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Sergeant Adib Julian, Third Platoon, Bravo Company of The Empress' Own, opened his eyes, looked around the inside of his cramped, one-man bivy tent, and frowned sleepily. Something was different, but he couldn't tell what. Whatever it was, it hadn't twanged his finely honed survival instincts, which at least suggested that no thundering hordes of Mardukan barbarians were likely to come charging through the sealed flaps at him, but that sense of change lingered. It poked at him, prodding him up out of the depths of slumber, and he checked his toot. The implanted computer told him that it wasn't quite dawn, and he yawned. There was still time to sleep, so he rolled over, pushing aside a pebble in the dirt, and shivered in the cold . . .
His eyes snapped wide, and he unsealed the tent opening and popped out into the predawn light like a Terran prairie dog.
"It's cold!" he shouted in glee.
Bravo Company had been marching uphill for the last several days. They had long since passed out of the valleys around the Hadur River, and the city-state of Marshad lay far behind them. In fact, they were beyond any of the surrounding cities that had the dubious pleasure of lying on the borders of the late, unlamented King Radj Hoomas' territory.
They'd made better time than they'd anticipated, yet despite the rigorous pace and steadily increasing upward slopes they faced, they had enjoyed a period of remarkable respite. Between the sale of the captured weapons gathered in Voitan, the remnant funds from Q'Nkok, and the lavish gifts T'Leen Sul and the new Council of Marshad had bestowed upon them, they had been able to purchase all their needs along the way.
In many cases, that had been unnecessary. Several towns had hosted them like visiting dignitaries . . . for more than one reason. The towns had been fearful of Radj Hoomas' ambition and avarice, and were delighted to do anything they could for the aliens who had put an end to them. They'd also been fascinated by the off-world visitors . . . and, in many cases, they'd wanted to get them out of town as quickly as possible.
The trader network in the Hadur had spread accounts of the destruction of the entire dreaded Kranolta barbarian federation at Voitan, the battle at Pasule, and the Marshad coup far and wide, and the message encapsulated in all the stories was clear. The humans were not to be molested. The few times they'd run into resistanceonce from a group of particularly stupid banditsthey had successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of classical Roman short-sword-and-shield combat techniques against charging Mardukans without ever being forced to resort to bead rifles or plasma cannon. But thanks to the stories which had run before them, any potentially ill-intentioned locals had known that those terrifying off-world weapons lurked in reserve . . . and had no desire at all to see them any more closely than that.
The Bronze Barbarians of The Empress' Own, veterans all, were well aware of the advantages inherent in a fearsome reputation. This one had come with a higher price tag than they had ever wanted to pay, but it also meant that they'd been able to travel for several weeks with virtually no incidents. That happy state of affairs had given them time to lick their wounds and get ready for the next hurdle: the mountains.
Julian had been off guard duty the night before, but Nimashet Despreaux had had the last shift. Now, as he stood grinning hugely into the semi-dark, she smiled at him while groans sounded across the camp. The female sergeant bent over the fire, picked something up, and walked over to where he was dancing in delight.
"Hot coffee?" she offered, extending the cup with a grin. The company had practically given up the beverage; it was just too hot on Marduk in the morning.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," the NCO chortled. He took the cup and sipped the brew. "God, that tastes awful. I love it."
"It's bloody freezing," Corporal Kane grumped.
"How cold is it?" Julian asked, diving back into his bivy tent for his helmet.
"Twenty-three degrees," Despreaux told him with a fresh smile.
"Twenty-three?" Gronningen asked, furrowing his brow as he sniffed the cool air. "What's that in Fahrenheit?"
"Twenty-three!" Julian laughed. "Shit! I'd set my air-conditioning to twenty-three!"
"Something like seventy-three or seventy-four Fahrenheit," Despreaux said with a laugh of her own.
"This feels much colder," the big Asgardian said stoically. If he was cold, it wasn't showing. "Not cold, but a bit chilly."
"We've been out in over a forty-degree heat for the last two months," the squad leader pointed out. "That tends to adjust your perspective."
"Uh-oh," Julian said, looking around. "I wonder how the scummies are handling this?
"What's wrong with him, Doc?" Prince Roger had awoken, shivering, to find Cord seated cross-legged in the tent, still and motionless. Repeated attempts to get the six-limbed, grizzly bear-sized Mardukan shaman to wake up had resulted only in slow groans.
"He's cold, Sir." The medic shook his head. "Really cold." Warrant Dobrescu pulled the monitor back from the Mardukan and shook his head again, his expression worried. "I need to go check the mahouts. If Cord is in this bad a shape, they're going to be worse. Their cover isn't as good."
"Is he going to be okay?" the anxious prince asked.
"I don't know. I suspect that he's probably sort of hibernating, but it's possible that if they get too cold something will shut down and kill them." Dobrescu took another breath and shook his head. "I've been meaning to do a really thorough study of Mardukan body chemistry and physiology. It looks like I waited a bit too long."
"Well, we need" the prince began, only to break off at the sound of shouting from outside the tent. "Now what the hell is that?"
"Modderpockers, let me go!" Poertena shouted. He snarled at the laughing Marines who were crawling out of their one-person tents to sniff at the morning air. "Gimme a pocking hand, damn it!"
"Okay, everybody," St. John (J.) said, slowly clapping. "Let's give him a hand."
"Now that," Roger said, "is a truly disgusting menage a . . . uh . . ."
"Menage a cinq is the term you're looking for," Doc Dobrescu said, laughing as he walked over to the pinned armorer and the four comatose Mardukans wrapped tightly about his diminutive form.
Roger shook his head and chuckled, but he also waved to the Marines.
"Some of you guys, help the Doc."
St. John (J.) grabbed one of Denat's inert arms and started trying to disengage it from the armorer.
"This really is gross, Poertena," the Marine said as he tried to pull one of the slime-covered arms off the armorer.
"You pocking telling me? I wake up, and it not'ing but arms and slime!"
Roger began to haul on Tratan as the Mardukan groaned and resisted the pulling Marines.
"They seem to like you, Poertena."
"Well," the armorer's response sounded mildly strangled, "they tryin' to kill me now! Leggo!"
"They like his heat," the warrant officer grunted as he helped Roger heave, then said something unprintable under his breath and gave up. The united efforts of three Marines had so far been unable to get Denat to release his grip, and the bear hug actually did threaten to kill the armorer. "Somebody build a fire. Maybe if we warm them up, they'll let go."
"And somebody help me get Cord," Roger said, then thought about the weight of the Mardukan. "Several somebodies." He looked over to the picket lines where the mahouts made their camp. "Did anybody notice that the packbeasts are missing?" he asked, bemusedly.
"We passed through a cold front," the medic said, shaking his head. "Or what passes for one on this screwy planet."
Captain Pahner had called a council of war to consider the night's events. The group sat near the edge of the camp, looking down on the forest of clouds that stretched into the distance from their foothills perch. Above them, the true mountains loomed trackless.
"What cold front?" Julian asked. "I didn't see any cold front."
"You remember that rain we had yesterday afternoon?" Dobrescu asked.
"Sure, but it rains all the time here," the NCO replied skeptically.
"But that one went on for a long time," Roger noted. "Usually, they just sort of hit in short spurts. That one rained, and rained, and rained."
"Right." The medic nodded. "And today, the air pressure is a few points higher than yesterday. Not muchthis planet doesn't have much in the way of a weather systembut enough. Anyway, the cloud layer got suppressed," he gestured to the clouds, "the humidity fell, and the temperature . . ."
"Dropped like a rock," Pahner said. "We got that part. Can the locals handle it?"
The medic sighed and shrugged.
"That I don't know. Most terrestrial isothermic and posithermic creatures can survive to just above freezing temperatures as long as they don't stay that way too long. However, that's terrestrial." He shrugged again. "With Mardukans, Captain, your guess is probably as good as mine. I'm a doc, not an exobiologist."
He looked around at the camp, and especially at the flar-ta.
"The packbeasts, now, they seem to be better adapted. They burrowed underground last night on first watch and stayed there till things warmed back up. And their skin is different from the Mardukans', scaled and dry where the Mardukans' is smooth and mucous-coated. So I think the packbeasts can make it, if we stay below the freezing line. But I don't know about the locals," he finished unhappily, gesturing at Cord and the lead mahout.
They had been speaking in the dialect of Q'Nkok so that the two Mardukan representatives could follow the conversation. Now Cord clapped his hands and leaned forward.
"I can withstand the conditions of last night with dinshon exercises. However," he waved a true-hand at D'Len Pah, "the mahouts are not trained in them. Nor are any of my nephews, except Denat, and he poorly. Also," he pointed to patches on his skin, "it is terribly dry up here. And it will only get worse, from what Shaman Dobrescu says."
"So," said Pahner. "We have a problem."
"Yes," D'Len Pah said. The old mahout looked terrible in the light of midmorning. Part of that was the same dry patches that affected Cord, but the greater part was bitter shame. "We cannot do this much longer, Lord Pahner, Prince Roger. This is a terrible, terrible place. There is no air to breathe. The wind is as dry as sand. The cold is fierce and terrible." He looked up from the scratches he'd been making on the ground with his mahout stick. "We . . . cannot go any farther."
Pahner looked over at Roger and cleared his throat.
"D'Len Pah, we must cross these mountains. We must reach the far coast, or we will surely die. And we cannot leave our gear." He looked up at the towering peaks. "Nor can we carry it over the mountains without the flar-ta. It's not like we can call Harendra Mukerji for a resupply."
The lead mahout looked around nervously. "Lord Pahner . . ."
"Calmly, D'Len," Roger said. "Calmly. We won't take them from you. We aren't brigands."
"I know that, Prince Roger." The mahout clapped his hands in agreement. "But . . . it is a fearsome thing."
"We could . . ." Despreaux started to say, then stopped. With the loss of most of the senior NCOs, she was being groomed for the Third Platoon platoon sergeant's position. This was the first time she'd been included in one of the staff meetings, so she was nervous about making her suggestion.
"Go ahead," Eleanora O'Casey said with a nod, and the sergeant gave the prince's chief of staff a brief glance of thanks.
"Well . . . we could . . ." She stopped again and turned to D'Len Pah. "Could we buy the packbeasts from you?" She looked at Captain Pahner, whose face had tightened at the suggestion and shrugged. "I'm not saying that we will, I'm asking if we could."
Roger looked at Pahner. "If we can, we will," he said, and the Marine looked back at him with a careful lack of expression.
His Royal Highness, Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man, had changed immeasurably from the arrogant, conceited, self-centered, whiny spoiled brat he'd been before a barely bungled assassination by sabotage had shipwrecked him and his Marine bodyguards on the hellhole called Marduk. For the most part, Pahner was prepared to admit that those changes had been very good things, because Bronze Battalion of The Empress' Own had been less than fond of the aristocratic pain in the ass it had been charged with protecting, and with excellent reason.
Pahner supposed that discovering that a dangerously competent (and unknown) someone wanted you dead, and then coping with the need to march clear around an alien planet full of bloodthirsty barbarians in hopes of somehow taking that planet's sole space facility away from the traditional enemies of the Empire of Man who almost certainly controlled it, would have been enough to refocus anyone's thoughts. Given the unpromising nature of the preassassination-attempt Roger, that wasn't something Pahner would have cared to bet any money on, of course. And he more than suspected that he and the rest of Bravo Company owed a sizable debt of gratitude to D'Nal Cord. Roger's Mardukan asitechnically a slave, although anyone who made the mistake of confusing Cord with a menial probably wouldn't live long enough to realize he'd stopped breathing for some odd reasonwas a deadly warrior who had become the prince's mentor, and not just where weapons were concerned. The native shaman was almost certainly the first individual ever to take Roger seriously as both prince and protégé, and the imprint of his personality was clear to see in the new Roger.
All of that was good. But it never would have occurred to the old, whiny Roger even to consider that such a thing as a debt of honor might exist between him and a troop of barbarian beast drovers on a backwoods planet of mud, swamp, and rain. Which, much as Pahner hated to admit it, would have been a far more convenient attitude on his part at this particular moment.
"Sir," he said tightly, "those funds will be needed for our expenses on the other side of the mountains. When we get out of here, we'll need to immediately resupply. That is if we don't run out on the way. Or have to turn back."
"Captain," Roger said steadily, sounding uncannily like his mother in deadly reasonable mode, "we have to have the flar-ta, and we will not take them from mahouts who have stood by us through thick and thin. You yourself said that we're not brigands, and shouldn't act like them. So, what's the answer?"
"We can improve things for them," Gunny Jin said. "Wrap them in cloths so that they don't lose so much moisture. Put them in a tent with a warming stove at night. That sort of thing."
D'Len clapped his hands in regret. "I do not think I can convince my people to continue on. It is too terrible up here."
"If you think we can continue," Cord said, "my nephews will do so. I, of course, am asi. I shall follow Roger wherever it leads."
"Let's put it to a vote," Roger said to Pahner. "I won't say that we'll go with it either way, but I'd like to see what everyone thinks."
"All right," the captain agreed reluctantly. "I think, though, that we're going to need all of our funds on the far side of the mountain. Desperately. Still," he added with a shrug. "Despreaux?"
The junior NCO cleared her throat. "It was my idea."
"So noted," Pahner said with a smile. "I won't hold it against you. I take it that was a 'buy the beasts' vote?"
"Yes, Sir, but D'Len Pah hasn't said he'll sell."
"Good point," Roger said. "D'Len? Can we buy them from you?"
The old Mardukan hesitated, drawing his circles on the stony ground.
"We must have at least one to make it back to the forests," he temporized.
"Granted," Roger said promptly.
"And . . . they aren't cheap," the mahout added.
"Would you rather bargain with Captain Pahner or Poertena?" the prince asked.
"Poertena?" The mahout looked around wildly. "Not Poertena!"
"We'll strike a fair bargain," Pahner said severely. "If we decide to buy them." He thought about it for a moment. "Oh, hell. When. There isn't a choice, is there?"
"Not really, Captain," Roger said. "Not if we're going to make it over the mountains."
"So," the commander said to the mahout. "Are you willing to bargain for them? In gems, gold, and dianda?"
The mahout clapped his lower hands in resignation.
"Yes. Yes, we will. The flar-ta are like children to us. But you have been good masters; you will treat our children well. We will bargain for their worth." He lowered his head and continued, firmly. "But not with Poertena."
"Good t'ing they didn't know I was coaching you over tee poctee 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, vegetableseverything. And salt. We're almost out of salt."
"We'll figure it out, Captain," the prince said. "You always do."
"ThanksI 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.
"Gotcha, 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 unfamiliarand confusingto 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, eitherno 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 resembledphysically at leastthe 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 developedone might almost say overdevelopedsense 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 notthere 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 withan 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 charged 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 piercingdo 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.
The first grenades started to fall into the mass, but not even that was enough to turn them. And the only way to kill them was to hit them from the side. It took just a moment for a thought to percolate through his shock, and his sense of guilt for the lives that momentary delay cost would live with him the rest of his life.
"On the packbeasts!" he yelled, grabbing for a dangling strap on the flar-ta he'd been dodging and swinging himself frantically aboard. "Everybody on the packbeasts!"
The stampede hit like a meat and bone avalanche. From his precarious perch, Pahner saw dozens of the Marines go down under the feet and tusks of the giant lizards. But manymostof the others were scrambling onto the company's mounts.
Even that wasn't the most secure situation, but at least it gave them a fighting chance as the enraged flar-ke charged clear through the company, then turned to charge right back. The good news was that they didn't seem to realize which was the greater danger and directed their fury at the packbeasts rather than the insignificant humans who were actually hurting them, and they slammed into the flar-ta like lethal, ancient locomotives. The thudding of massive impacts and screams and shrieks of animal rage and pain filled the universe, but the company's bead rifles were finally able to come into play in the melee. As one of the giant herbivores charged, massed fire from the Marines perched on its flank would smash into it from the side. They were using ammunition like water, but it was that or die.
The situation was a complete madhouse. The Marines, some surviving afoot, some perched on packbeasts, some even having attained the safety of the treetops, poured fire into the rampaging herd. At the same time, the flar-ke were charging and slashing at the company's packbeasts and the Marines who'd been dismounted.
Pahner spun from side to side, snapping orders for concentrations of fire where he could, then looked up just in time to see Roger come charging into the melee. Where and how the prince had learned to use a flar-ta as a war steed was a complete mystery, but he was the only member of the company who seemed at home in the maelstrom.
He'd apparently picked his target from outside the mass, and he and his mount charged in at full speed. The impact when the galloping Patty hit the larger beast was a carnal earthquake.
The target squealed in agony as the flar-ta's tuskhorns penetrated its side armor and slammed it down to its knees. As the sergeant major poured fire into the flar-ke to either side of them, Roger pumped rounds into the exposed underbelly of Patty's target. Then, using nothing more than words and thumping heels, he backed the packbeast off its victim and charged back out of the mass to wind up for another run.
Pahner slapped Aburia, who was driving his own beast, on the back of her head.
"Get us out of here! Try to line us up for a charge!"
The corporal goaded the beast into a lumbering run, and dismounted Marines dashed in from either side as they cantered through the melee. Pahner snatched them up as they came alongside, snapping orders and passing over his own ammunition.
As he cleared the last embattled pair of behemoths he heard another thunder of flesh headed into the battle. Roger was back.
"I wish the mahouts were here," Berntsen said as he hacked at a ligament.
"Why?" Cathcart asked. The corporal wiped at his face with the shoulder of his uniform. Everything else was coated in blood.
"They used to do this."
The company had halted in the open area created by the burrowing beasts and set up defenses. With this much meat around, scavengers were bound to come swarming in, but the unit could go no further. The casualties had been brutal . . . again.
The friendly Nepalese, Dokkum, who'd taught them all about mountains, would never see New Tibet again. Ima Hooker would never make another joke about her name. Kameswaran and Cramer, Liszez and Eijken, the list went on and on.
"Tell you one thing," Cathcart said. "Rogo was right the first time. These motherfuckers are bad news."
"Yeah," the private admitted, pulling on the heavy skin of the dead beast. "He was right all along."
"You were right back on the plateau, Roger," Pahner said, shaking his head over the casualties laid out inside the perimeter. "These are not packbeasts."
"Like the difference between buffaloes," Roger repeated wearily.
He'd just finished sewing up Patty's wounds, using the kit the mahouts had left and a general antibiotic provided by Doc Dobrescu. He'd been forced to do the work himself, because no one else could get near the grumpy beast.
"Cape and water, you mean?" Dobrescu asked, walking up and sitting down on a splintered tree trunk.
"You were saying something about them just before it all fell into the crapper," Pahner said. "I'd never heard of them before."
"You're not from Earth," Roger pointed out. "Of course, most people on Earth never heard of them, either."
"They have in Africa," Dobrescu said with a bitterly ironic chuckle.
"So what are they?" Pahner asked, sitting down himself.
"They're a ton of mean is what they are," Roger said. "You go out after buffalo, and you take your life in your hand. If they scent you, they'll swing around behind and sneak up on you. Before you know it, you're dead."
"I thought buffaloes ate grass."
"That doesn't mean they're friendly," Roger told the captain tiredly. " 'Herbivore' doesn't automatically equate to 'cowardly.' " He gestured at the mounded bodies of the flar-ke. "Capetoads," he snorted.
"What?" Pahner asked. There were a million things to do, but at the moment they were getting done. He was, for once, going to just let the camp run.
"They look like horned toads, but they're nasty as Cape buffalo." Roger shrugged. "Capetoads."
"Works for me," Pahner agreed. He sniffed at the smells coming from the cooking area. "And it appears that we're about to find out what they taste like."
"One guess," Dobrescu said, with a grunt of effort as he shoved himself to his feet.
As it turned out, they tasted very much like chicken.
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