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In Fury Born: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 20:48 EST



    "Stand aside, Captain."

    The militia captain outside the door wore the same lightning bolts as the rest of Jongdomba's HQ guard company. They were, as Alicia had surmised, more of a personal bodyguard than a military formation, and she suspected that most of them were probably his employees in civilian life, as well. They certainly seemed to consider themselves much more in the nature of his personal retainers than as members of the planetary armed forces.

    Now the captain looked uncertainly at Lieutenant Kuramochi, Alicia, and the additional pair of Marine riflemen behind them.

    "Captain Goparma," Kuramochi said, glancing at the name stenciled on his breastplate, "I don't want to see anyone else hurt if it can be avoided, but Brigadier Jongdomba is currently under arrest. I suspect that the courts are going to determine in time that he's somewhat exceeded his authority as the commander of the planetary militia, and I remind you that martial law has been declared in the Emperor's name. That means an imperial court will be doing the deciding . . . and that at the moment, my authority as Governor Aubert's representative supersedes that of any militia officer. So you can either stand aside, or be removed, however forcibly seems appropriate. Which is it going to be?"

    Goparma stared at her a moment longer, then stepped to one side.

    "Thank you, Captain," Kuramochi said courteously. Then she nodded her head sideways at Alicia. "I believe, Captain," the lieutenant continued, "that it might be best for all of us if you'd surrender your sidearm to Private DeVries. Just as a precaution, you understand."

    The militia officer flushed, his face dark with mingled humiliation, anger, and fear. But he also unbuckled his pistol belt and passed it across to Alicia. She took it and slung it over her left shoulder, trying to look calm and self-possessed, as if things like this happened to her every day. And, she reflected, the captain was luckier than quite a few of his fellow "guardsmen." When Metternich said there'd been a little "breakage," he hadn't been joking. Almost a dozen of Jongdomba's bully boys were dead, and twice that many more were wounded.

    "Thank you," Kuramochi repeated, then strode past him and opened the door he'd been guarding.

    The basement conference room on the other side was enormous. It was also comfortably and luxuriously furnished, but its sixty or so occupants seemed unappreciative of its amenities. The air was stale, heavy and hot with the failure of the Presidential Mansion's air conditioning plant, and a thin skim of old-fashioned tobacco smoke hovered. The men in the room -- there were no women present -- were disheveled looking, their faces and body language tense, and their heads jerked up as the door opened.

    Lieutenant Kuramochi stood in the doorway for a second or two, then stepped through it and headed directly for a small, wiry man who looked remarkably less dapper and distinguished at the moment than he did in his usual appearances on HD.

    "President Shangup," she said courteously, holding out her hand. "I'm Lieutenant Kuramochi Chiyeko, Imperial Marines. Governor Aubert and Major Palacios extend their compliments and have instructed me to escort you to the spaceport."

    "I-- I see." Shangup gave himself a shake, then took her offered hand. "I'm delighted to see you, Lieutenant. Ah, may I assume you've already met with Brigadier Jongdomba?"

    "I'm afraid there was a little misunderstanding there, Mr. President," Kuramochi said. "The Brigadier appeared to be under a misapprehension as to the content of my orders from Major Palacios and the limitations of his own authority. At the moment, I'm afraid he's under arrest. So are most of the members of his headquarters company. I'm afraid most of those not under arrest were killed or wounded in the course of our . . . misunderstanding. "

    "Under arrest?" someone blurted from behind the President. Kuramochi's expression never flickered and her eyes never looked away from Shangup's.

    "Does that mean you're in command now, Lieutenant?" the President asked after a moment.

    "Effectively, I suppose I am, at least temporarily. I'm afraid I've had to place most of the Brigadier's staff under arrest, as well. And as far as I can determine, Colonel Sharwa never made it to the Mall in the first place. I believe Major Cusherwa is the Brigadier's logical successor under the circumstances, but he's been coordinating the defensive perimeter. I understand he's on his way to the CP to assume command of all militia forces now."

    "I see." Shangup blinked, then inhaled deeply.

    "To be completely frank, Lieutenant," he said, "I'm very happy -- and relieved -- to see you. Some of Brigadier Jongdomba's recent decisions have seemed . . . less than optimal. In fact, I'm afraid he's been less, ah, stable than most of us had believed."

    "I'm sorry to hear that, Sir," Kuramochi said. The lieutenant's voice was politely attentive, Alicia noticed, giving no indication that Kuramochi had recognized the militia captain outside the conference room door as the President's jailer. Alicia wondered whether Jongdomba had definitely made up his mind to attempt what amounted to a coup d'etat, or if he'd still been stumbling toward one. Or, for that matter, if he'd been considering the possibility of one even before the present emergency arose.

    "May I assume, Mr. President," Kuramochi continued, "that you and these other gentlemen," she nodded pleasantly to the rumpled Delegates, "are, indeed, prepared to accompany my platoon and myself back to the spaceport, where Major Palacios and Governor Aubert will be able to assure the safety and continuity of your government?"

    "You may indeed, Lieutenant," the President said firmly.

    "I'm afraid we're going to have to walk, Sir," Kuramochi warned him. "Major Palacios considered sending transport to collect you, but we don't have any armored vehicles or air transport, and we know there are enough shoulder-fired SAMs floating around Zhikotse at the moment to rule out the use of air lorries. We'd rather not have you and the Delegates smeared across the pavement somewhere because we failed to spot a SAM in time."

    "I think keeping us unsmeared is an outstanding idea, Lieutenant." Shangup surprised Alicia with an amused snort and a broad, toothy grin. "And I've always considered walking an excellent form of exercise," he continued. "At the moment, I find myself quite looking forward to the opportunity to indulge in it with you."

    "I'm delighted to hear that, Sir. In that case, if you'll forgive me, I'll go and see about organizing an orderly withdrawal from this position."




    Captain Chiawa frowned as he peered carefully through the narrow horizontal gap. Something new was going on, and he didn't much care for what he suspected it was.

    He'd heard the sudden, hammering explosions of a mortar fire mission delivered with far greater precision and concentration than any militia heavy weapons squad could have achieved. It had come from the general direction of the Mall, which suggested that the Wasps were moving to Jongdomba's relief. Frankly, he was surprised it had taken this long, but he'd been delighted to hear it.

    He and his four companions had been making their crouching way through the storm drains at the moment the mortar rounds landed. Paldorje's caution about the drains' possibly cramped dimensions had proved only too well founded, but none of Chiawa's men were particularly large -- few Gyangtsese were -- and it beat the hell out of wandering through the open streets, wondering if there was a sniper on one of the rooftops, or behind one of the upper story windows looking down upon them.

    It did have its drawbacks, though. Chiawa would have loved to join up with whatever column the Marines had sent to the Mall, but they'd been unable to determine exactly where the mortar fire had landed. Besides, it had taken them almost fifteen minutes of slithering along through the drain system to find another manhole.

    They'd found one in the end, and he'd climbed the ladder and used his shoulders to raise the cover far enough for him to peek out. He'd intended to keep right on going, but he'd changed his mind rather abruptly when he found himself looking right at the backs of someone else's heels.

    He'd frozen, holding the cover motionless, hoping no one had noticed its initial movement. The others had gone equally still below him as they absorbed his sudden change in body language, and he'd felt their tension rising about him like smoke as he moved his head cautiously, peering outward while he tried to figure out what he was seeing.

    His heart hammered, and he felt himself beginning to sweat again as he realized he was looking at what had to be at least forty or fifty armed men and women. None of them were in uniform, but he saw dozens of the red armbands of the GLF.

    He inhaled deeply, then let the cover settle gently, gently back into position. He climbed back down the ladder far more carefully and quietly then he'd ascended it, then turned to face the others.

    "I couldn't see all that well," he told him softly, "but there's maybe fifty GLF types up there, and they're loaded for bear. I saw combat rifles and grenade and rocket launchers, and I think they've got at least a couple of calliopes, as well."

    "Shit," Corporal Munming muttered. "What the fuck are they doing, Skipper? Just standing around scratching their asses?"

    "I wish," Chiawa said with a harsh chuckle. "No. I saw one guy waving his arms around, like he was giving orders. And it looked like they were moving into the buildings on either side of the street."

    "Ambush?" Munming said.

    "I'm guessing," Chiawa agreed with a nod. "We're about half a block from an intersection. Hang on."

    He settled down into an awkward squat so they could all gather round in the cramped quarters of the storm drain as he activated his map board again. The GPS icon appeared, and he looked up at the others.

    "See?" He tapped the illuminated surface of the map, then pointed up the ladder at the manhole cover. "That's Solu Avenue up there. And half a block that way --" he pointed in a roughly southeast direction " -- it runs into Capitol Drive. Which just happens to be the shortest route from the Mall to the spaceport."

    "So what do you think they've got in mind, Skipper?" Private Mende asked in the tone of a man who expected he wasn't going to much like the answer he might get.

    "I don't know for certain, obviously," Chiawa replied. "But I have to say it looks to me like these people know somebody's going to be coming down Capitol Drive sometime soon. And given that mortar fire we heard about half an hour ago, I can only think of one candidate for who that 'somebody' might be."

    "You figure the Empie Marines sent somebody out to the Mall to fetch the President and take him back to the spaceport, not to try to hold the Presidential Mansion, right?" Munming said.

    "That's about the size of it," Chiawa agreed.

    "Well, yeah. Okay, I guess that makes sense," Private Khambadze said slowly, frowning down at the map. "Only, I don't think I'd like to be the ones who tried to ambush those Wasp bastards. I mean, they sure handed us our heads, and they're going to have their fangs out for real, not just training, this time around."

    "Agreed." Chiawa nodded. "And they're bound to have overhead sensor coverage, as well. But these people are a long way from the Mall. I think there's a real good chance they're outside the Wasps' sensor perimeter, and if they manage to get under cover quick enough, without being spotted, and if they're smart enough to stay inside the buildings, they're going to be a copperplated bitch to pick up. This is a high-rent district. These are substantial buildings, the kind that make it awful hard to pick up internal thermal signatures, even for the Wasps' equipment. And aside from the power packs on the calliopes, there aren't going to be a lot of electronic emissions from this bunch, either. So it's distinctly possible that they may actually be able to pull it off."

    "Pity the poor bastards if they do," Munming grunted. "They may manage to kill themselves a couple of Wasps, but then the whole fucking world is gonna land on their heads."

    "Unless," Chiawa said quietly, "they manage to get their hands on President Shangup first. Think about it. If they've got him, or even just a handful of the Delegates, do you think the Empies are going to take a chance on turning him -- or them -- into a friendly fire statistic?"

    "Honestly?" Munming looked at him, then grinned thinly. "I think they're hard-assed enough they might just figure breaking a few eggs is okay, as long as the omelet turns out in the end. Course, they might not, too. And I guess what matters isn't what I think they'd do, but what those people standing on our roof right now think will happen."

    "Exactly." Chiawa nodded again. "Personally, I think the odds are pretty good the Empies would try real hard to avoid killing off the planetary government. Wouldn't look too good for the referendum if they had an oopsie like that, after all. But even if that's true, there's the little problem that sometimes the wrong people get killed in a firefight." His face tightened as he recalled the bloody chaos at the Annapurna Arms. "These people could kill Shangup themselves in the process of trying to take him alive."

    "Sir," Mende said, "I don't think I like where you're going with this."

    "Neither do I, Dabhuti," Munming said heavily. "Doesn't change the fact that he's right, though, does it?"

    "No, it doesn't." Mende managed a tight, unhappy smile. "That's why I don't like it."

    "Well, I can see where we ought to do something about it if we can," Khambadze said slowly. "Thing is, I don't see anything we can do. We're almost out of ammo, there's only five of us, and we don't have any communications with anybody else. I mean, all due respect and all that, Captain, but I hope you aren't about to suggest we try some kind of frontal attack of our own. You just said there were at least fifty of them, and it sounds like they've got a hell of a lot more firepower than we do."

    "Yes, they do," Chiawa said. "And no, I'm not -- going to suggest we launch some sort of suicide attack, that is. But I think we do have to at least try to warn the Wasps."

    "How, Sir?" Munming asked. "We don't know exactly where they are; like Ang Tarki just said, we're completely out of communication; and any Wasps wandering around out here are gonna have itchy trigger fingers. Sounds sort of . . . touchy, if you know what I mean."

    "Oh, I do." Chiawa smiled tightly. "Believe me, I do."



    Rather to Alicia's surprise, Major Cusherwa -- who, unlike Jongdomba, actually seemed to be a capable sort -- declined to accompany the platoon.

    "Are you sure about this, Major?" Lieutenant Kuramochi asked.

    She and Cusherwa stood in what had been Jongdomba's command post. Alicia had found herself still attached to Kuramochi, watching the lieutenant's back, and she was just as glad that the body of the man she'd killed had been removed. Someone had also shoveled fresh dirt over the sticky pool of blood the corpse had left behind. Now if that same someone had only been able to do something about the blood smell and the still-hovering stench of ruptured internal organs . . . .

    "Lieutenant," Cusherwa said frankly, "however willing some of my people might be, we don't have your training, and we don't have your equipment. If anything goes wrong on your way back to the spaceport, I'm afraid we'd be more likely to get in your way then to do much good. On the other hand, I think we've already demonstrated we can do a pretty fair job of holding dug-in positions. Assuming, of course," his expression tightened, "that the officers in charge of holding them are concentrating on that instead of stupid political games."

    "Maybe so," Kuramochi said. "On the other hand, Major Palacios says the pressure on our perimeter around the spaceport has dropped almost to nothing, while here --"

    She waved one hand at the CP's walls, indicating the battered buildings surrounding the Mall beyond them. Individual shots were still ringing out from many of those buildings fairly frequently, and there'd been several bursts of heavier fire over the last several minutes, as if the people inside them were regaining their nerve after the Marines' arrival.

    "According to my remotes," she told Cusherwa, "there are still people moving in to reinforce the bad guys out there. If we get the President and the Delegates out of here, is there really anything else in the Mall worth losing more of your own people's lives over?"

    "I may not have agreed with Brigadier Jongdomba on everything, Lieutenant," the Gyangtsese major said, "but he did have a point about our responsibility to protect the Mall. Maybe he didn't want to do that for all the right reasons, but these buildings -- or, rather, the files and offices inside them -- are critical to the government's ability to govern. If we lose them, we lose a huge chunk of our administrative continuity, and avoiding that's going to be especially important when we start trying to reorganize in the wake of all this . . . unpleasantness.

    "Besides," he produced an exhausted-sounding chuckle, "once they figure out that you've got the President, they're going to lose a lot of their enthusiasm for taking the Mansion in the first place."

    "But Brigadier Jongdomba said you're almost out of ammunition," Lieutenant Kuramochi pointed out, and Cusherwa made a disgusted sound.

    "We're on the short side, yes," he said, "but 'almost out' is a pile of crap, Lieutenant. I want the President and the Delegates out of here because I can't guarantee we can hold the Mall. And because there's no telling where a stray rocket or mortar bomb may decide to land. But we've got a lot more ammo than Jongdomba was telling you we do. If you get the President out of here, and if the people on the other side realize you have, the intensity of their pressure is going to drop. In which case, I believe we have ample ammunition to hold our positions."

    "I see." Kuramochi looked at him for several seconds. The Gyangtsese officer had a distinctly bookish, nerdy look, but there was a hardness and determination behind what she suspected were normally rather mild brown eyes. She wondered if it had always been there, but that wasn't really her problem at the moment, and she shrugged. "You're in command of the militia, now, Major. If you think you can hold the Mall, I'm not going to argue with you. My orders are still to get President Shangup and the Delegates safely back to the spaceport, however."

    "I understand, and I agree entirely," Cusherwa said. "And, if I may, Lieutenant, I do have one additional request."

    "Which is?" Kuramochi asked.

    "I'd feel much more comfortable if you'd take Brigadier Jongdomba with you." Cusherwa looked the Marine straight in the eye. "I think you probably got most of his toadies, but there may be others out there I don't know about. If there are, and if he's still here, they might be tempted to do something stupid."

    "Understood," Kuramochi said, and smiled thinly.

    "And while we're talking about taking people with you, Lieutenant," Cusherwa continued, "I'd appreciate it if you'd revisit your plan to walk all the way back to the spaceport. President Shangup mountain bikes for exercise in his spare time, but several of the Delegates are in much poorer physical condition than he is. Not to mention the fact that they don't have any training at all -- or, at least, not anything like current training -- for something like this."

    "I appreciate that, Major," Kuramochi said. "But I'm not sure there's anything I can do about it, except possibly to leave the less physically fit Delegates here, since you're planning on continuing to hold the Mall, instead of pulling out with us. I'd certainly prefer to evac them by air, but none of our transport is armored. I can't risk exposing these people to ground fire when I know there are SAMs out there in the streets. They've already managed to knock down an all-up sting ship; unarmored transports would be sitting ducks."

    "I understand. But," Cusherwa smiled thinly, "Brigadier Jongdomba had a couple of cards tucked up his sleeve which might give us a bit more flexibility."



    "-- so I have to agree with Major Cusherwa, Ma'am," Kuramochi Chiyeko said from Major Palacios' com display. "At least eight of the delegates are in no physical condition to walk that far even under perfect conditions. Under the ones which actually obtain . . . ."

    She shrugged, and Palacios nodded.

    "Understood. And, frankly, I was a bit afraid of something like this. I'm inclined to defer to your judgment, since you're right there on the spot. Should I take it from what you've said that you think Cusherwa's suggestion is a good one?"

    "I'm not sure it's what I'd normally call a good one, Ma'am. I just think it's probably the least bad one available."

    Palacios nodded again, this time slowly and thoughtfully. Somehow or other, Jongdomba hadn't gotten around to mentioning that he'd managed to get several of the militia's handful of armored personnel carriers into the Mall position before he got himself surrounded. He certainly hadn't mentioned them in any of his conversations with her or Governor Aubert, and Palacios rather expected that he'd seen them as the bug-out insurance policy for himself and his "headquarters company."

    They weren't all that good by the standards of the Imperial Marines. They had no counter-grav capability, only the most primitive of electronic warfare suites, very limited anti-missile defenses, and armor which would have done well to stop heavy calliope fire, far less dedicated anti-armor weapons. But they had four huge things going for them. First, they were ground-based systems, which meant she wouldn't have to worry about getting them nailed by SAMs. Second, there were enough of them and they were big enough that the President and all of the Delegates could be easily accommodated aboard them. Third, their design was so old, and so obsolescent, that every single bug had been exterminated decades ago, and they were as mechanically and automotively reliable as the fabled pre-space Model T. And, fourth, they were available.

    "Tell me how you plan to do this, Lieutenant," the major said after a moment.

    "They're not capable enough for me to take a chance simply loading everyone aboard to ride back," Kuramochi said. "Defensively, they're actually not all that bad against militia-grade weapons, but 'all that bad' isn't good enough if they've got the planetary government on board. So I'm thinking that my platoon comes out on foot, the same way we came in. I'll use one squad to break trail and sweep for threats. I'll use another squad for close cover, protecting the APCs from anything the sweep squad misses. And I'll use my third squad to cover the rear and provide at least a small tactical reserve. It'll still be slow, but we'll be faster than we would with the older Delegates hobbling along on foot, and we should be able to cover the APCs against significant threats on the way home."

    "I see." Palacios considered for several more seconds, then made her decision.

    "All right, Chiyeko. Do it your way. And, for what it matters, you have my official endorsement, not just my permission."

    "Thank you, Ma'am. I appreciate that. We'll see you in a couple of hours or so. Kuramochi, clear."




    "Well, DeVries -- Alley," Kuramochi said, and Alicia twitched internally in surprise. She hadn't realized that the lieutenant even knew what her first name was.

    "Yes, Ma'am?"

    She and Kuramochi stood on the Presidential Mansion's chipped and battered steps with Cusherwa, watching the snorting APCs move into position. Alicia had continued trailing the lieutenant around after her encounter with Jongdomba, obedient to Sergeant Metternich's unspoken order. She'd rather hoped her CO hadn't noticed, since Metternich still hadn't bothered to ask Lieutenant Kuramochi's approval for the arrangement.

    Not that there'd ever been much chance that she wouldn't notice, of course.

    "You'd better get back to your squad, now." Kuramochi smiled crookedly. "Sergeant Metternich's going to need you. And you can tell Abe for me that while I appreciate his solicitude, I don't think I'll really need a bodyguard once we get started."

    "Uh, yes, Ma'am!"

    "Oh, don't look so startled, Alley." Kuramochi actually chuckled. "I'll admit I was a bit surprised when he and Gunny Wheaton picked you for the role, but they're mother hens, the pair of them. Maybe they thought I wouldn't notice a mere 'larva' hovering in the background and raise a stink. And as a matter of fact, I suppose I should admit you've actually been quite a comfort -- especially in that little unpleasantness with Jongdomba. But now," she made a shooing motion with one hand, "go find Abe. It's about time we got back across the Major here's perimeter and headed back to the barn."



    Getting back out of the Mall perimeter wouldn't be quite as simple as getting in had been, Alicia decided fifteen minutes later. She rather doubted that it would be quite as difficult as the people on the other side thought it would, but that didn't mean it was going to be simple, either.

    The civilian evacuees, although manifestly willing, were hardly going to be an asset for this particular mission. If any of them had ever had any military training, it had been decades ago. They were basically cargo, loaded aboard the APC's for safekeeping, but they were also cargo which would be capable of making mistakes if it fell into the crapper, and Alicia was more than happy that Sergeant Jackson had been assigned the dubious pleasure of providing them with close cover.

    Of course, the fact that First Squad was busy doing that meant it was up to Second and Third Squads to lead the way back out again.

    The carnage Lieutenant Ryan's mortars had wreaked on the platoon's way in had clearly shocked the rioters and would-be guerrillas around the Mall. Second Platoon had left effectively no survivors in its wake when it broke the line around Jongdomba's positions, and for almost half an hour, there'd been scarcely a shot from the "enemy's" other dug-in firing positions. No doubt they'd been afraid of drawing the same sort of firestorm down on themselves. By the time Lieutenant Kuramochi was ready to begin her pullout, though, that had changed.

    At least some of the attackers had apparently begun getting their nerve back, or perhaps they'd simply suffered a catastrophic loss of common sense. Not only had some of them begun harassing Cusherwa's militiamen with small arms fire once more, but others had moved to block the gap Lieutenant Ryan had blasted in their lines. They hadn't been stupid enough to try to regain their original positions -- or not, at least, after they ran into the murderously effective opposition of the single fire team from Sergeant Bruckner's Second Squad which Lieutenant Kuramochi had left behind to support the militiamen who'd occupied those positions. But the capital city's heavily built-up terrain had allowed them to swing around behind the area the mortar fire had plowed up, and they'd found new perches in several of the high-rise buildings from which they could bring the streets and avenues below them under fire.

    Their new positions were harder to spot, even with the remotes. Worse, they had overhead cover -- several stories worth of it, in most cases -- which enormously decreased the effectiveness of Lieutenant Ryan's mortars. Unfortunately for them, "harder to spot" wasn't the same thing as "impossible to spot." Also, and even more unfortunately for them, their lack of experience against Imperial Marines with first-line equipment had kept them from fully realizing just how . . . unwise their decision to cross swords with Second Platoon truly was.

    The Marines' chameleon systems made them extraordinarily difficult for the unaided eye, or even the considerably more capable optical sighting systems the planetary militia's combat rifles boasted, to spot. The people in the buildings had probably figured that the concealment of their own positions would level that particular part of the playing field, and to some extent, they'd been right. But the Marines' helmet sensor systems, especially with their direct links to their hovering remotes, promptly unleveled it once again.

    While First Squad was getting the civilians organized, Sergeant Metternich, who'd become acting platoon sergeant when Gunny Wheaton went down, had moved Second and Third Squads into position to open the door for the column behind them. Sergeant Bruckner had been monitoring the take from the platoon's remotes, and now Metternich conferred briefly with her while they studied the remotes' data over their synth-links.

    On their way into the Mall, Lieutenant Kuramochi had positioned her available remotes -- she hadn't exactly had an unlimited supply of them -- to watch her preselected exit point. Those remotes had hovered there, patiently (and invisibly) watching even while the lieutenant and her people dealt with Brigadier Jongdomba and his supporters. Which meant that they'd actually watched the people filtering cautiously out of the alleys and side streets to take up their new positions.

    The remotes had lost lock on the exact locations of several of those people once they'd entered the buildings of their choice, but Bruckner had managed to keep track of the majority of them. Even some of those her remotes had lost track of had been relocated when they injudiciously exposed themselves on balconies or at windows as they found themselves firing positions. Every single potential hostile whose location had been determined had been meticulously noted on the continuously updated tactical plot she'd taken over from the incapacitated Wheaton, and now Metternich took ruthless advantage of that information.

    "All right, people. Listen up," Metternich came up on the communications subnet which had been dedicated to Second and Third Squads. "Here's how we're going to do this. Chris?"

    "Yo," Corporal Sandusky acknowledged tersely.

    "Alpha Team takes the right side of the street. Leo, Bravo Team takes the left side. Second Squad's Alpha holds its position to watch our rear, and Second's Bravo is our tactical backup. We've got to clear these three blocks --" a red arrow appeared on the map graphic in Alicia's mental HUD " -- before the rest of the outfit can haul the civilians out of here. Once we're through the immediate crust, Clarissa will hold the door open while Julio's First Squad takes the civilians through it. After that, she'll have the column's back door and bring up the rear. Anybody got any questions, so far?"

    Alicia studied the HUD, noting the clusters of solid red icons representing positively identified hostiles and the somewhat less numerous blinking icons of possible enemies' locations. There seemed to be quite a lot of them, she noticed, yet to her own surprise, she no longer felt nervous. Instead, she felt a strangely focused, almost singing sense of calm, unlike anything she'd quite experienced before.

    "All right," Metternich said again, when no one voiced any questions. "Alley."

    "Yes, Abe?" Her voice sounded just a bit odd, almost serene, to her own ears.

    "As it happens," Metternich said, "and without wanting to give you a swelled head or anything, you've got the highest marksmanship scores of the entire Platoon."

    Alicia blinked. She'd been impressed -- almost awed -- by the casual expertise of her more experienced fellows' marksmanship. She'd certainly never thought that hers was better than theirs!

    "In addition," Metternich continued, "you and César are the only fully synth-link-capable rifles we've got in Bravo. That's why I'm designating you and him as Bravo's long guns," Metternich continued. "Gregory, you're covering them. Leo, you and Frinkelo are responsible for --"

    Alicia listened to the sergeant as he continued laying out the plan, but deep inside, her mind was grappling with her own assigned part of it. She'd been more than a little surprised, despite any relative marksmanship scores involved, when Metternich selected her as one of Bravo Team's counter-snipers. And while he was right about her synth-link capability, and even though it was exactly the sort of thing she'd trained to do, she still felt more than a few qualms. What she was about to do amounted to visiting specifically targeted death upon other human beings not just once, but again and again, and whatever her ability as a marksman, she was also the newest, least experienced member of the entire Platoon. This wasn't the sort of job that normally got handed to the newest kid on the block.

    "-- and after that," Metternich concluded finally, "we pass the word to the Lieutenant that the door's open, and we all haul ass back to the spaceport. Any questions? If you've got 'em, ask now, people."

    No one did.

    "In that case, let's saddle up," he said.

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