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"It says here, 'Marduk has a mean gravity of slightly greater than Earth normal, and is a planet of little weather change,' " Sergeant Julian said, reading off his pad. He'd managed, along with Poertena, to get two more suits up and running before the call came to drop everything and change the loadout on the shuttles. Currently, they were unloading.

He was perched on one silver wing of an assault shuttle as his squad moved out nonessential materials. The space-to-ground assault craft's variable geometry wings could sustain in-air flight at speeds as low as a hundred KPH or as high as Mach three, but it also had hydrogen thrusters for space maneuvering. Similar to a ground support pinnace, it had lighter weapons and a single top-mounted quad-barreled bead cannon, and thus correspondingly more room for personnel and equipment.

" '. . . with a median temperature of thirty-three degrees and a median humidity of ninety-seven percent,' " he continued. There'd been nothing in the Marine databases on the planet, but it turned out that one of the corporals in Second Platoon had a Fodor's Guide to the Baldur Sector. Unfortunately, it offered only a limited amount of data on the planet . . . and what data there was only made a gloomy situation worse. "Jesus Christ, that's hot!"

"Oh, just fucking great," Lance Corporal Moseyev said as he trotted out of the shuttle with a case of penetrator ammunition in his hands. "I only had three weeks and I was transferring to Steel!"

" 'The native culture is at a stagnant level of low-grade firearms technology. Politically, the Mardukans—' Hey, there's a picture!"

The Mardukan native, a four-armed biped from a hexapedal evolutionary line, was pictured next to a human wiredrawing for size. From the scale, the Mardukan was the height of a grizzly bear, with broad, long feet on the ends of long, backcurved legs. The hands of the upper and lower arms were about the same size, with the upper shoulders wider than the lower, which were in turn wider than the hips. The upper arms ended in long, fine, three-fingered hands with one fully opposable thumb each. The hands of the shorter, lower arms were heavier and less refined, with a broad opposable pad and two dissimilar fingers. The face was wider and flatter than a human's, with a broad nose and small deep-set eyes. Two large horns curled up and back over the head. They were obviously functional weapons; the inner curve looked razor-sharp. The rubbery-looking skin was a mottled green and had an odd sheen to it.

"What's that?" Moseyev asked, pointing to the sheen.

"Dunno." Julian tweaked the cursor over the skin and rolled up the magnification. "'The skin of the Mardukan is covered in a polycy . . . polyss . . . in a something something coating that protects the species from casual cuts and the various harsh funguses of its native jungle home," he read, then thought about it for a second. "Ewww."

"It's covered in slime," Moseyev laughed. "Yick! Slimies!"

"Scummies!" Sergeant Major Kosutic snapped from the hatchway, and strode into the launching day. "I thought you were told to get the extraneous equipment out of the shuttle, Julian?"

"We were getting updated on the mission, Sergeant Major!" Julian was suddenly at attention, the pad held alongside his trousers. "I was briefing my squad on the enemy and conditions!"

"The enemy are the fucking Saints or pirates or whatever-they-are that hold the port." Kosutic stalked up to stand so close to the braced sergeant that he could smell her breath mint. "The scummies are what we're going to have to cut our way through to get there. Your mission, right now, is to get the shuttle unloaded—not to sit around on your ass cracking wise. Clear?"

"Clear, Sergeant Major!"

"Now get your asses to work. We're on a tight time schedule."

"Moseyev!" Julian said, turning hastily back to his squad. "Get your team unloading that ammo. We don't have all day-cycle! Gjalski, your team on the powerpacks. . . ."

"Not the powerpacks," Kosutic said. "Leave all of them. We're going to add extra, as a matter-of-fact. Thank Vlad we don't have a heavy weapons platoon with us."

"Sergeant Major," Julian asked as the squad began to scurry around, "you called the Mardukans 'scummies.' Where'd you hear that?"

"Knew somebody that went through here once." The sergeant major pulled at an earlobe. "Didn't sound like much fun."

"Are we really gonna have to walk all the way across the damn world?" Julian asked, aghast.

"There ain't many choices, Sergeant," the sergeant major snarled. "You just stick with the mission."

"Roger, Sergeant Major." The sergeant glanced at the "scummy" on the pad. It looked big and nasty . . . but, then, that also described the IMC. "Will comply."

There weren't a lot of options.

* * *

"Okay, I want options, people," Pahner said, and looked around the briefing room. "First of all, let's be clear about something: what's the mission?"

The group was limited to the prince's party: himself, Pahner, O'Casey, and the three lieutenants. O'Casey was panning through the limited data on Marduk on a pad. The old-fashioned academic always seemed to prefer holding data in her hand. Roger, for his part, had looked at it nine ways from Sunday already on his toot, and there wasn't much good in it.

"Take the port while avoiding detection," Lieutenant Sawato answered. The slight officer gestured at the limited-scale map depicted in the hologram over the table. It had been extracted from the Fodor's, and, with the exception of the area around the port, offered virtually no detail. "Land on the northeast coast of this large continent, cross a relatively small ocean, and move inland to take the port."

"Sounds easy," Lieutenant Gulyas snorted. He was about to go on, but Pahner raised a hand.

"You forgot one thing, Lieutenant," Pahner told Sawato mildly. "While insuring the security of His Highness Prince Roger."

Roger opened his mouth to protest, but was elbowed by O'Casey. He knew those elbows of old, and knew better than to try to go on.

"Yes, Sir," Sawato said to Pahner, but with a nod to Roger. "That was, of course, assumed."

"You know what they say about assumptions," Pahner said. "Let's not assume Prince Roger's safety, okay? The Navy has a plan for getting us onto the planet, and there's not a thing we can do to affect that. But we need to do everything we can to ensure that item above all else. His Highness' security is job one."

He looked around to make sure the other officers understood that and then nodded.

"In that case, I think we need to look at the conditions and threats next." He turned to Lieutenant Gulyas. "Conall, normally that would be your brief. However, I've been talking to Doctor O'Casey, and she has some insights." He turned to the civilian. "Doctor?"

"Thank you, Captain," she replied formally, and tapped the display to bring up a picture of Marduk. "You are all, by now, familiar with the limited data we have on Marduk and its inhabitants.

"Marduk is classified as a Type Three world," she continued, and tapped another control. This time the picture was a large beast of some sort, with six stumpy legs, an armored forehead, and a triangular, fang-filled maw. The human scale model next to it indicated that the creature was a bit larger than a rhinoceros.

"That, by the way, is probably the same classification Earth would have had at the same technological and development level. Marduk, however, has not only an unfriendly climate—it's extremely hot and steamy, which will have a negative effect on electronics—but also unfriendly inhabitants and wildlife. This particular specimen, called a damnbeast, is a good example. The first survey crew ended up shooting several specimens. The planet is warm enough that the dominant species are all cold-blooded, which makes a higher ratio of predators to prey possible. Whereas a mammal this size would require half a million hectares to support, one of these has a territory of less than forty thousand hectares." She smiled faintly. "And this is the only recorded carnivore species listed in our onboard data bases. Further inquiries referenced the official Survey Service report."

She smiled again at the general groan.

"The resident autochthons, the Mardukans, are at a pre-steam level of technology. Obviously, their tech level varies from area to area of the planet, but some of their most advanced cultures have discovered gunpowder, although that's scarcely uniform and even the ones which have it don't have anything resembling mass production or cartridge weapons."

She tapped another control, bringing up a view of some odd weapons.

"These are the primary projectile weapons of the Mardukan societies which have mastered gunpowder: the matchlock arquebus and the hooped bombard. These weapons were used on Earth in the distant past, primarily in Europe, although the arquebus was rapidly superseded by flintlock muskets, and then rifles. The hooped bombard is a distant cousin of one of your Marine howitzers."

She brought up another screen, this time a map of the Mediterranean.

"The Mardukan sociological climate has few direct counterparts in human history, but there are similarities to the Earth during the early Roman Republic. The Mardukans are broken up into city-states and small empires that are distributed along fertile river valleys, so these areas between the rivers are primarily barbaric. Although the barbarians do have a few gunpowder weapons, they rely primarily upon spear-hurlers and lances. The precise nature of the barbarian tribal structure is unknown."

"Why is it unknown?" Lieutenant Gulyas asked, wondering where she'd gotten all this information.

"Well, probably because they ate the researchers," O'Casey said deadpan, then grinned. "Or because it's never been researched. From what I've been able to find, anything more than a thousand klicks or so from the spaceport is very much terra incognita. Either way, the data in my database stopped there."

"Where did you have that?" Gulyas asked curiously.

"I always travel with my history and sociology databases," O'Casey said with another smile. "I need them to work on papers." She turned back to her pad.

"To continue, not only are the barbarians at war with each other—when they're not raiding the borders of the city-states—but the city-states are continually at war with each other, as well. Any state of peace can be assumed to be a temporary truce, awaiting the slightest spark to ignite a war." The smile she gave the officers of this time was grim. "I think that we can assume a Marine company is going to constitute a spark."

She paused for a moment, then shrugged.

"That pretty much exhausts the primary data. I'll make the full outtake available to you right after the meeting."

"Thank you, Doctor," Pahner said somberly. "That was a nice overview. I'm sure you also noticed that we can eat the food. The biochemistry's a long way from Earth standard, but our nanites ought to be able to break down anything we can't digest naturally, and they should keep anything in the local biosystem from actively poisoning us. On the other hand, not even the nanites can put in what isn't there, so we'll require supplements, especially of vitamins C and E and several amino acids. Which means we'll be humping those." He looked up when there were no groans from the lieutenants. "No complaints? My, we must be feeling sobered."

"We've been discussing it, Sir," Lieutenant Sawato admitted. The XO shook her head. "I listed out all the parameters, but, as Lieutenant Gulyas indicated, there are tremendous problems."

"True." Pahner leaned back and rested his chin on his hand. "Tell me what they are."

"First of all, Sir, there's the matter of time. How long will it take us to cross a world?"

"A long time," Pahner replied calmly. "Months."

The entire compartment seemed to draw a deep breath as someone finally said the words. They were no longer talking about a short drop on the planet, but about an extended stay. They had all realized it, but no one had wanted to say it.

"Yes, Sir," Lieutenant Jasco said into the silence after a moment. The tall, broad CO of First Platoon was in charge of logistics, and he shook his leonine head. "I don't see it, Sir. We don't have the food or the power. We carry combat rations for two weeks, and power for one week's use of the armor, but we're looking at three to six months to cross the planet. We may be able to forage, and our nanites will help with digestion problems, but if we're going to be dealing with hostiles, foraging will be limited. And given the intensity of the threat, we need the powered armor to survive, but it won't begin to last that long. With all due respect, and not wanting to be a quitter, I don't see a way to do this mission, Sir."

"All right." Pahner nodded. "That's your input. Does anyone see a way to accomplish the mission?"

"Well, we can strip the ship of spare power systems," Lieutenant Gulyas suggested. "There are powerpacks all over the place."

"How do we get them where we're going?" Jasco shook his head. "It's a situation of diminishing returns when you overload suits carrying stuff—"

"We can preposition caches!" Gulyas gestured enthusiastically with his hands. "We send out a team that puts down a cache. Some of the team stays behind to guard it, while the rest come back to get supplies. They take them to the cache and use some of the cache to take them a little further. They leave a team with that cache and go back for supplies. . . ."

"We'd be defeated in detail if we strung ourselves out that way," Sawato said severely.

"And that would take six times as many supplies!" Jasco snapped.

"We could carry the armor," Roger suggested diffidently, and looked around at the lieutenants. Jasco rolled his eyes and leaned back and crossed his arms, while Gulyas and Sawato simply refused to meet his gaze. "It would save power . . ."

"Ahem," Jasco said. "Your Royal Highness, with all due respect . . ."

"I think," Roger said, "that it would be better in these sorts of meetings to use my proper military rank."

Jasco cast a quick glance at Pahner, but the captain returned it blandly, and the lieutenant was suddenly reminded of one of those Academy tests where there was no right answer.

"Yes, um, Colonel. As I was saying, the suits weigh nearly four hundred kilos apiece," he continued with a not particularly friendly chuckle.

"Oh," Roger said with a chagrined expression. "I . . . oh."

"Actually," Pahner said quietly, "that was exactly what I had in mind." He looked around at the stunned lieutenants and smiled kindly. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are a credit to your training. 'Hit 'em hard and hit 'em low, grab their balls and don't let go,' right?"

The lieutenants smiled at the Academy drinking song. Even though most officers in the IMC, like Pahner himself (although usually with less . . . spectacular career summaries) were former enlisted, it was well known in the officers corps.

"Well, we will indeed hit these 'scummies' hard and low when we have to. But we don't have the power to smash our way across the planet, so we're going to have to make treaties when possible, trade when necessary, and only kick ass as a last resort. When we kick ass, we'd better kick ass with a vengeance, but we parley first.

"One platoon each day, on a rotating basis," he continued, "will be detailed as bearers. We will carry one squad's armor. We'll take Second Squad of Third Platoon's; they have the most veterans and the highest combat scores, currently." He looked at Roger, obviously weighing pros and cons, then nodded. "And we'll take the Prince's. He doesn't have much background in it, but it goes along with ensuring his survival.

"But we have to remember that crossing the planet only gets us halfway to our objective. The real mission is to take the port and get our hands on a ship home, and we'll need the armor to take the port even more than we should need it on the way there. Initially, until we get the lay of the land, we'll keep one team in armor at all times. Once we become comfortable with our ability to survive, we'll make our way in normal uniforms to conserve power until we reach the port.

"Initially, we'll maintain our security with bead rifles and plasma weapons. But we can assume that they, too, will become exhausted. So from our first encounter with the Mardukans, we will ensure that all Mardukan weaponry is gathered, and we'll begin training with it."

He looked at the lieutenants again. Jasco, at least, appeared to think he'd lost his mind. The other two were trying, unsuccessfully, to keep their thoughts off their faces, but the prince, to give him credit, just seemed confused. It amused Pahner to turn the lieutenants' worldview on its ear; making them think was good for them, whatever the junior officers might believe. In the case of the prince . . . Pahner found himself moving from annoyed towards amused, which was another surprise.

Pahner had always considered the prince his charge, but never one of "his" officers. Or, for that matter, whatever the Table of Organization might say, his superior. But now the captain realized that what he actually had on his hands was a terribly confused, brand-new lieutenant. And since "Captain" Pahner had spent a good part of his life as "Gunny" Pahner, teaching confused lieutenants the rules of the game, the prince suddenly switched from a hindrance to a challenge. A tough challenge—Pahner had never seen a lieutenant with a lower likelihood of making a decent officer—but an approachable one, nonetheless. And the only kind of challenge worth facing was a tough one. With that realization, the mission, in Pahner's mind, suddenly went from impossible to simply very difficult.

"Train with scummy weapons, Sir?" Lieutenant Jasco asked, looking at the other officers. "What are we going to do with them? Sir?"

"We'll use them to hold off attacking Mardukans or hostile fauna until heavier weapons come online. And when we get to the point that our power supplies are at the minimum necessary, in my opinion, to take the port, we'll use them exclusively."

"Sir?" Lieutenant Sawato said diffidently. "Are you sure about this? Those—" She gestured at where the hologram had been. "Those . . . weapons aren't very good."

"No, Lieutenant, they aren't. But we'll just have to learn to get by. Our chameleon suits have limited ballistic protection, so we'll be highly resistant to fire from their arquebuses. As for lower-velocity weapons like spears and lances and swords and everything else . . . we'll deal with that as it comes.

"Now," the captain continued. "What, other than charges for the weapons and armor support, are our largest issues?"

"Communication," Lieutenant Gulyas said. "If we're going to trade and negotiate, we have to be able to communicate. We have a 'kernel' of the Mardukan language, but that's for one dialect on the subcontinent surrounding the base. We don't have any kernels for other areas. Without kernels, our toots can't translate for us."

"I can work on that," O'Casey said. "I've got a good heuristic language program I use for anthropological digging. I may have some trouble communicating with the first few groups we run across, but once I pick up a regional language base, even vast dialect changes won't affect things. And I can create kernels for other toots."

"Well, that's that one solved," Pahner said with a smile. "But you'll need to get that program to other toots. We can't have you as a point failure source."

"That might be a problem," she admitted. "It's big. It will take a very capable toot to handle it. I've got one custom designed for me, but without a huge amount of processor capability and storage, this program runs like a slug."

"I'll load it," Roger said quietly. "Mine's . . . pretty good." There was a slight, general chuckle at the understatement, for the Imperial Family's implants' abilities were almost legendary. "We might have some trouble loading it, but I'll guarantee I can run it."

"Okay," Pahner said. "What's next?"

"Food," Lieutenant Jasco said. "We don't have the rations for the trip, and we can't forage and carry the armor and keep the Prince safe all at once." His tone was respectfully challenging.

"Correct," Pahner acknowledged calmly. "And what is the answer to this dilemma?"

"Trade," O'Casey said definitively. "We trade high-tech items for whatever the Mardukans use for portable wealth. That might not be metals, by the way. The ancient North Africans traded salt. But whatever they use here, we trade the largest mass of advanced technology at the first city-state for our basic needs and a 'nest egg,' and then portion the rest out slowly as we go."

"Exactly." Pahner's nod was firm. "So, what do we have that would make good trade goods?"

"Firestarters," Jasco said promptly. "I saw a case of them in the supply room last week." He consulted his pad. "I've got an inventory here—let me cross load."

He set his pad down on the table to transmit the inventory data, and the other lieutenants and O'Casey captured the data and began perusing it while Roger was still pulling out his own pad. By the time he had it opened and configured to receive, Jasco had cut the transmission and was back to looking at the data.

"Lieutenant," the prince said in a lofty tone, "if you don't mind?"

Jasco looked up from the lists in surprise. "Oh, sorry, Your Highness," he said, and set the list to transmit again.

Roger nodded as his pad picked up the data.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. And, again, it's 'Colonel' under these circumstances."

"Yes, of course . . . Colonel," Jasco said, going back to his data.

"What do we see?" Pahner asked, apparently ignoring the byplay. He didn't have a pad out, nor had he received a download.

Roger transferred the data to his toot and put his own pad away. He would've taken the data straight into the toot from Jasco's pad, but the implant had so many security protocols that filtering through the pad had been easier and faster. As Roger was going through these circumlocutions, the officers and O'Casey were studying the inventory.

"Virtually anything in here would be tradable," and O'Casey said, her eyes bugging out at the thought. "Space blankets, chameleon liners, water carriers . . . not boots. . . ."

"We'll be space and mass-limited," Pahner noted. "The ship's going to have to drop us fairly far out, and we'll have to come down in a long, slow spiral to avoid detection. That means internal add-on tanks of hydrogen, and those will take up volume and mass. So the higher the potential profit, the better."

"Well," O'Casey continued, "not uniforms. Rucksacks. There are five spares; that might be good. Spare issue intel-pads? No. What are 'multitools'?"

"They're memory plastic tools," Lieutenant Sawato said with a nod. "They come with four 'standard' configurations: shovel, ax, pick-mattock, and boma-knife. And you can add two configurations."

"We've got fifteen spares," Jasco said, flipping through the data. "And each Marine in the Company has one."

"Of course," Gulyas observed with a chuckle, "some of those have some . . . odd secondary settings."

"What?" Sawato smiled. "Like Sergeant Julian's 'out of tune lute' setting?"

"I was actually thinking of Poertena's 'pig pocking pag' setting," Gulyas snorted.

"I beg your pardon?" O'Casey blinked, and looked back and forth between the two lieutenants.

"The armorer controls the machine that resets the adjustable configurations," Pahner told her in a resigned tone. "Julian used to be Bravo's armorer before Poertena. Both of them are jokers."

"Oh." The prince's ex-tutor considered for several seconds, then snorted as she finally completed the translation of "pig pocking pag" in her head. "Well, in this case the setting makes sense. We're going to need lots of . . . large bags to carry equipment."


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