Roland fingered the rifle's plastic stock as his squad leaped off the truck and lined up behind Corporal Wu. He had a serious case of dry-mouth, and his ears still rang from the alert bell that had yanked them out of exhausted slumber only an hour before.
Who would've imagined being called out on a real raid? This certainly broke the routine of Basic Training — running about pointlessly, standing rigid while sergeants shouted abuse at you, screaming back obedient answers, then running some more until you dropped. Of course the pre-induction tapes had explained the purpose of all that.
"... Recruits must go through intense stress in order to break civilian response sets and prepare behavioral templates for military imprinting. Their rights are not surrendered, only voluntarily suspended in order to foster discipline, coordination, hygiene, and other salutary skills..."
Only volunteers who understood, and signed waivers, were allowed to join the peacekeeping forces, so he'd known what to expect. What had surprised Roland was getting accepted in the first place, despite mediocre school grades. Maybe, he thought, the peacekeepers' aptitude tests weren't infallible after all. Or perhaps they revealed something about Roland that had never emerged back in Indiana.
It can't be intelligence, that's for sure. And I'm no leader. Never wanted to be.
In his spare moments (all three of them since arriving here in Taiwan for training) Roland had pondered the question, and finally decided it was none of his damn business, after all. So long as the officers knew what they were doing, that was enough for him.
This calling out of raw recruits for a night mission, didn't fill him with confidence though.
What use would greenies like us be in a combat operation? Won't we just get in the way?
His squad double-timed alongside a towering, aromatic, ornamental hedge, toward the sound of helicopters and the painful brilliance of searchlights. Perspiration loosened his grip on the stock, forcing him to hold his weapon tighter. His heartbeat quickened as they neared the scene of action. And yet, Roland felt certain he wasn't scared to die.
No, he was afraid of screwing up.
"Takka says it's eco-nuts!" the recruit running beside him whispered, panting. Roland didn't answer. In the last hour he'd completely had it with scuttlebutt.
Neo-Gaian radicals might have blown up a dam, someone said.
No, it was an un-licensed gene lab, or maybe an un-registered national bomb — hidden in violation of the Rio Pact....
Hell, none of the rumored emergencies seemed to justify calling in peach-fuzz recruits. It must be real bad trouble. Or else something he didn't understand yet.
Roland watched the jouncing backpack of Corporal Wu. The compact Chinese non-com carried twice the weight any of them did, yet he obviously held himself back for the sluggish recruits. Roland found himself wishing Wu would pass out the ammo now. What if they were ambushed? What if...?
You don't know anything yet, box-head. Better pray they don't pass out ammo. Half those mama's boys runnin' behind you don't know their rifles from their assholes.
In fairness, Roland figured they probably felt exactly the same way about him.
The squad hustled round the hedge onto a gravel driveway, puffing uphill toward the glaring lanterns. Officers milled about, poring over clipboards and casting long shadows across a close-cropped lawn that had been ripped and scraped by copters and magnus Zeps. A grand mansion stood farther upslope, dominating the richly landscaped grounds. Silhouettes hastened past brightly lit windows.
Roland saw no foxholes. So maybe ammo wouldn't be needed after all.
Corporal Wu brought the squad to a disorderly halt as the massive, gruff figure of Sergeant Kleinerman appeared out of nowhere.
"Have the weenies stack weapons over by the flower bed," Kleinerman told Wu in Standard Military English. "Wipe their noses, then take them around back. UNEPA has work for 'em that's simple enough for infants to handle."
Any recruit who took that kind of talk from the instructors personally was a fool. Roland just took advantage of the pause to catch his breath.
"No weapons," Takka groused as they stacked their rifles amid trampled marigolds. "What do we use, our hands?"
Roland shrugged. The casual postures of the officers told him this was no terrorist site. "Prob'ly," he guessed. "Them and our backs."
"This way, weenies," Wu said, with no malice and only a little carefully tailored contempt. "Come on. It's time to save the world again."
Through the bright windows Roland glimpsed rich men, rich women, dressed in shimmering fabrics. Nearly all looked like Han-Formosans. For the first time since arriving at Camp Perez de Cuellar, Roland really felt he was in Taiwan, almost China, thousands of miles from Indiana.
Servants still carried trays of refreshments, their darker Bengali or Tamil complexions contrasting with the pale Taiwanese. Unlike the agitated party guests, the attendants seemed undisturbed to have in their midst all these soldiers and green-clad marshals from UNEPA. In fact, Roland saw one waiter smile when she thought no one was looking, and help herself to a glass of champagne.
UNEPA... Roland thought on spying the green uniforms. That means eco-crimes.
Wu hustled the squad past where some real soldiers stood guard in blurry combat camouflage, their eyes hooded by multi-sensor goggles which seemed to dart and flash as their pulse-rifles glittered darkly. The guards dismissed the recruits with barely a flicker of attention, which irked Roland far worse than the insults of Wu and Kleinerman.
I'll make them notice me, he vowed. Though he knew better than to expect it soon. You didn't get to be like those guys overnight.
Behind the mansion a ramp dropped steeply into the earth. Smoke rose from a blasted steel door that now lay curled and twisted to one side. A woman marshal met them by the opening. Even darker than her chocolate skin was the cast of her features — as if they were carved from basalt. "This way," she said tersely and led them down the ramp — a trip of more than fifty meters — into a reinforced concrete bunker. When they reached the bottom however, it wasn't at all what Roland expected — some squat armored slab. Instead, he found himself in a place straight out of the Arabian Nights.
The recruits gasped. "Shee-it!" Takka commented concisely, showing how well he'd picked up the essentials of Military English. Kanakoa, the Hawaiian, expressed amazement even more eloquently. "Welcome to the Elephant's Graveyard, Tarzan."
Roland only stared. Tiny, multicolored spotlights illuminated the arched chamber, subtly emphasizing the shine of ivory and fur and crystal. From wall to wall, the spoils of five continents were piled high. More illicit wealth than Roland had ever seen. More than he could ever have imagined.
From racks in all directions hung spotted leopard pelts, shimmering beaver skins, white winter fox stoles. And shoes! Endless stacks of them, made from dead reptiles obviously, though Roland couldn't begin to conceive which species had given its all for which pair.
"Hey, Senterius." Takka nudged him in the ribs and Roland looked down where the Japanese recruit pointed.
Near his left foot lay a luxurious white carpet... the splayed form of a flayed polar bear whose snarling expression looked really angry. Roland jerked away from those glittering teeth, backing up until something pointy and hard rammed his spine. He whirled, only to goggle in amazement at a stack of elephant tusks, each bearing a golden tip guard.
"Gaia!" he breathed.
"You said it," Kanakoa commented. "Boy, I'll bet Her Holy Nibs is completely pissed off over this."
Roland wished he hadn't spoken the Earth Mother's name aloud. Hers wasn't really a soldierly faith, after all. But Kanakoa and Takka seemed as stunned as he was. "What is all this?" Takka asked, waving at the heaped stacks of animal remains. "Who in the world would want these things?"
Roland shrugged. "Used to be, rich folks liked to wear gnomish crap like this."
Takka sneered. "I knew that. But why now? It is not just illegal. It's ... it's —"
"Sick? Is that what you were going to say, private?"
They turned to see the UNEPA marshal standing close by, looking past them at the piled ivory. She couldn't be over forty years old, but right now the tendons in her neck were taut as bowstrings and she looked quite ancient.
"Come with me, I want to show you soldiers something."
They followed her past cases filled with pinned, iridescent butterflies ... with gorilla-hand ashtrays and stools made from elephants' feet ... with petrified wood and glittering coral that must have been stolen from nature preserves... all the way to the back wall of the artificial cave, where two truly immense tusks formed a standing arch. Tiger skins draped a shrine of sorts — a case crafted in dark hardwood and glass containing dozens of earthenware jars.
Roland saw veins pulse on the backs of her hands. The recruits fell mute, awed by such hatred as she radiated now. Nothing down here impressed them half as much.
Roland found the courage to ask. "What's in the jars, Ma'am?"
Watching her face, he realized what an effort it took for her to speak right now, and found himself wondering if he'd ever be able to exert such mastery over his own body.
"Rhinoceros... horn," she said hoarsely. "Powdered narwhal tusk... whale semen..."
Roland nodded. He'd heard of such things. Ancient legends held they could prolong life or heighten sexual prowess or drive women into writhing heat. And neither morality nor law nor scientific disproof deterred some men from chasing hope.
"So much. There must be a hundred kilos in there!" Takka commented. But he stepped back when the UNEPA official whirled to glare at him, her expression one of bleak despair.
"You don't understand," she whispered. "I hoped we'd find so much more."
Roland soon discovered just what use recruits were on a mission like this.
Sure enough, he thought, resigned that he had only begun plumbing the depths of exhaustion the Peacekeeping Forces had in store for him. Hauling sixty-kilo tusks up the steep ramp, he and Private Schmidt knew they were important pieces in a well-tuned, highly efficient, rapid-deployment force whose worldwide duties stretched from pole to pole. Their part was less glamorous than the on-site inspectors prowling Siberia and Sinkiang and Wyoming, enforcing arms control pacts. Or the brave few keeping angry militias in Brazil and Argentina from each others' throats. Or even the officers tagging and inventorying tonight's booty. But after all, as Corporal Wu told them repeatedly, they also serve who only grunt and sweat.
Roland tried not to show any discomfort working with Schmidt. After all, the tall, skinny alpine boy hadn't even been born yet when the Helvetian War laid waste to much of Central Europe, and anyway you couldn't exactly choose your background. Roland made an effort to accept him as a native of "West Austria," and forget the past.
One thing, Schmidt sure spoke English well. Better, in fact, than most of Roland's old gang back in Bloomington.
"Where are they hauling this stuff?" his partner asked the pilot of one of the mini-zeps as they took a two-minute breather.
"They've got warehouses all over the world," the Swedish non-com said. "If I told you about them, you wouldn't believe me."
"Try us," Roland prompted.
The flier's blue eyes seemed to look far away. "Take what you found in that tomb and multiply it a thousand fold."
"Shee-it," Schmidt sighed. "But..."
"Oh, some of this stuff here won't go into storage. The ivory, for instance. They'll implant label isotopes so each piece is chemically unique, then they'll sell it. The Zoo Arks harvest elephant tusks nowadays anyway, as do the African parks, so the beasts won't tear up trees or attract poachers. That policy came too late to save this fellow." He patted the tusk beside him. "Alas."
"But what about the other stuff? The furs. The shoes. All that powdered horn shit?"
The pilot shrugged. "Can't sell it. That'd just legitimize wearing or using the stuff. Create demand, you see.
"Can't destroy it, either. Could you burn billions worth of beautiful things?
"Sometimes they take school groups through the warehouses, to show kids what real evil is. But mostly it all just sits there, piling up."
The pilot looked left and right. "I do have a theory, though. I think I know the real reason for the warehouses."
"Yes?" Roland and Schmidt leaned forward, ready to accept his confidence.
The pilot spoke behind a shielding hand. "Aliens. They're going to sell it all to aliens from outer space."
Roland groaned. Schmidt spat on the ground in disgust. Of course real soldiers were going to treat them this way. But it was embarrassing to have been sucked in so openly.
"You think I'm kidding?" the pilot asked.
"No, we think you're crazy."
That brought a wry grin. "Likely enough, boy. But think about it! It's only a matter of time til we're contacted, no? They've been searching the sky for a hundred years now. And we've been filling space with our radio and TV and Data-Net noise all that time. Sooner or later a starship has to stop by. It only makes sense, no?"
Roland decided the only safe reply was a silent stare. He watched the non-com warily.
"So I figure it's like this. That starship is very likely to be a trading vessel... out on a long, long cruise, like those clipper ships of olden times. They'll stop here and want to buy stuff, but not just any stuff. It will have to be light, portable, beautiful, and totally unique to Earth. Otherwise, why bother?"
"But this stuff's dumpit contraband!" Roland said, pointing to the goods stacked in the cargo bay.
"Hey! You two! Break's over!" It was Corporal Wu, calling from the ramp. He jerked his thumb, then swiveled and strode back into the catacomb. Roland and his partner stood up.
"But that's the beauty of it!" the pilot continued, as if he hadn't heard. "You see, the CITES rules make all these things illegal in order so there won't be any economic market for killing endangered species.
"But fobbing it all on alien traders won't create a market! It's a one stop deal, you see? They come once, then they are gone again, forever. We empty the warehouses, and spend the profits buying up land for new game preserves." He spread his hands as if to ask what could be more reasonable.
Schmidt spat again, muttering a curse in Schweitzer-Deutsch. "Come on Senterius, let's go." Roland followed quickly, glancing only once over his shoulder at the grinning pilot, wondering if the guy was crazy, brilliant, or simply a terrific sculptor of bullshit.
Probably all three, he figured at last, and double timed the rest of the way. After all, fairy tales were fairy tales, while Corporal Wu was palpable reality.
As he worked, Roland recalled the days not so long ago when he and his pals Remi and Crat used to sit in the park listening to old Joseph tell them about awful battles of the Helvetian War. The war that finally did end war.
Each of them reacted differently to Joseph's eventual betrayal — Remi by turning tragically cynical, and Crat by declaring void anything spoken by anyone over thirty. To Roland, however, what lasted were the veteran's tales of combat — of comrades fighting shoulder to shoulder, hauling each other through Swiss passes clogged with germ-laden, radioactive mud, struggling together to overcome a wily, desperate foe....
Of course he didn't actually wish for a real war to fight. Not a big one on the vast, impersonal scale the old vet described. He knew battle sounded a lot more attractive faraway, in stories, than it would in person.
Still, was this to be the way of it from now on? Hauling off contraband seized from CITES violators? Manning tedious observer posts separating surly, bickering nations too poor and tired to fight anyway? Checking the bilges of rusting freighters for hidden caches of Flight Capital?
Oh, there were real warriors in the peacekeeping forces. Takka and some of the others might get to join the elite units quelling fierce little water wars like the one going on now in Ghana. But as an American he'd have little chance of joining any of the active units. The Guarantor Powers were still too big, too powerful. No little country would stand for Indian or American or Chinese troops stationed on their soil.
Well, at least I can learn how to be a warrior. I'll be trained, ready, in case maybe the world ever needs me.
So he worked doggedly, doing as he was told. Hauling and lifting, lifting and hauling, Roland also tried to listen to UNEPA officials, especially the dark woman. Had she really wished they found more of the grisly contraband?
"... thought we'd traced the Pretoria poaching ring all the way here," she said as he passed by, laden down with aromatic lion skins. "I figured we finally tracked down the main depot. But there's so little White Rhino powder, or &—"
"Could Chang have already sold the rest?" One of the others asked.
She shook her head. "Chang's a hoarder. He only sells to maintain operating capital."
"Well, we'll find out when we finally catch him... the slippery eel."
Roland was still awed by the UNEPA woman, and a bit jealous. What was it like, he wondered, to care about something so passionately? He suspected it made her somehow more alive than he was.
According to the Recruitment Tapes, training was supposed to give him strong feelings of his own. Over months of exhaustion and discipline, he'd come to see his squad-mates as family. Closer than that. They would learn almost to read each others' thoughts, to depend on each other utterly, if necessary, to die for one another.
That was how it was supposed to work. Glancing at Takka and Schmidt and the other strangers in his squad, Roland wondered how the sergeants and instructors could accomplish such a thing. Frankly, it sounded awfully unlikely.
But hell, guys like Kleinerman and Wu have only been soldiering for five thousand years or so. I guess they know what they're doing.
How ironic then, that they finally made a science of soldiering at the very end, just as the profession tried hard to phase itself out of existence forever.
From the looks given them by the UNEPA marshals, that day would come none too soon. Necessity allied the two groups in a cause — that of saving the planet. But clearly the eco-officers would rather do without the military altogether.
Just be patient, Roland thought as he worked. We're doing the best we can, as fast as we can.
He and another recruit disassembled the shrine at the back of the cavernous treasure room, carefully unwinding snake-skin ropes binding the two huge archway tusks. They were lowering one of the ivory trophies to the floor when Roland's nostrils flared at a familiar smell. He stopped and sniffed.
"Come on," the Russian private groused in thick-accented Standard. "Now other one."
"Do you smell something?" Roland asked.
The other youth laughed. "I smell dead animals! What you think? It stink worse here than Tashkent brothels!"
But Roland shook his head. "That's not it." He turned left, following the scent.
Naturally, soldiers weren't allowed tobacco, which would sap their wind and stamina. But he'd been quite a smoker back in Indiana, puffing home-grown with Remi and Crat — as many as eight or ten hand-rolled cigs a week. Could a non-com or UNEPA be sneaking weed behind a corner? It had better not be a recruit, or there'd be latrine duty for the entire squad!
But no, there weren't any hiding places nearby. So where was it coming from?
Corporal Wu's whistle blew, signaling another short break. "Hey, Yank," the Russian said. "Don't be a pizdyuk. Come on."
Roland waved him to silence. He pushed aside one of the tiger skins, still sniffing, then crouched where he had first picked up the scent. It was strongest near the floor beside the glass case — now emptied of its brown jars of macabre powder. His fingers touched a warm breeze.
"Hey, give me a hand," he asked, bracing a shoulder against the wood. But the other recruit flipped two fingers as he walked away, muttering. "Amerikanskee kakanee zassixa..."
Roland checked his footing and strained. The heavy case rocked a bit before settling again.
This can't be right. The guy who owned this place wouldn't want to sweat. He'd never sweat.
Roland felt along the carved basework, working his way around to the back before finding what he sought — a spring-loaded catch. "Aha!" he said in a rush of real pleasure. With a click the entire case slid forward to jam against one of the huge, toppled tusks. Roland peered down steep stairs with a hint of light at the bottom.
He had to squeeze through the narrow opening. Tobacco aromas grew stronger as he descended quietly, carefully. Stooping under a low stone lintel, he entered a chamber hewn from naked rock. Roland straightened and pursed his lips in a silent whistle.
While this hiding place lacked the first one's air of elegant decadence, it did conceal the devil's own treasure... shelves stacked high with jars and small, bulging, plastic bags. "Hot damn," he said, fingering one of the bags. Gritty white powder sifted under a gilt-numbered label adorned with images of unicorns and dragons, though Roland knew the real donor must have been some poor, dumb, mostly-blind rhino in southern Africa, or another equally unprepossessing beast.
"It's the freaking jackpot," he said to himself. It was definitely time to report this. But as he turned to head back upstairs, a voice suddenly stopped him.
"Do not move, soldier-fellow. Hands up or I will shoot you dead."
Roland rotated slowly and saw what he'd missed in his first, cursory scan of the room. At about waist level, near a smoldering ashtray in the corner of the left wall, some of the shelving had swung aside to reveal a narrow tunnel. From this opening a middle-aged man with Taiwanese features aimed a machine pistol at him.
"Do you doubt I can hit you from here?" the man asked levelly. "Is that why you don't raise your hands as I command? I assure you, I'm an expert shooter. I've killed lions, tigers, at close range. Do you doubt it?"
"No. I believe you."
"Then comply! Or I will shoot!"
Roland felt sure the fellow meant it. But it seemed this was time for one of those inconvenient waves of obstinacy his friends used to chide him for, which used to get him into such trouble back in home.
"You shoot, and they'll hear you upstairs."
The man in the tunnel considered this. "Perhaps. On the other hand, if you were to attack me, or flee or call for help, the threat would be immediate and I would have to kill you at once."
Roland shrugged. "I ain't goin' nowhere."
"So. A standoff, then. All right, soldier. You may keep your hands down, as I see you're unarmed. But step back to that wall, or I will consider you dangerous and act accordingly!"
Roland did as he was told, watching for an opportunity. But the man crawled out of the tunnel and stood up without wavering his aim once. "My name is Chang," he said as he wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief.
"So I heard. You been a busy guy, Mr. Chang."
Those brown eyes squinted in amusement. "That I have, young soldier boy. What I've done and seen, you could not imagine. Even in these days of snoops and busy-bodies, I've kept secrets. Secrets deeper than even the Helvetian Gnomes had."
No doubt this was meant to impress Roland. It did. But he'd be damned if he'd give the bastard any satisfaction. "So what do we do now?"
Chang seemed to inspect him. "Now it's customary for me to bribe you. You must know I can offer you wealth and power. This tunnel bears a floater trolley on silent rails. If you help me take away my treasure, it could begin a long, profitable relationship."
Roland felt the piercing intensity of the man's scrutiny. After a moment's thought, he shrugged. "Sure, why not?"
Now it was Chang's turn to pause. Then he giggled. "Ah! I do enjoy encountering wit. Obviously you know I am lying, that I'd kill you once we reached the other end. And I, in turn, can tell you have more urgent goals than money. Is it honor you seek, perhaps?"
Again, Roland shrugged. He wouldn't have put it quite that way.
"So, again we have a stand-off. Hence my second proposition. You help me load my trolley, at gunpoint. I will then depart, and let you live."
This time Roland's pause was calculated only to delay. "How do I know..."
"No questions! Obviously I can't turn my back on you. Agree or die now. Begin with the bags on the shelf by your shoulder, or I'll shoot and be gone before others can come!"
Roland slowly turned and picked up two of the bags, one in each hand.
The "trolley" did indeed float just a few millimeters above a pair of gleaming rails, stretching off into interminable darkness. Roland had no doubt it was meant for swift escape, nor that Chang would be long gone by the time UNEPA traced the other end. The guy seemed to have thought of everything.
He tried to carry as little as he could each trip. Chang lit a cigarette and fumed, watching him like a cat as Roland leaned over the tiny passenger's pallet to lay his loads in the trolley's capacious cargo hamper.
Roland's experience with babushkas and grempers back in Indiana helped, for he seemed to know by instinct how to just brush the inside edge of provocation. Once, he fumbled one of the clay jars. It hit hard and trickled powder onto the tunnel floor, crackling where bits struck the silvery rails. Chang hissed and the knuckles of his hand whitened on the pistol grip. Still, Roland figured the geep wouldn't shoot him just yet. He'd do it at the last moment, probably when the trolley was ready to go.
"Hurry up!" the Han millionaire spat. "You move like an American!"
That gave Roland an excuse to turn and grin at the man. "How'd you guess?" he asked, slowing things another few seconds, stretching Chang's patience before grabbing two more jars and resuming work.
Chang kept glancing up the stairs, obviously listening... but never letting his attention waver long enough to give Roland any foolish notions.
You should've reported the secret passage the minute you found it. Roland thought, cursing inwardly. Unfortunately, the opening was behind the display case, and who knew when it would be discovered? Too late for Private Roland Senterius, probably.
The look in Chang's calculating eyes made Roland reconsider the scenario. He knows that I know I'll have to jump him, just before the end.
What's more, he knows that I know that he knows.
That meant Chang would shoot him before the last moment, to prevent that desperate lunge. But how soon before?
Not too soon, or the smuggler would have to depart with a half-empty trolley, abandoning the rest of his hoard forever. Clearly, Chang's profound greed was the one thing keeping Roland alive. Still, he'd have to do it before the cargo hamper was topped off... before Roland's adrenaline was pumping for the maximum, all-or-nothing effort.
Five loads to go, Roland thought while fitting more jars snugly into place under Chang's watchful eye. Will he do it at three? Or two?
He was delivering the next load, beginning to screw up his courage, when a noise echoed down the steep stair-shaft, pre-empting all plans.
"Senterius! It's Kanakoa. And Schmidt. What the hell are you doing down here?"
Roland froze. Chang edged against the wall near the steps, watching him. There came the scrape of footsteps on stone.
Dumpit, Roland cursed. He was bent over the trolley in an awkward position, much too far away to attack Chang with any chance of success. In addition, his hands were laden with bags. If only he were carrying jars, that could be thrown...
"Senterius? What are you doing, asshole? Smoking? Kleinerman'll roast all of us if they catch you!"
Roland suddenly realized why Chang was watching him so intently. Chang's following my eyes!
Roland's gaze could not help widening when one booted foot appeared on the topmost visible step. Chang was using him to gauge where the other recruits were, to tell when the right moment was just right for killing all three of them! In holding onto seconds of life, Roland knew suddenly, horribly, he was murdering Kanakoa and Schmidt.
Still, even knowing that, he remained statue-like. In Chang's eyes he saw understanding and the glitter of contemptuous victory. How did he know? Roland railed inside. How did he know I was a coward?
The admission belied every one of his dreams. It betrayed what Roland had thought were his reasons for living. The realization seared so hot it tore through his rigor and burst forth in a sudden scream.
"Cover!" he cried, and threw himself onto the pallet, slamming home the trolley's single lever. Almost simultaneously a series of rapid bangs rattled the narrow chamber and Roland's leg erupted in sudden agony. Then came blackness and a swift whistle of wind as the little car sped into a gloom darker than any he had ever known.
Seconds ticked while he battled fiery pain. Clenching his jaw to keep from moaning, Roland desperately hauled back on the lever, bringing the trolley to a jerky halt in the middle of the arrow-straight shaft. Waves of dizziness almost overwhelmed him as he rolled over onto his back and clutched his thigh, feeling a sickening, sticky wetness there.
One thing for certain, he couldn't afford the luxury of fainting here. Funny — he'd been taught all that bio-feedback stuff in school, and drilled in it again here in training. But right now he just couldn't spare the time to use any of those techniques, not even to stop the pain!
"There are two types of simple thigh wounds," memorized words droned as he wrestled the belt from his waist. "One, a straight puncture of muscle fiber, is quite manageable. Treat it quickly and move on. Your comrade should be able to offer covering fire, even if he can no longer move.
"The other kind is much more dangerous..."
Roland fought shivers as he looped the belt above the wound. He had no idea which type it was. If Chang had hit the femoral artery, this makeshift tourniquet wasn't going to do much good.
He grunted and yanked hard, cinching the belt as tight as he could, then slumped back in reaction and exhaustion.
You did it! He told himself. You beat the bastard!
Roland tried to feel elated. Even if he was now bleeding to death, he'd certainly won more minutes than Chang intended giving him. More important still, Chang was brought down! In stealing the smuggling lord's only means of escape, Roland ensured his capture!
Then why do I feel so rotten?
In fantasy Roland had often visualized being wounded, even dying in battle. Always though, he had imagined there'd be some solace, if only a soldier's final condolence of victory.
So why did he feel so dirty now? So ashamed?
He was alive now because he'd done the unexpected. Chang had been looking for heroism or cowardice — a berserker attack or animal rigor.
But in that moment of impulse Roland had remembered the words of the old Vet in Bloomington. "A fool who wants to live will do anything his captor tells him. He'll stand perfectly still just to win a few more heartbeats. Or he may burst into a useless charge.
"That's when, sometimes, it takes the most guts to retreat in good order, to fight another day."
Yeah Joseph, sure. Roland thought. Tell me about it.
As his heart rate eased and the panting subsided, he now heard what sounded like moans coming down the tunnel. Kanakoa or Schmidt, or both. Wounded. Perhaps dying.
What good would I have done by staying? Instead of a leg wound, he'd have gone down with several bullets in the heart or face... and Chang would have gotten away.
True enough, but that didn't seem to help. Nor did reminding himself that neither of those guys back there were really his friends, anyway.
"Soldier boy!" The shout echoed down the narrow passage. "Bring the trolley back or I'll shoot you now!"
"Fat chance," Roland muttered. And even Chang's voice carried little conviction. Straight as the tunnel was, and allowing for ricochets, the odds of hitting him were low even for an expert. Anyway, what good was a threat, when to comply meant certain death?
It wasn't repeated. For all the millionaire knew Roland was already at the other end.
"Why did I stop?" Roland asked aloud, softly. At the terminus he might find a telephone to call an ambulance, instead of lying here possibly bleeding to death.
A wave of agony throbbed up his leg. "And I thought I was so smart, not becomin' a dazer..." If he'd ever slipped over that line — tripping on self-stimulated endorphins — he'd certainly have a skill appropriate for here and now! What would have been self-abuse in Indiana would be right-on First Aid at a time like this.
But then again, if he'd ever been a dazer, he wouldn't even be here right now. The Corps didn't accept addicts.
Suddenly the cavern erupted in thunder, reverberating the very walls. Roland covered his ears, recognizing pulse-rifle fire. No doubt about it — real soldiers had arrived at last.
The gunshots ended almost immediately. Could it be over already? he wondered.
But no. As the ringing echoes subsided, he heard voices. One of them Chang's.
"... if you throw down grenades. So if you want your wounded soldiers to live, negotiate with me!"
So Chang claimed two captives. Roland realized gloomily that both Schmidt and Kanakoa must have been caught, despite his shouted warning.
Or maybe not! After all, would Chang admit to having let one recruit escape down the tunnel? Perhaps he only had one of the others and used the plural form as a ploy. Roland clung to that hope.
It took a while for someone in authority to begin negotiations. The officer's voice was too muffled for Roland to make out, but he heard Chang's side of the exchange.
"Not good enough! Prison would be the same as death for me! I accept nothing more rigorous than house arrest on my Pingtung estate....
"Yes, naturally I will turn state's evidence. I owe my associates nothing. But I must have the deal sealed by a magistrate, at once!"
Again, the officials' words were indistinct. But Roland caught tones of prevarication.
"Stop delaying! The alternative is death for these young soldiers!" Chang shouted back.
"Yes, yes, of course they can have medical attention... after I get my plea bargain! Properly sealed! Meanwhile, any sign of a stun or concussion grenade and I shoot them in the head, then myself!"
Roland could tell the marshals were weakening, probably under pressure from the Peacekeeper C.O. Damnit! he thought. The good guys' victory would be compromised. Worse, Chang surely had means at his estate for another escape, even from state detention.
Don't give in, he mentally urged the officers, though he felt pangs thinking of Kanakoa, or even Schmidt, lying there dying. If you plea bargain, the bastard'll just start all over again.
But Chang's next shout carried a tone of satisfaction. "That's better! I can accept that. You better hurry with the document though. These men do not look well."
Roland cursed. "No!"
He rolled over and reached into the cargo hamper, tossing bags and jars onto the tracks ahead. They split and shattered. Narwhal tusks and rhino horns coated the tracks in powdered form, obstructing further travel in that direction. Whatever happened, there’d be no getaway for Chang.
Then Roland fought fresh waves of nausea as he writhed to turn around on the narrow trolley, facing the direction he had come.
He'd worried he might have to manipulate the lever with his feet. But there was a duplicate at the other end. A red tag prevented the switch from being pushed passed a certain point. This Roland tore out, ripping one of his fingers in the process.
"Yes, I am willing to have my house arrest fully monitored by cameras at all times..."
"I'm sure you are, carni-man," Roland muttered. "But you don't fool me."
He slammed the lever home and the trolley glided forward. What began as a gentle breeze soon was a hurricane as power flowed from the humming rails.
You forget, Chang, that your estate is still on Mother Earth. And my guess is that Mom's had just about enough of you by now...
The light ahead ballooned in a rapidly expanding circle of brilliance. Roland felt safety solenoids try to throw the lever back but he strained, holding it in place. In an instant of telescoped time, he saw a figure turn in the light, stare down the shaft, raise his weapon ...
"Gaia!" Roland screamed, a battle cry chosen at the last second out of some unknown recess of faith as he hurtled like a missile into space.
It was a mess the UNEPA team came down to inspect, after Peacekeeping personnel pronounced it safe. And once the wounded boy had been rushed off to hospital. They were still taking pictures of the two remaining bodies when green-clad Ecology Department officials came down the steep stairs at last, to see what had happened.
"Well, here's your missing cache, Elena," one of them said, picking carefully through the white and gray powders scattered across the floor. Three walls of shelves were intact, but a fourth had collapsed over two quiet forms, sprawled atop each other in the corner. There, the snowdrifts had been stained crimson.
"Damn," the UNEPA man continued, shaking his head. "A lot of poor beasts died for one geep's fetish."
Elena looked down at her enemy of all these years. Chang's mouth gaped open — crammed full of powder which trailed off to the limp hand of the young recruit she had spoken to early in the evening. Even dying, riddled with bullets, this soldier apparently had a sense of symmetry, of poetry.
A Peacekeeping Forces non-com sat near the boy smoothing a lock of ruffled hair. The corporal looked up at Elena.
"Senterius was a lousy shot. Never showed any promise at all with weapons. Guess he improvised though. He graduated."
Elena turned away, disgusted by the maudlin, adolescent sentiment. Warriors, she thought. The world is finally growing up though. Someday soon we'll be well rid of them at last.
Still, why was it she all of a sudden felt as if she had walked into a temple? Or that the spirits of all the martyred creatures were holding silent, reverent watch right now, along with the mourning corporal?
It was another woman's low voice Elena seemed to hear then, so briefly it was all too easy to dismiss as an echo, or a momentary figment of exhaustion. Still, she briefly closed her eyes and swayed.
"There will be an end to war, the voice seemed to say, with gentle patience.
"But there will always be a need for heroes."
THE END of this story. For more excerpts of EARTH, read the first chapters.
In EARTH It's fifty years from tomorrow. A microscopic black hole has accidentally fallen into the Earth's core and the entire planet is in danger of being destroyed within two years. A team of scientists frantically searches for a way to prevent the ultimate disaster. But while they look for an answer, others argue that the only way to save the Earth is to let the million-year evolutionary clock rewind and start over.
Copyright © 1990 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Amazon.de Germany: Erde (German-language Kindle ebook)
indiebound.org US: paperback
Kobo.com US: ebook
Powell's US: paperback
A Friend of the Earth, by T. C. Boyle
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Embassytown, by China Miéville
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
American War, by Omar El Akkad
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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