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CHAPTER THIRTY

Dersal Quan stood on the foundry floor and watched in disbelief as the human-designed device sliced through his best bronze as if it were qwanshu wood. He'd had even more doubts than he'd cared to express to Wes Til when he discovered just how many pieces of artillery the insane humans and their Diaspran henchmen expected to cast in the ridiculously short time limit they'd imposed. Now it looked to him as if they might actually manage to meet their preposterous production schedule.


The Quan foundries had been among the largest and wealthiest in K'Vaern's Cove for generations. They'd provided over half the Navy's total bombards since Quan's father's time, and at least a third of the bells hung in the Cove's towers to the glory of Krin also bore the Quan founder's stamp. Quan had never doubted that his modelers and patternmakers could produce the forms or that his casters could pour the guns, but pouring bronze wasn't like pouring concrete. It had to be done right, and there were no corners that could be cut unless one really liked bombards which were honeycombed with flaws and failed when proofed . . . or blew up in combat, always at the most inopportune time possible. And even after that time requirement had been allowed for, the need to bore out the guns was the single most time-consuming element of the entire process.


The true secret to a bombard of superior accuracy lay in the care taken in the preparation of its bore and the shot it would fire, although it had taken the gunners generations to realize how critical things like windage and uniform bores truly were. In fact, Quan's own father had begun his apprenticeship in the family business manufacturing cannonballs out of stone, and the art of cutting and reaming bores properly had been practically invented by one of Quan's uncles. It was a multistage process which required days for each piece, and no one had ever imagined that someone would demand so many guns in so short a time period, which meant that no one had the machinery to bore out more than a half dozen or so guns simultaneously. Not only that, but the crazy humans had insisted on a shot size which no one in K'Vaern's Cove had ever used, which meant that none of the boring equipment which already existed was the right size, and that the foundries also found themselves forced to produce new shot molds even as they cast the gun tubes themselves.


But the humans had insisted that there were ways around the problems, and so Quan had accepted their contracts, trusting Krin to prove the diminutive foreign lunatics knew what they were talking about. And trusting in the Cove's courts to absolve him of legal responsibility for failure when it turned out that they didn't.


As it happened, they had known what they were talking about, and now he watched in lingering disbelief as the ebony-skinned human called Aburia switched off her device and pushed the transparent goggles up on her forehead while one of her K'Vaernian assistants spun the handcrank which retracted the boring head from the new piece.


"What did you say this is called?" Quan asked, waving a true-hand at the device.


"I don't know that it really has a name," Aburia told him with one of the "shrugs" humans seemed so fond of. "It's sort of a bastardized field expedient, actually. The cutting head is only three of our bayonet blades, and Julian and Poertena made the shaft by welding a couple of broke-down plasma rifle barrels together and then splicing in a powerplant from Russell's powered armor. Your own people put together the rack-and-pinion system to move it, and your shop foreman and I worked out the clamps and brackets to hold everything still while we drill."


She shrugged again, and Quan clapped hands in a gesture of profound respect, tinged with surprise.


"I didn't believe you could really do this," he admitted. "Even watching you, I'm not sure I believe it now! Seeing a shaft that thin—" he gestured at the slender rod, no thicker than a human finger, which Julian and Poertena had welded together with something called a laser kit "—take that sort of load without even flexing isn't just impossible, it's preposterous! It ought to be wobbling all over the place, especially since you had to piece it together in the first place out of hollow tubing. There's certainly not any way that it should be allowing you to cut such uniformly true bores! And I've never heard of any knife blade that could pare away bronze like so much soft cheese and never even need sharpening."


"Well, sir," the human said with one of those teeth-showing smiles Quan still found mildly disturbing, "we haven't used bronze for something like this in close to two thousand of our years. We've got a lot better alloys now, and a blade with an edge a single molecule wide will cut just about anything without dulling down so's anyone would notice!"


"So your Julian said," Quan agreed, "although I'm still not very certain just what these 'molecules' you keep talking about might be. Not that I suppose it really matters all that much as long as your wizards' spells keep working as promised."


"The Regiment usually manages to hold up its end, sir," Aburia assured him. "Especially when we've got a member of the Imperial Family with his ass in a crack!"


* * *


"How about the rocket batteries?" Pahner asked.


He, Rus From, and Bistem Kar stood on a catwalk watching Dersal Quan talk to Corporal Aburia.


"They are progressing better than I'd anticipated," From told him. "The Cove's pump artificers have set up to machine the 'venturis' in quantity, and the test rockets have performed well. The biggest problem, of course, is that they consume even more gunpowder than the new artillery will."


"Price of doing business if we want a decent bursting charge at the terminal end of the flight," Pahner said with a shrug.


"That's understood," Kar rumbled in his subterranean voice, "and I've been most impressed by the weapons' effectiveness. Yet that doesn't change Rus's point. We have only so much powder, and at the moment we have at least three different things to use every sedant of it on. We're doing our best to get production levels back up, but even if we had every powder plant working at full capacity, we would still feel a serious pinch." He shook his head in one of the gestures the K'Vaernians had already picked up from their human visitors. "You humans may be the most deadly fighters anyone has ever seen, but the strains your way of fighting put on the quartermaster are enormous."


"You only think they are," Pahner replied with a chuckle. "Actually, the logistics for an army equipped with such simple weapons as this are child's play compared to the supply problems we normally have to deal with. You folks are the most advanced and innovative society we've come across yet on our journey, but you're only really getting started on what we call the 'Industrial Revolution.' Trust me, by the time you hit your stride, you'll look back on this as a relatively minor effort!"


"Assuming that we survive the Boman, of course," Kar pointed out.


"Oh, I feel confident that you'll survive them," Pahner said. "Whether we succeed in crushing them in a single campaign or not, we're going to do so much damage to them—and you guys are going to learn so much in the process—that their poor barbarian butts are pocked in the long run, whatever happens."


"Perhaps," Kar agreed. "Yet for that to happen, we must do enough damage and give our people enough confidence in the final outcome for them to see the wisdom in sustaining the struggle to that point."


"Which is where we come in," Pahner said with a nod. "Believe me, Bistem, we've figured that out. Don't worry. We'll give you and your people the basic skills and tools you'll need, and we'll play the 'Krin-sent champions' to get your army into the field in the first place. But don't sell yourself or the Guard short. Between you, Bogess, and the Diaspran cadre, you'll be able to hold up your end without us just fine if you have to after we leave."


* * *


"But what do they want all these wagons for?" Thars Kilna demanded in the tone of a person who knew no one could answer his question.


"Do you know, I think they forgot to tell me," Miln Sahna told him sarcastically. "I'm sure it was only an inadvertent oversight though. Here—you put the wheel on this end of the shaft, and I'll run ask Bistem Kar. When he explains it to me, I'll come right back and tell you."


"Very funny," Kilna growled. "You keep right on telling yourself you're a wit, Miln—at least you're half right. In the meantime, I still want to know why in Krin's name they need so many wagons! It just doesn't make sense."


"Um." Sahna grunted sourly, but he had to admit his fellow apprentice had a point. Not that either of them was complaining, precisely. The cart-makers' guild usually had orders to fill in a place like K'Vaern's Cove, but they were seldom as busy as they would have liked. Carts and wagons were very useful within the confines of a city, but they weren't a lot of use anywhere else, given what weather tended to do to roads on Marduk. Once you got off a paved surface, it made much more sense to rely on pack turom or pagee than to drag a wheeled vehicle through hub-deep mud. The fact that wheels would let a single beast pull a far heavier load than it could actually carry when paved surfaces were available was beside the point when those surfaces weren't available . . . which was virtually all the time.


Of course, the new wheels the humans had designed were different from the heavy, solid ones Kilna and Sahna had been learning to make before their arrival. Like the wheels for the new gun carriages, their spoked design was both stronger and far lighter, and if their steel rims were preposterously expensive, they should also make them last much longer. Not to mention that those rims were almost three times as wide as the rest of the wheel, which offered a huge decrease in ground pressure and should make them at least a little less inclined to sink into soft ground than traditional ones. But still . . .


"I don't know what they want with them," Sahna admitted finally. "All I know is that they told us they were important, they're paying us to make them, and we're learning new techniques no one else ever heard of." He gave the handclap of a Mardukan shrug. "Aside from that, all I can tell you is that they must have a lot of stuff they want to haul somewhere!"


* * *


Krindi Fain looked on with interest as Prince Roger examined the rifle. It was a tiny thing, compared to the weapons equipping the new rifle battalions, but the native sergeant had been around humans long enough not to nurture any foolish theories about "small" meaning "not lethal."


"Nice work, Julian," Roger said, trying the balance of the rifle. Unlike the Mardukan-scaled weapons, this one hadn't been made by converting existing arquebus barrels, which meant it represented far more man hours than one of the mass-produced weapons. On the other hand, the rifle shops had produced only forty of them.


The prince shouldered the rifle, checking the weld between cheek and buttstock, and grunted in satisfaction. It wasn't the custom-fitted stock of his hunting rifle, but it was excellent for a one-size-fits-all military weapon, and he lowered it once more to open the bolt.


There were distinct differences between that bolt and those of the Mardukan-scale rifles. In fact, aside from the fact that it was made out of old-fashioned steel and had no provision for conversion to semi-auto mode, it was effectively identical to the bolt of Roger's own rifle, complete to the small electronic contact on the bolt face, and he laughed.


"Remember that little bet beside the river, Adib?" he asked, and Julian chuckled just a bit sourly as he recalled the day he and Roger had perched in adjacent treetops, posted to cover the troops swimming a Mardukan river against the voracious predators who called that river home.


"Yes, Sir, I do," he said. "Cost me quite a few push-ups when I lost, as I recall."


"Yep," the prince said with a grin, closing the bolt and admiring the smoothness of the action. "But what I was thinking about was your suggestion that I should get myself a bead rifle because of its magazine capacity. Seems to me there's just a smidgeon of ironic humor in the situation now."


Julian snorted, but he also had to nod in agreement, and it was hard not to chuckle himself as he remembered all the times Captain Pahner—and Sergeant Adib Julian, for that matter—had groused about the way the prince's old-fashioned, nonstandard "smoke pole" complicated the ammunition supply problem. The fact that the prince would be unable to fire military bead rounds out of it when he ran out of chemical-powered ammo had been a big part of it, but so had the sheer grunt work involved in lugging along the cases of ammunition the prince (still in original, patented, pain-in-the-ass mode) had insisted on bringing down to the planet. It hadn't been all that bad once they got pack animals to take the weight instead of carting it on their own backs, but Roger had brought over nine thousand rounds down with him, which had represented a pretty severe case of overkill . . . at least until the company discovered just how nasty Mardukan jungle fauna truly was.


Most of the Marines had been prepared to forgive Roger his foibles when it turned out that his big magnum was the most effective antipredator armament they had, particularly in his skilled hands, but there'd still been the odd grumble over his habit of policing up his brass. Modern military weapons left no cartridge cases to worry about, but Roger's personal cannon littered the ground with thumb-thick brass cases every time he used it, and he'd flatly insisted on picking up after himself.


Most of it, Julian was certain, went back to the fact that even the old Roger had always taken his responsibilities seriously when in the field on safari, whether anyone else had realized it or not. But there'd been another reason, although no one had known it, since no one had bothered to ask the prince about his motives.


The Parkins and Spencer was the crown jewel of big game rifles, and Roger's cherished weapon had probably cost more than most luxury aircars. But it was also intended to be taken on safari in places so far out back of beyond that ammunition shops might be few and far between, and because of that, its ammunition had been designed for reuse and ease in reloading. The electronic igniter built into the base of each case was certified for a minimum of one hundred discharges without replacement, and although the cases themselves were still called "brass," they were actually a much more advanced alloy which could be reloaded almost infinitely without deforming, cracking, or splitting.


Which meant, given Roger's mania for cleaning up his shooting stands, that the company still had well over eight thousand perfectly serviceable rounds of ammunition, once they were reloaded with black powder. True, they wouldn't generate the velocity and kinetic energy the same rounds had when filled with the considerably more sophisticated propellant they'd been designed to use, but the cases were strong enough to take maximum capacity loads of black powder, which still produced something no one in his right mind wanted hitting him. And a kick like an irritated flar-ta . . . not to mention a smoke cloud from Hell.


Still and all, that ammo's existence had certainly justified manufacturing forty custom rifles to provide each surviving human with one, plus spares. It gave the company around two hundred rounds per rifle, too—more like three hundred and fifty for each of the surviving riflemen. That wasn't a spit in a hurricane compared to the sort of ammunition expenditures bead rifles used up on full auto, or even in three-round burst mode, but it was a hell of a lot for a bolt action rifle. Not to mention the fact that at the moment the company had a total of exactly one hundred and eleven bead rifle rounds.


And Julian knew exactly how much it amused the prince to see the entire surviving company carrying around his ammo after all the grief the Marines had given him over his choice of weapon.


"I still say it's a pain in the ass," the sergeant said after a moment. "Yeah, yeah—I know all about 'field expedients.' But the projectile drop on these things is a bitch!"


"That's because you Marine pussies are spoiled," Roger told him smugly as he handed the weapon back over. "The muzzle velocities on those bead rifles of yours are so high they've got about the same ballistic profile as a laser over their effective sight range. This kind of weapon takes a real marksman!"


"Oh, yeah?" Julian challenged. "In that case, let's see you fire some of these black powder monsters out of something besides that Parkins and Spencer of yours!"


"A petty thought, Sergeant," Roger said loftily. "Very petty."


Both of them grinned at that, because unlike the rifles the K'Vaernians were making up for the humans, Roger's big magnum had a built in system to measure projectile velocities without a chronograph. Better still, it automatically fed the information on the last round fired to the rifle's holographic sight unit, which, in turn, automatically adjusted the sight's point of aim. Just knowing exactly where to aim wasn't enough to make a crack shot out of anyone who hadn't mastered the techniques to make sure the bullet actually went there, but it did help to explain some of Roger's uncanny ability to make the really long-range shots.


"Well, I never thought I'd admit it," Julian said, "but I guess I really am glad you brought that smoke pole along. Mind you, I'd still prefer a bead rifle—or to have the damned plasma rifles on-line!—but if I can't have that, this is a pretty damned good substitute. Thanks, Your Highness."


"Don't mention it, Sarge," Roger said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Remember, it's my imperial ass, too, if we come up short against the Boman."


Julian nodded, and the prince smacked his shoulder again, nodded briskly, and strode off, followed by Cord and his assigned bodyguards.


"Sure it is," the NCO said, so quietly that Fain could barely hear him. "Sure it is . . . and the only thing you're worried about, too, I bet!"


The human laughed, shook his head, and turned back to the native sergeant.


"Now, Krindi, about those bayonets—"


* * *


Poertena stood beside the building ways and watched the swarming K'Vaernian shipwrights at their work.


There was no real possibility of completing the vessels the humans would require for their transoceanic voyage out of the resources currently available in K'Vaern's Cove. But there was enough seasoned timber to begin laying down the keels and frames, and the fairing battens were already in place. The light planking ran over the frames Poertena had selected to establish the lines of the hull, and the local shipwrights were busily setting up the intermediate frames within the template so established. All in all, the little Pinopan was more than satisfied with how quickly his teams were working. And they were "his" teams.


Once the Council had committed to full-bore support for the shipbuilding project, that carefully hoarded, officially "nonexistent" timber had started falling out of certain artfully concealed stockpiles, and the shipwrights' guild had turned out hundreds of trained shipbuilders. At first, enthusiasm had been limited, despite the Council's insistence and financial support. However, even the grumpiest and most conservative of the workers had been delighted to have work at all, given the current besieged state of the city, and there'd been a certain excitement over building such large ships to such a novel design. And what Poertena had been able to show them about molding lines and lofting hulls properly had been devoured with a burning passion. But for all that, there'd also been a great deal of skepticism, for no one had ever suggested the hull form and, particularly, the rig Poertena had designed.


Most of that skepticism had disappeared once he got his "technology demonstrator" into the water, however. Given the support of the Council, he'd been able to get the ten-meter test vehicle built and launched considerably more quickly than he'd anticipated. In fact, he'd managed it almost as quickly as Captain Pahner had demanded, and he was justifiably pleased with himself for the accomplishment.


He was also deeply satisfied with how well the new craft had performed. Some adjustments had been required, but the basic hull form was a well established and thoroughly proven one, used all over Pinopa and virtually identical to what had once been called a "Baltimore clipper" on Earth. Although Poertena had worked for almost four standard years in his uncle's yard on Pinopa to help defray his college expenses, this was the first time in decades that he'd turned his hand to any sort of design work, and he was actually a bit surprised that he'd gotten it as close to right as he had. He'd been forced to move the mainmast of his twin-masted design about one meter aft, and there was a little more hoist to the big gaff foresail, which was actually the primary sail for this rig, than there really ought to have been, as well. Like most Pinopans, all of whom had a certain mania for fast ships, Poertena had a tendency to over-spar his designs. Unlike some of his fellows, though, he also recognized that he did, and he'd modified his sail plan accordingly.


Despite those minor flaws, however, the demonstrator had been a complete success, particularly when it came to laying the doubts of the local maritime community to rest. The expressions and consternation of the Cove's grizzled captains as they watched the half-sized topsail schooner go bounding across the dark blue of the K'Vaernian Sea, leaving a ruler-straight wake of creamy white as she sailed almost twenty degrees closer to the wind than any other ship in the world could have, had been priceless. And well they should have been. The ability to sail a single compass point—just a hair over eleven degrees—closer to the wind than another ship meant that the more weatherly vessel would be almost four minutes ahead, all other things being equal, after sailing a mere thirty kilometers. Beating dead to windward, a ship which could sail no closer than fifty degrees to the wind (which was better than any of the locally produced designs could manage) would have to travel fifty-two kilometers to make good thirty-two, whereas Poertena's new design would have to travel only forty-two kilometers, or only eighty percent of the same run. That was an advantage, over a voyage of many hundred kilometers, which no merchant skipper could fail to appreciate, and it didn't even consider the fact that being able to sail closer to the wind than a pursuer could would provide an invaluable insurance policy against pirates . . . or that the new rig required a much smaller crew of sail-handlers. Those thoughts had suggested themselves almost instantly to the captains watching Poertena's design go through her paces, and when she spun on her heel, shooting neatly across the wind to settle on the opposite tack and go racing onward at a speed no other ship could have sustained, those same captains had been ready to kill for ships of their own like her.


To the Mardukans, Poertena's little ship was pure magic, and they regarded him with the sort of awe which was the just due of any irascible wizard. There might be questions about the humans' endless store of innovations in some quarters, but aside from two or three dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, there were no longer any in the shipbuilding community. And while the Cove's seamen still had enormous reservations about the wisdom—or sanity—of any attempt to cross the ocean, they were thoroughly prepared to embrace the new rigging concept and hull form, and Poertena had used their desire to master the new techniques unscrupulously. He was perfectly willing to teach them to anyone . . . as long as his students agreed to sign on for the voyage. More than a few would-be students disappeared into the woodwork when he explained his conditions, but a much larger number agreed. Not without trepidation, and not—he was certain—without comforting themselves in many cases with the belief that the voyage might never happen, but they agreed.


He suspected that Wes Til's strong backing had more than a little to do with that. As Til had half suggested he might at the first Council meeting, the canny merchant had agreed to subsidize the cost of building the new ships in return for Pahner's promise that the ships and crews would be his once the humans were delivered to the far side of the ocean. The fact that the Council had also agreed to pick up a third of the construction cost, and that his shipyards were building them (and thus acquiring an enormous headstart on his competition where the new techniques and technology were concerned and recouping a good chunk of his own outlays) had been a factor as well, of course, but Poertena had no problems with that. Even with the Council's contribution to the cost, Til was picking up the tab on an enormously expensive project, and he certainly deserved to show a handsome return on the risk he was running. Besides, his contacts in the seafaring community, especially with Turl Kam's backing, had been essential to recruiting the sailors which the expedition would require.


Now the Pinopan stood in the dockyard, watching the work progress, and hoped that the campaign Captain Pahner and the Mardukan commanders were putting together would come off as planned.


If it didn't, he was going to run out of timber in about another two weeks.


* * *


Roger was devoutly thankful for his ear plugs as he walked behind the line of firing Mardukans with Cord. The concussion from each shot was chest-compressing, which was hardly surprising, since the "rifles" would have been considered light artillery by most humans.


Each firing pit held a firer, a trainee coach, and a human or Diaspran safety coach. The targets were outlines of a Boman warrior, including an outline of an upraised ax. Many of the axes had been blown away by an avalanche of bullets over the last few weeks, but the system still worked. When a recessed metal plate in the primary target zone was struck, the target would fall, then rise back up a moment later. Hits anywhere else, even in the head, wouldn't drop the target.


Roger saw a spark on the head of the target in front of him and lay down on the ground behind the firer. It gave him a better perspective on the shooting while he listened to the safety coach.


"Get your barrel lower." The trainee coach was a Diaspran, a former Laborer of God, to judge from the muscles in his shoulders and back, with a deep, powerful voice which managed to carry through the thunder of rifle fire. "Shoot that barbarian bastard in the gut! It hurts them worse."


"Also," Roger put in from behind the pit, "a bullet shot low will tend to hit something even if you miss your target. One that goes flying overhead does nothing but let that barbarian bastard through to kill you. And your buddies."


"Excuse me, Sir!" The Diaspran started to scramble to his feet. "I didn't realize you were back there."


Roger waved all three back down.


"Continue what you're doing. We don't have time for all that saluting and scraping and bowing. We pull out for D'Sley in three days, and every one of us had better be ready." He turned to the K'Vaernian private in the fox hole. "A few days—a week—and you're going to be in one of these facing real Boman. Barbarians with axes that have no purpose in life but to kill you. Every single time you squeeze that trigger, I want you to keep that in mind. Got it?"


"Yes, Your Highness," the K'Vaernian said.


From his looks, the rifleman had been a fisherman until a month and a half ago, with nothing to worry about but whether his boat's nets would bring in enough fish to keep the wolf from the door, or whether a sudden storm would send the boat to the bottom, like so many before it. Now he was faced with radically different stresses, like the possibility that someone he'd never met, and had never hurt, would try to kill him, and the question of whether or not he could kill in return. Roger could see the confusion in his face, and produced a smile.


"Just keep your aim low, and follow the orders of your officers, Troop," he said with a chuckle. "And if your officers are dead, and your sergeants look white, remember, it's ruin to run. Just lay down and hold your ground and wait for supports, like a soldier."


"Yes, Sir, Your Highness!"


Roger pushed himself to his feet, nodded to the other two, and continued down the line with his asi.


"There was something suspiciously polished about that last statement, 'Your Highness,' " Cord observed, and Roger smiled.


"More of the Captain's Kipling," he said, "I ran across it in a book at the Academy, but I'd almost completely forgotten about it. It's called 'The Half-Made Recruit.' 'Just take open order, lie down and sit tight, and wait for supports like a soldier. Wait, wait, wait like a soldier. Soldier of the Queen.'"


"Ah," the shaman said. "A good sentiment for them, then. And it sounds familiar."


"Really?" the prince looked up at his asi, wondering just how much Kipling Pahner had shared with the old shaman, but refrained from repeating the last stanza of the poem:



When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your God like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier.
Soldier of the Queen.


* * *


Turl Kam copied the posture of the humans around him, standing with his foot and peg not too far apart and all four hands clasped behind his back. The blocks of fresh-minted soldiers striding by were impressive. He had to admit that, yet he wished that he was as inwardly confident as his outward appearance proclaimed.


"We've poured out money and political capital like water," the one-legged ex-fisherman said. "I've bullied friends, tormented enemies, and lied to everyone but my wife—and the only reason I didn't lie to her was because she agreed with me and was busy helping me lie to everyone else. So tell me one more time that you're going to be able to do something with this army."


Captain Pahner looked at the ranks of four-armed natives, brand-new harnesses polished, their freshly made pikes, assegais, or rifles gleaming under the bright pewter sky.


"There are no guarantees in war, Sir. The troops have trained hard in the time they've had, we've picked the best officers we could find, and we've got pretty damn good initial intelligence on the enemy. That puts us in the best position we could realistically expect, but all I can absolutely promise is that we'll try. Hard."


"Your plan is complex," the chairman grumped. "Too complex."


"It is," Pahner agreed. "Especially for a green army. But if we're going to take the field with you, we've got to come up with a way to hit them hard and do it fast, and at least there are three bullets in our gun. Any one of them could—probably would—kill the Boman. Certainly we should eliminate them as a threat for the remainder of this year if even one of them works properly. If all three work, then we should eliminate the Boman threat permanently . . . and reduce our own casualties enormously."


"I suppose that will have to be good enough," the chairman said, sighing.


"I will tell you this," Pahner said, after a moment. "You, and your society, will never be the same again. Once the genie's out of the bottle, you can't put him back."


"Excuse me?" Kam looked at the human in perplexity, and Pahner shrugged.


"Sorry. It's an expression my own people use. What it means is that once a new idea or a new invention is turned loose, it takes on a life of its own, and you can't get rid of it. These weapons won't just go away, and using any new weapon just gets easier and easier . . . especially if they let you kick the shit out of your enemies on the cheap."


"I suppose so," the chairman said. "But perhaps this will be the last war. Surely we'll learn from this, put away these toys, and become a society devoted to peaceful trade."


The Marine looked up at the towering Mardukan, and it was his turn to sigh.


"Let's talk about this after the battle, okay?"


* * *


"Bravo Company?" Fain stepped up to the sergeant assembling the riflemen.


"Yes, Sir," the K'Vaernian NCO said, and snapped to attention.


The docks behind the group of K'Vaernian riflemen were a picture of frenzied activity. Hundreds of watercraft, from barges barely fit to navigate across the Bay to grain ships that normally plied their trade along the coast, were lined up, disgorging soldiers and cargo. As Fain watched, a column of pikes formed up and marched inland. Beyond them, one of the new bronze "field pieces" was being swayed out of a grain ship's hold and down to the dock, where its limber and team of draft turom were already waiting for it.


D'Sley's whole lifeblood had been trade. Located in the swamps created by the Tam River as it neared the sea, the city had controlled the estuary of that vital waterway. Since the estuary was relatively shallow, most seacraft had unloaded their cargo on these docks and cross loaded it to barges designed for river trade. Most of the latter had been destroyed or stolen by the Boman, but there had been numerous shipyards and stockpiles of building materials scattered around the city, most of which hadn't been lost, stolen, or burned.


"Don't call me 'Sir'!" the Diaspran sergeant snapped. "I work for a living. This is your guide. You know where you're supposed to go?"


"Southwest wall," the K'Vaernian NCO said, and nodded to the D'Sley woman who was to guide them to their positions.


"You don't have a problem with following a woman, do you?" Fain asked. There damn well would have been problems for a Diaspran unit, and he knew it, but these K'Vaernians didn't seem to mind.


"Not at all," the K'Vaernian said.


"Okay, move out when you have eight out of ten of your people. We'll round up the stragglers back here and send them along."


"We're ready to go now, then," the other NCO said. "Except I don't know where our captain is."


"He'll be along. Most of the officers are in officer's call at the moment." Fain handed the other sergeant a hastily prepared map. "Here. There's been some damage to the city. This should help, if you get lost. Move out."


"Yes, Si—Sergeant," the K'Vaernian said as he took the map, then turned to the company of riflemen. "Okay, you maggots! Fall in and get ready to move! Act like you've got a pair!"


"You're ready?" Fain asked the guide, who kept her eyes on the ground but made a gesture of agreement.


"Yes, Lord."


"Don't call me— Oh, never mind. Just don't let anyone bully you, and guide them well, all right?"


"Yes, Lord," the woman said. "I won't fail you."


"Don't fail yourself," the Diaspran responded. "Good luck."


The infantry marched off on the guide's heels, merging with the swarm of pikemen and spearmen funneling into the city, and Fain looked over his shoulder as the first troop of cavalry pounded past towards the distant, shattered gate. Someone in the next regiment raised a cheer, and the officer at the head of the cantering troop flourished his sword until they were out of sight in the ruined city.


"And good luck to you, you poor bastards," the sergeant said softly.


* * *


Roger looked out at the city through the open flap of the command tent. D'Sley had been much smaller than K'Vaern's Cove, but it had, by all reports, been quite beautiful in its heyday. The construction of the city on a rise in the middle of the tree-filled swamp had run heavily to wood, however, and when the Boman horde washed over its low walls, not even the Mardukan climate had been able to prevent the fires from getting out of hand.


Some of the piles of corpses near the docks, most of which were, thankfully, done decomposing, showed clear signs of having been heated to the point where bone burned. It must have been a veritable firestorm, so there wasn't much to be found in the way of sights. Just scattered chimneys, blackened stubs of pillars, and the curtain walls. Most of the lumber and shipyards, though, had been outside the walls, fortunately.


"It looks like the city was stripped before being burned," Julian was saying. "There are no signs of grain in the ruins of the granaries, and all the worked materials are gone from the ironworks. All the ore that should be there is, though."


"So did they use boats, or carry it out by land?" Pahner asked.


"Land," Rus From said. "The trail to Sindi is badly damaged from heavy traffic, and there are no indications of barge construction. I'd say everything left by land."


"What's available in the shipyards?" the Marine CO asked, swiveling his head to look at Poertena.


"Ever't'ing we need," the Pinopan said with a huge grin. "We can get to work shippin' it back home to tee Cove right away."


"Do it," the captain said, and turned to Fullea Li'it. "How's the transfer going?"


"Well," the widow answered, consulting a scroll of notes. "All of your infantry regiments are across. The cannon and rockets are all unloaded, and most of the provisions are across. We're cross loading to the barges, and that will be completed by tomorrow."


"Tor?"


"We're still pushing the field force through," the Guard's second in command and designated CO for the D'Sley garrison said. "My people will be coming ashore starting tomorrow. Don't worry, Captain. Whatever happens at Sindi, D'Sley is going to stay firmly in our hands."


"Rastar?"


"We had to take the long road around the end of the Bay," the pistol-covered Northerner said, taking a sip of wine, "but we're all here. We didn't run into anyone on the way, either, and we'll be ready to move out again in the morning."


"Get used to long days in the saddle; there are lots more to come," Pahner told him, and looked back to Julian. "The Boman haven't moved?"


"No, Sir. Not en masse. Parties of them have come and gone from the city, some of them quite large, but the main force there is sitting tight, and those nodal forces of theirs are sitting just as tight on what used to be other cities."


"I still don't understand that," Bistem Kar admitted candidly. "It's not like them at all."


"We already knew the bastards had learned not to throw themselves straight at fortified walls at Therdan," Rastar told him with bleak pride. "Obviously, they're sitting in place and waiting for starvation to weaken the Cove before they hit it."


"Oh, that part we understand," Tor Flain assured him. "They've never been smart and patient enough to try it before, but there can't be much doubt that that's exactly what they're doing. But it's the way they're deployed while they wait that bothers me."


"There could be several reasons for it, Tor," Bogess suggested. "For one thing, Julian was right about the additional security it offers their women and children."


Bistem Kar gave a hand-clap of conditional agreement, but he still looked decidedly unhappy, and Pahner didn't really blame him. The comfortable belief that all of the Boman were clustered in and around Sindi had turned out to be somewhat less than accurate once Gunny Jin and his LURPs got into position. Actually, smaller forces of a "mere" ten to fifteen thousand warriors each had been deployed to the sites of several of the other conquered League and non-League city-states . . . all of them on the far side of Sindi from D'Sley. But so far as Jin and his human and Mardukan scouts had been able to determine, those satellite forces had only a relative handful of women and children as supporting camp followers. At least half of all the Boman dependents were packed into Sindi with "only" thirty or forty thousand warriors to keep them company. What was more, the women and children in the city apparently came from every Boman clan and tribe, not just from those of the warriors deployed there.


"No doubt the sergeant is correct, at least in part," Kar told Bogess after a moment. "Certainly Sindi had the best fortifications of any of the states outside the League, and from all reports, they took the city—and its walls—pretty much intact. So, yes, it probably is the best and most easily defended place from which to protect their families. But Boman clans always stay together, and they trust no one—not even tribes of the same clan—to protect their women and children." He shook his head in a human-style gesture. "We've seen entirely too many innovations from the Boman to make me happy, and this strikes me as another. I would be much happier if I understood precisely what it's intended to accomplish."


"We're trying to figure that out, Sir," Julian told him, "but we haven't been able to get any of our listening devices actually into the city . . . yet. From what the shotgun mikes have picked up from the troops' bull sessions, though, it's pretty clear that this Kny Camsan has a whole bunch of new ideas, and this seems to be one of them. Lot of the troops aren't too crazy about some of his notions, either, but Camsan's the one who took over after Therdan, and he's kicked so much ass since then that he's almost like God. Or he was right after they took Sindi, anyway. It looks like some of the shine may be starting to wear off from the troops' perspective—kind of a 'but what have you done for us lately' sort of attitude."


The intel NCO gazed down at the map on the table for a few moments, then shrugged.


"Whatever he's up to, at least we know where the bastard is, and the whole Boman position is still pretty much a holding one. Mostly, they seem to be busy foraging around the cities, and I imagine they'll sit right where they are until they finish eating the countryside bare and don't have any choice but to move on out. In the meantime, though, we know where they are and, so far as we can tell, they don't know where we are.


"The scout teams report that the maps are fairly accurate," he continued. "There've been some changes—like the damage the roads have taken from the Boman's use, like the track from here to Sindi. But in general, the cavalry should be able to trust them."


"Good," Pahner said. "Better than I could've hoped. Rus, is the damage to the track going to slow up your work crews' transit?"


"Not appreciably." The cleric took a bite of apsimon. "They'll be mainly foot traffic, and they can keep to the shoulders if they have to. By the time we're ready for the caravans, we should have all the road repair gangs in place."


"You need to make the timetable," the Marine said warningly. "If you don't, that whole part of the plan is out the window."


The cleric shrugged all four shoulders.


"It's in the hands of the God, quite literally. Heavy storms will prevent us, but other than that, I see no reason to fear. We'll make the schedule, Captain Pahner, unless the God very specifically prevents."


"Fullea?"


"We'll be waiting," the D'Sley matron said. "We're already repairing the dock facilities, and things will go much quicker once we get some decent cranes back in action. We'll make our timetable."


"Rastar?"


"Hmmm? Oh, timetable. Not a problem. Just a ride in the country."


"I swear, you're getting as bad as Honal," Roger said with a chuckle.


"Ah, it's these beautiful pistols you gave me!" the Northerner prince enthused. "With such weapons, how can we fail?"


"You're not to become decisively engaged," Pahner warned.


"Not a chance, Captain," the Northerner promised much more seriously. "We've fought this battle before, and we didn't have any friends waiting for us that time. Don't worry; we aren't planning on leaving our horns on their mantels. Besides, I want to see what cannon do to them, and we won't have any of our own along."


"Bistem? Bogess?"


"It will be interesting," the K'Vaernian said. "Very interesting."


"A masterly understatement, but accurate," the Diaspran agreed.


"Interesting is fine, but are you ready?" Roger asked. "Some of the units still seem pretty scrambled."


"They'll be ready by tomorrow morning," Kar assured him, and Tor Flain nodded in agreement.


"All right," Pahner said, looking at the tent roof. "We'll transfer the bulk of the cavalry tomorrow. Once they're off, we'll embark the infantry. As we're doing all of that, we'll also push out aggressive patrols on this side of the river to screen our advance. Starting tomorrow."


He gazed up at the roof for a few more seconds, obviously running through a mental checklist, then looked at Roger.


"One small change," he said. "Roger, I want you to take over the Carnan Battalion of the New Model. That and one troop of cavalry—Rastar, you choose which."


"Yes, Captain." The Mardukan nodded.


"They're going to be moving with the infantry. Roger will command the combined force as a strategic reserve. Roger, look at putting turom under all the infantry."


"If you're thinking of a mobile infantry battalion, civan would be better," Roger said. "Also, aren't we going to need the turom elsewhere?"


"We'll see. If you can get them on turom in the next three days, they'll go upriver behind the cavalry screen. If you can't, they'll go with the infantry."


"Yes, Sir," the prince responded.


"Okay," the captain concluded. "Get as much rest as you can tonight. There won't be much from here on out."


 


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