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In Fury Born: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Saturday, April 1, 2006 22:57 EST



    "Sir Arthur, Captain Alwyn, people," Captain Wadislaw Watts nodded to his audience as Brigadier Keita handed the briefing over to him. The Marine's expression was that of a competent professional who was fully aware of the gravity of the situation facing them, and he reached out through his neural headset to dim the cubicle's lighting still further.

    The holo display above the conference table simultaneously came to life, showing the blue-and-white-swirled marble of a habitable world. As the image grew in the display, Alicia saw that it had a bit more water and slightly smaller ice caps than Old Earth. The nightside also showed far sparser concentrations of artificial light, indicating either an extremely low tech base or a smallish, widely dispersed planetary population.

    "The planet of Fuller, in the star system of the same name," Watts said out of the semi-darkness. "The dominant political unit is the Kingdom of Fuller, which claims sovereignty over approximately seventy-three percent of the total planetary surface, and about ninety-two percent of the total planetary population. The kingdom is an odd hybrid, an absolute monarchy in the course of transition into a constitutional monarchy. The head of state, who's also the official head of government under the current political setup, is King Hayden the Fourth. He was educated in the Empire, and unlike most of the other planetary heads of state in the Langford Association, he's always been favorably inclined -- for a Rogue World potentate, at least -- towards the Empire. The fact that he's always been a voice of moderation in terms of the Association's relations with us may be one of the reasons the terrorists picked his planet. They probably figured that whatever decision he made was going to place a significant strain on his relations with us . . . or with his fellow Association heads of state.

    "This," he continued, as the planet disappeared, replaced by a far larger scale map of a portion of its surface, "is the Duchy of Shallingsport." A bright amber line traced what were obviously the borders of an irregularly shaped territorial unit on a broad tongue of tangled, heavily forested mountains thrusting out into an ocean. "As you can see, Shallingsport claims virtually all of this peninsula extending into the Tannenbaum Sea. It takes its name from its capital and single major city, here." An icon flashed, indicating the coastal location of the city in question.

    "The city of Shallingsport is also the site of the duchy's spaceport, which also doubles as its primary hub for purely atmospheric travel, as well. In the last couple of decades, the present duke -- Duke Geoffrey -- and his father have begun attracting some significant industry to Shallingsport. Most of that is also located around the capital, although there's also an industrial preserve here, in the Barony of Green Haven, which is called -- not very imaginatively -- the Green Haven Industrial Park."

    Another icon blinked, this one at least two hundred kilometers from the duchy's capital.

    "In fact, Duke Geoffrey's been doing his best to get as much as possible of the Shallingsport industry relocated to Green Haven in order to reduce congestion in the capital. He's been offering some very attractive financial incentives and tax breaks to get people to relocate, and to put new industry into the Green Haven area as it arrives from off planet. In addition, he's established a freight-handling spaceport facility with King Hayden's approval. Because of the way the planetary government is set up, the Green Haven port is going to cost Geoffrey a pretty credit in import duties once it goes officially on-line, which it's supposed to do sometime in the next local month or so. But Hayden's been looking the other way and letting it handle cargos 'unofficially' for the better part of a year, without imposing the legally mandated import duties, in order to help facilitate development in the area.

    "I'm sure," Alicia's augmented vision easily saw Watts' tight grin, despite the lighting (or lack thereof), "that you're wondering just why I'm giving you all this information about industrial development in Shallingsport. Well, there's a reason.

    "After Duke Geoffrey agreed to grant the terrorists holding Star Roamer 'sanctuary,' there was a fair amount of negotiation between him and the terrorists concerning the best location. The terrorists wanted to be as secure against potential ground attack as they could be, and Duke Geoffrey wanted them as far from his capital as he could get them, in case there was a ground attack and it got out of hand. The compromise solution, which was proposed by the terrorists, was that they take over the Green Haven Industrial Park. Duke Geoffrey pointed out that the entire industrial park would be rather large for their needs, and they responded by suggesting that they take over a single facility. They insisted, however, that the facility in question had to be large enough to permit them to keep themselves and all of their hostages under cover and to make aerial and orbital reconnaissance difficult.

    "After quite a bit of hemming and hawing, the terrorists finely suggested that they take over the Shallingsport facilities of something called the Jason Corporation. It's a sort of wildcat operation headquartered on Trilateral, another of the Langford Association's members. It's also one of the newer arrivals in Shallingsport -- a specialist in heavy construction which intends to play a major role in Geoffrey's Green Haven project. Because it's so new, its facility -- which is a very large structure, in order to incorporate the necessary maintenance and service facilities for its heavy equipment -- wasn't yet fully occupied. The relatively low number of staff Jason had on-planet could be evacuated fairly easily, the facility itself is well outside the area of Green Haven's main existing development, and the existence of the freight spaceport simplified the transfer of the terrorists and hostages from Star Roamer to the planetary surface.

    "Which means that this facility here," the map of the Shallingsport peninsula vanished, replaced by a detailed aerial shot of a cluster of two smaller structures clustered tightly against the northern and southern ends of a single, much large building, "is going to be your objective."

    Alicia frowned. Not only were the buildings themselves -- actually, the single building, effectively, given the architecture -- large enough to allow the terrorists a lot of flexibility in how they positioned their sentries, but the entire facility was set atop a fairly steep-sided hill that rose out of the peninsula's otherwise dense, green forest on the very fringe of Duke Geoffrey's "industrial park." The bad guys were going to have a commanding lookout post, and the building was, indeed, big enough, and solidly enough constructed, to severely limit what overhead passive reconnaissance could pick up.

    "Now," Watts continued, "here's what we know about the opposition force.

    "First, as Sir Arthur has already said, we don't know how they got aboard Star Roamer in the first place. We also don't have any positive IDs on any of the people involved in the hijacking. They've identified themselves as members of the Freedom Alliance Liberation Army, and the Freedom Alliance issued an official communique claiming responsibility for the operation before news of the hijacking became public. On that basis, it seems likely we are, indeed, dealing with the FALA. We just don't know who the individuals involved are. We believe our background efforts to penetrate the Alliance have positively identified a couple of dozen leadership figures, but so far we haven't placed any of them aboard Star Roamer. Frankly, they're being very careful in their contacts with the Fuller authorities and with Duke Geoffrey to prevent us from IDing any of them, as well.

    "We also don't know exactly what weapons they may have. We do know that their transit time from Raintree to Fuller indicates they made a least-time flight. They simply didn't have time to divert anywhere else along the way to collect heavier weapons, and there's no indication that they did so once they arrived in the Fuller System, either. So, whatever weapons they have, have to be the ones they managed to get aboard Star Roamer in the first place, which strongly suggests that they can't have anything nastier than some fairly light small arms. In addition, they used only locally-provided personnel shuttles, not cargo shuttles, when they actually landed on Fuller. That's a further indication that they don't have any significant number of heavy weapons with them.

    "We also know, from the number of shuttle flights required to get their ground party down from Star Roamer, that assuming they moved all of the hostages dirt-side in the same flights, there can't be more than somewhere between a hundred and fifty and two hundred terrorists. All the indications so far are that even those numbers are probably too high. Obviously, there's no way to be certain, but Battalion's best estimate is that there probably aren't more than seventy-five actual bad guys, maximum."



    "Excuse me, Wadislaw," Paál Ágoston said, "but how, exactly, did Battalion arrive at that estimate?"

    "Mainly by considering the fact that whoever these people are, they had to get aboard Star Roamer. There were some passengers aboard who weren't part of the official Incorporation delegation. There weren't that many of them, though, and even though Star Roamer is a passenger ship, with the higher number of service personnel aboard that implies, the crew wasn't exactly enormous, either. So they didn't have that many seats or slots into which they could insert their hijackers. They wouldn't have needed much more than a couple of dozen to actually seize the ship, assuming they managed to take the crew by surprise, which they obviously did. That sets the lower limit on their possible manpower. The upper limit is set by the sheer difficulty of getting really large numbers of people aboard the ship without setting off security alarms. So the consensus at Battalion is that even seventy-five is probably high. The current belief is that they probably set some of those landing shuttles down empty, or all but empty, for the express purpose of keeping us guessing about their actual strength. Despite that, all of our thinking so far has been built around the maximum possible strength -- the two hundred number I mentioned earlier -- just to be on the safe side."

    Paál nodded thoughtfully and sat back in his chair again.

    "All right," Watts said, "that's their estimated ground strength. In addition, they still have at least a few people aboard Star Roamer. They've positioned the ship to keep an eye on the planet in general, and on Shallingsport in particular, and we believe that they've deployed at least two, more probably three, remote sensor arrays."

    "Sensor arrays?" This time the question came from Tobias Strassmann. "Where the hell did these people get their hands on sensor arrays?"

    "It's been apparent for some time, Lieutenant," Watts replied, "that the Freedom Alliance's resources and capabilities have been steadily expanding. I know your routine intelligence digests from Battalion have pointed out that the Alliance's fundraising net is apparently doing box office business. We've also seen increasingly sophisticated equipment in other FALA operations, including quite a few of the heavy weapons they thankfully don't have here. It's obvious that they've made a very useful contact somewhere in the mil-tech black market, and the arrays they've deployed probably came from there."

    "And they got these things aboard a passenger ship somehow?"

    "Apparently," Watts acknowledged. "And, no, we don't know how they did it. In that respect, I'd have to say that as much as I loathe and despise the 'Freedom Alliance' and its tactics, they've demonstrated a capacity for planning and executing imaginative operations in the past. The fact that they managed to get hijackers aboard Star Roamer is another indication that however lunatic their ultimate objectives may be, they're obviously capable of rational, effective planning for their actual operations."

    "But still," Strassmann said, shaking his head. "Something about this doesn't quite add up for me. It might have been possible to smuggle small arms aboard in personal luggage containers, but a deep-space sensor array is a hell of a lot bigger and harder to conceal than that."

    "There are some indications," Watts said reluctantly, "or, perhaps, I should say there's been some speculation, that this was an inside job. Well, obviously, that's a probability in any hijack scenario. In this instance, however, there's been a specific suggestion that the purser may have been in on it."

    "Didn't you say that they'd killed the purser when their original demand for sanctuary was rejected by the planetary government?"

    "Yes, I did, Lieutenant Strassmann. The bodies were recovered, however. And while all of the others had been shot in the head with a neural disrupter, the purser's throat had been cut. In addition, there's the distinct possibility that he was actually killed somewhat earlier than the other victims. So the competing theories supporting his possible complicity are that he was killed by the hijackers because he might have been able to identify the people he'd been doing business with afterward, or that someone from the ship's crew or among its passengers may have attempted to retake the ship and that the turncoat -- assuming that they'd figured it out -- got his throat cut in the process. After which the terrorists decided to kick his body out the airlock along with the others as a way to keep from using up another of their 'bargaining chips' who was still alive." Strassmann's expression didn't look exactly satisfied by the explanation, but he nodded anyway. And, as Alicia knew, there was always something about any op that didn't quite seem to make sense.

    "At any rate," Watts continued, "the fact that they're using Star Roamer as an orbital observation post complicates any insertion scenario. The fact that we know they have sensor arrays out, and that those sensor arrays' capabilities are unknown to us, makes those complications even more constraining. They've announced that at the first sign of a warship -- Imperial Fleet, or anyone else's -- they will execute half of their hostages. They will also execute half of their hostages if any attempt is made to retake the ship. And, just for good measure, they've rigged suicide charges aboard Star Roamer, and they've explained that they're perfectly willing to blow themselves up rather than be captured. Given their past track record, plus the fact that every one of them is now liable to the death penalty, Battalion is inclined to take them at their word.

    "We don't know how long we have to mount a rescue operation. At the moment, we're dealing with fairly predictable, stock demands. They want the release of prisoners being held on at least a dozen planets for complicity in operations by several of the 'liberation' organizations which come under their umbrella. They want concessions from the Empire, and also from five or six specific planetary governments, both Rogue World and imperial. They want a sizable ransom, and they want 'prize money' for returning Star Roamer to us. And, of course, they want another, faster ship provided for their eventual escape from Fuller."

    "They obviously know they aren't going to get all of that," Captain Alwyn rumbled in his deep voice, his black face hard and set in the backwash of illumination from the floating holograph.

    "Of course they aren't," Watts agreed. "The majority opinion at Battalion is that most of what they're demanding at this point is in the nature of a bargaining ploy. They don't expect to get it. They're simply setting forth demands -- fairly outrageous ones -- which they fully intend to give up in order to get what they really want. Of course, even assuming that that's true, we don't know what they really want at this point."

    "You said that was the 'majority opinion,'" Alwyn observed. "I take it that that indicates there's a minority opinion, as well?"

    "Yes, there is, Captain. It's been suggested that in reality this entire maneuver is basically a psy-op. They don't really have any specific, long-term, strategic demands as such. What they're after is to give the Empire a black eye. To make the point that they've forced the Empire to abandon its 'no negotiation' policy and actually talk to them -- to 'dance to their tune,' if you will. Assuming that there's any validity to this theory, the true object is to enhearten their supporters -- and, just incidentally, their financial contributors -- and to discourage their opponents. Don't forget, most of the terrorist organizations out here, and the 'Freedom Alliance' is no exception, are operating from Rogue World bases, not bases in imperial territory. The people they're actually talking to, collecting money from, recruiting shooters from, are almost all Rogue Worlders. That means Rogue World perceptions of what's happening in their operations, and of the Empire's response to them, are critical to their ability to continue to collect funds and to operate, and the Rogue Worlds' view of this little episode isn't going to be the same as the Empire's, whatever happens. Mind you, they wouldn't mind a bit if they managed to push imperial public opinion in the direction they want it to go, too, of course.

    "So if the 'minority opinion,' as you put it, Captain, is correct, then what they really want to do is simply to stretch out the confrontation as long as possible, probably hoping the newsies will get hold of it and turn it into a 'crisis' for the public's consumption. At the end, they probably hope to settle for releasing their hostages -- or, at least, the surviving ones -- in return for the ability to leave the Fuller System aboard a new vessel or aboard Star Roamer. They'd probably prefer a new vessel, even if it was smaller, because the fact that they 'made' the Empire give it to them would give them even greater juju in the eyes of their supporters." "Um." Alwyn scratched his right eyebrow, frowning thoughtfully, then grimaced. "At this point, I suppose, speculation is all we've got. But I have to admit, even after all these years, I still find it difficult to believe these people are thinking at all, sometimes, much less thinking rationally."

    "From our perspective, they aren't thinking rationally, Madison," Keita said. "But that's the important qualifier, isn't it? As Captain Watts says, they aren't us, and their thinking and planning begins from a radically different set of assumptions and values. I think it's fair to say that there has to be at least a little of the fanatic in anyone who's going to embrace something like the Freedom Alliance's platform. That goes without saying. But if you accept the basic assumptions involved in their analysis of their confrontation with us and its possible outcomes, they do think rationally. At least in the sense that if we can only figure out what they're really after, there's an underlying logic to the way they go about trying to get it."



    "You're right, of course, Uncle Arthur." Alwyn nodded. "It's just -- Never mind." He shook his head. "This is something to toss around over cold beers in a bull session, not something to distract ourselves over right now." He looked back at Watts. "You were saying, Captain?"

    "I've really pretty much completed my initial brief," Watts admitted. "I've assembled additional background data -- things like climatology for Shallingsport, more detailed terrain maps, information on the local political set up, things like that -- for operational planning, but that's basically the bare-bones of what we know. And of what we don't know."

    "Captain Watts is right about that," Sir Arthur said, reclaiming control of the briefing with a courteous nod to the Marine. "There are a lot of things we don't know about their ultimate intentions and plans. But what we do know is where they are right now, what their apparent strength is, and what sorts of physical constraints we're up against in getting at them. In that regard, we owe Duke Geoffrey our thanks."

    "Agreed, Uncle Arthur," Alwyn said. "I'm surprised he even talked to them, frankly. Getting involved in the middle of something like this must be awfully politically risky for someone in his position."

    "Yes and no, Captain," Watts put in. "Yes, there are risks, but the fact that he's not actually negotiating with them at all isolates him from the consequences of the Empire's official no-negotiation policy. And, frankly, although he has shown considerable moral courage, the original idea of offering them a place to land in Shallingsport didn't come from him. The director of his Office of Industrial Development is an imperial subject he brought in to run the Green Haven project for him, and my understanding is that it was Director Jokuri who actually suggested the idea to him. I don't want to appear cynical, or to downplay Geoffrey's own genuine concern with saving lives, but I suspect that Jokuri had to do some fast talking to sell him on the notion that we'd be too grateful for his help to worry about whacking him for talking to terrorists in the first place."

    "In that case, we owe Jokuri a vote of thanks," Keita observed. "But whoever suggested what to whom, we also know we can't afford to let this thing be drawn out. Assuming the 'minority opinion,' as Captain Watts describes it, is correct, that would be exactly what the bad guys want. Assuming the minority opinion isn't correct, there's still the fact that the longer this thing stretches out, the more likely we are to begin losing additional hostages.

    "I can also inform you that the decision has already been made that we will go in. Any official negotiation isn't going to happen, except as a delaying tactic while we mount the rescue."

    Heads nodded grimly around the conference table. Not a one of the men and women sitting at it was surprised by Keita's announcement.

    "Obviously, the detailed planning is going to be up to you people, since you're the ones who are going to have to mount the operation. The Fleet is redeploying units towards Fuller, but because of Star Roamer and those sensor arrays Captain Watts has mentioned, none of those units are going to be able to get in close enough to the planet to do much good. It looks to us like this is going to be another job for the Marguerite Johnsen. We've already determined that a freighter of her approximate size is due in Fuller sometime in the next few days, and Fleet has starcommed orders to her immediately previous port of call to hold her there. We have to assume the terrorists have access to Fuller's shipping movements -- it's not as if arrival and departure schedules were classified data, anyway -- but shortstopping the ship everyone is expecting should create a hole into which we can insert Marguerite Johnsen without sounding any alarms until you're close enough to the planet for a drop.

    "There may still be hostages aboard Star Roamer. There aren't supposed to be any, and the terrorists' spokesman swears that all of them were transported down to Shallingsport. Despite that, we have to assume there are still some aboard. Unfortunately, we also have to assume that the suicide charges they've told us about are also aboard and armed. I'll want to see some contingency planning for a seizure of the ship, but, I'll tell you now that in all honesty I don't anticipate your being able to put together an option I'll sign off on. It may be possible to talk the people aboard that ship into surrendering, if we take out their groundside buddies, but I'm not prepared to throw away the lives of Cadremen in a fundamentally hopeless effort to capture an orbiting bomb with a suicide switch.

    "As far as the Shallingsport/Green Haven situation is concerned, it looks to me as if the best option is probably going to be a straightforward drop and a high-speed break-in. We're not going to have anything like decent intelligence on what's going on inside that facility. We do know that Duke Geoffrey has ordered the complete evacuation of Green Haven, which presumably means that anyone we encounter there will probably be on the terrorists' side. Unfortunately, at this moment we don't even have anything in place to confirm that the evacuation has been carried out."

    "If I may, Sir Arthur?" Watts said diffidently.

    "Certainly you may, Captain."

    "I agree with everything you've said, Sir. And, like you, I wish we had a lot better intelligence on the situation in and around Green Haven. However, Old Earth has pulled together -- and starcommed to us -- visual imagery on every known member of Star Roamer's crew, all of the Incorporation delegates, and all of the delegation's support staff. We'll be able to download that to your people's armor's computers. We also know that the opposition force can't have much, if anything, in the way of heavy weapons, and that they can't be very numerous."

    He paused, and Keita nodded.

    "Your point, Captain?" the Cadre brigadier asked.

    "I suppose my point is that your Cadremen are actually more capable than you and they sometimes believe they are, Sir. I don't say this is going to be a neat and pretty situation, whatever we do. However, bearing in mind your own statement that we need to wind up this op quickly, I'm afraid that it looks to me as if Captain Alwyn's people are going to have to go in quick and dirty. Given the visual imagery we can provide, and bearing in mind the Cadre's demonstrated capabilities, it ought to be possible to avoid, or at least minimize, friendly-fire casualties among the hostages."

    "I'm not particularly enthralled by the notion of any 'friendly-fire casualties,'" Alwyn said a bit frostily.

    "I'm not suggesting that you should be, Captain," Watts said unflinchingly. "I'm only suggesting that these people have already demonstrated their own total willingness to murder hostages as a mere bargaining ploy. In the long run, if we don't go in, we'll almost certainly lose more hostages then we would with a bunch as capable as your people mounting the rescue attempt. I'm not trying to buff up your halo, but let's face it. You people are the Cadre. This is what you do, and no one in the galaxy does it better than you do. I realize I'm only an intelligence puke, a staff weenie from Battalion, but if it were my call, there's no one in the universe I'd rather have covering my bets than you people."

    "I'm forced to concur with Captain Watts," Keita said quietly. "We'll see if we can't assemble some backup from the Wasps aboard the Fleet units diverting to the Fuller area. Whether or not you'll be able to use them is another matter, of course, but we'll try to see to it that they're at least available as an option. And we'll try our damnedest to improve your operational intelligence, Madison. You know we will. But I want you to start immediate planning on the basis of the information we have now -- what Captain Watts has given you in his briefing, and in the other data he brought with him -- and the availability of only your own people and resources. Is that understood?"

    He looked very steadily at Charlie Company's commanding officer, and Captain Madison Alwyn looked back, equally steadily.

    "Yes, Uncle Arthur," he said, after a moment. "It is."

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