Permission to download this sample for personal use only is hereby granted by Del Rey Books. It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photographs, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted text without permission in writing from the publisher.Publication date: March 1995 in hardcover, January 1996 in mass-market paperback
Chapter One (excerpts)
The horse-drawn wagon pulled to a stop in New Salem, North Dakota. Sam Yeager looked around. As a seventeen-year veteran of bush-league baseball and its endless travel, he was a connoisseur of small towns. New Salem might have had a thousand people in it; then again, it might not.
He scrambled out of the wagon. Barbara Larssen handed him his Springfield. He took the rifle, slung it over his shoulder, then held out a hand to help Barbara down. They clung to each other for a moment. He kissed the top of her head. The ends of her dark blond hair still showed traces of permanent wave. Most of it was straight, though; a long time had gone by since she'd got a permanent.
He didn't want to let her go, but he had to. He grabbed the rifle again, pointed it at the wagon. Military routine, he thought, and then, military fiddlesticks. But since he wore a corporal's stripes these days, he played the game by the rules. "Come on out, boys," he called.
Ristin and Ullhass, the two Lizard POWs who accompanied the Metallurgical Laboratory's wagon train on the way from Chicago to the Lab's planned new home in Denver, poked their heads up over the side of the wagon. "It shall be done, superior sir," they chorused in hissing English. They dropped down in front of Yeager and Barbara. "Hard to think--things--so small could be so dangerous," Barbara murmured. Neither of the Lizards came up even to her shoulder.
"They aren't small with guns in their hands, or inside tanks, or inside planes, or inside their spaceships," Yeager answered. "I fought against them, remember, before my unit captured these boys."
"We thought you kill us," Ullhass said.
"We thought you kill us, then eat us," Ristin agreed.
Yeager laughed. "You'd been reading too much science fiction, both of you." He laughed again, more reflectively. If he hadn't been in the habit of reading science fiction himself to pass the time on trains and buses, he never would have volunteered--or been accepted--as the Lizards' principal guard, translator, and explainer of matters Earthly.
He'd been with them continuously for better than six months now, long enough to come to see them as individuals rather than mere creatures. They never had been much like the bug-eyed monsters he used to read about. They were short and skinny and, even dressed in multiple layers of warm clothes that hung on them like sacks, complained all the time about how cold it was (it wasn't just midwinter on the northern Great Plains, either; they'd complained about all but the hottest days back in Chicago, too).
By now, Yeager took for granted their turreted eyes that, chameleonlike, moved independently of each other, the green-brown scales they used for skin, their clawed hands and feet, their wide mouths full of little pointed teeth. Even the bifurcated tongues they sometimes used to lick their hard, immobile lips were just part of them, although he'd needed quite a while to get used to those.
"We will be warm tonight?" Ristin asked. Though he spoke English, at the end of the sentence he tacked on the little cough the Lizards used: sort of an audible question mark.
"We will be warm tonight," Sam answered in the Lizards' language, punctuating his sentence with a different cough, the one that put emphasis on his words.
He had reason for his confidence. The Lizards' bombers hadn't hit North Dakota badly: not much up here needed hitting, Yeager thought. The flat farming country reminded him of the flat farming country in eastern Nebraska where he'd grown up. New Salem could easily have been one of the little towns between Lincoln and Omaha.
The wagon had stopped not far from a snow-covered boulder with an unnaturally flat top. Barbara brushed off the snow with her sleeve. "Oh, it has a plaque on it," she said, and brushed away more snow so she could read the words on the bronze. She started to laugh.
"What's so funny?" Yeager asked. He absentmindedly tacked the interrogative cough onto that question, too.
"This is the Wrong Side Up Monument," she answered. "That's what the plaque says, anyhow. Seems one of the early farmers had just started breaking the ground so he could plant for the first time when an Indian came along, looked at a chunk of sod, set it back the right way, and said, `Wrong side up.' The farmer thought about it, decided he was right, and went into dairying instead. This is part of a big dairy area now."
"We should eat well tonight, then." Yeager's mouth watered at the thought of milk, cheese, probably big steaks, too--the folk around here might well be inclined to do some slaughtering for their guests, because they wouldn't be able to keep feeding all their livestock now that the Lizards had made moving grain and hay on a large scale impossible.
More wagons from the convoy came into town, some carrying people but more loaded down with the equipment that had filled much of Eckhart Hall back at the University of Chicago. Not all the wagons would stop here tonight; they were spread out for miles along the highway and back roads that ran parallel to it, both to avoid looking interesting to the Lizards and to keep from taking too much destruction from an air attack if they did.
Enrico Fermi helped his wife Laura down from their wagon, then waved to Yeager. He waved back. He still felt a rush of pride at hanging around with scientists and even helping them when they had questions for the Lizard prisoners. Till a few months ago, his closest brush with scientists had been with the near-supermen who populated the pages of Astounding.
The real ones, while bright enough, weren't a lot like their fictional counterparts. For one thing, a lot of the best ones--Fermi, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner--were dumpy foreigners with funny accents. Fermi talked like Bobby Fiore's father (he wondered what had happened to his old roommate, the second baseman on the Decatur Commodores). For another, just about all of them, foreign and American, were much more human than their fictional analogs: they'd have a drink (or more than one), they'd tell stories, and they'd argue with their wives. Yeager liked them more for it, not less.
Steaks there proved to be, cooked over open flames and eaten by the fireside--no gas and no electricity in New Salem. Yeager cut his into very small pieces as he ate it: though he wouldn't be thirty-six for another couple of months, he had full upper and lower plates. He'd almost died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and his teeth had rotted in his head. The only teeth of his own he had were the ones that gave everybody else trouble: seven or eight years after the epidemic, his wisdom teeth had come in fine.
Ullhass and Ristin, by contrast, held big chunks of meat up to their mouths and worried bites off them. The Lizards didn't chew much; they'd get a gobbet in and then gulp it down. The locals watched with undisguised curiosity--these were the first Lizards they'd ever seen. Yeager had watched that at every stop all the way across Minnesota and North Dakota.
"Where you going to put those critters tonight?" a man asked him. "We sure as hell don't want them getting loose."
"They're not critters. They're people--funny kind of people, but people," Yeager said. With small-town politeness, the man didn't argue, but obviously didn't believe him, either. Yeager shrugged; he'd seen that happen before, too. He asked, "Do you have a jail here?"
The local hooked a thumb into the strap of his denim overalls. "Yah, we do," he said. Yeager hid a smile--he'd heard "yah" for "yes" at every stop in North Dakota. Grinning, the local went on, "We'll put a drunk Indian in there every now and again--or sometimes a drunk squarehead, too. Hell, I'm an eighth Sioux myself, even if my name is Thorkil Olson."
"That'd be perfect," Yeager said, "especially if you can put a board or a blanket or something over the window, if there is one. Lizards can't take as much cold as people can. Can you take us there, let me look it over?"
With Ristin and Ullhass safely behind bars, Yeager figured he had the night off. A lot of times, he'd had to stay alert because they were in the next room of a private house. He didn't think they'd try to escape; they risked both freezing and getting shot on a world not their own. You couldn't afford to take chances, though.
He and Barbara went home with Olson and his wife Louise, a pleasant, red-cheeked woman in her late forties. "Take the spare bedroom for the night, and welcome," Louise said. "We've rattled around the house since our boy George and his wife headed down to Kansas City so he could work in a defense plant." Her face clouded. "The Lizards are in Kansas City. I pray he's all right."
"So do I, ma'am," Yeager said. Barbara's hand tightened on his; her husband Jens, a Met Lab physicist, had never come back from a cross-country trip that had skirted Lizard-held territory.
"Plenty of blankets on the bed, folks, and Grandma's old thundermug under it," Thorkil Olson boomed as he showed them the spare room. "We'll feed you breakfast when you get up in the morning. Sleep tight, now."
There were plenty of blankets, heavy wool ones from Sears, with a goose-down comforter on top. "We can even get undressed," Yeager said happily. "I'm sick of sleeping in three, four layers of clothes."
Barbara looked at him sidelong. "Stay undressed, you mean," she said, and blew out the candle Olson had set on the nightstand. The room plunged into darkness.
Afterwards, Sam peeled off his rubber, then groped around under the bed till he found the chamber pot. "Something for them to cluck over after we leave," he said. He dove back under the covers as fast as he could; without them, the bedroom was a chilly place.
Barbara clung to him, for warmth, but for reassurance, too. He ran a hand down the velvety skin of her back. "I love you," he said softly.
"I love you, too." Her voice caught; she shoved herself against him. "I don't know what I would have done without you. I'd have been so lost. I--" Her face was buried in the hollow of his shoulder. A hot tear splashed down on him. After a few seconds, she raised her head. "I miss him so much sometimes. I can't help it."
"I know. You wouldn't be who you are if you didn't." Yeager spoke with the philosophy of a man who had spent his entire adult life playing bush-league ball and never come close to the majors: "You do the best you can with the cards you get dealt, even if some of them are pretty rotten. Me, I never got an ace before." Now he squeezed her.
She shook her head; her hair brushed softly across his chest. "But it's not fair to you, Sam. Jens is dead; he has to be dead. If I'm going to go on--if we're going to go on, I have to look ahead, not backwards. As you said, I'll do the best I can."
"Can't ask for more than that," Yeager agreed. Slowly, he went on, "Seems to me, honey, that if you hadn't loved your Jens a lot, and if he hadn't loved you, too, you wouldn't have been anybody I'd've wanted to fall in love with. And even if I had, just on account of you're such a fine-looking woman"--he poked her in the ribs, because he knew she'd squeak--"you wouldn't have loved me back. You wouldn't have known how to."
"You're sweet. You make good sense, too. You seem to have a way of doing that." Instead of clutching, now Barbara snuggled against him; he felt her body relax. The tip of her nipple brushed his arm, just above the elbow. He wondered if she felt like making love again. But before he could try to find out, she yawned enormously. Voice still blurry, she said, "If I don't get some sleep, God only knows what kind of wreck I'll be tomorrow." In the darkness, her lips found his, but only for a moment. "Good night, Sam. I love you." She rolled over onto her side of the bed.
"I love you, too. Good night." Sam found himself yawning, too. Even if she had been interested, he wasn't sure he could have anaged two rounds so close together. He wasn't a kid any more.
He rolled over onto his left side. His behind brushed against Barbara's. They chuckled and moved a little farther apart. He popped out his dentures, set them on the nightstand. Inside a minute and a half, he was snoring.
Jens Larssen most cordially cursed the United States Army, first in En glish and then in the fragmentary Norwegian he'd picked up from his grandfather. Even as the oaths fell from his lips, he knew he was being unfair: if the Army hadn't scooped him up as he was making his way across Indiana, he might well have got himself killed trying to sneak into Chicago as the Lizard attacks on the city rose to a climax.
And even now, after General Patton and General Bradley had pinched off the neck of that attack, nobody would let him fly out to join the rest of the Met Lab team in Denver. Again, the brass had their reasons--save for combat missions, aviation had almost disappeared in the United States. Human aviation had almost disappeared, anyhow. The Lizards dominated the skies.
"Hellfire," he muttered, clinging to the rail of the steamer Duluth Queen, "the damn Army wouldn't even tell me where they'd gone. I had to go into Chicago and find out for myself."
That rankled; it struck him as security gone mad. So did everyone's refusal to let him send on any word to the Met Lab crew. He couldn't even let his wife know he was alive. Once more, though, the mucky-mucks had a point he couldn't honestly deny: the Met Lab was America's only hope of producing an atomic bomb like the ones the Lizards had used on Berlin
and Washington, D.C. Without that bomb, the war against the aliens would probably fail. Nobody, then, could afford to draw any sort of attention
toward the Metallurgical Laboratory or communicate with it in any way, for fear the Lizards would intercept a message and draw the wrong--or rather, the right--conclusions from it.
The orders he'd been given made just enough sense for him not to try disobeying. But oh, how he hated them!
"And now I can't even get into Duluth," he grumbled.
He could see the town, which lay by the edge of Lake Superior where it narrowed to its westernmost point. He could see the gray granite bluffs that dwarfed man's houses and buildings, and felt he could almost reach out and touch some of the homes atop these bluffs, the taller business buildings that climbed the steep streets toward them. But the feeling was an illusion; a sheet of blue-gray ice held the Duluth Queen away from the Minnesota town that had given it its name.
Jens turned to a passing sailor. "How far out on the lake are we?"
The man paused to think. His breath came out thick as smoke as he answered, "Can't be more than four, five miles. Up to less than a month ago, it was open water all the way in." He chuckled at Larssen's groan. "Some years the port stays open all winter long. More often, though, it'll freeze for twenty miles out, so this ain't so bad." He went on his way, whistling a cheery tune.
He'd misunderstood why Jens groaned. It wasn't at the cold weather; Jens had grown up in Minnesota, and spent enough time skating on frozen lakes to take for granted that water--even as massive a body of water as Lake Superior--turned to ice when winter came. But a month before, he could have gone straight into town. That ate at him. Probably the same blizzard that let Patton launch his attack against the Lizards had also finally frozen the lake.
In any other year, the Duluth Queen would have stopped sailing for the winter. The Lizards, though, had paid much more attention to knocking out road and rail traffic than to knocking out ships. Jens wondered what that meant about their home planet--maybe it didn't have enough water for them to take shipping seriously as a way of getting things from one place to another.
If that was so, the aliens were missing a trick. The Duluth Queen carried ball bearings, ammunition, gasoline, and motor oil to keep resistance to the Lizards strong in Minnesota; it would take back steel from Duluth and milled grain from Minneapolis to forge into new weapons and feed the people who fought and built.
Lots of little boats--boats small enough to haul across the ice, some of them even rowboats--clustered around the steamship. Deck cranes lowered crates to them and picked up others, with a lot of shouted warnings going back and forth with the goods. A quasi-harbor had sprung into being at the edge of the ice: crates from the Duluth Queen went back and forth toward town on man-hauled sledges, while others, outbound, were muscled onto the boats for transport out to the Queen.
Jens doubted the system was even a tenth as efficient as a proper harbor. But the proper harbor was icebound, and what the locals had worked out was a lot better than nothing. From his point of view, the only real trouble was that cargo was so much more important than passengers that he couldn't get off the steamship.
The sailor came back down the deck, still whistling. Larssen felt like throttling him. "How much longer before you'll be able to start moving actual real live people off?" he asked.
"Shouldn't be more than another day or two, sir," the fellow answered.
"A day or two!" Jens exploded. He wanted to dive into Lake Superior and swim the mile or so over to the edge of the ice. He knew perfectly well, though, that he'd freeze to death if he tried it.
"We're doing the best we can," the sailor said. "Everything's screwed up since the Lizards came, that's all. Wherever you need to get to, people will understand that you've been held up."
That this was true made it no easier to bear. Unconsciously, Larssen had assumed that because the Lizards had been beaten back from Chicago and he was free to travel again without the Army trying to tie him down, the world would automatically unfold at his feet. But the world was not in the habit of working that way.
The sailor went on, "Long as you're stuck on board, sir, you might as well enjoy yourself. The grub's good here, and there aren't many places ashore where you'll find steam heat, running water, and electric lights."
"Isn't that the sad and sorry truth?" Jens said. The Lizards' invasion had badly disrupted the complex web the United States had become, and pointed out the hard way how much every part of the country depended on every other--and how ill-equipped most parts were to go it alone. Burning wood to keep warm and depending on muscles--animal or human--to move things about made America feel as if it had slipped back a century from 1943.
And yet, if Jens ever made it to Denver, he'd get back to work on a proj ect that seemed to belong at least a hundred years in the future. The world to come would spring into being amidst the obtrusive reemergence of the past. And where was the present? The present, thought Jens, who had a weakness for puns, is absent.
He went below, to get out of the cold and to remind himself the present still existed. The Duluth Queen's galley boasted not only electric lights but a big pot of hot coffee (a luxury that grew rarer as stocks dwindled) and a radio. Jens remembered his parents saving up to buy their first set in the late twenties. It had felt like inviting the world into their parlor. Now, most places, you couldn't invite the world in even if you wanted to.
But the Duluth Queen didn't depend on distant power plants, now likely to be either wrecked or out of fuel, for electricity. It made its own. And so, static squawked and muttered as Hank Vernon spun the tuning knob and the red pointer slid across the dial. Music suddenly came out. The ship's engineer turned to Larssen, who was getting a mug of coffee. "The Andrews Sisters suit you?"
"They're okay, but if you can find some news, that would be even better." Jens poured in cream. The Duluth Queen had plenty of that, but no sugar.
"Let's see what I can do. I wish this was a shortwave set." Vernon worked the knob again, more slowly now, pausing to listen to every faint station he brought in. After three or four tries, he grunted in satisfaction. "Here you go." He turned up the volume.
Larssen bent his head toward the radio. Even through the waterfall of static, he recognized the newscaster's deep, slow voice: "--three days of rioting reported from Italy, where people went into the streets to protest the government's cooperation with the Lizards. Pope Pius XII's radio appeal for calm, monitored in London, seems to have had little effect. Rioters are calling for the return of Benito Mussolini, who was spirited to Germany after being placed under arrest by the Lizards--"
Hank Vernon shook his head in bemusement. "Isn't it a hell of a thing? A year ago, Mussolini was the enemy with a capital E because he was buddies with Hitler. Now he's a hero because the krauts got him away from the Lizards. And Hitler's not such a bad guy any more, since the Germans are still fighting hard. Just because you're fighting the Lizards doesn't make you a good guy in my book. Was Joe Stalin a good guy just on account of he was fighting the Nazis? People say so, yeah, but they can't make me believe it. What do you think?"
"You're probably right," Larssen answered. He agreed with most of what the engineer had said, but wished Vernon hadn't chosen just then to say
it--his loud, nasal tones drowned out Edward R. Murrow, to whom Jens was trying to listen.
Vernon, however, kept right on talking, so Jens got the news in disconnected snatches: ration cuts in England, fighting between Smolensk and Moscow, more fighting in Siberia, a Lizard push toward Vladivostok, a passive resistance campaign in India.
"Is that against the English or the Lizards?" he asked.
"If it's all the way over in India, what the devil difference does it make?" the engineer said. On a cosmic scale, Larssen supposed he had a point, but for someone who was trying to catch up with what was going on in the world, losing any facts felt frustrating.
From the radio, Murrow said, "And for those who think the Lizard devoid of humor, consider this: outside of Los Angeles, the Army Air Force recently had occasion to build a dummy airport, complete with dummy planes. Two Lizard aircraft are said to have attacked it--with dummy bombs. This is Edward R. Murrow, somewhere in the United States."
"Nobody on the radio admits where they are any more, you notice that?" Vernon said. "From FDR on down, it's `somewhere in the United States.' It's like if anybody knows where you are, you can't be a bigshot, 'cause if you were a bigshot and the Lizards knew where you are, they'd go after you. Am I right or am I right?"
"You're probably right," Jens said again. "You don't happen to have a cigarette, do you?" Now that he didn't get the chance to drink coffee often, one cup kicked the way three or four had in the good old days. The same was even more true of tobacco.
"Wish to hell I did," Vernon answered. "I smoked cigars myself, but I wouldn't turn down anything these days. I used to work on the rivers in Virginia, North Carolina, and we'd go right past the tobacco farms, never even think a thing about 'em. But when it can't get from where they grow it to where you want to smoke it--"
"Yeah," Larssen said. It was true of more than tobacco. That was why the Lizards didn't have to conquer the whole country to make the United States stop working. It was why the Duluth Queen sat off the ice and unloaded: anything to keep the wheels turning.
He stayed stuck for the next three days, biding his time and biting his nails. When he finally did get to descend into one of the small boats that was unloading the Duluth Queen, he almost wished he'd stayed stuck longer. Clambering down a cargo net with a knapsack and a rifle slung over his shoulder was not his notion of fun.
One of the sailors lowered his Schwinn on a line. It banged against the side of the steamship a couple of times on the way down. Jens grabbed it and undid the knot. The line snaked back up to the Duluth Queen.
The small boat had a crew of four. The all looked at the bicycle. "You're not going anywhere far by yourself on that, are you, mister?" one of them said at last.
"What if I am?" Larssen had ridden a bicycle across most of Ohio and Indiana. He was in the best shape of his life. He'd always look skinny, but he was stronger than most people with bulging biceps.
"Oh, I won't say you couldn't do it--don't get me wrong," the crewman said. "It's just that--this is Minnesota, after all." He patted himself. He was wearing boots with fur tops, an overcoat over a jacket over a sweater, and earmuffs on top of a knitted wool cap. "You don't want to get stuck in a snowstorm, is what I mean. You do and you won't even start to stink till spring--and spring comes late around Duluth."
"I know what Minnesota's like. I was raised here," Jens said.
"Then you ought to have better sense," the sailor told him.
He started to come back with a hot reply, but it didn't get past his lips. He remembered all the winter days he'd had to stay home from school when snow made the going impossible. And his grammar school had been only a couple of miles from the farm where he'd grown up, the high school less than five. If a bad storm hit while he was in the middle of nowhere, he'd be in trouble and no doubt about it.
He said, "Things must move, or else you guys wouldn't be out here working in the middle of winter. How do you do it?"
"We convoy," the sailor answered seriously. "You wait until there's a bunch of people going the same way you are, and then you go along with 'em. Where you headin' for, mister?"
"Denver, eventually," Jens said. "Any place west of Duluth now, I guess." In a pocket of his overcoat he had a letter from General Patton that essentially ordered the entire civilized world to drop whatever it was doing and give him a hand. It had got him his cabin on the Duluth Queen ... but the Duluth Queen was going from Chicago to Duluth anyhow. Even a sizzling letter from Patton probably couldn't call a land convoy into being at the drop of a hat. But that sparked a thought. "Any trains still running?"
"Yeah, we try to keep 'em going, best we can, anyhow. I tell you, though, it's like playing Russian roulette. Maybe you'll get through, maybe you'll get your ass bombed off. If it was me, I wouldn't ride one, not now. The Lizards go after 'em on purpose, not for the hell of it like they do ships."
"I may take my chances," Larssen said. If the trains were running right, he could be in Denver in a couple of days, not a couple of weeks or a couple of months. If they weren't-- He tried not to worry about that.
The boat drifted to a stop at the edge of the ice. Gunnysacks made the treacherous surface easier to walk on. The crew handed Larssen his gear, wished him good luck, and headed back to the Duluth Queen.
He headed over toward a dog-drawn sledge that didn't have too many crates in it. "Can I get a ride?" he called, and the driver nodded. He felt like a character out of Jack London as he got in behind the man.
The trip across the ice gave him more time to think. It also convinced him that if he was going to live in the twentieth century, he'd use its tools where he could. He'd do better even if the Lizards did bomb him while he was just partway to Denver. When at last he got into Duluth, he went looking for the train station.
The hauler aircraft rolled to a stop. Ussmak stared out the window at the Tosevite landscape. It was different from the flat plains of the SSSR where the landcruiser driver had served before, but that didn't make it any better, not as far as he was concerned. The plants were a dark, wet-looking green under sunlight that seemed too white, too harsh.
Not that the star Tosev adequately heated its third world. Ussmak felt the chill as soon as he descended from the hauler onto the concrete of the runway. Here, though, at least water wasn't falling frozen from the sky. That was something.
"Landcruiser crew replacements!" a male bawled. Ussmak and three or four others who had just deplaned tramped over to him. The male took their names and identity numbers, then waved them into the back of an armored transporter.
"Where are we?" Ussmak asked as the machine jounced into life. "Whom are we fighting?" That was a better question; the names the Big Uglies gave to pieces of Tosev 3 meant little to him.
"This place is called France," a gunner named Forssis answered. "I served here for a while shortly after we landed, before the commander decided it was largely pacified and transferred my unit to the SSSR."
All the males let their mouths fall open in derisive laughter at that. Everything had seemed so easy in the days right after the landing. Ussmak remembered being part of a drive that had smashed Soviet landcruisers as if they were made of cardboard.
Even then, though, he should have had a clue. A sniper had picked off his commander when Votal, like any good landcruiser leader, stuck his head out the cupola to get a decent view of what was going on. And Krentel, the commander who replaced him, did not deserve the body paint that proclaimed his rank.
Well, Krentel was dead, too, and Telerep the gunner with him. A guerrilla--Ussmak did not know whether he was Russki or Deutsch--had blown the turret right off the landcruiser while they were trying to protect the crews cleaning up nuclear material scattered when the Big Uglies had managed to wreck the starship that carried the bulk of the Race's atomic weapons.
From his driver's position, Ussmak had bailed out of the landcruiser when it was stricken--out of the landcruiser and into radioactive mud. He'd been in a hospital ship ever since ... till now.
"So whom are we fighting?" he repeated. "The Fran¨ais?"
"No, the Deutsche, mostly," Forssis answered. "They were ruling here when we arrived. I hear the weapons we'll be facing are better than the ones they threw at us the last time I was here."
Silence settled over the transporter's passenger compartment. Fighting the Big Uglies, Ussmak thought, was like poisoning pests: the survivors kept getting more resistant to what you were trying to do to them. And, like any other pests, the Big Uglies changed faster than you could alter your methods of coping with them.
The heated compartment, the smooth ride over a paved highway, and the soft purr of the hydrogen-burning engine helped most of the males doze off before long: veterans, they knew the value of snatching sleep while they had the chance. Ussmak tried to rest, too, but couldn't. The longing for ginger gnawed at him and would not let go.
An orderly had sold him some of the precious herb in the hospital ship. He'd started tasting as much out of boredom as for any other reason. When he was full of ginger, he felt wise and brave and invulnerable. When he wasn't--that was when he discovered the trap into which he'd fallen. Without ginger, he seemed stupid and fearful and soft-skinned as a Big Ugly, a contrast just made worse because he so vividly remembered how wonderful he knew himself to be when he tasted the powdered herb.
He didn't care how much he gave the orderly for his ginger: he had pay saved up and nothing he'd rather spend it on. The orderly had an ingenious arrangement whereby he got Ussmak's funds even though they didn't go directly into his computer account.
In the end, it hadn't saved him. One day, a new orderly came in to police up Ussmak's chamber. Discreet questioning (Ussmak could afford to be discreet then, with several tastes hidden away) showed that the only thing he knew about ginger was the fleetlord's general order prohibiting its use. Ussmak had stretched out the intervals between tastes as long as he could. But finally the last one was gone. He'd been gingerless--and melancholy--ever since.
The road climbed up through rugged mountains. Ussmak got only glimpses out the transporter's firing ports. After the monotonous flatlands of the SSSR and the even more boring sameness of the hospital ship cubicle, a jagged horizon was welcome, but it didn't much remind Ussmak of the mountains of Home.
For one thing, these mountains were covered with frozen water of one sort or another, a measure of how miserably cold Tosev 3 was. For another, the dark conical trees that peeked out through the mantling of white were even more alien to his eye than the Big Uglies.
Those trees also concealed Tosevites, as Ussmak discovered a short while later. Somewhere up there in the woods, a machine gun began to chatter. Bullets spanged off the transporter's armor. Its own light cannon returned fire, filling the passenger compartment with thunder.
The males who had been dozing were jerked rudely back to awareness. They tumbled for the firing ports to see what was happening, Ussmak among them. He couldn't see anything, not even muzzle flashes.
"Scary," Forssis observed. "I'm used to sitting inside a landcruiser where the armor shields you from anything. I can't help thinking that if the Tosevites had a real gun up there, we'd be cooked."
Ussmak knew only too well that not even landcruiser armor guaranteed protection against the Big Uglies. But before he could say as much, the transporter driver came on the intercom: "Sorry about the racket, my males, but we haven't rooted out all the guerrillas yet. They're just a nuisance as long as we don't run over any mines."
The driver sounded downright cheery; Ussmak wondered if he was tasting ginger. "I wonder how often they do run over mines," Forssis said darkly.
"This male hasn't, or he wouldn't still be driving us," Ussmak said. A couple of the other landcruiser crewmales opened their mouths at him.
After a while, the mountains gave way to wide, gently rolling valleys. Forssis pointed to neat rows of gnarled plants that clung to stakes on south-facing slopes. He said, "I saw those when I was in this France place before. The Tosevites ferment alcoholic brews from them." He ran his tongue over his lips. "Some have a very interesting flavor."
The passenger compartment had no view straight forward. The driver had to make an announcement for the males he was hauling: "We are coming into the Big Ugly town of Besan¨on, our forward base for combat against the Deutsche. You will be assigned to crews here."
All Ussmak had seen of Tosevite architecture was the wooden farming villages of the SSSR. Besan¨on was certainly different from those. He didn't quite know what to make of it. Compared to the tall, blocklike structures of steel and glass that formed the cities of Home, its buildings seemed toys. Yet they were very ornate toys, with columns and elaborate stone- and brickwork and steep roofs so the frozen water that fell from the sky hereabouts would slide off.
The Race's headquarters in Besan¨on was on a bluff in the southeastern part of the town. Not only was the place on high ground, Ussmak discovered on alighting from the transporter that a river flowed around two sides of it. "Well sited for defense," he remarked.
"Interesting you should say that," the driver answered. "This used to be a Big Ugly fortress." He pointed to a long, low, gloomy-looking building. "Go in there. They'll process you and assign you to a crew."
"It shall be done." Ussmak hurried toward the doorway; the cold was nipping at his fingers and eye turrets.
Inside, the building was heated to the point of comfort for civilized beings--Ussmak hissed gratefully. Otherwise, though, the local males were mostly using the furnishings they'd found. A planet was a big place, and the Race hadn't brought enough of everything to supply all its garrisons. And so a personnel officer seemed half swallowed by the fancy red velvet chair in which he sat, a chair designed to fit a Big Ugly. The male had to stretch to reach the computer on the heavy, dark wood table in front of him; the table was higher off the ground than any the Race would have built.
The personnel officer turned one eye toward Ussmak. "Name, specialization, and number," he said in a bored voice.
"Superior sir, I am Ussmak, landcruiser driver," Ussmak answered, and gave the number by which he was recorded, paid, and would be interred if he got unlucky.
The personnel officer entered the information, used his free eye to read Ussmak's data as they came up. "You were serving in the SSSR against the Soviets, is that correct, until your landcruiser was destroyed and you were exposed to excess radiation?"
"Yes, superior sir, that is correct.
"Then you've not had combat experience against the Deutsche?"
"Superior sir, I am told the guerrilla team that wrecked my vehicle was part Deutsch, part Soviet. If you are asking whether I've faced their landcruisers, the answer is no."
"That is what I meant," the personnel officer said. "You will need to maintain a higher level of alertness hereabouts than was your habit in the SSSR, landcruiser driver. Tactically, the Deutsche are more often clever than perhaps any other Tosevite group. Their newest landcruisers have heavier guns than you will have seen, too. Combine these factors with their superior knowledge of the local terrain and they become opponents not to be despised."
"I understand, superior sir," Ussmak said. "Will my landcruiser commander be experienced?" I hope.
The personnel officer punched at the computer again, waited for a response to appear on the screen. "You're going to be assigned to Landcruiser Commander Hessef's machine; his driver was wounded in a bandit attack here in Besan¨on a few days ago. Hessef compiled an excellent record in Espa–a, south and west of here, as we expanded out of our landing zone. He's relatively new to the northern sector."
Ussmak hadn't known Espa–a from France until the moment the personnel officer named them. And no matter what that officer said about the superior skills of the Deutsche, to Ussmak one band of Big Uglies seemed pretty much like another. "I'm glad to hear that he has fought, superior sir. Where do I report to him?"
"The hall we are using as a barracks is out the door through which you entered and to your left. If you do not find Hessef and your gunner--whose name is Tvenkel--there, try the vehicle park down past the antiaircraft missile launcher."
Ussmak tried the vehicle park first, on the theory that any commander worth his body paint took better care of his landcruiser than he did of himself. Seeing the big machines lined up in their sandbagged revetments made him eager to get back to the work for which he'd been trained, and also eager for the tight-knit fellowship that flowered among the males of a good landcruiser crew.
Crewmales working on their landcruisers directed him to the one Hessef commanded. But when he walked into its stall, he found it buttoned up tight. That presumably meant Hessef and Tvenkel were back at the barracks. Not a good sign, Ussmak thought as he began to retrace his steps.
He longed to feel a part of something larger than himself. That was what the Race was all about: obedience from below, obligation from above, all working together for the common good. He'd known that feeling with Votal, his first commander, but after Votal died, Krentel proved such an incompetent that Ussmak could not bond to him as subordinate was supposed to bond to superior.
Then Krentel had got himself killed, too, and Ussmak's original gunner with him. That worsened the driver's feeling of separation, almost of exclusion, from the rest of the Race. The long stay in the hospital ship and his discovery of ginger had pushed him even further out of the niche he'd been intended to fit. If he couldn't have ginger any more, crew solidarity would have been a good second best. But how could he really feel part of a crew that didn't have the simple sense to treat their landcruiser as if their lives depended on it?
As he walked back past the missile launcher, bells began to ring down in the town of Besan¨on. He turned to one of the males. "I'm new here. Are those alarms? Where should I go? What should I do?"
"Nothing--take no notice of them," the fellow answered. "The Big Uglies just have a lot of mechanical clocks that chime to divide up the day and night. They startled me at first, too. After a while here, you won't even notice them. One is spectacular for something without electronics. It must have seventy dials, and these figures all worked by gears and pulleys come out and prance around and then disappear back into the machine. When you get some slack time, you ought to go see it: it's worth turning both eye turrets that way."
"Thanks. Maybe I will." Relieved, Ussmak kept on toward the barracks building. Just as he pushed the door open, the sweet metallic clangor ceased.
Even the cots the males were using had formerly belonged to the Big Uglies. The thin mattresses looked lumpy, the blankets scratchy. They were undoubtedly woven from the hair of some native beast or other, an idea that made Ussmak itch all by itself. A few males lounged around doing nothing in particular.
"I seek the landcruiser commander Hessef," Ussmak said as some of those males turned an eye or two toward him.
"I am Hessef," one of them said, coming forward. "By your paint, you must be my new driver."
"Yes, superior sir." Ussmak put more respect into his voice than he truly felt. Hessef was a jittery-looking male, his body paint sloppily applied. Ussmak's own paint was none too neat, but he thought commanders should adhere to a higher standard.
Another male came up to stand beside Hessef. "Ussmak, I introduce you to Tvenkel, our gunner," the landcruiser commander said.
"Be good to have a whole crew again, go out and fight," Tvenkel said. Like Hessef, he couldn't quite hold still. His body paint was, if possible, in even worse shape than the landcruiser commander's--smeared, blotched, daubed on in a hurry. Ussmak wondered what he'd done to deserve becoming part of this substandard crew.
Hessef said, "Sitting around the barracks all day with nothing to do is as boring as staying awake while you go into cold sleep."
Then why aren't you out tending to your landcruiser? Ussmak thought. But that wasn't something he could say, not to his new commander. Instead, he answered, "Boredom I know all about, superior sir. I just spent a good long while in a hospital ship, recovering from radiation sickness. There were times when I thought I'd been in that cubicle forever.
"Yes, that could be bad, just staring at the metal walls," Hessef agreed. "Still, though, I think I'd sooner stay in a hospital ship than in this ugly brick shed that was never made for our kind." He waved to show what he meant. Ussmak had to agree: the barracks was indeed a dismal place. He suspected even Big Uglies would have found themselves bored here.
"How did you get through the days?" Tvenkel asked. "Recovering from sickness makes time pass twice as slowly."
"For one thing, I have every video from the hospital ship's library memorized," Ussmak said, which drew a laugh from his new crewmales. "For another--" He stopped short. Ginger was against regulations. He didn't want to make the commander and gunner aware of his habit.
"Here, drop your gear on this bed by ours," Hessef said."We've been saving it against the day when we'd be whole again."
Ussmak did as he was asked. The other two males crowded close around him, as if to create the unity that held a good landcruiser crew together. The rest of the males in the barracks looked on from a distance, politely allowing Ussmak to bond with his new comrades before they came forward to introduce themselves.
Quietly, Tvenkel said, "You may not know it, driver, but the Big Uglies have an herb that makes life a lot less boring. Would you care to try a taste, see what I mean?"
Ussmak's eyes both swung abruptly, bored into the gunner. He lowered his voice, too. "You have--ginger?" He hesitated before he named the precious powder.
Now Tvenkel and Hessef stared at him. "You know about ginger?" the landcruiser commander whispered. His mouth fell open in an enormous grin.
"Yes, I know about ginger. I'd love a taste, thanks." Ussmak wanted to caper like a hatchling. Instead, the three males looked at each other for a long time, none of them saying anything. Ussmak broke the silence: "Superior sirs, I think we're going to be an outstanding crew."
Neither commander nor gunner argued with him.