So I stretched, getting the kinks out, and looked around…then doubled up again and straightened out in a swan dive face down and took a good look. It was night down there, as planned, but infrared snoopers let you size up terrain quite well after you are used to them. The river that cut diagonally through the city was almost below me and coming up fast, shining out clearly with a higher temperature than the land. I didn’t care which side of it I landed on but I didn’t want to land in it; it would slow me down.
I noticed a flash off to the right at about my altitude; some unfriendly native down below had burned what was probably a piece of my egg. So I fired my first chute at once, intending if possible to jerk myself right off his screen as he followed the targets down in closing range. I braced for the shock, rode it, then floated down for about twenty seconds before unloading the chute—not wishing to call attention to myself in still another way by not falling at the speed of the other stuff around me.
It must have worked; I wasn’t burned.
About six hundred feet up I shot the second chute…saw very quickly that I was being carried over into the river, found that I was going to pass about a hundred feet up over a flat-roofed warehouse or some such by the river…blew the chute free and came in for a good enough if rather bouncy landing on the roof by means of the suit’s jump jets. I was scanning for Sergeant Jelal’s beacon as I hit.
And found that I was on the wrong side of the river; Jelly’s star showed up on the compass ring inside my helmet far south of where it should have been—I was too far north. I trotted toward the river side of the roof as I took a range and bearing on the squad leader next to me, found that he was over a mile out of position, called, “Ace! Dress your line,” tossed a bomb behind me as I stepped off the building and across the river. Ace answered as I could have expected—Ace should have had my spot but he didn’t want to give up his squad; nevertheless he didn’t fancy taking orders from me.
The warehouse went up behind me and the blast hit me while I was still over the river, instead of being shielded by the buildings on the far side as I should have been. It darn near tumbled my gyros and I came close to tumbling myself. I had set that bomb for fifteen seconds…or had I? I suddenly realized that I had let myself get excited, the worst thing you can do once you’re on the ground. “Just like a drill,” that was the way, just as Jelly had warned me. Take your time and do it right, even if it takes another half second.
As I hit I took another reading on Ace and told him again to realign his squad. He didn’t answer but he was already doing it. I let it ride. As long as Ace did his job, I could afford to swallow his surliness—for now. But back aboard ship (if Jelly kept me on as assistant section leader) we would eventually have to pick a quiet spot and find out who was boss. He was a career corporal and I was just a term lance acting as corporal, but he was under me and you can’t afford to take any lip under those circumstances. Not permanently.
But I didn’t have time then to think about it; while I was jumping the river I had spotted a juicy target and I wanted to get it before somebody else noticed it—a lovely big group of what looked like public buildings on a hill. Temples, maybe…or a palace. They were miles outside the area we were sweeping, but one rule of a smash & run is to expend at least half your ammo outside your sweep area; that way the enemy is kept confused as to where you actually are—that and keep moving, do everything fast. You’re always heavily outnumbered; surprise and speed are what saves you.
I was already loading my rocket launcher while I was checking on Ace and telling him for the second time to straighten up. Jelly’s voice reached me right on top of that on the all-hands circuit: “Platoon! By leapfrog! For ward!”
My boss, Sergeant Johnson, echoed, “By leapfrog! Odd numbers! Advance!”
That left me with nothing to worry about for twenty seconds, so I jumped up on the building nearest me, raised the launcher to my shoulder, found the target and pulled the first trigger to let the rocket have a look at its target—pulled the second trigger and kissed it on its way, jumped back to the ground. “Second section, even numbers!” I called out…waited for the count in my mind and ordered, “Advance!”
And did so myself, hopping over the next row of buildings, and, while I was in the air, fanning the first row by the river front with a hand flamer. They seemed to be wood construction and it looked like time to start a good fire—with luck, some of those warehouses would house oil products, or even explosives. As I hit, the Y-rack on my shoulders launched two small H.E. bombs a couple of hundred yards each way to my right and left flanks but I never saw what they did as just then my first rocket hit—that unmistakable (if you’ve ever seen one) brilliance of an atomic explosion. It was just a peewee, of course, less than two kilotons nominal yield, with tamper and implosion squeeze to produce results from a less-than-critical mass—but then who wants to be bunk mates with a cosmic catastrophe? It was enough to clean off that hilltop and make everybody in the city take shelter against fallout. Better still, any of the local yokels who happened to be outdoors and looking that way wouldn’t be seeing anything else for a couple of hours—meaning me. The flash hadn’t dazzled me, nor would it dazzle any of us; our face bowls are heavily leaded, we wear snoopers over our eyes—and we’re trained to duck and take it on the armor if we do happen to be looking the wrong way.
So I merely blinked hard—opened my eyes and stared straight at a local citizen just coming out of an opening in the building ahead of me. He looked at me, I looked at him, and he started to raise something—a weapon, I suppose—as Jelly called out, “Odd numbers! Advance!”
I didn’t have time to fool with him: I was a good five hundred yards short of where I should have been by then. I still had the hand flamer in my left hand; I toasted him and jumped over the building he had been coming out of, as I started to count. A hand flamer is primarily for incendiary work but it is a good defensive anti-personnel weapon in tight quarters; you don’t have to aim it much.
Between excitement and anxiety to catch up I jumped too high and too wide. It’s always a temptation to get the most out of your jump gear—but don’t do it! It leaves you hanging in the air for seconds, a big fat target. The way to advance is to skim over each building as you come to it, barely clearing it, and taking full advantage of cover while you’re down—and never stay in one place more than a second or two, never give them time to target in on you. Be somewhere else, anywhere. Keep moving.
This one I goofed—too much for one row of buildings, too little for the row beyond it; I found myself coming down on a roof. But not a nice flat one where I might have tarried three seconds to launch another peewee A-rocket; this roof was a jungle of pipes and stanchions and assorted ironmongery—a factory maybe, or some sort of chemical works. No place to land. Worse still, half a dozen natives were up there. These geezers are humanoid, eight or nine feet tall, much skinnier than we are and with a higher body temperature; they don’t wear any clothes and they stand out in a set of snoopers like a neon sign. They look still funnier in daylight with your bare eyes but I would rather fight them than the arachnids—those Bugs make me queazy.
If these laddies were up there thirty seconds earlier when my rocket hit, then they couldn’t see me, or anything. But I couldn’t be certain and didn’t want to tangle with them in any case; it wasn’t that kind of a raid. So I jumped again while I was still in the air, scattering a handful of ten-second fire pills to keep them busy, grounded, jumped again at once, and called out, “Second section! Even numbers!… Advance!” and kept right on going to close the gap, while trying to spot, every time I jumped, something worth expending a rocket on. I had three more of the little A-rockets and I certainly didn’t intend to take any back with me. But I had had pounded into me that you must get your money’s worth with atomic weapons—it was only the second time that I had been allowed to carry them.
Right now I was trying to spot their waterworks; a direct hit on it could make the whole city uninhabitable, for
ce them to evacuate it without directly killing anyone—just the sort of nuisance we had been sent down to commit. It should—according to the map we had studied under hypnosis—be about three miles upstream from where I was.
But I couldn’t see it; my jumps didn’t take me high enough, maybe. I was tempted to go higher but I remembered what Migliaccio had said about not trying for a medal, and stuck to doctrine. I set the Y-rack launcher on automatic and let it lob a couple of little bombs every time I hit. I set fire to things more or less at random in between, and tried to find the waterworks, or some other worth-while target.
Well, there was something up there at the proper range—waterworks or whatever, it was big. So I hopped on top of the tallest building near me, took a bead on it, and let fly. As I bounced down I heard Jelly: “Johnnie! Red! Start bending in the flanks.”
I acknowledged and heard Red acknowledge and switched my beacon to blinker so that Red could pick me out for certain, took a range and bearing on his blinker while I called out, “Second Section! Curve in and envelop! Squad leaders acknowledge!”
Fourth and fifth squads answered, “Wilco”; Ace said, “We’re already doin’ it—pick up your feet.”
Red’s beacon showed the right flank to be almost ahead of me and a good fifteen miles away. Golly! Ace was right; I would have to pick up my feet or I would never close the gap in time—and me with a couple of hundred-weight of ammo and sundry nastiness still on me that I just had to find time to use up. We had landed in a V formation, with Jelly at the bottom of the V and Red and myself at the ends of the two arms; now we had to close it into a circle around the retrieval rendezvous…which meant that Red and I each had to cover more ground than the others and still do our full share of damage.
At least the leapfrog advance was over with once we started to encircle; I could quit counting and concentrate on speed. It was getting to be less healthy to be anywhere, even moving fast. We had started with the enormous advantage of surprise, reached the ground without being hit (at least I hoped nobody had been hit coming in), and had been rampaging in among them in a fashion that let us fire at will without fear of hitting each other while they stood a big chance of hitting their own people in shooting at us—if they could find us to shoot at, at all. (I’m no games-theory expert but I doubt if any computer could have analyzed what we were doing in time to predict where we would be next.)
Nevertheless the home defenses were beginning to fight back, co-ordinated or not. I took a couple of near misses with explosives, close enough to rattle my teeth even inside armor, and once I was brushed by some sort of beam that made my hair stand on end and half paralyzed me for a moment—as if I had hit my funny bone, but all over. If the suit hadn’t already been told to jump, I guess I wouldn’t have got out of there.
Things like that make you pause to wonder why you ever took up soldiering—only I was too busy to pause for anything. Twice, jumping blind over buildings, I landed right in the middle of a group of them—jumped at once while fanning wildly around me with the hand flamer.
Spurred on this way, I closed about half of my share of the gap, maybe four miles, in minimum time but without doing much more than casual damage. My Y-rack had gone empty two jumps back; finding myself alone in sort of a courtyard I stopped to put my reserve H.E. bombs into it while I took a bearing on Ace—found that I was far enough out in front of the flank squad to think about expending my last two A-rockets. I jumped to the top of the tallest building in the neighborhood.
It was getting light enough to see; I flipped the snoopers up onto my forehead and made a fast scan with bare eyes, looking for anything behind us worth shooting at, anything at all; I had no time to be choosy.
There was something on the horizon in the direction of their spaceport—administration & control, maybe, or possibly even a starship. Almost in line and about half as far away was an enormous structure which I couldn’t identify even that loosely. The range to the spaceport was extreme but I let the rocket see it, said, “Go find it, baby!” and twisted its tail—slapped the last one in, sent it toward the nearer target, and jumped.
That building took a direct hit just as I left it. Either a skinny had judged (correctly) that it was worth one of their buildings to try for one of us, or one of my own mates was getting mighty careless with fireworks. Either way, I didn’t want to jump from that spot, even a skimmer; I decided to go through the next couple of buildings instead of over. So I grabbed the heavy flamer off my back as I hit and flipped the snoopers down over my eyes, tackled a wall in front of me with a knife beam at full power. A section of wall fell away and I charged in.
And backed out even faster.
I didn’t know what it was I had cracked open. A congregation in church—a skinny flophouse—maybe even their defense headquarters. All I knew was that it was a very big room filled with more skinnies than I wanted to see in my whole life.
Probably not a church, for somebody took a shot at me as I popped back out—just a slug that bounced off my armor, made my ears ring, and staggered me without hurting me. But it reminded me that I wasn’t supposed to leave without giving them a souvenir of my visit. I grabbed the first thing on my belt and lobbed it in—and heard it start to squawk. As they keep telling you in Basic, doing something constructive at once is better than figuring out the best thing to do hours later.
By sheer chance I had done the right thing. This was a special bomb, one each issued to us for this mission with instructions to use them if we found ways to make them effective. The squawking I heard as I threw it was the bomb shouting in skinny talk (free translation): “I’m a thirty-second bomb! I’m a thirty-second bomb! Twenty-nine!…twenty-eight!…twenty-seven!—”
It was supposed to frazzle their nerves. Maybe it did; it certainly frazzled mine. Kinder to shoot a man. I didn’t wait for the countdown; I jumped, while I wondered whether they would find enough doors and windows to swarm out in time.
I got a bearing on Red’s blinker at the top of the jump and one on Ace as I grounded. I was falling behind again—time to hurry.
But three minutes later we had closed the gap; I had Red on my left flank a half mile away. He reported it to Jelly. We heard Jelly’s relaxed growl to the entire platoon: “Circle is closed, but the beacon is not down yet. Move forward slowly and mill around, make a little more trouble—but mind the lad on each side of you; don’t make trouble for him. Good job, so far—don’t spoil it. Platoon! By sections…Muster!”
It looked like a good job to me, too; much of the city was burning and, although it was almost full light now, it was hard to tell whether bare eyes were better than snoopers, the smoke was so thick.
Johnson, our section leader, sounded off: “Second section, call off!”
I echoed, “Squads four, five, and six—call off and report!” The assortment of safe circuits we had available in the new model comm units certainly speeded things up; Jelly could talk to anybody or to his section leaders; a section leader could call his whole section, or his non-coms; and the platoon could muster twice as fast, when seconds matter. I listened to the fourth squad call off while I inventoried my remaining firepower and lobbed one bomb toward a skinny who poked his head around a corner. He left and so did I—“Mill around,” the boss man had said.
The fourth squad bumbled the call off until the squad leader remembered to fill in with Jenkins’ number; the fifth squad clicked off like an abacus and I began to feel good…when the call off stopped after number four in Ace’s squad. I called out, “Ace, where’s Dizzy?”
“Shut up,” he said. “Number six! Call off!”
“Six!” Smith answered.
“Sixth squad, Flores missing,” Ace completed it. “Squad leader out for pickup.”
“One man absent,” I reported to Johnson. “Flores, squad six.”
“Missing or dead?”
“I don’t know. Squad leader and assistant section leader dropping out for pickup.”
“Johnnie, you let Ace take it.”
But I didn’t hear him, so I didn’t answer. I heard him report to Jelly and I heard Jelly cuss. Now look, I wasn’t bucking for a medal—it’s the assistant section leader’s business to make pickup; he’s the chaser, the last man in, expendable. The squad leaders have other work to do. As you’ve no doubt gathered by now the assistant section leader isn’t necessary as long as the section leader is alive.
Right that moment I was feeling unusually expendable, almost expended, because I was hearing the sweetest sound in the universe, the beacon the retrieval boat would land on, sounding our recall. The beacon is a robot rocket, fired ahead of the retrieval boat, just a spike that buries itself in the ground and starts broadcasting that welcome, welcome music. The retrieval boat homes in on it automatically three minutes later and you had better be on hand, because the bus can’t wait and there won’t be another one along.
But you don’t walk away on another cap trooper, not while there’s a chance he’s still alive—not in Rasczak’s Roughnecks. Not in any outfit of the Mobile Infantry. You try to make pickup.
I heard Jelly order: “Heads up, lads! Close to retrieval circle and interdict! On the bounce!”
And I heard the beacon’s sweet voice: “—to the everlasting glory of the infantry, shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young!” and I wanted to head for it so bad I could taste it.
Instead I was headed the other way, closing on Ace’s beacon and expending what I had left of bombs and fire pills and anything else that would weigh me down. “Ace! You got his beacon?”