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Chapter Four

By the time Riordan and a few others arrived at the trog sleeping circles the next morning, they saw only one unusual activity. The wounded tinker was already waist-deep in a hole he had evidently been digging for several hours. Flanked by two trogans, Bey was watching the slow process with arms crossed.

“So he’s digging the traitors’ graves?” Katie asked her.

“Graves?” Bey had to think a moment, then shook her head. “We do not, eh, bury the dead.”

“Then why the hole?”

“To keep their remains from attracting predators.”

Yaargraukh glanced about. “Where are the traitors?”

Bey jutted her chin toward what they had thought were a pile of hide tarps. “They are there, Leader Yaargraukh.”

His eyes protruded slightly. “The sentence has already been carried out?”

She nodded. “At first light.”

Katie craned her neck, seeking the covered bodies. “I was expecting it would be, well, public.”

Bey shrugged. “That is not the way of the Free Tribes.”

O’Garran frowned. “Damn. I’d have thought every gang boss would use public executions as a message to their followers: ‘Betray me, and you’re next.’”

Bey nodded. “In cities, that is what most do. But those who are confident of their position execute offenders without ceremony; they have no need to remind others of their power.” She glanced at Riordan and his companions. “That is why you have commanded respect. You do not shout or threaten. Your word is quiet, but it is law.”

The chief crossed his arms. “I’ll bet it doesn’t hurt that the trogs know we’ve destroyed every enemy we’ve faced, too.”

Bey nodded. “That is why your quiet ways are mostly seen as confidence, not weakness.”

Riordan nodded toward the tinker, who was hissing and groaning; each cycle of the crude shovel pulled at his wounds. “Is he almost done? We need to move within the hour.”

“He has little digging left to do. But then the bodies must be shambled so they fit in the hole.”

“Shambled?” Yaargraukh echoed uncertainly.

“An old word for butchering,” Bannor muttered. “Won’t nearby predators smell the remains and dig them up?”

“Almost certainly,” Bey answered. “But that will keep them busy until we are long gone.”

Riordan nodded. “Send word to me and Sharat when the discipline is complete. We will start out immediately after.”

“Yes, Leader Caine,” she said, hard eyes on the covered bodies.

As the Crewe walked away, Dora muttered, “Every time I think that this place can’t surprise me anymore, I see something that makes it just that much worse.” She stalked ahead.

Miles, however, was hanging back. “Commodore, can I have a word?”

Riordan nodded, waved the others on.

“Sir, I’ve got a few questions of my own for Bey. Didn’t want to ask in front of the others. An idea started banging around my brain about the bounties on our heads and how we might use our new recruits to help deal with it.”

Riordan raised an eyebrow. “And what is this idea?”

Miles shook his head. “Like I said, sir, at this point, I don’t even know if it’s possible. But I should have an answer in time for our nightly Fireside Chat. Is that acceptable, sir?”

Riordan nodded, waved Miles back toward Bey and her trogan lieutenants, who looked on impassively as the tinker struggled to drag the first of the traitors’ corpses toward the hole in which he stood.

* * *

“You want to do what?” Duncan Solsohn exclaimed, putting down his last strip of dried dustkine.

“Major,” Chief O’Garran said patiently, “you said, along with everyone else, that you’d hear me out. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.”

Dora snorted. “Sure, sure. Taking a bunch of trogs into water-soaked wadis is so very sane.”

Miles sighed, looked around the circle of faces, half of which were disbelieving, shocked, or both. “Everybody done with the wisecracks, now?”

“Half of us never uttered any, Chief O’Garran,” Yaargraukh observed.

“Uh . . . that was just a figure of speech.”

“Yes.” The Hkh’Rkh’s tongue-tip slipped out. “I know.”

O’Garran rolled his eyes. “Ha. And ha. Last time I fall for you playing the straight man.” He grinned at the exosapient. “So to speak.”

Yaargraukh’s neck circled slightly. “I believe the idiom is ‘now we are even.’ Please continue.”

Miles nodded. “I’ll start by getting all the logical objections out of the way. Yes, it’s spring and the wadi country will be wet. But we’re in no rush and it will be getting drier every day. Also, we have something the bounty-hunting bastards don’t: Ta’rel. In addition to his survival skills, he knows the Orokrosir almost as well as the local mangles. Enough to keep us near good shelter and get us moving toward higher ground when the weather’s closing in. Yidreg has also agreed to come along, and he’s no slouch when it comes to knowing the terrain. So that also answers the predictable question about getting ambushed: not likely with those two. And we’ll have a monoscope with us, so that’s 10X magnification versus naked eyes.

“Will we need to carry a lot of supplies? You bet. That’s why twenty percent of the team are porters. And before anyone gets anxious that we could run out before we return, Ne’sar has given Ta’rel the locations of hidden caches and bolt-holes maintained by the mangles. So we’ll never be more than two days away from resupply, shelter, and a hiding place. And we’ll have a tinker along to provide basic field maintenance.”

Miles put up a hand as if anticipating objections. “It’s true that we can’t rule out bumping into groups larger than ours. But according to both the h’achgai and mangles, those would be spring hunting parties, not bountiers. And if any of those big groups came after us, they’d regret it.”

Peter frowned. “Why?”

“Because we’ll have nine or ten better marksmen equipped with bigger bows and crossbows. None of the groups we might run into—whether hunter, raider, or bountier—are likely to have more than a few small ones. If that.”

Newton crossed his arms. “Even hunting parties have so few bows?”

Duncan’s stare was fixed on something impossibly far beyond the twilit horizon. “It’s because we’re in the ass end of nowhere. Remember Khorkrag? Even from across the river, you could see the signs of it. Almost no metal. Cruder weapons and armor. Buildings that were smaller, half-collapsed. So they’re probably no better off when it comes to making bows, fletching arrows, or having chances to use them.” He leaned back, eyes returning to the dinner circle as he speared the last morsel on his platter. “Everything’s harder because they’re as poor as dirt.”

O’Garran nodded before turning toward Newton. “By the way, Doc, what they’ve got up here aren’t really hunting parties. Scouts find the dustkine and then the x’qa just run them down. When they’re done gorging themselves, the trogs come along to shamble anything that remains.”

Ayana sat very straight. “I am satisfied that you will not be in extreme danger, Chief O’Garran. But I have not yet heard what you mean to accomplish with this—this—”

“I call it Operation Swamp Phase, owing to the spring wet and our colonel’s worthy origins, back when he was still a soldier—I mean, enlisted man.”

Bannor waved a dismissive hand at Miles’ cryptic references, explained it for those who were still frowning at it. “I started as a Ranger; Swamp Phase is part of our training. And yes, it’s as nasty as it sounds. But let’s return to Aya—Ms. Tagawa’s question: What, beyond some salvaged enemy equipment, is the objective?”

“Crafting better armor, sir.” Miles clearly enjoyed the perplexity induced by his response.

“Come again, Chief?”

“Direct result of our convo last night. We need trogs—allies—to be our armor. But it’s not like we can, or even want to, increase our numbers very quickly. So I figured we could refine and harden the armor we’ve already got.”

He nodded at Riordan. “I’ve heard the commodore and the colonel talking about setting up training cycles when we reach Achgabab. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that skills aren’t enough. Might not even be the most important thing.”

He jerked his thumb back toward the trog sleeping circles. “We’ve got to shake these new guys out. The x’qai don’t teach trogs to work together; they keep them suspicious of each other. We’ve got to stop that, reverse it.

“That’s not the kind of thing we can achieve at Achgabab. We have to set these guys straight where no one will see or eavesdrop or comment or sympathize or pat their heads. Isolated, just like boot camp—except here, we’re playing for keeps, right away.” He stopped scanning the faces around him.

Riordan smiled. “Go on, Chief.”

“First order of business: we’ve got to sort out the grudges they’ve brought with them. Best way to do that is to throw them straight into the shit. That’s where you have to work together if you want to survive—and dying is what happens when you do anything else.

“How they face those challenges will show us which ones will, or can learn to, pull for each other and the mission. If any of them can’t, we’ll be in the best place to either fix them or get rid of them: far away from their pals and softhearted human leaders.”

Newton’s tone and face were dour. “And how do you mean to ‘get rid’ of those who seem untrustworthy, Chief O’Garran? Executions based on the presumption of crimes they haven’t yet committed?”

“Hell, no! Uh, sir. The opposite. We won’t have to do anything to them: Bactradgaria will. They’ll be pushed to the point where only hard work and loyalty will keep them alive. Any trog who manages to do that is a trog we can salvage.”

“And for those who can’t or won’t demonstrate that reliability?”

“They’ll keep walking point and pulling the shittiest details until they come around or die resisting. Just that simple. Like I said, Doc: this planet will weed out whoever can’t cut it.

“But I doubt we’ll have many problems. All but one of the kajhs I’ve chosen were commanded by Orsost and which he recommended as the most reliable and level-headed of the bunch. The team’s small size will make it easier to train them to think and act like soldiers. When they come back, we’ll put them in positions where they’ll spread those lessons by example. They’ll also see Bey’s ability as a leader, which should convince them to accept and support her in that role.”

Ayana nodded at the chief’s summary, but asked, “What of the kajh that was not picked by Orsost? Why is he being included?”

“Because that’s the one who we know needs to step up. Or be weeded out.”

“Ah,” Ayana murmured, frowning. “The caver.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you not concerned that, because your team will be small and isolated, the caver might seek opportunities to escape?”

“Maybe, Ms. Tagawa. But from what the mangles tell me, if he tries, he might as well slit his own throat. The wadis are a maze, and he won’t be carrying his own rations.”

She nodded, but her frown persisted. “I am more concerned with unexpected events, such as if you detect an enemy group too late in the day to engage it, but is still close enough that he flees toward it. He would almost certainly be able to buy his survival by revealing our location, numbers, and plans.”

Miles nodded. “No doubt, ma’am. But he’s never going to be alone or unwatched. If he tries to give us the slip, we’ll put a stop to that with a crossbow bolt between his shoulders.”

Peter leaned back. “You mentioned including a tinker. Given their role among the cavers, do you feel it safe to include one?”

O’Garran’s smile became a sneer. “Lemme tell you, the tinkers are no fans of the cavers. They may be repairmen, but they get treated more like whipping boys.” Miles stretched. “It’ll take some time, but I’ll get the whole menagerie sorted out and on task.”

Katie Somers looked up from beneath beetled brows. “An’ am I the only one bothered by the direction we’re headed, here?”

“You mean getting recruits? I’m ecstatic.”

“No, Chief. I mean your referring to the locals as a ‘menagerie.’ We hate the x’qai for breeding us as if we were livestock, yeh? But now we’re talking about how to ‘manage’ trogs and crogs and cavers and tinkers to achieve our goals. So tell me: how are we any better?”

Riordan was tempted to lean in, but his gut told him to let the debate run its course—for now.

“Firstly,” O’Garran said tensely, “that ‘menagerie’ happens to include humans, too.”

“And that makes it better?” Katie turned to Riordan. ”Sir, you can’t be deaf to all this!”

Riordan kept his voice very level. “Corporal Somers, I assure you my hearing, and perception, are unimpaired. If what you’re really asking is whether I detect echoes of ‘manifest destiny’ in all this, I do. But I also detect crucial distinctions.”


“Lissen,” O’Garran said, index finger unfolding at Somers like a switchblade, “you might want to check some of your assumptions, ‘lassie.’ Like maybe asking how two of my meemaw’s great-grandparents felt about Jim Crow laws.”

Katie turned very red, eyes narrowed—

“Look,” Dora broke in, “if anyone here has the right to be sensitive about all this shit, it’s me, yeah? I mean, take your pick of colonizers. Odds are I’ve got their blood in my veins, flowing right alongside that of the people they raped and sold and killed.”

She flung a pausing hand toward the center of the group. “But this isn’t about different color or sex or anything like that. It’s like Bey says: these are different species. Some aren’t entirely human, and are so different that they can’t breed together safely. So even if the x’qai monsters weren’t in charge, genes would still have to be tracked, yeah? Or is it more important for them—or us—to pretend they’re all the same than it is to keep mothers from dying in childbirth?”

Riordan suppressed a sigh; time to step in. “Everyone take a step back and a deep breath.” He waited a moment for the tension to fade. “Dora makes a crucial point: this situation is fundamentally different from any in our own past. So it has to be approached and resolved differently, too.

“But as Katie points out, if we aren’t careful, we could find ourselves falling into this hellhole’s worst pattern: acting as though some lives are more important or more valuable than others. Because from there, it’s a dangerously short step to believing that they are.”

Miles scratched the back of his head. “But right now, Commodore, isn’t that the reality of our situation here?” He put up a hand against Riordan’s stare. “Look: I am all for using anyone in any role they’re best at. I don’t give a damn who or what they are. I am also one hundred percent behind destroying the x’qai and what they’ve created. Christ, they make the worst American and Spanish slave owners look like choirboys. But right now, the only thing we can do is play the hand we’ve been dealt, no matter how dirty the game.”

Dora nodded. “There’s one way in which this planet is like Earth: you’ve got to free the slaves before you can change their lives. And we’re a long, long way from doing that.”

Riordan exhaled slowly before responding. “If anyone believes I lack a full appreciation of the brutal realities of this planet, this is the moment to speak up.” He waited until the Crewe started avoiding his eyes. “Firstly, I don’t disagree with you. Any of you. The facts of life on Bactradgaria are harder and colder than any we’ve encountered.

“And that is precisely why we need to keep Katie’s warning in mind. Over time, the conditions here could seem so commonplace that we won’t realize we’re already on the slippery slope of becoming accustomed to them.”

Mouths began opening; Riordan held up a hand. “I’m not suggesting any of you would become indifferent to what’s around us. But bear this grim possibility in mind: that in fighting to change Bactradgaria, we may have no choice but to adopt some of our enemies’ methods. And if we become accustomed to that, we’re no longer part of the solution; we’re part of the problem.”

Bannor nodded, murmured, “Remaining alert to those choices, and their costs, is the only way we will keep our souls.”

He glanced at O’Garran. “Remaining alert to unexpected outcomes actually brings me to the one possibility your plan doesn’t address, Chief.”

Miles frowned, concentrating. Then he shook his head. “Sorry, sir: I’m not seeing it.”

Rulaine shrugged. “What if it’s too successful?”

O’Garran’s eyebrows rose. “Not sure I understand you, Colonel.”

“Chief, your objective is to find enemies, engage them, and return: not merely with some salvaged gear, but with more reliable and seasoned troops. Correct?”

“Correct, sir.”

Bannor leaned forward. “Well, let’s assume everything goes as planned.” Rueful smiles sprung up at the irony of such a notion. “You’ll be the terror of the Orokrosir. You’ll have defeated raiders and bounty hunters alike. And so, you will achieve what none of them ever have: you’ll become a legend. Or at least stand out from the customary spring mayhem in the wadi country, enough to spur rumors, be remembered . . . and pick up tails.

“I am not speaking of bounty hunters, but smaller, more careful groups. Groups which could follow you back to Achgabab and eventually sell that information to those pursuing us.”

The chief’s eyes were round. “Uh . . . hadn’t really thought of that, sir.”

Riordan chuckled. “That’s quite all right, Chief. If our places were reversed, I’d have been so focused on selling the idea that I’d never have worried about overselling it.”

“You’ve got that right, sir. So, how do we keep from being too successful?”

Rulaine leaned back. “In the simplest terms, this is a hunting trip. I’m all for it. But we’ve got to set a bag limit. And a time limit.”

Miles brightened. “Oh, that’s easy, sir.”

“I’m not sure it is, Chief. Consider how we acquired the forces you’re taking with you: defeating enemy forces. Let’s say that pattern continues. If it does, your seek-and-destroy mission requires more than typical operational limits on your maximum number of engagements, days in the field, and salvage burden. You’ve also got to limit how many new ‘recruits’ you can add before heading for home.”

O’Garran nodded. “I hear that loud and clear, sir. If you and the commodore have a little more time, I’d like to talk about those mission-end benchmarks.”

Riordan smiled. “If you hadn’t suggested it, I’d have ordered it. Let’s go do it where we won’t keep everyone awake.”

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