March to the sea im 2, p.2

March To The Sea im-2, page 2

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  * * *

  "Good t'ing they didn't know I was coaching you over tee poc—tee radio, Sir," Poertena said as they waved to the mahouts, slowly making their way back downslope.

  "Yep," Roger agreed. "How'd I do?"

  "We got pock— We got screwed."

  "Hey," Roger said defensively. "Those things are priceless up here!"

  "Yeah," Poertena agreed. "But t'ey takin' tee money down t'ere. We prob'ly pay twice what they flar-ta is worth. T'at more money than t'ey ever see in t'eir po . . . in their lives."

  "True," Roger said. "I'm glad that Cranla went with them. Maybe he can keep people from taking it before they buy their new mounts."

  "Sure," the armorer complained. "But now I out a fourth for spades. What I gonna do 'bout t'at?"

  "Spades?" Roger asked. "What's spades?"

  * * *

  "I can' believe I get taken by my own pocking prince," Poertena grumped much later as he and Denat watched Roger walk away, whistling cheerfully while he counted his winnings.

  "Well," Cord's nephew told him with a remarkable lack of sympathy, "you keep telling us there's a new sucker born every minute. You just didn't get around to mentioning that you were one of them!"

  * * *

  Cord raised the flap of the cover as the flar-ta came to a halt. The three remaining Mardukans had ridden the big packbeasts for the last several days while the humans had searched for a path through the mountains. To avoid the cold and desiccating dryness, the three had huddled under one of the hide tents. There, in a nest of wet rags, they had spent the day, warmed by the sun on the dark tents.

  But as the packbeasts continued to stand motionless, Cord decided to brave the outside conditions. Pushing aside one of the moistened clumps of dianda, the shaman slipped out from under the tent and began to walk towards the front of the column, and Roger looked up and smiled as he approached.

  "We might have hit a bit of luck," the prince said, gesturing at a pile of rocks. The cairn was clearly artificial, a fairly large pile of stones at the mouth of one of three valleys diverging from the river they'd been following.

  The humans had been hunting back and forth in the mountains for a week and a half, looking for a relatively low way across. Several promising valleys had so far yielded only impossibly steep ascents. This valley would not have been considered promising, since it narrowed abruptly up ahead and bent sharply to the south out of sight. However, the existence of the cairn was indisputable.

  "Could be some traveler's idea of a practical joke," Kosutic said dubiously. The sergeant major shook her head, looking up the narrow track. "And it'll be a bitch getting the beasts through there."

  "But it's the first indication we've had that there's ever been anybody up here," Roger said stubbornly. "Why would anyone lie about the path?"

  Pahner looked up at the path the valley might take.

  "Looks like there's a glacier up there," he said. He nodded to the stream roaring out of the valley. "See how white the water is, Your Highness?"

  "Yes," Roger said. "Oh. Yeah. I've seen that before."

  "Snowmelt?" Kosutic asked.

  "Glacial runoff," Pahner corrected. "Dust particles from the glacier grinding the mountains. At least part of this stream has its origin in a glacier." He looked at Cord and then back at the flar-ta. "I don't see them being able to make it in glacial conditions."

  "There is that," Roger admitted, looking up at the snowy caps. "But we still need to check it out."

  "Not we," Pahner said. "Sergeant Major?"

  "Gronningen," she said instantly. "He's from Asgard, so he could care less about cold." She paused and thought. "Dokkum is from New Tibet. He should know something about mountains. And I'll take Damdin, too."

  "Do it," Pahner said. "We'll make a solid camp here in the meantime." He looked around at the coniferlike trees. "At least there's plenty of wood."

  * * *

  Kosutic looked around the narrow defile with critical eyes. In the week since they'd started up the valley, they had yet to find a spot the packbeasts couldn't negotiate, but this was pushing it.

  "You think they can get through?" Dokkum asked. The little Nepalese was taking the slow, steady steps he'd taught the others when they tried to take off like jackrabbits. The simple method of one step per breath was the only way to move in serious mountains. Anything else would wear humans to the bone between the thin air and steep slopes.

  Kosutic measured the defile with the range finder in her helmet and looked at the ground. "So far. Much worse and the answer would be no."

  "Heya!" Gronningen shouted. "Heya! By Jesus-Thor!" The big Asgardian was perched at the top of the slope, shaking his rifle overhead in both hands.

  "Well, I think we found our pass," Kosutic said with a breathy chuckle.

  * * *

  "Damn," Roger said, looking at the view spread out below the company.

  The last of the flar-ta were scrambling up the defile as he stepped aside to get a better look. The broad, U-shaped valley at their feet was clearly glacial shaped, and in the center of the deep bowl directly below them was an immense tarn, an upper mountain lake.

  The water of the lake, still several thousand meters below their current altitude, was a deep, intense blue, like liquid oxygen. And it looked just about as cold. Given their surroundings, that was hardly surprising. What was a surprise, was the city on its shore.

  The town was large, nearly as large as Voitan once had been, and did not fit the usual huddled-on-a-hilltop pattern of every other Mardukan city the humans had yet seen. This town frankly sprawled around the shores of the lake and well up the valley slopes above it.

  "It looks like Como," Roger said.

  "Or Shrinagar," O'Casey added quietly.

  "Whichever it is," Pahner said, stepping out of the way of the beasts as well, "we need to get down to it. We've got less than a hundred kilos of barleyrice left, and our diet supplementals get a little lower every day."

  "You're always such an optimist, Captain," Roger observed.

  "No, I'm a pessimist. That's what your mother pays me to be," the Marine added with a smile. The smile quickly turned to a frown, however. "We have a smidgen of gold and a few gems left after we paid the mahouts. Oh, and some dianda. We need barleyrice, some wine, fruits, vegetables—everything. And salt. We're almost out of salt."

  "We'll figure it out, Captain," the prince said. "You always do."

  "Thanks—I think," the commander said sourly. "I guess we'll have to." He patted a pocket, but his store of gum was long gone. "Maybe they chew tobacco down there."

  "Is that why you chew gum?" Roger asked in surprise.

  "Sort of. I used to smoke pseudonic a long time ago. It's surprising how hard it is to kick that habit." The last of the flar-ta was trotting by, and the captain looked at the line passing down the defile. "I think we'd better hurry to get in front of the band."

  "Yep," Roger agreed, looking at the distant city. "I'm really looking forward to getting to civilization."

  "Let's not go too fast," Pahner cautioned as he started forward. "This is liable to be a new experience. Different hazards, different customs. These mountains are a fairly effective barrier, especially for a bunch of cold-blooded Mardukans, so these folks may not take all that kindly to strangers. We need to take it slow and careful."

  * * *

  "Slow down," Kosutic called. "The city isn't going anywhere."

  The company had been moving through the twisting mountain valleys towards the distant city for the last two days. It turned out that the pass they'd exited from was on a different watershed, which had required some backtracking. The delay meant that they'd run out of fodder for the packbeasts, who were becoming increasingly surly about life in general.

  Fortunately, they'd recently entered a flatter terrain of moraines and alluvial wash. It was well forested, and by slowing down they'd been able to let the flar-ta forage. But that only worked if the point kept the pace down.

, Sergeant Major," Liszez replied over his helmet com, and slowed down, pausing for a moment to look around.

  The path they were following was wide for a game trail, and well beaten. The vegetation was open on either side, and the lower limbs of the coniferlike evergreens had been stripped off by some forager, which permitted good sight distance . . . unlike the damn jungle.

  He'd stopped at the edge of an open area. It looked like whatever had been eating on the trees had used the clearing for rooting, because the ground was torn up and turned over in every direction. It was also fairly smooth, however, and the path continued on the other side.

  The morning was clear and cool, with the dew just coming off the bushes. This area was a blessed relief for the company, but they still wanted to keep moving. Not only did they look forward to a respite in the city, but the faster they went, the sooner they would reach the coast.

  The coast was, of course, only an intermediate stop, but it had begun to loom large in the minds of the company. The coast was an end in itself now, and on maps it looked like they were nearly there. They weren't. At best, it was weeks away through the jungles on this side of the mountains, but at least it was getting closer and closer. And that was a damned good thing, Liszez told himself, because good as their nanites were at extracting usable nutrition from the most unlikely sources, there were limits in all things. The severe losses the company had taken at Voitan and Marshad "helped" a good bit, in a gruesomely ironic sort of way, because each dead Marine had been one less charge on the priceless cache of vitamin and protein supplements packed on the animals and on their own backs. Fewer mouths meant they could stretch their stores further, but once the stores were gone, they were gone . . . and the shipwrecked humans were dead. So the sooner they could get their butts aboard a ship and set sail, the better.

  Liszez looked over his shoulder and decided the column had closed up enough. He reminded himself to keep the pace down, checked his surroundings for threats, and moved out. On his third step, the ground erupted.

  * * *

  Roger looked at the trees. The stripped bark reminded him of something, and he glanced at his asi.

  "Cord, these trees . . ."

  "Yes. Flar-ke. We need to be careful," the shaman said.

  Pahner had finally convinced the prince that the lead packbeast was not a place for the commander to be, but Roger still insisted on driving Patty and covering the column with his big eleven-millimeter magnum hunting rifle. So far in the mountains the only hazards had been inanimate, but Marduk had taught them not to let their guards down, and the prince keyed his radio on the reserve command frequency.

  "Captain, Cord says that this area is flar-ke territory. Like where we first met him."

  Pahner didn't reply for a moment, and Roger remembered the Marine's incandescent rage on that long ago day. The prince never had explained to the captain that the company's free-flow com net had been so unfamiliar—and confusing—to him at the time that he genuinely hadn't heard the Marine's order not to fire at the flar-ke which had been pursuing Cord. It had been Roger's very first personal experience with a full-fledged tongue lashing, and Pahner's fury had been so intense that the prince had decided that anything which sounded like an excuse would have been considerably worse than useless.

  At the same time, even if he had heard the order, he would have taken the shot anyway. He knew that. And he hadn't taken it to save Cord, either—no one had even known the shaman was there to be saved. No. He'd fired because he'd hunted more types of dangerous wild game than most people in the galaxy even realized existed, and he'd recognized the territorial strop markings on the trees in the area. Markings very like those which surrounded them now . . .

  "I see," the captain said finally, and Roger knew the same memories had been passing through the older man's mind. They'd never discussed the episode again, and Roger sometimes wondered how much that owed to the fact that the flar-ke so closely resembled—physically at least—the flar-ta packbeasts with which the company had become intimately familiar. Flar-ta could be extremely dangerous in threat situations, but the huge herbivores were scarcely aggressive by nature, and a part of the captain had to have noted the relative passivity of the flar-ta and transposed it to the flar-ke, at least subconsciously, as proof that he'd been right to order his troops not to fire. The old Roger probably wouldn't even have considered that point, but the new one recognized that Pahner had no more taste for admitting he might have been wrong than anyone else. That was a very natural trait, but one which was an uncomfortable fit in a man like the captain, who had an acutely developed—one might almost say overdeveloped—sense of responsibility. Which was one reason Roger had never brought the matter up again. He'd learned not only to respect but to admire the Marine, and he was determined to let sleeping dogs lie rather than sound as if he were defending past actions . . . or trying to rub Pahner's nose in a possible error.

  "He's really worried," Roger said diffidently into the fresh silence.

  "I know he is," Pahner replied. "He's said often enough that however much they may look like flar-ta, they're completely different. I just wish I knew exactly how that worked."

  "The closest parallel I can think of is probably the Cape buffalo back on Earth, Captain," Roger offered. "To someone who's not familiar with them, Cape buffaloes look an awful lot like regular water buffaloes. But water buffaloes aren't aggressive; Cape buffaloes are. In fact, kilo for kilo, they're probably the most aggressive and dangerous beasts on Terra. I kid you not—there are dozens of documented cases of Cape buffaloes actually turning the tables and hunting down the game hunters."

  "Got it," Pahner said in a completely different tone, and switched to the company frequency. "Company, listen up—" he began, just in time for the first screams to interrupt him.

  * * *

  Kosutic never knew how she survived the first few seconds. The beast that erupted out of the ground caught Liszez with a tuskhorn and threw the grenadier through the air to land in a sodden, bone-shattered lump. The Marine didn't even bounce, and the animal couldn't have cared less. It was too busy charging straight at the sergeant major.

  Somehow, she found herself propelled to one side of the beast by a muscle-tearing turn and dive that landed her on one shoulder, and she'd flipped the selector of the bead rifle to armor piercing even before she hit the ground.

  The tungsten-cored beads penetrated the heavily armored scaled hide which the standard beads would only have cratered, and the creature screamed in rage. It pivoted on its axis, but the NCO had other problems to deal with—an entire herd of the giant beasts had burst out of the ground and was stampeding towards the company.

  They were very similar in appearance to the packbeasts, but with months of Mardukan experience behind her, the differences were now obvious to the sergeant major. The flar-ta looked somewhat like a cross between a triceratops and a horned toad, but the armor on their forequarters was actually fairly light, their horned head shield did not extend much beyond the neck, and their fore and rear quarters were more or less balanced. These creatures were larger by at least a thousand kilos each, and their side armor was thicker than the cross section of a human forearm where it covered the shoulders and heart region. The head shield extended far enough up and back that a mahout would never have been able to see over the top, and their forequarters were immensely strong.

  The sergeant major avoided a stamp from one of those sequoia-thick legs and spun again to dodge the flail of a tuskhorn. She straightened and put three more rounds into the head shield, and watched in disbelief as at least two of them bounced off the unbelievably refractory bone armor.

  The corner of her eye caught a flicker that sent her flipping backwards in a maneuver she never could have made practicing, and the space she'd just been in was overrun by another of the giant horned toads. She dodged and rolled twice more as the herd thundered past, then flipped the bead rifle to burst and began hammering the one she'd been battling.

  The beast cha
rged at her, and she dodged again. But it had learned the first time and turned with her. The sergeant major knew she was dead and tried desperately to twist aside but she couldn't quite evade the tuskhorn that . . .

  . . . suddenly rolled sideways as Patty plowed into the larger beast at full speed.

  Roger pumped three fatal rounds into the exposed underbelly of the wounded beast, then leaned over to offer the sergeant major a hand.

  "Come on!" he shouted, and jabbed the packbeast in the neck the instant the NCO's hand locked onto his wrist. "Hiya! Come on, you stupid bitch! Let's get out of here!"

  The beast spun on its axis with a bellowing hiss and charged back towards the embattled company. Patty appeared to have forgotten that she was a flar-ta. She was on the warpath, and the mountains had better beware.

  * * *

  Pahner swore vilely as Roger's packbeast accelerated straight towards the stampeding giants.

  "Action front!" he called over the company frequency. He saw a couple of javelins skitter off the armored front of the charging beasts and shook his head. Most of the company had one magazine of ammunition left. If they used that up, there was no way they could take the spaceport. But if they all died here, it wouldn't matter.

  "Weapons free! Armor piercing—do it!" He dodged a milling packbeast as he pulled his own rifle off his shoulder. "Move the packbeasts forward! Use them as a wall!"

  He had a brief flash of Roger hitting the avalanche of flar-ke. By some miracle, the boy was able to convince his mount to go through the charge rather than ramming one of them head-on. As they passed the head of the column there was a glimpse of the prince pumping fire into the stampede; then he disappeared into the dust.

  The experienced CO knew a moment of despair. The charge had hit them from the front and come on, headfirst, down the long axis of the column. That meant the Marines could target only the head shields, which were the most heavily armored part of the attacking beasts, and the fire that was starting to pour into the charge was having negligible effect. He saw a single beast go down, but in another moment the company would be engulfed in a charge of elephants, because nothing was going to stop them.

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