March To The Sea im-2, page 1part #2 of Imperial March Series
March To The Sea
( Imperial March - 2 )
MARCH TO THE SEA
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
CHAPTER FORTY TWO
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
Sergeant Adib Julian, Third Platoon, Bravo Company of The Empress' Own, opened his eyes, looked around the inside of his cramped, one-man bivy tent, and frowned sleepily. Something was different, but he couldn't tell what. Whatever it was, it hadn't twanged his finely honed survival instincts, which at least suggested that no thundering hordes of Mardukan barbarians were likely to come charging through the sealed flaps at him, but that sense of change lingered. It poked at him, prodding him up out of the depths of slumber, and he checked his toot. The implanted computer told him that it wasn't quite dawn, and he yawned. There was still time to sleep, so he rolled over, pushing aside a pebble in the dirt, and shivered in the cold . . .
His eyes snapped wide, and he unsealed the tent opening and popped out into the predawn light like a Terran prairie dog.
"It's cold!" he shouted in glee.
Bravo Company had been marching uphill for the last several days. They had long since passed out of the valleys around the Hadur River, and the city-state of Marshad lay far behind them. In fact, they were beyond any of the surrounding cities that had the dubious pleasure of lying on the borders of the late, unlamented King Radj Hoomas' territory.
They'd made better time than they'd anticipated, yet despite the rigorous pace and steadily increasing upward slopes they faced, they had enjoyed a period of remarkable respite. Between the sale of the captured weapons gathered in Voitan, the remnant funds from Q'Nkok, and the lavish gifts T'Leen Sul and the new Council of Marshad had bestowed upon them, they had been able to purchase all their needs along the way.
In many cases, that had been unnecessary. Several towns had hosted them like visiting dignitaries . . . for more than one reason. The towns had been fearful of Radj Hoomas' ambition and avarice, and were delighted to do anything they could for the aliens who had put an end to them. They'd also been fascinated by the off-world visitors . . . and, in many cases, they'd wanted to get them out of town as quickly as possible.
The trader network in the Hadur had spread accounts of the destruction of the entire dreaded Kranolta barbarian federation at Voitan, the battle at Pasule, and the Marshad coup far and wide, and the message encapsulated in all the stories was clear. The humans were not to be molested. The few times they'd run into resistance—once from a group of particularly stupid bandits—they had successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of classical Roman short-sword-and-shield combat techniques against charging Mardukans without ever being forced to resort to bead rifles or plasma cannon. But thanks to the stories which had run before them, any potentially ill-intentioned locals had known that those terrifying off-world weapons lurked in reserve . . . and had no desire at all to see them any more closely than that.
The Bronze Barbarians of The Empress' Own, veterans all, were well aware of the advantages inherent in a fearsome reputation. This one had come with a higher price tag than they had ever wanted to pay, but it also meant that they'd been able to travel for several weeks with virtually no incidents. That happy state of affairs had given them time to lick their wounds and get ready for the next hurdle: the mountains.
Julian had been off guard duty the night before, but Nimashet Despreaux had had the last shift. Now, as he stood grinning hugely into the semi-dark, she smiled at him while groans sounded across the camp. The female sergeant bent over the fire, picked something up, and walked over to where he was dancing in delight.
"Hot coffee?" she offered, extending the cup with a grin. The company had practically given up the beverage; it was just too hot on Marduk in the morning.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," the NCO chortled. He took the cup and sipped the brew. "God, that tastes awful. I love it."
"It's bloody freezing," Corporal Kane grumped.
"How cold is it?" Julian asked, diving back into his bivy tent for his helmet.
"Twenty-three degrees," Despreaux told him with a fresh smile.
"Twenty-three?" Gronningen asked, furrowing his brow as he sniffed the cool air. "What's that in Fahrenheit?"
"Twenty-three!" Julian laughed. "Shit! I'd set my air-conditioning to twenty-three!"
"Something like seventy-three or seventy-four Fahrenheit," Despreaux said with a laugh of her own.
"This feels much colder," the big Asgardian said stoically. If he was cold, it wasn't showing. "Not cold, but a bit chilly."
"We've been out in over a forty-degree heat for the last two months," the squad leader pointed out. "That tends to adjust your perspective."
"Uh-oh," Julian said, looking around. "I wonder how the scummies are handling this?
* * *
"What's wrong with him, Doc?" Prince Roger had awoken, shivering, to find Cord seated cross-legged in the tent, still and motionless. Repeated attempts to get the six-limbed, grizzly bear-sized Mardukan shaman to wake up had resulted only in slow groans.
"He's cold, Sir." The medic shook his head. "Really cold." Warrant Dobrescu pulled the monitor back from the Mardukan and shook his head again, his expression worried. "I need to go check the mahouts. If Cord is in this bad a shape, they're going to be worse. Their cover isn't as good."
"Is he going to be okay?" the anxious prince asked.
"I don't know. I suspect that he's probably sort of hibernating, but it's possible that if they get too cold something will shut down and kill them." Dobrescu took another breath and shook his head. "I've been meaning to do a really thorough study of Mardukan body chemistry and physiology. It looks like I waited a bit too long."
"Well, we need—" the prince began, only to break off at the sound of shouting from outside the tent. "Now what the hell is that?"
* * *
"Modderpockers, let me go!" Poertena shouted. He snarled at the laughing Marines who were crawling out of their one-person tents to sniff at the morning air. "Gimme a pocking hand, damn it!"
"Okay, everybody," St. John (J.) said, slowly clapping. "Let's give him a hand."
"Now that," Roger said, "is a truly disgusting menage a . . . uh . . ."
"Menage a cinq is the term you're looking for," Doc Dobrescu said, laughing as he walked over to the p
Roger shook his head and chuckled, but he also waved to the Marines.
"Some of you guys, help the Doc."
St. John (J.) grabbed one of Denat's inert arms and started trying to disengage it from the armorer.
"This really is gross, Poertena," the Marine said as he tried to pull one of the slime-covered arms off the armorer.
"You pocking telling me? I wake up, and it not'ing but arms and slime!"
Roger began to haul on Tratan as the Mardukan groaned and resisted the pulling Marines.
"They seem to like you, Poertena."
"Well," the armorer's response sounded mildly strangled, "they tryin' to kill me now! Leggo!"
"They like his heat," the warrant officer grunted as he helped Roger heave, then said something unprintable under his breath and gave up. The united efforts of three Marines had so far been unable to get Denat to release his grip, and the bear hug actually did threaten to kill the armorer. "Somebody build a fire. Maybe if we warm them up, they'll let go."
"And somebody help me get Cord," Roger said, then thought about the weight of the Mardukan. "Several somebodies." He looked over to the picket lines where the mahouts made their camp. "Did anybody notice that the packbeasts are missing?" he asked, bemusedly.
* * *
"We passed through a cold front," the medic said, shaking his head. "Or what passes for one on this screwy planet."
Captain Pahner had called a council of war to consider the night's events. The group sat near the edge of the camp, looking down on the forest of clouds that stretched into the distance from their foothills perch. Above them, the true mountains loomed trackless.
"What cold front?" Julian asked. "I didn't see any cold front."
"You remember that rain we had yesterday afternoon?" Dobrescu asked.
"Sure, but it rains all the time here," the NCO replied skeptically.
"But that one went on for a long time," Roger noted. "Usually, they just sort of hit in short spurts. That one rained, and rained, and rained."
"Right." The medic nodded. "And today, the air pressure is a few points higher than yesterday. Not much—this planet doesn't have much in the way of a weather system—but enough. Anyway, the cloud layer got suppressed," he gestured to the clouds, "the humidity fell, and the temperature . . ."
"Dropped like a rock," Pahner said. "We got that part. Can the locals handle it?"
The medic sighed and shrugged.
"That I don't know. Most terrestrial isothermic and posithermic creatures can survive to just above freezing temperatures as long as they don't stay that way too long. However, that's terrestrial." He shrugged again. "With Mardukans, Captain, your guess is probably as good as mine. I'm a doc, not an exobiologist."
He looked around at the camp, and especially at the flar-ta.
"The packbeasts, now, they seem to be better adapted. They burrowed underground last night on first watch and stayed there till things warmed back up. And their skin is different from the Mardukans', scaled and dry where the Mardukans' is smooth and mucous-coated. So I think the packbeasts can make it, if we stay below the freezing line. But I don't know about the locals," he finished unhappily, gesturing at Cord and the lead mahout.
They had been speaking in the dialect of Q'Nkok so that the two Mardukan representatives could follow the conversation. Now Cord clapped his hands and leaned forward.
"I can withstand the conditions of last night with dinshon exercises. However," he waved a true-hand at D'Len Pah, "the mahouts are not trained in them. Nor are any of my nephews, except Denat, and he poorly. Also," he pointed to patches on his skin, "it is terribly dry up here. And it will only get worse, from what Shaman Dobrescu says."
"So," said Pahner. "We have a problem."
"Yes," D'Len Pah said. The old mahout looked terrible in the light of midmorning. Part of that was the same dry patches that affected Cord, but the greater part was bitter shame. "We cannot do this much longer, Lord Pahner, Prince Roger. This is a terrible, terrible place. There is no air to breathe. The wind is as dry as sand. The cold is fierce and terrible." He looked up from the scratches he'd been making on the ground with his mahout stick. "We . . . cannot go any farther."
Pahner looked over at Roger and cleared his throat.
"D'Len Pah, we must cross these mountains. We must reach the far coast, or we will surely die. And we cannot leave our gear." He looked up at the towering peaks. "Nor can we carry it over the mountains without the flar-ta. It's not like we can call Harendra Mukerji for a resupply."
The lead mahout looked around nervously. "Lord Pahner . . ."
"Calmly, D'Len," Roger said. "Calmly. We won't take them from you. We aren't brigands."
"I know that, Prince Roger." The mahout clapped his hands in agreement. "But . . . it is a fearsome thing."
"We could . . ." Despreaux started to say, then stopped. With the loss of most of the senior NCOs, she was being groomed for the Third Platoon platoon sergeant's position. This was the first time she'd been included in one of the staff meetings, so she was nervous about making her suggestion.
"Go ahead," Eleanora O'Casey said with a nod, and the sergeant gave the prince's chief of staff a brief glance of thanks.
"Well . . . we could . . ." She stopped again and turned to D'Len Pah. "Could we buy the packbeasts from you?" She looked at Captain Pahner, whose face had tightened at the suggestion and shrugged. "I'm not saying that we will, I'm asking if we could."
Roger looked at Pahner. "If we can, we will," he said, and the Marine looked back at him with a careful lack of expression.
His Royal Highness, Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man, had changed immeasurably from the arrogant, conceited, self-centered, whiny spoiled brat he'd been before a barely bungled assassination by sabotage had shipwrecked him and his Marine bodyguards on the hellhole called Marduk. For the most part, Pahner was prepared to admit that those changes had been very good things, because Bronze Battalion of The Empress' Own had been less than fond of the aristocratic pain in the ass it had been charged with protecting, and with excellent reason.
Pahner supposed that discovering that a dangerously competent (and unknown) someone wanted you dead, and then coping with the need to march clear around an alien planet full of bloodthirsty barbarians in hopes of somehow taking that planet's sole space facility away from the traditional enemies of the Empire of Man who almost certainly controlled it, would have been enough to refocus anyone's thoughts. Given the unpromising nature of the preassassination-attempt Roger, that wasn't something Pahner would have cared to bet any money on, of course. And he more than suspected that he and the rest of Bravo Company owed a sizable debt of gratitude to D'Nal Cord. Roger's Mardukan asi—technically a slave, although anyone who made the mistake of confusing Cord with a menial probably wouldn't live long enough to realize he'd stopped breathing for some odd reason—was a deadly warrior who had become the prince's mentor, and not just where weapons were concerned. The native shaman was almost certainly the first individual ever to take Roger seriously as both prince and protege, and the imprint of his personality was clear to see in the new Roger.
All of that was good. But it never would have occurred to the old, whiny Roger even to consider that such a thing as a debt of honor might exist between him and a troop of barbarian beast drovers on a backwoods planet of mud, swamp, and rain. Which, much as Pahner hated to admit it, would have been a far more convenient attitude on his part at this particular moment.
"Sir," he said tightly, "those funds will be needed for our expenses on the other side of the mountains. When we get out of here, we'll need to immediately resupply. That is if we don't run out on the way. Or have to turn back."
"Captain," Roger said steadily, sounding uncannily like his mother in deadly reasonable mode, "we have to have the flar-ta, and we will not take them from mahouts who have stoo
"We can improve things for them," Gunny Jin said. "Wrap them in cloths so that they don't lose so much moisture. Put them in a tent with a warming stove at night. That sort of thing."
D'Len clapped his hands in regret. "I do not think I can convince my people to continue on. It is too terrible up here."
"If you think we can continue," Cord said, "my nephews will do so. I, of course, am asi. I shall follow Roger wherever it leads."
"Let's put it to a vote," Roger said to Pahner. "I won't say that we'll go with it either way, but I'd like to see what everyone thinks."
"All right," the captain agreed reluctantly. "I think, though, that we're going to need all of our funds on the far side of the mountain. Desperately. Still," he added with a shrug. "Despreaux?"
The junior NCO cleared her throat. "It was my idea."
"So noted," Pahner said with a smile. "I won't hold it against you. I take it that was a 'buy the beasts' vote?"
"Yes, Sir, but D'Len Pah hasn't said he'll sell."
"Good point," Roger said. "D'Len? Can we buy them from you?"
The old Mardukan hesitated, drawing his circles on the stony ground.
"We must have at least one to make it back to the forests," he temporized.
"Granted," Roger said promptly.
"And . . . they aren't cheap," the mahout added.
"Would you rather bargain with Captain Pahner or Poertena?" the prince asked.
"Poertena?" The mahout looked around wildly. "Not Poertena!"
"We'll strike a fair bargain," Pahner said severely. "If we decide to buy them." He thought about it for a moment. "Oh, hell. When. There isn't a choice, is there?"
"Not really, Captain," Roger said. "Not if we're going to make it over the mountains."
"So," the commander said to the mahout. "Are you willing to bargain for them? In gems, gold, and dianda?"
The mahout clapped his lower hands in resignation.
"Yes. Yes, we will. The flar-ta are like children to us. But you have been good masters; you will treat our children well. We will bargain for their worth." He lowered his head and continued, firmly. "But not with Poertena."
DAVID WEBER SERIES:
Other author's books:
- March To The Sea im-2March to the StarsMarch Upcountry im-1March To The Stars im-3
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