would have estimated was possible. I arrived over the cut through which they would turn to make their dash for the oasis, just as the lead tank rounded into it-a massive Bolo Mark II, now running without lights. The Moroccans, caught in the trap of overconfidence in their intelligence analysis, still showed no signs of recognizing the danger. The first squad of four Algerian combat units was through the pass, gunning out into the open.

Belatedly now, a volley of flares went up from the Moroccan side; the tanks had been spotted. Abruptly the valley burned dead-white under a glare like six small suns; each racing tank was the base of a cluster of long, bounding shadows of absolute black.

I dropped lower, watched the second and third elements follow the lead units through the pass. The fourth unit of the last squad, lagging far behind, slowed, came to a stop. A minute passed; then he started up, moving slowly ahead, bypassing the designated route of march.

Out on the plain, Moroccan tanks were roaring out from their positions two miles to my left, guns stabbing across the plain, both columns together in a hammerblow at the Algerian surprise thrust. Below me, the lone tank trundled heavily away from the scene of action, veering to the left now, moving into broken ground. The approved Battle Plan had included no detachment operating independently on the Algerian left; if the wandering Bolo were detected by the monitors-as it must inevitably be within minutes-the battle was forfeit, the fury and destruction all for nothing. Something was up.

I ignored the battle on the plain. I dropped to a hundred feet, followed the tank as it lumbered down a shale-littered slope into deep darkness.


I moved carefully between towering walls of shattered rock, fifty feet above the floor of the dry wadi along which the Bolo moved in a sluggish crawl. A finger of light from its turret probed uncertainly ahead as though exploring new and dangerous territory. It negotiated an awkward turn, halted. I saw a faint gleam as its hatch cycled; then a silhouetted man clambered out, dropped to the ground; the tank sat with turbines idling, its searchlight fixed aimlessly on a patch of bare rock, like the gaze of a dead man.

I turned up the sensitivity of my goggles, tried to penetrate the darkness. I couldn't see the driver. I moved closer Something massive and dark was coming up the ravine toward me, hovering two yards above the ground. It was a flattish shape, roughly oval, dull-colored, casting a faint blue-green glow against the rocky walls as it maneuvered gently around a projecting buttress, settled in close to the Bolo.

For a moment nothing more happened. The idling engine of the tank was a soft growl against stillness, punctuated by the sounds of distant battle. Then there was a heavy thud. The sound reminded me of a steer I had seen poleaxed once in a marketplace in Havana…

I worked my binocular controls, tuning well over into the IR. The scene before me took on a faint, eerie glow. I maneuvered to the right, made out an oblong path of lesser blackness against the ground.

Abruptly, shadows were sliding up the rock wall. The angry snarl of an engine sounded from behind me. I lifted quickly, moved back against the ravine face. The armored shape of a late-model command car careened into view, an opaque caterpillar of dust boiling up behind it. The blue-white lance of its headlight scoured the canyon floor, picked up the dusty side of the tank, reflecting from the rim of its open hatch. The car slowed, stopped directly below me, hovering on its air-cushion, the blue-black muzzles of its twin infinite repeaters poking through the armor-glass canopy, centered on the tank.

A minute passed; faint, flickering light stuttered against the sky in the direction of the battle. The car below sank, came to rest slightly canted on the boulder-strewn ground. Its engines died. Metal clanked as the door slid open. A man in a dull-green Algerian field uniform stepped out, a pistol in his hand. He shouted in Arabic. There was no reply.

He walked forward into the settling dust in the alley of light from the car's headlamp, his shadow stalking ahead. I saw the glint of the palm-leaf insignia on his shoulder; a major, probably the squadron commander He stopped, seemed to totter for a moment, then fell stiffly forward. He hit hard on his face, and lay without moving. I hung where I was, absolutely still, waiting.

From the darkness beyond the stalled tank, a creature came into view, padding silently on broad, dead white paws like ghastly caricatures of human hands. Stiff, coarse hair bristled on the lean, six-foot body, growing low on the forehead of a naked face like a fanged and snouted skull. A pattern of straps crisscrossed the razor back; light winked from metal fittings on the harness.

It came up to the man who lay face-down with his feet toward me, fifty feet below. It settled itself on its haunches, fumbled with its obscenely human hands in a pouch at its side. I caught a glint of light from polished instruments; then it crouched over the man, set to work.

I heard a grating sound, realized that I had been grinding my teeth together in a rictus of shock. Cold sweat trickled down the side of my neck under the suit.

Down below, the creature worked busily, its gaunt, narrow-shouldered body screening its task. It shifted position, presenting its back now, the long curve of its horse- like neck.

I had to force my hand to move. I slipped the dartgun from its fitted pocket, flipped off the safety. The beast labored on, absorbed in its victim. Quick motions of its elbows reflected its deft manipulations.

A feeling of nightmarish unreality seemed to hang over the scene: the wink and rumble of the artillery beyond the hills, the knife-like sharpness of the shadows thrown by the light of the command car, the intent, demonic figure. I took careful aim just below a triangular clasp securing two straps that crossed the arched back, and fired.

The creature twitched a patch of hide impatiently, went on with its work. I aimed again, then lowered the gun without firing a second time; if one jolt of Felix's venom had no effect, two wouldn't help. I flattened myself in the pocket of shadow against the cliff-face, watched as the alien rose to a grotesque two-legged stance, then pranced away on its rear hands toward the body of the driver, lying crumpled beside the Bolo.

The major lay on his back now, the cap nearby, his gun a yard away. There was blood on his face and on the dusty stone under him. I estimated the distance to the command car, gauging the possibility of reaching it and training the forward battery on the monstrosity now leaning over the second man There was a sudden, sharp yelp. The alien darted a few steps, collided glancingly with the massive skirt of the Bolo, veered toward me. I caught a glimpse of a gaping mouth, a ragged, black tongue, teeth like needles of yellow bone.

The stricken demon bit at its rear quarters, running in a tight circle like a dog chasing its tail, yelping sharply; then it was down, kicking, scrabbling with its pale, flat hands, raising a roil of dust. Then it stiffened and lay still.

I dropped quickly to the ground, switched off the lift-field. I caught the reek of exhaust fumes, the hot-stone odor of the desert, and a sharp, sour smell that I knew came from the dead creature.

I went to the body of the major and bent over it. The face was slack, the eyelids unnaturally sunken. There was a clean wound across the forehead at the hairline. The hair was matted with glistening blood.

I turned him on his face. The top of his skull had been cut free; it hung in place on a hinge of scalp. Inside the glistening red-black cavity was-nothing.

I leaned closer. A deep incision gaped from the base of the skull down under the collar. Very little blood had leaked from it; the heart had stopped before the wound was made.

The alien lay fifteen feet away. I looked across at it, my breathing coming fast and shallow, hissing between teeth that were bared in a snarl. Every instinct I owned was telling me to put space between myself and the demonic creature that had walked like a beast but had used its hands like a man.

I had heard of hackles rising; now I felt them. I gripped the gun tighter as I crossed the last few feet, stood looking down at the sparse, rumpled coat through which dull gray-pink skin showed. I prodded the body with a boot; it was stiff, inert, abnormally heavy. I pushed harder, rolled it over. At close range, the face was yellowish white, dry, porous-textured. The hands were outflung, palms up, bloody from the trepanning of the major; near one lay a bulging, gallon-sized sack, opaque with dust.

I stepped around to it, knelt and wiped a finger across the bulge of the surface; it was yielding, warm to the touch. Pinkish fluid wobbled under the taut membrane.

I brushed away more dust. Now I could see a pink, jelly-like mass suspended in the liquid. It had a furrowed surface, like sun-baked mud, and from its underside hung a thick, curled stem, neatly snipped off three inches down.

I prodded the bag. The mass stirred; a snow-white sphere just smaller than a golf ball wavered into view, turning to show me a ring of amber-brown with a black center dot.


The battle sounds were slackening now. It wouldn't be long before another vehicle came along the ravine in search of the missing Bolo and the officer who had followed it. I stood, feeling my heart pound as though I had run a mile, fighting down the sickish feeling that knotted my stomach. I didn't have much time, and there were things to be done-now.

The tankman, lying awkwardly beside his massive machine, was dead, already cooling to the touch. I went back to the fallen demon, went through the pouches attached to the creature's harness, and found a case fitted with scalpels, forceps, a tiny saber saw. There was a supply of plastic containers and a miniature apparatus with attached tubing-probably a pump-and-filter combination for drawing off plasma. There was another container, packed with ampoules of a design I had seen recently-on the landing in my hotel. The thought was like a cold finger on my spine.

The last pouch yielded a scrap of smooth, tough paper, imprinted with lines of pot-hooks of a sort I had never seen before. I tucked it away in my knee-pocket, got to my feet. The paper was better than nothing as evidence that I hadn't been the dreamer of a particularly horrible nightmare. But I needed something more compelling- something that would communicate some of the shock I felt. Felix needed to see that skull-white face…

The ravine was still quiet; maybe I had time.

I ran to the car, started it up and brought it forward, halted it beside the dead man. I jumped down and lifted the limp body into the cockpit. I remounted, maneuvered up beside the dead alien. I opened the cargo compartment at the rear of the car, then gritted my teeth and grasped the creature's hind wrists. Through the gloved hands of the suit, the bristles were as stiff as scrub-brushes.

I dragged the corpse to the car, used the power of the suit to lift the three-hundred-pound weight, and tumbled it inside.

I went back for the sack containing the brain, put it on the seat beside the dead major, then climbed in and headed back up the ravine. As I reached the first turn, a glare of light projected the car's moving shadow on the rock wall ahead. I turned, saw a brilliant flare fountain from the open hatch of the Bolo.

I gunned the car, and felt a tremor run through the rock an instant before I heard the blast. Small stones rained down, bounded off the canopy and hood. Either the tank had been mined for automatic destruction if abandoned or else the creature I had killed had set a time-charge to eliminate the traces of his visit.

Вы читаете A Plague of Demons
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