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CHAPTER TEN

Krindi Fain wasn't certain exactly why he was standing at the front of a milling group of Diasprans in the dawn rain while three of the odd-looking humans discussed something at the far edge of the courtyard. He was sure that it had something to do with that nice human in the tavern, and he could vaguely remember shouting about teaching the Boman to respect Diasprans and the God. Or something like that. There'd been a lot of shouting. And a lot of beer.


But now, just thinking about the shouting hurt his head. He felt as if someone had wrapped thorns around his horn sockets, and from the yelling in the distance, he was afraid there was more coming his way.


There hadn't been any shouting when they were first dragged out into the large square by the chuckling temple guardsmen. They'd been counted off into groups and then given a speech by one of the high priests. The priest had explained that they'd all volunteered for the new forces that were going to be fighting the Boman. That they were the bedrock of the army of the God, and that they would wash over the Boman like a wave. That the barbarians would be as sand before the dreadful tide of their righteous wrath.


Then he'd rattled off the rules under which they would now live. Fortunately for all of the new recruits, keeping track of the punishment for any given offense would be child's play itself . . . since all of the rules ended in "guilty party shall be put to death."


The three humans finished their conference, and turned his way. Suddenly, they didn't look nearly as friendly as they had the night before.


* * *


"God save me for a drunkard and a fool," Julian said, looking at the crowd of Mardukans.


"You qualify on both counts, Adib." Roger clapped him on the shoulder. "You'll be fine. You've got your notes?"


"Macek does," the squad leader said. "I'm going to give them a few choice words, then turn them over to Gronningen and Mutabi to wear them out."


"That'll work," the prince said, and turned to the crowd of young Mardukans. "Listen up! You men—and I use that term lightly—don't know why you're here or what's coming. Some of you think you do, but you're wrong. If you listen to Sergeant Julian here, and the veterans with him, you might just survive the battle with the Boman! If you don't, I guarantee that you'll end up in an unmarked grave, unpitied victims of a contemptible struggle! So pay attention! Follow orders! And may the God defend the right!"


He glowered at them for a moment longer, then clapped Julian on the shoulder, nodded briskly in the general direction of the thoroughly wretched and confused recruits, and strode off.


* * *


Julian considered the group like a farmer picking out just the right chicken for supper. Then he pointed to four of the largest or, in one case, most intelligent looking, of them.


"You, you, you, and you." He pointed to marks on the square's cobblestones. Next to each mark was a thirty-meter line. "Here, here, here, and here," he said, and propped his hands on his hips, tapping his toe impatiently until he had the four bewildered nascent squad leaders in place. Then he turned to the rest.


"What the hell are you waiting for? Breakfast?! On the lines, now, now, NOW!"


Between them, he and Moseyev's Alpha Team got the milling crowd lined up. It happened neither easily, quickly, nor neatly, and Julian favored the more or less formation with a ferocious glare.


"When I say, 'Fall In,' you will fall in, just like this, on the line, with these four on the marks!" He strode up to the first squad leader and looked him up and down. "Is that any sort of position of attention?!" he screamed.


"I, uh . . ." Krindi Fain said.


"When you answer a question, there are three possible answers! They are: 'Yes, Sir!' 'No, Sir!' and 'Clear, Sir!' Is that clear?"


"Uh, yes," the miserable and hungover Diaspran said. If this little basik didn't quit shouting at him, he was definitely going to have to do something about it. What, he wasn't sure, since one of those rules had covered the penalties for hitting their superiors. He didn't really feel inferior to this basik, but, on the other hand, he didn't want to feel the God's embrace that much.


"Yes, WHAT?" the human screamed at him.


"Sir," Gronningen mouthed silently behind Julian's back.


"Yes, SIR!" Fain shouted as loudly as physically possible, and the Marine noncom glared at him for a moment, then spun in place.


"Gronningen! Ten Hut!"


The plasma gunner snapped to attention, and Julian stalked over to him, then turned to face his new recruits again.


"This is the position of attention. Chest out! Stomach in! Heels together! Hands half-cupped and thumbs along . . ."


His mouth clicked shut, and he glared at the Mardukans for a moment in despair as his familiar, well-practiced lecture hit a pothole. Normally, it would have been "thumbs along the seam of the trousers." But that assumed that the sentient in question had only two arms, both of which reached to his thighs . . . and that the aforesaid sentient wore trousers.


"Macek?!"


" . . . thumbs of the false-hands aligned with the middle of the outer thigh and true-hands aligned above false-hands," Macek supplied instantly, and Julian grunted in approval and strode back over to the poor squad leader-to-be.


"Got that, four-arms?" He poked the Mardukan in the stomach with his sheathed short sword. The Mardukans had a solar plexus much similar to that of a human, although larger and, if anything, more vulnerable, and the Diaspran partially doubled over, so Julian tapped him on the chin with the hilt of the sword. "Stomach in! Chin back! Chest out! False-hands half-cupped! Thumbs aligned along the thigh! Do it!"


So Fain did it. And then, without any ceremony or warning, he threw up all over the little basik. He really, really hoped that didn't count as hitting.


* * *


Poertena was trying to watch twelve pairs of hands at once, and it just wasn't working.


The group was too large to play spades, so they'd settled on poker. After some initial wrangling about what kind, they'd further decided on dealer's choice, although the initial decision by Chal Thai to start with five-card stud had been greeted with universal suspicion. The local Mardukan factor, who'd become their most prominent supplier of finished pike and spearheads was infamous for bottom-dealing, palming, and that notorious, Mardukan-only technique, "sticking."


It didn't seem to affect the quality of the materials he supplied. The perennially friendly merchant had been on time with every shipment, which had been hard in a city as busy as Diaspra.


The city had been in a night and day fever for the last two weeks. After some token resistance from the senior merchant families, the bulk of the populace, the guilds, and the church had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the preparations. There was no time to build the kind of armaments the humans would have preferred for the struggle: mobile cannon and flintlocks, as a start. So Pahner, after a series of roundtable discussions, had settled on a modification of their own "Roman" approach.


Since the Boman—and especially their outriders, like the Wespar tribe—had relatively few arquebuses, designing a force to fight arquebuses would hardly have made sense, anyway. Instead, the army the captain envisioned would be designed to handle the threats it did face: the hail of throwing axes which continued to provide the bulk of the Boman missile assault, and their foot charge.


The first tier of what O'Casey had dubbed the "New Model Army of Diaspra" would consist of shieldmen armed with assegais, most of whom would come out of the regulars from the surviving Guard of God (and, oh, but the reassigned arquebusiers had been livid about that one!). The second tier would be the pikemen Julian and his henchmen were busy creating out of the recruits from the Laborers of God. Pikes required at least as much discipline but less individual training than assegais would, and just as no one on this planet had ever heard of Roman tactics, none had ever heard of hoplites or classic pike phalanxes. And the third tier would be the civan-mounted cavalry Rastar and Honal were teaching a whole new concept of "combined arms" operations.


The short assegais required less metalworking than short swords for much the same utility, plus they could be thrown, in a real emergency, and their broad heads had been readily supplied by the smiling merchant who usually had at least four aces stuck somewhere on his body's mucous covering. Chal Thai was also the main supplier for the needle-sharp awl pikeheads, and he was managing—barely—to keep deliveries ahead of the pike shafts being turned out by dozens of small shops throughout the city. Javelins were another matter. There weren't going to be nearly as many of them as Pahner could have wished, but the hand-to-hand weapons were even more important, so he was concentrating on them and the shields to protect the troops using them.


Those shields were being supplied by the other civilian Mardukan at the table. Med Non had been a minor supplier of custom woodworking and laminated tables until it became apparent that he was the only woodworker in the city with a firm grasp of how to increase production rapidly. Thereafter, he'd become the central manager of the suddenly roaring shield industry in Diaspra. His abrupt elevation and prominence had caused a brief mutiny on the part of one of the larger merchant houses, but Med Non had quashed that quickly by pointing out that none of the changes were going to affect the wealthier merchant's core business, and that his drive to rationalize and speed production gave the other's house many of his own "business secrets," instead. When asked about losing his own business after the emergency was over, he just laughed.


Poertena could understand why; the relatively small Mardukan ran rings around his more established competitors. Accustomed as he was to rapid turnaround of orders—something almost unthinkable to the hidebound leaders of the larger houses—there was no chance that he would lose any business to those larger houses. Indeed, it would be the larger houses who would have to keep an eye on their rearview cameras.


He also appeared—bizarrely, for a Mardukan—to have no interest in cheating at cards. He'd been raised and trained in a business which required him to calculate lengths and volumes in his head, and he played a conservative game that stuck strictly to the averages. While, of course, watching his opponents' hands.


He was currently peering at the Mardukan in half-armor across from him. Sol Ta, the commander of one of the newly raised assegai regiments, had just laid down a handful of jacks and started to scoop in the pot.


"Card check," Non said, throwing down his cards face up and raising all four hands above his head.


The purely Mardukan variant of poker, which would have made the professionals of New Vegas choke if they ever saw it, said that any player could call a check of all the cards once per game. The rule also required that all the Mardukans at the table throw all of their cards on the table and raise their hands above their heads.


"What?" Sol Ta said, then looked at the single jack sitting faceup in the other Mardukan's hand. "Oh." The guardsman raised his hands with the rest as Poertena got up and started checking.


The Pinopan had found that the locals had become downright fiendish about where they hid their cards. One of these days, he half expected to find one with a hollowed out horn, and he looked at Honal, the fourth Mardukan at the table, and raised an eyebrow.


"You wanna 'fess up now?"


The young cavalry commander was notorious, even by Mardukan standards, but he only wrinkled his brow and grinned in the human style.


"I have nothing to hide," he stated, wiggling all eighteen fingers.


Poertena sighed and started with the backs of his hands, then worked his way down. In fact, he was pretty sure the cavalryman wasn't holding—this time—but poker rules were poker rules.


Roger kicked back and laughed silently while he watched. The locals had the oddest approach to cheating he'd ever heard of. If you weren't cheating, they considered you stupid. But if you got caught, they considered you a gross incompetent. As soon as they'd started figuring out the ways they could cheat at cards, they'd leapt in with abandon. Spades and the other whist derivative games were the only ones where they couldn't hide cards, but even then they bottom-dealt, cross-dealt, and stacked decks so cold they froze. And yet they still played for money.


Poertena stood back and shook his head. The cavalryman's harness and tabard were clean. Nothing in his holsters, nothing in his scabbards. The Pinopan knew from experience that it was entirely possible that he'd missed a card somewhere, but he let the Mardukan lower his hands anyway.


Next, he started on Sol Ta. The Diaspra infantry commander wasn't as heavily armed as Rastar's cousin. He had a broad spatha kicked out under the table, and his harness sported only a single wheel lock pistol, but lack of hiding places didn't prevent him from regularly managing to fool them anyway. After a close search, the human stepped back and shook his head, then turned to Chal Thai. The other merchant sat patiently, with an air of benign amusement, while Poertena searched him minutely . . . and without success.


"I gots not'ing," he told Med Non with a shrug, and the merchant looked over at the last Mardukan present as Matsugae quietly entered with fresh drinks. The room was buried deep in the local palace-cum-temple, and had actually been provided by the last player.


Rus From waved the water-colored scarf that was his badge of office.


"What? Surely you don't believe that a humble cleric would introduce a jack into the deck? What possible reason could I have?"


Roger smiled again as he took a glass of cool wine off the tray. He winked at Matsugae, who rolled his eyes in return. The Mardukans seemed to spend better than half their time arguing about who was the more clever at cheating. And the other half denying—purely for the record, of course—that they themselves would ever even consider something that dishonest.


"Oh, I don't doubt for a moment that you'd do so," Ta said suspiciously. "I just wonder what involved plot it's a part of."


"I?" the cleric asked, spreading his hands in front of him. "I am but a simple cleric," he added ingenuously. "What would I know of involved plots?"


All five of the others laughed as Poertena carefully counted the cards. The complex hydraulic engineering that was the hallmark of the Diaspra priesthood was managed, almost wholly, by this "simple cleric." There were higher posts to be found in the local theocracy, but "Bishop of Artificers" was arguably the most powerful. And the most technical. This "simple cleric" had the local equivalent of a couple of doctorates in hydraulic engineering.


"Besides," he added, as Poertena silently held up the spare jack from the pile, "I don't understand this human fascination with simple adjustments. Isn't it your own Sergeant Major who says 'If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying'?"


"You cheat you own side, you gonna screw you'self," Poertena said, discarding the jack, sitting back down, and shuffling. As he dealt, he had to stop periodically to unstick cards.


"But we're not exactly cheating, are we?" Sol Ta replied, looking at his hole card. "We're just . . . trying for an advantage."


"Whatever." Poertena shrugged.


"No, seriously," From said. "I'm wondering where you got this odd attachment to 'fairness.' It has very little purpose, and is so very easily used against you. It seems to be a weakness."


"Maybe so," Poertena said with another shrug. He finished dealing and tossed a silver piece on the pile. After a moment, he looked around and realized that they weren't going to let him get away without answering.


He thought about it for a minute. He knew the answer, but he'd never had to explain it to anyone, and he was far from certain how to do so. From his point of view, you either understood it, or you didn't, but he decided to give it a try.


"Okay. Chal, you 'member the firs' time you come and offered you price for spears?"


"Sure," the Mardukan said, tossing a small raise onto the pot.


"You remember what I give back?" the Pinopan asked.


"Sure." The merchant grunted in laughter. "My sales gift."


"Right," Poertena said, and looked at the others. "He hand me a bag of silver an' a nice little statue. An' what I say?"


" 'No thank you, and I won't say it twice.' I thought you were hinting that I should offer something a bit larger, but then I realized what you really meant," the merchant said, setting down his cards and picking up the cup of wine Matsugae had left. "So I took the cost off the bid I gave you."


"I had Fri Tar give me a gif' prob'ly ten time as nice as you," the Pinopan told him. "If I made tee call on tee basis of tee gifts, we'd be tryin' to get our gear outta pocking Fri Tar."


"Good luck," Sol Ta snorted. "I've been trying to get him to complete a set of swords for the past six months."


"Right." Poertena picked his cards back up. "That's you answer."


"But how did you decide on Chal, then?" Roger asked, taking a hand in the discussion as he saw the natives' continued puzzlement. "If not by the size of his gift, I mean?"


"He was tee only one take tee cost of tee gif' back out of tee bid, You Highness," the Pinopan said, and Roger nodded and smiled, then looked at the other players.


"I know you Mardukans think this is a quaint custom," he said, "but it's the only way to really build a society."


"We got 'sale gift' some places, too," Poertena said. "It call 'baksheesh.' But if tee size of tee baksheesh is mos' of a salary, people stop workin' for t'eir pay and start workin' for baksheesh."


"And then you have the goddamn plasma rifles," Roger growled. "An excellent example of why you don't want your procurement people taking little gifts."


"What's that?" Rus From asked, looking at the up cards, then grimaced. "Fold."


"We discovered that we . . . had a problem with one of our main weapons," Roger said, tossing in his own cards. "It would have helped us out several times. In fact, we'd probably have twice the people we do now—if we'd only been able to use it reliably."


"But t'ey blow tee pock up," Poertena said bitterly. "Sorry, You Highness."


"Not at all, Poertena," Roger told him, and looked at the Mardukans. "As he said, they blow the pock up when we try to use them."


"Well," Ta said with a wave of one true-hand, "guns always tend to blow up. But . . . most people survive." He waved his hand again in the local equivalent of polite amusement. Arquebuses were notorious for blowing up, as were the local pistols.


"If one of these were to blow up, it would take out this wing of the palace," Roger said, taking a bite out of an apsimon fruit.


"Oh." The guardsman looked suddenly thoughtful and took another sip of his wine before he tossed in a silver piece to stay in the game.


"Now a situation like that occurs for one of two reasons," Roger went on, leaning back and looking at the ceiling. "Either somebody's been incompetent, or, more commonly, somebody is cutting corners. Usually, cutting corners happens because somebody got greedy. And it usually means that at least one person has had his palm greased."


" 'Palm greased'?" Honal asked, raising the stake by a couple of silvers, and Poertena pointed at the pot with his chin and rubbed his fingers together.


"Money," he said bluntly. "Somebody got paid off."


"Ah." Thai gazed at the young cavalryman speculatively, then folded and turned his attention fully to Roger. "That's why you explained in our first game that the next time you caught me cheating in your favor, you could no longer play."


"Right," the prince said. "It's a really strange concept, but it's all about playing fair with your own side. If you don't, since we're all interconnected, you inevitably pock yourself."


"But what about what Sergeant Major Kosutic says?" Honal asked, scooping in the pot without ever showing his hole cards, since everyone had folded rather than stay in the game.


"Ah," Roger said, pulling out a strip of bisti. "That's a bit different, you see. The Boman aren't our side. And in that case, 'if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.' "


* * *


Despreaux slid into the spider hole and nodded to Kileti.


"Tell them we've found their main base," she whispered.


The small hole was on a slight elevation, twenty-five kilometers northeast of Diaspra. It was crowded and close with four Marines and the gear for two more. The team from First Squad was one of three sent out to find the main enemy concentration, and Despreaux was pretty sure she knew why she was here. Since her pissing match with Roger back in Ran Tai, Kosutic and Pahner had been going out of their ways to keep her separated from the prince. Since she was a squad leader, that meant keeping her squad separated from the prince. And in this case, it meant putting them out on the sharp end . . . all because His Highness was a stuck up, aristocratic prick.


She pulled out a leather pouch and dumped out the bleeding head of a killerpillar.


"It nearly got me," she said while her quick fingers extracted the valuable poison glands and dropped them into a plastic bottle. Both the neurotoxin and the flesh-dissolver were much sought after by the local apothecaries. Harvesting the bounty of the forests was one of the ways the individual troopers made their drinking money, so patrols had become a privilege rather than a task.


PFC Sealdin picked up his own translucent bottle and shook it.


"One of the mamas came by a few hours ago," he told her cheerfully. The vampire moths had stopped being a danger as soon as the Marines learned to sleep in their sealed personal shelters, but with the invention of a sticky trap, they'd become another source of funds. The anesthetic they produced was one of the most effective available for the Mardukans.


PFC Kileti picked up a plug and jacked it into his helmet com. The microscopic wire attached to the plug ran out of the chameleon cover over their hole and up a nearby tree, from the top of which a small transmitter sent short, directional burst transmissions and bounced them off of the micro meteors that skipped into the atmosphere on a regular basis.


Report complete, the PFC sent a command to his toot, and nodded at the team leader.


"On the way," he said, and the leader, St. John (J.), nodded.


"Okay, Macek and Bebi are going to keep an eye on them for now. We'll switch out tomorrow. In the meantime," he continued, digging into his rucksack and pulling out a strip of jerky, "we wait."


 


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