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In Fury Born: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Saturday, March 25, 2006 12:20 EST



    "Excuse me, Sergeant DeVries," the AI's voice said politely in Alicia's mastoid.

    "Yes, Central?" she replied. The base's master AI rejoiced in the nickname of "Gertrude," according to its cyber-synth partner. Alicia, however, had never felt comfortable enough with it to indulge in informality.

    "You're wanted at Base Ops. Captain Alwyn has scheduled an emergency briefing in Sit One in fifteen minutes."

    Both of Alicia's eyebrows rose in surprise. An emergency briefing?

    She looked across the holographic tactical display hovering between her and Alan McGwire, Lawrence Abernathy, and Tannis Cateau.

    "It seems our little planning session has just been derailed, people," she observed.

    "That's not exactly going to break the troops' hearts, Sarge," Cateau observed with a smile. It was a genuine smile, but after eighteen standard months, Alicia had come to know her wing about as well as she'd ever known another human being. She saw the questions, echoes of her own, behind Tannis' brown eyes.

    "I don't know about that," McGwire said. "My people were looking forward to getting a little of their own back from Larry's."

    "In your dreams," Abernathy said complacently.

    "Pride goeth," Alicia observed dryly. Although, she admitted, Abernathy did have at least a little bit of a point. Bravo Team had bested Alpha Team in the last three exercises in a row. Not by very much, in two of them, but still . . . .

    "Alan, I want you and Larry to go on working up the basic parameters of the exercise," she said after a moment. "I'm going to operate on the assumption that we may get a chance to go ahead and mount it. In the meantime, I need to get over for that briefing. Tannis, why don't you come along?"

    "I wasn't invited, Sarge," Tannis pointed out mildly.

    "Maybe not." Alicia cleared her throat. "Central." "Yes, Sergeant DeVries?"

    "Please ask First Sergeant Yussuf if it would be acceptable for Corporal Cateau to attend the briefing."

    "Of course, Sergeant DeVries," the AI replied. A handful of seconds passed, then it spoke again. "First Sergeant Yussuf says that Corporal Cateau may accompany you."

    "Thank you, Central." Alicia looked at her subordinates again, then twitched her head at the door.

    "I think we'd best be going," she said mildly.



    Alicia found her mind sliding back over the last year and a half as she and Tannis walked briskly across to the main admin building. Those eighteen months had been both similar to her experience in the Marines and totally different from it. For one thing, the training tempo had been much higher, although when she'd been a Wasp herself, she wouldn't have believed that was possible. But the Cadre trained constantly. If they weren't out on active operations, then they were training. Or actively planning the next training exercise. Or evaluating the training exercise they'd just completed.

    And the Cadre subscribed to the theory that the best preparation for combat was to train harder than any actual combat mission would ever require. The Cadre training regimen routinely pushed the Cadre's men and women to the point of collapse, and those men and women didn't collapse all that easily.

    That was one difference. Another was that the Cadre actively promoted long-term, stable relationships. Alicia had been promoted to sergeant first class three standard months ago, but she still had First Squad, and she still had Tannis. Nor was that unusual for the Cadre. It wasn't unheard of for a Cadreman to spend his entire Cadre career serving in the same regiment of the same brigade, and the Cadre made a concerted effort to keep wings which had proven themselves compatible together on a permanent basis.

    Alicia wasn't about to complain about that. The Cadre's tactical and operational doctrines were even more different from the Marines' than she'd originally realized. Cadremen were specialists in every sense of the word, and one of the things which made them so effective in the field was the absolute familiarity which existed between each pair of wingmen. They trained together, they fought together, they usually partied together, and it wasn't at all uncommon for them to go on leave together.

    And sometimes, of course, they died together.

    In the last year and a half, she and Tannis had become exactly the sort of team the Cadre sought to build. They operated on the same mental wavelength, almost as if they were telepathic. Each of them knew precisely what the other would do in a given situation, and each of them understood exactly what her function was in any given tactical confrontation.

    And, Alicia thought, smiling slightly as she glanced across at Tannis' profile, neither one of them had ever had a closer friend -- or sibling -- in her entire life.

    But it was the nature of the wing relationship which the Cadre took such pains to nourish which had inspired her to bring Tannis along. The wing assigned to any squad leader, platoon sergeant, or company first sergeant was in a special position. She wasn't assigned to a regular slot in a squad's fire teams. Instead, she went wherever her wing partner went, and the fact that her wing was likely to be distracted by the need to concentrate on managing a tactical situation meant she had to be even better than the Cadre's norm. There were times -- too many of them, Alicia thought -- when Tannis had to carry far more than her fair share of the load because Alicia simply had to be doing other things, and that wasn't helped by the fact that Tannis was also First Platoon's senior medic. If Tannis felt overworked, she'd never indicated it, but she wouldn't have.

    In effect, though, Tannis sometimes found herself operating almost in the role of assistant squad leader, and it made a lot of sense for her to be fully briefed in for any op. That was the way Alicia felt about it, at any rate, and from First Sergeant Yusuf's response, it sounded as if she felt that way, too.

    They reached the main admin building, crossed the small lobby area, followed a short corridor past a half-dozen office doors, then turned right into Situation Room One.

    The big room -- the second largest on the entire base -- was subdivided by head-high internal partitions, dimly lit, and kept just a bit cooler than was actually comfortable. The subdued lighting made the various displays sharper and easier to follow, and the cooler temperature helped keep people alert.

    Situation Room One -- Sit One, for short -- was in many ways the nerve center of Base Operations. It was one door down the hall from Ops One, from which Captain Alwyn ran the company on a day-to-day basis, and it was responsible for collating incoming information, processing it and translating it into operational intelligence. Sit One maintained the threat maps for the company's area of responsibility, and Sit One was where most of the company's initial operational briefings took place.

    "Come in, Alley, Tannis. Find seats," Lieutenant Paál said. Alicia wasn't surprised to see the lieutenant as she and Tannis stepped into the largest of Sit One's office cubicles. In addition to his role as commanding officer of Third Platoon, Paál , as the senior of Charlie Company's lieutenants, was also Captain Alwyn's executive officer. He got to wear the S-1 "hat" as the company's adjutant, in charge of personnel and administration, as well. What she was surprised by was the fact that Captain Alwyn himself wasn't present yet.

    She settled into her usual seat with Gilroy, Hillman, and Onassis. Gilroy and Hillman had both brought along their wings, as well, and Tannis smiled and nodded to them as she joined them.

    "Any idea what this is all about, Adolfo?" Alicia whispered, leaning towards the platoon sergeant.

    "Not a clue," he murmured back. "But I did hear --"

    He broke off as the door opened again, this time to admit Captain Alwyn and two other officers.

    Alicia recognized both of them immediately, and astonishment stabbed through her as one of those faces registered.

    The presence of Captain Wadislaw Watts, Imperial Marine Intelligence, was no particular surprise. He was on semipermanent assignment to the Cadre, attached to Fifth Brigade as a "loaner" to fill one of the chronically shorthanded Cadre's necessary staff billets. The Cadre had its own intelligence specialists, but it didn't have enough of them -- just as it didn't have enough of most of the staff specialists it really needed. So it made do by borrowing the necessary staff expertise from the Marines or Fleet. Brigade had passed Watts on to Second Regiment, which in turn had assigned him to Third Battalion, Charlie Company's parent battalion. And Third Battalion used him as its roving Intelligence guru on an operation-by-operations basis.

    Personally, Alicia didn't much care for him. She couldn't really have said why. Certainly it wasn't because she regarded the Marines as interlopers, since she -- like over ninety percent of the Cadre's personnel -- had once been a Marine herself, after all. Perhaps it was because she sometimes suspected that somewhere deep down inside, the dark-haired, dark-eyed, always impeccably groomed Marine resented the fact that he was not and never would be acceptable as a Cadreman himself, if only because he wasn't synth-link-capable. Or maybe it was just bad chemistry.

    But whether she liked Watts or not, he'd always seemed more than competent where his duties were concerned. He'd handled the battalion intelligence brief on all but one of the five operations, including the highly successful Chengchou raid, the company had carried out since Alicia joined it. If there was something in the air, he was a logical choice to brief them in on it.

    But it was the presence of the other officer who accompanied Captain Alwyn which took her completely by surprise her. Nor was she the only person in Sit One who felt that way.

    "Attention!" Lieutenant Paál barked after an instant of astonishment, and Alicia felt herself snapping to her feet and to attention even before she heard the order.

    Sir Arthur Keita, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Terra, Solarian Grand Cross, Senate Medal of Valor with diamonds and clasp, Silver Star with cluster, Wound Medal with multiple clusters, and second in command of the Personal Cadre of His Imperial Majesty Seamus II, had that effect on people.

    "As you were," the man known as "the Emperor's Bulldog," growled in a gravelly bass. He was silver-haired, built something along the lines of a brick wall, and somewhere close to a hundred standard years old. Not that age had withered his physique or dimmed the quick alertness of the dark eyes under his craggy brows. Like Alicia, he wore the Cadre's green-on-green and harp and starships; unlike her, he also wore the single starburst of a brigadier.

    She settled back into her seat gingerly, her mind racing, as Keita stalked to the chair at the head of the conference table below the main holo display unit. Captain Alwyn waited until the brigadier had been seated, then sat in his own chair, to Keita's right, while Watts continued to the briefing officer's station. The Marine laid what looked like a sheaf of old-fashioned, handwritten notes on the lectern, then picked up the neural headset and slipped it on.

    "All right, people," Alwyn said, while Watts was making his preparations. "I'm sure all of you are as surprised to see Uncle Arthur -- excuse me, Brigadier Keita --" he corrected himself, winning a slight chuckle from his audience in response " -- as I was when he and Captain Watts arrived from Battalion."

    He paused, and any levity which might have touched his expression, had vanished. "Sir Arthur is about to explain why he's here," the company commander continued in a much more serious tone. "Then he and Captain Watts are going to explain what we're going to do about it." He swept his subordinates with his eyes, then turned courteously to Keita.

    "Uncle Arthur?" he invited.

    "Thank you, Madison," Keita rumbled in his deep, thick-chested voice, and Alicia felt herself leaning towards him. Calling Alwyn by his given name wasn't the sort of affectation it might have been in another officer of Keita's seniority -- assuming that there'd been another Cadre officer of his seniority, that was.

    General Arbatov might be the Cadre's official commanding officer, but Sir Arthur Keita was the Cadre. He'd joined it over seventy years before, and he was well past the mandatory retirement age. An astonishing number of the Cadre's field grade officers had served under him at one time or another, and he'd displayed an uncanny talent for nurturing and training outstanding unit COs.

    Not only that, but it was common knowledge that he'd refused promotion above his present rank not just once, but several times. And he'd gotten away with that because he was, quite simply, the one man in the entire galaxy Seamus II and, before him, Empress Maire, had absolutely and completely trusted. He was both the Cadre's field commander and its top intelligence officer, and he would be that until the day he died or he chose to give it up.

    People like Alwyn called him "Uncle Arthur" for a reason, and he enjoyed the same fierce loyalty from the men and women under his command as he himself gave to his Emperor.



    "As I'm sure all of you have already figured out," he continued now, "we have what we refer to as a 'situation.'" He smiled thinly. "In this instance, it has the potential to be particularly ugly, and I'm afraid it's going to fall squarely into Charlie Company's hands. I was on my way to Tamerlane, with a stopover on Gyangtse, when the balloon went up. Given the nature of the problem, Old Earth starcommed orders for me to drop everything else and personally attend to our little problem."

    He paused, as if to give all of them a moment to absorb that much. Then he folded his hands on the conference table in front of him and leaned slightly forward over them.

    "Five weeks ago, HMS Star Roamer, a transport chartered by the Ministry of Out-Worlds, departed the Raintree System for Old Earth. As some of you may be aware, if you've been following the news over the last several months, Raintree's voters have just approved the system's Incorporation referendum. Star Roamer was assigned to transport Raintree's official Incorporation delegation to Old Earth to lay the results of the referendum before the Senate and formally request Incorporation from His Majesty.

    "Unfortunately, there was a slight hitch. While Star Roamer was in the process of accelerating towards supralight, she was hijacked."

    Alicia felt herself twitch in her chair. Every so often, someone managed to hijack a merchant ship. In fact, one of the more successful pirate tactics was to put a clutch of hijackers aboard a ship under the guise of legitimate passengers. But despite a handful of attempts over the centuries, no one had ever managed to hijack a personnel transport with such a high-profile official passenger list.

    "I'm sure there's going to be an exhaustive inquiry into exactly how the hijackers managed to get aboard in the first place," Keita said flatly. "All we know so far is that they managed it somehow. The ship diverted from its planned flight profile just before it wormholed out of Raintree, so the local authorities knew something was up and suspected what it might be. They immediately contacted Old Earth, and that was the point at which General Arbatov starcommed my new instructions to Gyangtse to await my arrival. At the time, that was all anyone knew, however, and it stared that way until Star Roamer turned up in the Fuller System two weeks ago."

    Well, Alicia thought, that explains why he's talking to us about it.

    Fuller was less than a week and a half's supralight flight from Guadalupe, squarely in Charlie Company's area of responsibility. The Cadre's small size -- there were only ten Cadre brigades in the entire Empire -- meant that the largest tactical unit it normally fielded was a company. Third Battalion was Charlie Company's "parent" primarily for administrative and support purposes, but the battalion's three companies were deployed into three entirely different star systems, each strategically located to cover as many potential trouble spots as possible. The Marines would no doubt have used entire battalions, as they had on Gyangtse, but the Cadre had embraced a slight paraphrase of an ancient pre-space law-enforcement organization. Its philosophy was "One crisis, one company." Alicia could have counted the number of times that the Cadre, during its entire existence, had found it necessary to deploy entire battalions on her fingers and toes . . . without taking off both boots.

    "Excuse me, Uncle Arthur," Lieutenant Masolle said, "but why in the world would somebody hijack an Out-World transport and then go to someplace like Fuller with it?"

    "I'll let Captain Watts explain what we think is going on in a moment, Lieutenant," Keita said. "Let me just finish setting the general framework first."

    "Of course, Sir." Masolle sat back, but her brow was furrowed with what were almost certainly the same questions flowing through Alicia's mind.

    "The short version is that the hijackers, when they arrived in Fuller, identified themselves as members of the Freedom Alliance and announced that they intend to hold the Raintree delegation, and Star Roamer's ship's company, as hostages until 'our legitimate demands for the freedom and liberation of our brothers and sisters in bondage are met by the imperialistic warmongers and oppressors of the so-called Terran Empire.'"

    Keita's voice was totally expressionless for his last sentence, but Alicia's heart sank. Like all of Charlie Company's personnel, she was familiar with the intelligence briefings on the Freedom Alliance.

    Philosophically and conceptually, the umbrella organization for at least a half-dozen so-called planetary liberation organizations had a lot in common with the hapless wannabe terrorists the company had picked off in the Chengchou raid. Indeed, post-strike intel had pretty throughly confirmed that some of the Chengchou training cadre had, indeed, been FALA.

    Whether that was actually true or not, the Alliance was probably the most proficient -- and dangerous -- batch of terrorists currently operating against the Empire. Although imperial Intelligence had penetrated one or two of the Freedom Alliance's member organizations, the parent organization was a much tougher proposition. Its members were tightly disciplined and obviously security conscious, and they were also fiendishly well-financed. All indications were that most of its financial support came from a well organized fundraising net operating on at least a couple of dozen independent Rogue Worlds, and it also clearly had well developed contacts with various gunrunners and shady arms dealers, because its "Freedom Alliance Liberation Army" was much better armed than most of the "liberation" organizations.

    Worse, the Freedom Alliance had demonstrated its willingness to shed blood -- lots of blood, including that of its own people -- in pursuit of its goals, despite the fact that anyone with a functional brain had to realize its fundamental objectives were ultimately unobtainable.

    "As for what they're doing in Fuller, Francesca," Keita continued, "that's unfortunately clear. As you know, Fuller is not an imperial star system and it is a member of the Langford Association. The Association isn't exactly on the best of terms with the Empire, but our relations with its member worlds are still a lot better than our relations with many of the Rogue Worlds out this way. Apparently, the Freedom Alliance would like to see those relations take a turn for the worse, and it also seems likely they calculated that we'd be less likely to launch some sort of military operation on the soil of one of the Association's member planets.

    "At any rate, they demanded sanctuary on Fuller while they 'negotiated' with the Empire. Needless to say, the Fuller planetary government is well aware of the Empire's standing policy where negotiations with terrorist organizations are concerned. King Hayden told them that it was out of the question, and his Parliament backed him up.

    "At that point, the hijackers murdered Star Roamer's captain, first officer, and purser and jettisoned their bodies. Then they repeated their demands. King Hayden refused a second time. So they murdered the ship's astrogator, three of its enlisted crew members, a member of the ministry clerical pool, and the personal secretary of one of the Incorporation delegation's members. They pointed out that that was twice the number of hostages they'd 'executed in the people's name' the first time their demands were rejected, and informed King Hayden that the next time around, they would double the 'penalty' yet again.

    "According to the passenger manifest Raintree starcommed to us, there are at least six hundred more civilians, including the remaining members of Star Roamer's crew, aboard the ship. They'd already killed nine people that we know of -- there may have been other fatalities when they actually seized the ship -- and King Hayden and his government had every reason to believe they would carry out their threat, even if it meant eventually killing all of their hostages.

    "Despite that, the King and Parliament were prepared to reject their demands yet again when the Duke of Shallingsport unilaterally offered to allow the terrorists to land the hostages in his duchy."

    "In defiance of his own planetary government, Sir?" Lieutenant Paál asked in obvious surprise.

    "Not . . . quite," Keita said. "Shallingsport is an independent duchy. I don't have all of the details and nuances of the Fuller political system at my fingertips, but as I currently understand it, Shallingsport is the largest, wealthiest, and most populous of several relatively small territorial units on Fuller which are at least nominally politically independent. The Duke of Shallingsport owes some sort of personal fealty to King Hayden, but not as the King of Fuller. Whatever the exact political relationship, the Duke -- Duke Geoffrey -- is a head of state in his own right, not legally bound by the decisions of Parliament. And in his role as head of state, he apparently decided that the only way to keep the terrorists from executing all of their hostages was to give them what they wanted.

    "At the same time, he's obviously well aware of the Empire's policy where terrorists and planets which offer them sanctuary are concerned. Although he's permitted the hijackers to land themselves and their captives in his duchy and to take over a warehouse complex belonging to an off-world consortium as their local base of operations, he hasn't given them any formal promises of protection. So what he's done, according to the back channel messages he's passed to us, is to put the terrorists and the hostages into a contained situation. Since they've gotten the 'sanctuary' they demanded, they aren't going to take themselves, their hostages, and Star Roamer somewhere else. Which means they're going to be sitting exactly where they landed if -- when -- we come calling. In the meantime, he's informed them that while he's willing to give them sanctuary in order to prevent the loss of additional lives, he has no authority to negotiate on behalf of the Fuller planetary government, or of the Empire. He has, however, officially -- and very publicly -- requested that the Empire dispatch a negotiating team to Shallingsport. What he's telling us is that he's prepared to delay them, play for time, until we decide exactly what we're going to do."

    He paused again, looking around the conference table, then shrugged the massive shoulders which had borne up under the weight of duty for so many decades.

    "So that's why I'm here, people. We've decided what we're going to do . . . and you're the people who are going to do it."

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