Authors: Chris Bunch
They were very heavily armed. The basic weapon was the blaster, configured, as common with I&R, as an arm-length carbine. Montagna’s blaster was fitted with a variable optic sight and a heavy barrel. Basic load was ten hundred-round drums of caseless ammunition. Garvin, Heckmyer, Dill, and Lir carried cut-down Squad Support Weapons, and fifteen drums of ammo. Each of them had a pistol and the standard-issue double-edged dagger of the Force. Dill also carried a Shrike launcher and four tubed rockets.
From that moment until they were extracted, they’d communicate with the whisper mikes and bone speakers each member of the team carried. But they’d use those as little as possible, even though they were set on what appeared, from a superficial check, to be unused frequencies. Hand signals were still preferred.
Each soldier carried almost one hundred kilos in his pack, fighting/survival essentials on his fighting vest, plus individual weapons. The staggering load was only possible because the pack bases held modified droppers, antigravity parachutes that cut the load to no more than four kilos, although the mass remained an unwieldy bulk. The problem with the droppers was they emitted a certain amount of detectable energy. Garvin was operating on the hopeful assumption nobody would be scanning that much jungle that carefully.
Most of the load was explosives, one-kilo slabs of Telex, plus detonating cord, fuses, and timers of various types and nastiness. Their load would lighten as they found targets, got shot at, and ate.
Garvin had gone about one hundred meters when Lir’s voice whispered in his ear.
“Boss. Lir. Look back. At the clearing.”
“The ship should’ve gone higher before it put the drive on,” she said. “See the burn?”
Garvin did, a rapidly browning streak in the jungle.
“Maybe we better honk hard out of here,” he said, “and hope nobody wonders what made that happen.”
Monique double-clicked her mike in agreement. Garvin started moving faster, thinking,
Naturally, we go to full speed just when it’s starting to get steep
• • •
Garvin picked something that wasn’t quite a trail, knowing how suicidal that could be, but an animal track that appeared to lead to the top of the knife-edge ridge.
It did, but in its own fashion, winding here and there, stopping at what Garvin thought might be tasty herbs or merely a quiet place in which to defecate.
He remembered the two hardest parts of I&R. The first was obvious — never to fall out, to keep marching until you were chewing on what tasted like dry heart — your own — and trying to remember your body was a damned liar when it wheezed about how there weren’t any reserves left to call on. Listening to that voice was what washed out volunteers for I&R.
The second was the worst — not only to keep moving, but to stay alert, in spite of your exhaustion. Never let yourself fall into the agonizing one step then another way of moving, eyes fixed on the trail ahead, not looking up, not seeing what was around you.
The first lesson, unlearned, kept you from getting into Intelligence and Recon. The second killed you as you staggered into a booby trap or ambush.
Garvin pushed on, relearning the hard lessons about ignoring the body’s sniveling, eyes always moving, weapon ready, alert for anything touching off an inner alarm.
Or for a sudden silence that could signify danger.
Here, on this strange world, his ears and brain began memorizing what appeared to be the normal sounds of this jungle, and what could be new and lethal surprises. All he, and the others, could do, was file noises, try to keep their gasping as quiet as possible, and not lose their footing as they inched up the near-vertical slope.
They stopped below the crest, let their lungs agonize back toward normal and looked around for anything threatening.
There was nothing, there was everything. They moved on, topping the knife edge, saw higher ridges around them, jungle all around, no sign of the lake.
, Garvin thought.
thought we were just one slope this side of the dam. Guess again
He motioned Heckmyer to take point, Montagna to move up to slack, let them continue the march. Nobody could walk point for very long without losing the edge. Garvin fell into the column in front of Dill, who, though sweating like a saline factory, appeared unbothered by the climb.
They went down the ridge, slipping every now and then, catching themselves on saplings or each other, and reached the bottom, which was a rocky ravine with a creek splashing down it.
It would’ve been easy to lose discipline and dive into one of the pools and suck down all that wonderful cool water. Instead, Mahim tested the water, nodded approval. Two troops went across, maintained far-side security up and downstream. Two remained on the near side, and six got to dunk their heads and bodies as they went across, trying to submerge into the meter-deep pools. Then it was the turn of the other four.
They were wet, but cool now, their backpack-mounted canteens refilled before moving on.
Suddenly the sun was gone, and it was late afternoon. Garvin realized they’d most likely not make the next crest before night, and they’d have to camp wherever they found themselves.
, he thought.
All we need now is a good serious rain
A few minutes later, Kura Four quite cooperatively drenched them.
An hour later, they found the best of several bad lots for a campsite — where the hill leveled for about ten meters to only forty degrees. They moved past the designated site for another hundred meters, stopped in ambush formation. Nothing was moving around them.
They went back downhill into the chosen bivouac site. Paired up, they ate from their ration paks, then put the debris into heat pouches also used for body waste. Just before dark, the pouches were gathered, and tabs pressed. The pouches seared into self-consuming life, without smoke or odor. None, at least, that humans could detect.
Garvin sent a four-symbol burst to the satellite:
Bivvied. All right. Moving toward target
Then they lay in a starburst formation, each soldier’s heel touching the next. Less-skilled soldiers would’ve kept full alert, lazy ones would’ve gone to one-in-four. That would be the procedure once they were farther away from the Landing Zone, but not tonight. Half of the I&R soldiers stayed alert.
But nothing happened, other than al Sharif emitted, in his sleep, an enormous fart that not only woke three soldiers on either side of him, but forced them to move away until the odor dissipated. Revenge was silently vowed.
Their wrist chronometers had already been set for Kura Four’s twenty-seven-E-hour day. An hour before dawn should appear, Garvin, who always took first and last watch, woke his troops. Again they ate, splashed water on their faces, a great luxury permitted by the creek crossing, defecated, and went on, up and up.
This time was lucky: The land opened into a wide valley, with V’d walls. In its center was a lake, and, across its end, the damn that had created it.
Nectan grinned at Garvin, signaled with his fingers: man walking downhill; man putting heavy charge in place; twisted a demolition box; and then signed waves roaring over everything. Then he clasped hands in victory.
Garvin crossed fingers, held them out to him.
Then the team started downhill toward their target.
• • •
The watch officer woke Liskeard in his tiny cabin aboard the
“Blurt transmission from Cumbre, sir. Marked
, in the R-Code. The com officer decoded it.”
The R-Code was the most carefully kept code, except for diplomatic ciphers, of the Force, with personalized access limited to involved unit commanders and their communications officers.
Liskeard grunted, took the sheaf of paper, dismissed the officer, then sat up and unsealed the folder with his thumbprint.
“Quite a package,” he muttered, then, reading the first lines, came fully awake. He’d been told, on initial briefing, that there was a “source” somewhere within the Larix/Kura system, who so far hadn’t been able to report.
Now, Njangu’s first com had come through. Liskeard scanned it, looking for any reference to Kura, but found nothing.
Still, he felt heartened. The Force was no longer operating in complete darkness.
• • •
Garvin’s team had been moving no more than an hour when Lir, on point, stopped, held out one hand, palm to the rear.
Her hand pushed down.
Down and freeze
The signal went down the line and the ten men and women crouched, weapons sweeping their assigned sectors, looking for movement.
Lir used binocs to scan the area immediately below, the valley and lake, the skies.
Garvin was in mid-column, waiting. Lir turned, touched her shoulder with two fingers.
Garvin wondered why she didn’t use her com, what she’d seen. He slid carefully forward, inscribed a question mark in the air.
Lir leaned close, whispered:
“I feel like we’re watched. No indicators.”
Garvin thought for a moment. He didn’t believe in mumbo jumbo at all, but a scout’s honed senses might come up with something she couldn’t readily identify — a momentary silence in the jungle, a flash of equipment, anything.
He used his own binocs to sweep their front.
He moved his finger in an arc, up, down, around, then a question mark.
Where do you feel it?
Lir looked disgusted, pointed up and out, to somewhere over the lake.
Garvin saw nothing in the air, but he remembered Alikhan’s invisibles. He put his lips next to Monique.
“Remember what our hairy alien couldn’t see, either. Signal when it’s gone.”
Lir nodded. A few moments later, she stood, swept her hand forward at the waist.
Continue the march
The team moved on. Garvin slid back into his position, and they went down toward the lake.
• • •
The ground grew more level, and again Lir brought the team to a halt. Ahead, in neat rows, were carefully tended, low trees, bearing purple-green fruit.
Beyond that was a small village, a dozen long, rectangular wooden houses, roofed with an insulated, dull metal.
Without command, the team was down, frozen.
Lir keyed her mike.
“I saw,” Garvin subvocalized. He checked his compass. “Skirt the village. Move south, trying to stay within eyeball contact of the lake.”
Lir double-clicked, motioned, and the team followed her, back into the jungle a dozen meters, then along the edge of the grove. She’d gone no more than a dozen steps when she heard noise, and again became a statue.
The noise grew louder, and a young girl wearing baggy pants and a multicolored top appeared from behind a tree. She was intent on her work, cutting jungle vine runners back with a wide-bladed and very sharp hoe.
Lir signaled again, a hand held out, thumb down.
She waited, hoping the girl would move past. But her shoulders hunched, and she involuntarily looked in Lir’s direction, then carefully returned to her task.
Lir touched her mike, reported.
Before Garvin could respond, Irthing, behind Lir on slack, touched her hand. Lir glanced down, saw a metal tube with a rudimentary trigger. It was an old-fashioned suppressed weapon, firing a solid subsonic round. Old-fashioned, but still the most silent killing tool other than a knife.
The girl was moving backward, slowly, trying to keep from looking up, trying to appear innocent.
Lir lifted the weapon, then caught herself.
No. We don’t kill children
She handed the weapon back to Irthing, just as Garvin’s voice breathed in her ear.
“Wait until she’s out of sight, then move on. Don’t kill her.”
The girl suddenly spun and ran hard. Lir came to her feet, and moved her clenched fist up and down.
The team went on, and the village was lost behind them.
Lir reported, and Garvin responded: “Let’s hope there’s no com set to report strangers in that village.”
Probably Monique should have shot the girl.
But they didn’t kill children, at least not face-to-face. Not unless there weren’t any other options.
• • •
Now the hiking was easier. The ground was more level, there were frequent streams flowing into the lake, a cool breeze refreshed them, and the thick jungle had been burned clear, leaving only light secondary growth to push through. But they moved far more slowly. There were villages every few kilometers, and fields. They saw more of the locals, but only one man was armed, and he looked to be no more than a village policeman.
There were no signs of alarm, either on the ground or air, and Garvin began to hope the little girl hadn’t been believed with her tale of green/black-faced monsters laden with guns.
Every now and again they came to clear ground, enough to see the looming mass of the dam ahead.
They came to a larger village, and Garvin ordered them back into the jungle to high ground. He motioned for defensive positions, then he, Lir, and Froude slid through the brush to a promontory, where they could examine their target.
After a while, they came back and gathered the team for a face-to-face.
“Here’s my idea, folks,” he whispered. “I don’t know if we were reported, but I’ve got to assume we were. That means we’re going to hit them tonight, before they’ve got time to come up with a major reaction to our asses being around.”
There were mutters of approval.
“It’s still a hike to the dam base,” Lir pointed out. “We’d better cut this short and get back in the saddle.”
“First good news,” Garvin said. “No more foot-pounding for a while. We’ll strike from here.”
“Long swim, boss,” Mahim said.
“No swim,” Garvin said. “See those double-hulled fishing boats moored out there? Or is everybody but me blind?”