Raj blinked open eyes that felt as if the lids were fastened with birdlime.
"Ser." It was da Cruz, looking worried. "Trouble, ser."
The general sat up on his cot and swung his feet down; he had gone to sleep mostly dressed. Too much work to do, three days out of East Residence. Sailing south along the Coast Range and stopping every night to let the troops sleep under canvas. Easier on the men to start with—mass seasickness on a troopship was no joke, not to mention dogs going berserk with fear—and easier on the supplies: this way they could buy from civilians without dipping into the jerky and hardtack that would have to last them, later. Too much paperwork, and nobody who really knew their administrative jobs. Last year at Sandoral had been easy by comparison; the army had just collected in and around the city and sat there for months before the Colonists moved north.
Spirit damn it to darkness, we should have some sort of permanent contingency command and staff for things like this, he thought, not for the first time. We're too defense-minded.
The Master of Soldiers, East Residence, controlled pay and overall logistics, but that was for routine operations in garrison. Field armies' administration had to be improvised out of the handbooks for a particular campaign . . . and he didn't know how anyone before him had coped, without Center to prompt and to remember things.
. . . then again, the you can see why the Governor would be antsy about a permanent mobile force. More than one Governor had been overthrown by a victorious general; a few had even been shot off the Chair by defeated ones.
He stamped his feet into his boots; a valet came in with hot towels and hot water and soap and began to shave him. Some compensations to general rank, at least, he thought ironically. Another was laying out his jacket and a clean shirt and bringing in kave.
Damn Berg for keeping him up. No way he could afford to snub the man by refusing to eat dinner with him, and every one turned into a bloody banquet with potted delicacies from East Residence. Did he think this was a bloody picnic? And a man with a full day's job of work ahead simply couldn't sit up drinking all night.
Suzette had seen him off with a joke about worker bees and an ironic toast from Berg and his cronies and some dashing young rips in uniform like Dalhouse . . . Her cot was still neatly made up. Lamplight made the big tent an oasis of light in the darkness of predawn; only a sliver of Miniluna was up, and a frosty sheeting of stars. It was not quiet, not with nearly twenty thousand human beings about, but the noise was a murmur of voices and deep resentful wuffs from cavalry dogs sensing they were about to be led back on board the detested ships.
"Report," Raj growled through the suds. The barber was an artist, and the blade slid through thick blue-black stubble effortlessly. Raj would have preferred a soldier-orderly, but a general had to keep a certain minimum of staff to maintain respect. More of Suzette's work. "What the Starless Realm is going on?"
"Devil's work right enough, ser," da Cruz said; he pulled at the orange-black-red neckerchief all the 5th Descott wore, souvenir of a looted warehouse in El Djem. The lamplight danced across the heavy keloid scars on one cheek, drawing the corner of his mouth up into a parody of a smile. "Killin' over a dice game."
Raj swore; that was not his job, and the Top Soldier ought to have known it. "That's their bloody Battalion Commander's—"
"Skinners, ser; 'twas Skinners did it. A civilian. Probably usin' crooked dice, but they cut 'im cold without warnin'. Local man; then they broke bones when the guardia came for 'em. One lad looks like to die."
"Scramento," Raj said: shit.
The Skinners. Mercenaries, and barbarous ones even by comparison to the Brigade, or even the Squadrones he was sailing out to fight. They lived on dogback, up in the northern steppes, hunting the big grazing sauroids and anything else that moved with their huge two-meter 15mm rifles. Endless trouble in camp: not so much their viciousness—although the Star Spirit knew that was bad enough—as their habit of doing exactly as they pleased whenever they pleased. He sometimes wondered whether the flop-eared hounds they rode had trained their masters in that, or vice versa.
And afraid of nothing, nothing at all. But the ill-temper fell away from him like a cloak; there was work to be done. He took the towel from the servant and wiped his face, ran fingers through the curly black mass of his hair and fastened his helmet. Shrugging into his uniform jacket and buckling his swordbelt made him feel halfway normal despite three hours of sleep; his hands drew the revolver and snapped it open, spinning the cylinder and clicking it home again. Scalding-hot kave heaped with sugar, and a cornmeal bannock gulped while he thought, helped even more.
He ducked out the tent flap, past the sentries who snapped to attention and presented rifles. The sun was coming up behind him, over acres of tents, dog-lines, cookfires just starting into life as they prepared the morning meal and dogmash. Most of the smaller transports were drawn up on the beach, their masts canted over where the tide had left them; the bigger merchantmen and the steam warships lay at anchor farther out, their riding lights yellow-blue stars on the purple-dark water. It was very calm—Admiral Gharderini had kittens every time he thought of what a storm could do to the ships at a time like this—and the water had a surface like a dimpled mirror, throwing back the fading stars. Just chilly enough to be glad of a jacket, and the sparse reddish grass on the sandy soil was damp with the morning dew.
Raj nodded to himself as his mind made lists. "Duty officer," he said.
"Ser!" Antin M'lewis stepped forward and saluted; he had gotten more enthusiastic about that since his promotion.
"M'lewis, turn out the guard."
Company A of the 5th Descott answered his barked orders, coming up at the trot and leading their dogs by the bridle. The bulky rectangle of their formation filled much of the space before the command tent, over a hundred men and dogs. Barton Foley commanded it; he saluted silently and waited beside A Company's standard: a silk serpent covered with red-enameled brass scales. It slithered limp against the pole in the motionless air, a metallic rustling noise.
"Get me Dinnalsyn." A messenger clapped heels to his dog and pounded away, throwing sand over them.
"Written orders to the following battalion commanders: Staenbridge, 5th Descott Guards; Gruder, 7th Descott Rangers; Menyez, 17th Kelden Foot; Thiddo, 1st Rogor Slashers; Poplanich, Poplanich's Own—" He continued down the list; five ought to do it, even with Skinners. "Turn out with battle kit and stand by; prepare for movement to encircle the Skinner camp. When the drum beats to arms"—normally the command to turn out and stand to—"be ready to move quickly. Staenbridge to assume tactical control." The artillery commander came up, fastening his jacket. "Ah, Grammeck."
"Sir?" he said, saluting casually; the other hand was full of kave-cup. "What guns have you ashore or accessible in the next thirty minutes?"
The artilleryman straightened, his light-hazel eyes narrowing, taking in the waiting troopers. "Three," he said. "No, two—one's got a suspicious-looking trunnion."
"Two will have to do; turn them out and get them here and stand by, full load in the caissons, all canister. I'm anticipating some trouble with the Skinners; hopefully not fighting, but goodwill and artillery will get you more than goodwill."
"Yes, sir," Dinnalysn said, spinning on his heel. He tossed the cup to one side as he strode. "Captain Har-ritch!" he shouted. "Hadelande! Move—"
Raj nodded absently, tapping his hands together to seat the gloves. A groom had brought up his hound, Horace, and was sliding on the bridle, a complex leather-and-iron affair that pressed levers against the cheekbones to turn the animal's muzzle. Horace sat and dropped his barrel-sized head on Raj's shoulder, rolling a huge brown eye toward his master.
"Right, it's up to us, now, old boy," the human murmured, scratching under the dog's chin and pushing it aside as a washcloth-sized tongue lapped at him. He straddled the saddle, and Horace rose underneath him.
"M'lewis," he said. The wiry little man looked up from the papers on his desk, a kitchen table outside the commander's tent. "In exactly one half hour"—officers synchronized their watches daily at the sunset service—"have the drummers beat to arms." That would get everyone standing in place, at least. The Skinners would ignore it the way they did most any Army ritual. "Captain Foley, to me. Da Cruz, lead on."
* * *
The night watch had set up their holding cage near the little fishing-hamlet of El Sur, whose strong springs were the main reason for the fleet stopping in this particular spot. This area was south of the point where the Coast Ranges turned east and became the Oxheads; it was dunes on the coast, and rolling dun-colored hills of sparse grass elsewhere, pasture for sheep, with an occasional cash-crop of barley. Further inland several rivers came down from the north, and there were irrigated lands and cities; where there were cities there were sutlers and whores and gamblers, and plenty of all three seemed to have guessed right about the Expeditionary Force's stopping place. Their straggling town of palm-leaf shacks and tents lapped over the date palms of El Sur and out into its stubble-fields; the villagers were huddled behind their mudbrick wall and locked gates.
"Sir!" the officer of the watch said, coming to his feet and saluting as Raj rode up. "Lieutenant Orfirio Dyaz, 23rd Hemmar Valley Foot."
The Lieutenant was a graying man in his forties, with the face of a tired basset hound. Infantry outfits were a dead end, and watch duty was the sort of thing that got handed down the pecking order to the most defenseless. He had a rickety wicker table in front of him, with a jug and some paperwork; overhead was a spindly looking oak tree, the only sizable one in sight.
"Report," Raj said.
Some things were obvious from first glance. Two Skinners in the portable iron cage, both bleeding from half a dozen cuts and sporting spectacular young bruises. They were wrapped in rope like mummies from neck to knees. One was semi-conscious; the other crouched like a carnosauroid in a corner, glaring at them all. Shaven headed except for their scalplocks, horribly scarred, with brown skin and button noses and tilted eyes, they were little men, square-built and solid, wearing beaded dogleather leggings, soft shoes, padded and decorated breechclouts, and little else. They both looked half-naked without the monstrous 15mm rifles, shooting-sticks, cartridge belts and half-dozen or so knives that lay piled on a saddle blanket nearby. They probably felt that way, too.
There were two bodies on the ground, covered in blankets; a woman crouched near one. The feathers in her hennaed hair and the gaudy-gauzy cut of her skirt and blouse proclaimed her occupation; she was weeping steadily, tears running through the thick makeup and turning her clown-faced in the harsh light of morning. Half a dozen other men of the 23rd Foot were being treated for injuries ranging from broken ribs to an ear bitten half off; two dozen hale, armed ones surrounded the cages with leveled bayonets. A further clot of civilians stood under guard some distance off, raggedy-bright women and men with a fair bit of metal flashing from belts and ears and fingers.
"Sir," Dyaz said. "At a dice game run by the deceased"—he glanced down at a pad—"one Halfas Arreyo, freeman of Cyudad Harenaz, the deceased was assaulted and killed by the accused, the two Skinners there—they refuse to give their names, sir. Multiple witnesses. The accused resisted arrest, resulting in many injuries and one fatality, Private Third Class Floreyz Magon."
Raj winced inwardly. A soldier dead, a Regular; that put a different complexion on things, even if he was only an infantryman.
"Let me see the bodies," he said. A soldier pulled back the blankets. The dead infantryman looked to be about seventeen, his head lolling in a manner that left no doubt about the cause of death. A bristle-haired recruit haircut, and a thin pockmarked brown face like a million others, still gaunt with malnutrition; the Army had probably been his first experience of eating his fill.
The other figure had probably been well-dressed. It was difficult to tell that or much else about him. One arm was off at the elbow, and thrown on the bulging intestines that showed through the rents in his belly; half his face was lying down in a flap that exposed a red-and-white grin, and his testicles had been sliced off and stuffed in the gaping mouth. Both eyes lay in smears of jelly across the face, and the flies were already like a black carpet from feet to forehead. The hard stink of blood and shit was underlain by a little of the sweetness of decay. Behind him Raj could hear the A Company standard bearer swear softly, and Foley's quick "Silence in the ranks!"
"That's the gambler," the Lieutenant added helpfully.
Both men looked around; it was the prostitute, standing now and forcing herself to look straight at the officers. Her fists were clenched by her sides. At first glance they looked to be covered in brown gloves; then you could see it was dried blood coating her arms up to the elbows, where she had tried to staunch impossible wounds.
"Yus, Messers, he were a gambler," the woman said, in a thick singsong south-country dialect, spiced with Arabic loanwords. "He were a liar and a thief and a pimp, too, jus' like I's a whore. That weren't no call fur yer tame barbs to cut him! He were shit like me, but he were m'man, what'm we and me beni, me kids to do now? I ask yer justice, m'lud; or ain't there no justice fur the likes a' us?"
Raj raised his brows. The infantry officer flipped his notebook:
"Dohloreyz cor Arreyo, freedwoman of—"
"The deceased, I know," Raj said. He shut his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and—
if you do not rule your army, Center said, then your army will rule itself, observe.
* * *
—and officers and non-coms were trying to push a mob of soldiers back from the edge of the surf. The men's faces were distended with fury; out on the edge of sight a flotilla of ships had hoisted sail, turning tail and running for home, and the men were screaming come back, come back—
—troopers looking at him with dull-eyed peasant defiance, refusing to move, standing shuffling in the trench while the broken Squadron troops rallied just out of rifle range, rallied and prepared to come back again across the ground littered with their dead—
—and Raj was standing on a hilltop, watching a whole battalion breaking forward out of the battle line, charging in ragged clumps; over their heads, over the scrub to their right he could see the sun winking on the steel of the dismounted Squadron warriors. Powder smoke filled the air, the rhythmic crashing of volley fire. Frantic orders spilled out of the viewpoint-Raj's mouth, and messengers spurred their dogs down from the hillock, but it was far too late. The Squadron gunmen crashed through the screen of brush and rose to fire their double-barreled muskets, loaded with ball and buckshot. The muzzles of the flintlocks were bell-shaped; that did little to spread the shot-cones, but it made the discharges thunder-loud. Thousands of lead balls made their own sound, like the humming of wasps. The hill was just too far away to hear much of the screaming.
Another wave of flame and noise, and another; the barbarians were carrying two or three muskets each, throwing them aside when fired and unslinging the next. Then they were drawing the great chopping blades slung over their backs and charging forward.
The binoculars came up to viewpoint-Raj's eyes. Tattooed faces with long drooping mustaches sprang out. Many of them were frothing at the mouth as they shambled forward; some were chewing on the thick back edges of their long swords—
—and he was standing on a three-legged stool under a long beam, with a coarse sisal rope around his neck. It was fastened to the beam above, tightly enough that he had to rise on his toes on the wobbling surface. He could tell that, despite being limited to sight and sound in the vision, because of the little desperate catches of breath as he shifted; it is not easy to balance like that, with hands tied tightly behind the back. A crowd of Squadron civilians shifted and seethed behind a barrier of warriors standing with the points of their swords resting on the earth; they screamed curses in guttural Namerique and threw things, lumps of cow dung and tomatoes. A barbarian noble was walking along in the shadow the beam threw, black on the white dust of the square. His floppy-brimmed leather hat was tooled and inlaid with silver, and there were jewels in the hilt of his sword. Raj's viewpoint saw him pause at each stool, each stool supporting a Civil Government officer.
At some he kicked the support out with a booted foot, watching for a moment while the prisoner writhed and kicked. Before the others he put the point of his sword on flesh and pushed with gradually increasing force until the victim's feet slipped. Each time there was a roaring cheer from the bystanders. His grin was broad as he stopped before Raj and rested the point of the blade on his genitals—
* * *
—and Raj opened his eyes and looked down at the woman.
"You'll have justice," he said, laying a hand on Horace's neck. "Military justice."
Which was to real justice as military music was to music, but you settled for what was available.
"Captain Foley," he said, swinging down out of the saddle and looping the reins over the pommel. Horace folded to the earth with a grateful muff and laid his chin flat on the ground, watching and hiking up his ears. "Attend, if you please. Lieutenant Dyaz, you as well. Have your man bring chairs: do you have a watch-stander here?" Watch-standers received extra pay and reduced duties in return for literacy.
"Ah, yes—Sergeant Hiscobar."
"Have him join us and take notes, if you please, Lieutenant. We'll use this table. And—" He looked behind him; yes, the 5th's chaplain was with the guard platoon. "Under-Hierarch Dohminko, do the honors, please."
Dyaz's dull eyes flickered with belated recognition—three commissioned officers were the standard for a court-martial on a capital case—and began to snap orders. Soldiers of the watch platoon set up the cleared table facing the cages, with three chairs behind it.
"You," Raj went on, "get those witnesses here. You and you—" He changed his mind and turned to the ranks of the 5th. "Lieutenant Gonhalvez, a squad to bring out the prisoners, please."
Eight of the Descotters dismounted and started toward the cage, winding the lashes of their dogwhips around one hand to use the flexible hafts and iron-bound pommels as clubs. The infantry backed away, keeping their bayoneted rifles leveled. The Descotter noncom in charge of the squad checked for a moment, turning to look at them.
"Ye peon dickheads, put them stickers up, an' git yer fingers off the triggers," he snarled. "Now, do it now, er we'll ram 'em up yer bums."
The infantrymen backed away and fell into line, nervously clicking on their safeties and sloping arms.
"And hand over t' key." One of them extended it gingerly.
"Right," he said, turning his full attention back to the cages. "Everybody ready." The cavalry troopers withdrew the sabers from the taches at the left sides of their belts and stacked the weapons in tripods, brass basket hilts together; then they rolled up the sleeves of their uniform jackets.
The cells were cubes of welded iron bars, fastened along the edges with thumb-thick nuts and bolts for easy take-down. The door was fastened with an ordinary iron padlock. He turned the lock with a click and threw back the door.
Whump. The dazed-looking Skinner came up off the floor like a hyperactive sack-racer and sprang into the air, kicking out with his bound feet. His judgment was a little off, or he might have missed his footing on the uncertain iron-bar floor, and the sergeant was already blocking; instead of breaking the trooper's neck the feet punched into his stomach and knocked him back a dozen paces, winded. The other Skinner hopped forward, growling.
The Descotters piled into the cage, cursing and swinging the weighted handles of their dogwhips. The sergeant followed, limping.
The chaplain was standing before the officers, holding out the small-print copy of the Canonical Handbook that was part of his kit. All three extended their left hands to touch it, gripping their personal amulets with their right.
Saint Wu, aid me now, Raj prayed fervently. The circuit-board amulet he bore had been blessed by her, over a century ago. Beside him Foley was licking his lips nervously; it was hard to remember the boy—man—was still over a year short of twenty, sometimes. And he had never sat on a court-martial.
"You are met here to decide on a matter of human life," the priest said. He spoke pure Capital-dialect Sponglish, a bit surprising, since his features and the old saber-slash down one cheek made him look like a caricature of a thirty-year man out of the County backwoods. "Do you acknowledge this?"
"The Spirit of Man of the Stars is with us always; Its justice is perfect, even as all data is stored in Its cores, ROMed forever. Do you acknowledge this?"
"Do you swear to act with impartial justice, excluding all tainted Data Entry, exercising only the Authorized Codes, deviating not from the subroutines of Correct Evaluation?"
"Then may your souls receive Input from the Holy Terminal, be lifted into the Orbits of Righteousness, and be as one with the Net; spared from all infection of the Virus of Corruption, in the name of Holy Federation Church. Endfile."
"Endfile," they murmured.
Raj sat, his left foot making the automatic sweep that knocked the scabbard of his saber out of the way; the homey familiarity of the motion bringing home the strangeness of the action. I've killed and ordered killings before, he thought. But these are my men. Part of the force under his command, at least . . . So was Private Floreyz Magon, he reminded himself coldly. And even Halfas Arreyo was a citizen of the Civil Government of Holy Federation.
"Bring forth the prisoners," he said.
Battered and bleeding anew, the Skinners were shoved and hauled to within double arm's length of the table. The sergeant was a disciplined man, and did not use the improvised club in his hand on them again, although it was quite obvious how much he would have liked to.
Raj's head turned to the clot of witnesses. Several of them flinched, trying to hide among a miniature crowd of a dozen or so; most of them looked to be the type for whom any sort of court was bad news. He pointed at one in a brown jacket with the remains of a good lace cravat and silver-buckled shoes.
"You. Did you see the deceased killed?"
"Yes, Messer General," the man said.
"By the accused?"
"Yes, Messer General."
"Did he provoke them?" A blank look. "Did he strike first? Insult them?"
"No, Messer General. Halfas was pretty dumb, but not that dumb. He just sort of smiled when he raked in the pot."
"Were the accused drunk?"
"Yes, Messer General, at least, they'd been knocking back the arrack pretty fast. Hard to tell with barbs, you know? Staggering drunk, I'd've said, but then they moved so fast . . . Anyways, there was a pipe going around, mahrawan, and I think it had some opium in it."
Raj nodded. "Did any of the rest of you see the fight?" he said.
One of the witness half-raised his hand. "Weren't a fight, m'lord," he said. "One held him, other cut him. Cut him slow. When the gunboys got there, the barbs just grabbed the first one and turned his head around till it looked backways, then the others, ones that didn't run, just started hitting the barbs with their rifle butts and stuff. Would have run myself if I hadn't had to go within reach of 'em to get out the door."
Raj turned back to the Skinners. "Hustai able Sponglishi?" he said: do you speak Sponglish? Blank looks answered him; he was close enough to smell the mercenaries, a mixture of the fresh sweat and blood that ran down their bare brown chests and a heavy spoiled-butter stink.
"Say hum," he said, scrabbling mentally for fragments of Paytoiz, the Skinner tongue. Suddenly they were there, with the crystalline authority of Center's insertions.
"Say hum," he repeated. "This man, did you kill him?"
The more alert-looking of the Skinners blinked, then grinned broadly at hearing someone speak his language. Even then, Raj wondered suddenly why Center hadn't provided such fluency last year; it would have been useful dealing with the Skinner troops out east.
unlike mine your information storage capacity is limited, Center replied.
"Napas hum," the Skinner said: Not a man. "Just a farmer. I, Luk Belhok, I kill him; he steal our money, the pig." The Skinner lofted a gobbet of spit toward the mutilated corpse. "You got any drink, sojer-man? My friend and I are thirsty."
"Did you kill the soldier?"
"No—too drunk, too much black smoke. My friend, Loway Daygus, he kill the blue-shirt." The other mercenary looked up and nodded, smiling himself. "He look so surprised! We laugh very much."
"Did you know that that was against the law of this army?"
Both the Skinners broke into high-pitched giggling and hoots.
"We fraihum, Real Men!" the first said indulgently, as if explaining something to a retarded child. "Kill when we want, take what we want. Maybe we kill you, eh? Where is the drink?"
"Let the record show," Raj said, pitching his voice slightly higher, "that the accused have confessed to the crime." He glanced to either side. Foley was slightly grey under his natural brown, digging at the wicker of the table with the point of his hook.
"Guilty," he said softly, not meeting his superior's eyes.
"Guilty," Dyaz said stolidly, slightly bored.
Raj stood. "By the authority vested in me, and under the judgment of Holy Church, I pronounce these men guilty of the murders of Halfas Arreyo, freeman of Cyudad Harenaz and citizen commoner of the Civil Government, and of Private Third Class Floreyz Magon. The murder of Halfas Arreyo was with insufficient provocation; the murder of their fellow soldier without provocation. Sentence is death on both counts. May the Spirit of Man of the Stars edit their core programs and reunite them with the Net. Endfile."
He dropped his eyes from the eastern horizon, sun-dazzle sparkling across his retinas as he turned to the Descotter sergeant. When he spoke again his voice had the unmusical timber of struck cast iron.
"Yes, ser," the noncom said.
Two troopers trotted their mounts out from the guard company and tossed the nooses of their lariats over a branch of the oak tree, snubbing the other ends through the rings on the horns of their saddles, vakaro style. The Skinners struggled for a moment as the squad hustled them toward the dangling loops, then began singing in a high-pitch chanting wail, their death-songs.
Muffled by distance, drums began to roll in an endless ratatatatatat, beating to arms.
* * *
Another of the 15mm Skinner bullets went by overhead, slanting off into the west. None of the fire had been aimed, not yet, but the noise inside the Skinner encampment was growing steadily; screams, shrieks of rage, the throb of tomtoms. He could see clots of them eddying about, some dancing in shuffling circles, barking and wailing, others talking with the wild gesticulations Skinners used when they were upset. A few would run out of the tangle of hide shelters and bedrolls every now and then to shout defiance at the thin scatter of Regulars they could see on the ridges around their bivouac, turning to wiggle and slap their naked buttocks at the Civil Government troops above. A chant was growing throughout the camp, centered on the largest shelter, where a two-meter sauroid skull stood on a long pole. Mi-herda mau-dit, Mi-herda mau-dit . . .
Raj raised his binoculars, and the toothy grin of the beast-head standard sprang out, the hollow eyesockets and fangs the length of a bayonet. The chiefs were beneath it, arguing furiously.
That thing would have been fifteen meters tall, when it was alive and walking on its hind legs. Fifteen meters and twenty-five metric tons of muscle coated in hide that secreted metal into its scales.
"Raj Whitehall, this is stupid," Gerrin Staenbridge hissed beside his commander's ear. Quietly enough so that nobody else could hear, of course.
"Quite possibly, but it has to be done," Raj replied distantly. Does it? he asked in silence.
this course of action has the best probability of accomplishing the mission, Center said, probability of your death is 21% ± 7%. within acceptable parameters.
Acceptable to you, perhaps, Raj thought. Aloud to Staenbridge: "Now, soldier, shut up and soldier."
success will increase your charisma factor by a useful degree as well, Center added.
Raj closed his eyes for a moment and prayed, raising one hand and laying the other flat against his ear in the formal gesture. O, Spirit of Man of the Stars, guide me, he asked. I do not fear to die in Your service—much—but I ask that You ensure that it furthers the return of Holy Federation and our reunion with the Stars. Download unto me that which I most need, though it be that which I fear most. Endfile.
He opened his eyes. Suzette was standing beside him, in pleated white-linen riding pants and tunic, but still in her blond court wig and party makeup. There was no mistaking the stubborn set of the cupid's-bow mouth, though, or the white-knuckled grip on the Colonial repeating carbine she carried. Her palfrey Harbie stood behind her, tugging slightly at the reins and wagging its tail with a supplicating look. The bitch knew when its owner was about to ride into danger. . . .
"Scramento" he said, letting his shoulders slump. It really was dangerous to pray; you might get what you asked for.
"Get out of here. I don't have time to argue," he said in a fierce hiss.
"No, you don't. And you can't afford to in front of the men, not right now," she said, sliding a hand through his elbow. Her smile was a little forced, but only a little.
messa whitehall's presence reduces the possibility of your failure by a factor of 10% ± 3%, Center said unhelpfully, a public quarrel at this time will substantially increase probability of failure of your mission.
"Scramento!" he said, with more feeling. And there was no time to order a couple of troopers to cart her off bodily. For that matter, only 5th men were in sight, and they might refuse. A lot of the 5th Descott considered their general's Messa to be a lucky charm, or a witch, or both.
"All right," he said bitterly. "If you must give me more problems."
Suzette winced at that, but she walked back to mount Harbie without another word. He regretted the words, but there was no time for others.
Raj straddled Horace's back, the toes of his riding boots finding the stirrups automatically. Iron hobnails clicked on the steel, and Horace whined at the smell of his rider's fear, looking over one shoulder.
"It's all right, boy," Raj said. I hope. As an afterthought he took off his helmet and clipped it to the ring on the saddlebag.
The volunteer standardbearer closed up on his right and Suzette on his left. It was his personal banner, awarded with his promotion after Sandoral: the ancient Whitehall blazon, a stripe of white over a stripe of red, with a blue triangle at the staff-end marked with a single star. Legend had it that an ancestral Whitehall had borne it from the planet Tekhanos. . . .
He looked behind, nodded once to Staenbridge—poor bastard, you'll be in charge if I die—and touched a heel to Horace's flank.
"Nice and slow, boy," he said; the dog twitched ears in recognition and went forward at a walk, up and over the ridge. It was no accident the Skinners were camped in a hollow; nobody in their right minds wanted those sauroid-killer guns with a clear field of fire toward anyone else. The Skinner idea of a practical joke included things like shooting a cigarette out of your mouth at a hundred meters.
If it took your head off instead, that was even funnier.
Silence fell as the three dogs walked over the ridge and down the long slope, rippling out like rings in water from the men who noticed them first. The chant that had been growing—had been whipping the whole six hundred or so of the savages into a blood-frenzy—faltered and died as the mercenaries recognized the general. Many of them had been with the Army of the East in Sandoral last year, and most of the rest had seen him since. Raj kept moving at the same slow swaying walk until they were a hundred meters down the shallow slope, more than halfway to the first of the straggling hide shelters. Close enough to see the faces of individual men, and to see the round muzzle-holes of the big rifles. A hundred or so were pointing his way, enough to tear him and Horace both to butcher's-meat gobbets.
Him and Horace and Suzette too.
Raj let the reins slack on Horace's neck and clicked his tongue softly. The hound stopped and stood stock-still, lowering his head and lolling tongue. Then Raj stood in the stirrups and raised one hand in the air.
A buzz of sound came from the Skinner camp. Behind him came the thud of nearly a thousand feet, and the multiple rattle of equipment. The 5th Descott's color-party stopped on the ridge, the bannerman planting the staff and letting the bullet-marked silk and the campaign ribbons flutter free, trumpeter and drummer to either side. All along the ridge the unit deployed in dismounted close-order, the first rank marching over and going to one knee, the second halting when head and shoulders showed over the ridge. Bayonets flashed as the rifles went to slope, held at a forty-five degree angle across the chest. Not aiming, but ready. Regularly spaced along the line were the company pennants. A few sharp calls came from noncoms and junior officers, correcting dressing, and then the loudest sound was the wind snapping the banners.
Raj waited until the voices died down among the Skinners, then slowly swung his arm and pointed to the right, the east. Barked orders sounded, and the ridge sprouted a crop, glittering bayonet points and the burnished gilt bronze of the Stars on the tops of the flagstaffs, then the rounded helmets of the men. Tap . . . tap . . . tap went the drums, over the crunching of boots in the soft soil; Kaltin Gruder called halt beside the banner of the 7th Descott Rangers, and the whole long formation crashed to a stop, then rippled as the front rank knelt and both brought their rifles to port.
He swung his arm over left, and the spectacle was repeated. The Rogor Slashers this time, frontiersmen from the southeastern districts. Then Raj pointed ahead, due south, where there was low ground and a view of sandy flatlands and the curve of the beach. Another battalion double-timed into view to close that gap, trotting in earth-shaking unison in column of fours, a long snake of steel and blue coats and maroon legs; the officers beside their units with their sabers sloped back over their shoulders. Jorg Menyez and the 17th Kelden Foot: big fair men from the northwest, no better than any other despised peons in uniform, until their commander convinced them otherwise. He called, and the color party around him turned smartly left and marked time. Officers fell out and stood beside their pennant-bearers, holding out saber and arm to mark the line. The drum tapped one last time and the trumpet blew; the foot soldiers halted and faced left like one man.
Behind them two eight-hitch teams of dogs appeared, each pulling a 75mm field gun and caisson. The gunners rode the guns, or the lead pair of dogs. Both weapons turned right and halted; the crews were leaping down before they fully stopped, unhitching, riding the teams out of range, the rest opening the caissons and pushing the fieldpieces forward through lanes between companies of the 17th. Ready to spill their canister loads of shot into the Skinner camp. Behind guns and infantry a battalion of cavalry came into view: smart-looking men in green-and-gold uniforms on currycombed Border Collies, sauroid-plume crests nodding from their helmets. Poplanich's Own, recruited from the estates of his old friend,
And the estates of his brother I killed to keep Barholm Clerett on the Chair, but let's hope they overlook that, Raj thought.
The cavalry halted and reined about, the dogs' muzzles dipping and rising as they turned. A shouted command, only a blur at this distance, and six hundred hands slapped down on saber hilts. Another, and the blades came out with a rasping clatter, bright and long, flashing up and then back to rest on the right shoulders of the troopers. The glitter was like sun on rippled water, almost painfully bright, moving as the dogs shifted weight from foot to foot and growled in basso unison. The Skinners were shouting again now, and a few random shots banged into the air. Solid as stone, the soldiers of the Civil Government waited.
Behind him Suzette's voice whispered. "I love you," she said.
"I love you too," Raj said quietly, through a focus that was narrowing his vision like a tunnel, down to the strait confines of the next five minutes.
The standardbearer chuckled softly. "Spirit bugger me blind, 'tis a honeymoon."
That brought Raj back to reality; he turned slightly in the saddle to bring the man's face into view. He was grinning, as if to ask what punishment Raj had in mind—being sent on a suicide mission, perhaps?
"What's your name, soldier—ah, Hallersen M'kintok, isn't it?"
"Yesser," the trooper said. "Yer won't catch me sleepin' this time, ser."
Ah, that snap inspection last year, Raj thought, facing front once more. Now, just enough time for the realities to sink in.
The Skinners were in a box; all the Regulars could deliver plunging fire without hitting each other, the cannon could rake them, and anyone who broke through would be cut down by the mounted men. Not that many would, with nearly three thousand rifles firing volleys at close range, not to mention the canister rounds from the guns. The Skinners' range and accuracy would be irrelevant, and the Armory rifles were faster-loading than the long guns the barbarians used.
The Skinners were savages but not stupid. The problem was that physical hardihood and courage were practically a religion with them. Skinner warriors would not, could not admit that fear of death altered their actions, especially not to themselves. No threat alone would be sufficient, no matter how deadly. He touched the heel of his boot to Horace's side again, and the three walked their dogs forward. Dead silence fell as they passed the perimeter of the Skinner camp, if anything so loosely organized could be called by that name. It stank, although not too badly after only one night ashore, just smelled as you'd expect where six hundred men and riding dogs had all been pissing and crapping wherever the impulse took them; he shuddered to think what their transports must be like. More and more of them fell in behind him and followed, a few mounted, most walking afoot with a bowlegged swing. When he drew rein before the skull-standard there were hundreds pressing about him, their breath and body-odor rank.
The chiefs looked up at him silently. That was bad; no ritual insults, no half-serious threats, and no offer of liquor. Raj waited impassively until the senior chieftain spoke; it was the same man who had commanded them last year. The one who had brought him the head of Jamal, the Settler of the Colony, when they drove the wogs back over the border in defeat.
"You kill mes gars, my men, sojer-boy," he growled. "I, Juluk Paypan, no like! Hang on rope, not warrior death, no death for fraihum, Real Man."
"Yes, I killed them," Raj replied loudly in the man's own language; he saw the Skinner blink at his sudden command of Paitoiz. "They killed a Civil Government tribesman"—as close as you could get to "citizen" in this hog-tongue—"and one of my men, without cause."
He stood in the stirrups. "Any warrior who feels a wrong can come to me with it, as a free man to his chief. Anyone who mutinies, anyone who kills his comrade, I will kill like the mad dog he is!"
Another murmur from the Skinners, and the long rifles slanted up and away from him.
Juluk Paypan scratched himself. "You got balls need both hands to carry, sojer-man," he said half-reluctantly; he eyed Suzette sidelong, fingering charms against witchcraft. "Wrongs—we got plenty wrongs!"
"Then come and tell them to me, in one hour at my tent. Tell me to my face, not whining in corners like old women."
He turned Horace sharply, the dog twisting into a U to reverse in its own length, then rode at the same ambling walk directly at the wall of Skinner bodies, free hand on his hip and eyes raised to the middle distance. The barbarians parted from them; he heard whispers. Baraka, spirit-power; wheetigo, devil-saint-wizard. None of them looked back until they were through the ranks of the 5th and over the slope from the Skinner camp.
Raj hung over the pommel of his saddle for a moment, gasping.
"Darling! Are you all right?" Suzette asked; her face was gray as well, white around the lips.
He took a deep shaky breath, and scrubbed a hand across his face. The palm came away slick.
"I just didn't expect it to work," he said frankly, and then grinned, fighting a surge of light-headed well-being as dangerous as panic. "I thought it would work—wouldn't have done it, otherwise—but I didn't believe it would work, not really."
my calculations, Center said with a trace of reproach, are invariably accurate within the limits of available data.
* * *
"Come forward, fellow soldiers," Raj said.
He was seated at his table in the command tent, with the front flap pinned open to leave a three-sided room four meters on a side; over the delegations' head he could look down through the bustle of the camp to the beach and the ships at anchor beyond. The tide was coming in, coming quickly with Miniluna and Maxiluna in harmony, and the first black lines of troops were forming up to board the ships small enough to come aground. Longboats ferried more to the big three-masters farther out, and columns of black smoke reached into a cloudless sky as the warships stoked banked furnaces and made steam. There was a fresh breeze setting in parallel to the coast, smelling of salt and coalsmoke.
"Come forward," he said again. The Companion officers were standing behind him at easy parade rest, with their helmets under their arms, and the open flap of the tent was flanked by troopers standing at ease. "No names, no pack drill; I said I'd hear your complaints, and I will."
The delegation was about a dozen men. Not just Skinners; there were the blue coats of Regular officers, and four or five commanders of tribal levies and mercenaries. Two big blond Halvardii, with butter-slicked braids and long halberds and multiple flintlock pistols stuck through their belts; a few Brigade types in their short-waisted fringed buckskin jackets; and a Stalwart from the far northwest, with the back of his head shaved and dressed in a long horizontally-striped knitted jersey and jerkin. His face, arms and legs were pink and peeling with sunburn; the leather jerkin was sewn with bracelet-sized iron rings, a dozen of them serving as holders for light throwing-axes. For the rest he carried two cut-down double-barreled shotguns in holsters, and a full-length model in his hands.
"You Messers first," Raj said to the Skinner chiefs. At a sign an orderly brought them cups of gin.
"Pig vomit," one said after tasting, and then both gulped the clear liquid down.
Good, Raj thought. They've calmed down.
"Look, sojer-man," Juluk said almost genially, speaking Sponglish for the others' benefit: "We Real Men, we want go home, hunt sauroid, fuck our own women, teach our sons. Bargain with Big Stone-House Chief Barholm say we fight one year, then one more year if we say yes. One year finish in three tens of days, and we say no more. Fight enough. We not like your way, all the time, don't do this, don't do that, get on big water and puke our guts."
The Stalwart nodded somberly, and spoke next in a nasal dialect of Namerique; the man beside him translated:
"True, lord. You are a harsh man; one of my warriors was fined because he beshat as a man should, behind a bush. We do not like this digging of holes. Or walking back and forth while blue-coat soldiers with marks on their arms shout at us. We fight as men should, running forward to meet the foe whenever we see him. Another of my men was whipped like a slave because he took the blood of one who called him a heretic! We do not like your harsh, cruel ways. We will follow you and fight because we are true to our salt. All know we will every man of us die in far lands beneath the Squadron guns and lie in nameless graves forgotten of our kindred. So you should be less harsh and unforgiving and ungracious with us. I, Hwilli Morgen, have spoken."
He thumped himself on the chest for emphasis, making several of the axes jingle. Since he had the shotgun in that hand, the men to the side ducked back to avoid the muzzle.
"Your pardon, Messer General," one of the Regulars said, taking a half pace forward and saluting crisply. "The barb's right, more or less. Spirit knows few enough of us are likely to sail back into East Residence. Sir, doesn't it make sense to cut the men a little slack?"
The Halvardii nodded and thumped the butts of their halberds on the ground; Raj waited, but the mountaineers were as notoriously parsimonious of their words as their money.
"That's all any of you have to say?" the commander said. "Very well." He paused, looking down at his fingers on the table, then back up at the men.
"Messers," he began, meeting their eyes. "I'm a soldier, like yourselves. I know we're going into a dangerous campaign, we're outnumbered, all of that." He let the words sink in. "So our hope, our only hope of coming through alive, most of us—and of winning—is with the Spirit.
"Yes, the Spirit of Man"—he left out the "of the Stars"; several of those present were Spirit of Man of This Earth cultists—"is our only hope. And the Spirit will not be with an army if that army forgets justice—justice within its ranks and justice to the helpless it is our duty to protect."
His hand thumped the table as he stood. "And so in this army there will be justice—justice enforced the only way it can be, by discipline. For all our sakes, because without that the Spirit will forsake us, and I say to you that I know as if a holy vision had told me that without the Spirit we will wander in little bands across the Southern Territories. And the Squadrones will fall on us like an avalanche from orbit and slaughter us piecemeal. So you can obey me or kill me, Messers, because I'll die where I stand rather than fail to do my duty, for the Spirit of Man and for the army the Spirit has called me to lead."
Silence echoed; the delegation stared at him wide-eyed, as did many of the guards outside. A feeling like a warm flush crossed his skin, and suddenly he felt conscious of their stares. Did I say all that? he thought.
"Wheetigo," Paypan murmured. The others shuffled their feet, speechless.
"Dismissed," Raj said. "We have an army to embark."
He sat as they walked away, beginning to talk among themselves, feeling as if the strings of his tendons had been cut.
i had not expected the situation to be defined in these terms, Center's mind-voice said, but it seems to have served the purpose.
Purpose indeed, Raj thought But whose?