“You fight well, you invading bastards, but you must come to us now! Come down to our reef, if you dare, and retrieve your trophy, and don’t mind the gathering sharks!”
The blood had in fact attracted a lot of very large sharks, all of whom looked capable of eating anybody there and more than willing to do so, although they were first starting off by scavenging the dead and the severed limbs.
Mochida was also not in a defeatist mood. “Give us the trophy, Lord Paugoth, and the clan will survive. If I must take it from this point, and hunt for it, I shall leave no Sanafean of the Clan Paugoth alive. No male, no female, no infants, no children. One by one I am going to destroy your reefs and all that they contain until you yield or the sharks and the other clans pick your bones.”
Almost on cue, since it had been prearranged by the Imtre with those above, there were a series of splashes at the surface, and slowly descending past the Chalidangers came sleek-looking cylinders with some sort of marking on them. They went down so slowly that the Sanafeans weren’t sure how to take the things and simply watched them fall, not even noticing that the Chalidangers had turned so their armored bodies were facing down toward the reef and their tentacled part was almost straight up.
A great saucerlike Sanafean detached itself from the group at the reef and approached the nearest of the cylinders. It reached out its “hand,” touched the thing, and simultaneously gave it a full charge.
It blew up with an enormous bang, and the concussion flung Chalidangers all the way to the surface and smashed a suddenly deafened Ming and Ari against the hull of the ship.
Four others struck the reef and went off in sequence, throwing up more concussion, more noise, and more brute force energy than had ever before been seen in this nontech hex.
As soon as the Kalindans could regain their senses, they headed for the surface, popped up, and saw a nearby longboat with four Imtre and three insectlike Jerminins in it, loading up a mechanical rack with five more of the depth charges. The trouble is, they looked pretty full and pretty busy, and the two other boats were moving to other locations and preparing for more of the same.
Ari didn’t have to wait for an invitation. They swam quickly to the big ship and found a rope ladder leading to an open compartment where supplies had been unloaded as called for to the smaller boats. It was above the surface and it was inside a big ship. That, for the moment, was all the Kalindans cared about.
While the initial battle had been going on, Imtre scouts knowledgeable from intelligence as to the Paugoth boundaries had placed small surface markers denoting both ends of each Paugoth reef. These red markers, hobbling up and down, were now the objects of the small boats, each of which chose one and moved to a position in between. Using Imtre and the “glass” bottoms as confirmation that they were where they wanted to be, they waited for their Imtre to be out of the water and then released a rack of depth charges.
Hanging for dear life from the rope ladder and trying to pull themselves up, the Kalindans found that the explosions were just as spectacular if not as damaging on the surface.
After the loads were dropped on three more, though, an Imtre who went down to check damages came rushing back up and they could hear him shout, “Cease fire! Cease fire! They’ve had it!”
What do you think? My brain s been scrambled and I know we’re gonna hurt like hell from those whacks against the hull, but I’d rather be down there than up here if it’s over, Ming commented.
I agree, on everything, including the scrambling, Ari came back, and with that they dropped back into the sea.
Couldn’ta stood it long up there anyway, Ming noted. That hot sun was peelin’ our skin off.
Still, the scene below was not easy to look at even when you could see anything through the still swirling dust and debris.
As it cleared enough to see the reef below, as through a fog, the sight was one of horror. There were dead Sanafeans all over, some torn to shreds but others looking remarkably like they were just sleeping, but with no life inside them, but there were also dead and dying sea creatures. The coral reef itself seemed shattered, scarred, and gashed, the living top layer scorched and motionless. Here and there the vicious giant spotted sea snakes that had been so effective could be seen, some decapitated, half out of their holes and burrows. Sharks, too, lay dead and dying in mad twisting frenzies, as well as countless other fish who had depended upon the reefs for everything from protection to food.
The Chalidangers hadn’t weathered things that well, but at least they were alive, for they’d known what was going to happen and had been as prepared for it as they could be. Even so, a number who’d apparently been in the path of the concussion’s upward force seemed stunned and only slightly alive, their armor, which Mochida had bragged could stop the harpoons and even some much higher tech energy weapons, cracked, in one case shattered, by the forces their General and their allies had unleashed.
“Sweet Jesus! Is there anyone left alive down there to surrender?” Ari cried.
General Mochida saw them, possibly heard the comment, and approached.
“Sorry, my guests, but I fear I will be slightly deaf for a while. I hope not forever, but even if so, it would be worth it. Victory is worth any price.”
“It looks like the price was real high, particularly among the Sanafeans,” Ming noted.
“Yes, they put up a much tougher fight than we hoped. Fortunately, we had contingency plans for such eventualities, and this is the result.”
“It doesn’t seem to me that you won anything, General,” Ming replied. “I mean, the object wasn’t to kill, it was to get that whatever it was you wanted to get, or did I misunderstand you?”
“No, you’re quite right. They are bringing it to us now. There were a half-dozen or so survivors, and they gave me their word and went to get it. That is what we are waiting for.”
“You really think they’re gonna come back and bring you this trophy?”
“I do. The price is that I do not blow up the rest of their reefs. You see, they can’t survive without their reefs. The reefs not only are at the heart of their food chain, it’s where they bear and nurture their young. 1 daresay we probably killed quite a number of the clan’s children today, before they could ever taste the freedom of the open sea.”
“Some deal! And as soon as we’re gone, the other clans’ll come in and wipe out the rest of them and take over here anyway.”
“Not my problem. Ah! I see that this affair is close to a conclusion . . .”
Coming from a valley between two blasted reefs was a small contingent of Sanafeans. Most were adults, but there was a difference you couldn’t quite pin down in some of the larger ones in the rear.
The wives and mothers, I bet, Ming guessed, shaking her head.
In the front of the group, and bearing in his hand an odd-shaped piece of, well, something, was a young male, perhaps too young to have yet been a warrior in the big contests like this one.
The young creature stopped just short of the Chalidang line, and General Mochida, sensing the hesitancy, descended to the young one’s level.
“I am Colonel General Mochida. You have brought what we came for?”
The young male quivered, as if summoning up courage, but he replied, in a shaky yet clear voice, “I am Kirith, High Lord of the Paugoth. In the name of all our sacred gods, take this cursed thing and depart our lands.”
Ari and Ming both had a sudden sense that there was more meaning to this sad scene than merely surrender with honor. It was unlikely that the old lord had been the father of someone this young; he was too big and too old for that.
Most likely Mochida’s bombs had killed his grandfather and his father, and possibly his older siblings as well. A second look at the remains of the carnage below showed harpoons with expanding heads in almost every intact body.
The Chalidangers who’d recovered first had descended and finished off those of the enemy still living.
Mochida extended one of his two extra long tentacles and took the object, then immediately moved up and away.
He moved toward the large ship, tapped on the side in what seemed to be a code, and a panel slid back noisily to reveal a water-filled central compartment aboard the vessel.
“Put the medical people and the wounded inside the ship,” he instructed. “We’ll sail into Kalinda and get the benefits of modern medicine, at least. The rest of you form up and prepare to follow the ship.”
“You’re going into Kalinda now?” Ari asked incredulously. “There’s no way you’re fit or in any numbers to resist internment!”
“I have no intention of being interned,” the General responded. “We are going to go in unarmed and request the right to fair return under the Neutrality Treaties. We will be escorted directly to the capital and we will then be unceremoniously thrown out through the Zone Gate. There are only . . . oh, I’d say 115 or so of us. I should think that word of this should make your people more relaxed about us. We have what we were after. I hope to receive word from Quislon that we have another shortly. If so, that will leave only one piece of the Straight Gate left to acquire. If not, we’ll have another bloodbath at some point before it is all gone. Our air-breathing agent has proven extremely capable.”
“Yeah? And what good is even that if you can’t get the last piece?” Ari asked him. “And, if I remember, that’s the one nobody could find.”
“Oh, I am pretty certain where it is,” the General responded. “And I think you might be as surprised as everyone else when you find out. And you will. I would love to take you to Chalidang to meet Their Majesties. I’m certain that they would be thrilled to have you for dinner. But now you’re my native guide. What happens from this point is going to depend on who is or is not waiting for me when I reach Zone. And you, both of you, shall accompany me. I and my men will soon be strangers in a very strange land. We appreciate our native guide.”
One of these days, somebody is going to kill that asshole squid, Ari commented. He reminds me of my uncle Jules.
Don’t they all, Ming sighed.
An Imtre who had splashed down into the water approached the General.
“Sir, beg to report that General Kusdik and Minister Krare are both dead. Assassinated.”
“What! But Kusdik was aboard this very ship! And Krare was supposedly waiting at the Kalindan border!”
“They were, sir, but—well, something got them. Just like they got the others.”
A nervous chill radiated from the General in spite of his triumph. All the deaths he’d seen, all the deaths he’d just caused, and these two were the ones that affected him.
“Yes, sir. At least we assume so in the case of the minister. On the ship, well, er, he left a note.”
“He did what?”
“Y-Yes, sir. It said that we were all to tell the Empress that she would be the last, and that there were only two to go. And he—he added something. Something for you.”
“For me? But I’m not from his damned universe! What concern of his am I?”
“He said, well, he—”
“Come on! Out with it!”
“He said that you should be told that he didn’t like genocide no matter who did it. That he was very busy now but that he expected he would get around to you sooner or later.”
“Figures. Has my great staff and would-be replacements figured out yet what the devil Kincaid is that he could get this close to us? And I mean, the minister would have been in a water-breathing atmosphere, like here, not air like the others. How can he do that?”
“I don’t have word on it, sir, but I’ll have them send queries as soon as we’re in high-tech. If they know anything now, they’ll tell us and I’ll tell you.”
“Very well. Go! Let’s get moving here!”
“Problems, General?” Ming asked, not sounding worried about his health and welfare.
“You know Kincaid. Or knew him anyway. Tell me what you know.”
“Not much, really. Just the usual. Josich was Emperor, and he went to war very much like you do and at one point suffered losses severe enough to set back his plans for months. In fact, it turned out to be such a loss of momentum that it cost him the war. He took it out on the planet that had fought so hard and stalled him for so long, and he blew the entire planet up, along with over four billion sentient creatures. Just like you did this afternoon, only on an imaginably larger scale. Kincaid’s whole family was on that world, but he wasn’t at the time. He’s been out to get Josich and every single high-level individual regardless of rank or position or power ever since, fanatically so, to the exclusion of all else. He won’t even be deterred by hostages. He’s a machine, General, as well as a madman, and if he says he’s going to get you, he’ll get you. He followed Josich and the remnants of the Hadun court here, and from the sound of it, he’s gotten far more than the one in Zone that we knew about.”
“Yes, that’s true. Of the more than twenty people who came in with the Empress, we’re down to just two, including Her Majesty. It will make for an interesting situation if our agent is present in Zone when I come through holding another piece of this jigsaw puzzle. I am convinced that so long as Josich remains in Chalidang and in the palace there, she can not be gotten, even if someone were invisible. The controls and security are just too perfect. But if she comes out, well, then it is a different story. So far nobody has been able to protect anyone outside of that level of security. And Josich will have to come out if we have the Quislon piece.”
“Yes. Again, you will see, when it is time.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t be counting too much on him stopping with your Empress,” Ari noted. “He’s added you to his list now.”
“And that should worry you,” the General responded ominously.
“You see, I have given orders to every single one of my people. If I should die, for any reason, they are to kill you immediately.”