March to the sea im 2, p.38

March To The Sea im-2, page 38

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  * * *

  "But what do they want all these wagons for?" Thars Kilna demanded in the tone of a person who knew no one could answer his question.

  "Do you know, I think they forgot to tell me," Miln Sahna told him sarcastically. "I'm sure it was only an inadvertent oversight though. Here—you put the wheel on this end of the shaft, and I'll run ask Bistem Kar. When he explains it to me, I'll come right back and tell you."

  "Very funny," Kilna growled. "You keep right on telling yourself you're a wit, Miln—at least you're half right. In the meantime, I still want to know why in Krin's name they need so many wagons! It just doesn't make sense."

  "Um." Sahna grunted sourly, but he had to admit his fellow apprentice had a point. Not that either of them was complaining, precisely. The cart-makers' guild usually had orders to fill in a place like K'Vaern's Cove, but they were seldom as busy as they would have liked. Carts and wagons were very useful within the confines of a city, but they weren't a lot of use anywhere else, given what weather tended to do to roads on Marduk. Once you got off a paved surface, it made much more sense to rely on pack turom or pagee than to drag a wheeled vehicle through hub-deep mud. The fact that wheels would let a single beast pull a far heavier load than it could actually carry when paved surfaces were available was beside the point when those surfaces weren't available . . . which was virtually all the time.

  Of course, the new wheels the humans had designed were different from the heavy, solid ones Kilna and Sahna had been learning to make before their arrival. Like the wheels for the new gun carriages, their spoked design was both stronger and far lighter, and if their steel rims were preposterously expensive, they should also make them last much longer. Not to mention that those rims were almost three times as wide as the rest of the wheel, which offered a huge decrease in ground pressure and should make them at least a little less inclined to sink into soft ground than traditional ones. But still . . .

  "I don't know what they want with them," Sahna admitted finally. "All I know is that they told us they were important, they're paying us to make them, and we're learning new techniques no one else ever heard of." He gave the handclap of a Mardukan shrug. "Aside from that, all I can tell you is that they must have a lot of stuff they want to haul somewhere!"

  * * *

  Krindi Fain looked on with interest as Prince Roger examined the rifle. It was a tiny thing, compared to the weapons equipping the new rifle battalions, but the native sergeant had been around humans long enough not to nurture any foolish theories about "small" meaning "not lethal."

  "Nice work, Julian," Roger said, trying the balance of the rifle. Unlike the Mardukan-scaled weapons, this one hadn't been made by converting existing arquebus barrels, which meant it represented far more man hours than one of the mass-produced weapons. On the other hand, the rifle shops had produced only forty of them.

  The prince shouldered the rifle, checking the weld between cheek and buttstock, and grunted in satisfaction. It wasn't the custom-fitted stock of his hunting rifle, but it was excellent for a one-size-fits-all military weapon, and he lowered it once more to open the bolt.

  There were distinct differences between that bolt and those of the Mardukan-scale rifles. In fact, aside from the fact that it was made out of old-fashioned steel and had no provision for conversion to semi-auto mode, it was effectively identical to the bolt of Roger's own rifle, complete to the small electronic contact on the bolt face, and he laughed.

  "Remember that little bet beside the river, Adib?" he asked, and Julian chuckled just a bit sourly as he recalled the day he and Roger had perched in adjacent treetops, posted to cover the troops swimming a Mardukan river against the voracious predators who called that river home.

  "Yes, Sir, I do," he said. "Cost me quite a few push-ups when I lost, as I recall."

  "Yep," the prince said with a grin, closing the bolt and admiring the smoothness of the action. "But what I was thinking about was your suggestion that I should get myself a bead rifle because of its magazine capacity. Seems to me there's just a smidgeon of ironic humor in the situation now."

  Julian snorted, but he also had to nod in agreement, and it was hard not to chuckle himself as he remembered all the times Captain Pahner—and Sergeant Adib Julian, for that matter—had groused about the way the prince's old-fashioned, nonstandard "smoke pole" complicated the ammunition supply problem. The fact that the prince would be unable to fire military bead rounds out of it when he ran out of chemical-powered ammo had been a big part of it, but so had the sheer grunt work involved in lugging along the cases of ammunition the prince (still in original, patented, pain-in-the-ass mode) had insisted on bringing down to the planet. It hadn't been all that bad once they got pack animals to take the weight instead of carting it on their own backs, but Roger had brought over nine thousand rounds down with him, which had represented a pretty severe case of overkill . . . at least until the company discovered just how nasty Mardukan jungle fauna truly was.

  Most of the Marines had been prepared to forgive Roger his foibles when it turned out that his big magnum was the most effective antipredator armament they had, particularly in his skilled hands, but there'd still been the odd grumble over his habit of policing up his brass. Modern military weapons left no cartridge cases to worry about, but Roger's personal cannon littered the ground with thumb-thick brass cases every time he used it, and he'd flatly insisted on picking up after himself.

  Most of it, Julian was certain, went back to the fact that even the old Roger had always taken his responsibilities seriously when in the field on safari, whether anyone else had realized it or not. But there'd been another reason, although no one had known it, since no one had bothered to ask the prince about his motives.

  The Parkins and Spencer was the crown jewel of big game rifles, and Roger's cherished weapon had probably cost more than most luxury aircars. But it was also intended to be taken on safari in places so far out back of beyond that ammunition shops might be few and far between, and because of that, its ammunition had been designed for reuse and ease in reloading. The electronic igniter built into the base of each case was certified for a minimum of one hundred discharges without replacement, and although the cases themselves were still called "brass," they were actually a much more advanced alloy which could be reloaded almost infinitely without deforming, cracking, or splitting.

  Which meant, given Roger's mania for cleaning up his shooting stands, that the company still had well over eight thousand perfectly serviceable rounds of ammunition, once they were reloaded with black powder. True, they wouldn't generate the velocity and kinetic energy the same rounds had when filled with the considerably more sophisticated propellant they'd been designed to use, but the cases were strong enough to take maximum capacity loads of black powder, which still produced something no one in his right mind wanted hitting him. And a kick like an irritated flar-ta . . . not to mention a smoke cloud from Hell.

  Still and all, that ammo's existence had certainly justified manufacturing forty custom rifles to provide each surviving human with one, plus spares. It gave the company around two hundred rounds per rifle, too—more like three hundred and fifty for each of the surviving riflemen. That wasn't a spit in a hurricane compared to the sort of ammunition expenditures bead rifles used up on full auto, or even in three-round burst mode, but it was a hell of a lot for a bolt action rifle. Not to mention the fact that at the moment the company had a total of exactly one hundred and eleven bead rifle rounds.

  And Julian knew exactly how much it amused the prince to see the entire surviving company carrying around his ammo after all the grief the Marines had given him over his choice of weapon.

  "I still say it's a pain in the ass," the sergeant said after a moment. "Yeah, yeah—I know all about 'field expedients.' But the projectile drop on these things is a bitch!"

  "That's because you Marine pussies are spoiled," Roger told him smugly as he handed the weapon back over. "The muzzle velocities on those bead rifles
of yours are so high they've got about the same ballistic profile as a laser over their effective sight range. This kind of weapon takes a real marksman!"

  "Oh, yeah?" Julian challenged. "In that case, let's see you fire some of these black powder monsters out of something besides that Parkins and Spencer of yours!"

  "A petty thought, Sergeant," Roger said loftily. "Very petty."

  Both of them grinned at that, because unlike the rifles the K'Vaernians were making up for the humans, Roger's big magnum had a built in system to measure projectile velocities without a chronograph. Better still, it automatically fed the information on the last round fired to the rifle's holographic sight unit, which, in turn, automatically adjusted the sight's point of aim. Just knowing exactly where to aim wasn't enough to make a crack shot out of anyone who hadn't mastered the techniques to make sure the bullet actually went there, but it did help to explain some of Roger's uncanny ability to make the really long-range shots.

  "Well, I never thought I'd admit it," Julian said, "but I guess I really am glad you brought that smoke pole along. Mind you, I'd still prefer a bead rifle—or to have the damned plasma rifles on-line!—but if I can't have that, this is a pretty damned good substitute. Thanks, Your Highness."

  "Don't mention it, Sarge," Roger said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Remember, it's my imperial ass, too, if we come up short against the Boman."

  Julian nodded, and the prince smacked his shoulder again, nodded briskly, and strode off, followed by Cord and his assigned bodyguards.

  "Sure it is," the NCO said, so quietly that Fain could barely hear him. "Sure it is . . . and the only thing you're worried about, too, I bet!"

  The human laughed, shook his head, and turned back to the native sergeant.

  "Now, Krindi, about those bayonets—"

  * * *

  Poertena stood beside the building ways and watched the swarming K'Vaernian shipwrights at their work.

  There was no real possibility of completing the vessels the humans would require for their transoceanic voyage out of the resources currently available in K'Vaern's Cove. But there was enough seasoned timber to begin laying down the keels and frames, and the fairing battens were already in place. The light planking ran over the frames Poertena had selected to establish the lines of the hull, and the local shipwrights were busily setting up the intermediate frames within the template so established. All in all, the little Pinopan was more than satisfied with how quickly his teams were working. And they were "his" teams.

  Once the Council had committed to full-bore support for the shipbuilding project, that carefully hoarded, officially "nonexistent" timber had started falling out of certain artfully concealed stockpiles, and the shipwrights' guild had turned out hundreds of trained shipbuilders. At first, enthusiasm had been limited, despite the Council's insistence and financial support. However, even the grumpiest and most conservative of the workers had been delighted to have work at all, given the current besieged state of the city, and there'd been a certain excitement over building such large ships to such a novel design. And what Poertena had been able to show them about molding lines and lofting hulls properly had been devoured with a burning passion. But for all that, there'd also been a great deal of skepticism, for no one had ever suggested the hull form and, particularly, the rig Poertena had designed.

  Most of that skepticism had disappeared once he got his "technology demonstrator" into the water, however. Given the support of the Council, he'd been able to get the ten-meter test vehicle built and launched considerably more quickly than he'd anticipated. In fact, he'd managed it almost as quickly as Captain Pahner had demanded, and he was justifiably pleased with himself for the accomplishment.

  He was also deeply satisfied with how well the new craft had performed. Some adjustments had been required, but the basic hull form was a well established and thoroughly proven one, used all over Pinopa and virtually identical to what had once been called a "Baltimore clipper" on Earth. Although Poertena had worked for almost four standard years in his uncle's yard on Pinopa to help defray his college expenses, this was the first time in decades that he'd turned his hand to any sort of design work, and he was actually a bit surprised that he'd gotten it as close to right as he had. He'd been forced to move the mainmast of his twin-masted design about one meter aft, and there was a little more hoist to the big gaff foresail, which was actually the primary sail for this rig, than there really ought to have been, as well. Like most Pinopans, all of whom had a certain mania for fast ships, Poertena had a tendency to over-spar his designs. Unlike some of his fellows, though, he also recognized that he did, and he'd modified his sail plan accordingly.

  Despite those minor flaws, however, the demonstrator had been a complete success, particularly when it came to laying the doubts of the local maritime community to rest. The expressions and consternation of the Cove's grizzled captains as they watched the half-sized topsail schooner go bounding across the dark blue of the K'Vaernian Sea, leaving a ruler-straight wake of creamy white as she sailed almost twenty degrees closer to the wind than any other ship in the world could have, had been priceless. And well they should have been. The ability to sail a single compass point—just a hair over eleven degrees—closer to the wind than another ship meant that the more weatherly vessel would be almost four minutes ahead, all other things being equal, after sailing a mere thirty kilometers. Beating dead to windward, a ship which could sail no closer than fifty degrees to the wind (which was better than any of the locally produced designs could manage) would have to travel fifty-two kilometers to make good thirty-two, whereas Poertena's new design would have to travel only forty-two kilometers, or only eighty percent of the same run. That was an advantage, over a voyage of many hundred kilometers, which no merchant skipper could fail to appreciate, and it didn't even consider the fact that being able to sail closer to the wind than a pursuer could would provide an invaluable insurance policy against pirates . . . or that the new rig required a much smaller crew of sail-handlers. Those thoughts had suggested themselves almost instantly to the captains watching Poertena's design go through her paces, and when she spun on her heel, shooting neatly across the wind to settle on the opposite tack and go racing onward at a speed no other ship could have sustained, those same captains had been ready to kill for ships of their own like her.

  To the Mardukans, Poertena's little ship was pure magic, and they regarded him with the sort of awe which was the just due of any irascible wizard. There might be questions about the humans' endless store of innovations in some quarters, but aside from two or three dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, there were no longer any in the shipbuilding community. And while the Cove's seamen still had enormous reservations about the wisdom—or sanity—of any attempt to cross the ocean, they were thoroughly prepared to embrace the new rigging concept and hull form, and Poertena had used their desire to master the new techniques unscrupulously. He was perfectly willing to teach them to anyone . . . as long as his students agreed to sign on for the voyage. More than a few would-be students disappeared into the woodwork when he explained his conditions, but a much larger number agreed. Not without trepidation, and not—he was certain—without comforting themselves in many cases with the belief that the voyage might never happen, but they agreed.

  He suspected that Wes Til's strong backing had more than a little to do with that. As Til had half suggested he might at the first Council meeting, the canny merchant had agreed to subsidize the cost of building the new ships in return for Pahner's promise that the ships and crews would be his once the humans were delivered to the far side of the ocean. The fact that the Council had also agreed to pick up a third of the construction cost, and that his shipyards were building them (and thus acquiring an enormous headstart on his competition where the new techniques and technology were concerned and recouping a good chunk of his own outlays) had been a factor as well, of course, but Poertena had no problems with that. Even with the Council's contribution to the cost, Til was p
icking up the tab on an enormously expensive project, and he certainly deserved to show a handsome return on the risk he was running. Besides, his contacts in the seafaring community, especially with Turl Kam's backing, had been essential to recruiting the sailors which the expedition would require.

  Now the Pinopan stood in the dockyard, watching the work progress, and hoped that the campaign Captain Pahner and the Mardukan commanders were putting together would come off as planned.

  If it didn't, he was going to run out of timber in about another two weeks.

  * * *

  Roger was devoutly thankful for his ear plugs as he walked behind the line of firing Mardukans with Cord. The concussion from each shot was chest-compressing, which was hardly surprising, since the "rifles" would have been considered light artillery by most humans.

  Each firing pit held a firer, a trainee coach, and a human or Diaspran safety coach. The targets were outlines of a Boman warrior, including an outline of an upraised ax. Many of the axes had been blown away by an avalanche of bullets over the last few weeks, but the system still worked. When a recessed metal plate in the primary target zone was struck, the target would fall, then rise back up a moment later. Hits anywhere else, even in the head, wouldn't drop the target.

  Roger saw a spark on the head of the target in front of him and lay down on the ground behind the firer. It gave him a better perspective on the shooting while he listened to the safety coach.

  "Get your barrel lower." The trainee coach was a Diaspran, a former Laborer of God, to judge from the muscles in his shoulders and back, with a deep, powerful voice which managed to carry through the thunder of rifle fire. "Shoot that barbarian bastard in the gut! It hurts them worse."

  "Also," Roger put in from behind the pit, "a bullet shot low will tend to hit something even if you miss your target. One that goes flying overhead does nothing but let that barbarian bastard through to kill you. And your buddies."


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