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The Other War (Cover)

Chapter 62 - The Other War
Babylon Star System
Pentagon Worlds, Clan Space
February, 3063

Rebekah sat cross-legged on one of the pillows within the Vaga tent admiring rustic decorations surrounded by noise of the tent flapping in the wind. She watched her patient carefully observing his breathing pattern and looking for a disruption that meant the antivenom wasn’t working. One hand was still on the unfolded medical kit and the other on her comm-pad scrolling through the SLDF manual on field medicine. Her only protection besides a knife in this harsh world was a needle, that satchel, some money, and whatever or whomever she could gather along the way.

Tarin’s mother slept quietly next to him finally relieved that her son had a chance thanks to her daughter’s fortunate encounter with a stranger. The girl had left in search of supplies with her newfound money. While searching for some tea she found the family’s victuals chest was almost empty. Taking only a small piece of what she purchased and a pinch of leaves for herself before quietly returned the rest, covering it with a piece of cloth. Unusual and difficult emotions roiled within her breast, “They were willing to sell their last ration to buy medicine in order to save their son, knowing even that might not be enough.”

She pulled up the empty vial she had injected less an hour ago. It was made in a Cloud Cobra biolab somewhere on Babylon. Their logo was that of an Ankh, an archaic yet easily recognizable and illustrated but non-religious marking preferred by Clan MedTechs or Physicians who often used it to mark their vehicles and buildings. “Why endanger the whole family for one sick member?”

The tea was weak, bitter, and made her feel mildly dizzy although that could just be regular dehydration. Jenna returned shortly with a bucket of market goods. She whispered the directions to water and handed the bucket to Rebekah while starting preparations for dinner, quietly gathering pots and bowls to avoid waking her mother.

Rebekah strolled about the active Vaga camp where women and children prepared their evening meal. Men began returning from the mines hanging onto rails attached to large trucks loaded with super sacks. None paid much attention to her as the desert clothes blended into the scenery, but she was focused on them. Many had Exiled or Widowmaker brands or tattoos openly even brazenly displayed apparently having no fear that Warriors would come and return the village to Clan control.

Her trip to the Qanat gave her the lay of the land for this remote settlement, small vertical wind turbines occupied the ridges their power cables snaking down the cliff to charging stations below. The Sheikh's men stood guard over the recharging ATVs and small trucks, twirling knives, smoking what passed for local cigarettes, or drank from pottery cups. It was a very disorganized force, likely drawn from lesser sons, which was both good and bad for her purposes.

With three hundred Vaga in residence the Qanat was busy with young women chatting about housework, cute boys just arrived by train, or catty gossip. Most in attendance were tanned natives with their kohled eyes, bright eye shadow, and earth toned clothes. There was a group of new arrivals like her however still pale from space, their underground habitat, or less sunny world with standard equipment.

She listened in to them talking about their plight in hushed huddled tones, Khan Drake said we could go to any Hellion enclave and they would take the whole group but they're not here anymore. I don't know about this Sheikh or how long this Free Town will last.”

“We could try the Sharks again.”

“They're only accepting select castemen to fill in gaps. They won't take us all.”  A train whistle blew in the distance, its sorrowful tone carried on the wind. “We're stuck for three days at least now, unless we can charter a vehicle to take us back.”

“What would we pay them with?”

The Cats opened their packs to take inventory, draw water, and consult with the locals on paths forward. Eager to engage in new conversation and exchange gossip the natives rapidly rattled off options while Rebekah drew cool fresh water into the bucket and her own canteen. Like most of her gear it was of Artisan manufacture and picked up at Port Logan's bazaar. She had gathered Intel about the Badlands there as well, but informants neglected to inform her and apparently everyone that the Hellions were absent in Sumra, perhaps by design. Something to look into tomorrow when she entered the town itself, there were still too many unknowns and not enough time to risk it today.

Dusk fell quickly in the subtropical desert as the family ate tabbouleh and mutton. Even the restless wind ebbed slightly as thermal interference pushed it upward. Tarin was stable as far as she could tell but still sleeping, Jenna's family was grateful, and all four drank spiced liquor from tiny cups talking late into the night.

She learned much about the powerful Sheikh presently away with a warband engaged in the latest round of ongoing tribal wars over territory and resources. His tribe was winning, and it was only a matter of time until the badlands were consolidated according to him. The present militia were those that could not be reasonably trusted in the field, the actual Warriors were much better trained and equipped courtesy of the tiny wealth gathered around this remote outpost.

The father was older clearly of sturdy Elemental stock two generations removed, a large scar ran across his right arm from a sword battle in his youth. He walked with a slight limp likely from an injury either in battle or life that forced him out of the Warband. Reaching into the cabinet he proudly showed off a gilded Tulwar, well-worn buckler filled with stories, and a Kaskan rifle whose wooden stock was engraved with the family crest. As a fellow Warrior even in disguise she was honored to be trusted with such access in peace.

“The Sheikh will bring those dusters in line, probably take a few with him as hostages to keep them honest. Standard procedure.”

“Does the Sheikh have a name?”

None that I know. Never seen his face either despite serving twice. If you see it once it’s likely the last time. He's not a very public person. If he's out of the palace he's likely on a warpath. His wives speak for and hold court on his behalf.”

“Well how do you even know he's real then? And not just a disguise these women put on.”

“I wouldn't entertain that kind of thinking, newcomer.” he leaned close, “It might draw attention to yourself. Even if it might be true you wouldn't make it out of the palace if you did find out.”

He reclined back wrapping an arm about his wife, “It would be a waste of a young woman like yourself to go about stirring up rumors. A tragedy for your tribe.”

Rebekah eyed the sword and rifle, “I have no tribe. Not anymore.”

“You could always join the Vaga. A strong smart girl like you would have the pick of husbands. If you wait long you could even impress the Sheikh if one of his fives wives passes, he holds a competition for a new one.”

“I think I will be fine on my own for now.”

“As you wish. Thank you for saving my son. I will endeavor to repay the favor five-fold.”

“Keeping my vehicle safe and tonight's meal and bed is all that I wish.”

She pulled out the beads and other small bits of jewelry that Jenna made, “Your daughter is a promising artisan. I hope you can apprentice her to someone to improve her skills or give her better tools.”

The girl beamed with pride at the compliment, “Thank you, Rebekah. In time perhaps this place may draw traders from across the badlands and I find someone worthy. Right now, all it’s just a trading post and oasis stop for our herds.

We would have moved on if not for bad weather and fortune. The salt lakes are no place for a man my age, but I do my best to provide for the family.”

Her night was uneventful, sleep quick to come with the soft cool breezes so unlike the blast furnace of the day. Distant gunshots rang out but quickly disappeared, misfire or something loud spooked some outrider checking on the herd. The rooster crow woke everyone to the solemn business of the day. Boys came in from the pastures for breakfast before returning, girls and young women helped their mothers with chores and crafts while tending small children, the sick, and elderly, fathers and young men queued up for transport to the salt lakes or began working in their shops.

Rebekah waited until everyone settled into their routine before heading out, first to the Qanat to fill her canteen and listen in on gossip. News had come in by rider that one of the Sheikh's wives had died in the field from unspecified causes, setting the young women into a fit of hysteria. All began talking about what they were going to do to win his favor and how rich their family would become if they were chosen.

This Sheikh was too mysterious, so she listened in beyond the usual amount of information gathering. Having a better idea of the field-craft in play she kohled her eyes and although not as tan as a native had already dyed her blonde hair with black and henna back in Port Logan. Even her braids were done in a similar fashion courtesy of Jenna who tied them with tiny charms attached to colorful string, Her blue eyes had not changed, she noticed those were uncommon but otherwise she blended in perfectly. Having not yet mastered the accent she stayed quiet and ignored. New nomads always passed through Sumra and some bands insisted their women be silent in public.

“I bet one of those cat hussies are going to win his favor again, just like the last two.”

“Maybe he wants something different then.”

“Or he found something he really likes...”

Once it devolved to fashion tips and how their first wedding night would go Rebekah quickly lost interest. Seeing her sudden departure, she heard comments regarding the character of the seemingly flustered girl, “Do not judge me. None of you have coupled in space or with a man like I have. The stories I could tell...”

With her experienced eyes she could see how Sumra had become such a difficult position to take during KLONDIKE. The town was hollowed out of a small canyon much like a pair of pueblo villages. Overhangs were held up with reinforced pillars decorated with a colorful of murals and carvings, rope bridges and cable lines connected both sides.

The canyon between was the primary market, within the shadow merchants plied their wares. It smelled of spices, salt fish, and sausage prepared on small electric grills, labhna, butter, and cheese were spread on warm bread cooked in clay ovens garnished with fresh cut greens grown in hydroponic farms within the canyon. Rebekah insisted on trying it all, asking questions of goodwives, carters, and butchers to better understand this place so unlike what she expected. They were quite informative of local events, happy to see the Hellions gone, but spoke little of the Sheikh that ruled from the Eastern Palace above. She could not determine whether it was through ignorance, fear, or intentional obfuscation.

Within the town she encountered former Nova Cat and Smoke Jaguar castewomen working odd jobs or manning a market stall. All were carefully watched by patrolling soldiers whether for their own protection or otherwise Rebekah could not discern at the time.

She casually asked them about the Sheikh’s wives mentioned that morning at the local watering hole from their Clans. Initially they were guarded as they figured Rebekah, disguised as a local well enough for an outsider but obviously not a native and was resentful of their presence. Later she determined was a common reaction and the reason why. Several cups of tea later and with only mild implication that she was a former Warrior they informed her that since the Clanners, particularly Smoke Jaguars, were better soldiers given strong leadership this gave Sumra an edge over less accepting rivals. Their success however fueled distrust and anger with natives more accustomed to growing rich on plunder rather than laboring under the blazing sun in the salt mines.

In order to protect the non-combatants while the Warriors were away, the Sheikh picked a woman from each Clan so that anyone harassing them would regret it, as his justice was as swift, brutal, and capricious as the winds and often as loud. None had seen or spoken to him however nor knew his name providing no additional information not already in circulation, just like the POGS, SLATs, vials of gold dust, gemstones, or other goods trading hands in the marketplace.

However, it did increase Rebekah’s confidence that should she be able to appeal to him or the wives that might be strong enough to aid her mission. Smoke Jaguars and Nova Cats were fine Warriors, she had served alongside a number of abtakha from either on Delios and given sufficient equipment, things that she could provide, in exchange for a little favor, she might even be successful.

Rebekah walked through the labyrinthine lower west section of the Sumra before rising back into the light of its large open section. Construction here was relatively new and done with proper industrial equipment. Even now she heard the sound of jackhammers and other rock cutting tools echoing out of its galleries and saw men on ropes and scaffolds cutting into the stone for another reinforcing pillar. This was the residential section of town calm and quiet beside the sounds of work above. Small circle windows with shutters peeked out over the mosaiced plaza and stairways switch backed nearly 20 meters with solidly anchored railings on the side.

Across the way to the eastern branch the architecture changed becoming more brutalist. The Old Side housed arsenals, granaries, storehouses run by the Nova Cats. A grand palace opened from the north end of the plaza, barracks, and what passed for government buildings clustered around it. Her trained eye spotted elevated and concealed pillboxes with interlocking lines of fire on the large plazas below. To take down a fortress like this she would need at least a Trinary of Armored Infantry or a Cluster of unarmored and the casualties would be high with just what was visible to her and expected of a group of Bandits this large. Possibly there were hidden armories and sufficient supplies to withstand a siege if not Brian Cached heavy weapons and reinforcements that could come from outlying Satrapies.

The guard presence here was heavy but she had completed her initial run and stopped to rest in the shadows of an alleyway near the palace as the afternoon heat came in earnest. She lowered her hood and drank deep of the canteen still filled with cool water. “I think that is all I can do today. Now I just need to find some place to stay.”

A feminine but menacing growl emanated from the shadows, “You could come with us.” Two dark skinned swordswomen appeared from the shadows, an older and younger one, wearing a cuirass over their robes. She instinctually grabbed her own knife dropping into a defensive posture although it would be difficult to escape past them or win with a knife against a Talwar, “Who are you?”

The older one spoke while the younger moved closer sword out, “We could be your murderesses or we might be friends. It depends on what you do in the next thirty seconds.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“Not very far at all. In fact, you are already next to the door. Now give the knife to Masika. We don’t want to hurt you.”
“Why draw swords then?”

They both took a half-step forward causing her to take a full step back, “It has a way of tell us how determined and difficult someone might be. For instance, Masika here cut me when we first met.”

“You deserved it, Zahra.”

“True, at least you missed my face. The Sheikh might have been displeased.”

“You kept your guard up as expected.” Masika tapped the side of Rebekah’s dagger with her sword, it was now fairly evident that this was the Jaguar bride as she had the decorative scarring common among them, “Now hand it over spy before I cut you too.”

Rebekah flipped the pommel and handed it to the Jaguar who calmly put it in her sash, “I’m not a spy.”

"We’ll be the judges of that. Now move.”

Zahra found a concealed keypad while Masika held Rebekah at sword point in the alleyway. A secret door opened and they entered. The door closed once more and the elevator began to operate. They sheathed their sabers into ornate scabbards hanging from one of the many red sashes wrapped around their waists. Rebekah's eyes lingered on her naked blade on the Jaguar's belt, “You won't get very far even if you are successful.”

“I could hold you hostage.”

The young woman laughed and looked over to the other woman, “And escape how Rebekah. Besides we already are hostages.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I searched your vehicle early this morning.”

Zahra pulled out the sheaf of laminated paper that marked her mission location, “Masika found the maps hidden within your roll-cage along with a powerful satellite up-link. Very detailed, obviously you know someone with good intel or enough money to pay for it. You are not just a lost Clanswoman in our desert.”

The elevator dinged at a sub-level and opened out into a cool, dimly lit, and utilitarian corridor. Faded SLDF standard markings adorns the walls marking locations of strategic importance within the bunker.

Zahra pushed her forward with her scabbard, “So I have maps to some distant part of the desert what does it matter to you? Its over seven hundred kilometers away.”

“We Vaga know this place and avoid it. It brings a slow death to man or beast. A plague that killed my cousin two days ago according to the rider.”

“But I need to go there.”

They stopped at a steel door, she keyed in the code to a dark room. “There are much faster ways to find your death.”

“Is this really necessary? I'm not a spy!”

“That is yet to be determined. Masika search her.”

The woman stood before her unarmed but with her hand on the sword, “You can make this easy or difficult. Your disguise was very good for a Watch agent but you should have chosen more worn garments. I can still smell the dye. So take them off or I will cut them off you, and maybe a little bit more.”

Rebekah did as asked down to mere modesty and dropped the bundle on the floor, before Masika leaned in uncomfortably close fingering the braids tinkling the tiny charms, “I like what you have done with your hair at least.”

She pulled her forearms forward and Rebekah had to suppress her combative training to not throw her on the floor. Instead the Jaguar admire the Thunderbird feather and broken spear tattoos tapped into them in indigo and obviously healed injuries from her coyote attack, “very pretty ink and impressive scars.”

“It took a long time to be appreciated. Not enough opportunity.”

“Get used to it, and inside.”

Masika pushed her in hard enough that Rebekah had to backpedal lest she fall in the darkness. The door closed with solid slam echoing off silent walls. She heard their boots click on the concrete floor seeing nothing but a tiny sliver of dim light from the hall. “Bitches.”

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