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One of the best of many good things that's happened in the course of my writing career is that I got Kirby McCauley for an agent. (And incidentally, if these intros don't make it clear that I've been amazingly lucky all my life, then they're distorting a truth that I feel all the way to my bones.)

After Mr. Derleth died, I had to look for new markets. I managed to sell a story to F&SF but a lot of short fiction was being published in one-shot anthologies that I wasn't even going to hear about before they closed. I thought about agents, but I didn't really know how to go about getting one and I felt (rightly) that anybody who took me at that stage of my career was a pretty doubtful prospect himself.

A pulp dealer friend, Richard Minter, mentioned that a correspondent from Minneapolis, Kirby McCauley, had started representing fantasy writers. He was agent for a number of Weird Tales pros (Carl Jacobi, for example), but he also had new Arkham House writers like Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley in his stable.

Would he represent me? Did I really want an agent? And perhaps most important, how painful would it be to be turned down? Pretty painful, I suspected, but I could delay the event by not writing McCauley.

Two things happened. F&SF published a Cthulhu Mythos novelette by Brian Lumley. Since the 1950s, the only Lovecraftian stories in the magazine had been parodies—it was far too sophisticated for "pneumatic prose" to quote one editor's comment about Lovecraft's own style. Yet here was an unabashed pastiche. I could only assume that Mr. Lumley's agent was an incredible salesman. (Oddly enough, that was precisely the correct assumption to draw from the event.)

Second, Marvel Comics brought out a digest-sized fantasy magazine, The Haunt of Horror. Much of it was written in-house by comics scripters, but there was also a new story by Ramsey Campbell. Mr. Campbell's agent was obviously on top of things.

Furthermore, I learned that The Haunt of Horror was being killed after the second issue (which was already at the printers). I'd missed my chance at a sale because I didn't have an agent like Kirby McCauley.

I didn't think I could simply write Kirby (well, Mr. McCauley) and tell him I wanted an agent. I'd just finished a story ("Contact!") that I intended to send to Analog. I sent it to Kirby with my query letter instead.

He wrote back with great enthusiasm (Kirby does everything with great enthusiasm; you can question his judgment sometimes, but never his gusto), saying that he was already aware of my writing and had intended to approach me shortly. He thought the story was great (he sent it on to Analog and got an acceptance by return mail, the fastest I've ever had in my life) and looked forward to a long and profitable association.

We've had that, though it was a lot of years before I made enough money to justify Kirby and his sister Kay keeping me on as a client. Kirby went from success to success, ratcheting clients up by orders of magnitude whether they started from nothing (like Karl Wagner) or from something already impressive (like Stephen King, who became Kirby's client after his early six-figure book deals).

In the course of his other activities, Kirby edited original anthologies. I wrote "Firefight" for the first of them, "Frights." The incident of a kid in the flame track breaking up an attack was quite real, though of course the enemy was an NVA battalion rather than anything supernatural.

As a matter of fact, the whole background is real. I look back at that time and realize that it was a completely different world.

But at the time it was the real world, and the only world I had.


"Christ," Ginelli said, staring at the dusty wilderness, "if this is a sample, the next move'll be to Hell. And a firebase there'd be cooler." Herrold lit a cigarette and poked the pack toward his subordinate."Have one," he suggested.

"Not unless it's grass," the heavy newbie muttered. He flapped the sleeveless flak jacket away from his flesh, feeling streaks of momentary chill as sweat started from beneath the quilted nylon. "Christ, how d'you stand it?"

Herrold, rangy and big-jointed, leaned back in the dome seat and cocked one leg over the flamethrower's muzzle. Ginelli envied the track commander's build every time he looked at the taller man. His own basic training only four months before had been a ghastly round of extra physical training to sweat off pounds of his mother's pasta.

"Better get used to it," Herrold warned lazily. "This zippo always winds up at the back of the column, so we always wait to set up in the new laagers. Think about them—pretend you're a tree."

Ginelli followed his TC's finger toward the eight giant trees in the stone enclosure. It didn't help. Their tops reached a hundred feet into the air above the desolate plain, standing aloof from the activity that raised a pall of dust beside them. The shadows pooling beneath could not cool Ginelli as he squatted sun-dazzled on the deck of the flame track.

At least Colonel Boyle was just as hot where he stood directing placements from the sandbagged deck of his vehicle. Hieu stood beside him as usual. You could always recognize the interpreter at a distance because of the tiger fatigues he wore, darkly streaked with black and green. Below the two, radiomen were stringing the last of the tarpaulin passageways that joined the three command vehicles into a Tactical Operations Center. Now you could move between the blacked-out tracks in the dark; but the cool of the night seemed far away.

On the roof, Boyle pointed and said something to Hieu. The dark-skinned interpreter's nod was emphatic; the colonel spoke into his neck-slung microphone and the two vehicles ahead of the flame track grunted into motion. Herrold straightened suddenly as his radio helmet burped at him. "Seven-zero, roger," he replied.

"We movin'?" Ginelli asked, leaning closer to the TC to hear him better. Herrold flipped the switch by his left ear forward to intercom and said, "OK, Murray, they want us on the west side against that stone wall. There'll be a ground guide, so take it easy."

Murray edged the zippo forward, driving it clockwise around the circuit other tracks had clawed in the barren earth. Except for the grove within the roomy laterite enclosure, there was nothing growing closer than the rubber plantation whose rigid files marched green and silver a mile to the east. Low dikes, mostly fallen into the crumbling soil, ordered the wasteland. Dust plumed in the far distance as a motorbike pulled out of the rubber and turned toward the firebase. Coke girls already, Ginelli thought. Even in this desert.

Whatever the region's problem was it couldn't have been with the soil itself; not if trees like the monsters behind the low wall could grow in it. Every one of the eight the massive stonework girdled was forty feet around at the base. The wrinkled bole of the central titan could have been half that again.

The zippo halted while a bridge tank roared, churning the yielding dirt as it maneuvered its frontal slope up to the coarse laterite. The ground guide, a bare-chested tanker with a beaded sweat band, dropped his arms to signal the bridge to shut down, then motioned the flame track in beside the greater bulk. Murray cut his engine and hoisted himself out of the driver's hatch.

Common sense and the colonel's orders required that everyone on a track be wearing helmet and flak jacket. Men like Murray, however, who extended their tours to four years, tended to ignore death and their officers when comfort was at stake. The driver was naked to the waist; bleached golden hairs stood out wirelike against his deep tan."Dig out some beers, turtle," he said to Ginelli with easy arrogance. "We got time to down 'em before they start puttin' a detail together." Road dust had coated the stocky, powerful driver down to the throat, the height he projected from his hatch with the seat raised and the cover swiveled back. Years of Vietnamese sunlight had washed all color from his once-blue eyes.

An ACAV pulled up to the flame track's right, its TC nonchalant in his cupola behind the cal fifty. To Ginelli's amazement, the motorbike he had seen leaving the rubber plantation was the next vehicle in line. It was a tiny green Sachs rather than one of the omnipresent Honda 50s, and its driver was Caucasian. Murray grinned and jumped to his feet."Crozier! Jacques!"he shouted delightedly."What the hell are you doin' here?"

The white-shirted civilian turned his bike neatly and tucked it in on the shady side of the zippo. If any of the brass had noticed him, they made no sign. Dismounted, Crozier tilted his face up and swept his baseball cap away from a head of thinning hair. "Yes, I thought I might find you, Joe," he said. His English was slightly burred. "But anyway, I would have come just to talk again to Whites. It is grand to see you."

Herrold unlashed the shelter tarp from the load and let it thump over the side. "Let's get some shade up," he ordered.

"Jack was running a plantation for Michelin up north when we were in the A-Shau Valley," Murray explained. "He's a good dude. But why you down here, man?"

"Oh, well," the Frenchman said with a deprecating shrug. "Your defoliation, you know? A few months after your squadron pulls out, the planes come over. Poof! Plantation Seven is dead and I must be transferred. They grow peanuts there now."

Herrold laughed. "That's the nice thing about a job in this country," he said. "Always somethin' new tomorrow."

"Yeah, not so many VC here as up there," Murray agreed.

Crozier grimaced."The VC I am able to live with. Like them? No. But I understand them, understand their, their aims. But these people around here, these Mengs—they will not work, they will not talk, only glare at you and plant enough rice for themselves. Michelin must bring in Viets to work the rubber, and even those, they do not stay because they do not like Mengs so near."

"But they're all Vietnamese, aren't they?"Ginelli asked in puzzlement."I mean, what else could they be?"

The Frenchman chuckled, hooking his thumbs in his trouser tops. "They live in Viet Nam so they are Vietnamese, no? But you Americans have your Indians. Here are the Montagnards—we call them the Mountaineers, you know? But the Vietnamese name for them means 'the dirty animals.' Not the same folk, no no. They were here long before the Viets came down from the North. And the Meng who live here and a few other places, they are not the same either; not as the Viets or even the Montagnards. And maybe they are older yet, so they say."

The group waited a moment in silence. Herrold opened the Mermite can that served as a cooler and began handing out beer."Got a church key?"he asked no one in particular. Murray, the only man on the track with a knife, drew his huge Bowie and chopped ragged triangles in the tops. Tepid beer gurgled as the four men drank. Ginelli set his can down.

"Umm," he said to his TC, "how about the co-ax?"

Herrold sighed."Yeah, we don't want the son-of-a-bitch to jam."Joints popped as he stood and stretched his long frame.

Crozier gulped the swig of beer still in his mouth. "Indeed not," he agreed. "Not here, especially. The area has a very bad reputation."

"That a fact?"Herrold asked in mild surprise. "At the troop meetin' last night the ole man said around here it'd be pretty quiet. Not much activity on the intelligence maps."

"Activity?"the Frenchman repeated with raised eyebrows."Who can say? The VC come through the laborers' hootches now and again, not so much here as near A-Shau, that is true. But when I first was transferred here three years ago, there were five, maybe six hundred in the village—the Mengs, you know, not the plantation lines."

"That little place back where we left the hardball?" Ginelli wondered aloud. "Jeez, there's not a dozen hootches there."

"Quite so," Crozier agreed with a grave nod of his head. "Because a battalion of Communists surrounded it one night and killed every Meng they found. Maybe twenty survived."

"Christ," Ginelli breathed in horror, but Herrold's greater experience caused his eyes to narrow in curiosity.

"Why the hell?" the tall track commander asked. "I mean, I know they've got hit squads out to gun down village cops and headmen and all. But why the whole place? Were they that strong for the government?"

"The government?" the civilian echoed; he laughed."They spat at the District Governor when he came through. But a week before the Communists came, there was firing near this very place. Communist, there is no doubt. I saw the tracers myself and they were green.

"The rest—and this is rumor only, what my foremen told me at the time before they stopped talking about it—a company, thirty men, were ambushed. Wiped out, every one of them and mutilated, ah . . . badly. How they decided that the Mengs were responsible, I do not know; but that could have been the reason they wiped out the village later."

"Umm," Herrold grunted. He crumpled his beer can and looked for a litter barrel."Lemme get on the horn and we'll see just how the co-ax is screwing up." The can clattered into the barrel as the TC swung up on the back deck of the zippo again. The others could hear his voice as he spoke into the microphone: "Battle five-six, track seven-zero. Request clearance to test fire our Mike seven-four."

An unintelligible crackle replied from the headset a moment later. "No sir," Herrold denied, "not if we want it working tonight." He nodded at the answer. "Roger, roger." He waved. "OK," he said to his crew as he set down the radio helmet, "let's see what it's doin'."

Ginelli climbed up beside Herrold, slithering his pudgy body over the edge of the track with difficulty. Murray continued to lounge against the side of the track. "Hell," he said, "I never much liked guns anyway; you guys do your thing."Crozier stood beside his friend, interested but holding back a little from the delicacy of an uninvited guest. The machine gun had once been co-axial to the flamethrower. Now it was on a swivel welded to the top of the TC's dome. Herrold rotated it, aiming at the huge tree in the center of the grove. A ten foot scar streaked the light trunk vertically to the ground, so he set the buckhorn sight just above it. Other troopers, warned by radio what to expect, were watching curiously.

The gun stuttered off a short burst and jammed. Empty brass tinkled off the right side of the track. Herrold swore and clicked open the receiver cover. His screwdriver pried at the stuck case until it sprang free. Slamming the cover shut, he jacked another round into the chamber.


"God damn it," Herrold said. "Looks like we gotta take the whole thing down."

"Or throw rocks," Ginelli suggested.

Herrold cocked a rusty eyebrow. Unlike the thick-set newbie, he had been in country long enough to have a feel for real danger. After a moment he grinned back. "Oh, we don't have to throw rocks," he said. He unslung his old submachine gun from the side of the dome. Twenty years of service had worn most of the finish off its crudely stamped metal but it still looked squat and deadly.

Herrold set the wire stock to his shoulder; the burst, when he squeezed off, was ear-shattering. A line of fiercely red tracers stabbed from the muzzle and ripped an ascending curve of splintered wood up the side of the center tree.

"Naw, we're OK while the ole greasegun works," Herrold said. He laughed. "But," he added, "we better tear down the co-ax anyhow."

"Perhaps I should leave now," Crozier suggested. "It grows late and I must return to my duties."

"Hell," Murray protested, "stick around for chow at least. Your dinks'll do without babysittin' for that long."

The Frenchman pursed his lips."He'll have to clear with the colonel," Herrold warned.

"No sweat," the driver insisted."We'll snow him about all the local intelligence Jacques can give us. Come on, man; we'll brace him now." Crozier followed in Murray's forceful wake, an apprehensive frown still on his face.

"Say, where'd you get these?" Ginelli inquired, picking up a fat, red-nosed cartridge like those Herrold had just thumbed into his greasegun.

"The tracers?" the TC replied absently. "Oh, I found a case back in Di An. Pretty at night and, what the hell, they hit just as hard. But let's get crackin' on the co-ax."

Ginelli jumped to the ground. Herrold handed him a footlocker to serve as a table—the back deck of the zippo was too cluttered to strip the gun there—and the co-ax itself. In a few minutes they had reduced the weapon to components and begun cleaning them.

A shadow eased across the footlocker. Ginelli looked up, still holding the receiver he was brushing with a solvent-laden toothbrush. The interpreter, Hieu, had walked over from the TOC and was facing the grove. He seemed oblivious to the troopers beside him.

"Hey Hieu," the TC called."Why the hell'd the colonel stick us here, d'ya know? We get in a firefight and these damn trees'll hide a division of VC."

Hieu looked around slowly. His features had neither the fragility of the pure Vietnamese nor the moon-like fullness of those with Chinese blood. His was a blocky face, set as ever in hard lines, mahogany in color. Hieu stepped up to the wall before answering, letting his hands run over the rough stone like two dried oak leaves.

"No time to make berm," he said at last, pointing to the bellowing Caterpillar climbing out of a trench near the TOC. The D-7A was digging in sleeping trailers for the brass rather than starting to throw up an earthen wall around the perimeter. "The wall here make us need ti-ti berm, I show colonel."

Herrold nodded. The stone enclosure was square, about a hundred yards to a side. Though only four feet high, the ancient wall was nearly as thick and would stop anything short of an eight inch shell. But even with the work the wall would save the engineers on the west side, those trees sure played hell with the zones of fire. Seven of them looked to Herrold to be Philippine mahoganies; God knew what the monster in the middle was; a banyan, maybe, from the creviced trunk, but the bark didn't look like the banyans he'd seen before.

"Never saw trees that big before," the TC said aloud.

Hieu looked at him again, this time with a hint of expression on his face."Yes," he stated. "Ti-ti left when French come, now only one." His fingers toyed with the faded duck of the ammo pouch clipped to his belt. Both soldiers thought the dark man was through speaking, but Hieu's tongue flicked between his thin lips again and he continued, "Maybe three, maybe two years only, there was other. Now only this."The interpreter's voice became a hiss."But beaucoup years before, everywhere was tree, everywhere was Meng!"

Boots scuffled in powdery dirt; Murray and the

Frenchman were coming back from the TOC. Hieu lost interest in Herrold and vaulted the laterite wall gracefully. The driver and Crozier watched him stepping purposefully toward the center of the widely spaced grove as they halted beside the others.

"But who is that?" Crozier questioned sharply.

"Uh? That's Hieu, he's our interpreter," Murray grunted in surprise. "How come?"

The Frenchman frowned . . . "But he is Meng, surely? I did not know that any served in the army, even that the government tried to induct them anymore."

"Hell, I always heard he was from Saigon," Herrold answered. "He'd'a said if he was from here, wouldn't he?"

"What the hell's Hieu up to, anyhow?" Ginelli asked. He pointed toward the grove where the interpreter stood, facing the scarred trunk of the central tree. He couldn't see Hieu's hands from that angle, but the interpreter twitched in ritual motion beneath the fluid stripes of his fatigues.

Nobody spoke. Ginelli set one foot on the tread and lifted himself onto the flame track. Red and yellow smoke grenades hung by their safety rings inside the dome. Still lower swung a dusty pair of binoculars. Ginelli blew on the lenses before setting the glasses to his eyes and rotating the separate focus knobs. Hieu had knelt on the ground, but the trooper still could not tell what he was doing. Something else caught his eye.

"God damn," the plump newbie blurted. He leaned over the side of the track and thrust the glasses toward Herrold, busy putting the machine gun back together. "Hey Red, take a look at the tree trunk."

Murray, Crozier, and Ginelli himself waited expectantly while the TC refocused the binoculars. Magnified, the tree increased geometrically in hideousness. Its bark was pinkish and paper thin, smoother than that of a birch over most of the bole's surface. The gouged, wrinkled appearance of the trunk was due to the underlying wood, not any irregularity in the bark that covered it.

The tall catface in front of Hieu was the trunk's only true blemish. Where the tear had puckered together in a creased, blackened seam, ragged edges of bark fluttered in the breeze. The flaps were an unhealthy color, like skin peeling away from a bad burn. Hieu's squat body hid only a third of the scar; the upper portion towered gloomily above him.

"Well, it's not much to look at," Herrold said at last. "What's the deal?"

"Where's the bullet holes?" Ginelli demanded in triumph. "You put twenty, thirty shots in it, right? Where'd they go to?"

"Son of a bitch," the TC agreed, taking another look. The co-ax should have left a tight pattern of shattered wood above the ancient scar. Except for some brownish dimples in the bark, the tree was unmarked.

"I saw splinters fly," Murray remarked.

"Goddam wood must'a swelled right over'em," Herrold suggested. "That's where I hit, all right."

"That is a very strange tree," Crozier said, speaking for the first time since his return. "There was another like it near Plantation Seven. It had almond trees around it too, though there was no wall. They call them god trees—the Viets do. The Mengs have their own word, but I do not know its meaning."

A Chinook swept over the firebase from the south, momentarily stifling conversation with the syncopated whopping of its twin rotors. It hovered just beyond the perimeter, then slowly settled in a circular dust cloud while its turbines whined enormously. Men ran to unload it.

"Chow pretty quick," Murray commented. It was nearing four o'clock. Ginelli looked away from the bird. "Don't seem right," he said. The other men looked blank. He tried to explain, "I mean, the Shithook there, jet engines and all, and that tree there being so old."

The driver snorted. "Hell, that's not old. Now back in California where they make those things"—his broad thumb indicated the banana-shaped helicopter—"they got redwoods that're really old. You don't think anything funny about that, do you?"

Ginelli gestured helplessly with his hands. Surprisingly it was Crozier, half-seated on the laterite wall, who came to his aid."What makes you think this god tree is less old than a redwood, Joe?" he asked mildly.

Murray blinked. "Hell, redwoods're the oldest things there are. Alive, I mean."

The Frenchman laughed and repeated his deprecating shrug. "But trees are my business, you know? Now there is a pine tree in Arizona older than your California sequoias; but nobody knew it for a long time because there are not many of them and . . . nobody noticed. And here is a tree, an old one—but who knows? Maybe there are only two in the whole world left—and the other one, the one in the north, that perhaps is dead with my plantation."

"You never counted the rings or anything?" Herrold asked curiously He had locked the barrel into the co-ax while the others were talking.

"No . . . " Crozier admitted. His tongue touched his lips as he glanced up at the god tree, wondering how much he should say. "No," he repeated, "but I only saw the tree once while I was at Plantation Seven. It stood in the jungle, more than a mile from the rubber, and the laborers did not care that anyone should go near it. There were Mengs there, too, I was told; but only a few and they hid in the woods. Bad blood between them and my laborers, no doubt."

"Well, hell, Jacques," Murray prompted. "When did you see it?" Crozier still hesitated. Suddenly realizing what the problem might be, the driver said, "Hell, don't worry about our stomachs, fer god's sake. Unless you're squeamish, turtle?" Ginelli blushed and shook his head. Laughing, Murray went on, "Anyhow, you grow up pretty quick after you get in the field—those that live to. Tell the story, Jacques."

Crozier sighed. The glade behind him was empty. Hieu had disappeared somewhere without being noticed."Well," he began, "it has no importance, I am sure—all this happened a hundred miles away, as you know. But . . . .

"It was not long after Michelin sent me to Indochina, in 1953 that would be. I was told of the god tree as soon as I arrived at Plantation Seven, but that was all. One of my foremen had warned me not to wander that way and I assumed, because of the Viet Minh.

"Near midnight—this was before Dien Bien Phu, you will remember—there was heavy firing not far from the plantation. I called the district garrison since for a marvel the radio was working. But of course, no one came until it was light."

Herrold and Murray nodded together in agreement. Charging into a night ambush was no way to help your buddies, not in this country. Crozier cleared his throat and went on, "It was two companies of colonial paras that came, and the colonel from the fort himself. Nothing would help but that I should guide them to where the shooting had been. A platoon had set up an ambush, so they said, but it did not call in—even for fire support. When I radioed they assumed . . . . " He shrugged expressively.

"And that is what we found. All the men, all of them dead—unforgettably. They were in the grove of that god tree, on both sides of the trail to it. Perhaps the lieutenant had thought the Viets were rallying there. The paras were well armed and did much shooting from the shells we found. But of enemies, there was no sign; and the paras had not been shot. They were torn, you know? Mutilated beyond what I could believe. But none had been shot, and their weapons lay with the bodies."

"That's crazy," Ginelli said, voicing everyone's thought. "Dinks would'a taken the guns."

Crozier shrugged. "The colonel said at last his men had been killed by some wild tribe, so savage they did not understand guns or would not use them. The Mengs, he meant. They were . . . wilder, perhaps, than the ones here but still . . . . I would not have thought there were enough of them to wipe out the platoon, waiting as it must have been."

"How were the men killed?" Herrold asked at last.

"Knives I think," the Frenchman replied, "short ones. Teeth I might have said; but there were really no signs that anything had fed on the bodies. Not the killers, that is. One man—"

He paused to swallow, continued, "One man I thought wore a long shirt of black. When I came closer, the flies left him. The skin was gone from his arms and chest. God alone knows what had killed him; but his face was the worst to see, and that was unmarked."

No one spoke for some time after that. Finally Murray said, "They oughta have chow on. Coming?"

Crozier spread his hands. "You are sure it is all right? I have no utensils."

"No sweat, there's paper plates. Rest'a you guys?"

"I'll be along," Herrold said. "Lemme remount the co-ax first."

"I'll do that," Ginelli offered. His face was saffron, bloodless beneath his tan. "Don't feel hungry tonight anyhow."

The track commander smiled. "You can give me a hand."

When the gun was bolted solidly back on its mount, Herrold laid a belt of ammunition on the loading tray and clicked the cover shut on it. "Ah," Ginelli mumbled, "ah, Red, don't you think it'd be a good idea to keep pressure up in the napalm tanks? I mean, there's a lotta Mengs around here and what Murray's buddy says . . . ."

"We'll make do with the co-ax," the TC replied, grinning. "You know how the couplings leak napalm with the pumps on."

"But if there's an attack?" Ginelli pleaded.

"Look, turtle," Herrold explained more sharply than before, "we're sitting on two hundred gallons of napalm. One spark in this track with the pressure up and we won't need no attack. OK?" Ginelli shrugged. "Well, come on to chow then," the TC suggested.

"Guess I'll stay."

"S'OK."Herrold slipped off the track and began walking toward the mess tent. He was singing softly, "We gotta get outa this place . . . ."

Crozier left just before the storm broke. The rain that had held off most of the day sheeted down at dusk. Lightning when it flared jumped from cloud-top to invisible cloud-top. It backlighted the sky.

The crewmen huddled under the inadequate tarpaulin, listening to the ragged static that was all Murray's transistor radio could pick up. Eventually he shut it off. Ginelli swore miserably. Slanting rain had started a worm of water at the head of his cot. It had finally squirmed all the way to the other end where he sat hunched against the chill wind."Shouldn't somebody be on the track?"he asked. Regular guard shifts started at ten o'clock, but usually everybody was more or less alert until then.

"Go ahead, turtle, it's your bright idea," Murray said. Herrold frowned more seriously. "Yeah, if you're worried you might as well . . . Look, you get up in the dome now and Murray'll trade his first shift for your second. Right?"

"Sure," the driver agreed. "Maybe this damn rain'll stop by then."

Wearing his poncho over his flak jacket, Ginelli clambered up the bow slope of the zippo. The metal sides were too slimy with rain to mount that way. Except during lightning strokes, the darkness was opaque. When it flashed, the trees stabbed into the sudden bright skies and made Ginelli think about the napalm beneath from a different aspect. Christ, those trees were the tallest things for miles, and God knew the track wasn't very far away if lightning did hit one. God, they were tall.

And they were old. Ginelli recognized the feeling he'd had ever since the flame track had nosed up to the wall to face the grove: an aura of age. The same thing he'd sensed when he was a kid and saw the Grand Canyon. There was something so old it didn't give a damn about man or anything else.

Christ! No tree was as old as that; it must be their size that made him so jumpy. Dark as it was, the dinks could be crawling closer between lightning flashes too. At least the rain was slowing down.

The hatch cover was folded back into a clamshell seat for the man on the dome. There was a fiber pillow to put over the steel, but it was soaked and Ginelli had set it on the back deck. For the first time he could remember, the thickness of his flak jacket felt good because the air was so cold. Water that slicked off the poncho or dripped from the useless flat muzzle of the flamethrower joined the drops spattering directly onto the zippo's deck. It pooled and flowed sluggishly toward the lowest point, the open driver's hatch.

The sky was starting to clear. An occasional spray fell, but the storm was over and a quarter moon shone when the broken clouds allowed it. Herrold stuck his head out from under the tarp. "How's going, man?"

Ginelli stretched some of the stiffness out of his back and began stripping off the poncho. "OK, I guess. I could use some coffee."

"Yeah. Well, hang in there till midnight and get Murray up. We're gonna rack out now."

Shadows from the treetops pooled massively about the boles. Although there was enough breeze to make the branches tremble, the trunks themselves were solid as cliffs, as solid as Time. The scar at the base of the god tree was perversely moonlit. The whole grove looked sinister in the darkness, but the scar itself was something more.

Only the half-hour routine of perimeter check kept Ginelli awake. Voices crackled around Headquarters Troop's sector until Ginelli could repeat, "Seven zero, report negative," for the last time and thankfully take off the commo helmet. His boots squelched as he dropped beside the cot where Murray snored softly, wrapped in the mottled green-brown nylon of his poncho liner. Ginelli shook him.

"Uh!" the driver grunted as he snapped awake. "Oh, right; lemme get my boots on."

One of the few clouds remaining drifted over the moon. As Murray stood upright, Ginelli thought movement flickered on the dark stone of the wall. "Hey!" the driver whispered. "What's Hieu doing out there?"

Ginelli peered into the grove without being able to see anything but the trees. "That was him goin' over the wall," Murray insisted. He held his M16 with the bolt back, ready to chamber around if the receiver was jarred."Look, I'm gonna check where he's going."

"Jeez, somebody'll see you and cut loose," Ginelli protested. "You can't go out there!"

Murray shook his head decisively. "Naw, it'll be OK," he said as he slipped over the wall.

"Crazy," Ginelli muttered. And it suddenly struck him that a man who volunteered for three extra years of combat probably wasn't quite normal in the back-home sense. Licking his lips, he waited tensely in the darkness. The air had grown warmer since the rain stopped, but the plump newbie found himself shivering.

A bird fluttered among the branches of the nearest mahogany. You didn't seem to see many birds in country, not like you did back in the World. Ginelli craned his neck to get a better view, but the irregular moonlight passed only the impression of wings a drab color.

Nothing else moved within the grove. Ginelli swore miserably and shook Herrold awake. The track commander slept with his flak jacket for a pillow and, despite his attitude of nonchalance, the clumsy greasegun lay beside him on the cot. His fingers curled around its pistolgrip as he awakened.

"Oh, for god's sake," he muttered when Ginelli blurted out the story. Herrold had kept his boots on, only the tops unlaced, and he quickly whipped the ties tight around his shins. "Christ, ten minutes ago?"

"Well, should I call in?" Ginelli suggested uncertainly.

"Hell," Herrold muttered, "no, I better go tell the ole man. You get back in the dome and wait for me." He hefted his submachine gun by the receiver.

Ginelli started to climb onto the track. Turning, he said, "Hey, man."Herrold paused. "Don't be too long, huh?"

"Yeah." The track commander trudged off toward the unlighted HQ tent. A bird, maybe a large bat from its erratic flight, passed over Ginelli's head at treetop level. He raised the loading cover of the co-ax to recheck the position of the linked belt of ammunition.

There was a light in the grove.

It was neither man-made nor the moon's reflection, and at first it was almost too faint to have a source at all. Ginelli gaped frozen at the huge god tree. The glow resolved into a viridescent line down the center of the scar, a strip of brightness that widened perceptibly as the edges of the cicatrix drew back. The interior of the tree seemed hollow, lined with self-shining greeness to which forms clung. As Ginelli watched, a handful of the creatures lurched from the inner wall and fluttered out through the dilated scar.

Someone screamed within the laager. Ginelli whirled around. The tactical operations center was green and two-dimensional where the chill glare licked it. A man tore through the canvas passage linking the vehicles, howling and clutching at the back of his neck until he fell. A dark shape flapped away from him. The remaining blotches clinging to the green of the tree flickered outward and the scar began to close.

The cal fifty in the assault vehicle to the right suddenly began blasting tracers point blank into the shrinking green blaze. Heavy bullets that could smash through half an inch of steel ripped across the tree. It was like stabbing a sponge with ice picks. Something dropped into the ACAV's cupola from above. The shots stopped and the gunner began to bellow hoarsely.

Ginelli swiveled his co-ax onto the tree and clamped down on its underslung trigger. Nothing happened; in his panic he had forgotten to charge the gun. Sparkling muzzle flashes were erupting all across the laager. Near the TOC a man fired his M16 at a crazy angle, trying to drop one of the flying shapes. Another spiraled down behind him of its own deadly accord. His rifle continued to fire as he collapsed on top of it. It sent a last random bullet to spall a flake of aluminum from the flame track's side, a foot beneath Ginelli's exposed head.

A soldier in silhouette against the green light lunged toward the god tree's slitted portal and emptied his rifle point blank. The knife in his hand glowed green as he chopped it up and down into the edge of the scar, trying to widen the gap. "Murray!" Ginelli called. He jerked back his machine-gun's operating rod but did not shoot. He could hear Murray screaming obscenities made staccato by choppy bursts of automatic fire from behind him.

Ginelli turned his head without conscious warning. He had only enough time to drop down into the compartment as the thing swooped. Its vans, stretched batlike between arm and leg, had already slammed it upright in braking for the kill. The green glare threw its features in perfect relief against the chaos of the firebase: a body twenty inches long, deep-torsoed like a mummified pigmy; weasel teeth, slender cones perfectly formed for slaughter; a face that could have been human save for its size and the streaks of black blood that disfigured it. Tree light flashed a shadow across the hatch as the chittering creature flapped toward other prey for the moment.

Ginelli straightened slowly, peered out of the dome. There was a coldness in his spine; his whole lower body felt as though it belonged to someone else. He knew it wasn't any use, even for himself, to slam the dome hatch over his head and hope to wait the nightmare out. The driver's compartment was open; there was plenty of room between the seat and the engine firewall beside it for the killers to crawl through.

Taking a deep breath, Ginelli leaped out of the hatch. He ignored the co-ax. A shuffling step forward in a low crouch and he slid feet first through the driver's hatch. Throttle forward, both clutch levers at neutral. The starter motor whined for an instant; then the six-cylinder diesel caught, staggered, and boomed into life. An imbalance somewhere in the engine made the whole vehicle tremble.

Murray was still gouging at the base of the scar, face twisted in maniacal savagery. Chips flew every time the blade struck, letting more of the interior glare spill out. Ginelli throttled back, nerving himself to move."Murray!" he shouted again over the lessened throb of the diesel. "Get away—dammit, get away!"

A figure oozed out of the shadows and gripped Murray by the shoulder. Perhaps the driver screamed before he recognized Hieu; if so, Ginelli's own cry masked the sound. The Meng spoke, his face distorted with triumph. As the incredulous driver stared, Hieu shouted a few syllables at the god tree in a throaty language far different from the nasal trills of Vietnamese.

The tree opened again. The edges of the scar crumpled sideways, exposing fully the green-lit interior and what stood in it now. Murray whipped around, his blade raised to slash. An arm gripped his, held the knife motionless. The thing was as tall as the opening it stood in, bipedal but utterly inhuman.

Its face was a mirror image of Hieu's own.

Murray flung himself back, but another pallid, boneless arm encircled him and drew him into the tree. His scream was momentary, cut off when the green opening squeezed almost shut behind him and what Hieu had summoned.

The hooked moon was out again. Hieu turned and began striding toward the shattered laager. His single ammo pouch flopped open; the crude necklace around his neck was of human fingertips, dried and strung on a twist of cambium. Behind him a score of other human-appearing figures slunk out of the grove, every face identical.

Ginelli gathered his feet under him on the seat, then sprang back on top of the track. One of the winged shapes had been waiting for him, called by the mutter of the engine. It darted in from the front, banking easily around Ginelli's out-thrust arm. Ginelli tripped on the flamethrower's broad tube, fell forward bruisingly. Clawed fingers drew four bloody tracks across his forehead as the flyer missed its aim. It swept back purposefully.

Ginelli jumped into the dome hatch and snatched at the clamshell cover to close it. As the steel lid swung to, the winged man's full weight bounced it back on its hinges ringingly. Jagged teeth raked the soldier's bare right arm, making him scream in frenzy. He yanked at the hatch cover with mad strength. There was no clang as the hatch shut, but something crackled between the edges of armor plate. The brief cry of agony was higher pitched than a man's. Outside, the scar began to dilate again.

Ginelli gripped the valve and hissed with pain. Shock had numbed his right arm only momentarily. Left-handed he opened the feeds. His fingers found a switch, flicked it up, and the pump began throbbing behind him. His whole body shuddered as he swung the dome through a short arc so that the tree's blazing scar was centered in the periscope. The universal joint of the fat napalm hose creaked in protest at being moved and a drop of thickened gasoline spattered stickily on Ginelli's flak jacket.

With a cry of horrified understanding, Hieu leaped onto the stone wall between Ginelli and the tree. "You must—" was all the Meng could say before the jet of napalm caught him squarely in the chest and flung him back into the enclosure. There was no flame. The igniter had not fired.

Mumbling half-remembered fragments of a Latin prayer, Ginelli triggered the weapon again. Napalm spurted against the tree in an unobstructed black arch. The igniter banged in mid-shot and the darkness boomed into a hellish red glare. The tree keened as the flame rod's giant fist smashed against it. Its outer bark shriveled and the deep, bloody surge of napalm smothered every other color. Ginelli's fiery scythe roared as he slashed it up and down the trunk. Wood began to crackle like gunfire, exploding and hurling back geysers of sparks. A puff of dry heat roiled toward the laager in the turbulent air. It was heavy with the stench of burning flesh.

A series of swift thuds warned Ginelli of flyers landing on the zippo's deck; teeth clicked on armor. Something rustled from the driver's compartment. The trooper used his stiffening right hand to switch on the interior lights. The yellow bulbs glinted from close-set eyes peering over the driver's seat. Ginelli kicked. Instead of crunching under his boot, the face gave with a terrible resiliency and the winged man continued to squirm into the TC's compartment. A sparkling chain of eyes flashed behind the first pair. The whole swarm of killers was crowding into the track.

Ginelli's only weapon was the flame itself. Instinctively he swung the nozzle to the left and depressed it, trying to hose fire into the forward hatch of his own vehicle. Instead, the frozen coupling parted. Napalm gouted from the line. The flame died with a serpentine lurch, leaving the god tree alone as a lance of fire. The track was flooding with the gummy fluid; it clung to Ginelli's chest and flak jacket before rolling off in sluggish gobbets.

Bloody faces washed black with smears of napalm, the winged men struggled toward Ginelli implacably. His mind barely functional, the soldier threw open the hatch and staggered onto the zippo's deck. Unseen, one flyer still hung in the air. It struck him in the middle of the back and catapulted him off the vehicle. Ginelli somersaulted across the dusty, flame-lit cauldron. The napalm's gluey tenacity fixed the creature firmly against Ginelli's flak jacket; its hooked claws locked into the fabric while its teeth tore his scalp.

The huge torch of the god tree crashed inward toward the laager. A flaming branch snapped with the impact and bounded high in the air before plunging down on the napalm-filled flame track. Ginelli staggered to his feet, tried to run. The zippo exploded with a hollow boom and a mushroom of flame, knocking him down again without dislodging the vengeful horror on his back.

With the last of his strength, Ginelli ripped off the unfastened flak jacket and hurled it into the air. For one glistening instant he thought the napalm-soaked nylon would land short of the pool of fire surrounding the flame track. His uncoordinated throw was high and the winged killer had time to pull one van loose as it pinwheeled. It struck the ground that way, mired by the incendiary that bloomed to consume it.

Ginelli lay on his back, no longer able to move. A shadow humped over the top of the wall: Hieu, moving very stiffly. His right hand held a cane spear. The Meng was withered like a violet whose roots had been chopped away, but he was not dead.

"You kill all, you . . . animals," he said. His voice was thick and half-choked by the napalm that had hosed him. He balanced on the wall, black against the burning wreckage of the god tree."All . . . "he repeated, raising the spear. "Cut . . . poison . . . burn. But you—"

Herrold's greasegun slammed beside Ginelli, its muzzle blast deafening even against the background roar of the flames. A solid bar of tracers stitched redly across the Meng's chest and slapped him off the wall as a screaming ball of fire.

It was still four hours to dawn, Ginelli thought as he drifted into unconsciousness; but until then the flames would give enough light.

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