Blood and water

"It didn't work." Smooth Mario eyed the still dripping water-pistol in his hand. "I was here on my knees next to the mop and bucket, scrubbing de floor when he come running past. I squirted him and dat imp on the ankles. All that happened was dat he tried to kick me. Does holy water stay consecrated if it's stolen?"

Danny was plainly shocked. "You stole it from the church?" In Big Danny's book, murder, pimping or selling crack were commercial enterprises as usual . . . but there was a certain line a good man didn't cross.

Mario sighed. "You been to confession lately, old friend?"

Big Danny looked uneasy. "Yeah. And when I tell Father Donnelly about this other world and dragon-hunting and M'lord . . . he told me to stop abusing the temple of . . . Okay, Okay. I understand. But you take it right back, what's left of it. And . . ."

"A big candle," said Mario. "As fat as my thigh. And after dis, I'm t'inking about joining a holy order. But first I gotta get outa dis woman floor-cleaner's outfit before someone sees me. Also, I been t'inking, Danny. I gotta have a word with Sal. The Carpaccio's are heading for war. We got too much money too suddenly. And we're hiring men wid reputation. The other corporates will be gettin' nervous. We gonna have trouble soon."

He wasn't intending to be literally prophetic. But as they came to the service lift a trio of sharp-eyed, heavy-set men stepped out. Fava, the leader of the trio, was well enough known to Smooth Mario. There was a certain professional courtesy between them, even if the other man was in the employ of a once richer, far bigger, more powerful concern. And he plainly recognized Mario, even when he was wearing a woman's clothes. Fava might be too shocked to react, but to Smooth Mario, the movements were instinctive. There was a gun in his hand, wasn't there? Only it wasn't his Glock. The pump-action Supa-Doopa Waterblaster, with extra water container, shoots-seven-whole-yards, wasn't what he would have chosen to meet Fava with. Not even with the half a font's worth of cold water it had in it.

Afterwards, Big Danny lay against the wall. He groaned. Finally he sat up, clutching his side weakly. "If I laugh any more I'm gonna die, for sure. Well, Mario. That's the end of Fava. He's a has-been, now. Running away from a water pistol! He's never gonna live this down."

In the pale dawn light the scene in the choppers was far more serious.

That dryness you get in your mouth, no matter how many times you've been in contacts or firefights was affecting the big sergeant-major badly now, making his voice crackly and hoarse. He couldn't get the memory of that . . . thing that he'd shot back in the Porra's office, out of his head. He didn't know, or care, that Vigo Carpaccio considered himself American. Carpaccio, despite his having attended an Ivy League university, and having transformed the family business, was swarthy- skinned, reflecting his family's Mediterranean origin. To the sergeant-major, all Southern Europeans were just Portuguese shopkeepers. Scum who took the money and jobs of good Afrikaaner boys. Actually his whole world was divided into two categories, as far as he was concerned anyway. Engelsmanne, Kaffers, Porras en ander kak. And the Volk. Now it looked as though he'd have to add another category of something worse. The word "duiwels" gnawed at his rather small mind.

His mood infected the rest of the men in the slick. The usual nervous filthy jokes died away. They were silent as the "V" of choppers, headed up by one of the gunships, streaked across the early morning Arizona desert, heading for a time, altitude and GPS position. The men clutched their AK-47s. A swamp . . . here?

Then there was the abrupt transition. One moment dawn light fifty-five feet above ground, and the next, powder-blue afternoon. Seven feet above a sea of reeds. And the first gunship in fire and smoke, heading for the swamp.

"FOK! Sprung, julle!" And they spilled out of the slowing slick like goat-droppings. Out of the corner of his eye the Sergeant-Major saw Kaptein Francois's lot doing the same two hundred yards off. Sersant Van der Heerver's lot were late, as usual. He saw them start to jump as he hit the swamp-water.

Sergeant-Major Els was merely a thick, efficient, killing machine. He'd achieved his rank in the South African Army by obeying orders, no matter what they were, and by being big and tough enough to see that the orders were obeyed by others. And by having a voice like a foghorn. Van der Heerver was something else entirely. He'd been an officer . . . several times. His reputation for brutal efficiency and rape went hand-in-hand. In the course of furthering the regime of racial separation it had been necessary for him to mix races against their will nearly as frequently as he'd murdered children in the villages he'd burned. Not what most people would think of as a nice man.

The eighteen-foot crocodile he nearly landed on wouldn't have agreed with them, however. It thought he was a very nice man.

But then, one might say that the crocodile had inside information.

It also hadn't eaten enough other people for a decent comparison.

The fringe of the Senaputt marshes, where the tide carries a salty flood into the reed beds and occasional mangrove patches, is a good area for crocodiles. Big crocodiles. And sharks. Evil sharks. Swimming garbage collectors. With lots of teeth, in case the garbage hadn't quite finished dying. And those aren't the worst things.

Four hippo carcasses had gone into the chum which the draconniers had spread through the channels that afternoon. It was a very bad time to land in waist-deep water.

While they'd been doing this, the heroes had been setting up pipe-bombs. Squigs, in quiet determination to get his own way, had modified these. Instead of the blast being directed upwards, now they would blow a cone of metal junk downwards. To the non-technically minded heroes a pipe-bomb was a pipe bomb. Squigs had carefully organized Korg into another task by the simple method of assigning it to Venus. They'd organized the trip-lines in the water leading back to the command raft. The swamp had been neatly squared off into target areas, little colored rags on the reed tips marking each patch. When someone pulled a trip-line it waved a little colored flag on the board in the sandbagged raft.

And that was just the start of the dirty tricks Squigs' contorted mind had come up with.

The careful measurement and calculation of the entry point had been a lot more accurate this time. Squigs had lit the slow-fuse to the rockets and paddled safely away from their raft, and back to the main raft, before they began to fire. There were two hundred of them, and nearly forty had shot into an unoffending sky, to Kate's snort of disgust, when four of them suddenly intersected a helicopter that hadn't been there a second before.

"Hit the nail right on the bullseye, boyo!" Mungo yelled happily. Then the troop carriers came, deploying men into the swamp. Squigs bit his lip. What he'd thought would happen. Only there were more of them than he'd expected.

There were three of the heroes ready and practiced at firing the modified bazookas now. Squigs waited for the gunship, ignoring the 'Wooomph!' of Leggilass' and Crummag's bazookas. One of them had hit the leading slick as it tried to turn. Doubtless Crummag would claim it, despite his record of misses and Leggilass' record of hits, at their makeshift practice range. The modified Aloette-gunship was homing in on the bazooka smoke. Cannon fire shuddered and ripped at the heavy sand-bag shelter. Squigs waited. Then, when it was seconds off, he fired.

And missed.

As he frantically grabbed for another load, the chopper came overhead. The gunner leaned right out to operate the bracket-mounted M60 at that angle. A whiplash of bullets streamed past Kate.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" she said irritably. She threw a two-foot flensing knife at the gunner. She did not miss.

Korg's crossbow twanged. He'd waited for the pilot to bank slightly to give the door-gunner a better angle. The co-pilot saved the craft, but he wasn't going to stick around these unhealthy parts. Then, four hundred yards away, an invisible hand reached out and twisted and plucked the helicopter out of the air, and plunged it into the swamp. The co-pilot hadn't seen the horizontal tracery of two hundred pound tuna lines spanned between the two vertical braided spider-silk lines. Those lines went from solid kedge-anchors to small hydrogen filled balloons. The one-yard apart horizontal lines had snagged and tangled. What the whirling vanes hadn't cut, had twisted and spun like spider webs around a very big fly. From a distance it must have looked like supernatural intervention.

Squigs looked at the remaining two slicks skittering away.

Looked at Korg, and then at Kate, seeing her with new eyes. He shook his head. "Who the hell needs Rambo with you two?"

Kaptein Francois swore under his breath. Long and descriptively. What the hell did that stupid bloody jumped-up chopper-jockey think he had A-P missiles for? But decent chopper pilots were harder to come by than grunt-mercenaries. This one had been a narco-runner, working for their former associates, who thought he was a combat pilot. Shit! And they'd been planning to use the choppers as eyes. Down here in the reeds they couldn't see where their enemies were. And you could bet your left ball that the other guys hadn't tied the bits of colored cloth to the reeds for ornaments.

Each man in the attack squads wore a headphone-throat mike setup. It meant perfect communication . . . of everything. The roar of the home-made rockets and clatter of the choppers faded off. Now the headset just relayed somebody's frantic screams, the sudden "chunk" of a grenade, and the stutter of small-arms fire.

Whatever else you might say about his men, they were professionals. No one could say they filled comms with wasted chirp. But right now he wouldn't mind knowing what was going on. "This is Francois. What's the screaming about?"

"Kosie here, Kaptein. A bleddy croc. The biggest I ever saw. It got the Sersant. Kaptein, call the slicks. Let's get the hell out of here." The voice was tinged with panic.

"Sa'majoor." That was the only reply Francois sent onto the air.

It was followed by Els' unmistakable bellow. "Shut up, troep. Buddy up, all of you, and watch out for crocs."

Francois continued. "Alpha section, advance your skirmish line north-east. Beta section due north, and Tango come in from the southwest. Keep it like that. I don't want any friendly-fire shit." But the captain was a worried man. That had been "Staal" Koos Colyn talking. The coolest man in the whole squad. A man who had been through half the hell-holes of Africa. The captain had been in a good few firefights alongside him. He had never seen "Staal" so much as flinch under fire. Drink the brandy in his water bottle yes, but never flinch.

The stealthy advance began. It should be a cinch. Forty-eight, sorry, forty-seven, professionals armed with modern weapons, against what their information had said were seven poorly armed primitives. And a traitor. The captain shook his head. What those city Mafioso in their plush offices forgot was that people had been killing each other, with more effort, but the same effectiveness, since man came down from the trees.

Captain Francois was an educated man. Before the fall of the Apartheid regime had made him soldier of fortune, fighting in Africa's little hyena wars of greed, where he despised both his employers and their foes equally, he been both an idealist and scholar.

His government had put him into a liberal University as a spy and agent provocateur. After three years he was able to tell Military Intelligence that, to students, anyone who had actually read "Das Kapital" was definitely a spy. But he'd loved history. He knew just how deadly humans had been even when they'd had the simplest of weapons.

It meant that he alone of the advancing forty-seven understood that these were probably the most dangerous foes they'd ever faced. Not the usual folk struggling between the iron age and the twentieth century, using weapons and ways of war they poorly understood. Instead of them trying to beat him at his game, he was going to be trying to beat them at theirs.

An explosion on his left flank shattered his reverie.

The voice in the headphones was that of a man in extreme pain. "Booby-trap. Shit! Hellman is dead, Kaptein. I'm bleeding like a . . . SHARKS!"

. . . Silence.

"Seems a shame," grumbled the dwarf, "Now that they're not in the sky, that we can't take the fight to them."

Squigs looked at the bloodthirsty little man. And carefully buttoned his lip. Needless to point out that the water would be over Korg's head, and that it was full of nasty surprises, and that there were about fifty foes out there. Squigs lit the fuse to the long-range rockets. Hopefully they, and the shriekers they carried, should come down somewhere near the place the helicopters were hanging out. Hopefully it would also be far enough away from the raft.

"Patience," said the baron, pushing yet another arrow's tip into the piece of soft wood in front of him. "They're coming." A pipe bomb to the southeast exploded, a little black cloud drifting up from it.

"Hmph! Pity they're below it," muttered Mungo.

"Er . . . these ones blow down, too," said Squigs quietly, almost apologetically.

Mungo looked at him. "Have you noticed how this boy always manages to get his own way?"

"Especially with loose women," put in Kate in a catty tone.

Just then someone tripped one of the lines in the yellow-rag sector on the left flank. At once the archers, that is, everyone but Squigs and Vila, began dropping long shafts into the area. Squigs checked the breeze. They were upwind. Drat. He took the red parcel off the ranged catapult and put a yellow one on instead. Cut the cord. The parcel arced over the yellow-rag sector, and exploded in a cloud of slow-settling dust. Before Squigs had time to watch for effects, a line in the blue-rag section was triggered. This time they were definitely downwind, on their right flank. Squigs was willing to bet there was someone advancing in the center, too. A red parcel was placed on the next ranged catapult. The parcel exploded above the blue-rag sector. Squigs was devoutly grateful that he wasn't in range of the gas drifting down from it.

In the course of their centuries-long quest for such mundane things as immortality and the transmutation of metals, alchemists had discovered some very interesting compounds. Some were so addictive that they'd stopped the researchers worrying about any other mundane quests such as mere immortality. The red parcel hadn't contained one of those, but "rose," as the drug was euphemistically called, caused vivid erotic or paranoid hallucinations, depending on the nature of the person.

The fine yellow dust was, on the other hand, not addictive or even hallucinatory. It had, however, made the faculty pour vast amounts of money into insect-repellant research after its accidental discovery thirty years ago. Inert on its own, it combined very effectively with human sweat. The virus thus activated rapidly penetrated skin, and altered the pheromones secreted in human perspiration. It was quite a pleasant smell, and would have done very well on the deodorant market . . . if it hadn't combined the sex-attractant pheromones of a large variety of insects. The concentration of these pheromones, normally in parts per million, was now increased to a vast super-sexy scale. And this part of the swamp was renowned for its biting flies, and stripey-legged mosquitoes of the "shall we eat him here or carry him home" size.

Before these compounds could have begun to work there was a terrible scream from somewhere between the two flanks. Squigs could swear he saw a man, blue under the tiger-striped face-paint, appear briefly above the twelve-foot reeds.

Ah. Someone had found one of the electric rays, then. Lazy, floppy, black-booty-looking things, abundant on the shallow mud-banks in this part of the swamp, they were easy to catch (because nothing ever wanted to disturb them) and too lazy and unafraid to bother to swim away from where they were released. They had placed several hundred in the reeds around the raft. Each ray was not prepared to move, unless it wanted to, and ready to give you a 500 volt, salt water transmitted, jolt if you stood on them.

Good. No sane person would advance fast through this. What they needed now was time. The tide would be turning soon, and with the fresh water, millions of small fish would be following the blood-scent that had washed up with the earlier tide back to this place. Small fish with big teeth.

The wind carried the distant sound of the gas-powered shriekers from several miles away, near the helicopters. Squigs shuddered. That was a roc challenge shriek. Even dragons avoided conflict with the roc. If they came, the helicopters were in dire trouble.

Almost as much trouble as anyone in the water would be.

"I lurrrv yooo, you sexy thing!" bayed a voice from Alpha section.

"HELP! HELP!!! Hennie's pulled all his clothes off! Hy wil my Naai!!" another clucked.

"You're all against me. You all hate me! I'm gonna kill you all," growled a third. A burst of automatic fire ripped through the reeds.

Someone squawked, "Fok! Vleis is trying to screw a crocodile!" By the sounds issuing from the microphone-earpiece rig, the crocodile was less than willing, despite Vleis' smooches and flattery.

More gunfire. A hiss. "I'll get you all before you get me."

"Ooh joy liker 'ambo maid, money so bit nice," bleated Vleis again, his coarse voice thick with passion.

Kaptein Francois covered his eyes with his hand, and shook his head, through the maddening cloud of insects.

Sergeant-Major Els' voice, with a background of gunfire, cut in, "We got a fire-fight here, Kaptein. I think it's someone from Alpha squad."

"They've all gone bleddy mad! Come on when you can, Sa'majoor." He swatted at buzzing cloud of flies and mosquitoes that surrounded him. There must be millions of them, and more were coming each moment. In his ears, clustering around his eyes, inside his shirt. They buzzed and bit and humped frantically in his nostrils. They kept flying into his mouth. Finally, holding the Uzi above his head, he ducked right under the water. Sharks, crocodiles or anything would be better than the bugs.

From his perch in the mangrove patch the better part of half a mile back Staal listened. By the sounds of it, about half of Alpha squad were sexually assaulting each other, the local fauna, the reeds, or members of the other squads if they could find them. The other half were shooting up each other, instead, and blasting what they could find of Tango Squad. Most of their efforts seemed concentrated on the Sergeant-Major. Staal couldn't blame them for that. Even paranoid delusions make sense sometimes.

On top of all this, arrows were picking at them, cloth-yard shafts falling from an enemy they could not see, or return fire at. Sharks and crocodiles cruised. There were shock-fish in the water too. Several more pipe-bombs had been triggered, but at least they knew what to look for now.

The bugs were driving Beta squad close to insanity, too. Besides, the clouds of insects hanging above each and every one of them showed their positions perfectly to the archers. Last time the Kaptein had called for a headcount he'd got twenty-seven replies, including Staal's.

Staal sat in the tree and took a slow pull at what was in his water bottle. It wasn't full of water.

When, if, the choppers came back, he'd try to rejoin them. In this chaos no one was going to notice that he was missing. Wait . . . those reeds there. They were definitely moving. A camo-painted face appeared. Fritz Meuller! One of the Kaptein's good boys. The last man you'd think would run. Well, any company was better than none, while they waited for the choppers. He leaned forward to call out. The movement drew fire . . . and the crocodile waiting patiently at the foot of the tree got two meals for the price of one.

Now that the crocodile was getting more used to this, it preferred the flavor of the man internally marinated in the Cape brandy. It had so kindly followed it home to its lair. And it tasted better than the earlier unwashed one, or the other one that had come to try to help the man he had shot.

From inside the crocodile, neither of the men got to see the huge bird that attacked the helicopters whose return they'd been waiting for. One helicopter the bird sent into the swamp. The other it chased off.

The captain was a hard man to stop, as a large number of dead men, both comrades and foes, could have testified. His force's numbers were down into the mid-teens now. But ahead lay a small piece of open water. And a sandbagged raft. He gritted his teeth. Thirty yards of open water. There were bound to be booby-traps. But he was beyond caring now. He just wanted to get out of this stinking, electric ray, shark, crocodile, lamprey and, worst of all, bug infested swamp.

He felt for a grenade. Damn. One left. They'd found that grenades were all that were effective against the crocs and the electric rays. Toss one. Wait. Advance. It hadn't helped against the roving sharks though. All you could do was get the hell away from the victim, and watch whoever had been attacked try to climb the reeds as the sharks shredded them. You could shoot at the sharks, but it made not a bugger's worth of difference. It only brought more sharks after the blood. Now. Did he toss the grenade into the channel . . . or try for the stockade?

He decided on the stockade.

A hand the size of a medium-weight gorilla's caught the grenade, and tossed it straight back. It exploded above the channel. As the surviving mercenaries were raising their heads after the explosion, a short, wide figure, brandishing a very large axe, leaped up onto the sandbag wall. "Will you get a bloody move on!" he bellowed. "The tide's turned, and the piranhas'll be here any minute. Hurry up, and swim across, so I can knock the living shit out of you, you tall swine!"

Deon "Dop" Verster was the only one of the combined Tango-Beta squad survivors who didn't just stare open-mouthed. Thumbing the automatic rifle to single-shot, he aimed. Dop could have won a place in any Olympic rifle team, when he was sober. And he was sober now, and good and mad, having up to now not seen anyone to shoot at in this mission through the hell-swamp.

The dwarf didn't fall. Dop gawped. He'd hit him! He knew he'd hit him! Instead the short man put down his axe, and lifted his fists. "Come on, you bunch of gutless wimps. Throw those bloody rubbishing toys of yours away. Come over and fight like proper men. I'll bring you down to size with my bare hands. I'm gonna march your teeth out of your bum like real soldiers. Now, move your arses! Or the piranhas'll get to you before I can!"

"I'll sort you out, orright, you short little shit!" Dop was too angry to even think. He swam the channel, without being spitted by the arrows that his comrades expected. He pulled up onto the raft. Thumbed the AK to rapid. And had it slapped out of his hands. Kicked into the water.

The dwarf couldn't reach the man's chin. So he pulled Dop's legs out from under him.

The barroom brawling legend of army camps from Ondangwa to Uppington sprawled onto the raft planking. Dop was raised by his shirt-front and given a careless backhanded slap which knocked four of his teeth out.

"What do you call a short shit who is about to rip both your legs off, and hit you with the wet ends?" growled the dwarf, looking down at him.

Dop didn't have too many grey cells . . . but he knew the answer to this trick question. "Shir!" he slurred respectfully, through the blood and his mashed lips.

"Clever boy!" said Korg. "For that you only get dreamland," and he swatted his victim into that place.

He turned to the watching tiger-painted faces in the reeds. "Next!" He bellowed.

Kaptein Francois brushed away the solid layer of insects that were passionately trying to copulate with his face. This wasn't war. This was a farce. Unfortunately, his men were too stupid to see it that way. Several of them were swimming across to the raft. A man the size of the late sergeant-major, only wider, was saying to the dwarf, "'Tis my turn now! 'Tis my dragons they've been killing! Enough 'o this velvet fist stuff, 'tis time to stop spoilin' the child for the lack of beatin' the dogs."

The captain shuddered. Well, let the fools keep the enemy busy while he completed their mission. He drew his twelve-inch West-German army issue trench-knife. Took a deep breath. Coughed, spluttered, and spat out bugs. Filtered another deep breath through his moustache, submerged and began to swim underwater to the far side of the raft.

When he came up next to the raft he saw that at least Baboon Malan and De Beer had had the brains to follow him. And somebody else. The body was being ripped apart in a bloody froth about fifteen yards away. You could see the little fish snapping and tearing at it. With new energy the three of them hurled themselves onto the raft. The sandbagged fort was empty. Just coming out of the maze-passage were three people. Two girls. And the tall target himself.

With an inarticulate scream of desperation and rage the mercenary captain flung himself forward.

Squigs looked at the eight surviving prisoners. A pity about the one that Kate had thrown overboard to the piranhas. And the one that Venus had given a very pointed lesson in swordswomanship to. Still, they had their attackers' captain alive, if not quite in one piece. He stroked the black hand appreciatively. It could have been nasty. He'd tripped over his own feet, when turning to face that knife-wielding maniac. He remembered stopping the knife on the downstroke, catching the forearm. And the bone-cracking squeeze, and shake. Like a terrier dealing with rats.

Mungo walked over. "Well, it went better this time, eh, me boyo. Better than last time when you had to send up that flare to call them back to us."

Squigs looked at him, seeing a hole in the completeness of things. "I never sent up that flare . . ."

There was still an informer in their midst. He hoped that they'd get a lead from the prisoners. They'd talk, if he threatened them with Korg . . . or Vila. She was a genocide policy all by herself.

In a smoke-filled room, like unto those where the fate of great nations is decided, sat the sinister conspirators. Well, actually, lounged the sinister conspirators, each with a mug of a fulvous-yellow brew, which made the stuff merely containing eye of newt, etc., seem tame.

Korg coughed. "Haven't you swamp folk heard of blooming chimneys?"

Mungo grinned. "I don't believe in takin' these modern innovations too far. When I was a sprog we didn't even have the hole in the roof. What do you think of the brew, boys?"

Squigs eyed it warily. He'd swear the stuff winked at him. "Well, it hasn't killed me yet. What is it?"

It was the sort of question you really should never ask. Even before he'd finished uttering the words Squigs knew that.

"Hot mead, schnapps and advocaat with a dash of over-proof absinthe, and a spot of nutmeg. Nice color, eh?"

Squigs supposed it was, if you liked a wicked, curdly yellow tiger striped with brown. Oh well, he could always go and bargain with Huigi for a new liver and throat lining. "Look, what I wanted to talk to you about was a raid on the people behind all this. That mercenary captain . . ."

"He certainly let the beans out of the cat when you threatened to let Vila loose on him. Quite funny him saying he used to dream about girls like that, and he didn't know how lucky he'd been never to meet one before," said Mungo.

By mutual agreement he and Squigs were not going to tell Korg about the one other thing that the captain had been able to tell them: that the enemy agent in their midst was a female.

"Anyway," continued Squigs, "he's agreed to turn against his former employers, in exchange for his men's' freedom, and a bug repellant. He reckons he owes them a little visit anyway, for setting him up like this. There's a congruence tomorrow night that will take us to within ten miles of their headquarters. I want to go there, and take the fight to them. I don't want the girls to know . . . or they'll want to come along," he lied glibly. "Are you game?"

The dwarf knocked back the mug of yellow stuff, before it got out of the glass by itself. "That's the trouble with being tall. The blood never reaches your brains. Still, you tall folk can't help it, I suppose. Being thick, I mean, and asking stupid questions. Good idea to keep the girls out of it though. Lady Venus distracts me from serious matters."

"Makes you show off, you mean," said Squigs with a grin.

"Me! ME!" said the dwarf, doing his best "affronted" imitation. "I'm the soul o' modesty! Now, how about a refill?"

Plans were made. Squigs gradually decided you could get used to drinking anything. After a while you even got to like it.

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