Chapter Fifteen

Lewis walked out of his tent into the growing light of a desert dawn. His armor still rested in the tent on the stand that Arp had rigged for him, but his sword nestled comfortably at his side. He rested his hand on the hilt as he looked about.

Two camps bustled with activity. One was moderately quiet, as the American Marines and soldiers efficiently went about the process of breaking camp and stowing gear, with the occasional profane encouragement of NCOs. The Crusaders were rather more boisterous as the drovers and laborers of the embassy sang and shouted as they packed.

“Captain, you need to hear this.”

Lewis turned to see Coleman holding his Grundig shortwave band radio. “Turn it up.”

Coleman turned the volume up, and Lewis heard the level tones of a BBC newsreader, “…sources inform us that the destruction of the US fourth Infantry division south of An Nasiriyah is nearly total. The division had taken the role of rear guard for American forces retreating from Baghdad, and bore the brunt of the invader’s attention. Drone footage acquired by the BBC showed a scene of ruin, smoking hulks of burnt-out tanks the only remains of a once-formidable fighting force.

The British consulate in Kuwait estimates that some twenty thousands of American troops managed to escape Iraq ahead of the onslaught. These troops had been brought home from the region just months before, only to be redeployed at the collapse of the Iraqi government and the beginning of military operations in Iran.

With the near collapse of American forces within Iraq, the invaders can be expected to reach the Kuwaiti border within the next two days. In Kuwait, American Air and Naval forces are struggling to evacuate ground troops back to the United States. Commercial airliners are flying non-stop from the airport there, and the parking lots are filled with abandoned tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment.”

“A whole fucking division gone?” Coleman said. He shuddered. “Glad we didn’t go that way.”

“With the loss of the Pentagon on the first day of the invasion, and the fall of Washington four days ago, the word from the United States is grim. Satellite photos from the French SPOT satellite service have shown corpses by the tens of thousands flowing into the sea from Hudson River at New York City. At other points along the Atlantic seaboard the dead clog the harbors, hindering the evacuation efforts of civilian and military authorities. Smoke from hundreds of burning cities have obscured the horrors beneath, but it is clear that casualties in the United States already number in the hundreds of thousands and are growing rapidly.

As Army units move north from their bases in the American Southeast, they are hindered by the massive flow of refugees heading south, away from the invaders. Highways are blocked by cars that have broken down or run out of fuel, creating traffic tie-ups dozens of kilometers long. Refugee centers in Canada are being overwhelmed by millions more refugees fleeing north.

The invaders now control a beachhead, as it were, 100 to 300 kilometers wide and stretching across the northern tier of the United states in a line from Seattle to Chicago, then bending south and east to West Virginia, and then northwards along the Atlantic coast states past the Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and finally reaching the sea at Boston. It is unknown how many people remain behind the rapidly advancing front lines, but the number of Americans behind enemy lines must now number in the millions.

The US government confirmed earlier today the death of Vice President Thompson, in the attack on the Pentagon. The President remains in a secure and undisclosed location, the spokesman said, but aside from a brief speech on Tuesday has not been heard from since.” The newsreader paused for a moment. At first, the announcer had sounded clear and confident. But as Lewis listened, he realized that the man was clearly treading close to the edge, and only his training was keeping his voice level.

“In Europe, the situation is, if anything, even more bleak. NATO forces continue to lose ground to the invaders. We expect word of the collapse of the final defense of Berlin within the hour. Confused reports continue to surface of chaos within NATO units. Reports of mass desertions have become too common to discount, and an eyewitness reported that two German Bundeswehr brigades opened fire on an American Armored division south…”

Static consumed the broadcast. Lewis stared into the distance, shaken. The color seemed to leach out of the world as he thought desolate thoughts. The Pentagon on fire once again. He’d been there, that day. Cool and sunny and a pillar of black oily smoke rising into the air where a handful of muj crashed into the biggest and ugliest office building on Earth.

This time it wasn’t a fuel-laden jetliner. It was dragons.

How fucking perverse. His head ached trying to get around it. But then, he’d never really understood the jihadis either, not really. He only knew where to put the bullet.

“Captain?” Coleman asked, softly.

“Yes, Corporal.”

“It’s all going to hell, isn’t it?”

“Looks like. A little faster than we might have hoped.” Lewis shook his head slightly. “Go get Pethoukis. Our departure time just got moved up.”

Coleman moved off, looking for the first sergeant. It is going to hell, Lewis thought. But that’s the road we’ve always been on.

***

Passing through Arar to the junction with Highway 85 eastbound, they saw no evidence of the Saudi military. Between what some of the erstwhile prisoners had heard, and what they’d gotten from the SANG Major before they left the border Lewis now had a reasonably complete picture of the situation inside Saudi. The King was dead, and royal sons, nephews, uncles, cousins and for all he knew, mongoloid great-granddaughters were all fighting for the throne. Factions and chaos, which is why that benighted Saudi National Guard major was closing the border and interning American troops. He hadn’t seemed too bright, but he’d been securing his faction’s position as best his dim capabilities allowed.

Conflicting imperatives were confusing the Saudi response to the situation. Normally they at least attempted to present a unified front to the outside world, but that had broken down. The more sensible parts of the military establishment were trying to push forces to the northern frontier and cooperate with the US in the hopes of getting some help. Factional forces were pulling units inward to play the succession game.

That left a big gap in military presence in the middle, and Lewis hoped to drive right through it. In a perfect world, that would continue long enough for him to get to Kuwait without some active-stupid Saudi officer trying to stick a dick in his ear.

Lewis and Evans raced south down Highway 80 in an up-armored humvee. The road south from the border was a major pilgrimage route for Iraqis going to Mecca during the Hajj, and it went right through the city. Which meant that Lewis would have to lead his menagerie right through a sizable Saudi city. Over 140,000 people.

Behind them in the growing dawn, Crusaders and Americans had broken camp and were getting underway. Ahead lay the city of Arar.

The desert transformed slowly from pristine desolation to shabby third world. The density of ramshackle buildings increased insensibly until without really realizing it, they were in Arar.

“It looks like a shitty version of the duller parts of New Mexico,” Evans shouted over the wind and the engine.

Lewis nodded. Looking around, he saw nothing, which worried him. There were no cars on the road, no people in evidence. Ahead, a double-arched gate stretched over the road, whitewashed and tacky with blue Arabic calligraphy. The local Kiwanis must have put that up.

The quality of the buildings improved as they neared the center of town. There weren’t any McDonald’s or Holiday Inns, but the look was closer to New Mexico than Mogadishu.

“Not many people out,” Evans commented. They could see some cars moving on the side streets now. Most were packed full of families and belongings.

“They’re bugging out. Looks like most already have. Let’s get up to the crossroads, and make sure it’s still clear.”

***

They passed a blue highway sign that read 356 km to Rafha. Rafha was halfway to where they could turn north into Kuwait. Comms were still unreliable. Coleman insisted that it was electromagnetic interference from the huge aurora, which seemed plausible. The other alternative was magic, which was scary. Lieutenant Random’s ROTELO said he’d managed to radio their location in to command in Kuwait, but the reply was too garbled to make much sense of. Coleman hadn’t managed that much, but he had placed a sat phone call to 29 Palms in California. He said he’d left a message.

They were making good time. The crusaders on their horses were keeping up, though they were occasionally passed by panicky-looking Saudis in Mercedes SUVs. Lord knows what they thought of their little joint operation. Lewis imagined that most of the people were using the highways heading south, away from the imminent invasion. At least, that’s what I would do, he thought.

“Dragon!” Evans shouted. Private Chen slewed the humvee to a stop. All eyes looked up, but Lewis couldn’t spot anything. Evans pointed north, and following his finger, Lewis saw a tiny glint of metallic red off in the distance. “How far?” he asked.

“Hard to say. I don’t know exactly how big it is. At least three miles.”

“There’s no way it doesn’t see us.”

Evans pulled out his spotting scope, and trained it on the dragon. “He’s coasting. He’s headed east, not moving fast.”

“That dragon comes after us, sir, we’re toast. It’s wide open here, no cover.”

“Then there’s no point in stopping, he can light us up regardless of whether we’re moving or not. We stay, we get lit up and eventually the goblins come up from behind and corncob us.”

“Sir, I think it’s looking for something. It’s heading east, but flying left and right of the base course.”

“Keep an eye on it, Evans. Chen, get us moving,” Lewis ordered. The column staggered back into motion.

***

“Captain, we’re getting something on the radio again,” Coleman said. They were halted for the night, the second day out of Arar. They’d covered almost 250 miles since the border and only lost three humvees and one horse. Lewis was staggered at the pace the crusader’s horses were keeping, but they looked as fresh as they did when he first saw them. Nathan Bedford Forrest would have been green with envy.

He’d asked the Prince about it. Whenever the discussions veered into weirdness, things started getting garbled. ‘Magic’ and ‘horseshoes’ were two words that kept recurring. “Why the fuck not?” Pethoukis had asked. It was as good an explanation as any, and hell, whatever works. Hell, hide bound as the Army was, they’d probably still have horses if only they had magic horseshoes.

Lewis looked out at the desert, east toward Rafha. He and the Prince had decided to stop short of the small city, and hit it tomorrow morning. They’d gotten more confused reports from some of the motorists that had passed. Two of the contenders for the throne had been assassinated, or killed in battle. Or maybe just injured, or lost in a whorehouse. The situation in Saudi was clearly deteriorating, and he didn’t know what to expect on entering a relatively major urban area fully armed and with a medieval army in tow.

“Tell me.”

“Sir, it looks like there’s an army unit coming up the highway from Hafar Al-Batin. It’s all chopped up, we’re still getting lots of interference on the radio. But I think it’s the 116th Cav.”

“That could be helpful.”

“They’re also reporting enemy forces moving south toward Rafha across the desert.”

“That is less than helpful.”

***

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