Border patrol is inherently hazardous.

On the contested planet Brall, this commonality was accentuated by constant incursions by hostiles who liked nothing better than killing humans.

Having a world split between two warring races was unheard of anywhere else. It should not have been allowed by the Galactic Court and technically was not. Off and on peace treaty negotiations to resolve the situation had gone on for a decade with only slight progress made so far.

For optimists hoping for an final outcome anytime soon, it could be noted that the road map to peace in the Middle East has yet to be proof sent to the printers.

The name actually came from the Wick, which bolstered their claim, as heavily anglicized as it was.

It referred to the massive mountain range dividing the only continent, coast to coast and nearly four thousand kliks long. Millions of years ago, two nearly equal sized continents had slammed into each other almost exactly head-on.

Both had been over 15,000 kliks long and over 12,000 at their widest point.

There was plenty of room for both species, even if all the other land forms were minor.

On the extremely rugged mountain slopes separating Otranto from Joerveca (human names), danger was a constant presence. Only the nearly impassable terrain kept the two sides apart.

A series of small forts to supply the base camps had been set up in the foothills all along the range, but there was just too much length to cover everything even with constant patrols.

This represented most of the Otrantan military presence since there was no other credible threat.

Prudently situated backup ground forces along with a fair sized Air Force and Navy completed the human's defense, representing a good chunk of the budget.

The Wick spent twice as much and there was pressure on their side to justify this.

All boundary violations were instigated by Noreasters.

The Oties had their hands full just keeping those lands not right in the shadow of the mountains relatively safe. There were no settlements within the line of forts and if you wanted to graze your livestock in closer, good luck to you.

These herders actually made for a nice early warning system, although it wasn't encouraged. The temptation of so much vacant verdant greenery was hard to pass up. Since they did it anyway, the military supplied special radios, normally banned automatic weapons and some survival gear to those dumb enough to not listen to reason.

Border guards were not the most elite troops, not exactly.

Close, though. They were highly specialized well-trained healthy young able-bodied volunteers.

Because of the threat, universal conscription at age 18 was mandatory.

Frontier Corps was a Military Occupational Specialty in its own right with its own higher standards and rather unique disciplines.

They got all the best equipment that the Special Rangers had. Their training was not nearly as intense or brutal mainly because they only had one mission.

Keep out the enemy.

Each fort had its own dedicated expert company on standby to provide quick reinforcement with massive firepower. Air cover was only a few minutes away, both Army choppers and Air Force jets.

In some places, the greenery was not so verdant.

There were naturally only so many places where a normal two-legged being could cross sides.

The Wick were not normal. They were neither mammal nor reptile, in the accepted definitions, having qualities of both kingdoms. They were not strictly animals, either, having some floral signatures.

They were individuals and were intelligent, but they weren't independently brilliant, per se.

The chlorophyll like substance that colored their skin not only provided some of their nutrition, it made them hard to spot from satellite surveillance and by constant drone presences.

They were neither specifically warm or cold blooded, seeming to be a blend of both, which did not help infrared detection one bit, whether it was flying high or hidden in trees.

Not a whole lot of Wick culture was known beyond the obvious. They did not take prisoners and would not surrender. The few that had been captured did not respond to interrogation at all.

Torture was ruled out from the start, despite not having human hostages to protect. The only wounded persons to survive had presumably been presumed dead. Apparently they were not into mutilation either. Or it may just have been when a enemy was THAT badly wounded, they were no longer a threat.

Not for a long time, at least.

For this reason, Wick prisoners were returned as soon as feasible.

Cappen Jaxen Shwarkz was in command of a company of experienced troops responsible for a central section of the border known for having more than its share of troubles.

First Mountain Division was committed to the middle third of the covertures assignments, with Second Division on its northwest flank and Third to the southeast.

He was watching on his helmet from base camp when second platoon's lead scout reported a possible problem. Because of the steep inclines in this area, the platoon was on goarseback, not motorbikes. There was definitely an offset dynamic not just between speed and quiet mobility at work here, there was the benefit (and sometime drawback) of having a lifeform concerned for its own safety underneath you.

It was the goarse that alerted the scout. The specially bred animal had a sensitive nose and they were approaching a particularly dangerous narrow section of the trail.

The cappen let his lew handle it and quickly approved the request for a closeup. The owl had not seen anything while flying high support for the advance man. Bringing it down low would expose the valuable artifice to almost sure destruction if the Wick were there.

When the robird reported nothing, nobody was fooled.

The lew got his squads off the trails and under cover immediately.

The scout came under attack as he reached the place that had been baited with Wick spoor.

Cap wasted no time in sending in reinforcements. The reserve fourth squad would arrive in less than ten minutes. Other help would soon arrive after that.

As it turned out, the scout had triggered a well hidden booby trap. He survived only because he had dismounted and had a thousand pound animal between him and the bomb.

The goarse died and his legs were mangled, but rescue would arrive before he bled to death.

The attack was shortly over. Only the squad on the higher slope was hit and the few Wick in the raiding party were soon dispatched.

Having only suffered a few casualties did not cause a celebration at division headquarters.

A hasty assessment by staff leaders pointed to this being a ruse. Alerts were immediately issued to the other commands that a major assault was imminent.

This was despite no significant increases in enemy detections occurring lately. The ridge that had just come under fire was on the edge of a 200 kilometer wide stretch of increasingly tall mountains separating the two lands.

When nothing happened in the hours afterward, an emergency meeting was held at the highest level of government. The very highest, meaning the President and his secretaries of Defense, State, Labor, Justice, Technology, Treasury and Interior, along with their top aides.

This was intended as a gathering of different viewpoints to examine all angles, but the Intelligence undersecretary had the definitive say once all other options were discussed.

"We think it's possible they've built a tunnel. This attack was meant to divert attention from an infiltration a thousand kliks away."

This idea was not universally or instantly appreciated. Even Secretary Golemond had doubts about his underling's ‘findings', but let him make the argument.

"We feel that the Wick must have had a reason for their ruse." He was interrupted again.

The consensus here was that the enemy staged attacks all the time, which they did.

"That is true. And why is this different? Why cause an alert? Why draw attention to the border if you are making an attack elsewhere? Yes. We understand. Here is the thinking. They made a mistake. A miscalculation based on a lack of human expertise. They think we'll concentrate on the border when they've already dug under it."

"Based on what?" The president overrode the others.

"Worst case scenario. Why a tunnel, which had to take years? So they could send in suicide bombers. Carrying small nukes in backpacks. We need to find these quick. A major city could be in range any day now. Any hour now."

There was some minor grumbling, which the president cut off. "You are serious. No matter what, we have to take this, well, serious. Al, I want the border sealed off, all roads blocked."

"They already are, sir. These creatures will not be traveling on them and they'll already have gotten by any checkpoints. We need 100 percent mobilization, Reserves and civilian volunteers."

President Handlien turned to his chief of staff. "Do it."

It was actually the Defense secretary who nodded to the joint chairman that made the order a real command. The intel officer was not done, though.

"There's more, sir. This is more speculation than anything, however, we may not be looking for green treetrunks hiking the woods. We have to allow for, be on the alert for, the possibility that these critters have made human clones. Anyone carrying a backpack, or, anything large enough to hold a bomb, will need checking. Really."

This assertion caused quite the stir, which the president let die on its own.

"No, we have no hard evidence for this. It just makes sense and it's what I get paid for. We know they have human DNA. We have samples from them. Being nuked by humans makes proving an attack problematic. Of course, nothing would remain of a Wick agent, but capturing one would look bad before the Court. Also, our two naval base cities near the border are surely targets. Because of the alert, ships are already going to sea. We feel that the best chance to catch an infiltrator is right there and it needs to happen soonest."

"Okay." Handlien sighed. "There's no downside to overreacting here. I'm following the advice of a top specialist. So, do you know where this tunnel is?"

"Assuming best likelihood, in this sector." He was standing by a map on the wall. "This is the narrowest spot in the entire mountain range and they have a large base not far off the divide. This is also why we have the most monitors there. Nothing was detected by sound and motion sensors. Here is one clue. The need to hide the dirt and rock dug out means extra traffic and we have seen that. Plus, another thing is that this sector has been remarkably quiet attack wise for a couple years. I had to look up the records, but it may be longer. Didn't have time to dig further back yet."

There was a lot of shared looks after this. Those who had carped a few minutes ago were not so forthright now, letting their slightly raised brows and a bitty twist of the lips express themselves.

"Well, gentlemen, I guess we all have some work to do. Put all the people you can spare on this. Now we don't want to cause panic, but to get public support, we have to say something."

Def Sec spoke first. "The truth, sir. It comes out anyway. Just say we have a few bad guys out there who may be about to make big trouble. The media will get the story out."

"Yes, they will. So' . . . everyone agreed' . . . uh, make that no objections to letting them pry this speculation out of me?"

There was none.

"Then I have a press conference to arrange."

Meeting over. No one pointed out that it was his staff chief who would call the press.

They were busy making their own arrangements.

#

The Intelligence Central Combine had got it essentially correct.

The very first operation the Wick had planned with their new tunnel was to send through six special agents on a game changing mission.

They were tired of the stalemate. The humans had an insurmountable advantage namely due to the distance involved, combined with the terrain.

A nuclear missile exchange would be suicide.

Showing the dirty waterbags that WMD terrorism was a viability might persuade them to leave.

Especially if there was no solid proof to present to the Galactic Tribunal that the Wick were responsible for such drastic actions. They would argue that the diabolical humans had done it to themselves to win the Court's sympathy.

This flew in the face of logic and the reality that the only known border incursions had been staged by the Joerveca side, a derisive name the Wick hated.

Otrantan policy had always been to not counter, a point that their envoys had stressed repeatedly in discoveries, arbitrations and deliberations.

This was debatable, but the use of human clones was the deciding factor in the decision to proceed with a one off effort. Even the most rabid hawks did not want to destroy land they claimed as their own. To this end, only two of the bombs were fissionable.

Just a small percentage of territory would be irradiated.

The clones were immature, grown in a vat hydroponically, supposedly without higher brain functions. An ability to perform rudimentary tasks was hardwired into them.

Just take a walk to the coordinates provided by your implant.

Simple pimple.

A timer would do the rest, but they weren't told that.

Or anything else.

The clones had no clue what the intent was, so at worst, the bomb would go off somewhere else in Otranto. The message would be sent whether the city targeted was destroyed or not.

The Wick had not studied manunkind very long or deeply.

The amazing thing was that only one of the vectors sought out the first ranch he came across. He basically was lonely and in need of caring, company and loving.

Just like any human young one.

This was a couple of hours after the president's address to the nation.

Only the eldest daughter was home, caring for a newborn. She had heard the appeal and as soon as she saw the indecisive little boy on her porch wondering what to do and the backpack he wore, she took him to the barn immediately. The pack stayed there. She would not have it in the house with her baby. Then she took him in and quickly called the police.

She also called her dad, who was headed home for lunch. He took the backpack out into the woods, telling the authorities where he was going.

The boy would eventually stay with the family.

Using the frequency supplied by the implants, a technology that the Wick did not have, the other vectors were quickly found since their implant now told them that nice people just like them wanted to take good care of them. Drop the pack in the woods.

All the bombs were defused in time.

Custody of two of the other five boys would be awarded to the family of the soldier who's DNA had been used by the Wick. A national lottery would place the remaining three.

Otranto's reps before the court made a point of telling their counterparts how nice it was that the warrior they had slain came back six fold, his kin doubling up after their tragic loss.

Could they perhaps send some more, maybe from different stock next time?

Appreciate it.

After a long drawn out process, custody of Brall was awarded to Otranto.

The Wick had ten local years to leave and no one else was allowed to move in.

Being real sore losers, they actually stepped up attacks in the interim.

Jaxen Shwarkz was a full command kernel by the time he retired from the service.

He had helped in the discovery of a tunnel.

The real one.

ICC had not been wrong.

There was a tunnel in the sector about where they had predicted it would be.

This one was a decoy or a backup, depending on whether or not it was discovered.

Not completing the last meter of it yet made this somewhat unlikely.

The one with lights and a railcar began and ended in steep gorges. Overhanging ledges and vegetation made hiding debris removal easy on both sides.

Wick agents had assisted the kids in getting out of the chasm and on their way.

Shwarx had gotten a commendation for finding it. This was despite feeling just like everyone else that the places where the lads were found seemed odd, especially when the boys said they had to be roped up a scary cliff in the dark. His men just happened to be the ones who found it.

No one had even known that the narrow gash in the rugged mountainside was there.

The Wick had literally fallen into it.

Accidentally.

Destroying it was problematic, so troops were stationed there and the exit booby-trapped with tons of explosives. It was boring duty and not at all safe.

The Noreasters showed their resentment by trying to infiltrate more nukes into human territory.

If they couldn't have it, they wanted to destroy it.

This activity was unacceptable. The timetable to leave was moved up to two years, which basically meant almost immediately, counting practicalities.

A Tribunal task force was sent to enforce the decision.

The judges told the Wick that there were more stars in the sky than there were dust particles in the air in the courtroom.

Not all of them had available planets, but plenty did.

Just think of the dust as being like stars.

They only needed one.

CONTENTS


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Martyn Osmundsen said --

Do you really need a pic? Think Woody Allen, only not as handsome. As for bio, born and raised in So. Fla (Miami. Hallandale, Davie), did HVAC work all adult life, served 6 years in Army. Boring.

Isaac Asimove is my favorite author, who I started reading in grade school because you knew whatever book I checked out would be good and there were a lot of them.