Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Roger pulled Patty to a stop and nodded to Captain Pahner and General Bogess.


The two commanders stood on a tall mound at the center of a solid redoubt. One nice thing about using the Laborers of God for their core force was that the Mardukans had, by and large, been digging ditches and building levees one shovelful at a time for their entire working lives. Constructing a fortification was simply a matter of laying it out and letting them get to work; a Warrior of God was never happier than when he had a shovel in his four hands.


The commanders had put that willingness to good use. Once the battleground—a shallow valley at the edge of the sprawling fields of Diaspra—had been determined, construction had begun. The New Model Army had built a central bastion to hold the Marine reaction force and some of the civan cavalry, and then the Warriors had gotten to work on their own lines.


A hedge of stakes, pointed forward, had been set up in front of the pike regiments. The sharpened stakes ranged from one to two meters in length, and created a prickly forest in front of the Diaspran regiments.


There were regular breaks in the hedge. Blocks of Northern cavalry waited at their ease behind the pike regiments, resting their civan yet ready to sally through the lines. The stakes were spaced widely enough for the civan to squeeze through them going out at almost any point, but the openings in the hedge were the only gaps through which the cavalry might come back. Which was why the steadiest of the pike companies, flanked by the shield and assegai-armed regulars from the pre-Marine Guard of God, had been stationed to cover those openings.


One end of the battle line was anchored on a canal, while the other abutted the forest. Although the Boman could conceivably flank them from that direction, it was unlikely. The ground was rough, the forest was thick, and the Wespar were not well known for fancy battlefield maneuvers. They were lucky if they could all arrive at the same battle on the same day, and even in a worst-case scenario, any movement to flank the Diaspran line should be obvious, and the Marines or Northerners could beat it off.


"It looks good," Roger said as Dogzard slid down off the flank of the packbeast. Although he'd made great strides in mastering the art of civan-riding, Roger had also firmly grasped that pearl of veteran wisdom: stick with what you know works in combat. He and the flar-ta had worked out the rules for a lethal partnership he had no intention of breaking up. Besides, the dog-lizard could ride behind the flar-ta's saddle, a practice which no civan would tolerate, and the prince's pet—now a veritable giant for her species—refused to be separated from him. Not that her devotion or increased size had made her any less importunate, and Roger watched her sidle up to Bogess and accept a treat from him as her due.


"It could be better," Pahner replied. "I'd prefer more ranged weapons, but even if we had more arquebuses . . ." He waved a choppy gesture at the drizzling rain. The Hompag had passed, but "dry season" was a purely relative term on sunny Marduk, and at the moment, the relationship was distant, indeed. "If the Boman are smart," the Marine went on, "they'll stand off and pound us with those damned hatchets."


"We've got the javelins," Roger pointed out, frowning at Dogzard. She finished off Bogess' treat, licked her chops, and jumped back onto the flar-ta, which snorted its own disgust.


"Yes," Bogess said, absently wiping his fingers on his armor. "But only one or two per soldier. The Boman carry several axes each."


"It's not that big a deal," the prince insisted. "The pikes have their shields, and if they really do stand off like that, we can hammer them with plasma fire."


"Some of the companies could be steadier," Pahner commented pessimistically.


"Jesus, Armand," Roger laughed. "You'd bitch if they hanged you with a golden rope!"


"Only if it were tied wrong," the captain told him with a slight smile. "Seriously, Roger. We're outnumbered three-to-one, and don't think the Diasprans don't know that. It will affect them, and the Boman are bogey men to them. They're all . . . six meters tall. I was going to say three meters, except that that's about the height of a normal Mardukan. But that ingrained fear is something we have to be prepared for."


"Well," Roger said, waving as he prepared to ride down the line, "that, as you've told me, is what leadership is for."


* * *


"When they going to come, Corp?" Bail Crom asked.


Krindi Fain tried to keep his expression calm as he surreptitiously wiped one hand on his cuirass. It wouldn't do for the troops to see that his palms were sliming.


The pikes stood at rest on the battle line, awaiting the arrival of the Boman. They'd been there since just after dawn. They'd prepared the defenses well into the night and then gotten back up after only a brief rest for a sketchy breakfast. Now, between the up and down stresses and the physical labor of marching to the battle site and digging in, the entire New Model Army was adrift in a hazy, semi-hallucinatory condition, the mixture of physical fatigue and sleep deprivation that was the normal state of infantry.


"If I knew that, I'd be up in the castle, wouldn't I?" he snapped.


The drums from the Boman encampment just over the ridge had been beating since dawn. Now it was moving into late morning, and their enemies' refusal to appear was making the Diaspran noncom far more anxious than he cared to appear.


"I was just wondering," Crom said almost humbly. The normally confident private was a sorry sight to see in the morning light.


"Don't worry about it, Bail," Fain said more calmly. "They'll come when they come. And we'll be fine."


"There's supposed to be fifty thousand of them," Pol said. "And they're all five hastongs tall."


"That's just the usual bullshit, Erkum," Fain said firmly. "You can't listen to rumors; they're always wrong."


"How many are there?" Crom asked.


"Bail, you keep asking me these questions," Fain said with a grunt of laughter. "How in the Dry Hells am I supposed to know?"


"Well, I was just wondering," the private repeated . . . just as a burst of intense drumming echoed from the opposite ridge line.


"And I think you're about to find out," Fain told him.


* * *


"Quite an interesting formation," Pahner remarked as he dialed up the magnification on his visor.


The Boman force was at least fifteen thousand strong, yet it didn't stretch as wide as the smaller Diaspran army. Its narrowness would have invited a devastating flanking movement if he'd had the forces for it, but he didn't, and if it wasn't as wide as the Diaspran battle line, it was far deeper. It flowed and flowed across the ridge, a seemingly unending glacier of barbarians, and it was obvious that the New Model Army was badly outnumbered. The captain watched them come for several more moments, then keyed his communicator.


"Okay, Marines. Here's where we earn our pay. These scummies have to stand."


* * *


"There's a million of 'em!" Pol wailed, and started to back up.


"Pol!" the squad leader barked. "Attention!"


The days and weeks of merciless training took hold, and the private froze momentarily—just long enough for the squad leader to get control.


"There are not a million of them! And even if there were, it wouldn't matter. They all have to come past your pike, and my pike, and Bail's! Stand and prepare to receive! Stand your ground!"


The private in front of Bail Crom started to turn around—then froze as a chilly voice behind them echoed through the thunder of the drums.


"Sheel Tar, I will shoot you dead if you don't turn back around," Lance Corporal Briana Kane said with a deadly calm far more terrifying than any enraged shout. The private hesitated, and despite the drums and the approaching shouts of the Boman, despite the odd, visceral sound of thousands of feet pounding down a far slope, the sound of the Marine's bead rifle cycling was clear.


Sheel Tar turned back toward the onrushing enemy, but Fain could see him shuddering in fear. The mass of enemies advancing towards them was horrifying. It seemed impossible that anything could stop that living tide of steel and fury.


* * *


Pahner saw the occasional flicker of a face turned towards the bastion. It was a nervous reaction he was used to, yet this time was different. He was a Marine, accustomed to the lethal, high-tech combat of the Empire of Man and its enemies. Prior to his arrival on Marduk, he had not been accustomed to the ultimate in low-tech combat—the combat of edged steel, pikes, and brute muscle power. Yet for all of that, he knew precisely what he had to do now. An ancient general had once said that the only thing a general in a battle needed to do was to remain still and steady as stone. Another adage, less elegant, perhaps, but no less accurate, summed it up another way: "Never let them see you sweat." It all came down to the same thing; if he gave a single whiff of nervousness, it would be communicated to the regiments in an instant . . . and the Diaspran line would dissolve.


So he would show no anxiety, despite the Boman's unpleasant numerical superiority. Even with the arguably superior technique of the phalanx and shield wall, and the advantage of the stake hedge, the battle would be a close run thing indeed.


And like so many close run battles, in the end, it would come down to a single, all-important quality: nerve.


* * *


Roger sat on Patty, eleven-millimeter propped upright on one knee, his hand resting on the armored shield of the flar-ta, and watched the oncoming barbarians. He knew as well as the captain that he should be presenting a calm front for the soldiers of the regiment he was parked behind, but for the life of him, he couldn't. He was just too angry.


He was tired of this endless battle. He was tired of the stress and the horror. He was tired of facing one warrior band after another, each intent on preventing him from getting home. And more than anything else in the universe, he was tired of watching Marines who had become people to him die, one by one, even as he learned how very precious each of them was to him.


He wished he could pull the Boman aside and say, "Look, all we want to do is get back to Earth, so if you'll leave us the hell alone, we'll leave you alone!"


But he couldn't. All he and the Marines could do was kill them, and it was at times like this that the rage started to consume him. It had started at the first battle on the far side of this Hell-begotten planet, and just seemed to build and build. At the moment, it was a fury so great, so bottomless, that it seemed it must consume the world in fire.


And he was especially angry that Despreaux was out there somewhere. Most of the Marines were as safe as they could be in a battle on this misbegotten world. They were standing at the back of the formations, providing "leadership," and if the enemy broke through the lines, they had a better than even chance of escape. Losing the battle might well mean starvation would kill them all slowly in the end, but not today.


But Nimashet was out there, somewhere, with her team. Cut off, with nowhere to run. All she could do was hide and wait for her orders, and Roger knew what those were going to be and wished—wished as if his soul were flying out of his body—that their positions could be reversed. Despite what had happened in Ran Tai, he'd realized that he had to face the fact that he was madly smitten with one of his bodyguards. He had no idea whether that was only because he'd been beside her in good times and bad for the last few awful months or whether it was something that would inevitably have happened under any conditions, nor did it matter. Right now, all that mattered was that he wanted to kill every stinking Boman bastard before they could put a slimy hand upon his love.


Frightened Mardukan pikemen who knew human expressions, looking over their shoulders for reassurance from their leaders, took one look at Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock and turned instantly back to face their foes, for even the Boman in their fury were less frightening than the face of their human commander.


* * *


"Don't mind us!" Honal called out to the nervous Diasprans as their hands shifted on their pikes and their anxious faces turned to the rear. "We're just here as observers, after all! Still, we're glad you're here, too . . . and we definitely prefer for you to stay right where you are."


The muttered, grunting laughter of a hundred heavily armed cavalry rose hungrily behind him, and the wavering faces turned back to the storm.


* * *


Bogess watched the surges of uncertainty ripple through the pike regiments. He was totally confident in the steadiness of his assegai-armed regulars. Despite their earlier losses to the Boman, they had demonstrated their determination often enough even before the humans had taught them their new tactics and discipline. Now they truly believed what the human Pahner had been telling them for weeks—that no organized force of soldiers was ever truly outnumbered by any horde of barbarians.


Nor did the Diaspran general harbor any fears about Rastar and his cavalry. No one had ever called a Northern cavalryman a coward more than once, and these Northerners had a score to settle with the Boman. Like his own men, they were supremely confident in their own leaders and the humans' tactics, but even if they hadn't been, the only way the Boman would have taken this field from them would be to kill them all.


But the new regiments . . . They were the complete unknown at the very heart of the "New Model Army." The human Marines had accomplished a miracle Bogess hadn't truly believed was possible just by bringing the ex-Laborers of God this far, but there was only one true test for how any army would stand the stress of battle, and that test was about to be applied.


Assuming that his regulars, Rastar's cavalry, and the Marines could make the regiments stand in place long enough.


He looked over at Pahner, who nodded.


"I'd say it's time, General," the human said, and Bogess gestured to the drummer by his side and looked back out over the field.


* * *


The drum command sent an electric shock through the standing ranks of the pike force. The first thunderous rumble brought them to attention, and the second fierce tattoo lowered their forest of pikes into fighting position.


Suddenly, the charging Boman were faced with a wall of steel and shields, and that thundering charge ground unevenly to a stop just out of throwing ax range. A few individuals came forward and tossed the odd ax at the wall of shields, but the light hatchets rattled off uselessly, demonstrating the efficiency of the simple, ancient design. Insults followed the throwing axes, but the regiments stood in disciplined silence, and the Boman seemed confused by the lack of response. Then one of them, a chieftain of note, to judge by his ritual scars and necklace of horns, came out of the mass and shouted his own incomprehensible diatribe at the motionless wall of pikes.


* * *


Roger had had all he could take. He slid the eleven-millimeter into its scabbard, pulled out a whistle, and kneed Patty into a trot.


"Roger!" Cord called from where he stood at the flar-ta's side, startled out of his calm assessment of the incipient battle. "Roger, where are you going?"


"Stay here, asi." For the first time since he'd saved Cord's life, it wasn't a request. It was an order, and he also snapped his fingers abruptly for Dogzard to unload. "I'm going to go teach these barbs a lesson in manners."


* * *


"Oh, shit!" Julian said. "Captain!"


"Roger," Captain Pahner called calmly, calmly. "Where do you think you're going?"


Even as he spoke, he saw the prince remove his radio-equipped helmet and sling it from the flar-ta's harness.


"I'm going to kill him," Pahner whispered, maintaining a calm, calm, outward demeanor. "See if I don't."


* * *


The ranks in front of the packbeast parted at the shrill whistle to let the behemoth through, and Roger trotted towards the still-shouting chieftain, slowly raising the gait to a canter as the ancient Voitan steel blade whispered from its sheath. His rage against the obstacles of the long journey had gone icy cold. All the world had narrowed to the blade, the flar-ta, and the target.


As Patty neared the Boman lines, he kneed for her to turn, and rolled off her back. Hitting the ground at that speed was risky, but he was far too focused to worry about something as minor as a broken ankle, and it brought him to his target in a full charge.


The three-meter native was armed with a broad iron battle-ax which had seen long and hard service. The scars on the barbarian's body and the condition of his ax told his story as well as any chanted saga might have. This was a chieftain who'd conquered half a world and smashed the finest fighters in the Western Realms to dust.


And Prince Roger MacClintock could have cared less.


The Mardukan was fast. The first, furious slash of the prince's katanalike blade was parried by the heavy iron ax. The razor-sharp steel sword sliced a handspan-thick chunk out of its relatively soft iron, but the blow was blocked.


The second, backhand blow, was not.


The Mardukan was as good as dead, with a cut halfway through his torso, but that wasn't enough for the prince. As the body crumpled, slowly, oh so slowly to its knees, the sword whistled back up and around in a perfectly timed slash, driven by all the power of his shoulders and back, that intersected the native's tree trunk-thick neck with the sound of a woodsman's ax in oak. That single, meaty impact was clearly, dreadfully, audible in the sudden hush which had enveloped the entire battlefield. And then the Boman chieftain's head leapt from his shoulders in a geyser of blood and thudded to the ground.


Roger recovered to a guard position, then looked at the thousands of barbarian warriors standing motionless in the drizzle a mere stone's throw away, and spat. He gave a single flick of his blade, spattering the blood of their late chieftain halfway to their lines, then turned his back on them contemptuously and started back to his own lines in near utter silence . . . which erupted in a sudden, thunderous cheer.


"I'm still gonna kill him," Pahner muttered through his own forced smile. "Or make him write out 'Arithmetic on the Frontier' until his fingers bleed."


Beside him, Bogess grunted in laughter.


* * *


It took another fifteen minutes for the Boman to work themselves back into a frenzy once more. Other chieftains stepped to the fore and harangued the stolid Diaspran lines. Many of them waved the bloody souvenirs of past conquests at the pikemen, while others spat or urinated in their direction. But the ones who cast nervous glances at Roger, once more sitting atop Patty and glowering at the barbarian swarm, weren't much help to their cause.


Eventually, the barbarians began to move forward once more, in a creeping, Brownian fashion. A few axes arced out and thudded down, a few warriors charged forward and menaced the pikes, and then, finally, when some magic proximity had been reached, the entire mob flashed over into a howling fury and charged forward, shrieking defiance and hurling axes.


A storm front of javelins answered them. The New Model Army's javelin supply was severely limited, because there simply hadn't been time—or resources—to manufacture them in anything like the numbers Pahner could have wished for. Not if the artisans of Diaspra were going to provide the pikes and assegai he needed even more desperately, at any rate. There was only a single javelin for each pikeman, and three for each assegai-armed regular, but they did their job. The avalanche of weapons, hurled in a single, massed launch at the shrieking mob, ripped the charge into broken blocks. Given the numerical disparity between the two sides, the effect was actually more psychological than anything else. In absolute terms, the Boman's numbers were more than sufficient to soak up the javelins and close, but the holes torn in the front of the charge proved to the pikemen that they could kill the barbarians, and the object lesson worked. The pikes held their ground as the enemy charged forward . . . and was stopped again.


It was deadly simple: there was no way for the Boman to make their way through the thicket of pikes. The weapons were layers deep, jutting through every interstice. Stakes could be pulled up or knocked down, even if that meant stopping long enough for the shit-sitters to try to kill one, but those pikeheads were another thing entirely. Pushing one of them aside was no more than a temporary solution . . . and only left another to drive into an attacker's vitals, anyway. That became horribly obvious very quickly, yet some of the barbarian horde tried anyway. Some even succeeded . . . for a time.


* * *


Fain wasn't sure who'd started the chant. It wasn't he, but it was a good chant, as such things went, and it was simple—which was even better. "Ro-Ger!" with a poke of the spear on the "Ger!"


"Ro-Ger! Ro-Ger!"


The whole force, or at least the regiment he was a tiny part of, was chanting the prince's name. And it seemed to be working. The ferocious Boman, who'd been a source of such terror before the battle, weren't so terrible, after all. What was terrible was killing them.


Fain's regiment was one of the ones guarding the openings deliberately left in the hedge of stakes. Had he considered it, he might have realized that their position was a form of backhanded compliment, a decision based on the fact that their commanders considered his regiment steady enough to be entrusted with responsibility for holding such an exposed and critical position. At the moment, however, the squad leader wasn't thinking about compliments; he was thinking about how the absence of any stakes in front of them seemed to have drawn the attention of every demon-cursed Boman in creation . . . all of whom were running straight at him.


Which meant that the only way for him to live was for them to die.


When the barbarians had first charged forward, that hadn't been a problem. Given his place in the front ranks of his pike company, Fain had been too busy getting his own pike into fighting position and keeping an eye on the rest of his squad to worry about throwing any javelins. That had been the job of the ranks behind them, and of General Bogess' regulars. Despite his own hatred for and fear of the Boman, it had been ghastly to watch the savage storm of javelins rip into them, but at least he hadn't had to throw one. And those of the barbarians who'd survived and kept coming had balked when they first confronted the leveled wall of pikeheads. Clearly, they hadn't had the least notion of how to proceed, but the pressure from behind them had been too great for them to stop and figure out what to do next. That pressure had driven them forward . . . and Fain had been forced to kill them.


The experience had been far worse than the simulation. The first Boman who'd been spitted on his pike had been young, barely old enough to sire sons. He'd clearly been trying to claw his way to the rear, anything to avoid the wall of pikes. But the young barbarian had lacked the strength to force his way through the seething mass behind him, and that mass had driven him remorselessly onto Fain's spear.


The Mardukan noncom's true-hands had tightened on his pike shaft like talons, yet they'd seemed weak, so weak, as if the frantic contortions of the shrieking Boman transfixed on the wicked head of his pike must wrench the quivering shaft from them. In that unique, private instant of hell, Krindi Fain was all alone with the young warrior, who dropped his weapons and seized the steel-headed wooden shaft driving into his guts with all four hands and tried desperately to wrench himself off of its agonizing sharpness.


But then the training came to the fore. Fain put a wall of disbelief up around his senses. The shrieking on the other end of his pike became a teammate, playacting in the background. The frantic shudders transmitted up the spear were just two of his friends, pulling on the ropes that suspended the training dummy. With the spear well and truly stuck in, the squad leader could turn aside and not see the bulging eyes or the lolling tongue as the barely scarred young barbarian gasped out his life on the end of the wickedly sharp spear.


Then, for the first time in his life, he blessed Julian and all the other Marine bastards who'd trained him. And as he looked around at the other members of his squad, he knew that they all had to do the same, or his own killing would be for nothing.


"Stick it in!" he shouted. "You just have to get it stuck in!"


* * *


Pahner flipped up his visor and nodded.


"Pikes are like bayonets. They're terror weapons. The Boman can't force themselves onto the pikes to drive forward far enough to reach the pikemen. We're not really killing that many of them, but we have them well and truly stopped."


"But we will kill many of them if the ones behind keep pushing the ones in front forward," Bogess demurred. "They don't have anywhere else to go, and in time, they'll push the spears down by the sheer weight of dead bodies. And when that happens, they'll walk over the corpses and kill us all."


"And not everyone can stand it from our side, either," Pahner agreed harshly.


* * *


"No!" a private in the front rank cried. "No, no!"


The Diaspran was shuddering as he dropped his pike and turned to the rear. The dropped weapon, coupled with the way his flight knocked the men to either side of him out of their own positions, opened a momentary gap into which a Boman inserted himself. The warrior was well-nigh crazed with fear, surrounded by a wall of sharp steel and the smell of death, but the only escape from his own terror seemed to be up the suddenly opened path before him.


The path that led straight to Bail Crom.


The private blocked the first hack of the Boman's ax with his shield, but the second frantic slash licked over the shield's upper edge. It bit into his lower shoulder, severing the muscles that lifted the lifesaving piece of plywood, and after that, it was all over. Half a dozen pikes stabbed forward to fill the gap, thrusting at the crazed Boman, impaling him even as he hacked and hacked at the body of the private, but the fact that the barbarian joined him in death was lost on the happy-go-lucky Crom.


"Bail?" Pol called hesitantly. The simpleminded private tried to look around the intervening squad members. "Bail?"


"Stand your ground, Erkum!" Fain shouted. The humans had a mechanism for sadness and grief. They "cried." The liquid of the God Himself flowed from their eyes in moments like this. Strange that people who did not worship the God should be given such a gift.


"Stand your ground and get it stuck in, Erkum Pol!"


* * *


But not everyone was a Krindi Fain, and not everyone could stand.


* * *


"Captain, we've got ourselves a situation here!" Kosutic called.


Pahner spotted the sergeant major's icon on his HUD and looked off to the left. Some of the brighter Boman had realized that their best chance was to go around the hedge of pikes, since they couldn't get through it. Most of their flanking efforts had been defeated by Bogess' regulars, wielding their assegais with deadly effect. Whether Crassus or Shaka would have approved more strongly of them was difficult to say, but any barbarian who had expected it to be "easy" to get past their shorter weapons quickly discovered that he'd been dead wrong.


Yet for all their skill, the regulars lacked the standoff reach of the conscripted pikemen. The Boman were paying at three or four to one for each spearman they managed to hack down, but here and there they managed to batter their way through, however extortionate the cost. An isolated squad of regulars suddenly found itself under overwhelming assault and went down under a blizzard of throwing axes and the thundering blows of battle-axes. Its fall opened a brief but deadly hole in the line, and dozens of howling barbarians lunged through it and flung themselves onto the flank of a pike regiment.


The pikemen, already dazed and bewildered, despite their training, by the howling holocaust of battle, were taken at a deadly disadvantage. It was impossible for them to swing their long, heavy weapons around to confront their attackers in time, and the sudden onslaught was too much for them.


They broke.


The sergeant major's radioed warning turned Pahner's attention to the regiment just as it shattered like crystal under a hammer. The ground was suddenly scattered with the pikemen's shields and weapons. And bodies. As was always the case before the advent of artillery, the majority of casualties were inflicted when one side finally turned its back and tried to run.


Bogess followed the direction of Pahner's gaze, and then looked at the captain.


"Cavalry?"


"Not yet." The laconic Marine shook his head. "Let the armor handle it." He keyed his communicator. "Sergeant Julian, left wing, please."


* * *


The four fully functional suits of armor were already moving when the command came in. As they swung past the bastion, it was clear that the Boman were well and truly into the rear areas, and Julian couldn't understand why Pahner was so calm about it.


The Marines to either side of the breach were down, although it looked like they were only wounded, not dead, and the pike regiments to either side of the breakthrough, stiffened by a reserve of Bogess' regulars, had re-formed to protect their own flanks. But all they could do was hold their ground and cling to their own positions, and the flood of barbarians pouring through the seventy-meter-wide hole swept past the formed units and threatened to fan out and take still other regiments from the rear. And if that happened . . .


Clearly, it was time to show the locals what "peace through superior firepower" meant.


The four armored Marines spaced themselves across the salient with the two plasma cannon in the center, since they had the worst secondary effects, and opened fire.


The ten-millimeter bead cannon were loaded with flechette rounds. Each shot pumped out a half dozen narrow darts with moly-blade edges instead of a single normal bead, and the darts cut through the packed barbarians facing the four armored suits like horizontal buzz saws. Their molecule-wide edges would have cut through chain mail and steel plate, and they shredded the totally unarmored natives effortlessly into so much constituent offal . . . which the plasma cannon flash fried.


The fire wasn't widespread enough to stop all of the barbarians, but it ripped straight down the center of the breakthrough, and the hammer of it was a shock that sent the majority of those to either side—those who survived—into screaming, terrified flight. They turned and clawed and fought, not to advance, but to run from the Hell-spawned demons who had appeared in their very midst. The few warriors who'd been forward of the main damage, and out of the zone of effect of the plasma rounds, continued their charge, because there was nothing else they could do, only to find that iron was no match at all for ChromSten.


Julian casually backhanded a barbarian half again his own height who was obscuring his vision, crushing the unfortunate native's skull like an eggshell, and shifted the team's fire.


"Captain, we have the hole closed again, but we can't really keep it plugged. Can we get some cavalry over here to handle the leakers?"


"Will do," Pahner responded as he prepared to call Rastar on another channel. "Good job, Julian."


"Just another glorious day in the Corps," the squad leader replied stonily, tracking his flechettes back across the shrieking barbarians. "Every day's a holiday."


"Yes," said the captain sadly. "Welcome to the Widow's Party."


* * *


"Still a stalemate," Bogess said. "We hold, and they do not quit. We could be here day after day."


"Oh, I think not," Pahner said dryly. "Roger obviously doesn't have the patience today for us to squat here in a game of chicken." He glanced at his pad, nodded, and keyed his communicator once again.


"Okay, Despreaux. It's about time."


* * *


The team had crept past the lightly defended encampment and down the reverse slope of the ridge. If anyone had looked hard for them, they would have been obvious, but none of the Boman were watching their own rear. Why should they? All of their enemies were in front of them, and so the Marines were overlooked, just a few more odd bits of flotsam left by the passing horde.


Until, that was, they calmly stood up at Pahner's command, took off their camouflage, and opened fire into the backs of the entire Boman force.


At first, their efforts were almost unnoticed. But then, as more and more of the barbarians pushing towards the front fell under their fire, some of the Mardukans looked over their shoulders . . . especially when the grenades began to land.


* * *


"Yes," Pahner whispered as the rear of the enemy formation started to peel away.


"They're running?" Bogess asked. "Why?"


"They aren't running from their perspective," Pahner replied. "Not that of their rear ranks, at any rate. They're chasing the Marines behind them. But from the point of view of the ones in the front rank, they are running, and we're not going to disabuse them of that notion." He turned to the drummer. "Order a general advance of pike units. First, we drive them out of position, then we harry them into the ground.


"But they haven't broken," Bogess protested.


"No? Just watch them," Pahner said. " 'And then along comes the Regiment, and shoves the heathen out.' "


* * *


Fain heard the drum command with disbelief, but he passed it on verbally, as he had been trained to do, to ensure that the punch-drunk soldiers had the orders.


"Prepare to advance!" he bawled wearily.


His arms felt like stones from holding the pike for what seemed like all day, poking it into the screaming, twitching dummies—or so his mind told him. And now the command to advance. Madness. The enemy was as thick as a wall; there was nowhere to advance to.


The New Model Army's losses had been incredibly light. The front rank of his company had only lost a handful, the next rank less. Of his own squad, only Bail Crom had fallen, but to advance on the enemy, who'd stood their ground the entire day, was impossible.


He knew that, and nonetheless he took his pike firmly in hand and prepared to step forward to the beat. It was all that was left in his world—the Pavlovian training the human sadists had put them all through.


* * *


"You know, Boss," Kileti gasped, slithering down the slope toward the distant canal, "I used to wonder why we were always running in training."


"Yeah? Well, as long as we don't twist an ankle in our court shoes," Despreaux managed to chuckle grimly.


It seemed that all the hounds of Hell were on their trail as they approached the canal. But the rope bridge—the blessed, blessed rope bridge—was in place as promised, with a grinning Poertena already starting across to the other side. Denat was there, too, and saluted Marine-style as they approached.


"Permission to get the hell out of here, Sir?" the Mardukan called as the Marines thundered towards him.


"Just don't get in my fucking way," St. John (J.) yelled, leaping for the ropes as the rest of the team clambered on behind him.


"Not a problem," Denat said, inserting himself into the midst of the team. The team had split into two groups and taken opposite sides of the two-rope bridge, each group leaning out to balance the other side. The much more massive Mardukan was a bit of a hassle, but not too terribly so.


"What's to keep them from crossing the canal?" Kileti asked. "I mean, we cut the rope once we're on the other side, sure. But, hell, it's not that wide. You can swim the damn thing."


"Well, Yutang and his little plasma cannon, for one thing," Denat said with a grunt. "Heavy bastard, too. But he promised me I could try to fire it 'off-hand' if I agreed to carry it for him. And, of course, Tratan brought Berntsen's bead cannon."


"You're kidding," Despreaux said. "Right?"


"About Tratan carrying the bead cannon? Why should I kid? He's not all that weak," the Mardukan said with another grunt of laughter. "Seriously, I've wanted to try it for some time. And what time could be better?"


"This is gonna be fun," Macek said.


* * *


"Are we having fun yet?" Julian asked. The rear of the Boman force might have run off in pursuit of the recon team, but a solid core of the front ranks had stood against the advance of the pikes so far. He was fairly sure what Pahner would use to break the stalemate.


"Julian," his communicator crackled. "Get in there and convince them that they don't want to stand there."


The four armored figures advanced through the open salient toward the Boman force to their front. That area already had a slice cut out of it, a line written in blood on the ground, beyond which only the most stupid and aggressive barbarian passed. Briefly.


Now the Marines opened that hole wider, firing their weapons in careful, ammunition-conserving bursts. The dreadful fusillade cleared a zone deep enough for them to actually pass the front of their own forces and step onto ground held by the Boman.


The friable soil was greasy with body fluids blasted from the Marines' previous targets, and their path was choked with the results. But the powered armor made little of such minor nuisances, crunching through the hideous carnage until the four turned the corner and pivoted to face the flank of the Boman still massed before the Diaspran pikes.


Once again, the armor burped plasma and darts, soaking the ground in blood and turning the churned field of the watershed into an abattoir.


* * *


"You know," Pahner mused as the cavalry sallied out in pursuit of the Boman force, "if that pike regiment hadn't broken, it would've been a lot harder to get the armor into the middle of the Boman. That's a case of the fog of war working for you."


"So now what?" Bogess asked.


"The force that took off after the recon team will be pinned against the canal. Detail about half the pikes to keep them pinned in place, and we'll pound them with plasma from the far side of the canal until they surrender. As for the rest—"


He gestured in the direction of the pursuing cavalry.


"We'll put in a pursuit. They'll break up in the face of the civan forces; they don't have polearms of their own, so they'll have to. We'll follow up with the rest of the pikes, and any groups the cavalry can't hammer into feck-shit, we'll hit with the pikes and armor. Next week, the Wespar Boman will be a memory."


Bogess looked out over the field strewn with corpses. There was an obscenely straight line of them where the two forces had grappled throughout the long day. They were piled in blood-oozing windrows, yet there weren't really that many bodies for a fight which had lasted so many hours. But the field beyond that line more than compensated. The ground there was littered with them where the Northern cavalry had ruthlessly cut down the fleeing barbarians.


"Why don't I feel happy about that?" he asked.


"Because you're still human," Pahner replied, and the native general turned to him with a quizzical expression.


"You mean Mardukan, don't you?"


"Yeah," Pahner said, watching the prince's flar-ta disappear over the crest of the far ridge with the Northerners. "Whatever."


 


Back | Next
Framed