Let every Greek contingent
Meet the fury hand to hand.
But none of it will matter
If the Spartans cannot stand . . .
The kzin sledge was simple to fly. Its small motor was controlled by a wheel and joystick: left, right, up down. Even a monkey could understand them, especially a monkey used to flying aircraft. The motor was making a loud purring noise, but we had no idea if that was normal or not. It was a lot more stable and powerful than a human ground-effect car, further evidence of a terrifyingly advanced technology.
The sledge was armed, too, with a beam projector heavier than a personal sidearm. If we had not shot the kzin before they brought it into action we would have been wiped out in short order. The kzin sidearms we salvaged were heavy enough.
"I think we can make one pass," said Kleist.
There were recognizable kzin and human lines now, and enough smoke to show the shafts of beam weapons. One end of the human line seemed to be anchored at Manstein's Folly. As we approached it the human fire increased. We still had our pocket-vision enhancers and they showed some details.
There were recoilless guns, copies of an ancient design, mounted on small vehicles and firing rocket projectiles, firing and moving. A few of the human super–Bofors guns, hunkered down behind rocks and gully walls, were throwing out lines of shells as well. Some of these glowed in the air. Their explosions looked feeble, and I couldn't think they were doing much good, but perhaps the sight of them was cheering. There were a number of kzin vehicles wrecked and burning but most were the victims of beam-weapons—probably the adapted police message-lasers. Beams passing through swirling clouds of smoke created a surreal effect in the night.
I remembered a statement in my hasty reading on strategy that for a general to retreat into a fortress was an act like grabbing hold of the anchor on a sinking ship. On the other hand, this half-repaired straggle of ruined walls and ditches was hardly a fortress.
The human fire seemed to be concentrating on the kzin machines. The higher these flew the easier it was for them to fire back, but the better targets they became. Mostly, they kept very close to the ground. We could just make out the shapes of the aliens leaping down from some of the nearer ones. We saw two or three get hit by fire, crash, and burn.
The kzin were throwing missiles and beams the other way, and to effect—the human line was being torn up from end to end, and the route of the human army was marked by the burning wrecks of vehicles. I saw the white flash of a molecular-distortion battery rupturing among the explosions, a big one that must be near full charge. Not many near that would survive. And as we approached there were more of the smaller dark shapes—kzinti advancing on foot. Either they didn't notice the sledge against the night sky or took it for the kzin vehicle it was.
Then they did see us. I can only guess they sent some identification call or challenge to which we did not respond, but a second later they were firing at us. Kleist fired back and took us down in a steep dive into a dead area behind a long rock ridge, beams passing above us.
"No good," said Kleist. "They've too much firepower. We'd never get through. And, in case you didn't notice it, the humans were firing at us as well."
"We've got to do something to help."
"Let's get to the human lines."
"Won't they see us coming and shoot us?"
"Try the communicator. Let's hope they've got one functioning at their end."
During a partial lull in the bombardment we found Grotius, von Diderachs and van Roberts in the ruined "keep" of Manstein's Folly. There was an odd flag flying from a pole above them, an outline of a man holding a lightning bolt and standing on two feline heads.
Neither party recognized the other at first, not merely because they were still wearing the filthy remains of those "uniforms." We had all changed. Von Diderachs with a bloody cloth bandage around his head, his proud beard cut away, looked Herrenmann leader no more. They were huddled around a table with an old-fashioned paper or fabric map, spread on it. Van Roberts was shouting into a communicator.
"Fire and move! Fire and move ! Their radar can track your launching points!" Something must have happened because he stopped shouting and shook his head. "Fools." Then again, "Disperse! Disperse and fire!"
Human were running and firing from widely separated points, never staying in the same place after they had fired. Still some did not move quickly enough to avoid the returning fire. There were heavy automatic guns in armored cupolas that rose, fired, and retracted, installed as part of the restoration of the fortress. But none seemed to get off more than a few shots before the kzin fire found them and destroyed them.
Another group of humans rushed up to the wall and leveled a heavy beam weapon but didn't fire.
None of them looked surprised to see us. I suppose no one had any emotion left. Von Diderachs took in what was left of Kleist's pilot's outfit with the comment, "A professional. But we're all becoming professionals now."
"What are you doing?"
"Buying time. Time for the evacuations. The lucky ones get to the slowboats. The less lucky may get out of the city. Peter . . . Colonel Brennan is taking some guerrillas to the hills."
Whump! Whump! Whump!Three muffled sounds, almost like implosions, from somewhere farther down the human line, followed by the white light of MD batteries exploding, then a much louder explosion from the same direction. Van Roberts spoke into the communicator again.
"They got under cover in time. That was a human team. We're running out of smart automatics. Three rounds off from the mortar and they're still alive." Then: "Disperse! Disperse! Let them clump together!" I could see more humans scattered up and down the line now, crouched behind rocks and old walls and too scattered to be picked off easily.
"How long can they last?" I asked Kleist.
"I told you. Till the kzin get tired of playing."
"The Tesla Towers did some good at first," said Grotius. "The waves seemed to upset their motors. Then they knocked them all down. They found the naval base we were trying to build at Glenrothes Field and nuked it, but they fought for a while on foot at the perimeter first. . . . The last of the garrison got a message out . . . and it was a low-yield nuke . . . nice of them."
"You see we're cooperating now," said von Diderachs. "A little late in the day. Herrenmanner and Prolevolk, Teuties and Tommies. And I'm a general, like some of my distant ancestors. Do you know how recently we didn't know what a general was?" He laughed and laughed and then began to weep. Grotius slapped his face.
Suddenly the fire from the kzin heavy weapons stopped.
"Thank God!" gasped Kleist. He too was looking all in now.
"Don't be too quick to do that," Grotius told him. "The only reason they'd raise the bombardment is that they're sending in infantry. They like a bit of that," he added, evidently for me.
"Call in the picket! It can't do any good now!"
"Too late! Look!" From a depression in the ground beyond we saw a confused fight: bombs and beams. There was a hammering of gunfire.
"Poor bastards, poor tanj bastards," muttered Kleist, ceaselessly.
"Artillery!" van Roberts was shouting into a communicator. "On top of them! Put it right on top of them. They're dead men already." The whole depression seemed to explode as human heavy guns converged on it. I saw kzin and human bodies, whole and in pieces, hurled into the air.
"Here they come!"
"Stand to!" shouted von Diderachs, his weeping fit gone. "Infantry, rally to me!" To my surprise a man nearby began to beat with sticks on a little drum slung on his hip. It must have been a prearranged signal, because other humans sheltering behind scattered rocks and ruins began to converge upon it in crouching runs. Something that could not be blocked electronically.
A couple of robot guns and lasers, very new things that sought their own targets and took their own cover, were jumping and blazing, their muzzles dancing faster than the eye could follow. If only we had had more of them!
There were bigger lasers than I had realized, crude, strapped-together things, some with hideously dangerous unshielded conduction cables snaking across the ground.
The weapon at the wall began to fire. Other humans dashed forward, some bent in a crouch, hunched over the weight of the Lewis guns that they fired as they ran. There were a lot more humans scattered about the rocks and ruins than I had realized, and for a second I felt cheered.
There were the huge forms of kzin, carrying heavy arms, dashing across the open ground toward us, firing and snarling as they came. And they were fast .
Most of them seemed to be naked but for equipment, and under the light of Alpha Centauri B their brilliant orange fur made them stand out as targets. Human fire met them, strakkaker needles—which seemed to do little good against whatever the clothed ones were wearing but made straw and skeletons of the others—exploding Bofors shells, beams, bullets. A human would have tried to dodge that fire or to take shelter behind some ridge of ground, but the kzin kept coming straight at us. I thought at that moment that any space-traveling race would have a science of hard materials and wondered that they did not all wear armor. With the primitive and makeshift propellants we had, largely copies of antiques, our missiles would have bounced off modern armor like raindrops. Further, it would have camouflaged their brilliant coats.
There were a few coils of barbed wire and razor wire in front of and among the human defenses. The kzin for the most part leaped over it or charged through it, but some were funneled between lanes of wire into compact masses and into killing grounds where fixed guns were targeted.
I found that without conscious thought I was firing the heavy kzin sidearm. Dead kzin were falling and wounded kzin dragging themselves along the ground. Von Diderachs's mouth was open and he was screaming something, but the only thing I could hear in the explosions and the feline shrieks and roars was the scream in my own throat. There was one kzin in glittering armor ahead of the rest: I fired futility at the armour as it scrambled over the rubble and then at the junction of head and neck, decapitating it. I saw another kzin staggering and screaming, its feet transfixed by what I had learned were caltrops.
There were another mass of kzin, funneled by lanes of wire into a compact group.
"Clear the front for the claymores!" came a mechanical shout.
A moment later I found out what this meant. Directed explosions shredded the mass of kzin. But more came on, dodging the killing ground. They died in heaps, but more charged in.
The close-packed kzin leaped the wall and crashed into a counter-mass of humans that swirled apart to let them pass.
Evidently expecting the humans to stand and fight, the kzin seemed momentarily puzzled. The humans were around them, pouring fire into the mass of them from every side, slashing with beams. It lasted only a few seconds, but by the time the kzin leaped scattering into the humans there were far fewer kzin. I saw more kzin leaping the wall, and Dimity, Kleist, von Diderachs and I shot them down. They seemed obsessed with charging into the battle and hardly even looked about them. Certainly they did not count the odds, though now the humans were swarming in.
Nor did some of the humans. I saw one human, a huge man, a giant, rushing at the kzin swinging a farmer's sledgehammer. But he seemed less of a giant as he approached the towering kzin. His blow with the hammer hit one in the ribs. It staggered back but did not fall as a man would have, then it grabbed him with one hand and took him apart with a few slashes of the other.
I saw two other kzin charge from behind one of the human gunners manning a recoilless gun. The human had no time to swing the gun round but fired it anyway, blasting one kzin to bits with the rocket exhaust, leaving the other burned black, eyeless and screaming.
A heavy industrial earth mover smashed through the rocks, driving into the kzin, guns firing from its windows and from a cupola on its cabin roof. The kzin charged at it. Some were mashed screaming under its blade, others boarded it and smashed their way into the cabin. The driver must have had a self-destruct.
More kzin crowded on flying sledges like ours. Bunched together like that they were impossible to miss, and a rapid-firing gun on the hill behind blasted them away. One sledge crossed a laser beam and exploded, the others flew on, empty.
Thought is too quick to describe, and somewhere in my mind flashed the memory of Kleist's words: "They don't have much experience of war."
One group of kzin still advanced in a purposeful body toward the ridge and ditch behind us. I saw van Roberts waving his arms in another signal.
"Now!" shouted van Roberts.
The kzin reached the edge of the ditch and hesitated. Humans hidden in it shot them down as they stood against the skyline. Strakkakers whirred and were drowned out by the ear-splitting rattle of the Lewis guns, human and alien screaming and the smashing blasts of the kzin sidearms and the claymores. There were dense clouds of steam from weapons' cooling-systems.
Another mass of kzin charging up a trench became jammed together. A pair of humans jumped in front of them, firing a Lewis gun and a beam weapon into the mass of them, back and forth, up and down, like two gardeners with hoses.
I saw a group of kzin and humans hand-to-hand, the humans flung and falling in explosions of slashing claws. The group reeled onto the naked conduction cable of one of the big lasers and died in a flash of blue-white fire.
Another fight was going on around the flag, kzin hacking with knives, the huge blades whirling quicker than sight among the humans clustered there. I saw the flag sway on its pole and fall, then a green beam waved through them and another human rushed forward into the dying mass to raise it. Another kzin leaped at him and a strakkaker beside me—Dimity's—dismembered it in mid-leap. In hand-to-hand combat a kzin could tear any number of humans apart, but they seemed unable to realize how much weapons evened the odds.
There were exceptions. "So you're a smart one!" I heard Dimity's voice as she spotted and picked off a Kzin avoiding the battle and advancing in the concealing shadow of wall.
The fighting had dissolved into a series of savage, shrieking brawls and blastings among the wreckage. In glimpses as I ran from cover to cover I saw a human and kzin rolling together, the human actually attempting to bite the kzin's throat for a second before he was shredded by its claws. I fired into the mess, then got to the now unmanned weapon on the wall and began firing up and down the kzin line. I reckoned that if they saw us still firing back they would think their attack had failed and not send in more support. The kzin bombardment resumed but half the casualties it caused seemed to be among their own.
Behind us something was happening. In the flash of an explosion I saw more kzin leaping up another approach trench. They had taken the defenses in the rear. I shouted and grabbed at the man nearest me, with one of the Lewis guns. He fired off the antique weapon's entire drum of ammunition, checking them till I managed to drag the big modern gun from the wall around and join in. Another kzin charged at me and, spinning the gun desperately, I cut it in two. Another conduction cable took out a line of them, the screams of the burning kzin briefly drowning all other sound.
I don't know how long it took. Finally the firing stopped. The kzin were down and dead. So were most of the nearby humans, though they had begun by considerably outnumbering the kzin. I seemed unable to take my eyes away from naked protruding white bones and worse things. This part of the line at least was largely depopulated. Someone was beating the drum, irregularly, and a few more humans were stumbling up to the breach. Others were collecting the human and kzin weapons and dragging them up to the wall. Clouds of steam and the stenches of burnt flesh and disemboweled bodies.
Van Roberts, Grotius and Kleist were nearby. I won't go into details, but only van Roberts was alive, and he was plainly dying. Even after all that had happened, up to that moment I had not realized what the felinoids' claws could do. I think it was because I was used to dissection that I didn't vomit. I still had some pain-killers in my belt and gave him most of what I had. Dimity and I tried to tie him together, though it was obviously pointless. I thought to hold his head so he couldn't see what had been done to him, but he had no strength to move it. Von Diderachs came and squatted by us. He was pouring blood where a couple of fingers and half a hand had been sliced away, but I don't think he noticed till Dimity stuffed some sort of dressing against it.
"Goodbye, Rykermann," said van Roberts. "Look after what you can." He took Dimity's hand and stroked it for a moment. "Fly!" he told her. She was soaked in dark liquid and I thought she was bleeding profusely but then it showed purple in the light and I realized that it was kzin blood.
"Time. Remember buying time is what it's all for. But when it's finished get out! Head for the hills!" van Roberts told von Diderachs. "Save yourself!"
"What for? I'll be with you soon, Roberts."
"You're not a bad fellow for a Herrenmann," van Roberts said. "God . . . God be with you and all of us."
Von Diderachs nodded. He touched van Roberts's cheek for a moment, then walked back to the wall.
Van Roberts plucked at my sleeve. We knelt beside him, clutching his hands.
"Remember, Rykermann, they're not good tacticians." he said, "They're too hasty. They can be fooled."
He struggled to raise himself and shouted in a stronger voice: "Don't send the colors to the rear yet! They are still our rallying-point! Don't let the kzin capture them!" Then he died. We pulled some cloth over him.
I heard single shots and saw humans walking about killing wounded. Human wounded as well as kzin. They were stripping the bodies. Less hideously wounded humans tied up in bloody fabric were making their way back to the wall and the guns.
"Use strakkakers, you fools!" shouted von Diderachs. "Save your heavy ammunition for the kzin!"
I saw two small humans struggling to lift a huge kzin sidearm and realised they were young boys. A kzin in gold armor, obviously one of their leaders, horribly damaged by an explosion, unable to leap or use a weapon, stood propped against a wall screaming as if inviting someone to kill it. Presently someone did. Another kzin, dying, used its last strength to hack at the ears of the human that lay dead beneath it. A heavy gun was firing in the direction of the kzin lines, but the gunner's hands that squeezed the triggers were attached to no body.
I saw a man, a politician who I recognized vaguely from the early meetings, standing in front of a pile of containers. Another man seemed to be arguing with him.
"I can't release more ammunition without the authorization of a competent officer," he was saying.
"No, sir, I understand," said the other man, "but this is an emergency." Something in his voice seemed to alarm the first speaker.
"These are all the supplies we have. Show me some credentials and I will release them."
"Yes, sir. Will this do?" asked the other politely. He pulled out a small folding gun. The first man began to back away, hands raised to his face. Then he turned to run. The man with the gun took deliberate aim and blew him to pieces with a single exploding bullet. Then he returned the weapon to his belt and began loading containers methodically onto a dolly.
How long has it taken us to go from the twenty-fourth century to the fourteenth? I thought as the strakkakers whirred and the screams of the wounded diminished. How long ago had I been dining with the abbot and had we been reflecting together over his wine upon the too complacent state of our world? I couldn't remember.
"We beat them! We beat an infantry attack!"
"One. Look at our casualties! We won't beat the next. They'll be forming up for the final attack now."
But I remembered something else the abbot had said.
"We still have the aircraft!" Dimity seemed to be giving von Diderachs orders now. "An attack from the air could do them a lot of damage. Create a diversion! Fire everything you've got at them while we attack. They won't be counting on air support."
"One pass," said von Diderachs. "One pass and then get out of this. That is a direct order and I give you no discretion in the matter. You'll do no good by throwing your lives away, and there's little more time to be bought here."
"I can't leave you like this," I said. Something primitive, atavistic. I had no idea what the emotion I was experiencing might be called—it was counter-productive to my survival and Dimity's, whatever it was—but it went against the grain to leave them.
"Then let me make it easier for you," said von Diderachs. "Wunderland needs you both. But if you try to return to this doomed battle I'll shoot you down myself. There! I said you had no discretion. Wunderland will need you, Rykermann. Will need you both."
I looked at his haggard glaring face and shrugged. I had no discretion.
"Cheer, you bastards!" I heard him shout into the communicator as we mounted the sledge, and scattered cheering came from up and down the line.
Our drum was beating again. From the kzin lines we heard answering drums—a deep booming. I realized the drums were more than signaling devices: they must also be to encourage one side and terrify the other.
I flew, firing the big beam-gun as we swooped low over the kzin lines, Dimity firing the sidearms as she could at the infantry. The humans were throwing everything they had at the kzin, suppressing their fire while our beam tore into them. And our beam was hot . We saw ground tearing up and vehicles and aliens mixed in it, burning kzin flying through the air like comets. We heard alien screams of rage and agony. I thought I also still heard distant cheers from the human lines.
The humans had established some guns on an outcrop behind their main line: These too poured fire into the kzin lines, but as a stationary position they had a short life. We saw them hit by a heavy missile, possibly summoned from space.
One pass and we climbed hard away. A squat cylinder flew in an arc through the air, slow enough to be visible, and exploded in another soundless disk of blue-white light, another following—someone on the human side was still firing molecular-distortion batteries at kzin as missiles. Our sledge rocked as something hit it from below.
I banked, and we came in again, north of the end of the kzin line. We fired a few more bursts into the end of the line, setting off a chain of secondary explosions. No kzin seemed to have a thought of taking cover, and the beam-gun on continuous fire knocked them down in flames until it overheated and shut off. The whole kzin line was burning and the human cheers were unmistakable. There was still a pack of kzin vehicles, and we fired our remaining weapons into that.
Some Kzin had survived. They weren't firing much but what fire they had left was concentrated on us. Beams were coming back at us now, fast and very close. Something hit a corner of the sledge in a spray of fragments, throwing it about wildly and nearly overturning it. The beams—as I should have realized with our own gun—seemed to use so much energy that they could only be used for very short bursts, but I saw one swinging like a scythe. We avoided it narrowly but plainly a couple like that would finish us. There was nothing more we could do.
Had we bought the human army a respite? For what it was worth, I thought we had. The last I saw, every human gun was firing into the kzin lines without answering fire. But I also saw lights descending from the sky farther south. It looked like a kzin landing that would take the human forces from behind.
Our heavy ammunition was finished. I kept us low, following the contours of the ground. Behind us were more explosions.
"They'll get sick of that sooner rather than later," Dimity said. "Then they'll detonate a fission or fusion device."
"More to the point," I said, "why don't we use them? The Meteor Guard have them—and used them against the kzin in space, Kleist said. We could break up their landings and concentrations."
"I guess if we did they would retaliate massively. They control space. Munchen and the other cities would be obvious targets then. There's lots more both sides could do: use plasma gas, run a ramscoop in atmosphere, fire a spaceship's reaction drive downward into the infantry and melt them in one pass. If I can think of that, why can't they? Things like that have been happening in space."
"They're holding back for the same reason hunters don't go after game with strakkakers," I said. "Where would be the sport in it for the kzin?"
"It's interesting," she went on, as though discussing a problem in astrometaphysics. "Both sides are holding back from using their ultimate punches. I wonder if there is any hope in that? My head hurts. I hope Diderachs or whoever is in charge has got the sense to scatter before the kzin bring the nuclear devices in. They might get a few away into the hills. They might. I think the kzin will have to pull back before a strike." There was something wrong with her voice.
Munchen was a sparkling patchwork of fires, lasers still lighting up the dense rolling clouds of smoke. Here and there shellfire from heavy guns climbed in strangely slow and graceful arcs into the sky, evidently following kzin aircraft. But the devastation seemed less than I had expected. There were still large patches untouched. In some of them the lights of streets and houses were still burning, and other lights showed traffic movement. It was a weird reminder of a remote and vanished world, until we got closer.