October 1, 1998
POST #72, FEDERAL IMMIGRATION CONTROL
“Oh, shit,” the captain of the reaction company said with deep disgust. It was the first time Laura Hunter had gotten past level 17 on this game. “Save and logoff.”
She snatched the helmet from the monitor and stamped to settle her boots, wheeled to her feet, and walked out of the one-time Phys-Ed teacher’s office. One hand adjusted the helmet, flipping up the nightsight visor and plugging the commlink into the jack on her back-and-breast; the other snatched the H&K assault rifle from the improvised rack beside the door. Words murmured into her ears, telling the usual tale of disaster.
“All right,” the senior sergeant bellowed into the echoing darkness of the disused auditorium they were using as a barracks. The amplified voice seemed to strike her like a club of air as she crossed the threshold. “Drop your cocks ‘n grab your socks!”
It was traditional, but she still winced; inappropriate too, this was officially a police unit and thoroughly coed. “As you were, Kowalski,” she said. The Rangers were tumbling out of their cots, scrambling cursing into uniforms and body-armor, checking their personal weapons. None of that Regular Army empty-rifle crap here. Her troopies were rolling out of their blankets ready to rock and roll, and fuck safety; the occasional accident was cheap compared to getting caught half-hard when the cucuroaches came over the wire.
Fleetingly, she was aware of how the boards creaked beneath their feet, still taped with the outlines of vanished basketball games. The room smelled of ancient adolescent sweat overlaid with the heavier gun-oil and body odors of soldiers in the field. No more dances and proms here, she thought with a brief sadness. Then data-central began coming through her earphones. She cleared her throat:
“Listen up, people. A and B companies scramble for major illegal intro in the Valley; Heavy Support to follow and interdict. Officers to me. The rest of you on your birds; briefing in flight. Move it!”
The six lieutenants and the senior NCOs gathered round the display table under the basketball hoop. They were short two, B Company was missing its CO . . . no time for that.
“Jennings,” she said. A slim good-looking black from Detroit, field-promoted, looked at her coolly; her cop’s instinct said danger. “You’re top hat for B while Sinclair’s down. Here’s the gridref and the grief from Intelligence; total illigs in the 20,000 range, seventy klicks from Presidio.
The schematic blinked with symbols, broad arrows thrusting across the sensor-fences and minefields along the Rio Grande. Light sparkled around strongpoints, energy-release monitored by the surveillance platforms circling at 200,000 feet. Not serious, just enough to keep the weekend-warrior Guard garrisons pinned down. The illigs were trying to make it through the cordon into the wild Big Bend country. The fighters to join the guerrilla bands, the others to scatter and find enough to feed their children, even if it meant selling themselves as indentured quasi-slaves to the plains ‘nesters.
“Shitfire,” Jennings murmured. “Ma’am. Who is it this time?”
“Santierist Sonoran Liberation Army,” she said. “The combatants, at least. We’ll do a standard stomp-and-envelopment. Here’s the landing-zone distribution. Fire-prep from the platforms, and this time be careful, McMurty. There are two thousand with small arms, mortars, automatic weapons, light AA, possible wire-guided antitank and ground-to-air heat-seekers.”
“And their little dogs too,” McMurty muttered, pushing limp blonde hair back from her sleep-crusted eyes. “Presidio’s in Post 72’s territory, what’re they—” She looked over the captain’s shoulder. “—sorry, sir.”
Laura Hunter saluted smartly along with the rest; Major Forrest was ex-Marine and Annapolis. Not too happy about mandatory transfer to the paramilitary branch, still less happy about the mixed bag of National Guard and retread police officers that made up his subordinates.
“At ease, Captain, gentlemen. Ladies.” Square pug face, traces of the Kentucky hills under the Academy diction, pale blue eyes. “And Post 72 is containing a major outbreak in El Paso. For which C and D companies are to stand by as reserve reinforcement.”
“What about the RACs? Sir,” Jennings added. Forrest nodded, letting the “Regular Army Clowns” pass: the black was more his type of soldier, and the corps had always shared that opinion anyway.
“This is classified,” he said. “The 82nd is being pulled out of Dallas-Fort Worth.”
“Where?” Hunter asked. Her hand stroked the long scar that put a kink in her nose and continued across one cheek. That was a souvenir of the days when she had been driving a patrol car in D.C.
No more 82nd . . . It was not that the twin cities were that bad; their own Guard units could probably keep the lid on . . . but the airborne division was the ultimate reserve for the whole Border as far west as Nogales.
The major made a considered pause. “They’re staging through Sicily, for starters.” Which could mean only one thing; the Rapid Deployment Force was heading for the Gulf. Hunter felt a sudden hot weakness down near the pit of her stomach, different and worse than the usual pre-combat tension.
Somebody whistled. “The Russian thing?” Even on the Border they had had time to watch the satellite pictures of the Caliphist uprisings in Soviet Asia; they had been as bloody as anything in the Valley, and the retaliatory invasion worse.
“COMSOUTH has authorized . . . President Barusci has issued an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of the Soviet forces from northern Iran and a UN investigation into charges of genocide.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Jennings said. Hunter glanced over at him sharply; it sounded more like a prayer than profanity.
“Wait a minute, sir,” Hunter said. “Look . . . that means the RDF divisions are moving out, right?” All three of them, and that was most of the strategic reserve in the continental U.S. “Mobilization”? He nodded. “But the army reserve and the first-line Guard units are going straight to Europe? With respect, sir, the cucuroache—the people to the south aren’t fools and they have satellite links too. Who the hell is supposed to hold the Border?”
The commander’s grin showed the skull beneath his face. “We are, Captain Hunter. We are.”
The noise in the courtyard was already enough to make the audio pickups cut in, shouts and pounding feet and scores of PFH airjets powering up. Pole-mounted glare-lights banished the early-morning stars, cast black shadows around the bulky figures of the troopers in their olive-and-sand camouflage. The air smelt of scorched metal and dust. Hunter paused in the side-door of the Kestrel assault-transport, looking back over the other vehicles. All the latest, nothing too good for the Rangers—and they were small enough to re-equip totally on the first PFH-powered models out of the factories. Mostly Kestrels, flattened ovals of Kevlar -composite and reactive-armor panel, with stub wings for the rocket pods and chin-turrets mounting chain guns. Bigger boxy transports for the follow-on squads; little one-trooper eggs for the Shrike airscouts; the bristling saucer-shapes of the heavy weapons platforms.
She swung up into the troop compartment of her Kestrel, giving a glance of automatic hatred to the black rectangles of the PFH units on either side of the ceiling. “Pons, Fleischmann, and Hagelstein,” she muttered. “Our modern trinity.” The bulkhead was a familiar pressure through the thick flexibility of her armor. “Status, transport.”
“All green and go,” the voice in her earphones said. “Units up, all within tolerances, cores fully saturated.”
The headquarters squad were all in place. “Let’s do it, then,” she said. “Kestrel-1, lift.”
The side ramps slid up with hydraulic smoothness, and the noise vanished with a soughing ching-chunk. Those were thick doors; aircraft did not need to be lightly built, not with fusion-powered boost. Light vanished as well, leaving only the dim glow of the riding lamps. There was a muted rising wail as air was drawn in through the intakes, rammed through the heaters and down through the swiveljets beneath the Rangers’ feet. There were fifteen troopers back-to-back on the padded crash-bench in the Kestrel’s troop-compartment. One of them reached up wonderingly to touch a power unit. It was a newbie, Finali, the company commlink hacker. Clerk on the TOE, but carrying a rifle like the rest of them; the data-crunching was handled by the armored box on his back.
Hunter leaned forward, her thin olive-brown face framed by the helmet and the bill brow of the flipped-up visor. “Don’t—touch—that,” she said coldly as his fingers brushed the housing of the fusion unit.
“Yes, ma’am.” Finali was nearly as naive as his freckle-faced teenage looks, but he had been with A Company long enough to listen to a few stories about the captain. “Ahh, ma’am, is it safe?”
“Well, son, they say it’s safe.” The boy was obviously sweating the trip to his first hot LZ, and needed distraction.
The transport sprang skyward on six columns of superheated air, and the soldiers within braced themselves against the thrust, then shifted as the big vents at the rear opened. The Kestrel accelerated smoothly toward its Mach 1.5 cruising speed, no need for high-stress maneuvers. Hunter lit a cigarette, safe enough on aircraft with no volatiles aboard.
“And it probably is safe. Of course, it’s one of the doped-titanium anode models, you know? Saves on palladium. They kick out more neutrons than I’m comfortable with, though. Hell, we’re probably not going to live long enough to breed mutants, anyway.”
She blew smoke at the PFH units, and a few of the troopers laughed sourly.
“Captain?” It was Finali again. “Ah, can I ask a question?”
“Ask away,” she said. I need distraction too. The tac-update was not enough, no unexpected developments . . . and fiddling with deployments on the way in was a good way to screw it up.
“I know . . . well, the depression and Mexico and everything is because of the PFH, but . . . I mean, I didn’t even see one of them until I enlisted. It’s going to be years before people have them for cars and home heating. How can it . . . how can it mess things up so bad now?”
Kowalski laughed contemptuously, the Texas twang strong in his voice. “Peckerwood, how much yew goin’ to pay for a horse ever’one knows is fixin’ to die next month?”
Finali flushed, and Hunter gave him a wry smile and a slap on the shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad, trooper; there were economists with twenty degrees who didn’t do much better.” She took another drag on the cigarette, and reminded herself to go in for another cancer antiviral. If we make it. Shut up about that.
“Sure, there aren’t many PFHs around, but we know they’re going to be common as dirt; the Taiwanese are starting to ship out 10-megawatt units like they did VCRs, in the old days. Shit, even the Mindanao pirates’ve managed to get hold of some. See, they’re so simple . . . not much more difficult to make than a diesel engine, once Hagelstein figured out the theory. And you can do anything with them; heavy water in, heat or electricity or laser beams out. Build them any scale, right down to camp-stove size.
“Too fucking good, my lad. So all those people who’ve been sitting on pools of oil knew they’d be worthless in ten, fifteen years. So they pumped every barrel they could, to sell while it was still worth something. Which made it practically worthless right away, and they went bust. Likewise all the people with tankers, refineries, coal mines . . . all the people who made things for anybody in those businesses, or who sold things to the people, or who lent them money, or . . .”
She shrugged. The Texan with the improbable name laughed again. “Me’n my pappy were roustabouts from way back. But who needs a driller now?”
“Could be worse,” the gunner in the forward compartment cut in. “You could be a cucuroach.”
That was for certain-sure. Hunter flipped her visor down, and the compartment brightened to green-tinted clarity. Mexico had been desperate before the discoveries, when petroleum was still worth something; when oil dropped to fifty cents a barrel, two hundred billion dollars in debts had become wastepaper. And depression north of the Border meant collapse for the export industries that depended on those markets, no more tourists . . . breadlines in the U.S., raw starvation to the south. Anarchy, warlords, eighty million pairs of eyes turned north at the Colossus whose scientists had shattered their country like a man kicking in an egg carton.
Fuck it, she thought. Uncle Sugar lets the chips fall where they lie and gives us a munificent 20% bonus on the minimum wage for sweeping the consequences back into the slaughterhouse.
The northern cities were recovering, all but the lumpenproletariat of the cores; controlled fusion had leapfrogged the technoaristocracy two generations in half a decade. Damn few of the sleek middle classes here, down where the doody plopped into the pot. Blue-collar kids, farm boys, blacks; not many Chicanos either. D.C. had just enough sense not to send them to shoot their cousins and the ACLU could scream any way they wanted; the taxpayers had seen the Anglo bodies dangling from the lampposts of Brownsville, seen it in their very own living rooms . . .
Without us, the cucuroaches would be all over their shiny PFH-powered suburbs like a brown tide, she thought, not for the first time. Strange how she had come to identify so totally with the troops.
“But as long as these stay scarce, we’ve got an edge,” she said, jerking the faceless curve of her helmet toward the PFH. “Chivalric.”
“Chivalric?” Finali frowned.
“Sure, son. Like a knight’s armor and his castle; with that, we protect the few against the many.” She pressed a finger against her temple. “Pilot, we are coming up on Austin?”
“Thirty seconds, Captain.”
“Take her down to the dirt, cut speed to point five Mach and evasive. Everybody sync.” The cucuroach illigs could probably patch into the commercial satellite network—might have hackers good enough to tap the PFH-powered robot platforms hovering in the stratosphere. Knowing the Rangers were coming and being able to do anything about it were two separate things, though. As long as they were careful to avoid giving the war-surplus Stingers and Blowpipes a handy target.
The transport swooped and fell, a sickening express-elevator feeling. Hunter brought her H&K up across her lap and checked it again, a nervous tick. It too was the very latest, Reunited German issue; the Regulars were still making do with M16s. Caseless ammunition and a 50-round cassette, the rifle just a featureless plastic box with a pistol-grip below and optical sight above. They were talking about PFH-powered personal weapons, lasers and slugthrowers. Not yet, thank God . . .
“Thirty minutes ETA to the LZ,” the pilot announced. Hunter keyed the command circuit.
“Rangers, listen up. Remember what we’re here for; take out their command-and-control right at the beginning. That’s why we’re dropping on their HQs. Without that and their heavy weapons they’re just a mob; the support people can sweep them back. We’re not here to fight them on even terms; this is a roach stomp, not a battle.” A final, distasteful chore. Her voice went dry:
“And under the terms of the Emergency Regulations Act of 1995, I must remind you this is a police action. All hostiles are to be given warning and opportunity to surrender unless a clear and present danger exists.”
“And I’m King Charles V of bloody England,” someone muttered.
“Yeah, tell us another fairy story.”
“Silence on the air!” Top sergeant’s voice.
Her mind sketched in the cities below, ghostly and silent in the night, empty save for the National Guard patrols and the lurking predators and the ever-present rats. Paper rustling down deserted streets, past shattered Arby’s and Chicken Delights . . . out past the fortress suburbs, out to the refugee camps where the guards kicked the rations through the wire for the illig detainees to scramble for.
There would be no prisoners.
Very softly, someone asked: “Tell us about the island, Cap?”
What am I, the CO or a den mother? she thought. Then, What the hell, this isn’t an Army unit. Which was lucky for her; the American military still kept women out of front-line service, at least in theory. The Rangers were a police unit under the Department of the Interior—also in theory. And not many of the troopies ever had a chance at a vacation in Bali.
Hunter turned and looked over the low bulkhead into the control cabin of the transport. Her mouth had a dry feeling, as if it had been wallpapered with Kleenex; they were right down on the deck and going fast. Kestrels had phased-array radar and AI designed for nape-of-the-earth fighters. Supposed to be reliable as all hell, but the sagebrush and hills outside were going past in a streaking blur. She brought her knees up and braced them against the seat, looking down at the central display screen. It was slaved to the swarm of tiny remote-piloted reconnaissance drones circling the LZ, segmented like an insect’s eye to show the multiple viewpoints, with pulsing light-dots to mark the Ranger aircraft.
The Santierist guerrillas were using an abandoned ranch house as their CP. She could see their heavy weapons dug in around it, covered in camouflage netting. Useless, just patterned cloth, open as daylight to modern sensors . . . on the other hand, there weren’t many of those in Mexico these days. Then she looked more closely. There were mules down there, with ammunition boxes on their backs. It was enough to make you expect Pancho Villa. A Santierist altar in the courtyard, with a few hacked and discarded bodies already thrown carelessly aside . . . Voodoo-Marxist, she thought. Communal ownership of the spirit world. Time to tickle them.
“Code Able-Zulu four,” she said. Something in her helmet clicked as the AI rerouted her commlink. “Position?”
“Comin’ up on line-of-sight,” McMurty said. Weapons Section counted as a platoon, four of the heavy lifters with six troopers each.
There were lights scattered across the overgrown scrub of the abandoned fields beyond the ranch house, the numberless campfires of the refugees who had followed through the gap the Santierists had punched in the Border deathzone. Some of them might make it back, if they ran as soon as the firefight began.
Hunter reached out to touch half a dozen spots on the screen before her; they glowed electric-blue against the silvery negative images. “Copy?”
Another voice cut in faintly, the battalion AI prompter. “ETA five minutes.”
“Executing firemission,” the platform said.
The gamma-ray lasers were invisible pathways of energy through the night, invisible except where a luckless owl vanished into a puff of carbon-vapor. Where they struck the soil the earth exploded into plasma for a meter down. It wasn’t an explosion, technically. Just a lot of vaporized matter trying to disperse really, really fast. Fire gouted into the night across the cucuroach encampment, expanding outward in pulse-waves of shock and blast. She could hear the thunder of it with the ears of mind; on the ground it would be loud enough to stun and kill. The surviving AA weapons were hammering into the night, futile stabbing flickers of light, and . . .
“Hit, God, we’re hit!” McMurty’s voice, tightly controlled panic. The weapons platform was three miles away and six thousand feet up. Nothing should be able to touch it even if the cucuroaches had sensors that good. “Evasive—Christ, it hit us again, loss of system integrity I’m trying to—”
The voice blurred into a static blast. “Comm override, all Ranger units, down, out of line-of-sight, that was a zapper!”
The transport lurched and dove; points of green light on the screen scattered out of their orderly formation into a bee-swarm of panic. Hunter gripped the crashbars and barked instructions at the machine until a fanpath of probable sites mapped out the possible locations of the zapper.
“Override, override,” she said. “Jennings, drop the secondary targets and alternate with me on the main HQ. Weapons?”
“Yes ma’am.” McMurty’s second, voice firm.
“Keep it low, Sergeant; follow us in. Support with indirect-fire systems only.” The weapons platforms had magneto-powered automatic bomb-throwers as well as their energy weapons.
“Override,” she continued. “General circuit. Listen up, everyone. The cucuroaches have a zapper, at least one. I want Santierist prisoners; you can recognize them by the fingerbone necklaces. Jennings, detach your first platoon for a dustoff on McMurty.”
“That’s a direct order, Lieutenant.”
A grunt of confirmation. Her lips tightened; nobody could say Jennings didn’t have the will to combat, and he led from the front. Fine for a platoon leader, but a company commander had to realize there were other factors in maintaining morale, such as the knowledge you wouldn’t be abandoned just because everyone was in a hurry. Furthermore, Jennings just did not like her much. The feeling was mutual; he reminded her too strongly of the perps she had spent most of the early ’90s busting off the D.C. streets and sending up for hard time.
“Coming up on the arroyo, Captain,” the pilot said.
“Ready!” she replied.
The piloting screens in the forward compartment were directly linked to the vision-blocks in the Kestrel’s nose; she could see the mesquite and rock of the West Texas countryside rushing up to meet them, colorless against the blinking blue and green of the control-panel’s heads-up displays. The pilot was good, and there was nothing but the huge, soft hand of deceleration pressing them down on the benches as he swung the transport nearly perpendicular to the ground, killed forward velocity with a blast of the lift-off jets, and then swung them back level for a soft landing. The sides of the Kestrel clanged open, turning to ramps. Outside the night was full of hulking dark shapes and the soughing of PFH drives.
“Go!” Hunter shouted, slapping their shoulders as the headquarters team raced past. Getting troops out of armored vehicles is always a problem, but designing them so the sides fell out simplified it drastically. Cold high-desert air rushed in, probing with fingers that turned patches of sweat to ice, laden with dry spicy scents and the sharp aromatics of dry-land plants crushed beneath tons of metal and synthetic.
She trotted down the ramp herself and felt the dry, gravelly soil crunch beneath her feet. The squad was deployed in a star around her, commlink and display screen positioned for her use. The transports were lifting off, backing and shifting into position for their secondary gunship role as A Company fanned out into the bush to establish a temporary perimeter. Hunter knelt beside the screen, watching the pinpoints that represented her command fanning out along two sides of the low slope with the ranch house at its apex.
“Shit, Captain,” Kowalski said, going down on one knee and leaning on his H&K. She could hear the low whisper, and there was no radio echo, he must have his comm off. “That zapper’s one bad mother to face.”
She nodded. Landing right on top of an opponent gave you a powerful advantage, and having the weapons platforms cruising overhead was an even bigger one. The zapper changed the rules; it was one of the more difficult applications of PFH technology, but it made line-of-sight approach in even the most heavily armored aircraft suicidal. Heavy zappers were supposed to be a monopoly of the Sovs and the U.S., having one fall into the hands of any sort of cucuroach was bad news. The Voodoo-Marxists . . . She shuddered.
Particularly if they had good guidance systems. Finali was trying to attract her attention, but she waved him to silence. “Too right, Tops. We’ll just have to rush their perimeter before they can gather on the mountain.”
SSNLF guerrillas were good at dispersing, which was essential in the face of superior heavy weapons. On the other hand, this time it kept them scattered . . . .
“Command circuit,” she said. There was a subaudible click as the unit AI put her on general push. “Up and at ’em, children. Watch it, they’ve had a few hours to lay surprises.”
There was little noise as the Rangers spread out into the spare chest-high scrub, an occasional slither of boot on rock, a click or equipment. That would be enough, once they covered the first half-kilometer. Shapes flitted through the darkness made daybright by her visor, advancing by leapfrogging squad rushes. Almost like a dance, five helmeted heads appearing among the bushes as if they were dolphins broaching, dodging forward until they were lost among the rocks and brush. Throwing themselves down and the next squad rising on their heels . . .
“Weapons,” she whispered. “Goose it.”
“Seekers away,” the calm voice answered her.
A loud multiple whipping sound came from behind them, the air-slap of the magnetic mortar launch. A long whistling arc above, and the sharp crackcrackcrack of explosions. Mostly out of sight over the lip of the ravine ahead of them, indirect flashes against the deep black of the western sky. Stars clustered thick above, strange and beautiful to eyes bred among the shielding city lights. Then a brief gout of flame rising over the near horizon, a secondary explosion. Teeth showed beneath her visor. The seeker-bombs were homing on infrared sources: moving humans, or machinery; too much to hope they’d take out the zapper.
Time to move. She rose and crouch-scrambled up the low slope ahead of her. The open rise beyond was brighter, and she felt suddenly exposed amid the huge rolling distances. It took an effort of the will to remember that this was night, and the cucuroaches were seeing nothing but moonless black. Unless they got nightsight equipment from the same sources as the laser—She pushed the thought away.
“Mines.” The voice was hoarse with strain and pitched low, but she recognized 2nd platoon’s leader, Vigerson.
“Punch it,” she replied, pausing in her cautious skitter.
A picture appeared in the center of the display screen, the silvery glint of a wire stretched across the clear space between a boulder and a mesquite bush. Jiggling as the hand-held wire-eye followed the metal thread to the V-shaped Claymore concealed behind a screen of grass, waiting to spew its load of jagged steel pellets into the first trooper whose boot touched it. Wire and mine both glowed with a faint nimbus, the machine-vision’s indication of excess heat. Very recently planted, then, after being kept close to a heat-source for hours.
“Flag and bypass.” Shit, I hate mines, she thought. No escaping them. The gangers had started using them in D.C. before she transferred. Bad enough worrying about a decapitating piano-wire at neck height when you chased a perp into an alley—but toward the end you couldn’t go on a bust without wondering whether the door had a grenade cinched to the latch. That was how her husband had—Another flight of magmortar shells went by overhead; the weapons platform was timing it nicely.
Think about the mines, not why she had transferred. Not about the chewed stump of—Think about mines. Half a klick with forty pounds on her back, not counting the armor. No matter how she tried to keep the individual loads down, more essentials crept in. Fusion-powered transports, and they still ended up humping the stuff up to the sharp end the way Caesar’s knifemen had. A motion in the corner of her eye, and the H&K swept up; an act of will froze her finger as the cottontail zigzagged out of sight. Shit, this can’t last much longer, she thought with tight control. They were close enough to catch the fireglow and billowing heat-columns from the refugee encampment beyond the guerrilla HQ, close enough to hear the huge murmur of their voices. Nobody was still asleep after what had already come down; they must be hopping-tight in there.
Four hundred yards. The point-men must be on their wire by now, if the Santierists had had time to dig in a perimeter at all. For total wackos they usually had pretty good sense about things like that and this time there had been plenty of—
“Down!” somebody shouted. One of hers, the radio caught it first. Fire stabbed out from the low rise ahead of them, green tracer; she heard the thudding detonation of a chemical mortar, and the guerrilla shell-burst behind her sent shrapnel and stone-splinters flying with a sound that had the malice of bees in it.
The Rangers hit the stony dirt with trained reflex, reflex that betrayed them. Three separate explosions fountained up as troopers landed on hidden detonators, and there was an instant’s tooth-grating scream before the AI cut out a mutilated soldier’s anguish.
“Medic, medic,” someone called. Two troopers rushed by with the casualty in a fireman’s carry, back down to where the medevac waited. Hunter bit down on a cold anger as she toiled up the slope along the trail of blood-drops, black against the white dust. The Santierists were worse than enemies, they were . . . cop-killers.
“Calibrate,” she rasped, “that mortar.”
“On the way.” A stick of seekers keened by overhead; proximity fused, they burst somewhere ahead with a simultaneous whump. Glass-fiber shrapnel, and anything underneath it would be dogmeat. Fire flicked by, Kalashnikovs from the sound of it, then the deeper ripping sound of heavy machine-guns. As always, she fought the impulse to bob and weave. Useless, and undignified to boot.
“Designators,” she said over the unit push. “Get on to it.”
This time all the magmortars cut loose at once, as selected troopers switched their sights to guidance. Normally the little red dot showed where the bullets would go, but it could be adjusted to bathe any target a Ranger could see; the silicon kamikaze brains of the magmortar bombs sought, selected, dove.
“Come on!” she shouted, as the Santierist firing line, hidden among the tumbled slabs of sandstone and thorn-bush ahead of them, erupted into precisely grouped flashes and smoke. “Now,goddamit!” Fainter, she could hear the lieutenants and NCOs echoing her command.
The rock sloped down from here, down toward the ranch house and the overgrown, once-irrigated fields beyond, down toward the river and the Border. She leapt a slit-trench where a half-dozen cucuroaches sprawled sightless about the undamaged shape of an ancient M60 machine-gun; glass fragments glittered on the wet red of their faces and the cool metal of the gun. Then she was through into the open area beyond and the ruins of a barn, everything moving with glacial slowness. Running figures that seemed to lean into an invisible wind, placing each foot in dark honey. Shadows from the burning ruins of the farmhouse, crushed vehicles around it, her visor flaring a hotspot on the ground ahead of her and she turned her run into a dancing sideways skip to avoid it.
The spot erupted when she was almost past, and something struck her a stunning blow in the stomach. Air whoofed out of her nose and mouth with a sound halfway between a belch and a scream, and she fell to her knees as her diaphragm locked. Paralyzed, she could see the Claymore pellet falling away from her belly-armor, the front burnished by the impact that had flattened it. Then earth erupted before her as the mine’s operator surged to his feet and leveled an AK-47, and that would penetrate her vest at pointblank range. He was less than a dozen yards away, a thin dark-brown young man with a bushy mustache and a headband, scrawny torso naked to the waist and covered in sweat-streaked dirt.
Two dots of red light blossomed on his chest. Fractions of a second later two H&K rifles fired from behind her, at a cyclic rate of 2,000 rounds a minute. Muzzle blast slapped the back of her helmet, and the cucuroach’s torso vanished in a haze as the prefragmented rounds shattered into so many miniature buzzsaws.
“Thanks,” she wheezed, as Finali and Kowalski lifted her by the elbows. “Lucky. Just winded.” There would be a bruise covering everything between ribs and pelvis, but she would have felt it if there was internal hemorrhaging. A wet trickle down her leg, but bladder control was not something to worry about under the circumstances. She grabbed for the display screen, keyed to bring the drones down. The green dots of her command were swarming over the little plateau, and the vast bulk of the illigs further downslope showed no purposeful movement. Only to be expected, the Santierists were using them as camouflage and cover. Which left only the problem of the—
Zap. Gamma-ray lasers could not be seen in clear air, but you could hear them well enough; the atmosphere absorbed enough energy for that. The Rangers threw themselves flat in a single unconscious movement; Hunter cursed the savage wave of pain from bruised muscle and then ignored it.
“Get a fix, get a fix on it!” she called. Then she saw it herself, a matte-black pillar rising out of the ground like the periscope of a buried submarine, two hundred yards away amid artful piles of rock. Shit, no way is a magmortar going to take that out, she thought. It was too well buried, and the molecular-flux mirrors inside the armored and stealthed shaft could focus the beam anywhere within line-of-sight.
Zap. Half a mile away a boulder exploded into sand and gas, and the crashing sound of the detonation rolled back in slapping echoes. “Mark.” Her finger hit the display screens. “Kestrel and Shrike units, thumper attack, repeat, thumper attack.” The transports and airscouts would come in with bunkerbuster rockets. And a lot of them would die; as a ground weapon that zapper was clumsy, but it did fine against air targets . . . .
“Damn, damn, damn!” she muttered, pounding a fist against the dirt. Another zap and the stink of ozone, and this time the gout of flame was closer, only a hundred yards behind them. Rocks pattered down, mixed with ash and clinker; back there someone was shouting for a medic, and there was a taste like vomit at the back of her throat. She groped for a thermite grenade—
It was Finali, prone beside her and punching frantically at the flexboard built into the fabric of his jacket sleeve. “Captain, I got it, I got it!”
“Got what, privat—”
There was no word for the sound that followed. At first she thought she was blind, then she realized the antiflare of her visor had kicked in with a vengeance. Even with the rubber edges snugged tight against her cheeks glare leaked through, making her eyes water with reaction. The ground dropped away beneath her, then rose up again and slapped her like a board swung by a giant; she flipped into the air and landed on her back with her body flexing like a whip. Hot needles pushed in both ears, and she could feel blood running from them, as well as from her nose and mouth. Above her something was showing through the blackness of the visor: a sword of light thrusting for the stars.
Pain returned, shrilling into her ears; then sound, slow and muffled despite the protection the earphones of her helmet had given. The jet of flame weakened, fading from silver-white to red and beginning to disperse. Stars faded in around it, blurred by the watering of her eyes; anybody who had been looking in this direction unprotected was going to be blind for a long time. It was not a nuclear explosion, she knew, not technically. There were an infinity of ways to tweak the anode of a PFH unit, and a laser-boost powerpack needed to be more energetic than most. Overload the charging current and the fusion rate increased exponentially, lattice energy building within the crystalline structure until it tripped over into instant release. There was a pit six yards deep and four across where the zapper had been, lined with glass that crackled and throbbed as it cooled. The rest of the matter had gone in the line of least resistance, straight up as a plasma cloud of atoms stripped of their electron shells.
“Finali?” Her voice sounded muffled and distant, and her tongue was thick. She hawked, spat blood mixed with saliva, spoke again. “Trooper, what the hell was that?”
“Deseret electronuclear unit, Captain,” he said, rising with a slight stagger. A cowlick of straw-colored hair tufted out from under one corner of his helmet; he pulled off the molded synthetic and ran his fingers through his curls, grinning shyly. “U of U design, access protocols just about like ours. I told it to voosh.”
Kowalski fisted him on the shoulder. “Good work, trooper.” There was a humming shussh of air as the first of the Kestrels slid over the edge of the plateau behind them. “You roasted their cucuroach ass, my boy!”
Hunter turned her eyes back to the display screen; motion was resuming. “There’ll be survivors,” she said crisply, looking up to the rest of the headquarters squad. “We’ll—”
Crack. The flat snapping sound of the sniper’s bullet brought heads up with a sharp feral motion. All except for Finali’s; the teenager had rocked back on his heels, face liquid for a moment as hydrostatic shock rippled the soft tissues. His eyes bulged, and the black dot above the left turned slowly to glistening red. His body folded back bonelessly with a sodden sound, the backpack commlink holding his torso off the ground so that his head folded back to hide the slow drop of brain and blood from the huge exit wound on the back of his skull. There was a sudden hard stink as his sphincters relaxed.
Above them the Kestrel poised, turned. A flash winked from its rocket pods, and the sniper’s blind turned to a gout of rock and fragments. Kowalski straightened from his instinctive half-crouch and stared down at the young man’s body for an instant.
“Aw, shit, no,” he said. “Not now.”
“Come on, Tops,” Hunter said, her voice soft and flat as the nonreflective surface of her visor. She spat again, to one side. “We’ve got a job of work to finish.”
“In the name of the Mother of God, señora, have pity!” the man in the frayed white collar shouted thinly.
The cucuroach priest leading the illig delegation was scrawnier than his fellows, which meant starvation gaunt. They stood below the Ranger command, a hundred yards distant as the megaphone had commanded. Behind them the dark mass of the refugees waited, a thousand yards farther south. That was easy to see, even with her visor up; the weapons platforms were floating overhead, with their belly-lights flooding the landscape, brighter than day. The Kestrels and Shrikes circled lower, unlit, sleek black outlines wheeling in a circuit a mile across, sough of lift-jets and the hot dry stink of PFH air-units.
Hunter stood with her hands on her hips, knowing they saw her only as a black outline against the klieg glare of the platforms. When she spoke, her voice boomed amplified from the sky, echoing back from hill and rock in ripples that harshened the accent of her Spanish.
“Pity on Santierists, old man?” she said, and jerked a thumb toward the ground. The priest and his party shielded their faces and followed her hand, those whose eyes were not still bandaged from the afterimages of the fusion flare. Ten prisoners lay on their stomachs before the Ranger captain, thumbs lashed to toes behind their backs with a loop around their necks. Naked save for their tattoos, and the necklaces of human fingerbone. “Did they take pity on you, and share the meat of their sacrifices?”
The priest’s face clenched: he could not be a humble man by nature, nor a weak one, to have survived in these years. When he spoke a desperate effort of will put gentleness into his voice; shouting across the distance doubled his task, as she had intended.
“These people, they are not Santierists, not diabolists, not soldiers or political people. They are starving, señora. Their children die; the warlords give them no peace. For your own mother’s sake, let the mothers and little children through, at least. I will lead the others back to the border myself; or kill me, if you will, as punishment for the crossing of the border.”
Hunter signaled for increased volume. When she spoke the words rolled louder than summer thunder.
“I GRANT YOU THE MERCY OF ONE HOUR TO BEGIN MOVING BACK TOWARD THE BORDER,” the speakers roared. “THOSE WHO TURN SOUTH MAY LIVE. FOR THE OTHERS—”
She raised a hand. The lights above dimmed, fading like a theater as the curtains pulled back. Appropriate, she thought sourly. If this isn’t drama, what is? A single spotlight remained, fixed on her.
“FOR THE OTHERS, THIS.” Her fist stabbed down. Fire gouted up as the lasers struck into the cleared zone before the mob, a multiple flash and crack that walked from horizon to horizon like the striding of a giant whose feet burned the earth.
The priest dropped his hand, and the wrinkles of his face seemed to deepen. Wordless, he turned and hobbled back across the space where a line of red-glowing pits stitched the earth, as neat as a sewing machine’s needle could have made. There was a vast shuffling sigh from the darkened mass of his followers, a sigh that went on and on, like the sorrow of the world. Then it dissolved into an endless ruffling as they bent to take up their bundles for the journey back into the wasted land.
Laura Hunter turned and pulled a cigarette from a pocket on the sleeve of her uniform. The others waited, Jennings grinning like . . . what had been that comedian’s name? MacDonald? Murphy? McMurty bandaged and splinted but on her feet, Kowalski still dead around the eyes and with red-brown droplets of Finali’s blood across the front of his armor.
“You know,” the captain said meditatively, pulling on the cigarette and taking comfort from the harsh sting of the smoke, “sometimes this job sucks shit.” She shook her head. “Right, let’s—”
They all paused, with the slightly abstracted look that came from an override message on their helmet phones.
“Killed Eisenhower?” Jennings said. “You shittin’ me, man? That dude been dead since before my pappy dipped his wick and ran.”
Hunter coughed conclusively. “Not him, the carrier, you idiot, the ship.” Her hand waved them all to silence.
” . . .off Bandar Abbas,” the voice in their ears continued. “They—” It vanished in a static squeal that made them all wince before the AI cut in. The captain had been facing north, so that she alone saw the lights that flickered along the horizon. Like heat lightning, once, twice, then again.
“What was that, Cap?” Jennings asked. Even Kowalski looked to be shaken out of his introspection.
“That?” Hunter said very softly, throwing down her cigarette and grinding it out. “That was the end of the world, I think. Let’s go.”
“No. Absolutely not, and that is the end of the matter.” Major Forrest was haggard; all of them were, after these last three days. But he showed not one glimpse of weakness; Hunter remembered suddenly that the commander of Post 73 had had family in Washington . . . a wife, his younger children.
She kept her own face impassive as she nodded and looked round the table, noting which of the other officers would meet her eyes. It was one thing to agree in private, another to face the major down in the open.
The ex-classroom was quiet and dark. The windows had been hastily sealed shut with balks of cut styrofoam and duct tape. No more was needed, for now; four of the heavy transports were parked by the doors, with jury-rigged pipes keeping the building over pressure with filtered air that leached the chalk-sweat-urine aroma of school. Hunter could still feel the skin between her shoulder blades crawl as she remembered the readings from outside. The Dallas-Fort Worth fallout plume had come down squarely across Abilene, and she doubted there was anything living other than the rats within sixty miles.
She pulled on her cigarette, and it glowed like a tiny hearth in the dimness of the emergency lamp overhead. “With respect, sir, I think we should put it to a vote.”
The blue eyes that fixed hers were bloodshot but calm; she remembered a certain grave of her own in D.C. whose bones would now be tumbled ash, and acknowledged Forrest’s strength of will with a respect that conceded nothing.
“Captain,” he said, “this is a council of war; accordingly, I’m allowing free speech. It is not a democracy, and I will not tolerate treason in my command. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” she said firmly. “Without discipline, now, we’re a mob, and shortly a dead one. Under protest, I agree, and will comply with any orders you give.”
The ex-Marine turned his eyes on the others, collecting their nods like so many oaths of fealty. A few mumbled, Jennings grinned broadly, with a decisive nod.
“Dam’ straight, sir.”
“Well. Gentlemen, ladies, shall we inform the me—the troops?”
The roar of voices died in the auditorium, and the packed ranks of the Rangers snapped to attention. A little raggedly, maybe, but promptly and silently. The officers filed in to take their places at the rear of the podium and Forrest strode briskly to the edge, paused to return the salute, clasped hands behind his back.
“Stand easy and down, Sergeant.”
“Stand easy!” Kowalski barked. “Battalion will be seated for Major Forrest’s address!”
The commander waited impassively through the shuffling of chairs, waiting for the silence to return. The great room was brightly lit and the more than four hundred troopers filled it to overflowing. But a cold tension hovered over them; they were huddled in a fortress in a land of death, and they knew it.
“Rangers,” he began. “You know—”
Laura Hunter’s head jerked up as she heard the scuffle from the front row of seats; one of the tech-sergeants was standing, rising despite the hissed warnings and grasping hands. She recognized him, from B Company. An ex-miner from East Tennessee, burly enough to shake off his neighbors. The heavy face was unshaven, and tears ran down through the stubble and the weathered grooves.
“You!” he shouted at the officer above him. “They’re all dead, an’ you did it! You generals, you big an’ mighty ones. You!”
Hunter could feel Jennings tensing in the seat beside her, and her hand dropped to the sidearm at her belt. Then the hillbilly’s hand dipped into the patch-pocket of his jacket, came out with something round. Shouts, screams, her fingers scrabbling at the smooth flap of the holster, the oval egg-shape floating through the air toward the dais where the commanders sat. Forrest turning and reaching for it as it passed, slow motion, she could see the striker fly off and pinwheel away and she was just reaching her feet. The major’s hand struck it, but it slipped from his fingers and hit the hardwood floor of the dais with a hard drum-sound. She could read the cryptic print on it, and recognized it for what it was.
Offensive grenade, with a coil of notched steel wire inside the casing. Less than three yards away. There was just enough time too wonder at her own lack of fear, maybe the hormones don’t have time to reach my brain, and then Forrest’s back blocked her view as he threw himself onto the thing. The thump that followed was hideously muffled, and the man flopped up in a salt spray that spattered across her as high as her lips. Something else struck her, leaving a trail of white fire along one thigh. She clapped a hand to it, felt the blood dribble rather than spout; it could wait.
In seconds the hall had dissolved into chaos. She saw fights starting, the beginning of a surge toward the exits. It was cut-crystal clear; she could see the future fanning out ahead of her, paths like footprints carved in diamond for her to follow. She felt hard, like a thing of machined steel and bearings moving in oil, yet more alive than she could remember, more alive than she had since the day Eddie died. The salt taste of blood on her lips was a sacrament, the checked grip of the 9mm in her hand a caress. Hunter raised the pistol as she walked briskly to the edge of the podium and fired one round into the ceiling even as she keyed the microphone.
“Silence.” Not a shout; just loud, and flatly calm. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jennings vault back onto the platform, leopard-graceful: later. “Sergeant, call to order.”
Kowalski jerked, swallowed, looked at the man who had thrown the grenade as he hung immobile in the grip of a dozen troopers. “‘Tent—” his voice cracked. “‘Tent-hut!” he shouted.
The milling slowed, troopers looking at each other and remembering they were a unit. Shock aided the process, a groping for the familiar and the comforting. Hunter waited impassive until the last noise ceased.
“Major Forrest is dead. As senior officer, I am now in command in this unit. Any dispute?” She turned slightly; the officers behind her were sinking back into their chairs, hints of thought fighting up through the stunned bewilderment on their faces. All except Jennings. He gave her another of those cat-cool smiles, nodded.
“First order of business. You two; take that ground-sheet and wrap the major’s body, take it in back and lay it out on the table. Move.” The two soldiers scrambled to obey. “Bring the prisoner forward.”
Willing hands shoved the tech-sergeant into the strip of clear floor before the podium.
“Stand back, you others. Sergeant Willies, you stand accused of attempted murder, murder, and mutiny in time of war. How do you plead?”
The man stood, and a slow trickle of tears ran down his face. He shook his head unspeaking, raised a shaking hand to his face, lowered it. Hunter raised her eyes to the crowd; there was an extra note to their silence now. She could feel it, like a thrumming along her bones, a taste like iron and rust. Be formal, just a little. Then hit them hard.
“As commanding officer I hereby pronounce Sergeant Willies guilty of the charges laid. Does anyone speak in this man’s defense?” Now even the sound of breathing died; the clatter of the two troopers returning from laying out the dead man’s body seemed thunderloud. The spell of leadership was young, frail, a word now could break it. There would be no word; the certainty lifted her like a surfboard on the best wave of the season. She turned to the row behind her. “Show of hands for a guilty verdict, if you please?” They rose in ragged unison.
“Sergeant Willies, you are found guilty of mutiny and the murder of your commanding officer. The sentence is death. Do you have anything to say in your own defense?” The man stood without raising his face, the tears rolling slow and fast across his cheeks. Hunter raised the pistol and fired once; the big Tennessean pitched backward, rattled his heels on the floor, and went limp. A trickle of blood soaked out from under his jacket and ran amid the legs of the folding chairs.
“Cover that,” she said, pointing to the body. “We will now have a moment of silence in memory of Major Forrest, who gave his life for ours. Greater love has no man than this.” Time to get them thinking, just a little. Time to make them feel their link to each other, part of something greater than their own fears. Give them something to lay the burden of the future on.
“Right.” She holstered the pistol, rested her hands on her belt. “Major Forrest called you all together to give you the intelligence we’ve gathered and to outline our future course of action. There being no time to waste, we will now continue.” Hunter kept her voice metronome-regular. “The United States has effectively ceased to exist.”
A gasp; she moved on before the babble of questions could start. “The Soviets were on the verge of collapse a week ago, even before the Central Asian outbreak. They, or some of them, decided to take us with them. Their attack was launched for our cities and population centers, not military targets.” Which is probably why we’re still here. “The orbital zappers caught most of the ballistic missiles; they didn’t get the hypersonic PFH-powered cruise missiles from the submarines just offshore, or the suitcase bombs, and we think they’ve hit us with biological weapons as well. If there’d been a few more years . . .” She shrugged. “There wasn’t.
“Here are the facts. We estimate half the population is dead. Another half will die before spring; it’s going to be a long, hard winter. The temperature is dropping right now. Next year when the snow melts most of the active fallout will be gone, but there won’t be any fuel, transport, whatever, left. You all know how close this country was to the breaking point before this happened, though we were on the way back up, maybe. Now it’s going to be like Mexico, only a thousand times worse.”
She pointed over one shoulder, southwards. “And incidentally, they weren’t hit at all. We Border Rangers have held the line; try imagining what it’s going to be like now.”
Hunter paused to let that sink in, saw stark fear on many of the faces below. What had happened to the world was beyond imagining, but these men and women could imagine the Border down and no backup without much trouble. That was a horror that was fully real to them, their subconscious minds had had a chance to assimilate it.
“Some of the deeper shelters have held on, a few units here and there. Two of the orbital platforms made it through. I don’t think they’re going to find anything but famine and bandits and cucuroaches when they come back. Europe is hit even worse than we are, and so’s Japan.” She lit a cigarette. “If it’s any consolation, the Soviets no longer exist.
“Major Forrest,” she continued, “wanted us to make contact with such other units as survived, and aid in reestablishing order.” Hunter glanced down at the top of her cigarette. “It is my considered opinion, and that of your officers as a whole, that such a course of action would lead to the destruction of this unit. Hands, if you please.” This time she did not look behind her. “Nevertheless, we were prepared to follow Major Forrest’s orders. The situation is now changed.”
She leaned forward and let her voice drop. “We . . . we’ve been given a damn good lesson in what it’s like trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom. Now we’ve got a tidal wave and a whisk.”
A trooper came to her feet. “You’re saying we’re dead meat whatever we do!” Her voice was shrill; Hunter stared at her impassively, until she shuffled her feet, glanced to either side, added: “Ma’am,” and sat.
“No. If we break up, yes, we’re dead. Dead of radiation sickness, of cold, of plague, shot dead fighting over a can of dogfood.”
Hunter raised a finger. “But if we maintain ourselves, as a fighting unit, the 72nd, we have a fighting chance, a good fighting chance. As a unit we have assets I doubt anyone on Earth can match. There are more than five hundred of us, with a broad range of skills. We have several dozen PFH-powered warcraft, fuel for decades, repair facilities, weapons that almost nobody outside the U.S. and the Soviet can match, computers. Most of all, we have organization.”
She waited again, scanning them. They’re interested. Good. “I just got through telling you we couldn’t make a difference, though, didn’t I?” Her hand speared out, the first orator’s gesture she had made. “We can’t make a difference here. Or even survive, unless you count huddling in a cabin in Wyoming and eating bears as survival. And I don’t like to ski.”
Feeble as it was, that surprised a chuckle out of them. “But we do have those assets I listed; what we need is a place where we can apply them. Where we won’t be swamped by numbers and the scale of things. Where we can stand off all comers, try to make a life for ourselves. It won’t be easy; we’ll have to work and fight for it.” The hand stabbed down. “So what else is new?”
A cheer, from the row where her old platoon sat. For a moment a warmth invaded the icy certainty beneath her heart, and then she pushed it aside. “A fight we can win, for a change. Better work than wasting illig kids and wacko cucuroach cannibals; and we’ll be doing it for ourselves, not a bunch of fat-assed citizens who hide behind our guns and then treat us like hyenas escaped from the zoo!”
That brought them all to their feet, cheering and stamping their feet. The Border Rangers had never been popular with the press; few Rangers wore their uniforms when they went on furlough. Spit, and bags of excrement, sometimes outright murder not being what they had in mind. People with strong family ties avoided the service, or left quickly. She raised her hands for silence and smiled, a slow, fierce grin.
“Right, listen up! This isn’t going to be a democracy, or a union shop. A committee is the only known animal with more than four legs and no brain. You get just one choice; come along, subject to articles of war and discipline like nothing you’ve ever known, or get dropped off in a clear zone with a rifle and a week’s rations. Which is it?”
Another wave of cheers, and this time there were hats thrown into the air, exultant clinches, a surf-roar of voices. Hysteria, she thought. They’d been half-sure they were all going to die. Then they saw the murder. Now I’ve offered them a door—and they’re charging for it like a herd of buffalo. But they’ll remember.
“I thought so,” she said quietly, after the tumult. “We know each other, you and I.” Nods and grins and clenched-fist salutes. “Here’s what we’re going to do, in brief. How many of you know about the Mindanao pirates?” Most of the hands went up. “For those who don’t, they got PFH units, hooked them to some old subs and went a’rovin’. After the Philippines and Indonesia collapsed in ’93, they pretty well had their own way. A bunch of them took over a medium-sized island, name of Bali.” Good-natured groans. “Yes, I know, some’ve you have heard a fair bit.” She drew on the cigarette.
“But it’s perfect for what we want. Big enough to be worthwhile, small enough to hold, with fertile land and a good climate. Isolated, hard to get to except by PFH-powered boost. The people’re nice, good farmers and craftsmen, pretty cultured; and they’re Hindu, while everyone else in the area’s Muslim, like the corsairs who’ve taken over the place and killed off half the population. And I’ve seen the Naval intelligence reports; we can take those pirates. We’ll be liberators, and afterward they’ll still need us. No more than a reasonable amount of butt-kicking needed to keep things going our way.” She threw the stub to the floor while the laugh died and straightened.
“Those of you who want to stay and take your chances with the cold, the dark, and the looters report to First Sergeant Kowalski. For the rest, we’ve got work to do. First of all, getting out of here before we all start to glow in the dark. Next stop—a kingdom of our own! Platoon briefings at 1800. Dismiss.”
“‘Tent-hut,” Kowalski barked. Hunter returned their salute crisply, turned and strode off; it was important to make a good exit. Reaction threatened to take her in the corridor beyond, but she forced the ice mantle back. It was not over yet, and the officers were crowding around her.
“See to your people, settle them down, and if you can do it without obvious pressure, push the waverers over to our side. We need volunteers, but we need as many as we can get. Staff meeting in two hours; we’re getting out tonight, probably stop over at a place I know in Baja for a month or so, pick up some more equipment and recruits . . . . Let’s move it.”
Then it was her and Jennings. He leaned against the stained cinderblock of the wall with lazy arrogance, stroked a finger across his mustache and smiled that brilliant empty grin.
“Objections, Lieutenant?” Hunter asked.
He mimed applause. “Excellent, Great White Raja-ess to be; your faithful Man Friday here just pantin’ to get at those palaces an’ mango trees and dancers with the batik sarongs.”
Hunter looked him up and down. “You know, Jennings, you have your good points. You’re tough, you’ve got smarts, you’re not squeamish, and you can even get troops to follow you.” A pause. “Good reflexes, too; you got off that dais as if you could see the grenade coming.”
Jennings froze. “Say what?” he asked with soft emphasis. Hunter felt her neck prickle; under the shuck-and-jive act this was a very dangerous man. “You lookin’ to have another court-martial?”
She shook her head. “Jennings, you like to play the game. You like to win. Great; I’m just betting that you’ve got brains as well as smarts, enough to realize that if we start fighting each other it all goes to shit and nobody wins.” She stepped closer, enough to smell the clean musk of the younger soldier’s presence, see the slight tensing of the small muscles around his lips. Her finger reached out to prod gently into his chest.
“Forrest was tough and smart too; but he had one fatal handicap. He was Old Corps all the way, a man of honor.” There was enjoyment in her smile, but no humor. “Maybe I would have gone along with his Custer’s Last Stand plan . . . maybe not. Just remember this; while he was living in the Big Green Machine, I was a street cop. I’ve been busting scumbags ten times badder than you since about the time you sold your first nickel bag. Clear, Holmes?”
He reached down with one finger and slowly pushed hers away. “So I be a good darky, or you whup my nigger ass?”
“Anytime, Jennings. Anytime. Because we’ve got a job to do, and we can’t get it done if we’re playing head-games. And I intend to get it done.”
The silence went on a long moment until the lieutenant fanned off a salute. “Like you say, Your Exaltedness. Better a piece of the pie than an empty plate. I’m yours.”
She returned the salute. For now, went unspoken between them as the man turned away. Hunter watched him go, and for a moment the weight of the future crushed at her shoulders.
Then the Ranger laughed, remembering a beach, and the moon casting a silver road across the water. “You said I was fit to be a queen, Eddie,” she whispered softly. “It’s something to do, hey? And they say the first monarch was a lucky soldier. Why not me?”
The future started with tonight; a battalion lift was going to mean some careful juggling; there would be no indenting for stores at the other end. But damned if I’ll leave my Enya discs behind, she thought, or a signed first edition of Prince of Sparta.
“Raja-ess,” she murmured. “I’ll have to work on that.” She was humming as she strode toward her room. Sleet began to pound against the walls, like a roll of drums.