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The Other War (Cover)

Chapter 69 - The Other War
Black River Canyonlands
Valence, Babylon
Pentagon Worlds, Clan Space
July 28th, 3063

Blood Price

Hakin Al’Sumral leapt out of the small boat drifting in the shadowed river between towering cliffs of basalt. “We’re coming.” Shouted one of the two younger brothers he had taken along for this risky venture. They too jumped out to help him drag the composite craft onto the black sand that squished under their feet in the faint light of their electric lantern. The sun-beaten boat was hauled up to a safe point and stakes were set to hold it there should one of the constant windstorms above find its way down once more. “I didn’t think we were going to make it after that last narrows.”

One of them set up their electric stove and started warming water in a finely crafted copper kettle. “Our ancestors sailed across the stars using great sails. Before them we have Sinbad and his kin, adventurers that crossed great oceans filled with danger in search of riches. I have found them here in the place no one has searched before.”

Hakin walked over to a nearby rock marked with petroglyphs, gently digging with a small shovel to reveal a clouded glass jar. Safely under his arm he brought it back to the others pouring the hot water into small cups filled with leaves. The air around them was filled with the aroma of chai spices and each sat on small stools for the first cup. “What is it?”

“Just a small portion of my riches.” It sparkled as he held it up to the light, “This is gold dust I sifted from the river we just sailed upon.”

His brothers stared at it with amazement, “All of that is gold! You could be richer than Jabir and Abdul combined!”

“I could yes. If I told them how much I had found when I returned after months out here. I’m not going to, and you must swear not to either. Our older brothers are arrogant and vain men if they thought we,‘lessers,’ could be richer than either could ever imagine it would be bad for us.

I only brought what was needed to pay them back and buy better supplies for my next trip out here with you. We could buy our way out of the desert if we wanted and head to Port Logan as rich men or join another tribe and have our pick of wives.”

“Isn’t this stretch of river dangerous though? I hear of monsters in the darkness.”

“I fear being dead and poor more than I fear this river or any monsters that might lie on it.”

Black River Canyonlands
Valence, Babylon
Pentagon Worlds, Clan Space
August 10th, 3063

Rebekah stood at the prow of the sturdy metal boat looking at the dark river beyond, her rifle slung behind her, “When I heard about a Black River. I did not expect it to actually be one Ajmal. Initially I thought it a poetic expression for an old lava flow.”

The tribesmen manning the wheel laughed, “We Vaga are certainly a people of poetry. This river is sacred to my people. We have lived beside it for centuries using it to escape your ancestors.

Our first years we lived in caves and ate what remained of our harvest but afterwards we ventured back and became your ‘Bandits.’ The canyons keep the wind and sun off the water preserving it and the rocks seep water replenishing it before it reaches Sumral.”

A pillar of stone jutted just above the water line and Rebekah called it out, Ajmal steering expertly away from the hazard. “Too many of your kind have no understanding of the worlds they deign to rule. Indeed, I am not alone in my fear that when and if you return, they might actually learn the true value of these places.”

“I swore to keep your people’s secrets and I will. It is the fear that some already know that bothers me.”

“You speak of the Plaguemakers?”

“Maybe, that is what I want to know. This river seems the only way I can get close without being spotted. I have no place associated with this group. If they have a name, they do not want it known.”

“Names are powerful things, many of our stories and prayers speak of their power. If they lack one that is even more potent. A formless object can morph into any form it desires.”

“I have glimpsed its form several times, but it is like this river in a way. The surface changes form as it moves along its course. However, the real danger lies beneath.”

“An odd expression from an exiled Clan Warrior.”

Rebekah looked at her codex bracelet, unused for months after her ‘death’ except as a turquoise ornament. “Perhaps I have been spending to much time with Amun. He is either sun-touched or a sage and it changes by the moon.”

“Our Sheikh has his positive and negative qualities, but we have never been more prosperous or protected as we are under his rule. Maybe he will even unite our tribes and create a lasting peace.”

“There is an ancient saying about creating peace in a desert. Amun’s ways are our ways, not yours. I don’t think the Clans can live with peace, but I pray we can learn it. The more I learn of the Succession Wars in the Inner Sphere the more I am sickened by it.”

“You have been spending to much time with the Nova Cats.”

The small boat continued upstream with Rebekah watching for hazards while the others piloted the craft through treacherous rapids and narrow canyons. Rebekah thought of her adopted clan as much as her birth one.

Nova Cat exiles had welcomed her with open arms. Initially she thought of them ‘traitors’ but the more time she spent among them the more she doubted herself. She had spent many weeks out in the desert with them learning and sharing what she had learned on Tamaron. Sumral now felt like ‘home’, something she had never had.

On purpose she now realized. Before then places were ‘assignments’ and ‘bases’ without any emotion attached just duty and all that seemed empty now. A formless ‘Cause’ had motivated her then. Something about reclaiming the lost Coyote empire. It had dissipated on Niles while she was living in the wilderness and reading through the comm-pad Cara entrusted to her.

She had never known of a Coyote Empire, not even her Packmasters had lived in that time. They had seen the monuments and heard the histories, but it lacked reality. Everything that she had been taught was as likely to be fantasy as history. However, what she learned was that within the Clans there was a problem and she might be able to do something about it.

As the day grew long and the shadows darker as a thick fog settled over them. “All stop. Store the sails and drop the anchor. We will have to wait till this fog clears to make it to The Weeping Wall.” Everyone set to their work; sails were folded, the mast was winched down to prevent a rogue wind from catching and dashing them onto the rocks, he pointed to Rebekah who was holding the sounding plummet. “Give me a sounding.”

She dropped the plummet down into the shadowed depths and felt the weight reach the bottom before hauling it back up to drop it onto the bench. The can was filled with black sand flecked with tiny dust that sparkled under the light. “There's gold in this river?”

“Why do you think we fight so much over it? Or where our jewelry and wealth comes from?” The Vaga showed their slender bracelets with thin rings hanging from them or their small earrings. She put her hand to her hair as she became acutely aware of the trinkets braided in her own blonde hair, gifts from the Sheikh and her friends. “The Weeping Wall and its shrine is our unofficial stopping point and neutral ground. Jamal drop the anchor, fifteen meters of chain.”

“Aye, sir” The swarthy former Smoke Jaguar lifted the heavy iron fluke from its mount before dropping over the edge with a splash. That splash's sound echoed slightly off the narrow canyon walls muted by the mist. Chain let out by another mate on the capstan slacked and had to be pushed over the side. “We must have found a shelf, sir. Only eight went over.”

“This river's bottom is as treacherous as its top.” He looked up toward unseen stars lost in the fog as the dark basalt loomed over them. “Set the watch. Four hours. Keep eyes on the FLIR.”

Night passed but the fog remained, Rebekah peered through her new laser rifle's IR scope. The grainy black and white image was dark with cold stone and water around her. She noticed a contrasting image on the water, “Boat! Starboard off the bow.”

Vaga tribesmen, already light sleepers, were on the deck with their Kaskan rifles in moments the primitively crafted but ornate rifles steadied on the mounts. The anchor was pulled up by Jamal and grapnels already on the gunwales were readied as the craft neared them. Two were thrown over hooking the smaller boat, dragging it closer until the sun-touched vessel tapped the tire bumpers. Rebekah and the others more trained for close combat drew their knives and leapt over to board and inspect the other ship.

She took the lower deck trusting that if there were enemies they would hesitate to shoot a woman and if not, she had contoured armor while they didn't. The door was ajar and bore an unusual sign on it painted in orange. Quietly she went below-decks in a crouch and entered the room, inside were two hammocks and a small thin mattress. All were filled and she crept closer to see three men veiled with black cloth. After checking elsewhere to detect concealed traps or other devices she came back to them.

Everyone else had already secured the boat, finding no damage or supplies, they shouted down to her. “Anything down there, Beca!”

Using a nearby metal rod she lifted the veil and saw the mutilated face of a young man. Unable to control herself she vomited on the floor. Ajmal came down with the noise and she held her hand out to him in a 'keep away' motion. “We will take care of them. You get some air.” He helped her up and gave her a gentle push back up the stairs to the others.

Once above she sat on the railing and wiped her face with a handkerchief. The three bodies were hauled up and placed on the deck. “I think I know one of these men. He was a friend of my son's. Always had higher aspirations than his family could sustain.”

“How would you know?”

“Little things. A scar, way of folding clothes, small sign of sentimental value overlooked by his killer. The glyph was a warning in our rock language. A warning to beware of monsters.”

She looked toward the North-West where he objective was, “I'm sorry for your people's loss, Aj. Now I have an even better understanding of what kinds of monsters are ahead than I did before.”

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