"Yer shouldn't be doin' this, ser. 'Tis not yer place." Da Cruz's scar-stiffened face was rigid with disapproval. "Er at leastways, yer should be takin' me wit' yer."
"Well, I am doing it, Master Sergeant," Raj said, slapping his gloves into his palm. "And Captain Staenbridge will need you, if anything unfortunate should happen."
Like the Colonials cutting us all into dogmeat, he thought. The chill seemed to settle in his belly. They're right: I'm supposed to be commanding thirty battalions, not leading forty men on a forlorn hope scouting mission. He put the inner voice aside; arguably it was worse for the men to see the commander vacillate than to make a possibly-stupid decision, Spirit knew everyone fucked up now and then . . . and things were going well in Sandoral . . . and the Spirit knew it was the one place on Earth . . . Bellevue he didn't want to be, right now.
North along the chain of heliograph stations a light began to blink, a slotted cover like a lever-operated Venetian blind slapping open and closed over a mirror-backed carbide lamp. It showed hard and clear against the pale stars of midnight. High overhead Maxiluna was a thin sliver of orange-tinted silver, and the smaller, brighter Miniluna had set an hour ago. It was cold enough to make the uniform jacket and the thousand-pound bulk of Horace at his back welcome. The tower above flicked once to the north to acknowledge the message, then began to relay it south; it was a long one. Pure nonsense, as a matter of fact, meant only to deceive; if there was movement and light at all the temporary chain of towers, no single one would be noticeable to a chance watcher on the other shore. And they would be used to night patrols setting out . . .
"He's perfectly right," Barton Foley said, walking back along the line of men and dogs. "Barge in place, Brigadier who shouldn't be here, sir. Clear path down to the water."
"Not you, too," Raj muttered, and turned to the Lieutenant of the 7th Descott Rangers in charge of the station. "Message by rider, word of mouth only, Lieutenant: starting tomorrow night, be ready for anything we send from the other side. Otherwise, keep your movements routine. Understood?"
"Sir," the lieutenant said earnestly.
"Just a minute, Raj," Gerrin said. "I really think you should reconsider. . . . If you think a senior officer is necessary, I'd be glad to go"
"No." Forcing relaxation: "After all, you've got an infant son to consider, don't you, Captain Staenbridge?"
He could see the other man's mouth close. "By the Spirit, you're right . . . damnable habit of yours, Raj."
"Er, excuse me, Brigadier," the lieutenant said. "I've got a rather odd request. Squad of my men—a Corporal M'kintok—just volunteered to accompany you."
Raj snorted softly. "Who's next, Tzetzas? My thanks to your squad, Lieutenant Meagertin, and tell them they're going to ruin the County's reputation. Now, if nobody else has precious time to waste . . ."
Salutes, embraces, fists slapped together. A voice inside his skull, this risk is strictly unnecessary.
Shut up. observe.
I said, shut up: you're the voice of god, but I'm a man, Spirit take it, and this is something I'm going to do! There was a pause that took no time in the observable world. Then:
stochastic effects may randomize even the most rigorous Calculation, the voice of Center said; it was the first time he had heard Center lapse into religious jargon. Consciousness returned to the world of men.
" . . . let's go."
* * *
Raj held Horace's bridle as the men led their beasts onto the barge. It was a normal bulk-cargo vessel, brownish-grey native pigaro wood, hard and impervious and full of tiny bubbles of air. The shallow hold was roofed with arches of willow-withe, and a cover of dark canvas on top of that, also standard for cargoes vulnerable to sun or rain. Just enough room for the dogs, if they walked half-crouched and lay down in neat rows; thirty-two men and mounts of Foley's platoon, the two men and four dogs of the portable heliograph unit, M'lewis, Holdor Tennan, and himself. The vessel sank deeper against the inlet mud as fifty thousand pounds of dog and man and gear filed aboard; the steersman at the rear sweep began to look worried.
"Come on, boy," Raj said, stepping towards the plank. Last on, first off on the other side.
Horace balked, flopping himself down with a jingle of accoutrements.
"This is no time for that, you sumbitch!" Raj hissed, painfully conscious of eyes watching him, the men from the heliograph tower and others from within the barge. He hauled, with no result; kicked the dog in the ribs with the flat of his boot, and produced nothing but a hollow drum-sound, hideously loud. Dogwhips were useless on Horace; there was only one thing to do.
"Suit yourself," he said, and walked up the gangplank. Behind him the dog watched, whined when Raj jumped down into the hold of the barge, then picked up its reins in its teeth and followed, testing the footing with each step.
* * *
"Phew," Foley muttered, as the last of the men disembarked on the east bank. It had grown fairly rank inside the barge, while they drifted down toward the east bank and past the spot where the Civil Government border curved away from the west. They were in the Colony, now, and far from help.
"Avocati," Raj whispered back. The common dog-fodder along the river, a noxious, flabby sucker-mouthed bottom-feeding scavenger fish with no backbone; the main drawback was that it made the dogs' breath even worse than usual.
He looked up the bank; the floodplain held the same mix of carob and native thorny brush as the other shore, but the ravine-scored silt of the bluff was much higher, twenty meters, notched and slashed by winter flooding. The air smelled of river, dog, and wet mud; Raj took a deep breath and exhaled, grinning up at the dark menace of the hill. I feel young again, he realized with a start; which was very odd, because he had yet to reach his twenty-sixth year. Even in his teens he hadn't shared his peers' pleasure in taking useless risks, in riding vicious dogs or hanging around girls with dangerous male kin; they had called him a sober-sides for it, and for occasionally turning down a hunting trip or a cockfight to crack a book.
It's because this is a comprehensible job, he thought. No huge amorphous army, where he had to leave a dozen crucial things a day in the hands of men he had never fought beside; no not-quite-omniscient computer angel to show him unassailable reasons for doing things he despised; no snakepit spy-hive of a city . . . just a cavalry patrol into hostile country, go in, get the information and get out. Succeed or die.
Foley came back along the line of kneeling men and crouching dogs; there was a slight frown on his half-youthful face, the look of someone focusing on a complicated piece of work. Learn to do it right and they'll just stick you with something more difficult, lad, Raj thought mordantly.
"M'lewis has a way up, sir," he said. "Passable without much cutting." Native scrub was like resilient metal wire that bit; they had saw-edged clearing bars, but the noise and delay were to be avoided if at all possible.
"Let's do it then," Raj said.
* * *
"Avatars of the Spirit," Raj swore, as he poked his head cautiously over the rise.
It was morning of the second day, south from their landing point; he had been about to pack it in, the patches of cultivated land along the bank of the river were growing more and more frequent, reaching inland further and further. Another fifty kilometers, and the bluffs would fall away to the wide alluvial plains, densely cultivated all the way east to the Rushing River and the highlands of Gederosia.
"That's the biggest fukkin' raghead army I ever wants to see," M'lewis said beside him on the ridge.
The skin around his lips was off-white . . . well, it was stunning. The date groves and norias of the riverside were lost in a sea of tents, orderly clumps and rows, dog-lines running for kilometers, artillery parks with everything from the common pompoms to heavy muzzle loading howitzers. Supplies were being unloaded from riverboats, pyramids of sacks and crates and bundles; men marched through the streets of the tent city, the spikes of their helmets glinting; parties of cavalry dashed across the plain round about. In the center of the camp was a huge white and scarlet tent like a miniature mountain range. Banners hung in the still morning air above it, or fluttered briefly; the sound of the camp was like surf, spiced and peaked with the sharp music of drums and the shrill of fifes.
A muezzin had called the morning prayer; campfires were blossoming higher, carrying the sharp spices of Colonist cooking.
"There must be a hunnerd thousand men there," M'lewis whispered again.
Raj smiled; the Warrant Officer was as good a man of his hands as you could hope to find, a superb dogsman with an instinctive feel for the lay of the land and a crack shot, but the scale of this was outside his experience.
"Barton?" Raj asked.
The young lieutenant was quartering the camp with his own binoculars; his face was pale under natural olive and heavy tan, but his voice was steady:
"I make it . . . twenty thousand, or a little more," he said, writing and sketching on a pad by his head.
"Much better," Raj said. He took the drawing and laid it before M'lewis. "See, each of the standard tent holds a Colonist squad; six men, smaller than ours. So many men to a gun; banners are graded, like in our regular army. Sample a section, figure out how many equivalents, and you've got a reliable estimate, the same way you'd number a sheep herd quickly." A pause. "You're counting too many camp followers, I think, Barton: they're building that bridge with peasants they've rounded up, mostly."
"Bridge, sir?" Barton asked.
"Mmmh. See there?"
Down by the water's edge the Colonial forces had dug and pushed a huge ramp of earth and timbers down into the current of the Drangosh. Two enormous cables of flax lay coiled and ready at the head of it, rope as thick as the chest-height of the men who handled it; behind the coils further lengths were anchored in timber and stone. Working parties upstream anchoring other cables that were small only by comparison. Across the river a similar ramp was being built; Foley turned his glasses on one, then the other.
"Little men in loincloths, and bigger men in pantaloons working stripped to the waist," he said.
"Combat engineers, troops and labor-levies," Raj said. "I've read of this in some of the older chronicles. You warp the cables across on both sides, then slide . . . barges, purpose-made pontoons, even rafts . . . underneath and secure them. Brushwood and planking, then a layer of earth, and you've got a good solid bridge. It won't last forever, or even through a spring flood, but you can march an army over it like it was a firm made road for a couple of months. Much better than boats, faster, more secure . . . Get the banners, Barton: full sketches, so we'll know who's here."
The great tent bore the green flag with the crescent and star. The Settler's banner, not just the national one, Jamal was here. But not Tewfik's black-and-crimson Seal of Solomon. A group of turtle shapes, down near where the supply boats were landing, armored cars.
"Yer a great comfort t'me, ser, but twenty thousand ragheads is summat too many, I'd say."
Foley nodded. "And that's a very impressive piece of engineering," he added, handing his modified notes over to Raj. "But all things considered, sir, I'd rather be in Sandoral."
"We'll see what can be done about that," Raj said, rolling over onto his back and pulling out his watch. "Hmmm. First priority is to get the message back to the Army. They'll have that bridge up in a day or two, and it's not that far up the west bank . . . M'lewis," he continued, turning the notes over and scribbling a message.
"Take this back to the heliograph." They had set it up on the reverse slope of a hill three kilometers back, the furthest it could go and still reach the southernmost outpost of the temporary chain on the west bank. "Tell them not to bother to encode it, just send it in clear and repeat until they get acknowledgement. And hurry."
He nodded wordlessly and set off down the reverse slope, plunging over the lip of a gully in a controlled fall. Raj and the younger man followed a little more sedately, leopard-crawling backward down the slope to keep their heads below the line, then trotting in a crouch with their sabers held in their left hands.
"It shouldn't take us nearly as long to get back, now that we know the terrain in detail," Raj said. "I added an instruction to have the ferry prepared, so—"
He halted; Foley wasn't listening. His head rotated to the right with the delicate precision of an aiming screw, and Raj had learned to respect the younger man's eyesight. The lieutenant brought his glasses up again, turning the focus wheel with his thumb.
Raj followed suit, blinking against the low sun-glare to the east. A dust cloud, and a line of tiny doll figures on dogback, out in the flatter land away from the riverbank and its tumbled hills. Heading straight for the conical hill where the heliograph was waiting; not that they had seen the Civil Government detachment, from the leisurely way they were proceeding, but it was the best terrain feature for kilometers around, even so, a natural place to put in a watching post. Following straight in M'lewis' tracks would be futile. The little Bufford parish soldier rode lighter and with greater skill than most of Foley's platoon, good men though they were, and where one man could go undetected thirty-odd could not.
"There's a draw, through there," Foley said with tight calm, pointing. If the heliograph team and the Colonist patrol were the bases of a triangle and the platoon the point, his arm bisected it. "We can get between them and the heliograph, I think."
An ambush, but it would be very unlikely that a firefight would go unheard or unnoticed, this close to a major camp. It would give them time, provided that there were no survivors; the Colonists would have to find their men in the maze of rough country, and a stern chase was a long one.
"Let's do it, then," Raj said.
* * *
The heliograph tower was the highest place in Sandoral, a slender pillar of concrete rising from the complex of government buildings at its center, the Legate's Palace. It contained nothing but a windowless spiral staircase and a two-story bulb at the end of that spindle; the outside was sheathed in marble, because this was the palace, after all. The inside was severely plain, a lower room with bunks and table and chamberpot, an upper with the signalling equipment. That was a contrast to the drabness, a great gimbal-mounted telescope and the intricate levers of brass and iron that controlled the mirrors and slides and big lighthouse-style lantern on the roof. Right now there was a smaller telescope as well, pointing south at the temporary chain set up down to the border.
Highest place and the dullest, thought the watch-stander resentfully. Learning the code and equipment was like learning to read, a great way to get promoted . . . and stuck up here, he thought. He looked out of the corner of his eye at the woman who sat quietly smoking in a corner, looking cool and aristocratic in white linen riding clothes. With the commander's wife hovering over them they wouldn't be able to rack out or start up the usual friendly dice game, from which he'd made a fair bit of wine-and-girl money. Nice piece, though, if you like 'em skinny, he thought idly.
She smiled and spoke, with a crisp Messer-class East Residence accent. "I'm not here to pull an inspection, boys. Just do your jobs as usual and ignore me."
A head rose through the circular railed stairwell. "Hey, Corporal Stainez? Gotta raghead down here, says he works for Wenner Reed an' gots a message fer Lady Whitehall?"
Stainez sighed and nodded. "Send t' wogboy up," he said.
* * *
Abdullah al'Azziz bowed low before Suzette; it amused him to do so openly, when it was so deeply secret who he served, almost as much as it amused him to use his given name. It had been a long time since most of those about him knew him as "Slave of God."
"My master, the Honorable Messer Wenner Reed, Commander of Reserve Forces for the City District of the County of Sandoral, sends greeting, Lady Whitehall, and wonders if there is some delay that prevents you from joining him on the excursion to his country house that was planned for this day."
"I am ill," she said. "My apologies to your master, perhaps another day." The Arab bowed again, catching the signs of furiously throttled worry and impatience.
"I will return to my . . . duties, Messa, and convey your regrets—"
"Holy Spiritshit!" The soldier glancing through the telescope to the south blurted. "Priority message!"
The corporal pushed the man aside and sat in his chair. "Kearstin, Hainez, get yer arses up here! Mefford, take it down."
The soldier grabbed up a writing board and began scribbling in shorthand:
"Relay . . . stop Contact with main Colonist field force thirty kilometers south last west-bank relay station stop pontoon bridge under construction suitable for rapid crossing whole force nearing completion stop estimate Colonial force eight thousand cavalry ten thousand foot one hundred light fifty medium field guns siege train engineers and support units in proportion—oh, holy shit no don't take that down, ye dickhead—to above stop Jamal leading force in person stop no indication presence Tewfik and southern field army stop estimate main Colonist force arrive vicinity Sandoral five days plusminus two stop relay to East Residence stop order full mobilization highest alert stop will attempt to reach eastbank ferry point eight hours soonest stop Gerrin have fullest confidence in your judgment Foley doing well stop be home soon Suzie darling stop."
"Shall . . . shall I sound the general alert, corporal?"
The men at the main unit were already wrenching at their controls, and the big machine on the roof was clacking out its pulses of reflected sunlight to the north. The information would be in the Governor's hands before nightfall, across more than a thousand kilometers.
"Dickhead! Why'd ye think the commander has 5th men up here and not the regular crew? Them cityfolk pussies wouldn't stop runnin' till they hit the Oxheads, er they'd burn down the whole city while they run around screamin'. The Alert list is in the duty book, start makin' copies." He spun on one heel. "You, raghead—"
"I'll be responsible for this man, corporal. And we'll get out of your way right now, don't worry."
Corporal Stainez closed his mouth. I'd worry a lot less if his wog arse was in irons, he thought. "Messa," he continued aloud.
* * *
"Messa Whitehall," the artillery commander said. "Ah, Messa Whitehall, with all respect, you're not, ah—"
"In the line of command, I know, Captain . . . Grammek Dinnalsyn?" He nodded; a group of gunners looked up from dragging a rope and cleaning wad through the barrel of a 75. "Nevertheless . . ." She held out a piece of paper. "I am taking full responsibility for giving you movement orders; you'll note that this is stamped with my personal seal."
Dinnalsyn met her slanted green eyes and swallowed. Merciful Avatars of the Spirit, he thought. Why me? There was something going on, you could tell that even from the palisaded camp outside the wall. A half-dozen carriages had left on the north road, light racing-shells crammed with city men in drab clothes that looked utterly out of place. And a suspicious number of peasants from the farms west and north were coming in, with food and what looked like household goods on their oxcarts and pushcarts and backs.
"Messa," he said. Then turned and bellowed, "Lieutenant Harritch! Turn out; I want batteries one through four hitched with full teams and ready to roll in twenty minutes."
Ten guns, twelve if 3/3 and 4/1 hadn't been pulled with a stripped breech-screw thread and a cracked trail respectively.
The captain opened his mouth to order standard shell, then closed it for a second. "Twenty standard, ten cannister," he said; thirty shells was a full load for the two-wheeled caissons on which the trail of a field gun rested while it was in motion. He didn't like the ass-dangling-in-the-breeze feeling of galloping the guns off down the road without support.
Just in case anything unpleasant happened at close range, having the cannister rounds along would make him feel a whole lot better. And anyone who tried to fuck with his guns would feel a lot worse.
* * *
There were twenty men in the Colonist patrol, men subtly different from those Raj had seen before. Their jellabas were in a mottled pattern, a few of the beards red or brown-blond, and the faces beneath were fairer-skinned compared to the general run of Colonist, or Descotters for that matter. Berbers, Raj decided. Kabyle berbers from the Gederosian highlands, the Jebal al-B'heed. Irrelevant, except that they looked uncomfortably alert, and most had their carbines out across their knees. The first man was about to leave the slough just as the last entered it, winding south and west to reach a dry watercourse running due west to the hill that was their objective. The lower slope the Civil Government platoon had chosen was scrub-covered, and the steeper one behind unclimbable.
Now, Raj thought. As if to echo his thought, Foley's clear voice shouted.
Not a volley but almost as close-spaced, as the troopers rose from beneath the cloaks and scrub that concealed them. A few shots missed; more of the enemy were struck multiply. Their commander shouted a single sentence, and then the survivors were down behind their dogs in a short-range firefight with the Descotters. All except for two, who wheeled their mounts and broke into a gallop back down along their path of march; the Colonist officer had told them to retreat, while he and the others bought time with their lives. It was the response Raj would have given, and the reason he was here at the east end of the line.
The reason he slid down, blocking the only exit. The two Colonist soldiers were coming at a flat-out run, their dogs tucking hindlegs through forelegs and leaping off into each jump. Raj extended his pistol and fired carefully five times, bringing the muzzle down each time recoil kicked it back. The first punched the rear Colonist in the shoulder; he dropped his sword, and the next two took his mount in chest and neck. It went over with a howling yelp and a thud that shook the ground and ended in a crack of neckbone. That left the other uncomfortably close, and if Colonist dogs ran a man weight or so lighter than the Civil Government's cavalry breeds it could still brush him aside like a twig.
Two more shots. One creased the dog's neck, making it check its stride and snap to one side with a doorslam chomp of jaws. The next took it squarely at the junction of neck and shoulder; it slowed for three more strides and folded from the front, rolling in a cloud of dust. The Colonist had his feet out of the stirrups before then, tucking and rolling forward with the massive inertia of the gallop. Astonishingly, he managed to come out of it after a dozen yards, conscious and on his feet. Even more so was the fact that he had managed to keep his sword.
"Die, kaphar!" he shrieked, coming in with a blurring overarm cut, too fast for a stop-thrust.
Raj met it with a high parry, and saw the Berber's green eyes flare wide at the shock of the strength in the Descotter's wrist. These are fighting men, he thought. I wish all mine were as good. His left hand punched forward with the fingers locked into a blade, sinking into the vulnerable spot below the breastbone where even a fit man's belly is unarmored with muscle. Something gave and tore before the blow; Raj unlocked the hilts of the swords and punched the other man in the face with the basket guard of his own. Bone crumpled and snapped, and the Colonist lurched back three steps and fell splay-armed.
"Sorry, I've got business first," he muttered, panting with the sudden adrenaline-wash of combat, noticing the bruises and scrapes of the quick plunge down the hillside. And the stinging in fingers; he shook his wrist. "Never hit a man with your bare hand if you can help it."
Silence fell, broken only by the whimper of wounded dogs; then a crackle of shots as the platoon finished them off. A pity to make so much noise, but nobody in their right mind would go within bayonet reach of a hurt carnivore that size if they could avoid it. Smoke hovered, blowing away in clots, as Foley's voice snapped orders.
"Get their water," he said. "Dump everything you've got on your saddles but weapons and water. Water the dogs now and feed them the last of the fodder. Move." Even now the men would probably lift the enemy's coin pouches and pockets, but there was no sense in wasting time trying to stop it. They scrambled back up to their dogs, festooned with the sewn goatskins the enemy used for canteens.
The platoon sergeant came over to Foley; it was Fitzin Sherrek, one of the gentleman-rankers Raj had taken into the Companions. Have to get him a commission as soon as I can, Raj thought.
"Sir," he said to Foley. "We've got a casualty."
The three men scrambled down to the bush-shielded firing position. Raj could see at a glance that this was one man—boy, rather, he was probably no more than seventeen—who was never going any closer to home than this Spirit-forsaken gully. One of the new crop of boys out from the County to bring the 5th back up to strength, awed and envious of the veterans of El Djem and the Valley of Death, eager to prove themselves. The entry hole was through the lower stomach just to the right of the navel; not much blood yet, but nobody survived a wound like that. Although it might take days to kill.
"Ser," he gasped, as Foley knelt by his head, then made a keening sound as two of his friends tried to move him. "Ser," he said again. The young Lieutenant gripped his hand; the trooper was grinning, a rictus as much as a smile, face grey with the effort and with pain, as the shock wore off.
A man lives by his pride, and dies by it, Raj thought: an old Descotter motto. Worth the effort, he supposed, if it gave you something else to do than think of fifty years you'd missed out on.
"Know . . . I'm gone," the dying boy said to the living. "I'st . . . no priest . . ."
"Don't worry," Foley said, loudly and clearly; the injured trooper's eyes had not started to wander yet, but best to make sure. He reached inside his tunic and laid his own amulet in the other's free hand; it was a piece of circuit board, overlaid with gold and crystal. "Any who fall defending Holy Federation achieve unity with Paradise."
"Thanks . . . ser," the weakening voice said. "Wayezgate Farm . . . Messer Jorgtin's estate . . . m'Da rents it. Tell 'im . . . I died game." The teeth spread wider. "Mam said I'shd wait another . . . year. Right jist loik allays." A second's panting. "Ye can't stay, ser. Finish it quick, would yer?"
The trooper brought the amulet to his lips and closed his eyes, praying in a breathy mumble. Suicide was a mortal sin, but if his comrades left him here he would likely live long enough for scavengers to find, or the enemy.
"I'll tell them," Foley said, gripping tightly on the hand lying in his. "On my honor." The hammer of his pistol clicked back.
* * *
"I can't take the ferry across now, Messa," the man said, wringing his hands. "That's Colony territory over there, and with war coming, the owners would crucify me. Anyone could walk up and seize it."
Presumably he was speaking metaphorically, since only the stokers in the hold of the steam ferry were slaves and liable for private punishment of that extent. Suzette shaded her eyes with a palm and looked across the two kilometer width of the Drangosh, over to the cluster of shacks and the dirt ramp on the other side. Water threw back the noon sun with a hard blinking glitter that hurt her eyes, but she could see there was very little activity there, the few Colonists resident had pulled out weeks ago. The river marked the border, but the east bank here was too high to irrigate and held little population; most trade went down with the water, and the road was a minor one.
She turned to the ferry. It was nothing very complicated, a big flat barge with plank drawbridges on either side. The machinery was on the port, a two-cylinder steam rocking-valve engine driving a shaft that ran across the hull under the deck and worked two paddle wheels, one on either side.
"I," she said, stepping closer to the sweating man in a mechanic's leather tunic and cotton-duck trousers, "am Messa Suzette Emmenalle Forstin Hogor Wenqui Whitehall, Lady of Hillchapel. My husband is Honorable the Brigadier Messer Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall, Whitehall of Hillchapel, Hereditary Supervisor of Smythe parish, and commander of this territory under martial law."
Her voice was very calm, almost friendly. "Goodman, your employers can have you dismissed and beaten. My husband can actually have you crucified, and will if this boat is not ready to move very shortly." She reached out with an index finger, tapping the air in front of his nose in time to her words. "Do-you-understand-me?"
He bobbed wordlessly and turned, screaming at his subordinates to make steam, quickly.
"Hmmm, Lady Whitehall, it really would be easy for the ragheads to grab the ferry," the artillery officer said. "Wouldn't it be better to wait on this side?"
"No," she replied. "Time is important here. I have an idea."
* * *
"Turn in here," Raj said.
A map glowed between him and reality, an overview of the route back north up the east bank. The quickest way was picked out in green, and every time they came to a fork in the tangled, knotted chain of erosion furrows the light strobed about it. Their position was a bead, a cool blue bead that slipped northward, ahead of the green clump of their pursuers.
The column wheeled left into the entrance way of the gully, and M'lewis pulled up beside him. The Warrant Officer had draped a spare shirt across his dog's neck and soaked it in water from his canteen; it was growing brutally hot here, although not as bad as it would be up on the higher ground.
"Ser?" he said, puzzled and apprehensive. The sound of paws was muffled in the soft sand at the bottom of the gulleys; the walls were crumbly silt, a natural adobe laced with rocks.
"Yes?" Raj replied, blinking. It was necessary to rely on Center for this, but it still gave him a queasy feeling at the base of his stomach.
"Ser, how in t'dark are ye keepin' track of these wadis? We came south on the ridgelines over there—" he jerked his helmet to the right, eastward "—an' Spirit, it was slower but if we take a wrong turning . . ."
The dust trail of the Colonist battalion was behind them, but not far; half a kilometer to the east, where the ground was not quite so broken.
" . . . they'll get ahead of us." He reached a hand under the rim of his helmet and scratched vigorously. "I thoughts I had a good eye fer t'ground, but this! Cain't be no map, this ground must get fucked up fresh-loike every spring."
"I watched them from the ridge coming south," Raj said. Actually, I'm the Avatar of the Spirit of Man and an angel in East Residence is painting a magical map in front of my eyes, he thought, and suppressed a giggle. There were times when he began to doubt his own memories, when it seemed so much more probable that he had gone mad there in the cellars last year—
"In t'dark, ser? From half a klick?" M'lewis protested.
"Haven't hit a dead end yet, have we, Companion?" Raj said, with a hard grin. The Warrant Officer's eyes were wide with awe and a little uneasy as he backed his dog and loped off after the others.
Raj pressed a knee to Horace's flank to follow. Wait a minute, he thought, a knot of unease in his own stomach. If Center can predict the future—
probabilities—and show me things from long ago and far away, why couldn't it show me this route coming south in the first place? Why couldn't I get a scenario of the Colonists building that bridge without sending a patrol and risking lives? The echo of a pistol shot bounced through his memory, and the expression in Foley's eyes as he reholstered it on the third try.
* * *
—a glowing blue shield hung against a backdrop of a black more absolute than any Raj had ever seen, strewn with hard motes of colored light. White streaks moved across the blue, and the edges of the shield were blurred, as if there was a fringe of vapor around it. The sight was so alien that it was not until a flicker of hard light outlined the continents that he understood what he was seeing: Earth—
Paradise, he thought, conscious of his hand moving toward his amulet, with the dreamlike slowness that physical things took on when he communed with Center.
my data-sources, the angel continued, my eyes and ears. Specks of light moved across the shield . . . the planet . . . and his viewpoint sped towards one. An unfamiliar shape of panels and mysterious equipment, luminous with holiness. Then he was seeing inside it, and then through it, sight keener than any cruising dactosauroid's or birds, arrowing down to the line of the Hemmar River and East Residence. It was the lacy, spread-out city of the first visions Center had given him, the city before the Fall. Once more fusion fire bloomed across it, but this time his disembodied self snapped back, into the Celestial sphere. The drifting "eye" of Center exploded soundlessly, pieces tumbling away in eerie unnatural motion, as if unslowed by wind or weight. Fingers of light reached out from the planet, and other satellites exploded as well.
You were blinded by the Fall? Raj thought, and shivered. That was close to heresy; sublunary humanity had been reduced, but perfection reined beyond the orbits of the moons.
to a certain extent, i have my database, and may extrapolate therefrom, and i have everything you observe or have observed, and the contents of the minds of all who touch my . . . place of being, beneath east residence.
Then I was actually telling M'lewis the truth, Raj thought, amused for a moment despite himself. Wait, though, he mused, frowning. I couldn't have seen all these interconnections, it'd take a team weeks to map the gullies.
with your waking mind you perceive only a fraction of your sensory input, and forget much of this, observe.
* * *
—night, and the patrol was jogging south. Raj could recognize the time from the position of the stars and moons; a little before dawn, thirty or so hours ago. Again it was as if he were standing a little behind his own eyes, this time as he glanced west over Horace's neck, into the tangled country nearer the river. A casual look, but it froze in place as if it were a painting or an ordnance expert's perspective drawing. Networks of lines snaked over it to mark contours, and the painting turned three-dimensional and rotated to form a map.
* * *
Raj shook himself, and looked over his right shoulder again. The bright daylight seemed robbed of heat for a moment, cold and distant as a vision, until the smell of dust and sweat returned.
"Will we beat them to the ferry?" he said.
by a very little. A pause, very probably.
* * *
"Dust cloud coming, Captain!" the gunnery observer perched on the engine housing said. "Two. Coming fast."
The officer grunted, and moved to the two shrouded lumps that stood on either side of the ramp. The little Colonist hamlet was deserted, not so much as a chicken had moved all day while they sat there on enemy territory with the great wooden tongue of the ramp down on the dirt. . . .
"Messa Whitehall," he said. "You should get back to the engine house, under cover." Your pretty butt should be back on the other shore, and if you get launched I might as well put my pistol in my mouth.
"No, thank you, Captain," she said expressionlessly, puffing on a cigarette that had gone out some time ago.
* * *
"The ferry's there!" one of the troopers shouted. "We made it!"
They were still two hundred meters ahead of the first Colonists, riding bent over to present as small a target as possible; carbines cracked and spat, but you would have to be dead lucky to hit a moving target from a galloping dog. Anyone you hit would be simply dead, of course, but the roadway prevented the pursuers from spreading out into the broad firing-line that would have brought their numbers to bear. Of course, once the platoon were bunched on the slow-moving ferry, nothing would prevent the better than three hundred pursuers from deploying and shooting their quarry to ribbons long before they moved out of range.
Not to mention the pompom that was bouncing along behind the Colonial cavalry; one reason the Settler's armies preferred the light quick-firers was that they really could keep up with cavalry. The quarter-kilo shells would be more than enough to deal with the ferry even without the carbines of the riders.
All of which was evident to the more experienced of the squad, as well. "Shut yer gob, dickhead!" the enthusiastic trooper's corporal shouted.
"Rifles out and take what cover you can as soon as we get on board," Foley was shouting, as he dropped back along the column of galloping dogs. "Try and take out the pompom crew."
He dropped into place beside Raj, twisting in his saddle to look at the nearest of the shouting bearded faces behind him.
"Well, I always wanted to be a social hit, and be chased after," he said. Their dogs had fallen into step. "But this is a bit much . . . one thing I forgot to tell you."
"What?" Raj said, drawing his pistol. Not yet, that's even more ridiculous than trying a carbine. Similar bullets, but the longer barrel gave a higher velocity.
"We wanted you to stand Starparent to the baby," Foley said.
"I'm flattered," Raj replied.
The buildings were blurring by, adobe and pole frames. The ferry bulked larger and larger, but the four-meter gap of the loading ramp was a small enough target for thirty-odd men on dogback, even without the vaguely rectangular sheeted bulks on either side. Raj grinned to himself as he thought of galloping toward it without pursuit; it would be terrifying. Collisions, dogs falling, men being trampled or thrown against wood and machinery with bone-snapping force. It was wonderful, how circumstances redefined the term "danger."
The chase had lasted all day, lasted until some portion of Raj's mind was ready to believe it would never end. The hollow thunder of the leading mount's paws on timber jarred him into realization, and he threw his weight back in the saddle. Horace slowed, just enough to avoid the massive pile up at the far end of the ferry; the big flat-bottomed craft was rocking and bobbing as tonne-weights of bone and muscle skidded and twisted on the planks of the hull. Dogs slammed and ricocheted of one another, twisting and scrambling to stay erect on the tilting surface, yelping shrilly in protest. A human screamed almost as loud, leg jammed against the railing at the end with axe force, but most had had enough sense to pull their feet out of the collision zone. The whistle shrieked from the enginehouse, and the paddle wheels thrashed at the water, whipping it into froth as they tried to drag the ferry out into the current.
Raj twisted in the saddle again, feeling his belly muscles tauten as they waited for the bullets. The Colonists were not even slowing; the lead element must be planning to leap whatever gap grew between gangway and ramp. There was no time to act, only to watch as Suzette—Suzette—stood on the walkway and chopped her hand downward in signal.
There were figures in blue jackets beneath the tarpaulins on either side of the rampway. A half-dozen at each, enough to snatch the canvas away and toss it backward. They were city men, like most gunners; it was one of the few branches of the military with a significant number of recruits from urban areas. Most of them had spent time in the bleachers of the bullrings, and they shouted the ancient cry as the cloth revealed the twin fieldpieces.
PAMM. PAMM. Tongues of flame, pale in the sunlight; jets of smoke, dispersing. Twin cannister rounds, and at sixty meters the shot cones were just reaching maximum effectiveness. Every dog and man in the first four rows went down as if the ground had been jerked out from under them. Hundreds more were following at a flat gallop, closely spaced, none willing to miss the kill after the frustration of the chase. Some managed to twist themselves out of the column, riders and mounts skidding and turning with desperate skill. Some leapt the barricade of thrashing shredded meat, their dogs soaring in arcs that landed with their feet sinking into the mud of the riverbank. Many more added to that barricade, tumbling dogs and riders thrown a dozen yards or more to bounce and splinter their bones on the hard-packed dirt.
A sound over head like ripping canvas; for a moment Raj thought it was just that, as hysterical dogs behind him shredded the sailcloth that had landed on them. A black tree of mud and water blasted out of the shore, close enough to throw spray and gobbets of mud on the ferry's bow. Then another shell landed with deadly precision ten meters further inland, and another, wham-wham-wham, a row of towering black-grey dirt geysers. The steam winch grated, and the ramp swung erect to hide the shore; the shells pumped by steadily overhead as the ferry gained speed.
He looked up to meet Suzette's eyes; they crinkled at him in that slight quirk-lipped smile, so different from the learned charm of her public gestures. Gravely courteous, he took her outstretched hand and bowed over it as he raised it to his lips.
"Three cheers fer Messer Whitehall an' the Messa!"
The men began to whoop, helmets going up on the muzzles of rifles, gunners pounding their handspikes on the deckplanks; even the civilian crew of the ferry shouted and threw up their knit caps.
"Shut up! Silence in ranks!" Raj kept his wife's hand in his; the slender fingers drew caressingly across the heavy calluses of rein and saber hilt. "We got away from Tewfik again; and that's no cause for celebration. I'm sick of getting away from him; I want him to have to get away from me!" He grinned. "Cheer my wife as much as you like!"