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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

June, Year 9 A.E.

A camel gave its burbling moan, and that set off the whole train of seven pair that were hauling the headquarters wagon. God, but 1 hate those things, Ian Arnstein thought. The Babylonians of this age knew little about camels and were convinced they were possessed by demons. He wasn't altogether sure they were wrong. They stank, they bit, they spat green mucus at anyone who came near, and they complained every waking hour in voices like guttural damned souls. Their only merit was that they could carry or haul three times what a horse did, further and faster and on less water and rougher forage.

The army of King Shuriash of Babylon sprawled out over the dun-colored flatness of the landscape in clots and driblets and clusters, half lost in its own plumes of beige dust. The king's paid men and the retinues of the nobles near the capital had been brave with banners and polished armor when they left Kar-Duniash, but now everything was the color of the grit kicked up by feet and hooves or the homespun of the tribal contingents and peasant levies hurrying to join them from every side.

Sometimes there was a hint of hills on the eastern horizon, the topmost peaks of the Zagros. Sometimes there was a hint of a breeze, like something out of the mouth of a smelting furnace but still welcome when it dried the sweat. Ian unhitched a canvas water bag from the big six-wheeled wagon's bed and expertly directed a squirt into his mouth. It tasted of silt and the chlorine powder used to sterilize it, and it was no more than tepid from the evaporation. It was still utterly glorious, especially if you kept all memory of ice-cold beer firmly out of your mind.

And now they were approaching a belt of intense green, where the Diyala River spilled its moisture onto the plain. That made the air very slightly muggy, hence even more intolerable, and there would be bugs. Oh, will there ever be bugs, Ian thought.

"Could be worse," Doreen said. Like him, she was wearing khaki shorts and shirt. Beads of sweat ran down the open neck and made the cotton fabric cling to her in ways that would have been more interesting if it wasn't so hot. "We could be marching and carrying packs."

Ian nodded. The Marines' khaki uniforms were wet with sweat and stained where multiple layers had soaked in and then dried to leave a rime of salt. The faces under the broad-brimmed hats were set, remote, fixed in a mask of endurance. Now and then one would hawk and spit, the saliva colored like the earth that lay thick and gritty on everyone's teeth; every hour they broke for a ten-minute rest, and the noncoms would check to see everyone was taking their salt tablets and enough water. Once every day or so someone would keel over, swaying or staggering or just falling limp as a sack of rice; the more extreme cases ended up on the wagons with a saline drip in their arm.

"Hup! Hup!"

Colonel Hollard came riding across the plain on his camel, the beasts' long, swarming pace spooking the horses drawing a Babylonian noble's chariot into a blue-eyed, flat-eared bolt even in the heat. Or maybe it's their smell. Probably their smell. Another camel paced beside him, carrying a short, swarthy man with a wide white grin and streaks of gray in his beard; Hassan el-Durabi, an ex-Kuwaiti whose wealthy family had raised racing camels and who'd been vacationing on the Island when the Event came.

The two men pulled up their mounts beside the headquarters wagon, saluting.

"Good beasts, Councilor," Hassan said, stroking his camel's neck and then giving it a flick on the nose with his quirt when it tried to turn its long, snaky neck and bit him on the kneecap. "Those Aramaean pigs we bought them from know nothing of handling them, nothing."

Ian nodded, smiling pleasantly; the Kuwaiti had been gleefully pleased to end up making war in Iraq, with the king of Assyria standing in well for Saddam Hussein-they did seem to have a good deal in common, methods-wise.

The nomads to the southwest had taken to using camels recently, but they were still trying to ride them sitting on the rump rather than on a proper saddle over the hump itself, and their pack-loading arrangements weren't much better. Most of the Aramaeans herded sheep on foot, with their gear on the backs of their donkeys and women. The Arabs' turn wouldn't come until long after the end of the Bronze Age.

Or would have come, if we hadn't showed up, he thought.

"What's the word?" Ian asked the Marine colonel.

"The Assyrians were supposed to be massing their forces on the middle Tigris," Hollard said, pointing north and westward with his quirt. "We're coming in this way to threaten Asshur from the rear. Prince Kashtiliash thought they'd be unlikely to guard it because it's considered too hard to cross these rivers. However, from the latest reports they are there in some force. The usual thing-enemy not cooperating with our battle plan."

"I presume we can cross the river?" Doreen said.

"Oh, yes," Hollard said simply. "A matter of firearms and combat engineering, really."

The game path was narrow, where it led down from the ridge above the bay of Port Luthuli. Marian smiled to herself as she looked around; in the twentieth century she'd been born in, this had been a very exclusive-and very white-suburb of Durban, South Africa. Her party was strung out along the slope on a dense-packed trackway of sandy earth, with trees towering a hundred feet and more on either side. The ground was thick with brush, including a particularly nasty type with hooked thorns that made it impossible to move off the trail; one of the Alban Marines had named it the wait-a-bit bush, for what you had to do whenever it snagged your clothing.

She shifted the rifle sling a little with her thumb and looked backward. Swindapa was next in line behind her, then a Marine who'd stripped to the waist in the humid heat; behind him were the ones toting the kills of the hunt, carrying the gutted carcasses on poles that were thrust under their bound feet. Marian smiled again, letting it grow into a rare public grin.

Damn, but it does look a lot like a Tarzan-movie safari, she thought.

Except, of course, that the one in the lead with the rifle and khakis and floppy hat was black as coal, and the native bearers were white. Nordics at that

Great black hunter and faithful companions. Daddy would have laughed himself sick.

Swindapa caught her eye and looked a question. Marian replied with a gesture that meant "later" between them; the Fiernan found uptime racial divisions hilarious.

The answering smile died away to a frown, and Swindapa looked back over her shoulder. Marian threw up a hand, for a halt and silence. She couldn't hear anything, but Swindapa's ears were younger, and better trained.

"Pass," she said, waving a hand; the party filed by her. "What do you think it is, 'dapa?"

"I don't know," the blond woman said. She took off her hat and threw herself down on the ground, pressing an ear to it. "Whatever it is, it's heavy and coming this way." The frown grew deeper. "But those those are footfalls, I think. People."

"Uh-oh," Marian said, unslinging her rifle and scanning the brush.

Nothing, except the insects and swarming colorful birds, and grunts and whistles and screeches crashing off in the bush.

The Fiernan came upright, checking the priming on her rifle. Marian raised her voice: "Corporal, you and the party with the game continue." It was only about a mile and half to base by the water's edge. "Miller, Llancraxsson, get your weapons ready, but do not fire without orders." The path was far too narrow for that; Swindapa's shoulder was nearly touching hers. "Be ready to pass your rifles forward, in fact."

Now she could hear the thudding too, or feel it through the soles of her feet. Salt sweat ran down onto her lips, and she licked it away. The sight of two small human figures a hundred yards away was almost painfully anticlimactic. A little closer and she recognized them, the race if not the individuals; San, the little yellow-brown hunters Europeans had-would have-met at the Cape twenty-five hundred years from now. Here and now they were the only inhabitants of southern and eastern Africa; Islander ships had met them all the way from what would have been Angola around up to Somalia-that-wasn't. They varied a lot from place to place, but they weren't usually hostile if you didn't give them reason to be; the ones near Mandela Base traded eagerly with the Nantucketers.

"That can't be all" Swindapa began.

One of the San hunters was helping the other along; a sprained or broken ankle, from the look of it. They were looking back over their shoulders, too; so intently that they weren't aware of the Islanders until they were barely fifty yards away. Then the hale one looked up, saw the strangers, gave a cry of despair, and launched himself at a tree by the side of the trail. Agile as a sailor in the rigging, he disappeared up it in a single swarming burst of speed.

"Maybe they had a bad experience with the Tartessians," Marian murmured. She let the rifle fall back on her shoulder, turning the muzzle away from the San hunter, and held up her left hand.

"Peace," she said, and used the equivalent in the tongue of his Cape relatives, or as close as a tongue reared on English could.

He probably can't understand it, she thought. It was two thousand miles away, after all, and her accent was probably terrible. But the sound will be more like what he's used to than English.

The small man looked at her, then over his shoulder, then he hobbled toward the Islander party, using his bow as a crutch. As he came he was shouting something in his sibilant clicking tongue, pointing behind him. When he fell nearly at Alston's feet he squeezed his eyes shut and put his hands over his head.

"Uh ma'am?" one of the ratings behind her said. "Maybe if something's chasing him, we ought to move?"

"I'd rather see it coming, Miller," she said. "Quiet now."

A noise came echoing down the trail, a long shrill sound like like a trumpet. Trumpeting what sort of an animal trumpets oh, shit.

Marian and her partner were experienced hunters. The problem was that neither of them had hunted elephant.

Clairton, she remembered, at Mandela Base. Of course, Clairton said that the best way was to get behind them and brain-shoot them just behind the ear. That's a really big help right now

The ground-shaking thudding grew louder, and the shrill, enraged squealing sounded again, ear-hurting loud. Can't run, she thought. Elephants were a lot faster than people, and they could trample through thick brush that would stop a human cold. Swindapa was chanting under her breath, a song of the Spear Mark, asking the spirits of her kills to witness that she'd never hunted without need or failed to sing home the ghost of the dead beast.

"Jesus," Marian said, the words passing through her mouth without conscious command. "That's big."

The animal that turned the curve of the trail two hundred yards upslope was big. Thirteen feet at the shoulder, maybe fourteen. Jesus. An old male, with sunken cheeks and one tusk broken off a few feet from the tip. There were black stains dribbled down below its eyes, marking them like kohl-the sign of a beast in musth. It slowed as it saw and scented the newcomers, tossing its head from side to side for a better view, raising its trunk and letting loose a squealing blast of rage. Then the absurdly tiny tail came up, the head went down, and the elephant charged-swinging along with a steady, quick stride, each pace taking a good ten feet, faster than a galloping horse.

And me without a peanut on me, some distant part of her gibbered. Then her mind was empty, calm as a still pond, the way Sensi Hishiba had taught. She was on the mats again, the katana rising above her head

Third crease down from the top on the trunk, the only spot you could get a brain shot frontally. There was a lot of thick hide and spongy bone in the way, but there wasn't any choice. Breathe out, squeeze the trigger.

Crack. Crack.

"Gun!" she shouted, shoving the empty Westley-Richards behind as Swindapa fired beside her.

The elephant tossed its head, trumpeting again, staggered. Then it came on, a moving cliff of gray-brown wrinkled hide, looming taller and taller, tall enough to reach into a second-story window. Eighty feet away, sixty, forty. Long spearcast away, and the six tons of living destruction would cover it in seconds. Three heartbeats away from the crushing and the pain.

Cool beechwood slapped into her palm, and she brought the rifle around with careful smoothness.

Munen muso-to strike without thought or intention. Sword or hand or gun, there was no difference. The sights drifted into alignment, and there was all the time in the world. The rifle, the trigger warm beneath her finger, the bullet, the path of the bullet, the target, all were her and not her. Munen muso, no-mind.

Crack. And she could feel the rightness of the bullet's trajectory, a completeness that had nothing to do with its goal, a thing right in itself.

She stood, drawing a deep breath and releasing it, the rifle hanging in her hand, ignoring the loaded weapon thrust at her. The elephant's charge continued, its head down, then lower, the tusks plowing into the packed sandy dirt, sliding forward, throwing a cloud of dust and leaves and a fine spray of blood before. Stillness, the elephant's body slumping sideways with its head held upright by the tusks, a huge release of steaming dung as the muscles relaxed in death. Marian stared into the beast's dark eye as it went blank, feeling an obscure communion that could never be described.

Another breath, and the world returned to its everyday self. "Woof," she said quietly.

"My uncles aren't going to believe me," Swindapa said, with a slight catch in her voice; her hand came over to grip her partner's shoulder.

Marian touched it with her own, then looked down. The San was slowly lifting his hands from his head and looking up, then even more slowly looking backward. The ridge of earth plowed up by the elephant's last slide touched his injured foot; he jerked it away sharply and hissed with pain. The he grinned, a wide, white, triumphant smile, looking up at her.

The American smiled back and went to one knee beside him, propping the rifle against the roadside brush. "Here," she said, uncorking her canteen, sipping from it and then offering it to the local.

He turned over, wincing, and sat up to accept it. Swindapa slung her rifle and went to examine his ankle, washing it with water from her own canteen and then manipulating it with strong, skilled fingers.

"Miller, Llancraxsson," she said. "We'll cut some poles for stretchers." For the first time she took in their white, shocked faces. "Miller?"

The noncom shook himself and lowered the loaded rifle he still held outstretched. "Ah"

"Very well done, Miller, you and Llancraxsson," she said gently. "It was one of the rifles you two loaded that got him."

The man nodded, licking his lips and straightening. "Right, ma'am- thanks. A stretcher, we'll get right to it."

There were two red holes precisely.40 in diameter within a finger's breadth of the third corrugation of the elephant's trunk, each weeping a slow red trickle. Another was six inches higher and to the right, just in from one eye. God knew where the fourth shot had gone; still, not bad shooting at all. No telling whose shot had drilled the beast's brain, of course.

Swindapa was standing by the head; it was nearly as tall as she was, and she wasn't a short woman. Tentatively, awed, she reached out and touched it.

"I feel as if we've killed a mountain," she said softly.

"I know what you mean, sugar," Alston answered. "I surely do."

First big battle, Clemens thought, swallowing his nervousness. It can't be too different from skirmishes, except for the scale. I hope. He restrained an impulse to wipe his hands-they were already clean- and looked over at his Babylonian assistant.

Azzu-ena was big-nosed and scrawny, and there was the faintest suggestion of a mustache on her upper lip. When focused in total concentration, her face was still beautiful. She bent over the bilingual text, lips moving slightly as she read down the list. It was the same technique the Babylonians used themselves to teach Sumerian, the sacred language of learning and religion that was long dead as a spoken tongue.

"Izi-iz: stand!" she murmured. "Luzi-iz: let me stand. Lizi-iz: let him stand. Iza-az: he will stand. Aza-az: I shall stand."

She looked up to where Clemens and Smith were setting out surgical instruments from the portable autoclave on the trays, then covering them with sheets of sterile gauze. Reluctantly she set the folder of reed-pulp paper aside and rose, folding back the sleeves of her gown and beginning to scrub down in the sheet-copper basin of boiled water diluted with carbolic acid. They all had roughed, reddened hands from it; she seemed to regard it as a mark of honor. Word had come back that the allied forces were going to force the crossing of the Diyala River against opposition, and that meant business for the Corps.

Justin gave a quick glance around the forward medical tent. It had been set up on a slight rise, far enough back that the dust wasn't too bad, far enough forward that the wounded wouldn't have to be carried too far-timely treatment was the great secret of keeping mortality low. The tent had three poles down the center and one at each corner of the long rectangle; the canvas of the sides had been rolled up and tied, leaving only gauze along the walls. He checked over the contents: three operating tables, ether, oxygen cylinders, instruments, the medical cabinets, rows of cots, tubs of plaster of Paris and bandaging for splints. The personnel-himself and the three other doctor-surgeons from Ur Base, their assistants, a dozen of Shuriash's palace women who'd proved to have some appetite for nursing, corpsmen waiting with stretchers.

The light was good, bright but not blinding. The big tent smelled of hot canvas, steam from the autoclave, and kerosene from the burner underneath it; big vats of water were boiling not far away outside. Must remember to have anyone brought in checked for lice, he thought. Lice were a wonderful thing, from the point of view of bacteria that wanted to spread.

"Heads up!"

Off to the northeast there was a distant thudding, and then a long brabbling, crackling sound.

At Azzu-ena's enquiring look, he spoke: "Guns. Rifles, cannon- our weapons."

She nodded, thoughtful and without the edge of fear that most locals showed when gunpowder came up. "What are the characteristic wounds?"

Clemens heard a chuckle from one of the other doctors. Nevins- she spoke pretty good Akkadian too. He felt a big grin spreading himself. She knows the right questions, at least!

"Tissue trauma, of course," he answered. "Long tracks of damaged tissue, with foreign matter carried deep into the body. Treatment is to remove all matter and debride the damaged tissue." You cut out everything that had been torn, and you eliminated the necrosis that was the greatest danger for gangrene. "Broken bone-shattered, splintered as well as broken."

A two-horse ambulance trotted up outside, swaying on its springs. Corpsmen sprang out and brought in the stretchers. Clemens ran over, swallowing. I hate doing triage, he thought, and then pushed the emotion away. He'd pay for that later, but later it wouldn't hurt his patients.

There were five figures on the stretchers, one thrashing and moaning. "Morphia here!" he snapped, continuing his quick examination.

All arrow wounds; two in the extremities, no immediate danger.

"Sedate and stabilize," he said. "I'll take the sucking chest wound. Nevins, you're on the gut. Thurtontan, you're on the one in the face- I think you can save that eye. Let's go, people!"

Some distant corner of his mind wondered how the fighting was going, but that wasn't his proper concern. Everyone who came to him had already lost their battle.


* * * | Against the Tide of Years | CHAPTER FOURTEEN







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