VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 14, 1942: 0700 HOURS
CRACK went the bullet, then spang-winnng off the stone.
Reflexively, Dreiser froze as spalled-off microfragments of stone drove into his forehead. A hand grabbed him by the back of his webbing harness and yanked him down behind the ruined wall. He controlled his shaking with an effort, drawing in deep drafts of air that smelled of wet rock and barnyard, blinking sunlight out of his eyes. The closest he had come to the sharp end before was reporting on the German blitzkrieg through western Europe in 1940, but that had been done from the rear. Comfortable war reporting, with a car and an officer from the Propaganda section; interviews with generals, watching heavy artillery pounding away and ambulances bringing casualties back to the clearing stations. For that matter, it might be some of the same men shooting at him. He had followed the German Sixth Army through Belgium, and here he was meeting them again in Russia.
“Thanks,” he said shakily to the NCO.
“You was drawin’ fire,” the Draka decurion replied absently, crawling to a gap and cautiously glancing around, head down at knee-level, squinting against the young sun in the east.
Panting, the American put his back to the stones of the wall and watched the Draka. There were six: the other four members of the decurion’s stick and a rocket-gun team of two. They lay motionless on the slope of rubble—motionless except for their eyes, flicking ceaselessly over the buildings before them. Mottled uniforms and helmet covers blended into the mud-covered wreck of the ruined building. He had picked this stick as typical, to do a few human-interest stories. It was typical, near enough: four men and three women, average age nineteen and three-quarters. Average height and weight five-eleven and 175 pounds for the males, five-six and 140 for the females. A redhead, two blonds, the rest varying shades of brown.
He had spent much of the winter getting to know Century A: not easy, since Draka were xenophobes by habit and detested the United States and all its works in particular by hereditary tradition. It had helped that Eric and he got along well—the Centurion was a popular officer. Trying his best to keep up did more.
Although my best wasn’t very good, he admitted ruefully to himself, even though he was in the best condition he could remember. It was all a matter of priorities; the wealth and leisure to produce these soldiers had been wrung out of whole continents. He focused on one trooper . . .
Cindy, his mind prompted him. Cindy McAlistair. Although nobody called her anything but Tee-Hee.
Fox-colored hair, green eyes, a narrow, sharp-featured face—Scots-Irish, via the Carolina piedmont. Her grandfather had been a Confederate refugee in 1866, had escaped from Charleston in one of the last Draka blockade runners, those lean craft that had smuggled in so many repeating rifles and steam warcars. He had established a plantation in the rich lands north of Luanda, just being opened by railways and steam coaches for coffee and cotton.
His granddaughter rested easily, one knee crooked and a hand beneath her; it might have looked awkward, if Dreiser had not seen her do six hundred one-hand pushups in barracks once, on a bet. Sweat streaked the black war paint on her face, dark except for a slight gleam of teeth. The Holbars rested beside her, the assault sling over her neck; her hand held the pistol grip, resting amid a scatter of empty aluminum cartridge cases and pieces of belt link.
The dimpled bone hilt of a throwing knife showed behind her neck, from a sheath sewn into the field jacket, and she was wearing warsaps—fingerless leather gloves with black-metal insets over knuckles and palm edge—secured by straps up the forearms. For the rest, standard gear: lace-up boots with composition soles; thick tough cotton pants and jacket, with leather patches at knee and elbow and plenty of pockets; helmet with cloth cover; a harness of laced panels around the waist that reached nearly to the ribs, and supported padded loops over the shoulders. A half-dozen grenades, blast and fragmentation. Canteen, with messkit, entrenching tool, three conical drum magazines of ammunition, field dressing, ration bars, folding toolkit for maintenance, and a few oddments. Always including spare tampons: “If you don’t have ’em, sure as fate you gonna need ’em, then things get plain disgustin’.”
The whole outfit had the savage, stripped-down practicality he had come to associate with the Draka. This was an inhumanly functional civilization, not militarist in the sense of strutting, bemedaled generals and parades, but with a skilled appreciation of the business of conquest, honed by generations of experience and coldly unsentimental analysis.
The decurion completed his survey and withdrew his head with slow care; rapid movement attracted the eye.
“Snipah,” he said. “Bill-boy, Tee-Hee, McThing—”
The three troopers looked up. “You see him?”
Cindy giggled, the sound that had given her the nickname. “Cross t’ street, over that-there first building row a’ windows?”
“Ya. We’re gonna winkel him. You three, light out soon’s we lay down fire. Jo!” The rocket gunner raised his head. “Center window, can do?”
The man eased his eye to the scope sight and scanned. There was a laneway, then a cleared field of sorts, scrap-built hutments for odds and ends, blocks of stone and rubble. Then square-built stone houses, on the rubble pile; the second row of houses stood atop those but set back, leaving a terrace of rooftop. Distance about two hundred meters, and the windows were slits . . .
“No problem hittin’ roundabouts, can’t say’s I’ll get it in. Hey, dec, maybe more of ’em?”
“Na,” the NCO snapped. “Would’ve opened up on us ’fore we got to this-here wall. Just one, movin’ from window t’ window. Wants us to get close. Jenny, ready with t’ SAW. Now!”
The rocket gun went off, whump-sssssst-crash. The decurion and the trooper with the light machine gun came to their knees, slapped the bipods of their weapons onto the low parapet of the stone wall, and began working automatic fire along the line of slit windows.
And the three troopers moved. Lying with his back to the wall, Dreiser had a perfect view; they bounced forward, not bothering to come to their feet, flinging themselves up with a flexing of arm and legs, hurdled the wall without pausing, hit the other side with legs pumping and bodies almost horizontal, moving like broken-field runners. Dreiser twisted to follow them, blinking back surprise. No matter how often it was demonstrated, it was always a shock to realize how strong these people were, how fast and flexible and coordinated. It was not the ox-muscled bull massiveness of the Janissaries he’d seen, but leopard strength. Twenty years, he reminded himself. Twenty years of scientific diet and a carefully graduated exercise program; they had been running assault courses since before puberty.
And—he had been holding his hands over his ears against the grinding rattle of automatic-weapons fire. The rocket gun fired again; the whole frontage along the row of windows was shedding sparks and dust and stone fragments.
He must have tripped, was the American’s first thought. So quickly, in a single instant that slipped by before his attention could focus, the center Draka was down.
Dreiser could see him stop, as if his headlong dash had run into a stone wall; he could even see the exit wound, red and ragged-edged in his back. Two more shots struck him, and the trooper fell bonelessly, twitched once and lay still.
No dramatic spinning around, he thought dazedly. Just . . . dead.
Beside him, the machine gunner grunted as if struck in the stomach; the American remembered she had been the fallen trooper’s lover. Her hand went out to grip the bipod and her legs tensed to charge, until the decurion’s voice cracked out.
“None of that-there shit, he dead.” He nodded grimly at her white-mouthed obedience, then added: “Cease fire. Tee-Hee ’n McThing there by now.”
Dreiser jerked his head back up; the other two Draka had vanished.
The sudden silence rang impossibly loud in his ears, along with the beat of blood; there was a distant chatter of fire from elsewhere in the village. It had been so quick—alive one second, dead the next. And it was only the second time in his life he had seen violent death; the first had been . . . yes, 1934, the rioting outside the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, when the Camelots du Roi had tried to storm the government buildings. A bystander had been hit in the head by a police bullet and fallen dead at his feet, and he had looked down and thought, That could have been me. Less random here, but the same sense of inconsequentialness. You never really imagined death could happen to you; something like this made you realize it could, not in some comfortably distant future, but right now, right here, at any moment. That no amount of skill or precaution could prevent it . . .
Beside him, the decurion was muttering. “If that-there snipah knows his business, he outa there by now. Maybe not; maybe he just sharp-eyed and don’t scare easy. Then he stay, try So’ anothah . . . ”
Seconds crawled. Dreiser mopped at the sweat soaking into his mustache, and started to relax; it was less than an hour since the attack began and already he felt bone-weary. Fumes of cordite and rocket propellant clawed at the lining of his nose and throat. Adrenaline exhaustion, he thought. Draka claimed to be able to control it, with breathing exercises and meditation and such; it had all sounded too Yoga-like, too much a product of the warrior-mystic syndrome for his taste. Maybe I should have—
There was a grenade blast; dust puffed out of the narrow windows of the house from which the sniper had fired. Almost instantly, two blasts of assault-rifle fire stuttered within; the Draka tensed. A trapdoor flipped open on the roof and one of the troopers vaulted out, doing a quick four-way scan-and-cover. Then she crawled to the edge and called: “Got the snipah! What about Bill-boy?”
The decurion cupped a hand around his mouth, rising to one knee. “Bill-boy is expended,” he shouted. “Hold and cover.”
Expended. Dreiser’s mind translated automatically: dead. More precisely, killed in action; if you died by accident or sickness, you skipped.
Jenny, the machine gunner, rolled over the wall and crouched, covering the roofs behind them. The other Draka rose and scrambled forward, moving at a fast trot, well spread out; at the body, two of them stooped, grabbed the straps of the dead man’s harness and half-carried, half-dragged him to the shelter of the wall. Dreiser noted with half-queasy fascination how the body moved, head and limbs and torso still following the pathways of muscle and sinew with a disgusting naturalness. The back of his uniform glistened dark and wet; when they turned him over and removed the helmet, Dreiser noted for the first time how loss of blood and the relaxation of sudden death seemed to take off years of age. Alive, he had seemed an adult, a man—a hard and dangerous man at that, a killer. Dead, there was only a sudden vast surprise in the drying eyes; his head rolled into his shoulder, as a child nuzzles into the pillow.
The others of the stick were stripping his weapons and ammunition with quick efficiency. Jenny paused to close his eyes and mouth and kiss his lips, then touched her fingers to his blood and drew a line between her brows with an abrupt, savage gesture.
This was not a good man, Dreiser thought. And he had been fighting for a bad cause; not the worst, but the Domination was horror enough in its own right. Yet, someone had carried him nine months below her heart; others had spent years diapering him, telling him bedtime stories, teaching him the alphabet . . . He remembered an evening two months ago in Mosul. They had just come in from a field problem, out of the cold mud and the rain and back to the barracks. There had been an impromptu party—coffee and brandy and astonishingly fine singing. Dreiser had sat with his back in a corner, nursing a hot cup and his blisters and staying out of the way, forgotten and fascinated.
This one, the one they called Bill-boy, had started a dance—a folk dance of sorts. It looked vaguely Afro-Celtic to Dreiser, done with a bush knife in each hand, two-foot chopping blades, heavy and razor sharp. He had danced naked to the waist, the steel glittering in the harsh, bare-bulb lights, the others had formed a circle around him, clapping and cheering while the fiddler scraped his bow across the strings and another slapped palms on a zebra-hide drum held between his knees. The dancer had whirled, the edges cutting closer and closer to his body; had started to improvise to the applause, a series of pirouettes and handsprings, backflips and cartwheels, laughing as sweat spun off his glistening skin in jewelled drops. Laughing with pleasure in strength and skill and . . . well, it was a Draka way of looking at it, but yes, beauty.
How am I supposed to make “human interest” out of this? ran through him. How the fuck am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to make this real to the newspaper readers in their bungalows? Should I? If there was some way of showing them war directly, unfiltered, right in their living rooms, they’d never support a war. And it is necessary. They must support the war, or afterwards we’ll be left alone on a planet run by Nazis or the Domination, and nothing to fight them with . . .
Shaking his head wearily, he followed the Draka into the building.