Africa-a hell on earth, ignited by the burning rage of Bruno Bottger, a power- hungry lunatic living out Hitler's nightmare vision for the future. But even Bottger isn't prepared for the aftermath of his own sick ambitions. Germ warfare strategy has turned African civilians into killing machines with no conscience and no mercy. With millions already wrecking havoc, it's up to Ben Raines and his Rebels to bravely defend a country under siege. Facing a battalion of mindless maniacs bent on total annihilation is tough enough. Now Ben and his men are outnumbered ten to one by Bottger's heavily-armed troops. But Raines has a weapon nobody counted on: his own vision for the future-and a do-or-die determination to see it come true. Whatever the odds, Ben Raines and the Rebels are ready for the ultimate battle.
* * * *
Ben and his Rebels were ready for the big push southward. The hundreds of replacement troops, all fresh from The SUSA and green as a gourd when they had deplaned weeks back, were now combat tested and hardened. In the weeks they had been in Africa they had seen sights that toughened them mentally; they had learned what every experienced combat soldier learns: you shove the bloody, awful sights into a secret part of your brain and close and lock the door ... and keep on doing your job.
Ben's 501 Brigade was halted on the Cameroon/Gabon border, just north of Bata. The other brigades were stretched out across Africa, all the way over to Mogadishu, Somalia. They waited for Ben's orders to move out.
Ike McGowen's 502 Brigade was just to Ben's east, on the Congo's west border. Thermopolis's 19 Batt, which kept up with everything going on, and not just concerning the Rebels, was in the center of the ten brigades. Pat O'Shea's 510 Brigade was on the coast of the Indian Ocean, almost twenty-five hundred miles away from Ben. Doctor Lamar Chase, the Rebel Army's Chief of Medicine, was traveling with Ben's brigade. The brigades had traveled several hundred miles since re-forming, and so far had seen only limited action, most of it coming from gangs of thugs.
All that was about to change.
For the past week, Ben and the Rebels had made good time, considering the condition of the roads--in some cases, almost non-existence. Ben and his 501 Brigade had traveled south through the western portion of Cameroon and found very little resistance. They had seen thousands of human skeletons, their deaths brought on by war, sickness, starvation, and Bruno Bottger's deadly laboratory-concocted virus that he unleashed on the population.
But the animals had made a miraculous comeback. The Rebels saw dozens of prides of lions. They saw leopards and hyenas and wild dogs, and what appeared to be thousands of different species of birds. Scouts reported all sorts of animals ahead of the main force.
"Gorillas," said Cooper, Ben's driver. "I want to see some gorillas."
"Go look in the mirror," Ben's diminutive bodyguard, Jersey, told him.
Beth, the statistician, looked up from the tattered travel guide she was reading and smiled at Ben, then returned to her reading.
Corrie, the radio tech, was busy yapping with somebody about something, her headset on, and didn't hear the exchange. She probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it, anyway, for Jersey and Cooper had been hurling barbs at one another for years.
Anna, Ben's adopted daughter, squatted in the shade of a large bush, sharpening one of her knives, which was already razor sharp. The young woman, taken in by Ben during the Rebels' European campaign, was in her late teens, and deadly. She had been orphaned while just a child--when the Great War swept the globe--and had fought for every scrap of food while growing up. Ben had seen something worthwhile in the dirty faced waif, and taken her in to raise during her formative teenage years.
That was Ben's personal team. They had been together for a long time, through good and bad times.
"Bruno's people have pulled back, Boss," Corrie announced, removing her headset. "All the way across Africa. They packed it up and headed south."
"They didn't do it because they're afraid of us," Ben said, rolling a cigarette. He looked at her. "Were they in a hurry when they hightailed it out of here?"
"Didn't seem to be. Scouts report they left nothing useable behind." Corrie paused for a moment. "Just a lot of dead people," she added.
"Is anyone reporting any action at all?" Ben asked. "Anywhere?"
"This will slow us down to a crawl," Ben said. "I want every bridge, every mile of road, checked for mines. If the village or town is deserted, it's probably filled with explosives. Do we have anybody left in South Africa ... or what used to be called South Africa?"
"Not any more," Beth told him. "The last batch of our people that we sent in about eighteen months ago just got out alive a few weeks ago."
Ben nodded in understanding. He lit his hand-rolled cigarette and frowned, silent for a few heartbeats. "Bruno's going to bug out," he finally said. "Bet on it. He's going to buy some time by sacrificing his troops and then bug out through the southernmost ports, taking his top people and his best troops with him. That's the only thing that makes any sense. He knows he's finished here in Africa ... he can see the end in sight. He's anything but a stupid man. Arrogant as hell, but brilliant in his own right."
"Where in the hell's he going to bug out to, Boss?" Cooper asked.
"My guess would be South America," Ben replied. "The last word we got was that there wasn't a stable government in any country down there. Corrie, tell Mike Richards to send some people into South America. See what they can dig up."
"No point in pulling out until we've got a few miles of road cleared. Have the Scouts or any fly-bys found any useable railroad tracks?"
"Negative, Boss. Bruno's people destroyed miles of track and blew the railroad bridges."
"We can expect the same all the way down," Ben said. "And for the roads to get worse. We're in for some slow going." Ben opened his map case and pulled out a map of Gabon, studying it for a moment.
"We'll avoid Libreville," he said. "We don't need to use the port, and all we'll find is trouble there. Place is filled to overflowing with sick and dying people." Ben shook his head. "Doctor Chase and his people say there is nothing we can do for them. Nothing at all. Except let them die in peace," he added softly.
"Bruno's virus?" Anna said, standing up and sheathing her long-bladed knife.
"Not so much that," Ben replied. "But that is certainly a part of their trouble. Chase's people say just name a disease, they've got it."
"When are the Israelis going to join us?" Cooper asked.
"They're not," Ben said. "They're fighting on three fronts. We just got word that a dozen or more Arab resistance groups formed up and began attacking. The Israelis have their hands full. I wished them good luck and told them we'd handle this. Corrie, radio everyone to stand down and relax. We'll make this push south slow and careful."
The Rebels pushed off two days later and advanced thirty miles. Then they waited for two more days before pushing off again, and again they advanced thirty miles. They met no resistance anywhere along the twenty-five hundred mile front, running east to west. Bruno Bottger's troops had definitely bugged out to the south ... how far south was still up for grabs.
"But we've still got hundreds of gangs roaming around," Ben cautioned. "Ranging in size from twenty to a thousand."
"You think a small bunch of punks would attack us?" Ben was asked by a young sergeant. The sergeant was fresh from The SUSA, and his combat experience was sparse. "It would be suicide for a small gang to attack a full brigade."
Ben's XO, John Michaels, opened his mouth to tell the young sergeant to get back to his squad and not to bother the CG with stupid questions.
Ben held up a hand. "I didn't say they were smart gangs, Sergeant," Ben told him. "Although we don't ever want to underestimate their intelligence ... many of them are very cunning. Just like criminals in every country in the world. If they would use that intelligence for something constructive, they would be useful and productive, helping out their country and the people. But they never do that. They think they're smarter than everyone else. If they hit us, and I think they probably will very soon, they'll come at us with ambushes and sneak attacks, hit and run. So, heads up, son."
"Yes, sir," the young sergeant said, and got the hell out of that area.
The hundreds and hundreds of men and women in the miles long column mounted up and moved slowly on to the south.
"Boring," Anna said, looking out the window of the big wagon as they proceeded on at about fifteen miles per hour. The roads were in terrible shape. In many areas of the sprawling continent, roads were no more than a faint memory.
"Scouts report the bridge is out about five miles ahead," Corrie said.
Ben lifted a map, studied it for a moment, and then cussed. "There are no highways at all to the west, and it would put us fifty miles out of the way to head east to the next crossing. And on these miserable excuses for roads it would take us two or three days to travel that distance." He sighed. "Get the engineers up here, Corrie."
"Right, Boss. They're on their way."
"It'll take some time, General," the officer in command of the detachment of combat engineers told Ben. "The rest of the day and part of tomorrow, at least. That's a hell of a section blown out."
Ben nodded. "Fix it."
"Yes, sir." The combat engineer started yelling orders to his people.
Ben glanced at his watch. 1300 hours. The column had made lousy time since pulling out that morning. At this rate it would take them several months to reach the south part of the continent. And that would give Bruno more than ample time to throw up a front that would be tough to punch through.
Ben sighed and shook his head as he looked around him. The terrain would be perfect for an ambush. "Corrie, no one moves more than a few yards away from this cowpath they call a road until the area has been checked out."
"Scouts out east and west."
Ben smiled as he leaned up against the big wagon and began rolling a cigarette. Corrie always stayed about two steps ahead of him. The team had been together for so long that each member knew how the other would react, and in most cases orders were routine, given out of long habit.
"Any towns or villages close by?" Cooper asked.
"Why?" Jersey asked. "You planning on going in and checking out the night life?"
"I thought I might buy you a nice present," Cooper came right back at her.
"The best present you could get me would be to lose your voice for about a year or so."
"Oh, my little desert flower," Cooper said, feigning great personal pain. "You know you don't mean that. Just the thought hurts my heart. You'd miss me like the flowers would miss a gentle rain."
"Blahh! Yukk! Barf!" Jersey said. "That's disgusting, Cooper." She made an awful face and moved around to the other side of the vehicle, muttering, "Guy gets worse every month." But out of Cooper's sight the awful face vanished, and she smiled. She and Cooper were good and close friends ... they just liked to stick the needle to each other.
The first section of the Bailey Bridge was hauled up and off loaded. The engineers were laying it out when the mortar rounds began falling. Two members of the combat engineers were killed and half a dozen wounded in the first barrage.
Ben and his team left the road and jumped for the cover of thick brush that lined both sides of the old highway. "If they hit that new wagon, I'm gonna be really pissed!" Cooper said, setting up his SAW--Squad Automatic Weapon.
"You better hope one of those rounds doesn't land on your ass," Jersey told him.
"That would irritate me, too," Cooper replied.
"But only very briefly," Jersey replied.
The first span over which the engineers had to build a new temporary bridge was about fifty yards wide ... but it was right in the center. The second section that had been knocked out was on the other side, the connecting span.
"I figure about a hundred meters from our position," Ben said. "Give that to the tank commanders, Corrie."
A minute later the main guns of the battle tanks began howling and roaring. The first few rounds were short, the range quickly corrected, and then the tanks began laying down a field of fire that virtually destroyed everything on the other side of the sluggish river.
"Cease fire," Ben ordered, looking up into the sky. "Here come the gunships."
The gunships began strafing the other side of the riverbank with machine gun fire and rockets. They worked back and forth for a couple of minutes. Ben bumped the flight commander on his two-way and gave orders for them to back off. "Scouts find a place to get across that river and check it out," he said.
"Chopper pilots reporting no signs of life over there," Corrie said. "But plenty of dead bodies."
"Good," Ben said. "Throw them in the river and let the crocs have them."
"Are there crocodiles in that river?" Cooper questioned.
"Probably," Ben told him. Ben didn't know if there were any crocs in the river ... but he'd bet there were. Either way, the river was certainly going to be ordered off limits for swimming.
About five minutes later, after the firing had stopped and the area was quiet once again, Doctor Lamar Chase, the Rebels' Chief of Medicine, came walking up. His driver had brought him as close to the head of the column as she could, then Chase had hoofed the last several hundred yards. Chase and Ben had been together since the very beginning; their friendship spanned many years. The doctor stood for a moment, watching his doctors work on the wounded, then turned to Ben.
"You think those troops that ambushed us were Bruno's men, Ben?"
Ben shook his head. "No. It would really surprise me if they were. Probably just one of the many hundreds of gangs that prowl and slither around this continent. Scouts are checking it out now."
"I certainly hope you cautioned them not to fall out of the damn boats," Chase warned. "There are probably crocs in that river."
Ben cut his eyes, grunted a non-committal reply, and continued to watch the Scout teams as they cranked the outboards and headed for the opposite shore.
"One of the wounded just died," Corrie said. "The others are going to make it."
"Who died?" Ben asked.
"Shit," Ben muttered. He sighed. "Bury them off the road in the brush. Deep and well. I don't want animals digging them up. Get a chaplain up here."
Major Larsen had been with Ben for years, starting out with the Rebels when he was just an enlisted man in his teens and working his way up through the ranks. He was well-liked by everyone, and would be sorely missed.
Chase looked at Ben's face for a moment and said, "Watch your blood pressure, Ben. These things happen."
"My blood pressure is fine, Lamar."
"Then what's wrong?"
"This damn country."
Chase grunted in response, frowning as Ben began rolling a cigarette.
"Of course, wait until we hit South America," Ben said. "Then we'll really get bogged down in certain areas."
"Is that where we go next?"
"Probably. You can bet that's where Bruno's heading ... if he makes it out of Africa alive, and he probably will. The bastard has more luck than a leprechaun. He can't go back to Europe, that's for sure. He's the most wanted man on the continent."
Chase waited for Ben to continue, sensing there was more. He was right.
"The Secretary General warned me that we might go to South America when we finished here." Ben shrugged. "It was all part of the deal we made."
"A deal that isn't worth the paper it's written on or the handshake that sealed it," Doctor Chase said. "You don't believe for a minute the federal government outside The SUSA will keep their end of the bargain. Do you?"
Ben smiled. "Of course not, Lamar. I wouldn't trust a liberal out of my sight. But it bought us some time. Much needed time."
"They don't believe you'll use nuclear and germ weapons against them, Ben."
"Then they don't know or understand me at all, Lamar. I will personally push the buttons that let the birds fly if they invade us. Those crybaby assholes had damn well better understand that. And don't think for a second Cecil won't do it ... because he damn sure will."
Chase studied Ben's face for a few seconds. "Yes. Cecil will push the buttons. I'm sure of that. But do you think The SUSA will be invaded? Do you believe the federal government will really take that chance?"
Ben lit his hand-rolled cigarette and was silent for a few heartbeats, letting a very slight breeze slip the smoke away.
When he spoke, his words were low. "Yes, I do, Lamar. But I'm still undecided as to whether it's going to be an all-out assault or a guerrilla, hit and run attempt."
"What do Mike's people have to say about it?"
Mike Richards was the Rebels' Chief of Intelligence.
"That some type of action against us is being planned, but they're unable, so far, to break into the inner circle and pin anything down."
"Doesn't leave us much to go on, does it?"
Ben smiled. "Not a whole lot, Lamar. Except we know it's coming. But not when or how."
The two men stood in silence as the wounded combat engineers were transported back to a clearing to be worked on in a MASH facility.
One of the medics walked back to Ben and Lamar. "One is going to lose a leg, I think. The others will be back on limited duty before long."
Lamar thanked the medic and the young woman nodded and walked away. No one saluted in a combat zone.
"I am beginning to truly hate this place," Ben said. "I know I shouldn't, but I do. Not the people, at least not most of them, but the place."
"If it'll make you feel any better, Ben, the country doesn't thrill me all that much, either, even though much of it is quite beautiful."
"Scouts found several alive over there," Corrie said. "They're bringing three of them across now."
"Do they speak English?" Ben asked.
"Oh, yes, sir," Corrie replied. "They sure do. They're Americans."