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In Fury Born: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Friday, January 20, 2006 18:55 EST



    "Where's Kuramochi now?"

    "Just about to cross over into the Mall, Ma'am."

    Serafina Palacios nodded in satisfaction, then looked back at the general situation map.

    The pressure on her own perimeter had started to ease. She was glad of that. The first couple of times it had been threatened, her dug-in Marines had been able to drive the rioters back by firing over their heads and into the ground in front of them, without inflicting casualties. After that, the pressure behind the ones in front had changed the context. There'd been so many bodies pushing them forward that they'd had nowhere to go but onward, straight at her outer line. She doubted that they'd wanted to do anything of the sort, but that hadn't changed what they were doing or the fact that most of them were armed and worked up to a killing frenzy. When they'd begun shooting at her Marines, she'd had no option but to order her people to return fire.

    Which was why there were now well over two hundred and fifty bodies sprawled outside her forward positions. At least the battalion's corpsmen, assisted by the spaceport rescue teams, had been able to bring in the wounded. Captain Hudson, the battalion's doctor, along with his medics and the dozen or so civilian doctors inside the spaceport, had done all they could, but from reports, it sounded as if they were probably going to lose at least a half-dozen more in the end.

    Still, it looked as if the riot, or insurrection, or whatever this thing actually was, had decided the spaceport was best left alone. The mob was amusing itself burning down a goodly percentage of the rest of Zhikotse and hunting down "Empie collaborators," instead. Most of the "collaborators" were nothing of the sort, of course -- merely people whose relative affluence, or accent, or clothes had singled them out as one of the "oppressors of the poor." Most of the real "oppressors" had possessed the resources to get out of the riot's path, but mobs had never been noted for the clarity of their logic.

    What happened to some of those poor devils was enough to turn Palacios' stomach, and after fifteen-plus years in the Imperial Marines, it was no longer a stomach which turned all that easily. But there wasn't a lot she could do about it. She simply didn't have the manpower. Any quixotic rescue attempts she might have mounted into a city the size of Zhikotse would have been absorbed the way a sponge absorbed water, and that was that.

    Now, if it had simply been a matter of killing all the rioters, that would have been different.

    Unfortunately -- or, perhaps, fortunately, depending upon how one chose to look at it (and at the moment, Serafina Palacios was definitely in two minds about it) -- standing imperial policy, as she'd explained to Jongdomba, called for the minimization of collateral damage and incidental civilian casualties, even in a situation like this one. Simply killing the people who'd surrounded the Mall would have been a relatively straightforward proposition. It might have taken a while, but she could have lifted the siege of the Presidential Mansion any time she chose to, if she'd been willing to turn Lieutenant Ryan loose. It might have used up a substantial percentage of her mortar ammunition, but she could have done it, especially if she'd sent in one of her companies behind the barrage to sweep up the bits and pieces. These poor pathetic rioters had no idea how truly lethal her Wasps could be, and she hoped they'd never find out. Although Brigadier Jongdomba had made it perfectly clear that he thought she should be showing the mob exactly that.

    And if I have to, in the end, I will, she thought grimly. But only if I have to. We need to contain the situation, not create an atrocity that produces martyrs in job lots for the next version of the GLF to come along. Aubert's right about that. She smiled without much humor. So instead of killing people who've taken up arms against my Emperor -- and their own locally elected government -- I'm putting my people's lives at risk in order to hold civilian casualties down. And doesn't that just suck?

    She snorted as she realized she'd been deliberately dwelling on just about anything she could think of in order to avoid what she really ought to be doing.

    "Tom, what's the latest from Brigadier Jongdomba?" she asked after a moment.

    "We're still in contact, Ma'am," Lieutenant Bradwell replied. "The Brigadier says his perimeter is being driven steadily back, though. He's reiterating his request for immediate relief."

    Palacios nodded, although "request" was a pale choice of noun for what Jongdomba was actually doing. He'd gone over her head to Governor Aubert over an hour ago, demanding in the name of the planetary government that Palacios march to his support in strength, crushing any rioters she encountered en route. He'd also insisted that if she didn't comply with his "request," the planetary government would complain directly to the Ministry of Out-World Affairs that Palacios and Aubert had chosen to set the safety of off-world investment in the spaceport area above protecting the duly elected planetary government.

    The subtext was clear enough; he not only wanted the Mall held, he wanted the "insurgency" smashed so completely, with such a high body count, that Gyangtse's underclass would never dare to raise its hand against its betters again. The sudden explosion of violence had obviously terrified him, all the more because he'd been so confident he and his fellow oligarchs were the absolute rulers of all they surveyed. The fact that most of this day's bloody violence sprang not from the GLF's separatist ambitions but from the festering, long-standing, and fully justified resentment of the politically excluded underclass wasn't something he was prepared to face, and from where Palacios stood, it seemed obvious he was losing his grip . . . assuming he hadn't already lost it. He was sounding less and less rational, as if what was happening was so unacceptable that he was retreating into a fantasy world where he could somehow fix it all by a simple act of will.

    Or by putting someone else in charge of Gyangtse's local government, perhaps.

    Whatever he might be thinking (or not thinking, as the case might be), he'd made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of evacuating the Mall. Or, for that matter, apparently of allowing the planetary government's members to evacuate, either. Which only lent added point to Palacios' growing suspicion of his ultimate motives, since he'd apparently managed to get almost everyone else out of his perimeter. According to Lieutenant Beregovoi's latest estimates, only the senior members of the planetary government were still in the Presidential Mansion; every junior official, clerical worker, and janitor appeared to have miraculously managed to escape before the rioters closed in. Palacios found it rather remarkable that it had been possible for a junior secretary to escape, but not for the Planetary President to do the same thing.

    In effect, she knew, Jongdomba was holding his own government hostage, using the safety of its senior members as a bargaining chip to force her to do as he wished. Unfortunately for him, however, the previous political calculus of Gyangtse no longer obtained. Jongdomba's "good friend" Governor Aubert had informed the brigadier (who had announced that he now spoke for President Shangup and the rest of the government, as well) that all that could be done was already being done, that Major Palacios enjoyed his total confidence and support, and that Jongdomba's veiled threats wouldn't change any of that.



    Palacios had been patched in as a silent auditor of that particular conversation, and she'd been just a little bit surprised by the fierceness of the satisfaction she'd felt as she listened.

    "Connect me with the Brigadier," she said now.

    "Yes, Ma'am."

    Palacios turned her attention back to the map table. Jongdomba's com connection was voice-only, and she waited until a voice spoke in her mastoid implant.

    "Jongdomba," it said. Without the self-identification, she would have found it difficult to recognize that harsh, strain-flattened voice as the bombastically confident militia commander's.

    "Brigadier," she said crisply, "this is Major Palacios."

    "With yet another excuse for not relieving us?" Jongdomba grated, and Palacios folded her hands behind her and gripped them tightly together.

    "No, Brigadier," she replied calmly. "I'm comming to inform you that the second platoon of my Bravo Company is about to make contact with you."

    "It is?" Palacios could almost see Jongdomba sitting up straighter. "That's excellent news! I know exactly where to put it until the rest of the relief force gets here!"

    "Brigadier, I don't believe you fully understand the situation," the major said. "Second Platoon isn't there to reinforce your present positions; it's there to help extricate the President and the Delegates from the Mall and get them to safety here at the spaceport enclave."

    "That's preposterous! You can't possibly be serious! Unless you want us to find ourselves putting down something like this every few years, it's imperative that we hold the Mall and teach this traitorous rabble the consequences of daring to --"

    "Brigadier Jongdomba," Palacios' voice was flatter, "the protection of the political status quo is not my job. The maintenance of that status quo -- or its necessary modification -- is that of the planetary government of Gyangtze. The protection of that planetary government's real estate and official structures is the responsibility of the Gyantzese police establishment and the planetary militia. The protection of the Imperial Governor and his person, office, and staff, and of the authority of the Empire on Gyangtze and in this star system, is the responsibility of His Majesty's Marines and Fleet. In addition, however, the Empire does recognize the responsibility of His Majesty's armed forces to protect the lives and persons of the members of local planetary governments upon imperial planets. I am prepared to extend that protection, but I can best protect those persons here, inside my perimeter. I do not, as I've already repeatedly informed you , have the personnel to simultaneously protect the city's essential public services, hold the spaceport, and cover an objective as extensive as the Mall."

    "Well, that's too damned bad!" Jongdomba snapped. "You and I both know you've got plenty of uncommitted combat power. You're simply unwilling to use it. And don't tell me about 'limiting civilian casualties' again! We're looking at a damned civil war if we don't crush these bastards right now, and you're refusing to do it."

    "Whether you approve of it or not, Brigadier, my standing orders from the Minister of War and the Ministry of Out-World Affairs are quite clear. Maintenance of civil order is the primary responsibility of the local authorities. Imperial forces are to be employed for that purpose only as a last resort, and the limitation of casualties takes precedence over every other consideration except the preservation of human life and the protection of the persons of the local government's members. Which," Palacios repeated pointedly, "I can best do here at the spaceport, Sir."

    "The preservation of the local government includes the protection of that government's offices and essential records," Jongdomba shot back. "A government is more than the individuals who happen to hold office at any given moment, and you know it. Your refusal to acknowledge that fact and your attendant responsibilities is unacceptable to the planetary government of Gyangtse, Major Palacios!"

    "Then you have a problem, Brigadier," Palacios said coolly. "I'm not under your orders, Sir. In fact, my orders require me merely to 'cooperate' with the planetary authorities. I am cooperating by offering to provide for the physical safety of your government and its members. In my opinion, that is the maximum I can do without finding myself in dereliction of my other responsibilities. You may, of course, choose not to accompany Second Platoon when it returns to the spaceport. That's your option. But those are Lieutenant Kuramochi's orders, and they will be carried out. Are we clear on that, Brigadier?"

    There was a moment of fulminating silence, and then, abruptly, the connection was terminated.

    My, that didn't go too well, did it? Palacios thought, and looked at her com officer.

    "Get me Kuramochi."

    "Yes, Ma'am."

    "Kuramochi," a voice said almost instantly, and Palacios heard the crackle of small arms in the background.

    "Chiyeko, this is Major Palacios. What's your estimate to contact with the militia's forward positions?"

    "Five minutes, max, Ma'am."

    "Well, be advised that that contingency you and I discussed vis-à-vis Brigadier Jongdomba may well be in effect."

    "Understood, Ma'am." Kuramochi's voice was flatter than it had been, and Palacios smiled without any humor whatsoever.

    "Sorry to drop it on you, Lieutenant," she said. "Just remember, you're covered by my orders to you. You do what you have to do; I'll worry about the repercussions afterward."

    "Yes, Ma'am. I'll get it done."

    "Never doubted it, Chiyeko. Palacios, clear."



    "What's that?"

    "What's what? Where?" Sergeant Thaktok demanded.

    "Over there." The militia private sharing the sergeant's hole pointed out into the smoky afternoon. "I saw something move over there."

    "What?" Thaktok repeated, peering in the indicated direction. There was enough drifting smoke and dust hanging in the air, especially in the area where the sudden barrage of mortar fire had plowed through the attackers' positions, to restrict visibility badly. It was like a heavy fog, swathing the battered landscape in obscurity. But still, if there were anything out there he should have seen something.

    "I don't know what," the private said, exhausted enough -- and frightened enough -- to sound belligerent. "I just saw some sort of movement and --"

    "Holy shit!" Thaktok blurted, flinching back in his hole, as the air seemed to shimmer right in front of him. His bayoneted rifle jerked up in automatic response, but a hand reached out and gripped the barrel, pushing its muzzle back down.

    "Let's not have any accidents here, Sergeant," Gregory Hilton said pleasantly as his chameleon camouflage blended out of the background smoke.

    Thaktok gawked at him, then twitched as additional Marines began to materialize. The militia sergeant was still trying to come to grips with the apparent wizardry of the Marines' sudden appearance when he found himself face-to-face with a short, slender lieutenant.

    "Sergeant . . . Thaktok," she said, reading his name off of his own breastplate, "I'm Lieutenant Kuramochi. I need someone to direct me to Brigadier Jongdomba's CP."

    "Uh," Thaktok said. Then he shook himself. "Yes, Ma'am! Right away."



    Alicia followed Lieutenant Kuramochi through the combat-spawned debris which littered the once splendidly landscaped Capital Mall. Lieutenant Kuromachi hadn't invited her along, but Sergeant Metternich had glanced at Alicia, then pointed at the lieutenant, and made a waving gesture which Kuromachi had obviously missed. And so Alicia found herself tagging along, feeling a bit like an anxious puppy as she wondered how the lieutenant was going to react when she noticed her shadow.

    Prior to this day's madness, the Mall, with its reflecting ponds, fountains, gracious buildings, statuary, and flowering fruit trees had been the most beautiful spot in the entire capital city. That beauty had been sadly damaged, however, and the smoke hovering above it was like a shroud of despair. One of the larger multi-jet fountains was still up and running, a gorgeous, perpetually moving water sculpture in the square in front of the Presidential Mansion, despite a wide crack through one retaining wall of the catch basin, but the others were dead, and she wondered if incoming fire had cut the water supply.

    The South Garden, leading to the Mansion's main façade, was ugly with foxholes and emergency aid posts, and the building itself -- like the Treasury Building, which faced it across the Plaza of the People -- had been heavily damaged. The Mansion's broad granite steps were pitted with bullet marks and littered with bits and pieces of the façade which had been blown out -- probably by rockets, she thought, looking at the angle from which the fire had come in. Wisps of smoke blew from the shattered windows of the previously gracious building, and she was surprised that it was only smoke. The Mansion's sprinklers and fire suppression system must be better than she would have expected from the rest of Gyangtse's indigenous tech base.

    Most of the militiamen they'd passed on their way here had seemed happy to see them. They were too exhausted, too worn out, for exuberance, but she'd seen the relief in their faces. In fact, it had gone far beyond simple "relief" in several cases, and she wondered just how much of the Battalion these people thought had arrived to save them. Did they realize Major Palacios had sent only a single platoon? And if they didn't, how where they going to react when they figured it out?

    But the closer they got to Brigadier Jongdomba's command post, the less jubilant the faces around them seemed. Not that Alicia was all that surprised. The Imperial Marines believed in keeping their people in the loop, so even Alicia knew Jongdomba wasn't going to be happy with their orders from Palacios.

    They reached the Presidential Mansion, and the private Sergeant Thaktok had assigned to guide them led them down into the hole-pocked garden. Brigadier Jongdomba's CP was in a hastily sandbagged dugout hard up against the inner face of the tall, semi-ornamental brick wall around the Mansion's grounds. Two rifle-armed militiamen -- one a lieutenant and the other a corporal, both sporting a non-standard unit flash Alicia had never seen before on their left shoulders -- stood outside the CP's entrance. A quick query of her helmet computer through her synth-link identified the crossed-lightning-bolts shoulder flash as the emblem of Jongdomba's "Headquarters Guard Company," whatever that was. She'd never heard of it, and her helmet database showed no such unit on the militia's official table of organization and equipment. At the moment, they struck her as improbably clean and neat against the littered chaos around them, and Lieutenant Kuramochi's guide came to a halt in front of them as the lieutenant held up a peremptory hand.

    "What do you want?" the militia officer growled at the dirty, battle-stained private without so much as looking in Kuramochi's direction.

    "The Marines are here," the guide replied. "This is Lieutenant Kuramochi. She needs to see the Brigadier."

    "Oh, she does, does she?"

    The militia lieutenant turned his attention to Kuramochi at last, and Alicia's instincts kicked her hard. There was something about the Gyangtsese's expression, something about his eyes, that twanged mental alarms.

    "Yes, she does," Kuramochi said, her voice cold. "And her patience is in rather short supply at the moment."

    "Oh, forgive me, Ma'am!" the militiaman replied, coming to an elaborate caricature of attention and saluting with a mocking flourish. "I'll just run right in and see if the Brigadier wants to waste his time seeing one of the useless wonders who've been sitting on their gutless asses while the frigging city burns down around us." Alicia didn't see or hear any communication between Lieutenant Kuromachi and Gunny Wheaton. Maybe, she decided later, it was telepathy. Or maybe the big gunnery sergeant was simply pissed off enough that he didn't need any signal from his lieutenant.

    There was a brief, sudden blur. Wheaton didn't even seem to move. One moment he was standing at Lieutenant Kuramochi's elbow; the next moment, the militia officer was flat on his back on the ground, his combat rifle was in Wheaton's hands, and one of Wheaton's boots was pressed firmly against the other man's throat.

    The militia corporal started to move, then froze. Only when he stopped moving did Alicia realize that he'd frozen because her rifle muzzle was aligned directly with his belt buckle. He stared at her for a heartbeat, then very carefully lowered his own rifle's butt to the ground.

    "I believe," Wheaton said pleasantly to the still-standing corporal, ignoring the man on the ground as he flopped about, making strangling sounds while both hands wrenched uselessly at the Marine's immovable combat boot, "that the Lieutenant would like to see the Brigadier now. Is there a problem?"



    "Just what the hell do you mean, attacking my people?" Brigadier Jongdomba raged as Lieutenant Kuramochi was shown into his damp, muddy-smelling command post. Gunny Wheaton followed her, and Alicia continued to tag dutifully along, as well. As she'd started down the dugout steps, Alicia's HUD had picked up the green icons of the rest of the platoon drifting gradually into a loose necklace around the CP.

    "I don't know what you're talking about, Brigadier," Kuramochi said levelly, looking him straight in the eye.

    "Oh, yes, you do, Lieutenant!" Jongdomba spat.

    He pointed at another militia officer, this one a captain, standing to one side with a pair of sergeants. All three of them wore the "HQ Guard" shoulder flash, and their expressions were belligerent as they glared at Kuramochi and Wheaton.

    "I have a report of the entire incident," the brigadier continued, "and it's obvious to me that your commanding officer's cowardice is exceeded only by your arrogance in the execution of her gutless orders! But while you may cherish the mistaken belief that you have some God-given right to assault any of my people who get in your way, I assure you that you and she are both wrong about that, Lieutenant! I fully intend to press charges against both of you to the full extent of military law!" "Apparently, there was some difference of opinion as to the degree of military courtesy which should be shown to a superior officer, Sir," Kuramochi replied, and Jongdomba's face tightened dangerously at her not particularly oblique reminder that a Marine officer was legally a full grade senior to any planetary militia officer of his own nominal rank. "Your lieutenant expressed his opinion of me and my Marines in somewhat intemperate language. My gunnery sergeant took exception to his manner and . . . remonstrated with him. Since Major Palacios has declared martial law in the name of the Emperor, not the local authorities, the Imperial Marine Corps would have jurisdiction over any military infractions which may occur during the present emergency. I'm sure that if you choose to press charges, the Corps will be perfectly willing to empanel a court-martial to consider the behavior of everyone involved. In the meantime, however, Sir, with all due respect, my orders are to evacuate the members of the planetary government to the safety of the spaceport."

    The planetary government isn't going anywhere!" Jongdomba glared at her. "As I've already informed Major Palacios, President Shangup and the Delegates have no intention of being driven out of the capital by this pack of gutter scum!" He snorted contemptuously. "Pack of useless drones and parasites, the lot of them. It's time we taught them a long overdue lesson in deportment, and we're not about to let them take over the official offices of government and get any uppity ideas above their stations!"

    "Brigadier Jongdomba," Kuramochi said, "you were the one who informed Major Palacios you could no longer hold this position or guarantee the safety of your governmental leaders. Accordingly, the Major has dispatched me to escort those leaders to a place of safety. If they choose not to accompany me, that will be their own decision. Major Palacios regrets the probable outcome of that choice, but she will not seek to dictate to them."

    "You wouldn't dare simply abandon us -- them!" Jongdomba sneered.

    "On the contrary, Brigadier," Kuramochi said calmly, "it would be their decision, not mine."

    "And what if I choose not to let you abandon us?" the brigadier asked in a suddenly much softer voice.

    "Brigadier, my people and I aren't under your command," Kuramochi said. "I have my orders from my own superiors, and I will obey them."

    "Somehow," Jongdomba said, "I rather doubt your precious Major Palacios or Governor Aubert will be quite so quick to throw us to the wolves if a platoon of their own precious Marines are stuck here with us. If I'm wrong, your people should still be a worthwhile addition to our firepower."

    "Brigadier Jongdomba," Kuramochi's tone was flat, "I think you'd better reconsider your position. My people aren't here to reinforce your perimeter, and that's not what they're going to do. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak to President Shangup myself. I'd hate to think that the nature of my orders might have been -- unintentionally, I'm sure -- misrepresented to him."

    "I suspect your people will be more willing than you think to do as I ask when they discover that you and your sergeant here are going to be my 'guests' until order is restored to the capital on the planetary government's terms," Jongdomba said.

    Alicia felt a sudden, icy calm descend upon her. Despite the briefings, despite the incident with the militia lieutenant outside the CP, she couldn't quite believe Jongdomba could be as crazy as his last sentence suggested. He was surrounded by heavily armed insurgents, and now he was prepared to court a shooting incident with a platoon of Imperial Marines in the very middle of his position? What could he be thinking? Or was he thinking at all? Surely he couldn't believe that the commander of a Crown World planetary militia could get into a pissing contest with the Corps and survive?

    "Brigadier," Lieutenant Kuramochi said softly, "you're about to make a serious mistake. I recommend that you let this drop right here, right now."

    "I don't really care what a cowardly little bitch with delusions of grandeur recommends, Lieutenant," Jongdomba sneered. Then, without turning his head, he said, "Captain!"

    The militia captain standing behind Sergeant Wheaton had been primed and waiting. At the brigadier's one-word command, his hand flashed down to the weapon holstered at his hip. The two sergeants with him were armed with combat rifles. They'd been standing there, with the weapons over their right forearms, like hunters carrying their rifles across a field somewhere. Now, they brought the muzzles up, swinging them towards Lieutenant Kuramochi.

    But things didn't work out exactly as Jongdomba had intended them to.



    Gunny Wheaton took one quick step backward, and the armored couter protecting his right elbow drove unerringly into the militia captain's chest. The other man's breastplate blunted the hammer blow, but its sheer power drove the smaller Gyangtsese back into the earthen wall behind him with stunning force. Wheaton turned in place as the militiaman cried out and mingled surprise and pain. The captain tried to bounce back upright, only to find his right wrist locked in the viselike grip of Wheaton's left hand, and then the gunnery sergeant's right hand fastened itself about his throat like a hydraulic clamp and yanked him up onto his toes.

    The militia sergeants hesitated. It was a brief thing, no more than a single breath, or half a heartbeat. Wheaton's instant reaction had taken them both by surprise, and they began to turn their weapons towards him, and away from Kuramochi, in automatic response.

    Unfortunately for them, however, the Marine lieutenant was already in motion herself. At the same instant Wheaton neutralized the captain, Kuramochi spun like a dancer to face the sergeants and took one long step towards them. Her right hand swept down to her hip and came up with her own sidearm even as her left hand caught the nearer of the two sergeants' combat rifle and heaved. The rifle's unfortunate owner stumbled toward her, off-balance and astounded by the force of the petite Marine's pull, and her left kneecap drove up into his groin.

    He screamed, dropping his rifle and clutching at his crotch as he went to his knees, and his fellow sergeant suddenly found himself looking down the muzzle of Kuramochi's pistol at a range of twenty centimeters.

    That quickly, Wheaton and Kuramochi had neutralized all three of Jongdomba's people. But Kuramochi had miscalculated slightly. She hadn't realized there was a fourth militiaman with the lightning bolt flash hidden behind the bulk of Jongdomba's com center. Now that man came to his feet, and the weapon in his hand was no pistol. It was a neural disrupter, coming to bear on the back of Kuramochi's head from a range of less than five meters. His finger was on the firing stud, and his lips drew back in a snarl as it began to squeeze.

    Thunder exploded in the command post.

    Alicia's M-97 was just a little long to be truly handy in such relatively close quarters, but that didn't matter. As the unexpected fourth member of the brigadier's insane ambush stood, her rifle muzzle tracked up from the floor. There wasn't time for a head or chest shot; she squeezed the trigger when the rifle was only hip-high and let recoil push the muzzle further upward as a sharp, chattering burst of tungsten-cored penetrators shattered the communications console before they smashed into the man on its other side.

    The militiaman screamed as Alicia's first round hit him just below the navel. The second hit him half-way between the first and his breastbone. The third hit squarely at the base of his throat, its trajectory still upward, and his chopped-off scream died abruptly as it exited through the back of his neck and eight centimeters of his spine was reduced to paste. His gun hand closed convulsively, and the disrupter's emerald bolt slammed into the dugout wall. It missed Kuramochi entirely, but the very fringe of its area of effect caught Wheaton and the militia captain he had immobilized. Both of them went down, arching convulsively as energy bleed from the near-miss ripped through their nervous systems. They hit the floor, thrashing helplessly, an instant behind the man Alicia had just killed, and Brigadier Jongdomba snatched for his own sidearm.

    PFC Alicia DeVries took two steps. The militia commander's eyes snapped to her just as her combat rifle drove viciously forward. Unlike his subordinates, Jongdomba wore no body armor, so there was nothing to protect him when the smoking flash suppressor of Alicia's M-97, with its bulbous under-barrel mounted grenade launcher, rammed into his belly like a pile driver.

    The brigadier jackknifed around the rifle with a high, hoarse grunt of agony. His pistol flew from his hand as he clutched at his belly, and Alicia's rifle twirled. Its butt came up in a perfectly measured arc that hammered into Jongdomba's descending shoulder, just low enough to catch and smash his collarbone as it straightened him back up .

    The militia's commanding officer went up and over, then down, stunned, two-thirds unconscious. He landed on his back, whooping and coughing for the breath which had been driven out of him, then froze as he found himself staring up at the muzzle of a rock-steady combat rifle trained on the bridge of his nose.

    "I think, Brigadier," Kuramochi said through Jongdomba's own gasping anguish, the high-pitched, whining moans of the sergeant she'd incapacitated, and the harsh, spastic breathing of Gunny Wheaton and the militia captain, "that you should have taken my advice."

    The slender Marine lieutenant's voice was an icicle, and she never even looked away from the sergeant she held at gunpoint -- the only member of Jongdomba's ambush who was still on his feet -- as the sound of more firing came from outside the CP. It didn't last long, and then Sergeant Metternich came down the steps.

    "We're secure topside, Skipper," he said. "'Fraid there was a little breakage among the locals first, though. They seem to've had a few problems with their IFF."

    "Pity," the lieutenant said. "Any of our outside people hurt?"

    "Nope. Not outside." Metternich glanced at Alicia, still standing over the helpless brigadier and nodded in grim approval, then went to one knee beside Wheaton.

    "Disrupter," Kuramochi said, her attention still on her captive. "Mike caught the corona."

    "Shit." Metternich bent closer and triggered the platoon sergeant's life signs monitor. It flickered and danced uncertainly for a few moments, then steadied down, and Metternich's taut shoulders relaxed visibly.

    "I think he'll be okay, Skipper," he said. "I'm no corpsman, but according to this, his vitals are pretty good. There's no sign of actual neural damage, and his pharmacope's already treating him for shock."

    "Glad to hear it," Kuramochi said. "Take this one."

    "Yes, Ma'am." Metternich rose, grabbed the one still-standing militiaman by his collar, and frogmarched him up the CP steps.

    Kuramochi holstered her sidearm, then stepped up beside Alicia. "Good work, DeVries," she said quietly, and reached up to rest one hand lightly on Alicia's shoulder. Then she looked down at Jongdomba.

    The brigadier's complexion was the color of river mud, but his agonized breathing was easing slightly, and his eyes were beginning to regain their focus. Kuramochi smiled thinly.

    "And now, Brigadier Jongdomba," she said, "in the name of His Majesty, Seamus II, I arrest you on the charges of conspiracy, attempted murder, and suspected treason against the planetary government of Gyangtse and the Terran Empire. All three of those charges, if sustained, are punishable by death. I would therefore advise you most earnestly not to make your situation any worse than it already is. Is that clear, Sir?"

    Jongdomba stared up at her. Then, like a marionette controlled by someone else, he nodded jerkily.

    "Good. In that case, Sir, I believe it's time I had that interview with President Shangup."

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