the commander was scowling at his map. he tapped it with a pointer .
the map showed what morrison already knew - that they were trapped in sector c, surrounded by three battle squadrons of the rival empire, and with little hope of a breakout.
communication wth headquarters had broken down months ago and they had no way of knowing if any effort was being made to reach them, or if they had been written off.
they suspected the latter, as they had only been a scouting expedition to begin with. and headquarters surely knew what they were facing now.
“quite useless, these maps, quite useless,” the commander observed.
“indeed, sir.” morrison nodded.
“there is nothing else for it,” the commander continued. “we shall have to make a dash for it. and hope there is still something to make a dash for.”
“how long do you think it will take you to gather the men together and brief them?”
“why, no time at all, sir. the only man left is hodgkiss, and he can not have gotten far, after telling me you wished to see me. he is not due to go on patrol until sixteen hundred hours, so i expect he just went back to his bunk.”
“hmm.” the commander scowled briefly. “i did not realize things had gotten quite so far as that. so you are telling me that there are only you and i and hodgkiss left alive here?”
“yes, sir. and the woman.”
“the woman!" the commander exclaimed. "what woman? i did not know there was a woman on the premises.”
“oh, yes, a native woman. we took her in shortly after we got here.”
“well, i hope she was not some sort of spy!”
morrison coughed. “not so far as i can tell.sir.”
“and to what use has she been put?”
“oh, this and that. washing the pots, entertaining the troops. though with the troops pretty much gone, she has had some time on her hands lately.”
“yes, i can imagine. do you suggest we should take her with us when we depart?”
“well, that is up to you, sir.”
the commander considered. “i suppose as long as she has been a faithful servant , and if we can find some use for her. we should take her along. we were always taught at academy that we should show some loyalty to natives who had shown loyalty to us. as a general principle going forward in the path of empire, you know.”
“quite, sir. she is quite sturdy, i am sure we can load her up pretty well with whatever we wish to carry.”
“yes. well, i leave it up to you, morrison. i would like to move out before daybreak, if it can be arranged.”
“yes, sir. i might add, that the woman might be useful in parleying with any tribesmen we encounter on our way.”
“tribesmen! what tribesmen? you amaze me, morrison. i did not know there were any tribesmen about, i thought we were engaging exclusively with the forces of the blue empire!”
“oh no, sir. the hills are quite alive with tribesmen. you can hardly set foot outside the camp without tripping over a tribesman.”
“you do not say so. well, one learns something new all the time, even in the darkest hour.”
“very good, sir. should i start making our preparations?.“
“yes, please do. while you are doing that, i shall make one last attempt to contact headquarters, though it is only for form’s sake, i am afraid.”
morrison turned to go.
“wait!” the commander stopped him.
“this - woman. is she young? at all attractive?”
“ah - that is difficult to say precisely, sir. i think opinion might tend to fall on the negative side.”
“i see. well, carry on.”
the first glimmers of dawn were visible between the hills.
the little party of four moved out, with the commander in the lead, slapping at the air and at his thigh with his riding crop, followed by corporal hodgkiss carrying a radio which morrison and the commander both thought quite useless but were afraid not to bring.
behind hodgkiss came the woman, barely visible under supplies and equipment that might have been carried by four pack animals.
morrison brought up the rear. he had a heavy pack on his back, and carried a small submachine gun.
they had not gone half a mile when, true to morrison’s prediction, they were met by a group of five tribesmen - actually three men and two boys. two of the men were riding animals that looked like a cross between a bear and a camel. the other, older and heavier man, and the two boys walked beside them.
the commander scowled as morrison came forward and began to parley with the two men.
the conversation went on interminably - though politely enough - until the commander could take it no longer.
“what is it they want?” he demanded of morrison.
“well, sir, in one word, they want the woman.”
“they do, do they?” despite morrison’s cautious description, the commander, in the brief glimpse he had of the woman as she was being loaded up, had thought her a rather fine specimen. a fine and sturdy specimen, though of course it had been hard to tell in the dim light and all.
“they are prepared,” morrison went on, “to furnish us with some food, lead us to a water hole where we can fill up, and give us one of the boys as a guide - in return for the woman.”
“that does not sound much of a bargain,” the commander countered. “i think we are well stocked as we are. and can the boy carry all she is carrying? eh?”
“i think, sir,” morrison replied in a low voice, “it would be wise to take their offer.”
“you do, do you? look here - i tell you what - unload the packages from the woman and let us get a look at her.”
morrison looked puzzled but answered, “yes, sir.”
the commander had come to a decision. if the curvature of the woman’s hips was at least equal to that of the dome of st weneceslaus’s cathedral, he would refuse the tribesmen’s offer. otherwise, they were welcome to her.