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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"What've you got, Despreaux?"


The Drying Ceremony was about to start, and virtually everyone who was anyone wasn't going to be there on time. Pahner shook his head at the black humor of the situation, wondering what, if anything, Gratar was going to think when half his Council and all of his alien advisers arrived late from every direction, out of breath, and clearly disturbed. The fact that the long-awaited Boman offensive could actually be used to cover domestic shenanigans which should never see the light of day appealed to the captain's sense of irony.


Which, unfortunately, didn't necessarily make that offensive good news.


"Captain, we've got loads of trouble," the sergeant responded over her com. "I sent Bebi and Kileti out to eyeball the encampment just as soon as it started to dry out at all. They'd just gotten into position—they hadn't even had time to start a proper hide—when the Boman started pouring out of their camps on the hills."


"Tell them to pull back," Pahner snapped as the headquarters group turned the last corner to the court where the audience was to take place. The solid wall of Mardukans in front of them forced them to pause briefly, and he could hear the intonations of the opening ceremony on the other side. Things weren't quite out of hand yet. If Gratar decided against engaging the Boman, though, it would be a near run thing.


"I did, but they're stuck. They were setting up on a little ridge leading to that group of hills the Boman are on. Now the barbs are using the ridge to stay out of the muck down in the lows. They're headed right for Bebi and Kileti, and they both say if they move it would give them away. They're stuck, Sir."


"Right." The captain had been in enough screwed-up situations to know exactly what his Marines were thinking, and he agreed. If they were even slightly hidden, it would be better for them to stay still than to try to move. "What about you?"


"We're not on their direct line to Diaspra, Sir," the sergeant replied. "Right now it looks like they're going to bypass us. If they don't, well, we'll see what happens."


"Okay," Pahner said as the Marines began to push their way through the throng of scummies. "Get a movement estimate and count, then report back. Patch it to the Sergeant Major, though. I'm going to be kinda busy."


"Aye, Sir," the patrol leader said. "But I can already tell you, the count is 'a shitload.'"


* * *


"There's a shitload of 'em," PFC Kileti whispered.


"I know, Chio," Bebi whispered back. "Now shut up."


The team had just reached the observation point when they spotted the oncoming Boman horde. The barbarians flowed without any semblance of order, a vast mass of walking Mardukans that seemed to move in extended family groups. A senior male or two and several younger males would be accompanied by nearly as many females and a gaggle of young from "snot-sucker" infants up to preadolescents. There were some purely male groupings, and a few of unescorted younger females, but, by and large, the horde was centered around the familial groups.


They appeared to be carrying all of their worldly possessions on their backs. The males all supported large bundles—personal goods and loot from earlier conquests—while the females carried children and smaller bundles. There didn't seem to be any groups of "slaves," nor did they use many beasts of burden. There were pack civan scattered through the group, and turom, but they were few and far between.


The reconnaissance team wore not only their hard-used chameleon suits, but also an ancient invention called a gill suit. The genesis of the gill suit was lost in the mists of time, but in its simplest form—which these were—it was a net tied through with strips of cloth. The local cloth used for sacks had turned out to have all the properties the humans were looking for; the strips broke up the human outline, making it almost invisible in any sort of cover. The projectors of the combat armor did the same thing, but the recon team didn't have armor . . . and gill suits didn't require batteries.


* * *


Captain Pahner nodded to Roger as the prince slid into position beside him. Roger had taken time to slip back to his room and change clothes, replacing his ruined saffron outfit with a black one, and Pahner hoped the color wasn't an omen.


"We have another problem," the CO whispered.


"Julian told me," Roger replied, his nostrils flaring wide and white. "What the hell are we going to do, Armand? We can't fight the Boman by ourselves."


"We'll do whatever we have to, Your Highness," the Marine commander told him flatly. "If we have to fight the Boman with just ourselves and Rastar's troops, we will. And we'll win."


"How?" Roger asked hopelessly.


" 'Our strength is as the strength of ten,' Your Highness," the captain said with a slight, sad smile. "We'll win because if we don't, we'll never know it. That world won't exist for us, and that's a form of winning, if you look at it from just the right angle."


"Go out in a blaze of glory?" the prince asked. " 'Death is lighter than a feather'? That's not your style, Captain."


"And the alternative is?" The Marine grunted. "Your Highness, we will get you home . . . or die trying. Because whether it's death from lack of supplements because we didn't get home in time, or death from an alien spear on some battlefield, our swords will still lie in the heather. There's no other possible outcome if Gratar chooses not to fight."


"We can work the conspiracy angle," Roger said.


"Eleanora and I discussed that," Pahner replied. "But if the conspirators start their coup just after Gratar calls for an offering of tribute, it will appear as if the whole purpose of the rebellion is simply to avoid the cost that will fall on the merchant class."


"Ouch. I hadn't considered that."


"Nor had I, until Eleanora pointed it out," the CO said with a smile. "And as she also pointed out, that would make it seem as if all the rebels are really after is simply to shift the monetary loss from the rich merchants to a far higher cost from the poor soldiers. If Gratar doesn't come up with that line of reasoning, I'm sure someone—Chain perhaps—will adduce it."


"And that would really kill the coup," Roger grunted. "The largest single military force would be on Gratar's side, and so would moral supremacy."


" 'God favors the side with the most cannon,' " Pahner agreed. "But, of course, in this case, just who has the most 'cannon' might be a debatable matter. I've got the platoon standing by. Julian and everybody else in his squad is in armor; the replacement circuits are ready to put in place as soon as I pass the word."


"You're going to back them?" Roger asked, eyeing him askance.


"If it's that or face the Boman in our skivvies, hell yes!" the Marine said, turning to look at the prince. "You think I'm crazy? If Gratar says no, it's our only shot . . . even if it won't work."


"Well, I guess it's blaze of glory time, then," Roger said with a wince. His own death he could face calmly, but the continued loss of Marines was something else, and he found himself wondering if getting as close to them as he had was for the best after all. When they'd started this long journey, they'd been mere faceless automatons; now each and every member of the dwindled company was a face and a soul, and the loss of each of them was a wrenching pain. Even as he and Pahner discussed the loss of the rest of the company, he was fretting for the two Marines in the reconnaissance patrol, pinned down by the passing Boman. And he continued to fret as the annual and extremely long Drying Ceremony, with its distribution of grain and blessings upon the fields, continued through the endless Mardukan day.


* * *


Between the out-of-the-way position of their hide and their gill suits, the two cowering Marines had managed to remain unseen as the tide of barbarians passed them. And it was a tide, indeed—a flow that continued through the morning and long into the afternoon. There were a couple of times, as groups used the lee in which the humans sheltered for a pause, when it seemed that they must be detected. One time, a warrior walked up to the bush they lay under and peed on the side of its trunk. The urine splashed off of the root and onto Bebi, but still they managed to avoid detection.


Their helmets automatically processed targets seen and heard, using that for max/min estimates of hostiles. The processors had some problems separating the noncombatant females from the male combatants, but even the most conservative estimate was overwhelming.


"Over twelve thousand warriors," the team leader subvocalized with a slight shake of his head. The comment was picked up by his throat mike and transmitted to his companion.


The flood was beginning to trickle off as stragglers wrestled with the churned path the army had created. Those stragglers were mostly individuals: older females, and wounded who'd been cast out as unfit. There were some younger Mardukans, as well—orphans who hadn't been absorbed by other families and weren't old enough to fight for space in one of the bachelor groups. Yet, varied as they were, all of these scavenging stragglers had one thing in common; they survived solely on the leavings of the family groups . . . and no one else in the tribe gave a single, solitary damn what happened to them.


"What a fucked-up society," Bebi whispered. "Look at those poor people."


"Not so unusual," St. John (J.) radioed back from the base camp. "Until it was brought into the Empire, Yattaha practiced the tradition of casting out the old just as their ancestors did. Once he was no longer useful to the community, it was customary for an old person to voluntarily take himself away somewhere and starve himself to death. That was the tradition, anyway. What actually happened was that they got tossed out of the house and wandered around the camp until the winter killed them."


"That's barbaric," the Mausean protested.


"That's why they call 'em 'barbs,' Bebi," St. John (J.) retorted. "People like the Saints make like barbarism and tribes and living hand-to-mouth is so great. Until they look at what that actually means, anyway. Then half the time they don't pay attention to what they're seeing, 'cause if they did pay attention, it'd knock all their pretty dreams right on the head. Living like this is just living in Hell for everybody in the society every single day, whether they know it's Hell or not."


There was silence over the communications link, and then St. John (J.) inhaled deeply.


"Time to call it in. Looks like upwards of twelve, fifteen thousand hostiles. Sounds like Voitan all over again."


"And this time with a shitload of poor, noncombatant sad sacks added," the PFC said, shaking his head again as an emaciated Mardukan with only one arm sat wearily down in view and rolled over on his side. The pink scars on the new-made corpse clearly indicated that he'd been a warrior until recently.


"They're all sad sacks, Bebi," the team leader said. "Just some worse off than others."


* * *


Gratar completed the last ritual blessing of the barleyrice and ascended the dais through the crowd of lesser priests to stand by the liquid altar and dancing fountains. He remained there, silent, head bowed, as the crowd patiently awaited his pronouncement. Despite the tension in the air, the vast square was silent but for the hushed susurrus of thousands of lungs breathing the humid atmosphere and the occasional shuffle of feet.


For Roger, it was a moment of odd transcendence. It was as if he were perched on a precipice, without any control over his immediate future. He felt as if he were leaning into a strong wind, storming up the cliff into his face to support him. It was a mighty wind . . . but at some point, it would fail, and he would fall. That was inevitable, beyond his control, and whether he fell to death or to victory would depend on the words about to be said by someone else.


Finally, the prelate turned from his devotions and looked out over the crowd. He raised his arms as if to call for even deeper silence, and when he spoke, the exquisite acoustics of the temple square carried his voice clearly to the farthest ear.


"We are the People of the Water. The People of the Water are ancient beyond memory. When the first prospectors came to the Nashtor Hills, the People of the Water were here. We remember."


"We remember," the gathered priests chorused.


"We remember the Autean Empire. We remember when the Auteans, consumed by the pride of their own power, threw off the strictures of the God and spread their crops to the farthest distance, the better to extend their might. We remember how they built their roads and leveled mountains. How they dammed and bridged the rivers.


"We remember how the long, dry times that allowed them to flourish ended in eternal rains, and how the Auteans fell before the Wrath of the God. How their cities and crops flooded, their roads washed away, their fortresses sank into the mire. In time, northern barbarians drifted down upon them, driven by hunger. They found the ruins of the Auteans, conquered their scattered survivors, and founded their own cities where once the proud Auteans ruled.


"Thus was born the Northern League . . . and we remember."


"We remember," the crowd responded somberly.


"We remember when K'Vaern's Cove was nothing more than a barren place of temporary respite for fishermen from distant ports. No more than a rocky, unusable place where fishermen would gather to ride out the storms . . . until a clumsy fisherman named K'Vaern wrecked his boat on the rocks and, being bereft of support, charged fees from other boats who wanted to tie up to his wreck that their crews might come ashore and stretch their legs. And in time, on the ruins of that wreck, he built a dock, and a shelter from the storms. Then an inn. Then a city. We remember."


"We remember."


"Through it all, the People of the Water remember. We remember when Sindi was founded, and when the Auteans themselves came from the north. The founding of Ran Tai, and the wars of the south. Through it all, the People of the Water have watched, and remembered, and been true to themselves. We worship our God, and teach the ways of worship to all and sundry, and that has been enough.


"Now come the Boman, the latest in the unending river of time, and we are threatened by them, as has happened before in our long history. First, by the early Auteans. Then by the Sartan, dread riders of the civan they brought with them, who, in time, became the Vasin of the League of the North. And now, by the Boman.


"The Auteans never pressed upon us. They found civilization, something they had never seen, and in time they founded their own cities and became contemptuous of us. But we survived when they perished by staying true to the worship of our God.


"The Sartan came down from the north in their shrieking thousands, wielding long spears and mounted upon their fierce civan. The Sartan we fought, and kept from our lands until they finally returned to the north to found their own cities. And, in time, they, too, became contemptuous and forgot the God, to their shame."


"To their shame," rumbled back from the crowd.


"Now come the Boman. Many say that we should take the Laborers of God, now recreated into the Warriors of God, and face the Boman in battle. That we should throw them back to the northern wastes through our power and knowledge and faith in the God.


"Others say that we should set our Laborers of God to the tasks of the God, rebuilding our Works of God, that our God may not turn His face from us, or, worse, come upon us with the Eternal Wrath that destroyed Autea. That we should pay the Boman from the monies that are set aside for the temple and from additional taxes upon our merchants. That the Boman will turn aside if we give them gold without battle."


"This, then, is the dilemma. Shall we be a nation of Warriors of God, who go forth and crush the enemy while the Works of God waste away? Or a nation of Laborers of God, making and maintaining the Works of God, while an enemy threatens us with destruction of all the God holds sacred?


"Whatever my decision, there will be misery. If I decide for tribute, the monies taken from the merchants will mean mouths that go unfed and crops that are never planted. Money is the lifeblood of a city, and giving it to the Boman in an amount that will appease them will cripple us as a people. And however much we give, still it may not prevent the destruction of all we hold dear.


"Yet fighting the Boman will not be bloodless. We will certainly lose sons to the fury of battle, with all the misery and grief that will bring upon us. We will lose sons who have grown up in our midst, and will be sorely missed. And if we fight, we might yet lose, and then all would be lost to no avail."


* * *


"If he doesn't make up his mind, we're kicking off anyway," Julian said, rattling his armored fingers on the helmet on his knees.


"You're a fine one to bitch," Cathcart said. "You got any fucking idea how hot this shit is when it's shut down?" The plasma gunner looked like a gray statue with a sweating, animated head. His plasma cannon was pointed up over his back, as if threatening the ceiling with terminal prejudice unless it surrendered.


"And you know the fucking plumbing doesn't work, right?" Pentzikis snapped. "I've gotta pee like a flar-ta!"


"You shoulda gone before you suited up," Poertena said. He fingered the baggies of capacitors nervously, waiting for Pahner's orders to open the bags which were the components' only protection from the destructive humidity and molds of Marduk. Without them, only the four suits of armor with the old-style capacitors—the ones fortunate enough to have escaped the last "upgrade" cycle—were operable. But if the little armorer was forced to install them, their serviceable lifetime could be counted in days, or weeks at most. Certainly, they would never last long enough to retake the planetary spaceport from the SaintSymps who controlled it.


"If we gotta use tee armor, it'll be peein' time for sure, anyway," he added grimly.


"I'm still gonna kill the old fart if he doesn't get this over with," Julian snarled.


* * *


"There is a third way," Gratar intoned. "We could send emissaries to the Boman with gifts. Lesser gifts than the Boman might like, but followed by the Warriors of God. We could try to buy peace with them at a lesser price even while we dissuade them from war with the might of our army and the power of our God.


"Yet this would leave the Boman, and ourselves, unsure. Incomplete. Waiting to discover what ultimate resolution awaits us both if the tribute should be demanded a second time. Or a third. In the long run, it would be no more than the first choice—to maintain the Laborers and hope for peace rather than to accept the burden of war.


"The God tells us many things about the world. He tells us that there are ways of greater and lesser resistance. That all is change, even if it appears eternally the same on the surface. That rocks come and rocks go, but eddies are eternal.


"And above all else, our God tells us that when we are faced with a challenge, we must understand it and confront it squarely, then do whatever is necessary to meet the challenge, no matter the cost.


"When a flood comes, one does not ask for it to go away. One might pray to the God for it to be lessened, but even that is usually in vain. The God calls for us, as a people, to build the Works that are necessary to meet his Wrath, and thus we have always done.


"And today, we have built a new Work of God, one called the Army of God. . . ."


 


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