"Y'ARE GETTIN' WISE WITH ME!" the sergeant roared. "I'll take care of ya later." He thrust Wims into the pit with the machine gun. "Now stay there on that gun 'til I get back. I'm goin' ta find the lieutenant."
Wims squatted behind the gun, squinting experimentally through the sights and swinging the barrel to and fro.
The sergeant returned shortly with the lieutenant. "That's him," he said, pointing to Wims.
The lieutenant glanced at the green bar. "Are you sure you got that message straight?"
Wims looked at the menacing sergeant. "Yes, suh," he said, swallowing.
"Somebody is crazy," the lieutenant muttered. "Sergeant, tell Lieutenant Haas to cover my platoon. I'm going back to the CP to see Captain Blair about this message. I'll try to be back before the attack starts to either confirm or cancel the order, but, if not, Haas is to hold his fire until he spots the white flare, or the Blues are right on top of us; whichever happens first."
The lieutenant hustled up the hill and the sergeant went off to find Lieutenant Haas, leaving Wims alone with the machine gun and the still unconscious gunner. The distant machine-gun firing had stopped and the white smoke of a screen laid down by the Blue attackers started scudding thickly across the face of the hill, hiding them as they charged.
"Pickets are back," the sergeant yelled at Lieutenant Haas. "The Blues've crossed the road an' are in the gully at the bottom of the hill."
"How the devil can I possibly see a signal flare through these trees and all this smoke?" Haas muttered to the sergeant. "I think we've got a first-class snafu. Let's go check the machine-gun position; if it's still there."
A whistle sounded and the Blue company surged up out of the ditch and swarmed up the hill. As had been ordered, not a defending shot had yet been fired. Wims opened the breech of the machine gun to see if the ammunition belt was properly engaged. He had a difficult time forcing it open and when he succeeded he found the webbing twisted and a couple of cartridges jammed in at impossible angles. As he was trying to clear it, the unconscious gunner revived, glanced at the advancing Blues and made for the gun which Wims had already commenced to take apart.
"Whaddaya doin'?" the gunner yelled. He pushed Wims aside, causing him to release his hold on the powerful spring. The bolt shot out of the back of the gun and struck the approaching Lieutenant Haas above the left ear just as he was opening his mouth to give the order to return fire. He fell to the ground with the command unspoken and the sergeant knelt to his aid. At the same moment Wims recognized some members of his platoon charging up the hill and realized for the first time he was behind enemy lines. In sheer embarrassment he slunk away, hoping none of his comrades would notice.
The lieutenant who had gone to confirm Wims' message now came running down the hill shouting at his men to return fire. He had his captain with a lieutenant aide in tow and when they reached the machine-gun nest and the fallen Haas the lieutenant looked for Wims.
"I tell you he was here," the lieutenant said. "The gunner and the sergeant can bear me out."
"And I tell you," the captain said excitedly, "I did not issue any such bird-brained order."
A lieutenant referee tapped the captain on the shoulder. "Sir, would you gentlemen please leave the field," he said, indicating the lieutenant, the captain and his aide, the sergeant, the gunner and the unconscious Haas. "You are all dead."
The captain looked around to discover that their little group was the target of the blank fire of several advancing Blue infantrymen. "But we're trying to straighten out a mix-up here," the captain protested.
"I'm sorry, sir, but you're all standing here gossiping in the middle of a battle. Theoretically you are all Swiss cheese. Please leave the area."
"We WON'T leave the area!" the captain shouted. "I'm trying to tell you we wouldn't be dead if some idiot hadn't gotten in here and bollixed up this training exercise and--"
"... It was a brilliant demonstration of infiltration and diversionary tactics by Dolliver Wims," said General Fyfe, striding forward.
The captain rolled his eyes heavenward in supplication before turning to face the general. "Sir," he inquired acidly, "What are dolliver wims?"
"Private Wims is the embodiment of the initiative and resourcefulness we are trying to inculcate in all our soldiers. I observed the entire operation and he has demonstrated a great potential for leadership." Fyfe hesitated and for a moment a shadow of repugnance darkened his features as if, for purposes of camouflage, he were about to perform the necessary but distasteful task of smearing mud over his crisp, shining uniform. "I am recommending Private Wims for a battlefield commission."
"A battlefield commission during a training exercise?" the captain screeched incredulously.
Fyfe looked at him severely. "Captain, if you are unable to communicate except in those high tones, I would suggest a visit to the base hospital for some hormones." The general paused and looked around. "It seems, captain, you've lost the hill." He glanced at his watch. "And in record time, too."
"Sir," the captain said, "I won't accept that. This is a limited training exercise conducted without benefit of full communications, weapons or elaborate tactics. Blue company had no right to send a man behind our lines to--"
"Captain," Fyfe said with annoyance, "you are the most argumentative corpse I have ever encountered. I'm leaving now to get that recommendation off to Washington. In the meantime, have someone tell Captain Aronsen to see that Wims is not assassinated before we get him his lieutenancy."
Lieutenant Wims unfolded out of the jeep into the jungle mud. The driver pointed to a cluster of tents sagging under the weight of the streaming rain. "You'll find Major Hecker in there."
"Thanks fer the ride," Wims said as he wrestled his gear out of the jeep. He located the headquarters tent and an orderly brought him in to the major. "Lieutenant Dolliver Wims reportin' fer dooty, suh," the saluting Wims said crisply.
Major Hecker's hand slid wearily to the vicinity of his fatigued and unshaven face in return salute. "Welcome, lieutenant, to Hlangtan, Burma's foremost nothing." Wims handed his orders to the major who said as he accepted them, "You'll be taking the third platoon of A company. They lost their lieutenant two days ago." The major glanced at the orders and exploded. "What do they mean, 'attached to your command as an observer'? I need a platoon leader! What are you supposed to observe?"
Wims shifted uneasily. "Ah cain't rightly say, suh." The truth of the matter was that Wims didn't really know. His commission had been virtually thrown at him. In Washington he had been vaguely briefed that he was to be sent to the front in Burma on a mission of the utmost importance and not to breathe a word to anyone. It was only when he alighted from the plane in Rangoon that he fully realized that actually no one had breathed a word to him about what exactly he was to do. His orders merely stated that he was to get as close to the enemy as possible and observe.
The major regarded him nastily. "What's that insignia you're wearing? They look like question marks."
"Ah guess they do," Wims replied unhappily.
"Well are they?" the major inquired with a soft shout.
"Ah guess they are, suh."
"You guess!" The major now regarded him with open animosity. "And I suppose you don't know what they stand for."
"Well, suh, Ah tried to find out but somehow Ah couldn't get a straight ansuh."
"O.K., O.K., Lieutenant Cloak and Dagger, but if you don't want questions why wear the things? If the Commies know you're a special and catch you--"
"But Ah'm not no special nuthin'. Ah'm jus'--"
"Yeah, sure." The major poked a grimy finger at the paper before him and grinned almost savagely. "It says here you're to operate with our most forward units. That's just fine. I've got a patrol going out tonight. They will take you close enough to sit in their ever-lovin' yellow laps."
As Wims was leaving the major suddenly called after him. "Say, lieutenant, since you're some kind of special agent you probably have an 'in' at the Pentagon. Will you pass the word that I need a looey replacement? One that doesn't wear punctuation marks."
The patrol had not been out twenty minutes before it fearfully decided it had better ditch this boy lieutenant who, with each step, sounded as if he were setting off a room full of mousetraps. At a whispered signal from the sergeant in command, the patrol slid noiselessly off the trail and dropped to the ground as the groping Wims went clattering by in the darkness. Within the hour Wims tripped over a Chinese patrol that lay cowering in the ferns as it listened apprehensively to what it thought was an approaching enemy battalion.
The next several days were confusing ones for Wims. With little food or sleep he was hustled from place to place and endlessly questioned by officers of increasing rank. He was passed up to the divisional level where he was briefly interrogated by a Russian officer-advisor to the Chinese headquarters. There seemed to be some disagreement between the Russian and Chinese officers concerning Wims and they were almost shouting when he was pulled from the room and thrown back into his cell.
In the chill, early hours of the following morning he was yanked out of an embarrassing nightmare where he dreamed he went to a hoedown in his briefs. He was squeezed between two furtive men into a shade-drawn limousine with unillumined headlamps and after a frenzied ride the vehicle screeched to a halt. He heard a roaring and in the darkness he was dimly aware that he was being shoved into an airplane. After that he was certain of nothing as he plunged gratefully back into sleep.
Wims was back at the hoedown only this time without even his briefs. And all the interrogators had stopped dancing and were circled around him, glaring and demanding to know what he was hiding. As they closed in upon him he was snatched from the dream by two guards who prodded him out of his cell, down a bleak corridor and into a large room. The windows were hidden by drawn, dark-green shades and two low-hanging, unshaded electric-light bulbs provided a harsh illumination. The chamber was sparsely furnished with a splintered desk, several battered chairs and half a dozen Russian MVD officers.
A man, so thick and heavy in appearance and movement that he was obviously a concrete abutment come to life, stepped up to Wims. The man's stony visage cracked in a slow, cold smile as he rumbled in English, "Welcome to Moscow, Lieutenant Dolliver Wims. I am Colonel Sergei Bushmilov. I am your friend." The word "friend" sounded rather squeaky as if it had not been used in years and needed oiling.
Wims glanced around the room. These people were like unshielded reactors throwing off hard radiations of hostility. "Ah sure could use a friend," he said with utmost fervency.
"Good!" said Bushmilov. "There are some things I wish to know and you are going to tell to me because we are friends."
"Ah kin only give you mah name, rank an' serial number, suh." Wims saw the colonel's face harden and his fist clench. Just then a burst of angry shouting and scuffling erupted in the corridor. Suddenly the door was flung open and half a dozen Chinese stormed into the room trailing a couple of protesting Russian guards. Two of the Chinese were civilian attaches from the embassy and the remainder were uniformed, military intelligence officers.
Bushmilov whirled and immediately recognized the foremost man. "Colonel Peng! What are you doing here?" he exclaimed in startled surprise.
Colonel Peng replied in an askew English, the only language he had in common with Bushmilov. "Our American lieutenant, you kid-stolen." He pointed at Wims.
Bushmilov unconsciously shifted his bulk to blot Wims from Peng's view. "You are wrong Colonel Peng. Your intelligence was not getting nowhere with him and we are having more experience in these matters. We think you approve to take him to Moscow."
"Ah. Yes? Then why you sneak away like folding Arabian tent? Ah!"
Although Bushmilov did not comprehend what Arabian tents had to do with this business he did understand the accusation. Before he could reply, Peng continued. "Us Chinese not fool, Comrade Colonel. You Russian think us not good like you, like smart. O.K. Us not b'long Russia like sat'lite. Us b'long us. Us not let you take what you want and no asking. You will give it back, the American officer. Us can make him say secret."
Bushmilov stiffened and dropped all pretense at cordiality. "Us will--" He shook his head in annoyance. "I will not do that without order from my superior, Minister Modrilensky. Now you will be kind to leave. There is business to finish."
"No go unless us take officer."
An angry Bushmilov strode to the door and snarled at the two guards in Russian. One of them dashed away down the corridor. "We shall see," Bushmilov sneered at Peng.
"Yes us shall, ah!" said Peng, withdrawing his automatic pistol from its holster. The other Chinese did the same and their movement was duplicated immediately by the Russians.
No one moved or spoke further until five Russian security guards burst into the room with submachine guns at the ready. The corporal in charge looked to Bushmilov for instructions. The Russian colonel looked long and thoughtfully at the primed Chinese. He had not expected them to go to this extreme. Perhaps they were only bluffing but one sudden misinterpreted movement or the wrong word and another ugly incident in an already dangerously long chain might be created to accelerate the deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations. Without specific instructions he dared not take the responsibility for any untoward action. Bushmilov ordered the guards to stand at ease and dispatched one of his henchmen to notify his superior of the crisis.
"You being very wise, Comrade Colonel," Peng said.
"You are being very annoying," Bushmilov snapped.
"O.K., yes," Peng replied. "Chinese People's Republic ambassador now at Kremlin demand give back American officer. Come soon now, us go. Take lieutenant. You annoying finish. Ah!"
Bushmilov spoke sharply to his junior officers who still stood with drawn pistols. One of them came over and stationed himself alongside Bushmilov. He explained to Peng, "I go on with questioning. My men will shoot anyone who interfere."
Colonel Peng knew his bounds. "O.K., yes. Us wait when order come you give us lieutenant. Us stay. Listen."
Bushmilov turned to Wims. "You are captured six days before. Two weeks from now at this month end you suppose to be exchange by Geneva Concordat number seventeen. Now you tell to me why your government in such a hurry they can not wait and why they make special request to government of Chinese People's Republic for immediate return of you. And why is it offered, twelve Chinese officers, all ranks, to get back only you?"
"Ah don't know, suh," Wims said in honest surprise.
"I warn you. If you not co-operating, you not go home at month end. You cannot pretend with us. We check and know much about you. You go in army three month before now. No university education, no military experience and now you are second lieutenant so quick. How so?"
"Oh, Ah kin tell y'all that," Wims said with relief. "That ain't no mil't'ry secret. When we was havin' basic trainin' this here gen'ral allowed as to how Ah did some right smart soldierin' durin' maneuvers an' he up an' give me a battlefield commission."
Bushmilov's eyes were slits. "Ha. Ha. Ha," Bushmilov said without a smile. "You Americans, always making joke. I enjoy that good laugh. Now we are serious. It is true, yes, that you are intelligence officer sent to Burma with special mission? We know everything," Bushmilov lied, "but we want you say it with your words the few details."
"Cain't tell you nuthin' cause they ain't nuthin' to tell, Ah mean!"
Bushmilov swung up his arm to strike Wims across the face. His hand smacked against the pistol held by the Russian officer standing next to him. The gun went off. The bullet zipped through the window, across the courtyard, into another office and past the nose of Minister of Internal Security, Modrilensky.
Modrilensky shouted for his guards while his aide pointed out the window and yelled, "The shot came from Bushmilov's office. See! The glass is broken in his window!"
Modrilensky paled. "Bushmilov? My truest comrade? Who is there to trust? This I expect from that filthy plotter, Berjanian! Or that sneak, Lemchovsky, or Kamashev. And Gorshkinets and that babyface, Konevets; they do not fool me, I assure you! They would all like to denounce me and steal my job! And the others! I know them all, every last one of them and I'll deal with them, they'll see! But Bushmilov!"
Several guards with submachine guns burst into the room. "Those windows!" Modrilensky screamed. "Shoot them! Kill the deviationist plotters!"
The guards were uncertain which windows Modrilensky was indicating with his wildly waving arms but they had no intention of risking the displeasure of the top man of the MVD. They tentatively sprayed all the windows around the courtyard with bullets and when they received no censure from their chief they went at it with gusto. Modrilensky was too busy shouting orders to other guards to give them any further attention. The sound of the firing was assurance enough that his orders were being obeyed. By the time he had dispatched men to get Bushmilov and neutralize other potential plotters the occupants of most of the offices overlooking the courtyard were crouched at the windows, shooting indiscriminately at each other.
"I can't believe it about Bushmilov," Modrilensky shouted to his aide over the din.
"You know he was at the Kremlin yesterday with Shaposnik," the aide shouted back. "And you know how close Shaposnik is to the Premier. Maybe they have discovered our plan and Bushmilov, as your successor, was ordered to liquidate you!"
Modrilensky slapped his forehead. "Of course! We must act at once! Send our man to Marshal Mazianko and tell him it is time. He must get his trusted troops into the city before the others suspect what is happening, especially that Kamashev."
Major Kamashev of the MVD put in a hasty call to the Minister of Transport. "I am forced to phone because of a sudden emergency. Modrilensky must have gotten wind of our plans. His men are besieging my office. You must get General Kodorovich to move his men into the city at once! And watch out for the Foreign Minister. I think he and Lemachovsky are up to something."
Major Lemachovsky of the MVD was listening to the Foreign Minister. "The Premier has ordered the arrest of the Minister of Heavy Industry for plotting with General Plekoskaya to bring in troops to seize the government. As soon as General Zenovlov arrives with his troops and we are in control, I will teach these vile counterrevolutionaries that they cannot plot against the party and the people with impunity! And be careful! I think the Minister of Hydroelectric Power is involved with your Colonel Berjanian."
Colonel Berjanian of the MVD was shouting into the phone. "Why can't I get the Minister of Hydroelectric Power? If you don't want a vacation in Siberia, you had better get my call through!"
"I'm sorry, Comrade Colonel," the harried operator whined, "but it isn't my fault. Can I help it if all of Moscow decides to use the telephones all at once? The lines are still tied up. I will keep trying, Com--"
Berjanian slammed down the phone just as an aide rushed in. "Colonel, I have good news! Our men have gained control of most of the immediate hallway and we have captured the lavatory from Captain Konevets!"
"Wonderful!" Berjanian beamed as he hastily left the room.
General Kodorovich's command car rattled and bounced along the rough shoulder of the highway past his stalled 71st Motorized Infantry Division. He found the van of his column tangled with the rear of the 124th Armored Division under General Plekoskaya. Kodorovich sought out Plekoskaya and found him at table under some trees having a fine lunch.
"Would you mind getting your army out of the way," General Kodorovich said to General Plekoskaya. "I have emergency orders to proceed immediately to Moscow."
"So have I," Plekoskaya replied, wiping his lips. "Won't you join me for lunch?"
"I haven't time!" Kodorovich snapped, glaring accusingly at the roast fowl and wine on the white linen.
"Oh but you have, my dear Kodorovich," Plekoskaya said pleasantly. "You see, neither of us is going anywhere for the moment. There's a brigade of the 48th blocking the road ahead."
"The 48th from Kiev?" Kodorovich exclaimed. "What is a brigade of the 48th doing up here?"
"Looking for its sister brigades from which it was separated when the 116th Mechanized, in its hurry to reach Moscow, cut through their column."
"The 116th Mechanized?" Kodorovich exclaimed again. He wanted to stop talking in questions but all this was coming so fast and unexpectedly.
"Don't even inquire of me about them," Plekoskaya said, shuddering. "They are so disorganized and tangled with two other armored divisions whose designations I don't even know. It all happened because they were trying to outrace each other to the trunk highway and they arrived at the intersection almost simultaneously. You can't possibly imagine the hideous clatter when you have two stubborn armored divisions and an obstinate mechanized one all trying to occupy the same road at once. I could hear it all the way back here." Plekoskaya belched delicately. "General, do wash off the dust of the road and join me at table."