A Guy from Hell (01/08)

A Guy from Hell

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter One

What a village! I have never seen villages like this one in my life; I didn’t even know they existed. Houses are round, brown, windowless, sitting on stilts, like watch towers, and under them, piles of all kinds of stuff–huge clay pots, troughs, rusty cauldrons, wooden rakes, shovels… The ground between houses is pure clay, burned and stomped on to the point of being shiny. And everywhere you look, nets. Dry. What they catch with those nets, I have no idea; to the right, there’s a swamp, to the left, another swamp, smells like a dump… A dismal hole. For a thousand years, they’ve been rotting here, and were it not for the Duke, they’d rot here for another thousand. The North. The barbarism. And no locals in sight. They either ran away, or were chased away, or hid out.

On a square, near the trading post, smoke was rising from a field kitchen taken off its wheels. A huge porcupine, bigger across than along, wearing a dirty white apron over a dirty gray uniform, stirred inside the cauldron with a long spoon. I think it was the cauldron that made most of the stink in the village.

We came closer, and Cheetah paused to ask where the commander was. The animal didn’t even turn around; he just grumbled something into his cooking and pointed along the street with the spoon. I kicked him in the behind; he quickly turned around, saw our uniforms, and immediately assumed the proper position. His face matched his body, and had a week’s worth of stubble on it; damn porcupine.

“So where’s the commander?” Cheetah asked again, pointing a cane at the porcupine’s fat neck under a double chin.

The porcupine’s eyes bulged, his lips flapped, and he said hoarsely,

“My apologies, senior preceptor, sir… The staff major is on positions… Please proceed down that street… it’s in the outskirts… Please accept my apologies, senior preceptor, sir…”

He continued to hiss and gurgle, while two more porcupines emerged from around the corner of the trading post; even uglier than the first one, complete scarecrows, no weapons, no hats; they saw us and froze at attention. Cheetah only looked at them, sighed, and walked on, slapping the leg of his boot with his cane.

Well, looks like we’re right on time. Those porcupines would surely fight a fine battle! I’ve seen three so far, but I am already about to throw up; it’s already clear to me that this, pardon my language, unit, comprised of rear-guard lice, quickly and thoughtlessly, all those regiment bakers, brigade cobblers, clerks, commissaries, idiots, herniacs, blindpokes, the eagles of burial details–all of them are walking fertilizer, bayonet lubrication. The Imperial armored machines would go through them and not even notice. Like a walk in a park.

At that point, someone called out to us. To our left, a camouflage awning was spread in the air and a white-and-green cloth was up on a pole. A medical post. Two more porcupines were slowly going through green medicine bags; the wounded lay on mats thrown straight onto the ground. There were three wounded; one, his head bandaged, looked at us propping himself up on his elbow. When we turned his way, he called again,

“Preceptor, sir! Just a minute, please!”

We came closer. Cheetah squatted, and I stood behind him. The wounded had no insignia; he wore a tattered and burned camouflage overalls, open to bare his hairy chest, but looking at his face, his wild eyes with burnt eyelashes I saw right away that this was no porcupine; no, guys, this one is for real. And so he was.

“Brigade jaeger baron Tragg,” he introduced himself. It sounded like clanking of an armored machine’s tracks. “Commander, detachment eighteen, forest jaegers.”

“Senior preceptor Digga,” Cheetah said. “I am listening, brave brother.”

“A cigarette…” the baron asked in a suddenly quiet voice.

While Cheetah reached for his cigarette box, he quickly continued,

“I got hit with a flame thrower, got burnt like a pig… Praise God, there was a swamp close by, so I jumped in, up to my eyebrows… But my cigarettes turned into a mush… Thank you…”

He dragged, closing his eyes, and immediately started coughing, turned blue in the face, convulsed; a drop of blood rolled onto his cheek from under the bandage and froze there. Like tar. Cheetah, without turning around, reached toward me and snapped his fingers. I ripped the flask off my belt and handed it to him. The baron took a few sips and seemed to feel better. Two other wounded weren’t moving; they either were asleep or have passed away. The medics were looking at us fearfully. They weren’t even looking, just glancing.

“Wonderful…” baron Tragg said, handing back the flask. “How many people have you got?”

“Forty,” Cheetah said. “And keep the flask… for yourself.”

“Forty… Forty Fighting Cats…”

“Kittens,” Cheetah said. “Unfortunately… But we’ll do all we can.”

The baron looked at him from under his scorched eyebrows. His eyes expressed torment.

“Listen, brave brother,” he said. “I’ve got no one left. I am retreating from the very pass, for three days. Endless skirmishes. The rat eaters push through in their armored machines. I burned about twenty. Last two, yesterday… here, at the edge of the village… you’ll see. This staff major… fool and coward… old lumber… I wanted to shoot him, but I didn’t have a single bullet left. Can you imagine? Not a single bullet! He was hiding in the village with his porcupines watching us burn one by one… What am I trying to say? Ah, yes! Where is Gahgrid’s brigade? We lost the radio… Last thing we heard, ‘Hold on, Gahgrid’s brigade is coming’… Another cigarette? And tell the headquarters that detachment eighteen is no more.”

The baron was delirious now. His wild eyes got blurred, his tongue barely moved. He fell onto his back and kept talking, mumbling, wheezing, while his curled fingers restlessly moved about, groping the edges of the mat or his overalls. Suddenly, he got quiet in the middle of a word, and Cheetah got up.

He slowly took out a cigarette, without taking his eyes off the baron’s face, flicked his cigarette lighter, then bent down and put his cigarette box, along with the lighter, next to the blackened fingers; the fingers greedily grabbed the cigarette box and held it tightly, while Cheetah, without a word, turned away, and we went on.

I thought it worked out humanely, in a way; the brigade jaeger lost consciousness just in time. If he didn’t, he would have learned that Gahgrid’s brigade was also no more. It was carpet-bombed last night on a lateral road; it took us two hours to clear the road from the broken pieces of machinery and mountains of already cold flesh, all the while pushing away the crazies trying to hide under the trucks. Of Gahgrid himself, we found only his general’s hat, caked in dried blood all over… I shivered when I thought about it, and I involuntarily looked up at the sky and was happy to see low gray clouds without a single bright spot.

First thing we saw at the edge of the village was an Imperial armored machine, gone off the road, its nose sunk into the village well. It was already cold, the grass around it covered in fatty soot; under an open side hatch, a dead rat eater lay face down; whatever he had on burned down, except tan laced boots on triple soles. Good boots those rat eaters have! They have good laced boots, good armored machines, and maybe good bombers. But everyone knows they are lousy soldiers. Jackals.

“How do you like this position, Gahg?” Cheetah asked.

I looked around. What a position! I couldn’t believe my eyes. The porcupines have dug their trenches on both sides of the road, in the middle of a clearing between the edge of the village and the jungle. The jungle was barely fifty paces away from the trenches. You could hide a regiment in there, a brigade if you felt like it, but they wouldn’t know it in the trenches, and if they ever found out, it would be too late to do anything about it. The trenches on the left had a swamp behind them. Behind the trenches on the right, there was a level field, which used to have crops in it until it all burned down. Ouch…

“I don’t like this position,” I said.

“Neither do I,” said Cheetah.

Indeed! The position wasn’t the only problem. There were porcupines, too. There were a hundred of them at least, and they walked all over that position of theirs as if it were a marketplace. Some were sitting in circles around fires. Others were just standing there, hiding their hands up their sleeves. Yet others simply walked around.

By the trenches, there was a scatter of rifles; machine guns were pointing upward into the low sky. In the middle of the road, up to its axles in dirt, seemingly out of place, was a rocket launcher. Sitting on its frame was an elderly porcupine–maybe a guard, maybe someone who got tired of walking around and wanted something to sit on. This said, he was doing no harm, just sat there and picked his ear with a splinter of wood.

This made me feel depressed. Were it up to me, I would drown this whole scene in machine-gun fire… I hopefully looked at Cheetah, but he was quiet, pointing his prominent nose this way and that.

Angry voices came from behind, and I looked around. Under the stairway of the closest house, two porcupines were having an argument. They were fighting over a wooden trough; each pulled it his way, spewing dark obscenities; these two, I would drown in machine-gun fire with particular pleasure. Cheetah told me,

“Get them over here.”

I quickly jumped up to those two, slapped one on the wrists with the barrel of my rifle, then the other, and when they both dropped the trough and stared at me, nodded my head toward Cheetah. They didn’t make a sound. Both started sweating, like they were in a steam room. Wiping off their sweat with their sleeves, they effeminately ran up to Cheetah and froze two paces in front of him like messy and sweaty heaps.

Cheetah slowly raised his cane, aimed, like he was playing pool, and struck–straight at their faces, once each; then he looked at those animals and said,

“Get me the commander. Quickly.”

No, guys. Whatever you say, Cheetah did not expect it to be that bad. Obviously, nothing good was to be expected. If Fighting Cats are sent to plug a hole, it must be clear to anyone: things aren’t well. But this! The tip of Cheetah’s nose actually turned white.

Finally, the commander arrived. Looking like a sleepy stick with gray sideburns, he came out from behind the houses, buttoning up his uniform jacket on the go. At least fifty years old. Red nose with clearly visible capillaries, a pince-nez with oily fingerprints all over it, the kind headquarters officers wore in the last war, wet crumbles of chewing tobacco on his long chin. He introduced himself as staff major and attempted to be on a first-name basis with Cheetah.

Not a chance! Cheetah froze him so solid, he even shrank in stature; at first, he was half a head taller, a minute later–snake milk!–he was looking up at Cheetah, a gray-haired old man of a very average height.

Long story short, here’s the deal. Where the enemy is and in what numbers, the staff major doesn’t know; his orders are to defend the village until backup arrives; his troops are one hundred and sixteen soldiers with eight machine guns and two rocket launchers; almost all soldiers are unfit for combat duty, and after yesterday’s march, twenty seven of them are down–skin rashes, hernias, you name it…

“Look,” Cheetah said suddenly. “What’s that over there?”

The staff major stopped in mid-sentence and looked in the direction pointed out by the polished cane. What an eye! Only now I saw: in the largest circle around one of the fires, showing disgustingly among the gray jackets of our porcupines, were the striped overalls of Imperial armored infantry. Snake milk! One, two, three… Four rat eaters at our fire, and those pigs all but hug them. Smoking. And laughing about something…

“That?” the staff major said and looked at Cheetah like a rabbit. “You mean prisoners, senior preceptor, sir?”

Cheetah didn’t answer. The staff porcupine put his pince-nez back on and proceeded to explain. Those, you see, are prisoners, but they have nothing to do with us. They have been captured by the jaegers in yesterday’s skirmish. With no transportation and lacking personnel for proper guard duty…

“Gahg,” Cheetah said. “Take them to Tick. Make sure he interrogates them first…”

I took my rifle off safety and went to the fire. Smoking, bastards, and drinking something from mugs. Happy faces, sheen all over. What an abomination… And that one, the blond, pats a porcupine on the back, and the porcupine, the brainless animal, is all happy, laughing and shaking his head. Are they all drunk, or what?

I came closer. The porcupines notices me from a distance, got quiet, and started crawling away one by one. Some, it seems, were too scared to be able to move: they just sat there, eyes bulging, mouths open. As to the striped ones, they just went gray; the rat eaters know our insignia, they heard all about it!

I ordered them to get up up. They did. Sullenly. I ordered them to form a line. They did, what else could they do? The blond started saying something in our language; I poked him between the ribs with my rifle’s barrel, and he shut up. And so they went, single-file, slouching, hands behind their backs. Rats. And they even smell ratty… Two are solid men, broad-shouldered, the other two seem to be from the latest draft, weak snots, barely older than I am.

I hate prisoners. What kind of slime is it: you go to war and end up a prisoner? Well, I understand, they’re rat eaters, what can you expect from them, but it’s still abominable, whatever you say… Oh, please: one of the snots bent over, throwing up. Keep moving, snake milk! The other started barfing. Damn! Those rats, just like the real ones, can feel death coming up. Right now, they are ready for everything: to betray, to sell out, to enter slavery…

“On the double!” I shouted in their language.

They ran. Slowly, badly. The blond is limping. Must be a serious wound; probably sprained an ankle in an outhouse. Oh well, he’ll have to limp along.

We reached the other edge of the village, then the trucks; the guys saw us, started screaming and whistling. I found a big puddle, laid the prisoners face down into the mud, and went to the first truck where Tick was. Tick, meanwhile, jumped out my way; excited face, the little mustache under his nose bristling, an ivory cigarette holder, per graduating class fashion, in his teeth.

“What say you, my dead brother?” he says to me.

I report; the situation is such and such, and the prisoners have to be interrogated first. And add on my own behalf,

“Don’t forget about me, Tick,” I say. “After all, I got them here…”

“You mean, the collar?” he asks absent-mindedly, looking around.

“Of course! Who got them here, after all?”

“I just don’t see on what. And I don’t want to take them to the forest…”

“What about the stilts?”

“I suppose we could use the stilts… But why?” He looked at me. “How about without the stilts? Will you do it?”

Oh great. I knew it. I am always out of luck. Was it my fault that my junior got assigned to the headquarters? And doing it alone–how? I don’t have the strength. It will take me until the evening to get it done, and then I’ll spend the whole night washing up.

“You do know,” I said to Tick. “I don’t have a junior.”

“Can’t you do it alone?” he asks. “Do you have the string?”

Suddenly, I got excited.

“Will you hold?” I ask.

He looked at me, and my mood immediately went sour.

“Kitten…” he says. “You’re going to have fun here, while Cheetah is alone over there? Take three pairs and run to Cheetah! Quickly!”

There was nothing else to do. Out of luck. I looked at my striped ones for the last time, threw the rifle on my shoulder, and shouted as loudly as I could,

“Pairs one, two, and three, approach!”

The Kittens started jumping out of the truck like peas out of a pod; Jackrabbit and Rooster, Nose and Crocodile, Sniper and… what’s his face… I haven’t got used to him yet, he just got transferred to us from the Piggan School–he killed a wrong guy there, so he got shipped our way.

I have noticed this a long time ago, but haven’t told anyone; if a Cat gets overexcited and kills a civilian, they immediately draw up an order. Such and such, nicknamed So and So, for the commission of a crime is hereby sentenced to death by firing squad. They take him out to the parade grounds, stand him in front of the line of his best friends, shoot a volley at him, throw his body into a truck to be buried without honors, and then you hear: guys saw him on a mission, or in another unit… Good practice, I think.

Anyway, I commanded “on the double”, and we rushed back to Cheetah. Cheetah, meanwhile, wasted no time. That pole of a staff major is running our way, and after him, a formation of fifty or so porcupines with shovels and picks, stomping their boots, steam rising from them. Meaning, Cheetah ordered them to go dig a new position, the real one, for us.  Under the house opposite the medical post, I see, the shovels are already moving, the rocket launcher is up, and overall, there’s movement all over the village, just like on the main avenue on the Duke’s birthday–the porcupines run forth and back, and not a single one empty-handed: they either have weapons, but those are few, or move ammunition crates or machine guns’ frames.

Cheetah saw us and expressed pleasure.  He dispatched the pairs of Jackrabbit and Sniper into the jungle right away for advance recon, kept Nose and Crocodile for errands, and told me,

“Gahg, you are the best rocket launcher operator in the detachment, so I have high hopes for you.  Do you see those cockroaches over there?  Commandeer them.  Set up a rocket launcher on the other edge of the village, about where our trucks are right now.  Camouflage well; you will open fire when I light up the village.  Go, Cat.”

When I heard it all, I didn’t just run, I flew over to my cockroaches.  The cockroaches, along with my rocket launcher, were drowning in a dirty puddle in the middle of the road and seemed to intend to spend the entire war in there.  They barely moved their legs, herniacs.  I hit one over the ear, kicked another, stuck the rifle butt between the shoulder blades of the third, screamed so loudly that my own ears rang, and my cockroaches started working for real, almost like men.  They lifted the rocket launcher out of the puddle and rolled it along the road, wheels squeaking, dirt flying, straight into another puddle.  At that point, I had to shoulder in myself.  No, guys, you absolutely can make the porcupines work, you just have to know how.

So here was my disposition.  I have already chosen my position; not far from the trucks, there were thick red bushes and a flat lowland behind them, where I could easily dig in, so that not a single devil would see me from the jungle.  I, meanwhile, could see everything; the road all the way up to the jungle, the entire edge of the village in case they go straight through the houses, and the swamp on the left in case the armored infantry comes in from there…  I thought I had to remember to ask Tick for a few pairs to cover me from this side.  I’ve got twenty rockets in the trays, unless those clerks threw some out along the way to lighten their load… well, I’ll check that right away, but in any case, as soon as we’re done digging in, I’ll have to send the cockroaches for more.  I hate to stretch the allowance in the battle.  That’s not battle, and I don’t know what it is…  I’ve got until the twilight, and when they start advancing in the twilight, this wild village would go up in flames, and they all will be at my mercy–pick and kill.  Cheetah, you will not regret placing your hope in me!

The last thought went through my mind as I was lying on my back, while in the gray sky above me, like some strange birds, some burning rags flew.  I’ve heard neither shot nor explosion; in fact, I couldn’t hear anything.  Lost my hearing.  I don’t know how much time passed before I sat up.

Out of the jungle, four at a time, come the armored machines, spit out fire and fan out into a combat formation, next quartet close behind.  The village is burning.  Above the trenches in front of me, smoke; not a single soul to be seen.  The field kitchen next to the trading post is turned over, the cooking spilled out like steaming brown dirt.  My rocket launcher is also turned over, and the cockroaches have piled up in the gutter.  Nice position, snake milk!

Then, the second barrage came in.  I got thrown into the gutter, backflipped, mouth full of clay, dirt in the eyes.  As soon as I got up, the third barrage.  So it started…

We’ve managed to put the rocket launcher back onto its wheels, rolled it down into the gutter, and I burned one armored machine.  Cockroaches now were down to two, I don’t know where the third one went.

Then–suddenly, without a transition–I found myself on the road.  In front of me, a whole bunch of the striped ones; close, very close, almost near me.  On their bayonets, the bloody-red glimmer of fire.  Over my ear, a machine gun was blaring, there was a knife in my hand, and under my feet, someone was convulsing, kicking me below the knees…

Then, carefully, as if on training grounds, I was aiming the rocket launcher at a shield of steel coming my way out of the smoke.  I thought I even heard the instructor’s command, “At the armored infantry… armor-piercing…”  And I couldn’t pull the trigger, because the knife was in my hand again…

Then, suddenly, there was a pause.  It was twilight.  Turns out that my rocket launcher survived, and I survived; there was a small crowd of porcupines all around me, about ten of them.  They all smoked, and someone put a flask into my hand.  Who was it?  Jackrabbit?  I don’t know…  I remember seeing a strange black figure against the background of a burning house about thirty paces away; everyone was sitting or lying down, but this one was standing, and it seemed he was black, but naked…   He didn’t have clothes on; no overcoat, no jacket.  Or did he?  “Jackrabbit, who is it over there?” — “I don’t know, I’m not Jackrabbit.” — “So where is Jackrabbit?” — “I don’t know; you just drink…”

Then we dug, as quickly as we could.  It was at a different place now.  The village was no longer off to a side; it was in front of us.  Actually, there was no village anymore, just smoldering piles of wood, but there still were burning armored machines on the road.  Many.  Several.  Swamp water floundered under our feet…  “I am giving you a commendation; great job, Cat…” — “Excuse me, Cheetah, I am not thinking straight.  Where are all the guys?  How come it’s only porcupines around?” — “Don’t worry, Gahg, keep working, brave brother, everybody’s fine, everybody admires you…”

Aha!  Direct hit!  Straight into the stupid faceplate.  It’s backing up, lowering its aft, shoots a bunch of sparks up into the sky.  They’re coming!  “Cat, on your right! Up!”  I can’t see anything on the right, but I am not really looking.  I turn the barrel that way, and suddenly, out of the black-and-red blur, a rain of liquid fire pours straight into my face.  Everything lights up right away–the dead bodies, the ground, the rocket launcher.  And some random bushes.  And I.  It hurts.  It hurts like hell.  Like baron Tragg…

A puddle, I need a puddle!  There was a puddle right here!  They were lying in it!  I put them there, snake milk, but I really had to put them into the fire, into the fire!  No puddle…  The ground was burning, the ground was smoking, and suddenly, someone inhumanly strong kicked it from under my feet…

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