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CHAPTER EIGHT

Roger slid off of Patty's back and caught one end of the plasma cannon as it dropped, then handed it off to Gronningen as the plasma gunner jumped to the ground and the mahout moved the packbeast back. The flar-ta still hadn't recovered fully from her wounds, and more had been added in the last three weeks, so the prince was keeping her back from this little skirmish.


He waved to the mahouts as the rest of the convoy pounded past towards one of the ubiquitous cities of the lowlands in the near distance. This one sat on a high promontory by the river where the now broad and powerful Chasten descended a series of cascades before reaching the coastal plains, and unless he was sorely mistaken, it must be Diaspra itself. The city was enormous in comparison to the towns of the Hurtan and Hadur regions and sprawled off the promontory and down onto the plains, with its outer portions protected from floods by its massive walls, flood control canals, and sturdy dikes.


It obviously looked good to the packbeast drovers. They were goading their mounts into a clumsy canter, and the Mardukan children packed on the backs of the beasts looked at Roger oddly as he waved. A few waved back, but with an almost puzzled air, for it was not a Mardukan custom.


The Marines had peeled off from the caravan as well, and now they aligned themselves on the road with a handful of their own, steadier flar-ta at their backs. Their chosen location was a narrow way between two thick groves of trees about a thousand meters from the wall, presumably left to provide firewood when the other approaches to the city were brushed back. The pursuing barbarians would be forced to face the Marine line or try flanking it through the heavy wood. No doubt the flank would eventually be turned, but by then the noncombatants would be through the gates of the city and the Marines would be able to really maneuver. With the aid of their flar-ta, the human force would be able to play hard to get all the way to the walls.


Pahner paced slowly up and down behind his line, gently masticating his bisti root, and nodded to Roger. He'd wanted the prince to accompany the noncombatants into the city, but he hadn't bothered to say so. Whether he liked it or not, he'd finally resigned himself to the fact that if there was a fight, Roger would be in the thick of it. As a matter of fact, he didn't like it one bit, but that was the bodyguard in him. The Marine in him had to admit (very privately, where Roger would never hear it) that it was far more satisfying to guard someone who refused to hide behind the bodies and lives of other people . . . however difficult that made it to protect the insufferable, headstrong, and often irritating someone in question.


Roger himself trotted forward to the line with Cord and Denat in hot pursuit. The two Mardukans had spent the last three weeks learning how to use the large shields the humans had introduced, and the reason was apparent as a storm of throwing axes descended on the human line. The two four-armed Mardukans threw up a double set of shields: one for themselves, and the other for the heedless prince who was carefully judging the approach of the barbarian forces. Roger nodded his thanks to Cord, and looked over at the sergeant major.


"About two hundred or so, don't you think, Sergeant Major?"


"About that, Sir," the NCO replied. "I'm still trying to divide my arm count by four."


Roger smiled and dialed up the magnification of his helmet display, then called up his combat program and put a crosshair on the head of the apparent leader.


"Your call, Smaj."


"Bravo Company will hurl javelins!" the sergeant major announced in a voice which would have carried through the teeth of a hurricane. "Draw! Take aim! Throw! Out swords!"


The hail of throwing spears didn't stop the barbarians, but it did break up their ranks, and Roger accompanied the javelin volley with three shots from his bead pistol. Like all the rest of the ammunition, pistol ammo was in too short a supply to waste, but Roger very seldom "wasted" ammunition, and his three carefully placed rounds dropped the barbarians' leaders in their tracks. Whether that was good or bad remained to be seen, of course. The company had already discovered that Boman warriors were altogether too prone to a sort of berserk fighting madness once combat began, and sometimes it was only the leaders who would—or could—call for a retreat.


This scummy force had a few arquebuses, and since it wasn't raining (at the moment), the gunners came to the fore as the force approached the humans. There were only six of them, but the rest of the band halted as they laboriously adjusted their waxy, smoking matches and aimed in the general direction of the human company. Three of the firearms, obviously captured from more civilized original owners, were beautifully made, with fancy brass inlay work which had seen better days, but all of them looked incredibly clumsy to a modern Marine. Which didn't necessarily mean they were ineffective . . . assuming that they actually hit something.


The gunners blew on the ends of their matches until the glowing embers satisfied them, then popped open the hermetically sealed priming pans which Marduk's humid climate made essential. They glanced at the priming powder, then grasped the leverlike triggers which would pivot the serpentine metal arms which held the slow matches and dip their glowing ends into the powder.


The weapons were scarcely accurate at anything beyond point-blank range. Of course, this was point-blank range, but the Marines were utterly contemptuous of the threat. Cord and Denat ducked behind the humans' line, but the Marines shouted insults at the Boman and actually pulled their shields out of line to expose their bodies to fire.


The reason for their contempt became apparent after the volley. The blast from the relatively few weapons filled the space between the Mardukan and human lines with thick smoke, but it was clear that only a single Marine had been hit. One fatality out of six wasn't a bad average for a Mardukan arquebus volley, so the gunners' fellows shouted approvingly and sprang into a charge. But they checked when the single trooper who'd gone down heaved herself to her feet, swearing, and readied her shield once more.


"Now, now, Briana," Roger admonished Corporal Kane. "I'm sure that their mothers at least knew their fathers."


"Yes, Sir," the corporal said, bringing her shield back around to the front. "If you say so. But I still say I'm gonna gut that stupid bastard. Those damned bullets smart."


Roger had to agree. Mardukan arquebuses were wildly outsized compared to any human-scaled weapon, man-packed cannon that fired quarter-kilo balls. The projectiles' velocity was high at short range (which was to say, at any range at which a hit could realistically be anticipated), as well, which imparted a tremendous kick when one hit the kinetic reactive armor of the chameleon suits. But that velocity was what made the chameleon suits effective against them, for the Marines' uniforms were designed for protection against modern, high-speed projectiles. They were relatively ineffective against low-speed weapons, like spears, swords, or throwing axes, but arquebus balls were something else. The suits not only "hardened" when struck by the rounds, but distributed the kinetic energy across their entire surface and even around the back. Despite her understandable outrage, the impact was spread widely enough that the most the corporal would suffer was a few bruises.


The Mardukans checked for a moment at the sight of the unexpected resurrection, then charged forward anyway, screaming their battle cries and swinging their battle axes. Many of the barbarians used two axes at a time, and they came windmilling into the human line like four-armed juggernauts.


The Marines were ready for them. Over the last few weeks, they'd fought off repeated small attacks by the roaming tribes who formed the vanguard of the Boman. This was the largest one yet, but it would prove no more of a challenge than the others.


The plasma cannon rolled forward a few steps, placing its barrel just beyond the Marine line as the troopers to either side moved back to give it room, and fired point blank. The belch of ions scorched the fronts of the Marines' wood and iron shields, but otherwise left them unaffected. The same could not be said for the Mardukans.


The plasma cannon had been set at relatively low power, both to conserve energy in its power pack and also because its targets were too frail to require anything more energetic. It was still powerful enough to knock out a modern tank, however, and it tore through the mass of tribesmen like a fusion-powered brimstone battering ram. A ten-meter-wide gap appeared as if by magic straight through the center of their formation. There weren't even any bodies—only a smoking hell-hole bordered by blackened, half-consumed skeletons and screaming barbarians, writhing and twisting insanely with the agony of the flash burns seared across their bodies.


There was no time for a second shot . . . or for the howling tribesmen to break off their attack. They were moving too quickly, and the range was too short, for them to change their minds. They had no choice but to carry through with their charge, which actually was the best thing they could have done. At least it got them in close enough to prevent the hell weapon from effortlessly incinerating all of them!


Unfortunately, the fact that closing with their enemies was their "best" option didn't necessarily make it a good one.


The plasma cannon pulled back and its flankers closed ranks once more with perfect timing just as the remnants of the shattered formation hit the human shield wall and the Boman learned another lesson: a disciplined wall of shields shrugs off windmilling axes like rain.


Bravo Company was the product of an extremely advanced, high-tech society, but the Marines had been taught in a brutal school since their arrival on Marduk. Only a few of them had really been anything close to what a Mardukan might consider proficient with edged steel upon their arrival here, but those few had passed on all the tricks they knew. Other techniques had been learned the hard way, and Armand Pahner and Eva Kosutic had planned their tactics and training with the fundamentals firmly in mind: keep the shield up, and stab low.


Even as the thundering axes struck downward onto their hard-held shields, the Marines stabbed forward through the narrow gaps between them, aiming for the bellies and gonads of their enemies. The Mardukans had a tremendous reach advantage over the humans, but they were forced to step in close to hack down at the Marines' defensive barrier, and when they did, they also stepped directly into the sweep of the humans' weapons.


The result was a slaughter. The Mardukans, faced by a radically new approach to fighting and unable to find a way through the shield wall, found themselves slipping in the spilled intestines of their own front line instead. Kosutic watched the entire battle dispassionately. She'd become expert at gauging Mardukan morale over the last few weeks, and she saw the point of balance when the barbarians began to waver.


She glanced at Captain Pahner, who nodded. Time to finish this.


"Bravo Company will advance!" she called. She looked to the woods to her right, where there was a flash of metal. "Prepare to advance on cadence. In step! HUT!"


The company moved forward, calling the time, short swords and spears stabbing with every step, and the Mardukan tribesmen found themselves driven back. The alternative to retreat was to spit themselves on those dreadful knives the humans wielded.


The plasma cannon had killed perhaps twenty percent of the total Boman force, but the remaining barbarians still outnumbered the Marines by three-to-one, and despite the efficiency of the humans' combat technique, they hadn't really taken many casualties yet in hand-to-hand. They'd still suffered more than the Marines, who'd taken no casualties, but the battle was effectively a stalemate, with the edge in quality on Bravo Company's side, and quantity overwhelmingly on the Boman's side.


It came down to attrition and morale . . . but that was easy enough to change. Kosutic looked over at the captain once more, and Pahner nodded in response and keyed his radio.


* * *


"Now would be good, Rastar," the communicator clipped to the Mardukan's harness said, and the Therdan prince carefully depressed the talking switch.


"Right-oh," he responded in Standard English. Roger had started using the expression around him a good bit, and Rastar knew it was some sort of joke, but he liked it anyway. He looked over at Honal and wrinkled the skin over one eye in another human expression. "Shall we, cousin?"


The guard commander grunted in laughter and gave a tooth-showing human-style grin.


"Yes, cousin. Let's." He looked at his force and drew his saber. "Sheffan!" he cried, slapping the flank of his civan with the flat of his blade. Time to show these barbarian bastards what it meant to get in the way of the riders of the North.


* * *


The one worry the travelers had had, that the city might not open its gates to them, turned out to be moot. The square beyond those gates was lined with cheering townsfolk, and the guardsmen manning them waved the Marines and their Mardukan allies enthusiastically through.


In fact, the humans found themselves forced to form a perimeter around their packbeasts to hold back the cheering crowds. After a few moments' struggle, the Northern cavalry pushed through to join them, using their occasionally snapping civan to open up a space around the human contingent and their animals. It was as well that they had, for the shouts and high-pitched whistles of the ecstatic Mardukans bounced back and forth between the stone curtain wall and the city's structures. The enclosure trapped the bedlam, turning it into a hot, close maelstrom in which all sanity seemed to have been lost as the city guards slammed the gates behind the new arrivals.


The boom of the closing gates could barely be heard over the thunder of the locals, but it still startled Patty, and the overwrought flar-ta let out a low rumble and slapped her feet up and down on the cobbles, waving her horns back and forth at the pressing crowd.


"Ho, girl!" Roger yelled over the frenzied uproar, scratching her under her armored shield and patting her on the shoulder. "Steady!"


The huge beast uttered a half-furious, half-querulous bugle, but it was obvious that she hovered on the brink of a berserk response. In another moment she would charge the crowd like a six-ton bull in a china shop, and Pahner shook his head and keyed his helmet.


"Roger, try to keep her under control!" he said quickly, and patted his pockets until he came up with a flash grenade, set the timer for a three-second delay, and threw it straight up in the air.


The tremendous flash and crack of the human weapon had become normal to the packbeasts, who paid no attention to it. But the intense report, magnified by the echoing walls, shocked the crowd into momentary silence broken only by the low rumble of Patty's prebattle fury.


In the hush that followed, a group of guards clad in chain mail and plate pushed their way through the crowd, escorting a pair of elderly Mardukans. At their appearance, the crowd began to fall reluctantly back from the caravan. A few still cheered, but were quickly hushed into silence by their fellows.


Roger waited for several moments, until he was confident that Patty had calmed down at least some, then waved for the head mahout to relieve him on her back and slid to the ground. He walked across to where Pahner stood awaiting the delegation and smiled at the Marine.


"I think they're happy to see us."


"Too happy," the captain replied sourly. "Nobody is that pleased to see the Corps unless their ass is caught in a crack."


"Which means ours is, as well," Roger said. "Right?"


"What else is pocking new?" Poertena muttered, then looked up at his glowering CO and swallowed hastily. "Sir?"


The captain glowered at the armorer for another long moment, but finally relented.


"Nothing, Poertena," he said, shaking his head. "Nothing new in that at all. In fact . . ."


" . . . it's getting really old," Roger finished.


"Yep," the company commander said as the delegation finally made it through the cordon of shield-wielding Marines. "Real old," he added, holding out his hand palm up in Mardukan greeting.


The delegation looked terribly pleased to see them.


Terribly.


 


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