She still kept her hat, however, as a badge of her rank. As a newly commissioned ensign, she had access to places and circles that a mere sailor would not. With so many crewmembers either injured or out with the search teams there had been plenty of appointments made. With each appointment came additional duties and responsibilities. Tritti was accustomed to work. It was the new responsibility that, like her new canvas whites, didn’t quite seem to fit.
Tritti returned the salute of the guard at the door of the tent and went in. The tent was divided into several small rooms, the first of which held two desks. Behind one sat Domas, newly appointed to the rank of third lieutenant. She stood at attention before his desk and held a salute as he finished off a barrage of calculations on an abacus. He jotted down the figure and returned her salute.
“What is it, ensign?” he asked, the softness in his tone belying the formality of his words. Tritti had known from the moment he had first spoken to her after his appointment that he would be one of the good officers.
“Marileyna is asking to speak to the captain,” Tritti said. “She says she has something that has to go on the rocket before we launch it.”
Domas looked up, startled. “Rocket? I wasn’t notified of a rocket launch.”
“Neither was I, sir,” Tritti replied quickly, “and I almost suspect that neither was the captain.” Her eyes widened meaningfully. Domas jumped up from his seat. “Stay here.” He moved briskly across the small space to the other desk where sat a second lieutenant, Dryier by name. There was a whispered discussion, then Dryier looked up at Tritti, who stood and stared back. Dryier stood and moved through the canvas door deeper into the tent, leaving behind Domas, who came back to Tritti.
“Did she say anything else?” he asked.
“She said it was very important, and it had to go onto the rocket before we launched it. She didn’t say anything else, but the way she said it, you know, with the way she was looking off into the distance, her being blind and all, it made me suspect this might be news the captain might want to hear.”
“Was Gomph there, or Quaternus?”
“I haven’t seen Gomph since morning, and Quaternus is back in the infirmary.” “How about the other one, the other adept?”
“Polnias? He was there, but he wasn’t talking. He seemed to be in some sort of trance. Jheffr was there, but he was with Polnias, wiping him down and keeping the flies out of his eyes. You could ask Jheffr, but he’s what, seven? Eight? I doubt he knows anything.”
The curtain whipped open and the captain emerged, his eyes fixing on her. Tritti whipped up a salute.
“Come,” he said, and he left the tent, followed by the what had to be the entire remaining command staff, including Dryier and Domas. Tritti waited her turn and followed them all out, last in line, last in the chain of command.
The officers retraced Tritti’s steps back to the tent that housed the adepts. They slowed as they approached, stepping aside to allow Tritti forward. The captain waited at the tent flap, his hand on the latch until Tritti approached.
“Let’s go see what she’s been seeing,” he said, his voice low and soothing but his eyes set and his lips grim. Tritti nodded and he opened the flap. She entered and he followed.
Like the captain’s tent, this tent had been subdivided. The expedition had brought three adepts and their staff, and the tent had been divided into four chambers. Tritti led the captain to the furthest one on the right. She stopped at the entrance and called out.
“Marileyna, are you in there? It’s me, Tri–Ensign Strongwaters.” She waited a moment for a reply, but there was none. She looked up at the captain, who nodded her to go in. Tritti opened the flap and ducked in. Marileyna was in the center of the room, seated on a cushion. Tritti motioned the captain to enter, and the two of them slowly approached the woman. She was somewhere in her thirties, heavier, her blue skin showing signs of wrinkling. At first she did not acknowledge them, but then she turned her head slightly, looking more or less in their direction.
“Ah, Captain, good to have you visit. Did Tritti give you my message?”
“Yes, she did, Marileyna,” Captain Veerus said. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Certainly, Captain,” Marileyna said pleasantly, her head cocked in his general direction.
“What is this thing that you need to put on a rocket?”
“Oh, yes,” the blind adept replied, leaning over and reaching into a nearby basket. “I made it this morning. I know it’s not much to look at,” she said, handing the thing to the captain, “but you know how it is, magic things and all.”
“Yes, I know,” the captain said, taking the thing. Tritti watched as he turned it over in his hands. It looked like a crude bowl made of papier mache, off-white in color and lumpy. He could see that on the flat bottom had been painted an eye.
“What does it do?”
“It’s a seeing eye. It will allow me to see what the rocket sees.” She giggled. “It’ll be almost like riding the rocket itself, only not so explosive.” She laughed outright now. “That way I’ll be able to tell you what’s out there when you shoot your rocket at those tribesmen tonight.”
“Tonight?” the captain asked, startled.
“Yes, just after the tribesmen attack.”
The captain furiously waved at Tritti, motioning for her to go tell the others. She gave a fast salute and ran out of the room.
* * *
The sun had set and the last light was fading rapidly from the cloudless sky when a light wind picked up, stirring the leaves of the scrubby shrubs that existed on the outskirts of the oasis. Not far away, the bent spine of the Constant Vision broke the rough line of the horizon. High atop the canted tail, the watchmen looked like tiny dots. The hull brightened a bit as the crew on the ground turned on another spotlight and used it to paint the hull with light. Not all the movement in the brush was caused by the wind. Here and there, now and again, a bird would flutter about for a moment, or a gomka would scurry off on six scaled legs in search of a safe burrow. One such lizard-like creature crawled up a branch and then stopped, its unblinking eyes fixed in the middle distance. It sat motionless for many long minutes at its new perch, only to leap to the ground and race off when the entire bush swayed violently and moved, carried away by the tribesman that hid behind it.
Here and there, now and again, all across the sweep of the scrublands, bushes were moving, slowly, carefully, and almost always forward, in towards the oasis. Each was propelled by a tribesman swathed in concealing robes and leathers, each armed with knives and swords and bows. A few carried even more potent weapons, weapons more advanced, or more magical. Their stealth was practiced, and, for the most part, unnoticed.
* * *
“You’re sure?” Dryier asked into the microphone that was clamped to his desk. The cable running to that mike terminated in a switch-box that allowed Dryier to select up to five different watch posts throughout the encampment. The current selection was for the watch at the top of the tail of the Constant Vision.
“Aye aye,” came the tinny response from the single speaker. “We can see two of them, hiding in the brush. They’re headed this way, quarter of a mile out, one hundred ten degrees.”
“Aye aye. Maintain observation, hold fire. Repeat, hold fire,” Dryier said.
“Seven-three,” the watchman replied, using the code that signified understanding and compliance.
Dryier snapped the switch to another setting, this time for a tower erected at the bow of the ship. He jammed his finger on the signal light as he spoke to an aide at his side. “Tell the captain we’ve got a contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten.” The aide saluted and left.
“Go ahead,” came a voice from the speaker.
“Confirm contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten,” Dryier said succinctly. “Hold fire.”
“Confirm contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten, seven-three.”
Dryier repeated the action three more times, then turned the dial back to the setting for the tail-top post. He was just reaching for the signal button when the captain emerged from the inner part of the tent, staff in tow.
“How many?” he demanded of Dryier.
“Two contacts, in the bush, Sir,” Dryier responded, half rising and saluting with one hand while the other completed its task of pushing the signal button.
“Hold fire until my signal. Confirm the sighting,” the captain ordered.
“Aye,” Dryier replied.
“Go ahead,” came a voice over the speaker.
“Status,” Dryier said. As he did, two more signal lights lit up, one for the bow post, one for another post on the ground at the tail of the ship.
“Confirm three contacts in the bush, moving under cover, four hundred yards, one hundred twelve degrees.”
“Aye aye. Hold fire.” Dryier snapped the switch to the setting for the bow post.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Confirm two contacts, four hundred yards, one hundred twenty degrees.”
“So, seven so far?” the captain asked.
“No, sir, two confirmed,” Dryier replied. “They’re all seeing the same contacts, just at different angles.” “I see.” He pondered a moment. “Where’s our scout cannon?”
“Mounted aft, sir.” Dryier indicated the remaining lit position.
“Do they confirm?” Dryier turned the switch to connect. “Go ahead.”
“Confirm three contacts, three-fifty yards, one hundred twelve degrees.” came the voice over the speaker.
“Aye aye. Stand by.” Dryier looked up at the captain, who frowned and considered a moment.
“Let’s send our bush friends a signal,” the captain replied.
Dryier leaned into the microphone, taking an involuntary gasp as he did. “Open fire on contacts. Repeat, open fire on contacts.”
At the port observation post, Dryier’s words had not yet finished before the officer in charge, a lieutenant by the name of Fiztern, spun to face the two-man cannon team.
Instantly, the evening calm was broken by the crack and flash of weapon fire. Anticipating the order, the fire team had been tracking the contacts from the moment they were spotted. Their weapon, one of the Constant Vision‘s two scout cannons, had been loaded and primed, the liquid fuel charge already injected and ready. The observer noted the projectile’s swift flight, as well as the resulting cloud of dust and sand where the solid projectile hit. The gunner immediately jacked open the bolt of the big, single-action rifle and shoved in the next slug. Slamming the bolt home and locking it, he kicked the fuel pedal, noting with grim satisfaction the muffled hiss of fuel vaporizing on hot metal.
“Three yards short, one yard left,” the observer noted calmly. The gunner expertly tapped the two aiming wheels, adjusting the elevation and azimuth of the gun. Once satisfied, he tripped the trigger again. The muzzle flash was bright in the growing dusk. The gunner immediately began reloading. “On target,” the observer noted, “but he’s moving. Five yard … seven yards right, five yards short.” Once again the gunner tapped expertly, and once again the weapon spoke. “Hit.”
“Where’s the other target?” asked Lieutenant Fitzern.
Almost as if in answer, there came the crack of a carbine, not from the camp, but from the brush. To the right of the post, mounted on a pole, stood one of the great spotlights that were trained on the ship’s hull. It exploded in sparks, and died.
“What was … they’ve got guns!” Fitzern exclaimed.
“Aye,” commented the observer, drawing his own sidearm. He expertly armed it and snapped off a careful shot into the growing darkness.
High above, on the aft rocket platform, Stolia clutched the grip of the ripple launcher with pale hands. “Should I shoot?” she pleaded, her gaze frozen at the dark mass of brush below. “Should I shoot? Should …”
“Hold fire,” replied Driss’ka as she held the signal button down on the transmitter. “Wait for orders.”
To her left the rotary gun emitted an oily rattle as the barrels began to spin. Drend had the barrel depressed and aimed at the vegetation below. Here and there around the camp came the sounds of gunfire, sporadic and isolated. Drend had not yet fired, but his eyes were fixed to the gunsights.
“Go ahead,” came the sound of Dryier’s voice on the speaker.
“Permissssion to fire!” Driss’ka hissed into the mike.
“Open … ” Driss’ka began, pointing below, but the rest of her order was drowned out by the roar of the rotary gun as Drend opened up. A moment later the noise was doubled as Stolia fired the ripple launcher, unleashing a torrent of rocket fire into the night. Driss’ka dropped into a crouch, her vestigial wings covering her head instinctively to protect her from the noise. Stolia, her hands frozen in terror, held the ripple launcher on bead entirely in spite of herself, firing the entire volley of sixteen rockets at the spot where the first enemy had been spotted. This involuntary example of massive overkill lit the evening sky like it was daytime, ripping the scrubby vegetation with shrapnel and setting fires over an area the size of a mudball field.
Drend quickly realized that his rounds were entirely redundant compared to the firestorm that Stolia had unleashed, and he instead traversed the barrels of the rotary across his field of fire, starting with the place of first contact and going left. It was getting dark fast, but not so dark that Drend couldn’t see where the bullets were kicking up dirt and dust below, and where the enemy was breaking from cover and running, some away from and some toward the ship. To his dismay, it wasn’t just a few contacts. There were hundreds.
The camp had been laid out on both sides of the ship, but mostly it had spread to the port side. This was partly because there was a dense thorny thicket to that side that lent an air of safely and enclosure. Nonetheless, Captain Veerus had prudently posted guards on that side as well, although fewer than on the starboard side. These men and women now found themselves faced with a nightmare: dozens of enemy suddenly appearing where moments before there had been just brush and sand.
Caught unaware, two of the guards died immediately, arrows piercing them in multiple places. Three others were better concealed and opened fire. One of them was a minor adept, and she unleashed a blast of wind into the faces of the attackers which lashed them with stinging sand, slowing them. The other two were armed with carbines, and snapped out rifle fire as fast as they could work the bolt actions on their weapons. A handful of the attackers fell, but more came surging on. Two more of the sentries died before a sailor appeared with a flamethrower and lit up the night, driving back the enemy in a panic.
This desert foe was not to be cowed for long. Arrows flew toward the sailor, as well as toward the remaining sentry. Guided by magic, these arrows found their marks where earlier arrows had missed. The dusk was again dim and quiet, for a moment. Stealthy figures, hidden by magic, leaped through the darkness. They reached the thorn thicket and began to penetrate it. Their quiet cunning was turned to pain and fear when it turned on them, coming to life and lashing them with sharp spines.
Not far away, in a tent, Polnias frowned in concentration, his fingers twitching and his blind eyes flicking from side to side as his magicks animated the thorny barrier. He took no notice when an arrow pierced the canvas tent, first to his left, then, closer, to his right. Outside the cries of the enemy faded as more of them freed themselves from the thorns and fled. Polnias continued his fight right up to the moment an arrow pierced the tent directly behind him. Without a cry he fell forward, the shaft buried deep in his heart. He never heard the sharp crack of carbines as reinforcements arrived to drive away the foe.
On the starboard side of the ship, the battle was over more quickly. Drend’s rotary, mounted on a platform high above the field of combat, had the disadvantage of firing from above, meaning that his aim had to be accurate to hit anything. The rotary mounted on the forward rocket platform of the Constant Vision was lower. Fire from that weapon could be much less accurate and still be effective. The operator knew this. Ignoring the huge gouts of flame coming from the rocket gun at the other end of the platform, she carefully and deliberately swung the cluster of spinning barrels through its entire traverse.
The enemy was completely unprepared for the onslaught. By the time she had exhausted the first box of rounds, the field to starboard was cleared. Seeing this, she motioned to the observer and together they hauled the heavy gun across the platform on its track and aimed it to port. Uncertain of the location of the friendly troops, the gunner fired a burst high, as a warning. She then raked the port side with the same thoroughness that she had used on the starboard side. When the box of ammunition was empty, she allowed the barrels to coast to a stop. From her post all she could see was the camp, and the darkness beyond. All she could hear was the cries of the wounded.
Captain Veerus was sitting in the tent with Marileyna. He was looking up at the wall of the tent, where an arrow was sticking through the canvas. Marileyna seemed unconcerned.
“… and I’m ready any time you are, Captain,” she was saying.
The captain nodded. “I’m just waiting to get word that the rocket is ready.”
“It is,” she said. “But I can wait.”
Just then, Tritti poked her head in the door flap. “Ready, sir,” she said, breathlessly.
“Here we go,” Veerus said, and pushed the button on the controller that sat in his lap. From outside came the banshee scream of a rocket launch. Marileyna rocked back on her heels.
“Wow!” she exclaimed, a look of sheer joy on her face.
The captain smiled and nodded nervously. He listened to the pitch of the rocket engine as it faded into the distance, burning through the boost phase and into the cruise phase. From the sounds of it the fire control chief had aimed it well, and they at least didn’t need to worry about the rocket landing back in the camp.
“The night clouds are quite beautiful tonight, Captain,” she said conversationally. Veerus nodded. He could hear that the rocket engine had cut out. The missile, unpowered now, would continue to arc upward a while before nosing over and descending.
“Have you ever heard of ‘stars’, Captain?” she asked. He shook his head. She nodded knowingly. “I heard someone talking about them once. Supposedly they are some sort of light you used to be able to see in the sky, long ago. I wonder what they were.”
“I don’t know,” Veerus said. He was about to ask her if she could see anything when the howl of a ripple launcher being fired drowned out his words. He actually flinched as several of the small, unguided rockets screeched over the tent, the whistle of their passage drowned out by the crack of explosions as the volley landed in the scrub outside the camp.
“Ah!” Marileyna said suddenly, looking down at the floor, just in front of Veerus’s knee. “I see you.”
“See who?” he asked, but she seemed not to hear him.
“Well, we can’t have that, now can we?” she said, lifting her hand and holding it out, palm down. It trembled a bit, as if she was holding something down. The captain resisted the urge to ask her what she was talking about. “I’m starting to see something, captain,” Marileyna said. “I can see the enemy troops falling back. They’re regrouping out beyond the lights.”
“Will the rocket hit them?” Veerus asked hopefully.
“No, not even close,” she replied, frowning. “There’s not as many of them now. We killed a lot.” Veerus could see her eyes moving, scanning the floor between them, as if she were actually on that rocket, high in the air, and was looking down. She paused. “They’re leaving. They’re running away.
“Good,” replied the captain.
“Not all of them are running away, though,” she commented. “Some of them are staying. They’re talking among themselves.”
“Can you t’see what they’re saying?”
“It’s dim. Let me try.” She fell silent for a moment. Her gaze was slowly rising, mirroring in inverse the trajectory of the rocket as it fell. “It’s hard. Their language is strange, as are their thoughts.” Another pause. “They are angry and afraid. They attacked too soon. They should have waited.”
“Waited? Waited for what?”
“For the rest. They will be here soon.” Her brow knit. Her gaze was leveling out. “There’s something else, too. I can’t quite t’see it, but there is something else there, with them.”
“What sort of thing?” asked Veerus.
“I don’t know,” she said. Suddenly she gasped. “It can t’see me too.” She leaned forward, as if peering at something. “Hello, what are you?” she asked. Her gaze continued to track upward, as if she were almost back to ground level. “I can hear you whispering to me, but I can’t hear what you are saying. What are you?” Her gaze was now level with Veerus’s face. Suddenly her eyes went wide, and a look of shock came over her face. Veerus felt a small thump as the shockwave from the rocket’s impact reached them through the soil. A moment later came the sound of the explosion. Silently, without moving, Marileyna pitched over to the side and fell to the floor.
Veerus got up and went out through the flap. Outside, Tritti was waiting. She glanced in at Marileyna, motionless on the floor, her eyes still open.
“Tend to her,” Veerus said, and went on. He passed out of the tent, his aids following with sidearms drawn. He paused at Dryier’s desk. “Have the big units hold fire,” he said, then headed outside. The night was lit dimly by the night clouds, by the one remaining spotlight that the enemy had not shot out, and by a few lights mounted on tent poles. Airmen were moving about with carbines unslung, and corpsmen were converging on the infirmary with wounded.
“Get those lights fixed,” Veerus said, pointing up at the hull. “We need light. Check the posts to be sure they’re manned. If we need to fall back, we fall back to the hull.” He looked around at the fires in the brush. “Set the rest of the brush on fire. I want a perimeter cleared for a half a mile. And get me a report of what store we have left — rockets, fuel, and rounds. Oh, and people.” His gaze focused on a small group dragging a man in from the darkness. He moved towards them.
“Carry that wounded,” he instructed. “This is an enemy, sir,” came the reply. “We’re bringing it back for questioning. We needed to keep our weapons out.” The two men dragging the victim waved pistols.
“It doesn’t look like much of a threat any more,” Veerus said, motioning them to release it. The airmen dropped the dusty robes they’re been using to haul the enemy. The captain hunkered down next to the nearly naked prisoner, noting the bloody, perforated, leather chest plate and the tattooed skin. The enemy was human, quite obviously male, and was looking at Veerus with glassy eyes. The enemy’s lips moved loosely.
“… gomshallunt hickan krelleeg …” he whispered.
Veerus looked up at the other men. One of them shrugged, but the other nodded.
“I speak just a bit of that language, captain,” he said. “I think he’s saying something about defending something. ‘Krelleeg’, I think.”
“What’s a ‘krelleeg’?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“Ask him about it,” Veerus said. “Ask him …” But looking down at the man, Veerus knew there was not to be any asking. The man’s gaze was now fixed and his chest unmoving. He was dead. Veerus stood. He stared at his enemy for a moment, then waved his hand. “Put him with the rest. We’ve got work to do.” The executive officer ran up, carbine slung over one shoulder, and saluted. The captain returned the gesture. “Report.”
“Tactically, sir, we have a victory. The enemy is moving off, and there are many enemy wounded and dead.” He paused for breath. “Strategically, this was costly. We expended nearly all our small rockets and half our rotary rounds. We have at least a dozen dead and lots of wounded. And we have lost all but one spotlight.”
“We’re alive, Commander,” replied the captain. “Let’s make that count for something.” He looked around. “Institute strict fire control. No one fires without orders, and only with a clear target. Give orders to conserve rounds, fuel, and water. Put senior officers on the rotaries and the rockets, and put priority on getting the lights back up.” He frowned. “This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”