Caught in the Crossfire

David Drake

October 15, 2021

Margritte grappled with the nearest soldier in the instant her husband broke for the woods. The man in field gray cursed and tried to jerk his weapon away from her, but Margritte’s muscles were young and taut from shifting bales. Even when the mercenary kicked her ankles from under her, Margritte’s clamped hands kept the gun barrel down and harmless.

Neither of the other two soldiers paid any attention to the scuffle. They clicked off the safety catches of their weapons as they swung them to their shoulders. Georg was running hard, fresh blood from his retorn calf muscles staining his bandages. The double slap of wet automatic fire caught him in mid-stride and whipsawed his slender body. His head and heels scissored to the ground together. They were covered by the mist of blood that settled more slowly.

Sobbing, Margritte loosed her grip and fell back on the ground. The man above her cradled his flechette gun again and looked around the village. “Well, aren’t you going to shoot me, too?” she cried.

“Not unless we have to,” the mercenary replied quietly. He was sweating despite the stiff breeze, and he wiped his black face with his sleeve. “Helmuth,” he ordered, “start setting up in the building. Landschein, you stay out with me; make sure none of these women try the same damned thing.” He glanced out to where Georg lay, a bright smear on the stubbled, golden earth. “Best get that out of sight, too,” he added. “The convoy’s due in an hour.”

Old Leida had frozen to a statue in ankle-length muslin at the first scream. Now she nodded her head of close ringlets. “Myrie, Delia,” she called, gesturing to her daughters, “bring brush hooks and come along.” She had not lost her dignity even during the shooting.

“Hold it,” said Landschein, the shortest of the three soldiers. He was a sharp-featured man who had grinned in satisfaction as he fired. “You two got kids in there?” he asked the younger women. The muzzle of his flechette gun indicated the locked door to the dugout which normally stored the crop out of the sun and heat; today it imprisoned the village’s twenty-six children. Delia and Myrie nodded, too dry with fear to speak.

“Then you go drag him into the woods,” Landschein said, grinning again. “Just remember—you might manage to get away, but you won’t much like what you‘ll find when you come back. I’m sure some true friend’ll point your brats out to us quick enough to save her own.”

Leida nodded a command, but Landschein’s freckled hand clamped her elbow as she turned to follow her daughters. “Not you, old lady. No need for you to get that near to cover.”

“Do you think I would run and risk—everyone?” Leida demanded.

“Curst if I know what you'd risk,” the soldier said. “But we're risking plenty already to ambush one of Hammer’s convoys. If anybody gets loose ahead of time to warn them, we can kiss our butts goodbye.”

Margritte wiped the tears from her eyes, using her palms because of the gritty dust her thrashings had pounded into her knuckles. The third soldier, the broad-shouldered blond named Helmuth, had leaned his weapon beside the door of the hall and was lifting bulky loads from the nearby air-cushion vehicle. The settlement had become used to whining gray columns of military vehicles, cruising the road at random. This truck, however, had eased over the second canopy of the forest itself. It was a flimsy cargo-hauler like the one in which Krauder picked up the cotton at season’s end, harmless enough to look at. Only Georg, left behind for his sickle-ripped leg when a government van had carried off the other males the week before as “recruits”, had realized what it meant that the newcomers wore field gray instead of khaki.

“Why did you come here?” Margritte asked in a near-normal voice.

The black mercenary glanced at her as she rose, glanced back at the other women obeying orders by continuing to pick the iridescent boles of Terran cotton grown in Pohweil’s soil. “We had the capital under siege,” he said, “until Hammer’s tanks punched a corridor through. We can’t close the corridor, so we got to cut your boys off from supplies some other way. Otherwise the Cartel’ll wish it had paid its taxes instead of trying to take over. You grubbers may have been pruning their wallets, but Lord! they'll be flayed alive if your counterattack works.”

He spat a thin, angry stream into the dust. “The traders hired us and four other regiments, and you grubbers sank the whole treasury into bringing in Hammer's armor. Maybe we can prove today those cocky bastards aren't all they’re billed as...”

“We didn’t care,” Margritte said. “We’re no more the Farm Bloc than Krauder and his truck is the Trade Cartel. Whatever they did in the capital, we had no choice. I hadn’t even seen the capital… oh dear Lord, Georg would have taken me there for our honeymoon except that there was fighting all over...”

“How long we got, Sarge?” the blond man demanded from the stark shade of the hall.

“Little enough. Get those bloody sheets set up or we'll have to pop the cork bare-ass naked; and we got enough problems.” The big noncom shifted his glance about the narrow clearing, wavering rows of cotton marching to the edge of the forest’s dusky green. The road, an unsurfaced track whose ruts were not a serious hindrance to air-cushion traffic, was the long axis. Beside it stood the hall, twenty meters by five and the only above-ground structure in the settlement. The battle with the native vegetation made dugouts beneath the cotton preferable to cleared land wasted for dwellings. The hall became more than a social center and common refectory: it was the gaudiest of luxuries and a proud slap to the face of the forest.

Until that morning, the forest had been the village’s only enemy.

“Georg only wanted—”

“God damn it,” the sergeant snarled. “Will you shut it off? Every man but your precious husband gone off to the siege—no, shut it off till I finish!—and him running to warn the convoy. If you’d wanted to save his life, you should’ve grabbed him, not me. Sure, all you grubbers, you don’t care about the war—not much! It’s all one to you whether you kill us yourselves or your tankers do it, those bastards so high and mighty for the money they’ve got and the equipment. I tell you, girl, I don’t take it personal that people shoot at me; it’s just the way we both earn our livings. But it’s fair, it’s even… and Hammer thinks he’s the Way made Flesh because nobody can bust his tanks.”

The sergeant paused and his lips sucked in and out. His thick, gentle fingers rechecked the weapon he held. “We’ll just see,” he whispered.

“Georg said we'd all be killed in the crossfire if we were out in the fields when you shot at the tanks.”

“If Georg had kept his face shut and his ass in bed, he’d have lived longer than he did. Just shut it off!” the noncom ordered. He turned to his blond underling, fighting a section of sponge plating through the door. “Via, Bornzyk!” he shouted angrily. “Move it!”

Helmuth flung his load down with a hollow clang. “Via, then lend a hand! The wind catches these and—”

“I’ll help him,” Margritte offered abruptly. Her eyes blinked away from the young soldier’s weapon where he had forgotten it against the wall. Standing, she far lacked the bulk of the sergeant beside her, but her frame gave no suggestion of weakness. Golden dust soiled the back and sides of her dress with butterfly scales.

The sergeant gave her a sharp glance, his left hand spreading and closing where it rested on the black barrel-shroud of his weapon. “All right,” he said, “you give him a hand and we'll see you under cover with us when the shooting starts. You’re smarter than I gave you credit.”

They had forgotten Leida was still standing beside them. Her hand struck like a spading fork. Margritte ducked away from the blow, but Leida caught her on the shoulder and gripped. When the mercenary’s reversed gun-butt cracked the older woman loose, a long strip of Margritte’s blue dress tore away with her. “Bitch,” Leida mumbled through bruised lips. “You’d help these beasts after they killed your own man?”

Margritte stepped back, tossing her head. For a moment she fumbled at the tear in her dress; then, defiantly, she let it fall open. Landschein turned in time to catch the look in Leida’s eyes. “Hey, you'll give your friends more trouble,” he stated cheerfully, waggling his gun to indicate Delia and Myrie as they returned gray-faced from the forest fringe. “Go on, get out and pick some cotton.”

When Margritte moved, the white of her loose shift caught the sun and the small killer’s stare. “Landschein!” the black noncom ordered sharply, and Margritte stepped very quickly towards the truck and the third man struggling there.

Helmuth turned and blinked at the girl as he felt her capable muscles take the windstrain off the panel he was shifting. His eyes were blue and set wide in a face too large-boned to be handsome, too frank to be other than attractive. He accepted the help without question, leading the way into the hall.

The dining tables were hoisted against the rafters. The windows, unshuttered in the warm autumn and unglazed, lined all four walls at chest height. The long wall nearest the road was otherwise unbroken; the one opposite it was pierced in the middle by the single door. In the center of what should have been an empty room squatted the mercenaries’ construct. The metal-ceramic panels had been locked into three sides of a square, a pocket of armor open only toward the door. It was hidden beneath the lower sills of the windows; nothing would catch the eye of an oncoming tanker.

“We've got to nest three layers together,” the soldier explained as he swung the load, easily managed within the building, “or they’ll cut us apart if they get off a burst this direction.”

Margritte steadied a panel already in place as Helmuth mortised his into it. Each sheet was about five centimetres in thickness, a thin plate of gray metal on either side of a white porcelain sponge. The girl tapped it dubiously with a blunt finger. “This can stop bullets?”

The soldier—he was younger than his size suggested, no more than eighteen. Younger even than Georg, and he had a smile like Georg’s as he raised his eyes with a blush and said, “P-powerguns, yeah; three layers of it ought to… It’s light, we could carry it in the truck where iridium would have bogged us down. But look, there’s another panel and the rockets we still got to bring in.”

“You must be very brave to fight tanks with just—this,” Margritte prompted as she took one end of the remaining armor sheets.

“Oh, well, Sergeant Counsel says it'll work,” the boy said enthusiastically. “They’ll come by, two combat cars, then three big trucks, and another combat car. Sarge and Landschein buzzbomb the lead cars before they know what’s happening. I reload them and they hit the third car when it swings wide to get a shot. Any shooting the blower jocks get off, they'll spread because they won’t know—oh, Cop I said it...”

“They'll think the women in the fields may be firing, so they’ll kill us first,” Margritte reasoned aloud. The boy’s neck beneath his helmet turned brick red as he trudged into the building.

“Look,” he said, but he would not meet her eyes, “we got to do it. It’ll be fast—nobody much can get hurt. And your… the children, they’re all safe. Sarge said that with all the men gone, we wouldn’t have any trouble with the women if we kept the kids safe and under our thumbs.”

“We didn’t have time to have children,” Margritte said. Her eyes were briefly unfocused. “You didn’t give Georg enough time before you killed him.”

“He was...” Helmuth began. They were outside again and his hand flicked briefly towards the slight notch Delia and Myrie had chopped in the forest wall. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry,” she said. “He knew what he was doing.”

“He was—I suppose you’d call him a patriot?” Helmuth suggested, jumping easily to the truck’s deck to gather up an armload of cylindrical bundles. “He was really against the Cartel?”

“There was never a soul in this village who cared who won the war,” Margritte said. “We have our own war with the forest.”

“They joined the siege!” the boy retorted. “They cared that m-much, to fight us!”

“They got in the vans when men with guns told them to get in,” the girl said. She took the gear Helmuth was forgetting to hand to her and shook a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Should they have run? Like Georg? No, they went off to be soldiers; praying like we did that the war might end before the forest had eaten up the village again. Maybe if we were really lucky, it’d end before this crop had spoiled in the fields because there weren’t enough hands left here to pick it in time.”

Helmuth cleared the back of the truck with his own load and stepped down. “Well, just the same, your husband tried to hide and warn the convoy,” he argued. “Otherwise why did he run”

“Oh, he loved me—you know?” said Margritte. “Your sergeant said all of us should be out picking as usual. Georg knew, he told you, that the crossfire would kill everybody in the fields as sure as if you shot us deliberately. And when you wouldn't change your plan... well, if he’d gotten away you would have had to give up your ambush, wouldn’t you? You’d have known it was suicide if the tanks learned that you were waiting for them. So Georg ran.”

The dark-haired woman stared out at the forest for a moment. “He didn’t have a prayer, did he? You could have killed him a hundred times before he got to cover.”

“Here, give me those,” the soldier said, taking the bundles from her instead of replying. He began to unwrap the cylinders one by one on the wooden floor. “We couldn’t let him get away,” he said at last. He added, his eyes still down on his work, “Flechettes when they hit… I mean, sh-shooting at his legs wouldn’t, wouldn’t have been a kindness, you see?”

Margritte laughed again. “Oh, I saw what they dragged into the forest, yes." She paused, sucking at her lower lip. “That’s how we always deal with our dead, give them to the forest. Oh, we have a service: but we wouldn’t have buried Georg in the dirt, if… if he’d died. But you didn’t care, did you? A corpse looks bad, maybe your precious ambush, your own lives. Get it out of the way, toss it in the woods.”

“We'd have buried him afterwards,” the soldier mumbled as he laid a fourth thigh-thick projectile beside those he had already unwrapped.

“Oh, of course,” Margritte said. “And me, and all the rest of us murdered out there in the cotton. Oh, you’re gentlemen, you are.”

“Via!” Helmuth shouted, his flush mottling as at last he lifted his gaze to the girl’s. “We'd have b-buried him. I’d have buried him. You'll be safe in here with us until it’s all over, and by the Lord, then you can come back with us, too! You don’t have to stay here with these hard-faced bitches.”

A bitter smile tweaked the left edge of the girl’s mouth. “Sure, you're a good boy.”

The young mercenary blinked between protest and pleasure, settled on the latter. He had readied all six of the tinned, gray missiles; now he lifted one of the pair of launchers. “It’ll be really quick,” he said shyly, changing the subject. The launcher was an arm-length tube with double handgrips and an optical sight. Helmuth’s big hands easily inserted one of the buzzbombs to lock with a faint snick.

“Very simple,” Margritte murmured.

“Cheap and easy,” the boy agreed with a smile. “You can buy a thousand of these for what a combat car runs—Hell, maybe more than a thousand. And it’s one for one today, one bomb to one car. Landschein says the crews are just a little extra, like weevils in your biscuit.”

He saw her grimace, the angry tensing of a woman who had just seen her husband blasted into a spray of offal. Helmuth grunted with his own pain, his mouth dropping open as his hand stretched to touch her bare shoulder. “Oh, Lord—didn’t mean to say... ”

She gently detached his fingers. His breath caught and he turned away. Unseen, her look of hatred seared his back. His hand was still stretched toward her and hers towards him, when the door scraped to admit Landschein behind them.

“Cute, oh bloody cute,” the little mercenary said. He carried his helmet by its strap. Uncovered, his cropped gray hair made him an older man. “Well, get on with it, boy—don’t keep me ‘n’ Sarge waiting. He'll be mad enough about getting sloppy thirds.”

Helmuth jumped to his feet. Landschein ignored him, clicking across to a window in three quick strides. “Sarge,” he called, “we're all set. Come on, we can watch the women from here.”

“I’ll run the truck into the woods,” Counsel’s voice burred in reply. “Anyhow, I can hear better from out here.”

That was true. Despite the open windows, the wails of the children were inaudible in the hall. Outside, they formed a thin backdrop to every other sound.

Landschein set down his helmet. He snapped the safety on his gun’s sideplate and leaned the weapon carefully against the nest of armor. Then he took up the loaded launcher and ran his hands over its tube and grips. Without changing expression, he reached out to caress Margritte through the tear in her dress.

Margritte screamed and clawed her left hand as she tried to rise. The launcher slipped into Landschein’s lap, and his arm, far swifter, locked hers and drew her down against him. Then the little mercenary himself was jerked upward. Helmuth’s hand on his collar first broke Landschein’s grip on Margritte, then flung him against the closed door.

Landschein rolled despite the shock and his glance flicked towards his weapon, but between gun and gunman crouched Helmuth, no longer a red-faced boy but the strongest man in the room. Grinning, Helmuth spread fingers that had crushed ribs in past rough and tumbles. “Try it, little man,” he said. “Try it and I’ll rip your head off your shoulders.”

“You'll do wonders!” Landschein spat, but his eyes lost their clave and his muscles relaxed. He bent his mouth into a smile. “Hey, kid, there’s plenty of slots around. We'll work out something afterward; no need to fight.”

Helmuth rocked his head back in a nod of acceptance with nothing of friendship in it. “You lay another hand on her,” he said in a normal voice, “and you’d best have killed me first.” He turned his back deliberately on the older man and the nearby weapons. Landschein clenched his left fist once, twice, but then he began to load the remaining launcher.

Margritte slipped the patching kit from her belt pouch. Her hands trembled, but the steel needle was already threaded. Her whipstitches tacked the torn piece top and sides to the remaining material, close enough for decency. Pins were a luxury that a cotton settlement could well do without. Landschein glanced back at her once, but at the same time the floor creaked as Helmuth’s weight shifted to his other leg. Neither man spoke.

Sergeant Counsel opened the door. His right arm cradled a pair of flechette guns and he handed one to Helmuth. “Best not to leave it in the dust,” he said. “You'll be needing it soon.”

“They coming, Sarge?” Landschein asked. He touched his tongue to thin, pale lips.

“Not yet.” Counsel looked from one man to the other. “You boys get things sorted out?”

“All green here,” Landschein muttered, smiling again but lowering his eyes.

“That’s good,” the big black sergeant said, “because we got a.job to do and we’re not going to let anything stop us. Anything.”

Margritte was putting away her needle. The sergeant looked at her hard. “You keep your head down, hear?”

“It won’t matter,” the girl said calmly, tucking the kit away. “The tanks, they won’t be surprised to see a woman in here.”

“Sure, but they’ll shoot your bleeding head off,” Landschein snorted.

“Do you think I care?” she blazed back. Helmuth winced at the tone; Sergeant Counsel’s eyes took on an undesirable shade of interest.

“But you’re helping us,” the big noncom mused. He tapped his fingertips on the gun in the crook of his arm. “Because you like us so much?” There was no amusement in his words, only a careful mind picking over the idea, all ideas.

She stood and walked to the door, her face as composed as a priest's at the gravesite. “Have your ambush,” she said, “Would it help us if the convoy came through before you were ready for it?”

“The smoother it goes, the faster,” Counsel agreed quietly, “then the better for all of you.”

Margritte swung the door open and stood looking out. Eight women were picking among the rows east of the hall. They would be relatively safe there, not caught between the ambushers’ rockets and the raking powerguns of their quarry. Eight of them safe and fourteen sure victims on the other side. Most of them could have been out of the crossfire if they had only let themselves think, only considered the truth that Georg had died to underscore.

“I keep thinking of Georg,” Margritte said aloud. “I guess my friends are just thinking about their children; they keep looking at the storage room. But the children, they’ll be all right; it’s just that most of them are going to be orphans in a few minutes.”

“It won't be that bad,” Helmuth said. He did not sound as though he believed it either.

The older children had by now ceased the screaming begun when the door shut and darkness closed in on them. The youngest still wailed and the sound drifted through the open door.

“I told her we'd take her back with us, Sarge,” Helmuth said.

Landschein chortled, a flash of instinctive humor he covered with a raised palm. Counsel shook his head in amazement. “You were wrong, boy. Now, keep watching those women or we may not be going back ourselves.”

The younger man reddened again in frustration. “Look, we’ve got women in the outfit now, and I don’t mean the rec troops. Captain Denzil told me there’s six in Bravo Company alone—”

“Hoo, little Helmuth wants his own girlie friend to keep his bed warm,” Landschein gibed.

“Landschein, I—” Helmuth began, clenching his right hand into a ridge of knuckles.

“Shut it off!”

“But, Sarge—”

“Shut it off, boy, or you‘ll have me to deal with!” roared the noncom. Helmuth fell back and rubbed his eyes. The noncom went on more quietly, “Landschein, you keep your tongue to yourself, too.”

Both men breathed deeply, their eyes shifting in concert toward Margritte who faced them in silence. “Helmuth,” the sergeant continued, “some units take women, some don’t. We’ve got a few, damned few, because not many women have the guts for our line of work.”

Margritte’s smile flickered. “The hardness, you mean. The callousness.”

“Sure, words don’t matter,” Counsel agreed mildly. He smiled back at her as one equal to another. “This one, yeah; she might just pass. Via, you don’t have to look like Landschein there to be tough. But you’re missing the big point, boy.”

Helmuth touched his right wrist to his chin. “Well, what?” he demanded.

Counsel laughed. “She wouldn’t go with us. Would you, girl?”

Margritte’s eyes were flat, andl her voice was dead flat. “No,” she said, “I wouldn’t go with you.”

The noncom grinned as he walked back to a window vantage. “You see, Helmuth, you want her to give up a whole lot to gain you a bunkmate.”

“It’s not like that,” Helmuth insisted, thumping his leg in frustration. “I just mean—”

“Oh, Lord!” the girl said loudly. “Can’t you just get on with your ambush?”

“Well, not till Hammer’s boys come through,” chuckled the sergeant. “They’re so good, they can’t run a convoy to schedule.”

“S-sergeant,” the young soldier said, “she doesn’t understand.” He turned to Margritte and gestured with both hands, forgetting the weapon in his left. “They won't take you back, those witches out there. The… the rec girls at Base Denzil don’t go home—they can’t. And you know damned well that s-somebody’s going to catch it out there when it drops in the pot. They’ll crucify you for helping us set up, the ones that’re left.”

“It doesn’t matter what they do,”’ she said. “It doesn’t matter at all.”

“Your life matters!” the boy insisted.

Her laughter hooted through the room. “My life?” Margritte repeated. “You splashed all that across the field an hour ago. You didn’t give a damn when you did it, and I don’t give one now—but I’d only follow you to Hell and hope your road was short.”

Helmuth bit his knuckle and turned, pinched over as though he had been kicked. Sergeant Counsel grinned his tight, equals grin. “You’re wasted here, you know,” he said. “And we could use you. Maybe if—”

“Sarge!” Landschein called from his window. “Here they come.”

Counsel scooped up a rocket launcher, probing its breech with his fingers to make finally sure of its load. “Now you keep down,” he repeated to Margritte. “Backblast’ll take your head off if their shooting don’t.” He crouched below the sill and the rim of the armor shielding him, peering through a periscope whose button of optical fibers was unnoticeable in the shadow. Faced inwards towards the girl, Landschein hunched over the other launcher in the right corner of the protected area. His flechette gun rested beside him and one hand curved toward it momentarily, anticipating the instant he would raise it to spray the shattered convoy. Between them Helmuth knelt as stiffly as a statue of gray-green jade. He drew a buzzbomb closer to his right knee where it clinked against the barrel of his own weapon. Cursing nervously, he slid the flechette gun back out of the way. Both his hands gripped reloads, waiting.

The cars’ shrill whine trembled in the air. Margritte stood up by the door, staring out through the windows across the hall. Dust plumed where the long, straight roadway cut the horizon into two blocks of forest. The women in the fields had paused, straightening to watch the oncoming vehicles. But that was normal, nothing to alarm the khaki men in the bellies of their war cars; and if any woman thought of falling to hug the earth, the fans’ wailing too nearly approximated that of the imprisoned children.

“Three hundred meters, ” Counsel reported softly as the blunt bow of the lead car gleamed through the dust. “Two-fifty,” Landschein’s teeth bared as he faced around, poised to spring.

Margritte swept up Helmuth’s flechette gun and leveled it at waist height. The safety clicked off. Counsel had dropped his periscope and his mouth was open to cry an order. The deafening muzzle blast lifted him out of his crouch and pasted him briefly, voiceless, against the pocked inner face of the armor. Margritte swung her weapon like a flail into a triple splash of red. Helmuth died with only a reflexive jerk, but Landschein’s speed came near to bringing his launcher to bear on Margritte. The stream of flechettes sawed across his throat. His torso dropped, headless but still clutching the weapon.

Margritte’s gun silenced when the last needle slapped out of the muzzle. The aluminium barrel shroud had softened and warped during the long burst. Eddies in the fog of blood and propellant smoke danced away from it. Margritte turned as if in icy composure, but she bumped the door jamb and staggered as she stepped outside. The racket of the gun had drawn the sallow faces of every woman in the fields.

“It’s over!” Margritte called. Her voice sounded thin in the fresh silence. Three of the nearer mothers ran towards the storage room.

Down the road, dust was spraying as the convoy skidded into a herringbone for defense. Gun muzzles searched: the running women; Margritte armed and motionless; the sudden eruption of children from the dugout. The men in the cars waited, their trigger fingers partly tensed.

Bergen, Delia’s six-year-old, pounded past Margritte to throw herself into her mother’s arms. They clung together, each crooning to the other through their tears. “Oh, we were so afraid!” Bergen said, drawing away from her mother. “But now it’s all right.” She rotated her head and her eyes widened as they took in Margritte’s tattered figure. “Oh, Margi,” she gasped, “whatever happened to you?”

Delia gasped and snatched her daughter back against her bosom. Over the child’s loose curls, Delia glared at Margritte with eyes like a hedge of pikes. Margritte’s hand stopped halfway to the child. She stood—gaunt, misted with blood as though sunburned. A woman who had blasted life away instead of suckling it. Delia, a frightened mother, snarled at the killer who had been her friend.

Margritte began to laugh. She trailed the gun three steps before letting it drop unnoticed. The captain of the lead car watched her approach over his gunsights. His short, black beard fluffed out from under his helmet, twitching as he asked, “Would you like to tell us what's going on, honey, or do we got to comb it out ourselves?”

“I killed three soldiers,” she answered simply. “Now there’s nothing going on. Except that wherever you’re headed, I’m going along. You can use my sort, soldier.”

Her laughter was a crackling shadow in the sunlight.

David Drake studied history, Latin, and law before being drafted into the Army in 1970 and experiencing South East Asia from the loader’s hatch of a tank. He is the author of the Hammer’s Slammers series. “Caught in the Crossfire” was written in 1978 and originally appeared in New Destinies, edited by Jim Baen.