Frej Wasastjerna


     Four standard gravities pressed Vladimir Polikarpov and his powered battle armor into his contoured couch as the Number Four assault shuttle of the Taucet Space Navy transport Janina Christensen decelerated on its way into the atmosphere of Delpav III. In training he had always hated this phase. Regardless of what he did to make the inside of his armor more comfortable, there was always something that pressed painfully hard into his flesh.

     There still was. The particularly painful spots included his waist, buttocks and shoulders, and there was something just above his right elbow too. But this time the pain got pushed into the background by the realization that this was the real thing. For the first time in nearly seven centuries, humans were going to war. And he, a travelogue writer in civilian life, was at the sharp end.

     Of course, if all went well, there would be little or no fighting. This was a reconnaissance mission, not an invasion.

     "If all goes well." Famous last words.


     Delta Pavonis III had been visited by a human expedition earlier and been found to house the only intelligent alien life mankind had encountered so far: two-legged snake-like beings whose appearance had given them the nickname "snakaroos". Lacking any manipulative organs, they had essentially no technology, but they did have speech, an intricate social organization, well developed herding techniques, even small irrigation canals they dug with their feet to ensure a good food supply for their herd animals.

     Had? "Had had", more likely. Some forty-six years ago, somebody had detonated six inversion bombs in an octahedral pattern around Burden, as Delpav III had been named, due to its gravity of 1.32 g. Since the Delpav system had been declared off limits after that single visit, there were no humans or human-owned instruments in place to observe the effects, but the scientists said that, although most of the gamma radiation released by those bombs would have been absorbed by the atmosphere, that would have heated the atmosphere to the point that all land life would have been fried.

     So who had done it? Had they colonized the then-empty planet? To find out, the Taucet Space Marines had been founded, equipped, trained, and embarked on two newly built nega-mass transports designed for stealth and speed.


     At last the deceleration ended. The shuttle flipped to a horizontal position, and the fans embedded in its wings began whirring softly to counteract the slight buoyance that a shuttle with a net mass of almost zero had in an atmosphere. Then the louder sound of pumps covered the whir of the fans as water ballast was pumped up through the pipe extended into the ocean just below the shuttle.

     After less than a minute the pumps stopped. Enough ballast had been taken aboard to ensure that the net mass of the shuttle would remain positive even after all troops had disembarked, preventing the mass misalignment that was the bugaboo of all nega-mass skippers. The fans were now pushing upward to keep the shuttle aloft, but soon they quieted again as the ion jets began driving the shuttle forward and the wings took over the responsibility of lifting it.


     The system was inhabited, and the inhabitants were far too advanced technically to be snakaroos. There were spaceships traveling through it. The telescopes of the Janina Christensen and the Bill Soininen showed them to be much like human in-system freighters or passenger ships. There were also the remains of a partly dismantled inversion ship, which must have brought the colonists. There were no signs of any patrolling ships or other safeguards against intruders.

     But then that proved nothing. Just as the Christensen and Soininen were very hard to detect with any technology known to humans, any alien warships migt also be.


     The planet had seemed mostly barren, but in many places there was vegetation with a dark green color rather than the reddish black of the original Burdenite vegetation. In those spots, usually near their centers, there were also things that looked like buildings, many of them round. Two of the most isolated coastal settlements had been chosen as targets of the raid, and now the four shuttles from the Christensen were heading for one of them, those from the Soininen for the other. The Christensen company's fourth platoon, to which Vladimir belonged, was scheduled to raid a large, round building in the southeast corner of the settlement, with the other three platoons taking care of the other buildings and what looked like a helicopter landing field.

     The transports had not dared approach the planet closely enough for their telescopes to resolve the inhabitants clearly, but their bodies appeared to be human-sized but horizontal rather than the vertical posture usual for humans.


     And there were radio transmissions. Some electromagnetic signals had been detected, but much less than the racket from human-inhabited planets. There were radar pulses, though they were weak, most likely intended for air traffic control or navigation. None were the powerful pulses that would have been expected if the colonists were watching out for enemy spacecraft. There was nothing that could be identified as analog television, although there were a few digitally encoded transmissions that could have been anything.

     And then there was radio -- simple frequency modulated audio signals. Vladimir had listened to a recording of one such program. It resembled no human language nor the single recorded snakaroo language. Most of the phonemes were not very different from what one might hear in English, Russian or Spanish, but there were enough alien overtones to make it clear that they were not produced by human vocal organs. And there was a whistling sound that resembled no language that Vladimir knew.

     The memory made the hairs at the back of his neck rise. Some people had speculated that the sterilization of Burden had been done by humans, maybe from the overpopulated Sol or Epindi systems. In a way the notion that humans could have committed an atrocity like that was worse than the idea that it had been done by aliens, but humans were at least familiar. What Vladimir and his buddies now faced was unknown. Almost the only known thing was that these aliens could and would scorch an inhabited planet free of life.


     The shuttle sped through the night at Mach 0.9. Vladimir switched on the viewscreen that had been installed in front of his bunk to make it possible for him to see the surroundings of the shuttle. With the light amplification off, the screen remained almost as dark as before, so he switched on the amplification but kept it at a low setting. Now he could just barely make out the gentle rollers that were the only disturbance of the surface.

     A dark would he describe it if he were again recording a travelogue? A wine-dark sea? No, he would need to think of something more original, that phrase had been overworked way back in the Iliad and the Odyssey...

     What was the memory that was trying to surface in his mind? Ah yes, back on Krios, in his old life as a civilian...


     He had put up his air-tight tent. Then he had taken off his suit, scratched luxuriously in all the places that had itched while he was wearing the suit, and plugged the suit into the outlet connected to the robodonkey's fusion reactor to recharge its fuel cells. He had prepared supper and was now eating it, reading the Odyssey.

     "And now have I put in here, as thou seest, with ship and crew, while sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech..."

     As he read that passage he paused, dimmed the lights in his tent and switched it to full transparency.

     Out there lay the Breton Sea. Its ammonia billowed softly in the dim light of Taucet on the left, about ten times as distant as seen from Thalassa, and the vast, banded crescent of Kronos on the right.

     No ship had ever plowed that sea. There were no "men of strange speech" on Krios -- except that, from Homer's viewpoint, Vladimir would have been a man of strange speech himself. But the sea itself was stranger than any sea Homer could have imagined.

     And the ship that had taken him here, to Krios? That too would have boggled Homer's imagination.

     He switched on his recorder and described his thoughts, panning the camera over the alien landscape at the same time. This was just the kind of quasi-profound stuff that his audience would lap up, or so the moguls of the Empyrean Media Corporation had told him. And, after all, those audiences spent enough on his travelogues to cover the costs of his travel and equipment and leave something over to supplement his Basic Income.


     Back to the present. Oh, for those innocent days, in which the stars had seemed almost friendly. About a Thalassan year after he had left Krios, the news of what had happened to the natives of Delpav III had shattered that comfortable illusion. Not only could and did the inanimate world sometimes spring nasty surprises, as every Spacer had drilled into him from childhood, now it was also clear that out there were dangerous creatures, with the ability and will to snuff out a planetful of sentient beings.

     To help make sure that the same wouldn't happen to the Taucet system, he had volunteered when the Assembly had called for people to investigate who had exterminated the snakaroos. There had been tens of thousands of volunteers, but in the end only two hundred and sixty marines, together with twenty scientists and twenty crew members, had been chosen to make thevoyage from Tau Ceti to Delta Pavonis. Vladimir was one of the few who had been allowed aboard the Janina Christensen and Bill Soininen, named after the two dwaler politicians who had made the voyage possible by voting in the Assembly to prepare for war, and who had been gruesomely murdered for that by militant pacifists.

     And here he was now, approaching an enemy-held continent after a voyage far, far longer than that of Odysseus.


     Her name, as far as the English alphabet can represent sounds produced by non-human vocal organs, was Iredyly Kitysh Ryegyi, in full Iredyly na Kitysh tsa Ryegyi lieh Karulye -- Iredyly, hatched to pack Kitysh in district (in this case spaceship) Ryegyi from planet Karulye.

     Iredyly had watched with pride as the young adults had walked into the hatchery. The eggs they would lay were already the second clutch laid by pack Kalaiha on this planet, Higehyelye. The first one had developed well, and there was no reason to doubt that the second would also do so.

     She had helped the others cover the eggs with mulch and then, as befitted an old iagyh, begun to stand guard together with three other elders. Actually six members of the pack were already old enough to stand guard. However,there wasn't much to guard against. All the native vermin had been destroyed when the inversion bombs sterilized the land surface of this planet many years ago, and of course the iagyhs had taken great care not to introduce any really dangerous vermin from elsewhere, only meat animals and the animals needed to sustain an ecology. True,several lyugui had been taken along from Karulye, so that there would be something to torture at the entertainment ceremonies.

     In fact, Iredyly had heard that somebody had suggested omitting even those lyugui, torturing meat animals instead. But of course the suggestion had been rejected. Torturing meat animals made no sense, the animals to be tortured had to be ones that, at least in principle, presented some threat, so that they could then be punished for their presumption in threatening iagyhs.

     Frankly it was difficult to understand how an iagyh capable of dreaming up such a stupid -- no, not merely stupid but downright unorthodox -- idea could have passed the Tests and been accepted into a pack. Maybe the originator of that idea was hatched into a pack that didn't practice Testing, relying instead on fertility control to avoid overpopulation. In a way that was understandable. After all, whenever someone flunked the Tests and had to be exiled, it was a tragedy. And on fully populated planets, without a wilderness where the exiles could try to live, with the hope of one day being adopted by a pack if they showed their worth by surviving, things were worse: there the rejects had to be killed. Thus it was really no wonder that some packs had decided instead to prevent fertilization of more eggs than were needed to sustain the population. However, that was a cowardly way out. How could one improve the species without Tests and the concomitant rejection of those who failed?

     Anyway, the lyugui were only theoretically dangerous. In the first place, they were of course kept captive, and, in the second place, the armored lyugui moved too slowly to be a real threat. A single guard would have been ample to keep them from sneaking up and eating some eggs, even if they got loose somehow. Consequently it was decided to keep the two youngest elders working, since there was plenty of work to be done on a new planet. The four oldest had been assigned to guard duty, however, since both tradition and instinct forbade leaving the eggs without a strong guard. Then there would also have to be some iagyhs on whose blood the young could feed when they hatched, about half a year after the laying. At that stage the younger elders would join the older ones, all having, by that time, fed well so that they could afford to lose plenty of blood.


     Iredyly lay on her six haunches outside one of the entrances to the pack dormitory, with Kiehde Rryukut Ryegyi guarding the other. Both doors were closed, and so were the doors to the hatchery at the center of the circular dormitory. In the hatchery itself Lyedat Keshyetei Ryegyi was on guard, with Kiredlyreti Rryukut Ryegyi sleeping in preparation for her turn to stand guard. It really defied belief that any vermin could get into the hatchery, even if there were any on the planet, but nonetheless old instincts required Iredyly to stay alert. Now and then she stood up to move around a little and to stay limber and warm. Even keeping her skin fully inflated wasn't enough to keep her warm without occasional physical activity, since even here in the tropics the nights of Higehyelye were chilly. Near each door lay two piles of sharp stones, stationed so that, when lying or standing in front of the door, Iredyly could easily reach one of the piles with either hand.

     She had just lain down again when she noticed a soft whirring sound. She couldn't identify it, so she looked in the direction it seemed to be coming from. First she scanned the recently planted forest, finding nothing. Then she raised her eyes to the sky. At first she wasn't sure whether she saw anything. Was it just an illusion? No, there really was something still darker silhouetted against the dark sky. But what was it really? It neither looked nor sounded like any kind of aircraft familiar to her -- an angular, delta-winged shape with something projecting from the wingtips.

     It came closer and slowed down, finally coming to a stop almost in front of her. She called softly to Kiehde,"Do you know what that flying thing here is?"


     "Hey, you can't see it from there, can you?"

     "Sure I can, there are three of them here, are there any on your side too?"

     "Yes, there's one right in front of me. And it's standing still in the air like a helicopter, but it doesn't look like any helicopter I've seen. Maybe it's some kind of VTOL airplane, but it's strangely quiet. Anyway, have you heard of any VTOL planes built here on Higehyelye?"

     "No, it's strange."

     While the two talked, the strange aircraft in front of Iredyly had landed maybe twenty body-lengths away, coming to rest on its tall and spindly landing gear. Two ramps extruded downward from its belly, and something moved down the ramps. At first Iredyly couldn't see it properly in the dark, but then she got a better look as the things reached the ground.

     Those had to be living beings -- but they didn't look like any Iredyly had seen. They stood upright on a mere two legs, but they didn't have the balancing tails the natives of Higehyelye had had. Moreover, they had two arms, like iagyhs if you didn't care about details. They were wearing something that looked both artificial and hard, and were carrying strange objects.

     And they emerged from an aircraft. All right, it wasn't proven that they had built and piloted the aircraft themselves, but it was best to assume the worst and classify them as sentient aliens. So there was only one thing to do.

     "VERMIN ALARM!" Iredyly shouted with all the power of her left lung, which was the one exhaling at the moment. With both of her hearts hammering and her skin partially deflating, as her nervous system readied her body for a strenuous emergency, she picked up a stone in each hand, aimed carefully and threw the stone in her left hand at the upper torso of one of the aliens. It failed to smash whatever that alien was wearing, so she then threw the right-hand stone at the head of another alien.


       Vladimir was sweating from excitement as the troops began to run down the ramps.  Almost immediately a loud hoot came from somewhere, then there was a crack, shortly followed by another. Those cracks didn't sound like gunfire, more like a solid object hitting something hard. When Vladimir finally got to the bottom of the rear ramp, he looked towards the round building the platoon was supposed to investigate and saw a creature in front of it throw a stone too fast for the eye to follow. A third crack sounded, apparently the stone had hit something. Hard on the heels of that crack, before Vladimir had finished taking four steps to the right and hitting the dirt, as he had been trained to do, came the sound of gunfire, and bloody slivers flew from the body of the creature as it jerked back. Then a laser burst from the shuttle's ventral turret vaporized much of its upper body. Although the visor protectingVladimir's night vision goggles was essentially opaque to the ultraviolet radiation used by the laser, the glare of white-hot steam and soot erupting from the creature's chest washed out everything else for a moment, but the overload cut-off in the goggles saved Vladimir'seyesight, and after a few seconds he could see almost normally again.

       Somebody else had either been less dazzled or had more presence of mind, because he was spraying the door of the house with automatic fire. Now Vladimir could see that the door had opened and another creature lay bleeding in the doorway. There were also hints of movement inside the house, mostly obscured by the walls.

       Vladimir heard Lieutenant White's voice on the radio. "Grönholm, have you suffered any casualties back there?"


       "First squad has lost three men, disabled by thrown stones. Third squad, you attack the house. Second squad supports. First squad covers our front, fourth squad our rear and right."

       So it was now up to them to assault the house,against creatures that could throw stones hard enough to injure armored men. To make things worse, the door facing them was very low. A human couldn't walk upright through that doorway, he would have to get down on his hands and knees, making it difficult to fire while moving.

       Apparently the prospect also worried Corporal Sato, since he beckoned to Eero Timperi, one of the rocketeers,and told him to fire a fragmentation rocket through the doorway. Timperi loaded such a rocket into his launcher and took aim. Then Ensign Grönholm came rushing, yelled,"Not a nuke, you fool!" and slapped the launcher up just as Timperi pulled the trigger. The rocket went high, flying far into the distance.

       Timperi said, "Ensign, that wasn't a nuke, it was a fragmentation rocket."


       Just then First Lieutenant Lagerkvist's voice sounded on the radio. "Remember that we need prisoners, not corpses."

       How could one get into the house safely without killing everyone inside?

       Suddenly an idea occurred to Vladimir, as he looked at the conical roof. "Corporal," he said to Temujin Sato, "notice those skylights. A man could climb up on the roof and shoot down through them to keep the  enemy away from the doorway, so we can get in."

       "Good idea. Kasparov and Rogatchi, you see that skylight just above the doorway? Climb up on each side of it and shoot down through it to keep the creatures away from the doorway. We others will give you covering fire."

       While Kirill Kasparov and Sergei Rogatchi ran to the house and jumped up on the roof, something pulled in the dead creature lying in the doorway, without exposing itself. Then Kasparov hit the skylight with the butt of his rifle, smashing it. Behind the remains of the skylight, something reared up and grabbed the rifle butt, pulling it downward so that Kasparov had to release it to avoid being pulled down himself. Vladimir and others fired at the dimly seen shape behind the skylight, but the rifle disappeared. Rogatchi was still in place, but as he fired down through the skylight, he started sliding down the roof and fell to the ground. He got up, apparently unhurt, and began clambering back up, but maybe firing through the skylight wasn't such a good idea after all. And now those creatures had a rifle. Would they know how to use it?

       Sato apparently was thinking along the same lines, because once again he asked Timperi to put a fragmentation rocket through the doorway and shouted awarning to Rogatchi to stay clear of the skylight. This time Timperi was allowed to fire his rocket undisturbed,and it went right through the doorway, exploding inside.

       Almost before the light of the explosion had faded, Sato yelled "Chaaarge!" and ran towards the doorway, followed by Vladimir, Ivan Makarov and Stenka Markov. He quickly reached the doorway, but then he had to sling his rifle on his back and go down on his hands and knees to get through the doorway. Vladimir lay down on his left to provide covering fire and Makarov did the same on the right, with Markov bringing up the rear.

       Something lunged towards Sato from dead ahead, just as his feet were going through the doorway. Vladimir sent a burst of high-velocity slugs tearing through what little he could see of that enemy, which was mostly obscured by Sato himself. On the other side, Makarov fired too, and additional fire came from above, presumably from Rogatchi. For a moment the creature hung on to Sato but then let out something much like a scream and released its grip.

       Sato stood up and staggered backwards, blocking the doorway in front of Markov who was waiting to get in. Then, apparently collecting himself, he unslung his rifle and went forward again, and Markov crept in, followed by Vladimir and Makarov, then the unarmed Kasparov and finally Rogatchi.

       They found themselves standing in a short corridor leading from the outer door to another one. This corridor was intersected at right angles by a longer, circular one, with radial walls leading away from it on both sides.

       Several creatures lay in both corridors, but none of them looked at all fit to fight. Some were obviously dead, torn to pieces by the blast and fragments, and the remainder were almost as badly injured. They had six legs and two arms, with two eyes in the front of their heads above a wicked-looking wide beak with its corners extended into something much like fangs.

       Lying among the creatures was Kasparov's rifle, which he picked up. Sato crouched down and began examining the creatures more closely.

       Markov raised his rifle, aiming along the corridor to the left. "Something moved over there," he said.

       "Okay, stay alert, but try not to kill any more. We need living prisoners, and there don't seem to be any live aliens here," Sato answered, straightening up. "Makarov and Rogatchi, you stay here and see that we aren't attacked from the rear. I'll go with Kasparov and try to take a prisoner. We'll have to sling our rifles on our backs for that. Markov, you keep your rifle ready to defend us if something attacks us from our left, Polikarpov, you guard our right."

       Sato and Kasparov moved off, closely followed by Vladimir and Markov. As they passed the cubicles marked off by the radial walls, Vladimir glanced into them to make sure that there were no enemies hiding there. All he saw was furniture. There were pallets with something that might have been mattresses. There were also shelves holding things that might have been books. No chairs could be seen, but then six-legged creatures probably wouldn't have any use for anything like chairs. Therewere no tables either, though there were slightly raised areas of the floor that might have served the same purpose.

       Suddenly a flying object hit Sato's faceplate, rocking him backward but failing to break the plate. As the object fell, Vladimir saw that it was a kettle. Kasparov rushed forward and grappled with the creature that had thrown the kettle, grasping both its wrists. The creature tried to bite, but its beak failed to penetrate Kasparov's armor.

       After a moment Sato recovered enough to join Kasparov, while Vladimir and Markov stood guard, ready to shoot any other creature that turned up. The creature struggled furiously, but, thanks to their powered armor, Sato and Kasparov soon managed to force its arms back and up so that Sato could pinion its wrists above its back with the plastic straps each of the humans carried for this purpose. Fortunately the straps fit the wrists of this alien well, though the posture must have been painful, if the whistling screams it emitted gave any indication of how it felt.

       "Kasparov, you take this creature outside. Ask Lieutenant White to appoint someone to guard it and ask for reinforcements as well. These creatures are resisting, and I'd like to have a bit more men available. Send the reinforcements along this corridor in the otherdirection, but make sure they don't shoot at us when we meet."

       Kasparov left, dragging the protesting alien along. The others went on. One of the cubicles they passed looked remarkably like an office, with something that had to be a computer and with shelves filled with binders, though these shelves didn't extend as high as in an office intended for humans.

       Suddenly, out of one of the cubicles on the right, three of the aliens rushed out and attacked. Vladimir and Markov each shot one of them. Vladimir sent an additional burst through the head of his target, since that alien didn't seem quite dead yet. It slumped in a way suggesting that it was now dead, so he put aside his rifle to help Sato subdue the third. As he did that, four more, smaller creatures rushed out and tried to bite. Where they alien children?

       Vladimir noticed one of the smaller aliens grab his rifle, which he had left leaning against the end of a radial wall. "Oh no, you don't!" he shouted, letting go of the big alien that the other two men were wrestling with, and grabbed his rifle himself. He yanked the rifle up, with the small alien hanging on to it, then smashed it back down, the servos of his powered armor driving it down hard enough to crush the part of the small alien's torso just behind its front legs -- and hard enough to bend the butt. Then he stepped on the small alien and pulled his rifle out of the four-fingered hands that were still trying to hold on to it.

       Something yanked his helmet backwards, hurting his neck. He laid down his rifle again, taking care to put it out of reach of the creature that had grabbed it, and groped behind his neck. There was something moving there, so he grabbed it and pulled it out in front of his face. It was another of the small aliens, and he forced its wrists above its back, binding them with straps.

       Then he turned his attention to the other two small aliens, which were attacking Sato and Markov as these were struggling to capture the big one. He grabbed the one clinging to Sato's back and dislodged it, binding it just as the other two men managed to fetter the big alien's wrists. Then Sato grabbed the remaining small alien, just as it tore Markov's air hose apart, and pinioned it with his last pair of straps.

       "Markov, your air hose is broken," Sato said. "The air here ought to be breathable, after all we spent more than a year in training getting accustomed to low oxygen, but get back to the shuttle anyway and fix the hose while you guard our prisoners. Take these prisoners with you. Kasparov," he went on, addressing Kirill Kasparov who had just come back, "you accompany Markov back to the shuttle. Make sure he gets there safely and none of our captives escape. Then come back here. Hey, Polikarpov, what happened to your rifle?"

       "Slugged one of those creatures too hard with it."Vladimir pointed at the one whose middle body he had crushed.

       "Does it still work?"

       Vladimir fired a single shot through the roof.

       "Okay, we two press on. If there are more enemies here, we have to make sure they don't have time to rally."

       Sato went on cautiously, with Vladimir following him. For a while, they saw only empty cubicles. Then, on the floor ahead, there was an alien corpse.

       Had they already come full circle? If so, where had the other corpses gone? And where were Makarov and Rogatchi? Or was this another corpse?

       Sato checked the inertial navigation display on his wrist. "We've come halfway around," he said. He approached the alien corpse cautiously.

       Suddenly Vladimir heard automatic fire from the left, and chips flew from a wall on his right. Sato jumped backward and swore. "Hold your fire!" he yelled.Then he knelt down and looked at his ankle. Blood was seeping through a joint in the armor.

       "Friendly fire!" Sato muttered in a disgusted tone. Then he yelled once again, "You bloody fools out there, don't shoot at us humans!"

       "Sorry," someone answered.

       Vladimir moved forward cautiously. There was again a short radial corridor crossing the circumferential one they had followed, with an open door on the left, through which the shots had come, and a closed door on the right.

       "Now we stay here and wait for the reinforcements I asked for," Sato said. "With me injured, your rifle damaged, no straps left and much of our ammunition used up, we don't go on any further."

       At that moment, something moved in the corridor in front of them. Vladimir raised his rifle, then lowered it again as he recognized a suit of powered armor approaching, followed by others. They also pointed their rifles elsewhere.

       The name and insignia on the leading suit identified it as that of Corporal Louis Vujic, Second Squad. Theothers were Vice Corporal Robert Abderrahim  and Privates Christian Granroth, Dieter Rataj, Tihomir Ivanovic and Bohumil Lelek. Vujic listened to Sato's account of what the Third Squad had experienced, then said that his squad had encountered no aliens.

       "Okay, we still have to investigate what's in there," Sato said, pointing at the closed door leading to the interior of the building. "I suggest you leave two men on guard here and go in with the rest. I'll stay here, since my ankle is injured, but Polikarpov can go with you."

       "Ivanovic and Lelek, you stay here and guard ourrear," Vujic said. "We others go in. I'll go first, the rest cover me."

       Just as Vujic went down on his hands and knees to enter, they heard alien speech behind the door. So therewere aliens in there, no doubt preparing some nasty surprise.

       Vujic hesitated for a moment, then, visibly gathering his courage, put his left hand on the door handle while his rifle, in his right hand, rested on the floor. First he tried to press the handle down. It didn't budge. Trying to push the door open didn't work either. Then he pulled the handle upward, and the door opened.

       A hand shot out from somewhere to the right of the doorway and yanked Vujic inside, rifle, armor and all. Another hand joined it, and Vujic was thrown bodily into the air, landing somewhere out of  Vladimir's sight. Then an alien rushed out through the doorway and attacked Granroth, but even before it reached him, it was hit by fire from four rifles. Granroth, who was kneeling, fell over backwards as the alien hit him. Then it fell limp on top of him, its head and body a bloody ruin.

       Vujic probably needed help more than Granroth did,so Vladimir turned his attention to what was going on inside the doorway. In there, another alien had just lifted Vujic and now slammed him down.

       Bursts of fire from Vladimir's rifle and one other tore the front part of the alien's body to pieces. Dieter Rataj then rushed in through the doorway. Nothing happened to him, so Vladimir followed, and shortly they were joined by Robert Abderrahim. There were no other aliens than the one that had slammed Vujic onto the floor. Vujic himself lay unmoving, and Abderrahim went to take a look at him.

       There was a little light entering the room from the night sky through several skylights. Another, closed door was opposite the one where they had entered. That must be the one on whose other side Makarov and Rogatchi were waiting. Vladimir called out their names, and they replied. Telling them not to shoot, he opened the door and they entered.

       Apart from the dead alien and the six men, the only thing in the circular room was a low wall encircling a heap of some dark matter he couldn't identify in the dimness, not even with the aid of his light amplifier goggles. He switched on his helmet light.

       The dark stuff was brownish, and there were hints of some fibres. What was it? It looked like decaying vegetable matter -- or excrement.

       Why was it here at the exact center of the building? The circular architecture gave the impression that whatever was at the center might be particularly important. On the other hand, this heap didn't look important, at least not by human standards. It looked more like a latrine. But why should that be right at the center? Humans would have placed that far from the center of any dwelling, preferably in a separate house so its stench wouldn't bother them.

       Maybe these aliens weren't bothered by the smell of their own shit. Or maybe it didn't smell. Or maybe the ventilation of this house was arranged so that the air drifted towards the center and then up through openings in the roof. That way the smell wouldn't spread to the outer parts of the house, where they presumably had lived.

       Should he investigate this heap? Since it might be something important, he presumably had a duty to do so.On the other hand, had he traveled twenty light-years to plunge his hand into a pile of shit?

       He opened his faceplate and sniffed. There was, in fact, a slight smell. It resembled the sweetish smell of rotting Terran vegetation more than the pungent stench of excrement. But did that prove anything? What would alien shit smell like?

       Well, there was no help for it. He would have to investigate the heap. It was a pity that the others would see him do that, though. If he found nothing interesting and it turned out to be shit, how would he ever live it down? Would he be known for the rest of his life as Vladimir "Shitdiver" Polikarpov?

       He jammed his faceplate back in place and fastened it with more force than necessary. Then he stood still a moment. Suddenly he plunged his right hand into the pile.

       He had to wiggle his hand up and down to drive it in, as if the material consisted of loose fibres. Then, when he was in past his elbow, his hand encountered something that felt different. It was soft and yielding, but it didn't part the way the rest of the stuff did. He groped his way around it and finally got a grip on it, then he tried to pull it out.

       It moved, but then it slipped out of his grip. It was slightly too big for him to get a good grip with one hand, so he had to slide in his left hand too. Then, grasping the object with both hands, he finally managed to coax it out.

       It looked rather like a seamless bag of leather, containing something soft and big enough to fill both his hands. He couldn't tell what it was, but at least it didn't seem to be a piece of shit. At any rate he had something to show the others, who had looked on as he dug around in the pile.

       "Any idea what that might be?" Abderrahim asked. As vice corporal of the second squad, he was the senior man present, except for the unconscious Vujic.

       A chorus of negatives answered him. He ordered the men to look for more of the things. After a while the dark stuff was scattered ankle-deep all over the floor,and three more of the baggy things had been found. Vladimir put the one he had found in his rucksack, together with a sample of the dark stuff, and Rataj, Rogatchi and Makarov took the other three.

       Vujic still lay unmoving and silent. Abderrahim ordered Rogatchi and Makarov to carry Vujic to the shuttle and then, taking Rataj and Vladimir with him, began to search the rest of the house for anything interesting.

       By the time they had gone through one half of the circular corridor, the same way Vladimir had come originally, their rucksacks were already crammed with books and binders. Vladimir had put his baggy thing on top to minimize the risk of damaging it. They were also carrying a computer, or at any rate something that looked like one, and additional books and binders under their arms, and had still had to leave a lot of stuff. When they encountered Sato, Ivanovic, Lelek and Granroth, Abderrahim asked them to continue the search, while he, together with Vladimir and Rataj, carried their loot to the shuttle. On the way they told Lieutenant White that there was much more inside, so they were ordered to get new rucksacks from the fourth squad, once they had deposited their stuff in the shuttle, and haul out the rest.


       Some ten minutes later, the shuttle was loaded, with the prisoners and loot strapped to the deck, along with two men who were too badly injured to sit, and everybody was back on board. The shuttle began dumping ballast to achieve zero net mass, then took off much more slowly than the hair-raising ride on the way down, since the pilots had been ordered to take it easy to avoid damaging the prisoners and cargo, and, in particular, the injured soldiers.

       The shuttle Vladimir rode in was the last to takeoff, so it got the task of launching a nuclear missile back at the raided settlement to obliterate any clues as to who had carried out the raid.

       As the glow of the fireball faded in the screen showing the rear view, Vladimir began to relax. Finally he had time to think about what he had done.

       He had taken part in what would probably turn out to be the beginning of a war. He had helped kill or capture several sentient beings. To be sure, beings of that species had apparently sterilized a planet, exterminating another sentient species and millions of non-sentient ones. Even so, now that he was no longer sustained by an adrenaline rush, what had happened clashed badly with the anti-war conditioning that he, like everyone else, had received in childhood.

       True, even before his real military training began, psychiatrists had tried to undo that conditioning. But, someone had told him, it couldn't be completely undone except by turning the patient into a raving homicidal maniac. There was enough left to make him feel sick at the thought of what had happened. The letdown from the adrenaline rush and the acceleration of the shuttle  didn't make things any better.

       Then he looked at one of the small captives, lying on the deck right in front of him, squirming in a vain attempt to get out of the straps holding its hands above its back and the other straps tying it to the deck. The sight reminded him of what it had felt like when the bones of another of those alien children, or whatever they were, had been crushed under his rifle butt.

       That was too much for him. He vomited right into his faceplate.

       He took off his helmet. Only then did he notice, rather to his relief, that he wasn't the only one who had trouble. Rogatchi, almost opposite him on the other side of the shuttle, had also taken off his helmet and looked almost as sick as he himself felt. He couldn't see any others doing the same, but there might have been, somewhere he couldn't see them, for instance on the other side of the boarding tunnel.

       He could see one of the adult captives staring at him, obviously wondering, "What the heck is that two-legs up to?" Rather than face that gaze, even though it seemed curious rather than accusing, he squeezed his eyes shut.


       The next day, when it was time for the post-mission briefing and the Christensen was already on the way home, he already felt better in spite of the two-g acceleration. He had had time to think things over, and his conscience had told him in no uncertain terms to stop worrying. What he had done was necessary. A species that sterilized planets like these six-legs seemed to do couldn't be allowed to go on like that. If it took violence to stop it, well, that couldn't be helped. That wasn't reason enough to chicken out and do nothing.

       Sure, the captives he had helped take must have been distressed at having their neighbors, family members or whatever killed and at being abducted by strange armored creatures. But, if the original inhabitants of Delpav III lived long enough to realize what was happening to them, they must also have been distressed, to put it mildly.

       While Vladimir was still pondering the ethics of the situation, Captain Geier spoke up. "To begin with, I'll tell you the casualties our company suffered. We have one dead: Corporal Ballesteros. His helmet was hit by a thrown rock. The impact jerked his head backward, breaking his neck. Apparently the flexible attachment between your helmets and the rest of your armor wasn't such a good idea. He has been put in nanosuspension, but that may have come too late. His brain may be damaged badly enough for revival to be impossible.

       "Four others were hit by stones, but none of them is seriously injured, though Private Aminoff received some facial injures when his faceplate shattered. These injuries were minor, though, and would probably heal well even without nanotreatment.

       "Corporal Vujic, who was mauled by an alien in close combat, is comatose. He appears to have suffered a serious concussion and injuries to his back and has also been put in nanosuspension for treatment back home in the Taucet system.

       "Corporal Sato received an ankle injury from friendly fire hitting a joint in his armor. He is recovering well, however.

       "Otherwise we suffered only some minor equipment damage, namely a torn air hose and a bent rifle butt.

       "What we got in return was five captives, probably, judging by their size, two adults and three juveniles. We also got four soft, leathery things that our scientists think are alien eggs."

       So that was what those baggy things were? A good thing he had plunged his hand into that pile, Vladimir thought.

       "In addition," Geier went on, "we have also got 43 books and many hundreds of pages of documents, two computers, a lot of things that must be the equivalent of diskettes, a large amount of seeds, some vegetable matter, and some tools and helicopter parts. Of course the books and documents are at present quite unintelligible, even the script used in them is unknown. Some of them contain pictures and diagrams, however, so there may be some hope that our scientists may be able to decipher at least something of them. And, of course, they can try to get the captives to help.

       "First Company seems to have been less successful. They got no adult captives or eggs and only two juveniles. They did get a comparable amount of inanimate objects and suffered less casualties, minor injuries to six men.

       "All in all I would say that our raid was reasonably successful, though, of course, the death of Corporal Ballesteros is regrettable, especially if it turns out to be permanent."


       "Well," Markov said to Vladimir as the troops filed out of the briefing room, "I suppose one can say that the raid was successful. We got what we were supposed to get. Still, look at it this way. We make a surprise raid on an unarmed civilian settlement and have one man killed, another comatose and several less seriously injured. If that's what happens when we hit unarmed and unprepared enemies, what happens when we encounter somebody ready to fight back?"

       "Considering what those guys could do with stones, I wouldn't quite call them unarmed," Vladimir answered. "Still, I agree that we need to do better in the future. But, after all, military operations are usually a mess. It's the side that messes things up least that wins."