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CHAPTER FOUR

"The valley's a fortress," Roger said, and took a sip of wine.


"So, what happened?" Julian asked.


"I've got the whole thing on helmet recording, but the short answer is that it was a farce."


"How?" Kosutic asked. She looked at the schematic of the valley entrance and shook her head. "I don't see anything particularly humorous about the situation. You could take that with a wave of Kranolta, but that's the only way to go over the wall that comes to mind."


"Yep," Roger agreed. "And that was more or less what our friend Nor Tob tried. He gathered up a few hundred out-of-work miners and half-assed mercenaries with a promise to divide the loot when they took the place and threw them straight at it."


He laughed and shook his head.


"They came at the wall with ladders, but it's so damned high that half the ladders broke under the weight of the climbers. Those that didn't got pushed down easily. Basically, they didn't get within five meters of the top."


"How many casualties?" Gunny Lai asked. The gunnery sergeant stood beside Kosutic, looking down at the map and rubbing the side of her nose.


"None," Roger said with another laugh. "Oh, there were a few broken arms and more bruised egos, but no military casualties. The barb mercenaries never even shot back. They just pushed the ladders down and threw stuff. Mostly smelly stuff, like their slop buckets."


"Contemptuous, were they?" the sergeant major asked as she panned the map out to get a look at the entire valley.


"Very," Roger told her. "These guys—they call themselves the Vasin—are apparently a tribe that got displaced by this Boman invasion. Either they were already mercenaries, or else they took up the trade after they got shoved off their homeland originally. Nobody's too sure about that, but whichever it was, it sounds to me like they were looking for work when they hit Ran Tai and they'd gone to the mine as a good place to trade some of their hides for raw gold and silver at refinery prices. As nearly as I can tell, they didn't have any intention of taking it before they got there and realized how wide open it was. No one seems to know exactly what started the ruckus, but they ended up in possession of the place, and according to the owner, Deb Tar, he had over two months of refined output bagged and crated for shipment when they moved in on him. He really, really wants that loot back, but they're not especially eager to hand it over, and since they grabbed it so easily, they're pretty contemptuous of all the locals. Even if they weren't, the city authorities aren't about to take the losses involved in throwing them out—especially when Deb Tar deliberately located his refining facilities right there at the minehead to avoid paying city taxes on them. The way the Council sees it, it's out of their jurisdiction, so good luck to him. And from some of the conversations we overheard, the Vasin have offered Deb Tar a price to get his property back . . . an even three months' production."


"Ouch!" Kosutic grimaced. "Still, I'd think giving up an extra month of output wouldn't sound all that unreasonable if it got the mines back for him. He can always dig more, after all."


"But they are bargaining?" Sergeant Jin asked. "That wasn't what we were told."


"Oh, yeah, they're ready enough to deal." Roger smiled broadly. "Deb Tar is just holding out for a better price, which is why he's looking so hard for someone who can kick them out without meeting their demands. Nor Tob was the first to actually try to take him up on it, but when he saw that his own valiant effort was going to be a bust, he decided to haul ass and headed out as soon as it was clear the assault was a failure."


"No wonder," Kosutic laughed. "I bet those miners were some pissed individuals. Anybody know where he went?"


"Nope," Julian said. "It looks like he's gone to ground somewhere. He hasn't left the area, but he hasn't been seen in his usual haunts, either."


"I been lookin' around," Poertena interjected. "T'is Deb Tar, he offering a full month's output to whoever get them out. T'at be something like thirty sedant in gold an' another ten in silver, an' a sedant's nearly half a kilo. Even with tee prices up here, we can load up ever't'ing we need for less t'an twenty sedant of gold." He shrugged. "Tee other gold an' silver be profit."


"So it's a worthwhile operation," Roger said. "If anyone can figure out a method to get in, at least."


"Oh, that's easy enough," Kosutic told him, looking up from the map display.


"Yeah. Getting in isn't a problem," Jin agreed. "The question is how we go about taking on a hundred scummy mercenaries after we do."


"Oh?" Roger looked over the sergeant major's shoulder at the map. "What are you planning?"


"Welll . . ." Kosutic drawled, and pointed at the map. "Your helmet imagery shows that there's a straight cliff at the entrance, right?"


"It widens out further in," Roger said. "But, yes, the entrance is a narrow gorge, nearly fifty meters high. There's a stream that comes out through a metal grate at the base of the wall. It's probably what cut the gorge in the first place."


"Yes, Sir," Gunny Lai said. "But if you get up on top of that plateau at the entrance, you can come around behind the wall and rappel right down on their heads."


"Oh." The prince tugged at a flyaway strand of hair and frowned. "What about getting up the face in the first place?"


"That we can do, Sir," Kosutic said. "But I want to know more about the scummies on the inside. What their pattern is, what sorts of guard posts they set—that sort of thing."


"All right," Roger said. "But we've got some competitors in this. Let's not let them have an edge or tip our own hand. Send a team up to the plateau to check out the route, but tell them to stay low and keep their heads down."


* * *


"Kosutic and her great ideas," Julian said sourly.


The windswept plateau was actively cold in the night wind, and the distant lights of the town didn't make him feel any better. If he and Poertena hadn't happened to hear about this job and pass the word to Roger, he could have been down there now, drinking on the prince's decicred.


"Hey, I think we lucked out again, Sergeant," Gronningen said quietly.


The big Asgardian was very good in the mountains. He moved like a mountain goat, just as surely and almost as silently. That was why Julian had included him on this little jaunt, and the NCO nodded in agreement with his observation as he took another look at the objective. The mercenaries weren't stupid, and they had guards on the wall against the possibility of a night attack. But they were very complacent, for there were no sentries actually patrolling the camp they'd established in the valley. Or maybe complacent wasn't exactly the right word for it, he conceded after a moment. No Mardukan raiding force could possibly have come after them through these temperature conditions, after all, even if it could have made the climb up the cliffs in the first place, which was questionable.


"This is going to be a cakewalk," he whispered.


"Something's bound to go wrong," the plasma gunner disagreed, getting up carefully to avoid sending a rock bouncing into the valley to give away their position.


The two Marines moved back to the bivouac the team had established. It was an overcast, moonless night, and without the vision systems of their helmets, they would have been stumbling along blind. As it was, the faint reflection of the fires of Ran Tai was enough to give them near daylight vision.


They rounded the small projection of stone that shielded their camp from view from the valley and squatted down by Macek. The private was heating a cup of soup with a resistance heater. Technically, that was a violation of doctrine, since they were supposed to be making a cold camp, but the resistance heater only radiated in infrared, and it wasn't like they had to worry about scummy scan teams picking it up.


"That looks good," Julian observed as he flopped down on his open bivy tent.


"Fix your own, then," the private suggested, and Gronningen chuckled and pulled out a piece of jerked capetoad. The meat from the animals had yielded several hundred kilos of jerky that some of the company relished.


Julian generally found it awful, but he was hungry enough to pull out a piece of his own and start gnawing on it.


"I can't believe that after all I've done for you, you begrudge me a little soup," he said in a whiny tone.


"Yeah? Like dragging me up a mountain to alternately freeze and bake?" the private asked, then chuckled. "Hell, I was making it for all of us," he admitted. "It's not much, just a little jerky and a few leftover pieces of tater."


"Sounds good," Gronningen said. "I'm ready to get off this hill, too," he admitted reluctantly. The Asgardian religion had some extremely stoic overtones.


"Me, too," Julian assured him. "I'm ready for some of Matsugae's cooking." He sighed. "Or even some of the stuff in the town. It's not too bad, you know."


"I want a bitok," Macek said. "That doesn't seem too much to ask."


"Oh, man," Julian said, smacking his lips. "You would have to say that. I want one, too. About an eighth of a kilo. With cheese and onions."


"Yah," Gronningen said, leaning back in his own bivy and masticating the shoe-leather jerky. "A bitok sounds good. Or my mutra's lutefisk." He sighed. "It's been a long time since I had my mutra's lutefisk."


"What's lutefisk?" Julian asked as he took the cup out of Macek's hand and sipped.


"Lutefisk?" The Asgardian frowned. "That is . . . hard to explain. It is a fish."


"Yeah?" Macek took a chew of his own jerky. "What's so special about a fish?"


The Asgardian thought for a moment about trying to explain the attraction of cod soaked in lye, then decided to give up.


"It is a family thing, I think," he said, and retreated into his normal reticent shell after that while Julian and Macek wrangled quietly over the quality of different bitok joints in Imperial City. Eventually, they both agreed that the only thing to do was get back to Earth and go on a bar-crawl to compare them properly.


They finished the soup, then divided up the watches and settled down for the night. One more day of alternately baking and frying on the plateau, and the company should be on its way.


* * *


Roger pulled himself over the lip of the plateau and stepped forward to let the next Marine up. The windy tabletop was beginning to fill up with the company, but the Marines stayed well away from the northern wall. One noisy, rolling rock could ruin the entire operation.


Roger nodded to Kosutic as she walked up. The flattened view in the night vision systems worked hand in hand with the helmet's face shields to make everyone anonymous, but the helmet systems threw up little tags as people came into view. The tags were effectively invisible, once you got used to them, unless you consciously concentrated on seeing them, but they provided a way for the user to distinguish who was who.


"How we doing, Sergeant Major?" the prince asked. He looked around as the last Marine hauled herself onto the plateau and checked his toot for the time. "I think we're a little ahead of schedule."


"That we are, Sir," the sergeant major replied. She glanced around and saw that the team leaders were getting their people into position. Everything was working out smoothly, exactly as planned.


Which made her very, very nervous.


 


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