Authors: Jerry Pournelle,S.M. Stirling
Tags: #Science Fiction
He grinned. They had kept the troops busy as possible, classes and even small-arms practice at things passing by, but it was still soft duty. A few of the Spartans had had the gall to complain about conditions, until they saw the Legion veterans laughing at them.
Wait until they're up to their balls in mud and eating monkey,
he thought. "You can get rebellions in most places," he said. "They don't like the people running the place, I guess. Your folks moved off into the jungle back on Tanith to get away from the planters and the government, didn't they?"
"Yeah, but Top, they'd have given their right foot to have a place like this. Except it's so cold. No jungle, no Purple Rot, no Weems Beasts or Nessies, lots of good eats, you can pick who you want to work for without slaving your sentence term on some plantation, or hell, just get away from the river a ways and start farming."
Guiterrez laughed softly; there was no sting in it, but Purdy looked slightly abashed.
"It's alright, Purdy, keep thinking that hard and someday you'll be giving
orders. See, kid, you're thinking like Tanith. Somebody straight from a Welfare Island on Earth—like I was—it's not so hot. Sure, you don't have to eat protocarb glop, but they
glop. Taxpayers eat meat, and they're not taxpayers. There's no Tri-V here, and no Welfare either—no borloi, come to that, or free government booze. Say you're a street-gang warrior like I was, you don't get far here either, the people are all ironed and it's mostly a losing proposition to run in a gang. So it's work for a living or starve, and sure,
used to that—your folks raised you that way, and they learned the hard way—but the convicts aren't. Aren't used to country living, either. Make's 'em feel hard done-by."
One of the First RSI troopers looked up from loading a magazine. "Nah," he said. "It's the girls."
"Girls?" Purdy said, half-turning.
"Sure. Like, I'm a transportee, right? So there's, say, seven pricks to three gashes on those CoDo transports landing here. Studs lined up waiting for them, the transportee gash gets snapped up damn fast, you bet. And you can't get alongside much Citizen cunt even in Sparta City, and if you're outback in a bunkhouse, nothin'. So unless you like men, you might as well get yourself killed 'cause life ain't worth living, right?"
Purdy looked around. The banks of the Rhyndakos were low and swampy for the most part, covered in dead brown reeds; beyond them were thickets of oak and beech, bare and gray-brown as well; to the south and west, very distant, they could see the white glaciers of the Drakon range catch the afternoon light. A hawk hovered overhead, and apart from the chuffing of the tugboats' engines the only sound was wind in the branches. Thick flakes of damp snow were falling from a sky mostly clouds, melting almost at once when they touched the barge. On the shore above the reeds it lay half a meter deep, and the hills to the north were domes of white. The last farmhouse had been yesterday.
"There sure aren't any girls out here," he said.
"Nah, but you can kill somebody and take out your mad, see?" The soldier grinned, showing yellowed teeth. "Me, I figure on being a hero when I get back, get some fine patriotic Citizen to give it to me, see?"
Another trooper laughed. "You wish, Michaels. Maybe some woman
leaves it to you in her
that's the only way
ever going to see any isn't bought and paid for."
The steamboat rounded a corner, and sounded three sharp hoots on its whistle. Guiterrez pushed himself erect; his battle armor was feeling a little tight around the gut, but a couple of days humping the boonies ought to cure that. "Fall in, get ready to disembark! And Purdy," he said.
"You're lucky. In the Legion, you don't have to know
the enemy are, or
they're there. All you have to know is how to get them in your sights."
The steamboat let go the towing hitch and turned, the reversed paddlewheel churning the surface of the Rhyndakos into white foam. On shore, the advance party fired a light mortar with a special attachment to carry a line; it trailed coiling through the air and landed across the bows with a wet
"Dog that line to the brackets," Guiterrez said.
A dozen hands rove it through metal eyelets along the notional bow of the barge, and on shore a working party ran the other end through a block and tackle to a tree and heaved in unison. The lead barge in the chain grounded on the soft silt with a shuddering crunch, and the others closed up as the troops on board hauled in the connecting cables.
"Form up!" Guiterrez said, and the company NCOs echoed it. A plank landing ramp splashed over the side. Then there was a whining screech from the shore, as the First's pipe-band prepared to play its soldiers ashore and into the bridgehead.
Operation Scrub Brush was under way.
Geoffrey Niles blew gratefully on the surface of the coffee cup and took a sip. The Command Group post-exercise criticism session had broken up, and he was
chilled from the last two days of winter maneuvers. Sighing, he sank back in the chair and looked around the cave, inhaling the scents of wet wool and limestone and coffee.
It's not the cold out there, it's the bloody damp,
he thought. Thick snow, and more coming when you least expected it. All made harder by the draining pull of heavy gravity.
The inside of the base was all well back from the entrances, which meant it was not much more dank and chill than it had been in summer. Dimly lit by a few glowtubes stapled to the rock, and if you wanted to get warm you went to your room and moved the heater in under the blankets with you. There were heat sensors all over, and thermal camouflage discipline was enforced with a ferocious disregard for the privileges of rank. The officers were all bundled to the ears . . .
Not a bad lot,
he thought. Friendly enough now that he had proven himself able to keep up and not one to presume on a consort's influence.
Hard men, though,
he decided, studying their faces.
Which was all right with The Honorable Geoffrey Niles, since he had always aspired to being a hard and dangerous man himself.
Not exactly top-hole, though, these johnnies. Not gentlemen at all.
Except for a couple of the ex-CD types like von Reuter and he suspected they had been broken out of the service. It was the first time he had ever associated with members of the lower classes so intimately, except with servants. Strange, in some ways; rather like being in the monkey-house at the zoo. They were intelligent enough, a few of them even well-read, but they simply had very little in common, from backgrounds so alien.
Still, I feel good,
he decided. The past month and a half had been the hardest work he had ever done, physically and mentally. He felt hard and fit from the relentless drill; balanced and confident inside.
For once nobody gives a damn who my pater or Great-Uncle is,
They don't even know.
Whatever respect he had won here was his and his alone.
Not to mention,
he mused happily, looking over at Skilly. She was talking to von Reuter, the artillery specialist, probably about the latest shipment from offworld and the wonderful surprises it had brought. She felt his gaze and flashed him a smile; he returned it and raised his cup.
"Field Prime," the orderly said. Skilly raised a hand to stay von Reuter. "The consultant"—
was not a word the Spartan People's Liberation Army used for its off-planet helpers—"says there's a priority message for you, ma'am."
Skida's stance did not change, but Niles knew her well enough now to see the sudden tension in her leopard gracefulness. Conversation died as she stalked out of the cave and into the next chamber. A thick waiting descended, until a scream rang out.
Niles blinked. He knew that exultant catamount screech very well, and the usual cause for it, but somehow he doubted Skilly was having an orgasm in the radio shack. The others exchanged glances, grins; Two-knife turned and slammed the heel of one palm into the rock, manic exuberance from him. When the guerrilla commander stalked back into the room it fairly crackled from her. "The mountain has moved!
They took the bait!
She shoved one fist into the air. "Long live the Revolution!"
Niles felt his skin tighten; it was an eerie sensation, as if he was trying to bristle like a mastiff that had caught the scent. Words ran through his mind, ancient words—
But word is gane to the land sergeant,
In Askerton where that he lay—
"The deer that ye hae coursed sae lang
Is seen into the Waste this day."
And perhaps it was wrong to think so of hunting men, but at this moment there was no place in the human universe he would rather be.
The officers stood and cried her hail; out of conviction, or for sheer relief that the waiting was ended. When she spoke again it was with crisp decision.
"General alert. Group Leaders, concentration points as per plan Triphammer. Takadi"—directed at the Meijian liaison and technical expert—"get your surprises ready. Two-knife, we start reeling in their little picnic parties as soon as we sure they not modifying their plan. After that, first thing Skilly wants is to hurry them up a little and put them off-balance. Senior Group Leader Niles, you take—"
The militia battalion commanders of Operation Scrub Brush, Task Force Erwin, were gathered around the command caravan with their staffs and the RSI officers; Owensford was using its internal map-projector on the dropped rear ramp of the converted APC.
"And you'll need observation posts here, here and here," he said to Morrentes, the major in charge of the stayback force at the bridgehead, pointing to positions on the map in a semicircle about the landing stage. High ground for calling in fire.
It was nightfall on the Rhyndakos, but there were arc-lights playing on the improvised landing stage, as men surged off the barges and manhandled equipment through roots and mud and onto firm ground; mules were being led down ramps, and their mournful braying echoed along the silent banks of the river. Empty barges were lashed together into makeshift docks covered with planking brought along for the purpose, and in the middle of the hundred-meter width of the river steamboats were maneuvering to bring their strings to the outermost links. Wheels and hooves trundled thunder-hollow as the Brotherhood Citizen-soldiers poured onto the banks. There was an occasional sharp
as someone felled a tree with a string of detcord around the base, and the snarl of chainsaws. Two militia infantry battalions were digging in around the bridgehead; cleared fire zones, trenches, log-and-dirt bunkers, machine gun nests and revetments for their mortars, minefields and wire. A corduroy road had been laid down from the bluff to the water's edge, and the last of the marching column's equipment was being trundled up and loaded onto the waiting mules.
"I'll run a practice-fire program," the Brotherhood officer said thoughtfully. "We'll do some selective felling and booby-trapping out a klick or so from our perimeter."
Behind him a Legion technician squeezed a small plastic bulb. It inflated into a neutral-colored sphere the size of two beachballs; he slung a piece of plastic machinery beneath it, fastened it to a spool
of wire the size of thread and let it unreel as the balloon rose.
"That'll give you real-time overhead surveillance," Owensford continued. A small camera-pickup, with the optical processor relatively safe down at the bottom; hence the balloon units were so cheap you could use them prodigally. "Lace the woods around here with communications thread and cameras, it'll make your perimeter security more redundant. We're going to spike camouflaged laser-relays to the trees, so we'll have a way of talking to you without breaking radio silence. This base is absolutely crucial. Keep the drones ready, but don't use them unless you have to."
Major Morrentes was a rancher, a man of medium height with a weathered tan and the bouncy rounded muscularity that second-and third-generation Spartans seemed to have.
"Still wish I was going with you, Colonel," he said ruefully. His lips lost what appeared to be a habitual smile. "My spread's just down from Dodona; they killed two of my vaqueros, good men and Phraetrie brothers, last spring. Not to mention the stock run off and stolen or equipment destroyed, and the convicts who took my boat and came here, I think."
"You may see some action, Major," Owensford said. It was a little disturbing, the sullen anger the Brotherhood soldiers felt toward their opponents.
You've been a mercenary too long,
Remember what a grudge-fight is like.
"Just don't forget that your primary tasking here is to keep the river open behind us."