O’Leary looked out on the desolate landscape and pointed with a tentacle to marks in the hard ground. “Well, whatever it was went that way.”
There was no way around it. They had gotten her this far, but now their own purposes were different, even if both were in the interest of fulfilling the mission.
“But we’re going to make that ceremony,” Har Shamish said in resignation.
“If we can’t catch up to them or figure out what they’re hauling, you bet we are,” O’Leary responded. “I sure want to see how the hell he’s going to pull it off.”
THE BORDERS BETWEEN CLANS WERE NOT SOMETHING THE AVERAGE outsider could see, but they were apparently as real as hex boundaries to the natives. It might well be a scented marker, or even a planted pattern, and to Ari and Ming, as well as the Chalidang force, there was no difference at all between the last reef that was considered Clan Tusarch’s sacred property and the next, which was Clan Paugoth. Still, the two escorts from the Lord of Tusarch stopped dead at the edge of that last reef and would go no farther.
“From the next reef on, you are in Paugoth territory,” one of them warned.
“Yeah, and you better fight ’em, too, ’cause our whole clan’s gonna be gathering to see. If you beat ’em, you’re welcome to whatever you’re here for, and then leave the remains to us. If you lose, we will be waiting for you.”
In fact, Mochida was planning to wipe out the winner no matter who that might be, but he let it go. As far as he was concerned, Clan Tusarch was totally irrelevant. He was relieved that he hadn’t had to waste men and resources fighting his way there, but was satisfied in any event to be here.
No welcoming party, Ming noted. Looks like nobody talks to anybody around here. You’d figure that by now we’d be common knowledge.
Up above, following the small markers that Colonel Kuamba sent up every kilometer or so, the dark shadow of a very large vessel continued to slowly follow. It could not be ignored by anybody. Even more interesting, at the release of the next small buoy there was additional activity above. Three smaller vessels seemed to be accompanying the big ship, possibly put over the side by that ship, but equally possibly they’d simply joined it unnoticed. Still, they followed silently, going away now and then if the wind or waves were wrong, but tacking back without much of a problem and generally keeping formation. Those guys are good sailors, Ari noted approvingly to himself.
But what else were they? Supply ships? Certainly not reinforcements, since what would have been the purpose of the cryogenic stuff? But they were there for some reason, all right.
As the large V-shaped formation of Chalidangers moved into the targeted clan’s territory with a steady but slow and cautious pace, two small forms went over the side from the smaller boats above and swam down a bit and then across. They were not Chalidang, Kalindan, or any other race that Ari and Ming had yet seen, but seemed a kind of large animal designed for the water, yet almost certainly air breathers from the way they moved. They fanned out, took a good look at the situation, and then one headed back up and into one of the small boats once again, while the other paced the large formation about halfway between the reef and the surface.
“Friends of yours?” Ari asked the General.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Although there are panels in the small boats and even in the large ship that allow one to look down here, the hard substance necessary to ensure that they don’t break and sink introduces some distortion and also has a limited field of view. The Imtre have exceptional vision as well as other senses, and they also have a great deal of experience in this kind of campaign in nontech environments. They aren’t much good at real fighting, but they’ll coordinate our surface forces with our combat line here.”
“Looks pretty complete. You don’t think the locals are gonna notice?” Ming asked him.
“Oh, they’ll notice. It’s just irrelevant. The only thing that can cross us up is if the clan does not come out for a fight like the last one did. And if they don’t, they’re finished here anyway and might as well commit suicide. No, they’ll come, and soon. Within the next few minutes, I’d say. Otherwise, I’m going to start blowing up their precious reef gardens, one by one.”
He didn’t have to bother, nor even explain how he could blow things up down here. The Clan Paugoth was suddenly there in full force and radiating irritation, if that was the word for it. Fury, maybe, was a better one.
“Who dares desecrate Paugoth lands?” thundered the local lord imperiously. If anything, his Voice of God impression was even better than the last one, both Ming and Ari agreed.
This time Mochida didn’t allow a mere lieutenant to answer. To the surprise of the Kalindans, and possibly even some of his men, the General decided to do his own talking, and rose up to be level with that huge fanged mouth flanked by bizarre eyes.
“I am Colonel General Anchun Mochida of the Imperial Chalidang Army,” he announced in tones that sounded not quite as impressive as the lord’s but good enough. “In ancient times an object of great value was stolen from His Majesty’s family and people by massed armies including the Sanafe, which received a piece of it as some sort of war trophy. I am commanded by His Most August Majesty to pay any price, fight any fight, do whatever needs to be done, to retrieve what is and was always rightfully ours. We are here to get the piece you still possess. If we receive it, your people and mine will be friends forever in the coming reorder of power in the universe and we shall go in peace, and quickly. Will you return it to us by your authority, wisdom, and leadership?”
The old lord seemed taken aback by this, and confused. “War? Stolen treasures? What nonsense is this? Even if any of that blather you just said is true, I have no knowledge of the object of your quest. Why do you search for it here?”
“But you do have it,” the General responded. “It is the Indestructible Trophy, that which marks a clan for the next year as the Clan of Clans.”
The Sanafean leader seemed amazed. “What? That old ugly stick? Its only worth is what it represents to the winners; it has no other value. You must be mad to come here with an army and a navy to take that, and your Emperor or whatever must be crazy, too, to send you on such a quest!”
That didn’t sit well with the Chalidang soldiers. There was a great deal of tensing up, and weapons were being fitted into tentacles and brought to bear. As the rumbling subsided, Ari noted that the Imtre above had gone and another had slipped off the third boat but was sticking very close to it.
“Silence!” the General commanded, and the troops did as they were ordered, but were very ready now, almost a coiled spring.
“If it is of no intrinsic value to you, then what will you take for it, or will you just give it to us and we will go?” the General pressed, knowing where things were leading, as everybody else on both sides did.
“If it has no intrinsic value then it cannot be priced,” the Lord of Paugoth responded logically. “Therefore, I cannot take anything for it, nor, because of what it represents to us and to no one else, may I give it away. There is only one way the Indestructible Trophy can ever change hands.”
“Very well, then, sir. It is by your choice that what follows follows,” the General said in a menacing tone. “Company formations!” he yelled crisply to his men, who began to reform in an impressive manner into five fighting groups. Above, the Imtre tensed and virtually surfaced, keeping only its head below water.
Ari and Ming decided that the better part of their own valor was to rise as close to the underside of the big ship as they dared and use its shadow and substance as protection. They had nowhere to run and couldn’t see much any other place, but they didn’t want to be in the middle of what had to be coming.
I got a bad feeling about this, Ari commented.
Me, too, but not for the same reason. They’ve looked over these tentacled fighters with their fancy armor and nasty weapons and they haven’t blinked. No species survives for long if they’re that stupid. Conclusion: they’re not that stupid.
You know the limitations of intelligence. I’ll bet you that the General’s seen a million full-blown three dimensional recordings of the clans fighting each other, but when s the last time the clans fought somebody else?
Uh-oh. You think we ‘re better off maybe on the ship?
Probably, but I just got to see this.
The Chalidangers were totally confident of victory, and tended to regard the Sanafeans as backward primitives unable to sustain a coordinated attack. Clans, too, were relatively small, generally no more than five or six hundred individuals, with only the two hundred or so adult males actually fighting for blood.
Mochida’s tactics, probably run through a million computer simulations back home in his capital, seemed for a while to go quite well. The Sanafeans showed unexpected quickness and a nasty ability to stun even an armored Chalidang with some kind of natural electrical charge if they could touch the enemy, but their weapon was basically a large and ornately carved and sharpened sword wielded by the hand from underneath. The Chalidangers’ harpoons and hooked nets tore through the clan ranks and began to fill the water with blood.
Mochida took no direct part in the fighting, although he had full battle armor on and a nasty harpoon that could fire four bolts in a spread all at once. He was content to let his professional force do the minute by minute adjustments, which showed him to be a very smart commander.
There was no doubt about it; at least four Sanafeans were falling—wounded or dead—for every Chalidanger in similar straits. The unexpected electric charge took its toll, but unless the Sanafean could get close enough to apply it without getting killed, and then thrust the sword up into the tentacles, slashing away at the arms and mouth of the invaders, there wasn’t much damage their swords could do against that high-tech armor.
Worse, the natives fought mostly as individuals, with no apparent organization or leadership, and this allowed them to be split again and again.
The Chalidang soldiers seemed so filled with blood lust and so confident of an easy victory that they didn’t even realize that the mantalike Sanafeans had been drawing them slowly down, at great cost, to the reef below.
Suddenly, as a large number of Chalidangers swooped in to finish off some bleeding stragglers just above the reef, the coral reef itself seemed to erupt. Shapes—nasty, vicious, with huge jaws, wide eyes, and pointed teeth—lashed out from holes and hideaways within the living rock. They looked almost comical, but they were incredibly fast and they ignored the armor and started chomping on the Chalidangers’ tentacles. Soon the thirty or so invaders who were close enough had gaping wounds, and tentacle parts and blood began floating about, yet every time the Chalidangers tried to harpoon or net or otherwise grab one of their large serpentine assailants, there was nothing there. As quickly as they struck, the giant sea snakes could withdraw into the protection of solid coral, only to emerge somewhere else when the victim was right.
Withdraw! Get away from the damned reef! Mochida screamed at them. “Keep your position at least five meters from the reef, damn it! Shoot down, don’t chase!”
It was hard for his men to obey him, though, when targets were so easy and so apparent, and some others got parts of themselves bit off as they went after apparently helpless Sanafean stragglers.
Told ya they had some surprises, Ming commented smugly.
For all that, Chalidang still had the edge, and even though it suddenly faced a foe that had gone from disorganized savages to pretty tightly ordered and disciplined units, it was clear that at this rate the Chalidangers would still win. It would just be more costly than they’d anticipated, something that troubled Mochida very little and his masters not one bit.
“Form dynamo!” the Lord of Paugoth commanded from somewhere in back and over his troops. “Press in, main body, now!”
The Sanafeans formed into one of the oddest formations any of the others had ever seen. Half had turned over, so they lay chest-to-chest, doubling their apparent size and making themselves look like weather balloons. They then had joined with another pair, and another, and another, until they were densely packed together, all of their hands clenched in the center. The original pair was the driver; everybody else just came along for the ride, but there was a sense that they were somehow linked, somehow interconnected. But for what? They made much better targets for Chalidang harpoons this way, and were no apparent threat to the invaders.
They came at the main body of Chalidangers, two regrouping companies still a bit dizzy from the reef and extricating themselves and others from it, and they came very, very fast. So fast, in fact, that the reforming group had no time to dress ranks and deal with it. They started to move away, but the mass of Sanafeans struck them, and every Chalidanger who was struck was suddenly screaming in agony, its armor actually melting, the occupants badly burned or stunned or even dead.
They’ve got a massed electrical field there, all from their own bodies! Ming noted. My God! I don’t even think they can feel pain when they’re like that. Look at those bolts go right into them, almost like a pincushion, but they’re coming on!
Mochida was alarmed, particularly when he saw three other such “dynamo” formations being put together in front of him. Half his men were dead or wounded, and even though there were probably no more than a hundred Sanafeans left who could fight, they were all fighting, and without fear and or sense of giving up.
Mochida shot up to where one of the Imtre was waiting just below the surface. “Bomb the reef. Indiscriminate,” he ordered.
The Imtre hesitated a moment. “Through your own troops?”
“They’ll get out of the way. Now, do it!”
The Imtre was gone topside, and Mochida moved over the largest concentration of troops. “Spread out, unified V at ten meters depth! Form on me! Do it now!”
As many Chalidangers as could do it disengaged instantly and rose, forming once more that perfect V shape, this time at a very shallow depth, and, considering their reduced numbers, fairly wide apart.
New bolts were being distributed for the harpoons from cartons in the small boats above by Imtre, who were moving quickly and nervously.
The Sanafeans broke from their dynamo formations when this happened and spread out in a column of fours, lowering themselves close to the reef and staring up at the high invaders. The old lord was still there, too, and didn’t sound much like giving in.