Lewis stepped out of the Humvee by the depot they had set up in the area between the hills that the Americans had defended in the battle the day before. The air was quiet, mostly; free from the clash of arms and the explosions that had rocked this lonely pile of sand just hours before. The early morning sun was a hand’s width above the horizon and spreading a rose-colored glow over the sand. The day was quickly warming up.
Lieutenant Burke saw the captain and walked over.
“Captain, we’ve got a problem,” Burke said.
“And that is?” Lewis said. He didn’t stop staring to the East.
“Our scroungers got back from Rafha. They managed to find a handful of camel trailers.”
“This is bad news how?” Lewis asked.
“It’s enough horse transport to be significant, but nowhere near enough to move all of the Crusader’s horses. They’ve got well north of a thousand – cargo horses, war horses, riding horses, spare horses; shit, probably spare horses for the spare horses. We’ve got room enough to move maybe fifty.”
“I see. Shit, I’ll have to raise the issue with the Prince again. How much did they steal for regular hauling?”
“Fair bit, some panel trucks and one semi rig. Enough to load a shit-ton of loot, anyway. I’ve got a couple men in my platoon can drive the big rig; most anyone can drive the U-Hauls.”
“Well that’s good news, anyway. Where are they?”
“The new trucks are already here, and the Prince’s minions are loading them now. All of the trucks we had from before are full to the top, some with shit loaded on top. Thank god the armor’s light or they’d be sinking into the sand. Oh, and Brogan’s promised more trucks, too.”
Reservists from the Snake River Brigade worked alongside the drovers and laborers of the Embassy’s baggage train to load the trucks with armor, weapons, and gold taken from the bodies of the dead. Lewis didn’t envy them their work. It was a dirty job to salvage weapons and armor from the dead. Much of the armor was ruined; especially almost anything hit by explosives or a tank canister round. The casualties inflicted by the crusaders yielded more useable armor, and with all the dead, though, Brogan and Lewis hoped to glean enough to outfit a brigade of American infantry.
Father Pietr walked over from where he had been providing translation services.
“Good morning, Captain.”
“Any morning you wake up to is a good morning, Father. But I’ve had worse.” Lewis smiled, slightly. He’d gotten a few hours of sleep, but he hurt, and he knew he’d hurt even more tomorrow. He put his hand on his sword hilt. His sword had kept him alive. He could barely believe what he had done, and the strangeness of the thing made it even harder to credit. His memories of the day were still confused; black, white and disjointed.
His sword had wrung him dry doing it, too, he thought. His aches had aches and today he moved like an old man. “Not many of those, though.”
“You should let Father John tend to you. You are not least among your men, and have just as much need of healing as they,” the Father said, gently, as he laid a hand on Lewis’ shoulder.
“There’s plenty who need his help more than me. I can wait at the end of the line.”
“As you will, then. The Prince is waiting, and Colonel Brogan has just arrived. Come, come.”
Lewis followed the scholar-priest through the piles of gear waiting to be loaded. Most of it was still splattered with blood and covered with dust. Prince Raimond leaned casually against the hood of one of Lewis’ Humvees, wearing his golden armor. His helmet he’d set on the hood of the truck as he spoke with one of his knights. The Prince clapped him on the shoulder and laughed loudly, and the knight hurried off to accomplish whatever task the Prince had given him.
“Thomas! Dragon-slayer! God grant you ease! Have you rested well?”
“As well as could be expected, sir. I’m… a little sore.”
“As might be expected, you danced with a dragon last night!” For once, the Prince didn’t smack him in the shoulder. Thank God for small mercies, Lewis thought, and smiled.
Colonel Brogan walked over along with some of his officers. After a brief round of introductions, the Prince asked, “What news, then?”
Brogan looked to Lewis, who began, “Your Highness, we’ve obtained some horse trailers.”
“This again? You have obtained transport for all of our beasts of burden, our warhorses?”
“No, just enough for about fifty. We could load up the warhorses for a handful of lances, and put everyone else in trucks. It’d be a tight fit, but we could probably get everyone mobile. It’s 325 miles to Kuwait City, and we could be there tonight.”
“And what if we happen upon more unpleasantness… as we did yesterday? What then, Thomas? With all my men dismounted, we would not be able to protect you so well. And unless I am much mistaken, Colonel Brogan’s brigade will not be able to make that sort of speed – not in their thousands.”
Lewis grimaced. That was certainly true, there’s no way that a unit that large could maintain that sort of speed. His reduced, much reduced, company probably could…
“We could take some… speed ahead. Your baggage train and the bulk of your fighting men could travel with the 116th.”
“Thomas, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I will not split up the embassy on contested ground.” He turned to Colonel Brogan, “Not that I distrust the abilities of your men, Colonel, but I will not relinquish the responsibilities that have been placed upon me.”
Lewis sighed. “I had to make the pitch.”
The Prince smiled broadly. “You hold your duties as dear as I, Thomas. I will consent to this, though. If we have sufficient space on your trucks,” he nodded at the semi being loaded, “Then we will load our baggage on them, and the drovers and servants can ride along with their stores.
“And those among the embassy that are least able to ride fast and hard – we will load their horses on your wagons, and they may ride as well. With this, we should be able to move at a more warlike pace.
Brogan took his turn to speak. “Your highness, I think that’s going to be necessary. Since late yesterday, most of the interference that had kept us out of communication with our command in Kuwait has gone. We have more news. Leading elements of the enemy are now in contact with our 2nd Infantry north of Basrah. We are hearing that air assets still in theater are being ground down at a frightening rate.
“We’ll have to hurry if we want to find Kuwait still in American hands when we get there. We can always push down the coast to Bahrain or Qatar, if, God forbid, Kuwait falls before we get there – but that is plan b, and I’d much rather go with plan a.
“I won’t be surprised if we run into fast-moving enemy units scouting ahead of the main body. If they have half the juice these ones had,” he waved his hand at the battlefield around them, “Then we’d surely like to have you along.”
Made a convert there, Lewis thought. He pulled a map out and laid it on the hood of the humvee. “Let’s map out the route, then…”
A little before noon, the sun beat down on the convoy as it turned east onto Highway 85. Coleman drove the lead humvee; Evans sat beside him calmly observing the desert around them as they bounced up onto the paved surface of the highway.
Brogan’s reconnaissance squadron was already gone from sight, scouting ahead to warn of any danger on their path. Kimball drove another of Lewis’ Humvees with them carrying Father John and Father Pietr; to deal with any supernatural threats, should such arise. Half the Prince’s cavalry trotted down the pavement at a distance-eating trot. For a horse, anyway.
Coleman looked in the mirror as, one by one, the vehicles of Lewis’ company turned onto the highway. It was a slow process, because no one was going more than 15 mph, the maximum sustained speed of the Prince’s horses. Some of the company had been a little upset at the horses that had been released in the desert, but it couldn’t be helped. And the crusaders were a little more ruthless in that regard. Hard to think on the horses just abandoned in the desert. I think they were more upset about the cost than anything, not that they’d be intentionally cruel, Coleman thought. It was just a necessary thing, and they didn’t seem to be making a big deal of it. Father Pietr had said, “They are wise, in their way. They will fend for themselves.” So Coleman let it go.
From the highway he couldn’t see the 116th, which had queued up behind the company. That was a long-ass run of vehicles. One combined arms battalion up front, then the support pukes and the fires battalion, then the crusader baggage train, then the other half of the horse cav and finally the other combined arms battalion playing tail-end charlie.
Coleman said, “You think we’re gonna make it? In time, I mean?”
Evans pondered the question for a while, then smiled. “Hope so. My dad’s gonna choke on his fucking beer he finds out I’m a fucking knight.”
“Shit, my mom… Her head will explode. She read Lord of the Rings to me when I was a kid.”
“Explains a lot.”
“Your family’s mostly in Alabama, right?” Coleman asked.
“Far enough from the Veil for now, yeah. For now. Chicago, New York, Washington… Boston’s holding out, I heard. But they were farther away. The whole middle of the country is fucking gone. Fuck, dude, the goblins are camping on the Mall in DC. How do you come back from that?”
Coleman, surprised by Evans’ sudden talkativeness, was silent. “The Athenians lost Athens to the Persians, and they came back and won.”
“Name another one.”
“Uh… nothing comes to mind.”
On the morning of the third day after the battle, the empty area between the Umm Gudair and Burgan Oil Fields in Kuwait was, well, empty. Lewis stared into the flat sand under hazy skies. To the north there were American military aircraft. Helicopters, mostly, though he saw some cargo planes inbound. Behind him, off several miles to the south, the Kuwaiti air base was busy too. It was probably not a good sign that most of the departing aircraft were heading south.
They hadn’t seen any sign of the enemy since they left Rafha. So close, finally, to their destination he allowed himself to relax for a moment on the back deck of one of his MRAPs. The Prince lounged across from him, helmet off and looking like a movie star on break. Damn him and damn his charisma, he thought, and smiled.
Father Pietr sat more primly, his robes wrapped around him and reading his kindle. He thumbed the page turn button with frightening speed. “What are you reading, Father?”
“The Federalist Papers. I am trying to learn more of your country, Captain. This Publius is an excellent rhetorician, but his thinking is clouded by deep confusion on the nature of sovereignty. This may be because of his heretical beliefs regarding the Church. Still, I will hear him out.”
Lewis boggled at that for a moment, but before he could reply Coleman poked his head through the rear door. “Captain, some of the recon people are coming back.”
“Let’s hold up then.”
The vehicle slowed to a stop, and Lewis dismounted and stretched. Three days on, he almost felt human again, though the aches in his arms made it difficult to move. He walked to the head of the column where two of the 116th’s recon squadron Humvees had just come to a halt.
Colonel Brogan and his XO, Lieutenant Colonel Patterson, dismounted and jogged over to meet Lewis. Brogan glanced over Lewis’ shoulder. “Your Highness, Captain. We’ve got some news. Patterson spent the last two days driving all over hell and creation trying to find someone to talk to. This morning, he succeeded. Dave?”
Patterson was thin, almost anorexic; he looked like he had the Army’s running disease. His voice sounded tired and frustrated as he reported, “The city’s a clusterfuck. The Royal Family bugged out last night and we’re trying to keep order in what’s left, at least until we leave. We’ve seized all the major port facilities and the Navy has gone pirate. I swear they’ve commandeered every large cargo ship, passenger ship and oil tanker in the gulf.
“The flow of smaller units trickling in from Iraq has just about stopped. Anyone who could outrun the invaders pretty much has. The only major force still in Iraq is the 2nd ID, with several supporting brigades. They’re playing Horatio at the bridge.
“Everything else is being shoved onto on ships and put to sea fast as they’re loaded. Two RORO ships are set aside for the men and equipment of the 2nd when they come in. Right now, the 116th is officially assigned to the USNS Pililaau and we’re to head straight for the port and drive right on to the boat.
“As for you, well, high priority cargo is being sent out by air, and the Fairy Godmother department waved its wand and you are now high priority cargo. Europe’s done, and the air assets that’d been trying to evac the 1st armored from Germany have been redirected here.
‘It took me forever to find someone high enough at State to talk to. And his head about exploded once I found him and convinced him it was all real. He talked to CENTCOM and General Carter. Together, we managed to convince the General we weren’t on crack or insane, or both. “Carter wanted you to go to Ali Al Salem air base. When I told him the route you were taking he about lost it, but seeing as how Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base is nearly empty now that the entire Kuwaiti Air Force bugged out, you’re to go there.
“You’ll be met by General Carter and ‘Suitable Transport Aircraft’. And yes, I did tell him about all the fucking horses.”
It was most of an hour sorting out the crusader Embassy from the middle of the 116th. The Snake River Brigade sped off down the highway, eager to make their ship and head home. Most of the soldiers and airmen that they’d freed from the border internment camp went with them. Kimball, Paine and Vance stayed.
Lewis had asked him why. “It’s a faster ride home. No one said otherwise.” He’d shrugged and smiled, “And you make fascinating travel companions.” Now he and his men were moving ahead themselves, reconnoitering the route ahead to the Kuwait Air Base.
The long train of horse lurched into motion, urged on by shouts and spurs. Lewis’ command had shrunk again. He now had closer to fifty than a hundred Marines, spread out through over a dozen of cargo trucks besides the Humvees and MRAPs.
Twelve miles to the air base. About an hour or so, or not much more. At least they wouldn’t have to fight through the chaos of the city and the port.
They could see the oil fields off in the distance as they turned into the gates of the Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base. A USAF airman at the gate waved them through, told them to proceed up to the flight line past all the low slung, dusty buildings clustered just inside the gate.
“He’s going to flip when the crusaders ride through,” Coleman said.
“Well that’s his job, ain’t it?” Evans replied.
Half a mile on, another airman waved them to the left and they followed a path of flag-waving Air Force enlisted will-o-wisps up to the runways. There, they were directed to a line of hangars that were little more than roofs, open on all sides and lying parallel to the main runway. Coleman drove the MRAP up a ways, and finally parked in the shade under the last of the hangar bays.
Lewis and Coleman worked their way to the back of the vehicle, Lewis shouting, “Make a hole!” as he went, forcing a path through the Marines sitting on the benches there. By the time he dismounted, several airmen had gathered, along with a Marine one-star and a couple orbiting Majors. Lewis saluted. The General returned the salute, and said, “Captain Lewis?”
“General Carter. These are Majors Kneelan and Crooke. Lt. Col. Patterson went to great lengths to convince me to meet you here. Am I wasting my time?”
“Good. The video Patterson showed me was impressive as fuck. I am led to believe that you have a thousand people from another world, like starship troopers but with swords; and they want to be our friends. Does that capture the situation?”
“Yes, sir. We have an embassy from a kingdom founded by crusaders from our world who stumbled over the veil 800 years ago. Prince Raimond is the heir to the throne, and he is accompanied by representatives of their government and clergy.
“I can testify to the powered armor, sir. I’m wearing a suit of it right now, though it’s the baby training wheels version. We wouldn’t have made it back without them, and neither would the 116th.”
“And you, personally, killed a dragon?”
“Aah, yes, sir I did.”
The general shed his grim expression and clapped Lewis on the shoulder. “Outstanding! Fucking army and air force together haven’t managed that yet, the thumb-fingered bastards.
“Dragon-slayer! I will fucking buy you a truckload of beer when we get back to the states. This is a story I want to hear.”
“Now, let’s get this shit sorted. I was Deputy Commander Marine Forces Central Command when all this shit exploded. We knew that we had to pull out of this shithole right fucking quick and get our people back stateside. CENTCOM as a workable tool of US policy is fucking done.
“The US Marine Corps is out of the business of anything but killing every fucking alien on US soil. I’ve collected as many of our people as I could, and shipped most of them out by sea. I tell you it is a fucking grade-a miracle we’re shipping as many home as we are. As it is, you are some of the last of my lost children to make it in.
“In about five minutes, three C5s and a Kuwait Airways 747 that we found by the side of the road are going to land here. Captain, I don’t imagine you realize how many babies and virgins I sacrificed to make this happen. This is the deal. We don’t have enough room for everyone, or everything. Each of the C5’s can carry 73 passengers on the upper deck. The 747 is set up to carry nearly 600. We’ve got seats for 800.
“A C5 can carry a shit-ton of cargo, but horses aren’t something Air Force loadmasters normally deal with. The one I talked to thinks he can safely put maybe 50 horses on one, along with some cargo. Your men will ride in one C5, with the cargo hold stuffed to the gills with all the shit you stole. Anything left over goes in the second C5, along with the embassy baggage. The third will carry those 50 warhorses.
“If we cram people into the aisles and on top of baggage, we can get all the people and all the gear out of here and aimed for home. Everything that doesn’t fit on a plane gets left behind.”
Lewis opened his mouth to speak, but the general beat him to the punch. “Before you start, Patterson told me about how your crusaders feel about the fucking horses. I can offer them this: the rest of the horses, men to care for them, and a security detail can be given a place on a ship. We’ll assign Arab or Latin speakers to serve as liaison. They’ll have three squares a day and a comfortable, month-long cruise back to the states.
“For what it’s worth, we have no reports of any ships out of view of land being attacked. Probably as safe as can be managed, and it would be that many fewer people to fit on the planes.”
“I’ll put it to the Prince, sir. I don’t see how he can argue this time,” Lewis said. “One big question though, sir. Where are we going?”
“Atlanta. That’s where the President is. The one we listen to, anyway.”
“How out of date are you?” the General asked.
“We’ve only gotten bits and pieces of news, we’ve been on the run for a week. Brogan told us what happened in Iraq,” Lewis replied.
General Carter glanced up at the sky. “Dragon took out the White House and the President early on day one. Most of the cabinet was in the room with him. The Veep was in Germany, he’s presumed dead. The Speaker of the house was in Chicago, he died when the city got sacked on day two. President of the Senate died in a plane crash. The SecDef was in Texas, and he’s alive. But because of the timing, the Deputy SecState is claiming that he was the next in line.”
“If State died, and Defense is still standing, Defense’d be next in line, right?”
“Yes, and that’s what he says. But the original SecState died with the President. So, President, Vice President, Speaker, President of the Senate, and so when they’re all dead the next in line is the acting Sec State. Or so he argues.”
The General shook his head. “It’s fucked up beyond all measure. The Deputy Secretary is in Denver. Most of the Federal government that survived the sack of Washington is making its way to Atlanta. Not there’s much of that. And that’s where you are going.”
“Oh, and Europe is pretty much gone and the Chinese are lighting up nukes like it’s the fucking Fourth of July.”
The last of the C5s left the runway and climbed slowly into the sky. Most of his men were on it. It had been a fucking nightmare getting the warhorses loaded; the intemperate beasts didn’t like the metal floors, the smells, or the Air Force. But load them they did, along with the truckloads of armor and weapons and all the embassy’s baggage.
The rest of the warhorses and a select few of the nobility’s riding horses were headed to the port escorted by a large contingent of Air Force MPs. A detachment of the Prince’s lancers and servants to care for horses on the long voyage rode along with them. They’d be heading around the horn; using the Suez Canal not being a terrifically good idea at the moment. The draft horses and the rest were turned loose south of the air base.
Loading the embassy had been another trial. Hand-holding and a public blessing of the plane by the Metropolitan would last roughly until the first patch of turbulence, Lewis figured. The sight of all that technology reassured him, though. The last of the embassy passed through the door with a nervous look to the sky, and it was his turn.
Lewis walked up the mobile stairs to the forward passenger door of the 747 in Kuwaiti Air livery. At the insistence of the Prince, he had a first class ticket back to the states.
Into god knows what.
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