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CHAPTER THREE

"Well, I think we came up lucky for the downtime," Kosutic said, floating faceup in the lake. She sat up in her jury-rigged float chair and took a sip of wine. "And with the apsimons. Real lucky."


From the humans' perspective, Ran Tai was a pleasant change from the previous towns they'd visited . . . which meant it was Hell itself for the Mardukans who lived there. Not that they hadn't done their best to make their Hell as civilized and bearable as possible.


The town was wrapped around the stream which led from the lake, and every street had wide gutters that were washed from the same source. These gutters, or chubes in the language of the area, were used by street cleaners to keep the well-paved streets clear of manure from their bipedal mounts and packbeasts. In addition, the city had an aqueduct system to provide water that was used for drinking and also pumped throughout the city through clay pipes, and there were fountains and spigots everywhere, drained by the chubes. Ran Tai's infrequent—by Mardukan standards—rains made it the first city the humans had encountered where the need to provide water was even a consideration, but the aqueduct and lake between them made it widely available, despite the climate. That permitted the homes and taverns to spray the water across mats of grass specially grown for the purpose, which, in turn, increased the indoor humidity of the buildings to the point that it wasn't—quite—a trauma for the mucous-covered Mardukans.


But the very things which made the city's climate so unpleasant for its normal inhabitants were what made it a virtual paradise for the humans. The valley was above the lower cloud layer, so the sun was frequently visible. In fact, at the moment, it was near zenith and bathing them in pleasantly damaging UV. Not only that, the upper layer of clouds rarely produced rain, which was why the valley wasn't continuously pounded with monsoonlike downpours. The daytime temperature rarely got above thirty-two degrees Celsius, and the nighttime temperatures frequently fell into the twenties.


The waters of the lake were near perfection, as well. Since the lake was clear, cool, and untroubled by the large predators which seemed to infest every body of water in the planet's jungles, the humans had been able to go swimming on a daily basis—something that had been impossible on the march. In addition to swimming in it, they bathed in it, an almost forgotten luxury. The standard issue waterless cleaning cloths provided by the Imperial Marine Corps had continued to hold out to an extent, permitting the Marines to avoid the worst of hygiene problems, but the smooth waters of the lake and the improvised soaps that Matsugae had been able to create made the baths heavenly in comparison. Thus, most afternoons found the troops recovering from their morning sword drill by swimming and floating in the lake.


They'd been surprised to find Mardukans swimming alongside them, but only until they realized how much the locals preferred to be submerged in water rather than exposed to the dry air. The locals had problems with the cool lake temperatures; they had to get out from time to time and warm up. But practically the entire population of the city came down in the afternoons to take a swim.


There'd been a lot of curiosity about the humans at first. It was clear that they were different, but, as in other areas through which the company had traveled, the locals weren't as bothered by their lack of limbs as humans would have been if the situation had been reversed. After the first few days, many of the locals had become well-known to the company, and the humans were accepted as just another visiting caravan.


The Marines also followed the local custom of the afternoon siesta. Pahner, with a few exceptions, had put the company on half-days. Mornings were spent in sword drill, maintaining their advanced weapons, and a thousand and one other minor items that had been neglected out of necessity on the march. The afternoons and evenings, though, were for the troops, and they'd been spending them, to a great extent, napping and soaking up the local culture. Which included its excellent wines.


The upland region supported large groves of apsimon trees from which the natives created a variety of preserves, candies, and wines. The troops had unanimously adopted Roger's suggested name for them, although several of them were of the opinion that the name was entirely too melodious for something so tart and astringent tasting. The natives, including Cord, loved their taste, but as far as Kosutic could determine, no one in the entire company actually liked the damned things. Which didn't keep the humans from gobbling them down by the kilo anyway, for the apsimon had one huge advantage over the much tastier kate fruit. It contained a vitamin analogue close enough to Vitamin C for the Marines'—and Roger's—nanites to actually make the conversion . . . which meant that the unpleasant tasting apsimon might literally be the difference between life and death for the company. Vitamin C wasn't the only dietary supplement humans required on this misbegotten planet, but it was probably the one whose absence would have the quickest consequences. Scurvy wasn't something the IMC normally had to worry about, but it was just as lethal as it had ever been for humans deprived of antiscorbutics.


Of course, O'Casey, Matsugae, and the Navy pilot officers the Marines were lugging around with Roger, didn't have the same sorts of nanite support. They couldn't process the Vitamin C out of the apsimons, but the Marines, who could, no longer required that particular supplement, which meant that all of their Vitamin C could be rationed out amongst the folks who still needed it. Better yet, Doc Dobrescu's discovery of the apsimon's unsuspected virtues had given them all a ray of hope. Their original sketchy data on the planet hadn't mentioned anything about apsimons—which was hardly surprising; they had only fragments of the original planetary survey data, and any planet was a big place, with lots of secrets tucked away—which suggested that there might be other things they didn't know about . . . including other native food stuffs which truly could eke out the off-world nutritional items they required.


And which might even taste good enough that humans would enjoy eating them.


In addition to apsimon fruit, however, the area around Ran Tai also supported another tree whose fruit was remarkably similar to large grapes. Unlike the apsimon, the fruit of these greatgrapes, as the Marines had dubbed them, offered nothing in the way of desperately needed trace vitamins or proteins. On the other hand, the best wines of the region were prepared from their musky fruit, and the Marines had become quite addicted to the light but fruity vintages.


Kosutic sat up again and took a look around at the frolicking Marines. Gronningen was swimming endless laps. St. John (M.) had bet the Asgardian that he couldn't swim two laps across the five-kilometer lake and back. Which was a sucker bet: Gronningen was a machine at any physical activity. Another half hour, and St. John (M.) would be out a quarter-kilo of silver. Aburia looked miffed, though. The ebony corporal and the Asgardian had become an "item" in the last month, and she appeared rather pissed at her oversized boy-toy for spending so much time on something other than herself.


But however upset Aburia might be, things seemed to be going just fine for other members of the company. Stickles was making a hard, and so far successful, run at Briana Kane. The brunette plasma gunner was laughing at whatever the PFC had just said to her and didn't appear to need any rescuing. Gelert and Macek also appeared to have come to a mutual understanding and were leaving hand-in-hand. That was probably going to be tough luck on Gunny Jin, but she'd held his hand through other heartbreaks.


"You look like you could use a refill," Julian said.


The intel NCO had swum up behind her in total silence, but she suppressed her automatic start and nodded at the bottle he held out over her cup.


"Thanks."


"I managed to rig a chiller," he said, rolling onto his back and propping the bottle on his stomach. The image he presented, apparently unconsciously, was extremely phallic, she noted as she took a sip of the chilled wine and smiled. The vintage from a minor local winery was flavored with a hint of cinnamonlike spice. It also had a slightly higher than normal alcohol content, as well, and she savored it.


"And where did you scavenge a chiller from?" she asked.


"Russell's armor, of course," Julian replied. He rolled up to stand in the chest-deep water and took a much longer and deeper pull from the bottle.


There didn't seem to be much to say to that. There were a lot of conversations that stopped that way—a quick reference to one of the dead, and a change of topic.


"Any leads on a job?" the sergeant major asked. Because he was the company's intelligence specialist, Julian had been spending his mornings snooping for clues to a job. Along with Poertena, he'd been combing the city, visiting merchants and hanging out in taverns.


"No, and don't think I haven't heard the jokes about it," the NCO said sourly. " 'When are Julian and Poertena going to find a job? When they're done tasting all the wines in the region.' "


"Are you sure?" Kosutic asked with a smile. "There's still all the beer to go."


"Oh, gee, thanks, Sergeant Major!" The squad leader grimaced and took another pull at the wine. "I have to admit that it's a good thing the locals don't distill."


"It's okay," the sergeant major said with a throaty chuckle. "When we get back, you can have your liver replaced."


"If we get back," Julian replied gloomily.


"Now, what kind of an attitude is that?" Kosutic rolled over to look at the squad leader, who paused for just a moment.


Since the Marines were drawn from a variety of planets with varying levels of body modesty, it was general practice to reach a minimum societal comfort level. Thus, the females in a unit, except under the exigencies of field conditions, tended to avoid open nudity in front of the males, and vice versa. That meant that the female Bronze Barbarians wore the skin-tight, nearly indestructible undershirts and shorts that went with the chameleon suits while swimming, while the male Marines wore just the shorts. The clothing would have been a capital offense on Ramala, Damdin's home world, and utterly unacceptable on Asgard or Sossann. On the other hand, it would have been considered painfully overdressed for swimming on Earth or Vishnu.


All of which fascinating bits of cultural baggage were no doubt very interesting, but also beside the point. The sergeant major was as hard and flat as a battle tank. Constant exercise and the nanites that all Marines bore had reduced her body fat to the level of an Olympic athlete's. But her basic physiology leaned towards soft curves and relatively large breasts—which became obvious as her left breast slid ever so slightly downward under the V-neck, skin-tight T-shirt and formed the tiniest hint of cleavage.


And totally arrested whatever Julian had been about to say.


Kosutic looked at the squad leader and suppressed a laugh. He looked as if someone had just struck him between the eyes with a hammer, but that was certainly a better direction for his thoughts than where he had been going.


"Centicred for your thoughts?" she said, and Julian almost visibly shook himself. Then he smiled and poured a bit more of the wine into her cup.


"You don't have a centicred. And I don't have a death wish."


"Well, we could think about a trade in kind," the senior NCO told him with a smile. "And I know you don't have a death wish."


* * *


The prince was getting used to the local mounts. The civan "horse-ostriches" were omnivorous and occasionally vicious, but they were also a quicker way to get out to the mining site than walking, and he reined the beast in and slid off the high-backed saddle. The saddle was stirrupless but had a sort of cup for the thigh that helped a rider balance himself. Of course, it was scaled for a Mardukan and far too wide for a human, but there was nothing to do about that until the new saddles he and Poertena had designed and ordered became available.


He hit the ground with flexed knees, then looked over to watch Cord dismount. The old Mardukan was slower than the prince, and unlike Roger, he'd had absolutely no prior experience with any riding beast other than the flar-ta. A lifetime of physical exertion and discipline stood him in good stead, however, and he climbed down carefully until he finally stood on level ground. Once there, he gave his own civan a look which clearly indicated that he would have preferred it for supper rather more than he did as a mount.


Roger tied both beasts to the hitching post set outside the low stone building. There were two other civan already tied to the same pillar, and the resident beasts snapped at the prince's mount.


When asked what sort of mount he preferred, Roger had sent Poertena to see the guard from their first encounter, and, after questioning the prince at length and trying him out on several potential beasts, Sen Kakai had settled on a proper war mount for him. The beast in question was slightly larger than the norm, and trained for combat duty. It was also extremely aggressive, and it hissed in response to the others' challenges and snapped a foot out. The wickedly clawed hind talons barely missed the closer beast, and were followed by a resounding, guillotinelike snap of impressive teeth. Both of the other civan recoiled ever so slightly, and Roger's mount snorted in satisfaction.


Protocol satisfied and hierarchy established, the three beasts settled down to a chorus of back and forth hissing while Cord's milder beast looked around for something to eat.


Roger waited until he was sure the precedence was settled, then glanced up at the two Marines who were still mounted. However much freedom Pahner was prepared to allow his charge in securing employment for "Sergei's Raiders," he wasn't about to relax his insistence that the prince be accompanied by suitable bodyguards at all times. Personally, Roger felt quite confident in his own ability to look after himself, especially with Cord at his side, but he also knew better than to argue. Not only would it have been fruitless, but harsh experience had taught him to understand exactly why no one in his right mind screwed around with the chain of command and authority in what was for all intents and purposes a single gigantic, planet-wide combat zone.


Which didn't mean that he wasn't prepared to bend that chain ever so slightly when it suited his purposes.


"You two mosey on over to the barracks, Moseyev," he told the senior Marine in Standard English. "Spread a little silver around in the bar, if they have one, and keep your ears open. I'd like to hear what the grunts have to say about this."


The corporal seemed inclined to argue for just a moment, but the moment passed. Moseyev had no doubt at all that Captain Pahner would remove wide, painful strips from his hide if the captain ever discovered that he'd allowed the prince to send him off on an errand. At the same time, like every other member of Bravo Company, he'd realized in Marshad that the strict letter of the regulations which had made Prince Roger the official colonel in chief of Bronze Battalion was no longer a legal fiction.


He glowered at Roger for a few seconds, wondering just how blithely Colonel MacClintock would have ignored Captain Pahner had the latter been physically present, but then he glanced at the small building awaiting Roger and shrugged. Orders were orders. Besides, every Bronze Barbarian knew that the prince was sudden death on two feet with the bead pistol holstered at his side, not to mention the sword across his back. And that didn't even consider Cord's well-proven lethality. There was no way in the world a building the size of their destination could hold enough scummies to pose a threat to those two.


"Right, Your Highness," the corporal said. "Of course, I hope you'll remember not to mention this in front of the wrong ears."


"Mention what?" Roger asked innocently, and Moseyev chuckled and sent his civan trotting off towards the barracks.


"That was undoubtedly foolish," Cord observed thoughtfully as he watched the Marines ride away. "In anyone other than yourself, I would probably say that it was remarkably foolish, in fact. In your own case, however, familiarity prevents me from feeling the least surprise."


"Yeah, sure." Roger grinned. "You don't like being shadowed everywhere you go any more than I do, you old reprobate!"


"I am not yet so feeble as to require a keeper," the shaman replied with awesome dignity, hefting the long, wickedly bladed spear he continued to carry everywhere. "I, on the other hand, am not the heir of a mighty ruler, either."


"Neither is 'Captain Sergei,' " Roger chuckled, and Cord snorted in resignation as the prince stepped up to the building and clapped his hands for permission to enter it.


The structure sat at the foot of a steep slope that led upward to the opening to a narrow gorge or valley. A series of walls had been thrown up across the opening, and a small army was entrenched before them. It was clear that they'd been there for a while, and were prepared for an extended stay.


"Come in," a voice called from the interior in reply to Roger's clap, and Roger slipped the door catch and stepped into the hutlike building's single room. It was occupied by a trio of guards and two unarmed Mardukans who'd clearly been in conversation when he arrived, and the larger of the civilians grunted in derisive laughter when Roger entered.


"I see the basik have heard of our plight," he half-sneered, but the other civilian sliced a true-hand across his chest in a gesture of negation.


"We're in no position to laugh," he said sternly. "You, especially, are not," he added in a pointed tone, and the larger Mardukan hissed sourly, although he made no other response. The smaller native turned to Roger. "I am Deb Tar. And you are?"


"Captain Sergei," Roger said with a slight bow. "At your service."


"And at yours," Deb Tar replied. "What can we do for you?"


"It's more what we can do for you," Roger told him with a smile. "I understand you have a problem."


"That we do," Deb Tar agreed with a handclap of emphasis. "But I doubt you'll be able to do anything about it."


"I don't know about that," Roger said. "We might surprise you."


"Some other time, basik," the other Mardukan grunted. "We're about to get the problem solved for us."


"Oh." Roger raised an eyebrow. "I take it there are competitors?"


"For a month's production from my mine?" Deb Tar's snort was perilously near to a snarl. "Of course there are—including my former mine manager," he continued with a distasteful gesture of a false-hand at the other civilian. "Nor Tob seems to feel that it should be easy to take the valley back. Since, after all, it was so easy to take away from him in the first place."


"It was not my fault," the former manager ground out. "Was I the guard commander?"


"No, you weren't," the owner agreed. "Otherwise your horns would be over my fireplace. There's still an empty space I could fit them into, though. I would have saved half the cost if you hadn't persuaded me to relocate the refinery there, as well!"


"You made money hand over hand from that!" the former manager shot back, then turned to Roger and Cord. "Come on, basik," he snarled. "Let us show you how real Mardukans deal with scum like this!"


"Oh, by all means, lead on," Roger invited, waving towards the door. "This I've got to see."


 


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