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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Roger squatted by the side of the trail and tied his hair up in a knot. A crint called in the jungle, and he smiled.


"It's good to be back in action," he said.


"Maybe so," Cord replied repressively. "But I wish you would at least stay behind the scouts . . . as Captain Pahner instructed you to."


"I am behind the scouts," Roger said with a grin, and pointed to the south. "See? They're right over there."


The thrown-together force whose cavalry component had taken to calling itself—unofficially, at least—"The Basik's Own" had pounded up the muddy track from D'Sley as fast as the infantry's turom could go while the main army made the same trip by water. Now they were about a half-day short of the city itself, and a thin line of screening cavalry stretched south from them, bending back in an inverted "L" to cover the track from just west of Sindi back to the Bay while the labor gangs who couldn't be crammed into the available water craft completed the march from D'Sley behind it.


Roger had chosen an encampment along a shallow stream that cut the track. The waterway, no more than thigh deep to the turom, flowed out of the jungle to join with the Tam River just to the north. It would provide a landmark to place the force around and water for the civan and turom.


The prince himself had just climbed down from Patty when Turkol Bes, his infantry commander, rode up on his turom, dismounted, and clutched the inside of one thigh.


"God of the Water, none of the troops will be able to fight! They'll all be too busy rubbing their groins!" he groaned.


"You'll get used to it," Chim Pri laughed as he slid off his civan. "After a week or so, you'll get used to it."


"How are the turom?" Roger asked.


"They'll be okay," Bes said. Not long ago, the young battalion commander had been a simple wrangler working on the Carnan Canal in Diaspra, but only until the Carnan Labor Battalion had been drafted for the New Model Army at King Gratar's orders. Of all the workers in the battalion, Turkol Bes had repeatedly shown the greatest ability to think on his feet and make good decisions under pressure, and promotion had been rapid.


"It's not like they're carrying much weight," the former laborer continued. "But they're not used to going so fast."


"Too bad we couldn't put you on civan," Chim Pri said with another laugh. "You'd really love that."


"But they needed all the spare civan in the Cove for the main cavalry force," Roger pointed out. "Maybe after we get them back we can upgrade."


"Oh, no," Bes said. "I'll sit on a turom, if that's the cost for keeping up with the civan-boys. But I am not going to try to ride one of those vile and ill-tempered beasts."


"You do whatever it takes to complete the mission, Turkol," Roger pointed out. "Speaking of which, right now we don't have one. But we can expect to get used pretty soon, I think. Now that the labor force is in Sindi, the Captain's going to start spreading the cavalry screen back out to cover the troops still working on the road gangs, and he'll need us then. Maybe even sooner. So we need to start thinking about how that might work. This is ground we could be fighting over, so I want everyone to keep a close eye on it."


The two battalion commanders traded looks.


"Do you think we'll actually be used?" Pri asked.


"Yes, I do," the prince said. "You might think you're just an oversized bodyguard, but Pahner is going to use us. Our mobility will be a key factor, if the Boman are hard on someone's heels."


He took a sip out of his camel bag, then pursed his lips and grimaced when it ran dry. It was time for a refill, but he looked at the nameless stream without enthusiasm. It was choked with mud stirred up by the hundreds of civan and turom, and although the bag's osmotic filter would take out the mud, some of the taste always got through.


"We need to keep an eye out all around," he continued, playing with the nipple of the empty camel bag. "Just because we think we know where the threat is, doesn't mean we're right."


"Let me fill that for you, Roger," Matsugae interrupted, gesturing at the camel bag. "You're just going to distract them playing with it if I don't."


"Thanks," the prince said, pulling the bag out of his day pack and handing it over.


"There is a cavalry screen out there," Bes pointed out to the prince, gesturing with his false-hand.


"Yes, there is," Pri said. He handed his own canteen to Matsugae at the valet's gesture. "Thanks, Kostas," he said, and looked back at the infantry commander. "It could probably stand to be pushed further out, though, if we want real security. And even if we do push it out, it could still be wiped out before we got the word . . . if there was a force coming up from the south, at least."


"So keep an eye on the terrain," Roger said, nodding in agreement. "The roads and the streams and where they are, shortcuts, and spots that would slow you down. Or slow the Boman. And most of all, make sure everyone stays on his toes."


* * *


Matsugae walked upstream, waving at the occasional soldier he knew. He recognized quite a few of the Diaspran riflemen from work details which had been assigned to the kitchen—a surprising number, really. It just showed that they'd been on this godforsaken planet too long, he thought. But he had to admit, hellhole or not, it made good people. The Mardukans were a fine race, and it would be interesting to see what Roger made of the planet after he got back to Earth.


The valet finally reached the edge of the picket lines and turned to the stream. There was a small team of scouts a bit further upstream, but they weren't fouling the water, and the hovering cavalry screen didn't seem to be doing so either. It was running quite clear, and actually a bit cool, which would help the chiller on Roger's camel bag.


He stepped onto a root and dropped the camel bag into the water. Its active osmotic system could absorb the water directly through its skin, but using the chemical filter took several hours. Fortunately, there was also a simple pump which could fill and filter it rather quickly, but Matsugae suddenly realized that although he knew about the pump, he'd never personally used one. He'd seen the Marines use them enough times, but this was actually the first time he'd fetched water on the entire trip; he'd had his own duties, and there'd always been someone else around to do that.


He looked down at the camel bag, fiddling with the pump fitting for a few moments until he finally figured out the release. Then he dropped the snorkel tube into the water and started pumping. To his delight, the bag started to fill instantly, and he grinned. Got it right in one, he thought cheerfully, watching the bag swell.


What he forgot to watch was the water.


* * *


The fastest reactions in the universe couldn't have gotten Roger across the encampment in time, and the finest neural combat program couldn't have killed the damncroc any deader than the two dozen rounds from the cavalry outpost.


None of which made any difference to Kostas Matsugae.


By the time Roger got there, it was all over but the bleeding. The atul had taken the valet in the throat, and even Doc Dobrescu's little black bag couldn't have done anything for the imperial servitor. More was gone than just the throat when one of the cavalrymen rolled the limp body over.


Roger didn't bother checking for life. He'd become only too intimately familiar with death, and no one could live with his head half severed from his body.


"Ah, Jesus, Kostas," St. John (J.) said, coming up behind the prince. "Why the fuck didn't you look? There's always crocs."


"I don't think he'd been outside a secure perimeter before," the prince said quietly. "I didn't think about that. I should have."


"No one can be right all the time," Cord said. He knelt by Matsugae and picked up Roger's camel bag. "Mistakes happen. You have to accept it when they do, but this was not your mistake, Roger. Kostas knew the jungle was dangerous. He should have been more cautious."


"He didn't understand," Roger said. "Not really. We all spent our time wrapping him and Eleanora in foam packaging."


"The foam packaging we should have wrapped you up in," Beckley said. The team leader shook her head. "We need to bag him, Your Highness."


"Go ahead," Roger said, then knelt and removed the palace badge from Matsugae's tunic. "I promise you, Kostas. No more mistakes. No more dawdling. No more dandying."


"Maybe dandying," St. John said. "He liked you to wear nice clothes."


"Yes, he did." Roger looked at the much patched chameleon suit the valet was wearing. "St. John, look in his packs. Knowing Kostas, he's got one good outfit packed. Beckley, if he does, dress him in it. Then bag him, and before you tab him, I want to say a few words."


"Yes, Your Highness," the corporal said quietly. "We'll take care of him."


The prince nodded, but before he could reply, his helmet gave the minor ping of an incoming call.


"Roger, it's Pahner. The engineers are getting down to it here in Sindi, but it looks like we're going to need a bigger labor force to pull this off. That means I'm going to have to draft more infantry, which means what cavalry we have is going to have to take on an even bigger share of responsibility for our flanks and the convoys. I'm going to have to bring them close into the road and spread them thinner to cover the extra footage, so I need you to swing further down to the south to anchor the line. I want you at Victor-One-Seven by nightfall."


Roger looked down at the body of his friend and shook his head.


"Could we have a couple of hours, Captain? We have a . . . situation here."


"Are you under attack?" Pahner asked.


"No . . . No we're not, Captain," Roger said.


"Then whatever it is, handle it and get on the road, Your Highness," the Marine said crisply. "You're a mobile unit, and I need you mobile. Now."


"Yes, Sir," Roger said quietly. He keyed off his mike and looked at the corporal. "Can the ceremony, Reneb. I promised no more mistakes and no more dawdling. Bag him and burn him; we're moving out." He switched back to the captain. "We'll be on the trail in ten minutes," he said.


"Good," Pahner said.


* * *


Rastar slid off his civan and moaned.


"I'd kill to be able to take off this armor," he groaned, and Honal grunted in laughter.


"You Therdan people are too soft. A mere forty kolong, and you're complaining!"


"Uh-huh," the prince replied. "Tell me you're not in pain."


"Me?" the cavalry commander said. "I think I'm going to die, as a matter of fact. Why?"


Rastar chuckled and rubbed his posterior gingerly while he looked at the stream.


"Thank goodness for accurate maps," he said. "I never appreciated them properly before."


"Yes, knowing where to water and where to hide—as opposed to where to fight—is very important," Honal said a bit tartly.


"Don't worry, cousin," Rastar told him. "There'll be plenty of fighting before this is done. Send back skirmishers with a communicator. Have them find the Boman, but tell them not to get too close. Just give them a few shots to sting them, then pull back. Make sure they have plenty of remounts and know where to go." He pulled out his map and studied its markings. "The turnoff for the first group is just ahead, and I especially want to know if the Boman split up when we do."


"Will do," Honal agreed. "I still say this plan is too complicated, though. Splitting ourselves up is crazy."


"We need to keep the Boman interested until it's time to lead them back home again," Rastar said, not looking up from the map, "and Boman are simple sorts. If we just run in a straight line, they may lose interest and start heading back too soon. That would be bad. But if we run all over the countryside like headless basik, their uncomplicated little souls should find the puzzle irresistible and keep them coming right behind us. We hope."


"Can I still not like it?"


"Yes . . . as long as you do it. And speaking of doing, it's time to go."


Fresh civan had been brought up from their string of spares while the officers talked, and Honal looked up at the towering expanse of his new mount with a sour expression.


"I don't know if I can climb clear up there," he groaned.


"Here, let me give you a boost," Rastar offered. "You Sheffan super-trooper, you."


* * *


Camsan cursed.


"Another group splitting off!" he complained.


"And in a whole different direction," Dna pointed out. "They must have cut their numbers by half with all this scattering."


"Hard to tell," the war leader said. "They're keeping in line to confuse our trackers about numbers, but I think you're right—there are fewer headed toward Therdan than there were."


The Boman leader rubbed a horn in thought.


"Have all of the messengers reported back yet?" he asked.


"All but the one to Hothna Kasi," Dna replied. "He had the farthest to go, but he should have arrived there by midnight of last night." The other Boman glanced up at the overcast, estimating the time. "By now, all of them should be on the trail."


"Good," Camsan grunted, "because that means all this splitting and scattering isn't going to do them any good in the end. It's just going to break them up into even smaller bits and pieces when our warriors finally start catching up with them. But I think we need to split off some parties of our own to go directly after these groups. I want to know where they're all really headed."


"Break up ourselves?" the scout leader asked.


"Yes. This isn't like the iron heads," the war leader said quietly. "They're being more devious than normal, and I smell a trap. Something, somewhere, is going on. Something big."


 


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