March to the sea im 2, p.18

March To The Sea im-2, page 18

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  * * *

  "Oooo, that's got to be frustrating," Kosutic said.

  "Obviously," Pahner said, with a shake his head.

  "No," she said. "I don't think you've quite got it yet, Sir. I've got the feeling that this guy is like a Taketi or a da Vinci . . . stuck fixing pumps."

  "Oh." Pahner rubbed his chin, then nodded. "Oh, yeah."

  * * *

  "And let's not forget the security aspects," another figure said. "Had you not arrived, there's no way we could have gotten the Laborers of God released to bolster the Guard of God, yet with the Northern states overrun, we can expect other waves of barbarians to follow this one like plagues. Without you, we would already have lost to the Wespar; unless we change the direction of the city, we will lose to the next wave."

  * * *

  "You don't have to tell me," Pahner said sadly. "Bogess. I recognized his voice."

  "That tears it," O'Casey said. "The only major figure not there is Sol Ta."

  "Who could just be one of the quiet ones, or not in the conspiracy because of his relatively low rank before we arrived," Pahner responded. "It really doesn't matter. If it weren't for the position Gratar holds in the eyes of the populace, they would've already moved. Damn."

  "And they want us to counterbalance his prestige," O'Casey agreed. "What do we do?"

  "Normally, I'd say 'tell them to at least wait until we leave,' " the Marine said, rubbing his chin once more.

  "But Gratar is on the fence about fighting the Boman," Kosutic said with a raised eyebrow.

  "If they kick off a civil war now," Julian put in, "we have serious problems. We'll be forced to choose sides."

  "Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Julian!" Kosutic snapped, then inhaled sharply. "Sorry, Sergeant," she said contritely.

  "Not a problem, Sergeant Major, but it's so much more complex than that."

  "Yep," Pahner agreed. "We'd be absolutely against it under almost any other circumstances, but . . ."

  "Yes, 'but,' " O'Casey said. "But we don't know if Gratar's going to support fighting the Boman."

  "We don't know, for sure, that this cabal is going to support fighting them, either," Kosutic pointed out. "Not if it includes Chain."

  "We need clarification," Pahner said, but Roger had given up waiting for a message.

  * * *

  "Rus From, the rest of you," the prince said, smoothing back his hair, "you're under a few false impressions.

  "We're not here to cure all of this world's ills. We weren't here to fight the Kranolta. We didn't come here to put down a coup in Q'Nkok, nor to install a rational regime in Marshad. We especially aren't here to interfere in internal Diaspran politics.

  "We're wrecked here, and just trying to get home. And, frankly, kicking off a coup just before a major battle against an external enemy is not an action that favors that."

  "Gratar doesn't favor fighting the Boman," the figure the computer—and Pahner—had identified as Bogess said.

  "Neither does Grath over there!" Roger snapped. "What? You thought I wouldn't recognize his voice, Bogess?"

  There was a moment of silence, and then Bogess threw back his hood and made a gesture of resignation.

  "You humans all sound alike to us. We assumed you wouldn't be able to distinguish our voices."

  "He cannot be allowed to talk!" Chain squeaked furiously. "We've come too far; we're too exposed."

  "And what would you have us do, merchant?" the war leader asked with a grunting laugh. "Kill him? Have you seen those weapons of theirs in action?"

  "I wouldn't suggest trying it," Willis said, unprompted. "I really, really would not."

  "Yes," From agreed. "We are exposed. And that's the point. We've advanced our timetable on the basis of our hope that you would intervene."

  "Well that was certainly silly," Roger said. "Until the battle's over, we're not about to interfere."

  "But we must," Bogess told him. "Other cities had begun eyeing us with greed even before the Boman advanced upon us. With the damage we're certain to take from the Boman, they'll surely take advantage of us."

  "Yeah," Roger said. "But not until after the battle. And they might not even then. If we beat the Boman soundly—which is possible, if we're not fighting a damned civil war at the same time—it will give them pause."

  "And continue to leave businesses stagnant, if there's no change within the city," Gessram Kar said, still without lowering his hood.

  "And our technology," From agreed. "Not to mention the fact that we who have sought to change things will undoubtedly be sent to visit the God."

  "Guys, I don't know the answer to that," Roger said. "All I can say is, let's get the battle done. Then we can try to work something out. But until we get rid of the Boman threat, a civil war is out of the question."

  "What if Gratar says we won't fight the Boman?" Bogess asked. "What then? As you've pointed out, we will have them as an astain on our necks for the rest of eternity."

  "Oh, not that long," Roger said with a chuckle. "Just until they drain you dry and decide to finish overrunning you."

  "But if Gratar decides to appease the Boman?" Kar asked.

  "Then . . . we'll see," Roger said. "There are some ways we might be able to make a fast strike through to K'Vaern's Cove. We might not have to fight the Boman at all. And we'll know Gratar's decision soon enough," he added, directing a thought at his toot. "In fact, if we don't hurry, we'll all be conspicuously missing from his speech."

  "If he says 'no,' " Chain hissed, "you'd better hope the Boman give you time to escape!"

  * * *

  "Captain Pahner, Sir," Private Kraft said from the door of the intel room. "Sir, St. John (J.)'s team has been trying to get hold of you, Sir. It looks like the Boman are moving."


  "What've you got, Despreaux?"

  The Drying Ceremony was about to start, and virtually everyone who was anyone wasn't going to be there on time. Pahner shook his head at the black humor of the situation, wondering what, if anything, Gratar was going to think when half his Council and all of his alien advisers arrived late from every direction, out of breath, and clearly disturbed. The fact that the long-awaited Boman offensive could actually be used to cover domestic shenanigans which should never see the light of day appealed to the captain's sense of irony.

  Which, unfortunately, didn't necessarily make that offensive good news.

  "Captain, we've got loads of trouble," the sergeant responded over her com. "I sent Bebi and Kileti out to eyeball the encampment just as soon as it started to dry out at all. They'd just gotten into position—they hadn't even had time to start a proper hide—when the Boman started pouring out of their camps on the hills."

  "Tell them to pull back," Pahner snapped as the headquarters group turned the last corner to the court where the audience was to take place. The solid wall of Mardukans in front of them forced them to pause briefly, and he could hear the intonations of the opening ceremony on the other side. Things weren't quite out of hand yet. If Gratar decided against engaging the Boman, though, it would be a near run thing.

  "I did, but they're stuck. They were setting up on a little ridge leading to that group of hills the Boman are on. Now the barbs are using the ridge to stay out of the muck down in the lows. They're headed right for Bebi and Kileti, and they both say if they move it would give them away. They're stuck, Sir."

  "Right." The captain had been in enough screwed-up situations to know exactly what his Marines were thinking, and he agreed. If they were even slightly hidden, it would be better for them to stay still than to try to move. "What about you?"

  "We're not on their direct line to Diaspra, Sir," the sergeant replied. "Right now it looks like they're going to bypass us. If they don't, well, we'll see what happens."

  "Okay," Pahner said as the Marines began to push their way through the throng of scummies. "Get a movement estimate and count, then report back. Patch it to the Sergeant Major, though. I'm going to b
e kinda busy."

  "Aye, Sir," the patrol leader said. "But I can already tell you, the count is 'a shitload.'"

  * * *

  "There's a shitload of 'em," PFC Kileti whispered.

  "I know, Chio," Bebi whispered back. "Now shut up."

  The team had just reached the observation point when they spotted the oncoming Boman horde. The barbarians flowed without any semblance of order, a vast mass of walking Mardukans that seemed to move in extended family groups. A senior male or two and several younger males would be accompanied by nearly as many females and a gaggle of young from "snot-sucker" infants up to preadolescents. There were some purely male groupings, and a few of unescorted younger females, but, by and large, the horde was centered around the familial groups.

  They appeared to be carrying all of their worldly possessions on their backs. The males all supported large bundles—personal goods and loot from earlier conquests—while the females carried children and smaller bundles. There didn't seem to be any groups of "slaves," nor did they use many beasts of burden. There were pack civan scattered through the group, and turom, but they were few and far between.

  The reconnaissance team wore not only their hard-used chameleon suits, but also an ancient invention called a gill suit. The genesis of the gill suit was lost in the mists of time, but in its simplest form—which these were—it was a net tied through with strips of cloth. The local cloth used for sacks had turned out to have all the properties the humans were looking for; the strips broke up the human outline, making it almost invisible in any sort of cover. The projectors of the combat armor did the same thing, but the recon team didn't have armor . . . and gill suits didn't require batteries.

  * * *

  Captain Pahner nodded to Roger as the prince slid into position beside him. Roger had taken time to slip back to his room and change clothes, replacing his ruined saffron outfit with a black one, and Pahner hoped the color wasn't an omen.

  "We have another problem," the CO whispered.

  "Julian told me," Roger replied, his nostrils flaring wide and white. "What the hell are we going to do, Armand? We can't fight the Boman by ourselves."

  "We'll do whatever we have to, Your Highness," the Marine commander told him flatly. "If we have to fight the Boman with just ourselves and Rastar's troops, we will. And we'll win."

  "How?" Roger asked hopelessly.

  " 'Our strength is as the strength of ten,' Your Highness," the captain said with a slight, sad smile. "We'll win because if we don't, we'll never know it. That world won't exist for us, and that's a form of winning, if you look at it from just the right angle."

  "Go out in a blaze of glory?" the prince asked. " 'Death is lighter than a feather'? That's not your style, Captain."

  "And the alternative is?" The Marine grunted. "Your Highness, we will get you home . . . or die trying. Because whether it's death from lack of supplements because we didn't get home in time, or death from an alien spear on some battlefield, our swords will still lie in the heather. There's no other possible outcome if Gratar chooses not to fight."

  "We can work the conspiracy angle," Roger said.

  "Eleanora and I discussed that," Pahner replied. "But if the conspirators start their coup just after Gratar calls for an offering of tribute, it will appear as if the whole purpose of the rebellion is simply to avoid the cost that will fall on the merchant class."

  "Ouch. I hadn't considered that."

  "Nor had I, until Eleanora pointed it out," the CO said with a smile. "And as she also pointed out, that would make it seem as if all the rebels are really after is simply to shift the monetary loss from the rich merchants to a far higher cost from the poor soldiers. If Gratar doesn't come up with that line of reasoning, I'm sure someone—Chain perhaps—will adduce it."

  "And that would really kill the coup," Roger grunted. "The largest single military force would be on Gratar's side, and so would moral supremacy."

  " 'God favors the side with the most cannon,' " Pahner agreed. "But, of course, in this case, just who has the most 'cannon' might be a debatable matter. I've got the platoon standing by. Julian and everybody else in his squad is in armor; the replacement circuits are ready to put in place as soon as I pass the word."

  "You're going to back them?" Roger asked, eyeing him askance.

  "If it's that or face the Boman in our skivvies, hell yes!" the Marine said, turning to look at the prince. "You think I'm crazy? If Gratar says no, it's our only shot . . . even if it won't work."

  "Well, I guess it's blaze of glory time, then," Roger said with a wince. His own death he could face calmly, but the continued loss of Marines was something else, and he found himself wondering if getting as close to them as he had was for the best after all. When they'd started this long journey, they'd been mere faceless automatons; now each and every member of the dwindled company was a face and a soul, and the loss of each of them was a wrenching pain. Even as he and Pahner discussed the loss of the rest of the company, he was fretting for the two Marines in the reconnaissance patrol, pinned down by the passing Boman. And he continued to fret as the annual and extremely long Drying Ceremony, with its distribution of grain and blessings upon the fields, continued through the endless Mardukan day.

  * * *

  Between the out-of-the-way position of their hide and their gill suits, the two cowering Marines had managed to remain unseen as the tide of barbarians passed them. And it was a tide, indeed—a flow that continued through the morning and long into the afternoon. There were a couple of times, as groups used the lee in which the humans sheltered for a pause, when it seemed that they must be detected. One time, a warrior walked up to the bush they lay under and peed on the side of its trunk. The urine splashed off of the root and onto Bebi, but still they managed to avoid detection.

  Their helmets automatically processed targets seen and heard, using that for max/min estimates of hostiles. The processors had some problems separating the noncombatant females from the male combatants, but even the most conservative estimate was overwhelming.

  "Over twelve thousand warriors," the team leader subvocalized with a slight shake of his head. The comment was picked up by his throat mike and transmitted to his companion.

  The flood was beginning to trickle off as stragglers wrestled with the churned path the army had created. Those stragglers were mostly individuals: older females, and wounded who'd been cast out as unfit. There were some younger Mardukans, as well—orphans who hadn't been absorbed by other families and weren't old enough to fight for space in one of the bachelor groups. Yet, varied as they were, all of these scavenging stragglers had one thing in common; they survived solely on the leavings of the family groups . . . and no one else in the tribe gave a single, solitary damn what happened to them.

  "What a fucked-up society," Bebi whispered. "Look at those poor people."

  "Not so unusual," St. John (J.) radioed back from the base camp. "Until it was brought into the Empire, Yattaha practiced the tradition of casting out the old just as their ancestors did. Once he was no longer useful to the community, it was customary for an old person to voluntarily take himself away somewhere and starve himself to death. That was the tradition, anyway. What actually happened was that they got tossed out of the house and wandered around the camp until the winter killed them."

  "That's barbaric," the Mausean protested.

  "That's why they call 'em 'barbs,' Bebi," St. John (J.) retorted. "People like the Saints make like barbarism and tribes and living hand-to-mouth is so great. Until they look at what that actually means, anyway. Then half the time they don't pay attention to what they're seeing, 'cause if they did pay attention, it'd knock all their pretty dreams right on the head. Living like this is just living in Hell for everybody in the society every single day, whether they know it's Hell or not."

  There was silence over the communications link, and then St. John (J.) inhaled deeply.

  "Time to call it in. Looks like upwards of twelve, fifteen thousand ho
stiles. Sounds like Voitan all over again."

  "And this time with a shitload of poor, noncombatant sad sacks added," the PFC said, shaking his head again as an emaciated Mardukan with only one arm sat wearily down in view and rolled over on his side. The pink scars on the new-made corpse clearly indicated that he'd been a warrior until recently.

  "They're all sad sacks, Bebi," the team leader said. "Just some worse off than others."

  * * *

  Gratar completed the last ritual blessing of the barleyrice and ascended the dais through the crowd of lesser priests to stand by the liquid altar and dancing fountains. He remained there, silent, head bowed, as the crowd patiently awaited his pronouncement. Despite the tension in the air, the vast square was silent but for the hushed susurrus of thousands of lungs breathing the humid atmosphere and the occasional shuffle of feet.

  For Roger, it was a moment of odd transcendence. It was as if he were perched on a precipice, without any control over his immediate future. He felt as if he were leaning into a strong wind, storming up the cliff into his face to support him. It was a mighty wind . . . but at some point, it would fail, and he would fall. That was inevitable, beyond his control, and whether he fell to death or to victory would depend on the words about to be said by someone else.

  Finally, the prelate turned from his devotions and looked out over the crowd. He raised his arms as if to call for even deeper silence, and when he spoke, the exquisite acoustics of the temple square carried his voice clearly to the farthest ear.

  "We are the People of the Water. The People of the Water are ancient beyond memory. When the first prospectors came to the Nashtor Hills, the People of the Water were here. We remember."

  "We remember," the gathered priests chorused.

  "We remember the Autean Empire. We remember when the Auteans, consumed by the pride of their own power, threw off the strictures of the God and spread their crops to the farthest distance, the better to extend their might. We remember how they built their roads and leveled mountains. How they dammed and bridged the rivers.


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