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Chapter Three

Riordan handed the two Terran Republic duty suits to Eku. “Do you think you can repair these?”

Eku’s answering smile revealed his utterly perfect teeth: the result of Dornaani genetic screening. “As a factotum for the Custodians, it often fell to me to maintain or examine unfamiliar items. These present no challenges.” He frowned at the deep seam cut into one of them. “I do not have a way to fill such furrows, however.”

Duncan Solsohn leaned forward. “Can you apply a patch? Maybe cured x’qai hide? We took a suit of it from the caravan. The locals claim it’s as sturdy as the Dornaani vacc suits.”

“I doubt they would know,” Eku muttered. “But Tirolane cautioned us against using any materials derived from x’qai.”

Pandora Veriden was suddenly alert and attentive. “He did? Why?”

“I am unsure. He was somewhat oblique. He also used local words to explain. When I submitted them to the translator, it suggested they were linguistically related to the concept of contagion, but not disease.”

Riordan nodded. “Both Ta’rel and Bey have said something similar. The lore of both the Mangled and trogs claims that x’qao hide and bone either makes you easier to locate or influence.”

“By whom?” Peter Wu asked, suddenly interested.

“That’s not clear either. Maybe other x’qai or lieges.” Caine shrugged. “The tales are warnings, not explanations.”

“So,” Chief O’Garran sighed, “is this yet another resource we’re going to set aside because the locals swear it’s bad hoodoo?”

Dora glowered at him. “I thought you got it through your thick little head that there really is mindspeaking here.”

“Yeah, maybe . . . but where does all the mumbo jumbo stop? To listen to the trogs, everything is magical or the will of some spirit. Or god.”

“So, are you saying you know how Tirolane waved the x’qao caravan leader right off his dustkine?”

Miles O’Garran was bristling with an imminent retort, but Riordan put up his hand. “This is neither the time nor place to continue that discussion. At the caravan, the caver who was wearing that cured x’qao hide kept moving, even after being hit by almost half a dozen arrows. Those fired by longbows barely penetrated; the rest didn’t. So clearly, if trogs won’t so much as touch armor that effective, I’m going to follow their lead.” Particularly since every time we haven’t, we’ve regretted it. “Eku will just have to patch the duty suits as best he can. Including Yaargraukh’s.”

The Hkh’Rkh extended his long neck-head slightly. “That way, I shall be able to remain where I wish: near our enemies.” Even sitting, his head was higher than a human’s.

Riordan glanced at him. “Just because you’re the only one who can wear that duty suit doesn’t mean you’re always going to be out on the perimeter.”

The big exosapient’s black-bead eyes protruded slightly from beneath the bony shelf that protected them. “Once again, Commodore, you dash my fondest hopes.” His black, wormlike tongue wriggled out of his central nostril for an instant: the Hkh’Rkh equivalent of a small, quick smile.

Eku was oblivious to the banter as he stared at the exosapient’s armor. “I may require some assistance carrying that,” he murmured.

“I shall be honored to bring it to you when you have completed your work on the two human suits,” Yaargraukh assured him with a respectful lowering of his neck.

Eku nodded, yawned, held his broken arm carefully as he stood. “Commodore, with your permission—”

Riordan waved him toward his sleeping fur; although it was not yet sunset, the factotum was pale with fatigue. “Get some rest, Eku. Another long day tomorrow.”

Offering a casual version of the Dornaani splay-fingered farewell, Eku walked carefully toward the Crewe’s camp circle.

Pandora waited until he was out of earshot before turning wide eyes upon Caine and then Bannor. “Well, neither of you look like you’ve gone loco, so maybe you have an explanation for why we’re not all using the Dornaani vacc suits, now? They’ve kept us safe, and their sensors have given us the edge in every fight. They’re perfect.

Bannor nodded. “Yes, they’re perfect. Too perfect to risk every time we get into a scrap. That’s why we need different armor. If the suits take too much damage, they won’t be able to hold pressure or run the programs driving those sensors.”

Craig Girten blew out a long, exasperated sigh. “Yes, sir, but like Dora says, saving the suits won’t matter much if we’re not around to wear them. It’s great to preserve their Wizard of Oz magic, but not at the cost of our lives.”

Ayana Tagawa nodded to acknowledge the paratrooper’s point even as she disagreed. “We need their ‘magic’ no less now than when we deorbited.”

“Ma’am, I fully agree. Without all their bells and whistles, we probably wouldn’t have gotten down in one piece. I know I wouldn’t have. But now that we’re here, well, I care a whole hell of a lot more about staying alive than keeping the suits safe!”

Caine nodded. “We all do, Craig. But here’s the catch: we’re going to need that magic at least one more time if we’re to have any chance of getting home.”

“Whaddya mean, sir?”

Newton was nodding. “The commodore means that if no one is coming to rescue us—and how or why would anyone do so?—we will need the suits intact in order to return to space.”

“Return to—?” Craig leaned away, looked around the group. “Do any of you still think we can get back to the ship? I mean, what are the odds?”

Ayana glanced at Caine before answering slowly, calmly. “It is pointless to assess odds in the absence of meaningful data. But until we determine it is impossible, our logical first priority is to reclaim the ship. And to do so, we must have working vacc suits.”

“And not just for EVA ops,” Duncan added emphatically. “Without their sensors and computing power, I’m not sure we could effect rendezvous, then get aboard, and then access the ship’s systems.” He shrugged. “If their advanced functions don’t work, we might as well start calling Bactradgaria home sweet home.

Craig shrugged. “I think ‘home’ means more to you all than it does to me, but I get what you’re saying. I guess.”

Yaargraukh’s neck wobbled slightly. “I do not understand your ambivalence, Sergeant Girten.”

“Well, it may be different for your kind, Yaargraukh. Sounds to me like you have traditions that keep things from changing too much. Or at least, too quickly. But me? Everything I grew up seeing and hearing has been gone for almost two centuries.” Craig shook his head. “What would I do? Where would I go?

Dora frowned. “Most of the other Lost Soldiers seemed eager to get back to Earth.”

“Yeah, well, Lost Soldiers aren’t any more alike than other folks, I guess. Besides, most of us who were taken before that war in Vietnam weren’t as enthusiastic as those who were grabbed later.”

Girten shrugged. “I guess by then, kids were growing up in the middle of science fiction, weren’t they? Spaceships landing on the moon, nuclear power, television, computers, and movies that showed a future that is, well, kind of what you have now.

“But none of that was around when I disappeared just before Christmas, 1944. And only twenty years later, they were calling it ‘ancient history’ and ‘old-timey.’” His smile was small and sad. “Like me, I guess.”

Katie Somers leaned against him. “Och, ye’ve a family in us, y’know. And the other Lost Soldiers, too. And once ye’re back on Earth, you can bet you’ll never want for fame, much less food and a roof.”

He glanced sideways at her. “Assuming they don’t sweep us Lost Soldiers under the rug. Six feet under, to be exact.”

“Aye, but that applies to all of us, now, eh, Colonel?”

Bannor nodded. “Unless things change back home, we can’t return to Earth either, Craig.” He smiled crookedly. “So it’s likely you’re stuck with us.”

The GI’s smile was pained but genuine. “Well, I guess I could’ve done worse.”

Dora was frowning. “And you still could.”

“You mean, you could all start getting mean and nasty?”

“No. I mean we could all start getting dead.”

Duncan flinched. “Huh?”

Veriden tossed her hair. “Merde! I cannot tell if you do not see what we must do or you just don’ want to see.”

Caine leaned toward her. “What are we missing, Dora?”

She scratched her hair irritably. “We got to do what the locals do: make ourselves safer however we can.”

“That’s why we’re fixing the duty suits and getting better armor.”

“Yeah, but we need more than armor for each of us. We need armor that protects all of us.”

The Crewe stared, puzzled . . . except for Miles and Ayana Tagawa. The former nodded as the latter explained, “Dora means we need armor on other bodies. Many other bodies.”

Miles rolled his eyes when half of the Crewe continued to stare blankly. “Other bodies—as in, ones we’ll keep between us and the rest of this shithole planet.”

Katie Somers was frowning. “I think the term ye’re looking for is ‘cannon fodder,’ Chief.” Her voice was tight and hard.

“Yeah, if you like. Might as well call them what they are.”

Dora looked around the circle of faces. “Don’ you see how it is, here? The leaders stay alive by keeping a layer of protection around them. Jus’ like the foam shields that kept us alive during planetfall, yeh? Because it don’ matter how good our own armor or guns are; there are too many things waiting to kill us here. Coño: it’s like this whole damn world is made to do just that. Sooner or later, it will succeed if we don’t learn its first lesson of survival: get other bodies to do the dying for you.”

“That is a very cold calculus, Ms. Veriden,” rumbled Yaargraukh.

“It is,” Peter agreed, “and yet, her equation proves out. Even more sweepingly than she means.

“When alone, every creature—human or otherwise—attracts opportunistic attacks. But in a unified and well-led group, none need fear casual tests of their vulnerability. So it is actually the weaker who derive the greatest benefit, even those who are used so poorly here.”

Caine pointed at Peter. “Yes, but the groups who don’t use the weak so poorly are the only ones that have been able to stand up to the x’qai. Look at the h’achgai, the mangles, even the Free Tribes. It’s precisely because they reject the ‘cannon fodder’ model that they survive and even thrive.”

Wu shrugged. “And yet, that is not the case with our single strongest ally: the Legate.”

Caine shook his head. “There were no slaves or serfs at Tasvar’s fortress. The least of his servitors were not only allowed, but required, to become party to a mutual oath in which Tasvar was as bound by his promises to them as they were to the ones they made to him.” Riordan thumped his knuckles against the ground. “Our success here depends upon taking that foundation of mutual commitment one step further: to never forsake our own, to reward merit and effort, and for all to live and die by the same rules.”

Miles stretched. “Sounds okay, as long as they always remember who’s the boss and that their main job is to keep us alive, come what may.” He looked around the group. “So how do we start? Grab five trogs as personal security, cycle them through ten-day duty cycles until they’re all familiar with the drill? After that, we start pushing them through training—”

Riordan shook his head. “No.”

Miles stopped in mid-word. “But . . . I thought you just approved the idea of having meat-shields, sir.”

“Firstly, that term dies right here, right now. Second, just because I’ve agreed to the concept doesn’t mean I like it one damn bit.” He sighed. “That said, I think what you’re proposing is fine, except that we can’t be the ones assigning them to, or training them for, protection duty.”

O’Garran shrugged. “Okay, then just order Bey to take care of it.”

“No. Can’t happen.”

Others faces in the camp circle were beginning to look as confused as Miles, albeit not as exasperated. “Sir, she’s our asset. We can simply—”

“No, Chief, that is precisely where you are wrong. She is not ‘our asset.’ That’s why I kept her from taking an oath of fealty. And why she received all the trogs’ oaths on our behalf. Not just because she’s a truthteller, but because she’s a local.”

Before O’Garran could object again, Bannor broke in. “The commodore is not willing, ethically or legally, to assume direct control over the natives of Bactradgaria.”

Miles glanced at the Special Forces colonel as if he’d defected to the enemy; the phrasing was almost straight out of the manual for managing insurgents.

Riordan saw, and understood, the near-glare. “Chief, those words, and the policy behind them, are coming from me. And this doesn’t just apply to trogs. It applies to all locals. It’s why the oaths taken by the two humans we freed—Enoran and Orsost—are temporary: to keep them independent. Same with Tirolane, who’s traveling with us as an equal, no strings attached.” Seeing the short SEAL’s frown, he asked, “So you think they’d be more useful as servitors, instead of allies?”

“Well . . . ” O’Garran began hesitantly.

“Look, Chief, there’s a practical dimension to this as well. Do you want to spend your time training all those trogs? Do you want to whip them into shape and discipline them? Without any deep understanding of how they think and react?” Riordan shook his head. “We’re not the ones with those skills. The locals are. Like Bey, who will do that job better, and with less hand-holding, if she’s our ally rather than our vassal. It’s equally true for the humans. And for Tirolane.”

Newton raised an eyebrow. “The way you phrased that, sir: do you suspect that Tirolane is not a human like the others?”

Duncan nodded. “Kinda wondered the same thing, after what he did at the caravan.”

Riordan shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if Tirolane’s human any more than if Bey’s a crog or a trog or something else. The same principles apply: they are both locals who can manage situations we don’t fully understand and maybe never will. And by keeping them as allies, we’re letting them do what they do best. Which frees us up for the tasks that only we have the knowledge and training to perform.”

“Yeah,” Dora agreed with a frown, “but there’s one drawback, Boss. An ally can always walk away. That gives them leverage.”

Riordan lifted an eyebrow. “I would think you, of all people, would want them to have leverage, Dora. But from a purely practical standpoint, that leverage works both ways. We, too, can require changes in the terms of an alliance. Both parties have to be satisfied with it; that’s how they remain equal and independent.

“Look: this isn’t about us carrying the torch of democracy to the locals. We all know how many times that was attempted on Earth and how many times it was a disaster. We’re just laying out the basic concepts, which they’ll develop as they choose. Or not.”

Bannor nodded. “And I’m just as happy not to be a feudal overlord, thank you very much.”

Caine nodded. “However you look at it, we want allies, not servitors. And not just because it’s ethical; it ensures that the locals retain both control and culpability when it comes to their actions.”

Miles’ sideways stare was dubious. “Sir, if that shit ever hits the fan, do you really think anyone is going to give a good goddamn about those dainty diplomatic distinctions?”

Riordan smiled. “Only time will tell, Chief. But I started seeing the situation differently the moment Bey told me that the praakht renamed themselves trogs.” O’Garran grinned, having originated the term. “I can’t shake the feeling that we might be at the birth of a movement: maybe a rebellion, maybe something more sweeping. Something that could build and change very rapidly, once it starts.

“Either way, this is not our world and we don’t know its ways. The right and smart paths are one and the same: to avoid becoming part of the local system and to refrain from imposing our own. If we start as friends and allies—no more and no less—we have a good chance of staying that way in the times to come.”

Yaargraukh emitted a contemplative phlegm-warble. “It shall be interesting to see when and what kind of benefits we shall derive from the relationships you have set forth, Commodore.”

“You’ll see one soon, my friend.”

“Indeed? Of what kind?”

“The grimmest kind. Bey has taken charge of the execution.”

Duncan whistled appreciatively. “At least the blood isn’t on our hands this time. When is it happening?”

“Sometime early tomorrow,” Riordan answered.

Bannor glanced over at his tone. “I can’t tell whether you’re more relieved or worried that Bey is carrying out the sentence.”

Remembering her look of grim determination, Caine sighed. “I’m not sure either, Colonel.”

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