I was right in the middle of my steering watch
when suddenly a blinding streak of white light whizzed at us from over to the right. I knew what it was, of course, stinger missile, aimed straight at us. Eosha had her eyes glued to the Infra-scopes, as usual, and she saw it coming before I did. I pulled the control stick and turned the anti-grav tank towards the missile, to reduce the target area, and stood on the mag-brakes, bringing the tank to a halt under the shelter of a small hillock of ice and setting it down.
As the missile was about to hit I launched the countermeasures from the turret mortars. One canister lofted into the air and burst, sending a cloud of highly reflective aluminium chaff up to confuse the radar and the other sent a brilliantly hot infra-red starshell high into the sky. I don’t know which one worked, but the stinger lifted, shot over the top of the tank and buried itself in a three-hundred-foot high ice-drift behind us. An instant later there was a colossal explosion and an avalanche of snow and crystal ice covered us.
“Did you see where that came from, Eosha?” The question was purely rhetorical.
“Yaaz. Over zair. Him grabber, boss, you bet.” She lowered the infra-scopes from her eyes and I saw how they glowed red in the gathering gloom. Her hunter instinct was up, then.
“Where?” I asked, searching on the rad-screen. There was nothing, only ground-clutter.
“Zair. He haff already buried hisself I tinks. He must found a nugget, boss.” She removed one sleekly-furred hand from the infrascopes and pointed to the nor’east. “You see him ice-wall? That scatter from him landin’, you bet.”
I looked over and then scanned the rad-screen.again. Nothing, and nothing on the infra-sensor. But then those Carolingan bastards know how to fox an infra-sensor.
“Should I lob a search-baton into the hole, d’you think?” I asked, and Eosha turned her burning red eyes to glare at me.
“No,” she hissed, showing the points of her white fangs. “You better not do nuttin’ like dat, smoothie. Him mos’ surely fire dat missile ‘cos him motion sensor pick us up. Him thinkin’ mebbe we’s ice-drift or sumpin’ now. Mebbe snow-mammot. You sen’ him search-baton, it mebbe not gonna bust him good, an’ him sure gonna know where we’s to. Him mebbe use him nuke-mortars an’ den we moola-meat fo sure, you bet.”
“Gimme that infra-scope,” I said, nodding. Eosha was right. She was good at that. “He’d use nuke-mortars this close?”
She passed me the ‘scope and I re-set it for my human vision. Gerdicks don’t need the extra gain that we do, and anyway the eye-spacing was all wrong. There it was, just as she said—quite clearly now I could see the crater-wall; it had been hidden as we approached by the tail of an ice-esker. Damn close, too; we’d been lucky.
“Grabber him tough cookie, boss. You bet you ass him use nuke-mortar. Dat grabber him buried good now; blast go clean over him head, and him no think nuttin’ ’bout no radiation, you bet. Carolingan, him silicone-based life form, boss. Radiation don’ phaze him none.”
“Yeah, well, Eosha, that’s all very well, but we’re going to have to do something. We take off he’s going to spot us, and if we stay here it’s only a matter of time before he picks up the IR from the reactor through that ice-hill. And we can’t shut down either, in case you’re thinking—”
“Yeah, I know dat boss. You smoothies ain’t got temp’rature control like us gerdicks. Him get too cold an’ you freeze to death. We jus’ let our blood him cool down bit, heh, heh.”
Eosha took back the ‘scope and went back to peering through the observation dome at the crater wall. Gerdicks, I should explain, have one of the weirdest metabolisms known in a carbon-based form. They can run their blood at any temperature from plus 45 degrees C to minus 5 with no ill effects whatsoever, ‘cept they have to eat more when their temperature’s up. That’s how they managed to evolve on a planet like Ilos, where there can be a temperature difference between day and night of over one hundred degrees C. Still, even they can’t take it outside at night here, where temperatures of minus fifty are common, and that’s enough to put ice-cubes in your blood even if you do have your own anti-freeze.
It looked a bit tough, I had to admit; if the grabber crew realised we were there they’d just lob us a thermo-nuke, just a little one, say 100 kilotonnes, and that would be me and Eosha pure vapour. The lev-tank was a fast, lightly-armoured recon vehicle, nowhere near tough enough to take a nuclear hit. On the other hand if we stayed put we’d turn to frozen moola-meat before dawn, and sunset was not far away. Already the temperatures outside the lev-tank were plummeting.
“Well, you can call me a coward if you like,” I said at last, “But I don’t fancy freezing to death with you, and I don’t care how gorgeous you are.”
Eosha purred quietly in response and flicked the end of her tail. She was almost pure white, with just a little sable edging to her ears and around her eyes, and thick, soft fur so fine it was like velvet. Well I say “she”, although gerdicks are hermaphrodite. But then, I just never could get used to calling a creature that good-looking “he”.
“We’re going to have to attack it or freeze to death,” I went on. “This thing may be slippery, but we can’t outrun stingers. Wouldn’t get a kilometre away. Gonna have to hit him hard too—a grabber’s a tough nut to crack, like you say. You think you can get us over that crater before they get a lock on us?”
“Yaaz, boss. I’se a gerdick, ‘member?” She was smiling.
Yes she sure was—and as such possessed of reflexes that were faster than human thought. Best pilots in this system, that was certain. The little stunt I’d pulled to avoid the stinger would have been easy for a five-year old gerdick, and Eosha was fully adult, and fully trained.
“You tink you can wap him good if I gets us over him, smoothie?” she purred, glancing at me with her ruby eyes.
“You bet,” I nodded, engaging the weapons control display. “I’m going to pop a vizzer right down his reactor-vent. You just get me there and draw his fire long enough for me to fly it home.”
“Sho ting, boss, nuttin I like more’n playin decoy while you smoothies has some fun.”
“Light ’em up and let’s go party, pussy-face. I ain’t no slouch with a vizzer!”
I could see her eyes glowing like coal-embers now; the thought of killing Carolingans was really turning her on. Gerdicks detest them, remember that. You have to bear in mind that those silicone bastards have been pirating on Ilos for millennia, and even tried to conquer the place once. Being silicone-based, they don’t give a shit about the temperature, and this planet’s lousy with nuggets. Made good sense for them to try to colonise it, and all they thought lived here was a few carbon-based forms with weird metabolisms—and you know what silicones think of carbons. Nobody ever told them about gerdicks, I guess—they might look cute, but they’re stone killers when their blood’s up, and they’re smart, and quick learners too. Anyway, after they realised the Caros meant to stay, they captured a few of their weapons, and soon they were producing improved versions.
It didn’t take the gerdicks long to get rid of the Carolingan colony. I think the only thing they regretted was they couldn’t eat them. That’s when the Caros started using grabbers—mobile distillation plants that could seek out a buried nugget from space, land on it, excavate down to it, distil it and then get off the planet fast before they were caught. Tough cookies, all right. Armed to the teeth, and with the best weaponry. I wasn’t kidding when I said we’d been lucky to avoid that stinger—deadly, they are.
I might have joked about the danger of attacking the grabber in a lightweight lev-tank, but if Eosha was having second thoughts, she showed no trace as she fed power into the anti-grav motivator, We had been a team for a long time—well, long for a place like Ilos—and she had already saved my ass more times than I could remember. I had no intention of letting her down now.
Funny, I remember my hands were sweating a little inside my gloves as I flipped down my helmet display and took the vizzer-missile joysticks in them.