March to the sea im 2, p.6

March To The Sea im-2, page 6

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  "Ouch!" Kosutic grimaced. "Still, I'd think giving up an extra month of output wouldn't sound all that unreasonable if it got the mines back for him. He can always dig more, after all."

  "But they are bargaining?" Sergeant Jin asked. "That wasn't what we were told."

  "Oh, yeah, they're ready enough to deal." Roger smiled broadly. "Deb Tar is just holding out for a better price, which is why he's looking so hard for someone who can kick them out without meeting their demands. Nor Tob was the first to actually try to take him up on it, but when he saw that his own valiant effort was going to be a bust, he decided to haul ass and headed out as soon as it was clear the assault was a failure."

  "No wonder," Kosutic laughed. "I bet those miners were some pissed individuals. Anybody know where he went?"

  "Nope," Julian said. "It looks like he's gone to ground somewhere. He hasn't left the area, but he hasn't been seen in his usual haunts, either."

  "I been lookin' around," Poertena interjected. "T'is Deb Tar, he offering a full month's output to whoever get them out. T'at be something like thirty sedant in gold an' another ten in silver, an' a sedant's nearly half a kilo. Even with tee prices up here, we can load up ever't'ing we need for less t'an twenty sedant of gold." He shrugged. "Tee other gold an' silver be profit."

  "So it's a worthwhile operation," Roger said. "If anyone can figure out a method to get in, at least."

  "Oh, that's easy enough," Kosutic told him, looking up from the map display.

  "Yeah. Getting in isn't a problem," Jin agreed. "The question is how we go about taking on a hundred scummy mercenaries after we do."

  "Oh?" Roger looked over the sergeant major's shoulder at the map. "What are you planning?"

  "Welll . . ." Kosutic drawled, and pointed at the map. "Your helmet imagery shows that there's a straight cliff at the entrance, right?"

  "It widens out further in," Roger said. "But, yes, the entrance is a narrow gorge, nearly fifty meters high. There's a stream that comes out through a metal grate at the base of the wall. It's probably what cut the gorge in the first place."

  "Yes, Sir," Gunny Lai said. "But if you get up on top of that plateau at the entrance, you can come around behind the wall and rappel right down on their heads."

  "Oh." The prince tugged at a flyaway strand of hair and frowned. "What about getting up the face in the first place?"

  "That we can do, Sir," Kosutic said. "But I want to know more about the scummies on the inside. What their pattern is, what sorts of guard posts they set—that sort of thing."

  "All right," Roger said. "But we've got some competitors in this. Let's not let them have an edge or tip our own hand. Send a team up to the plateau to check out the route, but tell them to stay low and keep their heads down."

  * * *

  "Kosutic and her great ideas," Julian said sourly.

  The windswept plateau was actively cold in the night wind, and the distant lights of the town didn't make him feel any better. If he and Poertena hadn't happened to hear about this job and pass the word to Roger, he could have been down there now, drinking on the prince's decicred.

  "Hey, I think we lucked out again, Sergeant," Gronningen said quietly.

  The big Asgardian was very good in the mountains. He moved like a mountain goat, just as surely and almost as silently. That was why Julian had included him on this little jaunt, and the NCO nodded in agreement with his observation as he took another look at the objective. The mercenaries weren't stupid, and they had guards on the wall against the possibility of a night attack. But they were very complacent, for there were no sentries actually patrolling the camp they'd established in the valley. Or maybe complacent wasn't exactly the right word for it, he conceded after a moment. No Mardukan raiding force could possibly have come after them through these temperature conditions, after all, even if it could have made the climb up the cliffs in the first place, which was questionable.

  "This is going to be a cakewalk," he whispered.

  "Something's bound to go wrong," the plasma gunner disagreed, getting up carefully to avoid sending a rock bouncing into the valley to give away their position.

  The two Marines moved back to the bivouac the team had established. It was an overcast, moonless night, and without the vision systems of their helmets, they would have been stumbling along blind. As it was, the faint reflection of the fires of Ran Tai was enough to give them near daylight vision.

  They rounded the small projection of stone that shielded their camp from view from the valley and squatted down by Macek. The private was heating a cup of soup with a resistance heater. Technically, that was a violation of doctrine, since they were supposed to be making a cold camp, but the resistance heater only radiated in infrared, and it wasn't like they had to worry about scummy scan teams picking it up.

  "That looks good," Julian observed as he flopped down on his open bivy tent.

  "Fix your own, then," the private suggested, and Gronningen chuckled and pulled out a piece of jerked capetoad. The meat from the animals had yielded several hundred kilos of jerky that some of the company relished.

  Julian generally found it awful, but he was hungry enough to pull out a piece of his own and start gnawing on it.

  "I can't believe that after all I've done for you, you begrudge me a little soup," he said in a whiny tone.

  "Yeah? Like dragging me up a mountain to alternately freeze and bake?" the private asked, then chuckled. "Hell, I was making it for all of us," he admitted. "It's not much, just a little jerky and a few leftover pieces of tater."

  "Sounds good," Gronningen said. "I'm ready to get off this hill, too," he admitted reluctantly. The Asgardian religion had some extremely stoic overtones.

  "Me, too," Julian assured him. "I'm ready for some of Matsugae's cooking." He sighed. "Or even some of the stuff in the town. It's not too bad, you know."

  "I want a bitok," Macek said. "That doesn't seem too much to ask."

  "Oh, man," Julian said, smacking his lips. "You would have to say that. I want one, too. About an eighth of a kilo. With cheese and onions."

  "Yah," Gronningen said, leaning back in his own bivy and masticating the shoe-leather jerky. "A bitok sounds good. Or my mutra's lutefisk." He sighed. "It's been a long time since I had my mutra's lutefisk."

  "What's lutefisk?" Julian asked as he took the cup out of Macek's hand and sipped.

  "Lutefisk?" The Asgardian frowned. "That is . . . hard to explain. It is a fish."

  "Yeah?" Macek took a chew of his own jerky. "What's so special about a fish?"

  The Asgardian thought for a moment about trying to explain the attraction of cod soaked in lye, then decided to give up.

  "It is a family thing, I think," he said, and retreated into his normal reticent shell after that while Julian and Macek wrangled quietly over the quality of different bitok joints in Imperial City. Eventually, they both agreed that the only thing to do was get back to Earth and go on a bar-crawl to compare them properly.

  They finished the soup, then divided up the watches and settled down for the night. One more day of alternately baking and frying on the plateau, and the company should be on its way.

  * * *

  Roger pulled himself over the lip of the plateau and stepped forward to let the next Marine up. The windy tabletop was beginning to fill up with the company, but the Marines stayed well away from the northern wall. One noisy, rolling rock could ruin the entire operation.

  Roger nodded to Kosutic as she walked up. The flattened view in the night vision systems worked hand in hand with the helmet's face shields to make everyone anonymous, but the helmet systems threw up little tags as people came into view. The tags were effectively invisible, once you got used to them, unless you consciously concentrated on seeing them, but they provided a way for the user to distinguish who was who.

  "How we doing, Sergeant Major?" the prince asked. He looked around as the last Marine hauled herself onto the plateau and checked his toot for the time. "I think we're a little
ahead of schedule."

  "That we are, Sir," the sergeant major replied. She glanced around and saw that the team leaders were getting their people into position. Everything was working out smoothly, exactly as planned.

  Which made her very, very nervous.


  "Ah, finally something that's working out," Julian said quietly.

  The two oversized squads which were all that remained of Bravo Company were lined up along the middle section of the gorge. The gorge snaked back from the entrance for nearly three hundred meters before opening into the mining area, where the majority of the barbarians were bivouacked, but the only guards were on the gates themselves. By landing between the barbarians' camp and the guards, the company could take the mercenaries by the throat . . . assuming everything worked as planned.

  "Remember," Roger said over the company frequency, "minimum violence. I want them taken down, and taken down hard, but no killing if possible."

  "But don't take unnecessary chances," Kosutic added.

  "Right," the prince agreed. "Okay, you all have your targets," he said, clipping his drop line into place. "Let's do it."

  The platoon dropped down into the darkness like the shadows of so many chameleon cloth-covered spiders. The drop clips automatically slowed them as they approached the nearly invisible bottom, then detached as their feet hit the ground. Then the shadows split up, one squad heading valley-ward while the other headed for the gates.

  * * *

  Roger moved through the sleeping encampment and wanted to laugh. The barbarians were pretty clearly a nomadic cavalry outfit, since the recon teams had confirmed that they had their women and children with them, but their picket lines were well up the valley. The civan that would have warned them of the humans' approach were well out of sight from the tactical squad.

  Julian and his team had determined which hut belonged to the leaders of the barbarians, and the prince had chosen it as his personal target. He hoped that if he took the leader, he could convince him to surrender. He'd been able to negotiate an agreement with Deb Tar and the city authorities of Ran Tai to let the barbarians go free if they surrendered, so he had that to bargain with. If the barbs wanted to fight, though, things could get messy. Whatever else these scummies might be, and however overconfident they might seem, they were also professional warriors, and unlike the Kranolta, they had firearms. As cavalry, they carried the big wheel lock pistol/carbines, not the heavier-caliber infantry arquebuses with their resin-coated slow matches. Developing reliable gunpowder and ignition systems for firearms on a planet with Marduk's predominately humid, one might almost say "saturated," climate must have been a nightmare. It had certainly required more ingenuity than had been the case back on Terra, and from what the humans had been able to discover so far, the several-times-a-day rains which were so much a part of the normal Mardukan weather experience were a major tactical factor in their use. Armies without arquebuses, or with fewer of them than their opponents, strove mightily to avoid battles under anything except rainy conditions, and no scummy in his right mind would have dreamed of building an army without plenty of old-fashioned, muscle-powered weaponry in reserve.

  For himself, Roger suspected that he would never have bothered to try to overcome the all but insuperable difficulties involved with the use of loose-powder, muzzle-loading weapons on a planet like Marduk. But the locals had managed it, and he had no desire at all to see what a two-centimeter pistol ball would do to one of his people, so if it did come to a fight, he was determined that the company would have the upper hand from the start. That was why Aburia's team was busy planting explosives throughout the camp; if the barbarians didn't surrender, the plan was to back off and blow them in place.

  Roger and his team froze as a figure stepped out of one of the huts. The small buildings of the mining facility were made of rock rubble from the mine shafts, but their doors were nothing more than hide flaps, and the Mardukan's exit had been silent. One moment, the street was empty—the next the scummy was in clear view. Despite the darkness, they would be spotted in an instant if he looked around, and the entire plan would be blown.

  The barbarian scratched at a dried patch on his arm and snarled. Then he relieved himself on the side of the hut, and went back in.

  Roger breathed a silent sigh of relief and continued onward. He detoured slightly to get away from the restless barbarian's hut and cut between two of the rough buildings.

  His team ended up behind the hut of the mercenary leader and crept around to its front. Roger consulted his helmet systems and looked around. Aburia's team was nearly done placing their explosives, but not quite, so he held in place to give them a bit more time. The squad headed for the gates was already in position and hadn't been spotted as they set up for an ambush. Their only job was to make sure that the Mardukans at the gates didn't come to the aid of their compatriots when Roger's squad hit the main encampment. If the plan went off without a hitch, their presence would never even be noticed.

  Roger consulted the demo schematic and his toot clock again. The charges were emplaced, and Aburia had pulled her team back to provide cover if the entry team needed it. And if that wasn't enough, Roger had a hole card.

  He'd lost out on the argument over who went through the door first. Actually, it would have been fairer to say that there'd never been anything which might properly have been called an "argument" in the first place. Pahner might have delegated field command to "Captain Sergei," but there were definite limits to the freedom Roger was permitted in the risk-taking department, and so he waved Julian forward, instead.

  The squad leader smiled and waved in turn to Gronningen, who stepped forward quietly and pushed the flap aside. Julian followed him through, and Roger entered behind the NCO. The hut was larger than most, and had a few appointments, including a writing desk, but it was still basically a hovel. Roger shook his head and stepped over to the still-sleeping scummy leader as the team fanned out to cover the other scummies in the room. Two of them were women, but the humans were taking no chances and made certain that all of the Mardukans were covered.

  Once they were, Roger bent until his helmet was pointed at the barbarian's face, and triggered the helmet light.

  * * *

  Rastar Komas Ta'Norton of the Vasin, Prince of Therdan, stared up into the light, and all four hands filled with the knives that were his trademark. But he'd hardly moved when he encountered the hard shape of what could only be a gun barrel pressing into his chest. He wasn't sure, because the light in his eyes was the brightest he'd ever seen in his life, but it was unlikely to be anything else.

  "Do you want to live?" a disembodied and very peculiar-sounding voice asked from beyond the light. "Or do you want to die, and have your entire tribe die with you?"

  "What's the difference?" Rastar snarled. "You'll kill us all anyway. Or make us slaves. Kill us now. At least that's freedom, of a sort."

  "Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than mountains," the voice, which sounded like no Mardukan Rastar had ever heard, said. "Yet we take up the burden of duty, do we not? I have been given permission to spare you and your tribe if you surrender and leave. You may even retain your weapons. You simply have to pack up and go, taking with you nothing but what you arrived with. If you are in the Vale of Ran Tai at sunset of this day, your lives are forfeit. Your call."

  Rastar considered the knives. He was certain he could kill this one, but there were other lights, other guns, and he couldn't kill his women, his tribe. It was the last duty he had, and he could not drop it, even when death beckoned so seductively.

  "We keep our weapons?" he asked suspiciously.

  "Yes," said the voice. "However, if you try to double-cross us, we'll be forced to kill you all."

  "No." The chieftain sighed and put his knives on the floor. "No, we won't double-cross you. Have this foul valley, and more power to you."

  * * *

  Things were still going too smoothly.

watched the Vasin filing out of their huts and gathering in the central square. He had his own squad moving about in an intricate, flowing pattern that gave the impression he had forces everywhere, when the barbarians actually outnumbered him by three to one, in hopes of keeping things smooth. In fact, the mercenaries outnumbered the force that he had in the camp itself by nearly ten to one, and he congratulated himself, in a modest sort of way, on how well the op had gone down.

  Of course, he admitted, it had nearly gone the other way. Roger had been terrified by the speed with which the Mardukan had reacted—those knives had seemed to teleport into the chieftain's hands, and he'd had them out and ready before Roger could even blink. If the Mardukan had decided to start the ball, the Empire would have been short one fortunately disposable prince. It had been a sobering experience.

  The Vasin's equipment was much better made and finished than Roger had expected, but their nomad background was obvious, for they were packed before Roger had imagined they could even get started. Their civan were lined up to leave in less than ten minutes, and Roger approached the chief, Rastar, and nodded.

  "It's better this way," he said.

  "I hope you won't mind, but if we actually get out of this valley alive, we're planning on being out of the Vale before dawn," the Mardukan told him with a grunt of laughter.

  "Not at all," Roger said. "You're not terribly popular. Just one question," he added. The Marines had watched the packing with an eagle eye, and he knew the Mardukans hadn't packed any large amounts of gold and silver. "Where's the shipment?"

  "Your guess is as good as mine, basik," the chieftain told him. "They keep talking about their 'shipment,' but we've never understood why. There's no large store of metals here." The chief gestured to a heavily built stone shack near a worked-out, abandoned mine shaft. "That's the storehouse. It was empty when we arrived."

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