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In Fury Born: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Saturday, March 25, 2006 12:22 EST



    From the outside, HMS Marguerite Johnsen was a thoroughly unprepossessing spectacle.

    The tramp freighter -- listed on her splendidly official papers as IMS, or "Imperial Merchant Ship," rather than HMS, for "His Majesty's Starship" -- was on the smallish size for a Fasset Drive cargo hauler. Barely a thousand meters long, she had that battered, down-at-the-heels look that went with owners who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- spend the money to provide her with proper upkeep and maintenance. If anyone had bothered to give her a good sensor examination, they would have discovered that she had what was obviously a Fleet surplus Fasset Drive. They might have noticed that it seemed unusually powerful for a bulk carrier of her dimensions, but they would also have discovered that at least twenty percent of its nodes were currently off-line -- another indication, no doubt, of lack of maintenance.

    From the inside, it was quite a different matter.

    Alicia DeVries sat with the other armored members of "her" squad in the ready room in what was supposed to be Marguerite Johnsen's number one cargo hold and tried to project the proper air of confidence as they awaited final confirmation that the operation was truly a "go" this time. Back aft, on the "freighter's" gleaming, efficient command deck, her officers -- linked with Captain Alwyn through his synth-link -- were considering the take from the Marguerite Johnsen's extremely capable passive sensors and the heavily stealthed reconnaissance drones the ship had deployed shortly after dropping back sublight. She was decelerating steadily towards her final insertion into Chengchou orbit at fifteen gravities, and at that rate they had about another eighteen minutes to go before they hit their programmed drop point.

    "All right, people," Alwyn's deep voice sounded suddenly in her mastoid implant as he came up on the all-hands net, "we've got confirmation. The target is hot. We don't see any significant changes from our last sitrep, although Beech Tree Two seems to've added another fifteen or twenty trainees to its current roster. Saddle up. Ramrod, clear."

    "You heard the man, Adolfo," Lieutenant Strassmann said over the dedicated First Platoon net a moment later.

    "Yes, Sir," Master Sergeant Onassis acknowledged. "Okay, people. Into the tubes and harness up."

    As the platoon's lead squad, the eighteen men and women of what was eventually going to be Alicia's squad, stood and filed into the carefully concealed drop tubes which were Marguerite Johnsen's true reason for being. Alicia's external audio pickups were on-line, and she had the gain cranked up high enough to hear the soft, purring whine of exoskeletal "muscles" from the others' powered armor. Unaugmented human hearing wouldn't have been able to hear it, even standing right next to the armor in question, which was just one of the many ways in which the Cadre's equipment differed from that of the Corps.

    She and Tannis Cateau, as her wing, stopped to stand between the two Alpha Tube access hatches while Alicia used her command armor's monitors to personally double check the readiness readouts on each set of armor as the others climbed past them through the hatches.

    Sergeant Alan McGwire, Alpha Team's leader, stood to Alicia's right, in front of the starboard hatch, doing the same thing for his team. Sergeant Lawrence Abernathy, who had Bravo Team, stood on her other side, beside the port hatch. They knew the members of their teams far better than Alicia had yet had time to come to know them, and she felt almost excluded as people exchanged those last minute, pre-drop looks. No one was doing that to her deliberately, but she was acutely aware that she was most definitely the newest kid on the block once again. Titular squad leader or not, she was even more of an unknown quantity to them than they were to her. The last pair of troopers climbed into place, followed by the two team leaders and Cateau, and then it was Alicia's turn.

    She swung herself through the hatch, moving as easily and naturally in her powered armor as she would have in her regular fatigues, and settled herself into drop configuration. The drop harnes slid out to envelop her armored torso, and she felt the slight, distinct click of impact as its tractor collars mated. Its umbilicals connected themselves to her armor, and her synth-link expanded to interface with the harness' onboard computers. The last to enter the starboard tube, and thus last in the loading queue, she would be the first out of it, and if anything went wrong with her harness, she and the person immediately behind her would become a very messy showstopper for the rest of First Squad.

    But nothing was going to go wrong, she reminded herself firmly, as a quick glance at her HUD confirmed that all drop systems were green, not just for her but for every member of First Squad.

    "Rifle-Two," she said over the platoon net, "Winchester-One. First Squad, ready for drop."

    "Winchester-One, Rifle-Two copies ready for drop," Onassis acknowledged. "Rifle-Two, Weatherby-One," she heard Staff Sergeant Henry Gilroy announce. "Second Squad, ready for drop."

    "Weatherby-One, Rifle-Two copies ready for drop," Onassis replied.

    "Rifle-Two, Mauser-One," Sergeant First Class Celestine Hillman came up on the net in in turn. "Third Squad, ready for drop."

    "Mauser-One, Rifle-Two copies ready for drop," Onassis confirmed. He paused a moment, obviously checking his own tell-tales, as well. Then: "Rifle-One," she heard him continue a moment later to Lieutenant Strassmann, "Rifle-Two. First Platoon, ready for drop."

    "Copy ready for drop," Strassmann's tenor confirmed. "All Rifles, stand by. The clock is running. Drop in thirteen minutes from . . . now."

    Alicia lay back in her armor, eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply in the drop tube's confines. Many people, even some who'd made dozens of drops, suffered from drop anxiety which had nothing at all to do with the current mission, she knew. Frequently, it was aggravated by a bit of claustrophobia, although anyone who'd suffered from acute claustrophobia would never have been considered for drop commando training in the first place. At the moment, she felt more than a little tension herself, but it had nothing to do with the simple mechanics of the drop itself.

    Well, not much, anyway.

    She opened her eyes once more, looking up through her visor at the roof of the drop tube, sixteen centimeters from the tip of her nose. There wasn't much to see, so she closed them again and spent her time running through one last systems check.

    Her Cadre armor was still a bit of a marvelous new toy, in a lot of ways. The basic powered armor issued to Marine line infantry was at least as good as the combat equipment issued to any other first-line military organization in the explored galaxy. The more specialized armor issued to the elite Raiders was considerably better than that, in large part because Raiders -- like Recon -- had to come from the sixty-odd percent of the human race who were neural receptor-capable. That meant Raiders could take the direct feed from their armor's sensors, diagnostic systems, and tactical computers and send orders back the same way, which enormously enhanced that armor's responsiveness. A Raider was probably about the least stealthy infantryman in the known universe, but he was also extraordinarily dangerous, with the same sort of situational awareness a Recon Marine had, coupled with the toughness of a late pre-space main battle tank and the firepower to single-handedly annihilate an entire company of planetary militia. A standard suit of Marine powered armor had roughly the same firepower, but couldn't match the flexibility and versatility of the Raider variant.

    Recon was a different story, of course. Recon did rely on stealthiness, rather more than firepower, to accomplish its significantly different mission. Raiders were specialists in scientifically organized mayhem and destruction and about as subtle as a chainsaw; Recon specialized in getting the information the Raiders needed to plan their operations, hopefully so quietly the Bad Guys never realized they'd been spotted.

    But Cadre battle armor out-classed Raider battle armor by at least as big a margin as Raider battle armor out-classed basic Marine armor. Indeed, the margin of superiority was almost certainly greater than that.

    Cadre armor was manufactured using advanced composites which were painfully expensive but allowed it to be lighter, faster, and tougher than Raider armor. It had far more endurance, thanks to the incorporation of a small, fantastically expensive cold-fusion powerplant, which freed it from reliance on the Raider armor's bulky superconductor capacitors. Its reactive chameleon capability was at least twice that of Recon's unpowered body armor, and it incorporated stealth features which would have at least doubled the price tag of Raider armor all by themselves. It had better sensors, and much better computer support. Nor did it stop there. Although the standard Cadre "rifle" fired a considerably smaller-caliber projectile than the standard Marine battle armor "rifle," it fired it at an even higher velocity, and each Cadreman carried a lot more ammunition.

    And, of course, the fact that every Cadreman had to be synth-link-capable, not simply able to tolerate neural receptors, allowed a degree of human-technology fusion even the Raiders simply couldn't count on. With her synth-link up, Alicia literally "saw" electromagnetic radiation and "tasted" thermal signatures. She could see in total darkness, actually watch the radar-mapped trajectory of incoming fire, and simultaneously integrate the take from remotely deployed sensors into the same instant gestalt of her combat environment. A Cadreman didn't wear his combat armor; he made that armor's systems a literal extension of his own muscles and senses, so that hardware and human melded into a single, highly capable, incredibly lethal entity.

    It was a pointed lesson in cost-versus-quantity. There were a maximum of only forty thousand Cadremen, as opposed to quite literally millions of Imperial Marines. Which was probably a very good thing for the Treasury, since each suit of Cadre battle armor cost rather more than a Leopard-class assault shuttle capable of landing thirty-one fully armored Marines plus the cost of all of the external ordinance and fuel that same shuttle would require to provide fire support for its Marines once they were on the ground.

    Not even the Terran Empire could conceivably have afforded to spend that much equipping every one of its Marines, even assuming all of those Marines had been synth-link-capable in the first place. But it could afford to equip the Cadre on that scale, which helped to explain just what it was which placed the combat power of the Imperial Cadre of Seamus II on a completely different plane from any other military unit.

    "Prepare for drop," the voice of Marguerite Johnsen's cyber-synth AI said emotionlessly in Alicia's mastoid, breaking into her reverie. "Drop in sixty seconds." She felt herself tightening internally in anticipation of the coming shock. "Fifty. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . drop."

    A particularly foul-tempered mule kicked her squarely between the shoulders.

    That was what it felt like, anyway. She'd made her eight required qualification drops, and another twenty live training drops (and over thirty simulated drops) during ACTS. In a lot of ways, this was just one more -- an explosive grunt as the tube catapult suddenly drove the drop harness tractor-locked to her armor down the exact center of the tube's gleaming bore under one hundred and sixty gravities of acceleration. The harness took her with it, and its counter-gravity and inertial sump reduced the apparent acceleration to "only" about fifteen gravities. Which, in Alicia's considered opinion, was more than enough to be getting on with. She never blacked out -- her "feet-first" launch posture and the pressure suit lining built into her armor's anti-kinetic systems helped stave off blood drain away from the brain -- but she'd decided on her very first drop that the experience gave her a cannonball's-eye view of the universe.

    By the time she cleared the two-kilometer electromagnetic extension of the tube catapult, two endless seconds later, she was traveling at over seven hundred kilometers per hour and headed straight into Chengchou's atmosphere.

    Not even her armor would have been enough to protect her through such a steep reentry (although, technically, since she'd never left Chengchou she could hardly be said to be reentering its atmosphere, she supposed), but that was where the drop harness came in. Not even it could make a drop pleasant, but it could make it survivable. The harness's tractor/presser field reached out, forming an immaterial and yet immensely strong aerodynamically-shaped bubble around her. Heat, light, and turbulence bellowed and howled on the bubble's surface as she bulleted down into the heart of Chengchou's deep envelope of air, and if it wasn't pleasant, it was immensely exciting, like riding inside the heart of a star. The sort of experience no civilian would ever know.

    She watched her blazing corona, protected by her bubble and the armor within it, and felt the universe begin to slow as the first trickle of tick slid into her bloodstream.

    Charlie Company screamed down towards Chengchou's Muztagh Ata Mountains like a flight of homesick meteors, and the finest stealth systems in the galaxy could not have concealed the visual and thermal signatures of its coming.

    But, of course, by the time anyone looked up into the night sky to see them coming, it was far too late to do anything about it.



    Alicia didn't even turn her head as Tannis Cateau fell into position on her left flank. If Cateau had any misgivings about going into combat with a wing with whom she'd never even been through a simulated exercise, she'd concealed them well. Alicia appreciated that, the more so because she'd found time to study Cateau's file. Whatever else the medic corporal might be, she was also a highly experienced close-combat warrior. Every drop commando fought -- even the chaplains -- and Cateau had done more than her fair share of that. Which meant she knew exactly what she was getting into with a newbie wing and that her silence on the subject didn't spring from the overconfidence of inexperienced ignorance.

    Alicia's attention was on her HUD. Lieutenant Francesca Masolle's Second Platoon had been assigned responsibility for the northernmost, and smaller, of the two training camps, the one code-named Beech Tree One. Lieutenant Strassmann's First Platoon had primary responsibility for Beech Tree Two, the larger of the camps. Lieutenant Paál Ágoston's Third Platoon was supposed to drop between the two camps. Two of his three squads would serve as the company reserve, while the third would assist First Platoon in taking out Beech Tree Two.

    Alicia's own squad had been tasked as an immediate tactical reserve, assigned to cover Gilroy's Second Squad as it advanced and to join hands with Third Platoon's reserve once Paál's people linked up with First Platoon. Originally, First and Second Squads' roles had been reversed, but the sudden arrival of a brand new squad leader had convinced Strassmann to flip their assignments. No doubt so that Master Sergeant Onassis could keep a closer eye on the fledgling, Alicia thought. That was the plan, anyway, but it looked as if there were about to be a few glitches.

    First Platoon had experienced a little scatter -- even the best trained, most experienced people were almost certain to do that on a full-bore atmospheric-insertion drop -- but each squad's pairs of wings had already found one another. Now, as she watched, her own squad's people were moving into their assigned positions in the ground-devouring, low-trajectory jumps their battle armor made possible. A part of Alicia was tempted to say something, if only to let them know the new kid was staying on top of things, but she knew better than that. And so, she kept her mouth shut, watching patiently while people who obviously knew what they were supposed to be doing did it. They were moving quickly and smoothly, even if the time-slowing effect of the tick stretched out the duration of each individual jump improbably.

    But if First Platoon's people were getting themselves sorted out, Third Platoon wasn't. Its icons were about as scattered as First Platoon's had been, but they were moving towards a semblance of order much more slowly. Some of them, in fact, weren't moving at all, she noticed.

    "Winchester-One, Rifle-Two," Onassis' voice sounded in her mastoid as she and Cateau moved forward behind the advancing skirmish line of her Alpha Team, and a green data code in her HUD indicated that he was speaking to her on a dedicated circuit.

    "Rifle-Two, Winchester-One," she acknowledged.

    "Lieutenant Masolle's people have made contact with Beech Tree One," Onassis told her. "Looks like she caught them with their pants down. Her point is already inside their outer perimeter. That's the good news. The bad news is that Lieutenant Paál's people came down in the middle of a frigging swamp."

    Alicia felt her eyebrows rise. Murphy -- and not a member of the imperial house -- could be counted upon to put in an appearance on any operation. A swamp landing, even for drop commandos with Cadre armor, was guaranteed to screw up any tactical plan. Combat armor didn't exactly touch down lightly, and swamp mud made an efficient substitute for glue if you hit hard enough and drove deep enough. But how in heaven's name had the pre-attack intelligence managed to miss a little thing like a swamp smack in the middle of their planned axis of attack?

    "It wasn't there the last time we looked," Onassis continued. "Remember that pond just downstream from Beech Tree One? Seems like the dam must have broken, or else they decided to drain the damned thing, and all that nice, flat dry ground north of our objective turns out to be a floodplain."

    Alicia grimaced.

    "Anyway," Onassis said, "that means Third Platoon's not going to be in position to back us up on Beech Tree Two for at least another twenty minutes, and we can't wait that long without letting the birds we want out of the net. So your assignment just changed. Instead of covering Gilroy's flank, you're going to have to sub for Paál's people and come in at Alpha-Five."

    A bright icon danced in her HUD, indicating the point at which a dry stream bed -- and at least it's still dry, she thought wryly -- intersected the perimeter of the training facility codenamed Beech Tree Two.

    "Now," Onassis went on, his voice deepening just a bit, "I'm going to be a bit busier than anyone counted on, given this little change in plans. In fact, I'm not going to be able to go in with you the way we'd planned. What I'm saying is that the squad is yours after all. Understood?"

    "Understood," she said, and she was pleased at how level her voice sounded. And she also sounded just a little bit distracted, she felt pretty sure, because her mind was already busy, grappling with the suddenly altered situation with all of the tick's flashing speed.

    "One last thing." Onassis' voice was a bit flatter. "Lieutenant Masolle has positively confirmed the presence of children and apparent noncombatants in Beech Tree One. Rules of engagement Delta are in effect as of now."

    "I copy ROE Delta," Alicia confirmed in an equally flat voice.

    "In that case, good hunting," Onassis said with what she privately suspected was a much more cheerful confidence than he actually felt. "Clear."

    The icon which had indicated they were speaking privately disappeared, and Alicia's mental command shifted her com into the dedicated First Squad net.

    "All Winchesters," she said, "Winchester-One. There's been a change of plans, people. Lieutenant Paál's people aren't going to make the opening on time, so we're going to have to do a little improvisation. Winchester-Alpha-Seven, hold where you are," she continued, studying the icons of her squad's personnel as they glowed on the detailed topographical projection. Corporal Michael Doorn's icon stopped moving instantly, and the icon of his wingman, Corporal Édouard Bonrepaux, took only two more jumps before it, too, froze, perfectly positioned to cover Doorn's flank.

    "All other Alphas will form on this line," Alicia went on, even as she changed her own course, with Cateau bounding along in perfect formation through the rugged terrain. She used her synth-link to draw a green line across the HUD's terrain map. "Alpha-Seven will anchor one end; Alpha-Three will anchor the other. Alpha One, I want you in the center to coordinate Alpha's advance to contact."

    "Winchester-One, Winchester-Alpha-One copies," Sergeant McGwire acknowledged. He and his wing, Corporal Chul Byung Cha, went bounding towards the indicated position. Winchester-Alpha-Three, Corporal Erik Andersson, didn't respond verbally, but his icon blinked in the two-two-one pattern which indicated that he understood, and he and Corporal Vartkes Kalachian, his wing, went slashing towards their own assigned positions.

    "Winchester-Bravo-One," Alicia continued, turning her attention to Sergeant Abernathy's team. "We're not going to be able to leave a proper reserve -- we were the Platoon's reserve -- but I want you and your people in overwatch for the initial break-in. Put yourself and your heavy wing right here." She dropped another icon onto the tactical map, directly on top of a small hill just to the east of the point at which the stream bed crossed Beech Tree Two's perimeter. It was high enough to give Abernathy a clear direct line of sight along the streambed and well into the camp itself.

    "Use your own judgment placing the rest of your wings," she told him. "I need you watching Alpha's back until they're in. Then I want you to come in along roughly this axis here."

    She drew another line, this one with a bright arrowhead at one end. It crossed the perimeter east of the streambed and headed south, directly towards a block of barracks designated Rathole One on the map. Under the original ops plan, one of Lieutenant Paál's squads had been tasked to deal with Rathole One. Onassis hadn't specifically told her those barracks were now her responsibility, but he had told her she would be "subbing" for Paál's missing squad. Besides, the streambed at Alpha-Five was the closest entry point for any of First Platoon's units.

    "Remember," she said, blessing the hours she'd spent studying the ops plan she'd never had the opportunity to rehearse with the people who had suddenly become hers, "Rathole One is where their permanent training cadre bunks and messes. If anybody's going to have her head out of her ass by the time we go in, it's going to be someone over there. So watch yourselves. And if we get too much fire out of Rathole, go to ground somewhere along here --" a bright amber line in the HUD circled a rocky ravine which ought to provide pretty fair cover against fire from the barracks "-- and wait instead of wading straight in. I'll bring Alpha in to support you ASAP."

    "Bravo-One copies, Winchester-One," Abernathy replied, and she was pleased by his tone. His voice was clipped, businesslike and focused, but she heard the confidence in it. Confidence in her, in the evidence that the newbie giving his people orders really had done her homework.

    "All Winchesters," she said, hoping that she wasn't about to knock that confidence on its head, "there's one more thing. Tiger-One has confirmed the presence of children and noncombatants -- repeat, children and noncombatants -- in Beech Tree One. Rules of engagement Delta are in effect. Confirm copy."

    There was an instant of silence, despite the tick, as her people adjusted to that unpleasant news. Then the cascade of confirming responses came back to her, and she nodded. None of them sounded particularly happy, but that was fair enough -- she wasn't particularly happy about it herself.

    "All right, Winchesters," she said after the final confirmation had come in, "let's get to it."



    It took less than five minutes for First Squad to shift to its hastily redesignated jumpoff point. To Alicia, riding the tick, it seemed more like five hours, but she knew better, and she made herself stifle her impatience. That was one of the major drawbacks to the tick; things frequently seemed to be taking far too long, and one had to remind oneself that it didn't look that way to the rest of the universe.

    "Rifle-Two, Winchester-One," she reported finally, "Winchester is in position at Alpha-Five."

    "Winchester-One," Onassis came back almost instantly. "Copy. Hold position for Weatherby."

    "Rifle-Two, Winchester-One copies, hold position until Weatherby is in place."

    She settled back very slightly, allowing herself a modest gleam of satisfaction. First Squad had had farther to go than either of First Platoon's other squads, but it had gotten there before Staff Sergeant Gilroy's people had reached their new jumpoff point.

    She spent the brief delay scrutinizing the objective. Beech Tree Two was an untidy gaggle of structures clustered around an unkempt looking "parade ground." Most of them had been identified by function, with a fair degree of confidence, on her HUD. One or two were question marks, and one of those -- designated B13 on the tac overlay -- lay squarely in front of First Squad.

    There was movement on the camp's grounds. It had been slow to start, she thought, given the fact that the attack on Beech Tree One, which had been supposed to go in simultaneously with the attack on Beech Tree Two, had actually gone in almost eight minutes ago. She hated the thought of giving the camp's inhabitants any additional time to get themselves organized, start to cope with the paralyzing surprise of a totally unanticipated attack out of the darkness, but that wasn't up to her. Besides, Lieutenant Strassmann -- or, more likely, Captain Alwyn -- was probably right. Taking the time to get themselves properly reorganized after such a major change in plans was almost certainly worth more to Charlie Company than a handful more of minutes could be to the people inside that camp.

    "All Rifles," Lieutenant Strassmann's voice said suddenly, "Rifle-One. Go. I say again, go!"

    "Winchester-Alpha-One, Winchester-One," Alicia said sharply. "Go!"



    Corporal Vartkes Kalachian, call sign Winchester-Alpha-Five, was the first member of Alicia's squad to actually cross the wire around Beech Tree Two, and he did it with panache.

    His armor's sensors had probed the ground between his jumpoff position and the camp's perimeter, and its sonar-imaging capability had picked up the "low signature" anti-personnel landmines which had been planted to protect the perimeter wire. It was unlikely that any less sophisticated sensors would have been able to "see" the mines, and Alicia had frowned as their icons had appeared on her HUD, cross-relayed from Kalachian's sonar. She'd wondered, as she passed the warning up the line to Onassis, where a bunch of terrorists had gotten their hands on them. The mines' composite cases contained no metallic alloys, and instead of the low-tech, chemical bursting charge she would have expected to find protecting a facility like this one, they used small, powerful, superconductor capacitor-fed gravitic fields. Which meant that there was nothing to alert chemical "sniffers" to the presence of their nonexistent explosive compounds.

    Kalachian, however, knew exactly what was out there now, and he hit his jump gear hard. The sudden surge lifted him over the minefield and across the razor wire, and his armored body tucked and rolled neatly as he hit the ground inside the camp. Clearing the mines and the wire in a single jump had required a higher trajectory than The Book really liked. Had anyone been waiting for him at the moment that he topped out, he would have made an excellent target. But no one was waiting. Despite how long it had seemed take, to Alicia's tick-accelerated thoughts, for the platoon to get into position, and despite how the tick translated Kalachian's eighty kilometer-per-hour jump into floating slow motion, the denizens of Beech Tree Two were still trying to figure out what was happening when he touched down.

    The rest of Alpha Team -- with Alicia and Tannis Cateau attached -- was on his heels. Alicia and Cateau were actually the last wing in. Alicia's job was to control and coordinate, to impose order, not to get bogged down in the fighting itself unless she absolutely had to. And Cateau's job was to keep any ill-intentioned individuals off Alicia's back while she went about managing the squad.

    They might have gotten across the wire without taking any defensive fire, but that wasn't the same thing as crossing it without getting any response. Alicia's armor picked up the infrared sensors guarding the camp's wire as she broke one of the beams, and once again the sophistication of the defenses surprised her. The camp's powerful perimeter lights must have been directly coupled to the sensor net, because they switched on even as her people hit the ground. The multi-million candlepower lights glared out of the darkness like suddenly ignited suns. There was no warning -- only that instantaneous, stunning burst of brilliance, directly into any attackers' eyes, with what ought to have been equally instant, blinding disorientation. But Alicia's people were the Cadre. The enhancement of their vision let them decrease its sensitivity, as well as increase it, and they'd spent endless hours mastering their augmented capabilities. More than that, every one of them was riding the tick, and their vision compensated almost as quickly as the lights came on.

    There was still a brief, fleeting instant before they adjusted, but that didn't matter, either. Every one of them was synth-link-capable, and every one of them was literally fused with his or her armor's systems. And those sensor systems didn't rely on anything as easily befuddled as the human optic nerve.

    Alicia's rifle snapped into firing position. It wasn't like her Marine-issue M-97 had been. Instead, it was an integral part of her armor, mounted in a power-driven housing that brought its muzzle to bear on the nearest of the camp's spotlights with viperish speed. There was no trigger, no sights. A crosshair simply appeared, floating in her field of vision, and she moved it by thinking it into position. The "rifle" followed the crosshair, and her armor's onboard computers evaluated barrel temperature, air pressure and temperature, local gravity, windage, and the ballistic performance of the five-millimeter caseless ammunition in the tank behind her shoulders and automatically corrected the crosshair for exact point of impact at any effective range. It happened with blinding speed, and yet the crosshair seemed to float slowly, so slowly to someone riding the tick, towards her chosen target. But then it was where she wanted it, and another flickering thought squeezed the "trigger."

    A crisp, precise three-round burst ripped from her rifle. The needle-slim, three-millimeter discarding sabot penetrators, formed of an artificial alloy considerably heavier and harder than tungsten, screamed across the sixty meters between her and her target at well over fifteen hundred meters per second. At that velocity they would have slammed through the breastplate of Marine powered armor like white-hot awls through butter. The unarmored spotlight offered exactly zero resistance to their passage, and its brilliance died in a spectacular flash.

    Every single one of the other lights in their immediate front died within the space of less than two seconds as the even-numbered half of each wing of Cadremen opened fire with the same blinding speed and deadly accuracy. At least a dozen lights continued to blaze, but they were well beyond First Squad's flanks. The Alpha wings ignored them as the odd-numbered half of each pair continued forward, slicing straight towards their objectives. Alicia's rifle muzzle snapped back up into "safe" position as Cateau loped past her. The corporal was no longer riding her jump gear; she wanted her feet firmly on the ground if she needed her own rifle.

    "Alpha-Two, one o'clock!" Alicia snapped as six or seven figures suddenly appeared around the side of one of the barracks. She detected weapons on all of them, and they were headed directly towards Corporal Chul.

    Chul didn't respond. She probably hadn't needed Alicia's warning, either, but that was all right with Alicia. She'd rather be considered a worrier than take any chances. Nor was Chul Byung Cha in any more mood to take chances. Her own rifle swept into firing position and spat perfectly-targeted death. Three of the camp's defenders were dead before the others even realized they were under fire. Two more died before Sergeant McGwire, Chul's wingman, could target them. The last pair died almost simultaneously, even as they tried desperately to fling themselves flat on the ground, as McGwire and Chul switched their attention to them.

    "Winchester-One has Bravo-One-Three," she announced, changing course slightly to make for the building whose function the intelligence weenies had been unable to determine. That had been Chul's and McGwire's objective before they were delayed to deal with the counterattack, or whatever that had been. She probably should have left it to someone else, Alicia reflected, remembering her own earlier thoughts. But she and Cateau were closest to it, and she wanted the rest of the Alpha wings moving forward, not slowing down and diverting to clear a building whose purpose they didn't even know.

    Cateau, she noticed, didn't say a word. Which wasn't necessarily the same thing as approving of her decision, of course.

    There were more figures moving out there now, but it was obvious to Alicia that the camp's inhabitants still didn't realize what was happening. Those figures were moving towards her people, reacting defensively -- possibly even instinctively, without conscious thought -- and they wouldn't have been doing that if they'd realized they faced the Cadre. Heading away from the Cadre, as rapidly as possible, would have been a vastly more prudent response.

    On the other hand, panicked people did stupid things -- especially inexperienced panicked people.

    "All Winchesters, remember the rules of engagement!" she said sharply. It was probably totally unnecessary, but it was also her responsibility, and she continued to move forward, heading for the building designated Bravo-One-Three. She was only about thirty meters from it when the door slammed open and a figure stumbled out of it.

    The crosshair reappeared in Alicia's HUD, floating slowly across it as her rifle flashed into firing position with blinding speed. It settled on the figure's chest, but she didn't fire. As she'd just reminded all of her people, ROE Delta was in effect, and she held her fire while her sensors probed the target.

    Male, adult, height one hundred and seventy-one centimeters, they reported. No shirt, despite the cool night air. A red outline highlighted the short, broad bladed knife in the sheath on his right hip, but there was no sign of a rifle or pistol.

    She swore silently to herself and let her rifle swing away from him. The odds were overwhelming, whether he carried a firearm or not, that he was one of the terrorists they'd come to kill or capture. But at this particular moment, he didn't have any weapon on his person which could threaten her or any of her people, and the rules of engagement were clear in that case.

    But if she couldn't kill him, that didn't mean she necessarily had to be gentle. Nor was she about to take any chances that he might find himself a proper weapon after her back was turned. "Mine!" she snapped over her dedicated link to Cateau, and charged him.

    Her hapless target probably never saw her coming at all. The glare of the surviving perimeter lights and the blinding, stroboscopic eruptions of muzzle flashes -- including the blind fire some of the camp's defenders were beginning to hose uselessly in every conceivable direction -- had to be playing havoc with his vision. And despite how long it seemed to Alicia that the attack had been underway, little more than fifteen seconds had actually elapsed since Lieutenant Strassmann's order to move in. His confusion must have been as close to total as it was possible to come, and the chameleon surface of Alicia's armor would have made her all but invisible even without the blinding effect of so much gunfire.

    She swept into arm's reach of him, moving with a dancer's grace, despite her armor, as she rode the tick, and her left hand reached out. She caught him by one arm, carefully moderating the strength of her powered gauntlet so that she didn't break anything, and heard his brief, beginning cry of shock and pain as she snatched him towards her. But he hadn't completed that cry when her right hand floated slowly forward, moving with all of the flashing, meticulously metered precision of the tick, and struck the side of his skull.

    He went down, instantly unconscious, and she stopped, her rifle darting back down into firing position to cover the windows on either side of the doorway from which he'd emerged as Cateau swept past her.



    The corporal didn't even slow down. The door had swung shut behind the man Alicia had neutralized, and Cateau simply dropped her left shoulder slightly and bulldozed straight into it. It was a relatively sturdy, well constructed door, but it had never been intended to stand up to someone in battle armor. She went through it in a shower of splinters, and Alicia's HUD was abruptly speckled with the icons of three more human beings as Cateau's armor's sensors relayed to her. Nor was there any question about whether or not these human beings were armed. All three of them carried rifles, hastily snatched from a weapons rack on the wall opposite the door, and that was fatally unfortunate for them.

    Cateau killed all three of them, probably before any of them even realized she was there.

    The corporal kept moving, deep into the structure's interior. The building was constructed around one very large ground-floor room which clearly functioned as a combination commons room and mess hall. It was two stories tall, however, and Cateau's sensors probed at the ceiling above her.

    "Clear," she announced a moment later. "Copy clear," Alicia confirmed, and the two of them moved on, leaving three more corpses and one unreasonably lucky, still- breathing body behind them.



    Alicia's mental command flared her icon on Cateau's HUD, warning her wing that she was stopping. The corporal reacted instantly, dropping into a guard position, as Alicia paused to assess the situation.

    Her entire Alpha Team was deep into the camp now, and a couple of Beech Tree Two's buildings were in flames. The fires were just beginning to take hold, and she wondered whether the camp's inhabitants had torched them, or if the Cadre's fire had found something flammable inside them. Not that it mattered much, either way. The attack was barely four minutes old, and its inevitable outcome was already apparent to her.

    Sergeant Abernathy's Bravo Team was closing in on Rathole One from the east, but by this time, the barracks block's tenants had at least figured out that they were under attack. It was also obvious that they had quite a fair amount of heavy-caliber firepower at their disposal. Combat rifles were crackling, firing at half-imagined targets, and her sensors picked up the snarling thunder of multi-barreled calliopes, spitting high-velocity penetrators in bursts of blind, suppressive fire.

    Those calliopes worried her. The weapons were the latest evolution of the ancient Gatling gun principle, although they were considerably more lethal than any of their direct ancestors. They burned through ammunition voraciously, but they also produced an unbroken stream of penetrators that didn't have to be aimed at someone to kill her instantly if they hit her anyway. And while Rathole One's defenders were obviously firing blind, they were pouring a lot of rounds in Abernathy's direction as he and his squad approached the ravine she'd indicated to him earlier.

    "Winchester-Bravo-One, Winchester-One," she said. "Find yourselves some cover and hold position. There's too much fire coming your way."

    "Winchester-One, Bravo-One, that sounds like a winner to me, Sarge!" Abernathy replied with feeling, and Alicia chuckled harshly.

    "Alpha-Seven, Winchester-One. I need you over here."

    "Alpha-Seven is on the way, Winchester-One," Corporal Doorn replied, and moments later, he and Édouard Bonrepaux appeared at Alicia's shoulder. The two of them were the single "heavy" wing assigned to Alpha Team with Charlie Company in "light" configuration. Doorn carried a plasma rifle; Bonrepaux carried a fifty-millimeter grenade launcher with a five-round magazine. Both weapons were much heavier than anything which could have been carried without the artificial muscle power of battle armor, and Alicia smiled grimly as she saw them.

    "Bravo-One, Winchester-One," she said over the squad net, "I've got some people with some serious firepower over here. I think it's time that we discouraged the rats in the woodwork, don't you?"

    "I never much cared for rodents, Winchester-One," Abernathy replied.

    "All right, then. I want Bravo-Seven and Bravo-Eight --" that was Corporal Obaseki Osayaba and Corporal Shai Hau-zhi, Bravo Team's equivalent of Doorn and Bonrepaux " -- to take out this building here."

    She dropped a mental command into Abernathy's HUD, highlighting one of the barracks buildings. A calliope was firing long, sweeping bursts from a second-floor window on its eastern side.

    "When they do that, Alpha's heavies will take out these two buildings," she continued, highlighting two more structures. Another calliope was firing from one of them; the other was clearly the administrative center of Rathole One, and there were a lot of armed individuals in and around it.

    "All Winchesters," she went on, bringing the rest of her squad in on the conversation, "we're going to take down these three buildings with plasguns and grenades. It's going to be messy. As soon as they're down, we close in and clear the remaining buildings. These people are going to duck and cover when the shit hits the fan, and I want us right behind the explosions. I want us in among them before they have time to recover."

    She paused to let them digest that much, then began assigning specific objectives to each of her wings. She marked each wing's target meticulously on their HUDs, making certain there was no confusion. The Bad Guys hadn't managed to kill any of her people yet, and she was determined not to produce any friendly-fire casualties.

    Despite the care she took, it required only a very few seconds for people riding the tick to complete their preparations. She took one last look at her own HUD, then glanced at Cateau, who had closed up at her shoulder once more.

    "Ready?" she asked over their dedicated circuit. "Sure, why not?" Cateau replied in an almost drawling voice. "I mean, it's been such a fun party this far, hasn't it?"

    "You're a strange person," Alicia observed with a grim chuckle. "However --"

    She shrugged, then switched back to the squad master com net.

    "All Winchesters," she said, her voice calm, "Winchester-One. All right, people. Let's dance. Go."

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