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"Man, I want my bead rifle back!" Julian muttered as his round plunked into the water, well clear of the floating target.

He and Roger stood side by side at Ima Hooker's rail, between two of her starboard carronades. They'd just watched Rastar's team run through its own training on the schooner's main deck, and the experience had been fairly . . . ominous. They were due to have their "close contact" contest with the Mardukans the next morning, and it didn't look like it was going to be a walkover, even with Roger on point. The Vashin cavalry and selected Diaspran infantry who were going to act as the notional "guards" on key defenses of the spaceport would be graded as having light body armor. And since all the Vashin carried at least three weapons, it was going to be interesting.

"You're just jealous," Roger retorted as the floating barrel Julian had missed shattered from his own shot. "And it pains your professional ego to be shooting a 'smoke pole,' " he added with a grin.

The new rifles had been produced just in time for the battles around Sindi, and with their availability, the Marines had, for all practical purposes, put away their bead rifles until they reached the starport. The weapons had been designed using Roger's eleven-millimeter magnum Parkins and Spencer as a model, but modified in light of available technology.

The Parkins and Spencer's dual bolt-action/semi-automatic system had been impossible to duplicate, but the base for the bolt form was a modification of the ancient Ruger action, and that worked just fine. With the addition of scavenged battery packs from downchecked plasma rifles and various items of gear dead Marines no longer required, the electronic firing system built into the Parkins' cartridge cases also worked just fine. And since the prince had doggedly insisted on policing up his shooting stands whenever possible and dragging along the empty cases, there was sufficient brass to provide over two hundred almost infinitely reloadable rounds for each of the surviving Marines.

The black powder which was the most advanced form of explosives available on Marduk had made for a few compromises. One was that the rifles' slower-velocity bullets simply could not match the flat trajectory of a hypervelocity bead, which meant that at any sort of range, the barrel had to be elevated far beyond what any of the Marines were comfortable with. Which also explained why so many of their rounds tended to fall short.

"You can throw a rock faster than these bullets go," Despreaux growled from Roger's other side. "I still say that guncotton I made would have worked—and given us a hell of a lot better velocity, too!"

"Overpressure," Roger commented with a shake of his head. "And it was unstable as hell."

"I was working on it!" she snapped.

"Sure you were . . . and you're lucky you're not regrowing a set of fingers," Julian told her with another chuckle as he fired again. This time the round was on range for the second barrel, but off to the left. "Damn."

"Windage," Roger said laconically as he shattered that barrel, as well.

"Sight!" Julian snapped.

"Care to trade?" the prince offered with a smile.

"No," the Marine replied promptly, and glowered at Despreaux when she snickered.

While a good bit of it was the sight, most of it—as Julian knew perfectly well—was the sighter.

"Seriously," Roger said, gesturing for Julian's rifle. "I'd like to try. I turn the sight off from time to time, but it's not the same. And what happens if I lose it?"

Julian shook his head and traded rifles.

"It's going to be a bit tough to zero," he warned.

"Not really." The prince looked the rifle over. He'd checked them out when the first of them came off the assembly line, even fired a few rounds through one of them. But that had been months ago, and he took the time to refamiliarize himself with the weapon. Especially with the differences between it and his own Parkins.

Dell Mir, the K'Vaernian inventor who'd designed the detailed modifications, had done a good job. The weapons were virtually identical, with the exception of removing the optional gas-blowback reloading system—which Roger had to disengage anyway, when he used black-powder rounds in the Parkins—and the actual materials from which it was constructed.

It was fortunate that while the Mardukans' materials science was still in the dark ages, their machining ability was fairly advanced, thanks to their planet's weather. Whereas industrial technology had been driven, to a great extent, by advances in weaponry on Earth—and Althar, for that matter—the development of machining on Marduk had been necessitated by something else entirely: water. It rained five to ten times a day on this planet, and the development of any sort of civilization with that much rain had required advanced pumping technology. It was a bit difficult to drain fields with simple waterwheel pumps in the face of four or five meters of rain a year.

Production of the best pumps, the fastest and most efficient ones—and the ones capable of lifting water the "highest"—required fine machine tolerances and resistant metals. Thus, the Mardukans had early on developed both the machine lathe and drill press, albeit animal driven, as well as machine steel and various alloys of bronze and brass that were far in advance of those found at similar general tech levels in most societies.

But because they'd never developed electricity, there was no stainless steel, and no electroplating, so the rifle was made out of a strong, medium-carbon steel that was anything but rust-proof. And the stock, instead of a light-weight, boron-carbon polymer like the Parkins and Spencer's, was of shaped wood.

The weapon's ammunition was slightly different, as well. The cases were the same ones Roger had started with—as long as his hand, and thicker than his thumb, necking downward about fifteen percent to a bullet that was only about as thick as his second finger. The major changes were in the propellant and the bullet.

Roger's rifle used an electronic firing system that activated the center-point primer plug, and in the one operation that had been handled almost entirely by the Marines, Julian and Poertena had installed firing systems in each of the rifles created from spare parts for their armor, downchecked plasma rifles, and odd items of personal gear that hadn't been used up on the trek. Each of the weapons had the same basic design, although each had a few different parts. Mostly, though, it used parts from the plasma rifles, including the faulty capacitors which had made the off-world weapons unsafe to use. There was no problem using them for this application, since the energy being temporarily stored was far below that necessary to cause the spectacular—and lethal—detonations that had forced the weapons' retirement.

Julian had recommended, effectively, scrapping all of the plasma rifles and using their stocks for the base of as many of the black-powder rifles as possible, but Captain Pahner had nixed the idea. There hadn't been enough of the plasma rifles to provide all the black-powder weapons the company was going to require, so the majority of them would still have had to be made from native materials. Besides, he was still debating whether or not Julian and Poertena might be able to come up with a "fix" good enough to use the energy weapons for just one more battle. Given the probable difficulty of taking the starport, the plasma rifles might be the difference between success and failure, and he'd been unwilling to completely foreclose the possibility of using them.

The propellant in Roger's original rounds had been an advanced smokeless powder. From the perspective of the Marines with their electromagnetic bead rifles, long-range grenade launchers, and plasma rifles, that propellant had been a laughable antique. Something dating back to the days when humans were still using steam to make electricity. But that same propellant was far, far out of reach of the Mardukans' tech base, so Dell Mir and the Marines had accepted that black powder was the only effective choice for a propellant.

Black powder, however, had its own peculiar quirks. One, which was painfully evident whenever someone squeezed a trigger, was the dense cloud of particularly foul-smelling smoke it emitted. Another was the truly amazing ability of black powder to foul a weapon with caked residue, and that residue's resistance to most of the Marines's cleaning solvents. Old-fashioned soap and water actually worked best, but the Bronze Barbarians' sensibilities were offended when they found themselves up to their elbows in hot, soapy water scrubbing away at their weapons with brushes and plenty of elbow grease.

But the biggest functional difference between black powder-loaded rounds and the ones Roger had brought out from Old Earth with him was that black powder exploded. More modern propellants burned—very rapidly, to be sure, but in what was a much more gradual process, relatively speaking, than black powder's . . . enthusiastic detonation. While nitro powders might well produce a higher absolute breech pressure, they did it over a longer period of time. For the same breech pressure, black powder "spiked" much more abruptly, which imposed a resultant strain on the breech and barrel of the weapon.

Not to mention a particularly nasty and heavy recoil.

Fortunately, the old axiom about getting what you paid for still held true, and the Parkins and Spencer was a very expensive weapon, indeed. Part of what Roger had gotten for its astronomical purchase price was a weapon which was virtually indestructible, which was a not insignificant consideration out in the bush where he tended to do most of his hunting. Another part, however, was the basic ammunition design itself. The Parkins' designers had assumed that situations might arise in which the owner of one of their weapons would find himself cut off from his normal sources of supply and be forced to adopt field expedients (if not quite so primitive as those which had been enforced upon the Marines here on Marduk) to reload their ammo. So the cases themselves had been designed to contain pressures which would have blown the breech right out of most prespace human firearms. And they had sufficient internal capacity for black-powder loads of near shoulder-breaking power.

In fact, the power and muzzle velocity of the reloaded rounds, while still far short of what Roger's off-world ammunition would have produced with its initial propellant, had been sufficient to create yet another problem.

The rounds Roger had started out with had jacketed bullets—old-fashioned lead, covered in a thin metal "cladding" that intentionally left the slug's lead tip exposed. On impact, the soft lead core mushroomed to more than half-again its original size and the cladding stripped back into a six-pronged, expanding slug. The main reason the cladding was necessary, however, was because the velocity of the round would have "melted" a plain lead bullet on its way up the barrel, coating the barrel and rifling in lead. Modern chemical-powered small arms ammunition was manufactured using techniques which were a direct linear descendent of technology which had been available since time immemorial: copper or some other alloy was added to the outside of lead bullets by a form of electroplating. But Mardukans didn't have electroplating, and it was a technology there'd been no time to "reinvent," so the humans had been forced to make do.

There'd been three potential ways to solve the problem. The first had been to reduce the velocity of the rounds to a point where they wouldn't lead the barrel, but that would have resulted in a reduction in both range and accuracy. The second choice had been to try to develop a stronger alloy to replace the lead, but since that wasn't something the Mardukans had ever experimented with, it would once again have required "reinventing" a technology. Finally, they'd settled on the third option: casting thin copper jackets for the rounds and then compressing the lead into them. There was an issue with contraction of the copper, but the compression injection—another technique garnered from pump technology—took care of that.

So the rounds were copper jacketed—"full-metal jacketed," as it was called. They weren't quite as "perfect" as Roger's original ammunition, of course. Every so often one of the bullets was unbalanced, and would go drifting off on its own course after departing the muzzle. But however imperfect they might have been by Imperial standards, they were orders of magnitude better than anything the Mardukans had ever had.

Now Roger cycled the bolt and popped up the ladder sight. The sight—a simple, flip-up frame supporting an elevating aperture rear sight and graduated for "click" range adjustment using a thumbwheel—was necessary for any accurate really long-range work. Elevating the rear sight forced the marksman to elevate the front sight, as well, in order to line them up, thus compensating for the projectile drop. It was another contraption the humans and Mardukans had sweated over, but once the design was perfected (and matched to the rounds' actual ballistic performance), the Mardukans had had no problem producing it.

But the sights weren't exactly a one-size-fits-all proposition, because everyone shot slightly differently, if only because everyone was at least slightly different in size, and thus "fitted" their weapons differently. As a result, the sights of any given rifle were "zeroed" for the individual to whom it belonged, which meant this rifle was zeroed for Julian, not Roger. Given that the range was about two hundred meters, the bullet could actually miss by up to a meter even if Roger's aim was perfect according to Julian's sight. But there was only one way to find out how bad it really was, so Roger calculated the wind, let out a breath, and squeezed the trigger.

The recoil was enough to make even him grunt, but he'd expected that, and he gazed intently downrange. Although the rounds were comparatively slow, they weren't so slow that he could actually watch them in flight. But the surface of the ocean swell was sufficiently smooth for the brief splash—to the left, and over by about half a meter—to be clearly visible.

"Told you it was the sight," Julian said with a slight snicker.

"Bet you a civan he makes the next one," Despreaux countered.

"As long as you're referring to the coin and not the animal, you're on," Julian replied. "Crosswind, rolling ship, bobbing barrel, and an unzeroed rifle. Two hundred meters. No damned way."

"You make a habit of underestimating the prince," Cord observed. Roger's asi had been standing behind Roger, leaning on his huge, lethal spear while he silently watched the children play with their newfangled toys. "You don't tend to underestimate enemies twice, I've noticed," the shaman continued, "which is good. But why is it that you persist in doing so where 'friendlies' are concerned?"

Julian glanced up at the towering native—the representative of what was little better than a hunter-gatherer society, who was undoubtedly the best-read and probably best educated Mardukan in the entire expedition. As always, his facial expression was almost nonexistent, but his amusement showed clearly in his body language, and Julian stuck out his tongue at him.

"That was my zero shot," Roger announced, ignoring the exchange between the Marine armorer and his asi. Then he put the rifle back to shoulder and punched out another round.

This time, the barrel was smashed.

Julian gazed at the bobbing wreckage for a moment, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin sheet of brass, which he handed over to Despreaux.

"I give."

Despreaux smiled and pocketed the brass, a K'Vaernian coin equal to a week's pay for a rifleman.

"It was a sucker bet, Adib. Have you ever won a shooting contest with Roger?"

"No," Julian admitted as Roger hefted the rifle once again. There were four more barrels scattered across the surface of the ocean, each floating amid its own cluster of white splashes as the Marines lining the schooner's side potted at them.

Roger lined up a shot at the most distant barrel, then shook his head when the round plunked into the sea well short.

"I'll admit that the scope does help," he confessed as he chambered another round. He brought the rifle back into firing position, but before he could squeeze the trigger, a shot rang out from the foredeck. Three more followed in rapid succession, and each bullet struck and shattered a barrel in turn.

Roger lowered Julian's rifle and looked forward as Captain Pahner lowered his own rifle and blew the gunsmoke out of the breech.

"I guess the captain wanted me to be sure who was king," the prince said with a smile.

"Well, Your Highness," Julian told him with a shrug, "when you've been doing this for fifty more years, you might be at the captain's level."

"Agreed, Julian," Roger said, leaning on the bronze carronade beside him. "I wonder if we'd have survived to this point with any old Bronze Battalion commander along. Captain Grades seemed—I don't know, 'okay.' But not at Pahner's level. Or am I wrong?"

"You're not," Despreaux said. "Pahner was a shoo-in for Gold Battalion. Hanging out at each level on the way there was just a formality."

"I thought he was going back to Fleet." Roger frowned.

"So did he," the sergeant replied. "I doubt it would've happened, though. Somebody was going to tell him to go on to Steel, and then to Silver. Most of the officers in those battalions didn't 'choose' to be there, you know."

"This is weird." Roger shook his head. "I thought the Regiment was voluntary."

"Oh, it is," Despreaux told him with a wink. " 'Captain Pahner, you just volunteered to take Alpha Steel. Congratulations on your new command.' "

"So does Pahner know this?"

"Probably not," Julian said. "Or, if he does, he's trying to ignore it. Even with rejuv, he's getting a bit long in the tooth to be a line commander. And he doesn't want to go higher. So he wants one last Fleet command before he retires. For him, Steel or even Gold would be a consolation prize."

Roger nodded with an understanding he could never have attained before marching halfway around the circumference of Hell with Pahner at his side. Then he chuckled softly.

"You know, when we get back Mother is going to owe me one huge favor. I'd thought about asking for a planetary dukedom as an alternative to hanging out at Imperial City, but maybe there's something else I should throw into the pot with it. Seems to me that if the captain wants a Fleet command, a 'friend at court' couldn't hurt his chances!"

"I'd guess not," Julian agreed with a grin, then cocked his head at the prince. "I'm glad to hear you're thinking beyond the end of the journey, Your Highness. But why a dukedom?"

"Because I want to be something more than the black sheep," Roger said with a much thinner smile. "Of course, you haven't asked me which planet I want."

"Oh, no!" Despreaux shook her head. "You've got to be joking!"

"Marduk has all of the requirements for a successful and productive Imperial Membership planet," Roger replied. "The fact that it's held directly in the Family's name would make it a lot simpler for Mother to designate it as such, and the Mardukans are fine people. They deserve a better life than that of medieval peons. And if one Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock shepherds them from barbarism to civilization over five or ten decades, then that prince is going to be remembered for something more than being an unfortunate by-blow of the Empress."

"But . . ." Despreaux stopped and looked around at the ocean. "You want to raise kids on this planet? Our children?"

"Right, well, I'll just be going," Julian said as he stepped back. "Remember, no hitting, Nimashet. And no removing any limbs or vital organs."

"Oh, shut up, Adib," the sergeant said sharply. "And you don't have to leave. It's not like Roger's plans are any huge secret."

"Our plans," the prince corrected mildly. "And, yes, I think this would make a fine dukedom. Among other things, it would get you away from Imperial City's biddies—male and female, alike. I don't think they'll be able to handle having me marry one of my bodyguards as opposed to, say, one of their own well-trained, highly-qualified, and exquisitely-bred daughters. None of whom would have lasted ten minutes on Marduk. Princess of the Empire or not, some of those dragons will make your life Hell, given half a chance, and to be perfectly honest, neither you nor I really have the skills to respond in an appropriate—and nonlethal—fashion." He flashed her a wicked smile.

"And if you think I'm going to set up shop at K'Vaern's Cove or Q'Nkok, you're crazy," he went on. "I was thinking of the Ran Tai valley, frankly."

"Hmmm." Despreaux's expression was suddenly much more thoughtful. The valley was four thousand meters above the steamy Mardukan lowlands, and actually got chilly at night. It wasn't subject to the continuous rain of the jungles, either. All in all, it was a rather idyllic spot for humans. Which meant it was hell for Mardukans, of course.

" 'Hmmm,' indeed," Julian said. "But you're assuming the Empress doesn't have some other task perfectly suited to you. She probably has a half dozen things she would've liked to throw your way if she'd trusted you before we left. Frankly, letting you 'languish in a backwater' is probably going to be at the bottom of her list."

"I may not give Mother the choice," Roger said darkly. "Frankly, I don't give a damn about Mother's needs at this point. My days of caring what Mother thinks ended in Marshad."

"She's your Empress, just as she is mine, Roger," Despreaux said. "And it's your Empire, just as it is mine. And our children's."

"One of these days, I will stop having to say this . . ." Cord began with a gesture that was the Mardukan equivalent of a resigned sigh.

"I know, I know," Roger answered. " 'I was born to duty.' I got it the first time."

"And it's a big cruel universe out there, Your Highness," Julian said with unwonted seriousness. "If you think the Boman and Kranolta were bad, you need to pay a little more attention to the Saints. There's not much worse than a 'civilized' society that considers human beings expendable. 'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.' They live that philosophy. Also, 'The only problem with biospheres is that they occasionally develop sophonts.' I mean, these people aren't just into human extinction; they want to get rid of the Phaenurs and the Mardukans and the Althari, too. All sophonts. Except, of course, the best of the 'enlightened' Saint leadership, who—unlike any other enviro-destructive tool-using species—are capable of 'handling' the management of planets. Amazing how they think our pissant population growth rate is so bad when their Archon has six kids and nearly fifty grandkids."

"Okay, okay," Roger said. "I get the point. If Mother has something worthwhile she wants me to do, I'll do it. Okay?"

"Okay," Despreaux agreed. "Of course, that assumes we live to get off this mudball. But so far nothing's been able to stop our Rog," she added with a smile.

"Sail ho!" the Mardukan at the fore topmast crosstrees called suddenly. "Sail on the starboard bow, fine!" After a moment he leaned down and shouted again. "Looks like some more behind it!"

"And where there are sails, there are cities and trade," Julian observed.

"And where there's trade, there are pirates," Despreaux added. "And multiple sails means either a convoy, or . . ."

* * *

"Pirates," Roger said. The platform at the foremast crosstrees was crowded with four humans, D'Nal Cord, and Captain T'Sool. Fortunately, the Mardukan lookout had remained at his post at the fore topmast crosstrees, twelve meters above them. His greater height above sea level gave him a marginally better view, but the humans could see the oncoming sails themselves, and everyone who could had climbed the ratlines for a better look.

"Why pirates?" Pahner asked.

"The ship in the lead is carrying too much canvas for conditions," the prince replied. "They're running with the wind, but the breeze has been steadily increasing all afternoon. Between seeing another ship coming towards them—and I assume they've spotted us—and the increasing breeze, not to mention the way it's clouding up for a storm, she should have reduced sail by now. And she hasn't. So whatever she's sailing away from is more dangerous than risking a cracked mast or even capsizing."

The Marine glanced speculatively at the prince. Roger was still gazing out at the approaching ships, but he seemed to feel the weight of Pahner's eyes, and turned to meet them.

"So what's our call?" he asked the captain.

Pahner returned his own attention to the unknown ships and dialed the magnification back up on his helmet systems as he pondered that. The safe bet was simply to avoid the entire situation. There was no upside to an engagement . . . except that they had almost no information about the continent towards which they were traveling.

If Roger's analysis was correct, and if they were able to make contact with the ship being pursued, it might be to their benefit. There appeared to be six of the—probable—pirate ships. Each was similar to an ancient cog, but with a pair of masts, not just one. Each mast carried only a single square sail, however, and their deep, rounded, high-sided hulls had clumsy-looking, castlelike foredeck citadels which undoubtedly mounted some of Marduk's massive, unwieldy bombards. They were scarcely the sleekest ships he'd ever seen, and he wondered why pirates, if that was what they were, didn't have ships a tad faster.

"What's an alternative to pirates?" he asked.

"Is this a trick question, Captain?" Kosutic inquired.

"I don't think so," Roger said. "I think his point is that if they are pirates, all well and good. If we blow the crap out of them, we establish our bona fides with the local powers that be. But if they're not pirates, announcing our intentions with a broadside might be a Very Bad Idea. We have to make peaceful and, hopefully, smooth contact with the local government. So what if they're harmless merchant ships which are supposed to be sailing in company, and the lead ship just has a lousy captain who's gotten too far ahead of the rest? In that case, blowing them away without a warning would not be a good way to make 'smooth' contact."

"Exactly," Pahner said. "So what are the other possibilities?"

"The boat in the lead could be a smuggler," Kosutic suggested. "Or something along those lines. And the ones behind could be revenue cutters. Well, revenue boats. Revenue tubs."

"And it could be even more complex than that," Roger pointed out. "They could be operating under letters of marque or some equivalent. So the ones in back could be both pirates and representatives of a government we need to contact. And if that's the case, asking the lead ship won't tell us so."

"All right," Pahner said with a nod. "We'll tack to intercept the group. We will not fire until fired upon. Get a helmet system for Ms. O'Casey so she can use the amplifiers for communication. We'll move alongside or send off a boarding party to make contact. If we take fire from either group, we'll respond with a single broadside. That should make the situation clear. If they continue to press it, we sink 'em."

"And if they are 'official' pirates?" Roger asked.

"We'll deal with that as we have to," Pahner answered. "We need intel on this continent . . . but we also need to live to use it."



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