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This book is a work of fiction; its contents are wholly imagined.
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Copyright © 2016 by Murray Leinster
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
ON A CERTAIN DAY—IT may be in the history books eventually—Coburn was in the village of Ardea, north of Salonika in the most rugged part of Greece. He was making a survey for purposes which later on turned out not to matter much. The village of Ardea was small, it was very early in the morning, and he was trying to get his car started when he heard the yell.
It was a shrill yell, and it traveled fast. Coburn jerked his head upright from the hood of the car. A whiskered villager with flapping trousers came pounding up the single street. His eyes were panic-stricken and his mouth was wide. He emitted the yell in a long, sustained note. Other villagers popped into view like ants from a disturbed ant-hill. Some instantly ran back into their houses. Others began to run toward the outskirts of the village, toward the south.
Coburn, watching blankly, found himself astonished at the number of people the village contained. He hadn’t dreamed it was so populous. All were in instant frenzied flight toward the mountains. An old woman he’d seen barely hobbling, now ran like a deer. Children toddled desperately. Adults snatched them up and ran. Larger children fled on twinkling legs. The inhabitants of Ardea vanished toward the hills in a straggling, racing, panting stream. They disappeared around an outcrop of stone which was merely the nearest place that would hide them. Then there was silence.
Coburn turned his head blankly in the direction from which they had run. He saw the mountains—incredibly stony and barren. That was all. No, not quite—there was something far away which was subtly different in color from the hillsides. It moved. It flowed over a hill crest, coming plainly from somewhere beyond the mountains. It was vague in shape. Coburn felt a momentary stirring of superstition. There simply couldn’t be anything so huge....
But there could. There was. It was a column of soldiers in uniforms that looked dark-gray at this distance. It flowed slowly out of the mountains like a colossal snake—some Midgard monster or river of destruction. It moved with an awful, deliberate steadiness toward the village of Ardea.
Coburn caught his breath. Then he was running too. He was out of the village almost before he realized it. He did not try to follow the villagers. He might lead pursuers after them. There was a narrow defile nearby. Tanks could hardly follow it, and it did not lead where they would be going. He plunged into it and was instantly hidden. He pelted on. It was a trail from somewhere, because he saw ancient donkey-droppings on the stones, but he did not know where it led. He simply ran to get away from the village and the soldiers who were coming toward it.
This was Greece. They were Bulgarian soldiers. This was not war or even invasion. This was worse—a cold-war raid. He kept running and presently rocky cliffs overhung him on one side, a vast expanse of sky loomed to his left. He found himself panting. He began to hope that he was actually safe.
Then he heard a voice. It sounded vexed. Quite incredibly, it was talking English. “But my dear young lady!” it said severely. “You simply mustn’t go on! There’s the very devil of a mess turning up, and you mustn’t run into it!”
A girl’s voice answered, also in English. “I’m sure—I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I’m afraid I can’t explain. But, truly, you mustn’t go on to the village!”
Coburn pushed ahead. He came upon the people who had spoken. There was a girl riding on a donkey. She was American. Trim. Neat. Uneasy, but reasonably self-confident. And there was a man standing by the trail, with a slide of earth behind him and mud on his boots as if he’d slid down somewhere very fast to intercept this girl. He wore the distinctive costume a British correspondent is apt to affect in the wilds.
They turned as Coburn came into view. The girl goggled at him. He was not exactly the sort of third person one expected to find on a very lonely, ill-defined rocky trail many miles north of Salonika.
When they turned to him, Coburn recognized the man. He’d met Dillon once or twice in Salonika. He panted: “Dillon! There’s a column of soldiers headed across the border! Bulgarians!”
“How close?” asked Dillon.
“They’re coming,” said Coburn, with some difficulty due to lack of breath. “I saw them across the valley. Everybody’s run away from the village. I was the last one out.”
Dillon nodded composedly. He looked intently at Coburn. “You know me,” he said reservedly. “Should I remember you?”
“I’ve met you once or twice,” Coburn told him. “In Salonika.”
“Oh,” said Dillon. “Oh, yes. Sorry. I’ve got some cameras up yonder. I want a picture or two of those Bulgarians. See if you can persuade this young lady not to go on. I fancy it’s safe enough here. Not a normal raid route through this pass.”
Coburn nodded. Dillon expected the raid, evidently. This sort of thing had happened in Turkey. Now it would start up here, in Greece. The soldiers would strike fast and far, at first. They wouldn’t stop to hunt down the local inhabitants. Not yet.
“We’ll wait,” said Coburn. “You’ll be back?”
“Oh, surely!” said Dillon. “Five minutes or less.”
He started up the precipitous wall, at whose bottom he had slid down. He climbed remarkably well. He went up hand-over-hand despite the steepness of the stone. It looked almost impossible, but Dillon apparently found handgrips by instinct, as a good climber does. In a matter of minutes he vanished, some fifty feet up, behind a bulging mass of stone. He did not reappear.
Coburn began to get his breath back. The girl looked at him, her forehead creased.
“Just to make sure,” said Coburn, “I’ll see if I can get a view back down the trail.”
Where the vastness of the sky showed, he might be able to look down. He scrambled up a barrier two man-heights high. There was a screen of straggly brush, with emptiness beyond. He peered.
He could see a long way down and behind, and actually the village was clearly in sight from here. There were rumbling, caterpillar-tread tanks in the act of entering it. There were anachronistic mounted men with them. Cavalry is outdated, nowadays, but in rocky mountain country they can have uses where tanks can’t go. But here tanks and cavalry looked grim. Coburn squirmed back and beckoned to the girl. She joined him. They peered through the brushwood together.
The light tanks were scurrying along the single village street. Horsemen raced here and there. A pig squealed. There was a shot. The tanks emerged from the other side. They went crawling swiftly toward the south. But they did not turn aside where the villagers had. They headed along the way Coburn had driven to Ardea.
Infantrymen appeared, marching into the village. An advance party, rifles ready. This was strict discipline and standard military practise. Horsemen rode to tell them that all was quiet. They turned and spurred away after the tanks.
The girl said in a strained voice. “This is war starting! Invasion!”
Coburn said coldly, “No. No planes. This isn’t war. It’s a training exercise, Iron-Curtain style. This outfit will strike twenty—maybe thirty miles south. There’s a town there—Kilkis. They’ll take it and loot it. By the time Athens finds out what’s happened, they’ll be ready to fall back. They’ll do a little fighting. They’ll carry off the people. And they’ll deny everything. The West doesn’t want war. Greece couldn’t fight by herself. And America wouldn’t believe that such things could happen. But they do. It’s what’s called cold war. Ever hear of that?”
The main column of soldiers far below poured up to the village and went down the straggly street in a tide of dark figures. The village was very small. The soldiers came out of the other end of the village. They poured on after the tanks, rippling over irregularities in the way. They seemed innumerable.
“Three or four thousand men,” said Coburn coldly. “This is a big raid. But it’s not war. Not yet.”
It was not the time for full-scale war. Bulgaria and the other countries in its satellite status were under orders to put a strain upon the outside world. They were building up border incidents and turmoil for the benefit of their masters. Turkey was on a war footing, after a number of incidents like this. Indo-China was at war. Korea was an old story. Now Greece. It always takes more men to guard against criminal actions than to commit them. When this raid was over Greece would have to maintain a full-size army in its northern mountains to guard against its repetition. Which would be a strain on its treasury and might help toward bankruptcy. This was cold war.
The infantry ended. Horse-drawn vehicles appeared in a seemingly endless line. Motorized transport would be better, but the Bulgarians were short of it. Shaggy, stubby animals plodded in the wake of the tanks and the infantry. There were two-wheeled carts in single file all across the valley. They went through the village and filed after the soldiers.
“I think,” said Coburn in biting anger, “this will be all there is to see. They’ll go in until they’re stopped. They’ll kidnap Greek civilians and later work them to death in labor camps. They’ll carry off some children to raise as spies. But their purpose is probably only to make such a threat that the Greeks will go broke guarding against them. They know the Greeks don’t want war.”
He began to wriggle back from the brushwood screen. He was filled with the sort of sick rage that comes when you can’t actively resent insolence and arrogance. He hated the people who wanted the world to collapse, and this was part of their effort to bring it about.
He helped the girl down. “Dillon said to wait,” he said. He found himself shaking with anger at the men who had ordered the troops to march. “He said he was taking pictures. He must have had an advance tip of some sort. If so, he’ll have a line of retreat.”
Then Coburn frowned. Not quite plausible, come to think of it. But Dillon had certainly known about the raid. He was set to take pictures, and he hadn’t been surprised. One would have expected Greek Army photographers on hand to take pictures of a raid of which they had warning. Probably United Nations observers on the scene, too. Yes. There should be Army men and probably a United Nations team up where Dillon was.
Coburn explained to the girl. “That’ll be it. And they’ll have a radio, too. Probably helicopters taking them out also. I’ll go up and tell them to be sure and have room for you.”
He started for the cliff he’d seen Dillon climb. He paused: “I’d better have your name for them to report to Athens.”
“I’m Janice Ames,” she told him. “The Breen Foundation has me going around arranging for lessons for the people up here. Sanitation and nutrition and midwifery, and so on. The Foundation office is in Salonika, though.”
He nodded and attacked the cliff.
It hadn’t been a difficult climb for Dillon. It wasn’t even a long one for Coburn, but it was much worse than he’d thought. The crevices for handholds were rare, and footholds were almost non-existent. There were times when he felt he was holding on by his fingernails. Dillon seemed to have made it with perfect ease, but Coburn found it exhausting.
Fifty feet up he came to the place where Dillon had vanished. But it was a preposterously difficult task to get across an undercut to where he could grasp a stunted tree. It was a strain to scramble up past it. Then he found himself on the narrowest of possible ledges, with a sickening drop off to one side. But Dillon had made it, so he followed.
He went a hundred yards, and then the ledge came to an end. He saw where Dillon must have climbed. It was possible, but Coburn violently did not want to try. Still ... He started.