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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Forty Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2004 18:39 EDT



    Barto Jezic looked around, just a bit uncomfortably, as he stepped into the spaceport hangar and saw the Manticoran Marines strapping into their equipment. It was a clear, breezy evening, a far cry from the rainy night when the police captain’s SWAT teams had foiled the terrorist attack on the Macek Avenue Treasury compound, and he felt more than a little out of his depth.

    “Excuse me, Captain,” a voice said behind him in an oddly musical foreign accent.

    He turned and saw a tall, female noncom. He wasn’t familiar with Manticoran rank insignia, but she seemed to have an awful lot of chevrons stenciled on the upper arm of her coal-black powered armor. There was something particularly sleek and deadly looking about that armor, he thought unable to suppress a pang of envy as he considered what his people could have done with it when Nordbrandt and her murderers began their attacks.

    “Yes, Sergeant --?”

    “Urizar, Sir. Sergeant Major Hermelinda Urizar. If you happen to hear someone talking about ‘the Gunny,’ that’s me.”

    She smiled, white teeth flashing in a naturally dark complexion which was even more darkly tanned, and he smiled back.

    “Captain Barto Jezic, Kornatian National Police.” He started to hold out his hand, then paused, glancing at her armor’s powered gauntlets, and her smile grew broader.

    “‘S okay, Captain,” she said, extending her own hand. “I’ve got the governors kicked in. They limit the armor’s force levels to what my muscles could do unassisted.”

    Jezic decided to take her word for it, but it was still hard not to flinch as his hand disappeared into the Sergeant Major’s hugely armored paw. To his relief, her grip was no more than firm, and he recovered his hand unmashed.

    “I’m supposed to be looking for Captain Kaczmarczyk, Sergeant Major,” he said, and she nodded.

    “I know, Sir. The Captain asked me to keep an eye out for you. He’s over there with Lieutenant Kelso.” She waved in the direction of three more Marines -- two armored like the sergeant major -- standing around a portable holo table in one corner of the hangar. “If you’ll come with me, Sir, I’ll get you hooked up with him.”

    “Thank you,” he said, but he hesitated a moment, and Urizar cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’ve got two unmarked vans full of SWAT people parked out on the apron. Your perimeter teams cleared us through, but I didn’t know if I could go ahead and bring them inside the hanger. Colonel Basaricek told me she wants a low profile on this entire op, though. I’d like to get them inside, under cover, if I can.”

    “Not a problem, Sir.” The sergeant major reached up and touched a small stud on the side of the boom mike headset she wore. “Central, Hawk-Mike-One-Three.” She waited a heartbeat, then said, “Cassidy, Urizar. We’ve got a couple of unmarked vans on the apron full of KNP SWAT troopers and their equipment.” She looked a question at Jezic with the last phrase, and he nodded vigorously. “We need to get them inside and out of sight. Take care of it.”

    She stood for a moment, obviously listening to a response, then nodded in satisfaction.

    “Central, Hawk-Mike-Alpha,” she said then. “Skipper? Captain Jezic and his people are here.”

    One of the armored Marines by the holo table straightened and looked in their direction, then waved for them to join him, and Urizar grinned at Jezic.

    “Right this way, Captain.”

    The Kornatian followed her across the hangar which formed the central core of the Manticorans’ “Ground One” dirt-side base. It seemed quite crowded with Manticorans. Of course, a lot of that could be because of the amount of space the two pinnaces -- each about the size of a Kornatian heavy air transport -- took up. About twenty or thirty of the Marines, in addition to Urizar and the trio by the holo table, were in the sleek, black powered armor.

    Most of the Manticorans Jezic had seen -- which wasn’t all that many, really, he admitted -- were taller than average Kornatians. That probably had something to do with the fact that they got better diets and medical care from childhood, he reflected. But the battle armor added at least another fifteen centimeters to their height, and the armor’s arms and legs swelled smoothly with artificial “muscles.” Most of the armored Marines were liberally festooned with weaponry and other equipment, but another twenty-odd Marines in armored skinsuits were still checking out their personal gear. That much, at least, was reassuringly familiar, even though the weapons and equipment were far more advanced than anything with which he’d ever trained .

    Despite the crowding and bustle, people stepped aside to clear the way for Urizar to escort him to Captain Kaczmarczyk. He saw curiosity in many of the Marines’ eyes, but none of the disdain or tolerant contempt he’d been half afraid he might. Watching them prep themselves and their high-tech equipment made him painfully aware of how primitively his own people were equipped in comparison. But if they were aware of it, they let no sign of it show.

    “Captain Jezic.” The speaker was an exception to the apparent rule that only giants were accepted for service in the Manticoran Marines. He was probably at least a centimeter shorter than Jezic himself -- or would have been, if he hadn’t been in battle armor -- and his brown hair was clipped so short his scalp was clearly visible.

    This time Jezic didn’t hesitate when the Marine offered his gauntleted hand, and the Manticoran’s odd amber-green eyes smiled as they shook.

    “I’m Captain Kaczmarczyk. It’s good to meet you. I’m assuming they grabbed you with no notice at all and told you to get over here yesterday, so you haven’t been briefed in on exactly what’s going on?”

    “More or less,” Jezic agreed, and smiled. He was beginning to feel much more at home. These people might have better equipment than his did, but he recognized the same sort of professionalism when he saw it. “Colonel Basaricek gave me a very cursory briefing on the terrain, showed me some still shots of it I gather you transmitted to her, and explained how your ship came to spot the target. But aside from the fact that we’re along primarily to provide a local police presence and to observe while you people do the heavy lifting, I don’t know a thing about the operational plan.”

    “Typical,” Kaczmarczyk chuckled. “The guy at the sharp end’s usually the last one to get the word in our shop, too.” He waved a hand at the other armored Marine by the holo table. “This is Lieutenant Angelique Kelso, Captain Jezic. She’s First Platoon’s CO, and it's her people who are throwing our little party tonight.”

    Kelso was as tall as Urizar, at least ten or twelve centimeters taller than Kaczmarczyk, with chestnut hair and blue eyes. She shook Jezic’s hand with a welcoming smile, and nodded welcomingly to him.

    “And this is Lieutenant William Hedges,” Kaczmarczyk continued, indicating the dark-haired young man standing beside Kelso, not in battle armor, but in an armored skinsuit. Jezic had to remind himself that all of the people around him were at least second-generation prolong recipients. He himself had received only the first-generation therapies, and even Kaczmarczyk looked as if he could have been the same age as one of Jezic’s nephews. Despite his load of weapons and gear, Hedges looked as if he should still be shooting marbles in a schoolyard somewhere.

    “Lieutenant Hedges runs Third Platoon, Captain Jezic,” Kaczmarczyk told him. “Lieutenant Kelso’s borrowing one of his squads for the op; he and his other two squads are taking over base security while we’re away. That,” he pointed at the battle armored Marines under the pinnaces’ sharply swept wings, “is First Platoon’s First and Second Squads. Each of our platoons has two squads worth of battle armor, and Lieutenant Kelso,” he grinned at the platoon commander, “is a bit on the greedy side, so she kept the best toys for herself.”

    “That’s not fair, Skipper,” Kelso protested with an absolutely straight face. “You know I didn’t have any choice. Michael here can’t be trusted with sharp objects.”

    “Sure, sure,” Kaczmarczyk agreed, rolling his eyes at Jezic. Then his expression grew more serious.

    “If you’ll take a look here, Captain, this is what the terrain actually looks like.”

    Jezic tried not to look like a little boy with his nose firmly against the candy store window as he studied the exquisitely detailed holo map hovering above the table. The information they had on the footprint of the installation hidden under that seemingly innocuous terrain had been highlighted in red, and he oriented himself quickly.

    “What we’re planning to do, in simplest terms, Captain,” Kaczmarczyk said, “is to drop Lieutenant Kelso and her armored people on individual counter-grav. We’ll toss them out in a high-altitude/low-opening drop from several kilometers out. They’ll freefall towards the installation, using skydiving techniques and their armor’s thrusters, and pop their counter-grav at the minimum safe altitude. That ought to put them on the ground, right on top of the the bad guys before they have any idea we’re coming.

    “Her first objective will be to secure or destroy this structure here.” He indicated the stubby, camouflaged tower on top of the hill. “We can’t tell whether this tower -- it looks like more of a tall bunker, really -- is just an observation post, or if it mounts heavy weapons. Since we can’t tell for certain, we’ll go ahead and be sure it’s neutralized, just to be on the safe side.

    “While one of First Squad’s fire teams takes care of that, her second squad will set up over here, covering the one apparent vehicle ramp we’ve identified. They’ll be dropping in heavy-assault configuration, with maximum firepower and minimum endurance. Hopefully, the entire operation will be over very quickly, but we’re bringing in backup power units for their armor and weapons in the event that it turns into some kind of siege operation and they have to stay on site for more than a couple of hours. With the plasma cannon, heavy tribarrels, and grenade launchers they’ll be bringing in, I don’t think anything’s likely to get out of the ramp and away from us.

    “First Squad’s second fire team will set up right here.” Kaczmarczyk indicated the ventilation system which had been identified. “Its primary mission will be to serve as Lieutenant Kelso’s tactical reserve until the rest of us get onto the ground. However, it will also be equipped with Suppressant Three.” Jezic looked at him, and he shook his head as if mildly irritated with himself. “Sorry, Captain. That’s our current sleepy gas. If the fire team can get onto its objective before the bad guys realize what’s going on and switch off their ventilators, it may be able to put the majority of the opposition to sleep, which would really make the rest of the job a lot easier.”

    “I can certainly see that,” Jezic said feelingly. “And I wish we had an effective -- ‘sleepy gas,’ did you call it?” Kaczmarczyk nodded, and Jezic shrugged. “The best incapacitants we’ve got are irritants and nausea-inducing agents. I understand the Defense Forces have some fairly effective lethal agents, but something that actually put people to sleep would be very useful to the KNP.”

    “Gunny,” Kaczmarczyk said, looking past Jezic to Urizar. “Make a note to remind me to see how much Suppressant Three we’ve got in stores. We should have enough to let the Captain here have at least a few canisters. And remind me to inventory our stun guns, too, now I’m thinking about it. Police forces are going to have a lot more need for something like that than we do.”

    “Aye, Sir,” the sergeant major replied.



    “Now,” Kaczmarczyk said, turning back to Jezic and continuing before the Kornatian could thank him for the implied generosity, “once Lieutenant Kelso’s on the ground and has the site basically secured, we’ll bring in the rest of First Platoon and Lieutenant Hedge’s Second Squad. They’ll be in regular Marine skinnies, which’re probably as good as any of your local body armor, but not anywhere near as tough as battle armor. They’ll spread out to take over the perimeter, and Second Squad, as soon as it’s been relieved from that duty, will execute the break-in into the underground installations. The pinnaces will lift back off as soon as everyone’s on the ground. They’ll provide air cover and ground support, if needed, and, along with the recon drones we’ll be deploying, they’ll keep an eye out for escapees. We haven’t been able to spot them so far, but the people who managed to put in something this well concealed are damned sure going to have bolt holes to let them scurry out the back door if someone kicks in the front door.”

    “That’s been our experience,” Jezic agreed. “I hate these bastards, you understand, but they usually plan pretty well. At first, a lot of it was obviously the work of amateurs, but even then, they usually managed to cover all the bases. Since then, they’ve gotten less elaborate and more practical. In fact, I hate to admit it, but they’ve demonstrated a pretty steep learning curve.”

    “Nobody ever promised the bad guys’ll be stupid and incompetent just because they’re bad guys,” Kaczmarczyk said philosophically.

    “No, but somebody should have!” Jezic shot back, and all of the Marines standing around him chuckled.

    “I do have one question, Captain,” Kaczmarczyk said after a moment, his expression much more serious. “The one thing I know I don’t have a good feel for is exactly how fanatical these people are. Or maybe what I mean is how suicidal they might be.”

    “That’s a hard one, Captain. We know they’re fanatical enough to blow up department stores full of civilians. And which,” Jezic added grimly,”they knew contained two child day-care centers. But, to be perfectly honest, we haven’t managed to corner enough of them to know how likely they are to blow themselves up for the glory of the Movement.” His mouth twisted bitterly. “If this place is as important as its isolation and concealment indicate, I’d think that they’d be more likely to do something like that here than if we’d only cornered a strike team out in the open somewhere. I’d have to say the possibility exists, but I can’t begin to tell you how likely it actually is.”

    “I was afraid that was what you’re going to say,” Kaczmarczyk said unhappily. “That’s one reason I’m really hoping we can get the Suppressant Three in there before they shut down their air system. Not even battle armor will protect someone from a big enough explosion.”

    “I don’t imagine it will,” Jezic said. “On the other hand, they obviously are depending on concealment, and this isn’t something they put in yesterday, or even last week. I know our recon satellites didn’t pick any of this up, and they’re not as good as yours are, by a long chalk. But this --“ he indicated the holo map “-- was a major project. I’m willing to bet Nordbrandt’s people built this damned thing even before the annexation plebiscite came up. I can’t prove that -- yet -- but I did have Colonel Basaricek pull the file recon footage for this area. The stuff we’ve gotten since we reinforced and redeployed our recon assets after the Nemanja bombing. None of it shows what your drones managed to pick up, but it doesn’t show any evidence of construction, either. So this has been in and underground, with time for the vegetation and foliage around it to recover, for at least that long.”

    Kaczmarczyk nodded, though, from his expression, he wasn’t too sure where Jezic was headed, and the Kornatian smiled.

    “Setting up an effective self-destruct you can be sure will work in an emergency but won’t go off unless you tell it to isn’t as easy as entertainment writers would like us to think it is, Captain. Especially the second bit.”

    He smiled again, more nastily, and this time Kaczmarczyk smiled back.

    “True,” the Manticoran agreed. “Accidents can be so… permanent if something like that screws up.”

    “Exactly. My point, though, is that while they’ve almost certainly had the time to put something like that in, I’m not at all certain they’ve felt any urgency to do so. After all, we’ve never given any sign that we suspected something like this might be up there, and they’re probably feeling about as confident about their security as any terrorist bunch is likely to let itself feel. That being the case, I doubt they’ll be able to improvise an effective self-destruct system in the time available to them if we get in hard and fast enough.”

    “I’d say there’s a good chance you’re right,” Kaczmarczyk agreed. “On the other hand, I’ve never been real enthusiastic about including ‘there’s a good chance’ in my mission planning.”

    “Neither am I. But when it’s all you have, it’s all you have.”

    Jezic paused, hesitating for a moment as he recalled another part of his truncated briefing from Colonel Basaricek, then shrugged and plunged on in.

    “There is one other point, Captain,” he said, his tone more formal than it had been, and Kaczmarczyk gave him a sharp glance.

    “Yes, Captain?” His tone was also more formal, Jezic noted.

    “We don’t know anyone in this installation is violating the law,” the police officer said. “I realize the circumstances are extraordinary. And as Colonel Basaricek pointed out to me, martial law’s been declared and Parliament’s voted to authorize the use of the regular military -- which would also cover your people, in this case -- for duties which would otherwise fall squarely to the National Police. However, that doesn’t absolve the government, or the police, from our responsibilities under the Constitution.”

    He paused again, and Kaczmarczyk nodded.

    “You’re a Marine, Captain Kaczmarczyk. So are all your personnel, and military training’s necessarily different from police training. You said you intend to ‘neutralize’ the tower, or bunker, or whatever it is, as quickly as possible. I have to ask you if that means you plan to employ deadly force without first calling upon any suspects to surrender without resistance?”

    He thought he saw a flicker of respect in those amber-green eyes. He knew he saw a grimace of what was probably irritation on Lieutenant Hedges’ face, and Lieutenant Kelso gave him a tight, teeth-baring smile that was totally devoid of humor.

    “Let me put it to you this way, Captain Jezic,” Kaczmarczyk said, after a moment. “The question you’ve just raised was addressed by Captain Terekhov when he alerted me for this mission. He emphasized to me that the observance of Kornatian law was of paramount importance. However, although I realize this is essentially a police operation, the nature of this particular installation makes it effectively a military operation. I’ve attempted to strike the best compromise I can between those two differing sets of requirements and priorities.

    “The instant the first of my Marines hits the objective, he’ll deploy remote speaker systems which will begin broadcasting a demand for the occupants of the installation to surrender and come out of their hidey holes without weapons, and warning that we’re prepared to employ deadly force if they don’t immediately comply. If that demand’s obeyed, we won’t fire a shot. If, however, it is not obeyed, or the instant a shot is fired at one of my people or we discover we’re looking at heavy weapons sited for immediate use, it will cease to be a police operation and become a military strike. Under those conditions, my people will be instructed to accept surrenders so long as it doesn’t endanger them or any other of my personnel.”

    His strange eyes met Jezic’s levelly, unflinchingly, and the police captain understood he was hearing a nonnegotiable position. Still --

    “And the neutralization of the tower, Captain?”

    “Anybody in it will’ve heard the surrender demand, Captain. Sergeant Cassidy’s team will be under orders to take out any heavy weapons without inflicting casualties, if possible. I will not, however, expose my people to fire from that position. If it’s impossible to neutralize its weapons without destroying it outright, then I will order it destroyed unless anyone inside it comes out and surrenders instantly. I hope it’ll be possible to shut it down without killing anyone. But if it contains heavy weapons, I’m going to accept that as proof the people in this installation are engaged in illegal activities, and as criminals, the preservation of their lives takes second place to the preservation of the lives of my personnel.”

    Jezic hovered on the brink of protesting, but he didn’t. He didn’t because he recognized the logic of the Manticoran’s position. And because it was vital for his star nation to retain not simply the cooperation of the Manticorans, but their active cooperation. And he didn’t because he was a SWAT officer -- because all too often in his career, he’d been called into situations where the parameters and options were very much like the ones Kaczmarczyk faced here.

    “All right, Captain Kaczmarczyk,” he said finally. “I understand your position, and I respect it. I suppose we’ll all just have to hope for the best, won’t we?




    Ragnhild Pavletic sat in her flight couch, on Hotel-Papa-Two’s flight deck tonight, with her right hand lightly on her stick, and watched the clean, crisp twinkle of the stars. Major Kaczmarczyk had specifically requested her for this mission, and she felt flattered. She also felt nervous.

    People were going to be killed tonight. Whatever the Major wanted, however much everyone would prefer to take them all prisoner, it wasn’t going to happen -- she knew that with absolute assurance. And if anyone tried to bug out by air, Ragnhild Pavletic or Coxswain 1/c Tussey, flying Hotel-Papa-Three, were supposed to nail them.

    “Nail them,” she thought, lips twisting in a humorless smile. I suppose it sounds better than “kill them” or “blow them into tiny bleeding pieces.” But it means the same thing. And this time it won’t be the computers taking a preprogrammed shot. It’ll be my hand on the trigger.

    She didn’t much care for that but, to her surprise, it didn’t frighten her, either. She knew what the FAK had done here on Kornati.

    Yet she wasn’t looking forward to it, and so she watched the brilliant, uncaring stars as Hotel-Papa-Two knifed along on the very edge of space, and wished human beings could settle their affairs with the same clean, cool detachment.



    Platoon Sergeant George Antrim, First Platoon’s senior noncom, stood and moved to the center of the pinnace. Unlike Lieutenant Kelso, Antrim was in a standard armored skinsuit, and he crossed to stand beside the pinnace’s flight engineer at the jump master’s station.

    “Approaching drop,” he announced, over his skinsuit com to the battle armored Marines. “Prepare to drop.”

    The armored Marines stood and moved to the port side of the pinnace. The standard airlock was on the starboard side of the hull. The port side of the fuselage was configured for just this situation, and Antrim nodded to the flight engineer.

    “Open her up.”

    “Opening now,” the Navy puke replied, and a hatch four meters across slid open in the side of the pinnace. Everyone in the passenger compartment, including the flight engineer, was skinsuited or armored, with helmet sealed, for reasons which were obvious as the compartment instantly depressurized. Baffles forward of the hatch broke the slipstream, providing a pocket of protected airspace outside it, and Captain Kaczmarczyk and Sergeant Major Urizar stepped up to the opening.

    “Confirm drop acquisition,” Antrim said, and twenty-six armored thumbs rose on twenty-six armored right hands as every one of the queued Marines confirmed that his armor’s internal computer had pinpointed the coordinates of the drop zone and projected it onto his visor’s heads-up-display. The sergeant nodded in approval, and checked the jump display projected into his own helmet’s HUD again.

    “Drop point in… forty-five seconds,” he announced.

    The appointed seconds raced away, and Antrim spoke one last time.




    Captain Tadislaw Kaczmarczyk thrust himself out and away from Hotel-Papa-Two. His external sound pickup was adjusted to its lowest sensitivity, but the ear-piercing wail of the pinnace’s turbines was still deafening. For just an instant, the air around him seemed almost calm; then his plummeting body crossed the boundary between the baffles’ protective bubble and the air beyond.

    Despite his protective armor, he grunted in shock as Kornati’s atmosphere punched savagely at him. It was a sensation he’d felt before, although he hated to think what it would have been like for someone without armor.

    He flung out his armored arms and legs, simultaneously triggering his suit’s built-in thrusters, stabilizing himself in mid-air. This section of Kornati was virtually unpopulated, an endless forest of virgin, indigenous hardwoods and evergreens, which undoubtedly explained why the bad guys had chosen it for their installation. It also meant there were no artificial light sources below him. He gazed down into a vast, black void -- the bottom of the greedy well of gravity into which he’d cast himself -- and he could see nothing.

    Until he brought his low-light systems on-line, that was.

    Instantly, the forested terrain below him -- very far below him -- snapped into visibility. He was still far too high to make out details, and from his altitude, he seemed scarcely to be moving at all, despite a forward velocity of more than six hundred kilometers per hour. His rigidly extended limbs meant his angle of descent was shallow, and the glowing green crosshair of his objective floated above the horizon line projected across his HUD. The armor’s exoskeletal “muscles” meant he could hold his posture forever, despite the clawing pressure of the steadily thickening atmosphere, and he adjusted his position carefully, dropping the crosshair directly onto the horizon line. A soft audio tone confirmed that he was back on trajectory, and he settled down.

    Minutes ticked past as he continued to slice through the air, First Platoon’s first two squads stretched behind him like some formation of stooping hawks. The ground beneath drew steadily closer, and his speed across it became increasingly apparent. He checked his altitude. It was down to little more than a thousand meters, and the crosshair began to blink -- slowly, at first, then more and more rapidly. Another audio tone sounded -- this one sharp and insistent, not soft -- and he popped his counter-grav.

    It wasn’t like a standard counter-grav belt or harness. There wasn’t room for one of those, or not for one with the power he needed tonight, at any rate. Instead, the backpack harness strapped between his armored shoulder blades popped open. A tether deployed from it, and an instant later, the extraordinary powerful counter-grav generator at the tether’s far end snapped to full power, with no gradual windup.

    Kaczmarczyk grunted again, this time explosively, as his airspeed checked abruptly. He swung on the end of the tether, outside the actual field of the generator, and the treetops flashing past below him slowed. They reached up for his boots, but he was coming down far more gradually now, and he checked his HUD one more time.

    Right on the money. Good to know I haven’t lost my touch.



    First Platoon hit the ground almost precisely on its objective.

    Almost precisely.

    Even with the best computer support available, there was bound to be at least some scatter in a HALO drop from that far out. For the most part, the error was less than twenty meters, but Private 1/c Franz Taluqdar, of First Squad, was just a bit further off than that. In fact, Private Taluqdar found himself coming down almost directly in front of the ridgeline tower which was his objective.

    Taluqdar didn’t know what, if anything, that bunker was armed with. If it was armed and the weaponry was of local manufacture, the odds were pretty good that his armor would protect him from it. But “pretty good” were two words Taluqdar didn’t much care for, especially not in reference to sharp pointy things and his own personal hide. He therefore decided that landing in the potential field of fire of the possible bunker’s hypothetical weapons was contraindicated and proceeded to do something which would certainly have cost him his PFC stripe in a training exercise.

    He jettisoned his counter-grav while he was still ten meters off the ground and hit his suit thrusters.

    Battle armor thrusters, unlike the jump gear which allowed an armored Marine to cover ground at an amazing rate in long, low leaps, had a strictly limited endurance. They were intended for extra-atmospheric maneuvers, not for the bottom of a gravity well, and it was expected that their users would avoid full-power emergency burns even there.

    Private Taluqdar had other ideas, which, taken all together, violated about fifteen safety regulations.

    His trajectory altered abruptly, first dropping in the instant he cut his tether, and then angling sharply upward as his thrusters flared. He reached the apogee of his flight path, swept his body -- and his thrusters -- through a neat arc, and shifted abruptly to an equally sharp angle of descent. It was all instinct, training, and eyeball estimates, but it worked. Instead of landing in front of the tower, he touched neatly down atop it.

    And promptly crashed straight through its camouflaged canopy as inertia and the mass of his armor had their way.



    Captain Kaczmarczyk hit the release button to deploy his own speaker unit just before he smashed through the tree canopy and hit the ground. The self-contained unit arced away from him, ping-ponging off branches and spinning sideways before stabilizing into a hover fifteen meters in the air. He hit the ground hard, his armor -- freshly smeared with the Kornatian ecosystem’s version of chlorophyl -- absorbing most of the shock, and tucked and rolled. He came back upright, pulse rifle ready, and heard his own thunderous, recorded voice bellowing from his speaker unit.

    “Attention! Attention! This is Captain Kaczmarczyk, Royal Manticoran Marines! Surrender and come out without weapons and with your hands on top of your heads! Repeat, surrender and come out without weapons and with your hands on your heads immediately! You are under arrest for suspected illegal terrorist activities, and resistance or noncompliance will be met with deadly force! Repeat, you are under arrest! Surrender immediately, or face the consequences!”

    The backup speakers were silent. They were scarcely needed to cover the area of the installation -- even with his external audio cranked down, the sound of his amplified voice was almost deafening -- and his own unit had sent out a signal to shut the others down. Had his speaker malfunctioned, Kelso’s would have taken over. And if hers had malfunctioned in turn, Sergeant Cassidy’s, would have taken over.

    Satisfied that the warning had been issued, and leaving the speaker set to repeat it over and over again -- both so there wouldn’t be any question that the bad guys had been given the opportunity to surrender, and also for the morale effect it was bound to have -- he turned towards the ridgeline position.

    Just in time to see one of his Marines land directly on top of it and disappear.



    Private Taluqdar caught a scrap of the captain’s surrender demand as his armor smashed through the camouflaged-patterned canvas covering the open top of the tower.

    The single Kornatian who had been standing there, half-asleep in the middle of his long, boring watch, had just started to jerk fully upright in reaction to the thundering voice, when two meters of night-black armor came crashing down on the log platform behind him. His surprise was as complete as surprise could possibly be, and he whipped around, instinctively clawing for the weapon holstered at his hip.

    It was exactly the wrong reaction.

    Taluqdar knew he was supposed to call upon any “suspects” to surrender before blowing them away. But Franz Taluqdar was also a combat veteran, and there was something about the weapon behind the sentry. Something his experience recognized even if his brain didn’t have time to put it altogether. Something that changed the entire threat parameter of the operation.

    Something that activated his combat reflexes, instead of the demand to surrender.



    Kaczmarczyk’s head whipped up as the hissing, supersonic “Crack-crack-crack!” of a firing pulser came from the direction of the ridgeline. His armor’s sensors instantly identified it as the product of a M32a5 pulse rifle on full auto, and he swallowed a mental curse. So much for giving the other side a chance to surrender first!

    “Hawk-Mike-Alpha!” a voice his armor’s HUD tagged as one of First Squad’s riflemen came up on his com. “Hawk-Mike-One, Pandora. Pandora!”

    Kaczmarczyk’s concern about timing and surrender demands disappeared abruptly.

    “All Hawks, Hawk-Mike-Alpha!” he snapped. “Pandora! I say again, Pandora! Case Zulu! I say again, Case Zulu is now in force!”



    Taluqdar heard the Skipper, but as far as he was concerned, Case Zulu had applied from the instant his conscious thoughts caught up with his reflexes and recognized the weapon mounted on the platform railing as a plasma rifle.

    It shouldn’t have been there. There shouldn’t have been any plasma rifles on Kornati, aside from a very small number held by the System Defense Force, all of which had been positively accounted for. But there it was, and even before the warning had gone out to the rest of the platoon, Taluqdar was placing the breaching charge on the floor of the log platform, which was also the roof of the bunker beneath.

    He slapped the shaped ring charge into place, thumbed the detonator, and stepped back as far as the platform would allow. Five seconds later the charge detonated with a loud “Whumpf!” which blew a gaping opening through the heavy logs. Taluqdar tossed a frag grenade through for good measure, waited for it to detonate, and then dropped through feet-first in pursuit.



    Aboard the second pinnace, circling around as it prepared to land the rest of the Marines and his own SWAT personnel, Captain Barto Jezic, monitoring the Marines’ communications net over a borrowed headset, also heard Captain Kaczmarczyk, and his jaw clenched.

    He knew the Marines hadn’t really expected to face modern, off-world weapons any more than he had. But Kaczmarczyk and his people were professionals. They’d allowed for it in their planning, and the Pandora warning had moved them abruptly to an entirely different set of rules of engagement.

    They were no longer there to apprehend; they were there to “neutralize.”

    To destroy.

    Jezic closed his eyes briefly, praying that at least some of the people down there -- people who had to be terrorists, if they had off-world weapons, however they’d gotten them -- would be fast enough to surrender while they were still alive.”



    Drazen Divkovic, “Brother Dagger,” rolled out of his bunk, clawing his way frantically up out of the depths of sleep. The incredible volume of the surrender demand had penetrated into the warren of underground bunkers and passages which had been built long before the National Reformation Party had been transformed into the Freedom Alliance of Kornati. But he’d only begun to rouse when the first explosions began.

    How? How?! If Camp Freedom had been spotted when the off-world weapons were actually landed, it would have been hit then, not three nights later! And how could they have --

    “Drazen! Drazen!” It was Jelena Krleza, his second-in-command, screaming through the open door. “We’re under attack!” she announced unnecessarily. “It’s the fucking Manties!”

    Drazen’s heart seemed to stop. Manties? Manticorans?!

    It couldn’t be. It simply could not be! But it was, and he cursed himself for not having set up some sort of self-destruct. But this site had been here so long, been so secure. He hadn’t been able to believe it had been compromised, not after they’d landed the weapons and no one had even blinked! Only now --

    “Get your weapons!” he bellowed. “Get your weapons! Man your positions!”

    He snatched up the belt-fed grenade launcher he’d chosen as his own personal weapon and dashed for the door, wishing with all his heart that he’d had the opportunity to actually practice with it.



    Second Squad was in assault configuration. Its regular plasma rifles had been replaced with heavier weapons, which were normally crew-served. Its riflemen had traded in their usual pulse rifles for heavy tribarrels fed from five thousand-round, backpack tanks of alternating HE and armor-piercing ammunition.

    Now Second Squad went to Case Zulu, and the plasma rifles fired. The camouflaged door to the underground vehicle ramp was only earth-covered logs, less than a half-meter thick. It simply vanished, and a tornado of tribarrel fire ripped through the opening. Grenades followed, and the squad’s first section went in behind them, charging into the inferno of exploding fuel tanks and blazing vehicles, tribarrels ready.

    First Squad’s second fire team looked for a way to dump the sleeping gas into the ventilation system, but there were no intakes. All they had was the exhaust from the system, and they moved swiftly to their alternate assigned role under Case Zulu, deploying rapidly outward to take over the perimeter while Second Squad broke in through the vehicle entrance. Even as they did, Sergeant Cassidy’s team went up the ridge in the long, flying leaps of their jump gear, and more breaching charges thundered as they blew their way in through the sides of the tower/bunker and followed Private Taluqdar down into the bowels of the installation beneath.

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