In free fall, Atvar the fleetlord glided over to the hologram projector. He poked the stud at the base of the machine. The image that sprang into being above the projector was one the Race's probe had sent back from Tosev 3 eight hundred local years earlier.
A Big Ugly warrior sat mounted on a beast. He wore leather boots, rusty chainmail, and a dented iron helmet; a thin coat woven from plant fibers and dyed blue with plant juices shielded his armor from the heat of the star the Race called Tosev. To Atvar, to any male of the Race, Tosev 3 was on the chilly side, but not to the natives.
A long, iron-pointed spear stood up from a boss on the contraption the warrior used to stay atop his animal. He carried a shield painted with a cross. On his belt hung a long, straight sword and a couple of knives.
All you could see of the Tosevite himself were his face and one hand. They were plenty to show he was almost as fuzzy as the beast he rode. Thick, wiry yellow fur covered his jaws and the area around his mouth; he had another stripe above each of his flat, immobile eyes. A thinner layer of hair grew on the back of the visible hand.
Atvar touched his own smooth, scaly skin. Just looking at all that fur made him wonder why the Big Uglies didn't itch all the time. Leaving one eye turret aimed at the Tosevite warrior, he swung the other in the direction of Kirel, shiplord of the 127th Emperor Hetto. "This is the foe we thought we were opposing," he said bitterly.
"Truth, Exalted Fleetlord," Kirel said. His body paint was almost as colorful and complex as Atvar's. Since he commanded the bannership of the conquest fleet, only the fleetlord outranked him.
Atvar stabbed at the projector control with his left index claw. The Big Ugly warrior vanished. In his place appeared a perfect three-dimensional image of the nuclear explosion that had destroyed the Tosevite city of Rome: Atvar recognized the background terrain. But it could as easily have been the bomb that vaporized Chicago or Breslau or Miami or the spearhead of the Race's assault force south of Moscow.
"As opposed to the foe we thought we faced, this is what we are actually dealing with," Atvar said.
"Truth," Kirel repeated, and, as mournful commentary, added an empathic cough.
Atvar let out a long, hissing sigh. Stability and predictability were two of the pillars on which the Race and its Empire had flourished for a hundred thousand years and expanded to cover three solar systems. On Tosev 3, nothing seemed predictable, nothing seemed stable. No wonder the Race was having such troubles here. The Big Uglies did not play by any of the rules its savants thought they knew.
With another hiss, the fleetlord poked at the control stud once more. Now the threatening cloud from the nuclear blast vanished. In a way, the image that replaced it was even more menacing. It was a satellite photograph of a base the Race had established in the region of the SSSR known to the locals as Siberia, a place whose frigid climate even the Big Uglies found appalling.
"The mutineers still persist in their rebellion against duly constituted authority," Atvar said heavily. "Worse, the commandants of the two nearest bases have urged against committing their males to suppress the rebels, for fear they would go over to them instead."
"This is truly alarming," Kirel said with another emphatic cough. "If we choose males from a distant air base to bomb the mutineers out of existence, then, will it truly solve the problem?"
"I don't know," Atvar said. "But what I really don't know, by the Emperor"--he cast down his eyes for a moment at the mention of his sovereign--"is how the mutiny could have happened in the first place. Subordination and integration into the greater scheme of the Race as a whole are drilled into our males from hatchlinghood. How could they have overthrown them?"
Now Kirel sighed. "Fighting on this world corrodes males' moral fiber as badly as its ocean water corrodes equipment. We are not fighting the war that was planned before we set out from Home, and that by itself is plenty to disorient a good many males."
"This is also truth," Atvar admitted. "The leader of the mutineers--a lowly landcruiser driver, if you can image such a thing--is shown to have lost at least three different sets of crewmales: two, including those with whom he served at this base, to Tosevite action, and the third grouping arrested and disciplined as ginger tasters."
"By his wild pronouncements, this Ussmak sounds like a ginger taster himself," Kirel said.
"Threatening to call in the Soviets to his aid if we attack him, you mean?" Atvar said. "We ought to take him up on that; if he thinks they would help him out of sheer benevolence, the Tosevite herb truly has addled his wits. If it weren't for the equipment he could pass on to the SSSR, I would say we should welcome him to go over to that set of Big Uglies."
"Given the situation as it actually is, Exalted Fleetlord, what course shall we pursue?" Kirel's interrogative cough sounded vaguely accusing--or maybe Atvar's conscience was twisting his hearing diaphragms.
"I don't know yet," the fleetlord said unhappily. When in doubt, his first instinct--typical for a male--was to do nothing. Letting the situation come nearer to hatching so you could understand it more fully worked well on Home, and also on Rabotev 2 and Halless 1, the other inhabited worlds the Race controlled.
But waiting, against the Tosevites, often proved even worse than proceeding on incomplete knowledge. The Big Uglies did things. They didn't fret about long-term consequences. Take atomic weapons--those helped them in the short run. If they devastated Tosev 3 in the process--well, so what?
Atvar couldn't leave it at so what. The colonization fleet was on the way from Home. He couldn't very well present it with a world he'd rendered uninhabitable in the process of overcoming the Big Uglies. Yet he couldn't fail to respond, either, and so found himself in the unpleasant position of reacting to what the Tosevites did instead of making them react to him.
The mutineers had no nuclear weapons, and weren't Big Uglies. He could have afforded to wait them out ... if they hadn't threatened to yield their base to the SSSR. With the Tosevites involved, you couldn't just sit and watch. The Big Uglies were never content to let things simmer. They threw them in a microwave oven and brought them to a boil as fast as they could.
When Atvar didn't say anything more, Kirel tried to prod him: "Exalted Fleetlord, you can't be contemplating genuine negotiations with these rebellious--and revolting--males? Their demands are impossible: not just amnesty and transfer to a warmer climate--those would be bad enough by themselves--but also ending the struggle against the Tosevites so no more males die 'uselessly,' to use their word."
"No, we cannot allow mutineers to dictate terms to us," Atvar agreed. "That would be intolerable." His mouth fell open in a bitter laugh. "Then again, by all reasonable standards, the situation over vast stretches of Tosev 3 is intolerable, and our forces seem to lack the ability to improve it to any substantial extent. What does this suggest to you, Shiplord?"
One possible answer was, a new fleetlord. The assembled shiplords of the conquest fleet had tried to remove Atvar once, after the SSSR detonated the first Tosevite fission bomb, and had narrowly failed. If they tried again, Kirel was the logical male to succeed Atvar. The fleetlord waited for his subordinate's reply, not so much for what he said as for how he said it.
Slowly, Kirel answered, "Were the Tosevites factions of the Race opposed to the general will--not that the Race would generate such vicious factions, of course, but speaking for the sake of the hypothesis--their strength, unlike that of the mutineers, might come close to making negotiations with them mandatory."
Atvar contemplated that. Kirel was, generally speaking, a conservative male, and had couched his suggestion conservatively by equating the Big Uglies with analogous groupings within the Race, an equation that in itself made Atvar's scales itch. But the suggestion, however couched, was more radical than any Straha, the shiplord who'd led the effort to oust Atvar, had ever put forward before deserting and fleeing to the Big Uglies.
"Shiplord," Atvar demanded sharply, "are you making the same proposal as the mutineers: that we discuss with the Tosevites ways of ending our campaign short of complete conquest?"
"Exalted Fleetlord, did you yourself not say our males seem incapable of effecting a complete conquest of Tosev 3?" Kirel answered, still with perfect subordination but not abandoning his own ideas, either. "If that be so, should we not either destroy the planet to make sure the Tosevites can never threaten us, or else--" He stopped; unlike Straha, he had a sense of when he was going too far for Atvar to tolerate.
"No," the fleetlord said, "I refuse to concede that the commands of the Emperor cannot be carried out in full. We shall defend ourselves in the northern portion of the planet until its dreadful winter weather improves, then resume the offensive against the Big Uglies. Tosev 3 shall be ours."
Kirel crouched into the Race's pose of obedience. "It shall be done, Exalted Fleetlord."
Again, the response was perfectly subordinate. Kirel did not ask how it should be done. The Race had brought only so much materiel from Home. It was of far higher quality than anything the Tosevites used, but there was only a limited quantity of it. Try as they would, the Race's pilots and missile batteries and artillery had not managed to knock out the Big Uglies' manufacturing capacity. The armaments they produced, though better than those they'd had when the Race first landed on Tosev 3, remained inferior ... but they kept on making them.
Some munitions could be produced in factories captured from the Tosevites, and the Race's starships had their own manufacturing capacity that would have been significant ... in a smaller war. When added to what the logistics vessels had brought from Home, that still left the hope of adequacy for the coming campaign ... and the Big Uglies were also in distress, no doubt about that. Victory might yet come.
Or, of course ... but Atvar did not care to think about that.
Even under a flag of truce, Mordechai Anielewicz felt nervous about approaching the German encampment. After starving in the Warsaw ghetto, after leading the Jewish fighters of Warsaw who'd risen against the Nazis and helped the Lizards drive them out of the city, he was under no illusions about what Hitler's forces wanted for his people: they wanted them to vanish from the face of the earth.
But the Lizards wanted to enslave everybody, Jews and goyim alike. The Jews hadn't fully realized that when they rose against the Nazis. Had they, it wouldn't have mattered much. Measured against extermination, enslavement looked good.
The Germans were still fighting the Lizards, and fighting hard. No one denied their military prowess, or their technical skill. From afar, Anielewicz had seen the nuclear bomb they'd touched off east of Breslau. Had he seen it close up, he wouldn't be coming here to dicker with the Nazis.
"Halt!" The voice might have come out of thin air. Mordechai halted. After a moment, a German wearing a white camouflage smock and a whitewashed helmet appeared as if by magic from behind a tree. Just looking at him made Anielewicz, who had Red Army valenki on his feet and was dressed in Polish Army trousers, a Wehrmacht tunic, a Red Army fur hat, and a sheepskin jacket of civilian origin, feel like a refugee from a rummage sale. He needed a shave, too, which added to his air of seediness. The German's lip curled. "You are the Jew we were told to expect?"
"No, I'm St. Nicholas, here late for Christmas." Anielewicz, who had been an engineering student before the war, had learned fluent standard German. He spoke Yiddish now, to annoy the sentry.
The fellow just grunted. Maybe he didn't think the joke was funny. Maybe he hadn't got it. He gestured with his Mauser. "You will come with me. I will take you to the colonel."
That was what Anielewicz was there for, but he didn't like the way the sentry said it even so. The German spoke as if the universe permitted no other possible outcome. Maybe it didn't. Mordechai followed him through the cold and silent woods.
"Your colonel must be a good officer," he said--softly, because the brooding presence of the woods weighed on him. "This regiment has come a long way east since the bomb went off near Breslau." That was part of the reason he needed to talk with the local commandant, though he wasn't going to explain his reasons to a private who probably thought he was nothing but a damn kike anyway.
Stolid as an old cow, the sentry answered, "Ja," and then shut up again. They walked past a whitewashed Panther tank in a clearing. A couple of crewmen were guddling about in the Panther's engine compartment. Looking at them, hearing one grumble when the exposed skin between glove and sleeve stuck to cold metal, you might have thought war no different from any other mechanical trade. Of course, the Germans had industrialized murder, too.
They walked by more tanks, most of them also being worked on. These were bigger, tougher machines than the ones the Nazis had used to conquer Poland four and a half years before. The Nazis had learned a lot since then. Their panzers still didn't come close to being an even match for the ones the Lizards used, though.
A couple of men were cooking a little pot of stew over an aluminum field stove set on a couple of rocks. The stew had some kind of meat in it--rabbit, maybe, or squirrel, or even dog. Whatever it was, it smelled delicious.
"Sir, the Jewish partisan is here," the sentry said, absolutely nothing in his voice. That was better than the scorn that might have been there, but not much.
Both men squatting by the field stove looked up. The older one got to his feet. He was obviously the colonel, though he wore a plain service cap and an enlisted man's uniform. He was in his forties, pinch-faced and clever-looking despite skin weathered from a lifetime spent in the sun and the rain and, as now, the snow.
"You!" Anielewicz's mouth fell open in surprise. "J”ger!" He hadn't seen this German in more than a year, and then only for an evening, but he wouldn't forget him.
"Yes, I'm Heinrich J”ger. You know me?" The panzer officer's gray eyes narrowed, deepening the network of wrinkles around their outer corners. Then they went wide. "That voice ... You called yourself Mordechai, didn't you? You were clean-shaven then." He rubbed his own chin. Gray mixed with the brownish stubble that grew there.
"You two know each other?" That was the moon-faced younger man who'd been waiting for the stew to finish. He sounded disbelieving.
"You might say so, Gunther," J”ger answered with a dry chuckle. "Last time I was traveling through Poland, this fellow decided to let me live." Those watchful eyes flicked to Mordechai. "I wonder how much he regrets it now."
The comment cut to the quick. J”ger had been carrying explosive metal stolen from the Lizards. Anielewicz had let him travel on to Germany with half of it, diverting the other half to the United States. Now both nations were building nuclear weapons. Mordechai was glad the U.S.A. had them. His delight that the Third Reich had them was considerably more restrained.
Gunther stared. "He let you live? This ragged partisan?" Anielewicz might as well not have been there.
"He did." J”ger studied Mordechai again. "I'd expected more from you than a role like this. You should be commanding a region, maybe the whole area."
Of all the things Anielewicz hadn't expected, failing to live up to a Nazi's expectations of him ranked high on the list. His shrug was embarrassed. "I was, for a while. But then not everything worked out the way I'd hoped it would. These things happen."
"The Lizards figured out you were playing little games behind their backs, did they?" J”ger asked. Back when they'd met in HrubieszŰw, Anielewicz had figured he was no one's fool. He wasn't saying anything now to make the Jew change his mind. Before the silence got awkward, he waved a hand. "Never mind. It isn't my business, and the less I know of what isn't my business, the better for everyone. What do you want with us here and now?"
"You're advancing on Lodz," Mordechai said.
As far as he was concerned, that should have been an answer sufficient in and of itself. It wasn't. Frowning, J”ger said, "Damn right we are. We don't get the chance to advance against the Lizards nearly often enough. Most of the time, they're advancing on us."
Anielewicz sighed quietly. He might have known the German wouldn't understand what he was talking about. He approached it by easy stages: "You've gotten good cooperation from the partisans here in western Poland, haven't you, Colonel?" J”ger had been a major the last time Mordechai saw him. Even if he hadn't come up in the world, the German had.
"Well, yes, so we have," J”ger answered. "Why shouldn't we? Partisans are human beings, too."
"A lot of partisans are Jews," Mordechai said. The easy approach wasn't going to work. Bluntly, then: "There are still a lot of Jews in Lodz, too, in the ghetto you Nazis set up so you could starve us to death and work us to death and generally slaughter us. If the Wehrmacht goes into Lodz, the SS follows twenty minutes later. The second we see an SS man, we all go over to the Lizards again. We don't want them conquering you, but we want you conquering us even less."
"Colonel, why don't I take this mangy Jew and send him on his way with a good kick in the ass?" the younger man--Gunther--said.
"Corporal Grillparzer, when I want your suggestions, be sure I shall ask for them," J”ger said in a voice colder than the snow all around. When he turned back toward Mordechai, his face was troubled. He knew about some of the things the Germans had done to the Jews who'd fallen into their hands, knew and did not approve. That made him an unusual Wehrmacht man, and made Anielewicz glad he was the German on the other side of the parley. Still, he had to look out for the affairs of his own side: "You ask us to throw away a move that would bring us advantages. Such a thing is hard to justify."
"What I'm telling you is that you would lose as much as you gain," Mordechai answered. "You get intelligence from us about what the Lizards are doing. With Nazis in Lodz, the Lizards would get intelligence from us about you. We got to know you too well. We know what you did to us. We do sabotage back of the Lizards' lines, too. Instead, we'd be raiding and sniping at you."
"Kikes," Gunther Grillparzer muttered under his breath. "Shit, all we gotta do is turn the Poles loose on 'em, and that takes care of that."
J”ger started to bawl out his corporal, but Anielewicz held up a hand. "It's not that simple any more. Back when the war just started, we didn't have any guns and we weren't much good at using them, anyhow. It's not like that now. We've got more guns than the Poles do, and we've stopped being shy about shooting when somebody shoots at us. We can hurt you."
"There's some truth in this--I've seen as much," J”ger said. "But I think we can take Lodz, and it would make immediate military sense for us to do just that. The place is a Lizard forward base, after all. How am I supposed to justify bypassing it?"
"What's that expression the English have? Penny wise and pound foolish? That's what you'd be if you started your games with the Jews again," Mordechai answered. "You need us working with you, not against you. Didn't you take enough of a propaganda beating when the whole world found out what you were doing here in Poland?"
"Less than you'd think," J”ger said, the ice in his voice now aimed at Anielewicz. "A lot of the people who heard about it didn't believe it."
Anielewicz bit his lip. He knew how true that was. "Do you suppose they didn't believe it because they didn't trust the Lizards to tell the truth or because they didn't think human beings could be so vile?"
That made Gunther Grillparzer mutter again, and made the sentry who'd brought Mordechai into camp shift his Gewehr 98 so the muzzle more nearly pointed toward the Jew. Heinrich J”ger sighed. "Probably both," he said, and Mordechai respected his honesty. "But the whys here don't much matter. The whats do. If we bypass Lodz north and south, say, and the Lizards slice up into one of our columns from out of the city, the F¸hrer would not be very happy with that." He rolled his eyes to give some idea of how much understatement he was using.
The only thing Adolf Hitler could do to make Anielewicz happy would be to drop dead, and to do that properly he would have had to manage it before 1939. Nevertheless, he understood what J”ger was saying. "If you bypass Lodz to north and south, Colonel, I'll make sure the Lizards can't mount a serious attack on you from the city."
"You'll make sure?" J”ger said. "You can still do so much?"
"I think so," Anielewicz answered. I hope so. "Colonel, I'm not going to talk about you owing me one." Of course, by saying he wasn't going to talk about it, he'd just talked about it. "I will say, though, that I delivered then and I think I can deliver now. Can you?"
"I don't know," the German answered. He looked down at the pot of stew, dug out a mess kit and spoon, and ladled some into it. Instead of eating, he passed the little aluminum tub to Mordechai. "Your people fed me then. I can feed you now." After a moment, he added, "The meat is partridge. We bagged a couple this morning."
Anielewicz hesitated, then dug in. Meat, kasha or maybe barley, carrots, onions--it stuck to the ribs. When he was done, he gave the mess kit and spoon back to J”ger, who cleaned them in the snow and then took his own share.
Between bites, the German said, "I'll pass on what you've told me. I don't promise anything will come of it, but I'll do my best. I tell you this, Mordechai: if we do skirt Lodz, you'd better come through on your promise. Show that dealing with you people has a good side to it, show that you deliver, and the people above me are more likely to want to try to do it again."
"I understand that," Anielewicz answered. "The same goes back at you, I might add: if you break faith with us after a deal, you won't like the partisans who show up in your backyard."
"And I understand that," J”ger said. "Whether my superiors will--" He shrugged. "I told you, I'll do what I can. My word, at least, is good." He eyed Anielewicz, as if daring him to deny it. Anielewicz couldn't, so he nodded. The German let out a long, heavy sigh, then went on, "In the end, whether we go into Lodz or around it won't matter, anyhow. If we conquer the territory around the city, it will fall to us, too, sooner or later. What happens then?"
He wasn't wrong. That made it worse, not better. Anielewicz gave him credit: he sounded genuinely worried. Gunther Grillparzer, on the other hand, looked to be just this side of laughing out loud. Let a bunch of Nazi soldiers like him loose in Lodz and the results wouldn't be pretty.
"What happens then?" Mordechai sighed, too. "I just don't know."
Ussmak sat in the base commandant's office--his office now, even if he still wore the body paint of a landcruiser driver. He'd killed Hisslef, who had led the Race's garrison at this base in the region of the SSSR known as Siberia. Ussmak wondered if Siberia was the Russki word for deep freeze. He couldn't tell much difference between the one and the other.
Along with Hisslef, a lot of his chief subordinates were dead, too, hunted down in the frenzy that had gripped the rest of the males after Ussmak fired the first shot. Ginger had had a lot to do with both the shooting and the frenzy that followed it. If Hisslef had just had the sense to let the males gathered in the communal chamber yell themselves out complaining about the war, about Tosev 3, and about this miserable base in particular, he probably still would have been alive. But no, he'd come storming in, intent on stamping this out no matter what ... and now his corpse lay stiff and cold--in Siberian winter, very stiff and very cold--outside the barracks, waiting for the weather to warm up enough for a cremation.
"And Hisslef was legitimate commandant, and see what happened to him," Ussmak muttered. "What will end up happening to me?" He had no millennia of authority to make his orders obeyed almost as if by reflex. Either he had to be obviously right, or else he had to make the males in the base obey him out of fear of what would happen if they didn't.
His mouth fell open in a bitter laugh. "I might as well be a Big Ugly ruling a not-empire," he said to the walls. They had to rule by fear; they had no tradition to give them legitimate authority. Now he sympathized with them. He understood in his gut how hard that was.
He opened a drawer in what had been Hisslef's desk, pulled out a vial of powdered ginger. That was his, by the Emperor (the Emperor against whose officers he'd mutinied, though he tried not to think about that). He yanked off the plastic stopper, poured some of the powder into the palm of his hand, and flicked out his long forked tongue again and again, till the herb was gone.
Exhilaration came quickly, as it always did. In moments after tasting the ginger, Ussmak felt strong, fast, clever, invincible. In the top part of his mind, he knew those feelings, save perhaps for heightened reflexes, were an illusion. When he'd driven the landcruiser into combat, he'd held off on tasting till he got out again: if you felt invincible when you really weren't, you'd take chances that were liable to get you killed. He'd seen that happen to other males more times than he cared to recall.
Now, though--"Now I taste all I can, because I don't want to think about what's going to happen next," he said. If the fleetlord wanted to blast this base from the air, Ussmak and his fellow mutineers had no antiaircraft missiles to stop them. He couldn't surrender to the authorities; he'd put himself beyond the pale when he shot Hisslef, as his followers had with the killings that followed.
He couldn't hold out indefinitely here, either. The base would run short of both food and hydrogen for fuel--and for heat!--before long. No supplies were coming in. He hadn't worried about such things when he raised his personal weapon against Hisslef. He'd just worried about making Hisslef shut up.
"That's the ginger's fault," he said querulously--even if his brain was buzzing with it while he complained. "It makes me as shortsighted as a Big Ugly."
He'd threatened to yield the base and everything in it to the Big Uglies of the SSSR. If it came down to that, he didn't know whether he could make himself do it. The Russkis made all sorts of glowing promises, but how many would they keep once they had their claws on him? He'd done too much fighting against the Big Uglies to feel easy about trusting them.
Of course, if he didn't yield the base to the Russkis, they were liable to come take it away from him. They minded cold much less than the Race did. Fear of Soviet raiders had been constant before the mutiny. It was worse now.
"No one wants to do anything hard now," Ussmak muttered. Going out into the bitter cold to make sure the Russkis didn't get close enough to mortar the barracks wasn't duty anyone found pleasant, but if the males didn't undertake it, they'd end up dead. A lot of them didn't seem to care. Hisslef had got them out there, but he'd enjoyed legitimate authority. Ussmak didn't, and felt the lack.
He flicked on the radio that sat on his desk, worked the search buttons to go from station to station. Some of the broadcasts the receivers picked up came from the Race; others, mushy with static, brought him the incomprehensible words of the Big Uglies. He didn't really want to hear either group, feeling dreadfully isolated from both.
Then, to his surprise, he found what had to be a Tosevite transmission, but one where the broadcaster not only spoke his language but was plainly a male of the Race: no Tosevite was free of accent either annoying or amusing. This fellow was not just one of his own but, by the way he spoke, a male of considerable status:
"--tell you again, this war is being conducted by idiots with fancy body paint. They anticipated none of the difficulties the Race would confront in trying to conquer Tosev 3, and, when they found those difficulties, what did they do about them? Not much, by the Emperor! No, not Atvar and his clique of cloaca-licking fools. They just pressed on as if the Big Uglies were the sword-swinging savages we'd presumed them to be when we set out from Home. And how many good, brave, and obedient males have died on account of their stupidity? Think on it, you who still live."
"Truth!" Ussmak exclaimed. Whoever this male was, he understood what was what. He had a grasp of the big picture, too. Ussmak had heard captive males broadcasting before. Most of them just sounded pathetic, repeating the phrases the Tosevites ordered them to say. It made for bad, unconvincing propaganda. This fellow, though, sounded as if he'd prepared his own material and was enjoying every insult he hurled at the fleetlord.
Ussmak wished he'd caught the beginning of this transmission, so he could have learned the broadcaster's name and rank. The fellow went on, "Here and there on Tosev 3, males are getting the idea that continuing this futile, bloody conflict is a dreadful mistake. Many have thrown down their weapons and yielded to the Tosevite empire or not-empire controlling the area in which they were assigned. Most Tosevite empires and not-empires treat prisoners well. I, Straha, shiplord of the 206th Emperor Yower, can personally attest to this. Atvar the brain-addled fool was going to destroy me for daring to oppose his senseless policies, but I escaped to the United States, and have never regretted it even for an instant."
Straha! Ussmak swung both eye turrets to focus sharply on the radio. Straha had been the third-ranking male in the conquest fleet. Ussmak knew he'd fled to the Big Uglies, but hadn't known much about why: he hadn't caught any of the shiplord's earlier broadcasts. He clawed at a sheet of paper, slicing it into strips. Straha had told the truth and, instead of being rewarded as was proper, had suffered for it.
The refugee shiplord went on, "Nor is yielding to the Tosevites your only choice. I have heard reports of brave males in Siberia who, tired at last of endless orders to do the impossible, struck a blow for freedom against their own misguided commanders, and who now rule their base independent of foolish plans formulated by males who float in comfort high above Tosev 3 and who think that makes them wise. You who hear my voice, ignore orders whose senselessness you can see with one eye turret and with the nictitating membrane over that eye. Remonstrate with your officers. If all else fails, imitate the brave Siberians and reclaim liberty for yourselves. I, Straha, have spoken."
Static replaced the shiplord's voice. Ussmak felt stronger, more alive, than even ginger could make him. However much he enjoyed that intoxication, he knew it was artificial. What Straha had said, though, was real, every word of it. Males on the ground had been treated shabbily, had been sacrificed for no good purpose--for no purpose at all, as far as Ussmak could tell.
Straha had also told him something he badly needed to know. When he'd spoken with the males up in orbit, he'd threatened to surrender the base to the local Big Uglies if the Race didn't meet his demands or attacked him. He'd hesitated about doing anything more than threatening, since he didn't know how the Soviets would treat males they captured. But Straha had set his mind at ease. He didn't know much about Tosevite geography, but he did know the United States and the SSSR were two of the biggest, strongest not-empires on Tosev 3.
If the United States treated its captured males well, no doubt the SSSR would do the same. Ussmak hissed in satisfaction. "We now have a new weapon against you," he said, and turned both eye turrets up toward the starships still in orbit around Tosev 3.
His mouth dropped open. Those males up there certainly didn't know much about the Big Uglies.
Sam Yeager looked at the rocket motor painfully assembled from parts made in small-town machine shops all over Arkansas and southern Missouri. It looked--well, crude was the politest word that came to mind. He sighed. "Once you see what the Lizards can do, anything people turn out is small potatoes alongside it. No offense, sir," he added hastily.
"None taken," Robert Goddard answered. "As a matter of fact, I agree with you. We do the best we can, that's all." His gray, worn face said he was doing more than that: he was busy working himself to death. Yeager worried about him.
He walked around the motor. If you set it alongside the pieces of the one from the Lizard shuttlecraft that had brought Straha down to exile, it was a kid's toy. He took off his service cap, scratched at his blond hair. "You think it'll fly, sir?"
"The only way to find out is to light it up and see what happens," Goddard answered. "If we're lucky, we'll get to test-fire it on the ground before we wrap sheet metal around it and stick some explosives on top. The trouble is, test-firing a rocket motor isn't what you'd call inconspicuous, and we'd probably have a visit from the Lizards in short order."
"It's a straight scaledown from the motor in the Lizard shuttlecraft," Yeager said. "Vesstil thinks that should be a pretty good guarantee it'll work the right way."
"Vesstil knows more about flying rockets than anyone human," Goddard said with a weary smile. "Seeing as he flew Straha down from his starship when he defected, that goes without saying. But Vesstil doesn't know beans about engineering, at least the cut-and-try kind. Everything else changes when you scale up or down, and you have to try the new model to see what the devil you've got." He chuckled wryly. "And it's not quite a straight scaledown anyhow, Sergeant: we've had to adapt the design to what we like to do and what we're able to do."
"Well, yes, sir." Sam felt his ears heat with embarrassment. Since his skin was very fair, he feared Goddard could watch him flush. "Hell of a thing for me to even think of arguing with you." Goddard had more experience with rockets than anybody who wasn't a Lizard or a German, and he was gaining on the Germans. Yeager went on, "If I hadn't read the pulps before the war, I wouldn't be here working with you now."
"You've taken advantage of what you read," Goddard answered. "If you hadn't done that, you wouldn't be of any use to me."
"You spend as much time bouncing around as I've done, sir, and you know that if you see a chance, you'd better grab for it with both hands, 'cause odds are you'll never see it again." Yeager scratched his head once more. He'd spent his whole adult life, up till the Lizards came, playing minor-league ball. A broken ankle ten years before had effectively ended whatever chance he'd had of making the majors, but he'd hung in there anyhow. And on the endless bus and train trips from one small or medium-sized town to the next, he'd killed time with Astounding and any other science-fiction magazines he'd found on the newsstands. His teammates had laughed at him for reading about bug-eyed monsters from another planet. Now--
Now Robert Goddard said, "I'm glad you grabbed this one, Sergeant. I don't think I could have gotten nearly so much information out of Vesstil with a different interpreter. It's not just that you know his language; you have a real feel for what he's trying to get across."
"Thanks," Sam said, feeling about ten feet tall. "Soon as I got the chance to have anything to do with the Lizards besides shooting at 'em, I knew that's what I wanted. They're--fascinating, you know what I mean?"
Goddard shook his head. "What they know, the experience they have--that's fascinating. But them--" He laughed self-consciously. "A good thing Vesstil's not around right now. He'd be insulted if he knew he gave me the creeps."
"He probably wouldn't, sir," Yeager said. "The Lizards mostly don't make any bones about us giving them the creeps." He paused. "Hmm, come to think of it, he might be insulted at that, sort of like if a Ku-Kluxer found out some Negroes looked down their noses at white men."
"As if we don't have the right to think Lizards are creepy, you mean."
"That's right." Sam nodded. "But snakes and things like that, they never bothered me, not even when I was a kid. And the Lizards, every time I'm with one of them, I'm liable to learn something new: not just new for me, I mean, but something nobody, no human being, ever knew before. That's pretty special. In a way, it's even more special than Jonathan." Now he laughed the nervous laugh Goddard had used before. "Don't let Barbara found out I said that."
"You have my word," the rocket scientist said solemnly. "But I do understand what you mean. Your son is an unknown to you, but he's not the first baby that ever was. Really discovering something for the first time is a thrill almost as addictive as--as ginger, shall we say?"
"As long as we don't let the Lizards hear us say it, sure," Yeager answered. "They sure do like that stuff, don't they?" He hesitated again, then went on, "Sir, I'm mighty glad you decided to move operations back here to Hot Springs. Gives me the chance to be with my family, lets me help Barbara out every now and then. I mean, we haven't even been married a year yet, and--"
"I'm glad it's worked out well for you, Sergeant," Goddard said, "but that's not the reason I came down here from Couch--"
"Oh, I know it's not, sir," Sam said hastily.
As if he hadn't spoken, Goddard went on, "Hot Springs is a decent-sized city, with at least a little light manufacturing. We're not far from Little Rock, which has more. And we have all the Lizards at the Army and Navy General Hospital here, upon whom we can draw for expertise. That has proved much more convenient than transferring the Lizards up to southern Missouri one by one."
"Like I said, it's great by me," Yeager told him. "And we've moved an awful lot of pieces of the Lizard shuttlecraft down here so we can study 'em better."
"I worried about that," Goddard said. "The Lizards always knew about where Vesstil brought Straha down. We were lucky we concealed and stripped the shuttlecraft as fast as we did, because they tried their hardest to destroy it. They easily could have sent in troops by air to make sure they'd done the job, and we'd have had the devil's own time stopping them."
"They don't go poking their snouts into everything the way they did when they first landed here," Sam said. "I guess that's because we've hurt 'em a few times when they tried it."
"A good thing, too, or I fear we'd have lost the war by now." Goddard rose and stretched, though from his grimace that hurt more than it made him feel good. "Another incidental reason for coming to Hot Springs is the springs. I'm going to my room to draw myself a hot bath. I'd gotten used to doing without such things, and almost forgot how wonderful they are."
"Yes, sir," Yeager said enthusiastically. The fourth-floor room in the Army and Navy General Hospital he shared with Barbara--and now Jonathan--didn't have a tub of its own; washing facilities were down at the end of the hall. That didn't bother him. For one thing, Goddard was a VIP, while he was just an enlisted man doing what he could for the war effort. For another, the plumbing on the Nebraska farm where he'd grown up had consisted of a well and a two-holer out back of the house. He didn't take running water, cold or especially hot, for granted.
Walking up to his room was a lot more comfortable in winter than it had been in summertime, when you didn't need to soak in the local springs to get hot and wet. As he headed down the hall toward room 429, he heard Jonathan kicking up a ruckus in there. He sighed and hurried a little faster. Barbara would be feeling harassed. So would the Lizard POWs who also lived on this floor.
When he opened the door, Barbara sent him a look that went from hunted to relieved when she saw who he was. She thrust the baby at him. "Would you try holding him, please?" she said. "No matter what I do, he doesn't want to keep quiet."
"Okay, hon," he said. "Let's see if there's a burp hiding in there." He got Jonathan up on his shoulder and started thumping the kid's back. He did it hard enough to make it sound as if he were working out on the drums. Barbara, who had a gentler touch, frowned at that the way she usually did, but he got results with it. As now--Jonathan gave forth with an almost baritone belch and a fair volume of half-digested milk. Then he blinked and looked much happier with himself.
"Oh, good!" Barbara exclaimed when the burp came out. She dabbed at Sam's uniform tunic with a diaper. "There. I got most of it, but I'm afraid you're going to smell like sour milk for a while."
"World won't end," Yeager said. "This isn't one of your big spit and polish places." The smell of sour milk didn't bother him any more. It was in the room most of the time, along with the reek that came with the diaper pail even when it was closed--that reminded him of the barnyard on his parents' farm, not that he ever said so to Barbara. He held his little son out at arm's length. "There you go, kiddo. You had that hiding in there where Mommy couldn't find it, didn't you?"
Barbara reached for the baby. "I'll take him back now, if you want."
"It's okay," Sam said. "I don't get to hold him all that much, and you look like you could use a breather."
"Well, now that you mention it, yes." Barbara slumped into the only chair in the room. She wasn't the pert girl Sam had got to know; she looked beat, as she did most of the time. If you didn't look beat most of the time with a new kid around, either something was wrong with you or you had servants to look beat for you. There were dark circles under her green eyes; her blond hair--several shades darker than Sam's--hung limp, as if it were tired, too. She let out a weary sigh. "What I wouldn't give for a cigarette and especially a cup of coffee."
"Oh, Lord--coffee," Yeager said wistfully. "The worst cup of joe I ever drank in the greasiest greasy spoon in the lousiest little town I ever went through--and I went through a lot of 'em ... Jeez, it'd go good right now."
"If we had any coffee to ration, we ought to share it between soldiers in the front lines and parents with babies less than a year old. No one else could possibly need it so badly," Barbara said. Frazzled as she was, she still spoke with a precision Sam admired: she'd done graduate work at Berkeley in medieval English literature before the war. The kind of English you heard in ballparks didn't measure up alongside that.
Jonathan wiggled and twisted and started to cry. He was beginning to make different kinds of racket to show he had different things in mind. Sam recognized this one. "He's hungry, hon."
"By the schedule, it's not time to feed him yet," Barbara answered. "But do you know what? As far as I'm concerned, the schedule can go to the devil. I can't stand listening to him yell until the clock says it's okay for him to eat. If nursing makes him happy enough to keep still for a while, that suits me fine." She wriggled her right arm out of the sleeve of the dark blue wool dress she was wearing, tugged the dress down to bare that breast. "Here, give him to me."
Yeager did. The baby's mouth fastened onto her nipple. Jonathan sucked avidly. Yeager could hear him gulping down the milk. He'd felt funny at first, having to share Barbara's breasts with his son. But you couldn't bottle-feed these days--no formula, no easy way to keep things as clean as they needed to be. And after you got used to breast-feeding, it didn't seem like such a big thing any more, anyhow.
"I think he may be going to sleep," Barbara said. The radio newsman who'd announced Jimmy Doolittle's bomber raid over Tokyo hadn't sounded more excited about a victory. She went on, "He's going to want to nurse on the other side too, though. Help me out of that sleeve, would you, Sam? I can't get it down by myself, not while I'm holding him."
"Sure thing." He hurried over to her, stretched the sleeve out, and helped her get her arm back through past the elbow. After that, she managed on her own. The dress fell limply to her waist. A couple of minutes went by before she shifted Jonathan to her left breast.
"He'd better fall asleep pretty soon," Barbara said. "I'm cold."
"He looks as if he's going to," Sam answered. He draped a folded towel over her left shoulder, not so much to help warm her as to keep the baby from drooling or spitting up on her when she burped him.
One of her eyebrows rose. "'As if he's going to'?" she echoed.
He knew what she meant. He wouldn't have said it that way when they first met; he'd made it through high school, then gone off to play ball. "Must be the company I keep," he replied with a smile, and then went on more seriously: "I like learning things from the people I'm around--from the Lizards, too, it's turned out. Is it any wonder I've picked things up from you?"
"Oh, in a way it's a wonder," Barbara said. "A lot of people seem to hate the idea of ever learning anything new. I'm glad you're not like that; it would make life boring." She glanced down at Jonathan. "Yes, he is falling asleep. Good."
Sure enough, before long her nipple slipped out of the baby's mouth. She held him a little longer, then gently raised him to her shoulder and patted his back. He burped without waking up, and didn't spit up, either. She slid him back down to the crook of her elbow, waited a few minutes more, and got up to put him in the wooden crib that took up a large part of the small room. Jonathan sighed as she laid him down. She stood there for a moment, afraid he would wake. But when his breathing steadied, she straightened and reached down to fix her dress.
Before she could, Sam stepped up behind her and cupped a breast in each hand. She turned her head and smiled at him over her shoulder, but it wasn't a smile of invitation, even though they had started making love again a couple of weeks before.
"Do you mind too much if I just lie down for a while?" she said. "By myself, I mean. It's not that I don't love you, Sam--it's just that I'm so tired, I can't see straight."
"Okay, I understand that," he said, and let go. The soft, warm memory of her flesh remained printed on his palms. He kicked at the linoleum floor, once.
Barbara quickly pulled her dress up to where it belonged, then turned around and put her hands on his shoulders. "Thank you," she said. "I know this hasn't been easy for you, either."
"Takes some getting used to, that's all," he said. "Being in the middle of the war when we got married didn't help a whole lot, and then you were expecting right away--" As best they could tell, that had happened on their wedding night. He chuckled. "Of course, if it hadn't been for the war, we never would have met. What do they say about clouds and silver linings?"
Barbara hugged him. "I'm very happy with you, and with our baby, and with everything." She corrected herself, yawning: "With almost everything. I could do with a lot more sleep."
"I'm happy with just about everything, too," he said, his arms tightening around her back. As he'd said, if it hadn't been for the war, they wouldn't have met. If they had met, she wouldn't have looked at him; she'd been married to a nuclear physicist in Chicago. But Jens Larssen had been away from the Met Lab project, away for so long they'd both figured he was dead, and they'd become first friends, then lovers, and finally husband and wife. And then Barbara had got pregnant--and then they'd found out Jens was alive after all.
Sam squeezed Barbara one more time, then let her go and walked over to the side of the crib to look down at their sleeping son. He reached out a hand and ruffled Jonathan's fine, thin head of almost snow-white hair.
"That's sweet," Barbara said.
"He's a pretty good little guy," Yeager answered. And if you hadn't been carrying him, odds are ten bucks against a wooden nickel you'd have dropped me and gone back to Larssen. He smiled at the baby. Kid, I owe you a big one for that. One of these days, I'll see if I can figure out how to pay you back.
Barbara kissed him on the lips, a brief, friendly peck, and then walked over to the bed. "I am going to get some rest," she said.
"Okay." Sam headed for the door. "I guess I'll find me some Lizards and chin with them for a while. Do me some good now, and maybe even after the war, too, if there ever is an 'after the war.' Whatever happens, people and Lizards are going to have to deal with each other from here on out. The more I know, the better off I'll be."
"I think you'll be just fine any which way," Barbara answered as she lay down. "Why don't you come back in an hour or so? If Jonathan's still asleep, who knows what might happen?"
"We'll find out." Yeager opened the door, then glanced back at his son. "Sleep tight, kiddo."
The man who wore earphones glanced over at Vyacheslav Molotov. "Comrade Foreign Commissar, we are getting new reports that the Yashcheritsi at the base east of Tomsk are showing interest in surrendering to us." When Molotov didn't answer, the technician made so bold as to add, "You remember, Comrade: the ones who mutinied against their superiors."
"I assure you, Comrade, I am aware of the situation and need no reminding," Molotov said in a voice colder than Moscow winter--colder than Siberian winter, too. The technician gulped and dipped his head to show he understood. You were lucky to get away with one slip around Molotov; you wouldn't get away with two. The foreign commissar went on, "Have they any definite terms this time?"
"Da, Comrade Foreign Commissar." The fellow at the wireless set looked down at the notes he'd scribbled. His pencil was barely as long as his thumb; everything was at a premium these days. "They want pledges not only of safe conduct but also of good treatment after going over to us."
"We can give them those," Molotov said at once. "I would think even the local military commander would have the wit to see as much for himself." The local military commander should also have had the wit to see that such pledges could be ignored the instant they became inconvenient.
On the other hand, it was probably just as well that the local military commander displayed no excessive initiative, but referred his questions back to Moscow and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for answers. Commanders who usurped Party control in one area were only too likely to try to throw it off in others.
The wireless operator spoke groups of seemingly meaningless letters over the air. Molotov sincerely hoped they were meaningless to the Lizards. "What else do the mutineers want?" he asked.
"A pledge that under no circumstances will we return them to the Lizards, not even if an end to hostilities is agreed to between the peace-loving workers and peasants of the Soviet Union and the alien imperialist aggressors from whose camp they are trying to defect."
"Again, we can agree to this," Molotov said. It was another promise that could be broken at need, although Molotov did not see the need as being likely to arise. By the time peace between the USSR and the Lizards came along, he guessed the mutineers would be long forgotten. "What else?"
"They demand our promise to supply them with unlimited amounts of ginger, Comrade Foreign Commissar," the technician replied, again after checking his notes.
As usual, Molotov's pale, blunt-featured face revealed nothing of what was in his mind. In their own way, the Lizards were as degenerate as the capi talists and fascists against whom the glorious peasants and workers of the USSR had demonstrated new standards of virtue. Despite their high technology, though, the Lizards were in social terms far more primitive than capitalist societies. They were a bastion of the ancient economic system: they were masters, seeking human beings as slaves--so the dialecticians had decreed. Well, the upper classes of ancient Rome had been degenerates, too.
And, through degeneracy, the exploiters could be exploited. "We shall certainly make this concession," Molotov said. "If they want to drug themselves, we will gladly provide them with the means to do so." He waited for more code groups to go out over the air, then asked again, "What else?"
"They insist on driving the tanks away from the base themselves, on retaining their personal weapons, and on remaining together as a group," the wireless operator answered.
"They are gaining in sophistication," Molotov said. "This I shall have to consider." After a couple of minutes, he said, "They may drive their vehicles away from their base, but not to one of ours: the local commandant is to point out to them that trust between the two sides has not been fully established. He is to tell them they will be divided into several smaller groups for efficiency of interrogation. He may add that, if they are so divided, we shall let them retain their weapons, otherwise not."
"Let me make sure I have that, Comrade, before I transmit it," the technician said, and repeated back Molotov's statement. When the foreign commissar nodded, the man sent out the appropriate code groups.
"Anything more?" Molotov asked. The wireless operator shook his head. Molotov got up and left the room somewhere deep under the Kremlin. The guard outside saluted. Molotov ignored him, as he had not bothered giving the man at the wireless a farewell. Superfluities of any sort were alien to his nature.
That being so, he did not chortle when he went upstairs. By his face, no one could have guessed whether the Lizard mutineers had agreed to give up or were instead demanding that he present himself for immediate liquidation. But inside--
Fools, he thought. They are fools. No matter that they'd become more sophisticated than before: the Lizards were still naive enough to make even Americans seem worldly by comparison. He'd seen that before, even among their chiefs. They had no notion of how to play the political games human diplomates took for granted. Their ruling assumption had plainly been that they would need no such talents, that their conquest of Earth would be quick and easy. Now that that hadn't happened, they were out of their depth.
Soldiers snapped to attention as he strode through the halls of the Kremlin. Civilian functionaries muted their conversations and gave him respectful nods. He did not acknowledge them. He barely noticed them. Had he failed to receive them, though, he would have made sharp note of that.
The devil's cousin or some other malicious wretch had dumped a stack of papers on his desk while he went down to bring himself up to date on the talks with the mutinous Lizards. He had high hopes for those talks. The Soviet Union already had a good many Lizard prisoners of war, and had learned some useful things from them. Once Lizards surrendered, they seemed to place humans in the positions of trust and authority their own superiors had formerly occupied for them.
And to lay hold of an entire base full of the equipment the alien aggressors from the stars manufactured! Unless Soviet intelligence was badly mistaken, that would be a coup neither the Germans nor the Americans could match. The British had a lot of Lizard gear, but the imperialist creatures had done their best to wreck it after their invasion of England failed.
The first letter on the pile was from the Social Activities Committee of Kolkhoz 118: so the return address stated, at any rate. But the collective farm not far outside of Moscow was where Igor Kurchatov and his team of nuclear physicists were laboring to fabricate an explosive-metal bomb. They'd made one, out of metal stolen from the Lizards. Isolating more of the metal for themselves was proving as hard as they'd warned Molotov it would--harder than he'd wanted to believe.
Sure enough, Kurchatov now wrote, "The latest experiment, Comrade Foreign Commissar, was a success less complete than we might have hoped." Molotov did not need his years of reading between the lines to infer that the experiment had failed. Kurchatov went on, "Certain technical aspects of the situation still present us with difficulties. Outside advice might prove useful."
Molotov grunted softly. When Kurchatov asked for outside advice, he didn't mean help from other Soviet physicists. Every reputable nuclear physicist in the USSR was already working with him. Molotov had put his own neck on the block by reminding Stalin of that; he shuddered to think of the risk he'd taken for the rodina, the motherland. What Kurchatov wanted was foreign expertise.
Humiliating, Molotov thought. The Soviet Union should not have been so backwards. He would never ask the Germans for help. Even if they gave it, he wouldn't trust what they gave. Stalin was just as well pleased that the Lizards in Poland separated the USSR from Hitler's madmen, and there Molotov completely agreed with his leader.
The Americans? Molotov gnawed at his mustache. Maybe, just maybe. They were making their own explosive-metal bombs, just as the Nazis were. And if he could tempt them with some of the prizes the Lizard base near Tomsk would yield ...
He pulled out a pencil and a scrap of paper and began to draft a letter.
"Jesus, God, will you lookit this?" Mutt Daniels exclaimed as he led his platoon through the ruins of what had been Chicago's North Side. "And all from one bomb, too."
"Don't hardly seem possible, does it, Lieutenant?" Sergeant Herman Muldoon agreed. The kids they were leading didn't say anything. They just looked around with wide eyes and even wider mouths at their fair share of a few miles' worth of slagged wreckage.
"I been on God's green earth goin' on sixty years now," Mutt said, his Mississippi drawl flowing slow and thick as molasses in this miserable Northern winter. "I seen a whole lot o' things in my time. I fought in two wars now, and I done traveled all over the U.S. of A. But I ain't never seen nothin' like this here."
"You got that right," Muldoon said. He was Daniels' age, near enough, and he'd been around, too. The men alongside them in the ragged skirmish line didn't have that kind of experience, but they'd never seen anything like this, either. Nobody had, not till the Lizards came.
Before they came, Daniels had been managing the Decatur Commodores, a Three-I League team. One of his ballplayers had liked reading pulp stories about rocketships and creatures from other planets (he wondered if Sam Yeager was still alive these days). Mutt pulled an image from that kind of story now: the North Side reminded him of the mountains of the moon.
When he said that out loud, Herman Muldoon nodded. He was tall and thick-shouldered, with a long, tough Irish mug and, at the moment, a chin full of graying stubble. "I heard that about France back in nineteen an' eighteen, and I thought it was pretty straight then. Goes to show what I knew, don't it?"
"Yeah," Daniels said. He'd seen France, too. "France had more craters'n you could shake a stick at, that's for damn sure. 'Tween us and the frogs and the limeys and the Boches, we musta done fired every artillery shell in the world 'bout ten times over. But this here, it's just the one."
You could tell where the bomb had gone off: all the wreckage leaned away from it. If you drew a line from the direction of fallen walls and houses and uprooted trees, then went west a mile or so and did the same thing, the place where those lines met would have been around ground zero.
There were other ways of working out where that lay, though. Identifiable wreckage was getting thin on the ground now. More and more, it was just lumpy, half-shiny dirt, baked by the heat of the bomb into stuff that was almost like glass.
It was slippery like glass, too, especially with snow scattered over it. One of Mutt's men had his feet go out from under him and landed on his can. "Oww!" he said, and then, "Ahh, shit!" As his comrades laughed at him, he tried to get up--and almost fell down again.
"You want to play those kind o' games, Kurowski, you get yourself a clown suit, not the one you're wearin'," Mutt said.
"Sorry, Lieutenant," Kurowski said in injured tones that had nothing to do with his sore fundament. "It ain't like I'm doing it on purpose."
"Yeah, I know, but you're still doin' it." Mutt gave up ragging him. He recognized the big pile of brick and steel off to the left. It had come through the blast fairly well, and had shielded some of the apartment houses behind it so they weren't badly damaged at all. But the sight of upright buildings in the midst of the wreckage wasn't what made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. "Ain't that Wrigley Field?" he whispered. "Gotta be, from where it's at and what it looks like."
He'd never played in Wrigley Field--the Cubs had still been out at old West Side Grounds when he came through as a catcher for the Cardinals before the First World War. But seeing the ballpark in ruins brought the reality of this war home to him like a kick in the teeth. Sometimes big things would do that, sometimes little ones; he remembered a doughboy breaking down and sobbing like a baby when he found some French kid's dolly with its head blown off.
Muldoon's eyes slid over toward Wrigley for a moment. "Gonna be a long time before the Cubs win another pennant," he said, as good an epitaph as any for the park--and the city.
South of Wrigley Field, a big fellow with a sergeant's stripes and a mean expression gave Daniels a perfunctory salute. "Come on, Lieutenant," he said. "I'm supposed to get your unit into line here."
"Well, then, go on and do it," Mutt said. Most of his men didn't have enough experience to wipe their asses after they went and squatted. A lot of them were going to end up casualties because of it. Sometimes all the experience in the world didn't matter, either. Mutt had scars on his backside from a Lizard bullet--luckily, a through-and-through flesh wound that hadn't chewed up his hipbone. A couple, three feet up, though, and it would have hit him right in the ear.
The sergeant led them out of the blast area, down through the Near North Side toward the Chicago River. The big buildings ahead stood empty and battered, as meaningless to what was happening now as so many dinosaur bones might have been--unless, of course, they had Lizard snipers in them. "We shoulda pushed 'em farther back," the sergeant said, spitting in disgust, "but what the hell you gonna do?"
"Them Lizards, they're hard to push," Daniels agreed glumly. He looked around. The big bomb hadn't leveled this part of Chicago, but any number of small bombs and artillery shells had had their way with it. So had fire and bullets. The ruins gave ideal cover for anybody who felt like picking a line and fighting it out there. "This here's a lousy part of town for pushin' 'em, too."
"This here's a lousy part of town, period--sir," the sergeant said. "All the dagos used to live here till the Lizards ran 'em out--maybe they did somethin' decent there, you ask me."
"Knock off the crap about dagos," Daniels told him. He had two in his platoon. If the sergeant turned his back on Giordano and Pinelli, he was liable to end up dead.
Now he sent Mutt an odd glance, as if wondering why he didn't agree: no pudgy old red-faced guy who talked like a Johnny Reb could be a dago himself, so what was he doing taking their part? But Mutt was a lieutenant, so the sergeant shut up till he got the platoon to its destination: "This here's Oak and Cleveland, sir. They call it 'Dead Corner' on account of the da--the Eyetalian gents got in the habit of murdering each other here during Prohibition. Somehow, there never were any witnesses. Funny how that works, ain't it?" He saluted and took off.
The platoon leader Daniels replaced was a skinny blond guy named Rasmussen. He pointed south. "Lizard lines are about four hundred yards down that way, out past Locust. Last couple days, it's been pretty quiet."
"Okay." Daniels brought field glasses up to his eyes and peered down past Locust. He spotted a couple of Lizards. Things had to be quiet, or they never would have shown themselves. They were about the size of ten-year-olds, with green-brown skin painted in patterns that meant things like rank and specialization badges and service stripes, swively eyes, and a forward-leaning, skittery gait unlike anything ever spawned on Earth.
"They sure are ugly little critters," Rasmussen said. "Little's the word, too. How do things that size go about making so much trouble?"
"They manage, that's a fact," Mutt answered. "What I don't see is, now that they're here, how we ever gonna get rid of all of 'em? They've come to stay, no two ways about that a-tall."
"Just have to kill 'em all, I guess," Rasmussen said.
"Good luck!" Mutt said. "They're liable to do that to us instead. Real liable. You ask me--not that you did--we got to find some other kind of way." He rubbed his bristly chin. "Only trouble is, I ain't got a clue what it could be. Hope somebody does. If nobody does, we better find one pretty damn quick or we're in all kinds of trouble."
"Like you said, I didn't ask you," Rasmussen told him.