Minor Skirmish On A Backwater World

Chapter Twenty

In far too short a time Michael was back at his work bench in the arms room, cleaning and oiling the disassembled bits of three Army .45s. The captain and two of the platoon lieutenants had fired for qualification, and in the 308th MPs, captains and lieutenants didn’t clean their own weapons. He enjoyed the oily snick of the parts as they went back together, simple and efficient. He wasn’t aware he was whistling until Swadley complained.

“There’s nothing more disgusting than a GI who has spent an entire three-day pass getting tightened up,” Swadley announced in disgust.

“Tightened up?” Michael couldn’t help grinning. The meaning and the envy were crystal clear.

“Don’t be so damned smug. Maybe I should take up sketching. Whattayah think? Think I could get over if I came across as a budding artist?”

“I thought being from Old Virginia was enough all by itself. Why you probably had venison every night. Rich kid.”

“Venison? Nope, corn-fed beef and acorn-fed ham for me. Venison was for ridge runners. I never hunted deer in my life, but I did ride to hounds.”

“Ride to hounds?”

“You know, peasant. Fox hunting on horseback.”

“You don’t get venison from foxes, do you?”

“Jesus, you are ignorant. We don’t eat the foxes — we just chase ’em. I had a big thoroughbred, General Shelby I called him. Boy, could he fly. He could take four poles in a breeze.”

Michael concentrated on the task at hand. Every time he got comfortable in the language, new and unexpected depths yawned under him.

“Message for you from the orderly room,” Swadley said. He passed it across. “Came in while you were on pass.”

It was a typed communiqué from the company commander. In stilted language it directed him to report to special services HQ, advanced weapons command, Heidelberg. Purpose: to evaluate his sketches for possible commission work.

“Is this legal? To order me to present my artwork?” he asked Swadley.

“Hell, who cares? They’re probably bending the rules because they figure a private will sell cheap. The Army’s pulled shit like that before. Hell with ’em: charge what the market will bear.”

“I’m not sure I know what that is.”

“Think big.”

“I was just in Heidelberg!”

“So what? It’s always a nice trip, and a lovely town.”

“This doesn’t say when.”

“Go on over to the orderly room. I bet the CO left orders to cut you loose soonest. He likes to keep HQ happy. Go ahead; I’ll slap those back together.”

At the orderly room, Swadley was proved a prophet. The first sergeant told him the CO’s driver would take him up after noon chow. That was disappointing, because his mind had been whirling with thoughts of asking Gretchen to go with him on the same train they’d taken before. Back at the squad room he bundled up his sketches and changed into Class A’s as directed. Reveron was there, changing out of his fatigues too.

“I’m the CO’s driver this shift,” he explained. He put on his white hat and MP brassard, bloused his greens into spit-shined boots and buckled on a patent leather gun belt, shifting his duty gun there from the web combat gear he had been wearing.

“I feel like I’m under arrest,” Michael said.

“Nah! Only big shots get an MP corporal for driver. Let’s go eat.”

They left a little over an hour later, under a lowering sky. The CO’s jeep had side curtains, but it still was cold. Michael scrunched down into his heavy uniform trench coat. Reveron’s only concession was leather gloves. “I’ve got long johns,” he explained.

They made good time on virtually deserted back roads until they hit a small range of low mountains and the Jeep began to labor. They hadn’t climbed far before the ground and the evergreens were coated in snow. The sun was gone and the sky a uniform gray.

“Going to snow again soon,” Reveron said. “I gotta pee. So where you gonna meet your girl friend?”

“What?” Michael had been lost in memories of his three-day pass, and for a wild moment he though Reveron was reading his mind.

Reveron pulled off beside a small frozen lake. Michael’s leather shoes slipped and slid in the crusted snow. Reveron really believed he had arranged to meet Gretchen somewhere. Where had he come up with that notion? There was no indication on the surface of his thoughts, just the conviction.

After he yellowed the snow, Reveron stood looking over the lake.

“My friend, you never seen a thing like this in Puerto Rico.” He stooped and grabbed a clod, flung it skittering across the ice, grinning like a kid. He thumbed open the flap of his holster. “Bet I can hit it first time.”

“No bet. I can read that Expert medal from here.”

Tires drummed up the grade, and a sleek Mercedes swept into view, slowing.

“Oops, company,” said Reveron, fumbling with the flap as he glanced toward the car. “We better get going.”

The big car swung off the pavement, slid to a halt and two large over-coated men stepped smoothly out, almost in unison.

Michael already was taking cover behind the Jeep.

“Reveron!” he shouted. “Look out!”

Shielded. They were the enemy, and shielded. The driver had seen Reveron’s movement and said: Watch out; the other one’s pulling a gun! Take him!

Reveron stood flatfooted, staring, as Michael crouched. “Mike, what are you…”

The Mercedes passenger raised a short black sub-machine gun and shot Reveron neatly in the chest, pop-pop-pop, the sound muffled by the trees and snow. Reveron’s white hat sailed off. He fell like a puppet with all the strings cut.

The driver was already moving toward Michael, pistol leveled, when his companion shrieked like a man falling over a cliff. It was a sound more horrifying than the pop of his weapon, shrill enough to echo back from the silent forest.

The driver watched his companion choke on his own blood and slump behind the car. The sub-machine gun clattered across the road-grimed hood. The driver turned back and saw Michael kneel beside Reveron and tug the .45 out of its holster.

Confused because there had been no shot, and the MP’s gun wasn’t even clear yet, the driver tried to raise his gun hand.

His own weapon was suddenly intolerably heavy. Panting, he grasped it with both hands and tried to take aim. His heart lugged and trudged against his ribs, blood roared in his ears and his vision blurred.

Michael stood, cycled the .45 deliberately, and shot him in the face. The driver’s awareness went out like a light switched off.

Michael walked close to the sub-machine gunner and carefully fired twice into his face, the head snapping and spraying under the impact.

Michael! It was Powell.

Ambush! Two of the opposition. Both terminated. They killed a native.

A band of uncomfortable heat encircled his ring finger; his crystal was mightily disturbed. He got Reveron under the armpits and muscled him into the Jeep’s right-hand seat, smearing blood on his overcoat. He uncocked the pistol and shoved it in his pocket, then got behind the wheel.

Where are you?

A country road between Sternsterben and Heidelberg. It was a setup. I was ordered to report to Heidelberg. The native was taking me there. They came right at us, and tried to take me over. They killed the native before I could stop them.

He started the Jeep, guided it around the Mercedes and headed back downhill. Two minutes later, a heavy truck passed in the opposite direction. Two shielded minds. Backup.


Wait. Just wait. They’ve got backup in the area

He pulled to a stop and let his awareness quest over the surrounding countryside. The fading gobble of the two in the truck beat at him.

Their backup just passed me. I’m en route back to Sternsterben. I don’t think they’ll try again.

He got the Jeep going again.

Why did they try in the first place, Michael?

Unknown. They were shielded. They might have had me, but for the crystal. I couldn’t save Reveron.

The native? Did he manage…?

No. I did.


I squeezed one’s brain to a pulp. The one who killed Reveron. I slowed the other one down enough so he could watch me put a bullet through his brain.

The backup will be busy eliminating the remains. Can’t have native surgeons doing autopsies…

There was blood on the ground. Their blood. And tissue.

There was a pause.

They’ll be thorough. They’ll have to try to clean up, get rid of the evidence. You have the native’s body? Good.

This is going to cause a big stink, an MP corporal murdered!

Another pause.

Does the terrain offer concealment features?

I haven’t seen a house on this road.

Find concealment and wait for the support team.

What support team?

They’ll be with you in less than two hours. Can you get off the road and under cover?

What about the opposition?

They don’t share our locating skills.

They may not have to; they must have slapped a tracer on the Jeep.

Find and deactivate!

What if I can’t?

You can! You know you can. It’s simple. Find it now!

Michael overshot a snow-filled track leading off into the woods, applied too much brake and nearly spilled the Jeep. He reversed, paused to implement four-wheel drive, and plowed into the trees. Reveron’s body jolted into a huddle in the right seat’s leg space. Michael patted the dark head distractedly. “Sorry, guy.”

Out of sight of the road, he found enough space to turn, and parked facing out. The silence bore down oppressively when he shut off the engine. He sat stiffly for some minutes, staring at nothing, before he found the sub-microscopic telltale imbedded in the metal flank of the vehicle. This was tougher than squeezing something as large and full of electrical impulses as a brain.

Far easier than subatomic particles, came Powell’s encouraging thought.

There is that. His own thought was tinged with bitterness. — If I ever did that at all. I’m inclined to think that was all part of an illusion to get me here.

Somberly: — No illusion. Have you deactivated the trace?

Yes. But I was here for several minutes.

It’ll have to do. Make a thorough sweep to ensure you’re clean. Be prepared to defend yourself if necessary. The team is on the way.

Something cold and wet brushed his cheek through the open window. It was snowing. Well, eventually that would cover his tracks into the wood. Nightfall would help. He hunched deeper into his overcoat and tugged the collar up around his ears. Exterior ears, for pity’s sake! Frostbite for sure. His hand fumbled vaguely at the front of his coat. Looking for a thermostat, he realized. A memory he wasn’t supposed to have.

He jammed his hands deep in his pockets. The metal of the .45 had warmed slightly, lying next to his thigh. He wrapped one hand around it, and stared out at the dark, waiting.



Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.