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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Kosutic tapped a bead rifle outward.


"There are three people covering one scummy," she commented to the trooper as she stepped past him. "Watch your own Satan-Be-Damned sector."


" . . . just appeared out of nowhere," the point guard was saying as the sergeant major walked up. The PFC waved the sensor wand at the scummy. "Look, there's hardly any readout!"


"That's what your eyes are for!" Gunnery Sergeant Jin snapped. He looked at the scummy standing quietly just outside the perimeter, and shuddered. He hadn't seen the being until the point yelled, either.


The Mardukan stood two and a half meters tall. He—it was clearly and almost embarrassingly a "he"—carried a figure-eight shield nearly as tall as he was. A lance that was even taller was cast over one shoulder, and he had a large, leather covering thrown over his head. It was obviously an attempt at a parasol, and his need for something like it was clear. Given the fact that Mardukans were covered in a water-based mucus, the fact that he could have survived all the way to the edge of the salt flats was amazing. He should have been dead of dehydration long before he got this far.


Kosutic tossed her bead rifle over one shoulder in a manner similar to the way the Mardukan carried his spear, stepped past the three troopers covering the stranger, and held out one hand, palm forward. It wasn't a universal sign of peace, but humans had found it to be close.


The Mardukan gabbled at her, and she nodded. The gesture meant no more to him than his handwaving at the horned beast did to her. He could be angry that they'd killed his pet, or happy that they'd saved his life. Her toot took a stab at the language, but returned a null code. The local dialect had very little similarity to the five-hundred-word "kernel" they'd loaded into the toots.


"I need O'Casey up here quick," she subvocalized into her throat mike.


"We're on our way," Pahner responded. "With His Highness."


Kosutic held up one hand again, and turned to look over her shoulder. As she did, she noticed the two bead rifles and the plasma gun still leveled at the apparently benign visitor.


"Go ahead and lower them, Marines. But keep them to hand."


She half-turned at the crunch of gravel, and smiled at the group approaching from the center of the company's perimeter. The diminutive chief of staff was virtually invisible behind the bulk of Pahner and Roger's armor. And surrounding Roger was a squad from Second Platoon that looked ready to level the world. All in all, it looked like a good time to fade, and she bowed to the visitor and drifted backwards, wondering how it would go.


* * *


Eleanora O'Casey wasn't a professional linguist. Such people not only had specially designed implants, they usually also had a flair for language that interacted with their toots so that the final translation was synergistically enhanced. She, on the other hand, was dependent on an off-the-shelf software package and a general knowledge of sentient species to carry her through. There were quite a few "ifs" in that equation.


The regions around the spaceport used a four-armed bow as a sign of parley. Unfortunately, there were a variety of nuances to it—none of which had been very clear in the explanation—and she had only two arms.


Here went nothing.


* * *


D'Nal Cord examined the small being before him. All of the beings in this tribe—they looked like basik, with their two arms and waggling way of walking—were small and apparently weak. However, most of them blended into the background as if they were part of it. It was probably an effect of their strange coverings, but it was also disconcerting. And some weapon or magic among them had killed the flar beast. Both features bespoke great power. And since the flar beast had nearly had him, it also spoke of an asi debt. At his age.


The being bowed in a nearly proper fashion and gabbled at him in a strange guttural tongue. It was different from the words which had been spoken between the beings.


"I seek the one who killed the flar beast," he answered, gesturing at the aggressive herbivore. The beasts burrowed during the day in the dry hills, and he'd been blinded by the light of Artac shining off the sands, beaten down by the heat and dryness and, truth to tell, feeling his age. He hadn't noticed the depression around the snorkel at the surface, and he'd survived only because it had been a rogue bull with no herd mates to help it kill him. And because of the altruistic act of a stranger.


Damn him.


The slight one at the fore spoke again.


" . . . kill . . . flor . . ."


Cord spoke very slowly this time.


"I . . . seek . . . the . . . one . . . who . . . killed . . . the . . . flar . . . beast. That rogue bull over there, you ignorant little basik."


* * *


"I need the second person, damn it," Eleanora gritted through her teeth. She touched her chest. "I . . . Eleanora." She pointed at the Mardukan, hoping it would understand.


The scummy gobbled and clacked at her again. It seemed to be becoming agitated. As well it should, for it was terribly hot and dry out here for it. Which brought up an idea.


"Captain Pahner," she turned to the CO. "This is going to take a while. Could we set up some sort of shelter from the sun?"


Pahner looked up at the height of the sun and consulted his toot.


"We've got three more hours of daylight. We shouldn't stop for the night."


Eleanora started to protest, but Roger held up a hand at her, and turned to Pahner.


"We need to communicate with these people," he said, gesturing at the scummy with his chin. "We can't do that if this guy dies of heatstroke."


Pahner took a breath and looked around as he suddenly realized that the comment was coming in on the command frequency. Apparently the prince had listened to the previous lecture about debating in front of the troops. But he was still wrong.


"If we take too long, we'll run out of water. We only have so much supply. We need to get into the lowlands where there's resupply."


"We need to communicate," Roger said definitely. "We take as much time for that as Eleanora needs."


"Is that an order, Your Highness?" Pahner asked.


"No, it's a strong suggestion."


"Excuse me." Eleanora couldn't hear them, but she could tell that they were debating and thought she ought to make a point. "I'm not talking about all night. If I can get this guy into some shade and get him a little water and humidity, this will probably go fairly fast."


Roger and Pahner turned to glance at her, then turned featureless faceshield to featureless faceshield and debated some more. Finally, Pahner turned back to her.


"Okay."


A couple of privates, impossible to tell apart in identical uniforms and camouflage helmets, came forward and rapidly erected a large tent. The temperature inside wasn't going to be all that wonderful, but they sprayed a few milliliters of water around on the inside of the walls, and the evaporation both cooled it a bit and raised the humidity. The relief would be brief, but it would help the Mardukan.


* * *


Cord stepped inside the structure and sighed. It was not only cooler, it was not so dry. His dinshon exercises had prevented complete desiccation, but the experience had been anything but pleasant. This was still far too arid for permanent survival, but it was a welcome respite. He nodded to the small interpreter (such as he was) and the two slightly larger beings in their strange hard coats like stang beetles.


"My thanks. This is much better."


He also noted the two additional beings in the background. Their strange weapons weren't pointed at him, but he'd seen bodyguards enough among the city magnates to recognize them for what they were. He wondered which of them was the leader.


* * *


"I'm Eleanora," O'Casey said, gesturing at herself. Then she pointed, carefully, at the Mardukan. Pointing in some cultures was an insult.


"D'Nal Cord . . ." The rest was a senseless gabble.


"Flar beast?" she asked, hoping to get more context.


"I . . . knowledge . . . flar beast . . . kill."


"You want to know how the beast was killed?" she said in the best approximation of the local dialect her toot could create. The known words were increasing, and she felt that the toot would soon have a full kernel. But understanding was still elusive.


"No," the Mardukan said. " . . . killed the flar beast? You?"


"Oh," Eleanora said. "No," she answered, gesturing at Roger. "It was Roger." She stopped as she realized that she'd just pointed out the prince for retribution if the act was considered hostile.


Roger tapped a control and cleared his visor of its concealing distortion.


"It was I," he said. His toot had been loaded with the same program, and he'd been following Eleanora's progress. For that matter, his toot had considerably more processor capability than hers, and he suspected that his own program might have made more progress than hers. He was pretty sure, for example, that he was further along on the Mardukan's body language. The individual seemed at least partially unhappy, but not really angry. More like resigned.


The Mardukan, Cord, stepped toward Roger, but paused as the two Marines in the background hefted their weapons. He reached out, carefully, and placed his hand on Roger's shoulder. There was a gabble of syllables.


" . . . brother . . . life . . . owe . . . debt . . ."


"Oh, shit," Eleanora said.


"What?" Roger asked.


"I think," she said with a snort, "that he just said the something like you saved his life and that makes you his blood-brother."


"Oh, hell," Pahner said.


"What?" Roger repeated. "What's wrong with that?"


"Maybe nothing, Your Highness," Pahner said sourly. "But in most cultures like this, those things are taken seriously. And sometimes it means the brother has to join the tribe. On pain of pain."


"Well, we're probably heading in the direction of his tribe," Roger pointed out. "I'll drink the deer's blood, or whatever, and then we'll pass on through. Nice story to tell at the club, and all that."


Eleanora shook her head.


"And what happens if you have to stay with the tribe or it's going to be a big problem?"


"Oh," Roger said. Then, "Oh."


"This is why you don't shoot until you have to," Pahner told him on the side circuit.


"Let me see if I can talk our way out of this," O'Casey said.


"Fat chance," Pahner muttered.


* * *


" . . . Chief Roger . . . regrets . . . honor. Travel . . . way . . . pass . . ."


Cord laughed.


"Well, I'm not all that happy about it, either. I was on a very important spirit quest when he had the temerity to save my life. Don't you people have any couth? Never mind. That doesn't matter a rid fly's fart. I still have to follow him around like a demon-spawned nex for the rest of my life. Oh well. Maybe it will be short."


He watched the little spokesman working through the translation, and finally gestured impatiently.


"This tent is nice, but if we hurry we can reach my village before the yaden arise. Unless you have skin like a flar beast, we'd best be under cover. I suppose you can cut up the flar and use it for cover, but it would take time. Time we might not have."


* * *


"I think he said—"


"Tough noogies," Roger finished with a laugh. "He said we're just going to have to live with it. And something about hurrying."


"I didn't get that full a translation," Eleanora said with a shake of her head. "And there was more than the basic cultural background. There's something definitely sticky about this translation. I got a real gender malfunction, at first. It's settled down to male though."


She glanced at the naked Mardukan and then away.


"Of course, I don't see how it could possibly mistake the gender," she added with a smile.


"I got most of it," Roger said. "I think I'm more attuned with him or something. He also says we'd better get moving or something nasty is going to happen."


"Did he indicate what?" Pahner asked.


"He called it the yaden. No context. I think it's related to night." He turned to the Mardukan and tried the toot's voice control function. "What are the yaden?"


Roger discovered that the software was giving him images in response to some form of subcommunication involving his background, the gestures of the Mardukan, and known words. In cases where it had clear translations, it shut down the direct auditory feed and substituted the "translated" words. But in this case, it obviously had no clear translation, so it was giving ephemeral images of possible translations, and the general outline, although startling, was clear. He almost laughed.


"He says the yaden are vampires."


"Oh," Pahner said blandly.


"He's very emphatic about it, though," Elenora said, nodding in agreement. "Yes, I get that, too, now. Vampires. You're good with this, Roger."


Roger smiled in pleasure at the rare compliment.


"You know I like languages."


"So the scummy thinks we should move out?" Pahner asked, just to keep things straight.


"Yes," Roger said, somewhat coldly. He was beginning to develop a distaste for the epithet. "He has a problem with something that apparently comes out only at night. He wants to hurry to make it to his village before whatever it is comes out."


"That's going to be tough," Pahner said consideringly. "We've got a pass to cross, then quite a bit of jungle. We'll barely make it up to the top of the ridge before dark."


"He seems to think we ought to be able to make it before dark without too much trouble," Eleanora put in.


"He may be right," Pahner responded. "But if he is, then his village has to be a lot closer than I think he's suggesting."


"Then I suggest that we'd better get moving," Roger said.


"No question there," Pahner agreed. "First we've got to get this tent taken down, though."


"Hang on." Roger pulled his drinking tube down. "Here," he said, gesturing with it to the Mardukan. "Water."


They didn't have that word yet, so he used Standard. To demonstrate, he took a drink out of it and dribbled a few drops onto his hand to show the Mardukan what it was. Cord leaned forward and took a swig off of the tube. He nodded at Roger in thanks, then gestured to leave the tent.


"Yeah," Roger said with a laugh. "I guess we're all on the same sheet of music."


But playing in different keys.


* * *


It quickly became apparent to Roger where the disconnect between Cord's and Pahner's estimated travel times lay. Cord's giant legs drove him forward at a far quicker pace than humans were able to maintain. The Marines, had they been less heavily encumbered, could have jogged and kept up with the Mardukan, but Matsugae, O'Casey, and the Navy pilots were unable to make anything like the same rate of movement. As the sun set behind the mountains and the alluvial outflow narrowed into a mountain gorge, the Mardukan became more and more voluble in his worries, and translations became clearer and clearer.


"Prince Roger," Cord said, "we must hurry. The yaden will suck us dry if they find us. I'm the only one with a cover cloth." He gestured to his leather cape. "Unless you have those 'tents' for everyone?"


"No," Roger said. He grasped a boulder and pulled himself up onto it. The vantage point gave him a clear view of the company scattered up and down the narrow defile. The tail of the unit was just starting up the narrow, steep canyon while the head was nearing the top. As mountain canyons went, it wasn't much, but it was slowing them as the heavily laden troopers struggled up the ravine, pulling themselves from boulder to boulder. They blended into the background well, but for the flash of solar panels on the rucksacks and the occasional reflection off a weapon's barrel. The parties with the stretchers were in particularly bad straits, wrestling their heavy and cumbersome loads over rocks and around corners. All in all, the company was moving very slowly.


"No, we don't have enough large tents for everyone. But we have other covers, and everyone has a personal bivy tent. How large and fierce are these yaden?"


Cord mulled over a few of the words that obviously weren't quite right.


"They are neither large nor fierce. They are stealthy. They will slip into a camp full of warriors and select one or two. Then they overcome them and suck them dry."


Roger shuddered slightly. He supposed that it could be superstition, but the description was too precise.


"In that case, we're just going to have to post a good guard."


"This valley is thick with them," Cord said, gesturing around. "It is a well-known fact," he finished simply.


"Oh, great." Roger jumped nimbly down off the boulder. "We're in the Valley of the Vampires."


 


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