It was a long and screaming tumble of a descent to the surface of Aifor.
Fragger was glad he'd kept his own screaming inside his head while the dropship bore an erratic hole through the atmosphere. The captured Aiforian pilot, Ranglin, had tricked them after they'd made the escape from the jungle planet, Jivaro. Fragger had ordered the pilot to find a new planet, a home for him, his Rangers, and his infant son, Patrick. Ranglin found a home all right--his own--and set the Jivaron Rangers down in the midst of Fragger's enemies.
The latest in a long list of them.
How the pilot had fooled them, Fragger didn't know and would never know.
Ranglin lay back inside the ship sprawled on the deck, a knife protruding from his throat like an obscenely distended Adam's apple.
Fragger had tried to kill him first.
Iso Watanabe had been next.
To everyone's surprise, Amalia got to the pilot before the two seasoned warriors did. The Shuar nursemaid had slipped the knife from the sheath on Fragger's leg and pounced on Ranglin as he tried to rip the baby from the Ranger's arms, knowing possession of the child was his only ticket to safety after his betrayal.
The maternal instinct had been as deadly as a Jivaron slipsnake.
Now Amalia and Waktrun Wik, the vidman, stood with Fragger outside the damaged dropship as Iso organized the survivors and Buurk, the Martian medic, tended to the injured.
"We were lucky," the Ranger said. "Damned lucky."
"How is that so?" the nursemaid asked as she soothed the swaddled baby by rocking it back and forth in her arms. "We're on the planet of your enemies. You killed Lord Lesto in honorable battle, but you raped and murdered the mother of this child. Lord Lesto's daughter deserved her death, there's no doubt of that, but I doubt the Aiforians will see it that way."
The memory of driving the knife into Andriana's heart to prevent her from killing his son stung the Ranger. And the boy's eyes peeking from the blanket made sure he felt the sting every day. Patrick had his black hair, but the eyes were pure Andriana. In most respects, he amended. Hers were an ice-blue, cold as Arctic snow. Patrick's eyes are bright blue, so intense it sometimes seems like he's looking straight through me, the world, and anything else in the path of his gaze. Other times, I feel as if Andriana is inside those eyes and reminding me constantly that I killed her.
He drove the guilt out of his head by saying, "Look at those mountains. If we'd crashed over there, we'd all be dead. Instead, we're on the plains. We survived--most of us, anyway."
Happy to be out of the ship and feel the breeze on his skin, Fragger sniffed at the air. It had the tang of clover to it and punctuated the weak heat hovering over the oddly green-purple color of the dry long-grass prairie. A strong wind blew from the mountains to the west bringing a coolness born of snows atop peaks taller than the Rockies he'd trained in as a Ranger learning how to fight in cold and altitude. The distant range had the sharply crenellated wall of an immense natural castle that stretched from horizon to horizon.
The prairie was Dakota-like, a flat surface roiled by gullies and bluffs looking like aircraft carriers stranded by a receding ocean. It smelled of late autumn dust and scents strangely akilter in his nose.
A musky odor rode the breeze from a massive herd of ... Fragger wasn't quite sure what they were. At first glance, he thought they were American bison. But, when they turned their heads toward the noise and smoke erupting from the cracked-open dropship, he saw far larger bodies. The horns, he estimated, reached close to three meters across from tip to tip.
The bastards look like they're straight out of Earth's Pleistocene age or whatever age they first lived in.
The herd of giant quadrupeds surrounded the ship and stretched to the horizon. A shadow crossed one of the shaggy heads, and Fragger looked up to see an ebony bird glide across the herd. To his one good eye, the wing span was twice the length of the bison horns. He thought the bird looked similar to Earth's extinct giant condor, but the beak that tore into a desperately fleeing rabbit was that of an eagle.
More shadows passed, and Fragger shaded his eyes to scan a blue sky a subtle shade darker than Old Terra's atmosphere. High above the ship, raptors gathered, reconnoitering for prey.
"Wik," Fragger pointed a finger skyward and joked to the dwarf. "You'd better watch out. Those big birds of prey catch sight of your scrawny ass, you'll end up as lunch meat for their chicks."
A fly had landed on the vidman's gin-blossomed potato of a nose. Wik swatted it away with a stubby finger.
"I'll just be first in line, colonel," he retorted in the booming bass voice that always surprised Fragger because it seemed twice as large as the man himself. "The nursemaid's right. The Aiforians won't forget your mortal insult. You'll be joining me in their hell. We all will." Wik shivered as the wind gusted and blew across his walnut-colored skin. The breeze snapped the vidman's thin shirt and cargo-style pants like a yellow and black flag.
"Well, landing in different kinds of hell seems to be my specialty, doesn't it?" Fragger responded mildly.
A complaining grunt escaped the vidman's lips.
"I always get you in to these fixes, but I always get you out as well, Wik," the Ranger reminded him.
"You could have found us some place warm."
"Want to go back to Jivaro? That planet had a lot of heat."
"Stop your bitching, then," Fragger said. "You're still alive and in one tiny piece. You don't hear Amalia complaining, do you?"
Bucaram's daughter smiled, but she was trembling as well. The Aiforian fatigues she wore were a shapeless dark uniform designed for the interior of the dropship, little protection against the climate of Aifor. Her people, the Shuar, were adapted to the jungles of Jivaro and had no experience of the cold temperatures the Rangers were bound to face.
Although short, Amalia was taller than most of her people. She was slim rather than chunky and wore her black hair back in a most un-Shuar like pony tail. Her nose was unlike her father's. Where his nostrils had flared widely across his face, hers formed a delicate end to the sharp ridge that led up to thin eyebrows arching across the characteristically broad brow of the Shuar. In contrast to Bucaram's dark, impenetrable eyes, Amalia's eyes sparked with hints of mischief and a resolution Fragger found matched his own.
No wonder Bucaram was eager to let her come with me, Fragger thought with amusement. A shaman, an uwishin, would not want a rebellious daughter to usurp his authority over his people.
"It's always the preacher's kid who causes the most trouble."
"What did you say?" Amalia asked.
"Nothing," Fragger said, not realizing he'd spoken out loud.
"This is no time for daydreaming," Wik said.
"You're right, you little fart. Let's get Iso here." The Ranger spoke into his commlink. Iso Watanabe responded and joined the group a minute later. "Iso," Fragger said, "General Wik seems to think we should be taking immediate action to seek safety from the Aiforians."
"Not only is Wik short in stature," his squat second-in-command responded in a tone of affectionate contempt from a nose smashed into a button by the hilt of a sword in a long-past battle, "but he's short in command experience as well. Not to mention brains."
"Screw you, you Ainu ape!"
"For a vidman, his vocabulary is remarkably limited as well," Iso added.
Wik reddened. "If I were your size, I'd--"
"Die a quick death," Iso interrupted, "but for once, I'll admit you're right, little man. Our landing couldn't have gone unnoticed. We need to leave the ship. The question is, where do we go?"
"The mountains," Fragger said. "That's the obvious choice."
Iso turned his underslung jaw toward the range. "Difficult terrain for our enemies. For us, as well."
"Can we survive up there?" Wik asked. "More to the point, can your son survive in those conditions?"
"A Ranger can survive anywhere," Fragger answered. "So can a Ranger's son."
Wik rolled his chocolate-brown eyes. "False bravado won't keep us warm."
"We had a saying in my day. 'If you can do it, it ain't bragging.'"
"Words aren't getting us anywhere," the dwarf said.
Fragger searched the vidman's face. "I'm surprised at your fear, Wik. You proved your bravery back on Jivaro. To save me, you took on a slipsnake and survived. Not many men could say that."
"Slipsnakes don't torture people. They just kill you outright."
The vidman shivered again, and this time Fragger saw that it had nothing to do with the cold.
"Colonel, I don't want to fall back in their hands."
"They treated you well before when you were on this planet, didn't they?"
"They had a purpose for me then. They don't now. Except to make an example of me, and anyone else who's with you."
"They respect force, then?" Fragger asked.
"It's the only thing they respect."
The Ranger knelt, put his hands on the vidman's shoulders and turned him so they were face to face. "Wik, you don't have to come with us, you know. They still may have a use for you. After all, you have the inside story on me and Jivaron Rangers. They'll want as much information as possible, and you can supply it."
The dwarf knocked Fragger's hands away. "Just what do you think I am? I don't betray friends. Besides, it's likely I'll live a bit longer with the Rangers. Not much longer, but longer, and that's all that counts."
"Then, what are you grumbling about?"
"Everyone needs a good grumble now and then."
"Most people don't do it twenty-fours a day," Iso said. "Why don't you just shut up, so we can make our plans?"
"Like I said before, screw you, you Ainu ape!" Wik shot back, but no more words came out of his mouth.
"What do you think, colonel?" Iso asked.
Fragger glanced up at the black smoke billowing into the sky from the ruptured dropship. "I think we move now. With our feet trampling down this long prairie grass, they won't need any fancy electronic means to find us. They can simply follow our trail. The faster we get to the mountains, the better. Iso, you know what to do."
Watanabe nodded and left. A moment later, he was replaced by Buurk.
"What's the situation with the injured?" Fragger asked the absurdly tall Martian.
"Ten are ambulatory. Nine will need to be carried," the medic answered. "Fortunately, the dropship is equipped with gravsleds."
Buurk's enormous chest inhaled deeply as a gust whipped across the prairie. "Good, cold, clean air," he said. "It's not Martian air, but it beats the stink of Jivaro."
Fragger smiled as Amalia aimed an offended scowl up at the bronze-skinned seven-foot medic whose face looked like Abraham Lincoln's on a very bad day.
"Sorry, nursemaid, "Buurk said as he noticed the reaction. "I was genetically designed for Mars. To my lungs, the atmosphere of your home planet was like trying to breathe swamp water."
"Mars must be a very soulless place, then," Amalia said in a dismissive tone.
"No proto-crocs, no slipsnakes, no genmod apes, no Dr. Shaper. It was heaven compared to--"
"You can argue the respective merits of your planets on the way to the mountains," Fragger interrupted. "Right now, Buurk, get back inside the ship and prepare your patients to move."
"Amalia, Wik, help him."
As the three walked back toward the main hatch, the Ranger surveyed his ragtag command's activities around the dropship. Most of the troopers wore their power-armor and were lugging supplies onto the gravsleds that had been of little use in the thick jungles of Jivaro. Others ran checks on weaponry--PPC and Gauss rifles, laser pistols, disassembled 90 mm mortars suitable for mountain warfare, and the heavier crew-served cannons. The remainder formed a protective perimeter, scanning the sky and prairie for signs of Aiforian forces.
Fragger nodded his appreciation of Iso's organizational skills. None of the soldiers were goofing off. He turned to assess the distance to the mountains again.
"Fifty klicks," he estimated as his gaze rose again to the large raptors circling above and spreading their feathers to ride the thermals. "A long, hard way to go with wounded. We could use some wings right now."
The silhouette of one of the birds caught his eye. It had a subtle bulk at odds with the other raptors. The flight was different too. The bird didn't swoop and soar. It maintained a steady altitude and a purposeful track.
As if suddenly aware of his gaze, the bird banked and dropped straight at the Ranger.
Fragger swore as he broke into a run toward the cover of the dropship.
The way to the mountains just got harder.