A Bit of Colored Ribbon

by Robert A. Hall

They killed Alex Johnson in the first block. He was checking the upper windows of burned-out tenements, just as they'd been taught, when a girl stepped out of an alley, swung a chain around his neck and dragged him down. Her partner thrust a long knife under Johnson's chin, grabbed his taser-rifle, and tried to duck back into the alley. Haskel, one of the newies, burned them both. Not that it did Johnson any good. His life bubbled out on the dirty concrete before they could get a lifepatch on his neck. Eddie thought it probably wouldn't have taken there anyway. Cutting throats was a Raider trademark.

Bronski stripped Johnson of anything usable and pushed his body behind a trash heap with the dead Raiders. The girl looked about fourteen, but she had a crude spider tattooed on her upper arm, totem of a raiding tribe. The Government killer team rallied in an abandoned store, and Eddie posted Haskel and Bronski at the doors. There wasn't a sound in the building. He hoped it wasn't home to a nest of Raiders, or all three of them would be the subject of dignified ceremonies.

Eddie reported the action and location on his comm-pad, and was ordered to continue the mission. Another team would retrieve Lance-Sergeant Johnson's remains, if the rats left enough. There would be a suitable rite and a Valor Cross for his grieving family, who would doubtless appreciate the bit of colored ribbon.

If he wasn't so terrified, Eddie thought he might laugh. Probably a touch of hysteria. Johnson was an arrogant berk, but he was the team leader. Always bragging about his "intuition," developed on thirty-plus killer missions in the deadly streets of a dozen old cities, hunting Raiders. Bugger-all good his experience had done him this time. He dare not let Bronski and Haskel see his fear. Corporal Edward McFee, 20, veteran of all of three missions, was now team leader. He couldn't abort the mission. Intel had identified the nest of a Raider leader, what the scum called a tribal chieftain, and they had been the only available killer team. It was too important a target to pass up. Burn a tribe leader and decent folk who lived on the city's periphery would be safer. For awhile.

Bronski motioned him over. In the rear alley, a dirty child of five or six was picking through another trash heap, hunting scraps of food. Eddie shook his head. Nits in a Raider nest were one thing, but there were lots of desperate people still living in the old cities who didn't belong to Raider tribes. This kid might grow up to be a tribesman, raiding for a living, murdering without remorse, but Eddie didn't kill children on spec.

He whispered an order to Bronski, then moved over and repeated it to Haskel. Both men were "newies"--troopers on their first mission--and would look to him to keep them alive. Eddie grimaced as they moved back onto the dark street. Without Johnson, they would be very lucky to survive hitting a chieftain's nest.

Concentrating on moving the team through the dead streets, Eddie's fear left him. Troopers were finely trained. Dressed like well-armed Raiders, they mostly blended in. With care and luck, they could carry out the mission and survive. With real luck, the nest would be abandoned.

Three or four people scurried out of their way, like small animals avoiding a hawk. Eddie burned one, a scrawny man armed with an old hunting rifle. The others appeared unarmed, and they let them go, hoping they were being taken for Raider tribesmen. Anyone in the city would shop Government troopers for a can of peas.

At 2:15 a.m., only 30 minutes behind schedule, they reached their target. The building was silent, but the team didn't show as much as a finger. If it was a nest, there would be watchers. Eddie prepared his attack.

The assault had gone perfectly, Eddie thought bitterly, if you didn't count the fact that Haskel and Bronski were dead. Haskel had been shot in the shoulder by a Raider woman with a small pistol. It wasn't a serious wound, except that he dropped the thunderbomb he had just armed. There wasn't enough left of him to retrieve, but at least the bomb took out the woman as well.

Bronski had cleared a hall, killing three armed Raiders, and was cautiously approaching a doorway, when a young boy darted from under the stairwell and drove a makeshift spear up through several of his vital organs. Bronski killed the boy as he went down, but it was a bad trade.

Eddie counted thirteen dead Raiders, including four women and the boy. As far as he could tell, he and the rats were the only living creatures in the building. He'd be dead too, but his comm-pad had deflected a slug. The bullet had probably killed him anyway, he thought, because he couldn't report in or call for a retrieval team. Haskel had been carrying the spare. His only hope was to hole up during the coming day, and try to get out at night. The chances were slim--Raiders would kill him as a stranger, Government troopers would burn him for a Raider.

Meanwhile he still had the mission. One by one he searched the dead Raiders, destroying weapons, trying to identify the chieftain. It was probably the tall bastard Bronski had burned. In the back of his mind was the hope that one would have a stolen comm-pad. No joy.

The last raider he turned over was a woman, but that wasn't what made her different. She was alive.

Eddie swung the taser-rifle to eliminate her, but held his fire. Brown eyes starred passively at him from a dirty face. Her cap had fallen off, exposing auburn hair tied up in a bun. She was young, perhaps 16, and oddly innocent looking. He twisted her arm to turn her on her side, exposing the tattoo of a snake near her shoulder. She was a Raider, of a particularly vicious tribe. No wonder they'd had trouble.

Eddie knew he should kill her, but she was offering no resistance, had no weapon in her hands. His stomach turned over. There was no sound, except her pained breathing which shifted her small breasts against the denim of her shirt. He assumed she'd been stunned by one of his thunderbombs.

"Can you move?" he asked.

"Yes."

Perhaps, he thought, headquarters would value a prisoner, though he was quite sure they would shoot her out of hand. Maybe she could help him escape from the city. Eddie stood, hauling her unceremoniously to her feet with him. She was hardly above five foot tall. He ran his hands roughly over her body, suddenly aware of her curves, and found no weapons. She bore his touch without reaction.

"Come on," he ordered. Clutching his taser-rifle in one hand and her arm in the other, he marched her toward the door. Even though she was unarmed, Eddie was careful to give her no opportunity to strike.

He selected a deserted, second-floor apartment as their hidey-hole. Eddie would have preferred to be farther away, but it was more important not to be seen. He checked the exits and observed the streets from a broken window. Nothing moved. There was no activity near the battle site. If they hadn't been spotted, they might have a chance. The girl crouched in a corner, staring at him. She had remained silent, completely passive. Eddie watched her cautiously.

"You're a Raider," he said. It was a statement, not a question.

"I am Kara of the Viper Tribe, yes," she answered softly. Survival in the city depended on speaking in whispers.

"Why? Why would a young girl join a band of killers?"

"You are a killer," she said flatly, brushing a strand of hair from her smudged face. He smiled as she tucked the wisp carefully back into her bun. It was held by a bit of colored ribbon, exposing a delicate neck. Even a Raider woman, fresh from battle, could be vain.

"I'm a soldier, Kara.," he said. "My name's Eddie," he added as an afterthought.

"And I am a tribeswoman. We are both just trying to live, Eddie."

Tears started rolling down her cheeks, and her small body shook, but she stifled the noise of her sobs, silence being the first rule for a tribeswoman. "Do you know what it's like to survive in the city, hunted by both tribesmen and soldiers? When I was eleven, three Wolf tribesmen slaughtered my mother. They were taking turns using me when a Viper tribesman found us. He killed them and the Vipers took me in. I owe the Tribe life. What do I owe anyone else?"

Eddie looked away. He didn't know.

The room grew light in a smoky dawn. "What are you waiting for?" she asked.

"Night." He explained his plan, and she promised to guide him if he would take her out of the city, away from the killing. He agreed, grateful for any hope of help.

Kara smiled, and began unbuttoning her shirt, exposing young breasts. "Since we have all day, Eddie, let us pass the time in pleasure," she said.

Eddie rolled exhausted from her heaving body, sweat coating his face. Kara had caressed his head tenderly, mewling softly in delight, while he thrust at her. Other than a whore near the base, she was his first woman. Maybe, he thought, he could hide her in a village outside the city, visit her on passes. The Service need not know. He closed his eyes, dreaming--and woke trying to scream as she drove a small knife into his throat.

Wiping the blade on his shirt, the tribeswoman tied it back in her hair with the ribbon, watching as Eddie's life gurgled out like Johnson's had. Then Kara, Chieftain of the Vipers, went to gather what was left of her tribe. The soldier's taser-rifle would be useful.

"The Service will forever honor Corporal McFee's sacrifice and remember his name," General Vartan said. Eddie's parents were crying softly as he presented them with the Valor Cross. He looked at the blue ribbon they gave the families of troopers killed on missions. Napoleon said a man will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon. He wondered what it was worth to a dead boy's mother, or to his girl, if he had one. It really wasn't much. He sighed, supposing that all women loved ribbons.

x-x-x


About the author, Robert A. Hall

Robert A. Hall is a free lance writer in Oaklyn, NJ. A Marine Vietnam veteran, he served five terms in the Massachusetts State Senate, retiring undefeated in 1982.

"This story was originally published in SpaceWays Weekly #43, June 26, 1998."



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