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In Fury Born: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Thursday, November 24, 2005 22:41 EST



    "I don't think this is exactly what the mission planners had in mind, Leo," Alicia said, looking out across the rugged valley.

    "Sure it was," Medrano said with a slow grin. The thickset PFC lay comfortably on his back, head pillowed on his backpack, chewing on a strand of the local ecosystem's tough Alpine grass. Gyangtse was a mountainous planet, the river valley below them was high in those mountains, and their present perch was almost two hundred meters above the valley floor. That put it high enough that Alicia's lungs felt a bit tight, even after two weeks of acclimating morning runs, as they labored to provide her with sufficient oxygen, but it also gave them an outstanding field of view.

    "I thought we were supposed to be pretending to be guerrillas," Alicia said, looking over her shoulder at him.

    "Which we are," Medrano said virtuously, and waved one hand at Gregory Hilton, Bravo Team's senior rifleman. "Tell our larva we're being good guerrillas, Greg."

    "We're being good guerrillas," Hilton said obediently, turning his head to grin at Alicia.

    "With plasma rifles?" Alicia raised one eyebrow skeptically, and Hilton chuckled.

    "Hey, I'm not in charge—he is!" he said, and a jab at a thumb at the reclining Medrano.

    A rifle squad normally consisted of thirteen Marines, divided into two fire teams, each built around a plasma rifle, a grenadier, and three riflemen, all under its own corporal, and a sergeant to command the squad. At the moment, Third Squad was still three warm bodies understrength. Alicia's arrival had brought Bravo Team's riflemen up to strength, but Alpha Team was short a grenadier, and Sergeant Metternich was also short one corporal. Which was why Medrano, as Bravo Team's plasma gunner, was filling in as the team leader.

    "Anything worth doing is worth doing well," Medrano said now, with a grin.

    Alicia looked at him, still more than a little dubious, but she decided it was time to keep her mouth shut. Despite the degree of good-natured grief the rest of her squad had visited upon her as part of the initiation process, Sergeant Metternich—and Medrano—had proved quite approachable. At the same time, she was the newest newbie imaginable, all too well aware that she was grossly inexperienced compared to all of her fellows.

    Medrano watched her expression, then sat up with a sigh.

    "Look, Larva," he said patiently, "you were there when the militia got their brief on what's supposed to happen today, right?" Alicia nodded, and he shrugged. "Did they strike you as real competent?"

    "Well . . . ."

    "What I thought," Medrano snorted. "Overconfident, undertrained, thickheaded 'weekend warriors,' right?"

    "I'm sure they do the best they can with the training time available," Alicia replied, but she heard the edge of excuse-making in her own voice, and Hilton and the other Marines on the position with her chuckled harshly.

    "You really are fresh out of McKenzie, aren't you?" Frinkelo Zigair, the team's grenadier said, shaking his head. There was a tiny edge in Zigair's voice—he had the most cantankerous disposition of anyone in the squad, and he also seemed most aware of Alicia's total lack of field experience—but this time it seemed directed less at her than at someone else.

    "There's militia, and then there's militia, Larva," the grenadier continued. "Some of 'em are pretty damned good, better'n most Wasps I've served with, really. Others, well, you wouldn't want them trying to take on a good troop of Imperial Cub Scouts. This bunch," he jerked his head in the general direction of the valley below them, "would have trouble just finding the Scouts."

    Alicia felt that she ought to say something in the militia's defense, if only because of how strongly her instructors at Mackenzie had stressed the importance of planetary militias in the self-defense scheme of the Empire. Unfortunately, Zigair's scathing evaluation tracked entirely too well with her own observations here on Gyangtse.

    "The truth is, Alley," César Bergerat, Bravo Team's other rifleman, said, "that Frinkelo's probably right. These people are pretty damned pathetic. Worse, I don't think they know they are."

    "Hard to blame them for that," Hilton put in. The others looked at him, and he shrugged. "Oh, you and Frinkelo're both right, César. But given how dirt poor these people are, and how unpopular the Empire is with some of them right now, the militia's not really what you'd call motivated, is it?"

    "And it gets shitty equipment and a training budget that wouldn't buy e-rats for a family of gnats," Medrano agreed. He shook his head. "Lots of reasons for it, and I'm not looking to kick any of them—well, not most of 'em, anyway—for how bad the situation is. But the point, Alley, is that their people, starting with their officers and working down, really need to get themselves shaken up enough to realize just how bad it is. That's why we're up here, waiting for them."

    Alicia sat back on her heels and thought about what they'd just said. She didn't notice the approving light in Medrano's eye as she engaged her mind to consider the new information before running her mouth further. She pondered for several seconds, then looked back at the acting team leader.

    "So you're saying that what they heard at the briefing and what we heard at the briefing wasn't exactly the same thing?"

    "Give the larva the big brass ring," Zigair said, and this time his tone held only approval.

    "Exactly," Medrano said, without mentioning that he was relatively certain Bravo Team had caught this particular portion of the squad's assignment because Abe Metternich had wanted her, specifically, to see how it really worked.

    "The militia's gonna scream when it comes down," he continued. "But when they start raising hell, the Lieutenant's gonna be able to say that they were warned the 'guerrillas' might have 'military-grade' small arms. 'S not her fault if they figured that meant just assault rifles, because technically, even this —" he reached out and patted his long, heavy plasma rifle comfortably "— ain't a heavy weapon by the Corps' standards. Too bad if they didn't think about that ahead of time."

    "And at least we're not in powered armor," Hilton pointed out with a virtuous air. "After all, no wicked bunch of terrorists is going to have access to that, and we've got to play fair with them, don't we?"

    "Of course, like Leo says, they can't hold us responsible for their own misinterpretation of the original mission brief. For that matter," Bergerat said with a wicked grin, "if they happen to've jumped to the conclusion that all the nasty old guerrillas have to be out here in front of them somewhere, instead of back in Zhikotse, then that's their problem, too."

    "But there's more to it, isn't there?" Alicia said, still frowning thoughtfully. "Lieutenant Kuramochi wants them to get hammered, not just to lose, doesn't she?"

    "She never actually said that," Medrano said, "and neither did Abe. But I think it's pretty clear the militia's been giving itself basically 'gimme' exercises for quite a while now. One of the problems with a lot of militias, when you get down to it. They don't seem to realize you learn more from losing than you do from easy wins. Well, they're gonna learn a lot this afternoon."



    "Well, isn't this a lot of fun," Captain Karsang Dawa Chiawa, Gyangtse Planetary Militia, muttered balefully as he watched his company's lead platoon slogging along the constricted valley's rugged floor.

    It was remarkable. The bare, tumbled rocks—none of them particularly huge—which the spring floods had left strewn about were more than enough to make this hike thoroughly unpleasant, yet they offered absolutely no effective cover. And, of course, the chilly, damp weather of the last few weeks had left the ground suitably soupy and mucky.

    Personally, Captain Chiawa could have thought of dozens of things he'd rather be spending one of his precious days off doing.

    "Whose idea was this, anyway?" a voice asked, and Chiawa looked at the militia lieutenant standing beside him. Like Chiawa himself, Tsimbuti Pemba Salaka, Chiawa's senior platoon commander, was a self-employed businessman. In Salaka's case, that amounted to partnerships in and partial ownership of half a dozen of Zhikotse's grocery stores.

    " 'Colonel Sharwa's,' " Chiawa replied, and Salaka rolled his eyes. Ang Chirgan Sharwa was one of the capital city's wealthiest men—in fact, by Gyangtse's standards, he was almost obscenely rich—and a well-established member of the Gyangtsese political elite. Unlike Chiawa, he enjoyed a position of great status and political and economic power, and he regarded his post as second in command of the planetary militia as both the guarantor of that power and a proof of his natural and inevitable importance. It also put him in a position to toady properly to Lobsang Phurba Jongdomba—Brigadier Jongdomba, the militia's planetary commander—who was probably one of the dozen or so wealthiest men on the planet. Chiawa knew Jongdomba had found lots of way to profit from his militia position (as Sharwa probably had, as well), but the Brigadier was still one of the biggest political fish on the planet, and Sharwa never missed an opportunity to suck up to him.

    None of which, however, meant that a busy man like Sharwa had enough time to waste any of it actually getting his own boots muddy, of course. Which didn't prevent him from putting the rest of the militia out into the mud whenever it crossed his mind.

    "Why am I not surprised it was the Colonel's brainstorm?" Salaka said dryly, and Chiawa chuckled. He couldn't really fault Sharwa in at least one respect—he didn't have the time to waste out here, either. Especially not with the way the GLF's economic boycotts were beginning to hammer the business community even harder. In fact, he was seriously considering resigning his militia commission in order to pay more attention to his own two-man engineering consulting firm. If it weren't for his nagging concern that those idiots in the GLF might actually mean some of the lunatic things they were saying, he probably would have sent in his papers already. As it was, though —



    "Bravo, Alpha," a voice said quietly. Alicia heard it over her own earbug as she lay at the edge of Bravo Team's prepared position.

    "Alpha, Bravo," Medrano replied. "Go."

    "Bravo, be advised the target is just passing Alpha's position. it should be entering your engagement range in about two hours. Map coordinates Baker-Charlie-Seven-Niner-Zero, Québec-X-ray-Zero-Four-Two."

    "Alpha, Bravo copies. Coordinates Baker-Charlie-Seven-Niner-Zero, Québec-X-ray-Zero-Four-Two."

    "Confirm copy. Expect visual contact within one-five mikes."

    "Alpha, Bravo copies visual contact in approximately fifteen minutes."

    "Confirm copy," Sergeant Metternich repeated. "Alpha is moving now. Repeat, Alpha is moving now. Alpha, clear."

    Alicia turned her head, looking to the left and the eastern end of the valley. She could see a long way from up here, despite the valley's narrowness, and she brought up her sensory boosters. She hadn't counted on how . . . uncomfortable the surgery to implant the standard Marine enhancement package would be. In fact, it had been more like physical therapy for a recovering accident victim than anything she would have thought of as "training" before she actually experienced it. But she'd made up for that by the speed with which she had adjusted to the new abilities once she was out of the medics hands and free to start training. And she wasn't about to complain about the down time or the recovery—not when she could see with the acuity of a really good pair of light-gathering binoculars just by triggering the right command sequence in her implanted processor.

    The distant terrain snapped into glassy-clear focus. Nothing at all happened for quite some time, and then she spotted a flicker of motion.

    "I've got movement," she reported over the fire team's tactical net.

    "And who might you be?" Leocadio Medrano's voice came back dryly, and she blushed fiery red.

    "Ah, Bravo-One, this is Bravo-Five," she said, thanking God that no one else was in a position to see her flaming face. "I have motion at two-eight-five. Range —" she consulted the ranging hash marks superimposed on her augmented vision "— eleven klicks."

    "One, Two," Frinkelo Zigair said quietly. "Confirm sighting."

    "Acknowledged," Medrano said. Alicia heard the quiet scrape and slither as the plasma gunner moved closer to the edge of their perch. He was silent for several seconds, obviously studying the situation. Then he came back up over the fire team's net.

    "One has eyes on the target," he confirmed. "Looks like they're coming along right where we expected them, people. I'd say another ninety minutes or so, given how slowly they're moving. Four."

    "Four," César Bergerat acknowledged.

    "I think you'll have the best line of sight. When they get here, you'll be on the detonator."

    "Four confirms. I have the detonator."

    "Three, since they're coming in from the east this way, you and Five have perimeter security. Move to the gamma position now."

    "One, Three confirms," Gregory Hilton replied. "Moving to gamma."

    Hilton reached up and slapped Alicia on the back of her left heel. She nodded sharply and wiggled back from her position at the lip of their perch, careful to stay down and avoid silhouetting herself against the gray, drizzling sky or making any movement which might be spotted from below. Then she turned to follow him at a brisk, crouching trot to the secondary position which had been carefully placed to cover the only practical access route from the valley floor to the fire team's primary position.

    They reached it in just over ten minutes and settled down into the carefully camouflaged holes. Alicia's Camp Mackenzie instructors would have been delighted with the field of fire they had, and she'd been impressed by how carefully Medrano had insisted that they camouflage their positions. She was sure quite a few people would have been prepared to take a certain liberty, given the capabilities of the Corps' reactive chameleon camouflage and the knowledge that they were up against only a planetary militia—and not a particularly good one, at that—in a mere training exercise. Leocadio Medrano didn't appear to think that way, however, and for whatever a mere "larva's" opinion might be worth, she approved wholeheartedly.

    "One, Three. Three and Five are in position at gamma," Hilton reported, even as his hands ejected the magazine from his M-97 assault rifle and attached the four hundred-round box of belted training ammunition in its place. Alicia opened a second ammo box, but she didn't attach it to her own weapon. Hilton was the heavy fire element, but attaching the weight of the bulky ammunition box to transform his assault rifle into what amounted to a light machine gun cost it a certain handiness. It was Alicia's job to watch their flanks while he dealt with laying concentrated fire where it was needed. If necessary, she could quickly attach the second ammo box to her own weapon; otherwise, it would simply be ready for Hilton to reload a bit faster.

    "Three, One confirms," Medrano replied over the net. "Now everybody just sit tight."



    "Any sign of them at all, Sergeant?" Captain Chiawa asked, looking around a valley which had gotten only rockier, muddier, more barren, and colder over the last several hours.

    "Nothing, Karsang Dawa," Sergeant Nursamden Nyima Lakshindo replied, and Chiawa hid a scowl. Lakshindo's casual attitude was—unfortunately, Chiawa often thought—the rule, rather than the exception among the personnel of Gyangtse's militia. In civilian life (which was to say for ninety-nine percent of his time), the sergeant was a pretty fair computer draftsman. In fact, he worked for Chiawa's consulting business. That had certain advantages in terms of their working relationship in the militia, but it made it difficult to maintain anything remotely like proper military discipline.

    "Unless they decided just to skip the exercise after all," Lieutenant Salaka offered, "they've got to be somewhere in the next ten klicks."

    "Maybe." Chiawa scratched his chin thoughtfully, eyes slitted as he peered up the valley. The sun was settling steadily towards the western horizon as the day limped towards late afternoon, and he had to squint into its brightness.

    "What do you mean, maybe?" Salaka asked. "We're supposed to be pursuing a bunch of guerrillas ready to turn on us, aren't we?"

    "That's what the Colonel said," Chiawa agreed. "On the other hand, according to the mission brief, the 'guerrillas' we're chasing are supposed to have wanted to take out a target somewhere in Zhikotse before they were 'spotted' and had to run for it. And Wasps are supposed to be sneaky, right?"

    "So?" Salaka looked puzzled, and Chiawa snorted.

    "So suppose they've actually been planning on carrying out an 'attack' in the capital all along?"

    "But that's not what we were briefed for," Salaka protested.

    "So what? You know Major Palacios has been hinting for weeks that our training scenarios haven't really been realistic. Suppose she decided to do something about that? These 'guerrillas' we're supposed to be chasing could have found some place to drop out of sight and hide while we went floundering past them. They could be three-quarters of the way back to town by now to carry out their 'attack' while we're still wandering around in the boonies looking for them."

    "But that's not how the exercise is supposed to work," Salaka pointed out again in a tone which hovered somewhere between incredulous and affronted at Chiawa's suggestion.

    "No, it isn't," Chiawa agreed, suppressing an ignoble desire to point out that that was exactly what he'd just said. He stood a moment longer, drumming on his thigh with the fingers of his right hand while he thought. Then he waved his radioman closer.

    Unlike the Marines, the militia's older, less sophisticated individual communication equipment lacked the range to punch a signal reliably off one of Gyangtse's communications satellites, especially out here in the mountains. That took the larger, heavier backpack unit the radioman got to lug around, and Chiawa gave the sweating, tired youngster a faint smile of sympathy as he reached for the microphone and the radio's directional antenna deployed and locked onto one of the satellites.

    "Base, this is Scout One."

    There was no answer, and Chiawa scowled.

    "Base, this is Scout One," he repeated after two or three seconds.

    Eight repetitions later, someone finally replied.

    "Scout One, Base," a voice said. "What can we do for you, Captain?"

    "Base, I'd like to speak to the Colonel, please."

    "I'm afraid Colonel Sharwa isn't back from lunch yet, Captain," another voice said. "This is Major Cusherwa."

    Chiawa rolled his eyes heavenward and inhaled deeply, wondering why he wasn't more surprised to hear that Sharwa was still off stuffing his face somewhere.

    "Major," he said, once he was confident he had control of his voice, "I've just had a nasty thought. We've had zero contact so far. No sign of them anywhere. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe they slipped back past us, in which case they could be headed for whatever their target in the capital was in the first place."

    "That is a nasty thought." Despite the fact that he was only one of three majors in Sharwa's regiment, everybody knew that Ang Chembal Cusherwa was the person who really did the colonel's work. It was unfortunate that the bookish major —Cusherwa was a voracious reader and a pretty good self-taught historian—didn't have the authority to cut Sharwa completely out of the circuit, in which case things might actually have gotten accomplished.

    "Have you seen any evidence to suggest that that's what happened?" Cusherwa asked after a moment.

    "No," Chiawa admitted. "But we haven't seen anything, either. And we're getting close to the end of the exercise's scheduled time block. I'm thinking about the fact that Major Palacios mentioned in passing that too slavish an attitude towards expectations can bite you on the butt even in a training exercise."

    "I see." Cusherwa was silent for another few seconds. Then, "I hope you're just being paranoid. On the off-chance that you aren't, I'm going to go to Red status on our patrol elements in the city. Meanwhile, complete your sweep as quickly as you can and get back here."

    "Understood. Scout One, clear."

    Chiawa returned the microphone to the radioman and looked at Salaka and Lakshindo.

    "You heard the Major," he said. "Let's get these people back into motion."



    "Do those guys look just a little more suspicious to you, Sarge?" Evita Johansson asked wryly.

    "I think they look like they're trying to be a little more suspicious," Sergeant Abraham Metternich replied. "If I thought they could find their asses with both hands, I'd be a little concerned about it, too," he continued. "But look at them."

    "Be nice, Sarge," Corporal Sandusky said. "Remember, we're guests on their planet."

    Sandusky, the leader of Third Squad's Fire Team Alpha, had a gift for verbal impersonations, and he sounded exactly like one of the narrators from a Corps training holovid, or from one of the travelogues the Imperial Astrographic Society produced. The other members of his team chuckled appreciatively, but none of them disagreed with Metternich's assessment.

    The three militiamen who had occasioned Johansson's comment were at least out of their vehicle, standing on the corner and looking up and down the street. The last time Colonel Sharwa's regiment had carried out what it fondly described as a "security readiness exercise" here in the capital, most of the teams assigned to the street checkpoints had stayed parked comfortably on their posteriors in their troop carriers. Metternich suspected that most of them had seen the "exercise" primarily as an opportunity to catch a little extra sleep, although he was aware that his disgust for the militia's senior officers might be coloring his interpretation of their subordinates' actions and attitudes, as well.

    Be that as it might, this time around the militia infantry, in their unpowered body armor, were out in the open air, positioned to give themselves clear sightlines up and down the street. This particular checkpoint was on one of Zhikotse's major downtown traffic arteries, not the twisting, narrow streets and alleys which served so much of the city. That meant the militiamen could see quite a ways, which probably gave them a heightened sense of security. But that very sense of security translated into a casual attitude. They were out where they were supposed to be, and they were going through the motions of doing what they were supposed to be doing, and yet it was obvious from their body language that their minds weren't fully engaged on the task in hand. Their rifles were slung, two of them had their hands in their pockets, and none of them exuded any sense of urgency at all.

    "Think they'll stop us?" Johansson asked. The private was at the wheel of the civilian delivery van Metternich had appropriated to transport his first fire team into the city. Her question was well taken, but she knew better than to do anything which might draw attention to them—like slowing down—and she continued to approach the militiamen at a steady forty kilometers per hour.

    "Tossup," Metternich said, with a shrug, from his position in the passenger seat. He looked back over his shoulder. "If we have to take them, make it quick," he told the rest of the team, and Sandusky nodded.

    Like all of the other members of Metternich's team, the corporal sitting on the floor of a cargo compartment wore militia fatigues, not the Marine' chameleon battle dress and body armor. Given the fact that Gyangtse's population was even more genetically homogenous than that of most of the old League worlds, no one was going to mistake most of Third Squad's people for locals if they bothered to really look at them, but people had a tendency to see what they expected to see. Thus the militia fatigues. Of course, if the checkpoint actually stopped the van and looked inside it, they would certainly realize what was actually happening. Except, equally of course, for Sandusky. His posture would have deceived anyone who didn't know him well into believing he truly was as relaxed as his expression looked. Metternich knew better. The silenced M-97 in the corporal's lap was ready to "neutralize" the militia checkpoint in a heartbeat if it proved necessary.

    But it didn't. One of the militiamen looked up as Johansson turned the corner right in front of them. The local's expression was bored, and he waved her on around the corner with little more than a glance at her fatigues. It was obvious that the thought of checking her ID or asking her where she was going had never even occurred to him, and while Metternich was grateful for the way it simplified his own life, that didn't keep him from shaking his head in disgust.

    "Now that was what I call slack, Sarge," Johansson said sourly, and Metternich shrugged.

    "Can't argue that one, Evita. I guess they're busy looking for us to come sneaking in on foot or something. I mean, after all, where could we possibly lay our hands on a vehicle, instead?"

    "Then God help us if the GLF gets serious," Johansson muttered.



    "All Bravos, One," Medrano said quietly over the net. "Standby to execute . . . Now!"

    César Bergerat pressed the button on the detonator, and the flash-bangs the fire team had carefully planted amid the tumbled rocks below erupted in brilliant, blinding flashes and abrupt thunderclaps of sound. The radio transmissions they sent out simultaneously activated the sensors on the Marine training harnesses Major Palacios had distributed to the militia for the exercise, and visual alarms flashed brilliant amber as almost a third of Captain Chiawa's company became instant "casualties."




    Karsang Dawa Chiawa didn't know exactly who the strangled shout came from, but it summed up his own feelings quite nicely. He'd seen flash-bangs detonate on training exercises before, but only in ones and twos. He'd never been this close to a dozen of them, all going off at once, and the paralyzing effect of the sudden visual and audio assault was far worse than he'd ever realized it could be.

    Then he saw the flashing lights as the training harnesses reacted to the lethal patterns of pellets the old-fashioned claymore-style mines the flash-bangs were pretending to be would have sent out in real life.

    "Cover!" he shouted. "Get everyone under cover before —"



    "Ouch," Gregory Hilton said mildly, watching the chaos into which the leading third of the militia company had abruptly disintegrated. "That's going to leave a bruise," he added in tones of profound professional satisfaction.

    Alicia nodded in agreement, watching the hapless militia bumbling about. At least half of the people whose harnesses were telling them they'd just become casualties seemed too stunned and confused even to realize they were supposed to sit down and play dead.

    They got the message a moment later, though. She could see the instant at which the training harnesses' built-in processors realized their wearers weren't responding properly and activated the tingler circuits. People twitched as the harmless but most unpleasant neural stimulators reminded the "casualties" that they had abruptly become deceased. Alicia had experienced the same sensation—once—in a training exercise at Mackenzie. Once was all it had taken for her to resolve to never ignore the initial warning signals from her own training harness, and she winced in sympathy as the militia men dropped their weapons and sat down abruptly.

    "My, my," Hilton murmured. "I wonder if they're going to be as enthusiastic about borrowing frontline equipment for the next exercise?"



    Chiawa swore as his battered eardrums registered the yowls of indignant anguish coming from his tardier people. He didn't have very long to think about it, though. Because, suddenly, his own harness was flashing at him. He looked down at the light on his chest for just a moment, then sat down quickly, before the harness decided to admonish him.

    Salaka was a bit slower, and despite himself, Chiawa felt a sudden mad urge to laugh out loud as the lieutenant squawked and abruptly clapped both hands to the seat of his trousers. Salaka danced in place for a heartbeat or two, then flung himself to the ground a few meters from Chiawa's own position.

    The captain hardly noticed. He was looking beyond Salaka, watching as his remaining personnel's harnesses began to flash.



    Alicia watched harness lights spring to life all across the valley floor. For the exercise, Major Palacios had made at least one concession to the "guerrilla" status of her Marines and forbidden them to use their helmet sensors or synth-link driven HUDs, but she didn't really need them for this. Her own eyes—and their enhancement processors, or course—were more than enough as she watched Medrano walk the simulated fire of his plasma rifle methodically down the length of the stalled militia column. He had the simulator attached to his rifle set to maximum dispersion, and each shot set off every harness in a circle almost twenty meters across. The technical term for what she was seeing, she thought, was probably "massacre."

    "Whups," Hilton said conversationally. "Looks like we're going to get some business after all, Larva. Keep an eye out to the right."

    "I'm on it," Alicia confirmed, focusing her own attention on the rapidly disintegrating main body of the militia column. What looked like one of the militia's outsized squads was coming almost straight at their position from the left, but that was Hilton's responsibility. Her job was to see to it that no one interrupted him while he dealt with it.

    Exactly what the approaching squad had in mind was impossible to say. It was remotely possible that whoever was in charge of it had figured out where the plasma rifle ripping their column apart was located, in which case he might actually be moving to flank Medrano. After all, Alicia and Hilton were where they were precisely because it was the only practical way to get from the valley floor to Medrano's position. It was more likely, she thought, that it was simply a case of any port in a storm, since the militia men were also headed for one of the few spots Medrano couldn't target directly from his perch high up on the cliff.

    Unfortunately for them, Gregory Hilton had no such problem. The senior rifleman settled himself comfortably, bracing his assault rifle on the rest he'd carefully built when he first dug his hole. Then he squeezed the trigger.

    The belted blanks from the ammo can clipped to his M-97 were there to provide the visual and audio clues which might have allowed someone to spot his position when he fired. In this case, though, the clues were strictly pro forma, because none of his targets had time to react to them. The rifle's laser range finder was capable of doubling as a target designator for precision guided munitions . . . or for activating the sensors on a training harness.

    Hilton swept his "fire" across the oncoming militiamen, who stopped abruptly, staring down at the flashing lights on their chests in astonishment. Some of them looked up again, as if trying to figure out exactly where the fire had come from. Most of them, however, were otherwise occupied in getting themselves and their posteriors into contact with the ground before their harnesses goosed them.

    "Remarkably good hunting around here, Larva," Hilton commented, looking up from the dozen-plus militia he had just encouraged to become features of the local landscape. "Especially for some," he added with a grin as he watched Medrano's fire, coupled with a judicious sprinkling of "grenades" from Zigair's launcher, complete what the flash-bangs had begun.

    The simulated carnage was as complete as it was sudden, and Hilton shook his head, surveying the "body"-littered valley.

    "Next time, train harder," he told the hapless militiamen. "We be serious out here."



    "Don't be ridiculous, Cusherwa!" Colonel Sharwa said impatiently. "Even if Chiawa were right—which he isn't—just how do you think a dozen obvious foreigners would get all the way into the city without any of our people spotting them?"

    Sharwa snorted in disgust. He supposed it was at least partly his own fault. His favorite restaurant's wine list had been known to entice him into extending his lunch hour often enough, but he really shouldn't have let it do it today. Not when there was an exercise underway. And especially not when, as Cusherwa's account of his conversation with Chiawa made abundantly clear, his subordinates were prepared to jump at imagined shadows without his firm guiding hand to keep them focused.

    "Now," the colonel said, "the first thing to do is —"

    "Excuse me, Colonel."

    Sharwa looked up, scowling at the interruption.

    "What?" he barked.

    "I'm sorry to interrupt, Sir," the communications tech said, "but we're picking up some confused traffic from Captain Chiawa's company."

    "What do you mean—confused?" Sharwa demanded.

    "We're not certain, Sir. It's only snatches from their short-range coms, and we aren't getting much even of that. But it sounds like they might be under some sort of attack."

    "There!" Sharwa glared at Cusherwa. "See? This is what happens when an officer—a junior officer—in the field lets himself get distracted from the task in hand by wild fantasies!"



    "Now," Sergeant Metternich said, and the Marines of Team Alpha, Third Squad, Second Platoon, climbed out of of their borrowed van. They moved without any particular haste, calmly, as if they had every reason to be there. They were three-quarters of the way from the van's curbside parking slot to the building before any of the militia men even glanced in their direction.

    They covered most of the remaining distance before anyone realized that whatever they might be wearing, the van's occupants weren't Gyangtsese.

    "Wait a min—" someone began, and Sandusky casually tilted his silenced M-97 to the side and opened fire.

    The rifle's silencer was remarkably efficient, and the militiamen looked down in astonishment as their harness lights began to flash. Then the tingler circuits kicked in . . . at which point the "dead" sentries suddenly started making rather more noise than the rifle had and got their posteriors into contact with the sidewalk with remarkable speed.

    Sandusky and one of the fire team's riflemen had already peeled off, finding positions which let them dominate the sidewalk and street immediately in front of the building with fire. While they did that, Metternich, Johansson, and the rest of Alpha Team opened the front door, tossed a pair of flash-bang "hand grenades" into the building's lobby, and followed them in a moment later with their own weapons ready.



    "What the —?" Colonel Sharwa began as the ear-splitting "CRACK!" of Metternich's "grenades" shook the office building he'd appropriated as his HQ for the exercise. He glared at the communications technician, still standing in the doorway.

    "Go find out what the hell is going on!" he barked.

    "Yes, Sir! Right away!" the tech replied. He spun on his heel to sprint away, then, suddenly, stopped.

    Sharwa's glare grew even more pronounced as the tech stepped slowly and carefully backwards into the office. He opened his mouth to flay the unfortunate man, but then he froze, his mouth still open, as Sergeant Abraham Metternich, Imperial Marine Corps, followed the com tech into the room.

    "Good afternoon, Colonel Sharwa," the Marine said with exquisite military courtesy.

    Then he raised his assault rifle, and Sharwa's harness began to flash as the Marine squeezed the trigger.

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