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Grunting and snarling, the nineteen tracked vehicles of G Troop struggled into a night defensive position. From the road watched a family of impassive Cambodians. The track commander of the nearest vehicle, three-six, waved at them as his ACAV shuddered through a thirty-degree arc and prepared to back into its position in the laager. Red paint marked the track's flat aluminum sides with the name "Horny Horse" and a graphic parody of the regiment's stallion insignia. None of the stolid, flat-faced onlookers gave any sign of interest, even when the ACAV lurched sideways and began to tilt. The TC leaned out of his cupola in the middle, vainly trying to see what was the matter. Jones, the left gunner, looked out over the hole opening under the tread and waved frantically, trying to shout over the engine noise. The TC nodded and snapped to the driver through his intercom, "Whip 'er right and gun 'er, Jody, we're falling into a goddamn bunker!"

The diesel bellowed as Jody let the left clutch full out and tramped on the foot feed. The ACAV slewed level again with the left tread spitting mangled vegetation behind it. "Cut the engine," the TC ordered, and in the sudden silence he shouted to the command track in the center of the rough circle of vehicles, "Captain Fuller! We're on a bunker complex!"

The shirtless, sweating officer dropped the can of beer he was staring to open and grabbed his dirty M-16. No matter what you did, clean your rifle daily and keep it in a case, the choking dust kicked up by the tracks inevitably crept into it at the end of a day's move. And if they really were on a bunker complex, the move wasn't over yet. Everybody knew what had happened to E troop last November when they laagered on an unsuspected complex and a dozen sappers had crept out inside the NDP that night.

The hole, an irregular oval perhaps a foot along the greater axis, looked uncompromisingly black against the red laterite of the bare ground. Worse, the tilted edge of a slab showed clearly at the back, proving the cavity below was artificial. Everybody knew the dinks had been building bunkers here in the Parrot's Beak for twenty years and more, but the captain had never seen a stone one before.

"Want me to frag it?" someone said. It was the red-headed TC of the track that turned the bunker up, Fuller saw. Casely, his name was. He held his unauthorized .45 in one hand, cocked, and a pair of smooth-hulled fragmentation grenades in the other.

"Gimme one of them," growled Sergeant Peacock, reaching his huge black arm toward the younger soldier. Casely handed one of the grenades to the field first and watched him expertly mold a pound and a quarter stick of plastic explosive around it. The white explosive encased all the metal except the handle and the safety pin in a lumpy cocoon. "We'll try a bunker buster first to see if anybody's home," the sergeant said with satisfaction. "Better clear back." He pulled the pin.

All around the laager, men were watching what was going on beside three-six. Nobody was keeping a lookout into the jungle; but, then, the dinks didn't hit armored units in the daytime. Besides, the dozen Cambodians were still squatting in the road. Intelligence might be wrong, but the locals always knew when there was going to be trouble.

Peacock sidled closer to the hole, hunching down a little at the thought that a flat brown face might pop up out of it at the last instant, eyes glaring at him behind the sights of an A.K. He gagged and blinked, then tossed the bomb the last yard with a convulsive gesture and darted back away.

"Jesus H. Christ!" he wheezed, "Jesus H. Christ! That stinks down there like nothing on earth!"

"How's that?" Fuller snapped, nervous about anything unusual. The bunker buster went off, a hollow boom like a cherry bomb in a garbage can, only a thousand times as loud. Dirt and whizzing fragments of stone mushroomed upward, drifting mostly toward three-six and showering it for thirty seconds. The crew covered their eyes and hunched their steel pots close to their shoulders. Captain Fuller, kneeling beside the track under the unexpected rain of dirt, suddenly choked and jumped to his feet swearing. "My God," he roared, "which way's the wind blowing?" The charnel reek that oozed out of the newly opened bunker was strong and indescribably foul. The troop had found NVA buried in the jungle for months in the damp warmth, found them and dug them up to search for papers; that stench had been nothing to this one.

"Must'a been a hospital," Sergeant Peacock suggested as he edged upwind of the pit. He was covering his nose with an olive drab handkerchief. "Jesus," he repeated, "I never smelled anything like that."

Three-six's diesel ripped back into life and brought the track upwind of the hole in a wide circle. Ten yards away, its nose pointing out toward the road beside the next vehicle over, it halted and Casely descended again. He still held his pistol. "God, look at that," he said.

When the bunker buster had blown, it lifted the roof off a narrow crypt some ten feet long and half that wide. It could not have been more than inches below the surface of the soil at any point. Relatively little of the rubble kicked up by the explosion had fallen back into the cavity, leaving it open to the eyes of the men on on its edge. Most of the litter on the floor of the crypt was of bones. All were dry, and many had been smashed to powder by the blast. One skull, whole by some mischance, goggled toward the north wall.

The idol glared back at it. It was about six feet high, cut out of streaky soapstone instead of the omnipresent laterite whose pocked roughness forms the walls and ornamentation of most Cambodian temples, even those of Angkor Wat. Though it stood on two legs, there was nothing manlike about the creature. A fanged jaw twisted into a vicious grimace, leering out over the beast's pot belly. One clawed arm rested on the paunch; the other, apparently the only casualty of the explosion, had been broken off at the shoulder and lay half covered by the gravel on the floor. The gray-on-black marking of the stone blended to give the image a lifelikeness it should not have had; Fuller blinked, half expecting blood to spurt from the severed arm. Over all lay the miasma of decay, slowly diffusing on the hot breeze.

Fuller hesitated a moment, peering over the edge. "Anybody see a door to this place?" he asked. None of the group slowly gathering on the edge of the crypt answered. The whole room had been faced with thin slabs of the same stone that formed the idol. Line after line of squiggly, decorative Cambodian writing covered their surface unintelligibly. Fragments from the roof of the crypt showed similar markings.

"That ain't no hospital," Sergeant Peacock asserted needlessly, wiping his palms on the seat of his fatigues. The light-green material darkened with sweat.

Jody Bredt, the undersized Pfc. who drove three-six, sauntered over with his gas mask in his hand. He took the war a little more seriously than most of the rest of the troop and kept his mask in the hatch with him instead of being buried in the bottom of his duffle bag. "Want me to take a look down there, Captain Fuller?" he asked importantly.

"Why don't you just put in for official tunnel rat?" his TC gibed, but the officer nodded appreciatively. "Yeah, go ahead. Be careful, for God's sake, but I think this may just have been an old temple."

Jody slipped his mask on, virtually blinding himself even in the bright sunlight. The lenses were dusty and scratched from knocking around in the track for months. A preliminary sniff had convinced him that the stench had almost dissipated, but he couldn't take the mask off now that he'd made such a production of it. Gingerly, he lowered himself over the edge. Sergeant Peacock knelt down to hold his wrist in case he slipped; there might be a mine under any of the delicately carven slabs. The gooks were clever about that sort of thing. Still, any mines down there should have gone off when the bunker buster did. He let his feet touch the ground with a little more confidence and ran his hand over the wall. "I don't see any swinging doors or anything," he reported. "Maybe they got in through the roof, huh?"

"Hell, we'll never know that now," Casely snorted. "Hey, Captain, I think the smell is pretty well gone. Let me go down there."

"Why?" Fuller grunted. "Want to take that statue back with you on R&R?"

The TC grinned. The captain knew his men pretty well. "Naw, too big. I did think one of them skulls would make kind of a nice souvenir if they don't check my hold baggage too close, though."

Fuller swore and laughed. "OK," he said, squatting down preparatory to jumping in himself, "go ahead, you found the place. But I want the rest of you guys back on your tracks. We're going to be leaving here in five, as soon as I get a look around myself."

"Hey, Red, throw me something," one of the bystanders begged Casely, but the captain waved him away peremptorily. "Go on, goddamnit, I don't want all of you hanging around here in case the dinks are out there." He hopped down into the cavity, joining Casely and the driver whose mask hung from his hand again. The air was thick but had lost the earlier noisomeness.

Casely picked up the skull he wanted for a trophy with a finger through each of the eye-sockets. When he had lifted it waist high, the bone crumbled to powder. What was left of the skull shattered unrecognizably when it hit the floor. "Goddamn," the TC swore, kicking angrily at the heap of dust, "why didn't it do that when the frag went off if it had to do it at all? Now I got my hopes up and look what happens!"

Peacock, squatting like a black Buddha on the rim of the crypt, chuckled deep in his chest. "Why, the next dink we get, you just cut his head off and dry it out. How that be, Red? Get you a nice fresh head to take back to your wife."

Casely swore again. The captain was handling another of the bones. This one was a femur, sheared off some inches short of the knee joint. If the frag hadn't done it, the damage dated from the unguessable past. The bone was almost as dry and fragile as the skull that had powdered in Casely's hands. He tossed it up to the field first, shaking his head in puzzlement. "How old do you guess that is, sarge?" he asked. "I don't think I ever saw anything that used up before."

"This old guy is still in fine shape," Jody put in, rapping the brutal idol on the nose with his gas mask. "Frag didn't hurt him hardly at all, did it?" He kicked at the broken limb lying near the statue. The others, more or less consciously, had been avoiding the idol with their eyes. If you looked too closely, the crude swirls on the thing that were supposed to represent hair seemed to move by themselves. Probably the grain of the stone.

"Goddamn," Fuller said. It was not entirely blasphemous the way he said it. "Will you look at that."

The driver's foot had shaken the broken arm, paw, whatever out of the pile of rubble in which it lay. Previously unseen was the figure of the man—it was clearly a man—held in the monster's clawed grip. The man had been sculpted only a fraction of the size of the thing holding him, some thirty inches or so from foot to where the head would have been if it hadn't been broken off by the blast. Fuller looked more closely. No, the figure had been carved that way originally, limp and headless in the idol's claws. The beast-god's leering mouth seemed to take a further, even more unpleasant dimension. Fuller stretched his arm up to Sergeant Peacock. "Sarge, give me a hand. Come on, you two, we're getting out of here."

"Think the gooks been using this as a hospital?" Jody asked, scrambling up to the surface with a boost from Casely. Jody always missed the last word and didn't have quite the intelligence to supply it himself.

"I don't know what they're doing," Fuller grunted. "If there's one bunker around here, there could be a hundred though, and I'm not sitting around to find out. I think I'll ask for a B-52 strike here. God knows, they're flattening enough empty jungle they ought to be willing to hit a spot like this."

Casely picked up a bit of the crypt's roof and tossed it in his hand. "Hey," he said, "maybe some of those locals speak English. I'd like to know what these squiggles are saying."

"You're going to have to find them to ask," Peacock said with a shrug. "They must'a took off when the bunker buster went off."

"Umm," the redhead grunted. "Well, it makes a souvenir anyway." Around the circle of vehicles engines were starting up. One of the gunners signaled Casely with the radio helmet in his hand. "Come on, Red," he shouted, "'we're moving out." Casely nodded and began jogging toward the track. He wasn't sorry to be leaving this place either. Not sorry at all.


Three-six had a full crew of four men, and so they split the guard into two-hour shifts from 2200 to 0600. The new location was a dead ringer for the one they'd just left, low jungle approaching the graveled length of Highway 13, but at least there didn't seem to be any bunkers. Or idols. Casely had last guard, a concession to his rank that meant he could get six hours sleep uninterrupted, but he couldn't seem to drop off soundly. The air was cool and misty, cloaking the tracks so closely that the Sheridan to the left in the laager was almost invisible. A good night for sappers. Casely could almost feel them creeping closer.

He glanced at his watch. Three o'clock, Jody's shift. The TC was stretched out on the closed cargo hatch of the ACAV while the two gunners slept inside on mattresses laid over the ranked ammo boxes. He should have been able to see Jody sitting in the cupola, staring out into the jungle. At first glance the driver wasn't there, and Casely sat up to make sure the little guy hadn't gone and done something unusually stupid. At the first sound of movement from behind him Jody gasped and straightened up from where he was hunched over the cupola's fifty caliber machine gun. "Jeez, Red, it's you. Jeez, you gave me a shock there!" he whispered nervously.

Casely swung himself around to lean his left side on the sloping steel of the cupola and peer out into the night. "Couldn't sleep," he muttered. The rustle of static escaping from the driver's radio helmet was comforting, mechanical.

"I think there's somebody out there," Jody blurted suddenly, waving his arm toward the mist. "I keep hearing something moving, kind of."

Something like thunder began in the far distance. It didn't seem loud until you tried to whisper over it. Unlike thunder, it didn't stop. The rustling, rumbling sound went on and on, and to the west the sky brightened intermittently with white flashes.

Jody tensed. "What the hell's that?" he stammered, his right hand already snaking for the cal fifty's charging handle. His TC chuckled and stopped him. "Christ, you are new," Casely said without malice. "This the first time you heard an Arclight?"

Jody's blank expression was evident even in the gloom. "Arclight," the TC repeated. "You know, a B-52 strike. Hell, that must be ten klicks away at least."

"Ten kilometers?" the driver said in surprise. "It scared me there for a minute."

"If there's any dinks under it, it'll scare them worse," Casely stated positively. "Wait till we go through one of the bombed areas, and you'll see. They just flatten whole swaths of the jungle, a quarter mile wide and as long as there's planes in the strike. Don't leave a thing higher than the grass, either."

He glanced at his watch again and swore. "Look, I got to get some sleep. Wake me up in half an hour, huh?"

"You don't think there's something out there, Red?"

"Hell, I don't know," the TC grunted. "Keep your eyes open and wake me up in half an hour."

There was something pressing down on them from the dark, but it might have been the mist alone. Casely drew his poncho liner closer about him and fell back into a fitful sleep. He dreamed, aimlessly at first but then of the writing-covered crypt he had stood in that afternoon. He was there again, but the roof had been replaced and the walls were miles high. The idol was waiting for him. Its soapstone jaws grinned, and its remaining arm began to reach out. The stench rolled almost tangibly from its maw.

"Jesus God!" the TC blurted. His head rang with the blow he had given it, lurching uncontrollably against the cupola to get away from his dream. Even awake, the charnel fetor lay heavily in his nostrils. "Jesus," he repeated more softly. If he'd known the sort of nightmare he was due for, he'd have spelled Jody right then at 3:15 and let the driver dream it for him.

It was still pitch dark; dawn and sunset are sudden things in the tropics. The illuminated hands of his big wristwatch were clear at five after four, though, twenty minutes after Jody should have waked him up. "Hey, turtle," he whispered, "I told you to get me up at a quarter of. You like guard so much you want to pull my shift too?"

No answer. Alarmed, Casely peered into the cupola. The light fabric of the driver's shirt showed faintly where his torso covered the receiver of the cal fifty. Despite all his talk about hearing something in the jungle, Jody had fallen asleep.

In the guts of the ACAV, the radio hissed softly. "Come on, Jody," Casely prodded. He put his hand on the driver's shoulder. Jody's body slipped fluidly off the seat, falling through the cupola into the vehicle's interior. One of the gunners snapped awake with a startled curse and turned on his flashlight.

On the back deck of the ACAV, Casely stared at the dark wetness on his hand. For a moment he was too transfixed even to look down into the track, to look down at Jody's torso sprawling in headless obscenity.


Captain Fuller yawned, then shook his head to clear it. "Sure hope we don't have another sapper tonight," he muttered. "Christ, I'm tired."

Sergeant Peacock methodically checked the tent flap, making sure it was sealed and not leaking light from the small yellow bulbs inside. The command track's engine was on, rumbling to power the lights and the two radio sets in the track itself behind the tent. It was midnight and voices crackled as the radio operator called the roll of the vehicles around the NDP.

"Tell the truth," Fuller went on with a grin of furtive embarrassment, "I wasn't sleeping too well last night even before Casely started shouting. Had one hell of a nightmare. Christ, what a thing that was."

"I knew the gooks to do it in Korea," Peacock said, his great brown eyes guarded. "Cut a fella's head off and leave his buddy sleeping right beside him. I guess they figured the story that got around did more good than if they just killed both of 'em."

The officer shrugged impatiently, lost in his own thoughts. "The dream, I meant. You don't expect your own dreams to go back on you over here. Christ, it's not as though we don't have enough trouble with the dinks."

"We moved ten klicks today," the black said mildly, shifting his bulk on his cot. "You were probably right, figuring there was a bunker system off in the jungle where we laagered last night. They'll just be glad we moved outa their hair; they won't chase us."

Captain Fuller wasn't listening. His face was peculiarly tense, and he seemed to be straining to catch a sound from outside the tent. "Who's moving around out there, Peacock?" he said at last.

The field first blinked. "Sir?" he said. The big man stood up, thrust his head through the tent flap, holding the edges of the material close to his neck to block off the light inside. There was nothing, nothing but an evil reek that seemed to permeate the whole area. He pulled back into the tent. "Everything seems all right, sir; they got a radio going in one of the tracks, maybe that's what you heard."

"No, no," the officer denied peevishly, "it was somebody moving around. I suppose it was just somebody taking a piss. Christ, I'm too jumpy to sleep and too tired to think straight when I stay awake. God damn it, I wish July was here so I could take my R&R and forget this damn place."

"Don't let dreams bother you," Sergeant Peacock counseled quietly. "I know about dreams; I had bad dreams when I was a baby, but my momma would wake me up and tell me it was all right, that it didn't mean anything. And that's so, once you wake up. Even that one last night—"

"Look, Peacock," the captain snarled, "what I don't need is a lecture from you on how childish I'm being. Besides, what do you know what I was dreaming last night?"

"Sorry, sir," the sergeant said with impassive dignity, "I'm sure I don't know what you were dreaming about. I meant my own dream about the idol—you know, the one back at yesterday's first NDP. It was pretty bad, the thing reaching out for me and all, but I knew it was just—"

The captain was staring at him in terror, all the ruddiness seeping yellowly out of his face. "My God," Fuller whispered. "Dear God, you mean you dreamed that too?" He stood up. The cot creaked behind him and his dog tags clinked together on his bare chest. To his ears, at least, there seemed to be another sound; one from outside.

"God damn it!" Fuller shouted. His M-16 lay under his cot, across the double V of the head and center legs. He snatched it out and snapped back the operating rod. The bolt clacked home, chambering a round. With the rifle in his hands and not another word for the sergeant, the captain stepped through the tent flaps. The radio operator glanced through the back of the tent to see what the commotion was about. Sergeant Peacock shrugged and shook his head. Outside the tent they could hear the CO's voice shouting angrily, "All right, who the hell is—"

The voice fluted horribly into a scream, high-pitched and terrified. "My God!" the radioman blurted and jumped back to his seat in front of the equipment. Sergeant Peacock scooped up his holstered pistol and the machete beside it, his right hand brushing the light switch and plunging the tent into darkness. In the track behind him the radios winked evilly as the big noncom dived out into the night.

There was nothing to be seen. The scream had cut off as quickly as it had begun. There was an angry hiss from one of the encircling tracks as somebody sent up a parachute flare. Its chill glare showed nothing more than the black overcast had as it drifted down smokily, moving southward on the sluggish wind. There was a clatter of equipment all around the circle now, men nervously activating weapons and kicking diesels into life. "There!" somebody shouted from the southern curve of the laager. The flare, yellow now, had in its dying moments caught something lying at the edge of the jungle.

"Cover me," Peacock shouted. Pistol in hand, he ran toward the afterimage of the object. Something hard skittered underfoot, not enough to throw him. It was an M-16. He did not pause to pick it up. He pounded heavily between two tracks, out into the narrow strip between laager and jungle torn by the vehicles maneuvering there earlier in the day. He was very close to what the flare had illuminated. "Gimme some light!" the sergeant roared, heedless of the fact that it would show him up to any lurking sniper.

A five-cell flashlight beamed instantly from the nearest track. The light wobbled, then steadied when it found its target. The flat beam lay in a long oval across the thing glimpsed in the flare.

"Sarge, is that the captain?" someone shouted from the track. The radio operator must have told them who had screamed.

"No, not quite," the field first replied in a strange voice. He was looking farther out into the jungle, at the shadows leaping behind the light. "It's only his leg. No, I'm wrong—I think the rest of him's here after all. Jesus, I do hope his family knows an undertaker who likes jigsaw puzzles."


Lieutenant Worthington turned back to an angry soldier, scratching the brown hair that lay close to his scalp. On the card table in front of him were laid three sections of relief map, joined and covered by a layer of clear acetate. "Look, Casely," the officer said with ebbing patience, "I know you're shook; we're all shook. And on top of that, I've got to keep this troop running until they get a replacement for Fuller out here. But I'm not going to send the troop back south to blow up a goddamn idol just because you have bad dreams about it. Besides, look here—" he thrust the map toward the TC, stubby finger pointing a long rectangle shaded in red crayon on it—"the location is off limits since six this morning until Sunday midnight. Somebody else is operating in there, I guess, and they don't want us shooting at each other."

The redhead's hands clenched. "I'm telling you," he grated, his voice tight, "it's coming for us. First Jody, then the captain—hell, what makes you think it's going to quit when it gets Peacock and me? All of you were there."

"Captain Fuller was eaten by a tiger," the lieutenant snapped. "Now why don't you cut the crap and get back to your track?"

"Goddamn funny tiger that doesn't leave footprints—"

"So it jumped! Are you going to get out of here, or are you going back to Quan Loi under guard?" Worthington started to rise out of his lawn chair to lend his words emphasis.

For an instant it seemed the enlisted man would hit him; then Casely turned and stalked off without saluting. Well, salutes weren't common in the field anyway, the lieutenant told himself as he went back to his job of sorting out the mess the captain had left for him.

Under the tarp by the supply track, Sergeant Peacock sat at another card table sipping juice from the five-gallon container there. He looked up as Casely approached. First platoon had gotten back late from a convoy run, and a few of the men were still eating their supper nearby.

"Can't you do something about him, sarge?" the TC begged. His body, under its tan, had an unhealthy hue that the field first noted without comment. The younger man was about to crack.

"Well, I guess he's right," the Negro said without emphasis. "I know what you're thinking, it was a bad dream—"

"The same dream twice in a row!" Casely broke in, "and you had it too." He drew a cup of juice from the container, and the action seemed to steady him. "Jesus Christ, you can't tell me that's just a coincidence, not with the things that happened right when we were dreaming!"

The big noncom shrugged. "So maybe we smelled something," he agreed, "and it made us think about that stinkhole we opened up the other day. It could do that, you know. Maybe some tiger was using the place for a cave and caught the smell from it. The dream don't mean anything, that's all I'm saying. If there's a tiger roaming around, we'll shoot it the next time."

The redhead took a sip of his juice and sloshed it around in his mouth. He grinned wryly. "Sarge," he said, "I almost think you believe that. Even though you know damn well that the only chance for you and me and maybe the rest of the outfit is to blow up that idol before it gets us too. Stands to reason that if we see it dreaming with only one arm and if we blow the rest of it to smithereens, it won't be able to come for us at all."

The sergeant chuckled. "Well, you better hope you're wrong, son, 'cause they aren't going to let us go back and blow that thing up. Be a fine thing if the arvins ambushed us or we ran into a sheaf of our own one-five-fives, wouldn't it?"

"God damn it, how do you stay so calm?" the younger man exploded. Sergeant Peacock looked him up and down before answering, "Well, I tell you, son, when I was about your age in Korea, my platoon was holding a ridge that the gooks wanted real bad. They came at us with bayonets; you know those old Russian ones, seventeen inches in the blade? There was one coming right for me and I swear he was the biggest gook I ever saw, bigger than me even. I had a carbine with a thirty-round box, and I shot that son of a bitch right through the chest. I mean I shot him thirty goddamn times. And he kept coming.

"I couldn't believe it. There was blood all over the front of his uniform, and he just kept coming. I put the last shot into him from closer than I am to you, and then he stuck his goddamn bayonet all the way through my guts before he died. I said to myself, Mrs. Peacock, your favorite son isn't coming back 'cause the gooks got zombies fighting for them. But I was wrong both times. They fixed me up in Japan and had me back with the rest of the unit before the ceasefire. And that gook wasn't magic either; he was just tougher than anybody else in the world. Since then I just haven't let anything scare me—especially not magic, even when I could see it. That all went out of me when the bayonet slipped in."

Casely shook his head in resignation. "I hope to God you can say that tomorrow morning," he muttered. "And I hope to God that I'm around to hear you." He walked off in the direction of his track.

Bailey and Jones sat in front of the cupola, playing cribbage and keeping a desultory watch on the surrounding jungle. Bailey was driving now that Jody was gone; that meant that only one of the machine guns in back would be manned in a fire-fight. Christ, why should he worry about that? Casely asked himself savagely. "Hey, snake," the others greeted him. The TC nodded. He climbed into the cupola and sighted along the barrel of the cal fifty. It didn't give him the comfortable feeling it sometimes did.

"Say, Red," Jones said, keeping his eyes on his cards, "you been looking kinda rocky. Just for tonight, Pete and I thought we'd cover for you and let you get some sleep."

"No, thanks a lot, man, but no."

"Aw, come on, Red," Bailey put in. "You're so beat you're gonna fall right off the track if you don't get some sleep. Hell, we can't have that happening to a short timer with only twenty-seven days left, can we?"

"Twenty-eight," Casely corrected automatically. God, that close to going home and this had to happen! It would have been bad enough to get zapped by the dinks now, but, hell, you figure on that . . . .

"What do you say, man?" Bailey prompted.

"Sorry, I really do appreciate it. But I'm not going to sleep tonight. I know what you're thinking, but I'm right. If it gets me, it's going to get me awake. That's how it is."

Below the TC's line of sight, Jones caught Bailey's eyes. The driver frowned and gave a shrug. "Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and a pair for six," he counted morosely.

The sky was beautiful. Cloud streaks in the west broke the brilliant sunset into three orange blades stabbing across the heavens to bleed on a wrack of cumuli. The reflecting wedges, miles high, stood like three keystones of an arch, more stunning than any sunrise could have been. Swiftly they shrunk upward, deepened, disappeared. The same clouds that had made the display possible blocked off the moon and stars utterly. It was going to be another pitch-black night.

Jones stepped around to the cargo hatch and pulled three beers out of the cooler. He handed them up to the TC to open with the church key hanging from the side of the cupola. No pop tops in Nam. Christ, little enough ice, Casely thought as he sipped his warm Pabst. What a hell of a place to die in!

Footsteps crunched on the gravelly soil. Casely's heart jumped as he turned around to find the source of the sounds. Tiger, monster, whatever, the thing could be on you before you saw it in this darkness.

"How's it going?" Sergeant Peacock's familiar voice asked. The TC relaxed, almost able to laugh at his fright. "Not bad till you scared the crap out of me just now."

"You keep cool," the sergeant admonished. He didn't attempt to climb onto the back deck; instead, he stood beside the ACAV, his head a little below the level of its sides. Casely climbed out of the cupola and squatted down beside it to see the big Negro better.

"You could have gone back on the supply bird tonight," Peacock said, his voice low but audible to Jones and Bailey inside the track now as well as to the TC. Casely didn't care. He could live anything down, if he had more than a night or two to live. In normal tones he replied, "Didn't figure that was going to do much good, sarge. We're at least ten klicks away from where we found that thing, right?"

The field first nodded.

"Well, stands to reason that if it can follow us anyways at all, it could just as easy follow me back to Quan Loi. At least here I got a chance." His left hand reached out and patted the heavy barrel of the cal fifty, sticking more than three feet out from the cupola gunshield. "Oh, I know," the redhead went on, "the captain had a gun, and Jody was right here when it got him—but Christ, back at Quan Loi or Di An there wouldn't be a goddamn thing between me and it."

The sergeant chuckled without much humor. Casely thought he could see the outline of a machete, buckled onto the pistol belt under the massive bulge of the black's stomach. The only other time the TC could remember Peacock actually wearing the big knife was the evening they got word that the firebase was being hit by everything from one-oh-sevens on down and that the NDPs could expect their share any moment. "Hey, you want a beer?" he questioned. "It's warm, but—oh Christ!"

The younger man leaped back into his cupola. "What's the matter?" the sergeant demanded. Then his nostrils wrinkled.

"Flares!" the noncom shouted at the top of his lungs. "Everybody shoot up flares!"

"What the hell?" Jones blurted in confusion as he and Bailey stuck their heads up out of the cargo hatch. The bolt of the cal fifty in the cupola clanged loudly as Casely snatched back the charging handle. Across the laager somebody had heard the sergeant's bellow and obeyed enthusiastically with a pair of white star clusters. They shot up like Roman candles, drawing weird shadows with their short multiple glare and silhouetting Sergeant Peacock himself as he pounded across the dirt toward the command track. A horrible stench lay over everything.

The flares burned out. The sergeant disappeared, black into the deeper blackness. Lt. Worthington lurched into sight at the flap of the command tent, his rifle in his hand. Then the sergeant bellowed, a terrible mixture of hatred and surprise that almost drowned out the hiss of another flare going up. In the cupola of three-six, Casely cursed with effort as he swung the squealing armor around and pointed the big machine gun in across the NDP.

"Red, what in God's name are you doing?" Jones shrieked. The flare popped and began floating down on its parachute. Sergeant Peacock was between three-six and the command track. His bloated shadow writhed across the soil; neither of his feet were touching the ground. Casely pressed down the butterfly trigger with both thumbs. The shattering muzzle blast pocked the sides of the command tent as the red tracers snicked out past it. The stream of fire was whipping almost straight across the laager, a long raking burst endangering everybody in the troop as it lashed the air just over Sergeant Peacock's head. The field first was struggling titanically with nothing at all; his right hand slashed the glinting machete blade again and again across the air in front of him while his left seemed clamped on the invisible something that held and supported him.

The southern sky brightened, flickered. Not another flare, Jones realized, not thunder either as the sound shuddered toward him. Arclight, a strike on the area they had started to laager in two nights back.

All around the NDP men were shouting in confusion. The lieutenant had started running toward the field first, then collapsed gagging as he took a deep breath. Diesels rumbled, but no one else had started shooting. The barrel of Casely's machine gun was cherry red. You could watch tracers start to tumble in screaming arcs as soon as they left the burnt-out barrel, but the TC continued hosing the air. Sergeant Peacock gave a choked cry; his machete snapped, then dropped from his hand. At the same instant, the cal fifty came to the end of its belt of ammunition and stuttered into silence. The TC's despairing curses were barely audible over the rising thunder of bomb blasts raking the jungle south of them.

There was an incongruous pop from the air beside Sergeant Peacock. The field first dropped to the ground, unconscious but alive. With a smile of incredulous hope etched on his face by the last glow of the flare, Casely staggered out of his cupola. His eyes were fixed on the rippling glare in the south, and he didn't seem to notice when Jones plucked his sleeve.

"God bless the Air Force," the TC was whispering. "God bless the Air Force."

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