Dandelions: Chapter 1 of 9
run all day, run all night
Keep your guilty feelings deep inside
--Pink Floyd, "Run Like Hell"
Brush popped and shattered in the freezing air, tinder-dry and desiccated in the onset of winter. The source of the sounds was too big to be a deer; too clumsy, far too noisy, and the rhythm of the smashing through the woods bespoke a creature that ran on two legs, not four. It crashed closer and closer to the margin of the naked trees and undergrowth, and under the beat of footfalls, snapping branches and crushed leaves, the wheeze of tortured breathing rose steadily and insistently. Whatever it was was close to the end of its endurance.
With a final shattering crack that took off an inch-thick brittle maple branch, the source burst far into the open, oak-dotted field in what had once been the American Midwest.
The figure staggered reelingly and blindly onward, hacking from oxygen debt, too exhausted to outright run. It almost paused near a rock outcropping; but whatever it heard in the temporary silence as the crows and starlings fled made it whimper in terror and resume its stumbling exodus.
The field was approximately two hundred yards wide from woods margin to next woods margin. For five minutes, the solitary refugee dashed from tree to tree, gasping, nearing bit by agonizing bit to the other side. At the last black oak, fifteen yards from the margin, it paused, preparing for the final dash. The hooded head glanced back the way it had come in renewed fear.
Then the trees exploded.
It was called in the terminology of the oppressed race the Enforcer; in its native tongue it was termed the Malar. To an unarmed inhabitant of the planet its race had harried nearly continuously for almost ten years, it was merely Death.
It had pursued its quarry for almost twenty miles now, since its object had had the ill grace to flee from the roundups that sent this planet's native people to work to further the pursuer's own species. Normally, the Malar would not have bothered with a solitary creature this inoffensive, but its lords had deemed that any possible extra labor was necessary, and when ordered, the Malar's pilot followed as had been the way time out of mind. The other castes did not have the initiative to search for a single body, but the pilot of the Malar had sufficiently evolved, and had comittedly sought over the miles of this alien world to fulfill its duty, even though it was not well-suited for the terrain.
The creature squealed like a trapped rabbit, then bolted. Ankles and legs already overtaxed no longer bore weight or responded to commands; a foot came down aslant on a boulder, and the ankle folded, sending the body crashing down with a scream of agony. Clutching at the damaged ankle, the refugee struggled upward in a last-ditch effort, then collapsed, sobbing in despair. Methodically, the Malar made its way across the field, the overcast of the day glinting off the dull gray of its armor, the garnet of its sensor eye fixed on the collapsed figure before it as it strode over. Eyes glazed, the prisoner watched the treaded feet step over the brown terrain toward her.
Inside the protective snout of the suit, the Malar pilot's own opaque black orbs narrowed in a clinical survey of the situation. It had traveled far afield in search of its prey, with no rapid method of getting back to its home base with its trophy. The sensor antennae at the end of its snout twitched. Most likely, it would have to call up one of the Iigiai patrols, or a Torab, even one of the Piraq units if all else failed.
While considering the possibilities, the three blunt claws the end of the unarmed arm opened, and descended toward the prone figure as a high whistle sliced the air.
The red eye exploded in a spray of fragments, the long head of the pilot inside evaporating into a mist of hydraulics, nutrients and blood that expanded outward in a fetid emerald cloud that splattered the refugee with green splotches.
Then the missile that had sailed to home detonated, and the shell that had once been the Malar burst into an incandescent cloud of flame.
Amanda Pierson lay there, singed and in a gray void in a vacuum of no reaction.
Maybe if I just close my eyes it'll all go away...
She could hear shouting, but ignored it. She had endured too much for one human body to take in the past thirty-six hours, and had decided reality had heaped one too many indignity on her now.
It wasn't fair, she thought ridiculously. I'd gotten used to the idea of the Invid catching me and these idiots save me? What the hell's wrong with this picture?
There was rapid heavy footsteps, then a gauntleted hand shaking her shoulder. After a couple of repetitions, she numbly shook her head and decided to take note. "No--" she rasped before her voice caught. "No, he didn't touch me. I don't think so." Irrational panic. "Don't let them get me!" She collapsed in a weak fit of coughing.
The heavy male baritone was compassionate. "Easy, honey, easy. You're safe. We won't let them get you."
Amanda suddenly felt herself lifted in a pair of metallic arms, then carried rapidly to the margin of the trees. She was set down, back to a trunk, and her vision reoriented to include her savior.
Wow, she thought. An actual Cyclone.
The visor of the mottled-green battlesuit turned down to look at her. "Just a second, honey, I've got to switch modes."
As she watched numbly, the suit folded away, wheels rotating down and armor peeling away, until the battlesuit was a dull-green motorcycle and a man in CVR-4 armor dismounting from it. He quickly bent down and rifled through a pack on the armor of his leg.
"My ankle..." she said.
"I know. Saw you fall. Had to wait to plug the bastard." He bent down to squat by her side. "Lieutenant Matthew Ulm, by the way." He gently grasped the shoe. "Can't take too long at it. Your friend might have had a few buddies with him." Any response she might have made was drowned out in a squawk of pain as he peeled away her shoe, exposing a swollen, blistered, and now swelling-further foot. He bent to tend to it, pushing off the helmet to take a better look.
He was about five-ten, very solidly built under the armor, and getting well into early middle age. His graying reddish hair was fading at both hairline and crown, and from the length of his whiskers he was badly in need of a shave. The blocky face was lined from too much exhaustion and fighting, but both it and the clear hazel eyes it contained looked neither cruel nor inclined to cruelty when he had more sleep than he'd apparently recently gotten.
"What made an Enforcer decide it had to go after you?" he queried, spreading ointment on some of the blisters. She whimpered. His eyes darted up, looked away.
"Bad time. Sorry hon." He probed the ankle, prompting a cry. "Dammit. I'm sorry. You've got a beaut of a sprain on the way." Cautiously, he adjusted the injured ankle, and searched through the first aid kit. "Dammit, no elastic bandage. Right, right, Miranda had her wrist fucked when the Cyc wheel fell on it. Have to wait for Kev, then. Hope he didn't get any fun surprises casing the area ." He looked up and grinned. "Hon, you look like nine miles of death served up, but anybody tell you you've got the prettiest green eyes I've seen in a face?"
The green eyes in question, unnaturally bright in contrast to the purpled hollows of her sockets, widened in leafy confusion. "Unh?" They were beginning to glaze over in shock and exhaustion.
The man called Matthew Ulm suddenly jerked up his head, freezing, then relaxed. A quiet rumble grew in volume from within the trees. Squeaking, Amanda jerked her head up, the hood falling back to reveal tangled daffodil-colored hair and a haggard but young visage. Matthew shook his head in reassurance.
"It's just Kevin, my partner. We were scouting the area; he ought to have some medical goodies for you." He gently pushed back the girl and rose as the engine roar filled the clearing. Abruptly, another Cyclone heaved into view, this one painted in olive and acid green. It braked to a jarring halt as its rider dismounted.
"Matt? You okay?"
Matthew snorted. "Barring no wash for four days, never been better. Can't say the same for our new friend here."
The cracked reflections of the bare tree branches slid across the transparent surface of the other's helmet visor as he turned to look at the figure seated by the tree. He jerked in surprise; then his light tenor said in clear surprise, "I see... What's with her, Matt?"
"Ankle. Got any Ace bandages on you? We've got to make tracks in minutes before we get more company, and I don't want the Cycs jouncing it around too much."
"Yes indeedy I do." Kevin went back over to the Cyclone, rifled around in the back for a second, before producing a first aid kit. He and Matthew squatted back down by her.
"What's the deal, Matthew?"
"Just sent another Enforcer to the big hive in the sky. Don't know if it fired off anything to any other Invid before it bit it, and I'm not gonna gamble on it."
"Enforcer? What the hell's an Enforcer doing out twenty miles from the nearest hive, Matthew?" Kevin's hands gently lifted the injured ankle, then began to unwrap the elastic as Amanda stiffened in pain.
"After her." Matthew began to carefully wrap the bandage snugly around the damaged ankle. "At least that's what it looked like."
Kevin took a hissing intake of breath, muffled through the visor. "What'd she do, blow up the hive or something? You don't find hive guards tromping out this far for one person. What's her name?"
"Haven't asked her yet." Matthew was surprisingly sheepish.
The second fighter's eyes, light blue under the protective visor, squinted in incredulity. "You haven't asked her yet?? Matt you numbskull, you go through all this and you don't even ask her?"
Matt finished wrapping the injury as tightly as he could. "Okay, wisenheimer, you ask--"
"Amanda Pierson," she managed. They looked up, having forgetten her in their exchange. "Most people call me Mandy--or at least they did--" Her face froze, the eyes looking into a vista better not thought of.
"They--they came for the town. Rounded us up--everybody--like we were cattle, made us walk..." The exhausted eyes pooled, ran over onto freckled cheeks. "The Enforcers watched us--the little kids...they shot them..." The emerald eyes widened, radiant with a terrible light. "They shot my little sister, and we couldn't even stop to pick her up..."
"Daddy lost it then. Late last night, when we stopped to rest, he shoved me into the trees, told me to run. I ran...and when I ran--I could--could hear the gun blasts behind me...my father... The Enforcer followed me--all this way..."
"'And I alone am escaped to tell thee,'" Kevin finished with soft finality.
Amanda Pierson nodded, her face contorting, and raised her hands to shield her
"What's going on?" Kevin asked softly, as Matthew took her into his arms.
Matthew's eyes were stony gray and grim. "I don't know, Kev. But I sure as
hell would love to find out."
Hush now don't you cry,
Wipe away the teardrops from your eyes
You're lying safe in bed
It was all a bad dream spinning through your head...
--Queensryche, "Silent Lucidity"
Mandy awoke to the rattle of a shower on a corrugated tin roof. She stared in confusion for the briefest of moments, then her face froze as she remembered, choking the tears back into the black, hard place inside of her.
There's nothing I can do anymore...
She made the briefest of motions, then hissed in pain as she jostled the ankle. A quick glance down at her feet proved both that she was lying on a cot in a ramshackle shelter and that both of her feet were bandaged up and her ankle wrapped barely this side of gangrene. She began to tremble as she remembered how it had gotten that way, and the infinite gray hell beforehand of being prey run into the ground.
But I'm safe. I think somebody saved me.
As her sleep-dulled perception widened to include the area, she could hear footsteps, voices and activity outside the ill-fitting door. But it seemed to be friendly activity.
Where am I?
She vaguely remembered disconnected pictures of tipping one way and another between consciousness and unconsciousness as she was jostled on a motorcycle, her arms wrapped around the waist of a burly, kindly man--Matthew--her cheek pressed hard against the armor of his upper back in a waking dream. Another cycle riding by them....she had no idea how long it had taken or how far they had gone, but at last they had stopped, and then they had been nothing but gentle and loving darkness...
And then here...
Where was here? It was dark, lit only by the dark, grudging orange of a small fire in an improvised hearth and chimney made out of two fifty-year-old oil drums in a corner.
Her head flopped back onto a hard pillow, her eyes glazing over and trying not to remember too much.
An indeterminate time later, a voice rose outside the door, saying something to the effect "I'll go check on her now." Mandy rose her head toward the door as it opened, admitting a flood of pallid November daylight and a figure.
The woman pushed her beaded cornrows back, the pearly light shining momentarily on a face dark as fine ebony before she shut the door. She went over to the hearth and adjusted the air intake on it, raising the light level in the tiny little room, before pulling a homemade chair over to sit by Mandy's cot.
"Hi there, kid. Looks like you're awake." She opened a satchel and dug through it.
The woman took out a plastic container and peeled it open. Chicken-scented steam wafted out, hitting Mandy with an almost physical blow to the gut The newcomer saw the crazed look in her eyes and smiled compassionately.
"It's for you, trust me. When's the last time you've et?"
"Don't know...Two days ago..."
Her father had cooked up carrots and brown sugar, using the fat from some of the bacon in storage to fry up some pancakes for her and Grace... Suddenly, she was weeping helplessly.
The woman held her, letting her cry into her jacketed shoulder for a long time. "Hush, sweetie, it's all right, let it out..." It was several minutes before Mandy lifted her blotchy face away.
"I know. Lots of us have gone through it. No wrong in feeling that sort of pain." Carefully, so as not to dislodge her grasp, she managed to bring up a tin spoon from her package and lifted the soup into Mandy's lap. The girl noticed that she winced a little from moving her right wrist, which had elastic binding it up. Though her throat was tight from emotion, the entire container was the work of only a couple minutes for Amanda to eat.
"I know your name is Amanda. Mine's Miranda Rosa Altman, call me Miranda. You're in a friendly place, which means any Invid that shows its claws around here is going to find out how many missiles a Forager can spit."
"Mmhh." Miranda's dark eyes slanted at her thoughtfully. "Since I suppose you make a hell of a shitty Simulagent--we took a blood sample while you were out, by the way--you're in what passes for the headquarters of Ulm's Elms, our little way of flipping the big middle at our friends the crab lice on steroids. You met Matthew and Kevin--Matt's the leader of the outfit. Let's say--geographically-wise we're about five or so miles from where Quincy used to be before the Invid hit it the first time around, back in '35."
"That far... I was only about eight then."
"Gonna be. In three months." Mandy grimly fought back the idea of what that birthday party would have been like only five days ago.
A knock on the door interrupted them, along with a vaguely familiar, diffident voice. "Uh, can I come in?"
"Yeah, Kev." Miranda took back the soup container. "You want a refill?" Amanda nodded vigorously. Miranda shuffled around inside her pack, producing a loaf of bread and a butter container as the door opened and another visitor slid in.
"Hey there," Kevin said cheerfully. "How you doing?"
Mandy stared, grief, injury and exhaustion notwithstanding.
The second man who had saved her was about in his early- to mid-twenties, about six feet even and possessed a fair, clear complexion over slightly thin, well-formed features under the last vestiges of a summer tan. Slightly waved dark hair brushed the nape of his neck and contrasted startlingly with light, gentle blue eyes. For a girl raised in a village of less than seven hundred people, he was easily the best thing she'd seen.
He slid over and snatched the bread from Miranda's hands, prompting a yelp and then a swat from her.
"Kevin! Behave! It's for her!"
A drippingly sad whipped-puppy expression crossed his face. "Mirandaaaaa--I was only going to have a bit--"
"The whole damn loaf, knowing you! You're a damn human vacuum on two feet!"
Mandy was completely oblivious, trying to see how much of his physique his olive-drab t-shirt, baggy gray denim pants and bright green jacket hinted at. What it was hinting at her she liked so far.
In mid-mock fight, Miranda caught her intent stare in his direction, rolled her eyes and sighed. Kevin followed her eyes in time to see a ferocious red tide wash up Amanda's neck and looked sheepish. He handed the bread back to Miranda, who proceeded to slice it as he sat Indian-style on the dirt floor.
He coughed. "Hi, Amanda. We--sort of met. I'm Kevin O'Shea. No rank. This isn't an official REF resistance force, so... " He shrugged. "Take it you heard about Bernard's group."
"Who didn't? We're practically within spitting distance of where the main Invid hive used to be."
Kevin nodded. "Anyway, we're an irregular group like his. Only larger. Thirty, you think, 'Randa?"
Miranda shrugged. "About. A little less. Small is fine with me."
"I remember when the entire Elms consisted of Matthew, me, Dennis, Gerald and your brother. That's small."
Miranda snorted resoundingly. "Considering how the damn regulars have been hit to death by the Invid lately, no wonder we've grown. The damned bugs can't put a pin on us as quickly."
Kevin suddenly grabbed a slice, the knife and the butter container.
"Kevin!" Miranda screeched. He gave her an evil grin, then proceeded to spread butter on the slice.
"Now now, Miranda, don't have a fit." He finished, dodging her attempts to grab the butter all the while, then proffered the result to Amanda. She took it, blushing.
"I was just going to go and help you out, here. See? She's got it, not me."
Miranda huffed in annoyance. "Kevin, you are impossible."
"That's me for you, the walking impossibility. What're you staring at?" he asked Mandy, grinning. "Eat, that, will you? I put lots of time into that."
Suddenly, Mandy was interrupted in mid-chew by a muffled voice outside, calling Kevin's name. His handsome features curdled in a resigned scowl.
"Damn, Matt needs me." He went to his feet, dusting off his rear. "Oh, duty calls. But, as a twentieth-century movie put it, Ah'll be bahk. See you in a bit, 'Randa." He slid out the door, closing it softly behind himself.
Mandy flushed again when she noted Miranda's dark eyes resting on her intent gaze on the door. Miranda sighed, and adjusted her heavy denim jacket over her olive coveralls.
"Nice to see that what you've been through hasn't put water on your libido."
"I thought he was nice," Mandy challenged, angry with embarassment and not certain what a "libido" was.
Miranda patted her pale, freckled arm with her oil-dark, callused hand, wincing as her wounded wrist was jogged.
"Oh, yeah, he is. Nice as hell, charming as the devil, even if his fingers are a bit too fast. He'd gladly give you the skin off his back if it'd save your life. Doesn't hurt that he ain't hard to lay eyes on either." She sighed wearily. "But I advise you not to get your hopes up, despite all that."
Amanda stopped chewing on her bread. "Uh...why, Miranda?"
"He's not...well, to put it this way, girl, it's not women he's interested in."
Amanda halted in midchew, as the information slowly sunk in. Somewhere, in some more refined plane of existence, one might have heard the tinkling of half-formed desires shatter to dust.
She swallowed, the bread all of a sudden tasteless. "Oh."
"I'm sorry, Amanda, but better you knew right off instead of later."
"Yeah." I guess, Amanda said bitterly to herself.
Miranda sharply punctuated the sudden silence with a smack to her thigh with her good hand.
"Well, besides that, why don't we get you to some better shelter?"
"This is a staging area for new incomees. Since you're not an Invid plant, and I'll bet good odds along with Matthew that you're not an Invid symp either, I'm here to help you into the main compound. It's going to get damn cold by nightfall." Miranda indicated that Mandy should get up, bodily supporting the girl on her bad side. "Between my wrist and your ankle," Miranda laughed a bit, "we ought to make a functional human being."
Mandy asked, "So what happened to your wrist?" The two began an awkward hop over to the door.
"Oh, that? You know how heavy a Forager is?"
"Sorry. I forget. A Forager Survival Cyclone. It's well over two hundred pounds. Which leads to my second bit."
"Yeah?" Mandy asked in interest, holding on to the older woman's shoulder.
"When you got one jacked up, first, you always make sure to make certain the jack is holding before you change the wheel. Second, never put your wrist between the ground and the wheel in case the jack doesn't hold."
Mandy giggled a little bit. Strained as it was, it had been the first laughter she had made in more than three days. Miranda shifted her hold on her to grab for the door. She muttered disparagingly. "A lousy Forager... Geez, could've been a Samson, I suppose.."
Mandy was tittering as Miranda helped her out the door into the tepid gray daylight.
Mandy woke up later that night, fully clothed, her ankle throbbing. She started, then realized she was in a clammy room dug out of the loam of the Midwest. The room was also shared by Miranda, who was snoring discreetly on another narrow cot, and a small space heater that grudgingly warmed the immediate area.
Although the place was reinforced by cinder blocks and plasteel beams, it smelt like a damp cave, which came as no surprise. The entire base for Ulm's Elms was underground. Maybe it had been started as a tornado or bomb shelter in the last century, or maybe it had all been created wholesale. Either way, it had been expanded on a great deal in the years since the Invid's return. Mandy still did not know how much, but it was large enough to hide some thirty resistance fighters and an alarming lot of Cyclones and weaponry.
Her bladder ached; gingerly, trying not to awake Miranda, she hopped over to the door curtain, trying to remember where the privies were in the area.
There were voices further down the hall. As she limped past a loosely bolted door, she could hear voices raised in heated debate inside. Almost involuntarily, she halted and had to catch herself.
"--bad development," a black male voice said inside. "From what you said the new girl told you, the Invid are apparently beginning to grab people to use for work in the farms again. So far, they haven't screwed with the population like they did the first time around, but this--"
"Bad development my ass!" a woman's voice interrupted sarcastically. "What did you call the new mecha? The hives the REF said are orbiting us? They beat the shit out of the REF forces that came back, for Chrissakes! The god-damned bugs coming back? My point is, the damned Invid existing are a bad development."
A sigh. Kevin's voice spoke up, prompting Mandy's ears to perk.
"Sherry, the point Malcolm's making is that so far the Invid was halfway passive in its new occupation. They didn't bite back until we bit first. But this..." He trailed off meaningfully.
The deep voice that Mandy identified as Matthew took up. "The fact is, as we all know, is that the REF has been hit harder and harder in the last months, and a hell of a lot of mecha and people are now out of action. Now that the civilians are being attacked--to put in in precise military terms, we're up in it to our ears."
There were a few acquisent grunts.
"So what do we do?" someone else inquired in a bass.
"Go take a piss," someone else answered. "I'm leaking at the eyeballs."
"You said it, Gerald, not me."
Mandy heard no more, for she was lurching up the hallway as fast as her good ankle would let her.
Through some miracle, she got there before Fred did, and he had to wait outside the door as she made use of the portable chemical toilets that passed for sanitary facilities in the place. As she left, she caught a fleeting glimpse of an ascetic face and medium-blond hair. She went back to her room, mightily embarassed and hoping nobody had noticed her listening in.
Days passed, and Amanda's ankle slowly healed until she could bear weight on it gingerly. Some six days after she had fled out of the forest, she limped down the hall, up the stairs in a pair of Miranda's old boots and back into bright daylight, wincing in pain.
There was the largest man she had ever seen, sitting beside the sunken doorway and cleaning the insides to an old-line Gallant. He looked up as she pushed up and slammed the door back to. He had blocky, carved features, bland in meditation as he lovingly greased the firing pin to the pistol. They sharpened as he squinted up at her under a mop of brown hair with an assessing gray gaze.
"Hey there. You the girl Matthew picked up?"
"Amanda Pierson. Are you the Gerald Kevin said was one of the original Elms?"
He nodded. He was not fat, but through sheer muscle and bone he seemed to take up much more space than he should have. His broad shoulders shrugged a bit. There was something faintly odd about the way his hair caught the weak sunlight.
"Last I checked." He snorted. "Wish he'd shut his mouth."
She sat down, gingerly, and felt the wind ruffle her now-clean and detangled fair hair. "Not to offend but what's wrong with his saying--"
Gerald grunted. "Don't like the fact being known to everyone. Especially not new people, your pardon." He made a noise. "There was--confirmation you were what said you were, so..." He shrugged. "Besides, I don't feel real comfortable about him. That bugger's slicker than greased shit, and weird to boot."
Amanda was taken aback.
"D'you mean because he's--"
"Gay? Hell yes. I'm a homophobe and damn proud of it," he stated baldly. "But at least they're human, no matter which way they swing, and they've got it too by the Invid. It isn't all that though. Something about that guy gives me bad vibes. I'd've kicked him out, except he's got a bit a hold on Fearless Leader and he and Dennis wouldn't let me." A bitter snort and a sidelong glance. "You may as well know that he and Matthew are--" He made a limp-wristed gesture that was worth a thousand words.
"Oh." she said blankly. "Matthew's... He didn't seem like the type."
Gerald sighed and resumed putting the Gallant's firing pin back in its place. "Maybe I was too harsh. Matt's an okay guy, and a helluva leader. He's put his ass on the line for me a couple times. And...I'm not exactly normal myself." He looked out into the distance between the trees in which the base was hidden. The countryside rolled a little in dried prairieland, grown back in the time since Dolza's Rain of Death and the first Invid invasion, with a few crows flapping in the distance. Somewhere, a red-tailed hawk screamed piercingly.
It was some minutes before Mandy moved again.
"Why did you--join?"
"Before my dad died he asked me to fight to make sure the Invid didn't do the same number on us again."
Mandy swallowed a bit, remembering her own. She suspected the pain would never quite go away.
"Anyway, I knew Matt from when we were both at Reflex Point. We were both there the first time the Invid left. Got to say this for the Regis: she may be the original bitch from hell, but she sure put on a show."
"I know..." Mandy said distantly.
Her mother had died the year before, so it was her father who shook her awake and practically dragged Amanda and her baby sister to their shelter. In the clear spring evening, he had seen a burst of light from the direction of Reflex Point, more than four hundred miles away. Terrified that a nuclear or neutron bomb had been detonated, he had run up to get his daughters to safety.
No sooner than they had rounded the corner of the house, it had been obvious that quite the opposite had happened.
As they watched in awe, a curl of fire blazed up from the horizon. Blindingly, the conflagration unsheathed into sheets of amber aurora as it cleared the stratosphere; a neck and head and wings of transcendent blaze. As the night turned to day, the flaming wings stroked the solar winds, and their very minds and souls reverberated with the cry as the Phoenix leaped towards a new home...
"Though to tell the truth, I didn't think he liked other guys at the time," Gerald continued bemusedly. Mandy had to shake her head before she realized he was talking about Matthew.
"Guess it goes to show you never can judge people by appearance," she murmured, half to herself.
Gerald snorted and snapped the pistol closed. "You telling me?" He stood up, seeming to block out the light. He was even bigger standing, near seven feet tall and with biceps thicker than Amanda's thighs. The gray eyes looked down at the girl with veiled irony.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Any damn thing you like." He flipped the Gallant and turned toward the bunker entrance. He hesitated.
"Some of us may take a trip to see if we can find any relatives of yours in the next few days. This is, to be blunt, kid, an establishment to kick crabs' asses, not a RGF refugee station. The crabs have been on our cases recently, and we can't get pinned down, or we're dead. This place might get hit at any time, and you don't want to be here when it is. So..." He opened the door. "I'll see you in an hour. Malcolm's going to have dinner done by then." The door shut with a premptory click.
Mandy glared at it, her leaf-green eyes hardening to something like emerald as she did.
"That jerk," she said angrily, when she thought he was out of earshot. Helplessly, as they had so many times over the past few days, the tears began to leak out again. Why did she never run dry of them?.... "I know damn well I have no relatives. He just wants me out of here."
She swallowed tightly. She had to admit she was a bit of a deadweight, having no experience of weapons, weaponry, or mecha. As she currently was, she was a liability, not an asset. Cold logic stated the truth of Wilson's statement, no matter how callously put.
She ought to do what he suggested and find a nice farming community somewhere, get hired as cleaning help or a hired worker. But which would be the next place to hear the tread of Invid Enforcers in its streets? And the next time, she wouldn't be so lucky. Her father's sacrifice and her sister's murder would have meant nothing.
And she kept remembering the care of Matthew as he lifted her in the arms of his battlesuit, and Miranda's calm compassionate dark face...
They might be dead the next time she heard of them. So would be more of herself.
"Well," she said to the chilly wind, "looks like I'm going to have to learn to be an Elm real quick."
Three and a half months later, 2045
The attack siren screamed like a damned soul, propelling Amanda out of her cot and onto the floor of the room she shared with Miranda and Corporal Shiroikiku Doi.
"Oh Christ!" Miranda screamed to confirm her fears. "We're being hit!"
Even as she hurtled out the door, carrying her worldly goods in one tiny canvas bag, Amanda was still zipping up her field coveralls, REF issue that Matthew Ulm and Dennis Zinnert had procured for the Elms.
Miranda dashed with her, exchanging heated information in the chaos over the tac net. "Shitloads. At least ten clams, two linebackers. Somebody doesn't like us."
Ten or more Attack Scouts and two Combat Troopers. God help them.
Since 2043, new and deadlier types of Invid mecha had appeared on Earth, all but eclipsing the older, more predictable versions that had come before them. The Attack Scouts and Combat Troopers had come from the common Invid Scout and Shock Trooper. They were the bane of every resistance group--those that survived to relate them to the rest, that was.
Mandy gritted her teeth, stiffening her ankle as they turned a corner. It had never been quite the same since the injury; Miranda had said the ligaments in her ankle had been permanently loosened. The damn thing was always trying to re-injure itself, and right now would be the kiss of death.
Tiny Sherry Doi shouted to Miranda, "Get to the staging area! Kevin and Matt are saying that if this place goes, we're going to remove what mecha we can." The diminutive Oriental woman led the way, her legs pumping, as the other two followed in her wake.
The tunnel branched into a warren-like tangled nightmare, dimly lit by flickering halogen lights, slippery in some places, damp and cold as a corpse. Over the pounding of their footfalls, the klaxon howled. It reminded Amanda not so much of Hell as the countless other times the town siren had screamed upon an impending Invid attack or enslavement attempt. After they had left, the officials had turned it off. It was the worst mistake they had ever made...
Although Hell was making a very close second.
The staging area suddenly opened before them, filled with ranks of Cyclones flickering in ancient flourescent lights. Suddenly, an explosion shook the place, nearly knocking them off their feet. Through the dust cracking from the loosened foundations, they could see the dim forms of Lieutenant Ulm and Kevin O'Shea stagger.
Shiroikiku was the first to regain her balance, and her compact figure bolted across to the two men. Ulm shoved what looked to be a bundle of CVR armor into her hands, and she was already half equipped by the time the other two women made it across.
Amanda felt a blow to her ribcage and blinked when she saw she was also grasping armor, CVR-4 type from the look of it.
"Put it on!" Kevin screamed at her. He was already fully armored except for the helmet. The flickering of the lights gave him a nightmarish strobe effect as it flared across the metal of his chestpiece. The tan had worn off during the winter and he looked dead-white in the unhealthy illumination. Mandy could see a bead of sweat drip off his nose.
"Get it on!" he repeated. He grabbed her by the shoulders, eyes wild. "Those were annihilation discs that just hit us. It's minutes before this place goes. You've got to get as much of the mecha out as you can before it does! Got me?"
She nodded frantically.
"Dammit. Hoped to give you a better combat situation than this." Black hair flying, he pivoted and began to slam more armor into arrivals as they came.
Amanda quickly learned that armoring oneself in war was quite different from when in a quiet situation, especially when your hands were slick with terror, somebody had just told you the base's days were numbered, and two more explosions slammed into another segment of the base as you did so. Somehow, she managed, most likely thanks to the private timing sessions Kevin had given her.
Ulm started up his Super Saber. "Fred, Kev, Sherry, Gerald, you're going to help me and Dennis cover everybody else's butts as we get this crap out. Everyone else, get as much garbage as you can and take it with you. GO!"
"Shit," Amanda could hear Frederick Bohms mutter.
"Take the Forager!" Miranda shouted. She half pushed the Cyclone at Amanda, who numbly took it, and the old-line H-90 Mars Gallant slapped into her hands so hard it stung. She helped load various pieces of equipment into the carrier attached to the back and shoved the pack in as an afterthought.
"Whatever you do, girl, keep it on fusion! Use protoculture in this situation and you're dead!"
"I know! I know!" Mandy screamed back.
"That way!" Kevin pointed, "Emergency exit. Hopefully the Invid haven't found it yet."
Wheeling the cycles, they dashed toward the narrow exit, Miranda's brother Malcolm manhandling the door open.
Within was little more than a propped dirt tunnel barely lit by phosphorescent tape and small incandescent bulbs. It forced them to go one by one, Miranda first, Amanda close behind, the rest coming up as they shoved the mecha through. It was a matter of seconds, it was an eternity; Amanda could not tell, although later she assumed over a quarter mile of darkness, stench of fear, sweat, grunts, prayers, and explosions from where they had come.
Strangely, at one of the latter Miranda perked up.
"Sounds like your basic Cyc missile to me, not an Invid one or an anni disc. They must've gotten out and are decoying 'em," she whispered.
Then, there was another heavy metal door.
Malcolm dashed foward, revealed a small panel, and pressed a sequence in. He then shoved the door open, letting in a blast of frigid but fresh March air. Moaning, they began to pile out into the predawn night. Miranda began to count heads.
"I've gotta help the others," he said.
"Be careful," his sister returned. Nodding his helmeted head, he started the engine and ran his Battler back toward the main bunker. A flare from that direction momentarily blinded them.
"Shouldn't we--" one of the others spoke up.
Miranda shook her head. "No. This is just to make sure we get out alive. The more we fight at this stage, the better our chances of getting killed. Tatically, the bugs have us by the short hairs." Her eyes, black under the visor, were emotionless. "We have no base anymore. Okay, Salwicki, Walters, Chen, Dalby--where's Dalby? And Heisner?"
"What do you mean, we have no--" Mandy began.
Night turned into day, an orange, sick sun sprouting, consuming trees under which the base had once been. Silhouetted against it, Amanda could make out outlines that bore nothing in relationship to anything on this earth, that she had only seen in the extreme distance over the past couple months. Combat Troopers. There were far smaller dots darting against the conflagration, that bore the outline of Battloid Cyclones, spitting missiles.
"They took care of it for us." Miranda noted laconically.
"Blume was still in there," Salwicki said quietly. Evan Blume had been wounded on a raid three weeks ago, and had been recuperating in what passed for their medic ward.
Miranda's face stilled, and she mouthed a curse, as she bowed her head. Amanda swallowed the sudden lump in her throat.
"Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." Miranda said softly. There were assenting murmurs. "That was in case he didn't get the She'ma Ysorel out in time." Blume had been a practicing Conservative Jew. She stirred. "But I know Dalby got out. Where'd she--"
There was a horrific, animal scream, suddenly cut short in a liquid gurgle. Amanda whirled, suddenly knocked down in the ensuing panic, as CVR-clad resistance fled.
"Oh, God!" she choked.
The bisected remains of Henrietta Dalby dropped five feet to land heavily on the ground, where her brown eyes stared glassily. Her blood followed, dribbling from the arching claws that loomed above her.
It was black in the night, save where the bloody orange flames from the crater touched it. The single red sensor of the Attack Scout stared blankly down at them, then it moved a step foward, insectile legs jointing strangely. Another chorus of shouts from where the rest had fled heralded the presence of another.
"Shit," Miranda moaned. "They've boxed us in. They knew."
Amanda paid them no note, her eyes fixed on the black silhouette of the Scout. In a fasincated sort of horror, she reviewed the final seconds of her life from on her behind. The sensor eye of the Invid glared down at her in mindless aminosity, then it took another step foward. Mandy knew full well than in a matter of a minute she would be joining Henrietta in whatever place it was that agnostic resistance fighters went, thanks to those bloody claws.
She realized she still had the Gallant clutched in one slick hand.
"Sure, I can teach you," Kevin had said. "Heaven knows I don't want Gerry tossing you out on your ear because you can't fight. But keep in mind--Matt said no actual p-fire. We can't attract the Invid."
"Which means I--"
"Have to pretend."
The claws began to drop.
This wasn't pretend.
Mandy breathed in, breathed out, tried to ignore the descending blades over her head, She sighted the Gallant on that spot of glowing red, and pressed the trigger.
A dazzling blast caused images to go off in her retinas. She caught a fragmented image of the eye literally exploding in ruby shards and green blood before she threw up an arm to protect her eyes. She felt a sudden pain along one cheek, and more portions began to smart. She had not thought to put down her visor.
The Scout began to topple onto her, and Amanda barely managed to roll out of the way before the mecha collapsed where she had been, fluid leaking out of its shattered eye. She caught a clear, disconnected image of the claws that had killed Henrietta jerking in tune to whatever firings there were in what remained of the pilot's brain. The image was fighting with the knowledge that there was at least one other Scout back there preparing to cut down the rest of the Elms.
She pivoted; there was the second clam, slashing its claws at the others. Apparently, the Scouts had relied on surprise to eliminate the refugees; Henrietta's last scream had prevented that, and the Invid pilot's limited intellect was unable to come up with a new strategy. It looked as though it were trying to kill what it could and then confine the rest until its fellows or the Combat Troopers came to finish the job. Every time one of the Elms tried to bolt, the claws would whip down, and addled with fright, the fighter would abort it. The sudden ambush had thrown them into complete disarray, but Amanda could make out shufflings that looked like Gallants being pulled. Whether they would take care of the Scout before it called the Combat Troopers was another matter. Swallowing, she took aim again, but the adrenalin had kicked in, and the shot was going to go wild...
The Scout exploded.
The Elms managed to hit the dirt as searing pieces of ceramic alloy rained onto them. Something wih rockets blazing set down a moment later, then another. The wreck was eclipsed by a dark form as Amanda sat, staring blankly. Her shoulder was suddenly shaken, and she started with a sharp cry.
"Mandy! You okay?"
Shiroikiku's face came into her field of vision, hidden by the Battloid visor of her Cyclone. The other woman peered closer at her, then mouthed a curse.
"Jesus Christ and Kwannon! Look at your face! It's all blood!" The tiny gold ankh that studded Sherry's right nostril flared with light as she spoke.
"What?" Mandy realized belatedly that the stinging had not gone away. She put up a hand and realized there was a wet stickiness there.
"I think the eye bits of the clam I killed sliced my face," she said blankly. "What happened?"
"We took care of the linebackers. A few good GR-215s in the right spots, and ptewh--no more Troopers. Look, you've got to take care of that or you're gonna look like Tony Montana for life. You did WHAT?"
"I offed a Scout. I think." Sherry whistled.
"Give you a gold star." Sherry dragged her to her feet. "We've got to get what we can from what's left, bury the dead, and get out of here before daylight. No way we're going to let the crabs have another shot at us."
Amanda nodded, then began to shake.
Two miles away, a silhouette stood, defined only by the half-set constellation of Orion, the Dog Star, and a sliver of last-quarter moon in the east. The general outline was humanoid, but some three times larger, and metallic.
A red sensor array between the metal giant's shoulders whirred and focused on the glowing spot in the distance.
Inside, a gloved hand dropped on a ceramic-clad thigh in frustration.
The plan had been to drive the humans out, then keep enough alive--for a time, at any rate--in order to ferret from them information on such establishments and find an effective method to put them down in the future. The humans' expeditionary force (curse them!) was being largely taken care of at this point and was a known quantity. But the small resistance groups...they had made the occupation difficult with their damnable secrecy.
It was a cause for nervousness.
It had been an airtight plan, originally--ambush them at near Earth-dawn, when they would be at their most addled and sleep-ridden, drive them out with a few carefully placed annihilation discs, then a quick capture and a look down to see the kind of warren in which rats lived.
But something had tipped them off...
Now the squadron had been cut to pieces, the humans were free and the battloid's occupant dare not go after them...it had to look like an isolated attack, not coordinated. With this catastrophic failure, she would be very lucky if her superiors didn not devolve her...
The Invid had no swear words as other races knew them, not having until recently evolved life-forms that needed them. But the pilot made a very fair try at one as the rockets on the Gamun roared to life and it soared towards the stars.
To the east, unknowing of the Invid Assault Battloid, the exhausted remnants of the Elms buried their five dead, gathered what food they could from their emergency cache off from the base, and began a convoy to the southeast, running on fusion, beaten but not broken.
Frederick Bohms looked up to the greying sky, his gold-blond hair blowing in the hot breeze blowing from the remnants of the base, his bony, saturinely handsome face planed in the weak glow from the still-blazingly hot crater.
Even with the onset of dawn, one could still see stars, cold and far in the late-winter sky. There were other spots up there, bright as stars, but unwinking and slowly moving against the background. They were not stars.
Bohms stared up at them, his face tightening into an expression that nobody else saw.
It was of raw hatred.