Entrechats in Bloody Snow

by

Lee Alon




The UN soldier fell to his knees on blotted snow. Runnels of scarlet surrounded him as he looked in puzzlement towards the source of the shot. Not two seconds later, the young man collapsed to the ground, dead.

Major Hoffer heard it all and imagined what the dying troop felt. His own little band of soldiers, now only eighteen of them left, had grown accustomed to taking lives during the three month Siege of Vienna. He himself must have sent dozens of UN conscripts off this mortal coil. But now Hoffer and his posse were on the run, Vienna having fallen a mere six hours ago.

"Got the bastard," proclaimed Pvt. Zadka, mostly to his usual hunting cohort, PFC Burnaham.

Burnaham whipped out binocs, scanning the immediate surroundings for any stragglers.

"That was the last of them fuckers," declared the robust youth from Illinois, looking back towards the Major with boundless glee.

Hoffer was sitting on a little rock outcropping at the edge of a bomb crater where his unit was now huddled for shelter. Zadka and Burnaham were thirty yards out, amid the few skeletal tree trunks remaining after the prolonged fighting. Hoffer looked up into the bleach-colored, swirling sky. He sighed to himself, then looked at Doc Wang, who was curled up against his medic pack.

"Hey Doc, how much nanophine's left over from last night?"

"About 200 ml, at most. Not enough to keep Andalus viable much longer, if we can't get him to an medical facility," answered Wang after scrounging in a pouch.

Hoffer liked the Doc, who saved many a life during the siege, most of whom where later killed at the hands of vengeful UN recruits as they finally breached Vienna's last defenses. As for Andalus, he literally got the short end of a nasty old stick, having had his entrails visited by a Burrower round. Nothing could save him now, but at least nanophine could keep neural damage at a less insanely painful threshold. And it was just like the UN people to shoot retreating enemies in the back. A squad of Yukon Marauders had been hot on Hoffer and Co.'s trail since they dodged Vienna through the side gate just before dawn, but apparently Zadka's silenced Barrett .50 cal had put paid to that episode.

"Major Hoffer, sir?"

"Yes, Zadka."

"Took out the last Yukonite, sir!"

"Yes, I heard. Thank you, good work."

"What now, sir?" queried Burnaham.

"First of all, stop yelling, I'm right here. Can you see anyone else?"

"Not a soul."

"Well, you two keep watch up there while the rest of the guys lay low for some R & R. Let me know as soon as anything moves."

"Will do."

Hoffer inventoried the remainder of his force. Thirteen were passed out, sleeping in various degrees of discomfort. Andalus was ensconced in a containment box, but the smell of slowly rotting flesh still got out. Zadka and Burnaham had lots of fight left in them, which irritated Hoffer. Doc Wang was reading poetry again, not a good sign.

He stood up to glance about. Beyond the crater, the landscape was a mosaic of colors, dominated by patches of white and red. Zadka and Burnaham, prone behind emaciated, dead flora, stood out starkly against the steely hue of the heavens. Further away, Vienna's hollowed hulks peered accusingly at the world. St. Stefan's cathedral and the Burgstheater, shot to barely recognizable smithereens, nonetheless stayed erect, clearly visible even though a light wind began raising snow drifts here and there.

Everything was quiet, as if two divisions of hate-fueled UN brutes weren't less than five kilometers away. Flakes came slowly idling down to the ground, red and smelling of foul chemistry.

Hoffer's dad claimed it was entirely a Generation X thing, this war. When the notorious underachievers reached their twilight years as well as inevitable positions of power and leadership, so said his father, they let loose decades of frustration. Deprived of their Great War and moment of glory when the old superpower rivalries disintegrated, Gen X-ers found a way of taking revenge on a world bent on resigning them to history's dustbin. Hoffer's progenitor, a Generation Y himself, typically ended this tirade by saying Gen X couldn't get anything done right, even a war they started. So when the warring factions happened upon a surefire stalemate, both began courting alternative options. And the aliens were precisely what the strategist ordered, presumably to tip the scales, but effectively dragging out this ordeal beyond all measure. Since then, it wasn't merely a World War, but also a war of worlds.

Hoffer looked down. His feet were mired in reddish muck. Even weapons of mass destruction went awry these days. The Red Haze was designed to take out whole columns, but when deployed outside, some dumb schmuck's excuse for a lab product was rendered about as potent as a household cleaner. Later, refining the formula was abandoned, and now, once in a while, forces opposing the UN's push across Europe fired off a few Haze rounds, hoping to stumble upon ones that actually worked. No luck thus far.

"You realize how many families back in the States starved to pay for this shit?" said Lt. Bishop, squinting as his helmet was getting soaked.

"You're awake," said the Major.

Bishop had saved Hoffer's life in Vienna, pulling him back under cover when a platoon of Inner Mongolian snipers had damn near handed him a one way ticket to the great grassland in the sky. Hoffer still hurt from debris marooned in his left shoulder.

"We'll have to keep moving soon. It was just luck that got us out of the city, everyone else's gone, captured or dead."

"Probably dead," sighed Bishop. "Those UN fucks aren't too big on hospitality."

"I wouldn't be either, considering all we've done to them," Hoffer looked the other officer in the eye, then put a hand on his shoulder. "You're a good guy, Bishop. You'll make it back to West Virginia, I promise. I owe you so much."

"You don't owe me shit, Major. If it wasn't for you we'd be pushing up daisies in Siberia now. What's next on the agenda? We got any food left, by the way?"

"Maybe Doc's got a few rations somewhere. Wang!"

The sarcastic medical officer looked up, putting away his poetry book. "Yes, sir?"

"Got any food left?"

"Nope, fresh out. Didn't have time to take any rations while regressing."

Hoffer and Bishop exchanged resigned looks.

"I better check on Andalus," Wang said, heading for the containment box. Whatever he found when he checked the readouts, Doc kept his peace, and sat back down later to peruse somebody's pearls of wisdom.

A series of detonations in rapid succession reached their ears. Engines whirled and shrieked overhead.

"Guided artillery, westbound. Most likely targeting our rear bases," Bishop didn't even notice he was clutching his short-version assault rifle tighter as the hostile projectiles traveled above.

"Precisely where we're heading, lieutenant. West. To rendezvous with what's left of our forces in the theater."

"You mean the Linz HQ?"

"Yes, up the Danube, I'd say two days if we're OK. Look, this has to get there pronto." He held up a handful of small, bronze rectangles.

"Holy shit, the Kiev tapes? Where'd you get them?"

"Courier, barely made it to the city through the siege."

Bishop looked impressed. "Up the Danube, eh? But the Unies will be all over that route by tomorrow ..."

"No, I'm sure they'll have expressways and main roads closed, but not the river banks. Besides, we'll just have to stay in front of them, and quicker on our feet. It'll take them the rest of today to solidify control over Vienna." As if to stress the Major's point, gunfire resonated over the deserted space between Hoffer's men and the dying capital. He placed the bronze-colored tableaus back in his side-pouch.

"Andalus will slow us down. Maybe we should just leave him here ..."

"No way, Bishop," Hoffer motioned for him to lower his voice. "I'll lose Wang if we do that. He'll freak. Don't worry, we can manage," he whispered. "The tapes must get to HQ; we'll be losing more cities soon unless the brass can figure out how to read what they found in Kiev." Hoffer had a look of odium as he said this.

"Big deal, Major. You reckon it'll get you back to being a technical writer for that fat corporation? Wake up, we're losing the battle and the war. Pretty soon Europe will fall, and believe you me, those top echelons you worry about so much won't bat an eye at stranding all us idiot grunts." Bishop caught his breath, looking around to see if someone overheard his hushed diatribe. Wang heard every word. Some of the others stirred in their sleep. Zadka and Burnaham smoked cigarettes.

"What the hell? Zadka, Burnaham, put those out, damn it! You want heat probes to find us?"

"Sorry sir, we thought it was safe."

"Well, it ain't. Go deploy a couple of sonic scans so we know if they're creeping up on us. Double time it," ordered Hoffer.

"But we don't have too many scans left, sir."

"Do it!" he barked. To Bishop, he said, "Anyway, that's the plan."

"Pardon me, Major, but fuck the plan."

"What are you suggesting then?"

"I say we bail out, hightail it to the Alps. There's gotta be neutrals left somewhere!"

"Don't be naive, man. They all hate us. We stand in the way of progress and all the other crap they spout. It won't stop till the Space Needle burns."

The slow downward migration of Red Haze began to subside. As the minutes passed, fewer and fewer wisps of it settled on them. Looking up, Hoffer said to Bishop: "Either way, we need to move out of here. This position won't be safe for much longer, and we'll be starving soon at this rate. Let's get the men ready."

Wang watched the two intently. He shifted his gaze from the officers to Andalus' containment box, soon to be the dying man's coffin, and back again, quite nervously.

"What the matter, Doc?" asked Sergeant Gogoi, who just woke up from a much needed nap. "See something interesting?"

"Bishop wants to leave Andalus behind. How can anyone be so cold? Don't they remember all he has going for him? I can save him, I know I can."

"C'mon, that shit's gonna eat right through him."

"There's stuff to help that, back at HQ. That's where we're going anyway."

Gogoi hefted the huge heavy bolter, his weapon of choice and bane of UN conscripts everywhere. "Listen, Andalus was a great soldier. He put up a heck of a fight back there, but now you need to focus on keeping everybody else alive."

"Sure, but if we let one of us die by neglecting to treat them, are we even still worth saving? We left thousands of GI's in the city, Sarge, thousands. That and what we're fighting for to begin with has me wondering ..."

"Then quit your wondering and do what I do. Focus on the shootin'. Makes life a lot more complicated, all that poetry and philosophy of yours. This is a war, not a lecture hall." The sergeant moved away, crouched, trying to avoid splotches of crimson snow.

"Sgt. Gogoi," Bishop called in a hushed voice.

"Yes, sir?"

When they were closer to each other, near the center of the crater, Bishop said, "the Major wants Zadka and Burnaham back with the group, can you go get them? We'll wake everyone else. Movement in ten. And pass the word, we're heading up the river towards Linz and HQ."

"Certainly, sir."

"Make sure those two deployed their sonic scans so we can tell if someone's hot on our trail."

"Sure."

Gogoi found the pair of trigger-happy campers just as they came back from planting the last scanner. They rejoined the rest of the force, Zadka attaching a read-out screen monitoring the scans to his visor.

Ten minutes later, the group was ready to move out. They proceeded north, to where the old Danube coursed away from the dead city of Vienna.

The two people responsible for carrying Andalus had to be changed every twenty minutes, not so much because of weight, but due to the increasingly putrid stench coming from within. Bishop was pissed. By the time they reached headquarters there would be nothing left of the man except mucousy bits and pieces.

"You know what's funny?"

Bishop started. Wang was suddenly to his left, grinning.

"Andalus is a ballerina."

"What?"

"Yes, a ballerina. He studied ballet for like ten years before the draft."

"How do you know?" asked Bishop, looking ahead and trying to avoid Wang's probing look.

"He told me. Showed pictures, too. You see, I've known Andalus since boot, so he's actually a person to me. Not a fucking piece of flesh."

"Doc, get back in formation before I really get annoyed with you."

"Once thing though, not sure whether male ballet dancers can actually be called ballerinas. What do you think, Lieutenant?"

"I think you're begging for a court martial."

"Excuse me, sir, but I don't think talking's against the rules."

"Shut the fuck up and go back the line."

"Why don't you go down there, and I stay here, eh?"

"Coz I want to be upwind from that deadish, prancing pal of yours, that's why."

"You fucking asshole!"

Three men close to the conversation looked over with obvious surprise. The racket was enough to alert Hoffer, bringing him back from contemplation. This part of Austria was especially romantic, full of gently rolling hills, thick woods and winding paths. The air brought with it a woodsy scent, reminding him of the holidays back home. Instead, he had to deal with Bishop, Wang and the scent from Andalus.

"What's wrong with you people?" he asked them upon getting within earshot. "Don't we have enough problems?"

"Wang's disrespectful. He called me an asshole."

"No, I called him a fucking asshole," claimed Wang.

Bishop lunged at the medic.

"Hey!" the Major grabbed Bishop. "You guys, get Wang to the rear," he ordered two soldiers, who felt weird trying to keep the flustered Doc from punching Bishop. "Get him away from here, move. You, change packs with Wang, he'll need a bigger rifle in the back."

"Get your hands of me, I'm fine," said Wang. "Bishop, you're a cold-blooded mother. I saw how you looked at our wounded in Vienna. Like a liability. Well, I won't let you do the same to Andalus.

"Wang, get your ass out of my face, now!" Hoffer almost yelled. "What the hell did you say to tick him off like that?" he asked Bishop.

"Just that we need to get rid of Andalus before his corpse starts hurting morale."

"Bishop, listen, stop talking like that in front of people. Believe me it demoralizes them more than Andalus smelling like the seven chambers of hell. I know you want what's best for the unit, but not like this, man, not like this. I know them."

They strode forward cautiously, weaving between occasional, drying puddles of errant Red Haze.

Hoffer inhaled deeply, looked up at the darkening sky.

"Major, you don't seem to fathom my point. We need to survive. If it means writing off those who cannot be helped, I'll do it." He mimed scribbling on a pad, then tearing off a page and throwing it aside.

"Survival's not everything, we must hold on to our humanity. It's all we have left, don't you see? If we start turning on each other, that's it, the other side and those damn aliens win. Besides, Andalus is just one guy. Don't make it into too much of a big deal."

"Sure, but what about the next poor asshole to take a bullet? And the one after that?" said Bishop.

Hoffer felt for the pouch with the tableaus.

Bishop noticed. "Let me tell you, we won't get your precious cargo back to HQ straddled with wounded and dying troops," he added.

"We have to, Bishop, we have to make it back."

From up ahead, Sgt. Gogoi halted. His power suit creaked once, glistening slightly in the frigid evening air. Limpid shafts of bright light showcased the armor's decals and scars, remnants of Vienna's last stand.

On the comm, he hailed the major. "Sir, my unit's picking up talk. Not very clear, but it's definitely English."

Hoffer looked back.

"Zadka, anything on the scanners?"

"No sir, it's quiet behind us."

"Must be from somewhere out West. Maybe one of our own?"

"I doubt it, they've been jamming our radios since last night, and none of the cells worked since then, either," answered Bishop.

"Sir, I think it's UN speech. They must be around here somewhere close to get picked up by my receiver."

Hoffer hand-signaled a standstill. "OK, Bishop, get Ramos and Burnaham up there with the Sarge. Have them do a sweep, then report back. We'll wait here. And Sarge?"

Squelch.

"Yes, sir?"

"Let's keep off the comm, if there's a UN element here they can likely hear us."

"OK."

As everyone else crouched in the snow, Ramos and Burnaham went past, boots crunching as they sprinted forward. They joined Gogoi at point, and Hoffer allowed himself to wander away again, lamenting the lost holidays he could have spent with his family. The fragrant air nearly drove him insane with solitude. Maybe if he got these documents back to the brass, they'd let him go, let him see his home once again. Maybe they'd understand that he had had enough.

Twenty minutes later it was twilight, and Hoffer was jerked back to his feet by a thud, followed by the full-bodied, echoing sound of heavy weapons exchange in the woods to the West. The sweep didn't come back. In a few seconds, everybody was up and moving.

Hoffer pointed at a GI. "You, stay with Andalus"

"I'll do it," interjected Wang.

"You're coming, we'll probably need you. OK, line formation, around me! Stay close to cover! Find a tree if there's any incoming!" Hoffer tried not to be too loud. He waved at a hesitant Wang to follow.

"Make sure you're reloaded," seconded Bishop.

They ran, the soldiers forming a more or less coherent front with Hoffer in the middle. The firefight became noisier, nearer, but remained out of sight, with the trees getting thicker around them. Hoffer thought it was probably a forest much like this one that inspired Little Red Riding Hood and other tales. The world bounced in front of him with every step, puffs of steam emanating from mouths in the thirteen-strong ensemble.

They sprinted, reached a ruined stone wall in a clearing, and ducked for cover.

Hoffer used a steto-view to look beyond, found the sight too narrow, peeked over the rubble and found the clearing a veritable charnel house. White-camouflaged UN conscripts lay all around the area, with Gogoi in the center, blasting away. Some of the enemy soldiers were still alive, prone or behind cover, taking pot shots at his virtually impervious shell. Hoffer noted that the Sarge had taken out an anti-tank propellant cadre, with any further attempt to reach armor-piercing armaments meeting a nightmarish bombardment from Gogoi's heavy bolter, dicing foolhardy UN'ers to quivering shreds.

"Stay low! Get ready to go over!" ordered Bishop.

"No, belay that. He's doing fine out there. I don't wanna reveal our position. Oh shit."

The Major saw both Ramos and Burnaham lying dead near Gogoi's position.

Zadka saw it too, and began screaming for his friend. "Burn! They killed Burn!"

"Take it easy, dude!" said the man next to him. Wang came over to calm an anxious Zadka, now rearing for revenge.

But Hoffer figured Gogoi could handle this. It appeared the UN soldiers had landed in one of their flying cylinders, hitting the clearing just as the Sarge and his team arrived. Whoever poured out of the cylinder almost instantly bought the farm, but a few managed to survive a bit longer, possibly killing two of Hoffer's men while at it. Even these were now dead.

"There's another one! Another cylinder!"

They saw a second metallic object, this time more bloated in the middle, perched amid the trees south of the clearing. In a matter of moments, it peeled open, and a strange shape accordioned upwards through the dark. Gogoi turned his searchlights to the new menace. A grenade hurled by a dying UN soldier detonated next to him, causing no damage.

With all the confusion, they couldn't ascertain any definite form inside the new cylinder, but the whining, airy noise left no room for doubt.

"Fuck! A Chain Smoker!" cried Bishop. "Concentrate your fire!"

"You're nuts! That thing will tear us to bits!" answered Zadka, his desire for vengeance shy of the suicidal.

Slowly but surely, the other-worldly walker form emerged. Five-storey tall, its huge twin exhausts gurgled with unbridled power, releasing hearty belches of black smoke with every purr. Pulleys moved four thin titanium legs, and to the sides dangled six lengthy ammo belts, each connected to a mini-cannon. The machine whirled, found Gogoi, and fired. But the Sarge had been around the block more than once, and used the suit's turbo mode to run for cover in the woods, the walker's fire mostly missing him. However, he had no hope of evading the Chain Smoker's energy zap, which caught him just as he was about to enter the forest. The suit collapsed with the Sarge trapped inside.

Just then Hoffer's crew opened up with everything they had. Rounds bounced off the walker as it turned to pulverize their elongated cover. Two died on the spot, and shrapnel killed four more of the major's men. Hot expended casings streamed from the walker form's weapons, hissing when they met the frosty snow.

Either by dumb luck or through inexperience, the thing driving the Chain Smoker didn't see Gogoi clamber out of his dead exoskeleton, crawl under it, and wedge a grenade pack between two boney limb sections. As the seconds ticked, the machine's fire managed to penetrate the rock wall, with another two soldiers falling to the ground, dead. Until the explosion came, Hoffer saw no apparent signs of damage on the strange contraption, for all their concentrated fire.

The twelve grenades sheared off their adversary's legs, its bulbous head and exhausts dropping to the ground stupidly. The mini-cannons went limp, melting snow all around them.

"Follow me!!" shouted Hoffer, leading the charge over the now-defunct wall.

They ran again, but the machine had no firing solution, and even before Hoffer and the others reached it, Gogoi was already on top of its shiny exterior.

"Zadka, you do the honors. Where's the semtex?"

"Here!" replied a soldier called Mansour.

Zadka grabbed it from him.

"Put this abomination out of its misery," ordered Hoffer.

"With pleasure." He stuck a wad of explosives on the contraption, and everyone cleared the area with haste. It detonated loudly, sending shockwaves that momentarily rebuffed the downward-idling snowflakes.

"Good job Sarge, I'll see you with a medal pinned to your chest for pulling a stunt like this off," uttered Bishop when everything was said and done.

"Thanks," said Gogoi with obvious non-committal, and moved away to rally the remaining troops as best he could. "Wasn't more than a paper tiger, really."

"Worry about the accolades later. Gather everyone, Bishop. Zadka? Where's Zadka?"

The latter was crouched in the clearing among the dead and discarded, next to Doc Wang and their casualties. Eight dead. Wang made sure he did whatever was possible, but all his fallen comrades were beyond salvation. He took on a vapid, glassy gaze as his eyes surveyed the battle field.

Hoffer came closer. "Zadka, I want you and Mansour to scout for any other threats. The scanners still work?"

"No, we're out of range, I think. I want to stay with Burnaham."

"OK, you do that. But snap out of it, man, we have to get going soon."

Hoffer sent Mansour and another soldier to reconnoiter, while Gogoi came around with several items he had picked up among the bodies. "No intel, sir. Just ID's and other crap. Wanna look into it deeper? I don't think they were on special ops."

"Nah, let's boogie," replied Hoffer.

"Found these, though." He showed Hoffer a sheaf of blank papers, to which were tacked glossy black and whites.

"Whatís this?" asked the major as he observed the photos.

He was looking at two pics, each one showing a large black helicopter with a sizeable cage dangling underneath.

"Sir, those choppers, aren't they ours?" asked Gogoi.

"Yes, they look like transports."

"Maybe these UN dudes were sent to look for them. Either way, I propose we make ourselves scarce. This won't be a secure location for much longer." Gogoi turned to help Bishop in getting everyone in order. He also managed to reboot his armor and clambered back inside, grateful for the extra protection and firepower.

Zadka relinquished Burnaham's hand, and proceeded to assist Doc in burying their compatriots. There were very few of them left to help, but the job was done. They left the UN soldiers on the ground, where they fell.

Snow drifts all around them, Hoffer's troupe continued West. The major's thoughts careened off, but the war made sure he didn't go very far. Wang and Bishop were at it again.

How long had they been walking like this? It was pitch black around them, and he was tired. Everyone looked tired and in dire need of rest. He had little stomach left for in-fighting.

"Fucking tree hugger, half our guys dead and you still insist on carrying this relic around. Why don't you just get a grip?"

"They weren't your guys. You're an outsider. Besides, me and Zadka will do the carrying, donít worry." And carry Andalus they had, ever since they had left the clearing.

"We can't spare two fighting bodies for a rotten one, Wang, can't you see the freaking logic in the words coming out of my mouth?" Bishop turned to the Doc, who was leading Zadka in holding the containment box, and poked a finger at Wang's forehead.

"Don't do that," said the medic.

"Lt. Bishop, please let us be," Zadka almost pleaded.

"You believe this'll bring Burnaham back, this righteous pall-bearer act? He's in the ground now, dude. For the worms to enjoy."

"Please."

"L.T., there's no need for any of this. Just let them ..." Gogoi tried to put in.

"Wasn't talking to you, Sarge. I'll handle this, you be certain to come up with more heroics when duty calls, all right?" Bishop patted Gogoi on the suit's shoulder for emphasis.

Hoffer wanted to stop listening, which was easy. A whirring noise, nearly silent but quite obvious, could be heard. He noticed it while the soldiers were arguing, and it grew louder, closer.

"Hey, can you hear that?" he raised his voice a tad.

"Yes sir, like a whistle!" said Mansour.

"No, that's a hum. Motor of some kind," added Gogoi.

The sound emerged from high above the trees, in the churning black mass of low ceiling above them. It moved overhead, then in front, leading them off.

"It's gone," wisped Hoffer into the soft, falling icicles.

"Going our way, I think," Bishop said, once again clutching his weapon.

But then there was a short, high-pitched drilling noise, and Bishop's hands loosened. Blood trickled from under his chin, and he collapsed to the ground.

"Bishop!" cried Hoffer, but when he reached the second in command, his body lay lifeless on the ground.

Under Sergeant Gogoi's direction, the others scattered for cover, scanning the reflectively bright snow as it stood out starkly against the charcoal night.

"Wang! Get over here!"

There was no need for Hoffer to yell. Doc Wang was already tending to Bishop, although by the deceased officer was beyond help. "Sorry Major, Bishop's gone."

Hoffer looked around, put down his special-forces issue rifle, and pulled out a service pistol. He got up, and started plowing through piling snow. "Gogoi, get the men searching for that fucking sniper!" he practically screamed.

"Sir, no need to. Look," answered the Sarge.

From between the trees appeared a big black horse ferrying what they took to be a person wearing some kind of cloak. A long hunting rifle-shaped weapon jutted from the silhouetted figure, smoldering, as it slowly approached their hiding spots. To Hoffer there seemed something feminine about whoever it was. He held the pistol, aiming for the head. His other hand touched the pouch, now containing tableaus and the pics Gogoi had found.

"Sir, your weapon," said Mansour, coming from behind. He startled Hoffer, who almost squeezed off a shot.

The rider entered the soldiers' field of fire so confidently they didn't dare engage, at least not without coaxing from their commander. Wang paused in taking care of Bishop's body, looked up and saw a black horse carrying a young woman with flowing robes. She had an elongated, thin weapon in one hand, and the other held the horse's reins.

Hoffer looked at the person on the horse. A pale face was vaguely visible under the cloak's hood, and it began speaking to them.

"I don't know which is worse, you or the aliens. My family has lived here for nearly two thousand years, and witnessed empires greater than yours crumble no matter how justified. Your war has robbed me and mine of our homes, so we must leave. But consider this a parting shot." Her slightly accented voice sounded raspy, aged. Wang thought it sweet as wine.

"Why did you shoot my lieutenant?" asked Hoffer.

"Everyone, get ready!" whispered Gogoi, and the GI's took aim.

Hoffer moved closer to the calmly neighing horse. "Why? Why did you shoot Bishop?"

"He was here before. Took many of our people. A cruel man, one whose nature we could never forget. His kind went through these parts untold times prior, in different guises and under different names."

"What about me? The others? You gonna try for us as well?"

"Major, get back, we should take her down!" hissed Mansour.

"No, I can see you are on your way somewhere and wish the place no harm. But it may be too late, you won't win this war. You'll lose."

The horse chortled, letting out a balmy scent that made Hoffer think back to days when he enjoyed spending time with animals.

"Get off the horse and drop that big gun!" he ordered.

"No, I won't. Your trip will have to go through me."

Wang stood, hypnotized by the gorgeous, regal countenance of the woman on the horse.

"Canít have you riding around us like that. Drop the rifle!" repeated the Major.

"No. I am Agatha, and I surrender to no crusader." At that, she raised her rifle in a slow fashion, almost on purpose.

Gogoi and Mansour opened fire.

Agatha took the rounds, and blood spurted our in puffs, as if dried rather than liquid. She fell off her mount to the snowy ground, stirring on it in a dying reaction. Hoffer came nearer, bent down to look in her face. Red ooze trickled from Agatha's nose into her mouth, which was agape in silent speech.

"What?" asked Hoffer. "What was so important you had to die for it? Couldn't you just stay home? You silly bitch, my lieutenant and your own life, for nothing."

"You're the silly one, Major. You and all the other ones who believe you're doing the right thing. I'm in no pain, your bullets have in fact saved me from staying in a dead place. Now I can take my chances, maybe the next stop for me will be a place of life."

The horse came back after having run away from the gunfire. It stood, quiet, not ten feet from where his former charge lay, bleeding. The soft snow around her was turning scarlet, but more fell from the sky, matting Hoffer and Agatha. There was something kind and candid about the situation, and the others saw it, too.

"It wasn't bullets that killed you," Hoffer thought aloud, but Agatha was dead, her blue eyes looking contently into the swirling heavens.

Mansour and Zadka took care of the bodies, and forty minutes later they were ready to go. Hoffer stood by Agatha's horse, looking him right in the eyes.

"Should we take him?" Zadka asked the major.

"You mean the horse?"

"Yes, sir."

"Nah, let him run wild. What's going on with Andalus?"

"Well, Wang's looking in on him right now. Sir, there's like a hissing sound coming out from the box, it's real loud with the lid up."

Hoffer went over to see his medic, but Wang shut the containment seal as soon as the officer neared.

"How is he holding up?"

"As long as I can get him to a proper field hospital, there's hope."

"You sure? Doc, you're sure we shouldn't let him go?"

"Positive. Sir, I can't just let the guy down. You know what we went through in Vienna. He was there for a lot of us. I've seen clips of his family, they're nice people," Wang gazed down to the cigar-shaped metal container.

"And Bishop wasn't good people?"

"Don't know, he wasn't with us long enough," Wang answered. "Just let me handle this, you don't need to worry about it."

"All right, if you say so." Hoffer moved away, taking a position in front of the survivors. Zadka helped Wang carry Andalus, and they kept going, the sun getting ready to rise behind them.

Mansour joined the major. With the group reduced, their formation wasn't as rigid as before.

"Sir, what did that woman mean about Bishop?"

"Who knows, she was shocked out of her mind. Probably days of bombing, maybe raids into her town. Said everyone she cared for was gone."

"But she sounded convincing, if you ask me," Mansour was sincere.

"Yeah, a bit. This part of the world did experience a lot of shit over the centuries."

"She did speak good English, though, for a German at least," said Mansour.

"Austrian, brother, she was Austrian."

"Yes, sir, that's what I meant."

Exhausted, they made it to the morning. Linz was less than five kilometers away, and the Danube made guest appearances from between the thick tree coverage every so often. They walked up a narrow access road to where local HQ was supposed to be, according to the map. The snow stopped, but the day was cold and still.

Hoffer led his men, tired and despairing. Thick smoke bellowed from behind a curve in the road. They could hear the faint sound of fire cackling, and an aroma of burnt flesh made its way to their noses.

"Sir?" asked Zadka, who was replaced by Mansour. Gogoi took over from Wang. Upon noticing something was amiss, they proceeded to advance with caution.

As they rounded the bend, a large black chopper came into view, still burning. It was the same model depicted in the photo Gogoi found before. The cage from the same image was stuck among a grove of thick trees. The other helicopter, they saw, had crashed next to a fortified farmhouse, and was damaged but not destroyed. What caught their attention more than anything, though, was the snow. It was bright red with blood, huge splatters of the stuff everywhere around the grouped structures near the farmhouse. At least a hundred bodies were strewn all over, mostly UN, and practically all mutilated.

"What the fuck happened here?" asked Wang, bewildered.

"Major Hoffer!"

The major and his men looked around. It was Lt. Gen. Cameron, a gaunt man whom command had decided to entrust with Hoffer's battalion. Three of his GI's were clearly disheartened at having to clean up the scene.

"Sir, good to see you," replied Hoffer, and they shook hands.

"Amazing that you guys made it, we lost radio and cell contact with everyone from Vienna when the city fell. How was it?"

"I think you ought to tell me what happened here first, sir." They both stood in velvet slush, their boots painted red. Hoffer found the place surreal.

"UN black ops raid. They got a couple of our craft, as you can see, and came for this location after zeroing in. I believe they were looking for those, right?" Cameron gestured towards Hoffer's cross-slung pouch, with the precious tableaus. The major made to hand it over.

"No, give it to command. They're inside the farmhouse, waiting for you. Anyway, it got real ugly here, out of hand, you see. But we managed to repel them. The brass stepped in to help. Make it quick inside, we're getting ready to jump Austria, and I need your assistance with rallying the locals." Cameron stepped aside to speak with an NCO, and lit a cigarette. Hoffer wanted one, but moved towards the house instead.

Inside, staff and line troops were moving boxes and equipment out the back door. Hoffer heard trucks idling, and asked where the command room was.

He stood at attention upon entering.

"Sirs, Major Hoffer reporting from Vienna."

"Vienna, you made it out of there alive, yes?" Their combined voices sizzled in the cramped space, giving Hoffer a slight headache.

"Yes, with difficulty." He answered.

Twenty tentacles slithered all over the room, even the walls. The two creatures stood on large square pedestals, their odd, bulky bodies pulsating in the heavy Terran air.

"Give us the information."

He held out the pouch with the tableaus inside. A dinner plate-sized claw reached for it. Linked to its compatriot, one of the things put the whole khaki-colored pack in its mouth. Deep gurgling sounds came from both. One of the tentacles passed inches from Hoffer's face, and he recoiled.

"No need to be afraid, Major, you did well. We know humans require rewards for what they consider hard work, so what is it you want?" the voiced grew courser.

"A lot of good people died to get those to you. Will it help us win this war?"

"Win? We are already winning. But the scientist cerebrums captured on these will be sorely missed by your opponents. So in fact, your sacrifice was selfish, for you know that as soon as either of your human factions defeats the other, we shall leave. We see your revulsion at our presence, which means that you are in fact fighting to expedite our departure. But what is it you wish for yourself?"

Hoffer's headache moved from back to center stage.

"Will I be allowed to visit my family?"

A thousand tiny, black eyes peered at him.

"We will see to it. You may leave now, major. Thank you."

****

Every time Hoffer had to be around the aliens, it made him sick. The pain in his left temple dissipated seconds after he exited the command room. He waited five minutes while clerks, busy folding up shop and packing for the trip northwest, printed his travel docs. He was going home, but there, too, the creatures held sway. They were in every level of government, and would only leave when the war ended.

He was glad to be outside again, out in the fresh, macabre air. The chopper was still burning, but Cameron's men had stopped picking up the pieces. Everyone stood by the stairs leading up to the farmhouse's porch. Gogoi, Wang, Mansour, Zadka and the other survivors. Cameron and his three cronies also stood, fascinated. Hoffer came close to Cameron.

"Sir, can I bum a smoke?"

"Huh?" mumbled the Lt. Gen.

Hoffer began following their stares, until he saw the containment box, open.

"He's dancing," he heard Zadka saying.

And then he saw him. Andalus was out of his casket, moving and leaping across the bloody snow. He looked like a gore-dripping red mannequin, skinless, almost without features.

"What the hell is that?" Hoffer had to say to no one in particular.

"Entrechats. Nice moves, Andalus knows what he's doing," replied Wang, concentrated on the dancing body.

"Yes, he's quite the ballerina."

THE END



© 2005 by Lee Alon

Back in 2004, we heard that "Lee dedicates himself to wanderlust, movies, gaming, the written word, and teaching. He's a compulsive Blade Runner devotee (supposedly watched it over a thousand times) and can presently be found playing Call of Duty online against the great, teeming cyber-masses. Goals include living off writing (sure), getting to Mulholland Dr. sometime in 2019, and learning a fourth language." Mr. Alon (aka neoadorable in the Lettercol) has appeared many times in Aphelion, most recently The Apartment Ladies, September, 2004, and Chopper, October 2004.

E-mail: Lee Alon

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