Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

CONQUISTADOR

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER FIVE:

San Joaquin Valley -- Lake Tulare

June, 2009

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

I feel good, Adrienne thought, as the descent began.  Wired, though.  It's been a long time since anyone affected me the way Tom does.  God, but he's cute.  Sweet, too.

Her skin tingled, and all her senses seemed preternaturally sharp, so that event the flat neutral oil-ozone-metal odor of the helicopter seemed as deep and subtle as fine wine.  She felt nimble and quick and clever, as if she could dance between the whirring blades of a harvester unharmed and handle this damned smuggling case with the flick of a finger.

 Be careful, woman. This is exactly the way people feel when they're about to screw the pooch.  You've had a good idea about fixing a horrifying oversight.  That doesn't mean you're omniscient.  Besides which, when and if Tom learns the full truth --

The rolling foothills of the Coast Range were behind them, and the southern San Joaquin valley spread beneath, turning from the thin green of spring to the dun-colored wasteland of summer drought.  At two thousand feet she could see southward to where bare brown mountains and the Tehachapi Pass closed the southern end of the great north-south lowland; a little higher, and she could have looked north to see the San Joaquin join the Sacramento and flow into the Delta before emptying into San Francisco Bay.  A haze of heat lay over the land beneath her, though it was only an hour past dawn, and most of the game that hadn't moved up into higher country had retreated to the odd stream that drew a line of trees across the plain, or simply lain down to wait for nightfall.

A herd of mustangs drew a plume of dust across the barren land, spooked by the Black Hawk's shadow, and pronghorns scattered like drops of mercury on a block of ice.  Ahead was a vivid, livid green, where the tule swamps spread around the great shallow lakes that occupied much of this end of the valley even in summer.  Looking east she could see the harsh glitter of sunlight on water through the rippling sea of reeds twice the height of a man.  Beyond them lay open blue, and beyond that rose the source of the life-giving flow -- the snowpeaks of the Sierras.  They floated salt-white and ethereally lovely in the distance, turned to an eye-hurting brilliance by the morning sun, a wall between her homeland and the deserts and plains of the far interior.

A smoke flare cast a long streak of orange-red across the yellow-brown steppe not far away from the edge of the marsh.  Nearby was the camp she'd come to find, vehicles parked in a square laager, a dozen hobbled horses in a swale that still kept a little green and had a single scraggly valley oak, and a set of tents grouped around campfires.  The pilot nodded when she leaned forward into the crew section and pointed, his bulbous helmet and face-shield making him insectile as he swung the helicopter sharply in a banking turn and cut towards the flare.  It was suitably distant from the tents and the long row of wire cages covered by an awning; it would be just what she needed to send the birds into cataleptic shock.  Suddenly the ground was closer; a falling-elevator sensation pressed her into the web seat, and hot dusty air flicked grit into her face as the side-doors were opened and swung alongside the fuselage.

Adrienne hopped down with one hand holding the floppy-brimmed canvas hat on her head against the blast of the helicopter's slowing rotors; she could feel sweat starting out under the thin tough cotton fabric of her bush jacket, and dry instantly in the blade-wash as the turbine howl of the engines died. 

Schalk and Piet followed her towards the camp.  Closer, she could see eight big Land Rovers, the Aussie SAS six-wheeled model designed FirstSide for long-range desert patrols, plus two Hummers and a Cheetah light armored car with paired machine-guns in its little octagonal turret.  A heavy-duty field radio sat on a table under a large tent with its sides rolled up; the other tents were rigged as shade-only as well, with bedrolls resting beneath them.  Most of the thirty or so men there were in wolf-gray Militia uniforms, wearing peaked caps with neck-flaps and the Von Traupitz double-lightning-bolt-and-eagle Family badge on their shoulders; there were three men in Frontier Scout khaki as well.  The Scouts were the Commonwealth's wilderness and frontier experts. As a sideline, they handled relations with Indian remnants who'd survived the plagues.

She recognized both the commanders; the Militia platoon was led by Heinrich von Traupitz, scion of a younger-son branch of that Family, and the Frontier Scout was a Settler by the name of Jim Simmons.  Both were her contemporaries, in their twenties and of the third generation born in the Commonwealth; she'd met Heinrich socially any number of times since her sixth birthday party, and had worked with Simmons before.  The troops were all young men doing their national service except for a grizzled sergeant; probably all from farming and ranching households affiliated with the Von Traupitz', too, and experienced hunters.  That Family had their main holding southeast of the Rolfe Domain in the Napa watershed, over the Vaca hills and out on the edge of settlement in the Suisun Valley, deeply rural even by her people's standards; they and their Settlers raised a fifth of New Virginia's wheat crop. 

 "Jim, good to see you," she said, shaking their hands.  "Hi, Heinrich.  How's Caitlin, couz?"

"Last time we talked, she said:  I'm feeling well, though enormous."

Members of the Thirty in the same generation usually called each other couz -- cousin -- but Caitlin was one in the literal sense, daughter of one of Adrienne's paternal uncles.  She'd always been fond of the girl in an elder-sister fashion, and Heinrich was a nice enough sort.  For a von Traupitz.

Unlike the older generation, she thought with slight distaste. 

Their founder had been a colonel -- in Das Reich, a Waffen-SS division with an unsavory reputation, if that wasn't an oxymoron, and a nasty piece of work personally.  The third generation were quite human, most of them.  Of course, Heinrich's mother had been an O'Brien.

Heinrich smiled back; he was a black-haired man with amber-colored eyes and pale skin that glistened with sunblock.

 "I would like to be back for the birth; it's our first, you know," he went on.  "I suspect my men wouldn't turn down a cold beer at the Mermaid Café, either."

 He looked over her shoulder.  The Black Hawks were Commission property, usually used as air ambulances to bring in patients from outlying settlements.  This one had been fitted out in ‘militarized' mode, with stub wings bearing a six-barreled gatling minigun on the left side and rocket pods on the right.

"Fancy carriage there, couz," he said, raising an eyebrow.  "Is there something I should know about, or is this the Old Man's usual overkill?"

"The ‘copter is staying to take me back once we've got the cargo," she replied, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.  "It's just what was available."

The pilot and his assistant were out, doing a maintenance check on the engines and weapons systems, something of which she heartily approved.  Her years as a Gate Security agent had taught her that if you didn't take care of equipment, it wouldn't take care of you when you needed it.  And while you might not need any particular item often, when you did you'd need it very badly.

"Can't be over too soon for me, Adri," Heinrich said.  "If I owned this place and Hell, I'd live in Hell and rent it out.  They say our area is hot and flat!"  He slapped at a mosquito and cursed as it squashed against his neck in a smear of blood and sweat.  "Jim and his boys did all the work.  All we've done is sit and stare at dust-devils and the occasional pronghorn and listen to our frying skin crackle and pop."

"You might as well get packed, then.  Sorry I don't have time for the social amenities, Heinrich, but this is Gate Security business, and I have to wrap it up fast.  Then you can get your men back to civilization and cold beer."

The soldier nodded, shrugged, slapped another mosquito, and walked off towards his troops, calling orders.  There was a chorus of cheers, and they began striking camp with commendable enthusiasm. 

The Frontier Scout laughed as they walked towards the cages; he was about her height, with sun-streaked brown hair, a close-cropped gingery beard and blue eyes startling in his tanned countenance. His broad-brimmed hat had a leopard-skin band, and old sweat had left rings of salt-stain on his jacket, still visible beneath the new ones despite multiple washings; a leather thong around his neck bore paired of grizzly-bear teeth and lion claws.

 "What were they thinking of, sending that bunch of farm-boys and clerks' sons?" Simmons said.  "We don't need soldiers, and I doubt many of them have been twenty miles east of the Coast Range before.  My oath!  Half of them aren't old enough to shave.  A couple of Frontier Scouts are all that's necessary for a job like this; the condors don't have artillery, after all."

"The Old Man is fond of saying that few operations fail because too much force is used.  The troops are just for insurance; and they're not from Rolfeston, you'll note."

"Operation?  What operation?" Simmons said, taking off his hat and waving it at the flat, heat-shimmering circle of the horizon while he wiped a sleeve across his forehead.  "This isn't the 1980's, for sweet suffering Jesus' sake. This valley's nearly as pacified as the good lieutenant Von Traupitz' ancestral acres back northside of the Delta.  Most of the natives died off in the first epidemics in the 40's and the smallpox got the rest -- the nearest wild tribe of any size is up in the Sierras."

"There are still some renegades and hostiles in the lakes and swamps," Adrienne pointed out.  "At least a hundred, worst case a thousand -- there are lots of little islands in there, and plenty of fish and game.  A few of them have stolen guns, too.  They'd like to get their hands on our weapons and gear.  Very, very much.  Plus they're not really fond of New Virginians, which is understandable from their point of view."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to camp out alone around here, or set up house, or try to graze stock," Simmons agreed.  "But they've learned better than to come out in the daytime, or in any numbers.  I doubt they're going to attack a party of mounted Scouts, either."

"They're even less likely to attack a platoon and an armored car," Adrienne said.  "Trust the Old Man's judgment.  He knew you're someone who could be trusted to produce twenty closely-related condors on short notice without shooting them, for example."

"Wasn't hard," Jim said.  "The Valley isn't half as challenging as things were when we were back in Kenya during the Mau Mau."

The remark was made with malice aforethought; the British-African immigrants were popularly and unflatteringly known as when-wes.  He dropped into a semi-British clipped accent as he spoke.  Normally apart from an occasional turn of phrase his voice had the same slight New Virginian drawl as hers or Heinrich's, the legacy of many languages and generations of linguistic drift in relative isolation.

Adrienne snorted.  "Jim, you were born in the Commonwealth and you've never been back.  Your father was born in New Virginia and never went FirstSide in his life either.  Your grandparents came from Kenya in ‘63."

"That skipped my mind," he teased, grinning.

The other two Frontier Scouts waited by the cages; they were cut from much the same cloth as Simmons -- in fact, one was his younger brother and one his maternal aunt's son; New Virginia ran on nepotism, and not only in the Thirty Families.  The wire containers were in a double row, eighteen of them, with an awning rigged above.  Inside the cages huge vulture-like birds perched and stank and brooded, their naked yellow heads twisting on the ends of long scabby necks to cast a baleful eye on the movements of their captors.  With their wings folded, the distinguishing white patches underneath were invisible, and they looked like huge ill-tempered bundles of feathers with claws.  A condor high above was a sight of heart-catching grace and beauty, but close quarters were something else again.  Occasionally one would utter a disconsolate, croaking squawk or engage in a feather-ruffling, beak-stabbing dispute with its neighbors.

"Well, there the bloody things are," Simmons replied.  "Bugger-all explanation I got; just a message from your father to go get them, countersigned by the Old Man no less, at which I genuflected, salaamed, saluted and got on my way... and I was due to go up to Fort Tahoe Station, which I will remind you has a much better climate than this.  What's going on -- is there a barbeque planned at Rolfe Manor?"

Adrienne grinned at his plaintive expression.  "Well, they do weigh in about the same as a turkey, and I suppose with some chipotle rub and a sage-and-herb stuffing, maybe a little garlic..."

The birds all looked healthy, and they all had a dish of water and a gobbet of fly-swarming meat that stank even worse than they did, a gourmet meal for what the biologists called an obligate scavenger, which mean carrion-eater in plain English. She nodded in satisfaction, and sipped from a tin cup of strong camp coffee someone put in her hand.

"Good work, though, and quick," she said. 

There were thousands of condors in the Commonwealth, but that didn't mean you could walk around scooping them up with a butterfly net, particularly when they had to be unharmed. 

"I'm impressed; I'll tell my father and the Old Man so, too."

Simmons swept off his hat and gave her a mock-courtly bow.  "That gladdens the cockles of my heart."  His expression was sly.  "Is the lady impressed enough to sweep me off my feet, take me away from this piece of refried hell, make an honest man of me, and elevate my lowly but roguishly charming Settler self to the demi-paradise of collateral Family status among the august Rolfes?"

Adrienne punched his shoulder; it felt like striking a board.  "You'd go toes-up in a month, living in Rolfeston, or even on an estate in the Napa," she said.  "And working a regular job inside the frontier would drive you to suicide.  You're a wilderness man through and through."

"True... true... how about a brief, meaningless affair, then?"

"You're incorrigible!"

"No, the name's Simmons... Right then; how about charming you into telling me what this is about?"

"Sorry.  Gate Security business."

His eyebrows went up.  "Gate Security requires twenty condors?  Half of which have to be fed one lead shotgun pellet, and the rest a package of mysterious powders flown out at vast expense?"

"Yes," she said, and laughed with good-natured schadenfreude at his frustration.

"Adrienne, do you have any idea of what it's like making a condor eat something?  They have projectile vomiting down to a science.  I deserve to know!"

"Really, I can't tell you; not only that, you're supposed to keep quiet about it too.  Any prospect of getting the last two soon?"

"We shot bait all along a front north and south of here," Simmons said.  "Mostly wild cattle, some antelope, and a few feral camels.  The cars would spook the birds, so we ride out when -- ah, here he is."

A lone figure came trotting out of the northeast, where the marsh made a green line on the horizon, which meant a considerable distance hereabouts.  There was an old joke that when your dog ran away in this part of the Commonwealth, you could stand on a chair and watch it going for three days.  Adrienne wore a monocular in a case on her belt; she snapped it open and put it to her right eye.  A man was approaching, barefoot and clad only in a deer-hide breechclout.  His long black hair hung to his shoulders beneath a headband, and his body seemed to be comprised exclusively of bone, gristle, jerky and sinew sheathed in dark-brown hide.  He moved at an effortless smooth trot through the calf-high plain of yellow-white dried grass, the short bow in his left hand pumping as he ran.  A quiver was slung across his back; his belt bore a steel knife, hatchet, Militia-issue canteen, and a bag that probably contained most of his other possessions.  His broad high-cheeked face was flatly impassive, and he was hardly even sweating in the vicious heat.

"Ah, that's one of your tame Yokut trackers, right?" Adrienne said.

"Kolomusnim, or Kolo for short.  He's not particularly tame, but he's a bloody good tracker.  Good man, when he can keep away from the booze."

"Most can't, judging by the specimens I've seen around your Frontier Scout stations," Adrienne said.

"I'd be tempted to drown my sorrows myself, in their position," Simmons said, surprising her.  "Let's to business, then."

Kolomusnim came up at the same swinging trot, stopping and sinking to his heels in front of the Frontier Scout, who squatted likewise to watch as the Indian drew in the white dust and spoke in a mixture of his native tongue and garbled English; after a moment she could follow the latter, at least.

"Three?" Simmons said.

"Three something-something," Kolomusnim replied, holding up that many fingers. The unintelligible word had far too many consonants, and probably meant condor.  "And man-sign.  Mebbe two days, mebbe right after shoot. Belly cut, liver, kidney, tongue, haunches gone, loin -- good meat.  No man sign after that."

"Hmmm."  Simmons thought, elbows on his knees; the squatting posture looked nearly as natural to him as to the Indian.  "Probably some little band of holdouts scavenging the edge of the marsh."

He rose.  "There are three condors feeding on some camels we shot.  You can wait here, Adrienne.  I'll have the birds netted inside a couple of hours, and then you can come in with the cars."

She had been looking over his horse-lines; there were twelve mounts, not counting two pack-mules.  Sensibly, he'd been using the Land Rovers as a base to carry fodder and water, and then ranging out to check his baits with the less noisy horses.  That would minimize the chances of scaring off any feeding condors.

"To hell with that, Jim," she said.  "I'm the Bad Girl of the Rolfes, remember?  I'll ride in with you, and we can have the chopper pick the birds up, bring them back here, load the rest and be back at the Gate before sunset."

He hesitated for a moment, and then nodded.  "All right," he said.  "Never could stand to be left out of the boys' games, eh?"

She shrugged.  "I'm not Little Miss Cindy Lou Magnoliablossom," she said dryly, patting the FN FiveseveN automatic holstered high on her right hip.

There are some advantages to FirstSide, she thought.  The extinctions there fortunately include a lot of Cindy Lou-ism.

"I noticed; Alf, saddle an extra horse."

Until then Schalk and Piet had been silent as boulders.  Now Piet stirred.

"Nie, nie, Miss," he said.  "We go too."  At her frown, he raised a massive hand and went on.  "Miss, if something happened to you and we weren't there, your oupa would have our bliddy ba... our bliddy heads."

His face had taken on a mulish look she recognized; she shrugged and said:  "The more the merrier.  It's only a couple of miles, right?"

"About ten," Simmons said in a resigned voice.  "Alf, saddle three extras; you'll be staying with the birds here.  Jake, run over to the Lieutenant and borrow three spare rifles."  He turned to the Afrikaners.  "You do know how to handle a standard Militia rifle, I suppose?"

"It's a bliddy gun, isn't it?" Schalk said, taking the semi-auto weapon and checking the action with businesslike competence before slapping in a 20-round magazine.  "Your bushman any good?"

Kolomusnim looked up.  "Better than lard-ass white man needs horse go ten miles," he said, and grinned as Schalk's complexion turned mottled with fury.

Then the tracker looked at Adrienne, glanced over to Simmons and spoke in his own language.

"He says what do we need a woman along for?  If we're not hunting for game that has to be skinned and cooked," Simmons said, suppressing a smile.

"Ha. Ha. Ha," Adrienne said, pronouncing each syllable separately, as if she were reading it from a page.

The horses were good mixed hunter blood; the Commission had never imported anything but the best, and she trusted Jim Simmons to choose his working stock carefully.  Schalk and Piet Botha picked two bays of about seventeen hands that looked capable of handling their weight; they rode reasonably well, although she knew they'd both been city born and raised, Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively.  Either they'd picked it up here, or had been well taught FirstSide; she seemed to remember reading somewhere that the old South African government had used mounted infantry for patrol work, and Botha had a farm down in the south country.  She chose a fifteen-hand dappled-gray mare that had a good deal of Arab in its bloodlines, to judge from the rather small and elegantly wedge-shaped head, and the arch of neck and tail.  It snorted slightly as she checked the girths, slid her own rifle into the scabbard that slanted back under the flap on the right side, put her foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle.  That was the lightened Western type the Frontier Scouts used; there was a machete and a canvas chuggle of water strapped to the left side, with jerky and biscuit and raisins in the saddlebags, plus the various items regulations required.

Kolomusnim turned without another word and began trotting back the way he'd come.  They fell naturally into a column behind him; she rode beside Simmons, with the two Gate Security operatives behind her and the other Scout bringing up the rear, leading two pack-mules; one carried an empty condor-cage on either side of its panniers, the other a large folded net and a spare field radio.

Adrienne took a deep breath of the hot air, full of the dusty scent of the dry grasslands, horse-sweat, and a hint of the marshes.  There were insects in plenty in the air, and the horse twitched its ears and various parts of its skin as she squeezed her calves against its barrel and brought it up to a round trot.  She realized that, for some reason, she was intensely happy.

And I'd really like to be able to show all this to Tom, she thought wistfully.  Not likely.  If he ever gets to our beloved Commonwealth of New Virginia, he's not likely to be feeling very good about me.  Since that would only happen if he stumbled on the Gate secret, in which case he'd be shanghaied here as an Involuntary Settler and could never go back.

"Can't your Yokut learn to ride?" she asked Simmons.

The Indian had been dropping back occasionally to run gripping the Scout's stirrup with his right hand, then loping ahead again.

Simmons chuckled.  "Kolo rides quite well.  He also thinks horses are for girly-boys and white men, if there's a difference.  We could beat him to the bait if we galloped, but the horses would be blown and he'd be ready to go on running all day.  He covered fifty miles in twelve hours once, on a bet, when we were shepherding a bunch of Collettas and Morrisons on safari east of the Sierras."

They rode quickly, alternating between a trot and a quick walk.  The reeds grew nearer, and the mosquitoes more persistent, along with buzzing horseflies and half a dozen other types of noisy insects.  In the abstract, Adrienne knew that marshes were vital to the food-chain, nurseries for fish and wildfowl and any number of other good things.  In the concrete here-and-now, she found this one seriously interfering with her good mood.

Simmons reined in well away from the edge of the marsh, throwing up a hand to halt the others.  The verge was scalloped here, a tongue of very slightly higher land running inwards to make an egg-shaped embayment of dry ground about a thousand yards deep and half that across at the mouth, with the fat end towards the swamp.  Two dead camels lay near the bottom of the egg, and the stink was formidable even at this distance; they must have been caught coming back from grazing on the reeds at the edge.  The three condors crawled over the carrion like greater versions of the insects that swarmed about the feast in a glittering cloud.

"Dropped both camels with head-shots from right here," Simmons confirmed; he was a little vain of his marksmanship, and the rifle in his saddle-scabbard had a telescopic sight attached.  "The condors'll be heavy and sleepy, ought to be slow to take off -- not that they're hummingbirds at the best of times."

 The big birds were feeding; one had its head deep in the feral camel's body-cavity.  It pulled it out, looking curiously around, and returned to its meal.  Adrienne didn't consider herself squeamish; she'd been reared in the country, had watched livestock slaughtered since she was barely six, and had gutted and skinned plenty of game herself, starting not much later.  She still had to swallow slightly as she surveyed the scene with her monocular.

Condors were spectacularly messy feeders, and the camels were extremely ripe after days in this heat.

"Keep it quiet," Simmons said -- quietly.  "Dismount, spread out, and don't get too close.  Jake, get the net.  Kolo, you're our backup."

Condors had never been hunted in New Virginia; they were a protected species, which could only be taken with an authorization from the Central Committee or the Chairman.  They wouldn't be very wary of human beings, but their dim little instinct-machine minds would associate anything large and alive with danger if it was close enough.

The party all swung down from the saddle, drew their rifles from the saddle-scabbards and slung them over their backs, moving cautiously and with minimal noise; it was very quiet, nothing louder than the sough of wind through the tule reeds and the buzz of insects, punctuated by an occasional clatter of harness and clop of hooves as the horses shifted position.  Simmons' cousin Jake drove in a tethering-stake and tied the pack-mule's leading reins to it before he unlimbered the net and hurried up to join his relative at the front of the party.  Adrienne and her two assistant-bodyguards followed on foot as well, leading their mounts; she admired the smooth way Simmons and his cousin deployed the net between them, stooping carefully to reduce their height and visual signal to their prey.  Kolomusnim waited further back, the cages at his feet and the reins of the two white men's horses draped over his arm.

The Scouts came closer and closer to the carcasses, moving more and more slowly, until there was a pause of several seconds between steps and a freeze every time the condors seemed to pay attention.  The birds looked, ruffled their feathers and then quieted again, looked and ruffled...

"Go!" she heard Simmons whisper, when the condors didn't seem to quiet down at all after the last advance.

He and the other Scout sprinted forward at a dead run.  The birds croak-squawked their alarm, turning and running awkwardly away with their ten-foot wings spread, trying to build up enough momentum to take a leap into the air and thrash themselves upward -- condors spent most of their time soaring on thermals, and they weren't very efficient at getting off flat ground quickly.  That let the men get within casting distance; Jake let go the net at another command, and Simmons whirled it in a circle over his head before he let fly.

It glinted in the harsh sunlight as the lead weights along the edge spun it open into a perfect circle, pausing for a moment at the top of its trajectory and then dropping like a swift-stooping eagle.  One of the panic-stricken condors made its escape, hoisting itself into the air with desperate strokes of its great wings and banking out over the swamp, turning and circling to gain altitude and escape.  Its cries drifted down through the hot still air.  The others were a heaving, squawking chaos under the net, their flapping terror only serving to tangle them more securely.  Simmons and his assistant waded in, cautious of the beaks and strong snaky necks; they used the net to throw the birds down, then Jake immobilized each in turn while Simmons slid a loose sock over its head.  That quieted the big scavengers enough for a swift but gentle trussing.

Adrienne smiled to herself; it was always enjoyable to watch experts at work, and Jim Simmons' boyish pride in his skills was entertaining in its own right.  She watched Kolomusnim bend to pick up the two wire cages... and then freeze, and come erect slowly, his head swiveling back and forth towards the walls of tule reeds on either hand.  Then everything seemed to happen at once, yet in slow-motion.

An instant before the Yokut called out a warning Simmons came erect as well, reaching for the rifle slung over his back.  Jake looked at him, puzzled, and then the expression went blank.  The crack of a rifle followed instantly; she could distinctly see his body jerk, then a spot on the front of his khaki jacket blow out in a shower of red. 

Another rifle spoke as the Scout fell, and a horse screamed; her head whipped around to see Schalk's mount collapsing, thrashing with a broken foreleg.  Then more shots, a fast rapid crack-crack-crack; two rifles at least, and used with more skill than Indians could generally achieve with pilfered ammunition and stolen weapons they didn't know how to maintain.  Of course, the shooters could be renegades; occasionally criminals or malcontents from New Virginian settlements ran off to live with any tribe that would take them in.  They usually ran further than this, though...

The thought ran through her head as she tried to get her horse under control and the rifle off her back.  Then there was a sudden shhhhhwhup -- shhhhhwhup -- shhhhhwup sound, and the saddle sprouted an arrow.  The head made an ugly whacking sound as it stuck in the leather and wood, standing there with the shaft humming like an angry bee.  Two more went into the animal's rump with wet, meaty sounds, and the horse went wild -- screaming and squealing as it reared and then went into a twisting buck.

"That's torn it," she snarled, took a step back, drew her FiveseveN automatic and shot the horse three times, the last one striking right behind an ear.

Not without a slight wince; the poor beast hadn't done anything but what she asked of it.  It hadn't asked to be born in the Commonwealth, either; this wasn't its fight.

The horse fell with a limp thud and she cast herself down behind it; the little 5.7mm bullets were high-velocity and armor piercing, but composed of some dense plastic that deformed and gave up all its kinetic energy when it struck soft tissue.  This one had drilled through the horse's skull and turned its brain into jelly; she had the pistol back in its holster before her mount's final reflex kick, and the rifle out across the flank she huddled behind for cover.  The smell of blood and offal from the horses was added to the stink of the rotting camels, and the ground was turning to mud underneath her as the animal bled out, but the knot of tension under her breastbone made all those things she could ignore easily enough.

This isn't the first time I've been shot at, exactly, but it's certainly the most serious, she thought grimly.  The other occasions had all been short, for starters.  This one looks like it could spoil my entire day.

Simmons was down on the ground, leopard-crawling towards Jake with his rifle across the crook of his elbows.  Three Indians were out of the reeds, their bodies striped in horizontal bands of white, black and ochre; they were howling like wolves and losing arrows as they ran towards Kolomusnim.  The Yokut shot one in the chest with the arrow on his bow; Adrienne carefully led the last and dropped him at a hundred and twenty paces.  The Militia battle-rifle kicked against her shoulder, a quick hard punch, and the brass of the empty 30-06 round spun off to the right, glinting in the sun and then tinkling on some metal part of the horse's bridle.  More arrows came whupp-whupp-whupp out of the reeds and she had to duck, curling under the barrel of the horse as they plunged down at her from out of the sky, dropping like mortar rounds.  From that angle and past the head of her former mount she could see the third Indian and Kolomusnim go over in a tangle of brown limbs. Then the tracker rose on top, his hatchet in his hand, smashing it downward over and over again in a quick hard flurry of blows accompanied by sickening cleaving thuds.

A quick glance behind her.  Schalk and Piet were alive, but their horses weren't; one of the mules was down too, and the other had pulled the tethering stake loose and was dragging it behind as it fled westward, braying hysterically.  The two Afrikaners and she formed a rough triangle about a hundred feet on a side, each crouched down behind the carcass of a dead horse.

The ambushers must have shot to kill the mounts first, which showed lamentably good tactical sense.  Horses were free to whoever could catch them -- there were uncounted thousands in the feral herds in the Central Valley and the foothills, and more swarmed all the way to the Mississippi these days -- but saddle-tack was something they'd have trouble getting their hands on, and rifles and ammunition were beyond price.  Not to mention the opportunity to kill a few of the hated New Virginians, the evil wizards whose touch was death, the destroyers of worlds.

Another arrow went thunk into the body of her ex-mount. She looked around; Kolomusnim had finished off his opponent, then leapt to the back of one of the horses he'd been holding for Simmons; the other was down.  He pulled its head around and raced for the open mouth of the pocket of dry land; arrows went after him, and bullets -- she thought something struck him, but he might have been hugging the horse's neck to present a smaller target.  The hooves of the galloping horse went past her, throwing up clods of earth, a thudding she could feel through her belly as she lay on the hard clay ground. 

"So much for the bliddy tame bushman!" Schalk yelled, and turned the muzzle of his rifle after the fleeing tracker.  "Jou hol bobbejan!"

"Schalk!  Eyes on the swamp!" Adrienne shouted, and the Afrikaner reluctantly obeyed.

They wouldn't be missed for hours.  The radio would have brought support in a few minutes, but it was quite thoroughly crushed under the side of Simmons' horse that had hit the ground -- even good solid-state milspec field electronics rarely survived eleven hundred pounds of horse landing on it.  There were two spares, of course; one with the horse Kolomusnim had ridden out, and the third in the pack-saddle of the mule that had fled westward and was probably at the Coast Range by now... 

Simmons had reached his cousin.  "He's a gonner!" he called, as he drew his knife and cut the sling of the dead man's rifle so that he could drag it away. 

"Covering fire!" Adrienne called.

The Scout began to crawl rapidly towards the dead horse that marked the spot where Kolomusnim had stood; there was a dead Indian beside it, his face chopped into red ruin by the tracker's hatchet, and another lying where her bullet had punched through his body just above the hipbones; he was still twitching a little, but effectively dead for all that.  The hollowpoint rounds would have plowed a hole about the size of a child's fist right through and out the other side.

The problem with giving Simmons covering fire was that there wasn't much to see or shoot at.  And the Indians could fire their arrows upward, from several yards within the tule reeds; they'd know the safe paths through them.  She took out the monocular and scanned along the edge nearest Simmons' crawling passage. 

The rifleman in there was firing slowly; every ten seconds or so a puff of dust would pock the surface of the clay where Simmons was crawling towards cover.  That shooter would have to come close to the edge of the reeds, so -- a glimpse of brown skin --

"Standing figure, my left, two-fifty yards," she called; probably the two men had seen the same thing, but someone had to coordinate for best effect.  "Jim, get ready to run for it."

All three rifles shifted; there was a moment's hesitation as the men picked out the target, or what they thought might be it.  Adrienne breathed out slowly, letting her finger tighten gradually on the trigger in a gentle stroking motion, the way Uncle Andy had taught her...

Crack, and another ting of cartridge on metal.  The shadowy glimpse of the target vanished, if it had been anything more than a trick of the light in the reeds. She squeezed off half a dozen rounds into the same patch of reeds, and the two men did the same.

"Run for it, Jim!" Adrienne shouted.

The Scout didn't need any prompting.  At the first shot he was up and dashing towards the horse.  Reckless of the other rifleman hidden in the reeds, she came up on one knee and fired off the rest of the magazine. A bullet made an ugly wiizzztft! sound past her ear, and more arrows came arching out of the reeds, seeming to start slowly and then accelerate as they slid down the arch towards her -- no less disconcerting for being an optical illusion. She dropped flat again to eject the empty magazine and slap in another; there were ten in the bandolier across the dead horse's neck, and another two hundred rounds boxed in the saddlebags, and she spared some brief flicker of consciousness to thank the God of Regulations for that.

Jim Simmons staggered and cried out as he ran for the scant cover of the fallen horse.  An arrow had gone through his leg above the knee, and it buckled under him as he moved.  That sent him to his hands and knees.  Another shaft plunged down and took him in the back below the left shoulder, and he collapsed flat with another cry.

"Oh, hell," Adrienne snarled, profoundly unhappy at what happened next.  "Give me a hand!" she shouted, and came up from behind the body of the horse, running forward crab-wise and shooting at the reeds as she went, trying to find the bowmen by back-tracking the shafts.

Behind her, Schalk van der Merwe gave an inarticulate cry of rage and ran forward as well, bellowing his anger at what the crazy Rolfe woman had gotten him into now.  They ran zigzag, with arrows and an occasional bullet whipping past them.  Simmons was alive; she could tell by the trembling jerks that ran through the shaft sticking up out of his back -- it must have stuck in the shoulderblade, though only time would tell whether it had penetrated past that shield of bone into the lung.

"Take him!" Adrienne said.

Schalk fired off the rest of his magazine at the reeds and the half-seen figures dodging about in the fringe of the swamp, then gripped the back of Simmons' jacket in his left hand and hauled him up like a suitcase before he slung him over his shoulder, ignoring the hundred and seventy solid pounds the smaller man weighed.  His sprint back towards cover showed no effect from the weight, either; van der Merwe was nearly as tough as he thought he was.  He dropped the Scout behind Adrienne's barricade of horseflesh, then did another jinking dash back to his own.

Adrienne slung her rifle and scooped up Simmons' weapon.  It had a cut-down forestock, a glass-bedded barrel, an adjustable cheekpiece and a sniper's telescopic sight.  Her run back to the shelter of her dead mare turned into an undignified tumble as an arrow plowed a shallow furrow across the outside of her right buttock, the sharp steel head slicing the fabric of her trousers like a pair of scissors in the hands of a tailor.

"God-damned ass-cutters!" she shouted in frustration.

Simmons was conscious, but sweating with pain and shock; he couldn't move his left arm, and cried out through clenched teeth when it was bumped.  His skin wasn't gray, and his pulse was thready but regular; the arrow-wounds were bleeding, but not in pulsing jets; and there was no blood on his lips -- hopefully the point in the back hadn't penetrated the lung.  The Lord alone knew what was going on inside, but for the present it was better to leave the natural tourniquets of the wooden shafts in place.  Blessing the God of Regulations once more, she got the medical kit out of its boiled-leather case on the saddle, pulled out a hypo of morphine, stripped off the cover on the needle with her teeth and stuck it into the back of his thigh, pressing the plunger with her thumb.  After a moment he sighed and closed his eyes.

"Lucky bastard," she mumbled, and stole a glance at her watch.  Ten minutes?  Nine and a half, to be strict.  That's ridiculous, it must have been longer.  A glance at the sun told her that it was correct; still not quite noon.

"This is bad.  This is very bad," she mumbled as she checked over the Scout's rifle and adjusted the cheek-piece and shoulder buffer for her size.  "This is very, very goddamned bad."

From the volume of fire, there must be at least two rifles and maybe twenty bows among the Indians, and they'd only killed three or four of them all-told.  There could be a hundred of them waiting to attack.

"I'd better use this fine product of O'Brien Engineering to buy us some time," she muttered.  "All right..."

The sight had adjustments for ranges from x3 to x10.  You could estimate the range yourself, or just point it at a target and look.  The scope showed crosshairs, and upper and lower stadia on the vertical line.  Turning the adjusting knob so that they rested on the head and belt of a man moved a cam to zero the crosshairs for that range.

She wrapped a turn of the sling around her left hand, rested the stock on the barrel of her dead horse, and brought the scope to her eye.  The edge of the reeds leapt to arms'-length through the scope, and she gave a hiss of satisfaction as she saw an archer a yard inside the tules drawing a shaft, his teeth barred in effort as he bent the short thick bowstave -- she could see sweat glisten, and the whites of his eyes against the band of black paint over his upper face.  The stadia marks fitted neatly over his head and belt, which put the crosshairs precisely on his breastbone --

Crack

The archer fell backward, chest-punched by the bullet.  A spray of bone and blood and shreds of flesh erupted from his back where the mushrooming hollow-point round blasted out a hole the size of a small plate.  The arrow wobbled up and fell to stand in the ground thirty yards beyond the edge of the marsh.

Ouch.  Unfortunately, the scope also let you see the expression on the man's face when the bullet hit.  Granted he was trying to kill me , that's still something I would rather not have seen.

She panned the scope down the edge of the tule reeds closest to the New Virginians' position, methodically shooting as targets presented themselves. Barring rescue, their only real chance of survival was to kill so many Indians that the rest were sickened with the business and ran.

Silence fell, save for the buzzing of the insects, something of which she was suddenly conscious again.  An occasional arrow came out of the swamp, but the Indians had backed further in and were shooting more or less blind.

"Good shooting, miss!" Piet Botha called.  "They may give up."

Cautiously, Adrienne raised her head.  A bullet cracked by overhead, another kicked up a puff of dust fifty yards to her front, and a third struck the horse.

"Shit!" she said with quiet viciousness, dropping down behind the protective barrier of flesh.  Then louder:

"I don't think so, Piet.  I don't think they like us, somehow."

"Ja," the Afrikaner said ruefully.  "They have us pinned down."  A hesitation.  "If we kept them pinned down with some rapid fire, miss, you might be able to get out into the open and make it back to camp, get a rescue party here."

Adrienne turned on her back, thinking carefully as she scanned the way they'd come:  there was no point in heroic gestures.  If running gave them all a chance then she'd run; Adrienne didn't have testosterone poisoning to cloud her mind.  She would be the logical choice; all three of them were in top condition, but while the men could lift a lot more weight, she could run faster than either of them over any distance longer than a sprint.  And she could keep going a lot longer, too; she had ten years on Schalk, and fifteen on Piet.

On the other hand, they were about halfway in to the embayment in the swamp, a little closer to the north edge than the south.  The entrance narrowed several hundred yards behind them, and anyone running out would have to pass through a bottleneck between two and three hundred yards across.  After running a five-hundred yard gauntlet... with only two shooters to suppress the hostiles...

"I don't think so," she called back to Piet.  "Neither of those two riflemen are very good shots, and I think they're short of ammo, but they'd get anyone who tried to run.  And there are probably somewhere between twenty and a hundred bowmen, too.  Tell me you don't think they've got some of them back there where the swamp edges pinch in towards each other at the edge.  Waiting to rush anyone who tries to get out.  If either of you want to try it, I'll give a written authorization."

A pause.  "You're probably right, miss," Piet said; there was a sigh in his shout.  "Bliddy hell."

The Indians didn't want to pay the butcher's bill that rushing three rifles firing from behind cover would exact, but it was going to get dark eventually, and then... On the third hand...

"There's a good chance Heinrich will get suspicious and come investigate before sundown," she said.  "If he's not here by seven, we'll reconsider."

"Ja, that's our best chance," Piet said. "Alles in sy maai."  Which meant, roughly, that everything was really screwed up.  Adrienne wished she didn't agree.

She took a swig from the canvas waterbag, then ate a handful of raisins and chewed on a strip of jerky.  Now and then she took a cautious peek over her dead-horse sangar, careful not to do it twice in the same place. One of the Indian riflemen shot at her about every second time, usually not coming very close, but if she didn't pop up occasionally the bowmen would creep right to the edge of the reeds and start dropping arrows accurately again.  The horse was beginning to bloat and stink even worse in the clammy heat, adding post-mortem flatulence to the general unpleasantness; it struck her that this would be a very bad place to die.

Of course, is there a good place?  Well, in bed, asleep, at 101 years of age, surrounded by great-grandchildren, maybe...

"water," Jim Simmons whispered.

She put the nozzle of the waterbag to his mouth; it took considerable squirming around to do it without exposing herself to fire from the reedbeds, and most of it dribbled down his chin -- it wasn't easy to drink lying flat on your stomach and unable to move without pain.

"Hope this was worth it," he said, a little stronger.

"I still can't tell you, Jim, but yes, this is really important.  Sorry about your cousin."  The man sighed and closed his eyes again. 

I am going to find out who was responsible for all this, Adrienne thought with cold rage.  She didn't believe this ambush was a coincidence.  Someone was violating the Gate Commission's edicts, either for profit or for power, and using murder to cover things up.  And I am going to see them die.

A sound caught at the edge of her consciousness, far and faint, but growing louder.  A knot between her shoulderblades loosened.  That was a helicopter, and it was coming her way.  Which meant that Simmons' tracker hadn't just lit out for home; it also meant --

"Look sharp!" she called.  "They may try try to --"

The sound was louder now, unmistakable even to ears that didn't have much experience with aircraft; the thupa-thupa-thupa of a helicopter.  Craning her neck around she could see the Black Hawk coming, like a deadly raven-colored wasp sliding through the blue heat-shimmer of the cloudless summer sky.

"-- rush us," she went on.

Less than three seconds later, fifty Indians left the shelter of the reeds and charged, screaming.  Adrienne fought an almost irresistible impulse to curl up behind the dead horse and hope none of the sudden storm of arrows hit her.  Instead she made herself switch from one target to another, squeezing steadily and unhurried.  As she fired the last round and let the scope-sighted rifle drop -- a hell of a way to treat a precision instrument, but needs must -- the helicopter arrived overhead.  Most of the Indians still on their feet fled.  They were still screaming, but with despair now. 

One paused a few feet away from her, and this one had a Militia rifle.  He squeezed the trigger... and the pin clicked on an empty chamber.

The Indian shrieked with frustration and sprang at her, the rifle reversed and swinging in a wide circle; the man was two inches shorter than the New Virginian, but he had shoulders like a bull and the butt would smash any bone it struck.  Adrienne did the only thing possible; she threw herself to the rear and down, landing on her back with stunning force.  The hostile recovered from his swing and brought the rifle up over his head, his face a contorted mass of teeth and eyes and paint.  Her hand scrabbled at the holster of her FiveseveN automatic, fighting the winded paralysis of the fall, and managed to get the weapon free.  It snapped once, and the bullet smashed her enemy's knee by sheer blind chance, the heavy plastic sawing through tendon and cartilage like an edged steel blade.  She forced herself back to her feet, skipped nimbly forward while he thrashed and ululated his pain and kicked him in the head -- not too hard, so that he could answer questions later.  He didn't look quite like a typical Indian from this area; for one thing he was too well-fed, and for another his hair was short on top and very short on the sides, like a FirstSider military cut.

Then she stood erect, her rifle held up horizontally over her head; Schalk and Piet were doing likewise, driven by a similar desire to make absolutely certain that there were no mistakes about who should be shot from the air.

The Black Hawk sat five hundred feet above their heads, raising dust with the prop-wash.  The pilot aimed by a method that was simplicity itself; he pointed the prow of the helicopter down at the fleeing Indians and the edge of the swamp, jammed his thumb on the firing button of the minigun, and swiveled the aircraft in place through a hundred-degree arc.  The long roaring braaaappppppp of the weapon's six thousand rounds per minute overrode even the shriek of the turbines, and Adrienne had to lean over Simmons to protect him from the sparkling shower of empty brass cartridges that poured down from above.  They were hot, too, painfully so.

The fleeing mob disappeared in a cloud of dust as the hail of bullets chewed at the surface of the ground; clods of earth, bits of cut reed and body-parts spurted up out of it.  The dust was less as the finger of red fire speared into the edge of the swamp, but the fourteen-foot high wall of reeds shook and toppled as if God were running a weedwacker across them. When the gun fell silent her eyes were ringing, and a huge shallow irregular bite had been taken out of the tule swamp.  It was covered with a thick mat of bullet-cut reeds, with here and there an arm or torso or head protruding. 

Adrienne prudently went down on one knee as the helicopter slowly moved out over the swamp, the reeds bowing away from its prop-wash in rippling waves.  It was moving slowly for an aircraft, but faster than a man could run.  Much faster than a man could run on foot along narrow paths through a bog.  Occasionally it would stop to fire the minigun, or let the door-gunners lash the swamp with the .50 caliber Brownings mounted on each side; once it made a curving run at almost reed-top level and ripple-fired the rocket pods, probably at some clump of hostiles, or an island with the round huts of a rancheria.  Flame bellowed skyward, crimson and orange against black smoke; that spread, as the reeds themselves caught fire.  Their roots were in the damp mud, but the stems and feathery tops were dry with summer, and the flames danced through them.

 She sighed, and let the tension drain out of her.  And to think this morning I was in a good mood, she thought sourly; even the smell of the place came back, when mortal fear left.

She propped her rifle and Simmons' against the dead horse, checked the semiconscious man once more -- no change that she could see -- looked out towards the mouth of the clearing.  Plumes of dust were approaching across the flat valley floor, Land Rovers and the armored car; they rolled into the pocket with a whine of heavy tires on clay.  Soldiers jumped down, and others manned the pintle-mounted heavy machine guns and belt-fed grenade launchers, scanning the reeds.  A medic and stretcher party ran over to her; the man with the Red Cross on his arm bent to check Simmons while others hurried past to collect the other Scout's body, zipping it into a plastic body bag.

"He's stable," the medic said after a moment; he quickly rigged a plasma drip and hung the bag up on a collapsible stand to let gravity take the liquid into the wounded man's veins.  "How much morphine did you give him, Miss Rolfe?"

"One full shot from the field kit, corporal."

"That ought to hold him; I wouldn't like to use too much when there's danger of shock.  Better leave this one in the leg for them to deal with at Rolfeston Hospital, but his --"

He took an odd-looking instrument out of his satchel, something between a pair of scissors and a narrow spoon, stripped the covering off it, and slipped it down the shaft of the arrow to the tear in the victim's flesh. Then a quick push --

Jim Simmons quivered back to full consciousness, his eyes opening wide.  "Bloody hell!" he gasped, straining rigid.

The medic plucked the arrow free, looked at the head -- it was stamped out of cheap sheet metal, of the type used for trade across the frontier -- and flipped it away; the wound bled freely until he swabbed it clean with something that stung, from Simmons' quiet swearing, and bandaged it.

"They'll stitch that in the hospital, sir," he said cheerfully.  "And get the other one out.  I've given you a broad-spectrum... you've had your tetanus boosters?  Good, good; this one just nicked the shoulderblade, and with any luck you'll be walking again in a couple of months."

"Kolo," Simmons said.  "My tracker?"

"Oh, the Indian?" the medic said.  "No problem.  An in-and-out bullet hole; I sewed it up and put him out.  He'll be fine.  And you have to rest, sir."

Simmons managed a slight smile as the stretcher-bearers lifted him.  "Now you'll have to cage those condors, Adri," he said. 

 Heinrich von Traupitz was riding in a Hummer in the lead of the convoy; he leapt down almost before it stopped, snapped a few orders to his sergeant, and then strode over to her.  He was livid with anger as he watched the body bag and the injured man pass by. Literally livid, his pale face splotched with patches of red on the cheeks.  He tore his Militia cap off, crumpling it in his hand.

"Bastard acorn-eaters," he swore softly.  "We'll show these filth the price of a white man's head!  Clean them out once and for all! The Old Man has ordered all the Bay Area Families to call up a Militia platoon from their affiliates, and three more from Rolfeston; and there are aircraft coming, and a recon drone -- the biggest mobilization in ten years. "

A sharp cry brought her head around.  Schalk had locked the head of the Indian she'd shot in the crook of his elbow, and another hand clamped on the back of his head.  As she opened her mouth to snap an order he made a quick wrenching motion, and there was a snap like a green branch breaking.  The Indian's body jerked once and went limp.  As if prompted, the Militia soldiers began finishing off the other wounded Indians with bayonets or shots to the head, and Von Traupitz nodded approval.

Adrienne opened her mouth in sheer inertia, closed it, and shrugged, coughing in the bitter reek of the burning reeds.  Schalk simply liked killing people -- black people by preference, but anyone would do at a pinch -- and the young militia officer wasn't in a taking-prisoners state of mind.  He'd probably ignore her if she tried to interfere in his chain of command, too.  The last thing they needed now was another inter-Family head-butting match.

Well, may God have mercy on any redskin you catch, Heinrich, because I don't think you're in the mood for it. 

The officer was probably thinking about his children-to-come; it was a bit shocking to have an incident like this happen so close to the settled zone. Silently, she picked up the rifle the dead Indian had been using and pulled back the bolt, holding the weapon up so that light ran down the barrel.  It wasn't new, but it was well cared-for, the metal bright and gleaming.  She ran a finger over the inside of the action and brought it to her nose; the unmistakable nutty odor of fresh Break Free gun-oil.  She worked the operating rod again, very slowly; the resistance was smooth and easy, without any feeling of grit from dirt or sand, and no loose parts rattled when she shook it.  And the woodwork of butt and forestock had been lovingly cared for as well, buffed and polished and oiled.

Hmmmm, she thought, noting a filed patch where the serial number should be on the receiver.  I'll have to check with Nostradamus about any missing weapons.  If nothing was stolen in the past day or two, then whoever this Indian was, somebody taught him how to shoot and how to maintain a weapon. 

That was very, very, very illegal -- hanging illegal.

"I need some help and transport, Heinrich," she said pointedly to the Militia officer.  "I still have my mission to complete.  It would be pretty silly to let the hostiles interfere with that."

"Oh!  Oh, sorry, Adri.  Yes, of course, couz.  There's another helicopter coming to our campsite to lift you and those damned vultures out, along with one for the wounded; no expense spared."

Getting the condors into the cages proved to be even more unpleasant than she had anticipated; Jim hadn't been exaggerating about their using projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism, and these had been very well fed on rancid camel, now half-digested.  With malice aforethought, she called Schalk van der Merwe in to help her; if he was going to let his bloodlust cost her a potential lead on this ratfuck, he could at least suffer a bit for the error.  It meant she had to smell him as they sat in the Hummer on the way back to the campsite, but at least it was mutual.

As they rolled and jounced over the plain of dried grass, four aircraft passed by in the other direction, stooping down from above the Coast Ranges and passing at barely a thousand feet, close enough to see the grinning shark-mouth markings.  They were twin-engine prop planes, sleek Mosquito fighter-bombers built new locally to a classic World War Two design and modernized with fancy electronics.  Each mounted eight .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, rockets beneath the wings, and the internal weapons bay carried a ton of cluster bombs and napalm.

These hostiles are going to learn there's something much worse than being chased into a swamp and ignored, she thought.

@@@

INTERLUDE

 

Rolfeston

September 30th, 1968

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

Salvatore Colleta smiled and spread his hands.  "Hey, Cap'n," he said.  "It's just a bit of an accident, eh?"

John Rolfe reined in his temper.  That shouldn't have been particularly difficult; he'd been brought up in the belief that self-control was the first mark of a gentleman.  There were several open scowls down the long table, and some of the fine china coffee cups clanked back into their saucers with dangerous force.  The heads of all the Families were here, and many of them had their heirs by their sides as Rolfe did, acting as assistants or simply to learn the procedure.  It struck him with a sudden shock that four of the Primes were the sons of the men he'd brought in at the founding of New Virginia. 

I'm forty-six.  Charles is twenty-two, and a father himself.  Christ, where did the years go?

"So, no need to get upset," the Colleta said, still imperturbable.

Although if self-control makes a gentleman, that would mean Salvo was one, too.  I doubt he ever says or does anything without thinking twice.  He was like that even as a young man, and he's gotten colder as he gets older.  Right now, I feel like pounding the table and yelling.

Rolfe looked out the tall windows and over the green tree-lined streets of the young city named for him, and calmed himself for a moment by watching the distant whitecaps on the indigo-blue waters.  Unfortunately, that also reminded him of the reason for this meeting of the Committee.  When he turned back, his face was a polite mask.

"Mr. Colletta, introducing smallpox to the Hawaiian Islands is not a minor matter," he said, his voice deceptively mild.

The Colletta's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as they met the deceptive calmness of Rolfe's leaf-green gaze.  There was not the slightest trace of fear in them; Rolfe knew from half a lifetime's experience that there was nothing on earth that could terrify Salvo, from land mines to a political dogfight.  There was plenty of respect there, though.  Salvatore Colletta fought to win, not to make points.

"Hey, it's not like I did it deliberately," he said, spreading his hands.  "Giovanni, tell the Old Man."

Rolfe's eyes turned to the Colletta's eldest son, hiding a trace of sympathy behind a quirked eyebrow.  Growing up with Salvo as your father would be enough to drive anyone crazy.  Young Giovanni -- equivalent to John, and John Rolfe was the boy's godfather -- was taller and fairer than his father, a legacy of his Prussian mother.  He spoke with stolid earnestness that could have concealed anything:

"Sir, we loaded a full cargo of Selang-Arsi wares in Toushan." 

That was this world's equivalent of northeast China, near FirstSide's Yingkou, inhabited by a weird mixed people the scholars said spoke Tocharian, whatever that was.

He'd never found the time to look into it further; the trans-Pacific trade had never been very important, until now, and he'd let the Collettas handle it.  He'd been prepared to let them have Hawaii, too -- if it proved possible to take it over without much effort. He'd made it clear that he would not approve annexation if it took a big garrison to hold the place; the Commonwealth still had less than sixty thousand people.  Australia had seemed more important in the long run, thinly inhabited and rich in gold.

Giovanni went on:

"The cargo included several hundred tons of assorted textiles -- silks, cotton, wool and wool-and-silk rugs.  We used some as presents with the Hawaiian chiefs.  I'm told that's probably how the disease spread."

 Rolfe nodded noncommittally and looked over at Solomon Pearlmutter.  The Pearlmutter looked in turn at his son, who'd studied medicine on FirstSide and worked with the University of the Commonwealth's medical department.

"Abraham?" the Pearlmutter said.

"Sir," the younger man replied.  He leaned forward to look at Rolfe.  "Yes, that's probably what happened.  I've examined the cloth.  There are scab fragments containing live virus in some of the wool blankets and rugs.  Unless it's exposed to bright sunlight, high heat or extreme cold, the smallpox virus can last indefinitely on something like that.  The moderate temperatures and high humidity in a ship's hold would be ideal."

The Colletta shrugged again.  "Hey, we didn't cry when all the local Injuns dropped dead of flu and measles and menin-whatsis, did we?  This is just another accident, only from China instead of FirstSide."

Rolfe bit back:  No, we didn't cry.  And we didn't infect them deliberately, either.  Back in the 1940's he'd been vaguely aware from High School history classes that European diseases had wrought havoc in the New World, but nobody had suspected just how much havoc. 

I don't pretend to be a humanitarian, but there are limits, he thought.  I'm perfectly prepared to take advantage of the plagues, but not to start them with intent.  I don't think there's anything that Salvatore wouldn't do, just for the sake of convenience.

Saying that aloud would mean an irreparable break between the two Families, which would endanger the stability of the whole Commonwealth.  He'd need solid evidence to challenge the Colletta or impose any sanctions on the Family. As Chairman, he could order an investigation... on the other hand, there would also be hell to pay politically if he put Gate Security onto the matter, unless he came up with damned solid proof. There was always a little murmuring among the other Families about the Rolfes' dominant position.

And if I know anything about Salvatore Colletta, I know he wouldn't leave evidence lying around.  Salvo isn't the only one who knows how to pick his fights.

He looked at young Abraham Pearlmutter.  "What are the effects in Hawaii likely to be?"

The young man spread his hands.  "From what I've read of similar virgin-field outbreaks in FirstSide history, and from the photographs and notes from Hawaii, we can expect at least a fifty percent die-off there.  Probably more; this is hemorrhagic smallpox, the type with the highest mortality.  It seems there was a simultaneous outbreak of chickenpox spread by contact with some crewman with shingles, and if so then the die-off in Hawaii could be as high as ninety percent.  That's including the usual secondary effects.  Lack of nursing because so many are sick, unburied bodies producing other diseases, disruption of the food supply, and so forth."

"Unfortunate," Rolfe murmured, then went on:  "And here?"

"Well, sir, there's one hundred percent smallpox vaccination among the New Virginian population, of course.  We managed to contain the spread among the nahua workers here by quarantine, and my people are vaccinating them all right now.  A few hundred are dead or dying.  But some of them managed to steal horses and run before we could identify all the infected individuals, and if any of the wild tribes take them in --"

Another shrug.  "It could run all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic and bounce back from the Arctic down to South America, the way the earlier plagues did.  The native population is very much thinner on the ground now that it was back in the 40's, of course, which might interrupt transmission.  But this is a very nasty and persistent pathogen, it can sit for years on a blanket or piece of leather; and these days a lot of the inland Indians have horses, which lets them move around faster, and trade blankets, so infected individuals and things they've touched spread the virus further before they die.  It'll probably kill at least half of any previously unexposed population, and more likely up to nine-tenths.  Small groups might be wiped out altogether as they fall below the minimum numbers for viability."

His father winced visibly.  The best estimates were that the native populations of the Americas had already gone down by more than three quarters in the twenty-odd years since the Gate opened; by over ninety percent here on the west coast where fresh pathogens kept seeping through the Gate despite decontamination.  There had been epidemics of everything from measles through malaria to viral meningitis, and a fresh variety of flu every couple of years.  Old World childhood diseases and minor maladies were mass killers here in the Americas and the isolated Pacific islands, just as they had been in FirstSide history after Columbus.  The Pearlmutter Family had pushed for medical missions, once the scale of the thing became obvious, but that had been a drop in a bucket.  You couldn't vaccinate a thousand tiny bands of nomads, most of whom ran at the first sight of a New Virginian. 

Rolfe tapped his VMI class ring against the smooth mahogany of the table, a habit of his when he'd made up his mind.

"Very well," he said.  "No use crying over spilt milk.  That leaves the question of Hawaii.  The probable depopulation does make annexation a simple matter, since we don't have to consider a policy change.  As the Colletta has pointed out, the islands would be useful as a base for trade in the Pacific, and to produce tropical staples like coffee and sugar we're currently using valuable Gate transit to import."

Salvatore Colletta's eyes narrowed again.  He might not have much formal education, but Rolfe had found he had an instinctive grasp of small-group conspiratorial politics -- particularly when someone was about to put the shaft in.

"But," the head of the Committee went on, "Since we're all anxious to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and in recognition of the burden the Collettas have born so far, I think we should declare the Hawaiian Islands to be Commission properties, governed directly as common land, like Rolfeston and the gold mining districts.  Subsidiary landed properties and development franchises on the islands to be granted on the usual investment and lottery basis for those Families who wish to apply; and with reservation of some choice areas to the Colletas, as recompense for their patriotic willingness to open up this new territory.  And we should certainly look favorably on the Colletta's request for a grant in the Owens Valley by way of compensation."

"I second the Rolfe's motion," the Pearlmutter said quickly.

The Colletta opened his mouth.  Rolfe cut in smoothly:  "Of course, if the Committee doesn't have a consensus, we could refer the matter to the House of Burgesses."

Salvo looked as if he'd just swallowed a green persimmon, rather than been reminded of a mistake.  He had been loudly against establishing a representative body at all, however limited its powers, and that had cost him badly in the elections.  His own Affiliates had voted for his candidates, of course, but few others.  The Rolfes had a bigger Affiliation and had done much better among the unaffiliated free-agent Settlers, which in turn gave them more clout on the Committee.  And it was highly unlikely that Salvo would want to set a precedent for giving the Burgesses more authority.  He subsided, visibly relaxing back into his chair.

"Motion has been seconded," the clerk droned -- he was a young scion of the Kimmels; nobody but members of the Thirty Families attended Central Committee meetings.  "All in favor?  Carried by acclamation.  Let the will of the Commission be recorded as --"

Salvatore Colletta lingered after the other Family heads and their scions had left; John gave his son an imperceptible nod, and the younger Rolfe followed Colletta's heir out the door.  The two older men looked at each other for a moment, and then Rolfe shrugged.

"Fine boy... young man... you have there, Salvo."

The Colletta was wearing one of his Milanese silk suits today, and Rolfe had to admit that he carried it off well; he'd gained a good deal of smoothness over the years that had put a sprinkling of gray in his raven-black hair.

"And the same for yours, Cap'n," he said.

Their eyes met, and said much more than either of them intended to lay out in words.  But then, we always understood each other well, even back in Baker  Company, Rolfe thought.  We haven't necessarily liked each other, but we certainly knew how the other man's mind worked.  Which is a commentary on one or the other of us, or possibly both.  Aloud, he went on:

"They do seem a bit... quieter than we were at their ages."

"Hey, Cap'n, we was condotierri, at their ages," Salvo said, with that charming grin he'd always had at hand when he needed it.  "Running mule-trains upcountry and fighting off wild Injuns an' icing bigshots and bosses on FirstSide who tried to muscle in on our action.  These boys, they're studying to step into our shoes.  They're civile, not wild men like us."

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