At the nod from Colonel Ingraham, Warrior Gannon Reeves jammed his callused thumbs into the twin, red detonator buttons. An imperceptible fraction of a second passed as the primitive AI in that small box confirmed his identity. Briefly Gannon glanced away to protect his night vision. Nevertheless, the orange, red, and yellow flame of the rising fireballs down in the high mountain pass flared against his closed lids.
A moment later, the massive whump of the exploding turtle land mines rumbled across the rocky, desolate landscape. The gritty ground under Gannon's well-worn rubber-soled boots trembled in sympathetic dread at the destruction illuminating the moonless evening.
A fainter eruption of light and sound behind him told the Warrior that his counterpart at the rear of the enemy column had done his part.
The jaws of the trap had begun to close.
Convulsively, Colonel Ingraham squeezed Gannon's shoulder. Barely suppressed excitement and triumph danced through his aging voice.
"Got you, you bastards," he said softly yet firmly.
Moments later, the fingers digging into Gannon's flesh relaxed. The narrow window into Ingraham's inner world snapped shut as he slapped the Warrior on the back.
"Move, you dreamers!" Straightening his posture even more, he shouted into his microphone to alert his strategically scattered his troops. His left hand tightened on the stock of his Class IV blaster. "Let's finish this."
With weary yet defiant yells, the scattered citizen-soldiers of Abelard rose from their concealed positions. Scrambling and scrabbling, the mostly young men and women careened down the cracked and broken rocky slopes of the ravine. In surreal echoes, the screaming of the torn and bleeding alien invaders drifted up towards them.
Absently, Gannon tossed the now-useless detonator into a skeletal brown waterbush and snatched his personal needler rifle from the boulder against which it leaned. Flipping the indicator level to semi-automatic, he followed his comrades towards the impending battle. The sustained sizzle and sharp bangs of blasters, needlers, and zappers engaged in blind confrontation rattled the night air.
For a moment, Gannon paused and peered apprehensively into the gloom behind him. A distant slasher grenade set the tangled landscape into stark, actinic white relief. In the confusion of rushing, half-glimpsed bodies, the Warrior searched for the tall, gangly figure of his eldest son, Preston. The teenager had not appeared where Gannon expected him to be...where his soldier-son was supposed to be.
With anger warring with worry, Gannon thinned his lips into a near scowl.
The dirt-streaked face of Corporal Rodriguez loomed up from the swirling shadows beside him. A bloody tattoo marred the left arm of her green and black uniform. Her wild grin glimmered. "Waiting for a personal invitation, Warrior?" She did not linger for a reply. She had an enemy to conquer.
Adjusting his grip on the cold steel of his weapon, Gannon put aside thoughts of his errant son. "I'm right behind you, Paula," he called after her diminishing form.
Concentrating on the demands of the moment, he half-slid, half-clambered along a slanting path towards the pitted road where the savage conflict raged on. He targeted the now crumpled lead cargo skimmer. With luck, he might salvage some equipment, supplies, or useful intelligence from its scorched and twisted remains.
An anonymous male voice to his left shrilled higher in pitch, agony stretching vocal cords into a caricature of manly virtue. Whether the wounded and dying soldier wore the dark colors of Abelard or the red and blue of Gusteen, Gannon did not know. He did not slow his determined pace to investigate.
Twenty yards further on, a hulking, snarling figure sprang up before him. With no time for reflection, Gannon ducked and rolled to his right. A long string of needler flashes glared like a blinking, red-eyed monster from the enemy's weapon. Full auto drained the weapon's reservoir before Gannon had finished his maneuver.
In one easy, athletic motion, he rose to his feet, lifted his own weapon, and squeezed off three quick needler rounds. The first explosive tipped needle hit something soft and dull and wet. A glare of fire marked the site of the hit. The final two needles spun wide and zinged off unseen boulders.
Silently, before his opponent could react, Gannon leaped forward. The alien he had shot rested on his armored knees, another needler cartridge held in his trembling right hand. A darkening, spreading stain marked the site where Gannon's round had entered the invading soldier's right abdomen.
"By the Supreme-leader, I'll kill you yet!" The young Gusteenian cursed as he fumbled to release the empty cartridge still protruding from the underside of his needler. The forcefulness of his language was undercut, however, by the sobbing fear saturating the adrenaline-charged anger.
Gannon's gaze locked with the wild-eyed, reptile-slitted stare of his attacker. Before the other could react, he lifted the barrel of his own needler level with the desperate creature's scaled temple and pulled the trigger.
The Warrior winced as blood, bone, and skin founted through the air. Wiping a glob of...something...from his cheek with a filthy sleeve, he yanked the full needler cartridge from the corpse's gnarled fingers and resumed his interrupted journey. Since the invaders had added the human weapons to their dwindling imported arsenal, salvaging supplies from downed soldiers had become a practical activity.
This determined assault marked the beginning of the final push to end the war brought to them from the stars by the army of Gusteen. Colonel Ingraham had personally overseen the initiation of this partially diversionary campaign. Upon his return to Jefferson City, he intended to provide the finishing touches to the plan they would utilize to blast the alien starship from their skies.
That event could not come soon enough for Gannon.
Shrieks of pain, shouted cries for mercy or vengeance, whimpers of fear or hopelessness continued to punctuate the dim landscape. Gannon did his best to submerge those nerve-grating inputs below his immediate awareness. Such distractions could prove deadly.
Cautiously, he crossed the open space separating him from the burning lead skimmer. One of the slowly crawling turtle mines he had detonated had ignited directly beneath the cargo craft's engine. Half-melted shards of steel and sculpture-like chunks of plastic lay strewn about him like a flower gone to seed. Boulders from the landslide begun by other, buried charges crushed what the roadbed explosion had failed to destroy of the skimmer's cab. Whoever had been the hapless souls assigned to that vehicle need worry no longer about combat, family, or dying.
The rear of the ground craft lay on its side like some stricken beast fallen to the earth. Despite its contorted steel spine, it remained essentially intact. Gannon guessed it might not stay so for long. The crackle of broken power lines hissed like hidden snakes. If, as he suspected, the skimmer carried explosive materials, one stray spark could ignite an explosion that would swallow it whole.
Slinging his needler over his right shoulder, Gannon hoisted himself into the jumbled cargo area. The thin metal shell encasing it had been punctured in a number of places by hurtling stones transformed into ragged missiles by erupting turtle mines. At irregular intervals, beams of light from sporadic weapons' fire and other detonating mines stabbed through the dark interior.
Like blocks abandoned by some monstrous toddler, cases of needler cartridges and blaster power packs lay scattered in Gannon's way. Gingerly, he picked a path through and over them. While important, the munitions would pale in value if he could discover any hardcopy information regarding the near future plans of the Gusteenian troops.
Using his genetically modified muscles, the Warrior sifted through the wreckage. Even though his enhanced strength enabled him to lift the massive ceramic cases, the boxes still retained their unwieldy nature. In the confined space and dead air, Gannon soon found himself dripping with sweat.
Reaching down into the half-darkness, his fingers closed on something soft and pliant rather than unyielding and rough.
"Damn it!" Reflexively, he jerked his fingers away as though he had touched boiling water. Only a moment passed before he identified the mystery object as the protruding limb of a buried person. Judging by the smooth skin, a human. A shudder skipped along his back, nonetheless.
Ignoring his lapse, Gannon piled crates to either side until he exposed the grisly corpse.
His gaze stretched into a stare.
Once, she might have been pretty, he thought with detached interest. Her blood-matted, short black hair and vacant, protruding gray-green eyes offered a grotesque parody of his wife, Christine, at a time long ago when both of them were young and Gusteen unknown.
Though sprawled in an obscenely seductive pose, this captured female soldier would birth no more sons or daughters. The broken cheek bones obscured whatever physical appeal she might once have possessed. Flattened features presented no clues as to the kind of person this had been.
A hint of white protruding from an unbuttoned uniform jacket caught Gannon's attention. His brows flickered together. Ignoring the swell of her cold breasts, he reached down and pulled out a small notebook. Thumbing on his shoulder light, he flipped through his find.
Handwritten notes in neat Abelardan script filled half the pages. Hardly top secret intelligence. Still, he might glean something from it. Absently, he slid the thin book into his left jacket pocket.
Kneeling to explore the woman's other pockets, he heard a sound like bottled thunder shred what had been the growing calm of a battle won. An eyeblink later, a giant's angry hand swatted the crippled skimmer.
The blast front spun the vehicle to the right. Only the rockslide pinning the driver's compartment kept it from rolling down the road like a leaf scurrying before a storm.
Gannon struggled to retain his balance in what had become a suddenly unstable vessel. Rocking, he stumbled and fell. A case crashed on top of him, its angled edge opening a gash across his left temple. Blood rushed down his face like a liquid mask. Dazed, he blinked away the thick drops flowing into his eyes. Faint stars flittered in the air around him. With an effort, he dug mental claws into his consciousness and held on to awareness.
"Focus, damn it," he murmured fiercely. "Focus!"
Other, more distant explosions tore at his precarious control.
Shaking the muzziness from his head, Gannon pawed through the debris for his needler. Panic nipped at him. Only when his thick fingers curled around the hard metal of the barrel did he relax. Reluctantly, he realized just how closely he had come to losing it all.
Boxes of cartridges and power supplies from shattered crates buried the nameless woman. Grabbing one of the needler containers, Gannon made his decision: time to go. The priorities motivating him a minute before evaporated with the speed of snowflakes in a furnace. He did not know precisely what had happened, but he grasped immediately that the ordnance peppering the pass did not originate with his troops.
Pausing at the rear of the skimmer, he scanned what had so recently been a place of victory and potential celebration.
The twenty-vehicle convoy which had promised to provide the Abelard soldiers with needed supplies and, perhaps even more significantly, with a symbolic moral victory, burned before his eyes. Whatever values they might have wrested from the Gusteenians existed no longer.
In the wavering glare of flaming skimmers and crackling wisdom trees, Gannon witnessed the new script being written for this encounter between friends and foes.
The original road surface sported gaping holes where heavy-duty blaster fire or intelli-bombs had impacted in the midst of the attacking Abelardan troops. Uneven craters pockmarked the devastated ground. Clouds of dust and smoke drifted indolently across it all. Scattered among the cracked rocks, slagged metal, and smoldering plastic lay chunks and pieces of scorched human and alien tissue, bones, and organs. In any contest between high explosives and fragile flesh, Gannon entertained no doubts as to how he would wager.
A thin, high-frequency whistle split the air. Gannon ducked behind the warped tailgate an instant before a final detonation obliterated what remained of the second skimmer in the convoy. The semi-intelligent bomb had zeroed in with uncanny accuracy.
The unrelenting shockwave punched into his tenuous sanctuary. Stunned, Gannon gasped for air, opening and closing his mouth in a good imitation of a fish as he tried to reduce the pressure in his ears. The internal ringing refused to recede.
A red-hot meteor of shrapnel arced delicately through the sky in a perfect, textbook parabola. Burrowing into the churned gravel surrounding the lead craft, it heralded other projectiles trailing it from the still erupting skimmer.
Needing no further urging, the Warrior leaped onto the gravel and raced for the rock wall opposite the one where he had initiated this unexpected chain of events. As was customary in battle, the Abelardan plan of attack had not outlived contact with the enemy.
Behind him, the lead skimmer founted flame as the fallout from the intelli-bomb explosion ruptured the blaster power packs.
The hot breath of the unwelcome fire chased Gannon on his way. A small, detached section of his awareness noted that his right pant leg had sprouted a miniature blaze of its own. More immediate dangers, however, commanded the core of his attention. He wanted cover sufficiently thick to separate him from that skimmer before any more of its freight met its tiger-hued visitor.
A split boulder offered him the refuge he sought. Ignoring the abrasions and cuts the rock inflicted as he slithered into the dubious safety of the V-shaped defile, he crouched low and beat at the charred cloth of his trouser leg. The material might have been flame retardant, but he now possessed firsthand knowledge that it was anything but flame proof.
Neither was the skimmer he had so recently vacated.
Gannon could not tell how long the ordnance continued its riotous roars. To be more exact, he did not care.
Though his resculpted body eliminated fatigue toxins and repaired itself more efficiently than the average or "normal" Abelardan, still he and his few fellow Warriors were not immune to the accumulated wear and tear of stress, anxiety, and injury. Even the three hours of sleep that formed his usual nightly respite had been denied him for the past two-and-a-half days.
The heat from his burned calf radiated waves of pain with the insistent clamoring of a spoiled infant. Yet he could spare neither the time nor the energy to attend to it. The voices he heard growing closer to his hiding hole held clipped accents which did not arise from any country located upon his planet.
A deep voice bellowed not twenty yards from where Gannon hunkered down. Its sharp tones could belong only to someone used to instant obediance.
"Sub-unit-leader Asdell, get your thorny rear over here. I want those prisoners lined up and prepared for transport now. The Prime-leader will be here within the minute. We're going to be ready for him, or these Abelardan scum won't be the only sorry ones."
"Yes, Unit-leader!" the unseen Asdell said.
Levering himself to a half-crouching posture, Gannon glimpsed a Gusteenian soldier snapping a right-shouldered salute. Scores of other red-and-blue clad aliens converged on the open area marked by Sub-unit-leader Asdell and his captives.
Gannon stiffened as his blurry gaze focused on the disheveled and dirty figures milling uneasily under Asdell's baleful scrutiny. Five men and two women whispered to one another, glancing now and again at the needler pointed carelessly in their direction.
"Quiet there!" Asdell barked. He motioned vaguely with his sharp-nailed left hand. "Line yourselves up." He frowned and grabbed the elbow of the nearest woman. "Do as you're told or you'll regret the consequences."
Corporal Paula Rodriguez glared at the invader accosting her, but she resisted only a moment. Clotted cuts lacerated her face, neck, and bare arms. Without vocal comment, she did as told, favoring her left foot as she limped to the indicated spot.
Quickly, Gannon tried to identify the other prisoners. Johnson. Pearson. Bailey. Walstrom. Singh. All soldiers he knew, had fought with for nearly three years. But their assault force that night had included over a hundred troops...
Only when the last prisoner maneuvered into place and lifted his strong chin did Gannon pierce the shifting shadows and place a name to that swollen and battered face.
"Colonel...," Gannon breathed. Involuntarily, his right hand tightened on one of the slasher grenades clipped to his wide, leather belt. Ingraham alone was fully trained to lead the mission chosen to rid Abelard of the Gusteenian threat once and for all. Perhaps it would be better for them all if the information and skills locked behind those graying temples became available to no one. Stories of enemy compassion or fair play were rarely reported by those who managed to escape the tender mercies of the invaders.
With difficulty, Gannon forced his fingers to relax. Though the nominal authority resided with a Warrior to make such a drastic decision, the situation did not yet appear so hopeless as to demand a final action. Not quite. Later, perhaps, but not just yet.
A helmeted figure approached. "Unit-leader Resded?" A microphone protruded from the alien's angular headgear. The soldier rotated it away from his lipless mouth. "Primer-leader Tratton just signaled that they've entered the pass. They should arrive within thirty seconds."
Nodding, Unit-leader Resded folded his arms and surveyed his gathering troops.
"Prepare your unity!" he shouted. "Let's present ourselves well for the Prime-leader."
The large air-transport loomed over the far end of the pass before the steady thrum of its massive engines penetrated the low level ringing still plaguing Gannon's hearing. With the cool indifference of some ancient and aloof mystic god, the brilliant, cyclopean white eye of its searchlight swept across the ruined equipment and bodies of the combatants.
Four down and two to go, Gannon thought with bitter pleasure. One of the Gusteenian's elaborately shielded air-transports had been disintegrated by a lucky, direct hit from an Abelardan seeker rocket during the battle for Crocketton near the beginning of the war.
Three others had been caught on the ground at the former Gusteenian headquarters located just beyond the fused remains of Madison. The Abelardan Council still debated whether that had proved more a Pyrrhic victory than not. While the human commando team had easily infiltrated the base past overly-confident security forces and had placed and detonated the signature explosives before being detected, the whole team had been slaughtered before they could escape to rendezvous with the retrieval team at the Bernal River.
Crippling the ability of the aliens to attack by air had been crucial for the Abelardans in avoiding early and total annihilation. Losing Warrior Hansen and his five specialists, however, had been devastating...and not only for the struggle to retain their freedoms. Hansen had been a boyhood friend of young Gannon Reeves.
The heavy rumble of the air-transport shifted to a rhythmic flutter as it slipped into landing mode.
Gannon's fingers stole again towards the hand-thrown slashers as he watched Prime-leader Tratton's transport descend towards the landing site. To eliminate the nemesis of Abelard might almost be worth the risk. Almost. Gannon refused to condemn Colonel Ingraham and his comrades to death quite yet.
The air-transport hovered in a dust cloud of its own creation. Gannon shielded his face from the grit with an upraised arm. Slowly the vehicle sank the last few feet on its repulser beams to the makeshift pad.
A dome of silence surrounded the scene as the unseen pilot killed the engines. Rocket launchers and blaster portals protruded from its metallic underbelly like the menacing jaws and stingers of some off-world insect.
The passenger door swung open on smooth hinges. A medium-built, physically unprepossessing figure climbed down the short metallic ladder and hopped to the ground. Gravel crunched beneath highly polished, black synthetic boots.
Gannon narrowed his lids. Any outward appearance of "averageness" which Prime-leader Tratton conveyed was, he knew, a deception. Whether that misdirection emerged from a conscious choice or not, he could not say. But he did realize that such an aura might well induce an enemy to underestimate the prowess of Prime-leader Adrall Tratton. Yet to do so would be a serious mistake, indeed.
Tratton came to a halt beside Unit-leader Resded. Silently he studied the short line of prisoners. Gannon noted approvingly that the Abelardans stiffened their postures while the inspection continued.
With a fluid gait, Tratton walked from one soldier to another. When he came to Colonel Ingraham, he stopped.
"You are David Ingraham?" His voice held no contempt or apparent malice. From his conversational tone, he might have been asking a stranger for the time of day.
"I am Colonel Ingraham," the Abelardan soldier said with a slight but definite accent on his rank.
Tratton half-turned and waved Sub-unit-leader Asdell closer. "Put him aboard the transport."
Roughly, Asdell seized Ingraham by the wrist and started to pull him towards the waiting transport.
Yanking his arm free, Colonel Ingraham confronted Tratton. "Some of these soldiers need medical care," he shouted, ignoring the raised muzzle of his would-be escort. He pointed towards the battlefield. "I doubtless have other troops out there wounded or dying. The longer you waste my time with this silliness, the more good men and women I may lose."
Gannon grimaced as he listened to Ingraham's rising voice. Despair battled outrage there. To have come so close to victory...
Another thought struck the Warrior. How had Tratton been able to pick out the leader of this assault so unerringly and to call him by name? The Abelardans hardly broadcast the faces and identities of their soldiers.
The even larger question Gannon had been evading also clamored for attention. How had the Gusteenians learned of their ambush? The enemy had willingly expended precious soldiers and real equipment in order to bait their own counter-trap.
Prime-leader Tratton interrupted his unpleasant ruminations. "I appreciate your concern, Colonel. It marks you as an honorable man and a good leader. I assure you, I have no desire to prolong the pain of your subordinates. Contrary to your Abelardan propaganda, I am no sadist. The sooner you accompany me, the sooner my medical aides can carry out their own duties. Now. You can continue to argue and protest and delay or you can comply with my wishes. The choice is entirely yours."
Colonel Ingraham balled his hands into fists at this velvet dressing down. Finally, he nodded curtly and turned. "Corporal Rodriguez."
Paula Rodriguez snapped to attention. "Sir."
"You're in charge here unless and until a higher ranking soldier in ready condition comes in. I expect you to keep a lid on things until I return. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir." Though Paula's eyes shimmered, her voice held no hint of personal distress.
Ingraham nodded once more and then strode purposefully toward the waiting transport. Sub-unit-leader Asdell scurried to catch up.
Prime-leader Tratton smiled slightly. As he turned to Resded, he said flatly, "I want an assessment completed by dawn. Body counts, resources lost or expended, potential for retaliation. See that these prisoners are taken care of, as well as any survivors you may encounter. Keep enough soldiers here to secure the area and to defend against any other surprises. Transport the rest of the men and matériel back to Madison."
He lowered his gaze in thought. After a moment, he looked up. "Intelligence will want to question these Abelardans. After you've finished your assignment, see they're delivered to the prison preparatory to shuttle launch. It's due to return to the Comtel in ten days or so. When I'm finished with Colonel Ingraham at Roark, I'll deal with them there."
"You're flying them to orbit, sir?" Resded asked in disbelief.
Tratton stared at his subordinate. His black pupils bored into the Unit-leader's eyes.
"Uh... Sorry, sir." Resded's gaze wandered in discomfort. "I'll, uh, I'll take care of it."
"See that you do," Tratton said with dangerous mildness.
The air-transport's repulsers were already powering up by the time Tratton closed the door. Lumbering heavily into the air, the vehicle soon disappeared from sight. Seconds later, Gannon heard it switch to long-distance mode. Rapidly the sound faded away on the far side of the mountain peaks in the direction of the Gusteenian base high above Madison. What Colonel Ingraham faced there, Gannon did not care to guess.
The establishment of that mountain base had been another unforeseen negative consequence of Hansen's raid. The Gusteenians had not only tightened security and fortified the storage facilities at Madison in response to the Abelardan success, they had also moved the command headquarters to a less accessible location among the peaks of the Kelley Mountains. Converting the former Roark Resort to a military footing had cost the Gusteenians time and resources. The action had also cost the Abelardans any realistic hope of mounting a direct, large-scale assault on the Gusteenian command structure. The one narrow, paved road leading to the HQ was easily defended in depth. The resort itself perched like some exotic bird's nest on the edge of the Wall of Justice. The three thousand feet of that sheer face conferred a protection mere manpower could never match, especially since the Abelardans had only the rudiments of a military air force.
Following the fiasco at Madison, Tratton had secluded himself at Roark. No longer did he broadcast the messages which had transformed him into a universally hated figure on Abelard. The sincerity of his appeals for surrender had done nothing to diminish the instant dislike an Abelardan felt when seeing that alien image. Such negative connotations were difficult to erase.
Perhaps Tratton had grown frightened after having directly seen evidence of his own vulnerability. Or perhaps he had finally simply realized that Abelardans would never compromise when it came to questions of their personal sovereignty.
Unit-leader Resded yelled at Asdell. "You heard the Prime-leader. Take care of these prisoners."
Asdell grinned and raised his weapon.
Before Gannon could react, a sibilant spray of explosive-tipped needles erupted from the weapon. Resded, however, moved with no hesitation. With a broad sweep of his arm, he knocked the barrel into the air.
"You crazy no-face!" he screamed. "You want Tratton to flail you..and me...alive and use our skins for a coat? Of all the stupid, idiotic... Wennis! Get over here."
A burly, hard-faced veteran trotted over from the crowd of Gusteenian soldiers awaiting further orders.
Resded pointed an accusing finger at the offending trooper. "Relieve Sub-unit-leader Asdell of his weapon and place him under arrest." His mouth twisted. "I may share his sentiments about the best way to deal with these damned Abelardans, but an order is an order."
While the sullen, insubordinate alien scowled, Resded indicated a pair of other soldiers. "Amahz! Smiins! Feed these prisoners and roust up a medical aide to attend to any injuries they may have."
For nearly two hours, the Gusteenians went about their business of gathering the living, the dead, and the almost dead into the area where the air-transport had rested. Hastily erected field lamps cast deep shadows across the eerily illuminated landscape. The segregated rows of those killed in action stretched farther and farther into the gloom. By the time the grisly work neared completion, perhaps a dozen or so still surviving Abelardans had joined their fellow prisoners.
Among none of them did Gannon spot a face or body resembling the one he had known and loved for so long. Unlikely though it was, perhaps the Gusteenians had found all the dead and wounded. Yet the uncertainty remained to chip away at Gannon's peace of mind. He hated uncertainty. He hated it even more when he could do nothing to alleviate it.
Slowly stretching cramped muscles, he extricated himself from the boulder and slipped away into the night. The Abelardan command had some major replanning to do. The capture of Ingraham meant the possible abortion of their scheme to destroy the Comtel. They also had to deal with the issue of lost troops, weapons, and supplies. And a possible traitor in their ranks. Momentum had been lost. Morale would undoubtedly be damaged. All those problems and more would have to be addressed and solved.
Yet as he began the long walk home, the question gnawing most at him was much narrower in focus: what would he say to his wife, Christine, about their missing son, Preston?