KURT ZEN HEARD THE lion cough in the sky overhead. He knew that it would hit in about four minutes and that it would seem to open a tunnel upward from hell, that the mountains would shake and tremble, that the air would vibrate and rattle as if a dozen thunderbolts had exploded at the same instant, and that a good number of the troops laboriously circling the incline of the ridge above would die.
He knew that more of them would die a horrible lingering death as a result of the radioactivity that would be released by the blast.
"Pardon me, Nedra," he said to the nurse, who was just ahead of him.
She had stopped to stare upward.
"Hit the dirt!" Zen yelled at the troops. A few had already heard the lion cough in the sky and had begun to take cover, following the pattern of experienced fighters who never need an order to dive for the nearest hole. He saw, as he shouted, that the number who had already begun to hit the dirt was pitifully few and he knew the reason for this. Most of these men were green conscripts on their first fighting mission, the results of digging deep into a population that had already been scoured to the bone for manpower-and for everything else. Conscripts were likely to stare at the sky and die with their mouths open.
"What is it?" the girl asked. "What's wrong?"
"Don't you hear that blooper in the sky overhead?"
"No. That is, I heard something make a noise up there. But-" Mixed emotions moved across her face but fear was not among them. Instead, she seemed to be curious. "But what is a blooper?"
From a nurse, or from any living American, such a question was incredible. Zen stared at her in amazement.
"Did I say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question?"
"You sure did," Zen answered. "Come on."
"But where are we going?"
"There!" He nodded toward a prospect hole, one of the many that had been dug in these mountains by miners. As soon as he had heard the blooper cough its interrupted rocket blast when it changed direction in the sky, he had instantly looked for a hiding place. This tunnel seemed to fill the bill.
"Is something going to happen?" the nurse asked.
"In less than two minutes you will find out," he answered. His long legs had already started taking him toward the hole. After hesitating for an instant, the nurse hastily followed him.
The prospect hole extended less than ten feet into the side of the mountain and was not timbered. This was good. It meant no heavy beams would collapse around their heads when the hills began to shake. A quick examination revealed that the stone of the roof seemed to be solid. Zen stopped within three feet of the entrance.
"Why don't we go farther back?" the nurse asked.
"We're in far enough for protection from bits of flying metal but not too far to dig ourselves out if the roof should collapse-I hope," Zen answered.
Somewhere outside a man screamed, in terror.
The thing in the sky coughed again, closer now. BRRROOOMMM--BrrroooMMM--BrOOOm!
The blooper struck.
The sound was that of the simultaneous firing of many cannon. The walls of the prospect tunnel seemed to twist and wave. Loose stones dropped from the roof and a fine dust seemed to extrude from the walls. A boulder half as big as a small house hurtled past the entrance, snapping pines like matchsticks. A slide of loose rocks followed it. In the distance another slide could be heard growling back at the sky as it grew to avalanche proportions.
The nurse's fingers tightened on Zen's arm, then relaxed. Every nerve in his body was as taut as a steel wire as he waited for her reaction. Other than the tightening and relaxing of her fingers, there was none. Her hands remained on his arm and she remained in the tunnel with him. To Kurt Zen, this was disappointing.
"What kind of nerves do you have? Most women would have been in