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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"What are you guys so enthused about?" Roger asked.


There'd been little change in the week since his inconclusive meeting with Gratar. Training went on, and the inexperienced workmen were slowly turning into drilled units under the tutelage of the Northerners and the Marines, but other than that, things seemed to be coming slowly but inexorably apart.


More and more of the Council had begun siding with Grath as the floodwaters rose and dikes washed away without workmen to maintain them. From all reports, these were normal events precipitated by heavier rains than usual, yet each fresh inroad was another nail in the coffin of the policy of using the laborers as a military force. The calls to have them out in the rain working on the failing flood controls had already become clamorous, and every sign said that it was only going to become still worse.


At no point were the city, its inhabitants, or even the fields seriously threatened by the water, but that didn't seem to matter. The combination of the endless, enervating rains and a constant drumbeat of pressure from the cabal of carefully orchestrated tribute proponents eroded the confidence of the Council further with every failing dike, however inconsequential.


At the same time, the company's bugs provided constant tidbits of information about the second cabal working on its unknown "Great Plan." Whatever that plan was, it was large, for Julian had already identified no less than ten Council members, including several on the tribute side, among the conspirators. Whoever the Creator was, he'd amassed a sizable following and had excellent operational security, and so far no one who might have been in the know had used his actual name where the bugs might have overheard it. One of the reasons for that, apparently, was a suspicion that the humans might have listening devices like those they were, in fact, actually employing. All of which made the pleased expressions on everyone's faces seem particularly out of place to the gloomy prince.


"We think we intercepted a message to the Creator," Julian said, tapping at his pad. The handheld device was attached to the top of the all-purpose tactical intel computer the NCO had packed along, a helmet-sized, half-kilo device which contained fifteen terabytes of multiuse memory and a host of Military Intelligence software.


"What? It had an address on it?"


"No, Sir," Kosutic said. The sergeant major and Poertena were watching the intel NCO as if he were a woman giving birth to their first child. "We had an intercept that said a message was going to be passed, and we decided to have Denat stake out the pass in hopes of seeing who got it. But they used a dead drop, so Denat went ahead and picked it up."


"Won't that tip them off?"


"Dead drops go missing," Pahner said with a shrug, chewing calmly on a bisti root slice and pointedly ignoring the intel NCO. "Often. But one of the Council members who's involved in the Great Plan called this 'a very important message,' which seems to be a code phrase for messages directly to and from the leader. So Denat followed the messenger until the guy dropped the tube with the message in it into a chube. When I realized it could be going anywhere, I told Denat to pick it up. I doubt that we could have rolled up the whole line to the Creator no matter what happened; as crafty as this guy has been, there were probably a half dozen links in the chain. Not to mention that it would have been obvious that we were onto them with Denat trying to trot after it watching it float along."


"What's running?" Roger asked, watching the cavorting critters on the tiny screen of Julian's handheld. The device was running a query program, and the NCO had replaced the ubiquitous purple sundial of most programs with the graphics from a popular game program. The spinning and dancing hedgehogs formed into lines, and once all of them were in place, they blew up. There looked to be only about five or six explosions to go, which suggested the program was nearing the end of its run.


"Pocker was in code," Poertena said.


"I had to load the local written language before we could do anything else," Julian added. "We'd never gotten around to doing that. Then I scanned in the message, and now we see if it decodes it." The intel NCO beamed. "And it seems that it does," he added as the hedgehogs performed a final unnatural act and then exploded. "God, I love that game."


"B-T-H was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, too," Kosutic agreed. "Which I suppose says something about my childhood. So, what does it say?"


"Hmmm," Julian murmured. "Flowery for a secret message. 'Estimable Leader. Attempts to suborn human Marines have thus far failed. It is recommended that direct contact with their senior officers be made at the soonest possible moment. Aid in the Plan from the humans would be useful. Their resistance to the Plan might be disastrous.' "


"Well," Pahner said, climbing to his feet and beginning to pace in the small room, "that was refreshingly cryptic. What attempts to suborn our Marines? Sergeant Major?"


"Nothing reported to me," Kosutic said, pursing her lips.


"Maybe tee people tryin' to pay me off?" Poertena asked.


"Maybe," Julian said. "Anybody in particular come to mind?"


"Nah," the armorer replied with a shrug. "T'ey all try to give me gif's. I said 'no.' "


"Maybe he should have said 'yes,' " Roger suggested.


"For that to work, he would have had to do it from the beginning," Pahner disagreed with a frown, "and we didn't know we were going to have these problems when we started here. Twenty-twenty hindsight."


"Something we need to think about as an operating procedure for the future, though," Roger said. "Maybe the order should be 'Take the bribe and report it so we can find out where the string leads.' "


"The standing orders of the Empress' Own already call for anyone who's 'tapped' for an intel request to report it," Pahner told him, still frowning. "But the Sergeant Major says no such reports were made. Right?"


"Right," Kosutic confirmed. "I'll ask around and make sure." She got to her feet. "Keep me updated, Julian."


"Bet on it, Smaj," the NCO said. "I want to know what they mean by 'direct contact.' "


* * *


Roger stood by his window, watching the pike units forming up and drilling, and frowned. The morning of Drying had dawned unusually hot and steamy, but the newly minted soldiers appeared unaffected by the heat or humidity.


The units were colorful. They'd scared up enough leather to make a short leather cuirass of sorts for each soldier, and the Leathermakers' Guild had dyed them in the colors of the different companies. The company shields matched, turning the gathering forces into a panoply of colors as the companies wheeled and formed like a huge kaleidoscope. The casual observer might have concluded that all that martial color was simply to make a splendid show, but Roger had enjoyed more personal experience than he'd ever wanted of just how difficult it was to keep track of who was who in the howling bedlam of combat. Identification of who was a friendly and who a hostile was always difficult from inside the furball, even for the humans with their sophisticated helmet sensor systems. For Mardukans fighting other Mardukans and equipped only with Mark One Eyeball scanners, it would be even worse, but the strong visual cues of the company colors ought to help greatly. Or that was the idea, at any rate.


The new troops' drill was excellent, he reflected. The days of pounding rain had rung to the sound of marching formations as the Marines first drilled the original cadre and then acted as advisors as the cadre trained the next layer of units. Roger had participated in that as well, while trying to run down support and supplies and figure out what cabals they faced. All in all, it had been a good time, despite the unrelenting workload and the sense that, apsimons or no, their supply of diet supplements was steadily dwindling, but now it was time to find out if the new companies and regiments would be used as planned, or if it had all been for naught.


For that matter, there still had been no contact from the cabal of the Creator, and the prince wondered if he would ever know whether that was because their interception had prevented the critical message which might have initiated that contact from reaching the Creator, or because follow-up messages suggesting the same thing had gotten through only to be ignored.


He turned from the window and started preparing for the ceremony. There would be a parade to start, then an invocation of the God of Water by the high priest, followed by any number of other ceremonies. The festivities were to continue through the night, and he'd been invited to over sixty separate parties. He would be attending about five; the rest had been farmed out to O'Casey and various Marines.


He buckled on his pistol belt and had just checked the chamber when there was a knock on the door.


"Enter," he called, holstering the pistol.


PFC Willis stuck her head in the door.


"Sir, Bishop From is out here. He requests a moment of your time."


Roger frowned and tugged at the front of his tunic. It was one of the dianda outfits Matsugae had had made for him in Marshad, and its light, lustrous saffron complemented his golden hair and the intense tan he'd developed.


"Show him in," he said, and turned as the artisan-priest entered and looked around the small and spartan room.


"Pardon my intrusion, Your Highness," Rus said, smiling and gesturing in self-deprecation. "It was but a small matter. I believe that you wish to have conversation with the Creator?"


Roger froze in shock. Of all the people who might have contacted him from the cabal of the "Great Plan," the second or third highest ranking priest in the temple was not who he would have picked as most likely.


"We wish to speak to you, and there is not very much time at all," the cleric continued. "You may bring two guards. Or you can continue in blissful ignorance. 'Your choice,' as you would say."


Roger thought very hard for a moment, then nodded.


"We'll go. Let me get the guards and brief them."


He stepped out into the hall, and the two Marines guarding his door looked at him in surprise as he pulled his bead pistol back out to check the charge. Roger wasn't sure if the meaning of his action was plain to Rus From, but he knew it would communicate his own seriousness to the Marines. He looked at the power indicator, then nodded, holstered the weapon once more, and looked at the troopers.


"We're going to a surprise meeting. Just me, you two, and the priest. And we're leaving now."


"Sir," Georgiadas said, "shouldn't we inform Captain Pahner?"


"I don't have time to call him, Spyros," Roger said, with a very slight emphasis on the first-person pronoun. "We have to go now."


"Yes, Sir," the grenadier replied. "Let's do it, then."


"After you, Bishop From," the prince invited, gesturing down the corridor.


"This should be interesting," Willis muttered as they left their post and accompanied the prince on his latest harebrained excursion.


"Yeah," Georgiadas whispered back as he used his toot to key his communicator for a subvocal message. "Like the Chinese curse."


* * *


"Roger just left for an unspecified location with Rus From!" Pahner snapped, as he slammed open the sergeant major's door.


"Shit," Kosutic responded, throwing on her tunic. Unlike the prince, the rest of them had to wear their battle-worn chameleon suits, but they'd finally had the time to really attack the stains and tears. There were also spares available from the wounded and the dead, and they'd been put to good use. The final patchwork suits had clearly seen hard usage, but they were no longer the stained rags they had been.


"Not good, Sir," Julian added from the other side of the camp bed. The intel NCO pulled on his boots and sealed them to his uniform, then picked up his bead rifle and checked the chamber. "Do we go after him?"


"And does he have any guards at all?" Kosutic demanded harshly.


Pahner looked from one to the other and not quite visibly shook himself. It wasn't that seeing two Marines together was unusual, but the Regs were very specific about relationships between two people in the same direct chain of command. There were, in Pahner's opinion, very good reasons for that regulation, given that Marines were still people and that favoritism—or the need to keep one's loved ones out of harm's way—remained an ineradicable part of the human condition. And whether the captain agreed with them or not, the Regs made any such relationship a "crash and burn" offense. If two people in the same chain of command wanted to marry or become lovers, that was just fine with The Book . . . as long as one of them transferred out of that chain of command.


But there was nowhere on Marduk for anyone to transfer to, and Pahner felt a moment of absolute fury at Kosutic for allowing such a thing to happen. The sergeant major was his right hand. It was part of her job to make sure that other people weren't in violation of military law, not to go around violating it herself! Besides, she was forty years older than Julian—not, Pahner had to admit, that she looked it.


And Julian . . . Julian was an experienced troop who'd been around the block a few dozen times. He damned well knew as well as Kosutic did just how far out of line they were and what a dilemma their actions were going to create for one Armand Pahner!


But even as those thoughts flashed through his mind, the captain knew it wasn't that simple or cut and dried. What were people supposed to do with themselves, with their emotions and their sex drives? Turn them off? Pretend they didn't exist? The Regs had never envisioned a situation in which a unit this small would be this isolated for so long, and what were two people to do when there was no place either of them could transfer to? And even if that hadn't been so, what was he supposed to do in this specific case? Oh, sure, Kosutic and Julian were both supposed to be setting examples to their subordinates, which meant holding their conduct to a higher standard, but how could he justify lowering the boom on them when he knew that they knew that he knew there were plenty of other similar relationships cooking away out there. Christ, there was even Despreaux and the prince to think about! God only knew where that mess was headed, and what was Pahner supposed to do if the two of them decided that the solution was to give in and do what they both so obviously wanted to do? Order them to behave—like that would do any good at all? Charge a member of the Imperial Family with violation of the Regs? Court-martial just Despreaux?


Besides, he thought as his initial, shock-born fury faded just a bit, he couldn't think of a single person less likely than Kosutic to let anything that was happening in her bed affect her decisions and actions in the field. Or, for that matter, less likely than Julian, despite the intel NCO's well-earned reputation for bending the rules. So if it wasn't going to have any negative side effects on the way they did their jobs, and if making a point out of jumping all over them was only going to unsettle his command structure and force him to take note of other, potentially even stickier relationships, then shouldn't he just keep his mouth shut and pretend he hadn't seen a thing?


"Derail your train of thought there, Armand?" the sergeant major chuckled.


"He has two guards," Pahner replied somewhat coldly. It was the first time Kosutic had ever addressed him by his given name in front of another member of the company, but the comment had been as effective a way to restart his mental processes as a slap to the face. Which was what the NCO had intended, he was sure. This whole situation was just going to have to wait, he decided firmly. Like maybe for the next ten standard years or so.


"Willis and Georgiadas, Sir?" Julian asked, apparently (and falsely, Pahner felt certain) unaware that there was any particular reason he ought to be sweating bullets. Or maybe he just had his mind totally focused on the job in hand. He was buckled up and ready to go, waiting only to be told where, so maybe that was all he was thinking about.


Yeah. Sure it was.


"Right. Georgiadas called it in," the captain said after only the briefest of cold-eyed pauses. "Rus From was the contact from the cabal," he added.


"Oh, my." Kosutic sat back down on the camp bed with a thump.


"So, no, we're not going in guns blazing," the captain continued. "We need to know what's going on before we make any decisions."


"We need to get Eleanora," the sergeant major said. "This is her area of expertise. And we'll need to crossfeed from Spyros to Roger."


"Julian," the NCO said.


"I'm on it, Sir," the intel sergeant replied, keying his helmet communicator. "I'll get her headed for the command post."


"Let's get to it, people," Pahner said, and stepped back out the door. Once it was safely closed against observation, he stopped and shook his head. Julian and Kosutic. He snorted. God. Like he had time to think about that right now.


 


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