Quattro Larsen had been awake since the rain had stopped, about half an hour ago, unable to sleep longer because he was so on edge. He always slept badly without Bambi. He had been hoping she’d make it back before blackout, but meanwhile, well, blackout wasn’t till noon, and the last rainclouds now billowed down beyond the eastern horizon, with a wind rising from the west. Pre-dawn twilight seemed brighter than usual, perhaps because there had been so little light the last few nights, perhaps due to the almost-half moon well up in the sky.
It was light, he was awake and dressed, and he really wanted to know what the hell was going on over east. He stuck his head into the ground crew quarters and said, softly, “Cup of coffee in it for anyone wants to be door gunner for me.”
Caleb made it to the door first by carrying his shoes rather than trying to put them on, and only vaguely stuffing his shirt into his pants. Quattro felt a slight pang at having lured the guy with coffee, but on the other hand, he didn’t seem to be complaining.
“Take a sec and put your shoes on, Caleb, the job is yours. Nice clear day, maybe a little windy.”
“I can’t sleep anyway. It’s getting near, isn’t it, sir?”
“We’re going to fly out and find out how near. I’m hoping they’re still sorting things out at St. Francisville, and if they are, we’ll just take a quick pass around and remind them that real Daybreakers are not supposed to like Mister Gun. At least not Mister Gun in the Gooney. And maybe lay some bombs where they’ll make people nervous and slow them down. If we find them on the way here, it’s the same program but more urgent, and we get back here as fast as we can.”
He’d been sleeping in the DC-3, partly as a guard, partly for a quick takeoff if he had to, mostly because it was home, and so his little oil stove, percolator, and coffee stash were there. As they huddled around the hot pot for a few minutes till the coffee was ready, he gave Caleb a lightning review on how the Gatling worked, how to clear it, and most importantly, “now, you leave that locked down, ’cause I’ll aim it with the plane and we don’t want you shooting holes in the plane or yourself on your first mission. You keep your seat belt on and your feet on the braces. Crank when I holler crank, stop when I holler stop, and yell ‘Jam!’ when it does, which it will. Then wait for me to yell that we’re level and clear before you try to unjam it. We are going out with a crew of two, and we are coming back with a crew of two, and if you fall out that door, I’m a pretty awesome pilot, but swinging around and catching you might be more than I want to try, ’kay? All right, now about the bombs—”
As he poured the coffee, Quattro explained the basic mechanics of lightly screwing together the three glass jars that formed the shape of the bomb: the big piece with fins, filled with turpentine, the nose piece filled with strong acid, and the little sealed vessel that went into the nose tip, with a blob of mercury in it. “Never tighten down hard, always remember it’s thin glass meant to break. Put them in the ready rack with the fins facing you. If one of them starts to sputter just toss it out the door. You hand load them one at a time into the bomb rack, tail toward you, so they roll down and come out pointed nose first. Never, never-ever,
Caleb’s eyes widened. “Uh, yeah.”
“I know it’s obvious but you’d be surprised how many obvious things people get wrong. And with bombs I don’t like surprises.”
Caleb clearly enjoyed the coffee, taking it with enough sugar and powdered milk to make it something of a meal in its own right, but he also seemed at least as eager as Quattro to get into the air.
The takeoff was smooth, and they gained altitude in a wide swing to the west, staying high in hopes of seeing before they were seen. Quattro angled a little north to pick up the Little Wabash River, following it for a few miles till turning east along the bullet-straight county roads.
Mornings and evenings were good times to see detail, but the immense swarming camp that suddenly appeared below them would have been impossible to miss.
“Holy crap,” Caleb breathed.
“So right, dude. And we’re only—I’m gonna set it to circle and see if I can read a mile marker through the binocs—”
“No need, I’m from around here, man, that’s where County 13 takes a bend and becomes County 9. They’re only sixteen and a half miles from Pale Bluff. And look at all that smoke rising; they’re cooking already this morning.”
“Probably fixing a meal for the guys that are supposed to run in and kill us,” Quattro agreed. “All right, I’m going to circle once to get my bearings and see if I can figure out where the leaders are sleeping. You might as well go back and get ready on the bombs.”
They had circled twice when Caleb screwed the last fuse into the last nose, lowered the bomb rack out the door, and announced, “All ready!”
“All right, going in, put the first one on the bomb rack and don’t let him roll till I yell ‘now!’”
It was not a steep dive by any means, but it felt strange and Caleb clung to the locked-down bomb rack until, as the plane leveled off, zooming low over the tribal camp, Quattro shouted, “Now!”
Caleb let the first one roll; it was about as long as his torso, holding three gallons of turpentine besides its fuse. He turned, hugged the other, set it on the bomb rack, looked down to make sure it was clear, and saw the flash of the first bomb bursting below. He kept hugging, lifting, and letting them roll, as fast as he could, and shouted “fifteen!” as the last one went.
“Hold on!” Quattro put it into a climb; through the open door, Caleb could see that there were fires blazing up from a couple of tents, people running around, and arrows and rocks flying ineffectively into the air.
The plane leveled off as they drew away and higher. “Strap in.”
Caleb did, checked the Gatling, and waited to turn the crank. This time the enemy knew they were coming, and scattered before the stream of bullets that Quattro walked down one long aisle of tents and up another; twice, Caleb cleared jams, but for a Newberry Gatling, this thing really hadn’t worked badly at all. As they climbed up for another reconnaissance circle, Quattro said, “Well, that was pretty much just spite. They know we saw them and a few of them are hurt or dead, and some more had a bad scare. It won’t slow them up even five minutes, but at least they know we don’t like them.”
• • •
During the ten minutes or so it took to return to the airfield, Quattro dictated and Caleb scribbled. “The second I brake the props, run and wake up the ground crew and tell them to get out here; won’t need any more fuel but if I can get some reloading I might be able to get in a few more bomb-and-shoot runs before we’re in blackout. But don’t wait around for an answer; just wake’em up, get’em moving, and then run to HQ with that note. Tell them it’s extremely urgent, and from me, and that your orders are to only put it in the hands of Colonel Birdsall.”
They had been in the air such a short time that the linen tires had not begun their usual deflation; the plane touched down almost as well as it would have on the old rubber. Quattro taxied around to the arsenal end of the hangar, killed the engine, and yanked the prop brake. The props had barely thudded to a stop when Caleb jumped out and ran across the gravel toward ground crew quarters.
Quattro had shoved the ramp against the door and was rolling another load of bombs up when the ground crew rushed in to take over and begin loading; that gave him a moment to check his watch. Not quite 6 a.m. yet; it had already been a busy morning. Someone handed him a sandwich and a mug of chicory; he gulped it down without tasting while the crew ran through the checklist. By that time Asant? Collins, his regular gunner/bombardier, had scrambled there from the barracks, and they were ready to go again. “We’ll get that turnaround down to five minutes next time,” the chief assured him.
“Seventeen minutes from just waking up to ready to go isn’t too shabby as it is,” Quattro said, “but yeah, they’ll be running toward us for about four hours to come, and that’s nearly all before blackout, so we can fly against them all that time.”
Collins nodded. “Is it going to do much good? Bunch of guys running through a field, I can spray but I don’t know that I’ll get many hits.”
“Yeah, and it’s way too wet to get a prairie fire going in front of them, too, at least this morning. Mostly we just do what we can and hope to slow them down a little, but most of the effect will probably just be to scare them and make them lie down for a minute or two while we’re right overhead. I wish we could do more but I don’t see how.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’re right. At least we help them understand that they are not wanted, and it’s always possible we’ll hit a leader or something, if they have leaders now. I’m ready when you are, Your Dukeliness.”
Quattro laughed and switched hats back to his flying helmet. The two of them ran the checklist one more time, and took off.
• • •
When they heard the plane coming in, the tribals running at the front of the group scattered into the ditches beside the road and lay down; Quattro circled to strafe and bomb along the ditches. “Too wet to get a grass fire going,” Asant? shouted.
“You still got some ammo left?”
“About ten-fifteen percent reserve—”
“When I say use it, do it.”
As soon as Asant? was strapped in again, Quattro climbed steeply up and away, as if departing, and said, “Hold on tight, I’m going to come in out of the sun, fast and low, once I loop around.”
This worked somewhat better; Quattro flew virtually as if doing a touch-and-go parallel to the road, keeping his speed up but flying only about ten feet off the abandoned, grassy field. The road was raised a couple of feet, just enough for Asant? to be able to rake it chest high, and because the running tribals had not been ordered to take cover, and were bunched up like the main pack in a marathon, many more bullets hit bodies; when Quattro circled around one final time, they could see that there were dozens of people lying on the road.
But even as Quattro pointed the nose homeward, Asant? pointed out, “They’re just stepping right over their dead and wounded and coming right on,” and Quattro noted that they had been almost two miles closer than their night camp.
When they landed again, Pale Bluff was awake. Troops were moving through the streets and out into the orchards, toward their positions along and behind the outer walls. The reserves were mustering in the town park by the Civil War memorial. Civilians carried bags and boxes to their support stations. “They might not win but they won’t be unprepared,” Quattro said quietly.
“Ready now,” the ground chief said. “Four twenty-two. And we topped up your fuel and lye. We’ll get it under four next time.”
This time they flew very low and crossed the T on the enemy column, shooting up the avant garde (but most of them made it safely into the ditch), raking back along the road until they were out of ammunition, then bombing their way back up to the head.
This attack had no more effect than the previous one. The advancing Daybreakers had already flung the corpses into the ditch and were back at a run. Quattro made a low pass at full throttle, scaring them back into the ditch with the roar, but Asant?, looking back through the main door, saw them standing up as soon as the plane had passed.
As they descended toward the airfield, Quattro noted that the brush windrows on the east-side roads were growing quickly, and that damming the drainage ditches and opening the irrigation gates upstream was rapidly flooding the cornfields. “There’ll be some pretty effective sniping for the last few hundred yards,” he said.
“Has to be a lot, to make them care,” Asant? said. “Tell you two things right here, Your Dukeliness; one, I’m scared, more than I’ve ever been, and two, I’m glad my family’s not here with me.”
They flew sorties for the rest of the morning, and each time the distance to the oncoming Daybreakers was shorter. “Do you think we’re accomplishing anything?” Quattro asked.
“Man, worrying about stuff like that is a Ducal issue. Me, I work the gun, I load the bombs, and I figure I don’t like these guys and I don’t want them to think I do, and this definitely makes sure I get that across to them.” Asant? sighed. “Getting tired?”
“Yeah. You must be exhausted.”
“I can keep going as long as I have to.”
“Yeah. Well, up for another?”
This time, the Daybreakers were not even over the horizon, and since there was no other air traffic, Quattro just whipped the plane around in a steeply banked turn, dove to almost ground level, and headed straight up the road at full throttle. He had guessed right; the tribal horde was now between overflowing ditches, and some of them hesitated at the brink of the water for an instant too long; Asant?’s gun cut them down.
As they pulled up from the shooting run, over the thundering engines, Asant? shouted, “Quattro, I got an idea!”
“Good, ’cause I haven’t had one in a while!”
“All those guys further back with backpacks, gunpowder maybe?”
“Or just food or loot.”
Asant? climbed carefully forward and leaned in close so Quattro could hear him. “What if we bomb a bunch of big-pack-people between ditches? I mean, fly in a tight circle and keep dropping the bombs there? If it’s gunpowder they either burn or take it into the water. If it’s anything else, no big diff.”
“Worth a try. Let each one roll when I shout
Quattro flew in a sort of meandering S along the two-mile long column of Daybreakers.
“Ready when you are.”
“All right, here we go.” He put the DC-3 into a shallow dive across the pack-bearers, and trying to visualize how long it took a bomb to drop, shouted “release” when he thought it should work.
This first shot went way over, landing and bursting into flames on the other side of the ditch without doing more than startling the runners, but to judge by the reaction, they had reason to fear flame; they bunched and huddled. Quattro threw the Gooney into a tight turn, almost standing on its wing, came in at another angle, and shouted “release!”
Undershot this time, but not by much; the bomb splashed into the ditch. Around again, and now they were clearly bunching up, trying to find some way to get away from the plane. He aimed, he visualized, he let things be, and said, “Release!”
This one burst among the packs, and the panic was immediate. Whatever was in them was flammable, if not explosive, and fire blazed up from the road below. Two more bombs created a panic and an apparent riot.
“Let’s try two more of those backpack bunches,” Quattro shouted. They flew farther down the line, and the results were identical; whether that was fuel, ammunition, sapper’s supplies, or whatever, the stuff in the square white backpacks was obviously a bad thing in a fire. As they turned away from the last bomb, Quattro felt some grim satisfaction; he wished he had learned earlier, but now he finally knew how to hurt them from the air.
Something thumped and Asant? shouted “Incoming!”
“Hold on!” Quattro threw the DC-3 hard to the left, righted it, and opened the throttle into as much climb as the old plane had with far less engine power than it was designed for. To his right, he saw broad-headed spears passing, trailing long pieces of wire; same gadget they’d killed Nancy Teirson with. He heard two clanking thuds from the rear. “Did those penetrate?”
“Nope!” Asant? took the seat next to him. “Sounded like someone throwing a brick against a garage door, but nothing came in.”
At first he thought they’d gotten clean away, but then he noticed that the rudder wasn’t responding. “Probably there’s a spear jammed in the rudder, or maybe they cut a control line. No big one, I can land this without it. But we’ll have to get the ground crew right on it and we might not get it fixed before we have to shut down for blackout.”
“Damn. You and me could end up mere ground-pounders.”
“You know it, dude.” Quattro glanced sideways at his gunner, who was grinning at him; he grinned back. “Actually that scared the piss out of me, you know.”
“Yeah. Well, they didn’t get us.”
On touchdown the loud bang-thump made them both jump, and the tail wheel felt draggy. Sure enough, when they climbed out, they found a spear butt wedged in the rudder, and the tail tire was a torn cloth bag around the wheel. “Thirty minutes,” the ground chief said. “Go get yourselves something to eat. Might be a chance for one more mission before blackout starts, or we might have to start grounding and shutdown as soon as it’s finished, but either way, we can do it, you’ve trained us more than well enough, and having you tired and impatient and pissed off and worried about your goddam baby here is not going to help a bit. Now go eat, breathe, maybe get a dump, we have work to do here.”
“You know,” Quattro said to Asant? as they gulped down bland, bean-laden chili that ordinarily he’d have thought a disgrace, “that guy was fixing lawnmowers and snowblowers three years ago. Now he’s as high tech as it gets.”
Asant? nodded. “It ain’t a very nice world anymore but it makes more sense.” He tore off a chunk of bread from the loaf between them, dipped it in the almost-chili, and gobbled hungrily from it. “At least I know how everything works. And I haven’t had to look for work. How’s that Duke job working out?”
“Better than I wanted it to,” Quattro admitted. Huddled over the little table in the corner of the improvised hangar, which had been a boarded-up church before its steeple was commandeered for a tower, they watched crew scurrying in and out, and let the food warm and hearten them. Part of his mind feared that he would look like the idle aristocrat eating while others did urgent work, but everyone here knew how they had spent their morning.
It was a quarter of twelve, almost an hour later, when the chief said, “You’d be good to go if we didn’t have to ground it right this minute, for blackout. We’ve got—”
A clatter of gunfire from the east.
They all turned.
Smoke was rising high into the sky from the blazing brush windrows that were supposed to bar the roads and force the enemy into the flooded fields; the gunfire grew in intensity, and half a dozen donkeys and mules towing Gatlings and volley guns appeared on the far end of the airfield, headed for the noise.
• • •
The road east ended in fire, and on each side it was surrounded by water. The soldiers on the low earthen wall were out of range of the tribals’ weapons, so a great deal of their time was spent merely watching closely. A group of a hundred or so tribals would pop out from behind the burning windrow and splash into the muddy, ruined cornfields, trying to charge at the wall; the soldiers would shoot them down. Another group would emerge; sometimes a group from each side of the windrow; sometimes as many as four groups at once.
The Gatlings and the volley guns arrived, and then the reserve troops who waited behind the wall, plus snipers who climbed into the apple trees, and every few minutes there would be another massacre in the muddy field, until it was a wide scattering of corpses on mud.
Messages went back and forth to Colonel Birdsall for an hour.
No, no trace had been seen of the one-shot muskets that had done so much damage at Lafayette.
No, where guards still patrolled the walls facing the unflooded land, there was no sign of a flanking maneuver.
No, it was not possible to see anything beyond the burning brush; 150 yards of dry deadwood, piled four yards high, was too big a fire to see what lay beyond it.
Through binoculars and spyglasses, some of the officers on the wall were able to observe that at the far end of the fire, there was occasional movement. Their best guess was that the tribals there were slowly dragging or knocking the burning brush into the overflowing ditches, perhaps advancing into the fire by throwing buckets of water ahead. It might take an hour or two for them to clear the fire; then they would have to come straight up the road, and the heavy weapons were already trained on it and waiting.
Birdsall himself came out to that stretch of wall. “We haven’t seen five percent of their force,” he said. “But from the steeples and the trees, we can see for miles all around. The nearest place they could hide a force that big would be on the other side of the bluff itself, three miles away, and at least on the map, I don’t see how they’d get there.” His officers all nodded. “This Lord Robert is smart; possibly much smarter than I am. There’s some reason he would keep launching these futile attacks, but it doesn’t seem like a diversion for a flanking attack, because I don’t see any way he can get at the flanks. And as for—”
Shouts from the watchers on the wall and in the trees.
When everyone looked, they saw that tribals had become visible, through the flames and smoke, beyond the burning windrow. So big and hot a fire could not have lasted in any case, but it was clear now that Daybreakers had simply attacked it with shovels, buckets, and sticks, putting it out, shoving burning matter to the side, and splashing water to cool the road. Snipers took shots at some of the clearing crew, but it was clear that in a few minutes, the road would be open again.
Birdsall looked around at his officers again. “What did this Lord Robert character want us to focus on instead of—”
Drums began to boom, and from each side of the dwindling fire, many hundreds of tribals swarmed across the field of corpses, led as always by spirit sticks, in long, thin lines. Gunfire rattled and banged from the wall and the trees, and the defenses were shrouded in their own black smoke; the Gatlings and volley guns swept the field, adding to the smoke and noise.
There were so many of the oncoming tribals that a few lucky ones almost reached the wall before two and three soldiers in a group would shoot them down.
Birdsall tried to see through the smoke; then he realized there was no longer a plume above the burning windrow, that the Daybreakers had at last cleared the road, and though he didn’t know what was coming, he suddenly knew what they had to do. “Reload!” he shouted. “All weapons! Now!
A dark shape moved through the blue-black smoke of that immense volley, on the road, and a few soldiers shot at it; it was big, perhaps the size of an old-style two-car garage, and rested on enormous spoked wheels, something from some strange museum piece. The shots screamed off it in a shower of sparks; it was armored with pieces of sheet metal on it every which way, several thicknesses of them—there must be fifty or more people pushing it—
Birdsall realized, “It’s a bomb! Shoot, shoot, we can’t let them push it here!”
The troops who had reloaded shot at whatever they could see or find; as the juggernaut rolled in toward them, with the pushers now actually running, some pushers went down clutching a shattered knee or ankle, or fell out of the pack where a lucky shot had found a way through the armor.
Behind the juggernaut came a sort of huge metal turtle; men running with corrugated metal sheets held out to the sides or over their heads, and something in between and under. Birdsall shouted for someone to take some shots at whatever that was, as well, but in the din of gunfire he couldn’t be heard, and most of the troops who could fire were concentrating on the onrushing bomb.
As it rolled up to the thick log gate that closed the road into town, Birdsall screamed, “Down! Take cover!” Most of the soldiers did; the explosion that knocked the log gate flat killed very few of them. They were deafened and stunned, but on their feet. There had been a carnage, but it was of the Daybreakers pushing the wheeled bomb; their remains stained the road red.
“Reload and fire on that next target!” Birdsall shouted, again, but he could not hear his own voice; when he touched his ear, he found blood running down. The metal turtle came on; when shots felled one shield carrier, someone else within grabbed the shield and closed the hole.
Birdsall shouted to them to shoot low, to try to get under the shielding metal, and he shot there himself, but the defenders had simply been overwhelmed, first by the suicide rush, then by the bomb cart, and now with this. Many were fumbling to reload, some were trying to clear jams, and most were deaf from the blast and blind from the smoke. So the turtle was almost at the gate when the metal sheets were thrown aside, and from beneath it, almost a hundred tribals rushed—each clutching a Newberry submachine gun.
Objectively the Daybreaker submachine-gunners were poor fighters. They wasted ammunition, often not even aiming. Some of them were blinded, maimed, killed as guns blew up in their hands. But they kept coming, kept shoving in fresh drums of ammunition until the guns blew up, and kept attacking every living soldier they could find around the gate.
Automatic fire at such close range, in such volume, swept Birdsall’s forces away from the gates, drove the crews away from their heavy weapons, and opened the gap for a critical few minutes, as ten thousand Daybreakers, spirit sticks, hatchets, clubs, torches, and spears raised high and screaming for Mother Gaia, poured into the orchards and toward the town. Birdsall’s thoughts, dying among others on the wall, were first that he didn’t think a messenger could get to town with a warning before the tribals did, then that anyway he had no messengers, and finally that his tummy really hurt and he wanted to go home now.
• • •
When the first tribals with spears appeared at the other end of the field, Quattro, Asant?, and the ground crew had already pulled off the grounding wires and reconnected everything on the Gooney. “I still wish,” the chief began.
“They’ll burn it and us with it on the ground here,” Quattro said. “And we don’t know that the moon gun shot was even aimed anywhere near us. The last few have been over Pueblo, and the jolt from that might damage a radio, but it won’t shut off my ignition. And we only need to fly about forty minutes to reach Paducah and safety. So die for sure here, or try to make it out on the Gooney. Now departing from all gates, dude.”
The ground crew piled in, the chief going last, and strapped down on the benches. Asant? took his place at the gun. Quattro revved up; the sound of the plane apparently attracted more tribals, for suddenly they were running out onto the end of the runway. He gave the engine full throttle and roared toward them, lifting off just in time to clear them by scant feet, and climbing as quickly as the Gooney could manage.
The brilliant flash of light gave him just a moment to realize that the EMP, this time, was right overhead. The spark for the engines stopped, and they coughed on fuel-air mix they could not ignite, the propellers slowing, not even finishing a complete turn. Wires on the plane reached far above their kindling points, but most did not have time to burst into flame; the men in the back were lashed by shocks but the signals from the neurons just under their skin never reached their brains.
In the small airspace in one of the almost-full fuel tanks, a spark touched off an explosion just big enough to rupture the tank and mix the fuel thoroughly into the air in the heated, sparking interior of the plane; there was a moment of terrible light and pain, and then nothing for those within. Outside, in the burning town strewn with bodies, the cheers and drumming grew louder and louder.