City Of The Living Dead - Part 9

Part 9

"Mortar teams-load and sound off."

"Team One, loaded and ready!"

"Team Two, all ready!"

Then when all five had called in, Blade took a deep breath.

"All teams-Point 19. Fire on my signal. Five, four, three, two, one, FIRE!"

Five distant thumps came almost together, and then a long silence-mortar climb high and quietly. Then suddenly the street farthest to Blade's left spewed flame and smoke. Five plunged out of the sky, straight into the column of androids.

Blade did not hear the human and android screams and cries. He could imagine them well enough, for he knew what this kind of heavy fire did to infantry. Not just infantry, but infantry who'd never been trained to meet this kind of attack. None of them knew about mortar fire, and the explosions, the flying fragments, the smoke and the noise would be a nightmarish surprise to both humans and androids.

"Blade to all mortars. Shift to Point 17." That would bring the down on the next column toward the right.

This time four were on target, while one plunged through the roof of a building on one side of the street. Even that sh.e.l.l wasn't completely wasted. Blade saw chunks of metal and stone from the roof hurled down on the androids below.

Four more times Blade shifted the fire of the mortars, moving steadily from left to right, hitting each of the six attacking columns in succession. Blade knew that it would be wise to shock and disorganize all six columns rather than wipe out one and leave the other five intact and advancing. Blade guessed Paron's androids outnumbered those of Geetro's army by three or four to one, apart from their new tactics with the smoke screens. Paron could not be allowed to get to close quarters, where those numbers might give him a decisive advantage.

So Blade worked the mortars across all six attacking columns before starting to concentrate on any one. The accuracy of the fire was even better than he'd expected. Authority people in Mak'loh might still have problems with Physical activity, but they knew their mathematics forward and backward.

Half the job of hitting the target with any long-range weapon was doing the calculations correctly, so they were off to a good start.

The first salvoes stopped only one of the columns. All six had large chunks blown out of them, and all six were slowed and badly shaken. The smoke screens began to break up as the grenade-throwing androids fell or stopped firing. Instead of the smoke screens, the streets began to vanish in the haze of smoke from the sh.e.l.l explosions.

Blade no longer had to imagine what was happening down there under all the smoke. He could see androids and pieces of androids flying a hundred feet into the air. He could hear extra explosions, as sacks of grenades carried on androids' backs went off. In moments when the smoke eddied, he could see whole sections of street paved from one side to the other with writhing androids. The buildings on either side confined the blast of the explosions and the flying fragments, increasing the effect.

Somehow four of the six attacking columns staggered out into the square. They mingled there like streams flowing into a lake. No one tried to take cover or cross the square. Blade wondered if there were any human beings alive and fit to give the necessary orders.

With grim determination he set out to take advantage of the target the enemy was offering. He ordered all the mortars to hit the square with five rounds apiece. The first salvo came down squarely on target. Before the second one hit, those still alive and on their feet were either running for the side streets or throwing themselves fiat. Neither helped very much. The remaining four salvoes walked back and forth across the square. The explosions caught those who were lying flat, blowing them high in the air. Flying fragments caught the runners and cut them down. By the third salvo, smoke from the explosions and from ruptured smoke grenades was spreading across the square, mercifully blotting out what was happening.

A few of the androids were still moving on to the attack, south from the square toward Geetro's perimeter. Blade surveyed them through his binoculars. He counted no more than a hundred. Geetro's humans and androids could sweep them away like a broom. Then it would be time to push north. A determined counterattack could finish off Paron's army for good and win Mak'loh's civil war in a single night. Even if it didn't do that well, it would give Geetro's army the combat experience and the self-confidence it badly needed. Certainly it would do no harm, as long as the mortars kept hammering at Paron's army to keep it from rallying.

Blade was about to order the mortars to bring their down along the enemy's line of retreat, when a sudden frantic voice shouted over the radio: "Blade, Blade! Mortar Four, help! We're being attacked from the air. We're-" The sound of an exploding grenade cut off the voice.

Blade didn't recognize the voice, but a chill hand seemed to be squeezing his stomach. Mortar Four was Sela's a.s.signed battle station.

Sela was half-blinded by the continual sheets of flame from the mortar and more than half-deafened by the roar of the firing. Suddenly the three flyers were there, coming at her out of the darkness.

The mortar crew and the riflemen guarding them were even less aware of the world around them. Sela shouted, but her voice was lost as the mortar fired again. Before she could shout a second time, the flyers swept in over the railing. Rifles flared white from them, half a dozen firing almost together, knocking out the mortar crew and the riflemen.

The flyers landed, close enough that Sela could recognize the man at the controls of one as Paron himself. A man sprang down from Paron's flyer and from the one to the left. Each man pulled a cable with loops and hooks on it after him.

Sela crouched in the shadows, seeing the flyer crews too intent on their business to pay any attention to her. If she kept quiet, they would probably take what they wanted and leave without noticing her.

What they wanted could only be the mortar. Blade said the mortars were the backbone of Geetro's army, and tonight she'd seen how right he was. If Paron got the secret of the mortars ....

Sela brought her rifle up in a single, smooth motion, squeezing the trigger as the muzzle came to bear on the men with the cables. The rifle was set to maximum power, and the men went down as if they'd been clubbed, smoking patches of flesh showing on their backs. She was aiming at Paron, when another man whirled in his seat and fired at her.

The beam missed, but it was set to kill, and it came close enough for her to feel it. It was as though someone had pressed white-hot metal wires into her back and neck. It seemed for a moment that her hair itself had taken fire. She screamed, her hands clutching the rifle convulsively, her finger twitching on the trigger, but unable to close on it to shoot Paron out of his seat.

Paron himself turned, saw her, shouted out in incoherent delight, and leaped toward her. He was a stout man who normally moved slowly, but now he seemed to fly toward her as if he'd been shot out of one of the mortars. Sela tried to get to her feet, to meet him with her bare hands if she couldn't fire her rifle. She'd still be able to take him; he was strong but too slow to meet her, he- Then a grenade went off between two of the flyers, and all the men on or around them went down. Paron cried out, in rage rather than pain. He towered over Sela as she struggled to her knees. He kicked her wildly in the right shoulder, sending her sprawling on her left side. One of Paron's surviving men fired a grenade into the entrance of the downward ramp, and screams followed the explosion.

Paron kicked Sela hard in the stomach, and she doubled up with the world around her fading in a haze of pain. She was aware of him picking her up like a child and heaving her over his shoulder. The movement made her scream, then vomit all over Paron's back.

She knew that he was loading her into the seat of a flyer; then she heard a distant hiss that she recognized as the sound of a spray injector. The last of her knowledge of the world began to slip away. Just before it vanished entirely, she heard the whine of the flyer's fans and felt it stir under her.

Then there was nothing.

Geetro's army stormed out of the buildings where they'd been waiting. There were five hundred of them, mostly the new recruits from the Houses of Peace, organized in platoons and companies led by Geetro's people from the Authority. The recruits carried rifles, while the officers carried grenade throwers. High above them, Geetro himself rode in a flyer, while from his command post Blade listened in on the radio.

He listened, but he heard very little, Mak'loh's new soldiers were too busy experiencing the powerfully Physical sensations of their first combat. They had no time to waste telling anybody about it.

One group barricaded themselves so thoroughly that by the time they cleared away all the furniture and broken robots from in front of the door the battle was over. The rest dashed forward. They struck the battered remnants of Paron's columns of androids, and the last stage of the battle exploded through the streets of Mak'loh.

The androids had been slaughtered, confused, and disorganized by the mortar fire. They still would not lie down and die. They could not shoot to kill a clearly visible Master, but they could shoot to stun, and they shot, fast and well. The first Physical sensation many of the new recruits felt in combat was being knocked unconscious by android sharpshooters. Some of them felt grenade fragments slicing into their flesh, their own blood flowing, their own internal organs ripped and mangled. Not all of Paron's humans were dead.

In an hour Geetro knew that his human recruits weren't going to win the battle by themselves. He landed his flyer and personally led the reserve of androids into the battle. Slowly they pushed the enemy north, back up the six streets, back to the robot and android plant, back still farther to the wall of the city.

Blade controlled the mortars from his command post until the last of the enemy retreated out of range. Then he went down to the street, climbed into a truck, and rolled forward to join the battle. There was still more than enough battle left for him to join.

The last shots were fired with the eastern sky already turning pink. Daylight came to a battle-scarred city, its streets littered with bodies and wreckage and slimy with human and android blood. In eight hours Mak'loh had known more destruction, more unnatural death, more violent Physical activity, than it had known in the previous eight centuries.

Blade and Geetro met over a hasty breakfast to measure their victory and its cost. There was no doubt about the victory. Twenty of Paron's humans and a few hundred of his androids had fled over the city wall. About as many more had been captured, unharmed or lightly wounded. All the rest were dead or dying. Everything within the city's wall was in Geetro's hands, including all the vital buildings and factories. Some were battered but all still worked.

A hundred of Geetro's humans, and five times as many androids, were dead: Some of the new recruits were whimpering wrecks, their minds temporarily unhinged by the overpowering sensations of combat. The mortars that had decided the battle were practically down to their last sh.e.l.l.

Finally, Sela was gone.

They knew that she'd been alive when Paron put her aboard hiss flyer and took off. They knew from prisoners that Paron had intended to capture one of the mortars rather than destroy all of them.

"So he seems to be thinking of a long war, where learning our secrets will help him in the end," said Blade. "If he thinks Sela can tell him such secrets, he will not kill her."

"Perhaps not," said Geetro, "but after tonight, will he still believe that he can go on fighting for a long time? What if he knows that he's lost and has nothing left but vengeance? He will certainly take that vengeance on Sela.

"Even if he keeps her alive, it will not be easy for her. If he believes she know our secrets, he will stop at nothing to get them from her. We must go after her, Blade. We must go after Sela and get her back or at least know-" he choked, "-know that she is dead."

Blade considered the matter. After the night's battle, the Inward Eye had lost some of its appeal in Mak'loh. People were pouring out of the Houses of Peace by the hundred, rallying to Geetro.

Some of them were intelligent enough to realize that in this crisis everyone had to wake up and get to work. Most of them still had no interest in anything but new, more exhilarating, sensations. They'd heard that joining Geetro's army offered the best opportunity around for such sensations. There were enough potential volunteers for the army to replace last night's losses twenty times over.

There was also a great deal of damage in the city that should be repaired. It would have been much better to put these enthusiasts to work there. Unfortunately, most of them didn't know one end of a tool from the other. They would be useless or even dangerous. In the army, they might be useful once they were trained-not for serious fighting, of course but with Paron defeated, there was no danger of that for some time.

What better way to train the new army then to send it out to search all the land of Mak'loh as far as the outer Wall? They could search out Paron's fugitives and Sela, if she were still alive. It was a job that would have to be done sooner or later, and probably the sooner the better.

"Certainly," said Blade, "let's get the new recruits organized a bit and send them out. They'll need officers, so I suggest we pick out the best of last night's veterans and put them in charge." He rose, and Geetro rose to follow him.

Chapter 19.

Sela awoke to feel sharp pains in a good many places she hadn't expected them. She vaguely wondered if Paron's flyer had crashed and she was now pinned in the wreckage, dying. She hoped that death would come quickly. After a little while, she drifted off into darkness again, wondering if she were dying, but hardly caring.

When she awoke a second time, the pains had faded and she was aware of other things as well. Her hands and feet were tightly bound with cords. A bed of cut branches was under her. Above her she could see the branches of trees, with the sun shining through the leaves. A breeze blew over her, smelling of flowers and stagnant water and bringing the faint hum of insects with it. Suddenly there was Paron's heavy face as well, peering down into hers.

He squatted and clamped one hand around her chin to force her head toward him. The movement hurt. He saw the pain in her face and smiled. "I will hurt you far more if you do not tell me all the things I need to know. Think of that, Sela."

He seemed to expect some reply to that statement.

Slowly she shook her head. "I cannot tell you anything."

He slapped her hard, three times. Her eyes watered, and she tasted blood from a cut lip. She forced herself to speak calmly and coldly.

"The more you strike me, the less I will tell you. If you go on threatening me, you will learn nothing at all while I live. After I am dead, what can I tell you?"

Paron's fingers were obviously itching to slap her again, or do something even more painful. Her tone stopped him. In his eyes she could see a wild desire to inflict pain fighting against an equally powerful desire to learn all he could about his enemies.

"That is true," he said finally. "I will not kill you. Not now, perhaps not at all. Perhaps when I have taken Mak'loh back and rule it, you can rule beside me. If you prove yourself worthy, this can be. But you cannot rule Mak'loh beside me if I do not take it back, can you?"

"I suppose not."

"Then you have to tell me what I need to know to get it back. You have to!" The last two words were almost a scream. They made Sela shiver and nearly lose her pose of calm. She had no doubt that sooner or later Paron would torture or kill her if she didn't tell him what he wanted to know. She also had no doubt that beyond a certain point she would probably break down and tell him. Paron had done a good deal of research into the systematic infliction of pain, practicing on androids. She would be subjected to tortures that might destroy her mind before they destroyed her body, unless she betrayed Blade and Geetro.

Or until she could deceive Paron, leading him on, gaining time. Time to see what Paron might be planning to do. Time to judge her chances of escape. Time to think about putting an end to her own life before the torture began, if she could find no way of escaping.

She took a deep breath. "Paron, listen! I cannot tell you anything until I know what you want to know. Surely you are not interested in when Blade and Geetro go to relieve themselves, are you?"

He laughed, showing all his teeth, but no real amus.e.m.e.nt. "I am not. Very well. I shall tell you more." He took a knife from his belt and bent down to cut her bonds.

Suddenly Paron whirled around, as branches rustled behind him. The head of an android appeared over the top of a bush. "Master, it begins-"

Paron whirled to face the android. One thick arm shot out and gripped the android by the collar, pulling it headfirst through the bush. As the android twisted and squalled in wordless protest, Paron's other hand thrust the knife into its throat. The android died, bubbling and gasping and spraying blood all over the little clearing and all over Paron and Sela.

It took all her self-control to keep from screaming. Paron was mad. He killed for the love of killing, and she was absolutely in his power.

At that thought she no longer felt like screaming. She felt more like vomiting, except that her stomach was too empty.

Over the next several days, Sela gradually realized that her situation was not as bad as she'd thought. She couldn't really call herself safe until Paron was dead or she was out of his reach. Paron could still kill her as easily as swatting a fly. But he no longer had the strength to do much damage to Mak'loh.

He took her everywhere in his little camp in the forest and showed her everything until she was able to measure his strength. He had a single flyer. He had fewer than two hundred soldier androids, about as many workers, and a hundred a.s.sorted robots. He had no more than twenty humans, and several of these were wounded or helpless, drooling idiots, even madder than Paron. He had little ammunition and less equipment. He had practically no food, and he was trying to feed his humans on fruits and nuts from the forest around them. The usual diet gave Sela continuous stomach cramps, but she was luckier than one man. He died screaming and vomiting blood, victim of something poisonous.

Paron was finished. It didn't matter whether he realized this or not. Nor did it matter if Sela freely told him everything she knew about Blade's plans. It would be impossible for him to do anything with that knowledge. All she had to do was to wait until Blade and Geetro led their soldiers out to clear the land of Mak'loh.

Wait, and in the meantime stay alive. She was slow and cautious in answering Paron, asking him three questions for every one he asked her. She wanted to be absolutely sure of giving him everything he needed, or so she told him. Actually, she suspected that he might kill or torture her for his own amus.e.m.e.nt when he thought she'd told him everything. So she would take as long as possible.

Fortunately for Sela, Paron seemed as interested in talking as in listening. He told wild tales of what he would do to his enemies when he ruled in Mak'loh. He told even wilder tales of the invincible secret weapons he would develop when he had the factories of Mak'loh at his command again. He even spoke of his dream of launching a war against all the other Cities of Peace.

"It is certain that we cannot trust them, if they produce men like Blade. Where there is one man like him, there may be thousands. They will certainly try to destroy us. The only way we can prevent this is to destroy them first. Mak'loh must rule for a thousand years before it is safe. I shall rule Mak'loh, and you shall help me!"

At times it was almost impossible for Sela to listen to Paron's ravings with a straight face. Paron had a better imagination than anyone who had ever made up an Inward Eye tape! But then, all the Inward Eye tapes had been made by people who hadn't lost their wits.

If Paron had been talking about anything that he had some hope of doing, Sela would have listened more carefully. Any knowledge of the enemy's plans would be useful to Blade and Geetro. Since Paron was making no more sense than the birds or the squirrels, she didn't think Blade and Geetro would be at all interested.

Sela quickly realized that escaping would not be as easy as she'd hoped, in spite of the pitifully small size of Paron's army. For several days he would not even let her out of his private camp. The walls of the camp were eight feet high, built of solid logs and topped with thorn branches. It was patrolled both inside and outside by armed androids.

When Paron finally did let her out into the forest, he either went with her himself or sent a guard of at least six armed androids. To be sure, the androids knew she was a Master. They would not kill her-but they would certainly stun her on the spot for any attempt to escape, then turn her over to Paron. What he would do then, she didn't care to think about, and still less cared to risk.

If Blade and Geetro were to find the camp unfortunately, that wasn't likely. The forest would make the camp almost invisible from the air, and it would take a long time to search the city's land tree by tree.

It was a race between Paron's madness, her own escape, and Blade's searching parties. Who would win?

The water of the stream was dark, but clean and cold. Sela swam up and down as far as the android guards would allow her, letting the water clean the dirt off her body and for the moment clean the worries out of her mind. It was two weeks since she'd been captured, and she was no closer to a way to escape than the day she'd arrived. So far Paron seemed to have no desire to kill her. He'd killed several androids and raped one woman when she complained of the wretched food, but he hadn't laid a finger on Sela. How long would her luck hold?

She turned over on her back and swam upstream with slow, steady strokes. On the bank two androids gazed down at her. She found this bothered her and was surprised to feel that way. Before Blade came, she had never worried about being naked in the presence of androids. Now she felt she would like to do almost anything herself rather than have androids underfoot all the time to wait on her. She wondered how many other people in Mak'loh might be feeling the same way. "The city of the living dead," Blade had called Mak'loh. Well, perhaps the dead were coming back to real life.

She laughed softly. Then the branches on the bank between the two androids parted, and her laugh died as three men sprang out into the open. They seemed to explode out of the bushes, and the sunlight blazed from the swords in their hands. Two swung at the androids on either side of them. One android's head flew off its shoulders, the other's face opened in a great ragged gash.

The other four androids of Sela's escort were on the other bank of the stream. They raised their rifles as the third attacker raised a long metal tube. The rifles flared white, and the tube gushed orange flame and dirty white smoke. One of the androids fell over backward, hands clutched to his stomach. Two of the three swordsmen fell, struck down by the rifle fire. The third sprang back into the bushes as suddenly as he'd appeared.

Sela reached up onto the bank and s.n.a.t.c.hed up a rifle dropped by one of the maimed androids. Before the surviving androids realized what she was doing, she shot all three of them. Two sprawled on the bank; the third fell with a splash into the stream. Sela grabbed a root with one hand and heaved herself out of the water.

Without bothering to dress, she plunged into the bushes, ignoring the branches that lashed across her bare skin. She knew who those swordsmen were. From Blade's description, she recognized them as the soldiers of the Warland ruler, the Shoba.

She knew who they were. How had they entered Mak'loh? The question screamed itself in her mind, and she wanted to scream it out loud. She forced herself to keep silent. She had to get away from the Shoba's men and bring warning of their attack to the city. That meant getting to Paron's flyer. If she failed....

If she failed, the Shoba's men might swarm across the land of Mak'loh and arrive at the city's wall before anyone knew they were coming. What would happen then, she asked herself? She remembered what Blade had said once about the soldiers of the Shoba.

"If they come to Mak'loh, they will be deadly enemies. We have stronger weapons, but theirs are not weak. They are also brave men, and far more skilled in many kinds of fighting than our people or even the soldier androids. A battle against the Shoba could be Mak'loh's last battle."

Sela remembered that the weapons of the Shoba's men could not hit a moving target as well as the shock rifles of Mak'loh. So she ran as fast as the bushes and the ground underfoot would let her, although her legs and feet began to ooze blood from thorn scratches and sharp roots.

She plunged between two trees and came out into a small clearing. Three worker androids were running across it. Two of the Shoba's men were on their heels, waving swords that already dripped with silver-tinged android blood.

Sela let the androids pa.s.s and fired at the first swordsman. He went down in midstride, sliding several yards on his face. Before she could aim at the second man, he swung his sword. It caught her rifle with savage force, knocking it out of her tingling hands. The swordsman raised his weapon, ready to take her head off or lay her stomach open. Then he realized that he faced an unarmed, naked, lovely woman. l.u.s.t flared in his eyes, and the sword wavered for a moment.

That was all the time Sela needed. She closed and leaped high, driving one foot in past the man's sword to smash into his chest. The metal rings of his armor bruised and gouged her foot, but the man went down. Sela landed, whirled, and stamped her other foot down on the man's upturned face. He screamed and clawed at his smashed nose and teeth. Sela s.n.a.t.c.hed up her rifle and darted across the clearing into cover again.

Sometimes running, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling on her belly like an animal, Sela crossed the camp area toward the flyer. There were soldiers of the Shoba all over the place. Many of them were dead or dying, but far too many were alive and on the prowl. However they had crossed the Wall, they had done so in force, and they had certainly won their first battle.

There was no doubt of that. All the androids Sela found were dead or crippled. Their armored vests would keep an arrow or a musket ball from penetrating, but not from knocking them down. Once they were down, the Shoba's men would close in firing at the android's heads, hacking or thrusting at their arms and legs. Sela found several androids dying slowly in whimpering agony and used nerve pinches to give them a silent and merciful death.

She saw other ugly sights too and had to slip by without doing anything about them. A man pinned to a large tree by knives driven through his hands, while the soldiers shot at him with arrows. A woman spread-eagled naked on the gra.s.s, while a soldier hammered himself into her and thirty more waited their turn. Sela's stomach churned at the thought of this sort of thing happening in every street of Mak'loh.

The last body Sela found before reaching the flyer was Paron himself. Mad as he was, he'd died fighting. Six of the Shoba's men lay dead around him, and his hands were locked tight on the throat of a seventh. His body a ma.s.s of gashes and bullet holes where it didn't bristle with arrows.