“So it’s like the name… firebox…” Alex felt surprisingly alone standing beside the blackboard at the front of the lecture hall, a piece of chalk in her hand as she sketched an admittedly amateurish diagram of the tactic she’d come to teach.
It didn’t help that the room was hot – she hadn’t taken off her coat because she didn’t want anyone to see her Browning, but if somebody didn’t open a window, she was bound to start sweating.
No matter: she had to tough it out.
“We shoot over her head,” Alex tapped the diagram as she persisted, indicating a dashed line drawn over the head of a stick figure meant to represent Emily. “Then we shoot to either side of her.” She tapped the dots to the right and left of the figure. “So she’s boxed in by fire from above, and fire from the sides, and… well, the ground boxes her in under her feet, but you get the idea… that’s why it’s called ‘firebox’.”
The explanation wasn’t as eloquent as she’d imagined it, and as she scanned the lecture hall for reactions, she found herself confronted by an array of numb expressions. It probably didn’t help that her diagram was just a crude version of the one they’d all seen already – a pamphlet with the technique had been printed and circulated the previous autumn.
No, the real point of her visit to Virginia was not to lecture these students about a theory, but to train with them in the field. That was what she wanted, and they wanted, and she decided there probably wasn’t any point to denying it.
“So,” she said, laying the chalk down on the board and dusting off her hands, “that’s what we’re here to learn. Review. Probably more of a review. And we’ll be in the field this afternoon practicing.”
Those last words caused more of a stir, as students perked up at the prospect of being handed guns and told to jump around. Alex could sympathize.
“Any questions?” she asked – foolishly, because she expected none.
One hand went up immediately: a boy who was probably only a year her junior, sitting in the second row.
“Yes?” she pointed to him, and the corners of his mouth turned up a little at the attention.
“Why aren’t we out there this morning, M’Lady?”
Alex blinked. Apparently it was because Adams didn’t think ‘A’ Company was ready for joint training with Champions, but she could hardly say that to a room full of students. Instead, she hedged – and hedged badly, “Review first, then practice… what was your name?”
“Todd Randall, M’Lady,” he said, almost sounding as if he expected her to know who he was. Alex didn’t want to make any assumptions, but he did have a slight air of being pleased with himself.
“So it’s not because that’s ‘A’ Company out there, and they don’t know how to shoot straight?”
Alex’s eyebrows rose instantly, and as a ripple of laughter filled the back half of the lecture hall, she glanced at the instructor. That ordinary woman remained silent, which made no sense, since she was a teacher. But perhaps she was just a substitute, and the real instructor was still on leave, like just about everyone else from the base…
Well, Alex wasn’t quite as hot-headed as Stephanie in racist situations, but she could certainly give someone a talking to…
“You need to learn when to shut up,” one of the girls in the front row was ahead of her – a shorter student who’d been beaming even during the worst of Alex’s mangled explanations.
“Get off it, runt,” was the comeback, and then other voices joined in.
Instant mayhem, as Alex stood there and watched. What the hell did the Americans teach their Champions?
It didn’t take very long to break ‘A’ Company into squads, which actually surprised both Stephanie and Strong. Perhaps years of parade and guard duty had made them good at formation, but it was immediately obvious from the way men started handling their rifles that few knew much about how to wield them.
Time for lessons to begin.
Stephanie had moved up to the train car at the head of the field, and deciding altitude would favor her again, she climbed up into its doorway and turned to look out over the men, “Alright, we’re going to be training today with the firebox tactic. Captain Lowestoft has been telling me about the instruction you’ve received already, so I’m looking forward to getting off to a fast start.”
Standing on the ground just below and to Stephanie’s left, Mike Strong watched the reactions of some of the men who were standing nearest the train; they seemed more impressed by Stephanie’s figure than her words, and he marked certain fellows for some recalibration.
“Would anyone like to tell me how your squad fire plan is shaped in an encounter with a Champion?” the Lieutenant asked next, sounding a bit more like a schoolteacher than Strong would have advised.
Captain Lowestoft was standing with his men, and despite Stephanie’s supportive comments, he still looked stricken. It didn’t help when none of his men answered – as the silence lengthened, he started to go red.
Stephanie spotted this, and then glanced quickly at Strong. There were two paths to follow now: intimidation or charm. The latter seemed a better starting point, because it would make the former more dramatic if it became necessary.
Smiling in a manner that she had, on occasion, used to charm men for various purposes, Stephanie held onto the rails on either side of the train door, and leaned forward, “How about you, Corporal. You want to tell me what firebox is?”
She made eye contact with one of the soldiers who seemed a bit too smug for his own good, and as soon as he realized she was talking to him, he grinned, “Want me, ma’am?”
Strong began to bristle, but before he could bark at the brat, Stephanie rocked forward in the doorway playfully, “Depends, soldier. How good are you with firebox?”
Smile broadening, the man stepped forward, “I’m good with it. Real good.”
Wait. That sounded like a double entendre. A doubly-inappropriate double entendre.
Now Strong was really ready to do some yelling – funny how easy his old Sergeant’s instincts came back – but Stephanie was already hopping down from the train, and advancing on the man. He stood waiting for her, his Garand in hand, finger on the trigger.
Though the loss of altitude made it difficult for all the men of the company to see Stephanie, she figured this was best anyway. Approaching the man with her smile intact, she tipped her head girlishly, “So how do you do it, soldier?”
“The right way,” he said again, liking the proximity far more than he should have.
Stephanie’s smile grew, “Now you need to tell me what it says in the firebox pamphlet. Feel free to ask your friends. Don’t make me wait.”
Fine, he’d play along – he turned so that he could look back to the men in his squad, and as his body direction changed, the muzzle of his rifle went with it. Fortunately, a hand stopped him from completing his turn – a hand on the foreguard of the Garand.
“You know why you’re out here with no Champions, while the rest of your regiment gets to train with them?” Stephanie’s tone was suddenly very sharp, and the Corporal’s head whipped back.
“Take your finger off the trigger of your rifle, now,” her eyes were ice the moment he met them, and her tone was entirely unsympathetic.
“You heard the Lieutenant, get your finger off the trigger, you sorry excuse for a soldier!” Mike Strong surged into the picture with a bellow only real Sergeants could produce.
The sudden onslaught of terror convinced the young soldier to let go his rifle entirely, which was probably for the best. Since her hand had been on it already – keeping it from inadvertently being pointed at any of the men of the company – Stephanie took it up, turned to the train, shouldered it and squeezed the trigger.
A nice hole appeared in the side of the car, and was accompanied by thunder.
“This man very nearly swept the muzzle of his rifle across his squad. Do you understand what that means?” Strong grabbed the Corporal by the collar of his coat and half-threw him back to the side of his colleagues.
“He had his finger on the trigger of his rifle,” Stephanie’s yell was less terrifying than Strong’s, but it still carried. “Most of you know that my godfather was a gunfighter called Cameron Kard. When I was shorter than this rifle, he taught me never to point a gun at anything I wouldn’t be willing to shoot, and never to put my finger on a trigger unless I intended on shooting.”
“By that definition, this man wanted to shoot his friends, Lieutenant,” Strong followed up. As he spoke, Stephanie locked back the bolt of the Garand and leaned it up against the wheel of the train, then hopped back up into the doorway, this time with an icy smile.
“Well if that’s the case, he’s under arrest, isn’t he, Sergeant?” Stephanie declared.
“Right you are, ma’am!” Strong barked back. “Unless he admits he’s a damned fool. Then maybe we could be lenient.”
By now the soldier in question was moving from surprise towards indignance… but the force of Colour Strong was staring him in the face, warning him not to allow his wounded pride to manifest.
“What about it? You all think he’s a criminal, or are all of you just too convinced that you’re gunfighters to listen when your Captain tries to teach you things?” Stephanie was going to try to preserve Lowestoft in all this, though it wouldn’t be easy. “He’s the only reason you’re out here at all. Unlike all your other officers, he’s not on Christmas leave. He believes in you so much that he convinced us to let you train. But we knew this was what you’d do, so we refused to let you train with the Champions. We leave that for real soldiers.”
It was not really true, of course, but Stephanie was willing to be a bit dramatic for a good cause.
Strong went further: “In case none of you know who I am, I am Mike Strong, one of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. That means I served with men from your regiment in the Hubrin War. They were good men. The best kind. You are a disgrace to them. You are not good men. Not yet. You can try to blame that on being black men in a white army, but those men were black men in an even whiter army. So no excuses. Listen to your Captain. Listen to us. Then next time we come, you’ll get to play with the Champions.”
Stephanie closed it off: “And gentlemen, if you don’t cooperate, you will die. You will either kill each other like fools, or you will be killed when a rogue Champion comes here looking for secrets. You will die. Clear?”
Yes, it was pretty damned clear. She let her cold proclamation hang in the air, and knowing the effect it would have, Strong held his tongue, allowing the silence to endure for a long moment. Stephanie Shylock hopped down from the train, took a deep breath, drew her Browning, and then approached Captain Lowestoft. They had much to fix.