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Chapter One

“Commodore Riordan,” urged Craig Girten’s voice as a hand cautiously shook his upper arm, “you’re needed.” Caine’s dreams became a vapor of fading images through which he struggled up toward—

Fighting. Shouts. Then a scream—all from inside the perimeter.

Riordan snapped upright, abdominal muscles spasming. “Girten,” he muttered as he reached around for his gear, “report.”

“The trogs, sir. They’re fighting. Come quick!”

At least we’re not under attack. Cinching the straps of the hide cuirass he slept upon, Caine stumbled after the paratrooper who’d last fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “Are they arguing?”

“Bit more than that, sir,” Girten said, drawing to the side as he stopped.

Of the four figures on the ground, two were unmoving. Two opposing groups—trog bearers and handlers on one side, scouts and kajhs on the other—were leaning inward, their agitation mounting faster than their numbers. Several started forward.

A figure jumped into the gap: Bey, the only reliable liaison between Caine’s Crewe and the locals. The two glowering groups paused, straightened. Some even leaned away from each other. But a few kept pushing forward.

Riordan turned to Girten, ordered, “Crossbow,” snatched it out of the surprised sergeant’s hands and discharged it into the ground between the rival sides. “Stand down!” Actually, he used the equivalent local phrase, which, transliterated, was “Be still or be meat.” It had proven a crude but effective warning on the march north from Forkus.

This time was no exception. The opposed groups became motionless. Then, individuals at the back of each started drifting away.

“Stop! Stay where you are.” Riordan glanced at Girten. “Sergeant, bring Dr. Baruch here on the double. Healer Ne’sar, too.”

He turned toward Bey. “If you wish to speak to anyone here, bring them to the command post, put them in the custody of the duty officer, and return.”

“Yes, Leader Caine.”

Riordan managed not to marvel at how, though trogs generally chafed at military discipline, they almost revered its exercise. He pointed at a cluster that was not part of either group. “You three will wait for Dr. Ba—eh, Leader Newton, and carry out his orders. If he asks you to move the wounded, you will do so carefully or answer for your negligence.” Caine raised his voice. “The rest of you, back to your furs. Twenty minutes to formation. Dismiss!”

The fight-churned ground was soon empty except for the three trogs who were waving the doctor over toward the two motionless bodies. Newton Baruch did not go to them; a short glance assured him of what Caine could only guess. Their contorted positions amid two wide pools of blood meant they were either dead or soon would be.

Bey’s footsteps approached from behind. “I return, Leader Caine. It is my faul—”

Riordan held up a hand; he’d come to know Bey well enough to anticipate what was coming. “You had the middle watch, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “Yes, but—”

“Then you are without fault; you had to sleep during the last watch. You can’t be awake every second of every hour. If you were, you could not lead your people.”

“But if I knew them well enough, I would have foreseen this, Leader Caine.”

“Bey, it’s only been three days since we destroyed the caravan these trogs were accompanying. There is no way you could have come to know them well enough to anticipate their behavior.”

Her nod was short, sharp: acceptance without agreement. “I shall hear the accounts of those I sent to the command post. And quickly, that you may make a swift judgment.”

Riordan frowned. “The judgment is yours. That is why you are their leader, and why we did not make you our vassal.”

Bey nodded tightly. “I understand, but just as I do not know the new trogs yet, they do not know me. Until I lead them in battle, many will doubt I am a worthy leader.”

“You mean, because you are female.”

She nodded. “But even more because I am a truthteller.”

Riordan frowned. “Why does that undermine your authority?”

“Because trogs expect that their leaders will employ deceit to overcome foes. I cannot.”

Riordan nodded, still frowning as he gestured toward the Crewe’s camp circle. “They may not trust you yet, but we do. And because you are exactly the leader we want—and need—they will come to associate our power and success with you.”

“Perhaps, but during these early days, it is best that the judgment comes from you. It will be accepted without question and will not give the new trogs reason to hate or question me.” She paused. “Besides, there is another problem. The ones who were behind this fight are cavers.”

Riordan had given up trying to conceal his general ignorance of life on Bactradgaria. “I know cavers are considered less civilized, but how does that figure into the fight?”

“They are not merely uncivilized, Leader Caine; they have no regard for other races. At a guess, this fight arose because they were trying to usurp the place of other, more powerful trogs. I will not hide my opinions of them; their kind and my people—the Free Tribes—have been enemies as long as memory or song recalls. So I cannot claim that I would make an objective decision. Cavers killed many of my forebears, and even my own family.” Her eyes grew hard. “My mother’s older brother fell to them just before she and I were taken away to Forkus.”

Caine saw pain behind her stare. “Do you remember him?”

Bey shrugged. “I was very young, so those memories are jumbled, uncertain. But my mother told me much of my uncle.”

Riordan wondered how much of that attachment she had transferred to her recently murdered adoptive “uncle.” “And do those memories remind you of Zaatkhur?”

She darted a surprised look at him. “Is it written so plainly on my face?”

Riordan shrugged. “Not to the others. But they didn’t see you on the bank after giving him to the river or when you faced your sleeping furs alone.”

She nodded. “You may not understand many of our ways, but you understand our hearts well enough.” She straightened. “You follow your own advice: ‘a good leader knows his people.’” She nodded curtly. “I shall bring you what I know within one hour.”

“Take two, if it’s necessary.”

“If the questioning takes that long, I shall send a runner.” She gave the abbreviated bow that was the local equivalent of a lazy salute and stalked away, calling for the half-human prakhwai—or trogans, as Chief O’Garran had nicknamed them—to gather to her.

“Glad she’s on our side,” said a new voice from over his shoulder: Bannor Rulaine. “Sorry I’m late to the party, sir.”

Riordan waved off the Special Forces colonel’s apology and formality. “Like I told Bey, we all have to sleep sometime.”

Bannor shrugged. “Orders, sir?”

Riordan nodded, rubbed his eyes, tried to remember the watch rota, decided to just ask the guy who’d set it. “Who’s on duty besides Girten?”

“You mean the Crewe, sir?” Riordan nodded at the collective term for all the marooned off-worlders. “Katie Somers, sir.”

Riordan stifled a yawn as Craig returned. Well, that’s one piece of good news: having someone on patrol who’s wearing a Dornaani vacc suit. “Sergeant Girten, find Somers. I want her running perimeter sweeps from the high ground at the south end of camp. Monoscope is to be set for maximum light amplification and thermal. Motion tracking, too, but low sensitivity.”

Craig responded to Riordan’s last caveat by swatting an insect on his neck. “Yeah, with all these bugs flying around now, max motion makes everything look jumpy, hazy.” He glared at the large fly squashed on his palm. “I guess Bactradgaria has more life as you get closer to the equator.”

“Or,” Bannor Rulaine countered, “it’s not so different from spring back on Earth.” He smiled, nodded at the GI from the twentieth century. “On your way, Sergeant.”


Bannor waited until Girten was out of earshot. “Why the sweeps? Expecting that all the shouting will bring in a breakfast crowd?”

Riordan sighed. “The early monster gets the worm. Or corpse.” He glanced at the wet-slate skies to the west. “The carrion from the caravan ambush is probably gone by now, and there’s always more hungry mouths—well, maws—than meals out here.”

“Do you want me to rouse a few more of the Crewe? Have them standing ready with survival rifles?” Which was a ridiculous misnomer, but it beat reeling off the accurate term: electromagnetic coil guns.

Riordan shook his head. “No, we’re going to stick to the ‘crisis-only’ use criterion. Girten’s got a crossbow and so does Katie. That will do.”

“I’m not a bad hand with one, either, Caine.”

This time, Riordan did chuckle. “Understatement of the century. But I’d rather keep you focused on command issues.”

“Why? You going back to sleep?” Bannor grinned at Riordan’s baleful stare. “So since we’re both up, you handle the command issues and let your XO be a grunt again for half an hour. Yeah?”

Caine smiled. “Yeah. Sure.”

Bannor didn’t move off immediately. He was staring at the two unattended bodies still sprawled in the moist dust; Newton had no intention of losing his three ad hoc orderlies by sending them on a grave detail. “After marching thirty-six days north from Forkus without a scuffle, I didn’t see this coming.”

Riordan shrugged. “Neither did Bey. None of us could have. So right now, my only concern is whether our people can get another thirty minutes of sleep.”

“I doubt any dozed through the noise, Caine.”

“No, but I’ll bet at least half—the veterans—were snoring again within five minutes. At least I hope so. It’s going to be another hard march today.”

“Better than waiting in the rain or wading through mud.”

Riordan nodded. The day after the caravan ambush, the weather had closed in and hammered them with torrents. The dust-sand of the wastes became so fluid that any attempt to prop up their shelter-halves sent the ground stakes slipping sideways into the gritty porridge. “With any luck, this fight was just an unsettled grudge left over from the caravan,” he muttered, jutting a stubbled chin at the bodies.

Bannor frowned. “If not, it could mean more infiltrators. Hell, maybe some of this bunch was supposed to link up with the two traitors that Bey caught marking our trail.”

Riordan shrugged. “There’s no logical connection between them and the caravan, but I won’t rule it out until we learn more about these two.” He nodded toward the corpses. “But we’ve got to settle both issues soon, or it’s going to send the wrong message to the rest of the trogs.”

“You mean, that we’re weak?”

Riordan shook his head. “That and maybe a dozen other things.” He sighed. “There are days I wonder if we are ever going to get ahead of the learning curve, here.”

“Me, too. Any idea on how you’re going to deal with one pair of traitors and another pair of murderers?”

Caine stared at the dove grey smudge of dawn on the eastern horizon. “The traitors? Well, it seems the locals already have their own answer for that. But the right response to this morning’s fight depends on finding out why it happened at all.”

“Which means, you’re going to go talk to Bey again.”

Caine shrugged. “Who else?”

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