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Authors: David Drake,Janet Morris

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BOOK: Arc Riders
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The cargo handlers robbed the refugees as they removed them. Weigand didn’t know how much use the money and jewelry would
be when the collapse of America and the war effort became total in the next few weeks, but that wasn’t Weigand’s concern.
The men were doing their job well enough. Whatever Rebecca told them had made a sufficient impression, perhaps underscored
by the effect of the acoustic grenade.

The copilot, sweaty and wan, walked over to join Weigand as the ground crewmen fitted a harness to the Conex. The fellow looked
down at the refugees, piled like cordwood to either side of the ramp. “Christ,” he muttered. “Where’s this going to end?”

“That’s out of our hands,” Weigand said with gloomy diplomacy. The airman seemed a decent man, brave or dutiful enough to
make a flight whose risks he must have known. Though perhaps… you didn’t need to be able to visit the future of this horizon
to be able to predict disaster for America both here and at home.

“It’s out of everybody’s hands,” the copilot said. “It’s like stepping outside at forty thousand feet without a parachute.
It may take a while to drop, but you’re going to hit the ground eventually.”

He hawked and spit onto the ramp. “Sure wish we hadn’t taken that first step into Nam.”

Some of the refugees were stirring now, especially those who’d been outside the aircraft when the grenade went off. Weigand
was ready to use his acoustic pistol on any individual who tried to get back aboard, but he doubted that would be necessary.
Those the detonation wave had stunned would be a long time regaining full intellect and motor control.

“I’ll go forward,” the copilot said. “Help Harry check us out for takeoff. We’ll turn her around as soon as your friends get
their patients aboard.”

A cargo handler shouted. The winch whined, taking up slack for a moment before it started to move the Conex. The steel container
raised low-frequency thunder in the cargo bay as it moved down the rollers in the floor.

“Have you been fueled?” Weigand shouted.

The copilot shrugged. “We’ve got enough in the center tanks to get us to Yokota,” he shouted back. “Air traffic control warned
us before we took off there that there wouldn’t be any fuel for us at Bien Hoa.”

He shook his head, grimacing. “They said there was a load of seriously wounded waiting. We took a vote, all of us, and decided
we’d try. It’ll be all right, I figure.”

Giving Weigand a half-mocking salute, the copilot walked toward the cockpit. The ARC Rider watched the man’s slim, stooped
figure for a moment.

The Conex trundled past. Weigand swallowed and jumped to the ground, pitching his big body far enough outward to avoid the
pile of refugees.

Everybody eventually died—brave men and cowards alike. Maybe it made a difference to them afterward as to how they’d lived
their lives. Maybe it only mattered now, while they were living it. That was enough for Weigand, at least.

He walked toward the medical convoy. The attendants were preparing to shift the vehicles closer to the ramp as soon as the
last of the pallets were offloaded.

Barthuli had been sitting cross-legged in the shade of the aircraft’s drooping wing, his computer/recorder trained on the
horns of one of the nearby microwave communication towers. He stood and strode to join Weigand with a bemused expression on
his face.

“Having fun, Gerd?” Weigand asked as he adjusted the direction in which he was walking to bring him closer to the analyst.

Barthuli quirked a wry smile. “This is a unique experience for me, Pauli,” he said.

The two men walked parallel for a few steps, then stopped in unspoken agreement, their eyes on the distant fenced horizon.

“It’s an information-rich environment, of course,” Barthuli continued. He nodded toward the communications towers. “Requests,
orders, manifests—anything you could want, all open for you or even me to modify according to our requirements. A flight to
Son Tay should be no difficulty.”

“We’ve got a flight to Son Tay,” Weigand said. They were standing on bare concrete, fifty meters from anyone else. Colonel
Byerly got into the cab of her truck and started the engine. “We think we do, at any rate.”

“Yes, that’s what’s interesting,” Barthuli said. His words weren’t agreement. “There’s no record of that flight that I can
find. And from what I can tell—I may be wrong, of course—”

“And pigs may fly,” Weigand muttered.

“—but almost none of the electronic data I can access relates to anything real on the ground. Orders are ignored, or perhaps
the people to whom they’re directed don’t exist, or don’t exist at that location. Matériel isn’t shipped from warehouses as
directed, either because it’s not there to begin with—stolen, I suppose, or simply misplaced in the confusion—or because the
people directed to move it aren’t informed, or don’t have vehicles, or were transferred a hundred kilometers away last month.”

“Some things are getting done,” Weigand commented, looking over his shoulder at the trucks, now loaded. Carnes and the younger
doctor were talking earnestly to the cargo handlers, apparently asking for help in carrying the patients aboard the C-141.

“The chance of that cargo going where it’s supposed to is virtually nil,” Barthuli said flatly. “There’s a somewhat higher
chance of it being used for a purpose more or less in line with US government objectives, such as they are. I can show you
a hundred sequences of orders and messages following up orders, and none of it makes any difference. Any more than the orders
to load patients on this aircraft to transport them to Japan made any difference.”

“They’re going,” said Weigand.

“They’re going,” Barthuli said, “because of what happened here—because Rebecca knew Lieutenant Colonel Byerly, and because
we needed something Lieutenant Colonel Byerly could provide.”

The analyst’s face froze momentarily in a smile. “Also because you cared, Pauli. And other people care. There’s still a system
of sorts, that works in a fashion—because individuals know one another and care, despite all. But it isn’t anything we could
tap electronically.”

“I’m going to help move people,” Weigand said. “Then I suppose we’ll get out of here.” He cleared his throat and added, “It’s
a good thing we’ve got Rebecca along.”

“And it’s a good thing you care, Pauli,” Barthuli said. His voice sounded almost wistful.

Son Tay, North Vietnam (Occupied)

Timeline B: August 16, 1991

T
he membrane that Carnes had pulled down from the headband to cover her face didn’t physically impede her breathing, but whenever
she thought about it she felt her throat constrict. The canvas sides of the three-quarter-ton truck were half raised. When
she peered through the opening out at the darkened rice paddies, she couldn’t see any difference compared to the way the landscape
had looked without the facemask.

“This is the spectrum control, Rebecca,” Weigand said, guiding her index finger to a roughened spot on the headband just above
her left temple. “Infrared, light enhancement, and normal optical. You can tell which is which—”

Carnes pressed the roughness. Water stood out from the dikes like a sheet of silver. The short rice stems were dark fur above
the surface. Insects buzzed through the warm air as tiny fireballs.

“—by the dot on the upper left corner of the display for about three seconds, red, yellow, or white.”

She pressed. The amount of contrast shrank abruptly. The scene had color, but the hues were of low saturation. It looked like
a television picture taken at noon when the sky was heavily overcast.

“I can tell the difference,” Carnes said, returning the view to the normal optical range of a tropical night when the moon
was in its first quarter.

The road was four-lane concrete, built by US construction companies in the early days of the occupation. There had been very
little maintenance in the past five years. Though the roadbed was a dozen feet deep, the alluvial soil shifted occasionally
under its weight. The truck drove over a crack and dropped eight inches to the other side.

Weigand and Barthuli bounced high in the air with the cases of medical supplies which had flown to Son Tay with the team on
a high-winged U-10 utility aircraft. Carnes took the shock on her braced feet, then lowered her buttocks to the wooden side-bench
again. She was used to these roads. It was a horrible thing to realize, but she was.

The lieutenant on the passenger side in front twisted around and asked, “You guys all right? Should’ve warned you.”

He was a medical administration officer. He had a thin, intense face and was probably strung out on something. Maybe just
strung out with war and his nerves.

“We’re fine,” Carnes said. “I hope your supplies are cushioned well, though.”

They probably were. Not that it made much of a difference, the way things were going.

A howitzer fired into the night from a battery position within the compound to the west. The white flash shocked the sky like
heat lightning. The muzzle blast nearly ten seconds later was dull and muted.

“You get much enemy activity here?” Carnes asked the lieutenant. She raised her voice to be heard over the rattle of the truck
bed.The vehicle had only one headlight.The pylons which had once held sodium vapor lamps at every hundred meters along the
roadway were dark, had been dark for years.

The FM radio wedged between the front seats was tuned to a local armed forces station. The volume was cranked high to compete
with the noise the truck made.

The lieutenant’s head turned like that of a wasp, with quick, quasi-mechanical movements. “What?” he said. He thumped the
butt of his M16 on the floor at his feet. “Don’t you worry about dinks, Major. We’re ready for them.”

Carnes nodded, keeping her wince internal. She’d seen… hundreds? It seemed like hundreds. Hundreds of people come in wounded
by accident. Because somebody did something stupid, like banging down a rifle with a bullet in the chamber.

On the other hand, the lieutenant was out here, at night, to pick up supplies which his superiors had convinced Colonel Byerly
that the 96th Evacuation Hospital needed even worse than Byerly’s clinic did. Carnes supposed you had to be crazy to function
in a war zone, especially this war zone.

“Rebecca, to use the mask as a communicator…” Pauli said. His voice echoed oddly, received both in the normal way and through
the bone-conduction speaker built into the headband. He was so close to Carnes that the difference between radio and sound
propagation rates was almost imperceptible. “Key the sending unit to a specific person by leading with the name, or for a
general broadcast say ‘Commo.’ “

“Pauli, I understand,” Carnes said, obeying what she took as a request. Gerd Barthuli was doing something with his little
box, so Weigand had decided it would be a good time to train Carnes in the use of the headsets they’d brought from the immersion
suits.

Only two of the units were full-function now. Pauli had taken the battery out of the one Carnes normally wore to power the
weapon he’d built in Chicago. The facemask had still protected her from gas, though.

“The headband can act as a display, also,” Weigand said, speaking normally again. “Though for the—”

The brakes squealed, but the truck didn’t slow with any enthusiasm. The driver slam-shifted to a lower gear without clutching.
Carnes switched her mask to light amplification mode to see what was going on.

“—time being, I don’t think—” Weigand said.

The feeder road to Son Tay Base met the highway at nearly a right angle, much more sharply radiused than civilian engineers
in the States would have designed its equivalent. The truck was approaching too fast for its ill-adjusted brakes alone to
slow it to a safe speed. The lieutenant pounded the steel dashboard with his left hand in rhythm with the music.

The driver grunted, leaning to the right as he dragged the nonpower-assisted steering wheel around. Son Tay Base a quarter
mile away was encircled with a berm topped with barbed wire. The gate, a frame of steel X-members stretching concertina wire,
glowed like a fireball. Carnes’ mask amplified the light of the single incandescent light beside the bunker.

“—you need to worry about—”

A burst of shots from the turn’s inside corner shattered the windshield and at least two slapped through the driver’s chest.
The man shouted. The wheel spun out of his relaxed grip.

The truck straightened and drove off the opposite side of the feeder road. It jumped high but didn’t turn over.

Carnes bounced like a pool ball between the roof of canvas stretched on steel hoops and the sidewalls of the bed. For a moment
she thought she’d be thrown out the open back. The truck’s sudden halt, mired in soft soil, saved Carnes at the cost of being
slammed hard against the cab. She didn’t lose consciousness, quite.

The driver tried to shout but gurgled instead. The lieutenant bellowed as he kicked at his wedged door with the heels of both
boots.

Pauli Weigand, holding the EMP generator, hopped out of the vehicle with the grace of a big cat. He seemed so awkward until
something happened.

“Rebecca, come with me to shoot!” Weigand demanded. “Use thermal and shoot!”

Carnes jumped clumsily over the tailgate and plodded around the truck to the driver’s side of the cab. She’d have given the
facemask to Barthuli, but she didn’t know where the analyst had gone. The ground was soft and covered with waist-high scrub,
some of it thorny.

More gunfire came from the opposite side of the road. At least two automatic weapons were firing. Their tracers were red,
US issue. Bullets snapped through the air ten feet above the stalled truck.

Carnes opened the cab door and caught the driver as he slumped out into her arms. The lieutenant stood on the other running
board and ripped off the entire magazine of his rifle in a single burst. A few of his bullets ricocheted sparklingly from
stones in the road embankment, but most of them sailed off into the night in high arcs to nowhere.

BOOK: Arc Riders
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