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In Fury Born: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Monday, January 2, 2006 02:45 EST



    "Fall back! Fall back!"

    Karsang Dawa Chiawa's throat felt raw as he shouted the command.

    Even now, he could scarcely believe how explosively the mob had reacted, how quickly it had gathered and how violently it had grown. Nothing in any of the intelligence reports he'd seen had suggested that anyone in the planetary government or the militia had believed the GLF enjoyed any real support among the general population. Apparently, they'd been wrong.

    And sending Salaka out to face it had been exactly the wrong move, he thought grimly. Although, to be fair to himself, even now, he couldn't think of anything which could have been considered the "right move." Especially not given Sharwa's demand that he "disperse" the mob immediately coupled with the colonel's refusal to allow Chiawa to take charge of it personally. After all, it had been so much more important for Sharwa to continue ripping a strip off Chiawa than to let the captain do anything constructive about the situation. Or for the colonel to call up more of the militia. Or even to inform President Shangup of what had happened.

    But Chiawa knew that, however badly at fault Sharwa might have been, he would never forgive himself for not telling the colonel to shut the hell up while he handled the dispersal. Of course, he hadn't realized there were weapons in the crowd any more than Salaka had, but he should have allowed for the possibility.

    Salaka's death had been the final straw. The brick-throwers had turned suddenly into a screaming tide of enraged humanity, and most of Salaka's men had been just as confused, just as shaken, as anyone else. They hadn't expected any of this, and when Salaka went down, they'd hesitated. Maybe that was Chiawa's fault, too. He was the one who'd specifically cautioned Salaka against the use of lethal force. He was sure he'd go on second-guessing himself for the rest of his life, but the truth was that he didn't know if it would have made any difference if they'd opened fire the instant the crowd-become-mob started forward. In any case, they hadn't. They'd tried to give ground, to avoid killing their fellow citizens, and those fellow citizens had swarmed over them.

    As far as Chiawa knew, not a single member of Salaka's platoon had survived, and he didn't know, frankly, how he'd gotten anyone out of the hotel as the howling mob seemed to materialize out of the very pavement. They'd had to shoot their way out, and he knew at least some of his people hadn't even tried to. He didn't know how well they'd made out with their efforts to join the mob, but he knew some of them had at least made the attempt.

    Those who'd stuck with him had tried to reach some sort of support, some haven from the typhon. It hadn't been easy, with the capital's streets infested with rioters -- more and more of whom appeared to be armed -- screaming their hatred for anyone in uniform. They'd managed to link up, briefly, with Echo Company, the only other militia unit Brigadier Jongdomba and Colonel Sharwa had mustered for the "routine" operation. But Captain Padorje, Echo Company's CO, had insisted on attempting to carry out Colonel Sharwa's order to retake the Annapurna Arms. Exactly what Sharwa had hoped that might accomplish escaped Chiawa, although the colonel had apparently believed even then that a sharp, successful show of force would "whip the street rabble back to its kennel."

    Whatever Sharwa might have thought would happen, the orders had been a mistake -- another mistake -- but Padorje had refused to take Chiawa's word for that. And so they'd gone back against the tide . . . and disintegrated like a sand castle in the face of a rising sea. Chiawa had seen it coming, and he'd done his best to pull his own people out of the wreck, but they'd been hit from three sides as they entered Brahmaputra Square, three blocks short of the hotel. Padorje's lead platoon had simply disappeared, and the rest of Echo Company -- and Able Company's survivors -- had splintered into desperately fighting, frantically retreating knots with the mob baying savagely in pursuit.

    And now, after what seemed an eternity but couldn't have been more than a few hours in reality, he was down to this. He'd been trying to work his way towards the spaceport, where the Marines were supposed to be holding a perimeter, but every time he headed east, he ran into a fresh surge of rioters who drove his remaining people back to the west. By now, they were almost half way across the city from the port, but he couldn't think of any other objective which might give his people a chance of survival.

    The two dozen-plus militiamen still holding together under his command -- only eight of them were from his own company -- actually managed to obey his latest fall back order. The jury-rigged squad under the sergeant from Echo Company rose from its firing positions and headed back past Chiawa's own position at a run. The captain had managed to select the location for their next no-doubt-pointless stand from his map display, and the sergeant -- whose name Chiawa couldn't remember -- flung himself back down on his belly behind an ornamental shrub's ceramacrete planter. The other members of "his" squad found spots of their own, most with decent cover, at least from the front.

    "Position!" the nameless sergeant announced over Chiawa's com.

    "Copy," Chiawa responded, then looked back to his front. "Chamba! Time to go!"

    "On our way!" Sergeant Chamba Mingma Lhukpa replied, and rose in a crouch, waving for his own men to fall back.

    They obeyed the hand signal, moving, Chiawa noted, with a wary care they'd never displayed in any of the militia's exercises. He couldn't avoid a certain bitterness at the observation, but he made himself set it aside quickly. These people were the survivors. The ones who'd possessed the tenacity to stick when everyone else bugged out . . . and who'd been fast enough learners -- and nasty enough -- to survive. So far. If Chiawa had had a single full platoon of them under his command at the Annapurna Arms, none of this would have happened.

    Bullshit. You -- and Sharwa and that idiot Jongdomba -- still would've fucked it up, and you know it, a small, still voice said in the back of his brain as Lhukpa's exhausted, grim faced people fell back around him. Bullets whined and cracked overhead, skipped across the pavement, or punched fist-sized holes in the façades of buildings, and he heard a sudden scream as one of his remaining privates went down.

    Lhukpa started back, but Chiawa pointed back to the position from which the nameless sergeant and his people were laying down aimed covering fire.

    "Go!" the captain screamed, and once again, the sergeant obeyed.

    Chiawa turned back. An icy fist squeezed shut on his stomach and twisted as the incoming rifle fire seemed to redouble. He heard the thunderous, tearing-cloth sound of a firing calliope added to the cacophony, and he felt like a man wading into the teeth of a stiff wind. Except, of course, that no wind he had ever faced had been made of penetrators capable of punching straight through the breast and backplates of the unpowered body armor he wore.

    He went down on one knee beside the fallen private. Chepal Pemba Solu, he realized. One of the handful from his own company, like Lhukpa, to stick by him. He rolled Solu onto his back and checked the life sign monitor. It was black, and he bit off a curse, grabbed Solu's dog tags, and went dashing after Lhukpa.

    And even as he ran, he felt a fresh stab of guilt because a part of him couldn't help thinking that they were better off with Solu dead than trying to carry a badly wounded man with them through this nightmare.




    Something louder than usual exploded ahead of him. The shockwave caused him to stumble, still running, and he tucked his shoulder under, grunting with anguish as he hit the ceramacrete full force, still driving forward at the moment of impact. He rolled as he landed, flinging himself sideways until his frantically tumbling body bumped up over the curb of a sidewalk and he slammed into a city bench. That stopped him . . . and would have broken ribs without his body armor.

    There was another explosion. And another.

    Mortars, his brain reported even as he gasped for the breath which had been driven out of him. The bastards have gotten their hands on some of our own mortars!

    A moment later, he was forced to revise his initial impression. If that was an ex-militia mortar, it wasn't a bunch of untrained rioters using it. The initial rounds had landed long, well beyond his people's positions; the follow-up rounds were marching steadily and professionally up the avenue towards him. Someone who knew what he was doing was on the other end of those explosions, so either it was one of the weapons Sharwa had assured all of his people the GLF didn't have, or else it was one which had once belonged to the militia . . . and was being operated by a mortar crew which had once belonged to the militia, as well.

    Not that it mattered very much. His double handful of people had semi-adequate cover against small arms fire, but not against indirect fire that could search out the dead spots behind planters, parked cars, and ceramacrete steps.

    "Inside!" he shouted over the com. "Into the buildings!"

    He was already up, running for the broad flight of steps to the main entrance of the office building behind his bench. Someone else was running up them with him -- at least two or three someone elses. That was good; at least he wouldn't be alone. But this was the one thing he'd tried to avoid from the beginning of the nightmare retreat. Once his people were broken up into tiny, independent groups he couldn't coordinate and control, their cohesion was bound to disappear. And even if that hadn't been the case, as soon as they split up, they could only become complete fugitives, unable to rely on one another for mutual support.

    "Everybody, listen to me," he panted over the com as he burst through the office building's door into the incongruously spotless and peaceful lobby. "Keep going. Break contact, scatter, and get to the spaceport somehow. I'll see you all there. And . . . thanks."

    He said the last word quietly, almost softly. Then he looked over his shoulder at the four militiamen who'd managed to join him. None of whom, he noted, were from Able Company.

    "All right, guys," he said wearily. "That goes for us, too. You -- Munming," he read the name stenciled on the other man's breastplate. Munming was a corporal, armed with a grenade launcher, and he still had half a bandolier of grenades. "You're our heavy fire element. You stay behind me. Load with flechette for right now. You two," he indicated two riflemen, neither of whom he recognized. "You and I are point. You," he tapped one of them on the chest, "right flank. You," he indicated the other, "left flank. I'll take the center. And you," he turned to the fourth and final militiaman, "you've got our backs. Clear?"

    Gaunt, smoke-stained faces nodded, and he nodded back to them.

    "In that case, let's get our asses moving."



    "Well, this truly sucks," Sergeant Major Winfield said. Major Palacios looked up from the tactical display table and quirked an eyebrow at him.

    "I take it that that profound observation reflects some new and even more disgusting turn of events, Sar'Major?"

    "Oh, yes, indeedy-deed it does, Ma'am," Winfield told her. "We've just received a priority request for assistance from none other than Brigadier Jongdomba."

    "Why am I not surprised?" Palacios sighed. She shook her head, gazing down at the map display in front of her, and grimaced.

    The response to the bungled arrest attempt had been even swifter and uglier than she'd feared. She still didn't think the GLF had planned any of this. In fact, her best guess -- and the take from the Battalion's sensor remotes seemed to confirm it -- was that the Liberation Front's remaining leadership understood just how suicidal something like this was. All indications were that Pankarma's surviving lieutenants were doing their damnedest to shut everything down before it got even worse. Unfortunately, if the GLF ever had been in control, it was no longer.

    What had begun with the shootout at the Annapurna Arms had turned into something with all the earmarks of a genuinely spontaneous insurrection. There were conflicting reports -- rumors, really -- about who'd done what first, and to whom, after the initial exchange of fire. Her own best guess was that the reports that the Liberation Front people had only tried to pull back and disengage with the handful of their delegation they'd managed to get out alive were accurate. She couldn't conceive of them having wanted to do anything else. Aside from that, though, she had no idea what had transpired. Except, of course, for the fact that a sizable percentage of the capital city's population was out in the streets, armed with everything from combat rifles, calliopes, grenade launchers, and mortars to old-fashioned paving stones and Molotov cocktails.

    A lot of it doesn't have anything to do with what happened to Pankarma, she told herself. This is the politically voiceless urban poor of a depressed economy scenting blood and the opportunity to get some of their own back against the people they blame for their poverty. Sure, there's separatism stirred into the mix, and anti-Empire feeling does run deep out here, especially with the people who feel most crapped on by the system, but that's not what's giving this the fury we're seeing.

    The Gyangtse oligarchy was no worse than some she'd seen, but it was still worse than most, and it had generated a lot of resentment among the lower strata of Gyangtsese society even before it embraced the current Incorportation referendum. She knew it had, because she'd seen something like this coming for months. One of the reasons her battalion had been assigned to Gyangtse in the first place was that Recon was -- in addition to being specifically trained to pull information out of chaos in a situation like this -- also supposed to specialize in identifying trends and keeping a handle on even restive planetary populations in order to prevent a "situation" like this one.

    Unfortunately, that assumed their civilian superiors would let them do their job ahead of time. Speaking of whom . . . .

    "Have we heard anything else from Governor Aubert?" she asked.

    "No, Ma'am," Lieutenant Thomas Bradwell, her S-6, the officer in charge of her communications, said expressionlessly. "Not since his secretary commed to tell us that we're supposed to go through him, not Mr. Salgado, if we need to reach the Governor."

    Palacios nodded, her face as expressionless as Bradwell's voice, and wondered once again whether or not Salgado's apparent fall from grace was a good sign, or a bad one. If it was a bad one, at least it had plenty of company on that side of the ledger sheet.

    Once it all hit the fan, her people had quickly gotten their sensor remotes deployed. The small, independently-deployed drones were extraordinarily difficult to spot, even with first-line military sensors, as they hovered silently on their counter-grav. She didn't have as many of them as she would have liked to have -- no CO ever did -- but she had enough for decent coverage, and their own sensors, designed to deal with the smoke, confusion, camouflage, and electronic warfare systems of a full-scale modern battlefield were more than adequate to keep an eye on something like this.

    That meant she had a depressingly clear picture of what was happening, and as she looked at the map, she knew that unless they were all far luckier than they had any reason to expect, the madness was still building towards its peak.

    "What sort of assistance is Jongdomba requesting, Sar'Major?" she asked harshly.

    "According to his message, Ma'am, he and the loyal core of his brigade are at the Mall. He says his men are prepared to die in defense of President Shangup and the planetary government, but he urgently requests assistance in order to insure the safety of the President and the Delegates with him."

    "I see."



    Palacios managed not to roll her eyes. At the moment, her people had a solid perimeter around the spaceport, as Operation Blockhouse had specified. They also had control of the city's main power station and water plant ,which put them in a position to preserve its core public services, and the governor's residence and most of the Empire's official offices on Gyangtse were inside the spaceport perimeter. But the Presidential Mansion was located amid the Capital Mall's parks and fountains on the far side of the city, beyond the chaos and bedlam.

    It ought to have been relatively simple -- even for Jongdomba, she thought acidly -- to organize a semi-orderly evacuation of the President and the members of the Chamber of Delegates from the Mall's public buildings. They should have been gotten out of the capital the instant the shooting started, but no doubt Jongdomba had given Shangup his personal assurances that the mob couldn't possibly threaten the Presidential Mansion or the adjacent Chamber and executive office buildings. And, of course, no Gyangtsese politician could afford to radiate anything except steel-jawed determination to stand his ground at a moment like this.

    Until, of course, it turns out Jongdomba can't protect them, that is, she thought, then frowned as another, distinctly unpleasant possibility crossed her mind.

    "Did the Brigadier provide us with a situation report, Sar'Major?" she asked after a moment.

    "He says the situation is 'unclear,' Ma'am. He says he has the equivalent of about two battalions, and his current current estimate is that he's pinned down by an undetermined -- but large -- number of heavily armed GLF guerrillas. He says they're equipped with military-grade weapons and that his own ammunition is running low. He also states that without assistance, he doubts he can continue to resist effectively for more than another two or three hours."

    "I see," she repeated. "I take it he didn't include a list of exactly how many civilians he has inside his lines?"

    "No, Ma'am, he didn't." Winfield frowned at her, and she showed her teeth in a humorless smile.

    "Now, isn't that interesting," she murmured to herself.

    "Excuse me, Ma'am?"

    "Just thinking aloud, Sar'Major," Palacios said, and found herself forced to suppress a chuckle, despite her thoughts, at the look Winfield gave her. But the temptation to humor disappeared quickly.


    "Yes, Ma'am?" Lieutenant Bradwell replied.

    "I need to speak to the Governor, please."



    "Are you serious, Major?"

    Serafina Palacios' eyes narrowed, and she started to open her mouth quickly, but the man on her com display raised one hand, palm out, before she could speak.

    "Forgive me," Jasper Aubert said, and despite herself, Palacios' narrowed eyes went wide at the sincere tone of his apology.

    "I owe you -- all of your people, really, but especially you, I suppose -- a sincere apology for not having listened to you earlier," the governor continued. "For the moment, let's just leave it at that. Hopefully, I'll have an opportunity later to deliver it more appropriately. But I'm not trying to simply dismiss what you're saying now. I'm just trying to get my mind wrapped around it."

    "Governor," Palacios said, "I'm not sure I'm right -- not by a long chalk. But if I am, then we may have an even worse problem than anyone thought we did.

    "It's clear from our remotes that only a minority of Zhikotse's population is actively involved in all this, but even a minority of an entire city's an enormous absolute number. I doubt that as much as twenty percent of the . . . call them "rioters," started out with modern weapons, and most of those were civilian-market, not military. But it looks like most of the weapons from the two companies Sharwa deployed for the . . . arrest attempt are in somebody else's hands now.

    "That's bad enough, but an overflight of the two main militia arsenals indicates that they've been looted, as well. So, by now, in addition to anything that may have been out there to begin with, there's probably at least the equivalent of a couple of militia regiments' firepower floating around in the streets."

    Including, she thought grimly, shoulder-fired SAMs.

    The militia surface-to-air missiles which had found their way into someone else's hands (or, she made herself admit, which the GLF had in its possession all along) had already reduced the original three sting ships of her attached air support to only two sting ships, and she'd lost the pilot along with the ship.

    Which wouldn't have happened, if I'd allowed for the possibility that they had surface-to-air capability from the beginning. But I didn't. I fucked up, and I wanted a live set of eyes up there to supplement the remotes. Stupid bitch.

    She pushed that thought aside, too. For now, at least; she knew it would be revisiting her in her dreams.

    "I've called on the Fleet for support, but there's not much Lieutenant Granger can do for us at the moment. He's the senior Fleet officer in-system, and all he's got is his own corvette. Corvettes are too small to carry assault shuttles, so he can't assist us with airstrikes or troop drops, and while his vessel's armament could take out the entire city with a kinetic strike, heavy HVW aren't very well suited for fire support missions in a situation like this one.

    "That leaves it all up to us, and with those SAMs out there, my tactical flexibility's badly cramped. I've got an attached company of air lorries, but we never got the counter-grav armored personnel carriers I requested, and this is exactly the wrong environment for what's basically an unarmored airborne moving van. The 'terrain' makes it effectively impossible to get a detailed read on what might be waiting down there, even with the remotes. There's no way to know with certainty where SAMs or anti-armor weapons actually are, especially if they hide them inside buildings, until the moment they open fire. And even if I knew roughly where they were, the firepower required to suppress them without precise locations would be devastating." Palacios shook her head. "At this moment, the majority of the people out there're undoubtedly simply trying to keep their collective head down. I'm not prepared to use that sort of fire when it could only inflict heavy noncombatant casualties. Killing that many innocent bystanders isn't what the Corps does, Governor."

    "Of course not," Aubert agreed so quickly and firmly that Palacios had to suppress a fresh flicker of surprise. "Even if you'd been prepared to contemplate that on a moral basis, the political consequences would be totally unacceptable."

    Despite herself, Palacios couldn't keep her disdain for his last sentence out of her expression. He obviously saw it, because his own eyes hardened briefly. But then he shook his head.

    "I'm not being 'business as usual' about this, Major. I've already admitted that my own judgment and decisions here on Gyangtse have been . . . badly flawed, let's say. But however we got into this mess, eventually, the Empire's going to have to stabilize the situation down here. I've already made that difficult enough for whoever catches the job, but if we kill hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who haven't been up in arms against the Emperor's authority, 'stabilizing' Gyangtse once more will take decades. At best."

    He said it unflinchingly, and she felt a stir of respect for him. It seems he's got a brain -- and some guts -- after all, she thought. Some moral integrity, for that matter. Pity he couldn't have shown any sign of it early enough to keep all of this happening, but this is definitely a case of better late than never. None of which alters the fact that my options are so damned limited.

    She contemplated the tabletop map display again.

    After it had finished massacring every militiaman it could catch (except for those who declared their change of allegiance quickly enough), the mob's greatest savagery -- so far, at least -- had been reserved for the downtown business district. At least a third of the main financial buildings clustered in the district, including the Stock Exchange and the home offices of the Gyangtse Planetary Bank, were already in flames. In addition, the sensor remotes had shown laughing, chanting looters -- most of whom weren't armed and had no apparent political axes to grind -- smashing shop windows and stealing everything they could find. And then, inevitably, someone set fire to the emptied shops, as well, of course.

    What is it about pyromania and civil insurrection? she wondered. Can't anyone stage a riot without bringing the matches?

    The thought provoked a bitter chuckle, but she pushed it aside and ran one finger across the top of the display.

    "We're in agreement about the need to minimize noncombatant casualties, Governor," she said, looking back at the com display. "At the moment, I believe all of our Blockhouse positions are secure. Certainly that's true unless there's some new, major influx of weapons and organized manpower on the other side, and I see no sign of that. But unless I miss my guess, they're going to run into our spaceport perimeter sometime fairly soon. When that happens, there are going to be Gyangtsese bodies on the ground. I'm sorry, but there's nothing in the universe I can do to prevent that now."

    "I understand, Major," Aubert said heavily. "For what it's worth, you have my official authorization to proceed in whatever fashion seems best to you on the basis of your military judgment and experience."

    "Thank you, Sir. But that still leaves us this other minor problem. Do you have any directions in regard to that?"

    "At this point? Frankly, no. As far as I can see, we simply don't have enough information at this moment."

    "I'm afraid I concur." Palacios glanced at her map display once more, then looked back at Aubert's com image. "With your permission, Governor, I'll see what I can do about acquiring that information we don't have. And I'll also engage in a little contingency planning."

    "That sounds like an excellent idea," Aubert agreed. "Please keep me informed of your findings and your plans."

    "I will." She nodded courteously. "Palacios, clear."



    She cut the circuit and turned towards Lieutenant Boris Adrianovich Beregovoi.


    "Yes, Ma'am?" The lieutenant was her S-2, her battalion Intelligence officer, and he looked up at her call from where he'd been buried in the consoles managing the remotes.

    "They're still pushing in harder from the south and west, right?"

    "Yes, Ma'am." Beregovoi didn't point out that the display in front of her had already confirmed that. Then again, he'd always been a tactful sort.

    "What about confirmed GLF leadership elements?"

    "Most of the ones we had positively IDed and localized have dropped off our plot, Ma'am," Beregovoi admitted. "Our intercept birds are picking up fewer and fewer com messages between them, which may indicate that they're meeting up with one another somewhere -- close enough together they don't need the com traffic to tie them together. And once they stop actively transmitting, it's awfully hard to keep track of them in a mess like this one."

    "Understood." Palacios drummed the fingers of her right hand on the display, frowning.

    "You say we're getting fewer communications intercepts. Is there any indication from the traffic we did intercept as to where their leadership cadre might have been heading?"

    "No, Ma'am. Not really. There was a lot of 'join so-and-so at location such-and-such,' but their security is pretty good. I think they took it as a given that we'd be listening in once it all hit the fan. They're using code names for both people and locations, and we haven't got enough data yet for the computers to crack the code names for us."

    "What about a general indication of their movement from position fixes on their last transmissions before they dropped out of sight?"

    "I already ran the projections on that, Ma'am. There's nothing statistically significant in what we've got, but there is a slight trend of movement away from Downtown and the spaceport."

    "Away." Palacios looked up and met Sergeant Major Winfield's eyes. "Like they're giving up their efforts to control the mob and get it back out of the streets, do you think, Sar'Major?" she murmured.

    "Might be." Winfield frowned. "Question is, why. Are they just throwing in the towel? Giving it all up as a bad deal? Or are they headed somewhere else?"

    Palacios nodded, then looked back at Beregovoi.

    "Any sign of additional rioters moving into the area north or east of the Annapurna Arms, Boris?" she pressed.

    "Not from the last remote overflight," the lieutenant said. "That's about thirty minutes old, though; we've been concentrating our assets on covering Downtown and the approaches to our perimeter. I can schedule another sweep of that area immediately, if you want, Ma'am. Take about five minutes to set up, and another fifteen for the sweep itself."

    "Do it," she said. "I want the hardest numbers and the best locations you can give me on everything between us and the hotel, between us and the Mall, and between the hotel and the Mall. Map them and drop it onto my display here. And see to it that Lieutenant Ryan gets the same info."

    "Yes, Ma'am." Beregovoi started to turn back to his panel, but Palacios stopped him with a raised forefinger. "Ma'am?" he asked.

    "I want you to do something else for me, too, Boris. I want a birdseye of the Mall. In particular, I want your best estimate of how many civilians are still there -- and who they are."

    "Excuse me, Ma'am?" Beregovoi looked puzzled, and Palacios grimaced.

    "Brigadier Jongdomba wants us to come rescue the members of the planetary government. I want to know how many junior officials, bureaucrats, secretaries, file clerks, and janitors are caught inside the Mall with them."

    "Yes, Ma'am." Beregovoi still looked a little confused, but he nodded and this time Palacios let him turn back to his Intelligence section to get on with it. Then she looked up and met Sergeant Major Winfield's eyes.

    "Skipper, I'm not sure I like what I think you're thinking," he said quietly.

    "You mean the fact that I'm getting ready to call on Ryan's services, Sar'Major?" she asked.

    Ryan commanded the heavy weapons platoon which had been attached to the Battalion when it was sent to Gyangtse, and his single mortar squad's two tubes were the only indirect fire support weapons they had. That might not sound like a lot, in a situation like this one, but the sophistication of the rapid-firing weapons' munitions made it far more impressive than it might seem to an uninformed layman.

    "Ma'am, I'd be just as happy as you are to not kill any more people than we have to," Wheaton told her, "but you and I both know we're not going to get any of our people into the Mall without somebody getting seriously dead. I'll be sorry as hell if that happens to a batch of poor, ragged-ass rioters who get caught in a mortar concentration, but not as sorry as I'd be if it happened to some of us. That's not what I meant, and you know it."

    "Yes, I suppose I do," she acknowledged, then shook her head, her expression briefly sad. "Why do some people insist on fishing in troubled waters, Sar'Major?"

    "Because they're frigging idiots," Wheaton said bluntly, and she snorted in bitter amusement.

    "I suppose you've got a point, even if that is pretty damned cynical of you. In the meantime, though, we may have a small additional problem here."

    "Yes, Ma'am."

    "All right. Inform Captain Becker that I need to speak to her and to . . . Lieutenant Kuramochi, I think. She's levelheaded, and she's a hell of a lot tougher than she looks. Tell Becker I want to see her and Kuramochi here in the CP, personally."

    "Yes, Ma'am!"

    Winfield turned away to obey her instructions without another word, and Palacios smiled thinly. Becker's Bravo Company held the northernmost, least threatened arc of the spaceport perimeter. Palacios hated to thin that perimeter any, but her only other choice would have been to weaken some more seriously threatened part of it or call on Captain Schapiro, whose Delta Company formed the Battalion reserve -- and which had already given up one of its platoons to hold the capital's power station and the water and sewage plant. And, frankly, it would be better for Becker to hold her part of the perimeter with two platoons, instead of three, than to fritter away Palacios' tactical reserve by slicing off still more detachments.

    And if what she was beginning to suspect about Lobsang Phurba Jongdomba happened to be true, she was going to need someone with Kuramochi's qualities on the ground.

    But that's not something you tell someone over the com, Serafina Palacios thought. The least you can do when you send someone out into a shitstorm like this one is look them in the eye when you do it.

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