Some change woke Major Gabriel Durand on his cot in the tent assigned to him. You learned to sleep like a cat after a few months in dangerous territory. And Durand had been in the warrior way for 24 years.
The company NCO stuck his head in the tent. “Major?” He spoke softly but clearly.
Durand was sitting up, slipping his feet into his boots. “I’m up, First. What do you want?”
“The Captain says something very interesting is happening, Sir.”
“I’ll be right there.”
He finished pulling on his shirt and slipped the light but incredibly tough boron-carbide armor over it. Next came his equipment belt and helmet. He picked up his M5 carbine and exited the tent, senses automatically doing a situational inventory.
Far to the east, his right, were the black saw teeth of the Safed Koh mountains which separated Afghanistan from Pakistan. A red slice of sun peeked above them. Overhead in the hard blue sky was an almost invisible dot, betraying one of the several solar-powered aerostats which observed the country below with multi-spectral eyes.
None of the remotely controlled machine guns atop the four observation towers, two of which he could see to the far left and right, were firing. No one was peering over the firing wall toward the dry country side, scrubby grey green vegetation cut away for up to half a mile.
His wary subconscious relaxed to let his attention focus on the captain and two aides observing a bright white box in their midst. He walked over, long legs eating up the distance.
The captain nodded to him and looked back at the box a dozen feet away. As Durand stopped beside him he felt warmth radiating from the box. A gentle breeze flowed toward the box
“This just appeared a few minutes ago.” He glanced at his wrist chronometer. “At 4:57 a.m. Make anything of it?”
“Looks like something from that program my nephew is crazy about. Star Voyagers.”
The box was about the size of several stacked reams of paper. Something was happening at its very top. Durand squinted against a soft white glow. It looked as if some celestial copy machine was shuffling out copies onto the box.
A chime sounded. The glow cut off. The breeze ceased. So did the warm radiance.
“There was a chime at the beginning too.”
The captain paused. “Think we need to be checked for radiation poisoning or something?”
Durand said, “Oh, we will. But I don’t think whoever — or whatever — did this wanted us harmed. Those chimes, its location, right in front of you, they all suggest some serious high-tech and friendly intentions. If they wanted us dead I suspect they could have lasered us from space or something.”
Several other US soldiers were converging on the four men near the box. Captain Parsons looked around, spied a tough-looking older black woman.
“Luella, aren’t you on duty?”
“Just got relieved.”
“Get back to the bunker and make sure everyone is on high alert. Tell your lieutenant I want Shift Three to stay awake, no sack time until we go back to normal.”
The woman nodded, looked at the box with regretful curiosity, but started walking briskly back the way she had come. She did not salute, nor did the Captain. If hostiles were watching the fewer clues as to who were officers, to be singled out for special efforts to kill them, the better.
Though the local radical Muslims probably knew who was whom, since the company had been here for several years now. Still, it was always best to make and keep tactical procedures automatic.
“Ruiz,” the Captain said to a nearby corporal. “Wake Lieutenant Gupta of Shift Two. Not his sergeant; that’ll be up to him.”
He looked at Durand. “Think we can take a closer look?”
“You’re the boss. You decide.” Parsons was the local commander. Durand, though he outranked Parsons, was head of a small guest command of Special Forces assigned to the area, and thus could over-ride Parsons only in special circumstances.
The two approached the box. It looked like nothing more than a three-foot-high stack of standard 9×12 inch typing paper.
The Captain bent to study the top of the box closely. There were tiny grooves all around the box, seeming to separate it into sheets. He slid a fingernail into the top groove and a slice of the box slid up, just as a sheet of typing paper would.
He hefted it in one hand, felt of its surface with the other. “Feels like paper, maybe cardboard. Hello, what’s this?”
The top surface of the sheet turned black. Standing next to him, Durand saw exactly what Parsons did.
A photo appeared in the page. It was a picture of a spiral galaxy viewed from above at about a 45-degree angle. Even in the brightening daylight it glowed white but with many pinpoints every color of the rainbow. It was slowly spinning about its center like a merry-go-round.
Then it morphed into a luminous blue oval positioned lengthwise across the middle of the “page” and taking up the entire width of the page. It kept its four wrap-around spirals, but the individual stars blurred into a solid blot. The image simplified further until it was a vastly simplified picture, an icon.
Then the background flashed from black to cream and the logo shrank and slid up to the top of the page. Text appeared below it.
I can be your personal information resource. Do you want that? Speak your answer or just think it.
The Captain glanced at Durand, raised an eyebrow. Then he said, “What is a personal information resource?”
I can act as a web browser, game console, email and vmail application, and much more. Do you want that?
The Captain looked at Durand. “Think it will turn me into a zombie if I say yes?”
Durand grinned. He could still be deadly wrong, but his intuition said this — machine — was harmless.
“By all means find out.”
“Ass-hole. Yes, why don’t you do me the favor of being my faithful servant?”
I will indeed, but I must have an unequivocal Yes or No.
The alien electronic reader’s surface went blank. After an instant the Captain said, “Hold it. Hold it.”
To Durand he said, “It’s talking to me so only I can hear it. You want to try one for yourself?”
“I do. Maybe we should get the Geeks involved.”
“Good idea. First!” The grizzled First Sergeant Louis Anders looked and was exactly what the principle NCO of a combat company should be. He was at the Captain’s elbow in an instant.
“I want each commander of our platoons in on this. Get them out here. Meanwhile, I don’t want any of this excitement affecting our readiness.”
“Sir.” A look scattered all the onlookers back to their duty stations except the Tech Sergeant who was Anders’ second. Then the First was gone.
Durand waited until the lieutenants heading the three “grunt” platoons and the small “geek” tech support platoon were brought up to speed on the events. Then Durand took one of the devices off to brief his own group of two dozen men and women, called an action unit. It consisted of two captains and an assortment of lieutenants, several warrant officers — former NCOs made officers by warrant rather than by commission who were specialists of some sort, subordinate to commissioned officers — and several civilian specialists on contract. All of them were highly trained in “cultural modifications” — sociological and psychological warfare. They were all also combat veterans, some of them highly skilled in assassinations.
In the mess tent Durand went through the serving line like any grunt rather than cutting in line or having a subordinate get his food. This was his regular practice unless there was a good reason to horde his time. He chatted up the various serving personnel, who with another daily duty rotation might be watching his back in the field.
At the end of the line he spoke loudly enough to be heard in the kitchen.
“Was that fat cook drunk again? This egg soufflé looks kind of watery.”
A bellow came back. “Johnson? Did you spit on his plate again?”
Durand chuckled, as did several other nearby people. The cook prided himself in turning out near-gourmet food on the end of a long logistic pipeline, and doing it every day. He had been especially selected by Captain Parsons to help make bearable a sometimes harsh duty. Durand did his own little bit to let the cook know his dedication was appreciated.
Once all his people were settled to their food in one corner of the huge mess tent Durand opened the meeting.
“Chief,” he said to the chief warrant officer who was his equivalent of Captain Parson’s first sergeant. “I want everyone to pair off, one to try the device, one to monitor his behavior. If there are any problems, I want to know immediately.”
“How will we decide who gets to play with a machine?” This was Ariel McCarthy, very pretty, wide-eyed, seemingly young. She was a civilian contractor, which usually meant covert CIA but was not in her case. She was possibly the most physically dangerous person he had ever met, something he would not have believed if he had not himself seen the aftermath of some of her actions.
“Flip a coin, consult your horoscopes, rock/paper/scissors, whatever works. In my case I want the Chief to monitor me. He’s the only one who’ll kill me if I need it.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Ariel. A switch-blade suddenly appeared in one of her hands, flicked open. With it she demurely began to clean her fingernails, which he suspected she poisoned when going into combat.
Every one laughed, even Durand.
“Besides analyzing the device I want each of you to consider the wider picture. The people who created this are, no shit, aliens from outer space. I want to know as much about them as we can infer from their product.”
Back in his tent Durand made his bed then removed his boots and lay down on it with the alien device in one hand. The writing on it read Je peux être votre ressource d’informations personnelles. Voulez-vous cela? Parler votre réponse ou le pense juste.
Very interesting. Somehow it knew his native language. His parents had been French-speaking Canadians from Québec and had not wanted their children to lose their French though they lived awash in English.
Testing it he answered in Pashto, the dominant language in this section of Afghanistan and the western part of Pakistan, asking if “you understand me in this language”?
The display answered in the version of the Arabic alphabet used by Pashtuns. It told him “I speak all languages used on this planet” and repeated its earlier question.
He answered Yes in English.
In the next hour he and his “infoslate” became “acquainted” — no better word came to mind. It was clearly a machine, but so flexible it was hard not to think of it as a person. He learned more of its abilities and its limits, and vice versa.
By now it was mid-morning. As fascinating as playing with the slate was he was the commander of a military unit and he had to liase with another such commander. He went in search of Captain Lowell Parsons.
He found him in Bunker One, the main of the two widely separated heavily fortified and partly underground command posts. Each command post could take over control of the company if the other was disabled. Parsons was overlooking a large graphical display mounted on one wall and talking with two of his people sitting at control consoles a few feet in front of the display. Parsons nodded at him and, seeing Durand did not want his immediate attention, continued his discussion.
Done, Parsons walked over to a small mess room off the main control room, beckoning Durand to follow him. The two poured and flavored cups of — gourmet, naturally — coffee, moved to a long table, and sat back in comfortably padded chairs: another seeming luxury which Parsons had deemed necessary for his troops’ morale.
“How’s it going?” Durand said.
“I’ve got the ‘information resource’ situation under control for now. The geeks are on it, though I’ve had to crack the whip to keep from having every damn one of them spending all their time on it.
“Couple of interesting developments. One of the geeks got a little over-enthusiastic about testing the limits of the devices –“
“I’m calling them slates, from info slates.”
“– the slates. She took one beyond the perimeter and shot it.”
Durand exploded in laughter.
Parson joined in. “Knocked the damn thing 50 yards. Didn’t hurt it a bit. When she asked it if it were OK it said, and I quote, ‘Were you trying to hurt me?'”
“Then it told her no force on this planet could hurt it. Made me kind of wonder if a fusion bomb could dent it. Also made me happy there aren’t any nearby. Or she might have set one off.”
Durand shook his head. “What else?”
“My operators said the ‘stats had detected infrared sources in the village and three more in the country side with the same signature as our own stack of … slates.”
Durand sipped thoughtfully. “So the — maybe we should call them ETs for extraterrestrials — the ETs have given out more parcels of the slates. Have you heard from Headquarters?”
“I got a video call from Kabul, from the Boss himself, wanting to know the situation here. I gave it to him and he expects a more detailed report by noon.”
A corporal came hurrying in and laid a freshly printed 18×12 map on the table between the two.
Parson smiled. “I used my slate to talk to his slate. It’s almost like god-damned telepathy.”
He tapped the map. Durand bent over it. It showed a mid-scale map of the area surrounding the Pass. This was all of Afghanistan, all of Pakistan to the east and south, and a big slice of Britannic India to the east and south beyond Pakistan. To the west was half of Persia, to the north a chunk of the Russian Federation, and further east a chunk of the Chinese Empire.
“The red dots and circles are where the slates showed up. Notice the distribution. And where the center is.”
The red elements were arranged within a circle. And Afghanistan was at its center.
“Holy Mother of God. We’re going to have half the reporters in the world showing up here.”
The Captain drained his coffee mug and got up to get more. At the pot he said, “I’ve requested another platoon for local control. They should be on their way by noon. We’re going to be crowded but we can handle it.
“I’m not putting any civilians here. They’ll have to make do in town.”
The village was two miles closer to the Pass. It had a big old dilapidated hotel and a few paltry tourist shops, some local businesses, and that was about it. There was a bit of Khyber Pass tourism, but most of it was housed in Pakistan, in Landi Kotal, a larger village with three hotels. Peshawar 50 miles eastward was where most tourists came from. It had a small international airport, a university, a modest downtown business area, and several small suburban residential areas.
“I’m hoping most of the international crowd go to Pakistan. They’re about 180 million to our 30 million people, but I know we’ll have some American journalists come here.
“But I believe, I hope, most of them are going to the big Afghan cities where a shit-pot-full of the slates were delivered. Or made. I think they were actually made on the spot.”
He got up and went to the coffee pot to freshen his coffee. Durand joined him. They returned to the table, where Parsons gestured at the map.
“Look here. They missed Tehran. So the Persians are going to have to make do with just a few million slates. They missed the Arabian peninsula. The Saudis got NO slates. The only slates the Russians got are a few million in the ‘stans. The only ones the Chinese got are in western Urumsyee. And here –“
He pointed at the south end of the map. “The ETs only covered the northwestern edge of India.” He grinned. The Brinds — Brittanic Indians — were arrogant pains in the ass. They were, and knew they were, an important part of the Britannic Federation, the largest and most powerful political organization on the planet. Their biggest rival was the USA, an industrial, business, and military powerhouse, a fourth of the Fed’s population but thrice its riches.
The Captain’s grin faded. “Still, that’s what, twenty million people? So the Brits are going to be a major focus of snooping reporters, along with Pakistan. Still, I have to be ready for some reporters.
“Now, that’s my side of things. What’s up with you?”
“I wanted to touch base with you before I checked back with my people. Which I’m going to do when we’re done. You want to come along?”
“No, I’ve got enough to do. Tell you what, why don’t you and the geeks join forces for your meeting and you get back to me at, 11:00? You can catch me up on what all the brains come up with, and I can include that in my report. Which the Boss wants by noon.”
The Chief Warrant met his commander at the door to the bunker. How he always knew where Durand was Durand neither knew nor cared. NCOs and their sort-of-officer variants the warrant officers were widely acknowledged to be omniscient. That wisdom was good enough for him.
The Chief filled the Major in on what his troops were up to. Captain Harry Kilgore, once a GP in civilian life who had a lot of experience in battlefield surgery, was in the base infirmary taking care of a bad farm accident.
Captain Madeline Nguyen was in the village delivering a baby, ably protected by the deadly Ariel McCarthy and three other troops from Muslim extremists. The fanatics were well aware of how capably the Americans were winning Hearts-And-Minds with their military medical efforts. The locals fanatics also believed that Ariel was a demon in disguise and stayed well away from her, showing uncommon good sense for a fanatic.
The rest of the team were in the Small Bunker, which was only marginally smaller than the main bunker, in the conference room which they frequently took over for their meetings.
At the door to the room the Chief said, “Attention!” Under roofs he insisted on military courtesy that was injudicious to show out of doors.
Everyone stood, including the civilians. Durand said “At ease” and sat at the foot of the long oval conference table, a position always left for him. Everyone sat except for the Chief, who lounged against the inside of the door.
“I just got through talking to Captain Parsons. He wants us to get together with the geeks once we’re done here. At 11:00 he and I will get together. By that time I want each of you to have a short email summary ready of what you’ve come up with. Collaborate as needed. Whether it’s several small emails, or one or two bigger ones I don’t care.
“So any conclusions?”
At that civilian contractor Aaron Epstein stood up. Known as Rabbi because he was one, he looked deceptively like a harmless academic. He effected round-rimmed glasses which he did not need and had lost enough hair to look properly high-browed. He had a PhD in comparative religions and could talk rings around Muslims who thought they knew the Q’Ran. He could also quote it in its entirely in Arabic so beautifully that he had once held off his execution until he was rescued, for a true believer must “be silent and listen” when the Q’Ran was being recited.
“Gabriel, we are impressed as Hell with the aliens –“
“I’m calling them the ETs.”
“The ETs make us look like amateurs. I personally believe they must be humans to so well understand human psychology.”
Lieutenant Sarah Bookend, who looked like a harmless frontier schoolmarm in costume, and most definitely was not, spoke. “Biologically impossible. PHYSICAL parallel evolution would be a trillion-to-one coincidence. But –” She held up a hand to forestall a protest by Epstein. “– mental and emotional parallels I can believe.”
Epstein waved a hand to leave that discussion behind. “We have come up with very tentative tactical and strategic conclusions. First, the purpose of these devices is primarily to teach literacy to illiterates. Computer games seduce kids into using the devices –“
“Info slates. Or just slates.”
“But once the users are hooked on the … slates, to win at the games they have to be able to recognize street signs. Or business titles. In Pashto. To find the enemy if they’re first-person-shooter games. Later they have to read directions, and instructions.
“The user can halt the game to take a lesson then return to where they left off. The lessons are all short and easy so the user doesn’t lose much of their excitement about the game.”
Epstein brightened noticeably. “That’s to hook the kids. To hook devout adults the Q’Ran is online, in the Pashto version of Arabic. Links from the text take you to exegesis and commentary. All of it quotes from recognized mullahs. Not from some alien … some ET authority.
“That’s tactics. Other literacy apps are online. Such as maps. With Pashto labels. We’ve just scratched their surfaces.
“But strategically. These are basically education devices. Someone –” He waved a hand at the ceiling and, by extension, to some aliens floating in space. “– is engaged in cultural intervention. Some Peace Corps out there is trying to improve us. For whatever ethical, or opportunistic, reason I don’t know.”
Civilian specialist Walif Abdel, agricultural expert, small, brown, a jokester, and a sniper had an opinion. “I vote for them getting us all lovey-dovey and shit, then they hit us with something nasty.”
“In other words, something very like Walif,” said Epstein dryly.
The geeks were in the Big Bunker conference room. With the addition of the Green Beanies, who mostly took up the chairs around the walls rather than those at the conference table, the room became full. A sergeant specialist surrendered the foot of the table to Durand, who nodded thanks to him.
First Lieutenant Hector Morales had been sprawled in an ergo chair off to the side of the head of the table, holding but not using a wall-screen remote. He returned to his chair, though sitting upright, after the room had been braced to attention by his platoon NCO. That worthy was every bit as insistent on the formalities as Durand’s Chief Warrant was.
A tall redheaded string bean despite his Latin name, Morales said. “Welcome Gabriel. You’ve just rescued us from an excruciatingly detailed software diagram by Liva here.”
Lieutenant Liva Bidstrup, pretty, stereotypically Danish and blonde, flushed, and said, “The asshole is right, as usual. Let me conclude.” She turned so as to address the new arrivals better, focusing on Durand.
“I took my resource device through a series of questions to see just how flexible it was in answering. The things are so responsive to a wide variety of phrasings and questions that they almost seem to be artificially intelligent, in the true sense of being self-aware.
“I finally proved, within the limits of the decidability paradox, that they are merely several orders or so more flexible than our usual software interfaces. In other words, if you ask them questions in exactly the same way every time they will give the exact same answers. They are robots, pure but sure as Hell not simple.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Durand. “I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I’m glad that’s been cleared up.”
He then quickly told Morales what the Captain wanted from them, then asked for a summary of what the geeks had found out.
The Lieutenant said, “We mostly have speculations. We’ve had little time or equipment to do the kind of testing that will eventually have to be done. Probably at Headquarters in Kabul. Or maybe back in the States if these things can be taken there.
“We do have a few firmer ideas. Liva’s work is pretty solid. We also had some success finding out how durable these things are.”
Every one in the room laughed. One of the geeks, a sturdy female warrant officer named Helen Phillips, smiled a bit shamefacedly. It was apparently she who had shot an info slate.
“I found out a few other things.” She looked a question at her commander. He nodded. She walked to the head of the table.
“I started out a bit impulsively, I admit, when I shot the slate. I wonder how many years it will be before I live that down. But the incident revealed more than the slate’s toughness. Did you hear that when I picked it up off the ground it asked me if I meant to destroy it? And volunteered that it was indestructible, by any means we might deploy against it?
“This means they respond to more than just user input. They perceive the environment in some fashion. From that they generate hypotheses, and request clarification about them, and volunteer information.
“At that point I realized I could ask the slates about their capabilities. Here is what I found out.”
At first each slate only responded to someone who held them in their hands, she said. After they had been accepted as someone’s personal property they would respond to it’s owner’s voice, and only theirs. It would also respond to carefully “spoken” silent speech. And “speak” back for their owner’s hearing only. From “any” distance.
“Now watch this.”
She lifted one of the seemingly white pieces of cardboard, placed it next the side of her head, and spoke.
“Answer in voice mode loud enough for the farthest person in the room to hear me clearly.”
“This is as loud as I can speak and not damage your ear drums.”
“Do so anyway.”
“I order you to do so.”
“Notice that the slate used a different wording to express disobedience. They have a repertoire they cycle through to keep their responses from being boring. But the repertoire is limited. This agrees with Liva’s research in the slate’s intelligence. Now watch.”
She took a few steps and placed the device against the wall beside the large flat-screen mounted on the wall.
“Attach yourself to this surface.” She removed her hand and the slate remained where it was, stuck to the wall.
Helen Phillips returned to her earlier position and held up two slates side by side, one in each hand. She spoke to one just a few inches from the other.
“Attach yourself to that surface.”
The slate left her hand and floated over to the slate stuck to the wall. It positioned itself beside the other, flush against it, and froze in place.
“Holy shit!” someone sitting against the wall said. “The damned things fly.”
The sturdy warrant officer shook her head, not in disagreement but in wonder at the fact she had just demonstrated.
“If you look at the edges between those two with a magnifying glass you will find none. The two devices seem to merge into one device. But if you grab one edge and pull they separate into two.”
She surveyed the room. “Did you notice how smart the two slates I held were? They could tell which one I was speaking to. They could deduce that when I said ‘that surface’ just which surface I meant. Merging with the other wasn’t something I told it to do, however. It seems to be the default action when you place two of them near enough to each other.
“One person can assert ownership of up to four slates. Thirty-two of them were delivered here for each person in the camp. The slates don’t know or won’t tell why there are extras.
“They can be folded very tightly and unfold when pressure is released.” She demonstrated by folding one lengthwise and widthwise several times and letting it slowly unfold on the tabletop. Then she picked it up, scrunched it into a tight ball, and put it into one of the big pockets of her grey and tan camouflage pants.
“Watch. It is arranging itself to better fit into the limits of the space it is in. I tried this with a transparent baggie. It flows like water, as far as I can tell. But it ends up as if it had been folded into a compact form.”
She faced the two slates on the wall. “How far can I be from you before we can no longer talk to each other?”
“Several radii of this planet.”
“How do you communicate with me?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“Cannot or will not?”
“That’s about it for what I’ve been able to find out so far.” She looked at Lieutenant Morales.
“Thank you, Warrant Phillips. Good job.”
She smiled and returned to her seat.
“I’ll agree to that, Warrant,” said Durand. “And thank you Lieutenant Bidstrup.”
He glanced at his wrist chronometer. Lieutenant Morales said, “We’ve got time for one more report.” He nodded at one man sitting near Durand, who stood and walked to take up the speaker’s position abandoned by the warrant officer.
Tech Sergeant Filippo De Caro, Durand knew, was a “greaser” or grease monkey assigned to care for the various fighting and transport vehicles the company used. Like most specialists he affected the stereotype of his specialty, in his case the near-illiterate self-taught immigrant who when working had black grease under his fingernails. He looked the part too, being a former Argentine of Italian descent who could have been sent over from central casting as a Mafioso.
“I’m a gamer from way back, have also written some. So I got the job of analyzing the games on the slates. Here is a part of what I came up with.” He spoke with a slight Spanish accent.
He manipulated the display remote. A stimulus-response web flicked into existence on the big flat-screen on the wall behind him. It displayed as several dozen ovals connected to other ovals by several kinds and colors of lines. He turned to face his audience and moved off to the side so everyone in the room had a good view of the screen.
“Like Liva I found that the games have a lot of depth. Here I’m expanding just one action sequence, in this case a first-person-shooter game.”
The remote cursor on the screen, a bright blue arrow head, flashed several times. Each time the selected labeled oval expanded to fill the screen, becoming an S-R web.
“I went down forty levels on one section before the sequence bottomed out. These slates have huge memories. Over a billion times what one of our tablet computers have. Much of it is empty.”
He looked around the room, tapping the side of his face with the slim remote. Durand reminded himself that the greasers were geeks as much as anyone else in the support platoon. The modern military depended heavily on modern technology. All of its soldiers were educated or became that way.
“I was helped because the slates will interface with, as far as I can tell, every thing. I’ll be writing a report on that with Holly Halstrom over there, who did most of the interface work.”
The woman he had pointed to, a tall blond with a Swedish look, raised her head from the keyboard of a laptop computer she was typing. She nodded at the room and returned to her work.
“The first-person-shooter games are a bit limited. I think that’s deliberate. Whoever made these things did not want to teach advanced tactics to a bunch of primitives. I really agree with that. I don’t want to meet smart Muslim fanatics in the field. Though I think the limitations are partly because the games teach literacy, and to kids as well as adults.
“Other games, like ones on farm management and on hygiene, are much less limited. And not just in computing horsepower. The psychology of these games is really sophisticated.”
He looked over at Durand. Everyone knew the Green Berets were psywar experts whose main job was to tame barbarians.
“The people who made these things are a thousand years ahead of us, Major Durand. I mean that literally. Next to those people we are a bunch of Hottentots.”
His platoon chief warrant officer met him outside the bunker. Durand had noticed his absence near the end of the conference inside.
“I talked with the Captain, sir. He said to give you an extra twenty minutes.”
“Don’t tell me –“
“Yes sir. That old hypocrite is on his way.”
The person referred to was the village tribal chief, 83-year-old Abdul Haq Qalzai. It had taken Durand a year to realize that the Chief liked the old man. His poker face defeated even Durand’s considerable skill at reading people.
Durand spoke up. “Epstein! Incoming!”
Rabbi Epstein stopped talking to another Green Beret and glanced at Durand. Then he spoke a few further words and walked over to Durand.
“We get to play good guy – bad guy?”
“Right. Qalzai is on his way.”
“Not surprising. I bet the arrival of the slates kicked up a hornet’s nest in the village.”
A few minutes later the major was outside the mess tent where Qalzai could easily find him. He was talking to two of his troops. They were pretending to be in a serious discussion though the actual content was baseball scores.
Durand was wearing shiny dress boots rather than the more usual deliberately dull work boots, a high-crowned dress hat rather than a beret, and a coat of expensive olive green with medals on his breast. He looked every inch the arrogant autocrat.
A battered but serviceable brick-red long-cab pickup truck drew up nearby. In the back seat sat the wiry old chief, long beard snowy white, wearing a multi-colored robe and a checked kaffiyeh scarf common in desert areas to protect the head from sand and wind. Beside the driver and in back were two body guards, one of them a grand-nephew.
The instant the truck stopped Qalzai was out of it. Age had not hindered his spryness. Moments later he was standing before Durand, very much in-his-face.
In Dari, the variant of Persian which was the official language of Afghanistan, he bellowed outrage at the iniquities of foreigners. Who interfered with honest hard-working villagers and farmers who tried to wrest a living from the desert. He demanded that Durand and the rest of the foreign devils take back those tools of Satan which this morning they had foisted on god-fearing Afghans.
Durand looked down at the old man, distaste plain in his face and body. He was a terrific actor, playing to the three on-looking village soldiers. As was the chieftain.
When the elder had stopped to catch his wind Durand answered coldly that the Americans had nothing to do with the slates and that they were investigating who had, he said sarcastically, “foisted” the devices on the villagers. And they would do everything in their power to keep the slates out of the hands of the undeserving natives and keep them for use of Americans, who were sophisticated enough to use and not waste them.
Durand fancied a gleam of appreciation in the eyes of Qalzai. By implying that the slates were desired by the Americans he had handed the old man a weapon against those of his own people who would try to deny their use to Afghans.
At just the right instant, cutting off Durand in mid-breath, Aaron Epstein burst out of the mess tent. He wore the usual Green Beret uniform worn by everyone in the major’s platoon, even the civilians. But he had a kaffiyeh wound around his neck similar to those worn by Afghans. It however was desert camouflage color, which made it useful not only against the elements but as a stealthy weapon of war. That it also expressed respect for local sensibilities was no coincidence.
Laying a hand on Durand’s arm, he reprimanded him for his disrespect of the hard-working village elder. Durand impatiently pulled away from Epstein and stomped dramatically away.
Behind him he heard the Rabbi apologizing for Durand and telling the elder that he had been thinking about the last time the two of them had discussed the Q’Ran.
Epstein interrupted himself by calling over another Green Beret, a tall strong woman who looked as if she could demolish the driver and bodyguards with three swift motions. Which she could indeed.
He tasked her to escort the three men, get them fed, and keep them out of trouble. With a good imitation of sourness she accepted the task, which would end with a tour of the base commissary. Where each of the three (she would “unbend” enough to tell them) would be entitled to buy some small trinket. In two or three hours she would have gained considerable low-level intelligence.
Meanwhile Epstein would get the chieftain an excellent meal and the two of them would discuss the Q’Ran. This was a treat for both of them, for they were both subtle and powerful minds who rarely had a chance to exchange views with equals.
Later the two would have serious discussions of matters of mutual interest, including defeating the local Muslim fanatics and enlarging the miniscule commercial advantages of the village and its surrounding farmers. And today including the nature and implications of the slates.
“They’re being too obvious.” Captain Lowell Parsons was sitting in the command chair in Bunker One. Around him and Major Durand, standing at his elbow, sprawled the control room of Guard Post 373. It looked very like the control room of a battleship.
“Yeah, now that you mention it, they are.” The two of them were looking at the large flat-screen at the front of the room. On it was displayed in split-screen an aerostat view of the countryside surrounding 373. Two clusters of gold dots showed the location of Muslim fanatics. They were moving toward the Post and the village.
The Captain scowled at Durand. “You noticed it before I did. I wish you’d quit being so damned diplomatic.”
“Who, me? I’m not a ring-knocker. I’m just a poor Cit.” Graduates of the government-supported West Point military school wore large school rings. Durand was a graduate of the prestigious privately supported Citadel military college in South Carolina.
The Captain fingered commands into the remote control snapped into the arm rest of his ergonomic chair. The two split screens vanished to be replaced by a larger-scale view of the local area. The two bands of attackers were represented by two small red arrowheads pointed in the direction of travel. He thought a bit.
“Gabriel,” he said. “Talk to McCarthy. Fill her in.”
Durand took an empty chair at a console to one side of the control room, placed a loop of wire atop his head that positioned a microphone near his mouth. He adjusted the ear muffs attached to the headset and keyed in a command on the keyboard.
“Got a heads up, Ariel.”
“I’m listening, sir.”
He described the situation.
“I’m on it. Out.”
Durand returned to his position by the Captain, pulling with him one of the unused ergonomic chairs near the wall.
“She’s taking care of the hospital?”
“If anyone can, she’ll do it.”
“That is one strange woman. Could she be one of these aliens? They must have people on the ground.”
“I’ve known her, off and on, for about six years. If she’s an alien, she’s doing a good job of imitating a human.”
He positioned the chair next to the Captain’s, sat.
“Did I ever tell you about this job in Venezuela?” He pitched his voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear him. They had a good long time to wait before the hostiles were in a position where they could be properly neutralized. A bit of distraction would keep the listeners alert but not keep their trained reflexes from missing some important development on the screens before them.
“Is this one of your ‘true’ stories?” Few people could do skeptical better than Captain Lowell Parsons.
Durand smiled angelically. “Well, parts of it are true.”
Ariel McCarthy leaned on the parapet surrounding the roof of the old two-story building which housed the medical facilities for the village and surrounding countryside. The Americans had completely renovated it fifteen years ago when the new Afghani government, such as it was, had partnered with the US to develop the countries considerable mineral wealth.
Her mind was attending to three threads of thought as she gazed at the dusty square below her. The least of them was the desultory conversation of the three Outpost guards assigned to keep an eye on the approaches to the medical “barn” (as some called it). They were a hundred feet from it, arranged in a rough triangle around it. They could see each other and their helmet communication links kept them in constant voice contact. At the moment they were speculating on whether the next week-end liberty would be postponed because of the alien interference.
Another part of her mind was toying with the implications of the existence of the aliens, revealed by their tampering with the local social processes.
One possibility was that they were like her, immortal shapechangers.
She knew little about her kind. She had lived almost three centuries, twice as a man and for the last 80 years as a woman, but met only two other ‘changers — that she knew of. One had been friendly, the other not, but she had not talked with either for very long.
Another possibility was that the world would, through the aliens, discover the existence of ‘changers. That would not be good. Or would it?
She began walking around the edge of the roof, catching sight of the three guards in turn as she completed a circuit of the roof. Each greeted her and she exchanged brief remarks with each.
She returned near where she had begun her walk. It was a couple of hours past noon. Shadows were appearing and lengthening. They added visual interest to the old ramshackle buildings about the barn but also made it easier for enemies to conceal themselves.
The third thread of thought was the question of what the Muslim fanatics would do in response to the introduction of the slates. This was not easy. They were not professional soldiers, nor rational revolutionaries. Either of those were predictable, or at least would lend themselves only to practical actions with at least nominally reasonable goals.
Even for Ariel, with a century of varied military experience and nearly three centuries of life scattered all across this world, it was hard to anticipate what the enemy would do. Fanatics were motivated by very convoluted logic or illogic, and she had always been very practical and straightforward in her thinking.
Suddenly her subconscious resolved the problem. She only needed to think about what the fanatics COULD do, not what they would think to do. And the two lines of attack by the enemy were too obvious. The attackers had to know that they would be detected. They were executing a feint, or at least acting as one in addition to trying to execute an action.
She keyed in a broadcast to the others in the little four-person local net.
“I got a feeling we might see some local action real soon now. I’m going to do a circuit inside the barn. The fuck-heads may have some sleepers already in place.”
As communication discipline required the three soldiers replied in seniority order. “Roger that, Ariel. Roger. Understood.”
She almost fell down the stairs. Or danced down them. Her muscles were many time stronger than those of ordinary humans. Her nerves were delicately tuned and could run fast, as now. Time seemed to slow for her. To anyone watching she would seem to be moving in fast forward. But there was no one to see or hear her. She moved like a ghost or the wind.
The medical building got enough customers to fill only half the rooms with patients or medical personnel, though that was changing as prosperity slowed leaked into the area. She saw no one in the first corridor, nor the one that led off it at right angles.
Her first destination was the obstetrics ward. Women were little more than barnyard animals to many Afghan men, but the Green Berets were run by people who understood the deep psychology of the populations they sought to change. Women and their offspring were crucial to lifting a population out of barbarism. The fanatics did not understand this, but they knew dimly that “hearts and minds” were being won by the medical help given women. This ward would be the first they attacked.
Ariel slowed to normal speed and entered the room. The two women in hospital beds stopped talking and looked at her.
Ariel looked at the three orderlies nearby. Neither of them seemed to be fanatics bent on murdering their charges.
Yalda, the older woman, looked at Ariel curiously as she came to stand between the two women. Everyone in the region knew about the demon woman. She said nothing, however.
Tanaya, barely out of her teens and with two children already, had actually met Ariel. She spoke in Dari, the variant of Persian which was the official language of Afghanistan. Tanaya was literate and a great reader, or as much as one as her family could afford. She was lucky her husband allowed her the luxury.
“Sheikh Ariel, how are you?” No one knew just what honorific to apply to McCarthy, so many people used the term for honored old man for her. Whether they feared or revered her, no one wanted to offend someone about whom there were so many fearsome tales, some of which were even true.
“I am fine. More importantly, how are you two?” Ariel spoke in Pashto, which Yalda knew.
Tanaya said, “The people here are very good. We’re fine.”
Yalda nodded. She dared speak. Fear of the outside had over-ruled her fear of the inside.
“One person said the evil ones are coming here. Is this true?”
Ariel touched the two woman on either side of her and shared a smidgeon of her perfect shapechanger health.
“Yes. But I am going out to meet them now. You will not be hurt.”
A fierce look came over the older woman’s face. “Kill them all.”
“I must save some for questioning. The rest will face Allah for judging.”
Then she let some of her ‘changer grace and speed show.
And was gone.
Ariel canvassed the entire second floor, looking into all the rooms and any hiding places. She looked not only for people but signs of any hidden explosives. The dozen people she met tripped none of her suspicions. She was very good at perceiving symptoms of fear or intent ordinary humans could not.
On the first floor she passed by several medical people, staff, and patients who seemed innocent. Then she found one who was not.
This was a young man pushing a waste cart on wheels. He wore medical clothing but he stank of sweat. His smock was large and his body seemed fat. His face was thin.
She held out to him a slate she had been carrying and “reading” as camouflage for her purpose. He reached for it, nervous. Both hands were thus free.
Ariel grabbed both of them, snake-strike fast. At the same time she spat on his throat. The saliva contained a paralyzing nerve toxin she had learned to generate well over a century ago. It worked now, penetrating the big arteries in his neck. Within a second he was swaying on his feet.
She shifted her hands to his upper arms. Ariel could lift a small truck. He was no burden at all.
Glancing around she yelled, “Bomb! Hide!”
A dozen nearby people dove for cover. Two not near any cover dove for the floor, curled up, and shielded their heads with their arms. A trio further away ducked around a corner in the corridor.
The bombs strapped to his chest did not go off. Ariel was relieved. Twice her brain had been destroyed and her soul or “ka” or whatever had jumped to an embryo the instant before its nerves came into existence and thus began generating a new soul.
Growing into a fetus and then an unborn infant had not been boring. She had slept all but most of the last trimester of her gestation periods. Then she had been learning about human biology through “tasting” her mother’s hormones and listening to her mother’s neural system. She had also been shepherding her mother through a perfectly healthy pregnancy and mild childbirth.
Maturing from infancy through childhood had been boring for an adult. Still, both times she had taken full advantage of the education her parents gave her.
But history was moving into an exciting time, with the arrival of the aliens. She would hate being left out of fully participating in events.
Her captive was fully paralyzed now. She fed commands from the nerves in her hands to his body and he slumped, asleep. She carefully lifted him by his upper arms as if he were a doll and walked backward out of the double doors of the medical barn. Twenty feet into the dusty plaza she just as carefully laid him down on his back inside a waterless fountain. Then she leaped twenty feet away, backward and let out a breath she had been holding for several minutes, afraid the slightest jostle would set off the bombs.
She quickly re-entered the barn. Everyone was cautiously sitting or standing up.
“Quick! Are there any new people in the building, who might be suspicious? Especially new workers?”
A grey-haired chunky older Afghan spoke up. “We know all the patients. But there is another new janitor. He came here about when that other one did.”
“Where would I find him?”
Another man spoke up, further away. Then two more people.
Following the likeliest leads Ariel ran down a hall, then another, and emerged onto the service dock behind the building. Just off to one side was a room which was a janitors’ office.
Inside the office a young man was assembling a suicide vest out of pipe bombs. He spun around and grabbed a pistol from a nearby table. By the time he was bringing it around to point at Ariel she was on him.
She slapped the pistol aside. It fired. She slapped the side of his head, very carefully. Full force her blow would have torn his head off. Then she punched him in the stomach.
He folded to the concrete floor and she let him slide, insuring his head did not bounce. She wanted him awake and talking.
The nearest soldier was running toward the entrance to the dock, M5 carbine leveled. He slowed as she spoke into her helmet.
“This one is under control. Keep him under observation.
“Bind his hands and feet. And keep alert. There may be others.”
“Roger that. Able 32, 34, Ariel caught a bad guy. Stay alert for others. I’m staying here, at the loading dock.”
“Three-two,” she said to him. “Keep an eye on the fountain, but stay away. There’s a janitor inside it with bombs strapped to him. He’s out, and will stay that way. We’ll need a bomb squad for him. And maybe some others. I’m going back in to finish searching the barn.
“Three-four, inform Control of progress. Tell them I’ll report when I’ve finished vetting everyone in the med barn.”
Within the hour Ariel had cleared everyone else in the building and visited the two women. They had heard the shot fired on the loading dock.
She had also briefed Captain Parsons and Major Durand, twice. The first had been quick, as soon as she had cleared the building. The second briefing had been more detailed. By then additional troops had arrived to further secure the barn and to double-check her efforts.
“Good job, Ms. McCarthy,” the Captain said.
“Thank you, sir.
“I have a favor. Can I sit in on the interrogations?”
A muffled discussion followed between the Captain and the Major.
“As long as you don’t interfere with Lieutenant Jubilo. He gets annoyed when people get in his way.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll just sit in a corner and look scary.”
Much laughter came over the comm link.
The skill of the interrogator and the inhumanly still “demon” and its unblinking stare uncorked a flow of information from the two would-be suicide bombers — almost too much.
One reward was some disturbing news. The two advancing groups of fanatics carried black-market Chinese KD2 short-range surface-to-surface missiles in addition to the more usual automatic rifles, machine guns, and shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenades.
“The bunch heading for the base have five four-packs mounted on hand-drawn carts,” said Jubilo over the speaker phone in the command post. “The village attackers have one four-pack.”
The Captain raised his voice. “Hamilton, the Sky Fire towers are activated, correct?”
The NCO addressed across the length of the control room swung around in his chair, facing halfway from his console.
“Yes, sir. Both towers are fully prepped and on automatic. I ran an auto-diagnostic on them when I came on duty.”
“Good. Carry on.”
Outside at each end of the outpost two thirty-foot towers sported several launch tubes atop them. First one tube and then the others cycled through an automatic test sequence. The skyward pointing tubes wiggled just slightly as the diagnostics checked their servomechanisms.
To the Major sitting beside him Powell said, “We should be safe here. But the village attackers are at the very edge of Fire’s range.”
“You can also call on Lightning as back up.” At the edge of the atmosphere above Afghanistan four large aerostats flew, kept up by turning vanes which looked like windmills turned sideways. They also floated, the vanes aided by compartmented helium gas bags. Mounted in them were kinetic-kill guns which could fire several sizes of needles at any aircraft or ground forces operating inside the country.
“A strike can also start a ground fire. It’s so damned dry this time of year.” Powell spoke musingly, more to himself than to Durand.
Then he spoke directly to Durand. “Is McCarthy as good with that Moretti sniper rifle she carries as you claim?”
“I did not exaggerate in the slightest.”
Powell leaned forward needlessly and manipulated the remote in his seat arm. The map on the screen zoomed in on the village-pointing icon symbolizing the fanatic forces. As the view zoomed “down” the icon split into golden dots. The satellite map switched to an elevation map.
A bright lime-green X blinked into existence on a shaded circle that represented a hill.
“There are three trees atop that hill, as I recall. Jackson –” The Captain raised his voice. “Double-check the line of sight from the hill. See if it still gives a clear field of fire on that path the hostiles are following.”
A few moments later the soldier addressed popped a picture onto the middle of the large display screen. It showed a 3D synthesized image of the view of the path from the hill. The view panned left and right. Then it was replaced by a satellite view of the hill and the area surrounding it.
“Yes, sir. She should have about a half-hour window of opportunity, starting in … 45 minutes.”
Powell asked Durand if Arial could get there in time. He replied that she could. The Captain then called Arial to explain the situation and order her to intercept the band of fanatics headed for the village and to take out the missile launcher.
“Yes, sir. I do have my rifle with me. I’ll leave immediately.”
“Be especially careful when you approach the hill. We don’t see visual or thermal evidence of anyone there, but they could be better hidden than usual.”
“I’m sending a couple of squads after you to assist and to clean up that group, but Major Durand says you can move faster than they can. Good luck.”
“Thank you. Uh, sir? Mind if I soften the hostiles for your guys after I take out the launcher?”
“Be my guest, but don’t take unnecessary chances.”
“Roger. On my way.”
Arial went to the storage room where she had left her sniper rifle and unlocked it. She slung the four-foot-long rifle and its accompanying ammunition belt crossways over her torso.
Settling the weapon, she walked quickly through the barn’s front doors. She carried her M5 carbine in one hand. Outside she began to jog, wending through the village. Beyond sight of anyone in it she began to run, taking great leaps of twenty feet or more.
Soon she was moving as fast as a cheetah could. Unlike that great cat, however, she could keep up the pace for days and nights. To do that she burned body fat. It was highly compressed, and so no one could tell she weighed half again what her slender build suggested.
Twice she misjudged her landing place. And once the ground was softer than the rest of the surrounding sparsely treed terrain. But her sped-up metabolism gave her plenty of subjective time to correct for the bad footing.
Approaching the hill she slowed, physically and metabolically, began to look for hostiles sent ahead to secure the vantage point. To her disgust there were none. But, she hoped, there were booby traps. She eased up the hill, alert for subtle signs of such devices.
Crap! There were no traps. Fighting the Muslim fanatics was getting boring!
It had been so for some time now, so she had been considering another career change. Boredom was the biggest enemy for an immortal, after loneliness, at least to judge by herself, the only guide she had to how a shapechanger lived. For the last thirty years she had been a warrior. Before that for almost forty years she had been a medical doctor. And before that a college student working for an advanced degree. And before that an American girl.
She chuckled as she topped the tree-shaded hill, setting up a firing post and enjoying a slight breeze which rustled through the leaves above her. Remembering. It had been just after she had been born the second time that she had discovered she was a girl. What a shock for someone who had lived two lives as a man!
Then she lay down in a good firing position and slowed her metabolism. Time seemed to speed up. The sun moved across the sky in fast forward.
The dull tan of the Arabic kaffiyeh wound around her head left little of the skin of her face exposed. The long sleeves of her shirt left only her hands visible. She ‘changed both to a matching tan, added a few random grey blotches. Perfectly still and silent as she was, even the most alert human might have stepped upon her before noticing her.
Time passed. Arial settled into serenity, the immortal’s friend.
Bland clouds rushed across the sky; their shadows passed over the land. The sun fled down the sky.
There. Movement in the shallow dry stream bed. Scouts. Cautious. But fools; they only glanced at the hill.
More troops came. In two lines. Then the missile cart rolled into view. Arial sped up her metabolism, to a normal rate, then to a faster one. Adjusted her firing position minutely. Began thinking about what point along the trail would be best to begin firing.
She examined the cluster of launch tubes. They were arranged in a single-unit four-pack but the markings she saw through her 10x sniper scope revealed the model to be Chinese KD2-A, not the expected KD2. Which meant the warheads had stainless steel penetrators embedded in the explosive. These warheads were more dangerous than the ones Captain Powell expected.
She could fire any moment. So she could use her communicator. In the unlikely event that its (millisecond, compressed, encrypted) emissions revealed her presence to the enemy she could still take them out.
“Base, this is McCarthy. The missiles are KD2-As. Repeat KD2-As. You’re going to have to retarget Sky Fire to adjust for that.”
“You’re sure of that?” It was the Captain himself, not one of the console operators.
“I’m reading the markings right off the side with my 10x scope.”
“Can you hold off firing until we’ve adjusted?”
“Can comply. But if they detect this call I’m not waiting.”
The communicator went silent.
The Muslim fanatics crawled past, or so it seemed in her accelerated state. Arial used the time to plot out her firing pattern. First the missile pack, then the five men who looked as if they were its crew, then the axle of the cart. That would be her first set of targets. Then she would improvise.
“McCarthy. We are re-targeted. Fire at will.”
She pulled the trigger, almost a jerk. An ordinary human would have squeezed it. She did not need to.
The heavy rifle fired. The line of the tube was directly in line with the stock center point. The recoil was straight back. The recoil was also diminished by several shock-absorbing internal mechanisms.
Arial worked the bolt action, flipping the empty cartridge out and chambering a new one from the six-shot tube. She aimed again, waited for the bullet to strike so she could observe the result through her scope.
On the middle of the four-pack a light bloomed. For her first shot Arial had chosen a bullet with a flash charge at its rear. This let her see the impact point but, unlike a tracer, did not point back at the sniper.
The missile launcher was almost certainly out of commission. To be sure she sent two more bullets into it. At the second it broke into two complete halves.
The crew had scattered at the first strike. Several were unlucky enough to be struck by shrapnel.
Arial was observing through her sniper scope. She aimed for a crew member, fired, aimed at another, fired, aimed at another, fired the last of six shots.
Quickly (slowly to her) she reloaded and took out five more men and then the cart.
She reloaded a second time, doing so by feel, reporting on progress as she did so and observing the target area with her eyes zoomed to their biological limits, not quite 3x.
“Good job. Now get out of there.”
“Roger. I’m abandoning my station.”
But not just yet. She had seen several hostiles carrying long tubes capped by fat rocket-propelled grenades. She did not like RPGs. They could actually kill her and so force another reincarnation.
Two fanatics with RPGs were lifting their tubes to fire at her hill top. She killed both of those. A third shot struck an RPG launcher. It must have impacted the grenade which was being aimed by the third hostile and so was directly in line with his body. It exploded. Shrapnel flared out and struck some of those nearby. Arial heard distant screams.
With three shots ready to go she paused to sweep her gaze back and forth. One leader seemed to have decided she was on the hill. He was crouched behind a bush pointing up the hill and screaming something. The bush protected him not at all from a heavy bullet traveling 3000 feet per second.
Every hostile had taken whatever cover he could. There was some cover, in miniscule folds of land mostly. Some body parts were visible. But there was a second cart containing a small short-range field mortar and mortar rounds.
Her first bullet shattered the field piece. Her second destroyed a mortar round. It also ignited it, which ignited all the other rounds. After the flash a mushroom cloud of smoke and dust blossomed into the sky.
She reloaded one last time. Even as heavy as the rifle barrel was it was getting warm enough to warp and become inaccurate.
She let a good fifteen minutes to go by. The hostiles began to be restless. Some moved. Arial resisted the temptation to cripple some of the enemy.
There was more movement. Then someone brave or stupid stood up. After a few seconds another did so, then another.
Arial let another ten or fifteen minutes go by.
Others stood. Then more. Soon it seemed everyone was up. Some men she tentatively identified as leaders inspected the damage, commanded other men to care for the wounded.
Arial let them. Wounded would delay them. Those who cared for the wounded she marked for mercy. Unless they began fighting she preferred to give them a sort of professional courtesy, having once been a medical doctor.
A man she guessed was a leader was ordering the establishment of a rudimentary camp to care for the wounded. But he also seemed to have others preparing to continue toward the village.
Arial let them. As long as they were only preparing they were no danger to anyone.
Dusk was coming on. So were the two squads the Captain had commanded to backup Arial. She heard and smelled them. The wind was from the direction of the village.
The hostiles below seemed about ready to get on the trail again. Arial sighted extra carefully and killed one of them. Good. Her rifle barrel was cool enough to regain its known accuracy.
Before the leader could move very far she shot three times near his feet, trying not to actually hit him. A full-on strike of a heavy high-velocity bullet even on a hand or foot would kill him.
He fell screaming, likely from a ricocheting stone. If the man survived he would be a prime interrogation target.
She killed another man before everyone below hid. She expended the last of her half-dozen bullets trying for an exposed limb. She missed.
Quickly, quietly, Arial decamped, heading down the side of the hill away from the bad guys and toward the oncoming troops. They could take care of the remaining fanatics. The group she had pinned by her attack were not going anywhere soon.
A little while later Arial met one of the point men for the two squads. She slowed to a stop.
The man said, “Damn you were coming fast! Something wrong?”
“Took you long enough.”
Someone behind him cursed. Someone laughed. Arial began to walk through them, pointing back the way she had come.
“I softened them up a bit for you. Careful of the hilltop. They know I was shooting from there.”
She had a couple of soon-to-be mothers to check on. And off in the direction of Outpost 373 there was a BUH-BUH-BUH-BANG. The first of the four-pack warheads from the hostiles had just been detonated short of their targets.