Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 12th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.
Private Cole Salander (1st Special Forces Battalion, Army of the United States) suppressed an impulse to dive for cover as the glider whipped by close overhead, just beyond the tips of the firs. He hadn’t had any warning; walking in tall conifer woods meant the only sky he could see was right overhead and the flying machines were as quiet as a ghost.
Instead of moving he froze, just turning his head down towards the ground to hide his face. Jumping for concealment made you more conspicuous. He’d had that well enough drilled in during the last couple of years for it to be reflex; he was a solidly built and broad-shouldered young man, with a snub-nosed face, pale eyes and sandy hair cropped in the Army’s high-and-tight, now still as a statue.
In the old General’s day you had to spend several years in the ranks with superior fitness reports and then qualify for the Rangers before they let you volunteer for the Special Forces, and they washed out most of the applicants even so. He knew standards had probably slipped and training had certainly gotten compressed since the war against the western powers started. And more so over the last eight months since President-General Martin Thurston was killed at the great and bloody cluster-fuck known as the Battle of the Horse Heaven Hills when everything had started unraveling for sure.
I wouldn’t be pulling this mission on my own otherwise, and me just out of training. This is a job for a four-man team with at least an experienced leader.
But he was stubbornly determined to prove that he was as good as any of the old-timers.
Once the glider was out of sight he dropped his field pack, slung his crossbow so that it lay right down his back and deployed his climbing rope in a loop around the rough-barked trunk of a big column-straight pine that must have been growing here when his great-grandfather left Värmland still in his mother’s womb. That and a scramble from branch to branch above the clear section got him sixty feet up in less than a minute, amid a spicy sweet sap-scent.
From there he had a magnificent view through his binoculars, though he made a note to rub the sticky residue off his fingerless gloves before touching his crossbow again. Forest, a slice of green meadow starred with red Indian Paintbrush, even a herd of elk grouping together on a ridgeline against the menace of wolf-packs. What he couldn’t see was the glider, which meant…
Which means it crashed, and probably pretty hard.
He grinned as he half-slid and half-fell down the big tree and hit the ground with a grunt and a squat. There wasn’t much in the way of landing sites around here; mountains had lots of updrafts, but not many flat smooth places. Gliders were useful, but they had short working lives. So did their pilots.
Cole had noted the bearing of the aircraft against three landmarks, one of them a high snow-topped peak to the west. He got out his compass, checked against the map and his memory of how the terrain lay, and started through the woods at a trot.
“Bearkiller is sort of symbolic. There’s no need to take it personally,” Alyssa Larsson said, her voice a feeble rasp in her ears. “It was a black bear Uncle Mike killed, anyway. I’ve seen the head on the Bear Helm. Big, but not a grizzly like you, no sir.”
The bear beneath her didn’t respond, except to sniff more energetically. She reached for the clasp of the seatbelt and whimpered slightly at the jagged rasp of pain through her left forearm. Then she shook her head—which itself hurt badly enough to notice any other time—and decided that would have been a lousy idea anyway. This wasn’t the time to operate on pure reflex, no matter how bad the hurting was or how dizzy and nauseous she felt.
The glider had snapped off one wing and come to rest more or less upside-down, twisted to the side just enough to make her position the most awkward possible. The bubble canopy was about seven or eight feet above the ground, and spotted with the blood that was still dripping from cuts and a squashed nose. She didn’t think that was broken, and none of her teeth felt loose despite the way her lips had been mashed against them, but it was unfortunate that she was bleeding. The boar grizzly sniffing around under the crashed aircraft probably found the scent far, far too appetizing.
They had a very keen sense of smell.
It was young but fully adult and big even for a silvertip. About the size of a medium horse, say nine hundred to a thousand pounds. One of the many wandering down into all their old range now that humans were scarce and didn’t have guns, following in the pawprints of the faster-breeding wolves. It was sniffing the ground carefully; their eyesight was bad, and the glider probably too strange to assimilate readily into its mental vocabulary of shapes and smells. Then it realized where the blood-scent was coming from and reared. Suddenly the gaping roaring red mouth and white fangs were much much too close, only arm’s reach from the canopy.
A massive paw tipped with five long claws swiped across the tough synthetic. The whole fabric of the glider bucked and twisted; the bear outweighed it by a considerable margin, machine and pilot together. Alyssa smothered a scream of pain as her battered body was flung back and forth against the buckled metal of the cockpit like the clapper of a monastery bell with a mad monk hauling on the end of the rope.
Slap-slap-slap, and the bear’s giant paws were working like pistons in a water-powered factory, tossing the glider back and forth the way a piñata at a posada party in Larsdalen swung under the sticks of shrieking blindfolded children. She’d done that herself as a kid.
The image wasn’t as pleasant with herself as a meaty treat inside instead of hard candy and dried fruit and nuts. Metal buckled and tore with screeching sounds. Suddenly cold air and the rank scent of the bear flooded in as the canopy came off, torn from its hinges by a massive blow.
Alyssa snarled back at the animal, fumbling out the utility knife from its sheath on the leg of her leather flying suit and using her teeth to open the blade. The important time to show sisukas was when it was hard, which made this the absolutely ideal moment.
The four-inch knife was razor sharp. Maybe if she could slash the beast across the nose it would give up—
The grizzly stopped, peering at her with its massive barrel head cocked to one side. Its tongue came out like a red flag, sweeping over its nose.
You could see its mental processes working behind the little piggy eyes: Smells like fresh meat. Injured, bleeding, helpless. Worth the trouble, yes-no? Yes. Go for it. Yum!
Then it slouched back on its haunches, preparing for an upward lunge at the prize temptingly just out of easy reach. She swiped the air with the knife and shouted:
“Come on, you piece of fuzzy dogshit! Come get what Uncle Mike gave your second cousin once removed! I am a bear killer! Haakaa päälle!”
The monstrous hump-backed brown shape was unmistakable, Old Ephraim his every own self. Even these days grizzlies weren’t common in the open sagebrush country Cole had grown up in, but he’d hunted black bear, and he’d talked to men who’d tackled Old Eph. Their advice had been heavy on the don’t try it alone, but needs must.
The crossbow kicked back against Cole’s shoulder.
He’d been aiming for the spine; the grizzly had its back to him as it reared on its hind legs towards the shouting pilot brandishing her pathetic little cheese-knife. Even with the x3 scope on his Special Forces model that was a chancy shot at a hundred yards and uphill. It hit the bear, he’d have put the next bolt into his own head if he’d completely missed that big a target with a scope and time to take careful aim and nice still air. But it struck just to the left of the backbone, slamming into the bear’s massive body and probably smacking a rib loose along the way.
The bear staggered and twisted under the impact before it whirled to find what had struck it, bawling in rage with every hair bristling. Even the end cap of the twenty-inch bolt disappeared into the dark fur. This was an Army model built to drive through armor, not a hunting weapon; it had a thick steel prod made from salvaged leaf-spring across the business end, and it could send a heavy shaft out at three hundred and fifty feet per second. He’d had a three-edged broadhead in the groove and more in the quiver, rather than just the standard-issue pile-shaped points. Men-at-arms in plate weren’t the most likely targets in the mountains and the slashing effect made for a quicker kill.
One of the good points about being in the Special Forces was that you had wide latitude to tailor your gear to the mission.
For an instant the bear spun in place, convinced that something had bitten it. Then its nose went up for an instant, it caught his scent, the head went down and the whole mass headed his way in a shambling avalanche of fur, fangs and claws. Cole’s hands were steady as he reloaded, but his mouth was a little dry, and he didn’t waste any time admiring the first shot or wishing it had been two inches to the right and dropped the beast with a severed spinal cord. Instead he pumped frantically at the lever set into the forestock. Six seconds was the standard rapid-fire rate for cocking a GI crossbow; he managed to cut it to four, with another two to slap the next bolt from his belt-quiver into the groove under the holding clip and bring the weapon back to his shoulder.
Even so the beast’s roaring muzzle was shockingly close through the scope. Old Eph could move faster than a galloping horse over short distances. They were nearly as quick as tigers for all their size. Cole let his breath out as his finger gently squeezed the trigger, with the cross-hairs on the base of the beast’s neck. Then he turned and ran full-tilt along the path he’d picked out beforehand, slinging the weapon across his chest and cinching it tight as he went.
There was no need to look back. He knew exactly what was there, and he could hear its guttural bawling roars of pain and rage as it galloped. It was undoubtedly going to bleed out, but it would have plenty of time to catch Cole in a straight-away run first.
Up ten yards of steep rocky slope, and he could hear stones spurting from under the grizzly’s paws. A forty-foot Douglas fir had fallen against a rock-face years ago, its trunk bleached white and hard as bone. He leapt onto it and ran along it at speed, preparing to jump to a ledge in the nearly vertical slope of dark basalt beyond. Even if it could walk on something this narrow, there was no way the log would carry its weight. Heavy animals were cautious about falling, since they hit a lot harder than men if they did.
The grizzly cast caution to the winds and tried to follow him up the tree-trunk anyway.
Cole pitched off with a yell as the far tip of the trunk broke away where it rested against the cliff. He curled himself into a ball around his crossbow as he fell ten feet or better, landing loose. Rocks punched at him as he landed and bounced and rolled, including one with stunning hurt over the kidneys and several glancing blows on his head; luckily the hood of his battle smock took a little of it. Behind him the bear scrabbled at the wood before it followed him in a slide that was half fall, but he didn’t waste any time looking at it or feeling his hurts.
Instead he came out of the roll running, leaping for a handhold in a rock-fissure. He went up four feet in the first jump, scrambled as much again as he grabbed frantically for plants and knobs of stone, then nearly fell again as something heavy slammed into the cliff below him. His hands clamped on a wrist-thick pine rooted in the cliff’s face and jerked him upward. Instinct made him pull his feet up too, which was fortunate as something hit his right boot hard enough to tear the hobnailed heel half-loose.
The glancing impact of the bear’s claws nearly twisted him free of his grip. Operating on reflex he used the momentum of the blow to swing himself upwards and did a loop-over he couldn’t have duplicated on a base gymnasium’s equipment if he’d practiced for months. Pain jagged at his groin as he got one leg across the trunk of the pine and levered himself upright to stand on it.
“Got you!” he gasped down at the frenzied animal, almost inaudible even to himself beneath the bear’s rasping battle-cry.
Adrenaline fizzed through his body, and now his hands shook a little. The raving face of the bear was below him with the fletching of the second bolt just visible at the base of its neck. The open mouth sprayed blood and slaver, and it tried to scrabble up after him again. The claws swiped a foot beneath his boots.
“Here’s where weighing half a ton and not having fingers is a drawback, Eph,” he gasped. “Christ, if I ever get grandkids they’ll never believe this one and they’ll roll their eyes every time the old fart has one too many after dinner and trots it out.”
He braced himself against the rough rock behind him, took several deep slow breaths, and began to reload the crossbow. The bear was moaning now as well as roaring, blood coughing out of its open mouth in gouts. He felt a slight twinge of pity, which was easier now that he was more or less safe.
“Sorry, Eph,” he said, slipping in another bolt.
It was dying, but there was no point in letting it suffer. You could get killing angry at a man who plain chose to be an evil son-of-a-bitch, but a beast just… did what it did according to its nature. There was nothing personal in it, any more than there was in bad weather hammering a wheat-field ready to harvest or hoppers eating bare the pasture your sheep and cattle needed.
“But better you than me, and the brass will want that pilot alive to question,” he finished, snuggling the butt into his shoulder and aiming downward.
This time the head of the bolt was only six feet from the target. It flashed into the bear’s open mouth and he could hear the bone crunch as it drove into the palate. The huge animal toppled backward and struck with an earthshaking thud, paws outstretched and belly up. Now he could see the head of his first bolt, the tip just showing; it must have traversed the whole width of the animal’s body.
When he reloaded again and reached for his water-bottle his hands really were shaking, enough to spill water over his face. Cole stopped for a moment to just think himself steady, while he made doubly sure that the great limp furry form below him really wasn’t breathing any more. He suspected that the vision of the bear’s face as it seemed to be right on the other end of the scope was going to come back to him at night for a long time.
One of the instructors who’d taught his class was a grizzled old coot who looked like he’d been carved out of ancient roots, and he’d been a Ranger back when the old General was a pup before the Change. He’d told them adventure meant someone else in deep shit, far away. Cole was beginning to appreciate what the man had meant.
Getting down from the ledge was a lot harder than going up had been, and his body felt like strong men had worked it over with baseball bats and bicycle chains from toe to chin. Each movement revealed some new bruise or nick or scrape, none of which had seemed important with Old Eph at his heels and all of which hurt like hell now. He walked back upslope towards the wrecked glider, keeping carefully alert and limping a little where the claws had taken the heel off his boot and wrenched the leg. Bears usually didn’t travel in pairs, but you never knew. He’d do a quick fix on the footwear when he had some time.
When he arrived the pilot had managed to get herself out of the glider and down to the ground, probably by cutting herself free with the knife and falling. Her left arm looked to be out of commission, and her face was a mask of blood from a pressure cut on the forehead and a nose that was swelling after being smacked into something hard.
Curly leaf-brown hair peeked out from beneath a leather flying helmet with goggles pushed up on her brow; her eyes were light blue-green, but what he could see of her skin was a sort of pale toast color, save for a little bluish scar between her brows. The whole ensemble was probably exotically pretty in a pixie sort of way when she wasn’t bleeding and beat-up. And, he judged by the way she’d been facing that bear, she was fully capable of chewing nails and spitting out rivets.
She’d just managed to get up on her feet when he arrived and stopped a couple of yards away, and she dropped into a fighter’s crouch with the knife held in an expert grip. Cole started to laugh. She was also about a thumb’s width over five feet, and skinny with it, confronting his five-ten and hundred and eighty pounds, not to mention his crossbow and hatchet and Bowie and sword. Her scowl got more ferocious at his mirth, but she wasn’t any more daunted by him than she had been by the bear that had been about to scoop her out of the cockpit like a nut out of its shell.
“You are one tough scrappy little bitch, I’ll give you that,” he said admiringly.
He was also careful to stay out of reach. Nobody was safe if they had a knife and were determined to use it.
“That’s Pilot Officer Bitch to you, soldier,” she said.
Briefings and rumor had it that westerners talked funny, but apart from the effects of her nose swelling shut she sounded pretty much like people from his part of the world, maybe a little rounder on the vowels. He looked at the glider caught in the rocks and trees, at the pilot, and thought hard. While he did he also looked at his left hand; one of the fingernails was standing up from the quick, mostly torn away. He absently stripped it loose with his teeth and spat it aside.
“Dang, that smarts,” he said mildly. “Look, girl… Pilot Officer… what say we call a short-term truce while we fix ourselves up? That bear near enough got a piece of me and I don’t think he meant you any good at all, likewise. I’d feel sort of stupid if I had to kill you now after going to all that trouble.”
“You’re Boise, aren’t you?” she said; it wasn’t really a question. “Not a Cutter.”
“Yup, US Army,” he said. “I’m a Methodist, more or less, if that matters to you.”
“All right,” she said grudgingly.
There was a spring seeping out of the rock not far away. He ended up donating some material from his medical kit, and then slitting the sleeve of the leather flying suit she wore along the seam to examine her left forearm. It was thin, though the slight muscles on it were like wire cords, and he couldn’t feel any gross break. She hissed as he touched one spot.
“Ulna,” he said. “Not a compound, and the elbow isn’t dislocated. Nightstick fracture, I’d say, right about midway. Doesn’t feel bad.”
“Doesn’t feel bad to you,” she said. Then: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
He trimmed some deadwood branches into a set of immobilizing splints, bound them on, and arranged a sling. After that she sat sullenly brooding while he used his climbing rope and a half-hitch around a tree to pull the glider down, breaking off the other wing in the process. The cockpit was disappointingly bare of anything useful; there was a map, but the only things marked on it were the suspected locations of his side’s troops. Two that he knew about were pretty accurate.
Cole wasn’t surprised at the lack of data, since whoever was in charge of enemy glider doctrine would have anticipated something exactly like this. If the enemy were stupid they wouldn’t be winning. There wasn’t anything in the way of emergency gear, either. Every single ounce of weight was precious in these things.
“Look…” he paused to give his name and rank.
“Pilot Officer Alyssa Larsson, on the A-List of the Bearkiller Outfit, flying for the High Kingdom of Montival,” she said.
“OK,” he said, organizing his thoughts. “Name, rank and serial number, right? You’re not one of the castle freaks.”
“A PPA Associate? I should hope not.”
He nodded. “We’ve got two options here. I can just let you go, in which case you’ll starve or get et by something or die of exposure. Unless your base is close—“
He lifted an enquiring eyebrow, and she laughed sourly at the invitation to fall into an elementary trick.
“OK, or you can surrender and I’ll take you back to my base.”
“How far, and in what direction?”
He snorted a chuckle. “I’m not an idiot either,” he said, then nodded when she just smiled.
It was a wry expression, but then, it had to hurt with those injuries.
He went on: “Right. If you come with me, I want your word you won’t try to backstab me or give me away to your people.”
“I’m not going anywhere near the Cutters,” she said flatly. “I’ll take my chances with the wolves and bears and tigers first.”
He kept his face neutral; his impulse was to say well, of course, the Cutters are fucking mad weasel lunatic neobarbs, but it wasn’t something you could say to the other side about your sort-of allies. For that matter most of the westerners were officially neobarbs too. Instead he thought hard, and went on slowly:
“My CO… Captain Wellman… ah,” Hates the Cutters like poison, he didn’t say.
They’d tried to put a Church Universal and Triumphant chaplain in with Battalion about three months ago, now that Boise didn’t have a President to keep them at bay. The man had just disappeared two days after he arrived, and nobody had known a thing. He suspected that Wellman and the sergeant-major had taken care of it personally and buried the body in a latrine about to be filled in.
“… ah, the CO is an absolute stickler for the rules.”
Which had the advantage of being true; scuttlebutt said it was the reason Wellman hadn’t switched sides, which some of the men thought he should do. Cole hadn’t wanted to believe the stories about Martin Thurston, but with his own mother and his wife, for God’s sake, defecting to the enemy and screaming that they were true… and he was dead now anyway, which left Fred Thurston as the old General’s only living son, and he was on Montival’s side.
The glider pilot looked at him searchingly for a long moment, then nodded slowly.
“My chances right now with a busted arm and no gear aren’t much,” she said. “OK, but I will take off if I get a chance and think the odds are good. I’m not giving a general parole. We’re not allowed to, anyway.”
“Fair enough, neither are we,” he said. “Now, what about something to eat?”
She snorted and pulled out a paper-wrapped something from one of her many pockets. The wrapping had Rat. Bar stenciled on it.
“This is the sum total of my supplies. As the label suggests, it’s made from dried rats.”
Cole did a double take before he was sure she wasn’t serious. He had a couple of pounds of hardtack and some dried fruit in his pack, along with some salt and half a bag of dried chili flakes his mother had sent him. He grinned anyway and felt the edge of his smaller knife, the one he used for general camp work, including skinning. Special Forces were supposed to live off the land in the field—they were known as snake eaters for that reason—but right now he didn’t have to settle for reptile meat anyway.
“We won’t starve today; pity the rest will go to waste and we can’t take the hide, but the coyotes have to eat too. Bear tastes like pork.”
“I always thought it was a little gamy unless you soak it in vinegar a while,” she said. “Or beer.”
The pilot started to smile, then winced as scabs pulled.
“Not a feast at Larsdalen or Todenangst,” she said. “But sort of… fitting.”