March to the sea im 2, p.37

March To The Sea im-2, page 37

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  But what they could produce, Roger thought with a wicked smile, was going to be more than enough to give the Boman serious problems.

  "And look at this," Rastar told him with an even more wicked grin of his own as he brought another weapon around from behind his back . . . then froze when three bead rifles instantly snapped up to cover him.

  "Hey, come on!" he said. "It's me, Rastar."

  "Yeah," Roger said, taking the pistol from the cavalryman, "but we've had another death threat. And the attempted assassination of Rus From. So they're a little twitchy." He looked the weapon over and smiled. "Again, very nice."

  The weapon was a revolver, very similar in appearance to what had once been known as a Colt Dragoon, but much larger and with some significant design peculiarities to fit the Mardukan hand. It was lighter than the rifles—with no more than a mere twenty-millimeter bore—and it was also a seven-shot weapon, not a six-shooter. The rear of the cylinder had nipples for the copper percussion caps the alchemists' guild was producing in quantity under Despreaux's direction, but the biggest differences (besides an odd indent in the grip so that it could be held more easily with a false-hand) were the fact that it was double action, not single, and that it was a swing-out cylinder design. Obviously, the firer was supposed to swing the cylinder out and slide more of Dell Mir's flashplant-bagged cartridges into place from the front, base end first, then cap the chambers, and lock the cylinder back into place, which would make it much quicker to reload than the cap-and-ball revolvers of ancient Earth.

  "Really nice," Roger said, handing it back. "Of course, it would break my wrist if I tried to fire it."

  "It's not my fault you're a wimp," the Northerner said, taking his prize back.

  "Ha! We'll see who's a wimp in a month's time," Roger replied. "How many of these are we producing?"

  "As many as possible," Rastar said with a gesture of dismissal. "The machining is more complicated than for the rifles, and we can't just convert existing arquebus barrels, and there are some problems with about a quarter of them—they break for some reason, after a couple of shots. I got the first four."

  "Of course," Roger said. Rastar was not only the commander of the Northern cavalry but also far and away the most dangerous pistoleer, himself included, the prince had ever seen. "I suppose we should thank goodness for pumps, pumps, and more pumps. Those industries are certainly coming in handy. Are you scheduled for the exercise this afternoon?"

  "Yes," the Northerner replied with a grimace. "Maps, maps, and more maps."

  "It's good for the soul," Roger said with a grin.

  "So is killing Boman," Rastar said. "Although, at this point, anyone would do."

  * * *

  "I think we're going to have to kill somebody, Sergeant," Fain said.

  "Why?" Julian asked, looking up from the meal on the low table. He couldn't wait to get back to someplace that had decent chairs. Hell, he couldn't wait to get back to someplace that had decent food.

  "Show him, Erkum," the Diaspran noncom replied.

  The huge private held up a spring to show it to the Marine, then started to stretch it. The heavy spring resisted at first, then began stretching outward . . . until it snapped with a brittle sound.

  "Skimping on the springs again, huh?" Julian said, dropping his fork and picking up his sword. "You'd think they'd learn."

  "Yeah, but this foundry's owned by one of the members of the Council," Fain said. "Which was very carefully pointed out when I saw the shop foreman about this."

  "How much did he offer?" the Marine asked, taking out his pad and punching a message into it.

  "A kusul of silver," the Diaspran replied with a shrug. "It was insulting."

  "Damn straight," Julian laughed. "Maybe up front, or weekly, but a one-time offer after they'd already been caught? Jesus."

  "So what are you going to do?"

  "I guess we're just going to have to explain to him what the words 'quality process improvement' mean. You, me, Erkum, and a squad from the New Model. Get it set up."

  * * *

  "Who is," Julian ostentatiously consulted the scrap of paper in his hand, "Tistum Path?"

  "I am," said a heavyset Mardukan, appearing out of the gloom of the foundry.

  The forging room was hot. Unbelievably hot, like a circle of Hell. Julian could have sworn that water left on any surface would start to boil in a second. There were two ceramic furnaces where steel—spring steel, in this case—was being formed over forced-air coke fires, and the fierce flames and bubbling steel contributed to a choking atmosphere that must have been nearly lethal to the Mardukans working in it. Which wasn't going to dissuade Julian one bit from his appointed duty.

  "Ah, good. Pleased to meet you," the sergeant said cheerfully, walking up to the foundry manager . . . and kicked him in the groin.

  The squad of riflemen behind him were all from the New Model Army's Bastar Battalion of pikes. As the workers in the foundry grabbed various implements, the Diasprans' brand-new rifles came up and the percussion hammers clicked ominously as they were cocked and leveled at the workers. There had been enough demonstrations of the weapons by now that the workers froze.

  The mastoid analogue behind a Mardukan's ear wasn't quite as susceptible as the same point on a human, but it would do. The hardwood bludgeon bounced off it nicely as the shop manager was driven to his knees.

  Julian ran a length of chain around the stunned foreman's ankles and gave a thumbs-up to Fain, who began hauling on the pulley arrangement. The sliding crane was designed for lifting multi-ton crucibles of boiling steel, and it made short work of lifting the three-meter Mardukan into the air. As the manager recovered, Julian threw a rope about his horns and used it to drag him along until he was suspended in the flaring heat over one of the furnaces.

  "Here's the deal!" the Marine shouted to the head-down Mardukan. "Springs are very important in weapons, and you, Tistum Path, are very important in the manufacture of springs. This is a vital position you hold, and one that I hope you are worthy of! Because if you're not—" the human hawked and spat into the furnace, but the glob of mucus exploded before it hit the surface of the bubbling steel "—it would just be a senseless waste of Mardukan life."

  "You can't do this to me!" the Mardukan screamed, coughing and squirming frantically in the fumes blasting up from the furnace. "Don't you know who owns this place?"

  "Of course we do, and we're going to be visiting him next. He's going to be terribly disappointed to learn that one of his employees misunderstood his orders to produce the best quality material, and damn the cost. Don't you think?"

  "That's not what he said!"

  "I know that." The Marine shook his head. "But there's no way he's going to admit that he told you to cut the cost, no matter what kind of shit you produced. So we're going to explain to him, in a gentle way, that while profits are the lifeblood of any economy, the contract he signed was supposed to include a reasonable profit margin without cheating. And we're already paying top dollar, so since we can't figure out which springs are shit and which ones aren't, he's going to be taking them all back. And replacing them. With good ones."

  "Impossible! Who's going to pay for it?"

  "Your boss," the Marine hissed, stepping into the blazing heat from the furnace. The red light of the boiling steel turned his angular face into a painting of Satan gloating over a new-caught sinner. "And the next time I have to come back here, both of you are going to be nothing but trace elements in the steel. Is that perfectly clear?"

  * * *

  "These humans are insane!" the councilor complained hotly.

  "All the more reason to support getting them on their way," Wes Til replied, rolling a bit of spring in his fingers.

  "They threatened me—me! They said they'd melt me in my own steel! I want their heads!"

  "Hmmm?" Til looked up from the spring. "Wouldn't have anything to do with cracked revolver frames, broken springs, and exploding barrels, would it?"

aren't my fault," the other Mardukan sniffed. "Just because a few of my workers were cutting corners, probably to line their own pockets—"

  "Oh be quiet!" Til snapped. "You signed contracts. From the point of view of the humans, you're responsible, and you know as well as I do that the courts would back them up if there was time for that. But there isn't time, and they don't really seem to be very interested in half-measures, now do they? So, under the circumstances, I suggest that you do exactly as they say, unless you want your heir to be the one who does it."

  "Is that a threat?"

  "No, it's more on the order of a statement. They seem to have the most remarkable intelligence system. For example, they've already tracked down the person who ordered the attack on Rus From. Or so I would guess. You notice that Ges Stin hasn't been gracing us with his presence lately?"

  "Yes. You know something?"

  "No. However, it's lately become common knowledge that it was Ges Stin who ordered the attack. It's even common knowledge who planned the attack at his orders and actually paid those unfortunate assassins. None of them, however, are anywhere to be found."

  "Ges Stin has many shipping interests. He could be in the southern states by now."

  "Hmmm. Perhaps."

  "What does Turl Kam think of this?"

  "He thinks that he's down one competitor for the fisherman's guild vote," the merchant said with a grunt of laughter.

  "I will not be intimidated," the other councilor declared defiantly.

  "The sliming on your forehead gives you the lie. But you don't need to be," Til replied. "Just make sure your shops produce what they promised. Instead of weak crap." The spring he'd been flexing broke with a pop. "You really don't want a few thousand people with rifles in their true-hands . . . discussing the problem with you. Do you?"


  Dersal Quan stood on the foundry floor and watched in disbelief as the human-designed device sliced through his best bronze as if it were qwanshu wood. He'd had even more doubts than he'd cared to express to Wes Til when he discovered just how many pieces of artillery the insane humans and their Diaspran henchmen expected to cast in the ridiculously short time limit they'd imposed. Now it looked to him as if they might actually manage to meet their preposterous production schedule.

  The Quan foundries had been among the largest and wealthiest in K'Vaern's Cove for generations. They'd provided over half the Navy's total bombards since Quan's father's time, and at least a third of the bells hung in the Cove's towers to the glory of Krin also bore the Quan founder's stamp. Quan had never doubted that his modelers and patternmakers could produce the forms or that his casters could pour the guns, but pouring bronze wasn't like pouring concrete. It had to be done right, and there were no corners that could be cut unless one really liked bombards which were honeycombed with flaws and failed when proofed . . . or blew up in combat, always at the most inopportune time possible. And even after that time requirement had been allowed for, the need to bore out the guns was the single most time-consuming element of the entire process.

  The true secret to a bombard of superior accuracy lay in the care taken in the preparation of its bore and the shot it would fire, although it had taken the gunners generations to realize how critical things like windage and uniform bores truly were. In fact, Quan's own father had begun his apprenticeship in the family business manufacturing cannonballs out of stone, and the art of cutting and reaming bores properly had been practically invented by one of Quan's uncles. It was a multistage process which required days for each piece, and no one had ever imagined that someone would demand so many guns in so short a time period, which meant that no one had the machinery to bore out more than a half dozen or so guns simultaneously. Not only that, but the crazy humans had insisted on a shot size which no one in K'Vaern's Cove had ever used, which meant that none of the boring equipment which already existed was the right size, and that the foundries also found themselves forced to produce new shot molds even as they cast the gun tubes themselves.

  But the humans had insisted that there were ways around the problems, and so Quan had accepted their contracts, trusting Krin to prove the diminutive foreign lunatics knew what they were talking about. And trusting in the Cove's courts to absolve him of legal responsibility for failure when it turned out that they didn't.

  As it happened, they had known what they were talking about, and now he watched in lingering disbelief as the ebony-skinned human called Aburia switched off her device and pushed the transparent goggles up on her forehead while one of her K'Vaernian assistants spun the handcrank which retracted the boring head from the new piece.

  "What did you say this is called?" Quan asked, waving a true-hand at the device.

  "I don't know that it really has a name," Aburia told him with one of the "shrugs" humans seemed so fond of. "It's sort of a bastardized field expedient, actually. The cutting head is only three of our bayonet blades, and Julian and Poertena made the shaft by welding a couple of broke-down plasma rifle barrels together and then splicing in a powerplant from Russell's powered armor. Your own people put together the rack-and-pinion system to move it, and your shop foreman and I worked out the clamps and brackets to hold everything still while we drill."

  She shrugged again, and Quan clapped hands in a gesture of profound respect, tinged with surprise.

  "I didn't believe you could really do this," he admitted. "Even watching you, I'm not sure I believe it now! Seeing a shaft that thin—" he gestured at the slender rod, no thicker than a human finger, which Julian and Poertena had welded together with something called a laser kit "—take that sort of load without even flexing isn't just impossible, it's preposterous! It ought to be wobbling all over the place, especially since you had to piece it together in the first place out of hollow tubing. There's certainly not any way that it should be allowing you to cut such uniformly true bores! And I've never heard of any knife blade that could pare away bronze like so much soft cheese and never even need sharpening."

  "Well, sir," the human said with one of those teeth-showing smiles Quan still found mildly disturbing, "we haven't used bronze for something like this in close to two thousand of our years. We've got a lot better alloys now, and a blade with an edge a single molecule wide will cut just about anything without dulling down so's anyone would notice!"

  "So your Julian said," Quan agreed, "although I'm still not very certain just what these 'molecules' you keep talking about might be. Not that I suppose it really matters all that much as long as your wizards' spells keep working as promised."

  "The Regiment usually manages to hold up its end, sir," Aburia assured him. "Especially when we've got a member of the Imperial Family with his ass in a crack!"

  * * *

  "How about the rocket batteries?" Pahner asked.

  He, Rus From, and Bistem Kar stood on a catwalk watching Dersal Quan talk to Corporal Aburia.

  "They are progressing better than I'd anticipated," From told him. "The Cove's pump artificers have set up to machine the 'venturis' in quantity, and the test rockets have performed well. The biggest problem, of course, is that they consume even more gunpowder than the new artillery will."

  "Price of doing business if we want a decent bursting charge at the terminal end of the flight," Pahner said with a shrug.

  "That's understood," Kar rumbled in his subterranean voice, "and I've been most impressed by the weapons' effectiveness. Yet that doesn't change Rus's point. We have only so much powder, and at the moment we have at least three different things to use every sedant of it on. We're doing our best to get production levels back up, but even if we had every powder plant working at full capacity, we would still feel a serious pinch." He shook his head in one of the gestures the K'Vaernians had already picked up from their human visitors. "You humans may be the most deadly fighters anyone has ever seen, but the strains your way of fighting put on the quartermaster are enormous."

  "You only think they are," Pahner replied with a chuckle
. "Actually, the logistics for an army equipped with such simple weapons as this are child's play compared to the supply problems we normally have to deal with. You folks are the most advanced and innovative society we've come across yet on our journey, but you're only really getting started on what we call the 'Industrial Revolution.' Trust me, by the time you hit your stride, you'll look back on this as a relatively minor effort!"

  "Assuming that we survive the Boman, of course," Kar pointed out.

  "Oh, I feel confident that you'll survive them," Pahner said. "Whether we succeed in crushing them in a single campaign or not, we're going to do so much damage to them—and you guys are going to learn so much in the process—that their poor barbarian butts are pocked in the long run, whatever happens."

  "Perhaps," Kar agreed. "Yet for that to happen, we must do enough damage and give our people enough confidence in the final outcome for them to see the wisdom in sustaining the struggle to that point."

  "Which is where we come in," Pahner said with a nod. "Believe me, Bistem, we've figured that out. Don't worry. We'll give you and your people the basic skills and tools you'll need, and we'll play the 'Krin-sent champions' to get your army into the field in the first place. But don't sell yourself or the Guard short. Between you, Bogess, and the Diaspran cadre, you'll be able to hold up your end without us just fine if you have to after we leave."

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