Chapter Ten

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What upset Ortiz more than being awakened from a blissful stupor was the mode of transportation she and the others were offered by Captain Yamada. "Fuel cells and spare parts are bulky and heavy," he had said, explaining the obvious, "and since every kilo of transport capacity that comes here is precious, we keep the few vehicles we have in the motor pool unless there's a military emergency. Which, as you've probably surmised, hasn't ever happened." He shrugged. "We've also used them on occasion for search and rescue to recover folks from the forest, but that's about it. So it's either this," he had gestured at the de facto transportation means of most humans on the planet, "or go on foot. But it's a heck of a long march to the west end of the ridge, which is as far as you'll be able to go on this patrol without air transport."

"Which isn't available," Ortiz had said.

"Which isn't available," Yamada had agreed with a slight smile. "You learn fast, lieutenant."

Reluctantly, and against her better judgement, Ortiz had given in to his suggestion and taken in hand...the reins of a horse. A horse. She'd never even seen one except in a few holovids.

After putting Stalin in charge of the remainder of the detachment, Ortiz led two squads from the company garrison to the town stables to requisition their transportation. An hour later, after receiving a crash course in basic horsemanship, she was struggling and cursing her mount, a lithe chestnut Arabian gelding with the unlikely name of Monty.

"The horses know what to do," Ortiz said, mocking the leather-faced civilian man who tended the stable and who'd shown her and the others how to ride. "Just point them in the direction you want to go and you'll be fine. Monty's the best of the lot. He'll take good care of you. The lying bastard." For the hundredth time she yanked back on the reins as Monty bent down to snatch up some grass growing along the "road" that was little more than a rutted track through the forest leading west. With her other hand, she maintained a death grip on the saddle horn. "I've never had horse meat before," she told her mount, "but if you do that one more time, I'm serving the whole platoon Monty burgers when we get back. If we get back."

"Just relax, lieutenant," Reza called to her over his shoulder. After demonstrating surprising prowess on a docile mare, the stable keeper had elected to give him a larger, much more spirited mount, a silver stallion named Caesar. At the head of the column, taking the point position, Reza rode the beast as if they were a single living thing. "Let him do as he wishes. He will not fall behind."

"That's easy for you to say!" Ortiz griped. "I feel like I'm going to fall off every time this stupid beast leans down to stuff his fat face — oof!" Monty dove for another clump of grass, yanking down on the reins, which Ortiz was still clutching tightly, having shortened them up from when she had yanked Monty's head up earlier. That threw her off balance, and Monty completed Ortiz's acrobatic dismount by coming to an abrupt stop. With a venomous curse, Ortiz toppled forward out of the saddle to land flat on her back beside the horse.

Monty turned to look at her as he contentedly munched away.

"You...stinking...shit," Ortiz wheezed, the wind having been knocked out of her.

Eustus, who was riding right behind her, dismounted and handed his reins to Davis, who came up beside him. Aside from Reza's seemingly inexplicable equine expertise, those two were the only ones who'd ever ridden a horse before. Actually, they were the only ones who'd actually seen a horse.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Ortiz wheezed as Eustus helped her to her feet. She pushed him away as she fought to suck air back into her lungs. "Why the hell did I ever agree to ride these damn things?"

"And why is this whole stinking colony trapped in the dark ages?" Castle blurted. He'd been having nearly as tough a time staying on his mare as Ortiz. "No vehicles we can use? Wooden walls around the town and garrison? Buildings made of wood and stone? Horses? Hardly any real technology outside of the landing field? What the hell is it with this place?"

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