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In Fury Born: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Sunday, March 12, 2006 13:42 EST



    "So, welcome to Guadalupe Inéz Juanita Meléndez y Redondo de Castillo Blasquita Capital City Spaceport," the corporal in Cadre uniform said with a smile.

    "You're putting me on," Alicia said.

    "Oh no I'm not," the other woman assured her. The nameplate on the breast of her undress uniform tunic read "Cateau, Tannis," and she was considerably shorter than Alicia. Then again, most women were. Cateau, however, also had the stockiness of a heavy-worlder. "In fact," she continued, "the entire planet's official name is Guadalupe Inéz Juanita Meléndez y Redondo de Castillo Blasquita. The original survey captain was some high muckety-muck from Granada who chose to name it for his mother."

    "Then he must have held a gun on the rest of his crew while he did it," Alicia said tartly. "Nobody would use a mouthful like that every time they refer to a planet!"

    "I don't know about guns," Cateau said with a shrug, "but you're right about it's being just a tad long for comfort. The colonists never bothered to change the official name, but they did shorten it to 'Guadalupe' in common usage, and that's what pretty much everyone's called it since."

    "Well, by all means, let's honor the tradition," Alicia said, extending her hand. "Alicia DeVries," she added.

    "Tannis Cateau," the other woman said. She gripped the offered hand firmly but with a certain degree of care, confirming Alicia's suspicion that she'd been born and raised in a considerably heavier gravity than that of Old Earth's and had the muscles to go with it.

    "Given the fact that you and I are the only people in this entire concourse in Cadre uniform, it leaps to my powerful intellect that someone sent you to collect me," Alicia said.

    "I'm awed by your keen deductive ability," Cateau agreed with a grin. "Let's go get your gear."

    "Lead the way, O local guide," Alicia said.



    "Glad to see you, DeVries," Captain Madison Alwyn said as First Sergeant Pamela Yussuf walked Alicia into his office.

    The commander of Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, Imperial Cadre, was at least fifteen centimeters taller than Alicia, which made him very nearly two full meters in height. He was also very, very black. Alicia couldn't place his accent, but humanity had settled a great many worlds over the past seven or eight centuries, and most of them had evolved their own local accents and dialects.

    That same plethora of planetary habitats had preserved, and in some cases actually intensified, the human race's variations in skin pigmentation and other environment-controlled physical differentiation. It had added its own variations on the theme, too, of course, like Corporal Cateau's impressive physique. From Captain Alwyn's complexion, for example, it was obvious that his ancestors hadn't settled in the middle of a frozen tundra somewhere.

    "Thank you, Sir," she replied as he stood behind his desk and reached out to shake her hand.

    "I know you've had a long voyage out from Old Earth," Alwyn continued, "and I know you just finished ACTS. Bearing all of that in mind, I'd really like to give you a couple of nice, quiet weeks or so to get settled in."

    He paused, still holding her hand, and she felt one of her eyebrows rise.

    "But --?" she said after a moment or two.

    "But I don't think that's what's going to happen," he replied with a tight smile. He released her hand, and sat back down behind his desk, looking back and forth between her and Yussuf.

    "There's always a little bit of awkwardness when we start fitting a new peg into its neat little hole here in the Cadre," he continued. "It gets a bit more complicated sometimes because all of our people keep their rank when they transfer in. Given the sorts of people we tend to recruit, that means we get a lot of junior noncoms. The most junior Cadreman you're going to meet is going to be a corporal, and E-5s are, frankly, a centicredit a dozen. So our squad organization tends to look a little strange. Instead of corporals running our fire teams, they're usually run by sergeants, with staff sergeants running the squads. Sometimes we've got staff sergeants running the fire teams and an SFC running the squad."

    Alicia nodded. She'd already observed the situation he was describing, and it was probably inevitable. Nor, she was sure, did the Cadre's senior officers think it was a bad thing. The Cadre found itself handling all manner of peculiar assignments, including the occasional need to raise, train, and lead local indigenous military units. Having some extra rank seldom hurt in a situation like that. Of course, any Cadreman or Cadrewoman was officially one rank senior to his nominal counterparts in the regular military, which meant he or she was two ranks senior to anyone in a planetary militia. As someone who'd been a Marine less than nine months earlier, Alicia wasn't too sure she approved of that sort of rank inflation, but she understood the logic behind it.

    Whatever doubts she might have cherished about that particular policy, however, she heartily approved of the Cadre's ironbound tradition that all Cadre officers had to have served in the Cadre's enlisted ranks before they were commissioned. There had actually been a handful of commissioned Marine officers or Fleet officers, some of them (including at least one Fleet officer who'd reached junior flag rank) who were graduates of their respective service academies, who had resigned their commissions in order to accept a sergeant's rank in the Cadre in order to satisfy that requirement. Alicia suspected that ex-officers like that got fast-tracked through the Cadre to get them back into commissioned status as quickly as possible, but they still had to spend their time in the trenches first. "Like all Cadre units," Alwyn went on, "we're always understrength and under-establishment. Which means, in this case, that I have a squad which needs a leader, and you happen to be an E-6, which means, logically, that it should be yours. And, under normal circumstances, I'd simply have First Sergeant Yussuf march you over there and introduce you to your new squad, then stand back and let you get a proper feel for it. However, we've already received alert orders for an operation, probably to be mounted within the next seventy-two standard hours.

    "I've read your dossier. I know you've been over the river and through the woods, and that you did damned well in that business on Gyangtse. And I've also read your training scores from Camp Cochrane and ACTS. I know you can do the job, and I have no qualms at all about your age." His lips quirked in a smile. "In your place, I'd probably wonder about that. Don't. You wouldn't be here unless everyone was convinced you could cut it, however young you happen to be.

    "But I'm not prepared to destabilize my existing command relationships this close to mounting a full-scale, company-level op. My people have been actively prepping for it for almost two weeks now, and we actually started training for it over two months before that. It would be unfair to you to expect you to walk in cold and run an entire squad of people you don't know through an operation they've spent literally months training for and you haven't. You with me so far?"

    "Yes, Sir." Alicia nodded.

    "Good. Now, after this operation is over, once the dust's had a chance to settle a bit, I do have a squad with your name on it. At the moment, Master Sergeant Onassis is wearing two hats over in First Platoon. Lieutenant Strassmann has the platoon; Onassis is his platoon sergeant, and he's also running First Squad. He's good at his job, but he's a little stretched thin. What I'm thinking is that, from your record, you're too valuable to just leave sitting on the sidelines while this operation goes down, and First Squad is going to be yours as soon as the shooting's over, anyway. So, I'm going to go ahead and assign you to First Platoon, and to First Squad, but I'm not giving it to you yet. You're going to be functioning as Onassis' number two for the squad. He'll probably delegate quite a bit to you, but he's got the last word until he -- or I -- tell you different. Clear?"

    "Yes, Sir," Alicia said again.

    "Good. It's possible this op is going to be scrubbed at the last minute -- it already has been, twice. I don't think that's going to happen a third time, though. If it does, we'll go ahead and slot you into First Squad as its leader, with all the usual settling in time. The fact that I'm not handing it over to you all on your own immediately has nothing at all to do with my confidence in you. It's purely and simply a matter of timing."

    "I understand, Sir."

    "Which may or may not be exactly the same thing as saying you approve," Alwyn observed with a grin, then waved a hand before Alicia could respond.

    "Doesn't matter. The main thing is that you do understand, and that we get the most out of you we can if -- when -- this op goes down."

    He gazed at her for another moment, then looked at Yussuf.

    "Got someone to run her over to Onassis, Pam?"

    "I hung onto Cateau."

    "Good." He looked back at Alicia. "Corporal Cateau will get you over to First Platoon. She's in 'your' squad, anyway. I take it none of your gear got lost in transit?"

    "No, Sir." "In that case, as soon as you and Onassis get squared away with each other, run your armor over to the Morgue. Have the master armorer check it out, then get it down to the range and shoot it in for qualification."

    "Yes, Sir."

    "I'm sorry about the rush," Alwyn said, standing and reaching out his hand again. "We're all glad to see you, really. We always are glad to see another warm body. But if you're going to the party with us, we've got to get you in and up to speed ASAP. Welcome aboard, Staff Sergeant."

    "Thank you, Sir. I'll try not to hold up the festivities."




    "So that's the plan," Master Sergeant Adolfo Onassis said nine hours later. He stood back from the display table, arms folded, and looked at Alicia. "What do you think?" he asked.

    Alicia took her time about responding. There wasn't anything particularly truculent about the short, stocky, swarthy master sergeant's attitude, but there was an edge of . . . challenge. Or, no, not that, precisely. It was more a matter of testing, she thought.

    She studied the terrain displayed on the table. That part, she thought, was fairly straightforward, even simple. But as Clausewitz had said, in war, even simple things were difficult, and it had the potential to turn into a massive cluster fuck. Which, she acknowledged, gave added point to Captain Alwyn's earlier explanation. But, if she was going to be honest with herself, it was the political ramifications which concerned her most.

    Of course, the political ramifications aren't exactly the thing I'm supposed to be worrying about, she thought. I suppose I'm just too much my father's daughter to leave it alone. Or maybe the trick Jongdomba tried to pull on Gyangtse is still causing me to look at shadows.

    That last thought was almost amusing, in away, since Guadalupe was only about two weeks' flight from Gyangtse.

    Might almost say it's my old stomping grounds, she told herself wryly.

    "I think, given the constraints, it looks pretty good," she said aloud after several moments. "I guess I'm most worried about the approach. And, after that, about target identification." "The approach is the Fleet's problem, not ours," Onassis said. "Of course, having said that, I have to admit I've spent the odd sleepless night worrying about it myself." He showed his teeth in a tight grin. "And target identification's always a bitch on an op like this one. But they don't give us the assignments because they're easy."

    Alicia nodded soberly and crossed her own arms with a thoughtful frown.

    The area shown on the display table was a mountain valley on the planet of Chengchou. Like Gyangtse, Chengchou was a former League World; unlike Gyangtse, Chengchou was not claimed by the Empire. It was one of the Rogue World buffer systems between the Empire and the Rishathan Sphere. It lay on the Empire's side of the nominally independent zone between the two star nations, and it was one of four equally independent star systems currently involved in what were euphemistically called "multilateral collective security negotiations" with the Foreign Ministry.

    What that really meant was that the star systems in question were (in the Empire's opinion, at least) being used as sanctuaries and staging bases by various "liberation organizations" dedicated to lifting the "imperial yoke from the shoulders of our enslaved brothers and sisters." The Empire didn't much care for that, and it was in the process of doing something about it.

    In the eyes of the Empire, the "liberation organizations" were terrorists, pure and simple, and as far as Alicia was concerned, the label was accurate. Given the tremendous disparity between the military power of the Empire and their own strictly limited resources, the liberation organizations could never have fought a conventional war, whatever they might have preferred. They were stuck with a classic case of asymmetric warfare, and as usually happened in cases like that, the weaker side operated outside the approved "rules of war" established star nations tried to enforce. That much was as inevitable as anything in war could possibly be. But so far as Alicia could tell, most of the liberation organizations were perfectly happy with the terrorist strategies their lack of resources imposed. In fact, they seemed to like them, and they were never shy about embracing the classic terrorist tactic of the deliberate atrocity.

    In the eyes of the citizens of many Rogue Worlds, however, and a not insignificant portion of the populations of various Crown Worlds (like Gyangtse, for example), they were patriots. Worse, they were convenient tools for people who wished the Empire ill. The Rish, for example, were notoriously fond of covertly funding and supporting them, and so were some of the more powerful Rogue Worlds.

    Any Rogue World had to be very cautious about supporting organizations the Empire had labeled "terrorist," given the long-standing imperial policy of treating its enemies' friends as enemies in their own right. A terrorist act was an act of war, as far as the Empire was concerned, and anyone who supported an act of war was equally guilty of that act in the Empire's eyes. Which was why no Rogue World could afford to be definitely linked to a terrorist attack on imperial citizens or territory -- not unless it liked entertaining visits from Fleet dreadnoughts and large numbers of extraordinarily unpleasant Marines.

    But as long as its tracks could be safely hidden (or at least plausibly denied), many an independent Rogue World, worried by the rate of the Empire's expansion in its direction, had found the notion of slowing that expansion by supporting any "liberation movements" in the vicinity quite attractive. Which didn't even consider the instances in which that Rogue World's government, like its citizens, might genuinely approve of the liberation effort.

    At the moment, Chengchou and its neighbors -- Cotterpin, Onyx, and Hwan-ku -- had come under increasing pressure from the Empire to rein in the various armed groups operating out of their territory and the other minor star systems in the region. The four of them, under Onyx's general leadership, had been less than enthralled by the process. It was pretty clear that they deeply resented the Empire's intrusion into their vicinity, but their governments had to know that eventually they were going to have to give in to imperial demands for action. If they didn't, then, sooner or later, the Empire would take unilateral action. They knew that, too, and it only made them even more resentful.

    Negotiations had already dragged out longer than Alicia would have expected. It was obvious to her that the imperial negotiators had instructions from Foreign Minister Madison to try to keep the locals' resentment from escalating still further. They'd shown an unusual degree of patience and resisted what must be a massive temptation to wave a big, knobby stick under the other side's collective nose.

    Unfortunately, Gavin Meuller, Onyx's foreign minister, as the spokesman for the Group of Four (as the four Rogue Worlds in question had been labeled), wasn't particularly moved by their restraint.

    He'd taken the position that there was no proof that any organization proscribed by the Empire was operating from their territories. The Empire, he argued, was being grossly unfair in requiring them to assume responsibility for the half-dozen or so other, smaller Rogue World polities in their sector. While Meuller was prepared to concede that some of those Rogue Worlds might be being used as bases, it was unreasonable to expect the Group of Four to exert some sort of interstellar police authority over them. Not only would their neighbors understandably resent such high-handed intrusiveness on their part, but the expense would not be trivial. Nor was it reasonable to hold them responsible for someone else's misdeeds.

    "Is this 'Group of Four' really as stubborn as they seem?" Alicia asked after a moment.

    "Who can say?" Onassis shrugged. "They could just be talking a good fight on the theory that as long as they're talking, they don't have to do anything else. But they can't be very happy about the thought of the Fleet patrolling their sector. Of course," he smiled without humor, "we aren't very happy about that particular thought, either. The Fleet's like us in at least one respect -- it never has enough units to be everywhere it really needs to be. It'd be a lot more convenient for us if the Group of Four would just handle this. Nobody expects to them to completely cut off all the terrorist organizations operating out here. We'd love it if they did, but that would be pretty unrealistic. All we want is to make sure that they're out of the terrorist-supporting business and that they at least make it a little difficult for the independent systems they claim are actually acting as sanctuaries."

    "But if they do that, then their own voters are going to regard it as collaboration with the Empire," Alicia said sourly, and Onassis nodded.

    "You've got it. And that overlooks the fact that they are acting as sanctuaries. They've cut back since the negotiations really started turning up the heat, but our intel's pretty good. This --" he indicated the display table between them " -- is the hardest data we've got, but there's fairly conclusive evidence that Cotterpin and Hwan-ku are still providing very quiet sanctuary to at least three separate 'liberation groups,' as well."

    "What about Onyx? Is it possible that Onyx really believes that the others aren't supporting the terrorists? Actively, I mean," she added, when Onassis looked at her sharply. "I'm sure Onyx knows about their history, but you say they've been cutting back. Is it possible that they're telling Onyx they've cut back more than they actually have, and that Onyx doesn't know any better?"

    "Anything is possible," Onassis conceded. "Likely? Not very. That's exactly what their official position's been, both on and off the record, for the last standard year and half, but I don't see any way Onyx could be buying it. Not that that's prevented Mueller from lying to us about it with a straight face. Which is the entire point of our little soirée on Chengchou, of course."

    "Of course." Alicia nodded. If the Cadre took down a terrorist base camp on the territory of one of the Group of Four's charter members -- and documented the fact -- it would be impossible for Onyx's foreign minister to continue to argue that none of them were supporting those nasty old terrorists.

    And, she thought grimly, it will also serve as a pointed warning of what can happen if they don't get off the centicred and do something about the terrorists themselves. Apparently someone on our side's decided it's time to give that stick a swing or two, after all.



    "The big problem," Onassis admitted, "is that our intelligence has a limited lifespan. This --" he tapped the display table again " -- comes and goes. Most of the time, it's just another mountain valley with a couple of villages in it. Then the camp facilities here and here," he indicated two points on the display, near the largest of the valley's permanent towns, "get spun up. They run about a two-month training cycle each time, then shut down again until the next batch comes along, and they activate on a pretty irregular basis. It looks to us like the Freedom Alliance is providing the training cadres, and they're cycling a lot of people through these camps -- more than any single 'liberation' group ought to need -- but apparently it's strictly an as-needed sort of process. So if we're going to do anything about it, we have to do it during one of the active phases. And we've got to get our people in and on the ground before the people we want simply run away and fade into the general population."

    "And if the Chengchou government is really actively conniving with these people, then it's going to warn them we're coming . . . if it knows we are," Alicia murmured.


    Alicia nodded, then looked back up at Onassis.

    "I can see why Captain Alwyn isn't too happy about the thought of integrating a brand new squad leader into this kind of operation on such short notice," she said.

    "Glad to hear that." Onassis gave her the first unrestrained smile she'd seen from him. "Since you're just joining the family this afternoon, as it were, though, I'm giving you an experienced guide for your wing." Alicia raised a quizzical eyebrow, and he chuckled. "You've met her -- Cateau. She's the squad medic, among other things, but she knows her way around the sharp end just fine, she's thoroughly briefed in, and she's been through all of the previous rehearsals."

    Alicia cocked her head to one side, considering, then nodded again in approval.

    By the standards of the Corps, Cadre units were considerably over strength. Whereas a Marine squad consisted of thirteen people arranged into two fire teams, a Cadre squad consisted of eighteen people, and it was divided into nine two-person fire teams. The members of each team were assigned permanently to one another and known as "wingmen," or, more commonly, simply as "wings." Each squad was divided into an Alpha and a Bravo section, each composed of four pairs of wings, while the squad leader and his or her wing formed the ninth pair.

    Alicia, having been thoroughly grounded in Marine tactical doctrine had nourished doubts at first about the soundness of Cadre practice. But that was at least partly because she hadn't realized just how flexible Cadre training and equipment actually was. Whereas all Marine squads, from straight line units, to Recon, to Raiders, were built around a heavy fire element supported by a rifle-armed maneuver element, all Cadre troopers were expected to be equally proficient with both heavy weapons and their individual rifles, not to mention trained in heavy vehicle operation. In many cases, they were trained in the operation of sting ships and assault shuttles, as well, and the all-round capability that gave any Cadre unit was . . . impressive.

    In addition, the much more lavishly equipped Cadre routinely configured its units for specific missions. For the planned incursion into Chengchou, for example, Charlie Company would be operating in "light" configuration -- almost all of its troopers would be armed with rifles, with only a single pair of wings in each squad carrying heavy weapons. Had they anticipated heavier resistance, they might have configured their weapons loads for heavy assault mode, in which case there would have been only a single pair of rifle-armed wings in each squad, while all of the other wings carried plasma rifles, calliopes, or heavy grenade or HVW launchers.

    It was a far more flexible posture, which was made possible only by the combination of Cadre training and the lavish funding available to it. It was also one about which Alicia no longer cherished any doubts at all, and from what she'd seen so far of Tannis Cateau, she was inclined to believe Onassis had made an excellent choice for her own wing.

    "How comfortable are we with the intelligence on this one?" she asked, as thoughts of weapons configurations flipped through the back of her mind. Onassis looked at her, and she shrugged. "We're going in mighty light," she pointed out. "Assuming that intelligence's estimate of the op force is accurate, that ought to be plenty. But if they haven't gotten their sums right, it could get a little dicey without more heavy stuff along."

    "Fair enough question," Onassis said after a moment. "The best answer I can give you is that according to Captain Watts -- he's the Wasp 'spook' Battalion's attached to Charlie Company for this one -- this is alpha-grade material. I don't think he's prepared to grade it Alpha-One, but he's obviously pretty damned comfortable with it, and he's got a good rep for knowing his stuff. We managed to confirm most of our intel assumptions from other sources following the last scrub, too." It was his turn to shrug. "No intel is ever perfect, but I think it'll hold up. And if it doesn't," he grinned suddenly, "at least the range scores you turned in this afternoon indicate you'll be an asset when it all hits the fan. Assuming, of course, that we actually get the go order this time, after all."

    "Captain Alwyn seems to think we will," Alicia pointed out.

    "And the Skipper's usually got a pretty good nose for this kind of thing," Onassis agreed. "On the other hand, we've been stood-to for it twice already. The first time, we picked up on them too far into their training cycle. They were going to be shut down and gone again by the time we could get there. I'm not sure what happened the second time. If I had to guess, I'd lay money on one of the Foreign Ministry pukes deciding we had to show 'restraint' because the talks were 'at a delicate point.'"

    He rolled his eyes in eloquent disgust, and Alicia grimaced. She probably had rather more tolerance for what was still sometimes referred to as the "pinstripe crowd" than most members of the imperial military did. But she was one of the shooters herself, now. She'd seen firsthand what sorts of situations the political and policy types all too often wound up dropping in the military's lap. She knew it was dangerous to get too addicted to the direct, sledgehammer approach to interstellar relations, but it looked to her like this was one instance in which the answer really might be to go and get a bigger hammer.

    And the Cadre, she thought, looking at the display table once again, is a pretty damned big hammer, when you come right down to it.

    She nodded again, to herself this time, and realized she actually felt a little sorry for the nails.

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