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by Diane Duane

He was squinting through the eyeslit of the tank, trying to make out whether that was a boulder five hundred yards in front of him, or just another swirl of dirt lingering in the still air, left by the Mark Ten Centurion in front of him, when the voice spoke to him.

New week, it said.

He sighed. That much effect being human had had on him: all the emotions that came with bodies, that used breath and blood to express themselves, were becoming a habit. But not so much of a habit, yet, that they interfered with his work.

He counted briefly in his head while he steered around the boulder—it was one—and over a dune. Then, silently, so that his tank commander wouldn't hear him, he said, June 5th?

That's right.

He started to sigh again, and stopped it. I was just getting used to this, he said. You have to have known earlier.

Now, the voice said, I did know earlier. Now I always have. This is the problem with free will, of course. You let them have it, and then the Universe itself has to sit around on hold until they make up their minds what they're going to do. But now they know. And so do I . . . and now, you.

He agreed inwardly, and wrinkled his forehead a couple of times to get rid of the drop of sweat that was trying to trickle into his eyes. It was about a hundred and five outside the tank: what it might be inside, he hated to think. I'm going to need a transfer, he said.

The resigned and weary sound of him must have caused the source of the voice some amusement. You could have a miracle instead.

He thought about that for a moment. He hated transfers, the usual kind anyway: they hurt. All right, he said, if that's all right with you.

Is there anything that isn't? the voice said. But nothing's free . . . you know that. Miracles cost, sooner or later.

He raised his eyebrows. So what else is new? . . . What did you have in mind?

Well, how about this—

Rain is the most occasional land of event in the Negev in May: at least, rain that makes it all the way down to the ground. Usually it evaporates hundreds of feet up, doing the barren, thirsty ground beneath no good. But what these brief showers do produce is rainbows; sudden, splendid, suspended unfounded up in the middle of the hot blue air, like a sign.

He saw the rainbow form, and smiled wryly for just a second before doing what any good Israeli tank driver would do in such circumstances, what his tank commander was doing too, having also seen the sign in the sky. Head already decently covered by his tanker's helmet, he started to bow himself back and forth, and began to recite the blessing one says on seeing a rainbow, giving thanks for the repetition of the promise that the world would never again be destroyed by water. He began to do this, as custom required, before doing anything else whatever. Like stopping the tank.

The huge old cedar loomed up out of the dust, and he saw it coming, and couldn't do a thing. The tank crashed into it, leaned up against it, knocked it over, then bounced on over the top of it—and on top of the officer's jeep that had been parked in its shade, while the officer was out in the sun overseeing the tanks participating in this exercise. He finished saying the berukha, and breathed out a little, not needing omniscience to know exactly what was going to happen. Destruction of one of the oldest trees in a place where trees were scarce, at best—and of a very annoyed officer's jeep: transfer, in a hurry. Not a prejudicial one, for his tank commander would be able to testify at the hearing that his driver had only been following religious tradition exactly. He would be out of the tank corps in a hurry.

The sound of swearing from behind him, though, made Micha'el wonder whether he should just have taken the usual mode of transfer, annoying as it was, and been done with it.

He could swear he heard the voice chuckling quietly as Ari started screaming at him to stop the tank.

Three days later, he was transferred to the airfield near Ha'ar Azuz. It would have been two days later, except that the third day he spent out in the dust, in fatigues, with a shovel and a hundred cedar saplings, paid for out of his own salary. He took his time about it; since it was him planting them, they would prosper, and he was careful about how they were positioned. He was annoyed, though, about having his salary docked to pay for them. He would have done it anyway.

The airfield was hardly distinguishable from the rocky waste all around it. The Heyl ha'Avir, the air force, had gone to some trouble to keep it that way. All buildings, even the hangars, were partially buried, surrounded with rock rubble right up to their walls: their roofs were covered with sand and more rock. The runways could not be hidden so easily, but the concrete was the same pale color as the local sand, having been made of it. In most of the day's sunlight the whole place was an eye-burning pale beige, except for the dank caves of the open hangar doors. In those darknesses could be glimpsed the occasional glint of silver, being hastily painted over.

Micha'el knew what those glints were, and wanted to get a look at them right away; but he behaved correctly, as always, and went to see the base commander first. The man's office was in one more sand-mortared Nissen hut, next to the biggest of the hangar buildings. Micha'el knocked at the door, and waited there in the burning wind for a good while before the voice told him to enter.

The commander didn't look up for a while. He was writing furiously, in a fat neat cursive, filling out a report, probably. After a few minutes he said, "Your paperwork came in this morning, Captain bar-David. Sort of a last-minute thing, don't you think? Where were you six months ago?'

Micha'el blinked. His paperwork always sorted itself out, no matter what he had been doing on his last assignment—it would be a poor sort of organization he was working for if mere bureaucracy couldn't be handled effectively. His records would now show him to have been air force from the start of things. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir."

"No, I'm sure you're not," said the commander, with heavy irony somewhat ruined by his having to stop in the middle of his writing and fumble around his desk for a bottle of liquid paper. "A sudden attack of heroism by—yourself? Or one of your relatives up in the thin hot air by the top of the organization? To just have you added to a team that took enough training to get used to each other and work smoothly as it was—never mind that, just throw you in there without any thought of a new man's effect on the rest of a group. It'll make you look good when what could start happening, any day now, finally happens. A dangerous assignment, some nice showy flying, off you go with some good career experience, into a promotion. Huh?" All this while the commander had been painting delicately at his error: now he put the bottle aside and looked up. The commanders eyes were cruel-looking and angry: the mind behind them reeked with fear, but not for himself. "Whereas it won't go that way, not really: it never does. More like this: one of my men gets himself killed getting you out of some tight spot you get into, you go away after it's all over with a medal and a promotion, is that it—?"

Micha'el blinked, and said: "No, sir. I don't think so."

The commander stared at him for a good few seconds. Micha'el returned the gaze, as calmly as he could. The human body he wore, no more than twenty-two and running mostly on hormones, kept shouting things at him that mostly translated as Fight! Kill! Hit! Yell! He busied himself with ignoring it, though not without a moment's longing for his usual body, non-physical, created before entropy and hence endlessly obedient: not like this poor deathridden shell, this seething mess of mud, chemicals and electricity, with ideas of its own, almost all of them mistaken and needing constant overriding.

Finally the commander looked away and picked up his pen again. "For your sake, it had better not be that way, that's all I can say. There's too much riding on what we're out here to do to let someone's personal ambitions put so much as one screw loose on what's out in those hangars. I catch you being stupid or careless around my people or with my planes, I even get wind of it, and I'll ground you. Six feet deep, if necessary. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly, sir," Micha'el said.

The commander stared at him in thinly veiled disgust, as if expecting something else: some flare of anger, some protestation of innocence. But Micha'el had served under too many commanders in his career to waste his time that way. He just stood quiet.

"Go on, get out of here," he said. "Pilot quarters are down at the back of hangar three. Second one to your left."

Micha'el saluted and left, closing the door carefully behind him. Through it he could hear a soft mutter of swearing.

Hangar three was one of those with its doors open. He paused in the doorway for a moment, smelling the air. Paint—cans of it, over on one side, and sprayers: and over there on the left, half painted, the Mirage IIIC.

He walked over to it slowly. The Dassault Mirage was not much to look at compared to some of the planes he had flown; not as graceful as the Spitfire II, not as hi-tech as the F-117a. But in its time, in this time, it was the fastest fighter aircraft in this theater, and (he thought) the best. No matter that it turned like a bullet: it went like a bullet, at Mach 2 and better. It had its weaknesses, but its strengths—that speed, and an indomitable ability to lift a lot of weaponry and deliver it accurately—more than made up for problems like its too-noticeable radar signature—

"What do you think?" said the voice from off to one side. He turned to see the young man in the paint-stained coveralls come from around the back of the Mirage. Dark hair, dark eyes: nothing unusual in this part of the world. But the grin caught him by surprise, after the cool reception in the commander's office.

He looked at the plane again. "The sand over there," he said, "is pretty much the same color as over here. Should be a good match."

The young man laughed as he came over. "Should be," he said. "You're the new guy? Duvid ben-Akiah." He held out his hand.

"Micha ben-David."

They grinned at one another conspiratorially as they shook hands. In the armed forces, Duvid and David were not just names: they were a pejorative—a "desk-duvid," someone holding down a backlines position out of cowardice or ineptness, was about one of the worst things you could be called. It was no help that it was a common name: you worked twice as hard to avoid being thought of as a duvid by anyone.

"How many of these do you have?" Micha el said. It was a temptation to say we, but that would be premature.

"Fourteen here. Sixteen over at Zenifim, another twenty up by Karkom. You've flown them?" Here there was just a moment's suspicious look; Duvid was wondering whether this was some displaced Mystre-jockey or other lowlife.

Micha'el just nodded. "These," he said. "And I was testing the Five."

Duvid sucked in breath, and his eyes gleamed in anticipation. "How is it? How many do we get?"

He smiled. "It hums. The force has ordered fifty. But the French haven't delivered them yet."

Duvid frowned. "What's keeping them?"

Free will, Micha'el was tempted to say. But he shook his head. "Could be money. I don't know."

Duvid shrugged. "Never mind that—come meet the others. They're still having lunch. Right now we don't have anything to do but paint the birds and do maintenance on them, and take a briefing every couple days." He led the way off across the hangar.

Four days, said the voice, and they'll have more to do.

So I gather, Micha'el said, or I wouldn't be here. When do I get my briefing?

Soon enough. Not everything's in place yet. There was a thoughtful silence. But it's a new manifestation named Tek this time, if you were wondering. Operating in isolation and anxious to test itself. I'll brief you when all the decisions have been fated.

Micha'el smiled at that. I can wait, he said silently.

There were thirteen other pilots, which pleased him; it meant there was no one he would have to displace, either by temporary physical mishap or some method more permanent. They were a crazed crowd, much of a piece with other young flyers he had worked with in various wars; intelligent, quickwitted, rude-mouthed, endlessly energetic, aggressive, and somewhat politically hotheaded. Running mostly on hormones, he thought, as his own body fell into chemical-ridden camaraderie with others of its own kind, and began smoking what they smoked—some of the foulest cigarettes he had ever tried not to inhale—and drinking what they drank, mostly Coke. If they had had any alcohol, they would have refused to drink it—they knew how tense the situation was becoming in their part of the world, and they knew their job was to be ready. They were ready. Meanwhile they grilled Micha'el about his politics and his flying, and when they were initially satisfied that he might fit in, they jumped him, the second night in, hog-tied him, and painted him in sand camouflage to match his plane, the fourteenth one, Nesheh. After that, they considered him one of them.

"I would have thought you'd wanted to wait to see how I fly," he said, trying not to breathe while he poured paint thinner over his head to get the last of the beige out of it.

Duvid shrugged at that, leaning on the shower-room wall with his arms folded. "Nu, we'll find out in a day or so. But you couldn't be too bad, if you were testing Fives. Maybe you were, maybe they sent us a hamburger—well, too bad, you're our hamburger now. If you turn out to be too much of one, you'll probably have an accident before we have to go into combat. Probably break a leg or something if you don't struggle too hard. We wouldn't want to hurt the aircraft."

And that was that. He helped them with their painting—dreadful work, in the heat—and began speaking as they spoke, a dreadful amalgam of Sabra slang and fighter-pilot talk, much contaminated by the passage through their training of various American and RAF advisors. He smoked their awful cigarettes, and drank Coke until he thought he could become airborne merely from belching, and bided his time.

He flew with them the same day they took their first briefing together: June 4th, the day before it would happen. The commander was as angry as he had been when Micha'el had first seen him, but for different reasons this time: he was terrified for his young pilots, the chicks who had been under his wing for all this while. The uproar Egypt had made in the UN the day before had been dreadful, and though no word had come from Jerusalem, the commander had his suspicions. The pilots did too, and were buzzing with excitement. It pleased the commander, and horrified him at the same time, and the turmoil of his soul got under Micha'el's skin and made him itch all through the briefing.

"There is no change in the situation," the commander said. "If trouble starts suddenly, it is an air war we'll be concerned with—for the first good while, the tanks will not be our problem. Syria and Lebanon are not as much of a problem as them." He jerked his head westward, and all the young heads nodded thoughtfully: that way was Egypt. "They have five aircraft to every one of ours, various MiGs in various configurations. The more modern versions, the nine-teens and twenty-ones, are more versatile craft than ours—at least, when they're flown by better pilots."

Micha'el's buddies snickered at the unlikeliness of this. "Your advantage, your only advantage, gentlemen, is that all their pilots are Soviet-trained and ninety-nine percent of Soviet pilots don't have the initiative God gave a clam, because their bosses have noticed that any one of them who does, flies his MiG straight off to where the money is. Their pilots are trained to do exactly what they're told, and they wouldn't push their own eject button if ground control didn't tell them it was all right. So hotheaded idiots with a little initiative, like you, can make a mess of them, if you only watch your six, and watch out for that one percent of their pilots who have the brains to use their aircraft correctly. They may never fly again after that engagement, when their GCIs have blown the whistle on them, but you'll be dead and you won't care."

There was a bit of silence at this. The reminder of the six o'clock position as seen from a Mirage was always a little sobering: the narrow cockpit and its high-backed ejector seat were so positioned that there was no rearward view worthy of the name, despite the fact that in this age of heat-seeking missiles, the lethal cone that lay straight behind was any warplane's most vulnerable spot.

"It's never safe to second-guess orders ahead of time," the commander said, "but it's a safe guess what ours will look like when war breaks out." Not if, Micha'el thought. "With an advantage of numbers like theirs, and the further advantage of their radar system—also a little present from the Soviets, and a lot more sensitive than anybody else's, including ours as far as I can tell—there is only one possible plan. Don't let their aircraft up. Get there at top speed, get there before you can possibly be there, and kill them on the ground. Crater their runways first and then smoke anything that has managed to scramble to meet you. Runways first. I'll say it as many times as I have to, until you snore it in your sleep. Runways first. After that, you can take them at your leisure, and they'll never get up to go bother our tanks and our people. It won't matter then whether their pilots are half bird, or whether they belong inside a bun. Runways first. Here—" He pointed at the map, indicating one spot, and another, and a third. "No telling which one we'll be sent to. It doesn't matter. Know them all, know the way there in your sleep, get there and crater it. And then have all the fun you like, but whatever you do, bring your planes home. We've only got seventy of them."

And yourselves, Michael heard his heart cry. But he would not say it to any of them: he was a soldier too.

The pilots nodded, but not out of any great concern. They had heard it all before. They waited until the commander dismissed them, and then they went out and got ready for the day's exercise.

Duvid was already in his cockpit, going through pre-flights, by the time Micha'el was climbing into Nesher, next on the flightline. "Gotta be quicker than that," Duvid shouted at him over the scream of the warming engines. His voice was harsh, almost angry.

Micha'el was surprised to see that the eternal good humor had slipped. He scrambled a bit getting up into the cockpit, shook his shoulders—there was always an itch there when he was in confined quarters, his deep self's memory of his usual shape, fretting against the present physical one. He subdued the itch and pulled the canopy down, locked it. Duvid's mechanic signaled him forward, and Duvid bounced instantly forward and rolled, the Mirage doing that little nose-nod it always did when you popped the brakes. Micha'el went straight after him. Protocol allowed double launch from the runway: he caught up with Duvid, and they went straight up together, third and fourth of four.

There he laid to rest the pilots' concerns about whether he belonged in a bun or not. Better now than tomorrow morning, he thought. There was little to it. Half his gift, half his reason for being, was the ability to sense others' reactions and react to them first; mortal or immortal, it had never mattered. Now he locked his deeper self into theirs, knew every turn and bank and matched it, anticipated their evasive moves while they were still nothing but fire running down a pilot's nerves. The commander came at him, under his six, to see if he had been listening; Micha'el arched up and over and back in the new Immelman, did the 180-degree flip as half a hesitation roll, and throttled up: with gravity helping, the skin leaning back from his face, he was on the commander's tail barely a second later. They were working at altitude, where the Mirage's engine was happiest and the flight characteristics of the big delta wings enabled it to turn much more quickly than down in thick air. All of them would have a harder time of it, down low, where they would be trying to evade the radar; but for now, Micha'el smiled and let them know that he had the art handled, and didn't need any coaching, or concern.

They were an hour in the air. He came down as sweat-soaked as any of them—the cold of thirty-thousand wasn't enough to temper the heat of that relentless sun glaring into the cockpit—and as his wheels came down, the thirst hit him all at once. He taxied down to in front of Three, where the crew chiefs were waiting: waited till his wheels were chocked, then popped the cockpit and almost fell out, onto Jesh, who was holding out an empty Coke bottle full of cold water.

He drank and drank. As he finished, Duvid poked him in the side, so he choked, and said, "Don't believe in G, do you?" He sounded impressed.

Micha'el raised his eyebrows and traded his bottle for another full one. "Didn't want you to think I was slow."

"Yeah," Duvid said. "Okay." He took a bottle for himself, and walked away.

That horrible sense of resonance hit him again. It felt no better than it had the first time, however long ago—there had been no time, just then, so trying to date it was meaningless. Back then it had been the certain knowledge that the bright power with which he had been intimate, his peer, created with him, would shortly burn dark, and rebel. He would triumph—he had known that too—but the knowledge was not even slightly satisfying. It's not fair, he thought now, the human version of the thought. He was my brother—And he sighed and withdrew from the memory, and said, Not him.

Yes, the voice said. It almost sounded weary. It's in your briefing. Later, when it's dark.

He handed the bottle back to the crew chief, and followed the other pilots into the relative cool of the hangar.

The sun went down in its usual peach-colored splendor. There was a lot of dust in the sky that evening, so that those who were interested in such things could look at it with binoculars, or even the naked eye, and count the sunspots. Lounging there in the hangar door with some of the others, he remembered the arguments about it that other time, when he had been with a group of Crusaders: some of them had become very upset, insisting that the sunspots were some kind of evil sorcery, because the Church said the Sun was perfect and couldn't have marks on it. All a long time ago, but he remembered those sunsets, the same color as this one, and the smells of spices on the air, the tents flapping in the evening wind, the spears stuck in the ground, the idle sharpening of swords. Nothing had changed: the warriors still didn't want to be far from their weapons. The pilots lounged around, drank Coke, smoked the awful cigarettes, and their eyes lingered on the Mirages, all fueled, the engines quiet, but otherwise ready.

They were quiet. They feel it coming, Micha'el thought. That had not changed either. He had been perhaps the first creature made specifically to be a soldier: all of them since partook in some small way of his nature, and part of it involved that sense of what was about to happen, and when. Other parts of his nature . . . were no one's problem but his own.

He's on the radars, the voice said.

Predictable, if nothing else, said Micha'el. Tek always would prefer the shiny new toys to the really important part of the battle, the warriors themselves.

Unfortunately he's selected the toy that could make the difference, the voice said. With warning, all these lads' valor will come to nothing. That warning must be prevented.

After that— Micha'el said.

The images became real inside him. The flights of Mirages, Mystres, Ouragans, even Magisters, streaking across into Egypt, just as the first limb of the sun reached up over the horizon; the Egyptian MiGs scrambling to meet them. The glitter of combat in the early morning, swift movement, smoke trailing down. Very little loss on the side to which he had been assigned. But what loss there was, inevitable. Duvid, for one.

I told you there might be a price, the voice said.

Micha'el nodded. I keep paying this one, though, he said. How many battles, now? I know I have to defend them. I promised I would defend the helpless, be the Champion. Yours, and theirs. But they keep dying. Aren't we supposed to be doing something about that? Aren't we trying to have them not have to die any more?

A long while before that happens, the voice said, dispassionate. And something else is required for that. Their agreements to stop.

Micha'el sighed, nodded. A while yet, he said.

"Pretty quiet tonight," Duvid said.

Micha'el looked at him in mild surprise, took the Coke he held out. "This stuff," he said, "is rotting my teeth by the day. I want to go on leave and have a nice clean beer."

"Me too," Duvid said, "but no hope of that for a while." He took back the bottle, took a swig himself.

"You scared?" he said.

Michael smiled, not easily. "Not since the first time," he said softly. "Then—I wasn't sure. It could have gone either way, I thought. Afterwards . . . it had always been OK, since the very beginning." He laughed, not a happy sound. "You?"

Duvid swigged from the bottle, handed it back. Very quietly, but with no change in his face, he said, "I'm going to die."

Micha'el just looked at him. "I tried telling Jesh," Duvid said. "He just looked at me as if I was nuts. The thing is, it's okay. It really is." He looked at Michael's face. "You believe me," he said, rather surprised.

"Hard not to," Michael said. "How do you know?"

"Just a feeling. No," Duvid said. "A knowing. It was a suspicion, earlier. I'm sure now, though."

"You approve?" Micha'el said. It was the harshness of his own voice, now, that surprised him.

Duvid grinned. "Do I get a vote?"

"I'm not sure," Michael said. This was true enough: his level of creation didn't always understand the rules as they applied to human beings. "But I think maybe it helps if you can accept it."

There was silence for a while. "I don't know if I can do that," Duvid said. "But I can go out shooting."

The Coke bottle was empty. Duvid looked at it for a moment, then walked away.

"I think," Micha'el said softly, "it may come to the same thing."

He didn't sleep that night. He didn't always have to, even when in a human body; and tonight, he would have found it particularly difficult. He was being tempted. About an hour before dawn, he was still standing there, looking east now. The morning star was hanging there like a particularly bright landing light.

Is it possible, he thought, leaning against that hangar door—alone, now; the rest of them had long since gone to bed—is it possible to go against one's nature?

No answer.

Typical. Free will, he thought ironically. Even we have it. That was what started the whole problem, wasn't it? But that was a long time ago. Here and now he was faced with the problem: could he disobey? Certainly he could. Would it be wise?

That was not the point. Wouldn't it be right?

And what would make it so? The chance of saving one innocent life? This was a war, or was going to be. Many of the innocent would die in it. That was one of the tragedies and injustices of war: that was one of the reasons why, at one end of time or another, he looked desperately to see himself out of a job. Why should this one innocent be spared, just because he had taken a liking to him? Doubtless there was reason in his dying; it would hardly be happening, otherwise. It had to be allowed to occur. Meanwhile, he, like all the soldiers ever since, could do nothing but take his orders, whether he understood them or not, and execute them. And the same again, tomorrow, and tomorrow. . . .

I could say no, he thought. Others had. But not for reasons like this: it had been pride, all that while ago, not pity, that had caused his brother to say no, and had caused him to take up his spear for the first time. He thought for a little while of that combat, of all the levels on which it had taken place. The mortal body ached and twinged at the images, memories which it was incapable of harboring, or handling. This was part of the danger for him of being in-body—he was incomplete, and vulnerable to the dangers of mortality: fear, uncertainty, delusion.

Micha'el shook his head. No advice, for once, he said to the night.


For a long time he stood there, unmoving.

If he can bear it, he thought at last, and him a mortal, without even any certainty about the levels of life above and below his—then I, who know better, can hardly do worse. 'Go down shooting,' as he says. At least I know what I'm shooting at.

He looked up at the stars.

But oh, this is hard!

No answer now, either. His own commander, like other good ones, once the order was given to an experienced officer, had the sense to stand back and let him execute it.

Never mind, he thought at last. Some habits were too old to break . . . he hoped. He leaned back, and closed his eyes to start work.

Forgetting the body itself was always the hardest part. You didn't dare dissolve your connection to it entirely—it might not be possible to re-establish it. But at the same time, it got in the way: its perceptions were geared only to this level of being . . . and Michael had business higher up.

He let the body fall away, and very cautiously felt around him in the dark, the way someone might who had dropped something valuable on a floor that was also covered with broken glass. He didn't want to give an alarm. This by itself was so counter to his usual way of operating—the obvious entry, the straightforward challenge, directly given—that he had astounded himself, earlier, by even thinking of it. The idea had come to him after they had jumped him in the dark, preparatory to his being spraypainted. It had been (he had noted to himself, ruefully, about the third can of paint thinner) extremely effective.

Gently, gently he felt around him. Gods left a sort of signature in the "field" of physicality, a result of the casual way their natures overrode the physical around them. The signature was not a hard profile, but a locus of nexi, a sparkling fuzziness that looked to those who could see such things much the way chaff looked on radar. When a god was embodied, the signature was more muted still. But Micha'el felt sure he knew within three guesses where Tek would be. A radar installation: the best-equipped, shiniest, newest one of all of them; and, if embodied, in the person of the greatest potential power there. Tek was unsubtle, and liked to throw his weight around on every available plane.

Micha'el smiled, a still small effusion of power in the dark void through which he moved. Carefully he laid the "hand" of his mind, testing, over the radar installation at al'Arish, on the coast. Nothing there but a general, muted sense of unease, disturbance. He removed it, slowly, waited for any signs that he had been noticed. Nothing: he was alone in the dark and the silence.

Carefully he reached out to the radars at al-Qusaymah. At first he almost jerked back, thinking he felt something sharp and hot; but it was plain old human emotion, this, someone's fear or hatred, or both, piercing through into the higher levels in dream. I suppose someone there might be asleep, he thought, though it seemed a little odd. Surely if this was the day—and it was—the whole place would be roused and on alert. But no matter.

He withdrew his probe of thought and turned his attention to his third guess. Very slowly, very delicately indeed, he reached out toward Jabal al-Misheiti. He felt, as he had felt in the other two installations, the hard sharp crackle of the radars combing the fabric of things as they looked sideways at the world. But there was something extra, a faint taste or smell, of something in the radar beams—the same way bioelectricity can be felt to have a little something extra about it when it carries thought.

Micha'el smiled again. He knew what that something was. He took a deep breath—and laughed at himself: how the body began to change one's idiom after a while, even when you were out of it—and concentrated on making himself seem as little there as possible. In the void, he was void as well; the faint radiance that had been about him now went out. His darkness moved over the face of things, low, following the radar, pretending to be returning radiation, the familiar bounce. Packets of radiation passing him carried that signature, the one he was after, more and more strongly. A cold scent, a taste of metal, the nerveless buzz and whine of captive electrons being scourged along gouged-out pathways by a pitiless taskmaster. Tek was there, all right, and not totally embodied, or not in one place. Some of him was in the radars themselves. That's Tek for you. He's the type that can never resist becoming his tools. He controlled his elation. It was the best possible advantage for him . . . as long as he could keep Tek from noticing him, and changing the status quo.

Closer and closer he crept with the strengthening signal. Shortly he was seeing what he had desperately wanted to see; that bloom of light in the void which meant a significant part of a god's being was in one spot, embodied. The bloom of light beat steadily, inturned, concerned with itself, and paid him no attention at all. The timing of the beat reassured him; it cycled in seconds rather than milliseconds—a human body, not a mechanical one. A good thing this era's computers are still too stupid to be any good to inhabit, Micha'el thought: Tek could have made dreadful use of anything much smarter than a PC.

He paused just long enough to be sure of his target, for when he struck, the body-shell might die: he had no wish to kill any more innocents than necessary. There was indeed the pale, weak glimmer of the body's original soul, unconscious, crushed down and helpless against what overrode it. It couldn't be helped now. Micha'el gathered himself and his power, and flung himself down out of the void onto the chilly, shiny bloom of light, smothering it.

The other fought him, of course. They clutched one another, and he was almost stifled by the cold grip of metal around throat and heart, half blinded by the icy glint off the mirror-glazed eyes. What the other saw, he had no idea; his whole business now was to hang on, to hold Tek helpless for a good while. Past dawn, anyway. It would not be easy, for Tek was a god, and he was rather less than one, by choice.

What the people in the radar installation thought of it all, he could only imagine: they doubtless saw their Soviet advisor crumple to the floor and lie there helpless, barely breathing. Micha'el felt sorry for the poor invaded body, but had less time to worry about it than about the radars. They were paralyzed: there was enough of Tek in them to make sure they weren't controllable by the humans in the installation—but not enough of Tek for him to activate them. Tek thrashed and pushed and tried to pry enough of himself out of Micha'el's grasp to free the radars up; but Micha'el held on grimly and would not let him go. He was burnt by Tek's cold, scorched by his fire: but he would not let go. He had had cold before, in the outer darknesses, and fire like no one had experienced since, and survived them both. He might not be divine, but it was going to take more than this tinkertoy god to make him give up.

The morning star was setting: even here, outside the physical world, he could feel the light changing, the dawn coming up. Humans were moving about, concerned, in the three radar centers; things didn't seem to be working, and they couldn't understand why. Shortly they would be running about like ants in an overturned anthill, as the alert came through from Cairo, as the tanks started to roll north over the border. The alert came, and the panic began. And still Micha'el held onto Tek, scorched and blinded, and would not let him go.

The sun was about to come up. Across the desert, faintly, with the ears of a body leaning almost unconscious against a wall, Micha'el heard the klaxons at the base, heard the frantic scrambling of pilots heading for their planes. He let go, reeled away. Tek reared up and reached out for him, and seeing the weak point, Micha'el whispered sorry! and swept a knife-edge hand at the faintly silver-shining connection winding from the bloom of power that was the god, to the radars. It snapped. Tek fell fully back into the poor human body: it would live, all right, and it would lukr liim some time to re-establish his connection with the radars. If he bothered—

Gasping, Micha'el flung himself back to his own body. It was a terrible feeling, as always, this cramming of one's essence back into a container too small, too simple, crumbling at the edges every time you moved. Someone was shaking him. "Wake up! Dammit, we've got to—"

"Leave him—"

"It's all right," he mumbled, and managed to get his eyes open. Duvid was shaking him; Micha'el reached out, grabbed his arms, stopped him. "I was asleep on my feet."

Duvid shoved Micha'el's helmet into his hands and ran for the flightline.

They flew, all of them. It was ten minutes to Tabal al-Misneiti, riding the flaring thrust of full reheat. They met no resistance as they crossed the border: their own radars registered the presence of no others. It was bizarre. The tanks had started moving into the Gaza less than an hour ago. The air should have been full of planes.

It was not. They dove down out of the bright morning into a valley empty of anything but lovely runways. Each of the Mirages had nearly five thousand pounds of bombs slung under it; they used them there, lavishly, the commander making helpful suggestions as to placement, and sounding happy for the first time Micha'el had ever heard. Before the Cyrano air-to-air radars noticed even the first MiG approaching, the runways looked like the surface of the Moon, and the hangars were rubble, with at least thirty planes inside them.

"They got at least one flight up from down south," the commander said calmly. "I see twenty. No more runways, gentlemen."

"Gotcha, Boss," said one pilot after another. And Duvid sang out: "Eyeballs!"

They were streaking along low; the MiGs knew where their best maneuverability lay. Almost as one the Mirage pilots yanked on their sticks and went for altitude. Not too much—

The MiGs closed. It got busy in the air. The commander had specified a weapons mix for the group that would leave them something to do with after the bombs were all gone: everyone had at least two air-to-air under the wings, and everyone had full loads in the twin 30 mm DEFA cannon-packs. The morning became full of tracer as the MiGs tried to keep heading north. The flight had no intention of letting them do so. One tried to go under the group; Micha'el saw a Sidewinder head for the 21's tailpipe, and hatch, like a phoenix's egg, in fire, bursting the silver shell—

There was no way to keep an eye on Duvid, although Micha'el desperately wanted to do so; wanted to see him go, and bid him farewell, if he could not stop it. But the air was too full of bogies, twisting and spiraling. The Cyrano radar shouted for his attention. Someone streaked across his twelve, right in front of him, he could hardly believe it—the vertically-split maw of a MiG-19's nose intake, almost straight on, running away from one of the other pilots: he pulled back hard on the stick, 4 G turn at least, followed almost side by side, popped his airbrakes for just the merest instant to let the MiG overshoot, and let the cannons speak. A bloom of fire in front of him, he veered away, his shoulders itching as they always did—

"Eight left," the commander said. "They're trying to break. Don't let them!"

The whole fight was indeed drifting northward. Micha'el broke right, saw a tailpipe so close even the radar didn't see it first, and sent a Sidewinder after it: broke hard left and up, felt the shudder against his tailplane and wings as the MiG blew. Seven. The fight was drifting upwards as well, the MiGs trying to prevent it, unsuccessfully: they had no guidance from their radars, their GCI was silent, and the Mirages pushed them up and up into their optimum operation area, where they no longer turned like bullets, where their engines worked better than the MiG's—

And Duvid went down past him. No more warning than that, just the one-winged shape spinning downward, the canopy a charred crater, blasted away; a silver glint, spiraling, then a smoke and a pillar of fire, fire in the sand. Micha'el didn't swear; it was not in his job description. But he went up to kill what had killed his friend.

Another Mirage came down past him as he arrowed up. Someone good was up there; or someone who knew how to do without GCI. Or someone who had never needed it, he thought, seeing the topmost MiG as it dropped toward him, closing nose-on. Micha'el angled in towards the MiG, making for a close pass so that it couldn't turn onto his six. He blinked then at his own mistake; the triple 23mm cannons on the MiG lit up, sending tracer looping out in lazy, incandescent blobs that accelerated insanely as they whipped over the cockpit canopy. An Atoll AAM flared out from under its left wing and went scything past him. It was a pointless thing to do, because the missile was unable to make a lock at point-blank range, but lock or not it still came so close that Michael flinched, seeming almost to feel the heat of its rocket exhaust as it roared by. He could feel another heat as well, one he recognized. Angry, he thought, don't fly angry! He pulled the stick back and pushed the Mirage into a 6-G climb, straight up.

He can't follow that, Micha'el thought. He'll turn off horizontal, or bug out, if he's got brains. Cannons for him, when I level out—He looked back over his seat, and was horrified to see the 19 only a hundred yards away, climbing with him cockpit to cockpit. Mirrored goggles flashed at him in the sun.

Tek, he thought, horrified. Whatever pilot had been in that plane before, he wasn't there now. Micha'el throttled forward, but not fast enough to elude the other's fire, with his own six exposed while he climbed vertical. Desperately Micha'el rolled off the top and spiraled downward, Tek following and firing. They dropped into a classic rolling scissors, each trying for an angle on the other. The tight turns were losing Michael his speed, pulling him down into the range where the MiG could turn and handle better—

He saw a break, found it, ran nearly miles downhill, getting some separation, getting his momentum back. Two miles—but barely six seconds at the rate he was going. Time to suck in a couple of breaths, blink, fight the G. He turned, went after his pursuer, fired the cannon: clean misses—then angled up at sixty degrees again. Again the MiG came up after him. He shouldn't be able to do that in that plane—Micha'el thought, annoyed. But then maybe the plane had a little help—

He could do it himself. But the thought went across the grain. When you fought in-body, you fought with the weapons you came with. Usually. But Tek was not playing by the rules. Up he came, hot on Micha'el's tail, in a machine that shouldn't know how to climb like this—

Cheaters never prosper, Micha'el thought. One more try. He would not lose his speed again the way he had last time. He turned, dived to get his momentum back, let Tek play with the 6 Gs again, as he was. Two more miles, six more seconds—

He came about hard and came at Tek head on again, but this time with a little offset, just enough so that Tek couldn't fire his cannons. They passed again and both went vertical. There was no mistaking the sense of air being interfered with, something dark changing its density, making it behave differently. Micha'el frowned, played his card. The VIFF wouldn't be invented for a while yet, and it was at best the mark of a lazy pilot who shouldn't have allowed his enemy on his six in the first place. But he pulled in closer to Tek's line, let his throttle lean back to idle, and popped airbrakes and flaps together, dropping 50 knots of airspeed in a matter of a second. Tek viffed too, but not with his plane: the darkness about him heated the air, changed its viscosity; he dropped back.

Damn! Micha'el thought then, seeing what his adversary would do, and finding no way to do his job, and fulfill his mission, but to match him. He would not need a miracle this time. But you told me there would be a price, didn't you?

No answer. He had expected none; nor would there be one until the debriefing. Micha'el smiled grimly, resigned himself to an argument with his Boss, and had a word with the air himself.

The other pilots, most particularly the commander, would never quite be able to describe what they saw. In clear air, the MiG seemed somehow to be in shadow: and in clear air, the Mirage going after him suddenly was wider than it was; a silver glitter, like ice in the sun, like great bright-feathered wings suddenly extended, shone all around it, and the Mirage dropped behind the MiG again. A tail of fire burst forward from it, the Sidewinder leaping away like a lance of fire. It seemed to miss. For a moment the commander thought he saw another Sidewinder—but that was impossible, the new man had already fired two. A burning line of light, like a lance of fire, or a sword, caught the MiG halfway down the fuselage. Straight into the ground it flew, seemingly under control, and the blackness that had followed it dissipated.

One other thing followed it; the Mirage, spiraling in. It was not out of control, either. There was a clear hesitation on each quarter of the roll; the commander thought of the insouciant maneuver of the man, the day before—and on the fourth quarter-roll, aircraft and ground met and became one. The commander blinked. Impossible to have seen what he thought he saw; thumbs up, the smile under the helmet. And now nothing but fire.

Above them, the air was clear.

Three hours later, there was no Egyptian air force. Three hundred of three hundred sixty planes were caught on the ground and destroyed after their runways were made useless. Of a total of thirty that managed to make it into the air from bases in the south, all were destroyed or crash-landed for lack of runways.

Elsewhere, an archangel was reassigned, and an annoyed god, betrayed by technology not quite far enough along to be of use to him, sulked mightily, then curled up for a good long sleep. One that would last until another desert conflict woke him. In that regard, everything went exactly as planned. Tek would have had much too much fun with the proliferating and occasionally erratic atomic technologies of the '70s and '80s.

As it was, the corridors of upper existence rang with a cheerful taunt:

Cheaters never prosper.

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