There was no question that we'd retaliate against the Exiles for poisoning our people. The difficulty was trying to figure out a way to do it. We wanted to hurt them as they hurt us, but logistical problems denied us at every turn. We went through a lot of ideas.
There was the plan to go down the hill and simply lay into the fallback point with a rain of arrows and a hail of gunfire. This was discarded immediately for practical reasons: we can't afford to waste the ammunition. Also, the fallback point was designated as such because it's really hard to attack. Doing so across the river in this way would be wasteful to the point of stupidity.
Then we moved on to stealth. The idea was proposed to send an elite group made up of our best scouts and some of the military folks from North Jackson on a mission to hit the Exiles where they live. It would have taken a while since they'd have had to travel pretty far north or south to get to a bridge the Exiles aren't guarding. Then they'd have to manage sneaking past security and finding a way to damage the enemy without being caught. This one was vetoed quickly also, due to the extreme risk involved for anyone that went.
Another that was shot down was one I came up with, and I wasn't ever serious about it. I only mention it here because I think it shows how irrational rage can make even the most reasonable person. See, I had the idea that we could build a catapult...
For the record, very few good ideas begin with building a catapult.
Anyway, I was trying to think of ways we could get zombies across the river to do some real damage to the enemy. There were dozens of reasons this wouldn't work--building the damn thing, the fact that zombies like to attack and getting them on a catapult would be impossible, the inevitable broken limbs that would happen when the zombies hit the other side, making them far less effective as killing machines. The idea was stupid and cartoonish, but we'd gone through a dozen others by that point and weren't any closer to a solution.
So, I took a break and picked up the book I'd been reading to clear my head. It was one of the Sword of Truth novels, and as I was reading I was struck by an idea. In one of the novels in the series, a small group is threatened by an overwhelming mass of enemy soldiers. The solution they came up with was creative and awful for their enemies.
Our original idea was to copy that maneuver outright. We were going to send teams in to nearby buildings to take all the glass they could find. We were going to crush the glass into dust and fling it at the Exiles over the river. Yeah, who wants to inhale jagged pieces of glass dust? Or get it in their eyes? Or swallow it. The idea was beautiful and had merit, but the logistics of it failed as a few of the others did. We tried crushing the glass, but when it got close to being dust one of our people accidentally inhaled some. We decided it was too dangerous to attempt on a large scale.
The next best solution? Sand. Specifically very hot sand.
We rigged up one of the compressed air tanks that power some of the defenses on the wall (I'm gonna kiss the guy to found the air compressor and hooked it up to our small solar grid) to a good-sized air cannon kept inside the walls as an extra. We tested it with sand, and it worked really well. At a hundred feet, the sand was still cohesive enough to knock a man down. After that it starts to disintegrate into a cloud and disperses quickly.
We set up five of these cannons in the back of pickup trucks, easily raised to a firing angle in a few seconds. Laying flat, the cannons were virtually invisible as we made our way down the hill. We went unarmed in the hope that it wouldn't drive many of the Exiles inside the buildings. We made our way down the hill slowly, both to make the enemy curious and to keep the wind from cooling the pots of sand too much.
I should mention here that the curious shape of the hill leading down to the fallback point gave us a huge advantage. The road goes between two tall cliffs, was in fact cut from the bedrock that used to be between them. It's a hill blown in half and the whole thing acts as a perfect corridor for any wind. A slight breeze compresses when it hits the cliffs, turning into pretty hard gusts by the time it hits the river.
We stayed back about a hundred and fifty feet, and we acted quickly. From the time we stopped our vehicles, it was maybe twenty seconds before we fired our cannons. Five loads of sand hot enough that we were a bit worried it would fuse to glass or melt the PVC of the cannon barrels went into the air almost at the same time. One of the shots actually did knock down one of the enemy, and the resulting impact spread the sand all around him instantly.
We only got a rough glance in before we ran like hell, but I'd guess there were at least forty people in the clouds. I heard a chorus of screams as they writhed to get red-hot grains of silica out of their hair, from inside their clothes. Some of them are probably blinded. I don't feel good about causing so much pain, but I don't feel bad about it either. I wish I could be the kind of man who still has the moral strength to regret this kind of thing even while finding it necessary, but I'm not. They got what they deserved, and my only wish is that I could have made it cleaner and just killed them.
They're rabid dogs, the Exiles, and as such they need to be put down. That's just not possible right now. So we'll do what we can to weaken them until they finally decide they've had enough and attack us in earnest. It can only be a matter of time.
Maybe the pain they're dealing with right now will teach them caution in the future. I'd like to think they've learned a lesson about doing unto others. I hope, but I don't believe it.