"Piggie! Su-su-su-su! Come t' papa, piggie, pappa loves yer—git 'im, boys!" Sergeant Hallersen M'kintock called; emphatic, but not loud. This was the first opportunity for some fresh meat since they landed this morning, and he didn't intend to waste it.
The pig was a rangy young shoat, half-wild and suspicious of the strange-smelling men; it turned and made a dash off through the scrub, leaving a scent like bergamot as it crushed the native succulents. A riding dog with its reins looped up over the saddle horn rose in its path and lunged, snapping shut its half-meter jaws with a sound like a wet door slamming. Squealing panic the shoat turned at a ninety-degree angle and made tracks. Two troopers leapt for it; one landed facedown in a patch of wait-a-while thorn, and the other across the pig's hindquarters. He rose with a grunt of effort and his arms locked around the animal's midsection. Another soldier stepped in and grabbed the pig deftly by the ear, avoiding its frenzied snap, and drove the bayonet in his hand up under its jaw. The beast wheezed, kicked a few times and died.
Two others were grinning as they helped their luckless comrade out of the organic barbed wire. The brush rustled, more so when several chicken-sized sauroids with short horns on their noses and lines of feathers down their forearms scuttled away from under the thrashing body.
"Better 'n the circus, Halfons," one of the troopers said. "Saynchez, ye and Smeeth git 'im bled out an' gutted," the sergeant cut in, cocking one eye up at the sun through the branches of the maquis. About four hours until they were relieved . . . "Carmanaz, bait the dogs with th' offal 'n find us sommat wild garlic 'n greens."
Halfons Carmanaz was a recruit signed up only a few months before the Expeditionary Force left East Residence, fresh down from the County.
"Yer never goin' to waste the blood an' guts, Sergeant?" he said, mopping at his scratched and bloody face and gaping at the noncom. He hung his head when the other soldiers laughed.
"Yer not home on yer daddy's fuckin' farm, butt-fuckin' sheep, Carmanaz," the sergeant said patiently. "And yer momma ain't here t' make us all blood sausage 'n' chitterlin's, neither."
"Tum-te-tum," Billi Saynchez hummed, stripping off his bluejacket and the gray cotton shirt underneath. He pulled a short double-bladed knife out of his boot—a bayonet was as long as a forearm, far too much for butchering—and made two diagonal slashes in the pig's throat as his companion threaded a thong through its anklebones and hauled it up on an overhead branch, turning it to one side to avoid the first thick stream of blood.
"Say, Sergeant—what is this place, anyhows?" he said, making the long incision from anus to neck. It was a pleasant, homey task; he stopped to strop the knife on his pocket hone before making the next cut. Reminds me a' fall, he thought nostalgically. Pa and his brothers diving into the pen and catching the slaughter pigs on a frosty morning, Ma and his sisters getting the big scalding-pots boiling, the dogs wuffling in the stable as they scented blood. . . .
"Thisshere's Stern Island," the sergeant said.
"Them Squadron barbs run it?"
"Nao. Different bunch a' Spirit-deniers, t' Brigade—friendly heathen, loik, er so the El-Tee says. Er at least theyuns don't like the Squadron much. We'z t' rest up an' refit here, loik. Buy stuff. Mebbe a week. Then we sails on an' gits to the fightin'."
"They say them Squadron barbs is all crazy fer blood, 'n they eat their prisoners' balls," Carmanaz said.
The others chuckled. "Don't git yers all drawed up, every one a' them barbs dies when yer shoots er sticks 'em," Billi said, hooking his fingers underneath the skin and slitting it away from the layer of fat. "Hey, Sergeant—d'ye think they'll be hoors, here?"
"What's it to ye, Snow-Balls—" the sergeant began; then a call came, like the trilling of a dactosauroid. That was one of the lookouts.
"Scramento," the sergeant said, diving for his rifle and helmet. Half the squad went to ground along the ridge where they had caught the pig; the others followed M'kintock down the slope. Their dogs came to heel at call and trotted sure-footed at their masters' wake, through scrub and then an apricot orchard, until the ground leveled out. There was an old stone-lined irrigation channel there, fairly well-kept and gurgling with cold water from a spring a kilometer to the south; the road ran just west of that through an orange grove, an eight-meter curve of rutted dirt sketchily covered in gravel.
"Sergeant," a soldier in the top of one of the trees said. "Riders comin'. 'Bout fifty er sommat more, ridin' obvious-loik."
The troops fell in on either side of the road, taking firing positions behind the tufa boulders that scattered across the soft volcanic soil, with their dogs crouched behind them. Sergeant M'kintock slung his rifle and drew his saber, waiting in the middle of the road.
"Yer a credit t' the County," he called up to the observer. "Smeeth, ye ride t' get the El-Tee. These is supposed t' be good barbs. So any bastid pops a round before I tells him, gits a new asshole cut with this." The blade went back and forth twice with a whirt-whirt sound.
"What if they ain't friendly barbs?" Carmanaz asked, nervously working the lever of his rifle and licking his thumb to wet the foresight.
M'kintock grunted and spat aside. "Then they gits to learn t' price of a Descott boy's balls, eh? Shut yer gob."
* * *
"How do you keep the outposts so alert, Major?" said Regional Commander Boyce. "I didn't see the ones under cover until that sergeant stopped us."
"Discipline and constant vigilance," Kaltin Gruder replied. Not least the outposts' vigilance about inspections, when there wasn't any real danger. No need to mention that to the Brigade overlord, of course.
Farther back in the mounted column one of the Brigade nobles muttered something in Namerique, something about dishonorable hiding like bandits. Probably he didn't expect the Civil Government officer to understand his language. Few non-Brigade members did, and members generally dealt with their civilized underlings in Spanjol, which was the common tongue of the provinces the Military Governments had overrun, and still officially the second language of the Civil Government. Kaltin Gruder spoke Arabic and Spanjol and Namerique and had a fair smattering of Old Namerique and Neosawhil and Afraantu as well; it was a minor gift, like the ability to learn juggling quickly.
He turned slightly in the saddle. The fifty or so brightly-clothed figures behind him bore no more than ceremonial arms, and many had brought their wives; the thirty battalions of Civil Government troops in the Expeditionary Force vastly outgunned anything the Brigade had on Stern Island. They were assuming—rightly—that the Civil Government did not want a war with the masters of the Old Residence, yet. Either that assumption was correct, and they were safe, or it was wrong—and then nothing short of a relief force from Carson Barracks would be any use. And Carson Barracks was over a month's sail away.
Gruder's face swept the line of guests, flanked between two double columns of 7th troopers. There were other ways of communicating than with languages. . . . He knew they were looking at his face: not that the scars were anything very drastic, just a series of white lines reaching up from the high cloth collar of his uniform tunic and over the cheek and into the hair. One cut a little V into the lower lip. Nothing very bad, although he had been a handsome man in a square-jawed Descotter fashion. He still was, they told him; at least, women still seemed to like it, although usually women of a rather different type than before. It always made him flush, though, when people looked at the scars, and that made them stand out more despite his oiled-wood natural color. It made him remember his brother looking around, and then his chest splashing open under the pompom round—
Which had an effect on his expression he knew quite well by now. His eyes met one of the Brigade officers, and the man looked aside. Suddenly realizing that the geopolitical considerations did not necessarily apply to him, personally.
Well, he had to be an idiot or totally inexperienced to say something like that, Gruder thought, turning back. The Brigade had not seen much serious fighting around here for a generation or more. Though come to that, he could think of Civil Government aristocrats just as brainless. Some of them with the Force.
Commander Boyce had noticed the brief byplay, and his lips compressed into a line for a moment. Boyce was a diplomat.
I don't envy that loudmouth, Gruder thought ironically.
"We should be coming up on our perimeter soon," he said aloud.
The escort party was riding down out of the hills that made up the spine of Stern Island's western peninsula. They were closer to the coast here on the northern shore; Wager Bay was ten kilometers away on the south side, a fine natural harbor and the island's largest city amid broad coastal plains. On the north the forested hills gave way to a steplike series of tablelands, some in mixed scrub of illex and thornbush, some cultivated in orchard crops.
The noonday sun was hot, and sweat soaked his armpits and trickled down his back. The Expeditionary Force had traveled south into summer as they sailed. It baked out smells of resin from the umbrella pines along the road, lavender and the cooking-spice smells of native Bellevue scrub. Life-forms not intimidated by riding dogs or humans whirred or fluted or hissed. . . .
And the delegation stirred, murmuring, as they rode a switchback down the last escarpment and got their first clear view of the encampment.
"How long did you say you'd been here?" Boyce said, then answered himself with a wave of his hand to show the question had been rhetorical: less than twenty hours. "You've been busy."
Gruder nodded. Impressing the locals was not the object, but it was a useful by-product. Almost all of the force was ashore, the smaller transports drawn up on the broad, gently curving beach, the others anchored out in the bay, and the dozen steam warships in a rank beyond that. On shore the tents were going up in severely regular rows along the camp-city's streets, grouped by company and battalion, each one holding an eight-man section. The dog-lines stretched endlessly, equally neat, with a thunderous barking as the evening tubs of mash were carried out. The artillery park stood at the eastern end of the camp, thirty guns standing nose-to-tail with the harness laid out ready for the teams. A ditch, earth berm, and firing-trench ran all around the perimeter, and groups of men could be seen marching or riding in formation along the streets or in the broad trampled space outside the main gate.
The marketplace was to the west, behind rope barriers, and even that was fairly organized under the vigilant eye of troops with guardia armbands. Muzzaf's work, Kaltin knew; the Komarite could tell you exactly how to get merchants to do what you wanted with the minimum of fuss. Wagonloads of fresh produce were already streaming in, herds of slaughter stock milled, and a coastal schooner was unloading sacks of flour and vegetables.
Most of the Brigade people looked extremely impressed.
Thank the Avatars of the Spirit they weren't there to see the first couple of camps, he thought, leaning back in the saddle as the dogs took the last of the slope. Shambolic chaos.
"Advance and be recognized!"
"Major Gruder and escort, with the Honorable Messer Commander Boyce and party," Kaltin replied. The officer of the watch saluted with his saber and the men lowered their weapons.
"What are those men doing?" Boyce's wife said, pointing across the broad stubble field.
"Drill, ma'am," Gruder said, with a broad smile. The woman was built like a wine tub and dressed in implausible gauzy fabrics, now rather dusty, and mounted on a slim little Afghan that was wheezing with the heat and the load. "That's the Colonial Countermarch, I think." Menyez was supervising, on his long-legged riding steer.
Several of the more militant Brigade members were watching with more than idle curiosity. Two infantry battalions were marching at the quickstep to the tap of the drums across the drill field, trotting with their rifles held across their chests; moving rectangles parallel to the road, four men broad and a hundred and fifty long. Twelve hundred feet struck the earth in unison, a sound that thudded through the dirt as much as the air. The colors at the head of each unit were cased in their cylindrical leather covers, but Gruder recognized the 17th Kelden Foot and the 55th Santanerr Rifles. He grinned to himself. Jorg Menyez had been working the foot soldiers unmercifully—a real shock after years in sleepy garrisons where little was expected of them. A tenth of their officers had been broken out of the service, and as many again had resigned their commissions. Raj had remarked what a pity it was that he couldn't do the same with some of the cavalry units—although their commanders had too much pull for that.
Bugles sounded and the drums beat. The columns had been following each other, well-spaced. Now the head of each turned sharply toward the road, making an L that shrank along one arm and grew on the other until the whole battalion was moving at right angles to its original course. Gruder's eyes narrowed; the 17th was doing it with machine precision, the inner man stamping in place while the outer lengthened his stride, but the 55th were having problems, bunching and sagging and losing their dressing. More showed when the bugles sounded again and the columns split into a T, double files peeling off at right-angles from the marker of the color party. That was supposed to leave the whole battalion deployed in double line with the colors in the center . . . but not if men forgot which way they were supposed to turn, which several of the 55th's embarrassingly did.
"Halt!" The drums crashed into silence.
"To the right—face!"
Now the two battalions were facing the road.
Menyez rode slowly down the line, from the ruler-straight 17th to the clumped and ragged 55th. At last he spoke.
"Soldiers . . . men of the 55th Santanerr Rifles. I am disappointed in you." He pointed to his left, at the 17th. "That is the way to do it properly." His arm swung back. "This is not the way to do it."
There was a ripple down the ranks which grew to an almost moan as Menyez signaled, and the color party of the 55th marched out and turned over the pole with the furled banner to the detachment with the commander. Menyez reached out and touched the flagstaff gently.
"You will get it back when you've earned it. 17th may return to quarters."
The 17th's banner-party advanced to the front five paces, turned smartly right and marched down the line. When they came to the end of it they reversed, and the double file of men there followed, bending the formation in a U; when they reached the other end the battalion was back in a formation of fours, and it made two sharp turns onto the road and marched back into camp. Jorg Menyez spurred his beast over to the Brigade party, grinning under a covering of dust.
Behind him a stentorian bellow rang out in a drawling Kelden County accent. "BLOODY MARTYRED AVATARS' BLEEDING WOUNDS, DOES YO MOMMAS STILL HAVE TO HOLD YUH COCKS WHILE YO PEE? NOW WE DO IT AGAIN, GIRLS, AND THIS TIME—"
"Kaltin," Menyez said, smiling. He inclined his head back to where the luckless 55th was trying the formation again, and going without dinner to do it. "I've lent them Master Sergeant Tobol. They're not happy, but he has a magic charm for making riflemen out of mud."
Kaltin made the introductions; Menyez nodded amiably enough, slapping at the dust on his tunic.
"I'm for a bath," he said finally. "See you at Messer Raj's for the reception."
Gruder was conscious of Boyce's slight surprise; interesting that he caught the linguistic subtlety. That was the form of address an old family retainer might use for the young master, not what another member of the upper classes would employ. The whole army had taken it up, now: Messer Raj will do you right, or Try and old-soldier Messer Raj and you'll be sorry and sore.
He grinned. Raj hated it, of course.
* * *
Mill and swill, Raj thought disgustedly. What a waste of time.
He composed his face hastily; Boyce was very sharp for a barbarian. Hardly a barb at all, despite the orthodox fringed leather jacket, beard, and huge sword. Of course, the Brigade presence had always been thin on Stern Island. Better than half the bigwigs Boyce had brought along were of the old nobility, the families who had ruled before the Brigade took the Western Territories from the Civil Government. Nor were many of the Brigade the hulking blonds of legend; then again, that would be true even in Carson Barracks, these days. Most of the Spanjol-speaking inhabitants of the Western Provinces were lighter-skinned than those of the Sponglish-speaking areas around East Residence; the Brigade members here seemed to be only a little taller and fairer, on average. Raj suspected many of them spoke Spanjol at home and Namerique only at formal gatherings.
The Squadron would be closer to the raw Northern beginnings.
"I was impressed with your camp, General," Boyce said. "And almost as much at the way you could entertain us so lavishly, at such short notice."
He made a gesture with the wineglass in one hand and the canape in the other.
"Largely Messa Whitehall's work," Raj said, sipping at his own glass.
It was Hillchapel slyowtz, plum brandy from the Whitehall estates in Descott County; meant to be sipped, but the locals were knocking it back fairly fast. Tearing into the buffet, too, one or two Brigade types reverting and picking up joints in their hands, and the civilian nobles shying aside with mortified expressions. There had been only one suitable building on the bay, a small manor-house owned by a civilian, non-Brigade landowner. Suzette's charm and East Residence polish and a substantial golden handshake had persuaded him to rent it and visit relatives elsewhere. Her traveling household and the manor servants had laid out this spread on the patio, decked it out with hangings and tapestries and Al Kebir rugs. The wrought-iron grilles of the gate framed a broad circle of beach and gave a view out to sea, where the moons cast two glittering paths over the water as the sun inclined to afternoon.
A squad of cavalry went by on the beach, heading out west to patrol, their rifle butts resting on their thighs. Raj smiled as he saw Boyce's eyes follow his.
"Yes," the chieftain said, turning back. "She's certainly put our local ladies in the shade."
Suzette was holding court, half a dozen local nobles vying for her attention and Administrator Berg looking smug. She was in full Court regalia, white-on-white patterned skirt of torofib, slit down the front and pinned back to show the glittering metallic embroidery of her tights and the platinum-and-diamond nets over her sandals; her belt was fretted silver, the bolero jacket above it cloth of gold with ruby dragons, and an ancient Star symbol crafted around a display crystal hung between her breasts. The long blond court wig hung shimmering down her back, covered with a fall of Novy Haifa lace and bound at the brow with padparascha sapphire. Every gesture and intonation was a work of art, and it was not the least of that art that she never seemed stiff or artificial.
It was more than that, or the clothes or the prestige of a great lady of East Residence, that gathered the crowd, though. Even from here, even after all these years Raj could feel the magnetism; the dour middle-aged politician beside him did too.
Raj took another sip of the plum brandy, somewhat larger this time. Boyce smiled and shook his head and looked away.
"There are times I'm glad to be fifty," he murmured to himself in Namerique. Then in his smooth capital-dialect Sponglish: "I'm happy to see that the diplomatic envoys of the Civil Government have been well-treated here . . . even if there are so many of them."
"Yes," Raj said, equally bland. "It's important that we reach the Lion City area with no unfortunate incidents. The Stalwarts are so difficult to deal with, little sense of civilized restraint."
That was the official reason the Expeditionary Force was here, that they were going to "discuss" the status of some port cities in the Western Territories held by the Stalwarts after several decades of war with the Brigade. Claimed by the Civil Government, of course, but not held by it for better than six hundred years. If I can make him believe that, I can sell pork to the Colonists, Raj thought.
Boyce smiled whitely in the vast pepper-and-salt bush of his beard. "Indeed. It's unfortunate that my government has had so little success in its diplomatic dealings with the Stalwarts."
Almost as little as in its military dealings, Raj noted. The Brigade had a more advanced military structure than the Stalwarts, but there was something to be said for several score thousand shrieking berserkers, too.
"Yes, conditions are unsettled. I understand there's trouble down in the Southern Territories, too."
Boyce raised a shaggy eyebrow. "Well, there's been rumors of trouble on Sadler's Island," he said; that was just off the west coast of the main peninsula that made up most of the Squadron lands. "But no, I wouldn't say there's been much trouble. Apart from that I couldn't say at all; my government has excellent relations with the Squadron—we are relatives and fellow-believers, after all—and I wouldn't dream of interfering in their affairs in any way."
In other words, letting us land here is as far as they'll go.
"A pleasure to meet you, young man," Boyce said, shaking Raj's hand; the grip was unexpectedly firm. "I'm sure you'll go far."
"And you likewise, Messer Boyce," Raj replied.
"Oh, I've gone just as far as I want," Boyce said. "Staying there is the problem." He bowed slightly to Raj and left, heading for the buffet and several cronies.
"Ah, Raj darling," Suzette said. It was her Court voice, smooth as buttered rum. "Look who Messer Berg has caught for me."
"Messer Hadolfo Reggiri, at your service," the man said. He was ordinary enough, well-dressed in a conservative southern provinces style, plain silk cravat and dark jacket with only a little jewelry. Slimmer than Berg, a little gray in the black of his hair and mustache, with the weathered look of a man who spent much time at sea.
"Hadolfo and I were at the Cyudad Gut town Academy together," Berg said expansively; his face was flushed a little with the wine. "He was always more adventurous than I, alas—he's been here on Stern Isle these twenty years, trading and doing very well."
"Trading in . . . ? "Suzette asked.
Reggiri looked at her, blinking. Normally a shrewd face, Raj thought, probably closed and secretive; you would have to be, trading in these waters, where there was little law. Now he looked as if he had been hit between the eyes with a rifle butt, quite hard.
"Ah, Messa—ah, saltpeter and rosauroid hides, mostly; wine, grain, dried fruit, wool, ironware, slaves—but mostly nitre and hides."
Aha. Raj felt his ears prickle. There were only two really good sources of saltpeter west of the Colony. One was in crusts in some soils of Diva County, part of the Civil Government . . . and the other was in caves on the desert fringe of the Southern Territories. Back before the Squadron took them, that had been one of the district's main sources of tax revenue, a government monopoly. Doubtless something of that sort now, too; Southern Territories saltpeter was exported to powder mills all over the Midworld Sea, even to East Residence, since it was cheaper than the domestic product. And rosauroids came from the central rocky hills just south of Port Murchison; their hides had high concentrations of silica, and were much in demand for factories, as power belting for transmission from steam engine drive shafts.
Anyone who dealt widely in those products would know a lot about the Squadron. He could tell the Squadron a great deal, too; and would, if he was thinking straight. A Civil Government administration in the Southern Territories would make the saltpeter a monopoly again, as sure as Tzetzas stole.
"Hadolfo . . . Messer Reggiri has been kind enough to invite me and Messer Berg to dinner at his country place," Suzette said. Her slim fingers rested on Raj's forearm. "Do say yes, my dear. We'll need an escort of course, but it's quite safe and only a few kilometers away."
"By all means," Raj grated. "I'm afraid I can't come, far too busy, but by all means . . ." Berg glowed, preening before his old friend. "Kaltin!" the General called.
"Messer Raj?" the younger officer said.
I wish they wouldn't keep calling me that, Raj thought, gritting his teeth against the need to lash out "Do me a favor, would you, and take . . . oh, a company, and M'lewis, and escort Messa Whitehall and Administrator Berg to this gentleman's manor? They'll be staying for dinner—and I'm sure you'll be welcome as well?"
Reggiri nodded without even taking his eyes off Suzette.
"I'd be glad to," Gruder lied coldly.
"And now if you'll excuse me:—my dear, make my apologies to our guests—I have a great deal to do." At least I inflicted M'lewis on him, Raj thought vindictively. He tossed back the slyowtz. M'lewis had the morals of a dactosauroid and the effrontery of a dockside rat . . .
* * *
The camp had settled into late-night routine by the time Raj was finished with the last of the personnel reports. Damn, this is like being a mayor of a city, he thought. Worse; most County capitals in the Civil Government had fewer people than the twenty-thousand-odd concentrated here. He was working in his tent; if the men slept under canvas so would he. And I used to be able to know the names of every man I commanded, he continued, pouring himself another glass of slyowtz and lighting a cigarette. Now I'm damned lucky if I can remember the officers and a few hundred more.
He took the glass and leaned on the tentpole, looking down the main avenue of the camp. There was little traffic, it was quiet enough to hear the laplaplap of waves down by the beach. Most of the troops were sleeping as men did after a hard day's work, glad enough of a hot meal and solid dry ground with room to stretch out. The camp had already taken on the universal smell of an army on the move: sweat and dogshit and greased iron and woodsmoke. Both moons were out and full, low on the horizon, silvering the sea and giving enough light to read by even without the coal-oil lantern hanging from the roof behind him. He took a long drag on the tobacco, holding it until it bit the lungs in a peculiar pleasure-pain, then blew it out at the moons.
The Canonical Handbook said that the True Earth had only one moon, smaller than either Miniluna or Maxiluna . . . there were whole schools of theology which debated whether that was literal, revealed Truth or mere allegory, like the Personal Computer that was supposed to watch over every soul, or the wars in heaven between the angels of the Apple of Knowledge and the Ibemmeraphim. Or whether this had once been the True Earth and so had only one moon, later split into two at the Fall, although that was dangerously close to the Spirit of This Earth heresy.
"I know," he murmured, taking another mouthful of the plum brandy. It burned, like white fire along his gullet, and he exhaled with a hard sshhha. "I've seen the True Earth and the Single Moon. I have a personal angel, access to all the wisdom of the Spirit's Mind."
"Sir?" The guard officer was a figure in shadow.
"Nothing, son. As you were."
exercise more care, Center said coldly in the back of his mind.
Quiet, he replied. "We all have our Operating Code, try and edit it as we will." You too, I suppose.
Faintly he heard the sound of a challenge and response from the main gate, and the squeal as the spike-studded logs were pulled aside. The muffled thumping of paws sounded down the deserted alleyways; another challenge came from a roving internal patrol, close enough to be separated into words.
"Escort party a' th' 7th Descott, returnin'," he heard.
"Advance and be recognized . . . Pass, friend."
But there were too few, far less than the company that had gone out. Eight men, a squad, and a ninth on a big shambling Chow. Administrator Mihwel Berg, sliding off with a sulky look on his face as he stalked into the puddle of yellow lamplight outside Raj's tent. His own was nearby, here in officer country.
"Messer Berg," Raj said. "Where are the others?"
Berg's thin face looked as if he had bitten into a lemon, and bloodshot eyes blinked behind his glasses. "Back there. With my friend Messer Reggiri. Your wife decided it was too late for anyone to come back, but I made it well enough." The bureaucrat glared at him like a rabbit turning on a hunting sauroid. "What do you propose to do about it?"
"Do?" Raj said. "Finish this bottle. Come on in, half drunk is only half done."
* * *
The remaining hundred and fifteen men of the escort company came into camp an hour after the dawn service. Most of the troops were at drill or fatigues, but there were enough left in the 7th's billet area to groan and whistle their envy at the escorts. The men were riding their usual dogs, mostly Descotter farmbreds, but each was leading two or three others on checkreins. The led dogs were Ridgebacks, a short-muzzled, long-legged breed easily distinguished by the odd upright curl of hair along the spine that gave the breed its name. These were pedigree animals, clean-limbed, bitches and geldings of two or three years and broken to the saddle; the breed was famous for its endurance in hot weather, and each animal was worth a year's pay for a cavalry trooper, possibly more. Their pack-saddles held coils of sausage, flagons of wine and boxes of cigarettes, sacks of Zanjian kave beans and cured hams from the Stalwart territories.
Gruder, M'lewis, and the company commander, Tejan M'brust, had extra dogs as well. They were also each accompanied by a woman on a palfrey-dog. The girls—none of them looked over seventeen—wore the collars that Brigade law required of slaves, but theirs were of thin chased silver. They carried light parasols to shade their complexions, necessary since two were blondes and one a redhead, and any of them would have fetched five hundred gold FedCreds in East Residence; not to mention their clothes and jewelry, and the twin suitcases each had on a packdog.
The officers reined in in front of the command tent and saluted; all of them were stone-faced, and Gruder did not meet Raj's eyes.
"Sir!" he barked. "Returning as ordered. Permission to report to my command, sir?"
"Nothing to report, Major?" Raj asked.
He heeled his dog around with unnecessary violence; the slave-girl squeaked and clutched at the pommel of her saddle as her mount followed his. Suzette dismounted and handed Harbie's reins to a groom.
"What, no presents for me?" Raj said softly, with a stark grin.
There were spots of red on her cheeks, but her eyes met his steadily as she offered a sheaf of paper. Raj took it and looked down at the first page. Then he grunted as if belly-punched.
* * *
"Fellow soldiers," Raj began.
A long slow roar built up through the crowd, a huge semicircle of blue jackets and brown faces, spotted with the green-and-gold of Poplanich's Own, the gorgets of the 17th Hemmar Valley Cuirassiers, and the multicolored blaze of the barbarian mercenaries. A corner of the berm and the gentle slope leading up to it gave seating sufficient that most of the army could see him and the Companions seated on the improvised dais. The officers of the force were down in front where they could hear him; many of the men could too, and there was a rippling murmur as his words were relayed back to the rear ranks. Only the officers could see the map on the easel behind him, but that was not much of a drawback.
The cheer had started with the men who'd served under him in the east, then spread to the others. Da Cruz had told him—with an innocent expression—that the story of the hardtack had gotten out.
Spirit damn it, shut up, he thought. I may be leading you all to death, for Spirit's sake.
"Fellow soldiers," he continued, when the noise had died down. "You all know that we're embarked on a dangerous mission. Well, I'm glad to say I have some good news for you; it's still dangerous, but it's not suicide. The Squadrones—I have this on the best of authorities—the Squadron still has its head tucked up its behind—they don't know we're coming!"
This time the cheer was a roar.
"The Squadron's Admiral thinks everything he's heard about us is just smoke and mirrors, rumors like the ones that come up every couple of years since the last expedition failed." Raj leaned forward, grinning like a sauroid and tapping one fist into a palm. "Isn't he going to be surprised?"
The soldiers howled laughter. "In fact, the pick of the Squadron levy, ten thousand men, sailed three weeks ago for Sadler Island, to put down a revolt." His swagger-stick traced the course, from Port Murchison away around the western coast of the north-pointing peninsula. "Under Commodore Curds Auburn, the Admiral's brother and his best general. With all their fleet, every war-galley they have in commission. The biggest threat to this force was being intercepted at sea—and now it's gone. The Spirit has put its protecting hands over us."
He spread his hands for silence. "Wait! Cheer when we've won, not before!" More grimly. "This means we've got a better chance, not a walkover. There'll be hard fighting yet.
"Now, here are the general orders. We'll take the shortest sea route from here"—he tapped their position on Stern Island—"to here." The stick traced a line directly south, landing on the indented coast south and east of Port Murchison. "We'll land and concentrate in this bay and establish a base.
"Nobody," he went on, tapping the stick into his palm, "is to leave the landing site without orders; nobody under any circumstances whatsoever is to enter the Port Murchison harbor. We're going to land close enough to panic them, then grind up what they send out."
He paused. "Any questions?"
Gharderini shot to his feet. "You say there won't be any interception at sea," he said furiously. "How can you be so sure? Did the Admiral send word, or the Spirit of Man of the Stars inform you personally?"
Raj stood and let his hand fall on Suzette's shoulder. "The information," he said slowly, "is from a source I trust absolutely."
as you should, raj whitehall, Center said, as you must.
* * *
"Hear us, O Spirit of Man of the Stars," the priest intoned.
"Hear us," the massed troops answered. Everything was aboard except the men; the tide was making, and a breeze blowing down from the hills and out to sea.
The priest lifted his hands to the last of the stars, vanishing as night faded under the spear-rays of the sun.
"Code not our sins; let them be erased and not ROMed in Thy disks."
"Forgive us, O Star Spirit!"
As Raj led the response, another voice spoke in the back of his mind:
observe Center said.
* * *
—and a high surf beat on a rocky beach under a gray sky. Dinghy-loads of troops and the light transports drove in regardless, men leaping into head-deep water and wading ashore with their rifles over their heads or clinging to the saddles of swimming dogs. The first of them were just forming up when the Squadron troops rose from behind the dunes, their double-barreled muskets blasting at point-blank range—
—and viewpoint-Raj was clinging to a rope-line, on the deck of a ship lost in sea and spray. The sound of the storm was beyond belief, a solid roar in all the frequencies a human ear could perceive. Walls of water rose higher than the masts, but the wind tore off their tops and flung them as a horizontal sheet of spray like low cloud, until there was no telling where air began and sea stopped. The ship rose as a wave belled out beneath it, and for a moment they could see the rocks ahead. Then they struck, and the hull exploded into fragments beneath their feet—
—and the fleet was crowding into the bay, the beach black with men and the sea with dinghies and swimming dogs. Everyone's head came up at the first cannon shot. The Squadron warships came around the headland in a surge of gilded beaks and vermilion oars, the first flying the sword-and-comet banner of Commodore Curtis. Its bow-guns cut loose, the roundshot skipping over the low waves and into the side of the first Civil Government warship. Timbers smashed over the paddle wheel, and then the deck came apart in a shower of splinters and white smoke as the boiler ruptured. Behind the galleys came the transports, their rigging thick with the elite troops of the Squadron roaring out their war cries. . . .
* * *
"The Spirit of Man is of the Stars and all the Universe; this we believe."
"Witness our belief, O Star Spirit!"
"As we believe and act in righteousness, so shall we be boosted into the Orbit of Fulfillment."
"Raise us up, O Star Spirit!"
"Deliver us from the Crash; from the Meltdown; from the Hard Rads; spare us."
"Spare us, O Star Spirit!"
"We receive diligently the Input from Thy Holy Terminal, now and forever."
"Forever, O Star Spirit."
"As we believe, so let Thy Holy Federation be restored in our time, O Spirit of Man of the Stars; and if the burden of a faithless generation's sin be too great, may our souls be received into the Net. Endfile."
Raj looked out over the sea of bared heads. "Right, lads. Enter your sins at the Terminal, and fight with the Spirit at your side."
The priest lowered his hands. "The Spirit be with you."
"And in thy soul."