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CHAPTER FIVE

"Ah, finally something that's working out," Julian said quietly.


The two oversized squads which were all that remained of Bravo Company were lined up along the middle section of the gorge. The gorge snaked back from the entrance for nearly three hundred meters before opening into the mining area, where the majority of the barbarians were bivouacked, but the only guards were on the gates themselves. By landing between the barbarians' camp and the guards, the company could take the mercenaries by the throat . . . assuming everything worked as planned.


"Remember," Roger said over the company frequency, "minimum violence. I want them taken down, and taken down hard, but no killing if possible."


"But don't take unnecessary chances," Kosutic added.


"Right," the prince agreed. "Okay, you all have your targets," he said, clipping his drop line into place. "Let's do it."


The platoon dropped down into the darkness like the shadows of so many chameleon cloth-covered spiders. The drop clips automatically slowed them as they approached the nearly invisible bottom, then detached as their feet hit the ground. Then the shadows split up, one squad heading valley-ward while the other headed for the gates.


* * *


Roger moved through the sleeping encampment and wanted to laugh. The barbarians were pretty clearly a nomadic cavalry outfit, since the recon teams had confirmed that they had their women and children with them, but their picket lines were well up the valley. The civan that would have warned them of the humans' approach were well out of sight from the tactical squad.


Julian and his team had determined which hut belonged to the leaders of the barbarians, and the prince had chosen it as his personal target. He hoped that if he took the leader, he could convince him to surrender. He'd been able to negotiate an agreement with Deb Tar and the city authorities of Ran Tai to let the barbarians go free if they surrendered, so he had that to bargain with. If the barbs wanted to fight, though, things could get messy. Whatever else these scummies might be, and however overconfident they might seem, they were also professional warriors, and unlike the Kranolta, they had firearms. As cavalry, they carried the big wheel lock pistol/carbines, not the heavier-caliber infantry arquebuses with their resin-coated slow matches. Developing reliable gunpowder and ignition systems for firearms on a planet with Marduk's predominately humid, one might almost say "saturated," climate must have been a nightmare. It had certainly required more ingenuity than had been the case back on Terra, and from what the humans had been able to discover so far, the several-times-a-day rains which were so much a part of the normal Mardukan weather experience were a major tactical factor in their use. Armies without arquebuses, or with fewer of them than their opponents, strove mightily to avoid battles under anything except rainy conditions, and no scummy in his right mind would have dreamed of building an army without plenty of old-fashioned, muscle-powered weaponry in reserve.


For himself, Roger suspected that he would never have bothered to try to overcome the all but insuperable difficulties involved with the use of loose-powder, muzzle-loading weapons on a planet like Marduk. But the locals had managed it, and he had no desire at all to see what a two-centimeter pistol ball would do to one of his people, so if it did come to a fight, he was determined that the company would have the upper hand from the start. That was why Aburia's team was busy planting explosives throughout the camp; if the barbarians didn't surrender, the plan was to back off and blow them in place.


Roger and his team froze as a figure stepped out of one of the huts. The small buildings of the mining facility were made of rock rubble from the mine shafts, but their doors were nothing more than hide flaps, and the Mardukan's exit had been silent. One moment, the street was empty—the next the scummy was in clear view. Despite the darkness, they would be spotted in an instant if he looked around, and the entire plan would be blown.


The barbarian scratched at a dried patch on his arm and snarled. Then he relieved himself on the side of the hut, and went back in.


Roger breathed a silent sigh of relief and continued onward. He detoured slightly to get away from the restless barbarian's hut and cut between two of the rough buildings.


His team ended up behind the hut of the mercenary leader and crept around to its front. Roger consulted his helmet systems and looked around. Aburia's team was nearly done placing their explosives, but not quite, so he held in place to give them a bit more time. The squad headed for the gates was already in position and hadn't been spotted as they set up for an ambush. Their only job was to make sure that the Mardukans at the gates didn't come to the aid of their compatriots when Roger's squad hit the main encampment. If the plan went off without a hitch, their presence would never even be noticed.


Roger consulted the demo schematic and his toot clock again. The charges were emplaced, and Aburia had pulled her team back to provide cover if the entry team needed it. And if that wasn't enough, Roger had a hole card.


He'd lost out on the argument over who went through the door first. Actually, it would have been fairer to say that there'd never been anything which might properly have been called an "argument" in the first place. Pahner might have delegated field command to "Captain Sergei," but there were definite limits to the freedom Roger was permitted in the risk-taking department, and so he waved Julian forward, instead.


The squad leader smiled and waved in turn to Gronningen, who stepped forward quietly and pushed the flap aside. Julian followed him through, and Roger entered behind the NCO. The hut was larger than most, and had a few appointments, including a writing desk, but it was still basically a hovel. Roger shook his head and stepped over to the still-sleeping scummy leader as the team fanned out to cover the other scummies in the room. Two of them were women, but the humans were taking no chances and made certain that all of the Mardukans were covered.


Once they were, Roger bent until his helmet was pointed at the barbarian's face, and triggered the helmet light.


* * *


Rastar Komas Ta'Norton of the Vasin, Prince of Therdan, stared up into the light, and all four hands filled with the knives that were his trademark. But he'd hardly moved when he encountered the hard shape of what could only be a gun barrel pressing into his chest. He wasn't sure, because the light in his eyes was the brightest he'd ever seen in his life, but it was unlikely to be anything else.


"Do you want to live?" a disembodied and very peculiar-sounding voice asked from beyond the light. "Or do you want to die, and have your entire tribe die with you?"


"What's the difference?" Rastar snarled. "You'll kill us all anyway. Or make us slaves. Kill us now. At least that's freedom, of a sort."


"Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than mountains," the voice, which sounded like no Mardukan Rastar had ever heard, said. "Yet we take up the burden of duty, do we not? I have been given permission to spare you and your tribe if you surrender and leave. You may even retain your weapons. You simply have to pack up and go, taking with you nothing but what you arrived with. If you are in the Vale of Ran Tai at sunset of this day, your lives are forfeit. Your call."


Rastar considered the knives. He was certain he could kill this one, but there were other lights, other guns, and he couldn't kill his women, his tribe. It was the last duty he had, and he could not drop it, even when death beckoned so seductively.


"We keep our weapons?" he asked suspiciously.


"Yes," said the voice. "However, if you try to double-cross us, we'll be forced to kill you all."


"No." The chieftain sighed and put his knives on the floor. "No, we won't double-cross you. Have this foul valley, and more power to you."


* * *


Things were still going too smoothly.


Roger watched the Vasin filing out of their huts and gathering in the central square. He had his own squad moving about in an intricate, flowing pattern that gave the impression he had forces everywhere, when the barbarians actually outnumbered him by three to one, in hopes of keeping things smooth. In fact, the mercenaries outnumbered the force that he had in the camp itself by nearly ten to one, and he congratulated himself, in a modest sort of way, on how well the op had gone down.


Of course, he admitted, it had nearly gone the other way. Roger had been terrified by the speed with which the Mardukan had reacted—those knives had seemed to teleport into the chieftain's hands, and he'd had them out and ready before Roger could even blink. If the Mardukan had decided to start the ball, the Empire would have been short one fortunately disposable prince. It had been a sobering experience.


The Vasin's equipment was much better made and finished than Roger had expected, but their nomad background was obvious, for they were packed before Roger had imagined they could even get started. Their civan were lined up to leave in less than ten minutes, and Roger approached the chief, Rastar, and nodded.


"It's better this way," he said.


"I hope you won't mind, but if we actually get out of this valley alive, we're planning on being out of the Vale before dawn," the Mardukan told him with a grunt of laughter.


"Not at all," Roger said. "You're not terribly popular. Just one question," he added. The Marines had watched the packing with an eagle eye, and he knew the Mardukans hadn't packed any large amounts of gold and silver. "Where's the shipment?"


"Your guess is as good as mine, basik," the chieftain told him. "They keep talking about their 'shipment,' but we've never understood why. There's no large store of metals here." The chief gestured to a heavily built stone shack near a worked-out, abandoned mine shaft. "That's the storehouse. It was empty when we arrived."


"What?"


"Hah!" the chieftain grunted. "Let me guess—that was your pay."


"Yes!" the prince snarled. "What happened to it?"


"As I said," the barbarian said in a voice which held a sudden hint of dangerous ice, "it was gone when we arrived here. We don't know what happened to it."


"Sir," Sergeant Major Kosutic put in, "they didn't load it, and there's no way out of the valley, so they didn't carry it out after they got here. Either it left before they arrived, or else it's still here somewhere."


"Shit," Roger said. "Okay, Rastar, you can leave. Pick up your guards on the way out. If you try to come back, I might just get pissed."


"Not as pissed as I am, Lord Sergei," the Mardukan told him. "But for whatever comfort it's worth, I've always heard that the life of a mercenary generally consists of getting stuck with the sword of the paymaster far more often than with the swords of the enemy. From my own limited experience, that's putting it mildly."


He tossed his head in a Mardukan nod, walked over to his civan, and climbed into the saddle. In moments, the Vasin column was gone.


"All right, Sergeant Major," Roger sighed wearily. "Let's tear this place apart. Find our gold."


"Yes, Sir," the sergeant major said. But she already had a sinking feeling.


* * *


"No gold?" Armand Pahner's voice was admirably composed, but he kept his head turned slightly away to hide his incipient grin.


"Nope." Roger kicked one of the low tables. "None. We found a few kilos of silver—hardly enough to outfit us, but maybe if we scrimp . . ." He shook his head angrily. "We searched every mine, as far as we could with the way the groundwater's risen since Deb Tar's people's pumps shut down. Not a bit of gold anywhere."


"Oh, great," O'Casey said. "Stop kicking the table, Roger. We can't afford to break any furniture."


"The worst part is that I'm a laughingstock," Roger said bitterly. "Of course Deb Tar wasn't willing to pay us a red centicred, and the local courts won't touch it. Especially not after the way he kept accusing us of hiding the gold ourselves, as if that made any sense."


"Oh, it's not that bad," Kosutic said. "It was a good op. It went down exactly as planned, and nobody got hurt. Hell, it was basically a training exercise, and a good one. And nobody faults you, Sir. Everybody thought the gold was there, and Deb Tar is furious."


"But where did it go?" O'Casey asked.


"That's the million-credit question," the sergeant major replied, "and His Evilness only knows the answer. It was definitely in the storehouse when the Vasin slipped through the gates, and it's definitely not there now. And the Vasin did not carry it out. Unfortunately, none of that tells us what did happen to it, and where it went is a mystery. The storehouse was empty, and even the carts they kept the stuff in are gone."


"Carts?" the chief of staff repeated.


"Yeah. They load the stuff into carts to carry it to the storehouse from the refinery, and they just shove the carts into the storehouse to save themselves the trouble of unloading it just so they can load it again when the time comes to haul it down to the city. But the carts weren't there—and they weren't in the refinery or anywhere else, either. We looked just to see if they'd been hidden in the smelters or something."


"There's no way they could've gotten it out of the valley without taking it through the gate," Roger said despairingly. "Mardukans just can't climb that well."


"Well, Your Highness," Captain Pahner said with a smile, "I'm sure we'll think of something. But maybe you want to get some sleep, or even go hit the taverns. Go blow off some steam."


"With what? We're tapped!"


"We're not that tapped," the CO said. "Take the . . . platoon out and have a trooper blast. We can afford it, barely, and it's the best thing to do after a busted op."


"Okay." Roger shrugged. "If you say so."


"Go have some fun, Captain Sergei," the captain told him with a smile.


"That particular ancestor wasn't very lucky," Roger said, summoning a slight grin of his own in return. "I think I'll pick a different moniker."


Pahner chuckled in sympathy, and the prince turned and headed for the door. Behind him, Kosutic looked at the captain and lifted an eyebrow. He was planning something.


* * *


Roger was drunk. So was Nimashet Despreaux. And just at the moment, the prince was stone-cold positive that that was a Bad Thing.


The two of them had somehow ended up in a pool of silence in the middle of the roaringly successful party. The inn's owner had been only too happy to have the custom, but most of the Mardukan patrons had gone home early. The off-worlders were too drunk, too aggressive, and, by all means, too loud. A group of Marines in one corner was roaring out one of the dirtiest ditties Roger had ever heard in his life—something about "Three-Ball Pete"—and in another corner, in competition with their theoretically musical efforts, was an arm-wrestling match, complete with chanting cheerleaders. Neither group could have carried a tune if you'd given them a hundred buckets, but everyone was far too plastered to care.


So the little pool of privacy that had formed around him and the sergeant had a queasy setup feel to the high-flying prince's somewhat befuddled instincts. He could feel the little prods from the group even through his wine-induced haze, and, in a way, it was gratifying. Despreaux was by no means ugly, after all. And if the company had decided it was a good thing for them to "get together," it meant a form of acceptance. On the other hand . . .


Roger cleared his throat as Despreaux, apparently oblivious to the little nods, winks, and maneuvers around them, poured him some more wine.


"Nima-sh-sh-shet?" he asked.


"Hmmm?" Her smile was warm, and his resistance wavered for a moment. She was, in fact, quite beautiful. And he'd had that thought any number of times before, he reminded himself, so it wasn't the several bottles of wine he'd consumed at this point.


"I . . . don' ge' involved wi' . . . uh . . ."


What he wanted to say was that he didn't get sexually involved at all. The consequences and ramifications for someone in his position were simply too great, and the two times he'd made the mistake of forgetting that, the public discussion of his sex life had hammered the point mercilessly home. No one outside the Imperial Family could possibly conceive of the intensity with which a public microscope examined the behavior of all MacClintocks, and anyone who thought Roger or his siblings could conduct even the most discreet love affair without the newsies finding out had to be a drug addict. The last thing the dynasty's "bad boy" had needed was to hand the scandal faxes that kind of story!


That would have been more than sufficient reason for discretion on Roger's part, but he was honest enough—with himself, at least—to admit that there was another and much more personal reason. His mother had never married his father, and until Eleanora O'Casey had explained the actual train of events to him in Marshad, Roger had always believed deep in his heart that he must have been what had driven them apart and led to his father's banishment from court. Looked at logically, the notion that he could be to blame was ridiculous, but the wounded, lonely child to whom it had first occurred had scarcely been in a position to consider it rationally.


And one thing he was totally and bitterly certain of was that he would never put another child into the position of thinking the same thoughts and enduring the same pain. Oh, he knew perfectly well that the drugs and nanites that eliminated the monthly curse for the female Marines also eliminated any possibility of pregnancy, but engaging in a casual affair, especially under these conditions, was as impossible for the prince as it might have been for other scions of the "nobility" to resist banging the servants. And even if it hadn't been, there was no way that he would damage the unit's cohesion that way—no way that he was going to damage his companion-at-arms relationship with the sergeant, one he'd literally shed blood to create, for an evening's romp in the sack.


No matter how badly his inebriated body yearned to throw itself onto the highly trained Marine, rip her uniform off, and bury his face in her high, firm breasts.


But he'd never been able to explain any of his tangled feelings and rational analyses to anyone in his life. Not even to Matsugae, who was, in many ways, the closest thing Roger had ever known to a genuine "father." His personal . . . quirks had led to problems ever since upper school, and he'd still never been able to articulate them. Not even when the commander of his mother's bodyguard had been standing in his bedroom, trying to understand why the stark-naked and raving daughter of a grand duke was calling him a eunuch.


He couldn't think of the way to do it now, either, however hard he tried. And he did try. His fuddled brain searched for something—anything—to say to take the sting out of his rejection, but what dropped from his lips was " . . . associateatsh."


* * *


Nimashet Despreaux blinked twice and tried to focus on the prince, but all she could see was the target zone just above his Adam's apple.


"Di' you jus' say what I thin' you said?" she enunciated carefully.


"Look, call me weird," Roger said, gesturing with his cup. "But I don' fool around with . . . assoc . . . ass . . . aizoaceae . . . . Look, not tha' it wouldn' be fun. You' gorgeous. Bu' I won'."


"Wha' you mean is you don' fool 'round wi' the help. Tha's wha' you were gonna say, right?" the NCO demanded. "I s'pose a sergeant from a ass en' o' nowhere planet isn' good enough for you!"


"No, is no' like that!" the prince protested vehemently, leaning forward to give her a hug. "I like you, an' you're beau'ful, but it wouldn' be right!"


"Kee' you hands off me, you aris-aris . . . aristocratic worm!"


"Whaddid I say?" Roger asked in perplexity. "I guess maybe some'ay, but no' tonigh'."


"You're damn' right we won't," the sergeant hissed as she drew back to strike. "Thas' not somethin' you're ever, ever gonna worry abou' again."


* * *


"Oh, shit."


For no reason he could think of, Julian had decided to forego the party. Technically, he was off-duty and could've gotten as drunk as a skunk if he wanted to. Unlike Gronningen and Georgiadas, who were supposed to be covering Roger. But they, bless their stupid little hearts, had stepped far enough away to give Roger and his girlfriend some space, some privacy, just like everybody else who'd watched the two of them dance closer and closer all evening. The company was not a unit of voyeurs, but the pool had gone bust twice on when those two were finally going to do the beast with two backs, and if they didn't get it out of their systems soon, somebody was going to squeal to the Skipper.


At the moment, however, Julian was ready to call the pool off. Just as soon as he saved Roger's life—the ungrateful bastard . . .


* * *


The hard-driven slap slammed painfully into Julian's forearm as he blocked it.


"Despreaux!"


"Get out of my way, Julian!" the enraged bodyguard screamed. "I won't kill 'im! I'm just going to rip his balls off!"


"That would kill him, Nimashet," Julian protested as he blocked another swing. Fortunately, the inebriated Marine was still trying to hit the rapidly retreating Roger rather than deliberately aiming for her fellow noncom.


"No, it wouldn't." Warrant Officer Dobrescu sounded remarkably—and falsely—sober for a man stretched out under a nearby table, bottle in one hand and little black bag in the other. "I'd stop the bleeding. They'd even regrow with enough regen and enough time. I saw it once in a guy that had a bad accident on Shiva."


"See!" Despreaux yelled, trying to force her way past. Roger had retreated into the group of singers in the corner, but the tall, long-haired figure was still easily discernible. "It wouldn't kill him—just hurt. A lot! And it's not like he'd miss them!"


She tried for one more moment to shove past Julian, but then, suddenly, all the fury seemed to drain out of her. Her strength went with it, and she dropped back onto a bench and put her face in her hands.


"Oh, Julian, what the hell am I gonna do?"


"There, there," he said, patting her awkwardly on the back. The thought crossed his mind—briefly—that this was probably the best time ever to make his own play. But even he wasn't that evil a bastard. Probably. He'd have to think about it. He'd done things nearly as low to get laid. But not quite that low. Well, some that were. And, admittedly, some that were even lower. But not to a friend. Had he? "There, there."


"Oooooh." Despreaux groaned and took a long pull out of a bottle. "What the hell am I gonna do? I was willing to be the laughingstock of the company, but this is worse! I'm in love with a man who's unable to screw!"


"He isn't functionally incapable," Dobrescu said carefully. He sat up and slammed his forehead on the underside of his table. "Ouch. Damned low ceilings in this joint. As I was saying. He's functional as a male."


"Oooooh," Despreaux moaned again. "I just wanna crawl under a rock and die!"


"Don't tell me this is the first time you've ever been turned down," Julian joked. "You'll get over it. Everybody does."


"It's the first time I've ever asked, you idiot! I never had to before! And I didn't even get to ask—he just assumed I was going to suggest it! Assumed!"


"Were you?" Dobrescu asked, sticking his head out from between the table and the bench. "Damned odd architecture in this joint."


"Well, yes," Despreaux admitted. "But that's not the point! Did you hear what he said to me?"


"Yes," Julian said. "That was when I got the tranquilizer gun ready."


"Can you believe the nerve!" she spat so furiously that wine flew out in a spray over the other NCO.


"Yes," Dobrescu said. "I can. And since he turned you down, I don't suppose you could do with some comforting from a warrant officer? If, of course, you're thin enough to fit through the entrance to this cozy little room I seem to have lucked upon."


Gronningen, fortunately, was large enough to pull her off the warrant officer. Who complained, vociferously, that since he was the only medic in the company, there was no one else who could work on his wrenched back and bleeding nose.


* * *


The owner, the new manager, and the survey parties had left the valley. The long process of pumping out the mines and putting them back into production would start the following day, but for tonight the valley was deserted. Not even the guards had been replaced.


Which made the fact that three of the windmill-powered pumps were running all out at the moment more than a tiny bit peculiar. Their hoses snaked into the mouth of an abandoned mine shaft, and Armand Pahner parked himself just outside its entrance and clicked on his helmet light as a Mardukan emerged from the opening.


"Why, hello, Nor Tob."


The Mardukan froze in the opening, pinned by the brilliant glare of light. He clutched a chest between his false-hands, while one true-hand carried an uncocked cavalry pistol.


"It was the carts that got me thinking," the Marine continued cheerfully. "If somebody thought really fast and worked quickly, he could wheel quite a bit of this stuff away in just a few minutes. But he couldn't get far with it."


"So he asked me what was right near the storehouse," the sergeant major said from her perch above the entrance behind the Mardukan. "Ah, ah, let's keep those true-hands away from the pistol flint, shall we?" She chuckled. "I nearly kicked myself. Tell me something, did you have them dig this shaft just for this reason?"


"I've slaved in this mine for years!" the former manager said. "It was my right!"


"And when the Vasin came through the gates, you saw a chance to take your 'right' in the confusion," Pahner observed. "Or did you arrange that, too?"


"No, that was mere chance," the Mardukan said. "But I took that chance when I saw it! Look, I can . . . share this with you. Nobody ever needs to know. You two can have half of it. Hell, forget that foolish child—there are cities on the plains where this much gold will allow you to live like a king for the rest of your life!"


"I don't think so," Pahner said quietly. "I don't like thieves, Nor Tob, and I don't like traitors even more. I think you ought to just go." The captain judged the weight of the chest the former manager was carrying. "You can take that with you, and nobody has to know any different, as you said. But that's it. Time to get on your civan and leave."


"This is my right," the former mine manager snarled. "It's mine!"


"Look," Pahner said reasonably, "you can leave vertical, or horizontal. It really doesn't matter to me. But you're not leaving with more than what you're carrying right now."


"That's what you think!" the Mardukan shouted, and grabbed the cocking arm of his pistol.


* * *


"I'm feeling kind of ambiguous about this," Pahner said as the shaft started to fill again.


"Don't," Kosutic said. "His Evilness knows he's no loss."


"Oh, no," the CO said, walking back up the shaft with her. "Not that. It's Roger. How are we going to tell him?"


"I'd suggest that we just pretend there's a magic bag somewhere with more money," Kosutic said. "I mean, he never has to know, right?"


"But what about Poertena?" Pahner asked as he threw one of the cases onto a turom. The local draft animals were, indeed, some sort of distant cousin of the civan, but they had far more placid dispositions, and this one only whuffled with mournful resignation under the weight.


"What about him?" The sergeant major lashed a bag to a second turom. "We tell him there's no cash at all; it just brings out his creative side."


"We don't want him getting too creative," the captain pointed out. He paused, trying to judge whether or not the turom was overloaded on one side.


"That's always been your problem, Armand," the NCO told him as she picked up another of the heavy cases and loaded it onto her beast. "You're too kindhearted."


"True, true." Pahner gathered up the reins of his civan, swung into the saddle (now equipped with human-style stirrups), and made sure he had a firm grip on his turom's lead. "I need to get over that, I suppose."


"It'll get you killed some day, I swear," the sergeant major said as she mounted in turn. "Take it from me," she added as they headed down the track to town.


Behind them, the water rose over the last of the rock pile at the bottom of the shaft.


 


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