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The Sixth Sun

by S.M. Stirling

The American soldiers gathered at the base of the sacrificial pyramid. Morning sun shone bright on the fresh-cut limestone, and on the bougainvillaea that was already beginning to curl up from the base. Two months had washed away the last lingering traces of the smell of rotten blood, leaving only the scents of dust and people and growing things in the plaza. Around them the town of Cacaxtla was bustling to life, a group of children on their way to school, farmers heading out to the fields. The put-put of a methane-fired tractor slapped back from the walls of the buildings around the plaza.

That was louder than the burbling of the ceramic diesels in the UTAV's waiting to leave; the little six-wheeled jeeps were almost hidden under sacks and crates of supplies, netting bags of squirming live chickens and bunches of bananas.

"Sure you're not coming?" Captain McNaught asked. His freckled brow wrinkled. "I've got a feeling we're going to need every good soldier we can find back home."

Lieutenant Bethany Martins smiled and shook her head. "There's no home back there, at least not for me, Captain," she said.

"Me neither, sir," Company Sergeant Jenkins—Tops—agreed. "Bad's it was in my neighborhood, I think I'm happier rememberin' the way it was than seein' it the way it is."

Behind the big black NCO, privates Michaels, Smith, McAllister and Sanchez nodded solemn agreement. They'd been down in the Republic of San Gabriel for years, and the news out of Reality—the United States—had gotten steadily worse every one of them.

McNaught's eyes narrowed. "Maybe you're right. Maybe there's nothing left to go home to. But I've got to know."

Bethany winced and looked away from the bright sunlight. The Captain had a wife and three kids in New Jersey. Had. Who knew now, with the way things were back in Reality.

But there was no one waiting for her, or the others. "These folks need us too," she said, waving a hand out over the upland valley drowsing in the sun. "We ran out those lunatics who were running the place."

A vivid flash came to her, the feather-decked Jaguar Knights and the rough grit of the altar against her skin as they bent her back and raised the obsidian knife to cut out her heart. Political scientists were bad enough, but an anthropologist run amok on Identity Politics was something else again.

"If we all leave, seven different brands of bandit will be all over them like ugly on an ape—they'll be dead or starving in a month, like everyone else down here."

Like everyone else everywhere, she thought but did not say.

"All right," the Captain said, his eyes distant, as though already seeing the Jersey shore. "I won't force it. You people've got a right to your own lives. You've been good soldiers. It's been an honor serving with you." He drew himself up to attention, his clean but ragged uniform loose on his thin frame, and snapped them a salute straight out of West Point.

Martins, Tops and the rest answered him in the same brisk, professional manner. Then the Captain went down the row shaking hands.

When he got back to Bethany he said softly: "I'll miss you, Lieutenant."

Bethany felt a lump in her throat. She whispered hoarsely, "I'll miss you too, sir." Her throat was tight. "Damn, it would be good to see Santa Fe again."

"Not too late."

"Too late years ago."

She swallowed and the pain seemed worse for it, hot and tight, beginning to rage out of control. She whimpered. I will not cry, she told herself. I will not! The pain spread, clawing at her vitals, spreading remorselessly until it filled her, left her standing dumbstruck and immobile as the Captain drove away.

She closed her eyes and gasped. When she opened them, her eldest son was smiling down at her, standing awkwardly with his hat clenched in his hands. The big master bedroom of the jefe's house was shuttered and dim, light slashing in as hot bars between the louvers of the blinds. There was a sickbed smell of medicine, and her canes stood in one corner. Her M-35 was neatly racked above it, oiled and immaculate though she hadn't carried it in . . . how long? A decade?

"You slept Mom, almost an hour, I think."

She drank in his face; he looked so much like his father. Her breath rasped in her throat and her mouth was dry. She didn't ask for water. Swallowing was agony.

"Mama?" said a voice from the opposite side of the bed.

She turned, and there was her youngest, James, a wet cloth in his hands. He placed it between her parched lips, and as she sucked the moisture from it she thanked him with her eyes.

She gritted her teeth and swallowed, tried to suppress her moan. When James took the cloth away she was panting as though she'd run a race.

It was time.

"Boys," she smiled briefly. They were not boys any longer, but married men. "My sons," Bethany began again, pride in her voice even now. "I want to talk to the Beast. Take me to it."

"Mother," Joseph said, just a hint of asperity in his tone. "We can't move you. You're too sick." He frowned. "I can bring you a helmet . . ." he added reluctantly.

"Mom?" James's lips drew back from his teeth in a parody of a grin as he struggled not to cry, his eyes were awash with tears. "Mom?" he said again.

"Yes," she said gently. "I need to go." She was panting again. "Maybe—in some way—it can help. The autodoc . . ." Her voice faded away.

James nodded helplessly, beyond speech.

"All right," Joseph said at the end of a long, drawn-in breath. "It's worth a try."

They lifted their mother with the featherbed she was lying on. The brothers' eyes snapped up and met in consternation. She was so light! They might have been lifting the bedding alone.

"Move it!" Bethany snarled, partly to break the moment, partly to disguise her pain as they shifted her.

The brothers smiled fondly at the tone of command. That was more like the mother they knew.


Silently, the brothers carried their mother into the street. The people of Cacaxtla had been waiting all day, some for days before that; they gave way silently, many kneeling to pray and crossing themselves, many weeping. It had been thirty-five years since the Lieutenant came, a generation of peace and plenty for Cacaxtla, amid a chaos which had eaten whole continents.

Across the plaza the Bolo loomed above their heads like a mountain, its hundred and fifty tons stretching twenty-four feet in height. The late evening light threw the crags and hollows of its surface into high relief, emphasizing the brutal power of the great war-machine; the heavy crusting of hardened lava gave it a primeval look, like the spirit of some god of war. Behind it stretched the marks of its four treads, ground into the paving stones the day the Captain had driven it to rescue the soldiers—and Cacaxtla—from the Jaguar Knights and the First Speaker, the man who'd brought the Old Faith back to bloody life here. It hadn't moved since that day.

The people of Cacaxtla had painted its entire exterior surface with colorful depictions of that rescue, what had led to it and what had come after; it might have been a natural pyramid . . . except for the cannons.

The three of them stared up the rough, bright side of the Bolo.

"How're we going to get you up there, Mom?"

Joseph had known it would be a struggle, but now he was here, he knew it to be plain impossible. He imagined ropes, and pulleys. "Maybe we could get some help." He looked away from his mother's contemptuous stare.

"Don't even think it," she warned. "I don't want this—turned into—a circus." Bethany Martins lay gasping, her breath spent; her hatred of her own helplessness was a tangible force in the gathering night, like hot light on their hands.

Joseph glared off into the darkness.

"Mom," James leaned over her. "If I tie the featherbed around me and carried you up that way . . . would it hurt you too much?"

She shook her head. "At least one of you knows how to get things done," she rasped. "Do it, boy."

James climbed as gently as he could, unnerved by the hot, light weight of his mother curled against his back. His heart thudded, fear making his palms wet and slippery against the lava and durachrome. Catching his breath on a sob, James gritted his teeth, unwilling to put his mother through the shaking she'd get if he broke down and cried. He looked up at Joseph, who was just reaching the hatch.

"Mom," Joseph said softly, "it won't open for me."

"Markee," came Bethany's muffled voice. "Open the hatch."

With a sigh of hydraulics the hatch came up, releasing the scent of stale, dry air. A light went on below to guide their way down into the cramped interior.

Joseph knelt on one crash-couch and carefully caught his mother as James untied the ends of the featherbed from around his shoulders and waist. Then he laid her gently on the other seat, propping her up against its straight back, though she winced with pain as he did so.

"Markee," Bethany said hoarsely.

She coughed once, then stopped herself, knowing how easily she could lose control and never stop. The bright smooth surfaces of the interior shone back at her, the flat-screen displays and touch-controls like a breath from the past. Thirty years, she thought. Thirty years of adobe and stone, wood and woven cotton . . . the high-tech womb was so strange, now. . . .

"These are my sons. Register Martins, Joseph A., the village Jefe and senior civilian on site. Log and identify. Say hello, Joseph."

"Hello," Joseph said awkwardly. He sensed a flicker of light, touching his eyes too briefly for certainty.

Bethany took a few moments to recover; her face was slicked with sweat, but the pain, for the moment, seemed to be abating. As much as it ever did.

"Register Martins, James Q., he is the senior . . ." She pursed her lips in doubt. James had no official title, for all the village acknowledged his position in practice. "He's captain of the village militia." She grinned briefly to think of a lieutenant appointing her son a captain. "Log and identify."

"Hello, Markee," James said.

Bethany smiled, a rictus of thin lips over teeth. He was quick, her James.

"Acknowledged," the Bolo said in a voice as sweet as warm honey. "Hello Jefe, hello Captain. I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

James blinked. He'd spoken to the Bolo once or twice, to obtain information, or to report in from a distant site, asking the Bolo to relay a report. But this was different. The machine was acknowledging him personally. An interesting legacy, Mother.

"It will recognize your authority now," Bethany said. "Leave now, come back for me later."

"We can't leave you alone, Mother," Joseph said, his eyes wary.

She looked at him. "I'm going to take off my shirt—for the sensors," she replied. "Half an hour, come back. I'll let you know if I'm ready." She sat drawing deep breaths, her gaze steady.

Joseph had never been able to outstare his mother and he couldn't now. He turned his head and sighed, then turned and began to climb up the handholds to the hatch above.

James leaned over her and whispered. "I don't want to go." His eyes pleaded to stay, to keep her safe, to help—somehow.


He kissed her cheek and stood, his lips pressed into a straight white line.

Bethany waited until the hatch sighed shut before speaking.

"Markee bring up the autodoc, tell me what you see."

"Blood pressure . . ."

"In plain English."

There was a pause. "You are in the last stages of terminal cancer. Six to eight weeks before complete failure of essential functions."

That long! Six to eight weeks of this. Bethany remembered her mother describing how grandfather had died, how at the end he would beg for the painkillers even though they couldn't touch his agony. And we've got nothing that strong, she thought, her heart giving a little bump of panic. Eight weeks, losing her dignity, crying and screaming . . . and the pain. She swallowed hard and winced. It was already as much as she could bear. She imagined herself mewling and writhing—her sons' horrified, helpless faces.

"Is there any medication left?" she asked.

"Negative, Lieutenant. All that remains in the pharmacy is a single shot of fast acting poison to be used to avoid capture."

Bethany closed her eyes in relief. Good, she thought.

"I have instructions for you," she said.


"I want you to defend the people of Cacaxtla from any outside aggressors. Someone from outside—comes here, kills and steals—you destroy them."

"Understood, Lieutenant. What about aggressors from inside Cacaxtla? My programs indicate that there are often internal pressures in a community that might lead to aggression."

"Let the people work it out for 'emselves. Can't protect people from—stupidity. Just don't let 'em be—victimized by outsiders."

"Yes, Lieutenant."

"I want that shot now." Bethany closed her eyes, breathing hard and waited.

"You are in danger of capture?" the Bolo asked. "I detect no enemy activity." The machine could not sound confused . . . Bethany smiled again through the pain, remembering the computer-geek corporal who'd first programmed in that sultry voice. Vinatelli was thirty years dead, but the Bolo Mark III still bore the mark of his lonely fantasies. "You entered with family members."

"In danger of extreme torture," Bethany said.

"From outside the community?"

"From inside me!" Bethany snapped, knowing the autodoc would confirm that she was telling the truth. "Give me the damn shot. Now!"

There was a slight hiss, but no prick of a needle. Then she felt a warmth begin to flood her veins, followed by cold. It became a little harder to breath, her heart faltered. Bethany gasped and widened her eyes. Breathed out once more and slumped unblinking in the command chair.


The brothers had been pacing for over an hour. The mountain air was becoming distinctly chill, and still the people waited behind them, some wrapped in shawls or blankets, others simply standing.

"Maybe she's fallen asleep," Joseph said. He frowned. "I wouldn't want to wake her."

He and James looked at each other.

"Markee," James said, "is Lieutenant Martins asleep?"

"No, Captain."

It was their mother's voice, younger and stronger than they'd heard it in years. Both men straightened and stared at each other in astonishment, hopeful smiles beginning to curl their lips.

"Mom," Joseph said and began to climb.

"You're all right, Mom?" James said, his heart lifting, trying not to hope too much.

This time it was the sultry sweet voice of the Bolo that answered. "Lieutenant Bethany Martins cannot answer at this time."

Joseph froze on the ladder and James slapped the side of the tank like an angry child.

"What do you mean she can't answer?" he demanded. "If she's not asleep why can't she?" His eyes widened. "Does she need help?"

"No sir," Bethany's voice answered, "no help is required."

Joseph climbed back down and slumped against the side of the Bolo.

"She's dead," he said flatly.

"What are you talking about?" James snapped. "She sounds fine." She does! he insisted to himself, ignoring the inner voice that told him she wasn't making sense. He started up the Bolo's craggy side.

"Markee," Joseph said, "please confirm. Is Lieutenant Bethany Martins dead or alive?"

"Lieutenant Bethany Martins is dead, sir," the Bolo murmured in its soft voice.

James's breath exploded out in shock, as if he'd been punched in the gut, up under the breastbone. His body hunched around the pain. He turned to stare down at his brother who stood with his face buried in his hands, shoulders shaking.

He stumbled back down, almost falling off. James started to walk away, numb with shock when Joseph's hand stopped him.

"We've got to bring her out," Joseph said, his voice high and tight.

James flung off his brother's hand.

"She didn't even say goodbye," he snarled, his face red with fury. "She knew she was going to do it and she didn't even say goodbye."

Joseph's face was white and blank.

"You think she committed suicide?" The idea had obviously never occurred to him. "She tricked us into bringing her here for help . . . and then . . . ?"

James continued as though he didn't hear him, "She didn't trust us, dammit! She wanted to come here so bad, let her stay here. Let her rot here! I don't want to see her face again."

"We can't just . . ."

"Yes we can. Let the damn thing be her tomb! Can you think of a better one? And while we're on the subject of the Bolo, why the hell was that thing talking in our mother's voice? Huh? Why would she do that to us?" James's eyes were bright with tears and the certainty of betrayal.

"The stories . . . Remember? The guy who first programmed it had it fixed to answer certain questions put to it by superior officers in a way that would make them think he was awake and sober. Apparently when we—superior officers—asked the right questions it supplied pre-programmed answers."

"Yeah?" James growled. He strode to the Bolo and shouted up at it. "You are never to use Bethany Martins' voice again! Is that understood, Markee?"

"Affirmative, Captain."

"And you are never to speak to anyone again unless you are directly spoken to and required to answer. Do you understand?"

"Affirmative, Captain."

Then James spun on his heel and stopped at the staring eyes. The crowd were looking at him, and he could see their bewilderment and fear. He drew a deep breath.

"Lieutenant Martins is dead," he said. A murmur went through the crowd like a giant's sigh, louder than a wail might have been. He licked dry lips. What would Mom have said? "We'll carry on."


Unit #27A22245 Mk. III

Communications—negative broadband scan.

Systems check. 03/02/2045; 0700 hours.

Power: 99.3% capacity. Nominal.

Mobility: restricted. Tread l2 broken; treads l1, r1, r2 jammed. Drive and suspension, nominal.

Weapons: main gun—nominal.

infinite repeaters —units 1-7 nominal.

—units 7-12 nonoperational.

Sensors: 32.3% capacity.

AI: 97.3% optimum. Nominal.

Query: resume standby yes/no.

:[decision tree]—affirmative.

Unit #27A22245 Mk. III resuming standby status.


"We thought it was the end," Tops said, his voice only slightly cracked with age.

The sun felt good, though. He could feel his bones creak as he stretched and the waiting circle of children leaned forward for the end of the story. Wryly, he flexed his great knobby hands. Hell, who'd have expected me to live long enough to die of old age? A few of the youngsters shifted restlessly. He looked up at the bulk of the pyramid, shaggy under its coating of green, and continued:

"The Glorios were all around us and throwing everything they'd been saving up our way. It wasn't enough for them that we were pulling out of San Gabriel; they wanted our heads. When the 'plane came to take us home there was no way that flyboy could land and Captain McNaught told him: 'Get away from here, you can still save some others.' And that was a hard thing to hear . . ."

"Sergeant Jenkins," a boy called. "I have some questions."

Tops sighed in weary irritation. It was Bethany's grandson, Paulo. Who was ten, the age of extreme obnoxiousness.

"What is it?" he asked warily.

"Why do they call the Bolo 'the Mountain That Walks,' when it can't even move?" Paulo paused long enough that Tops had opened his mouth to answer when he asked: "Or why is it called the Beast, when it's not alive and never has been?"

Tops tried to wait him out, but the smaller children who'd been listening to his story began to get restless.

Just as he started to speak Paulo, his young face as innocent as a puppy's, said, "And why, please tell me, is it called the Beautiful One, when, even with the paintings, it's ugly as sin?"

"It's called the Beautiful One for its voice, Paulo," James said from behind him.

Paulo gasped and spun around guiltily.

"Please excuse my son, Tops. He doesn't want answers, he wants to get out of his lessons."

Paulo's face turned red.

"As you don't want to study, Paulo, come with me. I'm going on patrol and you can do the camp chores for me. Perhaps when we get back you'll be more appreciative of the opportunity to study with Sergeant Jenkins, eh?"

Well, that's some punishment, Tops thought. You could see the kid trying not to skip as his father led him away. Maybe I'm turning into a boring old fart. Maybe he should tell his war stories less often. He shifted to a sun-warmed bit of the Bolo he was leaning against; the heat soothed the stiffness in his back.

"All right boys and girls, let's get back to work," he said.


Seven-Deer danced. Though he was almost fifty his battle-scarred body was lean and muscular, lithe and graceful in the dance. It was a rare strand of silver that marred the jet black of his gleaming hair and his grimly set face bore few marks of age.

As he danced he sang the sorrows of his people, his voice rough with grief. The children sat enraptured, their dark eyes glowing as he unfolded the history of the people of the Sixth Sun. How the First Speaker had brought them back to truth and the rightful ways of service to the gods, after the Ladinos brought disaster on the world by leading the people astray, making them serve Quetzacoatl-Jesus. How the First Speaker had led them to the upland valley where his command of the volcano kept them safe.

He told of the coming of the evil Yanquis, who invaded their valley, which was like a paradise. And, being greedy and cruel as the four hundred Southern Warriors who had sought to slay their brother Huitzilopochtl—Left-Handed Hummingbird, they fell upon the people of Cacaxtla and slew the First Speaker of the Sun. Cowards, they hid behind the bulk of their war-machine that was like a mountain. Evil, they would not accept the honored place of a Beloved Son sent as messenger to the gods.

The children gasped in horror at this part—always—as though their innocent minds could not accept such wickedness.

Seven-Deer sang on, his voice moving from sadness to the joy of victory as he told of how the exiles descended the mountain and how the Jaguar Knights had fallen upon their enemies like the wrath of the Sun. Thus making a safe place for the people here in the lowland jungles, taking some of their enemies as slaves to serve them, but sending most as messengers to the Sun to plead for aid.

He spun and leapt and the children's small chests swelled with pride to think of the victories of the valiant Jaguar Knights. Every boy among them dreamed of a place in that ferocious company.

Then Seven-Deer danced the promise. All who left the Valley of Cacaxtla, the place like paradise, were exiled princes whose time of vengeance would come. All who remained in the valley were traitors whose blood would nourish the gods, food waiting for the harvest.

It was their duty and privilege to prevent the destruction of the Sixth Sun as the Fifth had been destroyed. For it had been blotted out by indecision and faithlessness as much as by foreign greed.

He finished his performance on this solemn note and stood straight and tall, his breathing only slightly heavier than normal. Servants wiped the sweat from his face and body, naked save for a loincloth; the heat beat down through the steamy lowland air, making water run over his brown skin. One of the priests brought the feathered cloak and another the elaborate headgear that marked him as First Speaker of the Sun People.

"Three-Coyote," he intoned. "Bring forth your beloved son."

A stocky warrior led a bound and naked man to the altar. The prisoner glared defiantly and spit at the people where they knelt around the earth and timber mound. He was an escaped slave, one who had unwisely behaved like a warrior and now would pay the price.

Behind his impassive face Seven-Deer sneered. It was disgraceful that they should be forced to send a mere slave as a messenger. It smacked of impiety.

Four priests grasped the prisoner, who had begun to struggle, and slammed him onto the altar, stretching his limbs so that his chest arched upward drum-tight. The man cursed them and spat in Seven-Deer's face as he raised the knife.

It was with rather more anger than was proper that the First Speaker plunged the knife downward.



"Jesus! Will ya look at the size of this thing?"

Gary Sherman thrust the bloody corpse of the insect under Pasqua's nose.

"Oh, for God's sake!" she snarled pushing his hand away. "I'm driving Gary, show some sense."

The road they were on was muddy, slippery, and narrow. In fact it all but vanished in the thick, steaming greenery that slapped the sides and roll-bar of the jeep. The jungle smelled thick, like spilled beer on a hot day, or wet rotting bread.

Gary glared at his partner, an attractive woman in her late twenties; straight, shoulder length black hair held back by a yellow scarf, almond shaped green eyes hidden by dark glasses.

This woman is not good for my ego. He doubted she'd look at him twice if he was on fire. Not that he was much to look at, he admitted self-pityingly, with his hair creeping towards the back of his neck and a stomach that made it look like he was smuggling kettle-drums.

He sighed dramatically as he rubbed his hand against his thick khaki covered thigh to scrape off the squashed mosquito.

"Will you tell me what the fuck we're doing out here in the green hell?" He watched her from the corner of his eye as she pursed her—luscious, he thought—lips.

"Language, Gary," she admonished. "In answer to your question, you're here because you wanted to be. If you'll recall, you insisted on coming along. To help."

"Yeah, to help," he said impatiently.

Actually, he'd been hoping that the jungle at night, the howling of the monkeys, the roar of the jaguar, the creeping of the jeep-sized insects, might loosen her up a bit. God knew, he could use some cuddling after four days of this shit.

He should have known better. From what little she'd let drop she'd spent her early years hangin' with the Giacano Family, the Dukes of New Orleans. An old-fashioned bunch whose reputation made the jungle at night seem safer than your own living-room. Pasqua had to have crossed 'em. What else would a beauty like this be doing scraping a living as an arms dealer in darkest Central America? This place made the East Coast baronies look like civilization.

"I am here pursuing a hot lead that might help us get rid of that damned railgun you bought," she continued.

"That gun's a beauty," Gary said defensively.

"That gun's a white elephant," Pasqua sneered.

"It's also the best weapon we've got," he insisted. "XM-17 Railgun, yessir. That baby'll take out a Bolo. You know that?"

"Yeah, and I know how common Bolos are in Central America, too. Every piss-ant town's got one in the plaza. It's amazing we haven't sold it yet."

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, baby."

Pasqua braked hard, put the car in park and turned slowly towards him.

"We've discussed this before, Gary."

He could almost feel those hidden green eyes melting holes in his face. Her right hand twitched slightly, and he remembered the jefe of the port town. His successor had been perfectly willing to do business on an impersonal level, after Pasqua shot his predecessor.

"Aw, Pasqua! C'mon, you know I dint mean anything." He looked at her, trying to keep his face innocent. Then he rolled his eyes, looked out his window into the jungle.

While she waited.

"Okay," he turned back to her, "I'm sorry that I called you baby andthere'saguybehindyouwithagun."


"Behind you. A-guy-with-a-gun."

She turned in slow, graceful stages to look out her side of the jeep. It was hard to see the man at first. He wore a tight-fitting brown uniform dotted with black splotches. His face had broad black stripes around the eyes and mouth, accented by more dots, his black hair was pulled up into a topknot.

Very, very slowly, Pasqua took off her sunglasses so that he could see her eyes.

His own eyes were calm and cold. He stood absolutely still, his M-35 pointed at the center of her chest.

"Hola," she said, and saw him stiffen. She took a closer look and saw that under the war-paint the man was an Indio. Bingo, she thought. If the rumors back in Puerto Zacarta were right. She marshalled her few words of Nahuatl and tried again. "Greeting, warrior. We seek your First Speaker."

Apparently it was the right move. Now she could see a dozen of the leopard-spotted men as they moved closer.

There was a brief conference, their eyes never leaving Pasqua and Gary; the language had far too many consonants for her taste.

"Weapons," the man grunted.

Not without a pang, Pasqua lifted the PPK from the holster at her belt; it was a Family heirloom. Tradition had it that her great-grandfather had killed a Cajun detective with it, right after the Collapse. The Indios took it, and Gary's antique Glock, and the M-35 from the rack behind the driver's seat, and their machetes. Fortunately they missed the switchblade tucked into the back of her pants; that was an heirloom too. A Giacano without a switchblade was naked.

The . . . soldiers, she supposed . . . arrived at a decision and the others melted into the jungle again, leaving their original captor behind. He motioned them out of their jeep. Pasqua dragged a folder out with her and he raised the gun threateningly.

"First Speaker," she said, holding it up to show that it could never be, or hide, a weapon.

He jerked his M-35 down the trail and Pasqua and Gary started walking.

* * *

"And why did you not bring this with you," Seven-Deer asked contemptuously, tossing the pictures Pasqua had brought with her into their faces.

Pasqua and Gary were on their knees, their hands tied before them, broad sticks thrust behind their elbows. "You may not even have such a thing." He stalked like a panther to the low dais where his throne, a wide chair covered with deerskins, sat. "It would not be the first time our enemies, the Ladinos, thought us such fools, too weak in the head to know any better."

The situation's a little extreme, Gary thought, but I know a bargaining ploy when I hear one. Except for the occasional Nahuatl word they'd been speaking in Spanish.

"Pitch!" he whispered to Pasqua who turned to him with frightened eyes. "He's interested. Or we'd be dead. Pitch!"

"The only reason you are alive," Seven-Deer said as he lounged back, "is that you spoke a few words in a civilized language. Enough to pique my curiosity. And the woman wears the color of the Sun."

Pasqua blinked. My scarf? she thought.

This bunch of indigs were crazier than most, but they had a pretty big stretch of territory marked out and a lot of it was farmed. They probably could pay a reasonable price for the XM-17, in goods that would be valuable back in the north, in the Duchy of New Orleans, to the Caquique of Florida, to one of the seven kings of Cuba, or any of the Duchies from Charleston north. Timber, grain, rum, coffee, slaves, you name it.

"Speak! Why have you not brought this 'tank-killing' gun with you for me to see with my own eyes?"

"It . . ." Pasqua choked on a dry throat and had to begin again. "It is too big for us to bring, Uetlatoani," Pasqua said obsequiously. "It is as big as a mountain and would take a great truck . . ." she realized these people had nothing like that and hurried over what she feared they might see as an insult: ". . . or many men to move it. Surely you can understand that I would not make such an effort if you were not interested?"

Seven-Deer, the First Speaker of the Sun People straightened slowly and rose from his throne, his obsidian eyes gleaming.

"As big as a mountain," he whispered.

A smile spread slowly across his face and leapt like a spark to the faces of the Lords and Generals and Ladies around him. The people murmured the words, ". . . as big as a mountain . . ." over and over again, turning it into a chant, clapping their hands and stamping their feet joyously.

Seven-Deer stabbed a finger at his prisoners like a spear.

"You will take us to this wonder!" he shouted and the room erupted in cheers.


When the Yanqui woman had said the words ". . . as big as a mountain," to him, a fire had been lit below Seven-Deer's heart. Now, in the awesome presence of the giant gun he felt elevated, touched with the Sun's own power, mind and heart and soul blazed together with purpose. And that purpose was vengeance!

"It's called the XM-17 Railgun," Pasqua was saying as she escorted-shooed him to the gunner's seat and urged him to take the control yoke in his hands. "This is a computer generated holographic magnifying sight." She flipped a couple of switches and the village down the road from their compound sprang into view, hovering before Seven-Deer's astonished eyes in every known shade of bilious green. "This red dot," she pointed at a dime-sized red dot in the upper corner of the holo, "shows where the gun is pointing. To move the dot, move the control yoke."

Seven-Deer cautiously did so and the dot jiggled its way down to the center of the scene in the holo. He laughed like a child.

"Isn't that neat?" she said, smiling and nodding like this was a perfectly normal presentation.

"How does it work?" Seven-Deer growled.

"When it's fired two charged bars come together to shoot out a rod of depleted uranium sheathed in steel."

"The rods're only about a foot long," Gary said moving up to his other side. "But when ya press the firing stud it's like, slam! bam! thank you ma'am!" he slapped his hands together and laughed heartily. Until he saw the First Speaker's expression.

"How does it fire?" Seven-Deer asked through gritted teeth.

Pasqua and Gary looked at each other nervously.

"We only have twelve rods, and can't afford to waste any, so I'm afraid we can't allow you to test fire it." The First Speaker stared at her disdainfully and she sighed. "When you have the right target in view," she said emphatically, "press the firing studs at the top of the hand grips on the control yoke. Here and here."

"Eexxcellent," Seven-Deer said like a man being told "yes" by a reluctant lover.

He centered the sights on the village church, a small stone building at the center of the Plaza. He powered up the gun, the bars began to charge with a low hum that quickly escalated to a piercing whine.

"What are you doing?" Pasqua asked. But she knew and she was numb with horror.

"Testing your merchandise," Seven-Deer answered. He pressed the firing studs, the bars clanged together with a scream of electronic excitement and the depleted uranium rod emerged with a supersonic crrraaaaccckkk! that numbed their ears.

In the holo the village church burst apart into a blizzard of gravel. An instant behind, the sound of the explosion reached them and looking up they saw a grey-brown plume boiling into the sky.

"He fired the bastard," Gary said in disbelief.

"You . . ." Pasqua began and stopped. Around her Seven-Deer and his followers were cheering and dancing in delight. Instinctively she stepped back, flight on her mind, when Seven-Deer's hand flashed out and caught her wrist.

"Oh, stay," he said grinning, "you would not wish to miss the ceremony."

Several of the Indios had grabbed Gary and were dragging him to the front of the gun. Seven-Deer dragged her along behind them and when they had Gary spread-eagled at the base of the railgun he flung her into the arms of a group of his followers. Who twisted her arms up behind her and bound her hands, then pushed her to her knees in the dirt.

"You can't do this," Gary was shouting in panic. The front of his khakis were stained dark. "You want the gun, take it," he said frantically, his eyes bulging as he watched Seven-Deer approach, leisurely drawing a long obsidian knife. "Please don't," Gary said.

Pasqua was so terrified she couldn't even scream. Her traitorous mind filled with all sorts of babble. I told you not to buy that gun, Gary. And Please don't, no, please!

Gary's last desperate scream began when the knife went up, but it didn't end for a surprisingly long time after the knife came down.

She saw Seven-Deer lift a bloody heart high and thought inanely, So you did have one after all, Gary. Then she blacked out.

When she came to, Seven-Deer's blood-smeared face was smiling into hers, his black eyes dancing with a mad glee. He trailed one blood-wet finger down her face and she whimpered with terror.

"And when we retake the valley of Cacaxtla," he said, "we will send you back to the sun. For surely you are his servant. How he will smile to see you again."


Seven days of chores, James thought. And not a whimper.

Either Paulo was becoming a stoic, or he'd learned that pouting and complaints would get him nowhere. Probably the latter; the kid was smart—he knew that this was the best way to make his father feel like a heel. It was even working, sort of.

He snapped the bolt back into the M-35, sipping at a final cup of coffee as he watched his son carefully tamping down the campfire with water and entrenching-tool loads of dirt. The upland forest was chilly in the morning; they were a thousand meters above the valley floor, and it was never really hot here. A clean crisp smell of pine filled the air, and he could see for miles across tumbled blue hills. From what his mother had said, back in the old days—before her time, even—most of these hillsides had been logged off or burnt off and then farmed. He shook his head in wonder, trying to imagine that many people in the world.

Paulo was frowning seriously as he policed up the campsite, checking that nothing was left or out of place. It gave his face a look of his mother. Maria used to say that Paulo could wrap James around his little finger. His smile faded. It had been four years since his wife's death, four years of trying to be mother and father both, trying to anticipate what Maria would have said or done. In a way it helped to keep her close to him.

Paulo suddenly looked up and grinned at him. James nodded solemnly and slung his rifle, turning to the UATV.

"You can fix it can't you?" Paulo stood across from him looking serenely confident.

"I think so. This time."

The UATV's were incredibly hardy machines, capable of running on almost anything combustible, with six spun alloy wheels that never seemed to show wear. Even the engine parts were incredibly durable . . . but when they wore out, you were in trouble. Nobody made things like that any more; there were machine-shops in the valley, but they worked with metal, not fiber-bound ceramics.

"This is the compressor," he began.

Paulo leaned close, and James remembered the same expression on his own face as his mother ran him through the checklist. She'd been a tougher disciplinarian than he ever could be, though. I suppose because she'd spent so long with her life depending on the equipment, he thought. Her life and others. James had drifted into command of the valley militia, but there hadn't been anything more than a skirmish with wandering bandits since he was Paulo's age.

I try to remember it's not a game, he thought.

"I don't think she's got much longer though," he concluded.

Paulo's head came up and he looked around, a puzzled frown on his young face.

"What?" James said.

"Listen . . ." After a moment Paulo said, "It sounds like men singing."

"Or mourning," James murmured. And there were a lot of them.

He slipped on the helmet, buckled on his equipment belt and the body armor that never quite fit; none of Bethany Martin's original platoon had been quite his size. His M-35 suddenly felt more serious in his hands.

"Stay here," he said to Paulo. "I'll be right back." Powering up the helmet, he trotted off into the trees.

Paulo frowned after his father. Why do I have to stay behind? he asked himself. I'm not a baby. And besides, I heard them first. Whoever they were. Paulo chewed his lip thoughtfully. Fair was fair, he had a right to take a look.

Paulo reached into the UATV, grabbed his slingshot and bag of stones—in case—and padded into the woods after his father.

He moved quickly, but kept some attention on where his feet were going; Dad had taught him that, and he was good at it. And . . . yes, there was a shape in camouflage-mottled fatigues and helmet. He's really quiet, Paulo thought, impressed. James turned around suddenly and he froze, though his cover was only a screen of thorny bushes. His father had told him that motion in such a circumstance was as bad as being in plain view. After a quick glance down his back-trail, James hurried on. Paulo found it hard to suppress his delighted laughter.

Dad doesn't even know I'm here! he thought in wonder. It works!

Paulo ghosted onward, silent—although his grin was the facial equivalent of a shout.


The farther he went, the louder the singing became. James still couldn't make out any words, but thought there must be many, many voices to make that sound. His mouth was dry; he took a quick swig from his canteen and went down on one knee, acutely conscious of the sweat trickling down his flanks under the armor. What was it Mother said . . . Ah, yes. He licked a finger and checked the wind direction; very slow, but from the low ground up to him. In case they have dogs. He was approaching an overlook on the old road leading out of the valley; he dropped to his belly and leopard-crawled to the lip of the cliff. In response to his whisper the helmet-visor supplied times-four magnification, making everything nearby jerk and quiver disorientingly with each motion of his head.

He grunted in surprise and felt his jaw drop. Below him, down below the boulder-strewn hillside and the sparse trees, was an army.

An army of sweating men, perhaps as many as seven hundred, yoked to an enormous gun with long sisal ropes. Other men in tight, spotted brown uniforms moved up and down the line of chanting pullers striking them ferociously with whips. He could see one stagger and fall; the uniformed men closed in, kicking and striking with the butts of their rifles—good rifles, M-35's like the one across his back, not the single-shot black-powder models the traders brought around these days. One of them stood back and fired a burst into the fallen laborer.

I guess that means they're not volunteers, James thought.

There was . . . he called for more magnification from the crystal-sandwich visor . . . a bound woman spread-eagled at the base of the cannon. Just above her head sat a man in an elaborate feather headdress and very little else, pounding an enormous drum.

They'll never get that thing into the valley, he thought incredulously. The road was completely blocked by the old lava flow. Though thirty years had gentled its contours considerably, still, they couldn't possibly . . .

He winced as he watched one of the spotted slave-drivers whip a cut right through one man's shirt. And skin, James thought as the blood began to flow. Yes, they did think they could get into the valley on this road. And with that kind of brutality they may be right.

"Unit push," he whispered, though he doubted the strangers would hear him over the mournful singing. "Conito, come in." No answer. Someone was always supposed to man communications, but over time people grew lax. He'd skin the bastard who'd left the com empty today. "Record," he ordered. "There's something weird here . . . and dangerous . . ."

The world flashed white. There was a moment of dazzling pain, and then blackness.


Paulo knew this place. It was near the cliff that overlooked the ancient road. He watched his father drop to his belly and crawl forward. Looking around he spotted a suitable tree and climbed. When he'd lodged himself comfortably in the crook of the tree Paulo looked out over the old road and lost his breath.

Never had he seen or imagined anything like this. People were dragging a big, huge gun up the road. And other people were hitting them to make them do it! Paulo's stomach clenched and his mouth watered, he felt like throwing up. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths like his father had told him. And did feel a little better.

He looked out over the road again, a flicker of movement caught his eye, something closer. Something close.

A man was standing behind his father, one of the spotted men. A long shape was in his hand, a sort of wooden paddle with edges of shiny black rock. The blade shattered on the durachrome, but the helmet flew off and clattered down the steep hill. James's head dropped to the dirt.

Paulo felt his mouth drop open, and his hands trembled for an instant. Then he fumbled for his slingshot, loaded it with the heaviest stone that came to hand, whirled it around his head and let fly with a snapping twist of his body and arms. The same motion he used to hunt ducks . . .

The club was raised for a killing blow when Paulo's stone struck the man's temple. The thock sound was clearly audible even twenty feet away, and he dropped limp across James's unconscious body.

Paulo didn't see him fall, as he half slid, half fell out of the tree, his palms burning from scrapes as he scrabbled to save himself. Then he was racing towards them, his skin icy cold, his heart beating until his throat felt like it was being squeezed shut. Paulo's sight tunneled in on his father's boots where they stuck out from beneath the other man's body.

"Dad!" he said, his voice shrill with alarm. "Dad?" he said again, touching the blood in James's hair warily. His father moaned softly. Paulo sprang up and began trying to move the man who lay across him, thinking he must be smothering his father.

He yanked and pushed frantically, sobbing with frustration as the body refused to budge. The man's dead weight was so heavy! Finally Paulo sat down and kicked him off, the limp form rolling heavily against his sandals.

James moaned again. Good! That must have been the right thing. Paulo pulled off his shirt and began to wrap it snugly around his fathers head.

"Dad?" he kept calling softly. "Dad?"

James suddenly lifted his head with a gasp.

"What . . . happened?"

"This guy came up behind you and clobbered you with a club, so I beaned him with my slingshot," Paulo babbled. "He's right there."

Paulo's father turned to him, head wobbling, his eyes unfocused and looking odd somehow. Then Paulo realized what it was, one pupil was noticeably larger than the other. Concussion! Oh no.

Tops taught everyone about concussion in survival class. This was serious, maybe life-threatening. He held up two fingers.

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

His father looked at him owlishly.

"Two," he said.

Paulo let out his breath in a rush of relief. "Then you're okay. You can see all right."

"No. People always hold up two fingers."


His father dropped his head and moaned again. This time it was echoed by the man who'd hit him. Paulo froze.

"Dad?" he said, his lips stiff with terror. "Dad? He's alive."

Wake up! James shouted in his own mind. The voice sounded like his mother's.

Get moving, c'mon, on your feet soldier!

He fought the nausea that struck him every time he lifted his head and struggled to coordinate his limbs—which moved slowly and clumsily, however hard he willed them to obey.

"Daaa-ad!" Paulo said, panic creeping into his voice. "He's waking up, Dad. What do I do?"

Paulo pressed his lips firmly together as he looked frantically from his prone father to the stirring enemy beside him. He started looking around for a big rock. Too small, too small. Unngghh! Too big. Rotten stick. I don't believe this! he thought. All I want's a damn rock!

James lifted his head and the world spun, grimly he pushed himself up on his elbows and waited for the dizziness to subside. He took deep breaths and the nausea abated somewhat. His head throbbed, and he tried to ignore the pain. He opened his eyes. The world was doubled, sometimes tripled and blurred. He might as well be blind. He closed his eyes.

"Paulo. Help me up, son."

Paulo was beside him in an instant, heaving like a hero. James laughed, and stopped when that made the world spin.

"Easy, boy. I'll end up in a tree. Slow and easy does it. I can't see real good, so we've got to take things one step at a time."

"Okay, Dad." But Paulo was anxiously watching the man on the ground. He wasn't moving much, he rocked a little, and twitched his hands and feet, but his eyes were still closed, so Paulo didn't know whether he was coming to or dying.

Once on his feet, James swayed for a moment, his balance uncertain. Then he steadied, as much from sheer will as receding trauma. He fumbled at his equipment belt and pulled the bowie knife from its sheath. It was over a foot long and point heavy, and felt good in his hand. His mother had taught him how to use it, though he'd never had to, and had given it to him when he went on his first patrol.

"Son," he said. "Lead me to him." I don't want to do this in front of you, he thought. I don't want to do this at all, but we have to. Better me than you.

Paulo took his hand and put it on the stricken man's body. James felt his way to the man's throat. He placed the knife carefully, making sure his other hand was out of the way of the more than razor sharp edge of the blade. Pressing his lips together he applied pressure and dragged the knife towards him.

There was a bizarre and ugly sound from the severed windpipe and hot fluid cascaded over his free hand.

James gasped and fell back on his heels.

"C'mon, son," he said, "let's get back to the UATV. We've got to warn the village."

Paulo was staring at the dying man. There's so much blood, he thought. He'd seen animals die, he should have expected it, but . . . His mind whirled and for a moment, the man's throat seemed to be the only thing visible at the end of a long tunnel. He'd never missed his mother more, he wanted to feel the safety of her arms around him, lifting this horror out of his mind forever.


Paulo stared at his father's blood-drenched right hand, reaching out for his.

"Here I am," he said and took it.

* * *

We might as well be advancing in the damned Bolo! James thought as he noisily stumbled for perhaps the fortieth time.

"I'm sorry, Dad!"

"It's all right son, it's not your fault. Let's rest a moment." He started to squat when Paulo yanked at his arm.

"Not there, Dad." He pulled his father away from the ant-hill. "Here's okay."

James sank down with gratitude, feeling weak and cold. Maybe a little shocky, he thought, wishing he could sleep for a few hours.

"How close are we?" he whispered.

"Not far," Paulo said. "Just down there." He pointed, then whipped his arm down, blushing. "And through some trees," he added hastily to cover his error.

James thrust his chin forward and put his hand on Paulo's shoulder. "Son," he said, "I'm . . . going to send you on ahead to scout. I'm making too much noise and that guy back there must have friends. So I want you to sneak up on the UATV, wait for a few minutes to see if there's anybody around—do not break cover—and report back to me. Can you do that?"

"Yessir. I'll be careful," he said quickly, anticipating his father's next words.

"See that you are," James growled.

Paulo looked back from the bend of the trail to where his father sat waiting, his arms loosely draped over his knees, eyes closed, his face gray with fatigue. Should I go back and hide him? he wondered. Dad looked so vulnerable. Paulo wavered, looked down the trail towards the UATV. No, he'll say I'm wasting time, or something. And he'll be embarrassed. Resolving to hurry, Paulo moved on.


Paulo knew they were there before he saw them. The spotted men were talking and laughing like they had no reason not to. They were speaking pure Nahuatl, he realized, unmixed with English or Spanish as it was in Cacaxtla.

Paulo dropped and began to crawl. Sneaking-through-the-woods was the best part of school, and he'd always done well on the tests. He peered through the bushes, keeping his head low to the ground.

There were five of them, stripping the UATV with surprising efficiency for men who were making so much careless noise. I wish they were as clumsy as they are stupid, Paulo thought bitterly. He didn't understand this. Why were they being so obvious? Surely they knew someone would be coming back for the vehicle.

Then realization hit him with a chill like snow down his back. "The answer is implicit in the question," his father was fond of saying. "Your grandmother taught me that." This was a trap. Their noise was intended to draw someone carelessly into the open, too intent on the outrage before them to think about an ambush.

He almost panicked. That meant that somewhere around him were other men in spotted uniforms. Deliberately he squeezed his fear into a small box inside himself. Later, he promised himself, later. Then, moving with exquisite care, he hurried back to his father.


"Damn!" James smacked his fist into his other hand, and swore more ripely and bitterly inside his mind. "So now our second line of communication is cut off." There's only one thing left to do, he thought. Paulo will have to go alone. Given a day and a half, cutting directly across the hills and moving as fast as he could go, James figured the boy could reach the village with a warning.

No, that's too optimistic. Two days. Maybe. At least the gun people won't be able to move too fast. That ought to give us some time to prepare.

He wondered if the Bolo could still defend itself, let alone the people of Cacaxtla, neglected as it was.

"Son," he said and reached out for Paulo, who grasped his hand. "We've got to warn the village, so they have time to prepare for this." He paused, his face set.

"I know, Dad." Paulo looked at him warily, wondering what was coming.

"You've got to go alone. I'll only hold you back . . ."

"No!" Paulo snatched his hand away in horror. Leave him? Leave his own father out here blind and all alone. "I can't."

"You have to. The village is more important than any one person," James said calmly.

"No. I mean I can't. I don't know the way."

James frowned. "The valley's not that big son. I don't think you can get lost."

"Dad, it's huge. And this is only my second time on patrol with you, I've been this far from the village only once before. And I didn't pay that much attention, I mean, I didn't know I'd have to. Honest, Dad, I'll get lost. Don't make me do this, please." He was panting when he finished speaking and shaking with pure terror. He knew that leaving his father alone out here would be like killing him. And he couldn't bear to lose his father, too.

"Son . . ."

"I can't. You know the landmarks, you can guide me. We'll go together."

For a moment there'd been something so like his grandmother in Paulo's voice that James blinked.

"Okay," he said slowly. "Then we'd better get started." James pulled some of his makeshift bandage down over his eyes. It was easier that way, without the blurring, shifting light to confuse him.

"First, look for the peak of the old volcano. Can you see it from here?"

* * *

Seven-Deer had taken upon himself the task of feeding the servant of the Sun. It pleased him mightily that Tezcatlipoca had chosen a Yanqui, one of those who had brought about the downfall of his people, as an instrument of vengeance. He took it as a sign of favor that the god would make such a joke. Smoking Mirror had a sense of humor; it made Seven-Deer slightly ashamed that he'd never been able to emulate his god in that.

"A full bowl," he said, and the cook-slave dipped his ladle once more.

The First Speaker of the Sun threaded his way through the encampment; it was crowded and noisy, inevitable with so many slaves along. The stink was not as bad as it would have been down in the lowlands. They must have climbed at least five hundred meters already; the air began to remind Seven-Deer of his youth in the cool uplands of Cacaxtla.

"I have brought food," he said, as he gracefully mounted the gun carriage, disdaining to use his hands for climbing. The rungs that led up the side of the wheeled gun's boxy mounting were cool beneath his iron-hard soles, not like metal or stone.

"I'm not hungry," Pasqua said coldly.

"You will like it," he said cheerfully, sinking into a crouch beside her head. "It comes from my own table." He filled the spoon and thrust it at her mouth.

Pasqua turned her head away and the spoon relentlessly followed. She turned to glare at him and he smiled benevolently.

If she'd had appetite the sight of him would have killed it. He still was smeared with Gary's blood, his hair was caked with it and the sweetish smell of rot was thick on his hands.

She opened her mouth to say, "I don't want it," and Seven-Deer thrust the spoon home. Immediately she spat it out. Not on him, though she'd have liked to, but she didn't want to inspire him to anything too creative. The Duke of New Orleans had some extremely creative people on his staff, and she'd had to attend those events as a child, like anyone in the Family.

"I'm nauseous," she snapped. "I can't eat, okay? You wouldn't want me to choke on my own vomit before you get to cut my heart out. Now would you, babe?"

Seven-Deer's face stiffened with offense. To be refused thus by this ignorant Yanqui slut was . . . a test perhaps. The Sun sought to determine his worthiness. He placed the bowl down gently near her bound right hand.

"Very well," he said quietly. "Let the insects have it. And may its scent torment you. Perhaps tomorrow you will have a better appetite."

He rose and descended the steep gun carriage as gracefully as he'd come. Pasqua would have paid any price to see him slip and fall flat on his face.

Her lips and the inside of her mouth were burning fiercely from the spoonful of food he'd forced on her. It brought tears to her eyes. She waited; the camp grew quieter, fires died down, only a few sentries moved. Her mouth still burned.

Geeeez, she thought, that stuff would burn through steel. She turned her head and looked consideringly at the abandoned bowl. You don't suppose . . .

Her numb hand plopped into the bowl and scooped up some of the contents, bending her wrist as far as she could. Pasqua slid the mess onto the vegetable fiber ropes that bound her. "Whoooo!" she yelped as the chili sauce penetrated to burn the chafed and bleeding skin below. Which motivated her to yank her bound hand frantically.

Maybe it was the grease, maybe it was because the rope was thoroughly wet, maybe it was because she was so desperate to get that stuff off, but this time her hand and not a little skin, came free.

She rubbed her wrist off on her shirt; it didn't stop the burning. Frustrated, she turned to getting her other hand free. Bound as she was she could barely reach the knot. It had tightened with her struggles and with bearing her weight all day. A fingernail bent back and she suppressed a yelp of pain. She sucked the finger, then spat as her tongue began to burn again. The need to swear seemed almost as imperative as the need to breathe.

With a sigh, Pasqua scooped up a handful of her supper and dumped it over her other wrist.

After she'd freed her feet, Pasqua snatched the yellow scarf from her hair and rubbed as much sauce as she could from her wrists and hands, though the flames were dying now. Then she tossed it aside, glad that her shirt and slacks were gray and unlikely to call attention to her in the darkening jungle.

She moved carefully and quietly, keeping low, sometimes on hands and knees. The slaves were sleeping all around the gun carriage, so thickly that it was difficult to step between legs and arms and heads. In their exhaustion they slept through her quiet passage, even when she accidentally touched one of them.

Her eyes were on the jungle when a man sat up and looked at her. Pasqua froze, a nasty, almost electrical shock frissoned over her and her breath stopped in her throat. The man's face was blue-grey in the darkness, his eyes black pits. He stared at her unmoving. Then he smiled, and silently, he lay back down.

Thank you, God, Pasqua thought. As she moved into the jungle she made vague, but fervent, promises about being a better person hereafter.


Sometimes, just before turning in, Sergeant Jenkins liked to wander around the village, to settle his mind and his aching bones for sleep. And on nights like this one when he was feeling especially solitary he'd stop to have a few words with the Bolo.

Since Lieutenant Martins' death no one spoke to Markee. And occasionally Tops felt a little guilty about it. He knew that the Bolo wasn't lonely, didn't feel neglected or slighted being ignored by the populace, didn't feel anything at all in fact. It was as empty of self-awareness as a toaster.

But when it spoke it sometimes seemed so like a person that he made a point of visiting from time to time. And if he took solace in knowing that it had seen him young and bore memories of his old comrades, well, so what? Besides, sometimes it picked up a faint radio broadcast from back in Reality and he enjoyed hearing them, weird as they were. The Lord of Philly had declared war on the Jersey Barons? Either that was a sports broadcast, or things had gotten unreal in Reality.

"Good evening, Markee," Tops said, settling himself on a familiar outcropping on the Bolo's lower surface. "Tell me what's new with you?"

"I've received a most disturbing message from Captain Martins, Sergeant. As follows . . ."

James Martins' voice came from the Bolo's speakers, weakly, as though over some distance. "Unit Push. Conito, come in." There was a pause and then an impatient sigh. "Record. There's something weird here . . . and dangerous . . ." There was a sparkle of static and then nothing.

"That's it?" Tops asked.

"Yes. It has been ten hours and thirty-four minutes since I received this message. Nothing at all since. This is unlike Captain Martins, who is punctilious about following up on his recorded messages."

"Hmph. Any other chatter on the unit push?"

"Negative, Sergeant. As far as I can tell Conito has yet to hear this message."

Tops straightened his spine, his eyes blazing with outrage. Lord knew Conito had his problems. His wife had died in childbirth leaving him with twin babies to take care of. But this kind of neglect was unheard of.

"These damn kids," Tops muttered. "They're spoiled, is what. We did our job too good. Think the world's their friend, never going to do 'em any harm." He stood up. "I'll see to it Markee. Keep an ear out for the Captain."

"Yes, Sergeant."


Joseph opened his door to find Tops on the doorstep, standing in the halo of bugs that orbited around the methane lantern above the door.

"Hello, Tops," he said, surprised. "It's late," he said doubtfully. And the old man was in uniform, from boots to helmet.

"I know what time it is, Jefe. I have something to tell you." Tops pushed past Joseph and into the house, then turned to face him.

"James is in trouble," he said shortly. "The Bolo intercepted a partial message from him. He said, 'there's something weird here, and dangerous,' then nothin' but static. That was over ten hours ago. Markee hasn't heard anything since."

"Conito hasn't reported . . ."

"Conito hasn't accessed his messages yet. Anymore than he's been monitoring the unit push. I heard the recording. It was broken off. He's in trouble."

Joseph looked at him doubtfully. He licked his lips and looked away, then back again.

"What do you expect me to do?" he asked.

"I expect you to send help." Tops began to do a slow burn as the Jefe's eyes flicked away again.

"Don't be lookin' away like I've done somethin' socially unacceptable. Your brother was cut off in mid-report and hasn't been heard from in hours. You have the power, and the responsibility, to send help." He stood glaring at Joseph. "And that's what I expect you to do."

Joseph rolled his eyes. "Probably the UATV broke down. That one's on its last legs. And the helmet coms aren't much better. What's more," he said, spreading his hands and smiling reasonably, "the Bolo's in even worse shape than the UATV. It might have misheard James."

"I heard the recording myself," Tops said through clenched teeth. "With my own ears. It was very distinct, Joseph. You could access that recording yourself if you wanted to."

Joseph's shoulders slumped and his mouth twisted impatiently.

"Querida?" a voice called from the hall stairs above. "Mi corazon?"

"It's late . . ." he began.

"Either you send someone to check this out or I'm going," Tops said fiercely, his breath beginning to come hard.

"Will you relax, old man," Joseph said, putting his hand on Tops's shoulder and guiding him to the door. "There's nothing we can do tonight anyway. It'll have to wait till tomorrow."

Tops's big fist flashed out and caught the jefe on the side of the head like a five-pound maul.

Joseph heard the sound through the bones of his skull. It didn't hurt; mostly he was conscious of outrage, and surprise that the old man could still move that fast. He was older than Mother. But I can't hit him back—

It was then that he realized he had dropped bonelessly to the floor. He thrashed helplessly in slow motion until the sense returned to his eyes, and the pain began. Then he stared up at the elderly man who'd flattened him.

"That was from the El-tee," Tops said furiously. "Cause she'da given you one those for even thinkin' about leaving one of your people hangin' fire after a message like that. Let alone your own brother."

Tops's eyes flashed in the candle light, yellow around smokey black irises.

"You listen to me little boy, it's a bad ol' world out there. And there's always a chance that trouble will find its way to your door. Now, to me it sounds like trouble is knockin', and it's knockin' real loud." He pointed one massive finger in Joseph's face. "Now you send someone out there to help your brother!"

Joseph glared at him, rubbing his jaw and wondering if he should have Tops thrown in jail. Tops glared back with an outraged sincerity that finally penetrated the Jefe's hurt pride.

"You're right," Joseph said grudgingly. "It does bear investigating." He picked himself up and headed for the door. "You needn't worry," he said over his shoulder as Tops started to follow him, "I'll see to it. They'll leave tonight."

The woman's voice called again from upstairs. Tops flexed and shook his right hand as he walked out into the street and closed the door; it was lucky he hadn't popped a knuckle, doing that. Normally he didn't believe in hitting a man with his bare hands, not unless he was naked and had his feet nailed to the floor . . . but you did have to make allowances for the El-Tee's son.


Paulo's whole body burned as his father's weight dragged at him again. It was so dark now he could barely see and he was trembling with exhaustion, as sweat-sodden as his father, sick with listening to the rasping breath of pain above him. He wanted to stop, to eat, to take a sip of the little bit of water in his father's canteen. He wanted to sit down and cry like a little kid. But I can't. Dad's hurting worse than me. I've got to keep up.

As it had grown darker Paulo had concentrated on the ground before them, avoiding rocks and roots and vines with considerable efficiency, considering the gloom. Besides, tired as he was his head just naturally tended downward. The noises of the insects and frogs lulled at him, like he was home and had the window open, looking out at the moon . . .



James's head had connected solidly with a low-slung branch. The pain from his forehead telegraphed itself to the wound on the back of his skull and the agony washed back and forth like reciprocal tidal waves. He fell to the ground uttering a shrill, almost silent, scream.

Paulo fell to his knees beside his father. "Dad!" His hands hovered uncertainly over the writhing form and tears began to fill his eyes. "Dad?" he said again, his voice tight with desperation and tears. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." He broke down and began to cry, ashamed and unable to stop. He pushed his hands against his mouth to stifle the uncontrollable sobs. If he could stop them his eyes would quickly dry, he knew.

Suddenly his father rolled to his knees and began to retch, straining mightily to no effect as his stomach was utterly empty. At last the spasm passed and he rolled to his side, groaning.

"Dad?" Paulo's voice was very small.

"S'all right," James said, panting. "C'mere." He lifted his arm and Paulo collapsed next to him.

James folded his arm around his son. "Not your fault, kid. You're doin' okay."

The pain was receding to an echoing ache and he was horribly aware of his own pulse as it beat through his head. White dots sparked behind his eyelids and the nausea was definitely back to stay for awhile.

"Gotta rest," he said quietly. Shame brought heat to his cheeks as he realized he had to place yet another burden on Paulo's shoulders. "You've got to find us some shelter, son. Doesn't have to be much. Just good cover, with maybe a wall at our backs. Don't go far."

He tightened his arm at the thought of losing his son out here in the dark. "If you don't find something quickly, come back, we'll just spend the night here."

Paulo sat up. "Okay, Dad."

"Here," James said. "Take a drink," and he passed over the canteen.

Paulo took it gratefully and allowed himself two swallows, holding the second in his mouth a moment to saturate his dry tongue.

"I'll be quick," he said and leaned forward to kiss his father's cheek, startling him.

He hasn't done that since his mother died, James thought as the sound of Paulo's footsteps faded away.

It seemed only an instant later that Paulo shook his sleeve. "Dad. I've found it," he said.

James struggled to his feet and Paulo led him, being particularly careful to watch above as well as below this time.

A short distance later Paulo drew them to a halt.

"There's these bushes," he explained, "you have to crouch down and crawl. But it's like a hollow behind 'em and there's a wall with an overhang. It's almost like a cave," he ended eagerly.

"Good job, son," James said. "You go first." He got on his hands and knees and followed his son through the bushes. "This is good," he said once inside the hollow, noting the dryness of the thick bed of leaves and the absence of any musky animal smell. "You rest."

"You need to rest more'n I do," Paulo protested, determined to stay on guard all night if necessary.

"I couldn't son. My head won't let me." James knew that Paulo was at the end of his strength and would soon be asleep whether he wished to be or not. Besides, once they got within sight of an unmistakable landmark, if his eyes were still useless, he intended to send Paulo on alone. The boy would need his strength for that. "Go to sleep."

With a relieved sigh, Paulo surrendered and lay down on his side, curling up as comfortably as he could.

James heard his son's breathing change to the rhythm of sleep and then he knew no more.


Moving quickly, but quietly, Pasqua pressed on. She was half in a dream state, but breathing comfortably and moving efficiently, body wolf-trotting without being told to. A method one of her father's bodyguards had taught her, part of her survival training. She was skirting the trail that led into the valley, approaching only close enough to see it every two hundred paces, then fading back into the jungle. Woods, actually. They were pretty high up here. The weather was nice, not like the steambath down below; that had been as bad as summer back home. This was like October on the Bayou Teche, or over in the piney woods on the Gulf Coast; the Family had hunting lodges there.

If I warn whoever's in the valley about the Knave of Hearts and his laughing boys I'm a hero, she reasoned. If I try to get back to the coast I run into the very unhappy people he's run that damned gun over and I'm toast. Tough choice.

She shrugged mentally. The weather's better up here anyway. Later, she could loop around and back to the coast and pick up her stuff. Nobody would have touched it; not when her name was Giacano. Even if she'd severed formal connection with the Family, nobody had put an open contract on her. And nobody would want one of the Duke's schooners to pay a visit, which they would if news came back that she'd been ripped off. Just on general principles, mind, not out of familial affection.

Pasqua gauged her level of exhaustion and decided to find somewhere to sleep for a couple of hours. She slowed down and almost immediately her limbs felt weighted with sand, her chest aching with the effort of breathing the thin upland air. Sleep, she thought, what a concept.


My God! She froze, but her heart went into overdrive. She could almost feel it on the back of her tongue.


Snoring! But was it human?

Creeping forward, though her gut insisted she should run, Pasqua came upon a lush growth of bushes pressed against an overhang.

If I were a bear, she thought, this is where I'd sleep. Did they have bears in this country?


Human, she thought and straightened, her mouth a grim line. The switchblade went snick in her hand, oiled deadliness. Maybe one of the Lord of Multiculturalism's merry crew. Cautiously she began to move back. The satisfaction of giving one of them an extra mouth wasn't worth the risk.

"Daaaa-ad," a sleepy child's voice said. "Y'r snorin'."

A grin spread slowly across Pasqua's face and her eyes gleamed. Hunters maybe, she thought. Definitely not Jaguar Knights. Maybe marks.

"Hey," she whispered and could almost feel them come aware. "I need help."


"Hey! Conito!" Tops trotted out into the road and the UATV stopped. He suppressed a smile at the sight of Conito's weary face and the carload of militia around him.

Hey, poetic justice, pal, he thought, pleased at how the punishment fit the crime.

Conito was looking at him dubiously. "You can't come with us, Sergeant Jenkins." His voice was respectful, his attitude courteous.

Tops was surprised at how good the respect felt. Has it been that long since someone talked to me like I'm a grown man? Still, he was being brushed off, told to go away like a good little nuisance so the responsible people could get their work done. This from Conito! A guy who'd never finished anything except getting his poor wife pregnant. The guy who'd left the unit push unmonitored probably since James had gone out.

"Well, thank you for the invite, son, but I've got some sleep to catch up on." Conito's tired eyes narrowed slightly. "Maybe some other time. What I wanted was to give you this." He held up his own helmet. "I've been workin' on it and it's probably the best one in the village right now. It's also hooked into the Bolo."

Conito had taken the helmet with pleasure and had passed his own, marginally working one to his second. But his head came up at that.

"Why's that?" he asked. "Nobody talks to the Beast."

Tops forced himself not to be sarcastic. It was an honest question, nobody had spoken to the Bolo for years. He set his hands on his hips and looked down at Conito, just a bit longer than was comfortable for the younger man.

"I don't know why we didn't think of it before," Tops said mildly, "the Bolo can monitor the unit push twenty-four hours a day. If something urgent comes through it can set off an alarm. Oh, yeah, the Beast says the last transmission came from the cliff that overlooks the old road out of the valley." He turned and headed back to his house.

"That oughta make it easier to find 'em," he said over his shoulder. He didn't grin at Conito's stupefied expression until he'd turned his head away.


Tops was halfway up the Bolo's craggy side when a child's voice asked severely, "Where are you going, Sergeant Tops?"

Startled he looked down into the big brown eyes of Joseph's youngest daughter. Catherine was frowning fiercely, her arms crossed over her chest, one pudgy bare foot tapping impatiently.

"What are you doing out here so late?" he countered, keeping his voice low.

"You had a fight with my daddy," she accused. "You woke me up and I couldn't sleep anymore."

"Does he know you're out here?" Tops whispered. Quiet down kid, you'll wake up the whole town.

She looked disconcerted, but her head went down like a little bull's. "Where are you going?" she repeated.

"Shhhhh! I'm going to visit your grandma," he said.

A look of absolute horror went over the little face.

"Are you going to die?" Her eyes were huge.

He barked a laugh, he couldn't help it. "Naw. Not for a long time. I'm just goin' for a visit."

"You promise?"

Tops smiled, touched. She's loud, but she's really a nice little kid.

"I'll not only promise that, I'll promise not to tell anyone I saw you out so late. If," he held up one finger, "you promise not to tell anyone you saw me up here."

"Okay," Catherine said cheerfully, "I promise."

"You go home now," Tops said and nodded.

"Okay." She turned and padded off into the darkness. Halfway down the street she turned and waved, smiling sweetly, then hurried on. He watched her open her door, she looked up and waved one more time, then entered.

Yeah, and I'll bet if I hadn't been watchin' you'd've bopped off into the night on some business of your own, wouldn't cha? The kid was just like the El-Tee, stubborn and fearless. He shook his head and resumed his climb.

He paused at the top and bit his lip, feeling like he was violating a tomb. Then he had to grin as he imagined Bethany Martins turning to just stare at him if she'd known his thoughts. He shook his head.

"Open the hatch, Markee," he said.

The rush of cool dry air that flowed over him smelled every bit as bad as he'd expected. Like a long dead corpse to be exact. He wrinkled his nose disgustedly. This ain't going to be no day at the beach, he thought.

The near-mummified corpse in the command chair looked nothing like his old friend. Thank God for small favors, he thought. If anything he was surprised at how small it was. The El-Tee loomed much larger in his mind's eye.

He spread one of the blankets he'd brought over her and very gently began to pry her off the seat. It felt like moving furniture, there was nothing human-feeling about the shape under the blanket at all. Thank God they still had a few of the body bags left; they folded down to handkerchief size, but they sealed air-tight.

A gruesome few minutes later, a clean blanket covering the command seat, he sat down gingerly. "Key in the view from that helmet, Markee," he said. With a nervous glance at the body-bagged form beside him Tops settled in for his vigil.


In the "I need help," Olympics these indigs have got me beat, Pasqua decided. Why me? she wondered as her heart sank. A guy who's effectively blind and a scared kid. Does someone plan these disasters for me? Has Grandfather got the squeeze on God or something?

The thing to do was cut and run, she could think up a dozen plausible excuses without breaking a sweat. Some of them were even true.

"What did you say his name was?" the man—James—said.

He was lighter than the average around here, and spoke English with a mixture of accents, local and what sounded like old American. Crisper than her own Canal Street dialect. Good-looking guy in his early thirties, broad shoulders and a working-man's hands. Wearing an old United States uniform, of all things; Pasqua recognized the body armor. The Family had . . . inherited . . . a lot of Army equipment during the Collapse, and still had it stockpiled.

"It's got too many notes for me to say, but it comes out as Seven-Deer," she said cautiously.

Something about the man said he wasn't a friend of the Jungle Cardiac Removal League. The way both of them paled at the name confirmed it. The boy looked up at the man, and he put an arm around his son's shoulders.

"Okay, I'll help you get back home," Pasqua said, not believing the words as she heard them coming out of her own mouth.

She looked out at the tumbled mountains, at the tall volcano standing white-topped to the west. Above it a face seemed to loom in her mind's eye. Her father's.

"The last thing a Giacano needs," he'd said the last time she'd seen him, his dead-fish eyes weighing her like so much meat, "is a fuckin' conscience."

She'd flown to Central America the next day, losing herself down here and never expecting to see home again. Not wanting to once she realized she was free.


James's mind went over and over the woman's story. When he'd heard her voice in the night he'd feared for a moment that it was some trick. Then she'd explained her presence.

". . . Seven-Deer . . ."

His head had come up with a jerk that hurt him and he could feel the blood draining from his face. Paulo took his hand and squeezed it tightly and he'd been ashamed of his own fear. To the Valley's children Seven-Deer was the bogeyman.

"You're sure his name was Seven-Deer?"

"Yes." Her voice was cautious, as though she feared they might be allied with him. "Why?"

He'd told her and then insisted that they begin walking. The urgent need to warn the his people burned within him.

Seven-Deer has a very old grudge. Not that he needed the excuse.


Pasqua was so thirsty she didn't think she could even cry. And she was tired enough to want to. They'd been walking, or rather, stumbling all day and the sun was beginning to set. God, I never imagined a path could be a luxury. Just to be able to walk five paces without tripping, she thought, suppressing a groan, I'd pay for the privilege. How could country with this much rainfall not have springs or rivers?

"Because we're sticking to the ridgelines," James said.

She started, realizing she'd spoken the last thought aloud. I must be more worn down than I realized.

"Stop," James said quietly, holding up his hands.

Pasqua looked back at him; from the way he held his head it was apparent he'd heard something. She looked around, straining her ears. All she could see were pine-trees, scrubby on the upper slopes; further down were tropical oak, and a tormenting sound of rushing water. Sweat dried on her face and body, the rest letting her realize that although the sun was fierce the air-temperature wasn't much above seventy. Wind soughed through the trees, cool and fresh-smelling. She pushed away knowledge of aches and sore feet and paper-dry tongue. At last she heard a faint yipping.

"Coy-dogs?" she asked.

His lips pressed thin and he shook his head, then winced. His hand brushed his forehead.

"Voices," he said, very quietly.

Just then a stray breeze brought the sound of laughter and she stiffened. Her eyes flicked to Paulo but his expression was the same he'd worn all day, frightened and determined.

"We'd better keep moving," she said.

James shook his head and winced again.

"Will you just say things and quit wagging your head around," she said impatiently. "Why not keep moving?"

"They might be valley people," he said. "In which case we should warn them. They might even be looking for me . . . and Paulo," he added.

"In which case we should avoid them because they're making enough noise to attract Seven-Deer's whole cavalcade of fun. Or it could be a trap."

"Then we'd better find out," James said. "They might have water . . ." He let the thought dangle.

If she weren't so thirsty, Pasqua might have smiled. The man's a manipulator, she thought. A clumsy one, but when you have the right hook you don't have to be an artist. She licked dry lips and Paulo mirrored her action.

"Okay," she said. "Let's go."


The closer they got, the more obvious it became that there was some sort of sick celebration in progress. Sound echoed off the oaks, through the screens of hanging vines. The yipping and the laughter were interspersed with conversation and screaming; a hummingbird went by her head and hovered over a flower in cruel obliviousness. Pasqua grabbed James's arm.

"These are not your friends," she whispered urgently. "We've got to get out of here!"

"I need to know," James said and started forward.

"No, you don't," she insisted. "If you want to know what's going on I can tell you. They're killing people! Okay? And they'll be happy to kill us too. Now that you know that, can we go?"

She yanked at his arm but he balked.

"We need to know how many there are and how they're armed," he persisted.

"I can tell you that too," Pasqua snapped. "I was their prisoner, remember. There'll be fifteen of them and they carry M-35's just like you do, as well as obsidian swords and knives. Let's go."

"No," Paulo said unexpectedly. He took his father's hand. "Those are our friends. Maybe we can help."

"Help!" Pasqua squeaked, but she was talking to their backs. For a moment she stood there, immobilized, half of her wanting to head for the inner valley and the village, half wanting to follow.

"Shit," she muttered and started after them. If they do happen to make it back to the village I won't win any hearts for having deserted them out here.

Right now, she needed friends . . . and these two weren't fit to be allowed out alone.


With a shrill, yipping cry the Jaguar Knight plunged the ball down on to a sharpened stake planted in the ground.

That's not a ball! Paulo thought and gagged. It was a head, still encased in its helmet.

The stake was surrounded by the dead bodies of the Cacaxtla militia. The Jaguar Knights, yipping out their victory, did a little impromptu dance around the pile, then leaping and prancing they went to a UATV and one by one got in. One of them stood on the back, waving his M-35 and jigging enthusiastically until the UATV started and he tumbled backwards into the laps of his laughing fellows.

"What's happening?" James ground out, his face grim.

"I'm going to assume the UATV is the valley's," Pasqua began.

"They're dead," Paulo near shouted, tears running down his cheeks. "They're all dead!"

James pulled his son into his arms, and brushed his free hand over the boy's hair.

"Hush, son. There may be listeners."

"They're all dead," Paulo insisted. Then he sniffed and rubbed his nose. "Those men rode off in the UATV. There isn't anybody here but us. Dad," he went on in a small voice, "they cut off somebody's head."

James hung his head. "Who, son?"

"I don't know, it's still got a helmet on."

James stiffened. "We've got to get that helmet," he said. "Then we can warn the others."

"Very noble of you," Pasqua drawled, knowing he wouldn't be the one to retrieve it. "But as you've already suggested they may have left watchers behind."

"Why watch the dead?" Paulo sneered, stung by her tone.

"To see if anyone approaches them," Pasqua answered through clenched teeth. "They know someone will come looking eventually. Why else make such a big deal out of this?"

"To intimidate us," James suggested, then he sighed. "We still need that helmet," he said firmly. "We can't count on our luck, such as it is, holding."

Pasqua made a sour face.

"I'll go," Paulo said, anger and pride in every syllable.

"Don't be ridiculous," Pasqua snapped. "You stay with your father." Then she dropped to her stomach and crawled off into the surrounding bushes.

James listened for a moment, and under the concealing bandages his brows went up in surprise. "She's good," he commented.

Paulo gave a little growl. "Well, I don't like her," he muttered.

James smiled. "Sometimes, son, people I haven't liked at first turned out to be my best friends."

Paulo stayed silent. He was in no mood for a little homily on understanding. Paulo wasn't going to like her.

He looked out over the field again, to where the bodies were piled and fury rose within him. These were people he knew! Familiar faces that he'd seen every day of his life. How dare they hurt them? He balled his hands into fists until the knuckles turned white and ground his teeth, his eyes blazing. If he could, he'd show them, he'd hurt them like they'd hurt the valley people. Worse! He'd . . .

One moment the head on the stake wore a helmet, the next it was just a head on a stake. Paulo turned away, feeling sick again.

James felt the tension in his son's body change.

"What is it?" he asked.

"She's got it," Paulo answered, then he turned his back on the bloody field.

Half an hour later Pasqua stood up and walked towards them, the helmet swinging by one strap.

"I'm not putting this on," she said.

"Give it to me," James said. Taking it he pulled off his bandage and wiped the wet inside of the helmet. Then he inverted it and put it very carefully on, wincing when it came into contact with his wounds.

"Unit Push," he said.

"Go ahead, Captain Martins," replied the lush voice of the Bolo.

"Markee?" James was astonished.

"Never mind Markee," Tops said. "Where the hell are you?"


The squad of fifteen knelt before him, heads bowed, one fist and one knee on the ground, radiating shame as the Sun did heat. Seven-Deer stood before them, resplendent in jade nose and lip plugs, gold rings weighing down his ears, arms crossed over his brawny chest. His face was implacable, but a fear from the World Beyond the World tickled the back of his neck like a chill breeze.

The servant of the Sun had vanished. Oh, not vanished really, escaped. But it should not have been possible. Too many things had gone awry to allow that escape. She got free of her ropes, with no one noticing. She climbed down from the gun carriage, with no one noticing. She walked through the crowd of sleeping slaves, with no one noticing. And she slipped through the squad of fifteen kneeling before him . . . with no one noticing. As if she'd had supernatural help. Perhaps the people of the Sun were being led to their destruction?

Tezcatlipoca is a trickster, he thought. Smoking Mirror does what he does and no man can understand him. Seven-Deer had thought that he understood the will of Tezcatlipoca. Perhaps . . . perhaps it was a lesson, intended to punish my pride in thinking so. After all, the girl was not important now that they had the gun.

The tension within him released slowly. If this was true then he should not punish the men before him. This was also a relief. The people of the Sun were few and every man was needed. Nevertheless, Smoking Mirror's power must be acknowledged.

"Look at me," he said to the kneeling men. "It is not I who must be propitiated. The gods demand their due." He looked into each man's eyes and saw that he was understood. "You shall give blood to Tezcatlipoca, but you may not impair your battle-worthiness. One of your number, a volunteer, or one selected by vote, will be permitted the honor of giving more on behalf of all."

The men looked at one another, then one by one they pointed until all were pointing at the same man, the squad leader, Water-Monster.

He rose with pride and stepped forward to stand at attention before Seven-Deer.

Two priests came forward in their stinking black robes; one bore a thin-bladed knife, the other a basket. The first gave the knife to Water-Monster, who bowed as he accepted the blade. Water-Monster took the blade and sang out a prayer, then he grasped his tongue in one hand and plunged the blade through its center with the other.

Blood ran down his chin and splattered his chest. His eyes filled with water, though he allowed no tears to fall, pupils contracted to pinpoints and his breath came fast.

The other priest came forward and presented the basket. Without taking his eyes from Seven-Deer's, Water-Monster's hand fumbled within it and caught the end of a rope studded with thorns. He fitted it carefully into the slit he'd made and began drawing the rope through. His face and body were slicked with a cold sweat and he trembled from the agony as foot by foot he dragged the lacerating rope through his tender flesh.

He bore the pain well, though to his shame he gagged once or twice. Behind him, his squad took out their knives and slit their ears, singing a song in praise of Tezcatlipoca.


"Tops? What—"

"Where are you, James? We've got a search party out looking for you."

"Where we are is too far from Cacaxtla to do any good," he said. "I've got bad news, Tops. The UATV you sent out . . . they won't be coming home."

There was silence for a moment. James could almost feel Tops's mind clicking into gear, long-disused reflexes opening smoothly. Then: "What are we up against, Captain?"

"Seven-Deer," James said succinctly. "And at least two hundred Jaguar Knights. In addition, they've got upwards of six hundred . . . slaves, I guess."


Why are you surprised? Tops asked himself. This is Seven-Deer we're talkin' about.

"They're dragging a weapon, Tops. It's a massive cannon. The chassis is mounted on eight balloon wheels, about chest height on me. The gun itself is strange," he paused. "It's about twenty feet long with two rectangular bars bracketing its entire length. And it's thin, looks more like a pipe than anything else. There's a seat for a gunner behind it. I'm assuming that the chassis contains some sort of mechanism for positioning the gun. That about wraps it up. I don't know how they expect to get it into the valley, but if they do, I think we're in deep trouble."

A good assessment, Pasqua thought. Even though James couldn't see her she kept her face immobile.

Tops sighed. "I can't even picture it, Captain. Did it look like something they cobbled together from parts?"

"Excuse me, Captain, Sergeant," the Bolo interrupted. "From the description I would say that the enemy have obtained an XM-17 Railgun. It was an experimental model that was undergoing its final testing phase just before this unit was dispatched to San Gabriel. At that time there were no plans for bringing one this far south."

"That's all you can say?" Tops asked.

Then, with an inward curse over the literal-mindedness of the Bolo, he asked: "What capabilities?"

"The XM-17 Railgun is capable of penetrating the armor of any known self-propelled vehicle at a distance of fifteen hundred meters."

After a long moment he asked carefully: "Including yours?"

"Yes, Sergeant," the Bolo said in its cheerfully sexy voice.

"Can you defend yourself against it?" James asked urgently.

Paulo stared at the dark, curved surface of the helmet's face plate and wished he could hear what was being said to his father. James's hands were bunched into fists and his voice was tight with anxiety.

"In my present state of repair, Captain, I would estimate that I have only a twelve percent chance of successfully defending myself. That estimate is my most optimistic, based on the assumption that the Railgun will be facing me head on, giving my own guns a direct shot at it. I cannot turn, nor can I deploy my infinite repeaters owing to the heavy coating of lava stone on my chassis."

"Tops . . ."

"You don't have to say it, Captain. We'd better get the whole village busy chippin' that stuff off."

Tops was sweating now, though it was still cool and dry inside the Bolo. "We should have done it years ago—"

"—but as my mother always said, if wishes were horses there would be even more horseshit in the world than there is."

"Can you get us more information, sir? Where the main body of 'em are, their direction and speed so I can tell Joseph and the council. And if you can, slow 'em down."

"Tell him your condition," Pasqua said suddenly, prompted by a sick suspicion.

"Will do," James said. "Out."

"Will do what?" she demanded, dread sitting in her stomach like raw dough.

"Find 'em, find out how fast they're moving, slow 'em down if we can."

"What?" She exploded. "Are you crazy? Did that knock on the head kill more brain cells than we realized? Why didn't you tell him that you're as good as blind and being assisted by a ten-year-old and a civilian? What are you going to do, throw spitballs, tie a rope across the trail and trip all six hundred slaves? What are your plans, generalissimo? I can't wait to hear."

"Lady, you can leave any time you want to," Paulo said, eyes blazing. "My father and I can handle it ourselves."

"Ah, glorious!" she sneered. "I'm in the company of heroes."

"No," James replied with strained patience, "you're in the company of people with family and friends who are in the path of terrible danger. That head down there belonged to a friend of mine. I'm not going to let those spotted thugs kill his children."

Paulo threw Pasqua a look of smug contempt.

She hissed in exasperation. I hate this! she thought vehemently. Playing hero's one thing, actually becoming one is not something I want to do!

More hateful still was the blood-freezing realization that she wasn't going to leave them to it, but was going with them . . . to help them in any way she could. There wasn't even the possibility of profit in it.

Father had been right. She was crazy.


Tops leaned back in the command seat and ran his hands nervously over his short white hair. Seven-Deer! My God! I'd hoped that bastard was dead. He slid a glance over to the body-bagged form beside him.

"El-Tee, I like your oldest boy, I really do. But Joseph's the kind thinks if you postpone trouble it's bound to solve itself." Tops thought he knew Bethany Martins well enough that she'd agree with his assessment, and that she'd agree with what he planned to do now.

They'd see combat soon. He sighed, and the adrenaline hummed and sparked along his nerve endings. He hadn't missed the feeling at all, hadn't wanted his own children to ever know it.

So much for that blind hope. He smiled; that was something the El-Tee would have said. He gave himself a little shake, being right beside her body wasn't good for him. Next thing he knew he'd think she was talking to him.

"Markee, do you have a view on the plaza?"

"Negative, Sergeant. Those cameras not damaged by the lava were covered by it."

Oh well. "Open up your P.A. system," he ordered. "Good'n loud, but not painful."

"Ready, Sergeant."

"Attention people of Cacaxtla."

He leaned forward as he spoke.

"We are in an emergency situation. There is an invading force on its way into the valley, composed of approximately two hundred hostiles." He'd considered telling them who it was, but didn't want to send the whole town into a blind panic. "Children and noncombatants are to be evacuated. All able-bodied persons are to report to the Bolo immediately to begin clearing it of debris so that it will be combat ready."

He paused. "Can you hear how they're taking it, Markee? I don't want a panic."

There was a moment's silence, then, "The consensus seems to be that you've lost your mind and are reliving the glory days of your youth," the Bolo reported.

Damn! He hadn't expected that.

"The Jefe is approaching and is demanding that you come down," Markee continued. "The Jefe's authority exceeds your own, Sergeant," the Bolo observed. "I must request that you leave now."

"Whose authority exceeds the Jefe's?" Tops asked desperately.

"The Captain's would, as military authority would always exceed civilian in the deployment of this unit."

"Then get on to him. Ask for his orders. This is an emergency, Markee, if I go out there it's over. For all of us."

A moment later James's voice came through, sounding weary but determined.

"Attention, please. This is Captain Martins speaking. The valley is under attack. The UATV that was sent out to assist me and my son has been overwhelmed, the crew killed and the vehicle stolen. An escaped prisoner of the hostiles has informed me that Cacaxtla is their destination . . ." He paused. "And that Seven-Deer is their leader. Follow Sergeant Jenkins' instructions; he is acting with my authority. Jefe, I expect you to offer him your complete cooperation. Markee, you will follow Sergeant Jenkins' orders as though they were my own. Martins out."

"What's happening?" Tops demanded. "Open up a channel to the outside, Markee, I need to know what's goin' on."


Joseph stood outside the door of the jefe's house and slowly closed his mouth.

"Oh, I wish he'd really finally gone crazy," he whispered to himself.

People were boiling out of their homes, some with their napkins still tucked into their collars. Children were crying—adults, too—and a babble of voices rose higher and higher. Lanterns came on outside the homes and shops, turning evening into daylight as if for a fiesta, Christmas or Lieutenant Martin's birthday.

This is a hoax. Something they cooked up before James went out.

The thought still echoed in his mind and he stood paralyzed by doubt. The sense of being the butt of some military joke brought a flush to his cheeks, he could feel the warmth of it.

No. James was a careful planner and a considerate man. If he had something like this in mind surely James would have discussed it with him. Suddenly he felt a horror more real than his own embarrassment, more immediate than the terrible knowledge that everyone would be looking to him to do something.

Eventually, a panicked corner of his mind screamed. This is real! Seven-Deer is coming. Joseph thought of his wife and daughters. He'll kill us all.

He looked around.

"Enrique, Hernando, Susan," he said, beckoning to the three. "Gather up all the tools you can find that might be used to chip off this rock. Consuela, Perdita, Joan, put together some teams to organize an evacuation . . ."

Joseph's mind clicked into another level of awareness, wherein he organized and ordered even as another part of his mind made plans. Men and women flew to undertake the tasks he assigned them and there was room for pride in his busy mind.

We'll be all right, he assured himself. If we can just hang on, like this, we're going to be fine.


"Unngghh! This, ungh, is, ungh, ri-dic-ulous." Pasqua continued applying pressure to the lever planted under the boulder James had selected even as she protested.

"This won't, unngghh, slow them down by more than a couple of hours." The huge stone was rocking and she expected it to give momentarily.

"Keep pushing," James said, heaving on the lever beside her.

Slowly, almost with grace, the boulder toppled to the sound of pebbles cracking under its great weight. Then faster and faster it roared down the slope, slapping tons of loose dirt and smaller stones free from the slope to accompany it down to the road. Dust rose in a choking cloud, and bits of vegetation were thrown back at them with the dirt.

Pasqua stood panting, her hands on her knees as she watched it. Then she straightened and wiped the sweat from her face with her sleeve and sneezed. She'd never worked this hard in her life. They'd already cut down two massive trees with James's flex-saw.

When he'd handed her one of the toggles at the end of the durachrome coil of toothed wire she'd been astonished.

"Where'd you get this?" she asked, wondering who her competitor was.

"Part of my mother's kit," he'd answered calmly. "You ready?"

And suddenly she was a lumberjack.

She didn't know how long she could keep this up. There'd been nothing to eat for two days now and she was thirsty beyond belief. Her lips were cracking and her head ached terribly. Pasqua shot a glance at James. He was gray-faced, his jaw slack, he sat with his hands limp beside him, drawing in great gulps of air. If she was hurting, he must be half-dead. She frowned, ashamed of her selfishness and moved to pity by James's condition and to admiration for his uncomplaining strength.

He'll kill himself if I don't stop him. She wondered who the hell his mother had been.

Then she cursed herself mentally. "Heroes live short lives," her father used to say, with a snake cold smile implying the brevity was deserved. And that he'd implemented Fate's sentence himself fairly often.

I should leave them, she scolded herself. They're going to get themselves killed.

All she had to do was get across the valley and out again. Seven-Deer hadn't indicated any particular ambitions beyond taking Cacaxtla. Even if he chose to hunt her down he wouldn't be able to until he'd subdued these people.

Which won't be easy, she thought, stealing another glance at James and levering herself painfully back to her feet. Paulo scooted closer to his father, looking worried, and she closed her eyes at the expression on his face.

"We'd better get moving," she said through clenched teeth. "The noise and the dust are going to bring the Nahuatl Strength Through Joy brigade running."

James nodded, exhausted, and heaved himself to his feet, one trembling hand lifted to his forehead. Then he put his arm around Paulo's slim shoulders and let his son lead him away.


Seven-Deer trembled with rage as he stood on the worn surface of the road. Gullies and undergrowth creeping over the ancient pavement were bad enough.

Another road block. And the perpetrators gone like smoke. He drew in a deep breath and held it, while his dark eyes blazed like fire.

"Find them!" he roared and his hand flashed out, pointing to two captains of fifteen. "GO!"

The men turned and vanished into the trees, their squads leaping after them. They disappeared at a steady ground-devouring lope, fanning out until they were lost among the trees and brush.

Seven-Deer watched them go, fury bringing a slaver of foam to his lips. And underneath, inching its way to the surface, as a snake works its way up from the underworld, fear crawled. He cast his eyes over the slaves that labored on the road, dragging boulders and baskets of dirt away.

There. That one was taller than the rest, and despite hunger and days of dragging the gun he still looked fit. Seven-Deer motioned to the feather-decked priests behind him.

"We will send a messenger," he told them. "I fear we have offended Tezcatlipoca and I would win his favor again."

He watched the priests move off to gather up the sacrifice, then turned his eyes to the surrounding cliffs. Not wondering at the fact of resistance, but at the curious weakness of it.


James struggled to speak, to report on their most recent delaying tactic, a pile of brush they'd heaped in the center of the road and set on fire. He'd envisioned it much larger, but Pasqua and Paulo hadn't been able to drag the enormous limbs needed into the road. As for himself, he could barely lift a hand. Hell . . . I can hardly talk.

Suddenly the helmet was lifted off his head. The cool air and the sense of space around him made his head spin. "Hey!" he snapped.

"Take a break, soldier," Pasqua sneered.

"Dad, I found a spring. Here."

And there was the canteen at his lips. He pawed at it eagerly, too weak to support it himself, sucking down the icy cold liquid. The tissues of his mouth seemed to expand and his throat felt more like flesh than rock once again. It almost hurt to drink, but he kept on.

Paulo held the canteen for his father and looked him over critically. This is it, he thought. Dad can't do any more. Unformed lay the thought, I won't sacrifice him. The village meant nothing if his father didn't survive. He glanced over at Pasqua who was walking off a ways, the helmet in her hand. I can't believe she's still with us. Y'can tell she'd rather be anywhere else.

Though he didn't much like her, Paulo was grateful that she'd stayed. He swallowed convulsively at the thought of being alone, nobody to help his father but himself.

Pasqua drifted out of earshot of the man and boy and, with a moue of distaste, put the helmet on. It was a standard model, as expected, and she quickly activated it.

"Listen up," she snarled. "We've bought you all the time we can. Martins is injured and the boy and I are exhausted. Seven-Deer's about two miles from the old lava flow. What they'll do when they get there is anybody's guess. But he is coming and we can't stop him."

"Who the hell is this?" Tops demanded.

"Name's Pasqua. I'm that escaped prisoner Martins told you about."

There was a pause, then: "How bad is he?"

"He's concussed and has been for at least three days—I think he hit his head again after the first injury. He can't really see, his vision's doubled, and we haven't been getting enough water. And we haven't eaten for two days." And then it was rotten fruit.

"How's Paulo?"

"Spunky, doing a grownup's job, but wiped out. We're coming in." She could feel her face settle into grim determined lines. An expression few people would argue with. Pity he can't see it, she thought.

"We're evacuating the village," Tops said. "By the time you get here the noncombatants will be hiding out in the hills. Tell James they're hiding by the thermal pool." Tops paused, then asked: "Is he . . . able to . . . is he coherent?"

"Yes. Or has been. But right now he's dangerously exhausted for a man in his condition."

"Okay," Tops's mind was working overtime. "Listen, there's a cave a half mile from the old lava flow. It's well hidden and there's even a small cache of emergency rations. It's a good place to rest. Can he make it that far?"

Two and a half miles? Pasqua chewed her lower lip. Not bloody likely. Part of the problem was they were starving. James especially would need the food before he could make the walk.

"No," she said aloud. "But if I can retrieve those supplies, maybe."

Tops gave her directions, hoping she was the kind of person who could visualize what he was describing. He made her repeat them until he was satisfied and she was obviously annoyed.

"I'll contact you when I've got something to report," she said tartly and broke contact.

"You do that, honey," Tops muttered unhappily. He sighed deeply, rose and began to climb from the Bolo's innards, reluctantly about to add to Joseph's burdens.


The cave was almost cozy; five feet by ten, a volcanic bubble in the dark basaltic lava of the ridges that surrounded the valley. With the radiant heater and thermal-film blankets in the cache—more Old American stuff—it was even comfortable, compared to what she'd been going through lately.

"You need more rest," she said to James.

"We need more time, but we haven't got it," he said.

Reluctantly she nodded; he was well enough to see that, at least. "Yeah, that was them at the spring." Not while she was there, thank God, but who else would leave a flake of volcanic glass? Even after the Collapse, most people didn't make knives out of obsidian; they hammered them out of old car springs or rebar, like sensible people. Besides, the urge to spy on the gun convoy ate at her like acid, and she knew better than to press her luck that far.

James's sight was working its way back to normal, though his vision was still poor, and the headache was bearable. He felt almost cheerful.

"Let's set up a nice little booby-trap for them," he suggested. "It might make 'em a little slower to follow us."

Pasqua grinned. "Or that much more eager. Remember, we're not dealing with normal people here."

"Well, I think it's a good idea," Paulo said defiantly, tired of the way Pasqua always seemed to disparage his father's notions.

"It is," Pasqua said holding her hands out, still smiling. "I was just making an observation."

"We'll set it up like we're still here," James said. "Son, you can make up dummies and put one of the thermal-film blankets over them. We'll scatter some of the empty packets around and maybe leave a small fire smoldering . . ."

"You're an artist," Pasqua said.

"Thank you, ma'am. Got it from my mom."

"She sounds like an interesting lady," Pasqua said. "Wish I could have met her."

James turned and looked at her for a moment, blinking and squinting. "You know, lady, I think you and she would have gotten along fine . . . or one of you would have gotten killed."

Pasqua chuckled, looking around the cave with a considering eye. Damn! Why am I feeling so good? It wasn't as if this was a pleasure cruise up the Mississippi to pay a social call on the Despot of Natchez and get in a little roulette, after all. But she felt more cheerful than she had in years.

James went on: "Um. I can't do the close work on setting up the explosives, Pasqua, but I can talk you through it. There's nothing to be afraid of, we're not going to be doing anything too radical." Not with the materials we've got anyway.

"Pphhh! Teach your grandmother to suck eggs," she said. "I'll tell you how to set a booby trap."

She plucked one of the grenades from his utility belt and held it up.

"What would really be great is if we had some plastique to wrap around this little darling. There's nothing like a little MDX," she said wistfully. "Gives it a nice explosive bonus. I remember one time, Guido gift-wrapped a grenade that way and planted it under this guy's car seat—he'd been muscling in on Giacano territory over in the Atacha. BLAMMO! That sucker went off like an ejector seat, right through the roof of his car and he didn't have a sun roof until that moment."

She smiled nostalgically. "Anyway, getting down to business. You anchor one end of a wire, thread's no good—breaks too easy—about two inches above the ground, right in the path of your target. You attach the other end to the pull ring. Then, you tease these little flanges open, juuust enough to loosen the pin, but tight enough so that it won't fall out, then . . ."

Pasqua continued to describe the proper method of setting a man-killing trap wearing the happy, innocent expression of a woman explaining her favorite recipe.

She was about to conclude with one of Guido's favorite expressions, And den ya watch da pieces fly upward, when she noticed their faces. Both their jaws had dropped and their eyes stared unblinking at her.

Uh oh. "Y'know," she chirped, "I never noticed before how much alike you guys look. Paulo, you're going to grow up to be just as handsome as your father."

They both blushed, glanced at each other, then looked away, turning their attention to preparing the campsite.

Whew! she thought. I've got to watch my big mouth.


The fire in Water-Monster's wounded mouth burned as hot as the fire in his heart each time he thought of his shame at allowing the servant of the Sun to escape. A shame his whole squad shared, but blamed exclusively on him. He could barely speak with his tongue so swollen, and the frown of confusion on his second's face drove him to fury.

"Th tacka! Ya ool. Wa da th tacka ay?"

"Captain," the second's eyes slid rapidly north and south as he desperately tried to decipher Water-Monster's lispings. Inspiration struck before the Captain did.

"The tracker's have found a definite trail leading from a small spring to a cave a half mile away, lord."

Water-Monster's smile of pleasure was like a spurt of venom.

"Ooh ow!" he bellowed.

The second's brows went up and he gritted his teeth, as behind the Captain's back he frantically signalled the puzzled troops to move out as commanded.


They approached the cave with caution, ghosting through the twilight, moving as silently as the jaguar from whom they took their name despite the steep slope and the loose volcanic scree underfoot. It was quiet. Birds and insects stilled their cries in alarm as the men passed.

Water-Monster frowned. It was possible that cave was deserted; their quarry might have rested and gone. The tracker had stated that the trail he followed was at least a day old. His nose flared. Yes, the unmistakable scent of woodsmoke. Their quarry had grown careless, building a fire that was too large and not made of thoroughly dry wood. His eyes scanned. Yes, a trace of smoke rising dark against the dark stone of the cliff ahead.

Suddenly his second was beside him whispering.

"There are three, Captain, sleeping near a small fire."

Water-Monster's heart leapt. "A ga?" he asked.

"No, lord, no guard." The second smiled too, pleased at the ease of capture.

Water-Monster moved up to where the foremost of his troops were and looked into the cave. He could see three humped shapes behind a very smokey fire. How can they stand it? he wondered. Down in the lowlands, it might have been a smudge fire to drive off mosquitos. But why here, in these cold uplands? He gestured four of his men to move up and into the cave.

They moved forward with exaggerated care, around piles of leaves and other debris, delicately placing their feet on the few spots of bare ground. They entered the cave like shadows, hugging its walls as they moved towards the sleepers.

When they were well inside Water-Monster rose and followed them. Striding arrogantly through brittle leaves and crackling brush he anticipated their quarry's horror when the noise of his passage woke them and they stared up into the implacable faces of his warriors.

This pleasant image accompanied him to the underworld as the grenade beneath his feet went off, shredding his body before he could even cry out. The impact was less on the men farthest from him. They were able to scream again and again as ricocheting fragments of rock and metal tore through them.

Water-Monster's second and two others came running, peering into the smoking interior of the cave just in time to receive the full blast of the second grenade, set to go off five seconds after the first.


"Do you think it worked?" Paulo asked for perhaps the hundredth time, as they lurched down the slope.

James looked wearily down at his son, who was gazing adoringly up at Pasqua. He stifled a spurt of jealousy. Ever since she'd allowed Paulo to help her set the booby trap for Seven-Deer's troops the boy's attitude towards her had changed drastically. I always thought I'd be the one to teach you the "arts of war" as Mom used to call 'em. He sighed and Paulo looked up at him. James's eyesight had improved to the point where he could read the worry in his face.

"It's nothing, son. I was just thinking about how you're growing up."

Paulo looked puzzled, and cocked his head dubiously, as though wondering where that had come from.

"You have grown, you know," Pasqua said. "An experience like this changes you." She made herself stop talking before she annoyed everybody, including herself.

They turned a corner. She stopped with an involuntary gasp. Both the others looked at her.

"It's beautiful," she said.

The valley was like a bowl—a bowl with a broken rim, a rim of forested hills, rising to one tall volcanic peak to the west. Rivers ran through it, silver in the evening light. Fields were squares of color, like a quilt ranging from yellow-gold wheat through infinite shades of green, from pasture to orchards and patches of woodlot. Tile-roofed, whitewashed houses stood scattered amid the fields; a larger clump made the village, around the open plaza and the vine-grown shape of the pyramid; the gardens and trees were splashes of color dividing the buildings. The scene breathed peace to her, like something from before the Collapse—long before.

A second look revealed things even more unusual than the undisturbed pastoral scene.

"You've got a power grid!" she said.

"Well, of course," Paulo said. "We're not savages."

James smiled. "Geothermal," he said. "Enough for essentials."

Pasqua nodded soberly, impressed. The Duchy was wealthy, but there was little electricity there outside the houses of the Family and the caporegime and consigliere class. This was something out of the ordinary, and to find it here, lost in the mountains . . .

"The thermal springs are there," James said, pointing.


"Unca Jamie!" a child shrieked.

Pasqua jumped and her brows went up as a little yellow-dressed, dark-haired cannonball slammed into James, nearly knocking him off his feet.

"Pick me up! Pick me up!" the little girl shouted and James stooped to comply.

"This is my niece, Catherine," he said as the little girl rained kisses on his cheek. She turned to gaze at Pasqua with bright eyes.

"Hi," Pasqua said.

"Are you a fairy princess?" Catherine asked seriously.

"Uh, no." Mafia princess maybe. Pasqua couldn't help smiling at the little girl. It was nice to be asked.

"Captain!" A man in a camouflage uniform emerged from the trees, relief writ large on his homely face. "Good to see you sir."

"Good to see you too, Zapota. How's it going?"

"Well, sir. Everyone's bivouacked around the old thermal pool and the work in town is progressing." His eyes flicked to Pasqua and back to the Captain.

Introductions followed; they turned a corner on the well-graveled road, past an old but well-maintained blockhouse, and into a clump of whitewashed houses. The smell of roasting meat drifted by, and Pasqua heard her stomach growl.

"I want to eat, I want to bathe, I want to sleep."

"No problem," Zapota said smiling. "My little helper there can guide you."

"This way!" Catherine shouted, pointing imperiously. James winced slightly as she tugged at his hair, but he was smiling as he followed the chubby finger.


Pasqua wiped the sweat from her forehead and chin with the end of her scarf, then looked wryly at her battered hands. This was far more like honest labor than anything she'd ever done before, and while the experience was interesting she couldn't see making a habit of it. It was a bit of a consolation that so many others were doing exactly the same work, but not much.

Getting this damn pumice off the damn tank is practically a war in itself. The Family had a couple of Mark II's in storage, but they were no preparation for the sheer size of this thing. It was difficult to convince your emotions that this was a machine, not part of the landscape.

A familiar voice caught her attention and she looked down. Far below her James conferred with his brother, the Jefe of the village. She smiled slightly. A few days rest and some food had put him back on his feet and she had to admit, he was pretty. Pretty impressive, and just pretty. Straight features, olive tan, white teeth when he smiled, level brown eyes. Nice butt, too, she decided, then reflected that a couple of days rest and food had done her a world of good, too.

"Yes, it's an assumption," James said. "But it's an educated guess. The gun was a prototype, they can't have much in the way of ammunition for it. Which means that we need that wall around the village."

It was a mere palisade, constructed of raw trees and fence posts, but better than the nothing they'd started with. Joseph had fought them over every inch of it.

"If we get the Bolo up and running the wall is irrelevant," Joseph insisted. "That's where we should concentrate our efforts."

James turned and stared at him. "I've said it before, I'll say it again. One lucky shot and we don't have a Bolo." The two men glared at each other. "We're building the wall." James stalked off, leaving civilian authority stymied and enraged behind him.

Pasqua's eyes met Tops's where he was engaged in a more delicate bit of chipping around the Bolo's infinite repeater ports. She smiled ruefully, "I'll bet the old girl loves to hear stuff like that," she said.

Tops chuckled. "It doesn't mind," he said. "Markee, you don't take that kinda talk personally do you?"

"The Captain has made an accurate evaluation of our situation, Sergeant Jenkins. If I were capable of taking offense I cannot imagine why the truth should cause it."

"Be nice if people were that reasonable," Pasqua said.

"Sergeant," the Bolo interrupted. "I have received a report from our scouts on the valley's perimeter. Seven-Deer is over the barrier. If he continues at this rate he should be here in two days."

Fear rang like a silver bell, shrill and cold along her nerve endings.

"Damn," Tops swore. "How'd they get through the lava so fast? Must be thirty, fifty feet thick."

"Hypervelocity shot, sergeant. They have expended three rounds."

Pasqua redoubled the speed of her chipping.


Seven-Deer gazed down from the pass at the village of Cacaxtla and sneered at the pathetic palisade that now surrounded it.

It was a flimsy thing, backed by earth only in places. The great gun would sweep it aside like an anthill. His eyes lifted to where, in the center of the Plaza, the Mountain That Walks was partially visible behind the buildings that surrounded it. It sat like a spider in its web. He squinted; attendants crawled over the spider's great body, doing things he couldn't discern at this distance.

It is useless anyway, he thought smugly, whatever you are doing. Soon your blood shall slake Tezcatlipoca and Xipe Totec's thirst. A huge grin split his face. Tomorrow at dawn they would wheel the great gun into place and destroy the Mountain That Walks. And then . . .

Ah, revenge is so sweet that even anticipating it is pleasure. The evening breeze lifted his hair and he inhaled deeply of its freshness.

He turned back to his campsite; where screams indicated that they had begun to slaughter the slaves, lest their great numbers prove an inconvenience in the morning. Besides, his men were hungry. The gods would take the blood and hearts that were their due, and the Sun People the remainder.

And Seven-Deer had always preferred liver, in any case. Grilled over an open fire, with some chilies and wild onions . . . delicious.

* * *

That the attack would come in the morning everyone knew, with an instinct as sure as that which told them the sun would rise.

Pasqua tossed and turned on her pallet in the women's great tent. She'd been put in with the combatants; those with young children were still up by the thermal springs. It was a compliment, in a way. It hadn't even occurred to anyone that she wanted to run. Finally she rose—exasperated and exhausted—but with energy thrumming through her body like a low voltage electrocution.

She slipped from the tent and the camp with no one the wiser, heading for the village and the command center, through the chill night. Sentries were no problem; one of them was smoking as he walked his rounds. Simply freezing in place was enough to send them on their way regardless.

Jeeze, she thought, if he wanted to, Seven-Deer could cut every throat in camp and nobody'd notice.

These people were so good, so kind and wholesome. And so bloody helpless! It's going to be a slaughter in the morning. Maybe that wasn't fair. James was one tough hombre, if he was more typical than his brother . . .

When did you ever see a place where the Jameses outnumbered the Josephs? she sneered.

She stopped just outside the palisade, her palms sweating, heart beating frantically.

I should run, she told herself. I should grab some food and a canteen and get the hell out of here. Staying was suicide. No sensible person would place themselves in danger for the benefit of strangers. She could picture the weary, disgusted look in her father's eyes if he but knew, and blushed with shame.

She frowned. But he doesn't know. And Paulo and James are hardly strangers. More importantly, their danger is my fault. She squared her shoulders and stepped forward.

"Alto! Who goes there?"

"A friend," she said. "Take me to Captain Martins."

* * *

"You what?"

James' cry echoed back from the plastered walls of the room; from the looks of it, it had been his living room before the emergency. Maps and documents covered everything now, except a charcoal portrait of a smiling dark-haired woman. Paulo's mother, I suppose, Pasqua thought.

She held her hands up placatingly. "We owned the gun, but he stole it from us," she insisted.

"But you were going to sell it to him. Isn't that right?"

She put her hands on her hips and bit her lip, closing her eyes to avoid his.

"We were arms dealers. Yes—we would have sold it to him. Just as we would have sold it to you."

"But he is an insane mass murderer bent on conquest and bloodshed, while we are farmers who only want to live and work in peace." James glared at her.

"Well," she said, still not meeting his eyes. "Arms dealers are known for their flexible attitude and lack of curiosity about end-use intentions."

He turned from her with a sound of disgust and Pasqua thanked heaven that she'd asked to see him alone. If the others were here I'd be dancing at the end of a rope by now.

He ran his hands through his hair. "Why are you telling me now?" he asked, with his back to her.

She pressed her lips into a tight line, then forced herself to speak calmly. "He fired off a shot to test the gun the day he stole it. I think it's probable that he used it to clear the road when he got to the lava flow—the Bolo thinks so, too. Three shots should have been enough. Which leaves him with eight."

He turned and slumped into his chair, then he glanced at her guilty face. "It would have saved some arguing with my brother if I'd known that," he muttered sardonically. "It's nice to know that his resources are limited, but otherwise . . ." He made a gesture implying the irrelevance of the information.

"Know your enemy," she quoted.

"Yeah," he said narrowing his eyes. "Sometimes it's a little hard to identify 'em at first."

"I'm not your enemy," she said through gritted teeth. "I just wanted to make a clean breast of things."

"I look like a priest to you?"

"Dammit, James! I want to help."

"Oh you will, lady. You're going to be right by my side when Seven-Deer and his men come pouring over the hill. For now," he said rising and taking her arm, "go and get some rest."

"I'm sorry," she said impulsively. "I am so sorry."

He smiled tiredly. "Sometimes you can find absolution under fire. My mother used to say that."


The remaining fifty slaves and even some of the Jaguar Knights heaved on ropes fed through massive pulleys anchored to huge posts they'd driven into the ground. The slaves, though few, were the strongest and their will to live was evident in the way they struggled to pull the great gun to the top of the ridge. The balloon tyres turned slowly, inch by inch, dragging the weight of synthetic and metal forward. The turbogenerator whined, burning the last of their cane-spirit and pumping the capacitor full of energy.

Seven-Deer smiled benignly. He had ordered the slaves whipped, and the Jaguar Knights assisting them, so that their blood might be a gift to Tezcatlipoca, earning his good will. When the gun was in place, the rest of the slaves would be destroyed.

"Pull!" he shouted. "Bring forth the instrument of our vengeance so that our enemies' hearts may rot within them. Know, my people, that this dawn will be our enemies' last!"

The Jaguar Knights cried out in exultation, and smiling at their acclamation, Seven-Deer turned and stood with his arms crossed on his breast, legs apart, his head high and a smile of victory already brightening his face.


The railgun rose over the hill, haloed by the rising sun. The long thin tube, bracketed by the two rails looked unimaginably strange as it seemed to pierce the ball of the sun.

"Does that thing have a body?" one of the men asked.

"Jeeze, Hernando, I thought you said you had the biggest equipment around," a woman commented to general laughter.

James powered up his helmet. "Tops," he said, "can the Bolo tell where that thing is going to hit?"

"You'll have to ask the Beast that," Tops answered. "It knows what it can see."

James scowled, he didn't like talking to the Bolo. "Markee, can you see where they're aiming?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Can you advise us in time for us to move out of the way?"

"Negative, Captain. The XM-17's aiming system is very simple to operate, a target can be obtained in seconds. I believe there would be insufficient time for humans to react to my warnings."

"We needn't stand on the wall while they're shooting," Pasqua said. "I'd stake my life on it that they won't come down here until the Bolo's out of commission."

He turned to look at her. Her eyes slid away from her reflection on his faceplate's opaque surface.

"Good suggestion," he said. "Unit push. Stand down from the wall. They probably won't charge until and unless the Bolo's destroyed. No sense in risking our necks for nothing. Fall back to the first row of houses, take shelter in the basements. Avoid the ones between the gun and the Bolo; I think we can assume they'll be casualties."

James held his position and Pasqua stayed beside him as she'd promised Paulo.

"If I can't be there you have to be," he'd insisted fiercely. He'd met her just outside the women's tent in the blue-grey light just before dawn. "Dad's making me stay here," Paulo muttered resentfully. "He needs someone to watch his back." He'd glared at her then, dark eyes glittering with unshed tears, silently demanding her word.

"I'll do it," she'd said simply and he'd nodded once and walked away.

"It isn't necessary for you to stay," James said quietly.

"I want to see."

They turned and trotted back, through the vegetable gardens and the flowers, into the courtyard of a building and down into the cellar. Above was a distillery; the fruity-sugar smell of rum was strong from the wooden vats behind them. As one, they stepped up to a shelf that gave them a view through the narrow ground-level windows.

After that they were silent. Their bodies tense as drawn wire, the mounting horror of the giant gun being brought into position bearing down on them like a physical weight.

"Tops, how's it going?" James asked suddenly, breaking the long silence.

Tops paused; they could hear a rasping sound as he raised his visor and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

"I've got the infinite repeater ports clear," he reported. "The Bolo says it can use 'em. But," he paused and licked dry lips, "it can't turn and it can't walk. And you'll have noticed, sir, that bastard's comin' up from behind."

"Thanks, Tops. Martins out." James turned back towards the ridge and found himself staring into the barrel of the railgun. "Shit!" he snarled and grabbing Pasqua around the waist, dove from the wall just before it disintegrated.

The impact of the blast knocked the breath from their bodies and carried them for yards, before the giant, invisible fist that had smacked into them allowed them to fall. Dirt and fragments of wood pummeled them where they lay, writhing as their stunned lungs refused to take in air. Beams sagged into the cellar as the endless rumble of falling stone from above avalanched down.

At last, with a painful spasm, James was able to draw breath, only to cough uncontrollably as he inhaled the dust that was still settling around them. Pasqua gasped and began hacking a moment later.

"Tops," James croaked, "what's happening?"

"Oh, thank God," Tops said. "I thought you were dead for sure, sir. They're dancing around and slapping themselves on the head up there, yellin' and singin' from the sound of it."

The buzzing in James's ears was fading and he could indeed hear, very faintly, what sounded like singing.

"It would be really nice if Markee could return the favor," James prompted.

"Workin' on it, Captain."


Yeah, workin' on it, Tops thought as he and his crew hammered desperately at rock that had flowed deeply into the Bolo's crevices, freezing it in its current position. Why didn't we do something about this before?

He knew the answer, of course. They didn't want to admit that a day like this would come. I'm as spoiled as any of the kids who were born here, he castigated himself. Only I don't have an excuse, because I knew better than to believe we were safe.

Somewhere behind him a house rose like a flock of startled birds, broke apart in midair and fell into a pile of rubble. The shockwave smacked his ears painfully and he felt the heat of the blast on his skin, though the explosion was a quarter of a mile behind him.

He hammered, they all hammered and prayed that they'd free the Beast in time.


Seven-Deer's joy was like a swelling sun in his chest. He grinned as the wall blew apart and the first row of houses disintegrated. Fire began to spread from the demolished buildings and he was certain that they had killed at least two of the defenders.

Tezcatlipoca, he prayed, such sacrifices I shall give you! The ground will flow with a river of blood, all offered for your pleasure.

Carefully he aligned the red dot on the next row of targets, the last row of buildings between the gun and the Mountain That Walks.

"Soon," he crooned softly. "Soon you will die, monster."


James levered a beam aside. They both stuck their heads through, coughing at the thick smoke that was beginning to spread. He stared up the slope, through the ruins of his town at the gun that was tearing his world apart. He looked at Pasqua, prepared to hate her, only to find a pitifully shaken woman. Her green eyes were wide with shock and horror, pale lips trembling.

"I swear to God," she said, "I will never sell another gun as long as I live."

"Better late than never," he muttered.

The ground quaked as another shot hit home. Anything solid enough to slow the ultradense material of the penetrator caused it to give up every erg of energy it possessed . . . and at those speeds, the kinetic force involved was huge. More buildings fell. The dust and smoke made it as hard to see as it was to breathe, but James knew that the Bolo was now fully exposed to Seven-Deer's gun.

There seemed to be a long breathless pause. No sound of triumph came from the ridge. Only the clatter of settling rubble or the sound of flames taking root in the houses around them was to be heard in the town.

Pasqua found James's hands with her own and he clasped them, pressing them to his chest as they watched the distant figures on the hill. They were fanning out, shaking themselves out into combat formations and coming down.

Seven-Deer didn't seem to think there would be much resistance. James wished he didn't agree.


"Sergeant," the Bolo said in its incongruously sweet voice. "You and the rest of the crew should seek shelter now. The enemy is targeting this unit."

Tops glanced behind him and froze. All that stood between him and the tank killer was an impenetrable cloud of dust.

He stood and shouted. "Everybody off the Bolo, get to cover!" Then he leaped himself, wincing at the pain in his ankles and knees as he struck the paving stones. Long time since he'd done that. It didn't stop him running as fast as he could; men and women dropped their tools and scrambled down the sides of the tank, moving with desperate speed around him.

A bolt pierced the drifting cloud of smoke and dirt. Far too fast to see, but the incandescent track it drilled through air and dust was solid as a bar for an instant, burning a streak across his retinas.

A flash like a dozen bolts of lightning burned through his closed eyelids and upraised hand. Heat slapped at his face, as the hypervelocity shot liberated all its energy. A plasma bloom of vaporized uranium and durachrome washed halfway across the plaza, burning everything it touched to ash. A hundred and fifty tons of war machine rocked with the blow, surging backward on maglev suspension, wheeling in a three-quarter circle as the off-center impact torqued against the enormous weight of the Bolo. Lava stone fell from her sides like rain and clouds of electric sparks burst from her.

Tops rolled to a halt in the shadow of a house and turned to watch, sick with dread.

But the Bolo was not shattered. A disk twelve feet broad on its surface was clean, polished as if by a generation of sandblasters to a mirror finish. The rest of it looked different too; it took a moment for his blast-stunned mind to grasp why.


Pasqua leveled her M-35 and stroked the trigger. Braaaap. The 4mm slugs whipped away downrange. A Jaguar Knight tumbled; perhaps her fire, perhaps someone else. She spat aside to clear her mouth of some of the gritty dust and blinked at the rubble and smoke before her.

"It's been good to know you!" she shouted over the noise.

James nodded without looking around. Mortar shells began dropping on the rubble at the edge of Cacaxtla; the Knights had their heavy weapons in operation.


Move, baby, Tops thought. Move!

He held his breath and watched the huge machine. Under the impact of the railgun shot the whole surface of the durachrome armor had flexed. The lava that had covered it was gone, blasted away in molecular dust, coating the plaza stones for hundreds of yards in all directions.

But there were also electrical fires on the Bolo's surface, and the bright dished spot in the armor glowed, the heat cycling down from white towards a sullen red.

Move. he thought as despair washed over him, along with the conviction that the Bolo was dead.

"Markee!" he shouted. And waited. No answer.

But in the silence the sound of shouting men grew, and he didn't need the Captain's voice to tell him what was happening.

"They're coming!"


The Jaguar Knights pounded down the hill, literally screaming for blood. James Martins fired again and again, but he could feel the small hairs along his spine lifting at the sound of their gleeful shrieks.

Pasqua envied him his preoccupation, as he snapped out orders and offered encouragement. She could only kneel dry-mouthed clutching her M-35 and watching death come bellowing down the hill after her.

"All right, aim and shoot, aim and shoot, people." James said. I wonder how many of us will be able to aim today. They'd all been hunting, most were pretty good shots, but they hadn't been firing on men. Or under the stress of attack, with our houses burning behind us.

"Damn," he said.

"What?" Pasqua said.

James tapped the side of his helmet. "They're not just charging in. Mortar teams moving forward, and they're swinging around to flank us. We've only got about twenty assault rifles, and not all that much ammunition. They've got two hundred. The rest of us . . ."

Not far off, a Cacaxtlan raised her rifle and fired over a hill of rubble. Grey-white smoke jetted out, marking her position; she rolled down the rubble as bullets spanged and sparked off the spot she'd been occupying, struggling with the lever of her weapon. It gave, and a brass cartridge popped out. She fumbled another free of the bandolier across her chest, and thumbed it home into the breech. Another smack of the lever closed it, and she began to crawl toward another pile of broken stone.

"We don't have the firepower to stop them. Down!"

He caught Pasqua and flattened himself. A mortar landed not ten yards away, and fragments whined viciously about them. Their strained faces were inches apart, and James opened his mouth to speak.

An earsplitting scream of tortured metal stopped the words. Something made the earth shake beneath them, an endless droning, creaking rumble. Time slowed. Pitching and swaying with the uneven stress of advancing on three treads, the Bolo surged forward to fill the gap in the center of the villagers' line. Rock crackled beneath it, louder than gunshots; rock crunched and bled out of its road wheels.

Many of the villagers screamed at the sounds and spun 'round with their M-35's levelled at the Bolo, only to start laughing as the Bolo swept towards them, moving to fill the gap in the gate.


Seven-Deer screamed hatred as the Bolo moved across the holographic sight-image.

"I killed you!" he shouted. "I will kill you again, and again!"

His hands gripped the control yoke. His thumbs stabbed down on the firing button.


Status: weapons 27%, sensors 38% Severe degradation of function due to kinetic-energy round impact. Power reserves 64% Forward sensors at 3% optimum. 51% of drive units inoperable due to surge overload. Main data processors secure. Infinite repeaters nominal. Main armament nominal.

Mission priorities: fire support to Cacaxtla forces defending position; as per, orders, Martin, Lieutenant Bethany, 01/07/2040.

Threat envelope: enemy infantry, small arms.

enemy infantry, mortars.

enemy antitank gun, towed, manned.

[decision tree]: priority. Query.

Query: continue fire support mission/interrupt.

[decision tree]: maintain unit integrity/vital assigned mission parameters.

Priority: threats to unit integrity. Threat is antitank gun.

distance/bearing/wind factors/weapons selection/status

[decision tree]: main gun.

Bearing. Fire as you bear.


Enemy damage assessment.

[decision tree]: resume fire support mission.

The process had taken quite a long time; Unit #27A22245, Mk III, was in grossly suboptimal condition. Fully 1.27 seconds elapsed before the coils energizing the Bolo's main gun activated.


James and Pasqua stood, the muzzles of their rifles drooping earthward as they watched the fireball climbing into the sky as Seven-Deer met the Sun. The flash made their eyes wince and water, but they could already see that nothing remained of the railgun—nothing remained of the ridge, either; there was a great big semicircle taken out of it, like a bite. The muzzle of the Bolo's long main cannon throbbed blue-white, a deep humming through the air as it cooled.

For a moment silence fell over the battlefield, broken only by the crackling flames and the screams of wounded humans. Then another tortured squeal of metal came as the Bolo lurched forward. Fire stabbed out from it, and the next flight of mortar bombs exploded in mid-air. The infinite repeaters sounded again and again; smaller globes of fire marked the sites where the mortars had been. Again, and Jaguar Knights exploded into mists of fractionated bone and blood. They threw down their weapons and fled, screaming as loud in terror as they had in bloodlust. Again . . .

James ran forward. "Cease fire!" he shouted. "Cease fire!"

The low sweet voice of the war machine sounded in his ears. "Mission priority is to protect the valley from exterior aggressors, Captain," it said. Men died. "Are my mission parameters to be changed?"

"No! But let them surrender—that's an order, Markee!"

"Yes, Captain."

A voice spoke, louder than a god; James threw his hands to his ears in reflex, shouting with pain even though the cone of sound was directed up the slope. The Voice blasted again, in the guttural choppy sounds of Nahuatl. Then in Spanish, and English.


A Jaguar Knight raised his M-35. For an instant a bar of light seemed to connect him to the Bolo, and then his body splashed away from the contact. All except for his legs; those fell outward, one to the left and one to the right.

The Knight beside him bent and laid his rifle on the ground.

"God," James murmured. He looked around at the town, at the charnel house spread out on the slopes above it. "God."

"Which one?" Pasqua said, coming up beside him.


James found Pasqua watching the celebrations from the shadow of a neighbor's wall. She looked different in a flounced skirt and bodice . . . He handed her a beer and took his place beside her.

"You don't dance?" he said.

She shrugged.

"Are you staying?" he asked, watching the dancers whirl and clap their hands, sweat glistening on happy faces.

Her brows went up and she turned to look at him.

"Would I be welcome?"

James grimaced slightly. "I'm the only one who knows everything and I'd say you'd balanced things out over the last week."

Tell that to Gary, she thought.

"Yeah," he continued, "you'd be welcome. I . . . you'd be welcome, sure."

Beside him she inhaled deeply and straightened. Oh, God, he thought. What's coming now? That was the way she'd looked at the last confession.

"I think you should know that my name is Giacano," she said.

"Instead of Pasqua?"

"I'm Pasqua Giacano," she snarled.

She obviously expects a comment on that, he thought.

"I like it. It's very musical."

She gaped at him. Then a slow smile of took possession of her face, one that she couldn't have suppressed to save herself from torture.

Musical! My relatives started out as extortionists, pimps and murderers. They moved up to slaving and grand-scale tyranny; and this guy thinks my name is musical? She could have hugged him. I could be my own person here! No vile expectations, no fearful gasps of recognition. I won't have to be ashamed of not making my bones.

"If I can stay, I'd like to," she said in a choked voice. "I think I'd like it here."

James shifted into a more comfortable position against the wall and sipped his beer.

"Oh, you will," he assured her confidently. "Hey, let's go punish the buffet—the carne advodada is to die for."

* * *

Tops settled himself on an outcropping in the Bolo's side, a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. In the distance the villagers danced and sang around bonfires in the plaza.

"You did good, Markee," he said.

"Actually, Sergeant Jenkins, I have been derelict in my duty."

He looked up at the Bolo towering over him, his eyebrows raised.

"That's a little harsh for a Bolo that just saved all our asses," he observed.

James and Pasqua passed near him, heading for the buffet with their heads together. Tops smiled and eased the splint around his broken arm more comfortably in the sling. There was something a little strange about Pasqua Giacano . . . but then, you could say that about all of them.

"I'd say you did pretty good," he went on, patting the durachrome beneath him.

"Lieutenant Bethany Martins ordered me to defend the valley from external aggression," it said. "But when the invasion came I was virtually unable to defend myself. I should have recognized my diminished capacity and asked that something be done about it."

"We could have seen it for ourselves, honey."

What the hell, why not surrender to it, this tank's a she.

"I guess we were all just hoping that we'd never need you and kept putting the job off. We'll just have to go on from here." He took a sip of his beer. "And we'll be better prepared next time," he promised grimly.

Paulo was watching him; the boy waved, and ripped off a salute to the Bolo. Behind him, the dance went on.



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