Chapter 28: River Crossing

The next morning at dawn cavalry units accompanied two fresh pairs of scouts up and down the river. The scouts and units were to return before evening. Again radio silence was to be maintained at all costs. Night descended, not much different from the day, but neither the scouts nor the cavalry units returned.

The morning after, the field commander divided the infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, observational balloons, and logistics units into two equal groups, each with its own group commander. Each would move in opposite directions up and down the river bank until they found a point where the river could be crossed. Both groups would use encrypted radio signals to communicate with each other. The two groups would meet up on the other side, possibly organizing a pincer movement around the Rat enemy although they had no idea where the Rats were. The upriver group slogged its way around the bend and soon was out of sight of the downriver group, which moved slowly downstream.

The upriver group marched three days before they found a point apparently shallow enough to ford the river. The scouts and cavalry units were never found. There were rumors that they had been beheaded or skinned alive and left hanging upside down from a tree. The rumors served to increase their hatred of the Rats and their resolve to massacre every last one of them. No mercy would be shown. Among many of the soldiers, however, the rumors served to make them afraid and to wonder whether this military campaign was really worth sacrificing their lives. The upriver group commander called the downriver commander over the STU. The downriver commander had not reached a point where the river could be safely crossed but was optimistic that it was only a matter of time until they found it. They had not found any sign of the scouts or cavalry units sent downstream. He feared the worst had happened. His men were itching to kill the Rats with their bare hands.

The upriver commander, being senior in command, decided to cross the river without waiting for the downriver commander’s group to cross. He ordered some men to wade across the treacherous rapids with heavy coils of rope slung over each shoulder and shot-blasters held high above their heads. The rope coils were tied around thick trees and boulders growing stubbornly from the river bank. The stones below the white water were sharp as axe blades and provided slippery footing at best. The lead man slipped and hit his head, opening a bloody gash across his cheekbone. The second man caught him by the collar but lost his shot-blaster downstream while scrambling to maintain his footing. He waited for the third soldier to reach him and together they dragged the unconscious soldier to the other side. They laid the soldier on the sandy beach of the far bank and looped the ropes around gnarled tree trunks. One of the soldiers carried the excess rope back across the river to the near side. The ends of the rope were tied so that a long low hanging loop of rope crossed over the river. A hundred or so men tied themselves to the ropes overhanging the river and waded across with their weapons aimed at the forested hill tops on the far side. They reached the other side and established a beach head facing their weapons inland, the direction from which they thought the Rat attackers would come. The remaining soldiers built several rough-hewn rafts and thick staves to pull the carts, animals, and heavy equipment across, while trying to brake the strong downstream currents. The sun seemed to break through the thick roiling clouds hiding the treetops on the cliffs surrounding the beach they had secured. Some of the men were heartened to see a keyhole of golden sunlight, the first rays in more than a week, what with all the dismal weather they had slogged through. Some men wondered how in God’s own hell were they going to scale those cliffs. Small but sturdy piers were built under the ropes on either side of the river. An empty raft was tethered to the rope and to the pier and pushed, sliding into the water. The first drac and cart were driven reluctantly onto the unstable raft. The drac snorted and brayed, swaying his head and neck left and right, and nearly charging off the edge of the raft. The cart held a heavy cannon battened down for the river crossing. The rope to the pier was released and one soldier pulled the raft via the loop rope while another soldier planted the stave into the riverbed to keep the raft from flowing downstream.

When the raft was halfway across the river, a lightning bolt ripped through the grey sky and blasted the thick tree to splinters, around which the crossing rope was looped. The looped rope catapulted uselessly into the air and the raft capsized, drac, cart, soldiers, and cannon. The rope held onto the raft as it swung along the radius downstream of the tree trunk on the far side of the river, that is, until a second lightning bolt blasted the tree trunk into splinters. The capsized raft, now released from any and all commitments, flowed downstream until it broke up on one of the sharp rocks jutting up from the riverbed.

The upriver group commander was undaunted by the singular bad luck he had witnessed with his own eyes. He would not be deterred and resolved to cross the river again but the grey light was waning and soon the night would render it virtually impossible to cross the river. He called his men across the river to make camp as best they could for the night and the logistics units would bring provisions to them in the morning. He watched with his monocular the camp fires sputtering across the river. His own men made camp and settled in for the night. He ordered two standing guards and two roving guards to patrol the perimeter. He gave the same orders to the unit commander on the far side of the river.

At the crack of dawn, the commander scanned the far side with his monocular but saw only the grey mists. He called the unit commander on the STU but only a dead silence issued from the earphone. He called the downriver group commander for position and status. The downriver commander reported they were about to break camp and continue downstream looking for a safe place to cross the river. The upriver commander told him about the two lightning bolts and the lost cannon, cart, and drac. He had an eerie feeling about those lightning bolts but he did not mention it to the other commander.

The upriver commander slipped the STU into his backpack. He ordered some soldiers to tie a new rope around one of the other thick trees on the near bank of the river and some other soldiers to tie the other end of the rope around their waists. The first group of soldiers fed the rope out slowly as the second group waded into the river with their weapons trained on the cliff tops. The men in the river moved slowly, trying to maintain their footing in the rapids. They disappeared into the mists. After twenty agonizing minutes, the commander heard his STU bleeping gratefully. “Sir, we reached the far bank of the river,” the voice reported, “but we don’t see any of our guys. There’s no tracks in the sand or mud either.” “Keep looking!” the commander ordered. “There’s gotta be something left behind, a cigarette stub, a food bar wrapper, a smoking pile of dung, something…” “We’re looking again sir,” the voice crackled with static, “but we’re not finding anything.” The commander ordered the men on the other side of the river to stop searching and to secure the perimeter immediately. He told them to call him every ten minutes to update their status whether or not there was anything to report.

Two men looped the rope around another tree. One of the men waded back across the river with the excess rope.

After the rope loop was hanging across the river, another raft was shoved through the mud and sand down to the river side beside the pier. A drac and cart were driven onto the raft. The drac roared fire and the raft nearly capsized. The cannon was carefully lifted into the cart and tied down. The raft inched across the strong shallow currents with one soldier pulling the loop rope and the other staving off the pull of the downstream. The raft reached the middle of the river with great difficulty and then a single lightning bolt split into two tines slamming into both trees on either side of the river, replacing them with ash and smoke. The rope flew upward in a diabolic smile of flame. The raft flowed sideways downriver until it hit a half-submerged tree and the cart, cannon, and drac upended over the side of the raft and splashed under the grey water. The men were shot off the raft into the water as it flipped over. During the excitement of this rolling disaster, the commander had forgotten that he had not heard from his men on the other side of the river for more than ten minutes. He called the voice he’d talked to earlier that morning, but there was no response.

The downriver group continued to move forward, keeping the river to their left. Around every bend, the river seemed to widen until the opposite bank was lost in the undifferentiated grey mists. Just before nightfall at the end of each long march, the group stopped to set up camp and draw up lists for guard and patrol duty. The commander called the upriver commander every hour from sunset to sunrise to give and receive status updates. The downriver commander was appalled to hear of the losses in men and material. He was even more appalled to hear about the lightning bolts. He had to consider that the Rats had succeeded in weaponizing lightning.

The next morning the downriver group broke camp and set out on another long slog. You couldn’t really march in mud up to your knees. They slogged parallel to the river looking over to the other bank as it receded into the distance. Everyone suspected the uselessness of the effort and that the river would probably become a lake before it became a creek.

The rain turned to hail, which turned to rain again, and then to hail again. The soldiers turned indifferent to the weather. The rain softened and beat down on the cloth protecting their backs and shoulders, so that the hail hurt even more against their wet skins. Their minds were elsewhere, in warm dry local pubs or in warm dry beds. The grey afternoon darkened into evening as the soldiers rounded a bend and entered a boulder strewn inlet. They set up camp for the night, sipped cold soup from crusted cups, and cursed their downriver commander more than the Rats.

It seemed an endless senseless cycle of night and morning, dreaming and waking. Some men had been feverish for several days and they moved in and out of hallucinations, effortlessly, passively. One soldier fainted headlong into the mud. His comrades lifted him up, barely conscious, supporting him with their shoulders under his armpits, carrying his backpack or shot-blaster along with their own.

The fog moved in low covering the muddy ground, the sandy bank, and the river itself. The soldiers’ feet trudged along blindly, not knowing where to step. One man stumbled sideways into the river.

The rain poured down straight from the low clouds in thick globules, beating away the low lying fog until once again the feet knew where to step. Grey morning slipped unnoticed into grey afternoon and afternoon into greyer evening. The last light began to fade from the rain. They stopped to set up camp. Lists were drawn up for guard and patrol duty.

 

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under Prose, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Stories and Novels

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