Those crazy, sloppy, frog-like Narakans ... all thumbs and six-inch skulls ... relics of the Suzi swamps. Until four-fisted Lt. Terrence O'Mara moved among them--lethal, dangerous, with a steady purpose flaming in his volcanic eyes.
Terrence O'Mara lay flat on his back trying to keep his big body as still as possible. Despite the fact that he was stripped to his regulation shorts, a large pool of sweat had formed on the cot underneath him. The only movement he permitted himself was an occasional pursing of his lips as he dragged on a cigarette and sent a swirl of smoke upward through the heavy humid air. Then he would just lie there watching as the smoke crept up to mingle with the large drops of water that were forming on the concrete of the command post.
"Damn! Damn Naraka, anyway! Outpost of civilization! Who'd want the blasted place except the Rumi?"
At the words, Terrence moved his head just a fraction of an inch and his eyes only a little farther to look across the room to where Bill Fielding was twisting and turning on his cot. All he could see of the other man was the wet outline of his body under a once white sheet and a hand that every so often reached into a bucket of water on the floor and then replaced a soaking T-shirt over a red head.
"You'll feel it less if you lie still," Terrence said, distressed at the necessity for talking.
"Feel it less! My God, listen to the man! What difference does it make if you lie still or move around or even run around in the suns like a bloody Greenback? Dust Bin will get you one way or another ... and if it doesn't, the Rumi will."
The visible hand lifted the T-shirt and began to pop salt tablets into an open mouth like they were so many peppermints.
"I wonder where Norton is. Out reviewing the troops?"
"Reviewing, my eye. He's up at Government House sitting in that cool living room drinking one of Mrs. Wilson's icy drinks and admiring Mrs. Wilson's shapely legs. From a discreet distance, of course. Being temporary Commanding Officer of even Dust Bin has its privileges!"
There was a rattle of drums and the blare of one or two off-key instruments from outside.
"Then why," asked Terrence, "are those poor beggars marching up and down in this blasted heat?"
"The Greenbacks? They love it! It would take more than a little heat to get under those inch-thick skins of theirs. They like to play soldier when it's a hundred and thirty under water."
There were a few more straggling notes and then the semblance of a march began.
"Listen to that, will you?" Fielding moaned, "They can't even keep time with a drum! They can't march, they can't shoot, they can't break down a Banning; they're all thumbs and six-inch thick skulls. 'Train local forces to take over'! Bah! Did those desk jockeys back in New Chicago ever see a Greenback? Did they ever try to teach a Narakan to fix a bayonet to the proper end of a rifle or to fire a blaster in the right direction?"
Terrence was lighting another cigarette with as little exertion as possible. "Yes, but they keep trying. Ten hours a day. You don't have to drive those boys. They want to learn. Listen to O'Shaughnessy barking out orders."
"Sergeant Major O'Shaughnessy of the First Narakan Rifles!" Fielding murmured sarcastically. "A year ago he was squatting in a mud cocoon at the bottom of Suzi swamp with the rest of the frogs. Now he's got a good Irish name and he's strutting around like a Martian Field Marshal."
"I thought the names might give them a sense of self respect. Besides we couldn't pronounce theirs and I was tired of hearing Norris yell 'Hey, greenboy!' at them."
"Well, they picked the right guy when they made you Training Officer. You and those damn frogs get along like you came from the same county!"
"They aren't any great shakes for brains but you can't take anything away from me boys for willingness."
"Willingness! Hooray! They're willing, so what? So is a Suzi Swamp lizard. What'll it get them? A week after they pull the Terran forces out, the Rumi will gobble up the lot of them. Maybe they'll gobble them and us before we pull out. Who could fight in this place? Who'd want to fight? I say, to hell with Naraka! It's so near to hell already with those two blasted suns blazing sixteen hours a day. Let the Rumi have the stinking planet! Let them have the whole Centaurian System!"
"Speaking of pulling out, I wouldn't be surprised if Dust Bin wasn't the next place we let go of...."
Fielding raised himself on one elbow, "No kidding? Where did you hear that?" His sunburned and blistered face was alight with excitement.
"Well, you know how it's been. When we first came here twenty years back, we drove the Rumi out of all this country and more or less took their cat feet off the Narakan's backs but now that so much of the Earth garrison has been pulled all the way back into the Solar System, the Rumi are acting up again. So much so that the dope I got is that we may be pulling everything back into the Little Texas peninsula to wait for reinforcements and it will take four years for those to come out from Mars."
"Great! Great! But.... Ah, it's too good to be true. Can't you just picture Fielding and O'Mara parading down Dobi street in New Chicago with their first lieutenant bars on their collars? Say, you don't suppose that's why the Sun Maid is sticking around out here, do you? Imagine, free transportation! A two hour trip to New Chi!"
"I'd sure hate to march those two hundred miles at this time of year!"
"March? Through those swamps? Every time we run a patrol through them...."
Fielding was interrupted by a knock on the door and a skinny young Terran with sergeant's chevrons on his shorts stuck his head through from the other room and said, "Major Chapelle's on the voice radio, sir. He's calling from battalion headquarters and wants Captain Norton."
"Tell him Norton's up playing footsies with the Resident's wife," Fielding said, "You'd think those people down at the river would have enough to do without bothering us in the heat of the day, wouldn't you?"
The sergeant looked shocked and started to withdraw his head. Terrence frowned Fielding into silence and called to the sergeant, "Just a minute, Rogers. I'll talk to the Major."
Major Chapelle was a thickset, balding man in his late forties. Even the blazing suns of Naraka hadn't succeeded in burning the sickly yellow color off his face. In the vision screen he looked like a man on his last legs. Whatever was wrong with him didn't help his temper, Terrence thought as he lowered himself gently into a seat before the screen.
"O'Mara! Where in hell is Norton?" he demanded.
"Well, sir, you see...." began Terrence.
"Never mind! I've a pretty good idea where he is. A fine time to be chasing skirts! Well, get this straight, O'Mara. Orders have come through and we're pulling the battalion out. We're ordered back to Little Texas. We're going to give up these positions along the river tonight and pull back into Dust Bin. The Sun Maid will stand by to evacuate us. You people are to come too. Everybody has to get out, both the military and civilians. All hell's broken loose down river. The Rumi are across the Muddy in half a dozen places. They've cut the 5th to pieces. New Chicago thinks that those cats have been bringing troops in from space all along despite the agreement by both sides not to do so. And now they have us way outnumbered." The Major's voice held a thin edge of hysteria.
"Is there any action along our front, Major?" Terrence asked quickly, hoping to stop the flow of talk before Chapelle's hysteria communicated itself to the enlisted men who were sitting or lying about the command post.
"Not yet; just patrols across the river so far. We've got to get out, O'Mara, and get out fast. They'll be all over us if we don't. The Colonel says for Norton to have everything ready to go. He wants the depot destroyed. Everything's got to go, everything we can't take along. The Sun Maid won't have time for more than one trip. He wants the HQ company and the civilians on board by tomorrow morning at the latest."
"What about the Rifles, sir?"
"What? The what?"
"The native troops, sir. The Narakan Rifles." Terrence grated.
"The Rifles? Good God, man! We haven't time for nonsense. The Rifles are only Greenbacks, aren't they? You get Norton started burning those stores."
Terrence put down the microphone very carefully to keep from slamming it down and stalked back into his quarters. Angrily he began to take his radiation clothing from its hooks on the wall.
"What the devil is eating you?" demanded Bill Fielding.
"We're pulling out, lock, stock and barrel," Terrence told him.
"Pulling out? Whoweee! I knew Mrs. Fielding didn't raise her boy to be a fried egg. Goodbye, Dust Bin! Hello, New Chi!" Bill was up on his hands and knees pounding on his cot. "But what's the matter with you? You like this place?"
"They're leaving the Rifles," Terrence said, zipping up his protective coveralls as he left the room.
Stepping outside on Naraka with the full power of Alpha and Beta Centauri beating down was like stepping into a river of fire. Even with the cooling unit in his suit, Terrence was aware of the searing heat that filled the parade ground. Looking off across the makeshift native huts, he could see the bright sides of a huge space ship-like object. The big dirigible Sun Maid was lying in an open field. It's a funny world, he thought to himself, where you have to use dirigibles for planetary travel. But a dirigible was the only practical aircraft when you had to use steam turbine engines because of the lack of gasoline and the economic impracticability of transporting it in the limited cargo holds of the occasional spacers that came out from Sol.
The Narakan Rifles were marching toward him now, the band doing absolutely nothing for The Wearing of the Green. Three hundred big, green bodied, beady eyed, frog-like creatures were marching in the boiling heat with their non-coms croaking out orders in English which might have come out of Alice in Wonderland.
As they marched by him, he snapped a salute. Watching them closely he tried to find two men who were in step with each other or one man who had his rifle at the right angle. Unable to find either, he stood there conscious of failure; failure which went beyond mere military precision however. Sloppiness at review could have been overlooked if he had been able to find that the Narakans had any ability as fighting men but after a year of training they seemed almost as hopeless as they had at first. It wasn't that they were completely unintelligent. In fact, other than the Galactic traveling Rumi, they were the only extra-solar race of intelligent beings encountered by man so far. It was just, he thought, that the hundreds of years during which the Rumi had dominated their planet had reduced the Narakans to a state of almost complete ineptitude.
He stood there as they passed in review three times because he knew that his presence pleased and encouraged them. Then he turned, and with dragging feet made his way down Dust Bin's single street toward Government House.
In a few minutes he was standing in the cool, air conditioned living room of the Wilsons. Wilson was seated at his desk rummaging through some papers while Norris and Mrs. Wilson were lounging in contour chairs admiring each other over tall, frosty drinks.
They took the news just as he expected them to. Wilson ran his hand through his sparse, gray hair and murmured something about it being a shame to have to leave the natives on their own after having more or less dragged them out of their comfortable swamps. A glance from his wife silenced him.
"What the hell," Norris said, "they're only blasted thick witted Greenbacks."
Mrs. Wilson yawned, "It'll be something of a bother packing but it'll certainly be a pleasure to get back to New Chicago. Some women's husbands get good posts in half-way civilized parts of the Universe. I don't know why I should always have to be stuck in every backwater, hick town there is."
Wilson smiled apologetically, "Now, dear...." he began but was interrupted by the sudden ringing of the telephone on the table near Norris' chair.
"Get that, will you, O'Mara?" the captain said, making no attempt to reach for it, "It's probably the Command Post."
Terrence put the phone to his ear angrily and growled into it. An excited Bill Fielding was on the line. "Terry? Is that you? Fielding here. Hell's breaking loose. There's a bunch of blasted Rumi trying to force their way into town. They attacked the sentries down this way and may be heading for your end of town too."
Terrence dropped the phone and headed for the door. "Rumi!" he shouted and there were shouts and cries from outside in answer. Then he heard the clack, clack, clack of Rumi spring guns. Windows of the room crashed in and Wilson collapsed across his desk. Norton grabbed Mrs. Wilson and pulled her down onto the floor. Terrence dropped to his hands and knees and continued toward the door as he drew his forty-five.
Somewhere, someone had cut loose with a Banning and its high whine drowned out the clack of the spring guns. With a quick look around, Terrence started at a run for the next building which was the native schoolhouse. He didn't make it. There was a clack, clack from off to his left and he threw himself forward, skidding and sliding in the dust and gravel of the street. A warehouse across the square was on fire and three Rumi had darted from behind it. In one brief glance he saw those long barreled spring guns of theirs and the tall, graceful bodies and the feline faces under the plastic protective clothing.
He snapped four shots at them and saw one fall. Then he began to slither along the ground raising enough dust to mask his movements. There were half a dozen of them in the square when he reached the rear door of the schoolhouse. Several gleaming plastic bolts smashed into the wooden outer door a second after he had raised up to open it and then had dropped back down.
Norton fired from the residency and momentarily scattered the Rumi and Terrence was inside the school room and racing for the side window from which he could get a clear line of fire at the raiders. He had a brief glimpse of Joan Allen, the school teacher, standing in a corner of the room with the tiny green figures of native children huddled around her. Then he was at a window and had beaten out the heavy protective glass and was firing into a mass of the catmen, firing and cursing as his gun emptied. He cursed in a stream of Martian, English and Greenback profanity as he forced another clip into the gun.
"Lieutenant O'Mara, if you'll be so kind as to restrain your language in front of these children," a voice said from over his shoulder.
Terrence reached back and felt something soft and forced it over against the wall out of the line of the window. Then he risked a quick look which was almost his last. A spring gun bolt burned a groove in the windowsill next to his head and smashed into the blackboard across the room.
"Lieutenant O'Mara, would you mind telling me what this is all about?" came the same calm determined woman's voice from beside him. He fired again at a darting figure across the square and saw it stumble before he had to drop to his haunches as the window above him was smashed and scattered by bolts and glass rained down about his head.
He put another clip into his gun and cursed because he had only two left. He turned his head briefly and had a quick glimpse of a white face framed in straight dark hair and a small, neat figure in a yellow dress.
"Rumi attack. One of their patrols must have gotten around the battalion."
A husky, whimpering little sound made him look down. A native child or pollywog as the Terrans called them was clinging desperately to the teacher's skirt. His tiny webbed feet clutched at the cloth as he buried his face against her leg. From behind her peered still another child, its baby frog face working spasmodically in the beginnings of a sob. Six or seven others were lying flat on the floor their bodies trembling in terror.
Terrence took another look outside and what he saw sent him into another stream of cursing. The Narakan Rifles were hurrying to the scene of action. Down the middle of the street they came in a column of fours with their drums and bugles blaring out a poor imitation of The Wearing of the Green. Their standard bearer was running at the head of the column beside Sergeant Major O'Shaughnessy.
"Oh, my God! He wouldn't...!"
"Teacher, will you shut up!" he roared as he leaped across the room toward the front door. At the harsh tone of his voice, the whimpering sounds in the room suddenly burst forth in full volume as the ten pollywogs raised their hoarse voices into full throated croaks.
Terrence braced his body against the wall and held his gun ready as he pulled open the door. In parade formation his men were moving up the street and in a moment they would be away from the buildings' protection and directly in the Rumi line of fire.
"O'Shaughnessy, you idiot!" he roared above the croaking from behind him and the rattle of firing outside.
O'Shaughnessy came to a skidding halt almost directly in front of the schoolhouse but his men kept on going, their faces set and determined. O'Shaughnessy came to attention and snapped a salute.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Lieutenant."
"Halt! Damn it, HALT!" Terrence yelled at the column of greenbacks. Their formation crumbled as they ran into each other, stepped on each other's feet and pushed and shoved. But they halted.
"O'Shaughnessy! Break ranks ... take cover ... line of skirmishers!" Terrence shouted and hit the dirt behind a sandbox in the schoolyard as the Rumi resumed firing. There was a mad scramble among the Narakans as they scattered behind walls and into buildings, moving with an incredibly rapid jumping motion which they used when in a hurry.
Terrence was so glad to see only one sprawled figure in the dust of the street that he just lay there for a few seconds spitting dust before he realized that he had forgotten to close the face visor of his radiation clothing.
There was a slight clucking sound from beside him and when he turned he found O'Shaughnessy lying almost beside him, squinting along his carbine. The Narakan's face split into two replicas of the map of Ireland and he saluted flat handed, his webbed fingers at just the proper angle.
"O'Shaughnessy, you don't have to salute when you're lying down!" O'Mara tried to keep his voice as calm as possible.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Lieutenant. Pretty quick we fight now?"
His lieutenant ignored him and searched for signs of life in the houses across the square. There wasn't a Rumi in sight except for one on the roof of a shed next to the burning warehouse. He tried a couple of shots with his automatic and missed. He grabbed O'Shaughnessy's carbine and dropped the creature as it tried to scramble off the shed.
"Pretty soon we fight with bayonet?" O'Shaughnessy asked as Terrence handed back the carbine.
"O'Shaughnessy, why do you do things like this to me, me who took you out of your damn mud hole and made a soldier out of you?"
O'Shaughnessy's mouth formed a huge round moon, "Not understand, Lieutenant...." he began but he was ignored again as Terrence stared across the street in pained disbelief to where the heavy weapons squad of the Narakan Rifles was gathered in a huddled group behind a native house, struggling to set up their Banning Automatic Blaster and two machine guns. One of the men was down on his hands and knees balancing the heavy barrel of the blaster on his back while two others were attempting to push the ponderous breech onto it by main strength. The two machine guns were half on and half off their tripods. The leg of one of them had been bent in the wrong direction and the other was so covered with grease that the parts wouldn't fit together.
"Oh, Lord!" moaned Terrence and was bracing himself for a dash across the street when a figure in Terran battle armor came around the building on the run, dodging and crawling as spring bolts raised the dust in front of him. It was the short, stout Gunnery Sergeant, Polasky. Terrence breathed a sigh of relief.
He turned to O'Shaughnessy, "Now, Sergeant, this is our problem. Those buildings over there are filled with Rumi. They have automatic weapons ... spring guns ... firing a clip of twenty plastic bolts. They're deadly at close to medium range. They can penetrate our battle armor." He looked at the thick, knobby skin of the Narakan, "Yours too. Now, they are probably just a patrol about the size of one of our companies. They don't seem to have any heavy weapons and ours will be in action in a few minutes. Then, O'Shaughnessy...." The Narakan was squinting along the barrel of his rifle.
"Are you paying attention, Sergeant?"
"Yes, sir! Attention, yes, sir." O'Shaughnessy started to lift his bulky three hundred pounds up off the ground. Terrence heaved with all his might against those thick khaki clad legs to knock him down again.
"Man, what are you doing?" he yelled.
"Attention, sir. Sir said...."
"No, no, O'Shaughnessy. I meant, listen to me. O'Shaughnessy, how could you? Haven't I been like a brother to you? Didn't I share my whiskey and candy ration with you?"
"Yes, sir. That's why...."