CULTURAL CONFLICT

Platoon Sergeant Horthy stood with his right arm—his only arm—akimbo, surveying the rippling treetops beneath him and wishing they really were the waves of a cool, gray ocean. The trees lapped high up the sides of the basalt knob that had become Firebase Bolo three weeks before when a landing boat dropped them secretly onto it. Now, under a black plastic ceiling that mimicked the basalt to the eye of the Federation spy satellite, nestled a command car, a rocket howitzer with an air-cushion truck to carry its load of ammunition, and Horthy’s three combat cars. Horthy’s cars—except on paper. There Lieutenant Simmons-Brown was listed as platoon leader.

One of the long-limbed native reptiles suddenly began to gesture and screech up at the sergeant. The beasts occasionally appeared on the treetops, scurrying and bounding like fleas in a dog’s fur. Recently their bursts of rage had become more common—and more irritating. Horthy was a short, wasp-waisted man who wore a spiky goatee and a drum-magazined powergun slung beneath his shoulder. His hand now moved to its grip . . . but shooting meant giving in to frustration, and instead Horthy only muttered a curse.

“You say something, Top?” asked a voice behind him. He turned without speaking and saw Jenne and Scratchard, his two gunners, with a lanky howitzer crewman whose name escaped him.

“Nothing that matters,” Horthy said. Scratchard’s nickname was Ripper Jack because he carried a long knife in preference to a pistol. He fumbled a little nervously with its hilt as he said, “Look, Top, ah . . . we been talking and Bonmarcher here—” he nodded at the artilleryman “—he says we’re not supporting the rest of the Regiment, we’re stuck out here in the middle of nowhere to shoot up Federation ships when the war starts.”

The sergeant looked sharply at Bonmarcher, then said, “If the war starts. Yeah, that’s pretty much true. We’re about the only humans on South Continent, but if the government decides it still wants to be independent and the Federation decides it’s gotta have Squire’s World as a colony—well, Fed supply routes pass through two straits within hog shot of this rock.” Simmons-Brown would cop a screaming worm if he heard Horthy tell the men a truth supposed to be secret, but one way or another it wasn’t going to matter very long.

“But Lord and Martyrs, Top,” Bonmarcher burst out, “how long after we start shooting is it gonna be before the Feds figure out where the shells’re coming from? Sure, this cap—” he thumbed toward the plastic supported four meters over the rock by thin pillars “—hides us now. But sure as death, we’ll loose one off while the satellite’s still over us, or the Feds’ll triangulate radar tracks as the shells come over the horizon at them. Then what’ll happen?”

“That’s what our combat cars are for,” Horthy said wearily, knowing that the Federation would send not troops but a salvo of their own shells to deal with the thorn in their side. “We’ll worry about that when it happens. Right now—” He broke off. Another of those damned, fluffy reptiles was shrieking like a cheated whore not twenty meters from him.

“Bonmarcher,” the sergeant said in sudden inspiration, “you want to go down there and do something about that noisemaker for me?” Two noisemakers, actually—the beast and the artilleryman himself for as long as the hunt kept him out of the way.

“Gee, Top, I’d sure love to get outa this oven, but I heard the lieutenant order . . .” Bonmarcher began, looking sidelong at the command car fifty meters away in the center of the knob. Its air conditioner whined, cooling Simmons-Brown and the radioman on watch within its closed compartment.

“Look, you just climb down below the leaf cover and don’t loose off unless you’ve really got a target,” said Horthy. “I’ll handle the lieutenant.”

Beaming with pleasure, Bonmarcher patted his sidearm to make sure it was snapped securely in its holster. “Thanks, Top,” he said, and began to descend by the cracks and shelvings that eternity had forged even into basalt.

Horthy ignored him, turning instead to the pair of his own men who had waited in silent concern during the exchange. “Look, boys,” the one-armed sergeant said quietly, “I won’t give you a load of cop about this being a great vacation for us. But you keep your mouths shut and do your jobs, and I’ll do my damnedest to get us all out of here in one piece.” He looked away from his listeners for a moment, up at the dull iridium vehicles and the stripped or khaki crewmen lounging over them. “Anyhow, neither the Feds or the twats that hired us have any guts. I’ll give you even money that one side or the other backs down before anything drops in the pot.”

Scratchard, as lean and dark as Horthy, looked at the huge, blond Jenne. There was no belief on either face. Then the rear hatch of the command car flung open and the communications sergeant stepped out whooping with joy.

“They’ve signed a new treaty!” he shouted. “We’re being recalled!”

Horthy grinned, punched each of his gunners lightly in the stomach. “See?” he said. “You listen to Top and he’ll bring you home.”

All three began to laugh with released tension.

Hilf, Caller of the Moon Sept, followed his sept-brother Seida along the wire-thin filaments of the canopy. Their black footpads flashed a rare primary color as they leaped. The world was slate-gray bark and huge pearly leaves sprouting on flexible tendrils, raised to a sky in which the sun was a sizzling platinum bead. Both runners were lightly dusted with the pollen they had shaken from fruiting bodies in their course. The Tree, though an entity, required cross-fertilization among its segments for healthy growth. The mottled gray-tones of Seida’s feathery scales blended perfectly with his surroundings, and his strength was as smooth as the Tree’s. Hilf knew the young male hoped to become Caller himself in a few years, knew also that Seida lacked the necessary empathy with the Tree and the sept to hold the position. Besides, his recklessness was no substitute for intelligence.

But Seida was forcing Hilf to act against his better judgment. The creatures on the bald, basalt knob were clearly within the sept’s territory; but what proper business had any of the Folk with rock-dwellers? Still, knowing that token activity would help calm his brothers, Hilf had let Seida lead him to personally view the situation. At the back of the Caller’s mind was the further realization that the Mothers were sometimes swayed by the “maleness” of action as opposed to intelligent lethargy.

Poised for another leap, Hilf noticed the black line of a worm track on the bark beside him. He halted, instinctively damping the springiness of his perch by flexing his hind legs. Seida shrieked but fell into lowering silence when he saw what his Caller was about. Food was an immediate need. As Hilf had known, Seida’s unfitness for leadership included his inability to see beyond the immediate.

The branch was a twenty-centimeter latticework of intergrown tendrils, leapfrogging kilometers across the forest. In its career it touched and fused with a dozen trunks, deep rooted pillars whose tendrils were of massive cross section. Hilf blocked the worm track with a spike-clawed, multi-jointed thumb twice the length of the three fingers on each hand. His other thumb thrust into the end of the track and wriggled. The bark split, baring the hollowed pith and the worm writhing and stretching away from the impaling claw. Hilf’s esophagus spasmed once to crush the soft creature. He looked up. Seida stuttered an impoliteness verging on command: he had not forgotten his self-proclaimed mission. The Caller sighed and followed him.

The ancient volcanic intrusion was a hundred-meter thumb raised from the forest floor. The Tree crawled partway up the basalt, but the upper faces of the rock were steep and dense enough to resist attachments by major branches.

Three weeks previously a huge ball had howled out of the sky and poised over the rock, discharging other silvery beasts shaped like great sowbugs and guided by creatures not too dissimilar to the Folk. These had quickly raised the black cover which now hung like an optical illusion to the eyes of watchers in the highest nearby branches. The unprecedented event had sparked the hottest debate of the Caller’s memory. Despite opposition from Seida and a few other hotheads, Hilf had finally convinced his sept that the rock was not their affair.

Now, on the claim that one of the brown-coated invaders had climbed out onto a limb, Seida was insisting that he should be charged at once with leading a war party. Unfortunately, at least the claim was true.

Seida halted, beginning to hoot and point. Even without such notice the interloper would have been obvious to Hilf. The creature was some fifty meters away—three healthy leaps, the Caller’s mind abstracted—and below the observers. It was huddled on a branch which acted as a flying buttress for the high towers of the Tree. At near view it was singularly unattractive: appreciably larger than one of the sept-brothers, it bore stubby arms and a head less regular than the smooth bullets of the Folk.

As he pondered, the Caller absently gouged a feather of edible orange fungus out of the branch. The rest of the aliens remained under their roof, equally oblivious of the Folk and their own sept-brother. The latter was crawling a little closer on his branch, manipulating the object he carried while turning his lumpy face toward Seida.

Hilf, blending silently into the foliage behind his brother, let his subconscious float and merge while his surface mind grappled with the unpalatable alternatives. The creature below was technically an invader, but it did not seem the point of a thrust against the Moon Sept. Tradition did not really speak to the matter. Hilf could send out a war party, losing a little prestige to Seida since the younger brother had cried for that course from the beginning. Far worse than the loss of prestige was the risk to the sept which war involved. If the interlopers were as strong as they were big, the Folk would face a grim battle. In addition, the huge silver beasts which had whined and snarled as they crawled onto the rock were a dangerous uncertainty, though they had been motionless since their appearance.

But the only way to avoid war seemed to be for Hilf to kill his sept-brother. Easy enough to do—a sudden leap and both thumbs rammed into the brainbox. The fact Seida was not prepared for an attack was further proof of his unfitness to lead. No one would dispute the Caller’s tale of a missed leap and a long fall. . . . Hilf poised as Seida leaned out to thunder more abuse at the creature below.

The object in the interloper’s hand flashed. The foliage winked cyan and Seida’s head blew apart. Spasming muscles threw his body forward, following its fountaining blood in an arc to the branch below. The killer’s high cackles of triumph pursued Hilf as he raced back to the Heart.

He had been wrong: the aliens did mean war.

Simmons-Brown broke radio contact with a curse. His khakis were sweat-stained and one of the shoulder-board chevrons announcing his lieutenancy was missing. “Top,” he whined to Sergeant Horthy who stood by the open hatch of the command car, “Command Central won’t send a space boat to pick us up, they want us to drive all the way to the north coast for surface pickup to Johnstown. That’s twelve hundred kilometers and anyhow, we can’t even get the cars down off this Lord-stricken rock!”

“Sure we can,” Horthy said, planning aloud rather than deigning to contradict the wispy lieutenant. Simmons-Brown was a well-connected incompetent whose approach to problem solving was to throw a tantrum while other people tried to work around him. “We’ll link tow cables and . . . no, a winch won’t hold but we can blast-set an eyebolt, then rappel the cars down one at a time. How long they give us till pickup?”

“Fifteen days, but—”

A shot bumped the air behind the men. Both whipped around. Horthy’s hand brushed his submachine gun’s grip momentarily before he relaxed. He said, “It’s all plus, just Bonmarcher. I told him he could shut up a couple of the local noisemakers if he stayed below the curve of the rock and didn’t put a hole in our camouflage. The Fed satellite isn’t good enough to pick up small arms fire in this jungle.”

“I distinctly ordered that no shots be fired while we’re on detached duty!” snapped Simmons-Brown, his full mustache trembling like an enraged caterpillar. “Distinctly!”

Sergeant Horthy looked around the six blowers and twenty-three men that made up Firebase Bolo. He sighed. Waiting under commo security, between bare rock and hot plastic, would have been rough at the best of times. With Simmons-Brown added . . . “Sorry, sir,” the sergeant lied straight-faced, “I must have forgotten.”

“Well, get the men moving,” Simmons-Brown ordered, already closing the hatch on his air conditioning. “Those bastards at Central might just leave us if we missed pickup. They’d like that.”

“Oh, we’ll make it fine,” Horthy said, his eyes already searching for a good place to sink the eyebolt. “Once we get off the rock there won’t be any problem. The ground’s flat, and with all the leaves up here cutting off light we won’t have undergrowth to bother about. Just set the compasses on north and follow our noses.”

“Hey, Top,” someone called. “Look what I got!” Bonmarcher had clambered back onto the rock. Behind him, dragged by its lashed ankles, was a deep-chested reptile that had weighed about forty kilos before being decapitated. “Blew this monkey away my first shot,” the artilleryman bragged.

“Nice work,” Horthy replied absently. His mind was on more important things.

The world of the Moon Sept was not a sphere but a triangular section of forest. That wedge, like those of each of the twenty-eight other septs, was dominated by the main root of a Tree. The ground at the center was thin loam over not subsoil but almost a hectare of ancient root. The trunks sprouting from the edge of this mass were old, too, but not appreciably thicker than the other pillars supporting the Tree for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Interwoven stems and branches joined eighty meters in the air, roofing the Heart in a quivering blanket of leaves indistinguishable from that of the rest of the forest. The hollow dome within was an awesome thing even without its implications, and few of the Folk cared to enter it.

Hilf himself feared the vast emptiness and the power it focused, but he had made his decision three years before when the Mothers summoned the previous Caller to the Nest and a breeder’s diet. Hilf had thrust forward and used the flowing consciousness of the whole sept to face down his rivals for the Callership. Now he thumped to the hard floor without hesitation and walked quickly on feet and knuckles to the pit worn in the center of the root by millennia of Callers. His body prone below the lips of the blond rootwood, Hilf’s right claw gashed sap from the Tree and then nicked his own left wrist. Sap and pale blood oozed together, fusing Caller and Tree physically in a fashion dictated by urgency. The intense wood grain rippled from in front of Hilf’s eyes and his mind began to fill with shattered, spreading images of the forest. Each heartbeat sent Hilf out in a further surge and blending until every trunk and branch-bundle had become the Tree, each member of the Moon Sept had blurred into the Folk. A black warmth beneath the threshold of awareness indicated that even the Mothers had joined.

The incident trembled through the sept, a kaleidoscope more of emotion than pictures. Seida capered again, gouted and died in the invader’s raucous laughter. Reflex stropped claws on the bark of a thousand branches. Response was the Caller’s to suggest and guide, not to determine. The first blood-maddened reply by the sept almost overwhelmed Hilf. But his response had been planned, stamped out on the template of experience older than that of any living sept-brother—as old, perhaps, as the joinder of Folk and Tree. The alien nature of the invaders would not be allowed to pervert the traditional response: the remainder of Seida’s hatching would go out to punish the death of their brother.

The pattern of the root began to reimpose itself on Hilf’s eyes. He continued to lie in the hollow, logy with reaction. Most of the sept were returning to their foraging or play, but there were always eyes trained on the knob and the activity there. And scattered throughout the wedge of the Tree were thirty-seven of the Folk, young and fierce in their strength, who drifted purposefully together.

At the forest floor the raindrops, scattered by the triple canopy, were a saturated fog that clung and made breath a struggle. Horthy ignored it, letting his feet and sinewed hand mechanically balance him against the queasy ride of the air-cushion vehicle. His eyes swept the ground habitually. When reminded by his conscious mind, they took in the canopies above also.

The rain had slowed the column. The strangely woven tree boles were never spaced too closely to pass the armored vehicles between them, but frequent clumps of spire-pointed fungus thrust several meters in the air and confused the aisles. Experience had shown that when struck by a car the saprophytes would collapse in a cloud of harmless spores, but in the fog-blurred dimness they sometimes hid an unyielding trunk behind them. The lead car had its driving lights on though the water dazzle made them almost useless, and all six vehicles had closed up more tightly than Horthy cared to see. There was little chance of a Federation ambush, but even a sudden halt would bring on a multiple collision.

The brassy trilling that had grown familiar in the past several hours sounded again from somewhere in the forest. Just an animal, though. The war on Squire’s World was over for the time, and whether the Regiment’s employers had won or lost there was no reason for Horthy to remain as tense as he was. Simmons-Brown certainly was unconcerned, riding in the dry cabin of his command car. That was the second vehicle, just ahead of Horthy’s. The sergeant’s wing gunners huddled in the fighting compartment to either side of him. They were miserable and bored, their minds as empty as their slack, dripping faces.

Irritated but without any real reason to slash the men to vigilance, Horthy glared back along his course. The stubby 150mm howitzer, the cause of the whole Lord-accursed operation, was the fourth vehicle. Only its driver, his head a mirroring ball behind its face shield, was visible. The other five men of the crew were within the open-backed turret whose sheathing was poor protection against hostile fire but enough to keep the rain out.

The ammo transporter was next, sandwiched between the hog and the combat car which brought up the rear of the column. Eighty-kilo shells were stacked ten high on its flat bed, their noses color coded with incongruous gaiety. The nearby mass of explosive drew a wince from Horthy, who knew that if it went off together it could pulverize the basalt they had been emplaced on. On top of the front row of shells where its black fuse winked like a Cyclops’ eye was the gas round, a thin-walled cylinder of K3 which could kill as surely by touch as by inhalation. Everyone in the Regiment respected K3, but Horthy was one of the few who understood it well enough to prefer the gas to conventional weapons in some situations.

In part, that was a comment on his personality as well.

To Horthy’s right, Rob Jenne began to shrug out of his body armor. “Keep it on, trooper,” the sergeant said.

“But Top,” Jenne complained, “it rubs in this wet.” His fingers lifted the segmented porcelain to display the weal chafed over his floating ribs.

“Leave it on,” Horthy repeated, gesturing about the fighting compartment crowded with ammunition and personal gear. “There’s not enough room here for us, even without three suits of armor standing around empty. Besides—”

The gray creature’s leap carried it skimming over Horthy to crash full into Jenne’s chest. Man and alien pitched over the bulkhead. Horthy leaned forward and shot by instinct, using his sidearm instead of the powerful, less handy, tribarrel mounted on the car. His light finger pressure clawed three holes in the creature’s back as it somersaulted into the ground with Jenne.

The forest rang as the transporter plowed into the stem of the grounded howitzer. The gun vehicle seemed to crawl with scores of the scale-dusted aliens, including the one whose spear-sharp thumbs had just decapitated the driver. Horthy twisted his body to spray the mass with blue-green fire. The hog’s bow fulcrummed in the soil as the transporter’s impact lifted its stern. The howitzer upended, its gun tube flopping freely in an arc while inertia vomited men from the turret.

“Watch the bloody ammo!” Horthy shouted into his intercom as a tribarrel hosed one of the aliens off the transporter in a cloud of gore and vaporized metal. Ahead, the command car driver had hit his panic bar in time to save himself, but one of the long-armed creatures was hacking at the vision blocks as though they were the vehicle’s eyes. The rear hatch opened and Simmons-Brown flung himself out screaming with fear. Horthy hesitated. The alien gave up its assault on the optical fibers and sprang on the lieutenant’s back.

Horthy’s burst chopped both of them to death in a welter of blood.

Only body armor saved the sergeant from the attack that sledged his chest forward into the iridium bulkhead. He tried to rise but could not against the weight and the shocks battering both sides of his thorax like paired trip-hammers.

The blows stopped and the weight slid from Horthy’s back and down his ankles. He levered himself upright, gasping with pain as intense as that of the night a bullet-firing machine gun had smashed across his armor. Scratchard, the left gunner, grinned at him. The man’s pale skin was spattered with the same saffron blood that covered his knife.

“They’ve gone off, Top,” Scratchard said. “Didn’t like the tribarrels—even though we didn’t hit much but trees. Didn’t like this, neither.” He stropped his blade clean on the thighs of the beast he had killed with it.

“Bleeding martyrs,” Horthy swore under his breath as he surveyed the damage. The platoon’s own four blowers were operable, but the overturned hog was a total loss and the transporter’s front fan had disintegrated when the steel ground-effect curtain had crumpled into its arc. If there was any equipment yard on Squire’s World that could do the repairs, it sure as cop was too far away from this stretch of jungle to matter. Five men were dead and another, his arm ripped from shoulder to wrist, was comatose under the effects of sedatives, clotting agents, antibiotics, and shock.

“All plus,” Horthy began briskly. “We leave the bodies, leave the two arty blowers too; and I just hope our scaly friends get real curious about them soon. Before we pull out, I want ten of the high explosive warheads unscrewed and loaded into the command car—yeah, and the gas shell, too.”

“Via, Top,” one of the surviving artillerymen muttered, “why we got to haul that stuff around?”

” ‘Cause I said so,” Horthy snarled, “and ain’t I in charge?” His hand jerked the safety pin from one of the delay-fused shells, then spun the dial to one hour. “Now get moving, because we want to be a long way away in an hour.”

The platoon was ten kilometers distant when the shock wave rippled the jungle floor like the head of a drum. The jungle had blown skyward in a gray puree, forming a momentary bubble over a five-hectare crater.

The Moon Sept waited for twilight in a ring about the shattered clearing in which the invaders were halted. The pain that had slashed through every member of the sept at the initial explosion was literally beyond comparison: when agony gouged at the Tree, the brothers had collapsed wherever they stood, spewing waste and the contents of their stomach uncontrollably. Hours later the second blast tore away ten separate trunks and brought down a hectare of canopy. The huge silver beasts had shoved the debris to the side before they settled down in the new clearing. That explosion was bearable on top of the first only because of the black rage of the Mothers now insulating the Moon Sept from full empathy with their Tree; but not even the Mothers could accept further punishment at that level. Hilf moaned in the root-alcove, only dimly aware that he had befouled it in reaction. He was a conduit now, not the Caller in fact, for the eyeless ones had assumed control. The Mothers had made a two-dimensional observation which the males, to whom up and down were more important than horizontal direction, had missed: the invaders were proceeding toward the Nest. They must be stopped.

The full thousand of the Moon Sept blended into the leaves with a perfection achieved in the days in which there had been carnivores in the forest. When one of the Folk moved it was to ease cramps out of a muscle or to catch the sun-pearl on the delicate edge of a claw. They did not forage; the wracking horror of the explosions had left them beyond desire for food.

The effect on the Tree had been even worse. In multi-kilometer circles from both blast sites the wood sagged sapless and foliage curled around its stems. The powerguns alone had been devastating to the Tree’s careful stasis, bolts that shattered the trunks they clipped and left the splinters ablaze in the rain. Only the lightning could compare in destructiveness, and the charges building in the uppermost branches gave warning enough for the Tree to minimize lightning damage.

There would be a further rain of cyan charges, but that could not be helped. The Mothers were willing to sacrifice to necessity, even a Tree or a sept.

The four silvery beasts lay nose to tail among the craters, only fifty meters from the standing trunks in which the Folk waited. Hilf watched from a thousand angles. Only the rotating cones on the foreheads of each of the beasts seemed to be moving. Their riders were restive, however, calling to one another in low voices whose alien nature could not disguise their tension. The sun that had moments before been a spreading blob on the western horizon was now gone; invisible through the clouds but a presence felt by the Folk, the fixed Moon now ruled the sky alone. It was the hour of the Moon Sept, and the command of the Mothers was the loosing of a blood-mad dog to kill.

“Death!” screamed the sept-brothers as they sprang into the clearing.

There was death in plenty awaiting them.

The antipersonnel strips of the cars were live. Hilf was with the first body when it hurtled to within twenty meters of a car and the strips began to fire on radar command. Each of the white flashes that slammed and glared from just above the ground-effect curtains was fanning out a handful of tetrahedral pellets. Where the energy released by the powerguns blasted flesh into mist and jelly, the projectiles ripped like scythes over a wide area. Then the forest blazed as flickering cyan hosed across it.

The last antipersonnel charge went off, leaving screams and the thump of powerguns that were almost silence after the rattling crescendo of explosions.

The sept, the surprising hundreds whom the shock had paralyzed but not slain, surged forward again. The three-limbed Caller of the invaders shouted orders while he fired. The huge silver beasts howled and spun end for end even as Hilf’s brothers began to leap aboard—then the port antipersonnel strips cut loose in a point-blank broadside. For those above the plane of the discharges there was a brief flurry of claws aimed at neck joints and gun muzzles tight against flesh as they fired. Then a grenade, dropped or jarred from a container, went off in the blood-slick compartment of number one car. Mingled limbs erupted. The sides blew out and the bins of ready ammunition gang-fired in a fury of light and gobbets of molten iridium.

The attack was over. The Mothers had made the instant assumption that the third explosion would be on the order of the two previous—and blocked their minds off from a Tree-empathy that might have been lethal. Without their inexorable thrusting, the scatter of sept-brothers fled like grubs from the sun. They had fought with the savagery of their remote ancestors eliminating the great Folk-devouring serpents from the forest.

And it had not been enough.

“Cursed right we’re staying here,” Horthy said in irritation. “This is the only high ground in five hundred kilometers. If we’re going to last out another attack like yesterday’s, it’ll be by letting our K3 roll downhill into those apes. And the Lord help us if a wind comes up.”

“Well, I still don’t like it, Top,” Jenne complained. “It doesn’t look natural.”

Horthy fully agreed with that, though he did so in silence. Command Central had used satellite coverage to direct them to the hill, warning again that even in their emergency it might be a day before a landing boat could be cleared to pick them up. From above, the half-kilometer dome of laterite must have been as obvious as a baby in the wedding party, a gritty red pustule on the gray hide of the continent. From the forest edge it was even stranger, and strange meant deadly to men in Horthy’s position. But only the antipersonnel strips had saved the platoon the night before, and they were fully discharged. They were left with the gas or nothing.

The hill was as smooth as the porous stone allowed it to be and rose at a gentle 1:3 ratio. The curve of its edge was broken by the great humped roots that lurched and knotted out of the surrounding forest, plunging into the hill at angles that must lead them to its center. As Jenne had said, it wasn’t natural. Nothing about this cursed forest was.

“Let’s go,” Horthy ordered. His driver boosted the angle and power of his drive fans and they began to slide up the hill, followed by the other two cars. Strange that the trees hadn’t covered the hill with a network of branches, even if their trunks for some reason couldn’t seat in the rock. Enough ground was clear for the powerguns alone to mince an attack, despite the awesome quickness of the gray creatures. Except that the powerguns were low on ammo, too.

Maybe there wouldn’t be a third attack.

An alien appeared at the hillcrest fifty meters ahead. Horthy killed it by reflex, using a single shot from his tribarrel. There was an opening there, a cave or tunnel mouth, and a dozen more of the figures spewed from it. “Watch the sides!” Horthy roared at Jenne and Scratchard, but all three powerguns were ripping the new targets. Bolts that missed darted off into the dull sky like brief, blue-green suns.

Jenne’s grenade spun into the meter-broad hole as the car overran it. If anything more had planned to come out, that settled it. Scratchard jiggled the controls of the echo sounder, checked the read-out again, and swore, “Via! I don’t see any more surface openings, Top, but this whole mound’s like a fencepost in termite country!”

The three blowers were pulled up close around the opening, the crews awaiting orders. Horthy toothed his lower lip but there was no hesitation in his voice after he decided. “Wixom and Chung,” he said, “get that gas shell out and bring it over here. The rest of you cover the forest—I’ll keep this hole clear.”

The two troopers wrestled the cylinder out of the command car and gingerly carried it to the lip of the opening. The hill was reasonably flat on top and the laterite gave good footing, but the recent shooting had left patches glazed by the powerguns and a film of blood over the whole area. The container should not have ruptured if dropped, but no one familiar with K3 wanted to take the chance.

“All plus,” Horthy said. “Fuse it for ten seconds and drop it in. As soon as that goes down, we’re going to hover over the hole with our fans on max, just to make sure all the gas goes in the right direction. If we can do them enough damage, maybe they’ll leave us alone.”

The heavy shell clinked against something as it disappeared into the darkness but kept falling in the passage cleared by the grenade. It was well below the surface when the bursting charge tore the casing open. That muted whoomp was lost in the shriek of Horthy’s fans as his car wobbled on a column of air a meter above the hilltop. K3 sank even in still air, pooling in invisible deathtraps in the low spots of a battlefield. Rammed by the drive fans, it had permeated the deepest tunnels of the mound in less than a minute.

The rioting air blew the bodies and body parts of the latest victims into a windrow beside the opening. Horthy glanced over them with a professional concern for the dead as he marked time. These creatures had the same long limbs and smooth-faced features as the ones which had attacked in the forest, but there was a difference as well. The genitals of the earlier-seen aliens had been tiny, vestigial or immature, but each of the present corpses carried a dong the length and thickness of a forearm. Bet their girlfriends walk bow-legged, Horthy chuckled to himself.

The hill shook with an impact noticeable even through the insulating air. “Top, they’re tunneling out!” cried the command car’s driver over the intercom.

“Hold your distance!” Horthy commanded as five meters of laterite crumbled away from the base of the hill. The thing that had torn the gap almost filled it. Horthy and every other gunman in the platoon blasted at it in a reaction that went deeper than fear. Even as it gouted fluids under the multiple impacts the thing managed to squirm completely out. The tiny head and the limbs that waved like broomstraws thrust into a watermelon were the only ornamentation on the slug-white torso. The face was blind, but it was the face of the reptiloids of the forest until a burst of cyan pulped its obscenity. Horthy’s tribarrel whipsawed down the twenty-meter belly. A sphincter convulsed in front of the line of shots and spewed a mass of eggs in jelly against the unyielding laterite. The blackening that K3 brought to its victims was already beginning to set in before the platoon stopped firing.

Nothing further attempted to leave the mound.

“Wh-what do we do now, Top?” Jenne asked.

“Wait for the landing boat,” answered Horthy. He shook the cramp out of his hand and pretended that it was not caused by his panicky deathgrip on the tribarrel moments before. “And we pray that it comes before too bleeding long.”

The cold that made Hilf’s body shudder was the residue of the Mothers’ death throes deep in the corridors of the Nest. No warmth remained in a universe which had seen the last generation of the Folk. The yellow leaf-tinge of his blast-damaged Tree no longer concerned Hilf. About him, a psychic pressure rather than a message, he could feel the gathering of the other twenty-eight septs—just too late to protect the Mothers who had summoned them. Except for the Moon Sept’s, the Trees were still healthy and would continue to be so for years until there were too few of the Folk scampering among the branches to spread their pollen. Then, with only the infrequent wind to stimulate new growth, the Trees as well would begin to die.

Hilf began to walk forward on all fours, his knuckles gripping firmly the rough exterior of the Nest. “Top!” cried one of the invaders, and Hilf knew that their eyes or the quick-darting antennae of their silver beasts had discovered his approach. He looked up. The three-limbed Caller was staring at him, his stick extended to kill. His eyes were as empty as Hilf’s own.

The bolt hammered through Hilf’s lungs and he pitched backwards. Through the bloodroar in his ears he could hear the far-distant howl that had preceded the invader’s appearance in the forest.

As if the landing boat were their signal, the thirty thousand living males of the Folk surged forward from the Trees.

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