I really didn’t want to do.
Our on-board supplies were ten percent of what we’d need to last two weeks in the field, with no reserve.  Bulk meal preparation was down to ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ without any choices of what was served, unless the soldier wished to have an MRE.

“Sir, got some line traffic coming in,” Briggs said. 

“Trouble up ahead?”

“No, sir. Behind.  Two troop trains, about fifteen minutes behind us.”

“Supply train status?”

“Unknown, sir.  Troop transports weren’t supposed to be pulling in for hours.”

“Did Cozad’s supply train arrive?”

“No sir, or no confirmation on status. With the troop trains, I’d lay odds that the supply train is somewhere behind them.”

“Try to run that down.  I’d like to know what’s coming our way, Mr. Briggs.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.”

Over the remaining miles, Briggs found out nothing but bad news.  Three troop trains would follow us in, somewhere behind that would be our supply train, but not until the troop trains were unloaded and moved back west…there weren’t enough sidings or trackage available to stack that many rail cars. At a minimum, we’d be two more days without resupply. Command wasn’t just cutting it thin, they had no idea what they were doing to us, and there wasn’t one damned thing I could do about it. Our battalion commanders would have to improvise in the whole ‘support’ aspect of our mission.
Track speeds were uneven moving toward Grand Island, but through the video monitors, we could see the plume of smoke ten miles away, staining the clear, still blue Nebraska sky.
The last of the S.A. troops were no more than a few thousand yards outside of Grand Island, with thirty-thousand U.S. troops between where Charlie Six would stop and ‘the line.’  General Garcia’s communications crews informed us of ‘sporadic mortar and artillery fire in the region.’  ‘Nothing like that to inspire confidence in your future,’ I thought.
With troop trains behind us on the same track, we were going into Grand Island whether things were quiet or not.  The fresh troops were needed to push back the S.A. out of range and stabilize the front.

08:41 Hours
Grand Island, Nebraska

“Double-time, you worthless pukes!”  One of the California Golden Bear sergeants yelled. The S.A. had concentrated fire on our rail lines as soon as we’d stopped and begun to dismount, and everyone aboard Charlie Six—with the exception of the defensive cars and the trailing communications car--was in the field and away from the attractive target.   Rear Comms was providing coordination to Third Washington and other units tapping into our tactical frequencies, and using on-board cameras to spot targets and serve as fire control.  The Californians were running to get into the fight.
I’d found decent cover along with Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Casselis Fourth Battalion, Able Company, a few hundred feet from the command car.  Charlie Six had made it all the way through town to the west side, found a convenient siding among ten to choose from, and had taken three near-miss mortar rounds as we evac’d the train. We were stopped about a mile south of the small airport, now held by the Texans, and sandwiched between the Golden Bears and Third Cardinal from Arizona.  Southeast of us, on the other side of U.S. 30, a subdivision was afire.  Somewhere beyond the subdivisions’ trees, were the mortar emplacements.  Within the tree line, snipers.   Our location, behind an irregular gathering of mostly wrecked warehouses and industrial buildings was out of direct line of fire, with decent earthen embankments and an overstory of thick trees.  It reminded me of what the hedgerows might have been like in France, in June of Forty-Four.

“Colonel? General Garcia’s wondering where you are, sir,” Private Ayers told me.  “Your comm gear not working sir?”

“Guess not, Mr. Ayers,” I said as I checked the switches and got no signal.  “Be kind enough give the General my regards and to pass on that I’m not enjoying the scenery, south of our known last, as a dismounted infantryman. Understood?” I said as another mortar round hit south of us.  The shelling seemed to be moving away. A second, then a third, hit east of us, one with a dull ‘whump’ sounding much different than the others.

“Yes, sir,” he said with a grin, then relayed that through his headset up through the food chain.

“They’re at about max range for these shells, sir,” A Company’s commander, Captain Tealson said. “Not quite six thousand yards.”  His First Sergeant was twenty yards or so south, looking through his binoculars south, and radioing back to the communication car. “Fifteen minutes at this rate of retreat, shelling’s done. We can get some armor moving in then and root out the stragglers.”

Before I could respond, two Abrams fired nearly simultaneously, a few hundred feet west of us, toward the southeast. Many seconds later, we heard the impacts, thousands of yards away. Mortar fire was returned, and fell far short.

“Captain, how far can we chase these bastards?” I asked.

“Those tanks use something like three hundred gallons of fuel every eight hours or so, sir. More on rough terrain. Top speed a little over forty miles per hour.  From what I heard from the Californians, they’re damned near out of fuel, though.  And shells.”

“What’s their effective firing range?”

“About eight thousand meters, sir.”

“Thanks.  Not the kind of thing I have ingrained into my head.”

“Sir?” the first sergeant asked.  “You should be clear to proceed to the airport.  Lone Star’s got a Brad on the other side of Charlie,” he said.

“Mr. Ayers, let’s go see a General.  Captain, don’t get your ass shot off,” I said.

“Sound advice,” he said. “Ditto, Colonel.”

Moving quickly, Ayers and I moved as quickly as we could back to Charlie Six, around the lead engine, and to a very scarred Bradley Fighting Vehicle, where four of the Lone Stars had fanned out to cover us.

“Colonel, good to see you,” General Angela Garcia said, from just inside the lowered rear hatch.

“General, good to see you in one piece.”

“Good to see you, too, along with those trains following on. Might have just saved our bacon,” she said as the hatch closed and we headed away from Charlie Six.

“I hear things are a bit thin up here,” I said.

“Drastic understatement, Colonel Drummond. We’re all but out of ammunition and fuel.  If that battalion of yours hadn’t shown up when they did, we’d have been done for.  Where’s that supply train?”

“Somewhere behind the two troop trains that followed us in, ma’am. In other words, I have no idea.”

“Comms are lousy out here, even with that gear the SEALS brought us.  And the S.A.’s got jammers, so that isn’t helping. Another hour or five, and the S.A. would’a taken us.”

“What’s their strength?” I asked.

“Best estimates, north of eighty thousand within fifteen miles.”

I let out a long, slow descending whistle. “One of my Marine friends called that a ‘target rich environment,’ I said.

“Would be for us, as well, had we the tools we need,” she said with some disgust.  The Bradley slowed, turned, and stopped.

“Welcome to Camp Grand Island,” she said as the rear hatch lowered, bringing in welcome fresh air.

Ayers and I climbed out and looked around at the remains of the small airport.

“We wreck this, or the S.A.?”

“We did.  Tank round killed the S.A. Field Marshal and a slug of his staff over there in the building off to the left.  Seems he was too proud to get while the gettin’ was good,” she said as we headed toward a less-wrecked structure. I noted it had been home to the Nebraska Army National Guard, with one of their unit logos, ‘The Muleskinners’, painted on the side of the building. ‘B-Company/ 2-135 Aviation’, below the logo of the kicking mule.  “Nebraska Guard ran Chinooks out of here, before it hit the fan.  Their birds were assigned to Oklahoma, and then Texas. Some of our men are from here, fighting for home and all,” she said as we entered the hangar space. “That Chinook crew that came in the other night was one of the local crews.”

“Tough way to find your home town.”

“Not much left here, that’s a fact.  The only civilians left were S.A. They either left when the S.A. did or they’re now ambient temperature,” she said.  “In there—that’s our HQ for the time being,” Garcia said, pointing to the second of three large tents inside the hangar.   I noticed Ayers was looking quite out of place.
“Soldier, the mess is in that tent, yonder. Go make yourself useful,” Garcia said.

“Yes, ma’am!” Ayers said, saluted, and smartly marched to the third tent. 

“Good God, Colonel. You’ve got more kids under your command than a high-school principal.”

“Only if it’s a small high-school, General.”

“Let’s get some coffee. And I hope you’ve got some good news for us,” she said as we went inside the Lone Star command tent. I noted there were no computers hooked up, or much in the way of electronics at all for that matter.

“I do have, what is supposed to be the manifest and schedule for the resupply trains, of course that’s gone to Hell already today. My men will get the schedule nailed down once comms are back up.”

“That’ll have to do I imagine,” she said as she sat down behind a makeshift desk.

“I have it on a flash drive, and here’s the hardcopy,” I said, pulling two dozen double-sided, single spaced sheets out of my shirt.”

“Won’t need the flash drive.  Computers were all fried when the satellites went.  Techs figured it was some sort of directed EMP burst. Homed in on our electronic emissions and cooked us.”

“Saw that up in Idaho. Before the War, General,” I said, almost absentmindedly. 

“When? How was that possible?” she asked, leaning forward.

“Sorry, Ma’am. It was….mid-October I think. One of our Army recon units had a modified Humvee. Lots of electronic equipment that’d been looking in on a compound that had been stirring up trouble. Whatever they used cooked the Humvee’s electronics suite.  Army and Air Force bombed them a day or two later after their private army killed some civilians.  Turned out the residents and their private army were tied to political parties on both sides, as well as American and European banking interests. Command at the time told us that they were tied to the New Republic as well. Happened the same time that Blackburn was capped.”

“You had an S.A. base, Colonel,” she said. “What happened after you hit it?”

“First, I wasn’t in uniform at that point, but that’s a minor issue. Attacks ramped up, pretty dramatically as the war started.”

“You stirred up a hornets nest. I hope to God you killed it.”

“The base was destroyed.  Infiltrators were everywhere.  They were still mopping them up when I shipped out.”

“Colonel, if there’s anything in common between places like your Washington and Nebraska, it’s that fat cats from elsewhere came in and built their little fortresses and surrounded themselves with their own pissant armies. We’ve taken out three since we left Colorado. Lotta European money went into building those places and buying hundreds or thousands of acres of land.”

“You think these were supposed to be the castles maintained by us lowly serfs, General?” I asked.

“Yeah, I do, Colonel. And that sticks in my craw,” she said.

15:20 Hours

Despite Angela Garcia’s preference to push the fight hard into the S.A., it was apparent that most of the forces in the field needed rest. Much of the equipment used by the Lone Stars was sorely in need of full overhauls, but that of course wasn’t in the cards.  The gear used by all of the other units was only in marginally better condition.
The burned out city came alive with thirty thousand troops fresh to Grand Island, hailing from all over the United States and Canada. Only a handful of units weren’t ‘Composite’ in nature, that is, dedicated to a single task. Most were, with support from units like ours, stand-alone and quite capable.
Most of the new troops were infantry, with mechanized units expected to arrive over the next few days.  Grand Island would be one of several jump points East, part of a claw to grasp, then crush the S.A. Many Third Washington troops, including finally Dog Six, enlisted anyone standing around in the offload of the supply trains and the mountains of equipment and supplies were sorted and dispersed.
The Brigade was fully involved in the support and resupply effort of the military, really for the first time not working with a civilian presence. The language was more coarse, the jokes more crude, the orders more pointed, no slack given.  Our medical suites were running full up, with everything from working on field-dressed gunshot wounds to frostbite, fractures, and miscellaneous afflictions of war.  A solid ten percent of the Texans wouldn’t fight again anytime soon, and would be evac’d by rail to hospitals down south.   
The support mess tents and rail-mounted kitchens would also be running twenty-four-seven, and still wouldn’t be able to get everyone hot food but once, and maybe twice a day. 
I’d toured the Third’s operations and came away pretty impressed.  North of us at the airport, damaged runways were being prepped for repairs, in anticipation of helicopter traffic. Row upon row of Abrams, ancient M113 armored personnel carriers, Bradley’s, and too many trucks to count were lined up for needed maintenance and repairs, refueling, and re-arming. Two-dozen fuel tankers were dispersed around the area, with camouflage netting around and over them. Most were filling as quickly as they could from the isolated fuel tank cars, now disconnected from their arrival train.   Back in the command car, the communications crews were re-working the hardware again, trying to get more communication range.  A hundred miles just wasn’t going to cut it.

“Colonel, here’s the weather report. We did at least get this from San Antonio while we had a bird overhead,” Major Ryder said as he handed me a single sheet of paper.

“Any word from McGowan?” I asked, wondering about his interrogation.

“No, sir.  I’d lay a twenty-dollar gold piece on Command getting the prisoner by the end of the day though.”

“Wouldn’t take that bet,” I said, reading the forecast. “This ain’t good, Gary.  Thirty mile plus winds, and snow coming out of Alberta, before midnight.  Looking outside you’d never know it.”

“Yes, sir. Word’s been spread throughout all units to prepare for extreme weather conditions tonight. We’ve got a few buildings south of us that didn’t get completely hammered. One’ll house several thousand men, Colonel.”

“That big shipping warehouse?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.  Georgians are fabbing up some patches in the building to make it a bit less like an icebox.”

“All of our tents up and secured, that’ll handle some.  I’m hoping to God that these new troops have some shelter of their own.”

“They do, not as good as the stuff we’ve got, but adequate, Colonel.”

“Did Dog Six get their water heater problems figured out?”

“Transferred the water to other tanks. Mechanics gave up on them for the day.”

“How about their solids? They get them dumped?”

“Yes, sir, both trains, blackwater pumped into the local sewage system.”

“Good thing they have one,” I said.  “There anything needing my immediate attention?”

“Well, nothing comes to mind, sir. What have you got planned?”

“Thought I’d head up to the repair shop and see if I can find some trouble. Been a while since I’ve wrenched and burned metal. Kinda miss that.”

“Plenty of work up there, according to the guys in the D-cars.  The Texans were looking over our mounted Abrams with an eye to cannibalize them, Colonel.”

“Saw the parts and equipment requests.  I’m not sure there are that many parts out there to be had,” I said.

“One of the replacement commanders said that down at Hood they’re crating up stuff right and left. New manufacture.  So, maybe there’s hope yet, sir.”

“Maybe. I’ll take a real radio this time, since those headsets are so flaky,” I said for the benefit of the communications crews, who were embarrassed by the fact that my battery packs seemed to have a fifteen-minute half-life.

“Won’t happen again, sir,” Private Briggs responded.

“Good to know. I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Briggs.”

A half-hour later, I drove a tired Humvee over to the airport, wearing one of my civilian work outfits, insulated coveralls that I’d quit wearing years before as my waistline expanded.  Now, back down to a hundred and seventy, it fit just fine.  One of my more worn Army-issue parkas and a rabbit-fur hat, and I was good to go.  I was flagged to stop at the airport checkpoint.

“Where do you think you’re headed, Mac?” a Marine snarled.

“Well Sarge, I hear there’s some mechanic’in to be done over there. And seein’s that I’m a Colonel, as this here patch illustrates, I figure to go get some work done.”  He looked over the insignia with a little surprise. “Colonel Richard Drummond, Commander, Third Washington.”

“Sorry, sir,” he said.

“No apologies necessary, Marine,” I said as I drove on. ‘Thanks for not shooting first,’ I said to myself.