March to the sea im 2, p.16

March To The Sea im-2, page 16

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  "In the end, they made the entire city into a museum, a showcase of splendid temples and public buildings, and I went there, once. I was forced to go by a tutor to see the architecture. But I didn't come away with a love of the beauty of the buildings . . . I came away with a bitter contempt for the leaders of that people."

  Roger turned and faced the priest-king squarely.

  "Those leaders weren't just priests of a god. They were also the leaders of their people—a people who were slaughtered and enslaved by barbarians, despite the tribute that they paid and the battles they fought to build and preserve their city. They were butchered because their leaders, the leaders charged with keeping them safe, refused to face reality, for the reality was that their world had changed . . . and that they were unwilling to change with it."

  The prince turned back to the window and the flood beyond.

  "You can prepare for the water if you wish, Your Excellency. But if that's the enemy you choose to face, the Boman will kill you—and all of your people—before the next Hompag Rains come. The choice is yours."

  The priest-king clapped his hands in agreement. "It is indeed my choice."

  "The Council doesn't have a say?" Roger asked. O'Casey had been of two minds about that, and it wasn't as if there were a written constitution she could refer to for guidance. Not in a society which was based entirely upon tradition and laws of the God, which mostly bore on small group interaction and maintaining the dikes.

  "Not really. They may advise, and if I discount their advice too many times and my decisions are shown to have been in error, I could be removed. It has happened, although rarely. But, ultimately, it is my choice."

  The king rubbed his hands in distress, which was something to see in a four-armed Mardukan.

  "There is a festival at the end of the rains," he said finally. "A celebration of rejoicing that the God has chosen to allow us to break ground again. I will make my announcement at that time, either to fight the Boman or to pay them tribute."

  The monarch regarded the prince levelly.

  "I have valued your advice, Prince Roger, and that of your adviser, the invaluable O'Casey. Yet I also understand your bias. You still must travel to the sea, and if we do not fight the Boman for you, that trek will be impossible. The Boman will never let you pass after your actions against them."

  Roger's eyes rested once again upon the distant, thundering cascade. He said nothing for several moments, then he shrugged.

  "Perhaps it will be impossible, but if you think the tales from the north are terrible, you never want to see the Empress' Own in true fury." He turned his head and smiled at the monarch. "You really, really don't, Your Excellency . . . and neither do the Boman. Better to face the wrath of your God of the Torrent armed only with belief, because when He's done, those of you who survive will still have silt in which to plant. When the Empress' Own are done, there will be no one to care."

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  "Today is your first taste of war."

  Julian pointed to the four-armed dummies set up on the frames. They were the simplest possible effigies of a Mardukan: a head, two horns, four arms, and two legs, all connected by a long, dangling tube. Ropes ran to the tops and bottoms of the frames so that they would stay in place, and two more ropes ran to either side. The sergeant watched the recruits regard the dummies with perplexed and very cautious eyes and grinned ferociously.

  "Now we get to have the fun of good training!" he told them loudly. "Fain! Front and center."

  The Mardukan squad leader marched up to the human and came to a position of order arms with his pike. It was the real thing now, wicked meter-long steel head and all.

  "You've been instructed in the use of the pike, correct Squad Leader?" Julian asked as St. John (M.) and Kane gripped the ropes attached to either side of the center dummy.

  "Yes, Sir, Sergeant Julian!"

  "You are now going to demonstrate your proficiency. On command, your job is to advance at a steady pace and drive your pike through the dummy, just as you will in combat against the Boman enemy. Can you do that?"

  Fain didn't even look.

  "Yes, Sir, Sergeant Julian!"

  "Very good. Now, I will be behind the dummy. If it makes it easier for you to stick it all the way through by thinking that you might get me, too, you can feel free to envision that. Clear?"

  "Clear, Sir!"

  Julian stepped around behind the dummy and waved to Corporal Beckley.

  "Take it," he said.

  "Private Fain! Order arms! Private Fain, advance arms."

  The Mardukan automatically dropped the butt of the weapon to the ground at the first command, then pointed the weapon at the target on the second.

  "Private Fain will advance with determination at my command. Advance by half-step! Two, three, hut, hut, hut . . ."

  The private stepped forward at the slow, balanced advance of the pike regiment until the pike was in contact with the dummy. Despite the simplicity of its construction, it was difficult to drive the weapon into it, and realistic enough to make him feel as if he were committing murder, but he put his weight behind the slow-moving weapon and tried to press it into the thick leather of the dummy's "body."

  At the first hard thrust of the pike, the two Marines began to yank on the ropes while Julian, out of sight behind the dummy, set up a horrible, heart-wrenching wail as if from a soul in Hell.

  The Mardukan private, horrified by the dummy's "reaction," flinched backward. And—inevitably—the instant he did, he found the diminutive Corporal Beckley at his side, screaming as loudly as Julian.

  "What the fuck do you think you're doing, you four-armed freak?!" she shouted. "We told you to kill that bastard! You will advance with determination! Advance, two, three . . . !"

  The shaken Mardukan grasped the pike firmly in two sliming true-hands and raised his shield as he advanced. This time, he expected the reaction of the team behind the dummy and drove forward despite it as the dummy apparently died in shrieking agony. For his pains, as the pike penetrated, a concealed sack of blood burst and went spurting out on the ground.

  That red flood was enough to send him stepping back again, only to be verbally assaulted from behind. He drove forward once more, and this time, with a final, desperate thrust he stabbed the razor-sharp pike all the way through the target.

  Julian's screaming ended . . . so abruptly that Fain was afraid he'd actually skewered the squad leader. His momentary fear, followed by elation that he might truly have killed the sadistic little two-armed shrimp, was short-lived as the sergeant came around the blood-drenched dummy.

  "Listen up!" the Marine barked. "What we've just demonstrated here is the training technique you will all use. Two of you will pull on the ropes while a third stands behind—well behind—and simulates the sounds of a person dying. This will prepare you, as well as we can, for actually doing it. We will be participating in other training to prepare you, as well.

  "This may seem hard, but hard training saves lives—your lives. And if you think that this is hard, wait until you actually face someone with a weapon in his hands, trying as hard as he can to stick it into you before you stick yours into him.

  "You won't like it, because killing a person with steel, up close and personal . . . well, that really sucks."

  * * *

  "Their drill sucks," Honal groused as he waved for his company to wheel to the left and take the opposition cavalry in the flank.

  The other contingent, also from the Northern League but from Shrimtan in the far east of the Ranar Mountains, tried to react to the flanking maneuver, but the ill-led mass of civan became tangled in its own feet and reins. The leader of the troop, who'd been a very junior officer when he led his own band of refugees south looking for any shelter from the Boman storm, waved his battle flag to call for a halt.

  "True," Rastar said. "But we'll change that, won't we?"

  "We'd better," the Therdan cavalry leader grunted. "From what I've been hearing in t
he city, it might be just us and the humans in the end."

  "May the gods forfend," Rastar said with a grimace. "We've taken their gold and their food, and I would be bound to our agreements. But I truly wouldn't care to try for K'Vaern's Cove with the Wespar between us and the hills."

  "Aye," Honal said as he spurred forward to "explain" to the other Northern lordling that "drill" meant doing things in a certain way, at a certain time, the same way, every time. And beyond the hills? The rest of the fucking barbs—including the true Boman.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  "What are you guys so enthused about?" Roger asked.

  There'd been little change in the week since his inconclusive meeting with Gratar. Training went on, and the inexperienced workmen were slowly turning into drilled units under the tutelage of the Northerners and the Marines, but other than that, things seemed to be coming slowly but inexorably apart.

  More and more of the Council had begun siding with Grath as the floodwaters rose and dikes washed away without workmen to maintain them. From all reports, these were normal events precipitated by heavier rains than usual, yet each fresh inroad was another nail in the coffin of the policy of using the laborers as a military force. The calls to have them out in the rain working on the failing flood controls had already become clamorous, and every sign said that it was only going to become still worse.

  At no point were the city, its inhabitants, or even the fields seriously threatened by the water, but that didn't seem to matter. The combination of the endless, enervating rains and a constant drumbeat of pressure from the cabal of carefully orchestrated tribute proponents eroded the confidence of the Council further with every failing dike, however inconsequential.

  At the same time, the company's bugs provided constant tidbits of information about the second cabal working on its unknown "Great Plan." Whatever that plan was, it was large, for Julian had already identified no less than ten Council members, including several on the tribute side, among the conspirators. Whoever the Creator was, he'd amassed a sizable following and had excellent operational security, and so far no one who might have been in the know had used his actual name where the bugs might have overheard it. One of the reasons for that, apparently, was a suspicion that the humans might have listening devices like those they were, in fact, actually employing. All of which made the pleased expressions on everyone's faces seem particularly out of place to the gloomy prince.

  "We think we intercepted a message to the Creator," Julian said, tapping at his pad. The handheld device was attached to the top of the all-purpose tactical intel computer the NCO had packed along, a helmet-sized, half-kilo device which contained fifteen terabytes of multiuse memory and a host of Military Intelligence software.

  "What? It had an address on it?"

  "No, Sir," Kosutic said. The sergeant major and Poertena were watching the intel NCO as if he were a woman giving birth to their first child. "We had an intercept that said a message was going to be passed, and we decided to have Denat stake out the pass in hopes of seeing who got it. But they used a dead drop, so Denat went ahead and picked it up."

  "Won't that tip them off?"

  "Dead drops go missing," Pahner said with a shrug, chewing calmly on a bisti root slice and pointedly ignoring the intel NCO. "Often. But one of the Council members who's involved in the Great Plan called this 'a very important message,' which seems to be a code phrase for messages directly to and from the leader. So Denat followed the messenger until the guy dropped the tube with the message in it into a chube. When I realized it could be going anywhere, I told Denat to pick it up. I doubt that we could have rolled up the whole line to the Creator no matter what happened; as crafty as this guy has been, there were probably a half dozen links in the chain. Not to mention that it would have been obvious that we were onto them with Denat trying to trot after it watching it float along."

  "What's running?" Roger asked, watching the cavorting critters on the tiny screen of Julian's handheld. The device was running a query program, and the NCO had replaced the ubiquitous purple sundial of most programs with the graphics from a popular game program. The spinning and dancing hedgehogs formed into lines, and once all of them were in place, they blew up. There looked to be only about five or six explosions to go, which suggested the program was nearing the end of its run.

  "Pocker was in code," Poertena said.

  "I had to load the local written language before we could do anything else," Julian added. "We'd never gotten around to doing that. Then I scanned in the message, and now we see if it decodes it." The intel NCO beamed. "And it seems that it does," he added as the hedgehogs performed a final unnatural act and then exploded. "God, I love that game."

  "B-T-H was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, too," Kosutic agreed. "Which I suppose says something about my childhood. So, what does it say?"

  "Hmmm," Julian murmured. "Flowery for a secret message. 'Estimable Leader. Attempts to suborn human Marines have thus far failed. It is recommended that direct contact with their senior officers be made at the soonest possible moment. Aid in the Plan from the humans would be useful. Their resistance to the Plan might be disastrous.' "

  "Well," Pahner said, climbing to his feet and beginning to pace in the small room, "that was refreshingly cryptic. What attempts to suborn our Marines? Sergeant Major?"

  "Nothing reported to me," Kosutic said, pursing her lips.

  "Maybe tee people tryin' to pay me off?" Poertena asked.

  "Maybe," Julian said. "Anybody in particular come to mind?"

  "Nah," the armorer replied with a shrug. "T'ey all try to give me gif's. I said 'no.' "

  "Maybe he should have said 'yes,' " Roger suggested.

  "For that to work, he would have had to do it from the beginning," Pahner disagreed with a frown, "and we didn't know we were going to have these problems when we started here. Twenty-twenty hindsight."

  "Something we need to think about as an operating procedure for the future, though," Roger said. "Maybe the order should be 'Take the bribe and report it so we can find out where the string leads.' "

  "The standing orders of the Empress' Own already call for anyone who's 'tapped' for an intel request to report it," Pahner told him, still frowning. "But the Sergeant Major says no such reports were made. Right?"

  "Right," Kosutic confirmed. "I'll ask around and make sure." She got to her feet. "Keep me updated, Julian."

  "Bet on it, Smaj," the NCO said. "I want to know what they mean by 'direct contact.' "

  * * *

  Roger stood by his window, watching the pike units forming up and drilling, and frowned. The morning of Drying had dawned unusually hot and steamy, but the newly minted soldiers appeared unaffected by the heat or humidity.

  The units were colorful. They'd scared up enough leather to make a short leather cuirass of sorts for each soldier, and the Leathermakers' Guild had dyed them in the colors of the different companies. The company shields matched, turning the gathering forces into a panoply of colors as the companies wheeled and formed like a huge kaleidoscope. The casual observer might have concluded that all that martial color was simply to make a splendid show, but Roger had enjoyed more personal experience than he'd ever wanted of just how difficult it was to keep track of who was who in the howling bedlam of combat. Identification of who was a friendly and who a hostile was always difficult from inside the furball, even for the humans with their sophisticated helmet sensor systems. For Mardukans fighting other Mardukans and equipped only with Mark One Eyeball scanners, it would be even worse, but the strong visual cues of the company colors ought to help greatly. Or that was the idea, at any rate.

  The new troops' drill was excellent, he reflected. The days of pounding rain had rung to the sound of marching formations as the Marines first drilled the original cadre and then acted as advisors as the cadre trained the next layer of units. Roger had participated in that as well, while trying to run down support and supplies and figure out what cabals they faced. All in a
ll, it had been a good time, despite the unrelenting workload and the sense that, apsimons or no, their supply of diet supplements was steadily dwindling, but now it was time to find out if the new companies and regiments would be used as planned, or if it had all been for naught.

  For that matter, there still had been no contact from the cabal of the Creator, and the prince wondered if he would ever know whether that was because their interception had prevented the critical message which might have initiated that contact from reaching the Creator, or because follow-up messages suggesting the same thing had gotten through only to be ignored.

  He turned from the window and started preparing for the ceremony. There would be a parade to start, then an invocation of the God of Water by the high priest, followed by any number of other ceremonies. The festivities were to continue through the night, and he'd been invited to over sixty separate parties. He would be attending about five; the rest had been farmed out to O'Casey and various Marines.

  He buckled on his pistol belt and had just checked the chamber when there was a knock on the door.

  "Enter," he called, holstering the pistol.

  PFC Willis stuck her head in the door.

  "Sir, Bishop From is out here. He requests a moment of your time."

  Roger frowned and tugged at the front of his tunic. It was one of the dianda outfits Matsugae had had made for him in Marshad, and its light, lustrous saffron complemented his golden hair and the intense tan he'd developed.

  "Show him in," he said, and turned as the artisan-priest entered and looked around the small and spartan room.

  "Pardon my intrusion, Your Highness," Rus said, smiling and gesturing in self-deprecation. "It was but a small matter. I believe that you wish to have conversation with the Creator?"

 
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