Promoted to Exile: Fifth Tourmaline (part two)
Today, he’d given Byrnes an order to assemble her squadron, in snow fatigues, with their gear: radios, transponder belts, grenades and button bombs. Herward had it in mind to patrol a mile or so down the mountain, this the Hidtha named Meorsbicht’er, otherwise Miner’s Peak—otherwise, under the G.R.A. system, 27*A. The soldiers would fan out and reassemble at the observation post. What he wanted, and it was necessary to share this plan with Byrnes, was a prisoner to interrogate. He hoped the Hidtha would be drawn. He could see nothing in the future preventing a daily repetition of the exercise.
“When you see them, are they usually alone…or do they go in pairs?”
“We don’t see them. The camera picks them up. Didn’t anyone ever tell you how they tunnel? If the snow is fresh we might radio for a Vortice to blow it off with the rotor wash. I never saw it do much good. They thin out the crust from underneath…and you know, it’s really easy to dig snow. It’s like they watch, to see when you’re just about to step on top of a tunnel.”
“And what are they using? Field glasses?”
She shrugged. He hadn’t got the culture of this outpost yet. They might feel, as often small units left to fend for themselves did, that they’d earned the right to dispense with courtesy. That they were a wolf pack, up here, in their ice cave.
But he said it anyway, voice mild. “I didn’t hear you, corporal.”
“We don’t know, Sergeant Herward.”
“I want you to think,” he told the soldiers, when they stood in formation outside their Quonset hut barracks. “We’re going to turn their tactic around on them, if we can. You figure within twenty meters, going forwards and backwards from the…hole, we’ll call it…there will be a tunnel. We want to cut that off. Think about what kind of equipment will facilitate getting in and out fast. No one’s tried this.”
“We going down the tunnel?”
This again wanted correction, but Herward wasn’t giving them a line to mimic, when at night in their bunks they talked about him.
“Someone wants to know if we’re going down the tunnel.”
In fact, this was a chance to keep a straight face and let them work it through. Commit or fall apart. Herward had thought of it, that these tunnel yarns, growing in elaboration—Byrnes’s scary picture of snowpack caving under your feet, the warren of passages and shelters, that no one could give proof of—might be his hazing. It could be a number the Hidtha were doing on the unit. And he knew of no reason it might not be true.
But he would do this thing, bag a prisoner…if it meant knocking one of them, the Hidtha scouts, over with a grappling hook. The G.R.A. general staff liked full circles, things brought to a fitting conclusion, a kind of Brothers Grimm, or biblical, apt punishment for error. They would like it—he hoped they would—if he found Anton and brought him back. Herward would deem it apt, himself, if they were then stuck deciding what to do with Anton.
“A sledge. You could do more than one thing with a sledge…good in case you had wounded. Or if you caught one, you could tie him on. And then it could work like a ladder…”
These sentences faded, to a meeker and quieter conclusion. The soldier had thought, as he’d asked her to, and was afraid now of having broken with the others.
“Good,” he said.
“A flame thrower.” A sporting edge to this voice.
“Private Kent, I’ll let you requisition one.”
They used snowshoes. The terrain up here could be thin where rocks jutted, and then in pockets, meters deep. You couldn’t tell where the field of white was divided by a drop; bowls of soft snow could strangely invert themselves in the way they reflected light without shadow. So no one ought to be skimming along on a pair of skis. Herward had them stay in visual contact, spacing out in a line, the two outflanking members going to a distance of 100 meters, then maintaining it, as the next two advanced. He put himself in the center of four expanding south; Byrnes, four going north.
For four hours they prodded along with their poles. They reassembled and returned to base.
Under the Jocelynist regime…well…
Herward considered that first of all, such an outpost would not have existed. They had not been at odds with their minority. Some Hidtha Utdrife launched commuter train bombings, attacked churches—but the Ftheorde had kept the old entente between their nation and his within it, disavowing the extremists. This zone that separated the mainland from the peninsula was a product of the G.R.A. occupation.
And the phenomenon of soldiers, stationed before monitors, looking at pornography, had got worse in those days when Jocelyn’s experts had shouted down the discomfited. The premier had liked his uniform and medals, thus had let his army carry on without scrutiny.
“This is real life. This is the way it is. Sex is natural,” they would say, making a point beside the point. Jocelyn’s naturalism, his state-sponsored strip culture, had lent gravitas to the ponderous socialism of the alliance.
Promoted to Exile
(2017, Stephanie Foster)