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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Something hard and circular socketed instantly into Fain's temple as he trotted through the doorway, with Erkum hard on his heels, and ran straight into the human prince.


The newly promoted sergeant heard a deep rumble of displeasure behind him and reached back to very carefully put a restraining hand against Pol's chest until Roger could reach out and push the bead rifle muzzle aside.


"It's all right, Geno. He's one of ours," the prince said, then tapped the sergeant on his mid-shoulder. "Krindi Fain, isn't it? You did well at the Battle. Held your squad together admirably."


"Thank you, Your Highness," Fain said, braced to attention and trying not to show his relief too plainly.


"Not so formal, Sergeant—we're all old soldiers here. Sergeant Julian making sure you're getting fed right? I can't promise sleep; none of us are getting much of that."


"Yes, Your Highness."


"Good. Remember to take care of your troops, and they'll take care of you." The human turned to the sergeant's shadow and craned his neck to peer up at the towering giant. "And the inimitable Erkum Pol, I see. How are you, Erkum?"


"Yes, Your Highness," the private said.


"I'll take that as 'doing well,' " Roger said with a smile. Apparently he knew about the soldier's simplemindedness. "And, Erkum, next time use a smaller plank, right? I need all the cavalry I can get."


"Yes, Your Highness," Fain heard himself say.


"Carry on," the prince said, striding off with a wave, followed by his bodyguards, and the Diasprans braced back to attention.


"Lots smaller plank," the last Marine guard whispered with a human-style wink as he passed Fain. "Fuckers are still in the hospital."


* * *


Roger shook his head as he turned the corner to the training ground. That lad Krindi was going to go far . . . assuming he could keep Pol from killing someone at an inopportune moment.


He chuckled, then turned his attention to the company of riflemen-to-be. The ranks were lined up in an open formation, with each soldier holding a wooden mock-up of the final rifle design. As the prince entered the area, the cadence of fire was being called.


"Open. Load. Close. Cock. Cap. Aim. Fire."


The bull-throated Mardukan giving the orders saluted as Roger went past. Another veteran of the New Model pike regiments, the Diaspran, like most of that force, had been broken off for cadre for the new units.


The numbers for those new units were looking much better than Roger had feared they might, if not quite as good as he could have wished in an ideal world. The core of the new and improved K'Vaernian army would be the veterans of the Guard, their less than enthusiastic fellow citizens temporarily reassigned from the Navy, Rastar's Northern cavalrymen, and the Diaspran pikemen. But that would account for little more than a third of the total numbers they needed, and volunteer levels had been gratifyingly high. Some of the local volunteers were in it only for the expected loot, which, however mercenary, was certainly understandable. The Boman on this side of the Nashtor Hills had conquered the northern cities and Sindi, all of which had been wealthy and powerful states, so it was only to be expected that they would be swimming in treasure as a result of their victories. Other volunteers had come forward because they perceived the Boman as a threat to their own city, and some had volunteered because they were refugees from other cities who wanted some of their own back.


Whatever their reasons for joining, the troops were being formed into a tidy little army. Now if they could only get some weapons for it.


And maybe they were doing something about that, he thought, looking up to see Rastar grinning as he waved something and trotted towards him from the other side of the square.


"First production unit out of the Tendel foundry," the Northerner said as he reached the prince, and handed him a massive rifle.


The weapon was gigantic and starkly utilitarian. The twenty-five-millimeter bore made his own eleven-millimeter look like a toy, and the breech was the size of a plasma cannon firing chamber.


The final design was very different from the one the Marines and Rus From had sketched out before leaving Diaspra, and almost equally different from the new, improved cartridge version Pahner had wanted to produce once they actually got to K'Vaern's Cove. The original design had been very similar to the old Sharps breechloader from the ancient American Civil War, with a moving breech block that clipped the end off of a linen cartridge when the breech was closed to expose the powder charge to flash from a priming cap. Although gas leakage would probably have been a problem, just as it had been with the original, From and Pahner had rather doubted that it would seriously inconvenience anyone already accustomed to the godawful priming flash of a Mardukan arquebus.


The much more advanced design Pahner had wanted once he decided to stay and fight, on the other hand, would have used either a brass cartridge case or a composite brass and paper case, either of which would have been a centerfire percussion design with a metallic base to provide an excellent, flash-proof seal at the breech. One look at the manufacturing complexity and lead time required to produce that ammunition in quantity had knocked that idea on the head, however, and everyone had gone looking for some workable compromise solution. One had been found—and finally put into production—in a design which had been suggested by Dell Mir and owed more to local expertise with pumps than even Pahner had believed might be the case.


The prince gripped the protruding bolt handle, which looked very similar to that of his own hunting rifle when it wasn't configured for semi-auto fire, and raised it, turning the bolt through a half rotation. K'Vaern's Cove's pump makers had developed a standard fixture for use as an inspection/cleaning port for their pumps, which was closed by what was in effect a big, coarse-threaded bolt with a washer at one end. Mardukans spent a lot of time doing maintenance on their flood control pumps, even in a place like K'Vaern's Cove, where the steepness of the slopes (which promoted very rapid runoff) and the absence of a readily tapped aquifer made potable water scarce, and the inspection port had been designed for ease and speed of access. It was fitted with a crank-style handle on one end, and moved in a cam-mounted sleeve, so that when the bolt was run out of the threads, the entire plug pivoted downwards and hung from the underside of the pipe it normally closed.


Mir, with an eye to practical adaptation which explained much of his reputation for genius, had seen no reason not to use a perfectly sound existing design rather than get bogged down in esoteric new concepts. Of course, there had been some changes. The two biggest ones had been to convert the fittings from bronze to steel and his decision to cut away the threads on two sides of the threaded bolt plug and to interrupt the threads that the plug seated into so that only a half turn was required to engage and disengage the threads. He'd also made some other minor changes, including moving the bolt handle to the side (an idea he'd borrowed from Roger's eleven-millimeter) and machining a guide onto the rifle bolt to ensure that it followed the proper mechanical path, but the overall effect had been to take a simple plumbing fixture and use it to manufacture the most deadly weapon K'Vaern's Cove had ever seen.


The cartridge design had also been simplified. There wasn't much question that the K'Vaernians would have been able to produce Pahner's brass cartridges . . . eventually. Certainly, their tech base and metallurgy were capable of making the jump to manufacture the captain's design, but setting up to produce it and experimenting to come up with exactly the right alloy for the cases would have taken considerably longer than K'Vaern's Cove—or its human visitors, at least—had. So instead, Dell Mir had turned to a local plant.


The Mardukans called it shonash, but after one demonstration of its properties, the Marines had instantly christened it the flashplant, because on any planet without Marduk's daily rains, it would have been a deadly fire hazard. The K'Vaernians crushed its stems to extract a fine, clear, hot-burning oil, which they used in industry and as lamp fuel, and the large, flat leaves were sometimes used to wrap packages where wetness was an even greater than usual danger. They were so heavily impregnated with volatile oils that they remained tough and flexible even after they'd been "dried" and were almost totally impervious to water. That was good, but, unfortunately, they were also extremely combustible, which made it somewhat dangerous to use them for packaging in conditions which wouldn't keep them fairly wet.


Dell Mir had recognized instantly that those very qualities made flashplant leaves almost ideal as a cartridge paper substitute. A little experimentation had quickly demonstrated that the flash from one of Despreaux's early percussion caps would burn straight through a double layer of leaf almost instantaneously. So the K'Vaernian inventor had produced a design in which one of the new hollow-based bullets and its propellant were wrapped together in a flashplant leaf cartridge. The base of the cartridge was a thick, disklike, heavily greased felt patch, and when the rifle bolt was driven forward and engaged in its threads, the explosion of the cartridge drove the felt back against the face of the bolt to complete the seal and prevent any gas leakage. The next round loaded pushed the remnant of the previous round's patch forward and out of the way, and the rifle was ready to fire again. The final product of his efforts adhered very closely to Pahner's drive to reduce the number of parts, yet worked with a robust simplicity Roger had to admire. There was still plenty of room for improvement, but this design had the three most important virtues of all: it worked, it would be hard for even a soldier to break, and it could be produced quickly.


The workshops of K'Vaern's Cove had sprouted rifling benches like toadstools, and the Guard and Navy's arquebuses had been hauled in and handed over to the machinists for modification. The rear ends of their barrels had been sliced off, they'd been rifled, the exterior of the back end of the barrels had been run through thread-cutting dies, the modified pump inspection ports had been screwed on, and a redesigned trigger mechanism taken from the existing wheel lock pistols had been modified to control a side-mounted hammer for a percussion lock. And that had been that. Well, aside from the provision of bayonet lugs on the ends of the barrels.


Now the prince finished opening the breech and flipped the rifle up to his shoulder to take a good look at the breech mechanism and the barrel. Although there were a few burrs on the exterior from the hurried work of the shops, the interior was beautifully machined and the bolt's threads engaged and disengaged with smooth precision.


"Very nice," he said. "The only thing that would make it better would be proper metallic cartridge cases, but this will more than do the job."


Despite what Rus From had told them, the volume of production that was in the pipeline still amazed Roger. The effective blockade of the city from the land side had idled hundreds of small foundries and shops throughout the peninsula on which K'Vaern's Cove sat. All of them, it seemed, wanted in on the new government contracts, which had given the designers some leeway to stray from the "simpler, simpler, simpler" mantra. They hadn't wandered far, but the provision of a proper bayonet had been one of the "frills" Pahner had been prepared to forego. The K'Vaernians, on the other hand, found the notion of parking a sixty-centimeter blade on the end of their new rifles very attractive. One of the great disadvantages of the arquebus had always been that it was essentially little more than a clumsily shaped club if the arquebusier found himself forced into a melee. Now each of the new riflemen would be able to look after himself in the furball if he had to, which had proven extremely reassuring to soldiers who were still none too sure about the effectiveness of all these newfangled ideas. Roger was a strong supporter of the bayonet, but he personally found the ladder sight even more useful, and the butt-mounted cleaning kit was nothing to sneer at, either.


The logistics bottleneck, as From had predicted, lay far less in the rifles than in the manufacture of their ammunition. There was plenty of lead for bullets, and the new bullet dies hadn't been a problem, but actually putting the cartridges together—even using Dell Mir's flashplant design—was a delicate, time-consuming, hand labor task, and not one that could be trusted to off-the-street casual labor. Even if simple assembly hadn't been a problem, no one in K'Vaern's Cove had ever imagined the rate of ammunition expenditure Pahner was projecting. An arquebusier did well to fire one shot every two minutes, and under normal circumstances probably wouldn't fire more than five to ten rounds in any engagement. Pahner was talking about issuing sixty rounds per day as the new riflemen's standard unit of fire, and he wanted a reserve of no less than four units of fire for the entire army before committing to action, and that didn't even consider the rounds they were simply going to have to expend in training. While each individual cartridge used very little gunpowder, hundreds of thousands of them used tons of the stuff, and given the competing needs of the artillery, the claymores, and the new rocket batteries, there simply wasn't enough powder to provide ammunition for the numbers of rifles which could, in theory, have been produced.


But what they could produce, Roger thought with a wicked smile, was going to be more than enough to give the Boman serious problems.


"And look at this," Rastar told him with an even more wicked grin of his own as he brought another weapon around from behind his back . . . then froze when three bead rifles instantly snapped up to cover him.


"Hey, come on!" he said. "It's me, Rastar."


"Yeah," Roger said, taking the pistol from the cavalryman, "but we've had another death threat. And the attempted assassination of Rus From. So they're a little twitchy." He looked the weapon over and smiled. "Again, very nice."


The weapon was a revolver, very similar in appearance to what had once been known as a Colt Dragoon, but much larger and with some significant design peculiarities to fit the Mardukan hand. It was lighter than the rifles—with no more than a mere twenty-millimeter bore—and it was also a seven-shot weapon, not a six-shooter. The rear of the cylinder had nipples for the copper percussion caps the alchemists' guild was producing in quantity under Despreaux's direction, but the biggest differences (besides an odd indent in the grip so that it could be held more easily with a false-hand) were the fact that it was double action, not single, and that it was a swing-out cylinder design. Obviously, the firer was supposed to swing the cylinder out and slide more of Dell Mir's flashplant-bagged cartridges into place from the front, base end first, then cap the chambers, and lock the cylinder back into place, which would make it much quicker to reload than the cap-and-ball revolvers of ancient Earth.


"Really nice," Roger said, handing it back. "Of course, it would break my wrist if I tried to fire it."


"It's not my fault you're a wimp," the Northerner said, taking his prize back.


"Ha! We'll see who's a wimp in a month's time," Roger replied. "How many of these are we producing?"


"As many as possible," Rastar said with a gesture of dismissal. "The machining is more complicated than for the rifles, and we can't just convert existing arquebus barrels, and there are some problems with about a quarter of them—they break for some reason, after a couple of shots. I got the first four."


"Of course," Roger said. Rastar was not only the commander of the Northern cavalry but also far and away the most dangerous pistoleer, himself included, the prince had ever seen. "I suppose we should thank goodness for pumps, pumps, and more pumps. Those industries are certainly coming in handy. Are you scheduled for the exercise this afternoon?"


"Yes," the Northerner replied with a grimace. "Maps, maps, and more maps."


"It's good for the soul," Roger said with a grin.


"So is killing Boman," Rastar said. "Although, at this point, anyone would do."


* * *


"I think we're going to have to kill somebody, Sergeant," Fain said.


"Why?" Julian asked, looking up from the meal on the low table. He couldn't wait to get back to someplace that had decent chairs. Hell, he couldn't wait to get back to someplace that had decent food.


"Show him, Erkum," the Diaspran noncom replied.


The huge private held up a spring to show it to the Marine, then started to stretch it. The heavy spring resisted at first, then began stretching outward . . . until it snapped with a brittle sound.


"Skimping on the springs again, huh?" Julian said, dropping his fork and picking up his sword. "You'd think they'd learn."


"Yeah, but this foundry's owned by one of the members of the Council," Fain said. "Which was very carefully pointed out when I saw the shop foreman about this."


"How much did he offer?" the Marine asked, taking out his pad and punching a message into it.


"A kusul of silver," the Diaspran replied with a shrug. "It was insulting."


"Damn straight," Julian laughed. "Maybe up front, or weekly, but a one-time offer after they'd already been caught? Jesus."


"So what are you going to do?"


"I guess we're just going to have to explain to him what the words 'quality process improvement' mean. You, me, Erkum, and a squad from the New Model. Get it set up."


* * *


"Who is," Julian ostentatiously consulted the scrap of paper in his hand, "Tistum Path?"


"I am," said a heavyset Mardukan, appearing out of the gloom of the foundry.


The forging room was hot. Unbelievably hot, like a circle of Hell. Julian could have sworn that water left on any surface would start to boil in a second. There were two ceramic furnaces where steel—spring steel, in this case—was being formed over forced-air coke fires, and the fierce flames and bubbling steel contributed to a choking atmosphere that must have been nearly lethal to the Mardukans working in it. Which wasn't going to dissuade Julian one bit from his appointed duty.


"Ah, good. Pleased to meet you," the sergeant said cheerfully, walking up to the foundry manager . . . and kicked him in the groin.


The squad of riflemen behind him were all from the New Model Army's Bastar Battalion of pikes. As the workers in the foundry grabbed various implements, the Diasprans' brand-new rifles came up and the percussion hammers clicked ominously as they were cocked and leveled at the workers. There had been enough demonstrations of the weapons by now that the workers froze.


The mastoid analogue behind a Mardukan's ear wasn't quite as susceptible as the same point on a human, but it would do. The hardwood bludgeon bounced off it nicely as the shop manager was driven to his knees.


Julian ran a length of chain around the stunned foreman's ankles and gave a thumbs-up to Fain, who began hauling on the pulley arrangement. The sliding crane was designed for lifting multi-ton crucibles of boiling steel, and it made short work of lifting the three-meter Mardukan into the air. As the manager recovered, Julian threw a rope about his horns and used it to drag him along until he was suspended in the flaring heat over one of the furnaces.


"Here's the deal!" the Marine shouted to the head-down Mardukan. "Springs are very important in weapons, and you, Tistum Path, are very important in the manufacture of springs. This is a vital position you hold, and one that I hope you are worthy of! Because if you're not—" the human hawked and spat into the furnace, but the glob of mucus exploded before it hit the surface of the bubbling steel "—it would just be a senseless waste of Mardukan life."


"You can't do this to me!" the Mardukan screamed, coughing and squirming frantically in the fumes blasting up from the furnace. "Don't you know who owns this place?"


"Of course we do, and we're going to be visiting him next. He's going to be terribly disappointed to learn that one of his employees misunderstood his orders to produce the best quality material, and damn the cost. Don't you think?"


"That's not what he said!"


"I know that." The Marine shook his head. "But there's no way he's going to admit that he told you to cut the cost, no matter what kind of shit you produced. So we're going to explain to him, in a gentle way, that while profits are the lifeblood of any economy, the contract he signed was supposed to include a reasonable profit margin without cheating. And we're already paying top dollar, so since we can't figure out which springs are shit and which ones aren't, he's going to be taking them all back. And replacing them. With good ones."


"Impossible! Who's going to pay for it?"


"Your boss," the Marine hissed, stepping into the blazing heat from the furnace. The red light of the boiling steel turned his angular face into a painting of Satan gloating over a new-caught sinner. "And the next time I have to come back here, both of you are going to be nothing but trace elements in the steel. Is that perfectly clear?"


* * *


"These humans are insane!" the councilor complained hotly.


"All the more reason to support getting them on their way," Wes Til replied, rolling a bit of spring in his fingers.


"They threatened me—me! They said they'd melt me in my own steel! I want their heads!"


"Hmmm?" Til looked up from the spring. "Wouldn't have anything to do with cracked revolver frames, broken springs, and exploding barrels, would it?"


"Those aren't my fault," the other Mardukan sniffed. "Just because a few of my workers were cutting corners, probably to line their own pockets—"


"Oh be quiet!" Til snapped. "You signed contracts. From the point of view of the humans, you're responsible, and you know as well as I do that the courts would back them up if there was time for that. But there isn't time, and they don't really seem to be very interested in half-measures, now do they? So, under the circumstances, I suggest that you do exactly as they say, unless you want your heir to be the one who does it."


"Is that a threat?"


"No, it's more on the order of a statement. They seem to have the most remarkable intelligence system. For example, they've already tracked down the person who ordered the attack on Rus From. Or so I would guess. You notice that Ges Stin hasn't been gracing us with his presence lately?"


"Yes. You know something?"


"No. However, it's lately become common knowledge that it was Ges Stin who ordered the attack. It's even common knowledge who planned the attack at his orders and actually paid those unfortunate assassins. None of them, however, are anywhere to be found."


"Ges Stin has many shipping interests. He could be in the southern states by now."


"Hmmm. Perhaps."


"What does Turl Kam think of this?"


"He thinks that he's down one competitor for the fisherman's guild vote," the merchant said with a grunt of laughter.


"I will not be intimidated," the other councilor declared defiantly.


"The sliming on your forehead gives you the lie. But you don't need to be," Til replied. "Just make sure your shops produce what they promised. Instead of weak crap." The spring he'd been flexing broke with a pop. "You really don't want a few thousand people with rifles in their true-hands . . . discussing the problem with you. Do you?"


 


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