Chapter 19
Comrades in Arms

Near Yingenmen (Bienvenu), Jiangteng County, Jiaodao Province

They could've crossed the border a day earlier, but Batista didn't want to repeat the experience they had at Santa Jésica. They got off the train at the last stop before the border and walked the rest of the way. If anyone was waiting for them, they'd be expecting them to come in via the train. By taking what he hoped to be an unexpected approach, Batista could sniff out any ambush before they walked into it, or at least that was the plan.
Batista glanced back at Masako. It was hard to believe, but they'd been together for nearly two months now. She had changed a lot in that time. She didn't complain as much, for one thing. They'd probably make it the entire way to town without a peep out of her. And even though they spent a lot of the journey on the trains, it seemed like her stamina had improved. No need for her to piggyback on him this time around.
Nayeli did what she could to fix the hack job Batista did to Masako's hair. She could, in theory, be made to look fairly pretty in the right clothes, but that would've run contrary to Batista's purposes. With suitably baggy clothes and a flat cap to top it off, she looked ambiguous enough that the casual observer shouldn't have been able to peg her as a girl right away.
Even though Jorge and Nayeli sent them off with a fresh change of clothes to make it a little more difficult to recognize them from prior encounters, Batista still needed a longcoat to conceal his weapons and as they went further and further into the interior, the more that sort of getup stood out. It was a difficult balance to strike between looking inconspicuous and having the means to fend off an attack if it came.
Lingmu was just on the other side of the border. Would that be the end of people gunning for them? Even if it was, what did it mean for him? Yes, Masako promised that he would be well rewarded for delivering her, but unless the bounty was taken off his head, he wouldn't be safe anywhere on the surface. Maybe he could switch sides, defect to Volga or Turia. There was no telling when the Celestials would finally decide to crush the Unincorporated Territories once and for all, but they kept the war going this long. He might live out a long life before there was ever anything to worry about.
Batista shook his head. It was a dumb idea. He would've never become a mercenary if living a long life was the plan. Was it really any worse to get shot dead in the street somewhere by a trigger-happy bounty hunter than to die in the Xiyue mud during the next campaign? Sooner or later, it'd be time for him to punch his ticket. What difference did it make whether it was sooner or later?
"How much further is it?" Masako asked, the first time she had spoken up in a while, knowing how Batista discouraged pointless chatter when they needed to be on alert.
"'Bout another ten klicks or so," Batista replied. "Won't be long now."
"One more hurdle and we will have made it," she said hopefully.
"Don't get your hopes up too much, princess. We may still have one more dust-up before we're in the clear."
"Can they really be out this far?"
"If they could get ahead of us at Santa Jésica an' catch up to us at San Miguel, they sure as hell can be here."
"What do we do?"
"We try ta slip in without drawin' attention, get through the border checkpoint an' hopefully be in the clear."
Masako didn't say anything after that and was quiet until they were just a few kilometers from the edge of the city. Batista saw a car coming their way, not coming too fast but still kicking up a lot of dust as it went. As it got closer, he recognized it as Type 17 Orix, a model of jeep commonly found in mercenary outfits because it was relatively cheap and easy to get parts for. In addition to the familiar rumble of the engine, there was a distinct clicking sound that made Batista's stomach sink. He knew this jeep, this specific jeep. It belonged to Segundo Pelotón, The mechanics never could figure out what caused that clicking sound. Teniente Gonzaga was always complaining about it, which was part of the reason Batista hesitated on taking up the billet of his platoon sergeant.
Compañía Bravo was here, maybe the entire Regimiento de Rionegro. How did they get here from Bantian? Was Coronel Obrado so obsessed that he was willing to break his contract with the Marquess just to come after Batista?
Whatever the case was, it didn't change what they had to do. It just made it a hell of a lot more difficult. Unlike all the bounty hunters who came before, these people knew him and he knew what they were capable of on the battlefield. He could take maybe two or three if he had to, but any more than that and all bets were off.
"Get ta the side a' the road," he told Masako. "Keep your head down an' keep walkin'."
"What is it?" Masako asked.
"Trouble if they get a good look a me," Batista replied, flipping up the collar of his jacket for an extra measure of concealment.
He drew one of his pistols, hiding it with his other hand as he tucked it away in his pocket to get at it easier in case he needed it. Of course, one shot was all it'd take to stir up the hornet's nest. Maybe he'd get lucky and the jeep would just pass them by. Only thing was that there weren't any other people walking around here and if Teniente Gonzaga was in any way good at his job, he'd be stopping anyone he met along the way.
The jeep passed them, but ground to a halt just a few seconds later. Sure enough.
"You there!" Teniente Gonzaga called out to them. "Halt!"
Batista kept walking, pretending like he didn't hear.
"I said halt!"
A shot rang out, stopping Batista dead in his tracks. Besides Teniente Gonzaga and his driver, there were two riflemen in the back. Batista and Masako could try to make a break for it, but at this range, even a half-blind member of regiment could gun them down easily.
"Stay there!" Teniente Gonzaga barked. "Hands up!"
Batista raised his hands and checked out of the corner of his eye to make sure Masako was doing the same.
As the jeep was backing up to where they were, Batista told Masako, "Jus' keep your head down an' let me do the talkin'."
The jeep pulled up alongside them and the riflemen hopped out, taking positions on their left and right with their rifles aimed and ready. Teniente Gonzaga wasn't as quick getting out of the jeep and walking around it to get to them. He already had his service pistol out, pointed up at the sky until he had a reason to point it at them.
"Who are you?" Gonzaga demanded. "What are you doing here?"
"We're jus' goin' inta town," Batista muttered, deliberately muffling his voice in the hopes it wouldn't be recognizable.
"On foot?" Gonzaga asked.
"Los' my damn shirt at cards while we was stopped in Carradin. No fare for the train."
Batista wasn't making direct eye contact with Teniente Gonzaga, which probably made him more suspicious than anything else, but one good look at his face and it'd be over.
Then Gonzaga pulled Batista's cap off his head.
"It's him!" one of the riflemen said. "It's Rodrigues!"
In a weak last-ditch effort at deflection, Batista said, "Ya got the wron' guy. My name's Lopez."
"Well, Señor Lopez," Gonzaga said, leveling his pistol at Batista's head, "I think our coronel would like to meet you all the same."
In the times when you really need it, when everything is decided in a split second, time has a way of slowing down. It had saved Batista's life quite a few times in the past and it did so again here. He grabbed Teniente Gonzaga by the wrist, diverting his pistol as he fired off a shot, then yanked him toward Batista, taking him off balance so he could get caught in a headlock and used as a human shield. Either because they were that squirrely or because they had that little regard for their platoon leader's life, both the riflemen opened fire. If Batista was hit, he didn't feel it. Using Teniente Gonzaga's hand, he put two round into the rifleman on the right, one in the rifleman on the left and two in the driver, who was fumbling with his holster when he got shot.
Batista let Gonzaga's body drop then looked down at himself. One of the bullets missed him entirely and the other just grazed his chest on the right side. He then looked at his fellow mercenaries around him. He didn't want this, but between them and him, it was going to be him.
Though time was of the essence, he took his own pistol out of his pocket and delivered headshots to each of the fallen mercenaries. He wanted to be sure they were dead and if they weren't, putting them out of their misery was the least he could do for them.
While he was reloading his pistol, he was trying to figure out what to do next, trying to think of what they were going to do. He didn't know how much of the unit was out there. The company, the battalion, the whole regiment? Even if it was just Compañía Bravo, they could fan out by escuadra and cover over a kilometer. There were some low hills, but the terrain was mostly flat with hardly any cover, just a few skinny trees and some scattered patches of scrubgrass. They would be easy to spot.
If going on foot was certain death, the only other option would be to take the jeep and force their way through. Its top speed was around 100 kilometers per hour, which would make them a hard target to hit. However, if they had set up machine guns on the way into the city, the best they could hope for was that only the jeep was stopped dead.
There was no time. He had to make a decision. They needed to get across the border and they'd have a lot better chances of avoiding capture once they were in the city limits. The jeep was their best chance.
Pointing to the jeep, he told Masako, "Hop in the back an' lay down. You'll be less likely ta take hit there."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I'm gonna get us through or die tryin'," he said. "Now hurry up."
While she was getting into the jeep, Batista took the rifles off the riflemen, cycled the bolt so each one had a round in the chamber and rested them in the passenger seat. He then pulled the driver out of his seat and left him beside Teniente Gonzaga. With that done, he got in the driver's seat and because the driver still had the engine running, all he had to do was put it in gear, turn around and hit the gas.
"Hang on back there!" Batista shouted to Masako as he barreled down the road.
However the unit was deployed, they hadn't begun canvassing the area yet. That was good. But as Batista was expecting, they'd set up a checkpoint with a couple machine guns just outside town. There was no way he could bluff his way past, so he just had to keep going and hope that neither he nor the jeep ended up dead before they got out of range. The tripods the machine guns were mounted on only had 90 degrees of rotation, so once he was out of the cone of fire, they'd be fine. Maybe.
Fortunately, because they were in one of the unit's jeeps, the machine gunners weren't as quick on the trigger as they would be otherwise. By the time they recognized that something was wrong and fired a warning burst, they were only left with a couple seconds of sustained fire. They would be focusing on the engine block, but Batista ducked down all the same to reduce his chances of getting hit, even by a little bit.
Even just a couple seconds of fire meant at least 30 rounds coming their way. The jeeps weren't armored and the best they could do was fend off some stray shrapnel. A direct hit with a 7.62 round would go right through it. The engine was completely wrecked, but the jeep had enough momentum to keep going, smashing through the wooden barrier they had set up and continuing on a couple hundred meters until it crashed into the side of a horse cart going through an intersection.
If they hadn't already lost most of their speed beforehand, Batista could've easily been thrown through the windshield. As it was, his body slammed into the steering wheel hard. There was no telling how many bones he had broken and his head was swimming, but he knew they couldn't stop for anything. The rifles he had put in the passenger seat were gone and there was no time to look for them.
"Y'alright there, princess?" he asked.
All Masako could do was moan.
"C'mon," he said, dragging himself out of the jeep. "If ya can move, get up."
Masako reached up and grabbed the back of the seat and pulled herself up. At least she hadn't broken her back or anything. She wasn't moving fast enough for his taste, so he took hold of her and lifted her out.
"C'mon, let's go."
When he set her down her leg crumpled under her.
"Ita!"
Using the side of the jeep, she tried to pull herself back up.
"My ankle..." she said. "I think it is broken..."
"Get on my left," Batista told her. "Lean on me an' walk. We gotta go."
Masako reached out to him but stopped short.
"You are bleeding," she said.
"It's nothin'. Let's go."
"No... Look..."
Batista looked down at himself. He had taken a round in the shoulder and two in the belly. Not good.
"Don't worry 'bout it," he said. "I'm gonna get ya 'cross the border. Now c'mon."
"You cannot," Masako said. "You--"
"Dammit, let's go while I can still move!" Batista barked. "I ain't gonna lass much longer, but I can get ya 'cross."
Batista knew he only had a few minutes at best before he keeled over. They'd probably never reach the checkpoint and even if they did, they guards would never let them pass with the two of them the big bloody mess they were, and that wasn't even considering the very likely possibility there was at least a whole pelotón waiting for them on top of the regular border guards. Still, going forward was better than just lying down and dying right there.
They started making slow, uncertain steps down the road. Batista supported Masako on his left while he kept his right hand in his pocket, gripping his pistol for when he would need it.
It seemed like a long time had passed, but they hadn't gotten far when he heard the sound of boots clapping on the pavement. This was it.
"Halt!" a voice shouted.
Batista ignored it and kept walking.
"Stop or I'll shoot!"
He kept on going.
"Cabo Rodrigues!"
It was Capitán Trieu. Batista stopped and turned toward the Capitán's voice.
"It's over, Cabo," the Capitán said. "Why don't you just give it up?"
Capitán Trieu was flanked by Batista's squadmates, no doubt a deliberate move to make him hesitate. Of course, his squadmates all had their rifles trained on him, so it wasn't like he had any illusions about where he stood.
"C'mon, Bat," Tito said. "Shit, man, jus' look at ya."
"Ain't no point in dyin'," Miga added, "leas' not like a dog in the damn street."
"Hand yourself over, Cabo," Capitán Trieu said, "and we'll forget about the girl."
Batista looked at Masako and then back to the Capitán.
"I got your word on that?"
"On my honor," the Capitán replied.
Mercenaries couldn't be trusted for much as a general rule, but Batista knew Capitán Trieu was an honorable man. There was always a risk, of course, but if he could trust anyone to keep his word, it was him. Batista let go of his pistol and slowly raised his hands.
"On your honor then, Capi," he said. "You see she gets over the border an' I'm yours."
Masako gripped his jacket, saying, "No, you cannot leave me. You have to take me to Lingmu."
"Sorry, princess. This is the end a' the line for me."
Keeping his hands up, Batista began to slowly walk toward Capitán Trieu. His steps were getting unsteadier and his vision was starting to blur. Whether the Capitán kept his word or not, Batista wouldn't be in a position to hold him to it.
Batista heard this droning sound and things went dark around him. He thought it was just his senses failing him, but his sight wasn't so far gone that he couldn't distinguish all the ropes that came down around them and the whirring of armored figures like black lobsters zipping down those ropes.
He thought Masako's enemies from the Capital had arrived just in time to take matters into their own hands. Even if Capitán Trieu meant what he said, he wouldn't be able to follow through on it now. Dammit. It was all for nothing after all. He should've just had another round of drinks instead of going to Madam Eng's that night. No point in regrets, though. It wouldn't change anything.
However, something strange happened. The Regulars turned their weapons on the mercenaries.
"Throw down your weapons!" one of them barked in Celestial. "On your knees! Hands on your head!"
"What's the meaning of this!?" Capitán Trieu demanded. "We are conducting an authorized operation and--"
"Shut up!" the Regular snapped back. "Comply or we will use deadly force! This is your last warning!"
Capitán Trieu had enough sense not to challenge a Regular, so he told Batista's squadmates and the others who had converged on their location, "Stand down, men. Do as they say. Put down your weapons, get down on your knees and put your hands on your head."
He led by example, carefully drawing then placing down his sidearm, getting on his knees and putting his hands on his head as ordered. Batista didn't look around at any of the others, but his squadmates followed the Capitán's lead. The Regulars kept their weapons fixed on them. If any of them so much as twitched, they'd be dead for sure.
The one who was giving orders, the apparent leader of the group, went over to Masako and knelt before her.
"My lady, my lord the Baron Ning has sent us to rescue you," he said. "Please come with us."
"Baron Ning?" Masako asked.
"I was instructed to say the codeword 'sukedachi'."
"I understand," Masako replied. "I will go with you. Batista-xiansheng?"
So it was people coming to help? Well, it could be a trick, but Batista didn't want to think of it that way. It was easier to go out thinking she was going be alright, that all this wasn't for nothing. And that was what he kept telling himself as everything went black.