Back | Next


"If anyone slays with the sword, with the sword he must be slain." 

Revelation 13:10



The Colonel had never met this tasking officer, but he was a Suit and the Colonel figured all Suits were the same. The fact that this particular Suit was part of Hell's bureaucracy rather than Langley's didn't make a lot of difference.

"Good to see you, Colonel," the Suit said as he studied the folder in front of him. "Please sit down."

He didn't get up from behind his desk, and he didn't offer to shake hands. Probably afraid he'd transfer sweat to the fine wool/silk blend of his garment. This particular Suit fancied English tailoring instead of Italian, but that was pretty standard for the Company boys too. The left half of the Colonel's lips smiled.

"Yes?" said the Suit.

"I was wondering," the Colonel said, "whether Hell is a CIA proprietary operation. Or vice versa."

"I think we'd best use our time to productive ends, Colonel," the Suit said dismissively. "The schedule is rather tight for jokes."

There was a look of disdain in his eyes. The Colonel would have liked to put the muzzle of a pistol in the Suit's mouth and watch those hard black eyes bulge when he pulled the trigger, but he wouldn't do that.

He'd never done that, much as he'd wanted to, every fucking time. The Suits with their clean hands and clean clothes were all the same. . . .

The Suit frowned again at the red-bordered folder in front of him, then transferred his attention to the Colonel. "What's your physical condition?" he said. "This says you were—"

"I'm fit," the Colonel said curtly. His ribs were taped. He'd blocked the obsidian-fanged club, but the blow had driven the flat of his own weapon, a similar club, into his side. Adrenaline had hidden the pain while the Colonel buried the butt of his club in the solar plexus of the squat giant who'd struck him and then broke his neck with the edge of his hand; but the pain was back now, every time he breathed.

"Colonel, if you're not—"

"I said I was fit!" the Colonel said. "I can execute your Goddamned operation better than anybody else you can hand the job to!"

The Suit gave him a cold smile. "Yes, you will have your joke, won't you?" he said. "Very well."

He shifted one, then two sheets from the right side of the folder to the left and said, "You'll be inserted with a twenty-man team to eliminate an Enemy base. We believe it's a medical unit, but there'll doubtless be a security element attached. You should be fine if you execute a quick in-and-out."

The Suit flipped another page. You'll be fine, you smug sonuvabitch, the Colonel thought, because you won't be within a hundred klicks of the sound of gunfire. You'll be drinking in a bar with your Savile Row and Armani colleagues, talking solemnly about the strain of your position. 

The Colonel had gotten the job through an Australian friend, Macgregor. Mac was dead now, killed trying to start the motor of his Zodiac boat during some goatfuck in the Seychelles, the Colonel had heard. Maybe true, maybe not. Rumors hadn't gotten any more accurate than they'd been before things started to come apart.

The Colonel doubted Mac had known any more about the employer than he had himself. Suits were looking for people with special skills for work in the international security field—just like always. The pay was good.

The Colonel wasn't stupid; he wouldn't have survived this long without more raw brainpower than most of the Suits who tasked him. He'd realized a long time ago that the pay was just an excuse. He was doing this work because the only time he felt alive was when he was doing the work, and he wasn't ready to die.

When the Colonel figured out who his employer was, he didn't much like it. But neither did the knowledge make any real difference in what the Colonel did or how well he did it.

"Here's the map of the terrain," the Suit said, handing over a folded document. "You can study it as long as you wish, but it can't leave the room, of course."

"Of course," the Colonel said. Suits were always jealous of their secrets, their Sources and Methods. A captured map might tell the Enemy what we knew and how we'd learned it. In this particular case, the Enemy being who He was, that was even funnier than the usual Suit bullshit.

The map was satellite imagery overlaid with contour lines and elevations noted in meters. A hollow triangle marked the objective. The satellites hadn't been up for the past six months, though the Colonel was losing track of time. Still, the mountainous terrain itself wasn't likely to have changed much.

There were no landmarks familiar to the Colonel. He waved a corner of the map to the tasking officer. "Where is this?" he asked.

"The operation doesn't require that you have that information," the Suit said coolly.

The Colonel looked at him and smiled. Eyes bulging outward. A spray of blood from the nostrils as the bullet acts as a piston in the chamber of the skull. 

He went back to studying the map.

"You'll insert by air," the Suit said. "The vehicle will remain under your operational control and will extract you at the completion of the mission."

"Enemy forces?" the Colonel said, his eyes on the map.

"In the region as a whole, considerable," the Suit said. He shrugged. "Brigade strength, we believe. But the site you're to eliminate should have no more than a platoon present for security. The Enemy won't be able to bring greater forces to bear in the time available—if you do your job properly."

"Yes, all right," the Colonel said. He stood up and handed back the map. The right knee caught him as it always did, the calling card of a paradrop into bamboo when he was nineteen and thought he was indestructible. "I'm ready to meet my unit."

The Suit replaced the map within the folder. "Very well," he said. "One of the service personnel is waiting outside the door. He'll lead you to your men."

The Colonel paused before touching the doorknob and looked back. Maybe it was the "if you do your job properly" that made him angry enough to say, "Does it bother you to be working for the losing side?"

"I beg your pardon?" the Suit said. He looked genuinely puzzled.

"This is the battle of Good against Evil," the Colonel said. "Evil loses, right? And don't try to tell me we're the forces of Good!"

"Certainly not that," the Suit said with a faint smile. "What a concept."

His smile hardened. "But for the rest, Colonel, you're quite wrong. Good doesn't defeat you." The Suit shook his head. "What a concept!" he repeated.

The Colonel stepped into the hallway where the silent servitor waited. He didn't know how to take what the Suit had just told him, so he didn't think about it.

He had a lot of experience with not thinking about things.

The troops were camped under a metal-roofed shelter at the edge of thorny scrubland. Fiber matting hung from the rafters on the south side as a sun shade. There were low platforms around the edges where the men would lay out their bedrolls at night. Now they used the platforms as seats as they cooked on a pair of small fires burning on the dirt floor in the center.

The man who noticed the servitor guiding the Colonel toward the shelter jumped up and called to the others. Chattering with high-pitched enthusiasm, the troops spilled out to stand in a single rank to greet their new commander.

The air was hot and dry. The outline of the mountains in the eastern distance was as unfamiliar to the Colonel as the topographic map had been.

"Sir!" said the man at the left end of the line of troops. He threw the Colonel a British-style salute, palm outward. "I am Captain Sisir Krishnamurtri of the Telugu Resistance Army. My men and I know you by reputation. We are honored to serve with you!"

The Colonel returned the salute with the edge of his hand out the way he'd learned it too many years ago. Instinctively he sucked in his gut. He was in good shape—"great shape for a man of his age," people said—but he knew the difference between that and nineteen.

The servitor knew the difference too. They never spoke, these hairless, sexless nude figures who performed administrative duties for the fighting forces, but they had minds and personalities. This one smirked when he saw the Colonel pretending to be more than the decayed remnants of what he once had been.

What made it worse was that the troops were so absurdly young themselves. Captain Krishnamurtri was probably twenty-five, but the Colonel doubted any of the others were out of their teens. Several on the far end of the line were fourteen at the oldest, boys hopping from one foot to the other with their eagerness to go out and kill.

Telugus were South Indians, the Colonel thought, though he'd never heard of a Telugu Resistance Army. They were small, dark folk, barefoot and wearing dhotis wrapped around their loins. Krishnamurtri had put on a short-sleeved khaki shirt as a sign of his rank when the Colonel arrived. Their red sweatbands were probably a uniform.

"I'm pleased to be working with you too, Captain," the Colonel said. That was a lie, but it was a very familiar lie; and God knew he'd commanded worse. In Sierra Leone, for instance . . . "Send the men back to their meal while you brief me on your unit."

God knew. The Colonel smiled at his accidental joke. Black humor was the only kind of humor there was in the field.

The platform at the east end of the shelter was eight inches high, twice that of the others. It provided a dais on which Krishnamurtri and the Colonel sat—the Telugu squatting, the Colonel with his left leg crossed and the right straight out in front of him because the knee hadn't bent properly since the day bamboo splintered its way through the connective tissue.

"First off," the Colonel said, "how many of your men speak English?"

A young soldier came over with two small glass cups of tea on a brass tray. There was a sprig of mint in either cup. He bowed, set the tray down between the officers, and scuttled off.

Krishnamurtri picked up a cup and offered it to the Colonel. "Them?" he said. "None, they only speak Telugu. They're merely field workers. I am a Brahmin. Without me they would be nothing. You will tell me what to do, Colonel, and I will see that they do it."

The Colonel sipped his tea. It was sweet and hot, hotter even than the steady wind out of the west.

He'd seen it too often to be surprised any more: local officers who thought their men were dirt. That's what they were in truth, often enough, thugs good for nothing but to smoke khat or whatever the local drug of choice was and carry off girls to rape for the next week or so until they got tired of them.

But the officers were even worse to any eyes but their own. If the Colonel could speak Telugu or the troops knew English, he wouldn't have kept Krishnamurtri around even to wipe his feet on. That wasn't an option—it usually wasn't—and anyway, the other side was usually just as badly off.

Even now. This was the Colonel's third operation for his present employer, and the quality of the opposition had been well short of divine. He smiled again.

Before the Colonel could ask about the unit's training and experience, a vehicle sailed out of the western sky as slowly as a vulture and landed beside the shelter in a shimmer of static electricity. It was a narrow, flat-bottomed craft more like a toboggan than an aircraft. It was open-sided except for the exiguous cockpit in front where a kneeling servitor drove. The Colonel had never seen anything like it before.

The servitor got out, pointed an index finger at the weapons lying on the rear deck, and walked away without a backward glance. The Telugus chirped with amazement as they gathered around the vehicle.

"An air sled!" Krishnamurtri said. "And look, they're giving us ion guns too, enough for all of us! This is because we serve with you, Colonel. We are honored, greatly honored!"

The Colonel got to his feet with the care his ribs and his many previous injuries required. He kept a straight face as he stepped out of the shelter. He'd never heard of air sleds or the ion guns which the delighted Telugus were now waving in the air. He didn't suppose it mattered.

On his first operation for the present employer the Colonel's troops had been mostly Nigerians. They'd been armed with a variety of World War II weapons: Enfield rifles and Tommy guns, with American pineapple grenades and a Danish light machine gun, a Madsen, that took 8-mm ammunition instead of the .303 that the rifles used.

Riddle had been assigned as his XO on that operation. The Colonel had worked with him before, on Bouganville. Riddle knew his business, right enough, but he was a nasty piece of work. He liked his boys as young as possible and screaming, even when they were prostitutes and already, as Riddle put it, stump-broke. The Colonel hadn't been sorry when the bunker Riddle threw a grenade into blew up and took him with it. There must have been a ton of explosives stored inside.

You could call the operation a success: they'd destroyed the Enemy base camp. Only the Colonel himself and a handful of his troops had survived, though.

The second operation was supposed to eliminate an Enemy command post. The Colonel had been assigned to a unit of Amerinds armed with clubs and spears. He'd worked in Latin America often enough in the past, but he didn't speak the language his troops did and they had only a smattering of the Spanish that had to serve as his command language.

They'd done their job, caught the hostile commander in his hammock with one of his wives and hacked them both to bloody fragments. Enemy forces had kept up the pursuit to where the canoes were stashed, however; only the Colonel himself and two paddlers had made it all the way back for pickup.

The Colonel examined the ion gun. It had a short barrel, a long tubular receiver, and a pistol grip with a normal trigger and a three-position safety above it. The weapon had no other controls.

He extended the telescoping buttstock, walked around the end of the shelter, and aimed through the disk-shaped optical sight toward the mountains. Telugus crowded behind him, jabbering in excitement.

The Colonel pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He was deliberately ignoring Captain Krishnamurtri's offered suggestions, though it was going to be embarrassing if the Colonel couldn't figure the weapon out himself.

He thumbed the rotary safety to its middle position and squeezed the trigger again. A sunburst carved a crackling path through the air. The beam traveled several kilometers, though it dissipated in a foggy cone well short of the mountains. The gun recoiled hard, like a shotgun with heavy loads.

The sighting disk went black at the instant of discharge, but purple ghost images danced on the retina of the Colonel's left eye. He'd have to remember to close it in the future, fighting a lifetime's conditioning to shoot with both eyes open in order to be aware of his surroundings as well as his sight picture.

He turned the safety straight back, to its third position. He sighted, closed his left eye, and squeezed. His feet were braced and the butt was firmly against his shoulder. Even so the discharge rocked him backward.

The flash lit the entire vicinity. The Colonel had aimed well above the nearby vegetation, but it still exploded into flame. The weapon ejected a silvery tube from a port in the underside.

The Colonel lowered the weapon carefully; its muzzle was white hot. "All right," he said to Krishnamurtri as the other troops capered behind him, thrilled by the display. "Do we have a driver for the air sled?"

* * *

The Colonel checked moonrise against his watch, then velcroed the field cover over its face. The fabric both protected the crystal and concealed the luminous dial. This was a bright night, but habit and the awareness of how often little things were the difference between life and death kept the Colonel to his routine.

He settled onto the right front of the vehicle beside Rao, the pilot. There were no seats. The Colonel's stiff right leg stuck out the side at an angle.

"All right," the Colonel said. "Take us up." Krishnamurtri, squatting immediately behind Rao, relayed the order as a short bark.

Rao had circled the base camp alone to prove he could fly the air sled. As they staggered into the air with a full load of troops and equipment, though, the Colonel knew they were in trouble.

Because they weren't rising as fast as Rao thought they should, the Telugu shouted at the vehicle and jerked back on the simple joystick control. The bow came up—too sharply. The sled apparently couldn't stall, but it could slide backward if the angle of attack was too sharp. It started to do that.

Krishnamurtri pounded Rao on the top of the head. The troops in back babbled with surprise and fear.

The Colonel put his big right hand over the pilot's and rolled the joystick forward. The stick slid in on its axis also. That in-and-out motion controlled the sled's speed, as the Colonel realized when they slowed. They'd almost mushed out of the air before he hauled up on Rao's hand and the stick.

The sled's nose dipped. They accelerated in a rush toward the ground. The Colonel eased the stick back carefully, fighting Rao's urge to haul them up hard. The vehicle lifted smoothly instead of crashing through the scrub, shedding pieces of itself and the men aboard.

They leveled out and started to climb gently. The Colonel took his hand away from the joystick. He patted Rao on the shoulder.

He turned toward Krishnamurtri. "Tell him that easy does it," he said. "With a load like this it's important not to overcorrect."

Krishnamurtri shouted another string of Telugu abuse at Rao. The Colonel couldn't do anything about that, but when Krishnamurtri raised his hand to hit the pilot again he caught the captain's wrist.

"Stupid peasant!" Krishnamurtri muttered as he subsided.

The Colonel rode with his right leg sticking out in the airstream. His ion gun pointed at the scrubland, ready to fire individual bolts. Because of where he sat in the vehicle, he held the grip with his left hand. The right was his master hand, but he'd learned long ago to use either as circumstances dictated.

The Colonel had flown helicopters in the past. He'd never had formal training, just a quick-and-dirty grounding in the basics. There'd been time to spare and the pilot wanted somebody who could grab the stick if he was shot in a place that was incapacitating but not fatal. (The pilot didn't care what happened to the bird if he'd already bought the farm.)

That particular operation had been a dream—the team extracted before anybody on the ground knew they'd had company. Three months later, though, a different pilot took a .51-cal round through the throat and sprayed his blood all over what was left of the cockpit while the Colonel flew them back to the base. They'd pancaked in from twenty feet up, but that wasn't the Colonel's fault: another round had opened the tank. The turbine died when the last of the jet fuel leaked out in the airstream.

The Colonel figured he could fly the air sled if he had to—fly it better than Rao, at any rate—but he couldn't both fly the bird and conn them in at low level the way this insertion had to be made. Besides, the controls were on the left side of the cockpit; they'd have to land for him and Rao to change places, which meant circling back to the base to find a cleared area. The number of ways that could go wrong made the risk at least as significant as letting Rao continue as pilot.

The Telugu seemed to have gotten things under control after the rocky start. The sled's speed built up until they were belting along at close on ninety knots by the Colonel's estimate. They could have done with a proper windscreen, though the reverse curve of the sled's dash panel did a remarkably good job of directing the airflow over the pair in the immediate front of the vehicle. Buffeting was much worse for the common soldiers farther back.

The Colonel gave his usual half-mouthed smile. Rank hath its privileges. In this case, the privilege of taking the first round himself if they happened to overfly an Enemy outpost. God knew Enemy troops should've been patrolling well out from their bases in the mountains.

But even if the local commander knew what he was doing, his subordinates might still have ignored his orders or simply done a piss-poor job of executing them. You couldn't assume that the Enemy was ten feet tall, any more than you could count on the Enemy not knowing his ass from a hole in the ground.

The air sled continued slowly climbing. He'd told Rao—told Krishnamurtri, at any rate—that they needed to stay within ten feet of the treetops; they were up to thirty by now and going higher. Rather than go through the Brahmin, the Colonel tapped on the top of the dashboard to get Rao's attention and mimed a gliding descent with his right hand.

Krishnamurtri immediately shouted at the pilot and slapped the back of his head. Rao looked around in wide-eyed amazement. The air sled yawed; the troops in the back cried out with fear. They had a right to be afraid: the sled didn't even have a grab rail. The Colonel was more than a little surprised that they hadn't lost somebody during the wobbling takeoff.

He put his hand over Rao's again, steadying the Telugu instead of trying to take control, and said to Krishnamurtri in a clipped, very clear voice, "I'll handle this if you please, Captain. And I suggest that you not hit our pilot again while we're in the air. A Claymore mine isn't in the same league as an air crash for shredding human bodies. As I've seen many times."

God knew he had.

The air sled stabilized. They flew on without further incident until the ground beneath changed abruptly from rolling scrubland to fractured terrain where rocks stood up in sheer-sided walls from the softer earth beneath. Rao pulled back on the joystick. He was adjusting his altitude instinctively by the mountains on the horizon rather than the broken hills immediately below the air sled.

The Colonel tapped the dashboard and again mimed a descent. Rao glanced at him sidelong and adjusted the stick only minusculely. The sled continued to rise, though at a flatter angle.

"Tell him to follow the gully to our left!" the Colonel said to Krishnamurtri. The sled's drive mechanism made no sound other than a low-frequency hum and an occasional pop of static electricity, but wind rush meant words had to be shouted to be heard. "We need to be down below the level of the gully's walls!"

The Brahmin nodded several times as though he understood, but he didn't say anything to Rao. "Well, tell him!" the Colonel said, wishing he spoke Telugu.

But why stop with a little wish like that? He could wish that he had a team of Special Forces instead of Third World farm boys qualified as soldiers by the fact that they wouldn't fall over if you leaned a rifle against them. He could even wish that he'd lived his previous life in a fashion that didn't have him now commanding troops on the side of Hell in Armageddon.

The Colonel smiled. "Tell him," he repeated. His voice was no longer harsh, but Krishnamurtri looked even more frightened than before. Maybe it was the smile.

Krishnamurtri spoke to the pilot without his usual hectoring violence. Rao looked at the Colonel with a desperate expression. The Colonel put his hand over Rao's and gently forced the joystick forward.

"Tell him he can slow down if he has to," the Colonel said to Krishnamurtri. "But not too much. Remember, if we don't do this fast, they're going to do us."

He smiled. "Just as sure as Hell."

* * *

It was mostly bad luck.

The Colonel had a phenomenal talent for correlating maps with real terrain at ground level; practice had honed an innate skill. Nevertheless he had to concentrate to guide them along the route he'd planned after ten minutes with an aerial photograph, and he wasn't paying much attention to the Telugus. After the fact, he wished that he'd remembered to warn Rao that the gorge they were following took a hard jog to the left, but there was only so much you could do.

Rao tried to go over the sudden barrier instead of banking with it. That might have been all right if the sled hadn't been so heavily loaded; as it was, they were going to clear the rock but not the thorny trees growing on the creviced top.

The Colonel acted in a combination of reflex and instinct, two of the supports that had kept him alive longer than even he could credit when he looked back on his life. He thumbed the ion gun's safety to position three, rock and roll, and triggered the weapon.

The ion gun's discharge dazzled the night. Trees vanished and the limestone slope beyond glowed white under the lash of the beam. The air sled sailed through a momentary Hell of furnace-hot air. The troops were screaming.

Ash flew into the Colonel's eyes when he opened them after shooting. He blinked furiously to clear them so he could see again.

Rao fought the sled under control, then clapped the Colonel on the shoulder with a cry of delight. The Telugu was thrilled to still be alive.

"Watch your—" the Colonel said, unable to see clearly himself but aware that this was no time for the pilot to be thinking about dangers already past.

Rao curved back over the lip of the gorge they'd been following. The air sled dropped precipitately as it left the updraft from rock heated by the ion blast. The back end ticked the ground hard enough to throw the rearmost Telugus overboard. Without their weight, the nose tilted sharply down.

Rao screamed; the Colonel hauled his hand fiercely back on the joystick. Neither man's action made any useful difference. The sled scraped along the rocky soil, disintegrating as it threw its passengers off to either side.

The Colonel bailed out at the first hop, before the sled started to tumble. He curled into a ball and hit rolling; there wasn't a good way to smack the ground at forty knots, but he'd done it before and survived.

He clamped the ion gun to his belly. The barrel was searingly hot from firing, but the Colonel's instinct to cling to his weapon was stronger than any pain.

He skidded to a halt well down the slope and paused a moment before he got to his feet. He'd once seen a man leap from a C-47 as it bellied in on a grass strip. The fellow would probably have been all right if he hadn't tried to stand up before he'd come to a complete stop. Momentum flipped him in an unexpected cartwheel; he broke his neck when he came down again.

The Colonel had seen people die in some of the damnedest ways. God knew he had.

He checked himself over. He didn't seem to have broken any bones. His left elbow had taken a knock, but it bent and straightened all right. His ribs felt like there was a white-hot sword in his side every time he took a breath, but there was no blood in the phlegm when he cleared dust and soot from his lungs in a wracking cough. Pain had never kept the Colonel from moving when his life depended on it. His life certainly depended on moving now.

There'd been a box of six reloads along with the ion guns; five remained after the Colonel tested the weapon. He thrust one of the silvery tubes into the receiver now and turned the safety back to single shot. The Colonel had taken all the reloads himself since he hadn't been with his troops long enough to know which men might be trusted with extra ammo.

Probably none of them. Christ, what a mess. Ten klicks into hostile territory with twenty farmers, no commo, and no transport but their own feet. The Telugus—Krishnamurtri included—didn't even have boots.

The Brahmin sat weeping. He seemed healthy enough except for scrapes.

Rao lay on his back, whimpering as he tried unsuccessfully to breathe. The pilot had separated from the air sled only moments after the Colonel did, but a blow from the joystick had crushed his ribs. Rao's chest quivered, but without the rib cage for an anchor his diaphragm couldn't suck air into his flailing lungs.

The Colonel shook Krishnamurtri. When that didn't rouse him, the Colonel slapped him hard. "Get the men together," he ordered. "Tell them we're hiking back to base. Anybody who can't march gets to make his own peace with the Enemy, but I haven't seen much sign of heavenly mercy in the past."

Krishnamurtri looked at the Colonel in sick amazement. The Brahmin's teeth had cut his upper lip in two places, either during the crash or when the Colonel slapped him.

"Look," the Colonel said in a soft voice. He slid out the double-edged knife he wore in a sheath sewn to his right boot. "If you can't talk to these people, you're no good to me at all."

Krishnamurtri crawled backward in a sitting position, his eyes on the Colonel. He shouted orders in high-pitched Telugu.

The Colonel half walked, half slid, the twenty feet down to Rao. The Telugu watched in sick desperation. His lips moved, but he had no breath to form words. He couldn't have spoken a language the Colonel could understand anyway.

The Colonel had heard the words often enough, in at least a score of languages. God knew he had.

The Colonel thrust the bootknife behind Rao's left mastoid and drew it expertly around to the right, severing the Telugu's throat to the spine. He stepped back, clear of the spurting blood, and tugged the pilot's dhoti off to wipe his blade while the body was still thrashing.

It wasn't the kind of help Rao had wanted, but it's all the help there could be: a quick death in place of the slower one of suffocation.

Krishnamurtri was on his feet, calling orders with increasing confidence. Men were moving among the trees and brush. At the bottom of the gorge, vegetation burned with an occasional blue electrical splutter to mark where the air sled had come to rest.

That fire and the one the Colonel had lit with his ion gun would mark his unit for the Enemy, too. They didn't have a prayer of getting out of this goatfuck. Not a prayer.

The Colonel smiled at his joke. He sheathed his knife as he waited for his surviving men to gather.

There were thirteen of them left, twelve Telugus and the Colonel himself. Four of the troops hadn't showed up after the crash; three more had been too badly injured to march. And there was Rao, of course.

Only eight Telugus were armed. Ion guns had gone skidding off into the night when the sled tumbled. Unlike the men, the weapons hadn't walked back up the slope looking battered and worried. The Colonel didn't have time to waste searching for guns in the moonlight.

He'd left the wounded men as they were. He couldn't do anything to help them, and they couldn't tell the Enemy anything that wasn't obvious: the survivors were hiking home.

The Colonel would have killed his wounded if he'd had a reason to do so, but he'd never been one of those who liked killing for its own sake. That kind wasn't good for much. Like the looters and rapists, they were so absorbed in their desires that they didn't pay attention to the real business—till they took a charge of buckshot in the back, or a pitchfork up the bum, or a roofing tile splashed their brains across the pavement.

The Colonel had seen all those things and more. God knew he had.

He didn't hear any night birds, but frogs of at least a dozen varieties clunked and chirped and trilled from the bottom of the gorge. There must be open water, at least in pools.

The Colonel kept his unit just below the crest. It would have been easier to walk either on the ridge or down the center of the gorge. The first would have left them exposed to observers and very possibly silhouetted to a sniper; the latter was, like a trail in hostile jungle, an obvious killing ground.

Krishnamurtri objected to having to march on a surface so steep that frequently a man slid until he grabbed a spiky tree branch. The common soldiers didn't seem to mind, or at any rate they didn't bother to complain that life wasn't fair. Maybe they thought it was.

The Colonel smiled. Maybe they were right. Maybe everybody got exactly what he deserved.

Through Krishnamurtri he'd told the troops to keep two meters' interval. That plan had broken down immediately, as the Colonel knew it would. The stronger men bunched at the front of the line while the weaker half dozen straggled farther and farther behind. The Colonel had called a halt after the first hour—measured by the moon, not his watch—to regroup, and it was about time to call another.

The Colonel marched at the rear. The gorge itself provided the direction, so he was best located where he could keep stragglers from falling out of the column altogether. Krishnamurtri was immediately ahead of him.

"We'll halt in three minutes," the Colonel said. Krishnamurtri had lost his weapon in the crash. "Pass it on."

The Colonel's boot slipped; he dabbed a hand down and caught himself, but a thorn hidden in the gritty soil jabbed fire up his middle finger. The pain in his ribs had subsided to a background awareness, dull because of its familiarity.

A metallic whistle trilled behind them; how far behind the Colonel wasn't sure, but it couldn't be more than a kilometer even with the breeze carrying the sound. Not far enough.

"Cancel that order," the Colonel said, checking his weapon again by reflex. "We'll keep going till we get there."

Another whistle—this one was pitched a half-tone higher than the other—called. It was from the righthand distance, either on the opposite ridge or from somewhere within the gorge itself.

The Telugu just ahead of Krishnamurtri had been using his ion gun as a crutch; he'd torn his right thigh badly during the crash, but he was managing to keep up with the column reasonably well. Now he turned, balancing on his left leg, and aimed his weapon across the valley.

"Stop—" the Colonel said, lunging forward. He fell over Krishnamurtri who was trying to dodge back.

The soldier triggered six wild shots into the night. The first two bolts hit the tops of trees on the other slope. Recoil lifted the muzzle with each shot so that the last four drew quivering tracks toward the stratosphere.

The Telugu shot with both eyes closed. He'd probably never been told to shoot any other way.

The Colonel knocked him silly with a sidewise swipe of his ion gun. The Telugu's own weapon flew out of his hand and bounced down the slope. Plant matter as dry as the air itself caught fire at the touch of the glowing muzzle.

The ionization tracks of the six bolts trembled in the air, dissipating slowly. Each was an arrow of light pointing back toward the shooter.

"Let's go!" the Colonel said as he broke into a shambling run. Their only chance was to stay ahead of the pursuit, and God knew that was no chance at all.

As usual, the Colonel was more agile in a crisis than he could ever be with greater leisure to choose his footing. Krishnamurtri was wailing somewhere behind him, but the common soldiers stayed ahead with the ease of youth. The Colonel could see a few of his troops bounding like klipspringers across a stretch of slope scoured by a rockslide.

Despite the need for haste, the Colonel went downslope to stay covered by the trees. Nobody shot at the exposed Telugus. Another whistle called, this one seemingly from over the ridge to their left.

They didn't have a prayer. Not a prayer.

The Colonel had the map in his mind. A second crack in the rock, a crevice only ten or twenty feet wide, joined the gorge a few hundred meters ahead. Just beyond that junction was the tumbled edge of the hills, then the scrubland where an evader could choose his own direction without being channeled by the terrain. If they could make it out of the hills alive—

If the Colonel could make it out of the hills alive. He'd lost control of his unit, and anyway it had come to "Save what you can!"

It always came to that. The Colonel remembered an overloaded helicopter struggling off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon and many similar scenes. Scenes he'd survived.

But of course, there'd come the scene he didn't survive, as sure as the sun would rise.

The Colonel smiled. Even surer than that, maybe, in these days.

An automatic weapon fired from dead ahead. It wasn't an ion gun. The distant, spiteful, muzzle blasts syncopated the projectiles' bursting charge, Whack/crack/Whack/crack/Whack/crack.

Ion guns replied, two or maybe three of them. Bolts traced across the sky, as ineptly aimed as those of the Telugu the Colonel had left unconscious after the second whistle blew.

The Enemy weapon fell silent after firing three rounds. The shellbursts had flickered blue-white through the vegetation, more like a short circuit arcing than any explosive the Colonel had seen before.

He understood the trap as surely as if he were within the mind of the Enemy commander.

"Go straight ahead!" the Colonel shouted. The Telugus couldn't hear him, couldn't understand the words if they did hear, and wouldn't obey if they did understand. "Shoot your way through! Don't turn!"

He reached the crevice. It led off to the left, trailing back into the hills before it ended in a spring and a pair of sheer cliffs. Rock dust still swirled where the Enemy gunner had scarred the main slope, driving the Telugus like a sheep dog snapping at the ears of his flock.

The gunner was somewhere out in the narrow wedge of rolling scrub that the Colonel could see beyond the mouth of the gorge. He might be as much as a kilometer distant. He wasn't there to stop the Telugus but merely to turn them.

The Colonel switched his safety to position three. He triggered the ion gun toward the empty landscape ahead.

The weapon spun out of his hand with a roar. Firing a third full-charge blast down the bore had eaten through the side of the barrel. Flame washed the right side of the gorge as well as the intended target.

The Colonel flung the useless gun away. He drew his bootknife and plunged into the blaze his plasma had ignited. His left hand held the tail of his fatigue shirt over his mouth and nose.

He heard the incoming artillery when he'd gotten about a hundred meters into the hell of burning shrubs. The ground was so hot it blistered him through his boots and socks.

He ran on, navigating by instinct and his memory of what the terrain ahead had looked like in the moment before he fired. The night lit blue behind him and the earth shuddered. The Enemy had blown the crevice shut, killing everyone who had tried to shelter within its narrow walls. Rocks continued to fall for more than a minute after the explosion.

The Colonel ran and then walked and finally crawled. He was crawling when a pair of servitors pried the bootknife from his hand and loaded him onto an air sled like the one that had brought him into the hills.

One of the voiceless creatures held the Colonel while the other flew. The Colonel's arms and legs continued to move because instinct, all that remained, told them to.

* * *

The Suit debriefing the Colonel was the one who'd tasked him for the mission. He made another notation in the folder on his desk and said in a detached voice, "Well, these things happen. It doesn't appear that the blame lies with you."

He put down his pen and went on, "So. How would you rate your present physical condition, Colonel?"

All Suits were the same anyway. They stamped them out with cookie cutters in Ivy League colleges and sent them on to CIA and Hell.

The Colonel smiled.

"I'm fit," he said. Pus leaked through his mittens of bandage. The damage wasn't serious: he'd just scraped the thick skin of his palms down to the flesh while crawling. His knees were in similar shape, but the bandages there didn't show beneath the loose trousers of his jungle fatigues.

His hands hurt remarkably, an enveloping throb every time his heart beat. For the first twenty-four hours after regaining consciousness the Colonel had eaten Percodans like candy.

He hadn't taken any drugs in the past six hours, though. Pain was something you got used to.

The Suit sniffed. "Well, I'm not going to argue with you," he said. "We're getting rather shorthanded, as you can imagine."

He glanced down at the folder, then closed it decisively. He looked at the Colonel with an expression as hard and detached as that of a falcon in a winter sky. "Very well," the Suit said. "Return to your quarters. I can't say precisely when you'll be called for the next mission, but I'm afraid that your stand-down this time will be relatively brief. We're approaching endgame."

"Yes, all right," the Colonel said. He stood with the care a lifetime of injuries made second nature to him.

Endgame. It was funny to think about it all being over, after a lifetime. . . .

The Colonel put his bandaged fingers on top of the desk and leaned forward slightly. The Suit looked up with the false smile that Suits always got when they thought their attack dogs might be about to slip their leashes. The Colonel had seen that look often enough before.

The Colonel smiled back. "Tell me," he said. "Tell me the truth. Do we really defeat Good?"

The Suit looked puzzled. "Excuse me?" he said. "I don't understand your question."

The Colonel blinked. He straightened, taking his hands away from the desk. He didn't know what response he'd expected, but honest confusion on the Suit's part certainly wasn't it.

"You said the Bible was wrong," the Colonel said. "You said that the armies of Good don't defeat us."

He felt the air-conditioned room pulse red with a sudden rage that wasn't directed at this Suit or even every Suit: the Colonel hated the universe and he hated himself.

The door behind him opened. Servitors slipped in quickly, ready to wrestle the Colonel down and sedate him if necessary.

"Didn't you say that?" the Colonel shouted.

"The Bible doesn't say the armies of Good will defeat you," the Suit said, giving the pronoun a slight emphasis. His expression had returned to its usual faint sneer. "What a concept!"

The Colonel began to shiver. He supposed it was the air conditioning.

"Good doesn't have armies, Colonel," the Suit said, tenting his fingers over the closed folder. "Everyone who's fighting is on our side. You of all people should understand that."

The Colonel turned around. The servitors stood to either side of the doorway. There were four of them.

"I suggest you get as much sleep as you can," the Suit behind him said in a professional replica of concern. "There won't be much time, you know."

"Yes, all right," the Colonel said. He walked out of the room, ignoring the smirks of the servitors.

He had a lot of experience with not thinking about things.


Back | Next