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by David Drake

Making contact with an extraterrestrial would surely be the most significant event in human history, and nothing could be more important. Really? Think again.


David Drake, author of the best-selling Hammer’s Slammers future mercenary series, is often referred to as the Dean of military science fiction, but is much more versatile than that label might suggest, as shown by his epic fantasy series that began with Lord of the Isles (Tor), and his equally popular Republic of Cinnabar Navy series (Baen) starring the indefatigable team of Leary and Mundy. He lives near Chapel Hill, NC, with his family.


Something shrieked over the firebase without dipping below the gray clouds. It was low and fast and sounded so much like an incoming rocket that even the man on Golf Company’s portable latrine flattened instantly. Captain Holtz had knocked over the card table when he hit the dirt. He raised his head above the wreckage in time to see a bright blue flash in the far distance. The crash that rattled the jungle moments later sent everyone scrabbling again.

“Sonic boom,” Major Hegsley, the fat operations officer, pontificated as he levered himself erect.

“The hell you say,” Holtz muttered, poised and listening. “Paider, Bayes,” he grunted at the two platoon leaders starting to pick up their bridge hands, “get to your tracks.”

Then the Klaxon on the tactical operations center blatted and everyone knew Holtz had been right again. The captain kicked aside a lawn chair blocking his way to his command vehicle. The radioman scuttled forward to give his powerful commander room in front of the bank of radios. “Battle six, Battle four-six,” the tanker snapped as he keyed the microphone. “Shoot.” Thirty seconds of concentrated information spat out of the speaker while Holtz crayoned grid coordinates in on an acetate-covered map. “Roger, we’ll get ’em.” Turning to the radioman he ordered, “Second platoon stays for security here—get first and third lined up at the gate and tell Speed I’ll be with him on five-two.” While the enlisted man relayed the orders on the company frequency, Holtz scooped up a holstered .45 and his chicken vest and ran for his tank.

Golf Company was already moving. Most of the drivers had cranked up as soon as they heard the explosion. Within thirty seconds of the Klaxon, the diesels of all nine operable tracks were turning over while the air still slapped with closing breechblocks. Tank 52 jingled as Hauley, its driver, braked the right tread and threw the left in reverse to swing the heavy war machine out of its ready position. Holtz ran up to the left side, snapping his vest closed at the shoulder. He was one of the few men in the squadron who wore a porcelain-armored chicken vest without discomfort, despite its considerably greater weight than the usual nylon flak jacket. In fact, Holtz was built much like one of his tanks. Though he was taller than average, his breadth made him look stocky at a distance and simply gigantic close up. He wore his black hair cropped short, but a thick growth curled down his forearms and up the backs of his hands.

Speed, a weedy, freckled staff sergeant with three years’ combat behind him, grasped his captain by the wrist and helped him swing up on five-two’s battered fender. As frail as he looked, Speed was probably the best track commander in the company. He was due to rotate home for discharge in three days and would normally have been sent to the rear for stand-down a week before. Holtz liked working with an experienced man and had kept him in the field an extra week, but this was Speed’s last day. “You wanna load today, Captain?” he asked with an easy smile. He rocked unconcernedly as Hauley put the tank in gear and sent it into line with a jerk.

Holtz smiled back but shook his head. He always rode in the track commander’s position, although in a contact he could depend on Speed to fight five-two from the loader’s hatch while he directed the company as a whole. Still smiling, the big officer settled heavily onto the hatch cover behind the low-mounted, fifty-caliber machine gun and slipped on his radio helmet.

“OK, listen up,” he said on the company frequency, ignoring commo security as he always did when talking to his unit. He had a serene assurance that his gravelly voice was adequate identification—and that his tanks were a certain answer to any dinks who tried to stop him. His boys were as good and as deadly as any outfit in ‘Nam. “Air Force claims they zapped a bird at high altitude and it wasn’t one of theirs. We’re going to see whose it was and keep Charlie away till C-MEC gets a team out here. Four-four leads, west on the hardball to a trail at Yankee Tango five-seven-two, three-seven-nine; flyboys think the bird went down around seventy-forty, but keep your eyes open all the way—Charlie’s going to be looking too.”

Holtz’s track was second in line with the remaining five tanks of the first and third platoons following in single file. As each one nosed out of the firebase its TC flipped a switch. Electric motors whined to rotate the turrets 30 degrees to one side or the other and lower the muzzles of the 90mm main guns. The big cannons were always loaded, but for safety’s sake they were pointed up in the air except when the tanks prowled empty countryside. Otherwise, at a twitch of the red handle beside each track commander a wall or a crowd of people would dissolve in shattered ruin.

“Well, you think we’re at war with China now?” Holtz shouted to Speed over the high jangle of the treads. “Hell, I told you you didn’t want to go home—what do you bet they nuked Oakland five minutes ago?” Both men laughed.

The path from the firebase to the highway was finely divided muck after three days of use. The tanks, each of them burdened with fifty tons of armor and weaponry, wallowed through it. There was nothing laughable in their awkwardness. Rather, they looked as implacably deadly as tyrannosaurs hunting in a pack. On the asphalt hardball, the seven vehicles accelerated to thirty-five miles an hour, stringing out a little. Four-four had all its left-side torsion bars broken and would not steer a straight line. The tank staggered back and forth across the narrow highway in a series of short zigzags. From the engine gratings on its back deck, a boy with a grenade launcher stared miserably back at the CO’s track while the rough ride pounded his guts to jelly.

Holtz ignored him, letting his eyes flick through the vegetation to both sides of the roadway. Here along the hardball the land was in rubber, but according to the map they would have to approach the downed aircraft through broken jungle. Not the best terrain for armor, but they’d make do. Normally the tanks would have backed up an air search, but low clouds had washed the sky gray. Occasionally Holtz could hear a chopper thrumming somewhere, above him but always invisible. No air support in a contact, that was what it meant. Maybe no medevac either.

Ahead, four-four slowed. The rest of the column ground to a chattering halt behind it. Unintelligible noises hissed through Holtz’s earphones. He cursed and reached down inside the turret to bring his volume up. Noise crackled louder but all sense was smothered out of it by the increased roar of static. Four-four’s TC, Greiler, spoke into the ear of his grenadier. The boy nodded and jumped off the tank, running back to five-two. He was a newbie, only a week or two in the field, and young besides. He clambered up the bow slope of the tank and nervously blurted, “Sir, Chick says he thinks this is the turn-off but he isn’t sure.”

As far as Holtz could tell from the map, the narrow trail beside four-four should be the one they wanted. It led south, at any rate. Hell, if the MiG was what had gone howling over the firebase earlier the flyboys were just guessing for location anyway. The overcast had already been solid and the bird could have fallen anywhere in III Corps for all anybody knew.

“Yeah, we’ll try it,” Holtz said into his helmet mike. No reaction from four-four. “God damn it!” the captain roared, stabbing his left arm out imperiously. Four-four obediently did a neutral steer on the hardball, rotating 90 degrees to the left as the treads spun in opposite directions. Clods of asphalt boiled up as the road’s surface dissolved under incalculable stresses. “Get on the back, son.” Holtz growled at the uncertain newbie. “You’re our crew for now. Speed!” he demanded, “What’s wrong with our goddam radio? It worked OK at the firebase.”

“Isn’t the radio,” Speed reported immediately, speaking into his own helmet microphone. “See, the intercom works, it’s something screwing up off the broadcast freeks. Suppose the dinks are jamming?”

“Crap,” Holtz said.

The trail was a half-abandoned jeep route, never intended for anything the width of a tank. They could shred their way through saplings and the creepers that had slunk across the trail, of course, and their massive rubber track blocks spewed a salad of torn greenery over their fenders. But full-sized trees with trunks a foot or more thick made even the tanks turn: grunting, clattering; engines slowing, then roaring loudly for torque to slue the heavy vehicles. Holtz glanced back at the newbie to see that he was all right. The boy’s steel pot was too large for him. It had tilted forward over his eyebrows, exposing a fuzz of tiny blond hairs on his neck. The kid had to be eighteen or they wouldn’t have let him in the country, Holtz thought, but you sure couldn’t tell it by looking at him.

A branch whanged against Holtz’s own helmet and he turned around. The vegetation itself was a danger as well as a hiding place for unknown numbers of the enemy. More than one tanker had been dusted off with a twig through his eye. There were a lot of nasty surprises for a man rolling through jungle twelve feet in the air. But if you spent all your time watching for branches, you missed the dink crouched in the undergrowth with a rocket launcher—and he’d kill the hell out of you.

Sudden color in the sky ahead. Speed slapped Holtz on the left shoulder, pointing, but the CO had already seen it. The clouds covered the sky in a dismal ceiling no higher than that of a large auditorium. While both men stared, another flash stained the gray momentarily azure. There was no thunder. Too brightly colored for lightning anyway, Holtz thought. The flashes were really blue, not just white reflected from dark clouds.

“That can’t be a klick from here, Chief,” Speed’s voice rattled. Holtz glanced at him. The sergeant’s jungle boots rested on the forward rim of his hatch so that his bony knees poked high in the air. Some people let their feet dangle inside the turret, but Speed had been around too long for that. Armor was great so long as nothing penetrated it. When something did—most often a stream of molten metal blasted by the shaped explosive of a B-41 rocket—it splashed around the inner surface of what had been protection. God help the man inside then. ‘Nam offered enough ways to die without looking for easy ones.

The officer squinted forward, trying to get a better idea of the brief light’s location. Foliage broke the concave mirror of the clouds into a thousand swiftly dancing segments. Five-two was jouncing badly over potholes and major roots that protruded from the coarse, red soil as well.

“Hey,” Speed muttered at a sudden thought. Holtz saw him drop down inside the tank. The earphones crackled as the sergeant switched on the main radio he had disconnected when background noise smothered communications. As he did so, another of the blue flashes lit up the sky. Static smashed through Holtz’s phones like the main gun going off beside his head.

“Jesus Christ!” the big officer roared into the intercom. “You shorted the goddamn thing!”

White noise disappeared as Speed shut off the set again. “No, man,” he protested as he popped his frame, lanky but bulbous in its nylon padding, back through the oval hatch. “That’s not me—it’s the lightning. All I did was turn the set on.”

“That’s not lightning,” Holtz grunted. He shifted his pistol holster slightly so that the butt was handy for immediate use. “Hauley,” he said over the intercom to the driver, “that light’s maybe a hair south of the way we’re headed. If you catch a trail heading off to the left, hold it up for a minute.”

Speed scanned his side of the jungle with a practiced squint. Tendons stood out on his right hand as it gripped the hatch cover against the tank’s erratic lurches. “Good thing the intercom’s on wires,” he remarked. “Otherwise we’d really be up a creek.”

Holtz nodded.

On flat concrete, tanks could get up to forty-five miles an hour, though the ride was spine-shattering if any of the torsion bars were broken. Off-road was another matter. This trail was as straight as what was basically a brush cut could be—did it lead to another section on the plantation that flanked the hardball?—but when it meandered around a heavy tree bole the tanks had to slow to a crawl to follow it. Black exhaust boiled out of the deflector plates serving four-four in place of muffler and tail pipe. The overgrown trail could hide a mine, either an old one long forgotten or a sudden improvisation by a tankkiller team that had heard Golf Company moving toward it. The bursts of light and static were certain to attract the attention of all the NVA in the neighborhood.

That was fine with Holtz. He twitched the double handgrips of his cal-fifty to be sure the gun would rotate smoothly. He wouldn’t have been in Armor if he’d minded killing.

The flashes were still intermittent but seemed to come more frequently now: one or two a minute. Range was a matter of guesswork, but appreciably more of the sky lighted up at each pulse. They must be getting closer to the source. The trail was taking them straight to it after all. But how did a MiG make the sky light up that way?

Speed lifted his radio helmet to listen intently. “AK fire,” he said. “Not far away either.” Holtz scowled and raised his own helmet away from his ears. As he did so, the air shuddered with a dull boom that was not thunder. The deliberate bark of an AK-47 chopped out behind it, little muffled by the trees.

Speed slipped the cap from a flare and set it over the primed end of the foot-long tube. “We can’t get the others on the horn.” he explained. “They’ll know what a red flare means.”

“Charlie’ll see it too,” Holtz argued.

“Hell, whoever heard of a tank company sneaking up on anybody?”

The captain shrugged assent. As always before a contact, the sweat filming the inner surface of his chicken vest had chilled suddenly.

Speed rapped the base of the flare on the turret. The rocket streaked upward with a liquid whoosh! that took it above the cloud ceiling. Moments later the charge burst and a fierce red ball drifted down against the flickering background. Holtz keyed the scrambler mike, calling, “Battle six, Battle six; Battle four-six calling.” He held one of the separate earphones under his radio helmet. The only response from it was a thunder of static and he shut it off again. Remembering the newbie on the back deck, he turned and shouted over the savage rumble of the engine, “Watch it, kid, we’ll be in it up to our necks any time now.”

In the tight undergrowth, the tracks had closed up to less than a dozen yards between bow slope and the deflector plates of the next ahead. Four-four cornered around a clump of three large trees left standing to the right of the trail. The tank’s bent, rusted fender sawed into the bark of the outer tree, then tore free. Hauley swung five-two wider as he followed.

A rocket spurted from a grove of bamboo forty yards away where the trail jogged again. The fireball of the B-41 seemed to hang in the air just above the ground, but it moved fast enough that before Holtz’s thumbs could close on his gun’s butterfly trigger the rocket had burst on the bow slope of four-four.

A great splash of orange-red flame enveloped the front of the tank momentarily, looking as if a gasoline bomb had gone off. The flash took only a split second but the roar of the explosion echoed and re-echoed in the crash of heavy gunfire. Four-four shuddered to a halt. Holtz raked the bamboo with the cal-fifty, directing the machine gun with his left hand while his right groped for the turret control to swing the main gun. Beside him, Speed’s lighter machine gun chewed up undergrowth to the left of the trail. He had no visible targets, but you almost never saw your enemy in the jungle.

The muzzle brake of the 90mm gun, already as low as it could be aimed, rotated onto the bamboo. A burst of light automatic fire glanced off five-two’s turret from an unknown location. Holtz ignored it and tripped the red handle. The air split with a sharp crack and a flash of green. The first round was canister and it shotgunned a deadly cone of steel balls toward the unseen rocketeer, exploding bamboo into the air like a tangle of broom straw. Brass clanged in the turret as the cannon’s breech sprang open automatically and flung out the empty case. Speed dropped through the reeking white powder smoke evacuated into the hull.

Holtz hadn’t a chance to worry about the newbie behind him until he heard the kid’s grenade launcher chunk hollowly. Only an instant later its shell burst on a tree limb not thirty feet from the tank. Wood disintegrated in a puff of black and red; dozens of segments of piano wire spanged off the armor, one of them ripping a line down the captain’s blue jowl. “Not so goddam close!” Holtz shouted, just as a slap on his thigh told him Speed had reloaded the main gun.

The second rocket hissed from a thicket to the right of five-two, lighting up black-shrouded tree boles from the moment of ignition. Holtz glimpsed the Vietnamese huddled in the brush with the launching tube on his shoulder but there was no time to turn his machine gun before the B-41 exploded. The world shattered. Even the fifty tons of steel under Holtz’s feet staggered as the shaped charge detonated against five-two’s turret. A pencil stream of vaporized armor plate jetted through the tank. The baggy sateen of the officer’s bloused fatigues burst into flame across his left calf where the metal touched it. Outside the tank the air rang with fragments of the rocket’s case. Holtz, deafened by the blast, saw the newbie’s mouth open to scream as the boy spun away from the jagged impacts sledging him. Somehow he still gripped his grenade launcher, but its fat aluminum barrel had flowered with torn metal as suddenly as red splotches had appeared on his flak jacket.

Holtz’s radio helmet was gone, jerked off his head by the blast. Stupid with shock, the burly captain’s eyes followed the wires leading down into the interior of the tank. Pooled on the floorplate was all that remained of Speed. The gaseous metal had struck him while his body was bent. The stream had entered above the collarbone and burned an exit hole through the seventh rib near the spine. The sergeant’s torso, raised instantly to a temperature of over a thousand degrees, had exploded. Speed’s head had not been touched. His face was turned upward, displaying its slight grin, although spatters of blood made him seem more freckled than usual.

The clouds were thickly alive with a shifting pattern of blue fire and the air hummed to a note unconnected to the rattle of gunfire all along the tank column. The third tank in line, four-six, edged forward, trying to pass Holtz’s motionless vehicle on the left. A medic hopped off the deck of four-six and knelt beside the newbie’s crumpled body, oblivious to the shots singing off nearby armor.

Hauley jumped out of the driver’s hatch and climbed back to his commander. “Sir!” he said, gripping Holtz by the left arm.

Holtz shook himself alert. “Get us moving,” he ordered in a thin voice he did not recognize. “Give four-six room to get by.”

Hauley ducked forward to obey. Holtz glanced down into the interior of the track. In fury he tried to slam his fist against the hatch coaming and found he no longer had feeling in his right arm. Where the sleeve of his fatigue shirt still clung to him, it was black with blood. Nothing spurting or gushing, though. The main charge of shrapnel that should have ripped through Holtz’s upper body had impacted numbingly on his chicken vest. Its porcelain plates had turned the fragments, although the outer casing of nylon was clawed to ruin.

Five-two rumbled as Hauley gunned the engine, then jerked into gear. A long burst of AK fire sounded beyond the bamboo from which the first B-41 had come. A muffled swoosh signaled another rocket from the same location. This time the target, too, was hidden in the jungle. Holtz hosed the tall grass on general principles and blamed his shock-sluggish brain for not understanding what the Vietnamese were doing.

With a howl more like an overloaded dynamo than a jet engine, a metallic cigar shape staggered up out of the jungle less than a hundred yards from five-two’s bow. It was fifty feet long, blunt-ended and featureless under a cloaking blue nimbus. Flickering subliminally, the light was less bright than intense. Watching it was similar to laying a bead with an arc welder while wearing a mask of thick blue glass instead of the usual murky yellow.

As the cigar hovered, slightly nose down, another rocket streaked up at it from the launcher hidden in the bamboo. The red flare merged with the nimbus but instead of knifing in against the metal, the missile slowed and hung roaring in the air several seconds until its motor burned out. By then the nimbus had paled almost to nonexistence and the ship itself lurched a yard or two downward. Without the blinding glare Holtz could see gashes in the center section of the strange object, the result of a Communist rocket detonating nearby or some bright flyboy’s proximity-fused missile. MiG, for Chrissake! Holtz swore to himself.

A brilliant flash leaped from the bow of the hovering craft. In the thunderclap that followed, the whole clump of bamboo blasted skyward as a ball of green pulp.

To Holtz’s left, the cupola machine gun of four-six opened fire on the cigar. Either Roosevelt, the third tank’s TC, still thought the hovering vessel was Communist or else he simply reacted to the sudden threat of its power. Brass and stripped links bounded toward Holtz’s track as the slender black sent a stream of tracers thundering up at a flat angle.

The blue nimbus slashed and paled. Even as he swore, Holtz’s left hand hit the lever to bring the muzzle of his main gun up with a whine. The blue-lit cigar shape swung end on to the tanks, hovering in line with the T-shaped muzzle brake of the cannon. Perhaps a hand inside the opaque hull was reaching for its weapons control, but Holtz’s fingers closed on the red switch first. The ninety crashed, bucking back against its recoil stop while flame stabbed forward and sideways through the muzzle brake. Whatever the blue glow did to screen the strange craft, it was inadequate to halt the point-blank impact of a shell delivering over a hundred tons of kinetic energy. The nimbus collapsed like a shattered light bulb. For half a heartbeat the ship rocked in the air, undisturbed except for a four-inch hole in the bare metal of its bow.

The stern third of the craft disintegrated with a stunning crack and a shower of white firedrops that trailed smoke as they fell. A sphincter valve rotated in the center of the cigar. It was half opened when a second explosion wracked the vessel. Something pitched out of the opening and fell with the blazing fragments shaken from the hull. Magnesium roared blindingly as the remainder of the ship dropped out of the sky. It must have weighed more than Holtz would have guessed from the way the impact shook the jungle and threw blazing splinters up into the clouds.

The tanks were still firing but the answering chug-chug-chug of AK-47’s had ceased. Holtz reached for the microphone key, found it gone with the rest of his radio helmet. His scrambler phone had not been damaged by the shaped charge, however, and the static blanket was gone. “Zipper one-three,” he called desperately on the medical evacuation frequency. “Battle four-six. Get me out a dust-off bird. I’ve got men down. We’re at Yankee Tango seven-oh, four-oh. That’s Yankee Tango seven-oh, four-oh, near there. There’s clear area to land a bird, but watch it, some of the trees are through the clouds.”

“Stand by, Battle four-six,” an impersonal voice replied. A minute later it continued, “Battle four-six? We can’t get a chopper to you now, there’s pea soup over the whole region. Sorry, you’ll have to use what you’ve got to get your men to a surgeon.”

“Look, we need a bird,” Holtz pressed, his voice tight. “Some of these guys won’t make it without medevac.”

“Sorry, soldier, we’re getting satellite reports as quick as they come in. The way it looks now, nobody’s going to take off for seven or eight hours.”

Holtz keyed off furiously. “Hauley!” he said. “C’mere.”

The driver was beside him immediately, a dark-haired Pfc who moved faster than his mild expression indicated. Holtz handed him the phones and mike. “Hold for me. I want to see what’s happened.”

“Did you tell about the, the . . .” Hauley started. His gesture finished the thought.

“About the hole in the jungle?” Holtz queried sarcastically. “Hell, you better forget about that right now. Whatever it was, there’s not enough of it left to light your pipe.” His arms levered him out of the hatch with difficulty.

“Can I—” Hauley began.

“Shut up, I can make it,” his CO snapped. His left leg was cramped. It almost buckled under him as he leaped to the ground. Holding himself as erect as possible, Holtz limped over to four-six. Roosevelt hunched questioningly behind his gunshield, then jumped out of his cupola and helped the officer onto the fender.

“Quit shooting,” Holtz ordered irritably as the loader sprayed a breeze-shaken sapling. “Charlie’s gone home for today. Lemme use your commo,” he added to the TC, “mine’s gone.”

He closed his eyes as he fitted on the radio helmet, hoping his double vision would clear. It didn’t. Even behind closed eyelids a yellow-tinged multiple afterimage remained. The ringing in his ears was almost as bad as the static had been, but at least he could speak. “Four-six to Battle four,” Holtz rasped. “Cease firing unless you’ve got a target, a real target.”

The jungle coughed into silence. “Now, who’s hurt? Four-four?”

“Zack’s bad, sir.” Greiler crackled back immediately. “That rocket burned right through the bow and nigh took his foot off. We got the ankle tied, but he needs a doc quick.”

Half to his surprise, Holtz found that four-four’s driver and the newbie blown off the back of his own track were the only serious casualties. He ignored his own arm and leg; they seemed to have stopped bleeding. Charlie had been too occupied with the damaged cigar to set a proper ambush. Vaguely, he wondered what the Vietnamese had thought they were shooting at. Borrowing the helmet from four-six’s loader, the officer painfully climbed off the tank. His left leg hurt more every minute. Heavily corded muscle lay bare on the calf where the film of blood had cracked off.

Davie Womble, the medic who usually rode the back deck of four-six, was kneeling beside the newbie. He had laid his own flak jacket under the boy’s head for a cushion and wrapped his chest in a poncho. “Didn’t want to move him,” he explained to Holtz, “but that one piece went clean through and was sucking air from both sides. He’s really wasted.”

The boy’s face was a sickly yellow, almost the color of his fine blond hair. A glitter of steel marked the tip of a fragment which had zig-zagged shallowly across his scalp. It was so minor compared to other damage that Womble had not bothered to remove it with tweezers. Holtz said nothing. He stepped toward four-four whose loader and TC clustered around their driver. The loader, his M16 tucked under his right arm, faced out into the jungle and scanned the pulverized portion. “Hey,” he said, raising his rifle. “Hey! We got one!”

“Watch it,” the bloodied officer called as he drew his .45. He had to force his fingers to close around its square butt. Greiler, the track commander, was back behind his cal-fifty in seconds, leaping straight onto the high fender of his tank and scrambling up into the cupola. The loader continued to edge toward the body he saw huddled on the ground. Twenty yards from the tank he thrust his weapon out and used the flash suppressor to prod the still form.

“He’s alive,” the loader called. “He’s—oh my God, oh my God!”

Holtz lumbered forward. Greiler’s machine gun was live and the captain’s neck crawled to think of it, hoping the TC wouldn’t bump the trigger. The man on the ground wore gray coveralls of a slick, rubbery-appearing material. As he breathed, they trembled irregularly and a tear above the collarbone oozed dark fluid. His face was against the ground, hidden in shadow, but there was enough light to show Holtz that the man’s outflung hand was blue. “Stretcher!” he shouted as he ran back toward the tracks.

Hauley wore a curious expression as he held out the scrambler phone. Holtz snatched and keyed it without explanation. “Battle six, Battle four-six,” he called urgently.

“Battle four-six, this is Blackhorse six,” the crisp voice of the regimental commander broke in unexpectedly. “What in hell is going on?”

“Umm, sir, I’ve got three men for a dust-off and I can’t get any action out of the chopper jockeys. My boys aren’t going to make it if they ride out of here on a tank. Can you—”

“Captain,” the cool voice from Quan Loi interrupted, “it won’t do your men any good to have a medevac bird fly into a tree in these clouds. I know how you feel, but the weather is the problem and there’s nothing we can do about that. Now, what happened?”

“Look,” Holtz blurted, “there’s a huge goddamn clearing here. If they cruise at five hundred we can guide them in by—”

“God damn it, man, do you want to tell me what’s going on or do you want to be the first captain to spend six months in Long Binh Jail?”

Holtz took a deep breath that squeezed bruised ribs against the tight armored vest. Two troopers were already carrying the blue airman back toward the tanks on a litter made of engineer stakes and a poncho. He turned his attention back to the microphone and, keeping his voice flat, said, “We took a prisoner. He’s about four feet tall, light build, with a blue complexion. I guess he was part of the crew of the spaceship the Air Force shot down and we finished off. He’s breathing now, but the way he’s banged up I don’t think he will be long.”

Only a hum from the radio. Then, “Four-six, is this some kind of joke?”

“No joke. I’ll have the body back at the firebase in four, maybe three hours, and when they get a bird out you can look at him.”

“Hold right where you are,” the colonel crackled back. “You’ve got flares?”

“Roger, roger.” Holtz’s face regained animation and he began daubing at his red cheek with a handkerchief. “Plenty of flares, but the clouds are pretty low. We can set a pattern of trip flares on the ground, though.”

“Hold there; I’m going up freek.”

It was getting dark very fast. Normally Holtz would have moved his two platoons into the cleared area, but that would have meant shifting the newbie—Christ, he didn’t even know the kid’s name! If they’d found the captive earlier, a chopper might have already been there. Because of the intelligence value. Christ, how those rear-echelon mothers ate up intelligence value.

“Four-six? Blackhorse six.”

“Roger, Blackhorse six.” The captain’s huge hand clamped hard on the sweat-slippery microphone.

“There’ll be a bird over you in one-oh, repeat one-oh, mikes. Put some flares up when you hear it.”

“Roger. Battle four-six out.” On the company frequency, Holtz ordered, “Listen good, dudes, there’s a dust-off bird coming by in ten. Any of you at the tail of the line hear it, don’t pop a flare but tell me. We want it coming down here, not in the middle of the jungle.” He took off the helmet, setting it beside him on the turret. His head still buzzed and, though he stared into the jungle over the grips of the cal-fifty, even the front sight was a blur. Ten minutes was a long time.

“I hear it!” Roosevelt called. Without waiting for Holtz’s order, he fired the quadrangle of trip flares he had set. They lit brightly the area cleared by the alien’s weapon. While those ground flares sizzled to full life, Greiler sent three star clusters streaking into the overcast together. The dust-off slick, casting like a coonhound, paused invisibly. As a great gray shadow it drifted down the line of tanks. Its rotor kicked the mist into billows flashing dimly.

Gracelessly yet without jerking the wounded boy, Womble and a third-platoon tanker pressed into service as stretcher-bearer rose and started toward the bird. As soon as the slick touched down, its blades set to idle, the crew chief with his Red Cross armband jumped out. Holtz and the stretcher with the newbie reached the helicopter an instant after the two nearer stretchers.

“Where’s the prisoner?” the crew chief shouted over the high scream of unloaded turbines.

“Get my men aboard first,” Holtz ordered briefly.

“Sorry, Captain,” the air medic replied, “with our fuel load we only take two this trip and I’ve got orders to bring the prisoner back for sure.”

“Stuff your orders! My men go out first.”

The crew chief wiped sweat from the bridge of his nose; more trickled from under his commo helmet. “Sir, there’s two generals and a bird colonel waiting on the pad for me; I leave that—” he shook his head at the makeshift stretcher— “that back here and it’s a year in LBJ if I’m lucky. I’ll take one of your—”

“They’re both dying!”

“I’m sorry but . . .” The medic’s voice dried up when he saw what Holtz was doing. “You can’t threaten me!” he shrilled.

Holtz jacked a shell into the chamber of the .45. None of his men moved to stop him. The medic took one step forward as the big captain fired. The bullet slammed into the alien’s forehead, just under the streaky gray bristles of his hairline. Fluid spattered the medic and the side of the helicopter behind him.

“There’s no prisoner!” Holtz screamed over the shuddering thunder inside his skull. “There’s nothing at all, do you hear? Now get my men to a hospital!”

Hauley tried to catch him as he fell, but the officer’s weight pulled them both to the ground together.

The snarl of a laboring diesel brought him out of it. He was on a cot with a rolled flak jacket pillowed under his head. Someone had removed his chicken vest and bathed away the crusts of dried blood.

“Where are we?” Holtz muttered thickly. His vision had cleared and the chipped rubber of the treads beside him stood out in sharp relief.

Hauley handed his CO a paper cup of coffee laced with something bitter. “Here you go. Lieutenant Paider took over and we’re gonna set up here for the night. If it clears, we’ll get a chopper for you too.”

“But that . . . ?” Holtz gestured at the twilit bulk of a tank twenty feet away. It grunted to a halt after neutral steering a full 360 degrees.

“That? Oh, that was four-four,” Hauley said in a careless voice. “Greiler wanted to say thanks—getting both his buddies dusted off, you know. But I told him you didn’t want to hear about something that didn’t happen. And everybody in the company’ll swear it didn’t happen, whatever some chopper jockey thinks. So Greiler just moved four-four up to where the bird landed and did a neutral steer . . . on nothing at all.”

“Nothing at all,” Holtz repeated before drifting off. He grinned like a she-tiger gorging on her cubs’ first kill.

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