Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER NINE

Gratar, the priest-king of Diaspra, rolled up the document in front of him and crumpled it in his true-hands as he looked at the human visitors. They did not seem happy at the news he'd just imparted.


"So there's no way to the sea?" Roger asked, just to be sure that the information wasn't getting garbled.


"None that is clear." The answer came from the local guard commander, Bogess. The old Mardukan was technically one of the two water priests who held seats on the city council (the other council members were all merchants), but he wore chain mail and the back and breast from the heavy plate armor that was his normal gear. "The Boman swept down within the last ten-day and have encircled the city. Even before then, we had word that the city of Bastar, the port at the mouth of the Chasten, had fallen. Even if you could win down the river, there would be nothing there for you."


Pahner grunted.


"I don't care what city we get to, but we have to cross the ocean. Our destination is on the far side, and the K'Vaernian Sea is our shortest way to the ocean."


The locals at the table traded looks.


"There is nothing on the other side of the water," King Gratar said carefully. "The ocean is an eternal expanse of demon-filled water, placed there by the God to guard the shores of the World Island."


The priest-king's concern for their safety—or perhaps it was for their sanity—was obvious. The local prelate seemed determined to be friendly, despite their heretical notions about just what an ocean was, and the company's appearance immediately after the city's aqueduct had been cut had already been hailed as a sign from their god.


Pahner opened his mouth to reply, but O'Casey laid a warning hand on his arm.


"Perhaps we'll deal with that problem when we reach the sea," she said calmly. "Are there any cities on the sea that have held out against the Boman?"


"K'Vaern's Cove," Rastar said instantly. "It could hold out for the rest of eternity."


"You only hope that," Bogess said. "Surely K'Vaern's Cove fell with the rest of the Northern states?"


"It hadn't when we headed this way," the leader of the Northern mercenaries replied.


He'd been looking better since arriving in the city. Once the humans had gotten to know him and his troopers, they'd figured out fairly quickly that the Vasin certainly weren't barbarians, whatever the denizens of Ran Tai might have thought. And once they'd reached Diaspra, they'd found out just how true that was, for it turned out that several thousand troopers from Therdan, Sheffan, and the other city-states of the League of the North had straggled into Diaspra, where they'd reinforced the local forces. Those troopers had been almost pitifully glad to see Rastar alive, and even more so to see how many women and children he and Honal's guardsmen had gotten out. As soon as they'd learned the Prince of Therdan was in the city, the survivors had transferred their allegiance, giving him a quite respectable force and his seat at the table.


"Furthermore," Rastar went on now, "many of the troopers from the League cities have told me that K'Vaern's Cove holds out still. It has enormous granaries—big enough, it's said, to withstand siege for three or even four years if it must—and if that's not enough, it can hold out indefinitely by importing food by sea. More, the peninsula is protected as much by the sea about it as by its walls, and the Boman aren't going to be able to defeat the K'Vaernian Navy. No, K'Vaern's Cove is still there," he finished.


"Well, our granaries are not full," the priest-king said, crumpling the damning report once more. "We were unable to get in the harvest before the Boman struck, nor are we a well-prepared border city whose storerooms are kept filled in anticipation of war. Our fighters, especially with the help of the Northern forces, have held out so far, but we have only a few months' food, and the Boman squat on our fields. If we cannot harvest, we will starve, and they know it."


"They're awaiting the Hompag Rains," Bogess said gloomily. "They should start any day now. Once the rains abate and the land dries, they'll return. And that will be the end of Diaspra."


"Okay, okay," Pahner said, shaking his head. He wasn't sure what the Hompag Rains were, but first things first. "Let's not get negative. First of all, I don't know how familiar you are with sieges. Have you taken control of the granaries?" he asked the guard commander.


"No," Bogess said sourly. "The granaries are privately owned. We can't control them, and the price of barleyrice has already gotten out of hand."


Pahner shook his head again. "Okay, we need to talk about that." He looked around at the small counsel. "Are any of you familiar with sieges?"


"Not really," Grath Chain replied. He was one of the junior council members, one of its many merchants, and his expression was sour as he made a sign of negation. "We've usually managed to avoid wars."


"Usually by swindling the other side," Honal said in a stage whisper.


"It wasn't we who swindled the Boman and started this whole mess!" Bogess snapped. The old warrior's face twitched like a rat in a fury. "It was not we who brought this pestilence down upon us!"


"No, it was another scum-sucking Southerner!" the Northern cavalry commander shot back hotly. "Or have you forgotten Sindi?"


"Wait!" Pahner barked as the entire council chamber began to erupt in argument. "We only need to decide one thing at this council: do we want to survive, or do we want to die?"


He glared around the room, and most of the Mardukans turned aside from the heat of his fury.


"That's the only thing we need to know," he went on in a grating voice. "If we want to live, we're going to put aside these arguments and forget the niceties of normal business and do the things we need to do to survive." He turned to the king. "Now, Your Excellency, do you want to live?"


"Of course I do," the priest-king replied. "What's your point?"


"My point is that what I'm hearing is 'I can't,' 'we can't,' and 'it's not my fault,' " the Marine captain told him. "What we need to start hearing is 'we can' and 'can do.' Attitude is nearly half the battle in a situation like this."


"What do you mean by 'the niceties of normal business'?" Grath Chain asked suspiciously. "Would one of those things be seizing the privately owned grain?"


"Not at all. But we are going to have to make plenty of decisions that aren't going to be liked, and we can't hold a meeting for every decision and come to a group consensus. You have a problem here, and we have it also. There's no way out of the city, and you don't have enough food for an extended siege. That means we're going to have to bring the barbarians to a decisive battle."


"They won't attack the city," Bogess said wearily. "We've tried and tried to get them to do so. No chance."


"Then we'll have to leave the city with a large enough force to bring them to battle and pin them down," the Marine said. "If we take out a large force, will they attack it?"


"Yes," the king said. "But they'll also destroy it. We've lost half our army trying to fight them for the fields. They'll attack mercilessly as soon as they can concentrate on you outside the walls."


"So we won't have to chase them down?" Kosutic asked in surprise. "I thought we'd have to chase them all over Hell and gone to pin them down."


"Not this group," Rastar said with a grimace. "The Southerners call them all Boman, but this is really the Wespar tribe. You can tell by the tribal markings. The Wespar are uncivilized, even in comparison to the other Boman, and their tribal leader is Speer Mon, a pure idiot even by the standards of his tribe. All you'd have to do is say 'meet me here,' and he would."


"Well, they've been smart enough to avoid the walls of the city," Bogess said defensively.


"That's because we bled them white in the north," Rastar said with a grimace. "They learned to feint and hold the fields against us by bitter experience. If we'd had our full grain rations, we'd be holding out still."


"And what happened there, O Prince of the North?" Grath Chain sneered. "What happened to your vaunted stores? The stores that your precious League used as an excuse for its extortionate tolls?"


Rastar was quiet for a long moment. The moment was long enough for the Council to become uncomfortable, and some of them shifted on the cushions scattered around the low table. Finally, the Mardukan prince looked up from his hands at the councilor.


"If you wish to live out the day," he said very calmly, "keep a civil tongue."


"That's no answer, and I'll have you know that no northern barbar—" the councilor started, then froze as he realized he was looking down the barrels of five pistols.


"Put it down, Roger," Rastar said with a harsh chuckle, then stabbed Grath Chain with an eye as cold as the muzzles of his own pistols. "Here is the answer, feck-beast. The stores were poisoned. Probably by agents from Sindi; we too had 'offended' that thrice-accursed prince.


"But," he added with a human tooth-showing grin as he put his pistols away, "someone brought that agent to our city. It wasn't a trader from Sindi, for they'd been banned from all the cities of the Northern League." He grinned again at the councilor. "When I find out who it was that brought that agent to my city, I will kill that person. I will do it without asking any permission, or giving any warning. I will do it on the slightest thread of evidence. So I would suggest that you make sure your accounts are in order, feck-beast."


The shaken councilor looked to the king.


"I shouldn't have to put up with this from northern barbarians!"


"Your Excellency," Roger said, standing up, "we need to come to an understanding."


The king hesitated, but nodded for him to continue.


"We're in a 'war to the knife,' " the prince said. "What does that mean?" He gestured at Rastar. "Your Northern comrades have told you already. The Boman are here to stay. They'll continue to bleed you until you fall like a hamstrung pagee, and then they'll swarm over you like atul."


He looked around the council, daring one of them to meet his eye.


"Now, we can win against them. My people have been in wars like this many, many times, and we have a great deal of expertise to offer you. But it has to be a partnership. We'll tell you what we think you need to do. If you do it, we, all of us, might survive. If you don't, we, all of us, will die. And your women and children as well." He looked over at Rastar. "Correct?"


"Oh, yes," the Northerner said bleakly. "The Wespar have no use for 'shit-sitters.' " He looked over at Cord, sitting silently behind the prince, and the tribesman returned the look blandly.


Grath Chain began to sputter something, but the priest-king gestured the angry councilor to silence.


"What do you suggest?" he asked.


"Captain?" Roger invited, resuming his seat.


"Put guards on all the granaries," Pahner said crisply. "Dole out bulk foodstuffs in prescribed portions at fixed prices. This will not only prevent price gouging but prevent hoarding and stretch the available supply. Begin training not only the regular forces but all able-bodied males in new fighting techniques to be used against the tribesmen. Force an engagement at a time and place of our choosing, and destroy the bulk of the barbarian force."


"Where do we get the soldiers?" Bogess asked. "It takes years of training with the sword to make a warrior, and even then better than half are lost in the first battle, if it's a fierce one," he said grimly, and Pahner shrugged.


"I won't say that our methods can make warriors out of them, but we can make soldiers in a few months. It's mostly a matter of training them to obey orders unquestioningly and to stand. If they do those two things, the way we fight can be taught in less than a month."


"Impossible," Grath Chain scoffed. "No one can train a warrior in a month!"


"I didn't say anything about warriors," Pahner told the merchant coldly. "We'll be training soldiers, and that's a hell of a lot more dangerous than warriors are. The only thing we need is able bodies." He turned to Bogess. "Can you find several thousand able-bodied men? Ones that can walk two hours with a heavy weight? Other than that, six limbs and a quarter brain is all we need."


Bogess grunted in laughter.


"That we can find, I believe." He turned to the priest-king. "Your Excellency? May we have the Laborers of God?"


Gratar looked pensive.


"The Hompag Rains come soon, and the damage is already extensive. Who will repair the dikes and canals? Who will clean the face of the God?"


Bogess turned to the humans, who were clearly confused.


"The Laborers of God are simple men, common folk. They labor on the Works of God, the canals, dikes, and temples of our city. There are many of them—they far outnumber the small Guard of God—and they're strong-backed laborers. Would they do?"


"Perfectly," Pahner said with a note of enthusiasm. "I assume they already have some sort of structure? That they're broken down into different divisions or companies or something?"


"Yes, they're separated by districts and responsibility," the cleric seated beside Gratar said. The heavyset Mardukan had remained silent throughout the entire discussion so far, but now he leaned forward to meet Pahner's gaze. "I am Rus From, the Bishop of Artificers. The groups are irregular in size, depending on what their responsibilities are."


"And what of those responsibilities?" Grath Chain snapped. "Who will repair the dikes and canals? Who will insure that the face of the God is clean?"


"Your Excellency," Roger responded quietly, "who will do those things if the Boman lay you waste? This is an evil time for your city, one in which you must choose between lesser and greater evils if you are to survive. Yes, repairing and maintaining your city and its temples is important, but you built those artifacts once. You can build them once again . . . if you—and your city—live."


"I suppose," the priest-king mused, then drew a deep breath. "Once again, your truths win through, Prince Roger. Very well. General Bogess, you are authorized to take command of the Laborers of God and turn them into Warriors of God. I suggest that you put the leadership of the Laborers under Sol Ta for this. Chan Roy will understand. Chan is getting old, and Sol Ta has much fire. And may the Lord of Water be with us."


"Thank you, Your Excellency," Captain Pahner said quietly. "We'll do our best to save your beautiful city."


"Hmmm," an older councilor said, rubbing his horns. "I was about to suggest that you'd contradicted yourself on the seizure of grain, Captain. But you didn't. You danced a fine line instead, didn't you? You said you wouldn't seize the granaries, but you didn't say anything about putting guards on them."


"The merchants will still make a profit, just not as large a profit as they thought they were going to. However, it will stretch out the resources and allow us time to train up a force."


"Two months," the old councilor said after a moment. "That's how long until the peasants must begin bringing in the harvest. If we wait longer than that, we might as well all cut our own throats."


"Two months should be more than enough time," Pahner said.


"Good." The councilor nodded at the human, then touched his own chest. "Gessram Kar. I'm one of those shifty merchants you're about to fleece. One of the largest ones, I might add."


"Glad to hear it," Pahner said with a broad smile. "If you don't object, no one else should."


"Perhaps," the merchant grunted. "But I wonder who you'll find to enforce this edict, hmmm?"


* * *


"T'ey pocking t'ieves, Sir," Poertena said looking at his pad. "Look, up in Ran Tai, where t'ey can' even grow barleyrice, it go for two K'Vaernian copper a kusul."


"At least now we know where all this reference to K'Vaern comes from," Roger observed, then grimaced. "Sorry, Poertena. You were saying?"


"T'ey pocking t'ieves is what I sayin', Sir," the Pinopan repeated. "I find t'ree prices on barleyrice. T'ey between fifteen copper and two silver!"


"That would be twenty-to-one on the high end, right?" Pahner asked.


"Yes, Sir. I t'ink t'ey should be around tee same cost as at Ran Tai. Reason is, Ran Tai already got a shortage, so inflation index be about right."


"Inflation index?" Roger repeated with a chuckle.


"Yes, Sir. It tee adjusted cost o' materials in a situation o' limited supply." Poertena glanced at the so far silent chief of staff who gave him a quick and unnoticed wink.


"I know what it is," Roger said. "It's just . . . uh . . ."


"What?" the Pinopan asked.


"Never mind. So, the price should be fixed at about two coppers a kusul? What about other foodstuffs?"


"I got some numbers from Ran Tai, Sir," Poertena said, gesturing at his pad. "Most of t'em're already inflationary, except tee spice. An' most of tee bulk supply for t'at in tee city is on our caravan. I figure out somet'ing for t'at."


"I picked up some information on that from our fellow travelers in the caravan," O'Casey offered. The now whipcord thin chief of staff glanced at her notes. "I think you can use it with the kusul of barleyrice as a base."


"Well, groups of guards have moved to secure all the bulk vendors' supplies," Pahner said. "We'll need to take an inventory and set up a rationing scheme. And I'll also want you to take charge of arming the militia we'll be raising, Poertena."


"Yes, Sir," the armorer replied, his face getting longer and longer.


"Sorry, Poertena," Roger told him with a grin. "We'll have to cut back on the poker games."


"Yes, Sir," the Pinopan said yet again. "But we gonna have problems wit' tee weapons. T'is ain't really a production center. It's a transshipmen' point. Tee caravans come here and load t'eir supplies on barges to send t'em downriver."


It took Pahner a moment to translate that. Then he frowned.


"So if it's not in a warehouse, we probably can't get it?"


"Pretty much, Sir," the armorer said, shaking his head. "We can' no' get steel armor made. T'ere ain't a armory in tee whole town."


"Then we'll have to make do with the shields, assegais, and pikes for the time being," the captain said. "We can have those made up quickly enough to do some good, unlike firearms. And even if we could get them made in time, I'm not about to rely on something as temperamental as a muzzle-loading matchlock in this kind of climate!"


The last sentence woke nods all around. Diaspra's Guard of God had several companies of arquebusiers, but they were essentially a defensive force. Like the huge, multiton hooped bombards made from welded iron bars which dotted the city's walls, their massed fire could be devastating from prepared positions (with overhead cover against the elements) along the city's fortified approaches, but a field battle under typical Mardukan conditions would be something else again. As a matter of fact, Pahner was already eying those arquebusiers as a potential source for the shield-and-assegai-armed companies of flankers his new army was going to require.


"As soon as we get somewhere that has a decent industry, though," the captain went on after a moment, "we're damned well going to see about having some breech-loading percussion rifles made."


"Is that going to be possible?" Roger asked. "I mean, there are a lot of steps between a matchlock arquebus and a breechloader. Spring steel comes to mind."


"Like the spring steel in Rastar's wheel locks?" Pahner asked, smiling faintly. "And have you looked at their pumps?" the Marine went on as the prince's expression turned suddenly thoughtful.


"Not in any depth," Roger admitted. "They have quite a few of them, and they seem pretty damned efficient. I noticed that much."


"Well, I have been noticing them, Your Highness—particularly since Eleanora commented on them back at Voitan. I even took one apart when you were running around in Ran Tai. These people have impeller pumps, and the ones in Deb Tar's mines were pneumatically driven."


"You mentioned that before," Roger agreed. "But what does it mean?"


"An impeller pump requires tight tolerances, Your Highness," O'Casey replied before Pahner could. "You have to be able to lathe, which they do with foot-pedal lathes. It also requires spring material—spring steel in most cases, here on Marduk, although that corrodes faster than the alloys we would use in the Empire. However, every basic technology you need for advanced black powder weapons is found in their pump industry. For that matter, as the captain just suggested, anyone who can build wheel locks can build more advanced lock mechanisms. What we call a 'flintlock' is actually a much less complicated device than a wheel lock. In fact, its advantage, and the thing that made it so important when it was introduced on Earth, was that its simplicity made it cheap enough that armies could afford to convert their infantry to it from the even simpler matchlock. Before that, only cavalry units carried wheel locks for exactly the same reason that Rastar and his troopers do—a matchlock is impractical for a mounted man to manage, and cavalry was considered important and prestigious enough to justify the purchase of specialized and expensive weapons for it."


"So we need to go where t'ey make tee pumps, Sir?" Poertena asked.


"That or one of the armories where the gunsmiths make wheel locks," Pahner agreed, then grinned and nodded at O'Casey. "On the other hand, the gunsmiths seem to guard their 'secrets' pretty zealously . . . and they make the pumps everywhere. They have to, with their climate. And I'd rather go somewhere where they have some genuine large-scale manufacturing industry. From what Rastar says, the local gunsmiths are both extremely expensive and pretty damned slow. The ones who make wheel locks spend a lot of time and effort on things like inlay work and decoration—just take a look at Rastar's toys! What we need is someone used to the practical requirements of mass production, or as close to it as anyone on this planet is going to come. When we find him, we'll give him a design for a rifle for the troops and have it produced in quantity. For Rastar's people, too."


"And let me guess," Roger said with a grimace. "That someone wouldn't happen to live in this K'Vaern's Cove, would he?"


"From what I've heard, he probably does, Your Highness," O'Casey said. "Diaspra is a theocracy, and for all that it's also a trading city, it seems fairly typical of the 'mañana attitude' we've seen everywhere else but New Voitan. That's why the Diasprans aren't going to be able to supply us with what we need. But to hear them tell it, this K'Vaern's Cove is the secular center of their known universe. I seem to be picking up a lot of respect for the K'Vaernians, even from the large number of people—mostly clerics—who obviously don't like them. But the Diasprans clearly regard them as not simply heathens, but very peculiar heathens, with all sorts of outrageous notions, including some sort of obsession with more efficient ways to do things which is absolute anathema to something as inherently conservative as a theocratic priest-king's government. So, yes, the logical place to look for the sort of person the captain wants would have to be K'Vaern's Cove."


"Which means he's also right in the middle of this invasion," Roger pointed out. "How are we going to get there to talk to him?"


"Well, first we build us a little army here, then we head upcountry again," Pahner said. "Quickly." He grunted a laugh.


"You got anyt'ing more for me, Sir?" Poertena asked.


"No, Sarge. Thanks for your time," the prince said.


"It's corporal, Your Highness," the Pinopan reminded him. "But t'anks."


"Not any more," Roger said. "I think between the Captain and me, we probably have the juice to get a promotion approved."


"T'ank you, Sir," the armorer said, getting to his feet. "T'anks. I'm gonna turn in."


"Take off, Poertena," Pahner replied.


"Good night, Sirs," the little sergeant said, and headed out the door.


"That was well done, Roger," the Marine CO said when the door had closed.


"He's done a good job," the prince pointed out. "He's been working every night on getting our gear back in shape, and he and Kostas between them have been keeping track of all our supplies, as well. And now this job, without complaint. Well," he corrected himself with a smile, "not any serious complaints."


"Agreed," the captain said, then leaned back and scratched the tip of his nose thoughtfully.


"Getting back to the subject at hand," he went on after a moment, "this is a rich city, despite all of the Council's moaning, and this Laborers of God labor force looks top-notch so far. There's over four thousand of them, too." He shook his head. "I don't understand how any city can just set aside twenty percent of its productive male population as a labor force like this, either. Usually, societies like this use farmers in their off time for any required community labor."


"Eleanora?" Roger asked. "Got any suggestions?"


"It's the barleyrice production, of course," the chief of staff said. "Always look to basic production in societies like this, Roger."


"But there wasn't this labor surplus on the far side of the mountains," the prince replied. "Marshad had a fairly normal ratio, and so did Q'Nkok. And Ran Tai, for that matter."


"Ah, but Marshad and Q'Nkok didn't have draft animals like the turom. Aside from caravan use, the flar-ta might as well not exist as beasts of burden, but that's all they have on the far side of the Tarstens. And Ran Tai—as Poertena pointed out to us at the time—effectively imports all of its barleyrice," O'Casey reminded him with a smile. "I'd say that this place would probably be the center of a Mardukan Renaissance if it weren't locked up tight by the local theocracy."


She glanced at her notes and shook her head.


"The agriculture in this area is phenomenal. The turom gives them a remarkable advantage over Q'Nkok and Marshad, and what with the continuously mild weather, an efficient distribution system for nitrates, and excellent crop rotation, they have five crops of barleyrice every year. Five. And nearly as many crops of nearchicks and taters, not to mention three of apsimons. Each individual farmer is tremendously productive, which is why all those extra laborers are employed by the temple—they'd be out of work otherwise."


"But that condition has to have existed for some time," Roger said, shaking his head. "Shouldn't they have been pulled into other production areas by now? That's the normal reaction to technological improvement; one group is left performing the original function more efficiently, and within a generation the rest of the labor force is switched to other markets, usually new ones that become possible because of the freed labor."


"True." Eleanora smiled. "In fact, I'm delighted to see that you remember my lectures so well. In Diaspra's case, however, the society clearly reacted by taxing the farmers still on the land to establish a . . . well, call it a welfare system, and putting the out-of-work ones to work on temple projects. I suspect that if we had a time machine, we'd find that that reaction marked the beginning of the growth of the temple's secular power. And it was probably considered a 'temporary measure,' too."


"Aaargh," Roger groaned. "The only thing more permanent than a 'temporary measure' is 'stopgap spending.' But surely even here they must eventually have the labor shift to new technologies?"


"Not necessarily." The chief of staff waved her hands in a gesture that included the entire planet. "Marduk is a remarkably stable world. There's very little reason for technological improvement. Frankly, I'm surprised that they ever domesticated animals in the first place."


"There's a real lack of wheels," Pahner said in agreement. "There are wheeled carts near the cities, but that's about it. They have the concept—there are all sorts of wheels used in their pumping technology—but they don't use it for transport."


"It's all of a piece," O'Casey said with a quirky smile. "There's very little to drive improvements in this society, and the late Raj Hoomas notwithstanding, most of the city-states—the inland ones, at least—very rarely have major territorial competitions. Wars, yes—lots of those—but by human standards, those wars are pretty small potatoes. And they're not really what we'd call wars of conquest, either. Most of the city-states maintain professional armies to handle the fighting—and do the dying—which tends to insulate the general population from the consequences of combat. And the squabbles between cities are usually over caravan routes, mining sites, and that sort of thing, not over what you might call true life-or-death issues or because some local potentate suddenly got bitten by the notion of building himself some sort of empire. Their climate is fairly constant, too, so they don't have many times when large-scale weather patterns cause big migrations or force technological change. It's a very static society, so any major change probably gets swallowed up by the stasis. Which is probably a large part of the explanation for how devastating a large migration—like the Kranolta or the Boman—is when it finally comes along."


"What about the other cities in this area?" Roger asked.


"We'll have to see," O'Casey replied. "My guess from inference is that the states of Rastar's 'League of the North' were more or less parasitic defensive states. They protected the southern cities from the Boman and their fellow barbarians, and in return, they drew off the excess production from the city-states behind their shield. The next tier of states to the north, like this Sindi place, appear to have been secular despotisms, where the excess labor was involved in glorification of the leadership. I suppose that sort of mind-set might help fuel a potential Caesar or Alexander's ambitions, but so far I just don't know enough to hazard a guess as to whether or not it has, although some of the things Rastar's said about Sindi itself sound fairly ominous. And I don't know a thing about the societal types to the south of Diaspra."


"And K'Vaern's Cove?" Pahner asked. "That's the one I'm interested in."


"Me, too," the chief of staff admitted. "The more I hear about it, the more fascinated I get. If we think of the K'Vaernian Sea as analogous to Earth's Mediterranean, then the K'Vaernians themselves appear to be the local Carthaginians, or possibly Venetians. Their city is not only the major seapower in the K'Vaernian, but it's also the only one which appears to have reacted classically to technological innovation, although even it doesn't seem to have advanced very far by our standards. But I think we can change that. In fact, I wish we were building this army there."


"So do I," Pahner said, chewing his bisti root in deep thought. "As it is, winning this war—putting this force together, for that matter—is going to require everyone in the Company to pitch in. And the additional delay makes me really glad we happened across the apsimon. Anything new from Dobrescu on other substitutes?"


"Not yet," Kosutic told him, and the captain grunted. The fortuitous discovery of the apsimon had caused Pahner to reconsider their earlier acceptance of the survey report's insistence that nothing in the local ecosystem could supply their trace nutritional needs. He was still mentally kicking himself for having overlooked the possibility that such a cursory survey, of which they had only fragments, could have been inconclusive, and Warrant Officer Dobrescu had found himself with a new, extra assignment: running every new potential food source through his analyzers with fanatic attention to detail.


"Tell him to keep on it," the Marine CO said now. "He will, of course, but we're going to be too busy training Diasprans to look over his shoulder while he does it."


"And I think I'll just leave that training in your capable hands," Roger told him with a smile. "It's a job for an experienced captain, not a novice colonel."


"More like a job for Sergeant Whatsisname," the Marine responded with a laugh, and Roger smiled with sudden, wicked amusement. As far as the prince could tell, he'd managed to keep his mentor from figuring out that he'd been looking up some of the ancient poetry Pahner so commonly quoted.


"Indeed, 'not a prince, nor an earl nor yet a viscount,' " he said with a butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth expression, and Pahner looked at the prince sideways and cocked his head.


" 'Just a man in khaki kit . . .' " the captain said, ending on a slightly questioning note.


" 'Who could handle men a bit,' " Roger responded with a chuckle. " 'With his kit bag labelled "Sergeant Whatsisname." ' " His smile grew still broader, then faded a little around the edges. "It doesn't seem to change much, does it, Captain?" he said quietly.


"No, it doesn't, Sir," the Marine agreed, with a faint smile of his own. "It never does seem to change. And whether you intend to sit it out or not, I think we'll all have to become Sergeant Whatsisname."


 


Back | Next
Framed