Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

"Armand?"


Pahner looked up in surprise as Eva Kosutic stepped into his commandeered office in the Despot's Palace of Sindi. He hadn't actually seen her face-to-face since their arrival here. They'd stayed in touch through their coms, of course, but the sergeant major had been buried in her own portion of the preparations for the "Sindi Surprise Party," as most of the army was calling the battle plan, which had kept her busy with the engineers and the artillery corps. It wasn't her physical presence that surprised the captain, though; it was the tone of her voice and her expression. He hadn't seen a grin that huge since well before Bravo Company ever heard of a planet called Marduk.


"Yes?" he replied, arching his eyebrows, and her grin got even bigger.


"Just got off the radio with Doc Dobrescu," she said, and laughed. She didn't chuckle—she laughed, with a bright, almost girlish delight that deepened his surprise even further. "He's got some . . . interesting news," she added.


"Well, would you care to share it with me, or are you just going to stand there with that stupid grin all day?" he asked just a bit tartly, and she laughed again.


"Sorry, Boss. It's just that I've always known His Evilness had a really perverse sense of humor, and now He's gone and proved it!"


"And how, if you ever intend to get around to it, has he done that?"


"You know that little job you gave the Doc? The one that's had him running everything he could get his hands on through the analyzers?"


"Yesss," Pahner said slowly, leaning further back in the camp chair behind his desk.


"Well, he just hit pay dirt," the sergeant major told him. "He's found something the nanites can process into the protein supplements we've got to have."


"He has?" Pahner snapped back upright in the chair.


"Yep, and you'll never guess where he found it," Kosutic said with another huge grin. Pahner cocked his head demandingly, and she laughed once more. "You remember that poison gland in the coll fish? The one that's absolutely lethal to any Mardukan, no ifs, ands, or buts?" Pahner nodded, and she snorted. "Seems the Doc remembered how Radj Hoomis failed to poison us and said, what the hell, let's check it, too. And when he did—"


She shrugged, and Pahner stared at her.


"Let me get this straight," he said slowly. "This deadly poison no one else on Marduk can eat is like . . . like cod liver oil for humans?"


"Not a bad analogy at all," she agreed with a nod. "From what he's saying, it tastes just as bad—or even worse. But all his tests say it's the real stuff. Of course, it won't work for anyone who doesn't have the full nanite loadout, but when you couple it with apsimons, the troops—and Roger—are good to go almost indefinitely. And we've got enough regular supplements to keep everyone who doesn't have the full spectrum nanites going for a good year or more, as well. Which is what I meant about His Evilness and His sense of humor."


"Hmmm?" Pahner was still too busy grappling with how Dobrescu's announcement had changed his constraints to realize what she was saying for several seconds, but then he laughed harshly. "I see what you mean," he said, shaking his head slowly. "We agreed to kick off this entire operation, built the damned army, pissed off every merchant in the Cove, turned K'Vaernian society on its ear, pushed the training, drove everyone into the field, and set up this whole trap just because we were running out of supplements and couldn't afford to wait around. And now we find out we've got all the time in the fucking world!"


"Absolutely," she agreed with a laugh of her own.


The two of them stared at one another for almost a full minute without saying another word, and then Pahner sighed.


"I wish we'd known sooner," he said slowly. "Kostas would be alive right now if we hadn't had to go back into the field, for one thing. But at the same time, maybe it's for the best. If I'd known about this, I would've been a lot more willing to sit things out and look for other options as the safer way to get Roger home, and if I'd done that, there wouldn't have been a K'Vaern's Cove in another six months."


"From what we've seen of these Boman bastards since we actually hit the field, I think you're probably right," Kosutic said more somberly, "and I wouldn't like that. I've decided I can really get along with these K'Vaernians, almost as well as with Rastar and his civan boys. So I guess I'm glad we didn't leave them in the lurch, too. And speaking of Rastar," she went on, changing the subject, "just how are he and Honal doing?"


"Don't know," Pahner admitted, and checked the time on his toot. "They're about due for another check in, but the last time I talked to them, even Honal was starting to sound a little frayed around the edges."


"Honal? The original Mardukan Hotspur?" Kosutic chuckled. "That'll be the day!"


* * *


"It looks like they're spreading out," Honal said. The most recent group of Boman to encounter his troopers were stretched out on the ground, riddled with pistol bullets or spitted on lances and sabers. This time, however, almost a dozen of his own men were down to keep them company on their trip to Hell. "This is the largest bunch we've run into yet."


"And I think they're closing in on us," Rastar agreed unhappily. "They're getting thicker as we head south."


The native prince eased himself in the saddle and looked around. It was raining again, which didn't do much for visibility, but he was reasonably confident of his present location. Thanks to the fact that each group to split off from the main force had included at least one trooper with a human communicator, he also knew roughly where all the rest of his men were. The good news was that his entire force should be reformed within the next several hours. The bad news was that the Boman seemed to have figured out roughly where he was headed for his rendezvous.


"We're not going to be able to make it back to Sindi," Honal said. "Are we?"


Rastar pulled out a map and grimaced accusingly at it, although it really hadn't told him anything he didn't already know.


"I don't know," he sighed. "We're so close I hate to give up. I don't doubt that they'll go ahead and head back for Sindi even without us to chase, but if we have to give up on the city, we'll have to head all the way up to the Sumeel Ford, instead, and that means heading up the Tam to the Chandar Fords. We'd be completely out of it. By the time we could cross the river, we might have to head all the way to Nashtor to avoid the Boman."


"So much for that plan, then," Honal said. "And I don't know that we could make it, anyway. The civan are just about worn out."


"I know," the prince said. He grimaced again, and keyed his communicator. "I think we need to tell the captain."


* * *


Pahner looked at the map and managed not to swear. It wasn't easy. From the reports, there was no way the cavalry on its own was going to break through the Boman who'd swept around to get between it and Sindi. Only a fraction of the total Boman force had managed to bottle them up, but a fraction was all it took, when they'd been outnumbered the whole time by nearly thirty-to-one.


If he sent them east, on an end run to the fords on the upland plateau, they would be out of play for the entire battle, depriving him of the huge bulk of his cavalry. That probably would have been endurable, given the battle he intended to fight, but it would cost him any real possibility of a pursuit if—when—the Boman broke. Worse, it was almost certain that all or some of the main host would go right on chasing them. Not only would that mean that whatever percentage of the barbarians kept chasing the cavalry would miss the reception he'd so carefully prepared for them here at Sindi, but it was also likely that the Boman would manage to run them down before they could reach safety.


Yet there were reports of Boman everywhere between Rastar's force and Sindi, not just farther out, where the cavalry was in light contact with the barbarians. Some of them were even starting to hit the guards he'd pushed out from the northern gates of the city, and he had damn all information on their numbers. If he sent out a relief force to rescue Rastar, he risked having it defeated in detail by an enemy whose strength he was unable to accurately evaluate.


He gazed at the map for several more silent moments, then straightened and turned to his command group.


"Bistem, you have the most forces present and on security," he said. "Take all the Diaspran forces that aren't broken up as stevedores, add them to First Division, and go relieve the cavalry. Take Julian and his team, as well. We'll worry about power for the armor later."


"Yes, Captain," the K'Vaernian commander said. "We won't fail."


"Make sure you don't," Pahner said, "and don't stint the fire. We've been saving the full power of the rifles for a surprise, and I think it's about time to start showing these bastards how surprising they are."


"Yes, Captain." The K'Vaernian gave a human-style nod, ducked out of the command tent, and started forward, calling for messengers. Pahner watched him go, then keyed his communicator again.


"Rastar, I'm sending out a relief force. The K'Vaernians are going to head for your position. Dismount and fight as infantry and push your way through to link up."


"Yes, Captain," the distant prince said over a background crackle of pistol fire. "The woods are thick enough out here that we've already had to dismount, but we can't keep our flanks secure enough to push forward. I've tried twice, and been badly outflanked each time. If you don't mind, I think I'll wait for the K'Vaernians to draw some of the attention off of us."


"Do as you see fit," the Marine said with a face of stone. Clearly, it was getting tight in the woods. "The relief column is on the way. However, be aware that if more forces press down on you, I might have to tell them to retreat."


"Understood," the embattled prince said. "We'll try to cut down the opposition as much as possible. Rastar, out."


Pahner looked around the fields before the city. The piles of cured leather, sacks of barleyrice, cloth, coal, ores, charcoal, refined metals, and a thousand and one other things vital to K'Vaern's Cove's economy were being slowly reduced by the line of bearers carrying them to the barges, the caravans of packbeasts, and the long line of wagons creaking down the corduroy road. Whatever happened here, the Cove desperately needed those supplies if it was to survive while its trading partners rebuilt themselves from the ruins. Yet every one of the stevedores loading the booty was also a soldier who was as much out of the battle as if he'd been shot through the head.


He could take some of them off of the loading duty, but that would slow down the loading operation. Which would be fine, if his overall plan worked. But as Rastar's predicament pointedly illustrated, plans had a tendency to spring leaks, and if the master plan collapsed, the Cove would need those supplies worse than ever.


Finally, he decided to take the gamble. The majority of the Boman were on the north side of the river, but they clearly were closing in on the cavalry, which had turned out to be too good as bait. There should be enough pickets covering the northern approaches to the city itself, even after Kar's departure, to hold anything else which might come at them from that direction. The caravan route to D'Sley on the south bank couldn't boast anywhere near the same amount of security, but it was covered by its own thin cavalry screen, and it seemed—so far, at least—to be isolated from the main threat area. If there were any formed Boman on the south side of the river, they couldn't possibly be present in numbers as great as those to the north, and the screen would just have to take them on as they came.


"Rus, get in the middle of that," he said, gesturing to the lines of Mardukans loading stores, "and see if you can find some way to speed things up."


"Will do," the engineer said.


"Come on, Rastar," the captain said quietly. "Keep your ass alive until Bistem can drag your butt home."


* * *


Honal swung out the cylinder of his revolver and grunted.


"I love these things. Where has Pahner been all my life?"


"Flying between suns, according to the Marines," Rastar said, hammering a stuck bullet out of the barrel of one of his own pistols. The cartridge had succumbed to the eternal humidity, despite its flashplant wrapping, and the damp gunpowder had only sparked enough to drive the slug into the barrel. "I wish he were here at the moment, though. What a screwed-up situation."


More Boman had trickled up behind the cavalry unit, encircling it. Fortunately, most of the force had reformed before the Boman pinned it, which had at least prevented the detachments from being annihilated in detail. The bad news was that it put them all in one place, which meant that better than three thousand riders and nearly eight thousand civan were trapped in a single pocket which the barbarians could now close in upon. Most of the true war civan were on the perimeter, squatting like ostriches on nests as cover for their riders, and the cavalry had managed to fell trees to simultaneously expand their fire zones and form a crude abattis covering most of their front, but the eddies of barbarians were sweeping inexorably closer.


Honal took another breath and squeezed the trigger.


"Got you, you Boman bastard," he muttered, then chuckled sourly. "You know, much as I love these revolvers, I could wish we had more rifles to go with them!"


"Some people are never satisfied," Rastar grunted. "We've got a helluva lot higher rate of fire than rifles, and with all these pocking trees, it's not like the bastards are out of range when we see them at all!"


He got the barrel cleared and closed the cylinder once more. There'd been times during the pursuit when he would have agreed wholeheartedly with Honal, but there simply weren't enough rifles to go around. Dell Mir's simplified cartridge design had allowed the humans to somewhat better Rus From's original estimates on the numbers of rifles which could be supplied with ammunition. Instead of five or six thousand, K'Vaern's Cove had managed to put eight thousand into the field, but that still fell far short of any number the K'Vaernians and their allies would have liked to see. It also meant that virtually the entire production of rifles had gone into the hands of the infantry units, who—if everything worked out the way it was supposed to work—would be doing the majority of the fighting. Rastar's troopers had been issued only four hundred of the new weapons. On the other hand, they'd had six thousand revolvers—virtually the entire production of that weapon.


They'd also gone through well over two thirds of their total ammunition by now, but Rastar decided not to think about that just at the moment.


"Oh, I'd never want to trade my revolvers in," Honal told him, eyes searching for another target. "I was just thinking that if we had more rifles, that would mean we also had more riflemen to carry them. Which would be very comforting to me right now."


"To me, too," Rastar admitted. "But I think there's a fair chance that we'll be seeing them sometime soon."


"I hope so," Honal said more somberly. "And I think I'm glad about who the Captain chose to send to relieve us. If I had to choose between Bogess, bless his thick head, or Bistem Kar, I'd take Kar any day."


"I have to agree," Rastar grunted, "but I wish he'd hurry up and get here." The Boman were massing for another attack as he finished reloading his pistols. "It's not like we've got an infinite amount of ammunition."


"He'll be here soon," Honal said. "Quit fretting."


* * *


Krindi Fain clasped all four hands behind him and stepped in front of Lieutenant Fonal. The adviser sergeant turned his back so that the company of forming infantry couldn't see what he was saying and cleared his throat.


"You need to quit fretting, Lieutenant."


"Is it that obvious?" the officer asked nervously.


"Yes," Fain said. "There are many ways to lead well, and twice as many to lead poorly. Looking nervous and uncertain is in the 'twice as many' category."


"So what do you suggest, Sergeant?"


"Take a breath, look at your map, and don't rub your horns every few seconds. There's a worn patch forming. Laugh. You can talk to the troops, but only about stuff other than whether or not they're ready. Your best bet is to stand there like a rock and just look as certain as the rainfall. If you go talk to Colonel Tram or General Kar for a moment, then come back and look really relaxed, it would help."


"But what about getting the company ready? We've got half a platoon missing!"


"Leave the worrying about that to Sergeant Knever. Either he's the right man for the job, and the company will perform for you when you need it, or you should have replaced him before now. Either way, it's too late to be thinking about changes. And if we have to leave without half a platoon, we leave without them."


Fonal started to rub a horn once more, then checked the movement.


"How can you be so calm, Sergeant? There are a lot of Boman out there, and not many of us." The officer leaned closer. "We're going to get slaughtered, in case you hadn't realized it," he hissed.


The sergeant tilted his head to the side and studied the lieutenant.


"Would you prefer to round up the missing ranks, Lieutenant?" he asked, wondering what the response would be. He wasn't very surprised, unfortunately.


"Frankly," Fonal said, squaring his shoulders, "if we're missing half a platoon, I suspect most of the other units in the regiment probably are as well. And it would be a good idea if an officer stayed behind to gather them up and send them forward."


"You have a very good point, Lieutenant," the Diaspran said. "Could you excuse me for a moment?"


Fain gestured at Erkum Pol and walked over to the quartet of armored Marines.


* * *


Julian was monitoring the commander's briefing. Kar had been handed a difficult tactical problem and not much time to solve it, but he was going about the preparation as professionally as anyone Julian had ever seen. Some of his regimental and battalion commanders, on the other hand, didn't seem all that happy about the mission, so the NCO wasn't feeling particularly happy in turn when someone rapped on his armor to get his attention.


"Hey, Krindi. How they hanging?"


"One lower than the other, as usual, Sergeant," the Mardukan answered soberly. "We've got ourselves a little situation over in Delta Company. The company commander just told me he thought it would be better if he stayed behind and rounded up stragglers."


"Oh, shit," Julian said. "Anybody hear him?"


"Aside from Erkum and me? I don't think so."


"Good," Julian said. "I won't have to kill him."


The Marine thought about it for a moment. The only person who could relieve the commander—and that commander definitely needed to be relieved—was Bistem Kar, but the K'Vaern's Cove Guard commander was far too busy to bother with a single cracked officer.


"Tell the company commander that, pending confirmation from General Kar, he's temporarily assigned to rear detachment duties. He should report to General Bogess while the rest of the force is in the field."


"Are we going to be able to get away with this?" Fain asked. "I mean, I agree and everything, but can we get away with it?"


"I can," the Marine said. "I'll tell Pahner about it, but that's about all I need to do. You don't send an officer out if he can't keep it together in front of the troops. Maybe you make him a troop, but that's for later. And I'll explain it to Kar and the guy's battalion commander when the time comes."


"Last question," Fain said. "Who takes the company? There's no subordinate officers—just a sergeant seconded from the Guard, and he's running around getting everybody in line and making sure they all have ammo."


Julian was just as happy that there was no way to see into his armor as he grimaced. After a moment's additional thought he gave an equally unseen shrug.


"You take it," he said. "Tell the sergeant that you're standing in until a qualified officer can be appointed. I'll get with Kar right after the meeting and tell him what's going on."


"Joy," Fain said sarcastically. "You know, if I'd known this day was going to come, I'd never have taken that pike from you."


"If I'd known this day would come, I never would've handed it to you," Julian said with a laugh.


* * *


"They're moving out now," Roger said, picking at the food in his bowl. The new cook simply didn't have Matsugae's way with Mardukan chili.


"That's half the force," Despreaux said, doing a quick count with her own helmet systems. "Who the hell is guarding the store?"


"There are still seven regiments in and around Sindi, even if two thirds of their personnel are busy humping crates. South of the city? Us. There are six, maybe eight hundred cavalry in the screen from here to the D'Sley swamps, with a few pickets to the east. If anything ugly comes our way, of course, the troops acting as drovers and mahouts will do their best, but they're going to be pretty scattered out. And then there's the crate-humpers back at Sindi."


"Just getting them into formation would take a couple of hours," Beckley put in. "By the way, I'm glad you two finally kissed and made up."


"Is that what we did?" Roger asked, regarding the corporal with a crooked eyebrow.


"According to the pool it is," Beckley replied with a complacent smile. "Won me almost five thousand credits, when I get home to collect it, too."


"I thought you looked revoltingly cheerful, you greedy bitch," Despreaux said with a grin.


"Me? Greedy?" Beckley shook her head mournfully. "You wrong me. I'm just delighted to see that, once again, the course of true love cannot be denied."


"Let's hope not, at any rate," Roger said, suddenly somber. "It would be nice if something about this trip stayed on course."


 


Back | Next
Framed