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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

"Okay, Poertena, what've you got?" Roger asked.


The council meeting had adjourned without reaching any decisions, so the humans were continuing with their plan to modify or build a ship and the Diasprans were in limbo. If the K'Vaernians decided that fighting the Boman wasn't worth what it would cost, the Diasprans' trip would have been in vain, but Roger had a gut feeling that that wasn't what would happen.


"I went down tee harbor wit' Tratan, Sir. Just nosin' aroun'," the Pinopan said, and pulled out his pad. "We gots problems."


"There's a materials shortage," Pahner said. "We got that much at the council meeting. How bad is it?"


"Say t'at t'ere ain't no materials, an' you closer, Cap'n," the sergeant replied. " 'Specially masts and spars. I see t'ree, four shipyards—t'ey shut down: no wood. Tee two I see working, t'ey workin' slow, just killin' time."


"Worse than I thought," O'Casey muttered. "The city didn't look all that depressed on the way in."


"Oh, tee parts we come t'rough, t'ey busy. It's tee docks t'at's idle. You go down tee docks, you gots lots o' people jus' hangin' around. Lots of tee porters, normally unload tee ships, t'ey just hangin' around. Lots of tee guys work in tee warehouses. And tee sailors. Hell, even tee taverns is shut down—no business."


"And the docks have got to be the linchpin of this economy," O'Casey said. "It's not like they produce much."


"I don't know about that," Julian said. "I was nosing around, too, and there's a large industrial sector beyond the first set of hills. The entire peninsula is short on ground water—that's why they've got all those catcher cisterns—but they've got some pretty good powered equipment running over there. A lot of it's wind-powered, but they use some water-driven machinery that draws on really big cisterns. Hell, I even saw one shop that uses tidal catcher basins to drive wheels with the outflow—they've got two moons, and that makes for some hellacious tides even on an inland sea like the K'Vaernian. But for all the equipment they've got, things seemed slow," he admitted. "Lots of people around, and all the foundries were active, but . . . slow. I think the city's probably a 'value added' economy. They get raw materials, work them into goods, and sell the goods. But there aren't any materials to rework right now, and more than half their markets are gone."


"Can we buy a ship and cross the ocean?" Pahner asked.


"No, Sir," the Pinopan answered promptly. "We can buy a ship, no problem. But we no can cross tee ocean in one of t'ese tubs. We might make it, an' we might not. You wanna take a maybe-maybe not chance with tee Prince?"


"No," Pahner said with a grimace. "So what's the alternative?"


"We can buy a ship, strip it to tee keel, an' use tee timbers to build a new one," the Pinopan told him. "T'at sound like a good idea, but it make it nearly twice as long to build t'an if we starts fresh, an' we ain't got an infinite supply of supplements."


"Is it just the masts that are in short supply?" Julian asked.


"No. Oh, tee masts're tee worst part, but ever't'ing's short. You build ships out o' wood, you needs seasoned timber. You can use green, but t'ey ain't gonna last very long. T'at's maybe not a problem for us, but t'ere ain't no timber in tee city—not where anyone gonna sell it to us, anyways."


"And there won't be any from their internal resources, either," O'Casey said grimly. "It's a classic problem for any seapower based on wooden hulls. Once you cut down all of the usable timber in your immediate vicinity, you become dependent on an overseas supply for your shipyards. And the overseas suppliers K'Vaern's Cove has depended on just got hammered under by the Boman."


"T'at's right," Poertena agreed. "Oh, I t'ink we can maybe pry loose 'nough timber for one ship, but no more."


"Well, can't the platoon fit on just one?" Julian asked, wincing as he used the term for the surviving Marines. Mostly because "platoon" was exactly what Bravo Company had become.


"Yeah," the Pinopan answered with a sideways glance at the captain. "But is t'at all we taking?"


"Captain Pahner?" Roger glanced at the CO. "Is there something I should know?"


"I've been talking with Rastar," Pahner said quietly. "The Boman didn't just sack Therdan and Sheffan—they razed them to the ground, and the surviving League forces are generally uninterested in returning to rebuild. There's nothing there to rebuild, and I think there's also an aspect of not wanting to see their dead in it. If they don't see them, don't see the ruins with their own eyes, they can remain in denial deep down inside. And the civan unit has also bonded well to us and, to an extent, to your person as a leadership figure. In addition, Bogess has mentioned that some of his forces aren't interested in returning to Diaspra. Again, for some of them it's that they've developed an interest in learning and seeing new things, and for others it's a basic change of allegiance."


"You're thinking of taking some of the Northern and Diaspran forces with us?" The prince chuckled. "Her Majesty's Own Mardukan Sepoys?"


"I cannot secure your person with thirty-six Marines, Your Highness," the captain said in a much more formal tone than usual, meeting the prince's gaze levelly. "Certainly not in this environment. I could barely manage with a full company . . . and I don't have a company anymore. As Sergeant Julian just said, I have a platoon. That simply isn't enough, and that means I have to do it through some other means."


Roger's chuckle died, and he nodded soberly.


"I hadn't intended to make light of your predicament, Sir. Or your losses. I was simply anticipating Mother's reaction."


"Indeed," Pahner said, and shook his head with a sudden grunting Mardukan-style chuckle of his own. "I can see our return now. Her Majesty will be most . . . amused."


"Her Majesty," O'Casey said, "after she reads the reports, will be most . . . amazed. There's never been a saga to equal this one, Captain. At the least, you've placed your name in the military history books."


"Only if I get him back to Her Majesty," Pahner pointed out. "Which requires crossing the ocean, making our way through whatever political zone we hit on the far side, and recapturing the spaceport with only thirty-six Marines and a half dozen suits of problematical powered armor. And that's why I would like to take a unit of civan cavalry and another of Diaspran pikemen, or riflemen or musketeers, whichever it turns out, with us."


"Which means how many ships?" Roger asked.


"Six," the Pinopan answered. "Six thirty, thirty-five-meter schooners. Lots of sail area, pretty good cargo volume, good sea legs, an' weatherly. Maybe topsail schooners. Square sails on tee main an' fore won' help much on tee trip over, but t'ey be good for tee trip back wit' tee prevailing winds behind you."


"You can build one of t'ose—those?" Pahner asked.


"Wit' a little help. T'ey gots most of tee techniques we need, they jus' use 'em all wrong. T'ese ships t'ey make are tubs—not all t'at bad for what t'ey does, but t'ey don' do much. Never sail out o' sight o' land, run for shore whenever a storm blow up, t'ings like t'at. T'at's why I don't t'ink nobody's gonna make it 'cross tee ocean in one o' t'ese toy boats. But smooth out tee lines, give some deadrise an' some more dept' of hull, lower tee freeboard fore an' aft an' bring it up some in between, an' you gots you'self a real tiddly ship. On'y real problem is, t'ey don' use buildin' drafts—t'ey designs by eye an' uses half-models to fair tee lines."


"Do you have any idea at all what he's talking about?" Roger asked O'Casey plaintively, and the chief of staff laughed.


"No, but it certainly sounds like he does," she said.


"It not so dif'rent from some o' tee little yards back home," the Pinopan said, "on'y we use 'puter wire drawings, instead. You build you'self a model—tee scummies, t'ey do it out o' wood, 'cause t'ey gots no computers—an' t'en you takes tee lines direct from tee model to tee finished ship wit'out detailed plans. 'Course, tee scummies, t'ey don' know nothin' 'bout displacement an' stability calc'lations, an' t'eir mouldin' lofts suck, but I can handle t'at no sweat."


"All of which means?" Pahner pressed.


"I wanna make a half-scale model to test my numbers," Poertena told him. "T'at take about a month. T'en, if it good an ever't'ing go smooth, t'ree months for tee rest."


"Four months?" Roger demanded, aghast.


"Can't do it no faster, Sir," the sergeant said apologetically. "T'at's as fast as we can go, an' t'at's after we gets tee materials. I can start on tee model as soon as I gets some funds. Talked to a pretty good shipbuilder today, an' I t'ink we can work wit' him. But we gotta get timbers, an' more important, we gotta get a dozen or so masts—an' spare masts an' spars, too, an' sails, now I t'ink about it—from somewheres."


"You were prophetic, Your Highness," Pahner said sourly. "This shipbuilder, Poertena—he didn't happen to have anything to do with a fellow named Wes Til, did he?"


"Don' know, Sir. Is t'at important?"


"Maybe, but not for the model, I think. Okay, you're authorized to draw funds as necessary. If it isn't terribly expensive, buy a small craft to unstep the mast for the model. And get that shipyard to work. I want the model completed in three weeks."


"I try, Sir," the Pinopan said mournfully, "but I don' t'ink it gonna happen in t'ree weeks. I only say a mont' 'cause I know you not gonna let me have two. But I try."


A quiet knock at the door interrupted the discussion, and PFC Kyrou poked his head into the room.


"Captain Pahner, Sir, we have two Mardukan gentlemen out here with what I think are dinner invitations."


Pahner raised one eyebrow and made a pointing gesture with the index finger and cocked thumb of his gun hand. The private shook his head in reply, indicating that neither seemed to be armed, and the captain nodded to let them in.


Both of the Mardukans wore enough jewelry to open a shop, but to Pahner's admittedly inexpert eye, it didn't appear to be of very high quality.


"I'm Captain Pahner. And you are?"


"I am Des Dar," the first said, bowing slightly in the local fashion with clenched fists brought into shoulders. "I bring Prince Roger an invitation to a personal dinner with my employer, Wes Til." The messenger proffered a tied and sealed scroll. "The location and time are within. May I tell my employer that you accept?"


"My name is Tal Fer," the second Mardukan interrupted quickly, proffering an equally ornate scroll, "and I am sent from Turl Kam with an invitation to Prince Roger to join him for dinner. May I tell him you accept?"


* * *


Kyrou saw three more functionaries, scrolls in hand, approaching the prince's room and judiciously turned off his toot's translator function. Then he leaned back in through the door and caught Captain Pahner's eye.


"Three more scummy flunkies inbound, Sir."


Cord, who'd learned enough English to recognize the untranslated human term for the locals, turned a grunt of laughter into a cough.


"Sorry," he said when Des Dar and Tal Fer looked at him. "Age is catching up with these old lungs."


Pahner frowned at the private and gave the old shaman a very speaking glance, then turned back to the first two messengers.


"Sirs, please convey to your employers our delight at their invitations and—"


He stopped, out of both polite phrases and his depth, and looked appealingly at Roger's chief of staff. O'Casey's eyes creased in a smile as she looked back at him, but she took over smoothly.


"However, we are unable to respond immediately," she told the messengers. "Please convey that to your employers, along with the fact that we will reply to them as soon as possible."


The messengers jockeyed for position as they handed their scrolls to the chief of staff. She took them smoothly, with a courteous refusal to give either precedence, then gave the same message to the trio Kyrou had spotted when they arrived. Two more turned up after those, and at that point Pahner ordered Kyrou to repeat the mantra for O'Casey and closed the door. Firmly.


"We need some local input on these," O'Casey said, as she perused the documents. The text was readable, thanks to her toot, and the invitations were not only from Council members, but also from major merchants. She suspected that some of those might be more important in the long run than the Council members themselves.


"Cord, could you pass the word for Rastar, please?" Roger said. "We're going to need to get his input on these invitations and some sort of stronger feel for whether or not his forces really intend to accompany us overseas."


"Yes, My Lord," the shaman said obsequiously, and climbed to his feet. "Your asi lives only to obey, no matter what the dangers he must face. I will brave the hordes of messengers for you, although my heart quails within me at the very thought."


"It is your duty, now that I think about it," Roger said with a grin, then touched the Mardukan on a lower shoulder. "Seriously, I'm not sure I dare go out there at the moment."


"Not a problem," the asi said. "After all, I'm not the one they long to entice into their power."


" 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,' " Roger quoted with another grin. "I'll meet you at the room after this madhouse subsides."


"I'll see you then," Cord agreed, and opened the door and forced his way into the crowd of shouting messengers.


"And tell Kosutic to send some spare guards down!" Pahner yelled to Kyrou as the door closed, then looked at Roger with a crooked smile. "Ah, the joys of civilization."


 


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