The signalman upon the rim of the gorge continued to give them reports, but so far as Keselo could determine, nothing new or unusual was happening.
“One of them just stuck his head up over that pile of quartz,” Rabbit hissed.
“You don’t have to whisper,” Keselo said. “They’re at least a half mile away.”
Then the flagman began to signal again.
“I was fairly sure that was going to happen before too much longer,” Keselo said.
“What now?” Rabbit demanded.
“The Tonthakans are running out of arrows.”
“They’re what?” Rabbit demanded. “I made thousands of those arrowheads.”
“Unfortunately, the Vlagh sent more thousands up the gorge,” Keselo replied.
“Then there will be some enemies for us to kill,” Trenicia said, sounding much relieved.
At first light the following morning the now-armed bugs came swarming over the shattered quartz barricade and crossed the open area between the northern mouth of Crystal Gorge and the edge of Athlan’s mud-pit—but they did not even pause there. To the astonishment of almost everybody standing behind the breastworks, the bug-people continued to charge, despite the fact that those ahead of them sank out of sight almost instantly.
“Are they blind?” Sorgan’s cousin Torl demanded. “Can’t they see what’s happening to their friends?”
“Bugs don’t really have friends, Torl,” Veltan explained. “They probably don’t understand what just happened to the ones who tried to run across the top of the mud-pit. There’s very little water out in the Wasteland, so most of them have never even seen mud before. They don’t realize that what’s there isn’t solid.”
“That should probably save a lot of arrows,” Rabbit added. “If they’re all going to drown themselves, the Tonthakans won’t need to kill them. The bugs will take care of it for themselves.”
Keselo frowned. “I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen, little friend. What they’re actually doing is constructing a causeway that will eventually run from the far side of the mud-pit to our breastworks here.”
“Using people as building blocks?” Rabbit exclaimed.
“You should probably stop thinking of them as ‘people,’ Rabbit,” Longbow said. “People do their own thinking, bugs don’t. If they need a solid road across the mud-pit, the overmind will build that road—out of whatever is handy. Since there aren’t any rocks available, the overmind will use its own bugs as building blocks—and the other bugs won’t even have to carry them.”
“That’s terrible!” Rabbit exclaimed.
“Terrible is what this war is all about, little friend,” Longbow replied.
“It will confuse them, Sub-Commander,” Keselo suggested to Gunda later that morning, “and we won’t lose any men in the process.”
“I’m getting just a little irritated by this business of building forts—or breastworks in this case—and then just turning around and walking away from them.”
“None of our people get killed, Gunda,” Padan said. “Isn’t that what wars are all about? Let the enemy do all the dying. Our main responsibility is staying alive, wouldn’t you say?”
“Are you going to go along with this, Narasan?” Gunda asked rather plaintively.
“It does make sense, Gunda,” Narasan said. “The fort—and the mud-pit, of course—have killed several thousand of our enemies, and it hasn’t cost us any of our own men. If the breastwork is deserted when the enemy reaches it, they’ll be very confused for at least a day. Then they’ll try another one of those senseless charges, and the Malavi will run right over the top of them.”
“And then we abandon the second breastwork as well?” Gunda asked.
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t,” Narasan replied. “When the bug-people try to attack the third breastwork, they’ll come face-to-face with catapults and fire-missiles. There’s a fair chance that we’ll be able to eliminate about a million enemies in these first three breastworks, and it won’t cost us a single life. It doesn’t get much better than that, Gunda. That thing called Vlagh will run out of soldiers—eventually.”
The Tonthakan mud-pit was quite a bit deeper at the center than it had been at the southern end, and more and more of the bug-people sank out of sight as the day wore on. Longbow spoke with his friend Athlan and Athlan’s chief, Kathlak, and the archers began to concentrate their arrows on the poorly armed bug-men who were crossing the improvised causeway.
“If we’re going to abandon this first breastwork after the sun goes down, we probably won’t want the servants of the Vlagh snapping at our heels,” he explained. “If they still have a few hundred feet to cross tomorrow morning, it’ll most likely be about noon before they find out that we aren’t here anymore. Then they’ll mill around here in the first fort while the overmind considers the options. I’m fairly sure that they won’t come any farther until the morning of the day after tomorrow.”
“When did you want us to jump them?” Ekial asked.
“I’d say along about noon, wouldn’t you, Keselo?”
“That should probably work out for the best,” Keselo agreed. “We’ll need some time to abandon the second breastwork, and I don’t think we’ll want the enemy close enough to interfere. They always seem to stop when the sun goes down—probably because they can’t see very well at night. Do you think they’ll pull back when it gets dark, Longbow?”
“They always did during the last war. It’s probably instinctive. We can start pulling out of the second fort as soon as the Malavi hit the enemy.”
“And then the poor little buggies will wander around in that second empty fort for a day or so looking for somebody to kill,” Rabbit added.
“Buggies?” Narasan asked, looking slightly confused.
“Rabbit came up with that a few days ago,” Gunda explained. “He seems to think it’ll insult the enemies and hurt their feelings or something.”
“How many more of these walls have your people erected so far?” Chief Kathlak asked.
“Eight, isn’t it?” Gunda asked Commander Narasan.
Narasan nodded. “Andar has people working on two more. He’s getting fairly close to the top of this slope. We might have to come up with something a bit stronger when we reach the top. We don’t want the enemies to get past us until the weather turns bad. Once winter arrives, I’m sure that this particular war will grind to a stop.”