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Blood and War

Gordon R. Dickson




  Created by


  This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

  Copyright © 1993 by Bill Fawcett and Associates

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

  A Baen Books Original

  Baen Publishing Enterprises P.O. Box 1403 Riverdale, N.Y. 10471

  ISBN: 0-671-72181-X

  eISNB: 978-1-62579-088-0

  Cover art by Nan Fredman

  First Printing, August 1993

  Distributed by SIMON & SCHUSTER 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10020

  Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, N.H.

  Printed in the United States of America

  The Noble Savages

  David Drake

  "Ah, Guibert," said Officer Commanding (with Special Authority) McBrien from the depths of his malachite-lined office. "So glad you could make it. We don't chat often enough, you and I."

  Right, thought Guibert. My direct superior through about twenty levels of Magnicate bureaucracy "asks" me to his office, and I'm going to decide to wash my hair instead?

  The gold crests which dotted the malachite's ugly green were probably copied from McBrien's armorial bearings. Guibert's team joked that the Grand Harrier OC traced his ancestry back to Adam—though McBrien would have been offended at a comment that smacked of Patriarchal Religionism1.

  "Ah—" said McBrien. He was nervous. Certainly not of me, a scruffy Petit Harrier team leader. "Will you have a drink, Guibert? I've got a darling little liqueur from—"

  "No thank you, sir." The huge office was filled with ancient and valuable furnishings. Guibert felt an urge, quickly suppressed, to undo his fly and take a whiz into one of the ormolu vases flanking the doorway.

  "Ah," McBrien repeated. He was a tall man, straight-backed, with the aquiline face of a Roman consul. (There were probably Roman consuls in his chain of descent too.) "Well, Guibert, would you like to sit down?"

  "No thank you, sir."

  McBrien's aristocratically pale visage flushed. "Sit down, Guibert!"

  The chairs were Mission Style, black oak and leather. Guibert settled himself on one gingerly. It was so uncomfortable that it made him think of the cycle of torture and counter-torture which the Spanish and aboriginal cultures had inflicted on one another during the Mission Period.

  "Ha-ha," McBrien said. "Sorry if I sounded abrupt, my good fellow. Pressures of command. I'm sure you know, being a commander yourself."

  Commander of a four-man Petit Harrier insertion team and the commander of the Magnicate dreadnought Night-Blooming Cereus, the most powerful vessel in anything up to fifty light years. You bet, obvious parallels.

  Speaking of Spanish/Aboriginal culture, McBrien's grin could have modeled for a sugar skull on the Day of the Dead celebrations. Would that be Patriarchal Religionism—or an Aspect of Native Culture and therefore a compliment to the OC?

  "Ah," McBrien said. "You're sure you wouldn't like . . ."

  Guibert wouldn't. Guibert was going to speak when ordered to, period. Guibert didn't have a clue about what he was doing in the OC's office, and he had a nasty suspicion that he wasn't going to be any happier about the situation when he learned what it was.

  McBrien pursed his lips. He tented his fingers before him, then flattened his hands on the gleaming desktop in horror. He'd realized that he might have been thought to be indulging in prayer. Guibert waited, imagining wistfully though without real hope that the Grand Harrier would suddenly dismiss him.

  "To tell the truth," McBrien lied brightly, "I've been thinking to myself, 'You know, Guibert looks like he needs some leave.' As a matter of fact, your whole team looks like it should have some time off, Guibert. You and, and . . ."

  "Dayly, Karge, and Wenzil, sir?" Guibert said, volunteering information for the first time since he entered the OC's office. "Leave?"

  McBrien relaxed visibly. "Exactly! Well, that's settled. I'm sure you gentlepersons will have a wonderful time on Sawick, a wonderful time. Have your team ready to go in half an hour, won't you? That's a good fellow."

  Guibert blinked. "Sawick, sir?" he said. "Why in the name of the Nurturing Motherforce do you think we'd want to go there?"

  McBrien drew himself up haughtily. He sniffed, a long sound in a nose as aristocratic as his. "Sawick is a favored destination among the cognoscenti, Guibert," he said. "Sawick provides a chance to view the sort of natural paradise from which our ancestors, sadly, turned millennia ago. The loss of that innocence is the root cause of the trouble and strife which have plagued our unfortunate race ever since."

  Guibert rubbed his temples as if he could massage some sense out of his commanding officers words. Sawick had been discovered by Magnicate vessels only a few decades ago. It was some sort of nature preserve. The autochthones, cave-dwelling troglodytes, had put all but a few hectares of the planet off-limits to outsiders. The Emerging Planet Fairness Court saw to it that Magnicate citizens obeyed the local decision.

  "Many thanks for your suggestion, sir," Guibert said carefully, "but I think my team"—most assuredly including the team leader—"would prefer Port Jennet as a leave destination. Port Jennet has many educational aspects of its own."

  For example, the act Big Liz performs using a 2-liter beer bottle as a prop.

  "Nonsense," McBrien said forcefully. "You'll want to better yourselves, I'm sure. I'm sure."

  He pursed his lips again. "Besides," he added in a voice that was suddenly as thin as if he were speaking only on one sideband, "it occurs to me that you might be able to do me a little favor while you're there. Ah—"

  McBrien stared pensively at his paperweight, an ancient gold statuette which had once tipped the scepter of a West African king. The image consisted of a fat man gorging himself while an emaciated man looked on. The tableau illustrated the native proverb that, "The man with food eats, and he owes nothing to the man with no food."

  "A way to save on paperwork, don't you know, old chap?" the OC resumed with the same determinedly-false brightness as earlier. "Don't you just hate needless paperwork?"

  Does a bear shit in the woods?

  But if the brass are telling lies, it's no time for peons to stick to the truth . . . Guibert raised an eyebrow and said, "Action without organization is action wasted, sir. I'm sure you don't imagine that I or any other Petit Harrier would violate proper procedures."

  McBrien's smile now looked like the rictus of a man being garroted. "Of course," he said, "of course. But since you'd be on leave and I don't believe that this little matter was deemed worthy of a formal report . . ."

  What little matter?

  Guibert didn't open his mouth, knowing that his best chance of getting out of this was not to get in to begin with. He crossed his hands ready in his lap and focused his eyes on the OC's beard-fringed chin.

  "Ah . . ." said McBrien with a hopeful intonation. Guibert kept his eyes fixed and his lips together.

  McBrien sighed. "The fact is," he said, looking at the gold paperweight again, "some young people—dependents of some of the dreadnought's personnel—borrowed a vessel from the Night-Blooming Cereus. My cutter, in fact. They, ah, wanted to visit Sawick. No harm done, of course."

  Guibert blinked again. "No harm done?" he repeated incredulously. "Punks steal the OC's cutter—filled with top-drawer electronics—and they take it to a generally proscribed planet? And there's no harm d

  "They aren't punks," McBrien said to the paperweight. The words were barely audible because his lips were so tightly compressed. "And anyway, the problem is that they, ah . . . seem to have disappeared."

  "Benign Female Principle!" Guibert cursed. "The natives grabbed them, you mean?"

  He tried to remember what he'd heard about the Sawickis. If he had the aliens right in his mind, they were humanoid but pasty, stunted and stone-blind. Sawick wasn't a place Guibert or anybody he wanted to know would pick for a local romance.

  "Well, there's no evidence of that," McBrien said. "In fact, the Sawickis don't have any recollection of the ah, youngsters. Landing control personnel—Magnicate citizens—say the cutter took off from Sawick but suddenly vanished from their screens. I'm afraid that there may have been a, a . . ."

  He looked up. "I'm not really sure what might have happened. But I thought, you know, since you and your team are going to Sawick anyway . . . ?"

  Guibert shook his head. "Negative," he said. "Sir."

  He cleared his throat. "Sir, with the sort of equipment built onto an admiral's cutter, and Sawick being a Class—what, Thirty?—world—"

  "Thirty-two," McBrien agreed sadly.

  "Great, Class Thirty-two, with a technology level that's almost but not quite up to the spoon stage," Guibert said. "Either the cutter blew up—or you've got to put out a full-dress alarm to prevent the autochthones from being infected."

  McBrien shivered as though he'd just come out of a bath in ice water. "Oh, I don't think it's so very great a problem, old chap," he said in his single-sideband voice. "The Sawickis are so safe in their pre-industrial purity that I can't imagine them coming to harm. And a fuss, you see, might cause problems for those poor, misguided young people, don't you know?"

  Guibert nodded grimly. "You bet," he agreed. "Like spending the next ten years in a Cultural Re-Education camp when the Mromrosii and the rest of the EPFC hear about what they pulled. And you know, for a change, I think I might agree with the Mromrosii."

  McBrien pressed his fingers together. This time he didn't jerk them apart when he noticed what he was doing. "Guibert," he said, "I'd really like it if you and your team looked into this unofficially."

  "Not without a direct order, sir," Guibert said. "Because me and my people would wind up hoeing rice paddies alongside the punks if we got caught covering up a thing like this."

  McBrien bowed his head. "Guibert, do you want me to beg?" he whispered.

  "No, sir," Guibert said. "I want you to. dismiss me, so that we can both forget we ever had this conversation."

  "Guibert, my daughter Megan took the cutter. With seven of her friends."

  OC McBrien stood up. He was normally a graceful man. This time there was a dangling looseness about him, like the motions of a scarecrow being hung on a pole. "If you won't take care of this, Guibert," he said, "then I'll have to go myself. Unofficially."

  "Sir," Guibert said. "Sir, with all due respect, a Grand Harrier trying to act outside the system would screw things up beyond reasonable belief."

  McBrien nodded. "Yes, Mister Guibert," he said. "I'm very much afraid you're right."

  "By the Menstruation of the Life-Giving Yang," Guibert muttered as he got to his feet. "Sir, I'll talk to the team. No promises, but I'll talk to the team."

  He'd order the team. It was his decision, he was in charge. And anyway, they were professionals. A pro doesn't sit around and watch an amateur make a bad situation worse.

  "But one thing!" Guibert added sharply from the door. "If we do this"—and if we don't get our butts confined in a re-education camp till all of us but Wenzil are tripping on our beards—"then we get a real leave out of it. On Port Jennet!"

  The Grand Harrier nodded assent. Even under the present circumstances, McBrien couldn't avoid a moue of distaste at the idea of personnel under his command having fun.

  ". . . so we'll be going down in a standard leave barge," Guibert explained to his team. "We'll have a full set of orbital scans, but no special equipment aboard."

  "A leave barge!" Karge muttered, knuckling his curly auburn hair. "Typical of a faggot like McBrien to expect us to carry out his mission with a bare hull and an engine."

  "We'll play it by ear," Guibert said mildly. "If it turns out we need more hardware, then I'll see about getting it."

  He cleared his throat. "Dayly," he asked, "what have you got on the Sawickis?"

  Wenzil, the team's weapons specialist, was about average height for a human female—a meter sixty-five. Dayly, the data systems specialist, was both shorter and slighter by 10%. He touched a key and projected a hologram of an average Sawicki above the console.

  "Great," Karge said. "So now we know that Sawickis are toads."

  Guibert pursed his lips. "Slugs, wouldn't you say?" he offered.

  Wenzil glanced up, then returned to what she was doing. She'd stripped the team's stunners on her bunk. She was cleaning the contacts individually with an arc-and-vacuum unit and replating when she deemed it desirable.

  It was the sort of task normally performed at armory level or above. Wenzil did it before every mission, and once a week or so when the team was on stand-down.

  "What sort of stunner setting does the data bank suggest?" she asked as she peered critically at the main buss from Karge's weapon. "Not that I'd trust the data bank, but for a place to start."

  Dayly clicked to the end of the file rather than scrolling down. He knew that out of squeamishness, the folks at Central Records would wait as long as they could before stating the information that any sane member of an insertion team wanted right up front: how to program their stunners to have an effect on local lifeforms.

  "It says eight seventy-three," Dayly offered in a neutral tone.

  The setting was almost certainly extrapolated rather than arrived at by empirical testing on the autochthones. Wenzil was likely to get very upset when her darling stunners didn't perform as she desired. Dayly didn't want to have any more association with a probable mistake than was necessary.

  "Hmm," Wenzil said as she punched the code into the stunner she'd already reassembled. "They think Sawickis are slugs, all right, but sea slugs. This is a normal-atmosphere world, isn't it?" She didn't sound concerned, just interested.

  "Within parameters," Guibert agreed. "A little high in noble gases, but still under two percent. The figures must be based on Sawicki physiology."

  The trouble with stunners was that there were literally billions of life-forms in the known universe. A stimulus that had a stunning effect on one creature might not touch another—or might goad it to fury. Beasts as similar as Terran horses and dogs reacted in violently different ways to would-be knockout drugs.

  And, of course, the difference between an incapacitating dose and a lethal dose was often less than a standard deviation within members of the same species. Central could be expected to err on the side of safety—for the hostile autochthones.

  "Stunners have got to be the stupidest idea since faculty tenure," said Karge, the ethnology specialist. "It was probably some flaming queen like McBrien who mandated them."

  "What we ought to have," said Wenzil, "is real weapons. If you blow a hole clear through something, you can be pretty sure it stops chewing your leg off."

  "But that would be wrong," the other three team members chorused, "and the Mromrosii wouldn't like it!"

  "Thank the Beneficent Flow of the All-Mother," Guibert said, "that at least we don't have to take a Mromrosi with us into this mare's nest."

  The door to the team's compartment was locked. It opened anyway. A Mromrosi glided in on tiny feet hidden beneath the train of bright orange hair. The creature looked like an extremely steep-sided orange haystack a meter and a quarter high. Its single eye glinted at Guibert from behind a veil of hair. "What is our departure time, team leader?" it demanded.

  The alien had a pleasant baritone voice. It sounded more human than OC McBrien did when he got nervous.

  "Ah," Guibert s
aid. He wondered if the syllable sounded as silly from him as when the Grand Harrier spoke it.

  Karge leaned forward. "You won't need to come along this trip, Hairball," the big ethnologist said gently. "We're going on leave."

  "I know all about your mission," the Mromrosi responded. "An attempt to carry out a mission without the presence of a representative of the Emerging Planet Fairness Court would lead to cultural re-adjustment for the perpetrators."

  "You know," Wenzil said wistfully, "there are times I think I might quite like hoeing a rice paddy for the rest of my life. But I'd want the sentence to be for doing something interesting . . ."

  She eyed the Mromrosi. Guibert didn't know whether or not the alien could read Wenzil's speculative expression accurately, but as team leader he didn't want to take chances. "Go on with your description of the autochthones please, Dayly," he said in a loud voice.

  The data specialist turned to his console again. "Average height a meter fifty," he read in a singsong voice. "They live underground, growing fungus which they feed on decomposing vegetation which they gather from the surface during the hours of darkness."

  "They can't stand sunlight?" Guibert asked.

  "Now I wonder whether an eight-seven-three setting might not give me lower dispersion. . . ." Wenzil murmured as her attention returned to the numerical programming pad on the receiver of the second stunner.

  The Mromrosi's eye rotated to fix Wenzil with its warm brown glare. "You must not depart from Central's recommended stunner settings!" the creature said. "You might harm an autochthon by such experimentation!"

  "Please, Hairball," Guibert said primly. "Your interference with this briefing could cause one of us to make a mistake that would injure the indigenes with whom we come in contact."