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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Krindi Fain stood braced outside the company commander's office and willed his heart to stop. It had been three days since the fight in the bar, but he was certain the Guard had finally tracked them down. He'd heard through the grapevine that the cavalry shits were still in the hospital—one of them had been touch and go, according to the scuttlebutt—and two guardsmen had been in with the CO since early morning. That could only mean one thing, and when the summons had come, he'd nearly run for it. K'Vaern's Cove was an easy city to get lost in, after all, but he'd finally decided it was better to face his punishment.


"Fain. Come!" the CO called.


The commander was a regular, a young officer who'd been a sergeant in the Guard of God before the humans turned up. He'd initially resented being placed with the pikes, until it became clear that the New Model Army was where everything was happening. He had, however, already had quite a career before his posting to the regiment, including a brawl in the distant past with some Northerner cavalry that had left him with only one horn and blind in one eye. Maybe that would mitigate the punishment.


"This who you're looking for?" the commander asked one of the guardsmen with a head jerk in Fain's direction.


"You Krindi Fain?" the guardsman asked.


The corporal knew he was in trouble now. It wasn't just a couple of guardsmen, but one of the Guard's underofficers.


"Yes, I am," he answered. Best to keep it simple. The more you said, the more likely you were to make a mistake.


"Good," the underofficer said. "Little thing, aren't you? Sergeant Julian made it sound like you were five hurtongs high and breathed fire."


"I don't know how I'm possibly going to run a company if my best people keep getting pulled out from under me," the CO groused.


"So this isn't—" Fain stopped and backed up before an over-active mouth could get him in the trouble he might just have skated out of after all. "What is this about? Captain?"


"We're going to change weapons again—you knew that, right?" the company commander asked.


"Yes, Captain. Muskets, or some word like that."


"Well, that's been changed again," the Guard underofficer said. "The weapon's still being designed, but it's going to be something else—something called a 'rifle.' " He snorted. "Arquebuses may be all very well for those pussies in the Navy, but they've never worked half the time in the field, so I don't see these 'rifles' working any better. But you're one of the ones pointed out by the humans as a good person to participate in what they call 'weapons development.' "


"Oh," Fain said faintly.


"You're to take one other member of your squad, as well," the CO informed him. "Who?"


The young NCO hesitated for only a moment.


"Erkum," he said.


"Are you sure?" the CO asked with a laugh.


"Yes, Captain," Fain replied. "I know it sounds funny. But I also know I'll take care of him, and I don't know that about my replacement."


"Good enough." The officer stood up behind his low desk and offered his true-hand, human fashion. "Good luck, and do the Regiment proud."


"I will, Captain." The NCO turned to the guardsmen and made a gesture of question. "What now?"


"Get your gear loaded up," the underofficer said, and jerked a true-hand's thumb at his fellow guardsman. "Tarson here will escort you to your new quarters." The officer grunted a laugh. "Congratulations, you're moving down in the world."


* * *


The workshop was deep beneath the Citadel, a natural cavern filled with the whisper of winds flowing through ancient limestone passages. Besides a long, deep light well, at least partially manmade, the room was also lit by torches, candles, and lanterns until it was nearly as bright as day. All, apparently, to support the eyes of one Mardukan.


That person was standing in front of a large wall of limestone which had been smoothed to the consistency of glass. The white wall was heavily overlaid with black charcoal scribbles, and those scribbles were getting thicker as the ancient Mardukan covered the wall in meandering doodles like a cave painter of old.


Most of the scribbler's constant mutter was directed at Rus From, who was following him around with a bemused expression. Other than that, Fain recognized a couple of other members of the pike regiment. And, especially, a couple of the humans.


Pol followed him like a shadow as he walked up behind sergeant Julian.


"Pardon me, Sergeant," he whispered. "Do you perhaps remember me?"


Julian turned and gave him one of those strange human tooth-baring smiles.


"Fain, glad you could come," the human whispered back. "Hell, yes, I remember you. I was the one who suggested you for this."


The sergeant turned back to the show and waved at the gathering around the white wall.


"Look at that guy, will you? Amazing."


"Who is it?" the corporal asked. He knew better than to ask why he was here; the humans would tell him that when they were ready.


"Dell Mir. The local equivalent of Rus From, except that that's like comparing a hand grenade and an antimatter missile." The Marine shook his head again. "Rus From had barely started showing him a couple of outlines of what we were talking about, and he just took off, dropping ideas like rain."


"So is he going to make all the stuff they're talking about?"


"Nah. See the people following him around?" The sergeant pointed to a group of Mardukans with scrolls and tablets trailing along behind the two mechanical geniuses.


"Priests?"


"Nah. More like technicians, or maybe mechanical engineers. This guy, Wes Til, apparently set this up. Dell Mir spouts ideas all day long, and those guys write them all down and then go see how well they really work."


"Cool," Fain said. It was a human expression that meant "interesting" and "unusual" and several other things. Like "okay" it was such a good expression that it had been adopted by the entire New Model Army, and Julian gave a grunt of laughter when he heard it.


"We're going to be on the trigger team. Once the design is finalized, we'll be working with the job shops that are going to make the trigger mechanisms."


"I don't know anything about triggers or mechanisms at all," the Diaspran confessed. "Just because I'm from Diaspra doesn't mean I'm some sort of mechanical genius."


"Don't worry," Julian replied. "I'll handle all that. You're going to be a gofer."


"Gopher?" the Mardukan asked in some confusion. The human translating device sometimes used words that were just as alien as the humans themselves, but it was odd the way that even the strangest word seemed to carry hints of other meanings. "Some sort of basik?"


"No, a 'go-fer,' " Julian corrected. " 'Krindi, go-fer coffee. Krindi, go-fer lunch.' "


"Oh," the corporal said with a laugh. "Okay."


"Don't worry, it'll be more than that. In fact, we'll probably be bumping you up to sergeant to give you a bit more weight dealing with the locals. We'll be making sure the shops are supplying quality parts and that assembly shops are using only the specified materials. Everything's going to be standardized with interchangeable parts, so we can produce it in quantity."


"Big . . . ummm," the Diaspran struggled for a word.


" 'Project' would be the human term. Like building a dam or a major dike. Yeah, it is, and a rush one, too. We're about out of time."


The Marine broke off as Captain Pahner stepped to the front. The Marine CO looked at the sketches on the wall and shook his head.


"Simpler, Rus, Dell. Simpler. This thing has too many parts. Every one of them will tend to break in the field, and every one has to be made, adding to cost and time. So look at something like this and say to yourself 'How can I get rid of parts?' "


The slight K'Vaernian with the piece of charcoal in his true-hand turned and looked at the Marine with his head cocked to one side.


"But your techniques of industry and mass production will cut the production time, surely?"


"True," Pahner said, "but they're not magic, and there's something called lead time to allow for. The more time we spend here, working out potential bugs in the designs, the less time we spend working them out in the foundries, and the fewer we get into the field. Don't forget, 'mass production' requires us to design and set up the production lines before we get to the 'mass' part of the equation, and the more parts we have to make, the more setup time we'll need. So cut down on the complexity and find some way to get rid of parts. You did a good job of that with the new breech design, so I know you can do it here, too. Let me show you what I'm thinking about."


The captain stepped forward, took the charcoal from the Mardukan's unresisting hand, and began marking on the wall.


"See this? You've got a double set of springs here. But if you move the lever to here, you can eliminate one spring entirely."


"Yes!" the K'Vaernian said, taking the charcoal back. "And eliminate this—what did you call it? Sear? Take this one out, and extend this lever . . ."


"As you can see," Julian whispered again, "we have our work cut out for us."


"Sergeant, how are we going to train on these if they're not even produced yet? And how long are we going to have? I mean, the Boman could move out at any time."


"That's somebody else's problem," the Marine said with an evil grin. "You concentrate on ours."


* * *


The long, low boat grounded on the mud of the riverbank, and D'Estrees slipped over the side and into the underbrush.


Gunnery Sergeant Lamasara Jin consulted his pad as he checked position before he inserted the last team. There were five more two-person teams scattered along the line of advance from D'Sley to Sindi, where the Boman main host supposedly was. This team was the furthest forward, and along with some local woodsmen, would probe still further forward until they reached Sindi or made contact with the Boman force.


Personally, the gunny really doubted that all of the Boman could be at Sindi, whatever the locals thought. The best premassacre population estimate Julian and O'Casey had been able to put together for Sindi gave the city a total population of only around seventy thousand. Which, Jin was willing to admit, was a really huge number, even allowing for the efficiency of Mardukan farmers, for a society which made virtually zero use of the wheel. It might not seem like much for the Empire, where that entire population could have been put into a single pair of residential towers in downtown Imperial City, but for a barb planet like Marduk, it was huge.


And it was also no more than a third of the total numbers people kept throwing around for the Boman.


Jin hoped like hell that the enemy force estimates were excessive, but he didn't really think they could be off by too much. Like all the Marines, he'd developed a pronounced respect for Rastar and Honal, neither of whom seemed at all inclined to inflate enemy numbers to excuse their own defeats, and they both insisted that the combined clans of the Boman could put at least a hundred thousand warriors into the field . . . which suggested a total population, including women and children, of at least half a million. And given that, like the Wespar, all of the Boman clans brought their women and children along rather than leaving them at home and undefended while the men were away, that meant one hell of a lot of scummies had descended on what used to be the League of the North and the other cities on the northern shore of the K'Vaernian Sea.


According to all reports, those scummies had been sitting more or less motionless for at least three or four months since taking Sindi, and that many mouths would have eaten the countryside around a city Sindi's size clean in far less time than that. Not to mention the fact that a city of seventy thousand could never provide even minimal housing for six or seven times that many invaders.


All of which suggested to the veteran noncom that—as always seemed to be the case—he and the rest of the company were about to find out that the backroom intelligence pukes had screwed up again. Fortunately, the captain had been a Marine long enough to be very cautious about how much trust he put in intelligence his own people hadn't confirmed. Unfortunately, there was only one way to confirm this intelligence.


Jin tapped the pad off and stepped ashore as D'Estrees reappeared and gave a thumbs-up. Normally, as Bravo Team leader, D'Estrees would have been teamed with Dalton, the team's plasma gunner. The only problem with that was that Dalton was now . . . dating Geno. If Jin put the gunner out on the point of the spear, everybody was going to think he was trying to kill his rival for Geno's affections. So instead, the plasma gunner was nice and safe and in the center of the deployment of the recon teams . . . and the overall commander of the insertion was taking point. Which, when Captain Pahner found out, would bring up words like stupid and suicidal. Instead of favoritism.


Damned if you do, and damned if you don't. But nobody was going to accuse Mamma Jin's boy of favoritism. Stupidity, though, okay, maybe.


But somewhere out there was the target, and right now he didn't care if that target was Saints or pirates or Boman. Because sooner or later, he was going to get a chance to kill something, and the closer he was to the action, the more likely that was to happen. And if he didn't kill something else soon, he just might start on one too-good-looking plasma gunner.


Two klicks to the track that ran from D'Sley to Sindi. It paralleled the river, so it never saw much traffic, since barges made so much more sense than land transport. But it was there, and if the Boman came to play, it would be along that track.


And if they didn't come out to play on their own, then they were just going to have to be called.


* * *


"I don't care if you do think it's a waste of time," Bistem Kar told the skeptical underofficer in a deceptively calm tone. General Bogess stood beside the K'Vaernian CO, but the Diaspran was being very careful not to involve himself in the conversation. "I don't even care if your men think it's a waste of time. I don't think it is, and this—" he tapped the ruby-set hilt of the sword at his side, the one only the commanding officer of the Guard Company was permitted to wear "—means that what I think is all that matters, now doesn't it?"


The underofficer closed his mouth and straightened both sets of shoulders. The thought of being ordered around by Diaspran "soldiers" so new they still had canal mud on their feet was enough to infuriate anyone, and he sympathized perfectly with his men. And even if the idea of being instructed by jumped-up common laborers hadn't been hard to swallow, the sheer stupidity of what they were supposed to be learning was almost intolerable. Damn it, they knew how to do their jobs, and they'd done them well enough for decades to make K'Vaern's Cove the most powerful city-state on the entire K'Vaernian Sea! And they hadn't done it by hiding behind any silly shields and refusing to come out and fight like men!


Even granting the incontestable truth of all of that, however, Kar's tone of voice had just forcibly reminded him that there were other considerations, as well. "The Kren" was a guardsman's guardsman, always willing to listen—to a point at least—to the opinions and concerns of his men, but anyone who'd ever been stupid enough to think that that mild tone was an invitation to further discussion never made the same mistake twice.


Kar gazed at him for a moment, clearly waiting to see if he'd finally found someone stupid enough to keep pushing. He hadn't, and after waiting a bit longer to be sure the point had been adequately made, he allowed his own manner to ease.


"I admit it seems a bit . . . bizarre," he conceded then, "but I've watched the Diasprans drilling. I've never seen anything like it, either—not for infantry. But much as I hate to admit it, now that I've seen the humans' notions of how infantry should drill and maneuver, I can't understand why the same ideas never occurred to us."


"Sir, it just seems . . . wrong," the underofficer said in a carefully dispassionate tone, and Kar grunted a chuckle.


"It isn't the way our sires did it, or our grandsires, or their sires," the Guard commander agreed, "and I suppose it's inevitable for us to feel some sort of, um, emotional attachment for the way things have always been. But it's worth thinking about that the League, which spent the most time fighting the Boman instead of other civilized sorts of armies, already used tactics a lot closer to these new ones of the humans than ours. Now that we're the ones up against the barbs, maybe it's time we considered the fact that we can't take them on one by one. Even if they were willing to play by the old rules, there are so many of the bastards that we'd run out of bodies before they did, no matter how good we are. But these new tactics—all this teamwork with these 'rifles' and 'pikes' and 'assegais,' and those big shields the humans have invented—are going to change all that if we can figure out what in Krin's name we're doing with them. The problem is, we don't have a whole lot of time, and we're going to have to unlearn almost as much as we have to learn.


"So I don't have a lot of time to spend arguing with my underofficers," Kar went on in a slightly harder tone. "We're all going to be much too busy listening to General Bogess here. And we're also going to be busy making sure that our noncoms understand that they're going to be listening to the Diaspran training cadre. I don't care if most of the Diasprans were dam builders and canal diggers four months ago. What they are now are soldiers. More than that, they're combat veterans who've done something none of us ever have: met the Boman bastards in the field and kicked their miserable asses all the way into whatever Krin-forsaken afterlife they believe in.


"So you will go back to your unit, and you will tell them that they really, really don't want me to come explain all of this to them in person. Is that clear?"


"Yes, Sir!" the underofficer said quickly. "Perfectly clear, Sir!"


"Good." The Guard commander gazed at him once more, then nodded dismissal. "I'm glad we had time for this little conversation," he told the underofficer. "Now go back and get that mess straightened out."


"Yes, Sir! At once, Sir!"


* * *


"We're going to train them how?"


St. John (J.) would much rather have been out in the field probing for the Boman camps. Anything but trying to explain the captain's brainstorm to this evil-looking scummy.


"The weapons are going to be something like an arquebus, Sir," the Marine answered. "But they're going to need to be aimed, not just volley-fired in the target's general direction, and Marines know all about teaching aiming. The most important part is breath and trigger control."


He picked up the contraption which had been leaning against the wall, brought it to his shoulder, and pointed it.


"We teach them about sight picture, then we put a K'Vaernian copper piece on this carved sight mockup and have them practice squeezing the trigger. When they can do it time after time without the copper falling off, they'll be halfway there."


The company commander picked up the wooden carving of the rifle and tried to point it while balancing the copper piece on the narrow width of the sight. The coin chimed musically as it promptly hit the stone floor, and the Mardukan snarled in frustration.


"This is madness. Is this supposed to be war?"


"Oh, yeah," the Marine breathed. "You have no idea. Just wait until you see the cannon."


* * *


"You want them to what?"


"Your company is going to be cadre for the artillery corps, Sir," Kosutic told the Mardukan who stood looking at her incredulously with all four arms crossed. Until that very morning, the scummy had been the executive officer of the Sword of Krin, the galleass flagship of the K'Vaernian Navy, and he didn't seem particularly delighted by his new assignment.


"This is ridiculous," the naval officer grunted. "Bombards are shipboard weapons—they're too heavy, too slow, and eat too damned much powder and shot to be practical for any damned mudpounder to use!"


"Sir, I understand why you feel that way, but I assure you that these 'bombards' aren't anything like the ones you're familiar with."


The Mardukan made a skeptical sound, and Kosutic drew a deep breath. She was the only member of the company besides Captain Pahner himself who had been through crew-served heavy weapons training. In Pahner's eyes, that made her the logical senior trainer for the envisioned artillery. The fact that, unlike this dubious scummy, she'd never fired a muzzle-loading, black powder artillery piece in her life was apparently beside the point. And, in a way, it was, because no one on this miserable mudball of a planet—including the four-armed pain in the ass glowering at her—had ever heard of the concept of field artillery.


"Sir," she went on after a moment, "the main reason you were assigned to this duty is that unlike the Guard officers, you do have experience with artillery. But you have to realize that the bombards you're used to aboard your ships are very different from the field guns we're going to be producing."


"Bombards are bombards," the Mardukan said flatly, and Kosutic bit her tongue firmly.


Part of the problem, she knew, was that K'Vaern's Cove was accustomed to being the supplier of the finest artillery around, and the K'Vaernian Navy was even more accustomed to considering its gunners to be the best in the world. Which meant that none of them were very happy to be told that the smart-ass humans were going to show them how artillery ought to be made and used.


That reaction was inevitable, at least initially, and not simply among scummies. Human military types through the ages had reacted negatively to suggestions that what they knew had worked in the past might not still be the best technique or weapons available in the present. The big problem here was that they simply didn't have time to bring people around gradually, which meant that Turl Kam and Bistem Kar had been fairly direct and brutal in laying down the law to their more doubtful subordinates. And that meant that a certain degree of tact was absolutely required.


"Sir," she began diplomatically, "I wouldn't know where to begin to tell you how to go about fighting a naval battle. Frankly, I don't know shit about that particular subject, but I understand that your standard tactics for heavy bombards are to row directly at your target and to fire a single, close-range salvo from all of your guns just before you ram and board them. Is that about correct?"


"In general terms, yes," the Mardukan said grudgingly.


"And why is it that you don't fire more than one shot per gun, Sir?"


"Because it takes seven chimes to reload them," the naval officer told her with exaggerated patience. A chime, Kosutic knew, was a K'Vaernian time measurement equal to about forty-five seconds, so the scummy was talking about a five-minute reload time. "And," the officer went on, "because relaying the guns for a second shot would take even longer."


"Yes, Sir, it would," the sergeant major agreed. "But the guns that we're going to be using can be reloaded much more quickly than that. In fact, using bagged charges and fixed antipersonnel you'll be able to fire them once per chime—maybe even a little more rapidly—under maximum rate conditions at short range."


The Mardukan stared at her incredulously, and she showed her teeth in a thin smile and continued.


"In addition, the new carriages we're going to be building, coupled with how much lighter the cannon themselves are going to be, will make them a lot more mobile than any bombard you've ever seen. We figure a single pair of turom should be able to haul even the bigger ones around without much trouble. And this new feature here—" she tapped the trunnions of the wooden mock-up someone from ancient Earth might have recognized as remarkably similar to something which had once been called a "twelve-pounder Napoleon" "—will actually let you make changes in elevation between shots."


The Mardukan uncrossed his lower arms and leaned closer. It was apparent that he was truly looking at the new weapon for the first time, and Kosutic hid a smile as some of his truculent skepticism seemed to fade. If they could just get the scummies to really see the advantages, three quarters of the job would be done.


The K'Vaernian Navy's bombards were very well made from the standpoint of their metallurgy and casting techniques, but as practical artillery pieces they left a lot to be desired. In fact, they were simply huge bronze or iron tubes which were strapped to heavy wooden timbers and then chained or roped to the deck of a ship. They looked more like big, clumsy rifles than they did anything a human would have called an artillery piece, and it was impossible to adjust their elevation in any way. As for recoil, the K'Vaernian gunners simply stood as far to one side as they could and touched off the priming. The heavy hawsers which fastened the bombards to the deck and bulwarks kept the gun from jumping clear overboard, and the friction between the wheelless "carriage" and deck acted as an extremely crude recoil damper. Hauling the guns back into position for the next shot without any sort of wheels under them was a backbreaking process, of course, but they accepted that as the price of doing business because that was the way it had always been done before.


The new guns, on the other hand, were a very different proposition. Their carriages, with large spoked wheels with extra-wide rims, and lighter weight, would give them a degree of mobility no Mardukan had ever dreamed was possible, and the introduction of trunnions and elevating screws would completely change their tactical flexibility, both afloat and ashore. With the addition of premeasured, bagged charges and fixed rounds of grapeshot and canister, their rate of fire would also be enormously increased. If the team working on ammunition actually managed to get the bugs out of a decent shrapnel round in the time available, the guns would be even more effective, but the sergeant major had no intention of holding her breath while she waited. In fact, she had a pretty shrewd notion that the more optimistic visions of explosive filler for cast-iron shells were doomed to disappointment. The rocket batteries were a different matter entirely, of course, but no one really knew how well that project was going to work out either. And in the meantime . . .


"Sir, as you know much better than any of the Guard officers, the important thing with crew-served weapons like this is for everyone to perform their jobs precisely according to a standard drill. What we're going to add to what you already know is speed, because it will be possible to load and fire the new guns much more quickly . . . if the crews are properly trained.


"You know what your bombards do to the hulls of enemy ships. Try to picture what a weapon like this will do to a mob of Boman. Each shot will punch right through them and kill anyone who gets in its way, and when dozens of these guns are massed, there's nothing like them. In our society, artillery was called 'The King of Battle,' but for the guns to be effective, their crews must be drilled to exhaustion. They have to be able to clear, load, and fire the weapon under the most extreme circumstances, then limber up, move on, and do it again. So you learn the steps, then you practice them again and again.


"That means that there's no need, initially, for the cannon themselves. A training mock-up, or even a few marks on the ground to show its outline, will do in a pinch, because it's how you move around the gun that really matters. The trick is to teach the gunners how to do it right before they ever see a real cannon—teach them never to stand behind it once it's loaded, to do their jobs in a certain sequence, and to do them fast.


"So we're going to show you how. You and your people were chosen because you're already familiar with artillery. Whether you realize it or not, you already have most of the basic knowledge you need, and all we have to do is to teach you to see that knowledge a little differently and adjust to a whole new tempo. So once we've shown you that, your people will show others, and those people will show still others, and so on. And when we're finished, we'll have ourselves a tiddly little artillery corps that will pile up Boman like barleyrice."


The skeptical naval officer was listening much more closely now, and she hid another smile as she turned to the six Marines standing around the carved wooden model. The end of the barrel was slightly scorched, because it had just finished double duty as a model for the mold and been left a bit too close to a furnace afterward.


"These fine young Marines, who just spent the last few hours learning what to do, are going to demonstrate," she continued. "What they can't demonstrate is that there are some things you Mardukans can do, with four arms, that they can't do with just two. We'll have to work that out, with your assistance, as we go along."


She drew a deep breath, and nodded to the senior Marine.


"Squad!" she barked. "Prepare to place the gun into action! Gun in action . . . Move!"


And the six Terran Empire Marines, born on planets circling five different stars, began the ritual of service to the artillery—a ritual which had been old before the first rockets lifted beyond the atmosphere of Terra and looked to be going on when the last star cooled.


Some things just never seemed to change.


 


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