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Chapter Five

Miles O’Garran topped the ridge and nodded back toward Riordan. “Yep, this is where we part ways.” He pointed at the rocky slopes rising above the eastern horizon. “Achgabab.”

Yidreg marched up the shallow incline to join the chief. “You see the highlands in which it is hidden.” He turned back toward Caine. “Ulchakh and Hresh both know how to proceed from here. They will bring you to a place where the formation must stop. You will be observed for as much as a day. If Vaagdjul, chief of Achgabab, deems it safe, you will be guided in at night. Otherwise, he will send out an envoy.”

Riordan stared at the hazy rock piles. “What then?”

Yidreg shrugged. “It is impossible to say. He will decide how many may proceed to Achgabab: all, some, or none. There may be conditions to be met.” The h’achga glanced back over the formation, his eyes lingering on the trogs. “It is almost certain that you will be asked to camp at a slight distance from the community itself. Only the most, er, reliable visitors will be allowed within.”

And there’s the suspicion that keeps species apart, even hostile. But who can blame any of them, with treachery almost as common as breathing? “I understand,” Caine said. “We will comply with whatever requirements Vaagdjul sets forth.”

Yidreg nodded. “We know this, or you would not have been brought so close.” He turned toward Miles. “O-Garun, we should muster our force. If we start soon, we will reach an isolated stretch of old wadi before nightfall. It is excellent cover and not on any route followed by hunters.”

O’Garran nodded, smiled at Riordan. “Gotta rally the troops. I’ll report when we’re ready, sir.”

Riordan nodded, smiled at the chief’s oversized duty suit: a loan from Craig Girten which they’d swap back and forth for the duration of the mission. “We could spare another suit, you know.”

O’Garran waved off the implicit offer. “I’m all for doing this with minimal tech, sir. The locals have to see that, even without our fancy toys, we’re as serious and deadly as a heart attack. Don’t want the new trogs to see all our gear in action, either. Not yet, anyway. Until we return, there’s always the chance that one could shake loose and reveal what they’ve seen to potential enemies. Right now, all these new guys know is that we kicked the caravan’s ass, and rumors say the same about the hovel we hit in Forkus. Just like you pointed out when we set the equipment limits.”

Riordan crossed his arms. “About which you had reservations.”

Miles’ answering eye roll was theatrical. “Aw, c’mon, sir: are you trying to get me to say you were right? Me? Okay: ‘you were right.’”

Riordan shook his head. “No. I just want to make sure you have what you need. And if you still had reservations, I was ready to revisit the limits we put on the gear.”

“Sir!” O’Garran gasped. “Did you miss the day in OCS where they teach you that an officer is never wrong—even if they are?” The chief’s concluding smile was so infectious that Caine felt its twin growing on his own lips. “Seriously, Commodore, over the past four days, I’ve become a convert. Which was your strategy all along, maybe? Let the wisdom sink into my thick SEAL brain?”

“Thought never crossed my mind.”

Miles chortled. “You can really do deadpan when you’ve a mind to, sir. But at this point, I’m in full agreement: if something, er, goes sideways, we have to minimize the amount of tech that could fall into enemy hands. Hell, I’ve been thinking of leaving behind the survival rifle and the recharge tissues. But the monoscope and duty suit—particularly its radio—are must-haves if we expect to see the OpFor first and give you daily updates.”

Craig Girten trudged up to join them. “Hey, Chief, that suit looks mighty fine on you!”

O’Garran frowned. “Watch it, or this fist will leave a mighty fine imprint on your face.”

“Commodore, help! My superior is threatening me!”

Riordan grinned. “As I understand it, that would be a ‘point of honor’ between noncommissioned officers. Falls outside regulations.”

Girten laughed as he tried to shout, “Mother! Help!”

O’Garran shook his head. “Gonna be a long mission fer sure. Work on your jokes, Girten. They stink worse than your—feet.” He glanced at Riordan. “That was sanitized for the benefit of your delicate ears, Commodore.”

“For which I am much obliged. Now, I don’t want to keep you gentlemen from setting forth into the wastes.”

Girten, oblivious to the cue that the conversation needed to end, peered over the spine of the ridge. “So that’s Achgabab, huh?”

“The vicinity,” Riordan amended.

Craig shook his head. “Actually, I’m kind of glad to be heading into wadi country.”


“Because he’s stoopit?” O’Garran suggested.

“No, because I’m not sure Achgabab is going to be any safer. Maybe a whole lot less so, if we’ve got enemies following us.” He looked sideways at Riordan. “I’m still thinking it might be better not to go there at all, sir.”

Girten started at Miles’ loud, almost outraged rebuttal. “Not go to Achgabab? We have to go there! Have you been paying any attention? The h’achgai are the only ones who have their shit gathered!”

“‘Have their shit together,’” Craig corrected quietly. It was a common expression among the last Lost Soldiers the Ktor had abducted.

“Okay: together,” Miles corrected. “Look: do you have any idea how hard it is to do what the h’achgai did with that boat they sold down in Forkus? They not only had to haul it overland in pieces to Khorkrag, but when they got there, they had to assemble it. Which was only possible because everything—every motherf . . . uh, mother-lovin’ piece of it—fit together so precisely that they could build and then waterproof it in a shit-town a thousand klicks from nowhere. And then they sailed it all those klicks down the crazy river we had to cross before meeting up with Sharat’s team.

“I’m telling you, Girten: any group able to do all that is a group we have to visit!” O’Garran glanced at Riordan. “Isn’t that so, sir?”

Riordan smiled. “Since that’s where the rest of us are headed, I expect you already know my answer. Let me know when you’re ready to set out, Chief. Carry on.”

* * *

Miles walked along the lower half of the slope, past the loose groups of his task force.

“Chief,” asked Girten, “shouldn’t we go down and get them moving?”

“No, Craig, not ‘we’; as my second-in-command, you’re going to do that.”

“Second-in-command? Me?”

“You see any other ‘Craigs’ here, gaping at me?” Just like Girten to never think of himself in that role: something else we’ll get sorted. “You are going to get them to carry out the loosest, sloppiest pass in review they’ve never heard of.” Because there’s no evidence that anyone on this godforsaken planet ever conceived of military traditions of any kind. Which stops today.

“Order the elements as you’d expect, Sergeant. First cadre and advisors, then line troops, and support bringing up the rear. Don’t fuss over it. Give them the boot, but make their own leaders sort out any uncertainties. They might as well get used to our expectations.” And to think of themselves not as a mob, but separate parts of a greater whole. “Looks like you have a question, Sergeant. Particularly since you’re still standing here.”

“Yes, si—Chief,” Girten corrected, seeing O’Garran’s reaction to the possibility that he was about to be called “sir.” “H’achgai before the trogs?”

Well, well: a good question, after all! “Yes, right behind command staff.”

“Because Yidreg and Arashk will be in the first group.”

“Yep. Along with Orsost, our third-in-command.”

“So, that means I should put the trogans at the front of the trogs.”

O’Garran couldn’t help smiling. “If you knew all that, then why are you still here bothering me? You’ve got it under control, Sergeant. Go make it happen!”

Girten saluted, sprinted back toward the task force, stopped to snap yet another salute at an approaching figure: Bannor Rulaine. Who waved him off and ambled toward Miles.

“Come to see the big parade?” O’Garran asked.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Rulaine said with a straight face as he stopped alongside the chief. “Frankly, this may be the most courageous undertaking I’ve witnessed in my entire career.” He smiled. “Utterly insane, but still courageous.”

“Uh . . . thanks, Bannor. You say that like you don’t expect to see me again.”

Rulaine shrugged. “Half the trogs we’re taking to Achgabab think this is the last they’ll see of the ones going with you.”

“And you trust their military judgment over mine?”

“Cool your jets, there. I’m only saying that the locals consider this mission extremely dangerous and they’re glad not to be going on it.”

“Yeah, until we come marching back. And then they’ll wish they had the bragging rights.”

“So you’re not worried about the outcome?”

O’Garran shook his head once. “I’m worried enough that I won’t take any risks. If we come back with nothing other than our skins, it’s a success: we’ll have some real soldiers to set a standard for the rest. Besides, there’s nothing out in that godforsaken wasteland that’s worth losing lives over.

“But hell, we’re out there looking for the enemy, so something will go wrong. But bad enough that we all buy the farm?” He shook his head. “The only thing I’m worried about is getting spotted by one of those damned kiktzo insects with a hoodoo link back to a x’qao watching through its eyes.

“But if there are any of those buzzing around out here, then our mission becomes more important: as a decoy. We may be less than half the size of this column and lack vehicles, but we’ll be leaving a trail that airborne bugs are far more likely to see.”

Bannor’s smile was cramped. “You mean, all the enemy bodies strewn behind you?”

“More like all the survivors running the hell away and raising a lot of dust as they do. Just the thing to keep enemy eyes off your formation: the one that really matters.” He nodded down the ridgeline; the task force was standing and sorting itself into groups. “Nine of our twenty-two are armed with either bows or crossbows. That gives us at least three times the firepower average of the groups we might face. And half of ours are trained marksmen.”

Bannor nodded. “A sharp ambush stands a good chance of breaking the morale of locals, if you spring it at optimum range.”

Miles nodded. “That’s the plan: inflict enough casualties to get ’em running. Destroying any of these groups isn’t worth the effort. It would also require closing to melee range.” He shook his head. “Not our sweet spot. Our strengths are firepower and much better command and control. If we get close enough for us to start hacking at each other, both those advantages go to hell.”

Bannor nodded in the direction of O’Garran’s task force. “And here come the troops. No brass band, though.”

Miles suppressed a snicker just in time to present a stern face to the uneven procession that began walking, rather than marching, past. His local cadre—Orsost, Yidreg, Arashk, and Ta’rel—nodded toward him. But of course Ta’rel is still smiling like a kid on a playground!

Whether by chance or design, the two other h’achga were clustered with the two trogans: the reliable, steady warriors. But when Girten bellowed, “Eyes . . . left!” they started, then glanced uncertainly toward the two humans observing them from the slope. The three groups that followed—the kajhs, the scouts, and finally the tinker and porters—benefitted from the first one’s mistake; all looked over quickly when Craig snapped the order.

“Thank you, Sergeant Girten,” Miles shouted when the porters had passed. “Lead the detachment to the groupment area. Last rations and water. I will bring the XO for final walk-through.”

“Aye, aye, Chief!”

“Aye, aye?” Well, bless Craig’s Navy-loving heart! “That’s a Bravo Zulu, Sergeant! Now, stop sucking up!”

Girten grinned over his shoulder as he jogged after the task force. Ta’rel passed him heading back toward the main body of the column.

“Going somewhere?” Miles called after the mangle.

A female voice from behind surprised him. “Miles O-Garun, may I still give this to him?”

He and Bannor turned; Ne’sar was approaching from the opposite direction, a long cloak held out in front of her.

Miles frowned. “Well, er, certainly, Miss—uh, Ne’sar.” Even on Bactradgaria, where war never stops, civilians are the same as everywhere else: no sense of military decorum!

Ne’sar slipped between the two human commanders. She and Ta’rel stopped a long step apart. She held out the cloak. “You must take this.”

He nodded and bent his head. “I will if you insist.”

“I do.”

“Do you not fear traveling without it?”

“Not so much as I fear for you. I travel in safety.”

“Still, there is always danger.”

Ne’sar shook the cloak under his nose. “Your danger is far, far greater. And if you refuse, I must presume you think me unable to survive just one more day’s travel to Achgabab.” She stepped closer. “Take it. Please.”

She was so close that Ta’rel was able to lean his forehead against hers. “I hear your words. And I would not dare insult the daughter of Ebrekka’s durus’maan.” They smiled, then she stepped back, turned, and walked toward the main column very briskly.

Ta’rel looked after her for a moment, nodded to the two humans, and trotted back to the groupment area.

Miles and Bannor exchanged small, furtive grins. The chief leaned his head sideways. “You think anyone doesn’t know about them . . . except them?”

Bannor muttered. “Not possible.” He straightened. “I believe it’s time to inspect your task force, Chief O’Garran.”

Miles snapped a lazy salute, took as long a step forward as his short legs allowed and howled. “On your feet, slugs! XO on deck!”

* * *

“Commodore?” The voice inquiring from behind Riordan was O’Garran’s.

Caine looked up from Eku’s patient instruction on how to clean the solar rechargers, which involved ionizing the sediment before “bumping it” off with a brief opposite charge. He nodded thanks to the factotum, handed off the solar tissue, and stood.

The chief snapped a sharp salute. “Final report, sir. XO has cleared the task force to move out.”

Riordan returned the salute casually. “Let’s take a stroll, Miles. No rank.”

“Fine by me, sir.”

They walked in the lee of the ridge for less than three seconds before O’Garran asked, “Sir, we’re starting out late, but do you still want a check-in today?”

Riordan grinned over at him. The only enemy “Little Guy” seemed to fear was silence. “Yes, Chief. It is priority one that you observe the same time-coded messaging we used after making planetfall. The only difference is that we won’t return-send unless we have a critical update for you.”

“Understood, sir. No reason to point out the location of the main formation, sir.”

“Miles, relax.” Caine raised an eyebrow, knew the words that would jolt the SEAL out of his careful formality. “You have the jitters?”

O’Garran’s eyes widened in genuine surprise. “‘Jitters’?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “About herding that sorry-ass rump platoon? Hell no, sir. I’m worried about leaving all of you on your own.” And he clearly meant it.

“Well, we’ll manage. And I will emphasize this one last time: if you’ve got a risky situation developing, break radio silence and report.”

O’Garran squinted at the suggestion, then shook his head. “Sir, I know I was a pain in the ass about wanting us to send in the clear back when we arrived dirtside. But that was before we learned that some of the locals ‘mindspeak’ can preemptively seed traitors into our midst, and were able to shadow us with a force that stayed on our tail across thousands of klicks.

“Bottom line, sir: I don’t know what to believe anymore. So I’ve shifted to the SEAL default. I assume that every enemy I can imagine is out there, that everything that can go wrong will, and that it will do so at the worst possible moment. And that means you won’t get any comms in the clear unless I’ve got something world-shaking to report. Or to send a final signal. And if that’s the last you hear from me, just make sure that when the Crewe gets back to Earth, you tell my meemaw that I named a whole goddamned planet!”

Riordan chuckled. “You have my word on it.” He glanced at the much smaller man. “Meemaw was a Southern term, wasn’t it?”

“‘Was’ a Southern term? Try ‘still is’ . . . er, sir. Well, in some parts, at least.”

Caine wondered if O’Garran’s sudden, prickly regionalism was part of his contrarian bravado or genuine pride. “So, were your family Reculturists?”

“You mean like Katie and Ms. Tagawa?” “Little Guy” snorted through a few guffaws. “There was no re-culturing needed ’cause we never lost it. My folks were from Georgia and Tennessee, originally. But Meemaw’s people were from Kentucky: back in the hollers and perched on the knobs, as she used to say. Quiet nights and clean mountain air.”

“Sounds appealing.”

“Huh. Well, it sure was ‘rustic.’ But sometimes, that ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Particularly when indoor plumbing came way late.”

Riordan started. “I know basic services spread unevenly, but I never guessed—”

“Naw, Commodore: it wasn’t because my meemaw’s clan were poor. Not really.” Miles grinned with a softening melancholy. “It was pure orneriness. Good trait sometimes, but bad at others.”

“And in the balance?”

O’Garran stopped for a moment, head tilted as if trying to hear something distant. “I’d keep the freedom that came with it, but I wish some of those back-hills folks lived longer. They didn’t always hold with doctoring. To this day, they don’t much trust what they don’t know.”

Riordan smiled. “So you’re the great adventurer?”

He chortled. “Me? Hardly. I was a brat from the ’burbs. We just visited my meemaw back in the hollers. I grew up outside Savannah.”

“So, coastal life made you choose the SEALs?”

“You kidding, sir? I was just trying to stick it to all the stuck-up Rangers there. First Battalion of the Seventy-Fifth, y’know.” He snickered. “Lazy bastards are probably still in garrison as part of the planetary response force.”

“And still you get along with Bannor.”

He chuckled softly. “See, now that’s about the only thing these days that reminds me you’re not military. Only real assholes take those service rivalries to heart. It’s just our way of pumping ourselves up.”

Riordan shrugged. “I’ve seen fistfights break out over it.”

“See? There you go again. Listen: when you’ve been crawling around in another guy’s puke during live-fires, or cramping so bad during hell week that you can hardly move at the end of the day, I gotta tell you, sir: a fistfight ain’t no big deal.”

Caine raised an eyebrow. “More than a few have ended up as manslaughter.”

“Hey, I did say that there are assholes that go too far, didn’t I?” Miles sighed. “Every fine tradition generally has some lousy price to pay, somewhere along the line. But if you don’t live that life, you won’t—can’t—understand the hate-love we have for all of that precious bullshit.”

Caine smiled. “I told all of you time and time again, I’m not a real soldier.”

“Little Guy” stopped and laughed straight in Riordan’s face. “And that’s another thing you don’t understand; you are a soldier. Have been since you resurfaced in Indonesia. I know lots of guys wearing combat medals who didn’t see a tenth the action you did. But what you’ll never be is a grunt.”

He smiled. “And see, we don’t want you to be one. First off, you’re as officer as they come. And I don’t mean the brownnosers who spend most of their time trying to look high-speed and low-drag. I mean the ones who take the job seriously, which means taking their troops seriously. Worrying over them. Fighting the brass on their behalf. Working to save as many as they can. Which usually means killing as many enemies as fast as possible. That’s you. And that’s who we need.”

He shrugged. “That you happen to be way too much of a natural diplomat and way too educated to be doing this at all is just a curse we have to live with.” He grinned. “Sir.”

O’Garran stopped, gave Riordan a very slow, very careful salute, waited until it had been returned. “Permission to cross the line of departure, sir?”

“Permission granted, Chief O’Garran. And Godspeed.”

“Thanks, sir.” Little Guy started back toward the groupment with a jaunty step. “High time for me to get back.” He half-turned, wearing a big grin. “Unlike officers, I work for a living.” His gaze drifted to a spot just beyond Riordan’s shoulder. “Oh, and sir? Trouble coming up on your six.”

Riordan turned. Bey was striding toward him, halted about a meter away. “Do you have any special instructions, Leader Caine?”

A dozen came to mind, but they weren’t orders so much as entreaties to caution. They were the military equivalent of telling a family member to remember to take an umbrella in case it rains. Reminders that no professional needed, but, out of respect for rank, would acknowledge with a nod.

“No instructions,” Riordan replied. “Just remember that you are our link to all the trogs. So you have to limit the risks to yourself. We can’t afford to lose you.” Bey was smiling by the time he finished. Caine raised an eyebrow. “I expected you to resist that advice, rather than find it amusing.”

She shrugged. “It is only amusing because that is what your own companions say about you: that you take too many risks for a commander.” She adjusted her rucksack. “Yet another way in which we are alike, perhaps.”


She nodded and marched after Miles. Riordan watched her go.

It took him several long seconds to realize he was still watching her.

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