An Offer Spurned

Copyright 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

Originally published in Sphere Online

The first thing a person has to understand about the Southern Front is its size. It runs across the continent from the Burned Lands on the coast where Los Angeles once stood to the Gulf. That's a lot of ground even for an army as big as the Amero-Russ Confederal Forces to patrol. Our mission was to prevent the Mexicans fleeing the drought in their own lands from coming north and putting any further strain on an economy already stretched to the limit by blight and nuclear winter.

Colonel Anton Pavlovich Shlabrikovsky, to whom I was first assistant, was assigned the first hundred verst stretch from the Burned Lands out. He was a tall man with green eyes and a way of putting everybody around him at ease without even having to say a word. But everybody knew that he still meant business, even more than some of the real martinets like Semyonov or Kostoshenko.

We had our HQ in an old Spanish mission, a place called Sao Paolo. It wasn't a bad place once a fellow got used to the cockroaches. I've heard from some of the guys that had to go into the actual Burned Lands that they found cockroaches there too, so I guess that even nukes couldn't kill those buggers off.

From the beginning Anton Pavlovich was determined to preserve the mission. All of us expected him to start tearing things out and mold them to his will. But no, that wasn't his style. He handed the old chapel over to our chaplain, Father Semyon, and told him to put the icons up for Orthodox services. We used the old refectory for mess and for staff meetings, since Anton Pavlovich said that he wasn't going to desecrate the chapel by using it to lay war-plans.

After about a month, Anton Pavlovich decided that he wanted to make a personal inspection of a place down by the river about thirty versts from our HQ. We had been getting some reports of energy readings coming out of the big mound there, like there was something working inside.

The place had been hit by a small thermonuke, but at high enough altitude that there wasn't much contamination although most of the ground was vitrified. When we got there, we could see where the stone had melted and run, but not enough to totally obscure the general form of the structure. We could even see the entrance which must have originally been big enough to drive a troop carrier through, although it had sagged until half of it was now blocked.

I wasn't comfortable with the thought of trying to go in there, but Anton Pavlovich wouldn't be stopped. So we drove our trucks into the tunnel that must have been made to shield something pretty important from the attack.

That tunnel ran for about twenty arshins before we were able to recognize anything in that half-melted rock. Somehow the heat had gotten inside the tunnel, although I don't know how that could have happened short of a ground burst. I can tell you it really felt strange heading into the core of what had been some kind of military command complex from before the Firefall War. But we got only about a couple hundred arshins before the tunnel came to an end at a huge door that had been torn from its hinges and now sagged against the wall beside the opening. Inside was a big room where the rusted-out skeletons of some old vehicles waited for people who would never return.

"What happened to the tunnel?" It was Vartanian, who had been a headache from the time he had been assigned to us.

Anton Pavlovich pointed above us. "They drilled a shaft about a hundred arshins straight up, intended to channel the blast away from the entrance. Whether or not it worked I can't really tell, although I rather doubt it from the way that door was torn off its hinges."

He was probably right, since that door must have weighed a couple thousand poods. Yet the room beyond it didn't have the sort of damage associated with blast.

We parked our trucks in that room where there were still lights functioning, and left a couple of guards with them. Then we proceeded on foot through the corridor on the far side of that old garage.

It was the strangest place I've ever had the misfortune to go through. About every twenty arshins another corridor would branch off and vanish into the shadows where the old lighting system had either failed or been cannibalized by whoever was keeping this place running. Several places along the corridor big iron grates were set in the floor. We stopped to look into one of them, and we could see a huge room below, filled with electrical equipment. There were huge cabinets like the big transformers in a substation, topped with huge insulators that held a spiderweb of wires. We were about five or six arshins above it, but we could smell the acrid scent of ozone and hear the hum of those wires.

"What is it?" It was Vartanian again.

Anton Pavlovich shook his head, looking as baffled as the rest of us. "Other than the obvious, I haven't the slightest idea what this stuff is being used for, or why it should be placed here. But I have a good idea that we may be able to find out if we go on."

So we just kept on going. After what seemed like forever, we came to this place where there were rooms with fishtanks along the walls and furniture for living quarters. But we didn't see so much as a single soul as we walked, although the place certainly looked occupied. But of course we may have frightened them away.

We walked into a chamber so huge that for a moment I thought that we had come out the other side and were standing in the open air. But then I saw the ceiling about fifty arshins up, with the biggest lamps I had ever seen shining down like artificial suns. In the center of that room was a fair-sized pool with about a dozen people in it, and maybe twice or three times that number lounging around the edge.

While the whole lot of us were just standing there and gaping, a man walked up to us. He was wearing a robe of purple satin, and he had a full beard like a priest. He must have picked out Anton Pavlovich as our leader, since he went right up to him and held out his hand in welcome. "I hope our hospitality is not too poor for you."

That must have amused Anton Pavlovich, because he laughed as he shook his head. "Of course not, you haven't shot at us. But we were investigating the energy readings we were getting, in case this might be some kind of shelter that had gotten sealed up by the blast."

"Or perhaps a Mexican command center, so that you could neutralize it," the bearded man suggested.

"Well, there always was that possibility. But the Mexicans aren't really an organized force, at least for the most part. It's more of a migration, like locusts, than a military operation. So that's why we suspected an old shelter first. After all we opened one a few months ago that had been sealed since the Firefall War and found people who didn't even realize that the war had been over for almost five years."

"How thoughtful of you. But this really isn't my sort of thing. Perhaps you should speak with our leader."

The bearded man led us down a corridor that came off the other side of the pool chamber, down about a hundred arshins to an old meeting room.

A long conference table ran down the center of that room. At its head stood a high-backed chair, a throne for the strangest person I had ever seen. Dressed in a mask of black plastic and robes of fur and leather, this individual seemed to radiate an air of command even while bent over papers scattered across the felted top of the table.

I took their leader to be a man, so I was more than a little confused when the bearded man said, "Mother Shallom, we have visitors."

Mother Shallom answered in a voice that could only belong to a woman, but one accustomed to the exercise of authority over men and women alike. "What do they wish, my son?"

The bearded man nodded to Anton Pavlovich, who summarized our mission.

The woman nodded. "Welcome, but I fear that you are more than a little late. We reopened our main gates not long after the radiation dropped enough that it wasn't dangerous. But then the Mexica came and put all the people they didn't like in here too, until the place was so crowded that we could scarcely move about. When the old food stockpile started running out, they made it quite clear that they weren't going to give us any more. But that was when the Slisthirri came and set us free."

"The Slisthirri?" Anton Pavlovich stared at her.

Mother Shallom explained how the first of the arrowhead ships had landed in the desert one night, and from it emerged strange people, scaled like lizards, but with wings and tails that made some of the people suggest that they might be demons.The Slisthirri made it clear that they were no demons, but people from the planet Slistha. Receiving our radio signals, they decided to visit us, only to arrive as the last bombs of the Firefall War were falling. They bided their time in secret orbit around Mars for about a year, until they decided to offer their help to the reconstruction. They sent their first arrowhead ships to the sites of the old command bases, thinking to find the leaders there.

Mother Shallom nodded. "Can they really be blamed? They are not humans. Their thoughts are not our thoughts."

I could appreciate that point. There was something about that story that raised our curiosity enough that we were willing to accept Mother Shallom's hospitality until the Slisthirri returned.

The moment Anton Pavlovich agreed, Vartanian exploded. "Has everyone here taken leave of their senses? We haven't the first scrap of evidence, only the word of this woman." He waved at Mother Shallom.

Anton Pavlovich fixed the Armenian with a look that could have frozen a nuclear fireball. "I have listened to you far too long, and I am losing my patience. Perhaps I ought to have you demoted and sent to patrol the Burned Lands, but instead I shall only send you back to HQ."

So we sent Vartanian back with the message that we had found something very unusual and would remain for a few days to investigate further. Then we settled in to wait.

Four days later the arrowhead ship landed in the desert a verst from the entrance to the underground complex. I wished that the radars hadn't been one of the first things to go in the Firefall War, since we could have known that our world was getting visitors. But on consideration I think it was just as well, since I suspect that our leaders would have tried to use the last old nukes if they knew.

Thus we met Shalsiros, the Slisthirri leader. After the ground crew secured the ship, the delegation emerged, a dozen of the winged reptiloids. Although I knew I shouldn't try to judge sex on aliens, they appeared about evenly divided between males and females.

Shalsiros was a male, although his aide Sifra was female, and seemed to be his mate as well. The two of them worked together without a word, as though joined telepathically. But both of them talked to other members of the delegation and us, so they were able to talk.

Once we got inside and into the big conference room Mother Shallom used as her executive office, Shalsiros finally explained what his people were interested in.

"We wish to help your people recover what you destroyed in your war, but in a way so that everybody can benefit from it." All the time he would nervously stroke that upturned moustache that gave him a look like a cavalry officer.

Anton Pavlovich gave him a patient nod. "What's in this for you people? After all, I can't quite see you doing this sort of thing for nothing."

The next day we returned to HQ to find General Kostoshenko already there, along with a sizeable detachment of military police. When we entered the commander's office we found Kostoshenko sitting in Anton Pavlovich's chair, a smile on his toadlike face. Beside him stood Vartanian, smug as a cat in a mouse lab.

"So I hear you've been up to something." Kostoshenko looked even less human than the Slisthirri, if such a thing was possible.

Anton Pavlovich frowned as he faced Kostoshenko. "General, I have met with representatives of an interstellar community who wish to help us rebuild our world." He set the text of the agreement before the ugly Ukrainian.

Kostoshenko didn't give it a second glance. "Aliens, you mean. Not human, not people at all. Creatures that only want to rape our world of what little we have left. Your assistant told me everything."

Vartanian nodded, smugger than ever. I wanted to knock that look off that troublemaking Armenian's face once and for all. The feud between my people and his was ancient history, and he certainly hadn't allowed me to forget that he considered all Mingrellians beneath his contempt, my superior rank nonwithstanding. Now he had gone out of his way to destroy the career of the very man who had made my own possible.

Anton Pavlovich must have recognized my anger, for then he turned to me and shook his head. Then he faced Kostoshenko. "I don't know what lies Major Vartanian may have told you, but you should know that he has been a constant source of trouble in my staff. Had I known he would do this, I would never have allowed him to leave my presence. But I will assure you that the Slisthirri and the organization they represent mean us no harm whatsoever..."

Kostoshenko cut him off with a flick of his finger. "I've heard quite enough." He rose and cleared his throat. "Colonel Shlabrikovsky, I hereby relieve you of command and place you under arrest."

Four MP's surrounded Anton Pavlovich and slapped him into handcuffs even as we watched. Kostoshenko took the papers we had worked all night on and tore them to shreds in front of our eyes.

Kostoshenko clapped Anton Pavlovich into the stockade for collusion with the enemy, as if the Slisthirri had ever meant us any harm. The last I heard, Anton Pavlovich was serving a twentyyear sentence on the East Cape. Kostoshenko gave the entire staff orders scattering us by ones and twos all over the Army, all across the length and breadth of the Amero-Russ Union.

When he ordered me off to Novy Murmansk with orders to keep shut or face worse, I resigned my commission in protest. Now I'm trying to find every person who's willing to try to make a go of that agreement with the Slisthirri. Perhaps if enough people know about it the government will have to act, since they can't simply make everyone disappear like they're trying to do with me.Copyright 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

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