“Lord, we got one!” cried the trooper whose detector wand pointed toward the table that held the small altar. “That’s a powergun for sure, Captain, nothing else’d read so much iridium!”
The three other khaki-clad soldiers in the room with Captain Esa Mboya tensed and cleared guns they had not expected to need. The villagers of Ain Chelia knew that to be found with a weapon meant death. The ones who were willing to face that were in the Bordj, waiting with their households and their guns for the Slammers to rip them out. Waiting to die fighting.
The houses of Ain Chelia were decorated externally by screens and colored tiles; but the tiles were set in concrete walls and the screens themselves were cast concrete. Narrow cul-de-sacs lined by blank, gated courtyard walls tied the residential areas of the village into knots of strongpoints. The rebels had elected to make their stand outside Ain Chelia proper only because the fortress they had cut into the walls of the open pit mine was an even tougher objective.
“Stand easy, troopers,” said Mboya. The householder gave him a tight smile; he and Mboya were the only blacks in the room—or the village. “I’ll handle this one,” Captain Mboya continued. “The rest of you get on with the search under Sergeant Scratchard. Sergeant—” calling toward the outside door—”come in here for a moment.”
Besides the householder and the trooper, a narrow-faced civilian named Youssef ben Khedda stood in the room. On his face was dawning a sudden and terrible hope. He had been Assistant Superintendent of the ilmenite mine before Kabyles all over the planet rose against their Arabized central government in al-Madinah. The Superintendent was executed, but ben Khedda had joined the rebels to be spared. It was a common enough story to men who had sorted through the ruck of as many rebellions as the Slammers had. But now ben Khedda was a loyal citizen again. Openly he guided G Company from house to house, secretly he whispered to Captain Mboya the names of those who had carried their guns and families to the mine. “Father,” said ben Khedda to the householder, lowering his eyes in a mockery of contrition, “I never dreamed that there would be contraband
Juma al-Habashi smiled back at the small man who saw the chance to become undisputed leader of as much of Chelia as the Slammers left standing and alive. “I’m sure you didn’t dream it, Youssef,” he said more gently than he himself expected. “Why should you, when I’d forgotten the gun myself?”
Sergeant Scratchard stepped inside with a last glance back at the courtyard and the other three men of Headquarters Squad waiting there as security. Within, the first sergeant’s eyes touched the civilians and the tense enlisted men; but Captain Mboya was calm, so Scratchard kept his own voice calm as he said, “Sir?”
“Sergeant,” Mboya said quietly, “you’re in charge of the search. If you need me, I’ll be in here.”
“Sir,” Scratchard agreed with a nod. “Well, get the lead out, daisies!” he snarled to the troopers, gesturing them to the street. “We got forty copping houses to run yet!”
As ben Khedda passed him, the captain saw the villager’s control slip to uncover his glee. The sergeant was the last man out of the room; Mboya latched the street door after him. Only then did he meet the householder’s eyes again. “Hello, Juma” he said in the Kabyle he had sleep-learned rather than the Kikuyu they had both probably forgotten by now. “Brothers shouldn’t have to meet this way, should we?”
Juma smiled in mad irony rather than humor. Then his mouth slumped out of that bitter rictus and he said sadly, “No, we shouldn’t, that’s right.” Looking at his altar and not the soldier, he added, “I knew there’d be a—a unit sent around, of course. But I didn’t expect you’d be leading the one that came here, where I was.”
“Look, I didn’t volunteer for Operation Feirefitz,” Esa blazed. “And Via, how was I supposed to know where you were anyway? We didn’t exactly part kissing each other’s cheeks ten years ago, did we? And here you’ve gone and changed your name even—how was I supposed to keep from stumbling over you?”
Juma’s face softened. He stepped to his brother, taking the other’s wrists in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Of course that was unfair. The—what’s going to happen disturbs me.” He managed a genuine smile. “I didn’t really change my name, you know. ‘Al-Habashi’ just means ‘the Black,’ and it’s what everybody on this planet was going to call me whatever I wanted. We aren’t very common on Dar al-B’heed, you know. Any more than we were in the Slammers.”
“Well, there’s one fewer black in the Slammers than before
The civilian laughed and stepped away. “No, only the hypocrites like Youssef,” he said. “Oh, Ain Chelia is just as Islamic as the capital, as al-Madinah, never doubt. I have a small congregation here . . . and I have the respect of the rest of the community, I think. I’m head of equipment maintenance at the mine, which doesn’t mean assigning work to other people, not here.” He spread his hands, palms down. The fingernails were short and the grit beneath their ends a true black and no mere skin tone. “But I think I’d want to do that anyway, even if I didn’t need to eat to live. I’ve guided more folk to the Way by showing them how to balance a turbine than I do when I mumble about peace.”
Captain Mboya walked to the table on top of which stood an altar triptych, now closed. Two drawers were set between the table legs. He opened the top one. In it were the altar vessels, chased brasswork of local manufacture. They were beautiful both in sum and in detail, but they had not tripped a detector set to locate tool steel and iridium.
The lower drawer held a powergun.
Juma watched without expression as his brother raised the weapon, checked the full magazine, and ran a fingertip over the manufacturer’s stampings. “Heuvelmans of Friesland,” Esa said conversationally. “Past couple contracts have been let on Terra, good products . . . but I always preferred the one I was issued when they assigned me to a tribarrel and I rated a sidearm.” He drew his own pistol from its flap holster and compared it to the weapon from the drawer. “Right, consecutive serial numbers,” the soldier said. He laid Juma’s pistol back where it came from. “Not the sort of souvenir we’re supposed to take with us when we resign from the Slammers, of course.”
Very carefully, and with his eyes on the wall as if searching for flaws in its thick plastered concrete, Juma said, “I hadn’t really . . . thought of it being here. I suppose that’s grounds for carrying me back to a Re-education Camp in al-Madinah, isn’t it?”
His brother’s fist slammed the table. The triptych jumped and the vessels in the upper drawer rang like Poe’s brazen bells. “Re-education? It’s grounds for being burned at the
“That was a long time ago,” said Juma, facing the soldier again.
“I remember at Sphakteria,” continued Esa as if Juma had not spoken, “when they popped the ambush and killed your gunner the first shot. You cut ’em apart like they weren’t shooting at you, too. And then you led the whole platoon clear, driving the jeep with the wick all the way up and working the gun yourself with your right hand. Nobody else could’ve done it.”
“Do you remember,” said Juma, his voice dropping into a dreamy caress as had his brother’s by the time he finished speaking, “the night we left Nairobi? You led the Service of Farewell yourself, there in the starport, with everyone in the terminal joining in. The faith we’d been raised in was just words to me before then, but you made the Way as real as the tiles I was standing on. And I thought ‘Why is he going off to be a soldier? If ever a man was born to lead other men to peace, it was Esa.’ And in time, you did lead me to peace, little brother.”
Esa shook himself, standing like a centipede in his body armor. “I got that out of my system,” he said.
Juma walked over to the altar. “As I got the Slammers out of my system,” he said, and he closed the drawer over the powergun within.
Neither man spoke for moments that seemed longer. At last Juma said, “Will you have a beer?”
“What?” said the soldier in surprise. “That’s permitted on Dar al-B’heed?”
Juma chuckled as he walked into his kitchen. “Oh yes,” he said as he opened a trapdoor in the floor, “though of course not everyone drinks it.” He raised two corked bottles from their cool recess and walked back to the central room. “There are some Arab notions that never sat very well with Kabyles, you know. Many of the notions about women, veils and the like. Youssef ben Khedda’s wife wore a veil until the revolt . . . then she took it off and walked around the streets like the other women of Ain Chelia. I suspect that since your troops swept in, she has her veil on again.”
Juma gestured his brother to one of the room’s simple chairs and took another for himself. “Not everyone has seen as many traitors as we have, little brother,” he said. “Besides, his own father was one of the martyrs whose death ignited the revolt. He was caught in al-Madinah with hypnocubes of Kabyle language instruction. The government called that treason and executed him.”
Esa snorted again. “And didn’t anybody here wonder who shopped the old man to the security police? Via! But I shouldn’t complain—he makes my job easier.” He swallowed the last of his beer, paused a moment, and then pointed the mouth of the bottle at Juma as if it would shoot. “What about you?” the soldier demanded harshly. “Where do you stand?”
“For peace,” said Juma simply, “for the Way. As I always have since I left the Regiment. But . . . my closest friends in the village are dug into the sides of the mine pit now, waiting for you. Or they’re dead already outside al-Madinah.”
The soldier’s hand tightened on the bottle, his fingers darker than the clear brown glass. With a conscious effort of will he set the container down on the terrazzo floor beside his chair. “They’re dead either way,” he said as he stood up. He put his hand on the door latch before he added, pausing but not turning around, “Listen, elder brother. I told you I didn’t ask to be assigned to this mop-up operation; and if I’d known I’d find you here, I’d have taken leave or a transfer. But I’m here now, and I’ll do my duty, do you hear?”
“As the Lord wills,” said Juma from behind him.
The walls of Juma’s house, like those of all the houses in Ain Chelia, were cast fifty centimeters thick to resist the heat of the sun. The front door was on a scale with the walls, close-fitting and too massive to slam. To Captain Mboya, it was the last frustration of the interview that he could elicit no more than a satisfied thump from the door as he stamped into the street.
The ballistic crack of the bullet was all the louder for the stillness of the plateau an instant before. Captain Mboya ducked beneath the lip of the headquarters dugout. The report of the sniper’s weapon was lost in the fire of the powerguns and mortars that answered it. “Via, Captain!” snarled Sergeant Scratchard from the parked commo jeep. “Trying to get yourself killed?”
“Via!” Esa wheezed. He had bruised his chin and was thankful for it, the way a child is thankful for any punishment less than the one imagined. He accepted Scratchard’s silent offer of a fiber-optic periscope. Carefully, the captain raised it to scan what had been the Chelia Mine and was now the Bordj—the Fortress—holding approximately one hundred and forty Kabyle rebels with enough supplies to last a year.
Satellite photographs showed the mine as a series of neatly stepped terraces in the center of a plateau. From the plateau’s surface, nothing of significance could be seen until a flash discovered the position of a sniper the moment before he dodged to fire again.
“It’d be easy,” Sergeant Scratchard said, “if they’d just tried to use the pit as a big foxhole . . . Have Central pop a couple antipersonnel shells overhead and then we go in and count bodies. But they’ve got tunnels and spider holes—and command-detonated mines—laced out from the pit like a giant worm-farm. This one’s going to cost, Esa.”
“Blood and martyrs,” the captain said under his breath. When he had received the Ain Chelia assignment, Mboya had first studied reconnaissance coverage of the village and the mine three kilometers away. It was now a month and a half since the rebel disaster at al-Madinah. The Slammers had raised the siege of the capital in a pitched battle that no one in the human universe was better equipped to fight. Surviving rebels had scattered to their homes to make what preparations they could against the white terror they knew would sweep in the wake of the government’s victory. At Ain Chelia, the preparations had been damned effective. The recce showed clearly that several thousand cubic meters of rubble had been dumped into the central pit of the mine, the waste of burrowings from all around its five kilometer circumference.
“We can drop penetrators all year,” Mboya said, aloud but more to himself than to the noncom beside him. “Blow the budget for the whole operation, and even then I wouldn’t bet they couldn’t tunnel ahead of the shelling faster than we broke rock on top of them.”
“If we storm the place,” said Sergeant Scratchard, “and then go down the tunnels after the holdouts, we’ll have thirty percent casualties if we lose a man.”
A rifle flashed from the pit-edge. Almost simultaneously, one of the company’s three-barreled automatic weapons slashed the edge of the rebel gunpit. The trooper must have sighted in his weapon earlier when a sniper had popped from the pit, knowing the site would be reused eventually. Now the air shook as the powergun detonated a bandolier of grenades charged with industrial explosives. The sniper’s rifle glittered as it spun into the air; her head was by contrast a ragged blur, its long hair uncoiling and snapping outward with the thrust of the explosion.
“Get that gunner’s name,” Mboya snapped to his first sergeant. “He’s earned a week’s leave as soon as we stand down. But to get all the rest of them . . .” and the officer’s voice was the more stark for the fact that it was so controlled, “we’re going to need something better. I think we’re going to have to talk them out.”
“Via, Captain,” said Scratchard in real surprise, “why would they want to come out? They saw at al-Madinah what happens when they faced us in the field. And nobody surrenders when they know all prisoners’re going to be shot.”
“Don’t say nobody,” said Esa Mboya in a voice as crisp as the gunfire bursting anew from the Bordj. “Because that’s just what you’re going to see this lot do.”
The dead end of Juma’s street had been blocked and turned into the company maintenance park between the time Esa left to observe the Bordj and his return to his brother’s house. Skimmers, trucks, and a gun-jeep with an intermittent short in its front fan had been pulled into the cul-de-sac. They were walled on three sides by the courtyards of the houses beyond Juma’s.
Sergeant Scratchard halted the jeep with the bulky commo equipment in the open street, but Mboya swung his own skimmer around the supply truck that formed a makeshift fourth wall for the park. A guard saluted. “Muller!” Esa shouted, even before the skirts of his one-man vehicle touched the pavement. “What in the name of heaven d’ye think you’re about! I told you to set up in the main square!”
Bog Muller stood up beside a skimmer raised on edge. He was a bulky technician with twenty years service in the Slammers. A good administrator, but his khakis were clean. Operation Feirefitz had required the company to move fast and long, and there was no way Muller’s three half-trained subordinates could have coped with the consequent rash of equipment failures. “Ah, well, Captain,” Muller temporized, his eyes apparently focused on the row of wall spikes over Esa’s head, “we ran into Juma and he said—”
“I said,” said Juma, rising from behind the skimmer himself, “that security in the middle of the village would be more of a problem than anyone needed. We’ve got some hotheads; I don’t want any of them to get the notion of stealing a gun-jeep, for instance. The two households there—” he pointed to the entrances now blocked by vehicles, using the grease gun in his right hand for the gesture—”have both been evacuated to the Bordj.” The half-smile he gave his brother could have been meant for either what he had just said or for the words he added, raising both the grease gun and the wire brush he held in his left hand: “Besides, what with the mine closed, I’d get rusty myself with no equipment to work on.”
“After all,” said Muller in what was more explanation than defense, “I knew Juma back when.”
Esa took in his brother’s smile, took in as well the admiring glances of the three Tech I’s who had been watching the civilian work. “All right,” he said to Muller, “but the next time clear it with me. And you,” he said, pointing to Juma, “come on inside for now. We need to talk.”
“Yes, little brother,” the civilian said with a bow as submissive as his tone.
In the surprising cool of his house, Juma stripped off the gritty jellaba he had worn while working. He began washing with a waterless cleaner, rubbing it on with smooth strokes of his palms. On a chain around his neck glittered a tiny silver crucifix, normally hidden by his clothing.
“You didn’t do much of a job persuading your friends to your Way of Peace,” Esa said with an anger he had not intended to display.
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t,” the civilian answered mildly. “They were polite enough, even the Kaid, Ali ben Cheriff. But they pointed out that the Arabizers in al-Madinah intended to stamp out all traces of Kabyle culture as soon as possible . . . which of course was true. And we did have our own martyr here in Ain Chelia, as you know. I couldn’t—” Juma looked up at his brother, his dark skin glistening beneath the lather—”argue with their
“Go on,” said the captain. His hand touched the catches of his body armor. He did not release them, however, even though the hard-suit was not at the moment protection against any physical threat.
“Well, the National Army was outnumbered ten to one by the troops we could field from the backlands,” Juma continued as he stepped into the shower. “That’s without defections, too. And weapons aren’t much of a problem. Out there, any jack-leg mechanic can turn out a truck piston in his back room. The tolerances aren’t any closer on a machine gun. But what we didn’t expect—” he raised his deep voice only enough to override the hiss of the shower—”was that all six of the other planets of the al-Ittihad al-Arabi—” for Arab Union Juma used the Arabic words, and they rasped in his throat like a file on bars—”would club together and help the sanctimonious butchers in al-Madinah hire the Slammers.”
He stepped shining from the stall, no longer pretending detachment or that he and his brother were merely chatting. “I visited the siege lines then,” Juma rumbled, wholly a preacher and wholly a man, “and I begged the men from Ain Chelia to come home while there was time. To make peace, or if they would not choose peace then at least to choose life—to lie low in the hills till the money ran out and the Slammers were off on somebody else’s contract, killing somebody else’s enemies. But my friends would stand with their brothers . . . and so they did, and they died with their brothers, too many of them, when the tanks came through their encirclement like knives through a goat-skin.” His smile crooked and his voice dropped. “And the rest came home and told me they should have listened before.”
“They’ll listen to you now,” said Esa, “if you tell them to come out of the Bordj without their weapons and surrender.”
Juma began drying himself on a towel of coarse local cotton. “Will they?” he replied without looking up.
Squeezing his fingers against the bands of porcelain armor over his stomach, Esa said, “The Re-education Camps outside al-Madinah aren’t a rest cure, but there’s too many journalists in the city to let them be too bad. Even if the holdouts are willing to die, they surely don’t want their whole families wiped out. And if we have to clear the Bordj ourselves—well, there won’t be any prisoners, you know that. . . . There wouldn’t be even if we wanted them, not after we blast and gas the tunnels, one by one.”
“Yes, I gathered the Re-education Camps aren’t too bad,” the civilian agreed, walking past his brother to don a light jellaba of softer weave than his work garment. “I gather they’re not very full, either. A—a cynic, say, might guess that most of the trouble-makers don’t make it to al-Madinah where journalists can see them. That they die in the desert after they’ve surrendered. Or they don’t surrender, of course. I don’t think Ali ben Cheriff and the others in the Bordj are going to surrender, for instance.”
“Damn you!” the soldier shouted, “The choice is
“Well, you see,” said Juma, watching the knuckles of his right hand twist against the palm of his left, “they know as well as I do that the only transport you arrived with was the minimum to haul your own supplies. There’s no way you could carry over a hundred prisoners back to the capital. No way in . . . Hell.”
Esa slammed the wall with his fist. Neither the concrete nor his raging expression showed any reaction to the loud impact. “I could be planning to put them in commandeered ore haulers, couldn’t I?” he said. “Some of them must be operable!”
Juma stepped to the younger man and took him by the wrists as gently as a shepherd touching a newborn lamb. “Little brother,” he said, “swear to me that you’ll turn anyone who surrenders over to the authorities in al-Madinah, and I’ll do whatever I can to get them to surrender.”
The soldier snatched his hands away. He said, “Do you think I wouldn’t lie to you because we’re brothers? Then you’re a fool!”
“What I think, what anyone thinks, is between him and the Lord,” Juma said. He started to move toward his brother again but caught the motion and turned it into a swaying only. “If you will swear to me to deliver them unharmed, I’ll carry your message into the Bordj.”
Esa swung open the massive door. On the threshold he paused and turned to his brother. “Every one of my boys who doesn’t make it,” he said in a venomous whisper. “His blood’s on your head.”
Captain Mboya did not try to slam the door this time. He left it standing open as he strode through the courtyard. “Scratchard!” he roared to the sergeant with an anger not meant for the man on whom it fell. “Round up ben Khedda!” Mboya threw himself down on his skimmer and flicked the fans to life. Over their whine he added, “Get him up to me at the command dugout. Now!”
With the skill of long experience, the captain spun his one-man vehicle past the truck and the jeep parked behind it. Sergeant Scratchard gloomily watched his commander shriek up the street. The captain shouldn’t have been going anywhere without the jeep, his commo link to Central, in tow. No point in worrying about that, though. The noncom sighed and lifted the jeep off the pavement. Ben Khedda would be at his house or in the cafe across the street from it. Scratchard hoped he had a vehicle of his own and wouldn’t have to ride the jump seat of the jeep. He didn’t like to sit that close to a slimy traitor.
But Jack Scratchard knew he’d done worse things than sit with a traitor during his years with the Slammers; and, needs must, he would again.
The mortar shell burst with a white flash. Seconds later came a distant
“It’s just our harassing fire,” said Captain Mboya. “You rag-heads don’t have high-angle weapons, thank the Lord. Of course, all our shells do is keep them down in their tunnels.”
The civilian swallowed. “Your sergeant,” he said, “told me you needed me at once.” Scratchard stirred in the darkness at the other end of the dugout, but he made no comment of his own.
“Yeah,” said Mboya, “but when I cooled off I decided to take a turn around the perimeter. Took a while. It’s a bloody long perimeter for one cursed infantry company to hold.”
“Well, I,” ben Khedda said, “I came at once, sir. I recognize the duty all good citizens owe to our liberators.” Firing broke out, a burst from a projectile weapon answered promiscuously by powerguns. Ben Khedda winced again. Cyan bolts from across the pit snapped overhead, miniature lightning followed by miniature thunder.
Without looking up, Captain Mboya keyed his commo helmet and said, “Thrasher Four to Thrasher Four-Three. Anybody shoots beyond his sector again and it’s ten days in the glass house when we’re out of this cop.” The main unit in Scratchard’s jeep purred as it relayed the amplified signal. All the firing ceased.
“Will ben Cheriff and the others in the Bordj listen to you, do you think?” the captain continued.
For a moment, ben Khedda did not realize the officer was speaking to him. He swallowed again, “Well, I . . . I can’t say,” he blurted. He began to curl in his upper lip as if to chew a moustache, though he was clean shaven. “They aren’t friends of mine, of course, but if God wills and it would help you if I addressed them over a loudspeaker as to their true duties as citizens of Dar al-B’heed—”
“We hear you were second in command of the Chelia contingent at Madinah,” Mboya said inflexibly. “Besides, there won’t be a loudspeaker, you’ll be going in person.”
Horror at past and future implications warred in ben Khedda’s mind and froze his tongue. At last he stammered, “Oh no, C-Captain, before G-God, they’ve lied to you! That accurst al-Habashi wishes to lie away my life! I did no more than any man would do to stay alive!”
Mboya waved the other to silence. The pale skin of his palm winked as another shell detonated above the Bordj. When the echoes died away, the captain went on in a voice as soft as a leopard’s paw, “You will tell them that if they all surrender, their lives will be spared and they will not be turned over to the government until they are actually in al-Madinah. You will say that I swore that on my honor and on the soul of my house.”
Ben Khedda raised a hand to interrupt, but the soldier’s voice rolled on implacably, “They must deposit all their arms in the Bordj and come out to be shackled. The tunnels will be searched. If there are any holdouts, three of those who surrendered will be shot for each holdout. If there are any booby traps, ten of those who surrendered will be shot for every man of mine who is injured.”
Mboya drew a breath, long and deep as that of a power lifter. The civilian, tight as a house-jack, strangled his own words as he waited for the captain to conclude. “You will say that after they have done as I have said, all of them will be loaded on ore carriers with sun-screens. You will explain that there will be food and water brought from the village to support them. And you will tell them that if some of them are wounded or are infirm, they may ride within an ambulance which will be air-conditioned.
“Do you understand?”
For a moment, ben Khedda struggled with an inability to phrase his thoughts in neutral terms. He was unwilling to meet the captain’s eyes, even with the darkness as a cushion. Finally he said, “Captain—I, I trust your word as I would trust that of no man since the Prophet, on whom be peace. When you say the lives of the traitors will be spared, there can be no doubt, may it please God.”
“Trust has nothing to do with it,” said Captain Mboya without expression. “I have told you what you will say, and you will say it.”
“Captain, Captain,” whimpered the civilian, “I understand. The trip is a long one and surely some of the most troublesome will die of heat stroke. They will know that themselves. But there will be no . . . general tragedy? I must live here in Ain Chelia with the friends of the, the traitors. You see my position?”
“Your position,” Mboya repeated with scorn that drew a chuckle from Scratchard across the dugout. “Your position is that unless you talk your friends there out of the Bordj—” he gestured. Automatic weapons began to rave and chatter as if on cue. “Unless you go down there and come back with them, I’ll have you shot on your doorstep for a traitor, and your body left to the dogs. That’s your position.”
“Cheer up, citizen,” Sergeant Scratchard said. “You’re getting a great chance to pick one side and stick with it. The change’ll do you good.”
Ben Khedda gave a despairing cry and stood, his dun jellaba flapping as a lesser shadow. He stared over the rim of the dugout into a night now brightened only by stars and a random powergun bolt, harassment like that of the mortars. He turned and shouted at the motionless captain, “It’s easy for you—you go where your colonel sends you, you kill who he tells you to kill. And then you come all high and moral over the rest of us, who have to make our own decisions! You despise me? At least I’m a man and not somebody’s dog!”
Mboya laughed harshly. “You think Colonel Hammer told us how to clear the back country? Don’t be a fool. My official orders are to cooperate with the District Governor and to send all prisoners back to al-Madinah for internment. The colonel can honestly deny ordering anything else—and letting him do that is as much a part of my job as co-operating with a governor who knows that anybody really sent to a Re-education Camp will be back in his hair in a year.”
There was a silence in the dugout. At last the sergeant said, “He can’t go out now, sir.” The moan of a ricochet underscored the words.
“No, no, we’ll have to wait till dawn,” the captain agreed tiredly. As if ben Khedda were an unpleasant machine, he added, “Get him the hell out of my sight, though. Stick him in the bunker with the Headquarters Squad and tell them to hold him till called for. Via! but I wish this operation was over.”
The guns spat at one another all through the night. It was not the fire that kept Esa Mboya awake, however, but rather the dreams that plagued him with gentle words whenever he did manage to nod off.
“Well,” said Juma, scowling judiciously at the gun-jeep on the rack before him, “I’d say we pull the wiring harness first. Half the time that’s the whole problem—grit gets into the conduits and when the fans vibrate, it saws through the insulation. Even if we’re wrong, we haven’t done anything that another few months of running on Dar al-B’heed wouldn’t have required anyway.”
“You should have seen him handle one a’ these when I first knew him,” said Bog Muller proudly to his subordinates. “Beat it to hell, he would, Via—bring her in with rock scrapes on both sides that he’d put on at the same time!”
The Kikuyu civilian touched a valve and lowered the rack. His hand caressed the sand-burnished skirt of the jeep as it sank past him. The joystick controls were in front of the left-hand seat. Finesse was a matter of touch and judgment, not sophisticated instrumentation. He waggled the stick gently, remembering. In front of the other seat was the powergun, its three iridium barrels poised to rotate and hose out destruction in a nearly continuous stream.
“You won’t believe it,” continued the technician, “but I saw it with my own eyes—” that was a lie—”this boy here steering with one hand and working the gun with the other. Bloody miracle that was—even if he did give Maintenance more trouble than any three other troopers.”
“You learn a lot about a machine when you push it, when you stress it,” said Juma. His fingers reached for but did not quite touch the spade grips of the tribarrel. “About men, too,” he added, and lowered his hand. He looked Muller in the face and said, “What I learned about myself was that I didn’t want to live in a universe that had no better use for me than to gun other people down. I won’t claim to be saving souls . . . because that’s in the Lord’s hands and he uses what instruments he desires. But at least I’m not taking lives.”
One of the younger techs coughed; Muller nodded heavily and said, “I know what you mean, Juma. I’ve never regretted getting into Maintenance right off the way I did. Especially times like today. . . But Via, if we stand here fanning our lips, we won’t get a curst bit of work done, will we?”
The civilian chuckled without asking for an explanation of ‘especially times like today.’ “Sure, Bog,” he said, latching open the left-side access ports one after another.
“Somebody dig out a 239B harness and we’ll see if I remember as much as I think I do about changing one of these beggars.” He glanced up at the truncated mass of the plateau, wiping his face with a bandanna. “Things have quieted down since the sun came up,” he remarked. “Even if I weren’t—dedicated to the Way—I know too many people on both sides to like to hear the shooting at the mine.”
None of the other men responded. At the time it did not occur to Juma that there might be something about his words that embarrassed them.
“There’s a flag,” said Scratchard, his eyes pressed tight to the lenses of the periscope. “Blood and martyrs, Cap—there’s a flag!”
“No shooting!” Mboya ordered over his commo as he moved. “Four to all Thrasher units, stand to but no shooting!”
All around the mine crater, men watched a white rag flapping on the end of a long wooden pole. Some looked through periscopes like those in the command dugout, others over the sights of their guns in hope that something would give them an excuse to fire. “Well, what are they waiting for?” the captain muttered.
“It’s ben Khedda,” guessed Scratchard without looking away from the flag. “He was just scared green to go out there. Now he’s just as scared to come back.”
The flag staggered suddenly. Troopers tensed, but a moment later an unarmed man climbed full height from the Bordj. The high sun threw his shadow at his feet like a pit. Standing as erect as his age permitted him, Ali ben Cheriff took a step toward the Slammers’ lines. Wind plucked at his jellaba and white beard; the rebel leader was a patriarch in appearance as well as in simple fact. On his head was the green turban that marked him as a pilgrim to al-Meccah on Terra. He was as devotedly Moslem as he was Kabyle, and he—like most of the villagers—saw no inconsistencies in the facts. To ben Cheriff it was no more necessary to become an Arab in order to accept Islam than it had seemed necessary to Saint Paul that converts to Christ first become Jews.
“We’ve won,” the captain said as he watched the figure through the foreshortened lenses. “That’s the Kaid, ben Cheriff. If he comes, they all do.”
Up from the hidden tunnel clambered an old woman wearing the stark black of a matron. The Kaid paused and stretched back his hand, but the woman straightened without help. Together the old couple began to walk toward the waiting guns.
The flagstaff flapped erect again. Gripping it like a talisman, Youssef ben Khedda stepped from the tunnel mouth where the Kaid had shouldered aside his hesitation. He picked his way across the ground at increasing speed. When ben Khedda passed the Kaid and his wife, he skirted them widely as if he were afraid of being struck. More rebels were leaving the Bordj in single file. None of them carried visible weapons. Most, men and women alike, had their eyes cast down; but a red-haired girl leading a child barely old enough to walk glared around with the haughty rage of a lioness.
“Well, no rest for the wicked,” grunted Sergeant Scratchard. Settling his submachine gun on its sling, he climbed out of the dugout. “Headquarters Squad to me,” he ordered. Bent over against the possible shock of a fanatic’s bullets, experienced enough to know the reality of his fear and brave enough to face it nonetheless, Scratchard began to walk to the open area between pit and siege lines where the prisoners would be immobilized. The seven men of HQ Squad followed; their corporal drove the jeep loaded with leg irons.
One of the troopers raised his powergun to bar ben Khedda. Scratchard waved and called an order; the trooper shrugged and let the Kabyle pass. The sergeant gazed after him for a moment, then spat in the dust and went on about the business of searching and securing the prisoners.
Youssef ben Khedda was panting with tension and effort as he approached the dugout, but there was a hard glint of triumph in his eyes as well. He knew he was despised, by those he led no less than by those who had driven him; but he had dug the rebels from their fortress when all the men and guns of the Slammers might have been unable to do so without him. Now he saw a way to ride the bloody crest to permanent power in Ain Chelia. He tried to set his flag in the ground. It scratched into the rocky soil, then fell with a clatter. “I have brought them to you,” ben Khedda said in a haughty voice.
“Some of them, at least,” said Mboya, his face neutral. Rebels continued to straggle from the Bordj, their faces sallow from more than the day they had spent in their tunnels. The Kaid had submitted to the shackles with a stony indifference. His wife was weeping beside him, not for herself but for her husband. Two of the nervous troopers were fanning the prisoners with detector wands set for steel and iridium. Anything the size of a razor blade would register. A lead bludgeon or a brass-barreled pistol would be ignored, but there were some chances you took in the service of practicality.
“As God wills, they are all coming, you know that,” ben Khedda said, assertive with dreamed-of lordship. “If they were each in his separate den, many of them would fight till you blew them out or buried them. All are willing to die, but most would not willingly kill their fellows, their families.” His face worked. “A fine joke, is it not?” If what had crossed ben Khedda’s lips had been a smile, then it transmuted to a sneer. “They would have been glad to kill me first, I think, but they were afraid that you would have been angry.”
“More fools them,” said the captain.
“Yes . . .” said the civilian, drawing back his face like a rat confronting a terrier, “more fools them. And now you will pay me.”
“Captain,” said the helmet speaker in the first sergeant’s voice, “this one says he’s the last.”
Mboya climbed the four steps to surface level. Scratchard waved and pointed to the Kabyle who was just joining the scores of his fellows. The number of those being shackled in a continuous chain at least approximated the one hundred and forty who were believed to have holed up in the Bordj. Through the clear air rang hammer strokes as a pair of troopers stapled the chain to the ground at intervals, locking the prisoners even more securely into the killing ground. The captain nodded. “We’ll give it a minute to let anybody still inside have second thoughts,” he said over the radio. “Then the search teams go in.” He looked at ben Khedda. “All right,” he said, “you’ve got your life and whatever you think you can do with it. Now, get out of here before I change my mind.”
Mboya gazed again at the long line of prisoners. He was unable not to imagine them as they would look in an hour’s time, after the Bordj had been searched and their existence was no longer a tool against potential holdouts. He could not have broken with the Way of his childhood, however, had he not replaced it with a sense of duty as uncompromising. Esa Mboya, Captain, G Company, Hammer’s Regiment, would do whatever was required to accomplish the task set him. They had been hired to pacify the district, not just to quiet it down for six months or a year.
Youssef ben Khedda had not left. He was still facing Mboya, as unexpected and unpleasant as a rat on the pantry shelf. He was saying, “No, there is one more thing you must do, as God wills, before you leave Ain Chelia. I do not compel it—” the soldier’s face went blank with fury at the suggestion—”your duty that you talk of compels you. There is one more traitor in the village, a man who did not enter the Bordj because he thought his false god would preserve him.”
“Little man,” said the captain in shock and a genuine attempt to stop the words he knew were about to be said, “don’t—”
“Add the traitor Juma al-Habashi to these,” the civilian cried, pointing to the fluttering jellabas of the prisoners. “Put him there or his whines of justice and other words and his false god will poison the village again like a dead rat stinking in a pool. Take him!”
The two men stood with their feet on a level. The soldier’s helmet and armor increased his advantage in bulk, however, and his wrath lighted his face like a cleansing flame. “Shall I slay my brother for thee, lower-than-a-dog?” he snarled.
Ben Khedda’s face jerked at the verbal slap, but with a wave of his arm he retorted, “Will you now claim to follow the Way yourself? There stand one hundred and thirty-four of your brothers. Make it one more, as your duty commands!”
The absurdity was so complete that the captain trembled between laughter and the feeling that he had gone insane. Carefully, his tone touched more with wonder than with rage until the world should return to focus, the Kikuyu said, “Shall I, Esa Mboya, order the death of Juma Mboya? My brother, flesh of my father and of my mother . . . who held my hand when I toddled my first steps upright?”
Now at last ben Khedda’s confidence squirted out like blood from a slashed carotid. “The name—” he said. “I didn’t
Mboya’s world snapped into place again, its realities clear and neatly dovetailed. “Get out, filth,” he said harshly, “and wonder what I plan for you when I come down from this hill.”
The civilian stumbled back toward his car as if his body and not his spirit had received the mortal wound. The soldier considered him dispassionately. If ben Khedda stayed in Ain Chelia, he wouldn’t last long. The Slammers would be out among the stars, and the central government a thousand kilometers away in al-Madinah would be no better able to protect a traitor. Youssef ben Khedda would be a reminder of friends and relatives torn by blasts of cyan fire with every step he took on the streets of the village. Those steps would be few enough, one way or the other.
And if in the last fury of his well-earned fear ben Khedda tried to kill Juma—well, Juma had made his bed, his Way . . . he could tread it himself. Esa laughed. Not that the traitor would attempt murder personally. Even in the final corner, rats of ben Khedda’s stripe tried to persuade other rats to bite for them.
“Captain,” murmured Scratchard’s voice over the command channel, “think we’ve waited long enough?”
Instead of answering over the radio, Mboya nodded and began walking the hundred meters to where his sergeant stood near the prisoners. The rebels’ eyes followed him, some with anger, most in only a dull appreciation of the fact that he was the nearest moving object on a static landscape. Troopers had climbed out of their gun pits all around the Bordj. Their dusty khaki blended with the soil, but the sun woke bright reflections from the barrels of their weapons.
“The search teams are ready to go in, sir,” Scratchard said, speaking in Dutch but stepping a pace further from the shackled Kaid besides.
“Right,” the captain agreed. “I’ll lead the team from Third Platoon.”
“Where are the trucks, unbeliever?” demanded Ali ben Cheriff. His voice started on a quaver but lashed at the end.
“—there’s plenty cursed things for you to do besides crawling down a hole with five pongoes. Leave it to the folks whose job it is.”
“There’s nothing left of this operation that Mendoza can’t wrap up,” Mboya said. “Believe me, he won’t like doing it any less, either.”
“Where are the trucks to carry away our children, dog and son of dogs?” cried the Kaid. Beneath the green turban, the rebel’s face was as savage and unyielding as that of a trapped wolf.
“It’s not for fun,” Mboya went on. “There’ll be times I’ll have to send boys out to be killed while I stay back, safe as a staff officer, and run things. But if I lead from the front when I can, when it won’t compromise the mission if I do stop a load—then they’ll do what they’re told a little sharper when it’s me that says it the next time.”
The Kaid spat. Lofted by his anger and the breeze, the gobbet slapped the side of Mboya’s helmet and dribbled down onto his porcelain-sheathed shoulder.
Scratchard turned. Ignoring the automatic weapon slung ready to fire under his arm, he drew a long knife from his boot sheath instead. Three strides separated the noncom from the line of prisoners. He had taken two of them before Mboya caught his shoulder and stopped him. “Easy, Jack,” the captain said.
Ben Cheriff ‘s gaze was focused on the knife-point. Fear of death could not make the old man yield, but neither was he unmoved by the approach of its steel-winking eye. Scratchard’s own face had no more expression than did the knife itself. The Kaid’s wife lunged at the soldier to the limit of her chain, but the look Scratchard gave her husband dried her throat around the curses within it.
Mboya pulled his man back. “Easy,” he repeated. “I think he’s earned that, don’t you?” He turned Scratchard gently. He did not point out, nor did he need to do so, the three gun-jeeps which had swung down the fifty meters in front of the line of captives. Their crews were tense and still with the weight of their orders. They met Mboya’s eyes comprehendingly but without enthusiasm.
“Right,” said Scratchard mildly. “Well, the quicker we get down that hole, the quicker we get the rest of the job done. Let’s go.”
The five tunnel rats from Third Platoon were already squatting at the entrance from which the rebels had surrendered. Captain Mboya began walking toward them. “You stay on top, Sergeant,” he said. “You don’t need to prove anything.”
Scratchard cursed without heat. “I’ll wait at the tunnel mouth unless something pops. You’ll be out of radio contact and I’ll be curst if I trust anybody else to carry you a message.”
The tunnel rats were rising to their feet, silent men whose faces were in constant, tiny motion. They carried detector wands and sidearms; two had even taken off their body armor and stood in the open air looking paler than shelled shrimp. Mboya cast a glance back over his shoulder at the prisoners and the gun-jeeps beyond. “Do you believe in sin, Sergeant?” he asked.
Scratchard glanced sidelong at his superior. “Don’t know, sir. Not really my field.”
“My brother believes in it,” said the captain, “but I guess he left the Slammers before you transferred out of combat cars. And he isn’t here now, Jack, I am, so I guess we’ll have to dispense with sin today.”
“Team Three ready, sir,” said the black-haired man who probably would have had sergeant’s pips had he not been stripped to the waist.
“Right,” said Mboya. Keying his helmet he went on, “Thrasher to Club One, Club Two. Let’s see what they left us, boys.” And as he stepped toward the tunnel’s mouth, without really thinking about the words until he spoke them, he added, “And the Lord be with us all.”
The bed of the turbine driving Youssef ben Khedda’s car was enough out of true that the vehicle announced its own approach unmistakably. Juma wondered in the back of his mind what brought the little man, but his main concentration was on the plug connector he was trying to reeve through a channel made for something a size smaller. At last the connector shifted the last two millimeters necessary for Juma to slip a button-hook deftly above it. The three subordinate techs gave a collective sigh, and Bog Muller beamed in reflected glory.
“Father!” ben Khedda wheezed, oblivious to the guard frowning over his powergun a pace behind, “Father! You’ve got to . . . I’ve got to talk to you. You must!”
“All right, Youssef,” the Kikuyu said. “In a moment.” He tugged the connector gently through its channel and rotated it to mate with the gun leads.
Ben Khedda reached for Juma’s arm in a fury of impatience. One of the watching techs caught the Kabyle’s wrist. “Touch him, rag-head,” the trooper said, “and you better be able to grow a new hand.” He thrust ben Khedda back with more force than the resistance demanded.
Juma straightened from the gun-jeep and put an arm about the shoulders of the angry trooper. “Worse job than replacing all the fans,” he said in Dutch, “but it gives you a good feeling to finish it. Run the static test, if you would, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He squeezed the trooper, released him, and added in Kabyle to his fellow villager, “Come into my house, then, Youssef. What is it you need of me?”
Ben Khedda’s haste and nervousness were obvious from the way his car lay parked with its skirt folded under the front from an over-hasty stop. Juma paused with a frown for more than the mechanical problem. He bent to lift the car and let the skirt spring away from the fan it was probably touching at the moment.
Juma had left his courtyard gate unlatched since he was working only a few meters away. Before ben Khedda had reached the door of the house, he was spilling the words that tormented him. “Before God, you have to talk to your brother or he’ll kill me, Father, he’ll kill
“Youssef,” said the Kikuyu as he swung his door open and gestured the other man toward the cool interior, “I pray—I have been praying—that at worst, none of our villagers save those in the Bordj are in danger.” He smiled too sadly to be bitter. “You would know better than I, I think, who may have been marked out to Esa as an enemy of the government. But he’s not a cruel man, my brother, only a very—determined one. He won’t add you to whatever list he has out of mere dislike.”
The Kabyle’s lips worked silently. His face was tortured by the explanation that he needed to give but could not. “Father,” he pleaded, “you
Ben Khedda was gripping the Kikuyu by both sleeves. Juma detached himself carefully and said, “Youssef, why would my brother want you killed—of all the men in Ain Chelia? Did something happen?”
The smaller man jerked himself back with a dawning horror in his eyes. “You planned this with him, didn’t you?” he cried. His arm thrust at the altar as if to sweep away the closed triptych. “This is all a lie, your prayers, your
Juma stared at the weeping man. There was something unclean about ben Khedda. His back rose and fell beneath the jellaba like the distended neck of a python bolting a young child. “Youssef,” the Kikuyu said as gently as he could, “you may stay here or leave, as you please. I promise you that I will speak to Esa this evening, on your behalf as well as that of . . . others, all the others. Is there anything you need to tell me?”
Only the tears responded.
The dazzling sun could not sear away Juma’s disquiet as he walked past the guard and the barricading truck. Something was wrong with the day, with the very silence. Though all things were with the Lord.
The jeep’s inspection ports had been latched shut. The techs had set a pair of skimmers up on their sides as the next project. The civilian smiled. “Think she’ll float now?” he asked the trooper who had grabbed ben Khedda. “Let’s see if I remember how to put one of these through her paces. You can’t trust a fix, you see, till you’ve run her under full load.”
There was a silence broken by the whine of ben Khedda’s turbine firing. Juma managed a brief prayer that the Kabyle would find a Way open to him—knowing as he prayed that the impulse to do so was from his mind and not at all from his heart.
“Juma, ah,” Bog Muller was trying to say. “Ah, look, this isn’t—isn’t our idea, it’s the job, you know. But the captain—” none of the four techs were looking anywhere near the civilian—”he ordered that you not go anywhere today until, until . . . it was clear.”
The silence from the Bordj was a cloak that smothered Juma and squeezed all the blood from his face. “Not that you’re a prisoner, but, ah, your brother thought it’d be better for both of you if you didn’t see him or call him till—after.”
“I see,” said the civilian, listening to his own voice as if a third party were speaking. “Until after he’s killed my friends, I suppose . . . yes.” He began walking back to his house, his sandaled feet moving without being consciously directed. “Juma—” called Muller, but the tech thought better of the words or found he had none to say.
Ben Khedda had left the door ajar. It was only by habit that Juma himself closed it behind him. The dim coolness within was no balm to the fire that skipped across the surface of his mind. Kneeling, the Kikuyu unlatched and opened wide the panels of his altar piece. It was his one conscious affectation, a copy of a triptych painted over a millennium before by the Master of Hell, Hieronymus Bosch. Atop a haywain rode a couple. Their innocence was beset by every form of temptation in the world, the World. Where would their Way take them? No doubt where it took all Mankind, saving the Lord’s grace, to Hell and the grave—good intentions be damned, hope be damned, innocence be damned. . . . Obscurely glad of the harshness of the tiles on which he knelt, Juma prayed for his brother and for the souls of those who would shortly die in flames as like to those of Hell as man could create. He prayed for himself as well, for he was damned to endure what he had not changed. They were all travelers together on the Way.
After a time, Juma sighed and raised his head. A demon faced him on the triptych; it capered and piped through its own blue snout. Not for the first time, Juma thought of how pleasant it would be to personify his own weakness and urgings. Then he could pretend that they were somehow apart from the true Juma Mboya, who remained whole and incorruptible.
The lower of the two drawers beneath the altar was not fully closed.
Even as he drew it open, Juma knew from the lack of resistance that the drawer was empty. The heavy-barreled powergun had rested within when ben Khedda had accompanied the search team. It was there no longer.
Striding swiftly and with the dignity of a leopard, Mboya al-Habashi crossed the room and his courtyard. He appeared around the end of the truck barricade so suddenly that Bog Muller jumped. The Kikuyu pointed his index finger with the deliberation of a pistol barrel. “Bog,” he said very clearly, “I need to call my brother at once or something terrible will happen.”
“Via, man,” said the technician, looking away, “you know how I feel about it, but it’s not my option. You don’t leave here, and you don’t call, Juma—or it’s my ass.”
“Lord blast you for a fool!” the Kikuyu shouted, taking a step forward. All four technicians backed away with their hands lifting. “Will you—” But though there was confusion on the faces watching him, there was nothing of assent, and there was no time to argue. As if he had planned it from the start, Juma slipped into the left saddle of the jeep he had just rewired and gunned the fans.
With an oath, Bog Muller grappled with the civilian. The muscles beneath Juma’s loose jellaba had shifted driving fans beneath ore carriers in lieu of a hydraulic jack. He shrugged the technician away with a motion as slight and as masterful as that of an earth tremor. Juma waggled the stick, using the vehicle’s skirts to butt aside two of the younger men who belatedly tried to support their chief. Then he had the jeep clear of the repair rack and spinning on its own axis.
Muller scrambled to his feet again and waited for Juma to realize there was not enough room between truck and wall for the jeep to pass. If the driver himself had any doubt, it was not evident in the way he dialed on throttle and leaned to bring the right-hand skirt up an instant before it scraped the courtyard wall. Using the wall as a running surface and the force of his turn to hold him there, Juma sent the gun-jeep howling sideways around the barricade and up the street.
“Hey!” shouted the startled guard, rising from the shady side of the truck. “Hey!” and he shouldered his weapon.
A technician grabbed him, wrestling the muzzle of the gun skyward. It was the same lanky man who had caught ben Khedda when he would have plucked at Juma’s sleeve. “Via!” cried the guard, watching the vehicle corner and disappear up the main road to the mine. “We weren’t supposed to let him by!”
“We’re better off explaining that,” said the tech, “than we are telling the captain how we just killed his brother. Right?”
The street was empty again. All five troopers stared at it for some moments before any of them moved to the radio.
Despite his haste, Youssef ben Khedda stopped his car short of the waiting gun-jeeps and began walking toward the prisoners. His back crept with awareness of the guns and the hard-eyed men behind them; but, as God willed, he had chosen and there could be no returning now.
The captain—his treacherous soul was as black as his skin—was not visible. No doubt he had entered the Bordj as he had announced he would. Against expectation, and as further proof that God favored his cause, ben Khedda saw no sign of that damnable first sergeant either. If God willed it, might they both be blasted to atoms somewhere in a tunnel!
The soldiers watching the prisoners from a few meters away were the ones whom ben Khedda had led on their search of the village. The corporal frowned, but he knew ben Khedda for a confidant of his superiors. “Go with God, brother,” said the civilian in Arabic, praying the other would have been taught that tongue or Kabyle. “Your captain wished me to talk once more with that dog—” he pointed to ben Cheriff. “There are documents of which he knows,” he concluded vaguely.
The noncom’s lip quirked nervously. “Look, can it wait—” he began, but even as he spoke he was glancing at the leveled tribarrels forty meters distant. “Blood,” he muttered, a curse and a prophecy. “Well, go talk then. But watch it—the bastard’s mean as a snake and his woman’s worse.”
The Kaid watched ben Khedda approach with the fascination of a mongoose awaiting a cobra. The traitor threw himself to the ground and tried to kiss the Kaid’s feet. “Brother in God,” the unshackled man whispered, “we have been betrayed by the unbelievers. Their dog of a captain will have you all murdered on his return, despite his oaths to me.”
“Are we to believe, brother Youssef,” the Kaid said with a sneer, “that you intend to die here with the patriots to cleanse your soul of the lies you carried?”
Others along the line of prisoners were peering at the scene to the extent their irons permitted, but the two men spoke in voices too low for any but the Kaid’s wife to follow the words. “Brother,” ben Khedda continued, “preservation is better than expiation. The captain has confessed his wicked plan to no one but me. If he dies, it dies with him—and our people live. Now, raise me by the hands.”
“Shall I touch your bloody hands, then?” ben Cheriff said, but he spoke as much in question as in scorn.
“Raise me by the hands,” ben Khedda repeated, “and take from my right sleeve what you find there to hide in yours. Then wait the time.”
“As God wills,” the Kaid said and raised up ben Khedda. Their bodies were momentarily so close that their jellabas flowed together.
“And what in the blaze of Hell is
“Via, Sarge,” the corporal sputtered, “he said—I mean, it was the captain, he tells me.”
Ben Khedda had begun to sidle away from the line of prisoners. “Where the hell do you think
The sergeant paused, looking around the circle of eyes focused nervously on him. More calmly he continued, “The Bordj is clear. The captain’s up from the tunnel, but it’ll be a while before he gets here—they came up somewhere in West Bumfuck and he’s borrowing a skimmer from First Platoon to get back.
We’ll wait to see what he says.” The first sergeant stared at Ali ben Cheriff, impassive as the wailing traitor was shackled to his right leg. “We’ll wait till then,” the soldier repeated.
Mboya lifted the nose of his skimmer and grounded it behind the first of the waiting gun-jeeps. Sergeant Scratchard trotted toward him from the direction of the prisoners. The noncom was panting with the heat and his armor; he raised his hand when he reached the captain in order to gain a moment’s breathing space.
“Well?” Mboya prompted.
“Sir, Maintenance called,” said Scratchard jerkily. “Your brother, sir. They think he’s coming to see you.”
The captain swore. “All right,” he said, “if Juma thinks he has to watch this, he can watch it. He’s a cursed fool if he expects to do anything
Scratchard nodded deeply, finding he inhaled more easily with his torso cocked forward. “Right, sir, I just—didn’t want to rebroadcast on the Command channel in case Central was monitoring. Right. And then there’s that rag-head, ben Khedda—I caught him talking to green-hat over there and thought he maybe ought to stay. For good.”
Captain Mboya glanced at the prisoners. The men of Headquarters Squad still sat a few meters away because nobody had told them to withdraw. “Get them clear,” the captain said with a scowl. He began walking toward the line, the first sergeant’s voice turning his direction into a tersely radioed order. Somewhere down the plateau, an aircar was being revved with no concern for what pebbles would do to the fans. Juma, very likely. He was the man you wanted driving your car when it had all dropped in the pot and Devil took the hindmost.
“Jack,” the captain said, “I understand how you feel about ben Khedda; but we’re here to do a job, not to kill sons of bitches. If we were doing that, we’d have to start in al-Madinah, wouldn’t we?”
Mboya and his sergeant were twenty meters from the prisoners. The Kaid watched their approach with his hands folded within the sleeves of his jellaba and his eyes as still as iron. Youssef ben Khedda was crouched beside him, a study in terror. He retained only enough composure that he did not try to run—and that because the pressure of the leg iron binding him to ben Cheriff was just sharp enough to penetrate the fear.
A gun-jeep howled up onto the top of the plateau so fast that it bounced and dragged its skirts, still under full throttle. Scratchard turned with muttered surprise. Captain Mboya did not look around. He reached into the thigh pocket of his coveralls where he kept a magnetic key that would release ben Khedda’s shackles. “We can’t just kill—” he repeated.
The Kaid’s hands appeared, the right one extending a pistol. Its muzzle was a gray circle no more placable than the eye that aimed it.
Mboya dropped the key. His hand clawed for his own weapon, but he was no gunman, no quick-draw expert. He was a company commander carrying ten extra kilos, with his pistol in a flap holster that would keep his hand out at least as well as it did the wind-blown sand. Esa’s very armor slowed him, though it would not save his face or his femoral arteries when the shots came.
Behind the captain, in a jeep still skidding on the edge of control, his brother triggered a one-handed burst as accurate as if parallax were a myth. The tribarrel was locked on its column; Juma let the vehicle’s own side-slip saw the five rounds toward the man with the gun. A single two-centimeter bolt missed everything. Beyond, at the lip of the Bordj, a white flower bloomed from a cyan center as ionic calcium recombined with the oxygen from which it had been freed a moment before. Closer, everything was hidden by an instant glare. The pistol detonated in the Kaid’s hand under the impact of a round from the tribarrel. That was chance—or something else, for only the Lord could be so precise with certainty. The last shot of the burst hurled the Kaid back with a hole in his chest and his jellaba aflame. Ali ben Cheriff’s eyes were free of fear and his mouth still wore a tight smile. Ben Khedda’s face would have been less of a study in virtue and manhood, no doubt, but the two bolts that flicked across it took the traitor’s head into oblivion with his memory. Juma had walked his burst on target, like any good man with an automatic weapon; and if there was something standing where the bolts walked—so much the worse for it.
There were shouts, but they were sucked lifeless by the wind. No one else had fired, for a wonder. Troops all around the Bordj were rolling back into dugouts they had thought it safe to leave.
Juma brought the jeep to a halt a few meters from his brother. He doubled over the joystick as if he had been shot himself. Dust and sand puffed from beneath the skirts while the fans wound down; then the plume settled back on the breeze. Esa touched his brother’s shoulder, feeling the dry sobs that wracked the jellaba. Very quietly the soldier said in the Kikuyu he had not, after all, forgotten, “I bring you a souvenir, elder brother. To replace the one you have lost.” From his holster, now unsnapped, he drew his pistol and laid it carefully down on the empty gunner’s seat of the jeep.
Juma looked up at his brother with a terrible dignity. “To remind me of the day I slew two men in the Lord’s despite?” he asked formally. “Oh, no, my brother, I need no trinket to remind me of that forever.”
“If you do not wish to remember the ones you killed,” said Esa, “then perhaps it will remind you of the hundred and thirty-three whose lives you saved this day. And my life, of course.”
Juma stared at his brother with a fixity by which alone he admitted his hope. He tugged the silver crucifix out of his jellaba and lifted it over his head. “Here,” he said, “little brother. I offer you this in return for your gift. To remind you that wherever you go, the Way runs there as well.”
Esa took the chain. With clumsy fingers he slipped it over his helmet. “All right, Thrasher, everybody stand easy,” the captain roared into his commo link. “Two-six, I want food for a hundred and thirty-three people for three days. You’ve got my authority to take what you need from the village. Three-six, you’re responsible for the transport. I want six ore carriers up here and I want them fast. If the first truck isn’t here loading in twenty, that’s two-zero mikes, I’ll burn somebody a new asshole. Four-six, there’s drinking water in drums down in those tunnels. Get it up here. Now,
Juma stepped out of the gun-jeep, his left hand gripping Esa’s right. Skimmers were already lifting from positions all around the Bordj. G Company was surprised but no one had forgotten that Captain Mboya meant his orders to be obeyed.
“Oh, one other thing,” Esa said, then tripped his commo and added, “Thrasher Four to all Thrasher units—you get any argument from villagers while you’re shopping, boys . . . just refer them to my brother.”
It was past midday now. The sun had enough westering to wink from the crucifix against the soldier’s armor—and from the pistol in the civilian’s right hand.
COMBAT CARS AT SPEED