The Marregh/Riken are an aquatic race of amoebic time travellers. Their mother ship is hidden behind the furthest ice planet of the solar system, while an observation vessel orbits unseen high above the only partially inviting world of deep blue oceans.
The oceans are too saline to colonize, but even worse they are divided by dry continents where insane land creatures wage an incomprehensible war.
The first horrified instinct of the Marregh/Riken is to move on, to explore elsewhere in the galaxies, but then they discover an appalling fact. This insane human species stands on the edge of space exploration, already they have begun to explore their own solar system, and eventually they could pose a direct threat to the peaceful races of other star systems.
So the Marregh/Riken begin a systematic study, to try and understand the motives and psychology of these alien creatures, by attaching themselves mentally to some of the key players in the long nightmare which the Earth beings have called the Vietnam War.
The Marregh/Riken must decide whether the human race is fit to survive, or whether they should be destroyed before they can become too powerful and export their blind hatreds out into the galaxies.
The first hosts chosen are the French Paratroop Lieutenant Rene Chauvel, and the orphan child who will eventually be called Phat Sang. Through their eyes the Marregh/Riken follow the events of the lost colonial war.
PROGRESS REPORT: EARTH/A/IC/VN JARHL-ONE X95
The Marregh observation capsule was in geostationary orbit 22,3OO miles above the third planet in the minor sun system on the far outer rim of the home galaxy. It was a planet of mixed blue oceans and land mass, pleasing in its variety of colours and white cloud patterns, and ideally located in the dead centre of the sun's potential life orbit. It was neither too close nor too far from the radiant heat of the star, which at this distance was wholly benevolent.
The seas were a deep disappointment of lethal salinity and oxygen content, which had produced a multitude of life forms but with only minimal mind energy. The land animals were diverse and dominated by a humanoid species which had achieved a sixth-level technology with only a fifth level intelligence. It was this imbalance of technical ability, beyond the capability to deploy that technology with full rationality, which was of grave concern to the Marregh/Riken.
The planet was known to its human inhabitants as Earth. With so many billions of planets orbiting the stars of the known galaxies the Marregh/Riken had tired of inventing names for them, and so in the last five thousand years of galactic exploration the local names of the inhabited planets had been deemed sufficient for the record. Where there was no intelligence and no name the planets were simply numbered.
The GS orbit had placed the observation capsule immediately above one of the largest land masses, which was listed under the headings, Continent Asia, General Area Indo-China, Local Area Vietnam. In that ravaged area of the globe the humanoids were waging what was for them a high technology war between two competing ideologies, with a ferocity which was to the Marregh/Riken both insane and inexplicable.
The capsule carried nine minds in a crew of three. Six were resting. Two had already achieved mind-melt with their chosen subjects on the planet below. Jarhl-One remained on watch, slowly recovering from the draining exhaustion caused by the total detachment of his mind-brothers. He had not realized that premature separation of the minds alone would be as devastating as this. He felt torn apart, vulnerable, incomplete - and afraid. He floated in the nutrition/protein rich liquid environment of the observation capsule and carefully mind-sampled this confusing new range of -- of what? He thought that perhaps this totally new network of experience was what the humanoids below termed emotions. The mind pulses coming back to him from Jarhl-Two and Jarhl-Three on the planet's surface had already given him new insight into such things.
His vision passed over the monitor readings which were grouped around the watch station. It was almost a meaningless exercise, for he had no direct control of any function of the capsule. Everything here was monitored and directed by the Marregh Timeship that was in fixed orbit far out behind the ninth planet of this particular solar system. The Timeship was hidden from Earth behind the frozen planet the humanoids called Pluto, while the observation capsule was hidden behind the warp haze of its time-distortation shield. On the Timeship more than a thousand tri-minds of the Marregh/Riken observed everything, learned everything, knew everything, and controlled everything.
It was this unity of minds, the total racial concentration of mental energy, which gave the Marregh/Riken their supremacy in this quadrant of the galaxy. It also made them vulnerable. With their minds wholly open to each other they could only act in racial harmony and in the racial interest. There was no possibility of the individual selfishness which could only flourish in a closed mind. Without selfishness there was no need for hostility or aggression. Their skills in time and space manipulation were light years ahead of the primitive nuclear technology on the planet below them, and yet they had no comparable weaponry. Within the next few thousand years, human aggression could prove lethal to the life forms that had evolved, and were evolving, around the star systems of Alpha Centauri, Sirius and Vega. Conceivably, and in the inevitability of time, it could also prove dangerous to the Marregh/Riken. Rike, the second home-star, was only twelve light years beyond Vega.
Thus the purpose of the present study was threefold: first to understand the nature of this bizarre phenomenon of violent inter-species aggression; second to determine whether the flaw would be self-eradicating as, and if, the species evolved into higher levels of mental ability; and third to determine what could, or should be done if the species should stumble on to one of the simpler forms of interstellar travel while it was still burdened with its present murderous aggressive impulse.
The study had been under way for thirty-six earth years, covering two global conflicts which the humanoids referred to as World War One and World War Two. Both upheavals had been bloody, destructive, contradictory and bewildering, providing vast quantities of intercepted radio and television recordings for analysis and thought-comparison. The results offered only the vaguest conclusions, the speeches and proclaimed intentions of the world statesmen and military leaders in both conflicts had simply refused to map on to the patterns of events as they occurred. The principles of propaganda, lying, evasion and deceit were all equally unknown to the Marregh/Riken, and it took time before they fully discerned how all of these additional elements were extensively used in human political behaviour.
Now there was another major war, in the country which the humanoids called Vietnam. The rhetoric on both sides was as unhelpful as before, the causes as obscure, the reasoning as invalid, and so the ultimate technique of mind-melt had been sanctioned. The difference was that this time the study was not to be directed specifically at those who dictated the war, but at those who actually fought it. Mind-melt was to be achieved with subjects who were experiencing the full horrors of human conflict at the front line and ground level.
"Jarhl -” The mind pulse came gently from the far rim of the solar system, spear-headed by Revehl the Prime Focus, but with the full admonition of the Timeship behind it. "We know all these things.”
"We all know all things," Jarhl-One mind-pulsed back with uncharacteristic irritability. "Except for those things which none of us know.”
"Jarhl, we know and share your pain.”
"It was a tearing - like dying."
"True division is dying, when one becomes three, and each one evolves into three again."
"This is Different.” Jarhl-one had difficulty in making his mind pulse, his mental energy was drained. “My mind-brothers are not close in separate parts of our own body. They are locked into alien forms. They/we are weakened by the pain of separation. Natural dying is birth. This is not birth. It is not natural."
"You can recall them." There was reluctance in the mind pulse, but also empathy. "There is no compulsion. You can regroup."
"No." Jarhl-One felt the familiar triad of thought as he amplified it. "It is done. We can bear it. We will persist."
"What of the humanoid subjects?" There was concern for the alien life form.
Jarhl-One concentrated, strengthening the mind-link with his brothers, then he pulsed the thoughts outward.
"There is no apparent harm done. Both subjects appear totally unaware of the intrusions. Their minds are not as highly sensitised as our own. Their mental energy level is far below us.”
"Even so, the humanoid thought patterns distort and partially veil the thought pulses of your brothers. You must penetrate and act as relay. If you are tired you may waken Korhl, or Serhl.”
"They are my brothers. I will maintain the mind-link."
"So be it." The mind pulse was soothing, but expectant.
Jarhl-One concentrated on his report. "Jarhl-Three has entered the mind of a Viet Minh fighter named Vo Than Moi. This humanoid is in the state they call sleep. Jarhl-Two has mind-melted with a fighting man of the other side. He is a Lieutenant of the French paratroops who is named Rene Chauvel…….”
They flew into the jaws of hell, like blind lambs to the slaughter.
It was the fifth day of April, 1954, and Lieutenant Rene Chauvel of the Eighth Foreign Legion Paratroop Battalion should have been celebrating his twenty fourth birthday. Instead the French High Command in Indo China had chosen this particular night to drop him into the flame-ringed, blood-soaked, swamp-cum-furnace that was the beleaguered valley of Dienbienphu.
With him, sitting like dark shadows in stone along the uncomfortable benches inside the fuselage of the droning C 47 Dakota, were a further twenty-three legionnaire paratroops. They were a mixture of nationalities, some German, some French, two dark-eyed Algerians and a coal-black Sudanese, a scattering of men without past or background, drawn from all corners of the broken ruins of Africa and Europe.
Somewhere in the pitch black night, beyond the steel bowels of their own aircraft, and lost in the small armada of Dakotas and C-119 Packets flying the nightly hell-run of supplies and ammunition to the trapped garrison, were three more planes carrying twenty-four man batches of the Eighth Battalion. A total of ninety six relief men who would not even replace the day's dead at Dienbienphu, and each one with a less than fifty percent chance of survival. The Communist divisions under General Vo Nguyen Giap had already overwhelmed the outer strongpoints, and were tightening their stranglehold around the main French defence complex in the heart of the valley. Now Dienbienphu was a death-trap, drowning in mud, blood and flame, and all of them knew it.
Chauvel looked along the row of hard bleak faces opposite, searching for expression but finding none in the silent gloom. The legionnaires, like those in his own row, sat hunched and clumsy in their parachute harness with submachine guns slung from their chests and held between their knees. They were mottled robots in their camouflage battle-dress, each man adopting a pose of rigid relaxation, and a blank gaze that concealed any hidden fears. Their eyes were hidden under the bars of black shadow below the steel rims of their helmets, and so they betrayed nothing. Even the Sudanese was an impassive blind man. Tonight all faces were dark and he did not stand out from the rest.
Chauvel finished his scrutiny of the twelve men facing him and only two of them showed any response, just the slight shifting of their eyes towards him, and then immediately back again to face front. The Dakota rocked in a sudden air pocket which caused it briefly to fall, and their hands tightened around their weapons but no man spoke. Only one touched his fingers to the sick bag with which they had all been provided. Chauvel watched them and wondered why.
Why were they here?
Why were they prepared to jump to their deaths without a murmur of protest?
They could have refused to buckle on their parachutes; refused to pick up their weapons; or in the final moments refused to file on board the waiting aircraft at Bach Mai, the military airport at Hanoi. But they had not refused. They had not even considered refusal, when rationally it should have been the only sane thing to do. Why? Were they madmen, or heroes?
Chauvel moved his gaze along the row of faces once again, and decided they were neither fools nor glory-seekers. Were they then simply soldiers, obeying orders, following discipline, dedicated to duty?
Obeying orders perhaps, but dedicated to what duty?
Surely it was not a duty to France who considered them an army of mercenaries, their war an awkward embarrassment to be forgotten on the far side of the globe. France had betrayed them by refusing to send them finance or reinforcements and by forcing them to wage a cut-price war with too few men and surplus American-aid equipment.
The French politicians had vacillated and dithered, and in the final analysis done nothing definite about their war-torn colony of Indo-China. They had refused to commit themselves to any explicit political programme, or to any concrete military strategy. France fondly hoped that the Indo-China problem would be solved and the armies of the Viet Minh suppressed at no cost other than the shedding of mercenary blood.
No, Chauvel decided with a firmness that surprised him. These men were not throwing themselves on to an altar for the Glory of France. That might suffice for their officers, but not for the rank and file.
The question remained, worrying him, swollen out of all proportion as minor questions tend to be when major ones could not be faced. If they were not mad, and did not jump for glory or the honour of France, then why were they willing to jump at all?
Chauvel asked himself what bound them, and the answer was The Legion, and then he knew. They jumped because they were not individuals concerned with their individual skins, but because they were a part of The Legion; and a large part of them were already down there in the jaws of their own private hell. They jumped not for the politicians, or the generals, or even for France, but for each other. They jumped in the name of comradeship, and shared beers, and cigarettes and women; of shared hardship and shared sweat. They jumped because even if they did not know the names and faces of the men below them they had at least fought in the same battles, choked on the same red dust of the jungle roads, and bled the same red blood in the same, dimly-defined cause. They jumped because they could not leave their blood brothers to die alone, and because they were The Legion.
THE LEGION. The name was as good as any, yet it could have stood for any group of battle-trained men, welded together by intimate knowledge of each other, and by past deeds and actions, both good and bad, that had to be repaid. Ninety six paratroops would jump tonight because they were an integral part of a group, a part of The Legion, and because a man who abandons his brother in the hour of battle was a man in his conscience forever alone.
And the generals, and their clever black shadows the politicians, knowing so well the structure of a soldier's mind, and exploiting his loyalties as always, had grandly tossed them as sacrificial pawns on to the bloodied chessboard of Dienbienphu.
Chauvel realized that he had very little sympathy left for the generals; and for an officer schooled at the French Military Academy of St. Cyr, and descended from a long line of male ancestors dedicated to the military service of France, that realization came as a sudden shock. His father had fought as a major with the Free French Forces of de Gaulle, and would at least have been a lieutenant-colonel if he had not been invalided out of the army with a leg shattered at Amiens. His grandfather had died while still a captain in the trenches of the First World War; and his great grandfather had seen the beginning of French rule in Indo China as part of the naval squadron that had first occupied Saigon in the year of 1859. In the light of his rank and heritage, Chauvel knew that he was thinking treason, and yet treason was truth.
He pondered the thought for a moment, and then irony smoothed away the shadows of his doubts. It was all irrelevant now, for he was no less committed than the men around him. He too was one of them, and even more, for they looked to him for command. Even if it were possible for him to turn his back upon France and the generals, his men still depended on him for leadership. Like them, he would jump tonight for The Legion.
Wearily Chauvel closed his eyes, shutting out the blank faces opposite, trying to squeeze them, and the Legion, and all that was relevant to his present situation out of his mind. Being here was bad enough, without thinking about it. Too much of this sort of thinking could drive a man crazy. He tried instead to project his mind back to more pleasant thoughts in the past.
Thoughts of Suzanne in Paris and Lien Tha in Hanoi.
Suzanne Lasalle was nineteen, bright-eyed and vivacious with tumbling auburn curls, and without a doubt the most beautiful young woman Chauvel had ever known, or could ever hope to know. All of his recent leaves in Paris had been blissfully filled with Suzanne's company. They had danced and dined in the candle-lit restaurants of Montmarre, exchanged lovers’ kisses on the romantic banks of the Seine, sailed boats on the lakes of the Bois de Bologne, and loved wildly and passionately at every opportunity.
Of course it was all too good to be true. Suzanne had a sexual maturity beyond her years which delighted and amazed him, but the ways in which she flaunted her sexuality inflamed him with both jealousy and desire. He suspected that despite her avowals of undying love her favours were not reserved for him alone. Suspicion had become certainty on his last leave when he seen her dancing in one of their favourite haunts with another man.
Her partner was another officer of the Legion, a tall man, a few years older than Chauvel, resplendent in his Captain's uniform. Chauvel had paused in the cafe doorway, shocked and hurt, and, he realized bitterly, out-ranked. His first impulse had been to storm in and start a fight, but military discipline had held him back, that and the reluctance to make a scene which might drive Suzanne away from him forever. He had fumed for several moments as he stood watching, but Suzanne and her partner had eyes only for each other, and before either of them had noticed him, Chauvel had turned abruptly away and left the café.
He had telephoned her the next morning and she had joined him over coffee at one of the sun-splashed pavement tables along the Avenue Des Champs Elysees. The June sky made a tourist postcard of the magnificent Arc De Triomphe, and Suzanne was as vibrant and gay as the spirit of Paris itself. She greeted him with genuine pleasure and a sweet, warm kiss. Her chatter was cheerful and untroubled, but the dark cloud inside Chauvel had refused to disperse as he gave their order. Finally he had challenged her.
Suzanne had stared at him, faintly surprised, her large hazel eyes wide and innocent.
"I saw you," he repeated. "I arrived in Paris yesterday afternoon. I called your home but you were out. So last night I went out for a drink alone. I stopped at the Cafe Gabrielle, because it had so many good memories. But I did not stay for a beer. I saw you dancing with another man - a Captain of the Legion."
Suzanne hesitated, and then accepted the accusation with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. "That was Pierre, he is only a friend."
"You were dancing together, very close.” The image burned of their bodies embraced, their lips touching, only their clothes and the public place preventing complete sexual contact, but he could not bring himself to elaborate. His hands curled into fists which he should have used the night before as he finished angrily: "The way you dance with me.”
"Rene, please don't be jealous. There is no need. While you are away in Indo China I cannot stay at home all the time like some poor nun. I have to go out sometimes. I have friends. I like to dance. Pierre is a friend. We had a meal and we danced together. That is all. We are not lovers."
Chauvel did not believe her. His face revealed his doubts.
Suzanne smiled at him, reached out one hand and began to gently stroke the back of his clenched fist.
"Rene, don't be tiresome. I won't see Pierre again if it bothers you so much. Tonight you will take me dancing, and afterwards, I will make everything up to you. I promise."
He still did not believe her, but he knew she would keep her promise. And she had. The rest of that leave had been everything he could have wanted, if only he had not seen her that one time with Pierre.
Chauvel had not seen Pierre in Paris again, but two months after his return to Indo China he had recognized the tall captain in a hotel bar in Hanoi. He was in the company of another woman, a slim, fragile Vietnamese with exquisite almond eyes. The two were at a small, dim-lit corner table, sharing laughter, cigarettes and cognacs, and when they left it was arm in arm to go upstairs toward the bedrooms. Chauvel had watched them with anger boiling inside him that had still found no outlet.
He had returned to the hotel at the next opportunity, hoping to find Pierre alone, perhaps to pick a fight. He wasn't really sure. But instead he had found the Vietnamese girl alone at the bar. Some perversity made him approach her, and he soon found that she was not a whore as he had first supposed. She was a journalist, working for a French newspaper, and her name was Lien Tha.
Chauvel was convinced that Captain Pierre and Suzanne had been lovers. And he was equally certain that Pierre and Lien Tha were lovers. Somehow his anger, jealousy and perversity had all combined together in ways that he did not fully understand, and two weeks later Chauvel was sleeping with Lien Tha. It was a way of hitting back at Captain Pierre and Suzanne.
The flight from Bach Mai to the besieged valley close to the Laos border lasted approximately ninety minutes, and Chauvel felt a hollowness in his belly when the voice of the pilot came over the intercom to tell them that they were on the final approach, The Jumpmaster, a grizzled old Sergeant who had already jumped his fill, told them to stand up and be ready.
Chauvel felt like using the sick-bag, but no one had used one yet and he could not be the first. He could only be first in the exit line to vacate the plane and stood up to shuffle forward and fasten his snap hook to the cable running the length of the fuselage above his head, The eleven men in his row followed his example, the hooks clicking into place, their bodies pressing close in a tense line. Chauvel could hear the man behind him breathing harshly and could feel the man's submachine gun jabbing against his thigh. He knew the gun was loaded, and had to trust that the safety catch was on. That was all part of the Legion, a part of being a member of an elite group; you had to trust the man behind you, or beside you, and knowing that he also had to place his trust in you meant that you could never let him down, A minute passed, and then Chauvel’s ears caught the first sounds of artillery and belching flak, the aircraft shuddered in the first shock waves and the lights went out as the pilot made his final run in total darkness.
The jumpmaster pulled open the door, Cold air rushed into the belly of the Dakota, and the crash of guns and exploding shells were a nightmare crescendo all around them. Somewhere in the tumultuous darkness other planes were flying, also with their lights out, but the four Dakotas with their human cargoes were to make the first drop. The pilot throttled back and began to spiral down gently into the exploding hell that waited below,
Chauvel squinted his eyes against the rush of wind; and stared down into that pit of evil fascination. The red flashes of the communist field pieces buried in the jungle hills that rimmed the valley formed an almost complete circle of flame, and into the centre of that circle he was expected to jump. Tracer bullets came up towards him in crimson streams, and a shell that burst too close for comfort set the Dakota rocking and almost threw him out into the night ahead of schedule. Shreds of cloud whipped past, but overall the cloud was high, shutting out the stars but leaving a clear view below. The Dakota circled once more and gleams of red lit up the open doorway as more shells burst outside. The plane descended to six thousand feet and then another Dakota flying above and to their left suddenly exploded into a mighty crash of flame as a shell scored a direct hit, The smoking wreckage tumbled past in a sweeping dive and in the same moment the green light flashed once above Chauvel’s head, The Jumpmaster yelled "GO" and pushed him squarely in the back. Chauvel obeyed and plunged head foremost out into space.
He closed his eyes as he fell and counted briefly, one, two, three, and then he pulled the metal handle at his chest. For a split second nothing happened, and it didn’t matter. The moment of jumping was always the same, whether into bright blue sunshine or blackest night. He threw his soul to the sky, to the stars and the winds, and to God, and then awaited their verdict. It came with the sudden, violent jerk as the parachute billowed out into a silk dome above him and the straps tightened beneath his armpits and groin. His freefall stopped and he was dangling upright, the air was sweet and clean and once again the Gods had scorned to take him,
Above him the eleven men of the first row were already out of the aircraft and the second batch of twelve paratroopers was quickly following. By looking up and craning his neck backwards Chauvel could just distinguish the white blobs of their chutes in the darkness, Below the blackness was still gashed by the spitting flashes of the artillery, and right in the centre of that deathly circle was the tiny flame of the burning gasoline barrel that was his marker. The maze of barbed wire entanglements, the trenches and gun-bristling bunkers were lit at intervals by the white burst of flares.
Apart from tugging at his harness to direct himself towards the marker there was nothing that Chauvel could do to command his own fate until his feet touched earth and he thought briefly of the other parachute drops that had preceded this one.
Chauvel had served a little less than three years in Indo China, and when he had arrived fresh from France in the summer of 1951 the war had been going reasonably well. During the first six months of that year the French had successfully fought off three savage campaigns launched by the Viet Minh divisions of General Giap in the Red River Delta. It was felt that Giap had learned his lesson, and French morale was the highest that it had been since 1949 when the Red Chinese had started the supply of military aid that was to turn the Viet Minh from scattered guerrilla fighters into a recognized army.
However, defensive tactics were not enough to satisfy the Americans who were financing the French-fought war, and so the French had taken the initiative with a shock raid into Viet Minh territory outside the circle of fortified outposts known as the de Lattre line that protected the delta. The aim had been to occupy the town of Hoa Binh and cut off the Viet Minh from their supply routes and the rice-rich provinces of the south. Three paratroop battalions had jumped to occupy the valley on the Black River, and with them Rene Chauvel had made his first drop from the skies of Indo-China.
That one had been a perfect drop, the hundreds of white parachutes settling gracefully like a fall of silk snow flakes from the blue sky. Below the green rice fields were like lakes of emerald and there had been little resistance on landing. The paratroops had captured and held the area with casual ease, and when French ground troops had moved in to take over they had cheerfully withdrawn.
Soon, however, Giap had responded to the challenge and moved his regular divisions into the area. Hoa Binh became an unexpected defeat for the French and eventually had to be evacuated in a savage two-day fighting retreat,
In the following year the tide of war ran even more strongly against the French. The Viet Minh had massacred their outposts along the jungle-covered Nglia Lo ridge to the west, and a counter attack into the Viet Bac, the border area touching China that was the Viet Minh base land and the home of their Government in exile, burrowed deep into hidden limestone caves, proved a failure. The hundred mile thrust to the north was named Operation Lorraine. It achieved little and cost a thousand casualties.
It was up to the paratroops to win a victory, and they did so with Operation Hirondelle, an airborne raid on Long San which was again in the enemy heart-land of the Viet Bac. Chauvel had jumped with the first wave, and this time to a warm reception. Bullets spat up to meet him and he had answered with short bursts from his submachine-gun as he floated down. Some of the legionnaires descending beside him had cursed and screamed and died in their harness, but he survived. Men like skinny scarecrows in black pyjamas had suddenly burst out of a clump of fast-approaching bushes and began to run. Chauvel fired again, instinctively, and cut two of them down. In the same moment he saw that one man was unarmed; perhaps he was a frightened farmer, or perhaps he had thrown his gun away. It was too late to tell. Chauvel had landed badly and rolled clumsily to his knees, still firing blindly as the silk settled beside him.
The operation was fast, with limited aims. Their task was simple, to blow up the Viet Minh supply dumps in the area which they did with gusto. Afterwards they retreated smartly to the coast and were taken off by waiting naval craft. It was a classic strike and destroy action and the ever-confident paratroopers had cause to be well satisfied.
However one victory does not win a war, On the Laos border the Viet Minh were still in control, and were threatening the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang. It was decided that the route into Laos must be blocked and so on November 20th of 1953 three paratroop battalions had been dropped in to expel the Viet Minh and take control of the strategic valley of Dienbienphu. The final decision to launch the operation had hinged upon the fickle weather, but the skies had been clear and cloudless on that fateful morning.
The garrison had been swiftly built up into a formidable force, with bulldozers, tanks, artillery, supplies and personnel daily flown or parachuted in to the two airstrips. A full Colonel was flown in to command what was fondly looked upon as a raiding base for aggressive patrols into Viet Minh territory, and high-ranking Generals grandly flew in and out to discuss how they would thrash the enemy.
Giap, the Schoolmaster-General, once more picked up the nonchalantly thrown gauntlet, and began to move his infantry divisions into the area. By December it was accepted that there would be a major battle over Dienbienphu and the French High Command were jubilant.
For too long the war had been a frustrating and fluid affair, fought over shifting ground with towns being lost to the Viet Minh, re-taken by the French, evacuated, taken and lost again. The French armoured columns were restricted to daylight and the roads, while the Viet Minh guerrillas ruled the countryside and the night. After his defeats in the delta in 1951 Giap had wisely returned to the type of guerrilla warfare in which his followers excelled, and now they controlled five thousand out of the seven thousand villages in the delta plain. For too long the baffled French had struggled to come to grips with their elusive enemy who massacred their outposts at night but refused to stand up in the open and fight by day.
Now, at last, Giap was becoming bold enough to repeat his earlier mistakes. He was preparing for a set battle and an all-out offensive against Dienbienphu. The French Generals believed that it would be Giap’s long-awaited big mistake, and had gleefully anticipated a mass slaughter.
The mass slaughter had come and it was the French garrison and French troops that were being buried under the overwhelming ranks of the Viet Minh. The contemptible little schoolmaster General who had dared to challenge the proud knights of St Cyr had out-guessed and out-manoeuvred them at every turn, and had performed logistical miracles which they had not believed possible.
Now the French High Command quarrelled amongst themselves to decide where to apportion the blame for the disaster which they had brought upon their own heads. While at Dienbienphu men fought and died in an orgy of futile guts and glory.
The memories flickered at random through Chauvel's mind as he fell slowly through the night. The violent earth was close now and he began to concentrate on steering himself toward the smoking red flame that was his marker. His body was tense and buffeted by the shock waves of the exploding shells around him, and he realized grimly that this one was to be no picnic like Hoa Binh and Long San. Jumping had never been as bad as this before, and he tasted the first sharp, bitter dryness of fear.
Another shell burst close enough to send his body swaying violently beneath the canopy, and as he struggled for control red tracer fire streamed up toward him.
His fear was taking over, threatening to drown him. His whole body was sweating and flinching as he fought his parachute lines to straighten and re-direct his fall.
The parachute steadied, his body hung limp, but his terror was now a cold, paralysing vice. He tried to fight it by blanking out the present in his mind, to focus his mind away from now and the fear. Past parachute drops were no antidote or comfort, and he tried to focus his thoughts desperately on Suzanne - and Lien.
He needed only the erotic memories now, the vivid, passionate moments of love-making. He had to fill his mind with those images to keep the fear from swamping his whole being.
Suzanne, naked and ecstatic beneath him, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around him, her entire joyful body actively engulfing him.
Lien trembling as he kissed her smooth olive breast, his tongue gently stirring the warm brown nipple.
Tracer fire seeking his helpless body like swarms of angry red hornets.
Suzanne's open-mouth kisses, hot, moist and hungry, her nimble tongue darting and entwining with his own.
More shell bursts, pressure slamming him first one way and then another.
Lien crying out as he entered her, his own hips thrusting, thrusting -
Artillery fire, machineguns, mortars.
Suzanne writhing, heaving, responding. Himself thrusting, thrusting --
Flame, smoke, noise, darkness.
Lien gasping and moaning, her nude body slippery with sweat in the humid bedroom.
The night deafening. The earth dangerously closes.
Suzanne crying his name in the frenzy of climax.
Lien holding him tight, her body rigid, eyes closed and mouth open, yielding.
Instinct of danger. He forced his eyes open.
He was going to miss the marker.
The burning gasoline barrel was thirty yards to his left and the wind was veering him away. He yanked desperately at his harness straps, sensed rather than saw the ugly tangle of barbed wire that was directly below, and heaved hard to change his direction yet again. He was down in a black nightmare stitched together by the red tracer streams of a score of chattering machine guns, and then his feet were striking solid earth. He hit down on the edge of a trench and tumbled forward into its mud-walled depths.
It was another bad landing, but mercifully no bones were broken. He finished up sprawling, face down across a strange indefinable heap that squelched beneath him. A terrible, revolting smell struck his nostrils and sickened his stomach. As his canopy settled around him he tried to push himself up but his hand slipped on something wet. He recognized the stench of blood and in stark horror he scrambled frantically away. It was not only blood that he could smell, but also the smell of filth and rotting flesh, and he realized that he had fallen across a heap of dead bodies piled outside the makeshift morgue to wait whatever facade of burial they could get.