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Chapter Twenty-Four

"Winchester-One, Winchester-Alpha-Three. We've got a problem."

"All units, Winchester-One," Alicia said instantly. "Hold position."

The other surviving forty-six members of Charlie Company stopped instantly, freezing in place, while she and Tannis continued moving forwards.

"What have we got, Erik?" she asked as she caught up with her point man, and Corporal Erik Andersson, call sign Winchester-Alpha-Three grunted over the com.

"Let me show you," he replied, and switched the feed from his own tactical remote to Alicia.

They didn't have many remotes left. Wherever the "terrorists" equipment had come from, they'd obviously gotten their money's worth. Their refurbished Marine battle armor's sensors were able to detect the presence of even a Cadre sensor remote. They couldn't localize it as well as a cadreman might have, but they could pin down a general volume, and they obviously realized that without their airborne spies, Charlie Company's survivors would be floundering around blind. So every time they did detect the emissions signature of a remote's heavily stealthed counter-grav, they saturated its general area with heavy fire, and remotes were "soft" targets, subject to mission kills, even if they weren't destroyed outright. A near miss with a plasma bolt was usually sufficient to do major damage to a remote's sensors, rendering it effectively useless. Charlie Company should have had sixty remotes left; Alicia actually had seventeen, and against first-line equipment-even old first-line equipment, like the terrorists had-she had to keep sending them in close if she wanted reliable data. Which meant she kept losing them in a steady trickle.

One of the seventeen survivors was assigned to Andersson, and Alicia clenched her teeth as she saw what Winchester-Alpha-Three had already seen.

Where are they getting all these people? she asked herself bitterly. Andersson's remote was picking up at least two hundred more battle-armored infantry, dug in in three separate positions directly across the saddle between two mountains through which Alicia had intended to pass her column.

Well, at least that settles the question of whether or not they still know where we are, she thought.

She'd hoped that they'd dropped completely off the enemy's sensors, but the FALA's commanders wouldn't have been able to airlift those people around in front of her if they hadn't had a pretty shrewd notion of where she was and where she was headed. On the other hand, one of the positions she could see was much too far to the west to support the others. Its location had clearly been chosen to block a side valley several kilometers to one side, and that suggested they were at least uncertain about her exact position. If they hadn't been, they would have known she'd actually been edging away from that side valley for the last twenty minutes.

None of which made her present situation any less unpalatable.

She studied the take from Andersson's remote intently, chewing the inside of her lip while she contemplated it. Fatigue was becoming yet another enemy, and she knew it. Thanks to the tick, the last couple of hours seemed to have taken weeks to drag past. She knew better, but there was a direct link between the mind's perception of time's passage and the body's physical responses, and the stress of such bitter combat-and casualties-burned up energy like another forest fire. It was a fatigue cadremen were trained to cope with, and Alicia's pharmacope was trickling carefully metered doses of offsetting drugs into her system, but the drain of such constant tension made all of them less effective than they ought to have been.

She pushed that thought aside again, as she also pushed aside the thought of the ten more people she'd lost since they'd been forced to leave Helena Chu behind. Chu was dead now, too; Alicia had still been in range for the corporal's armor icon to show on her HUD when the air-cav mount swept over Chu and killed her. All of Charlie Company's survivors had known when it happened, and Alicia had felt their hatred melding with her own.

But at least the people who'd killed Chu were almost certainly dead themselves. The company's plasma gunners had picked off six more aircraft when they'd closed in-much more cautiously than before-to strafe. Alicia might have lost ten more troopers in exchange, but the enemy was obviously beginning to run out of air-cav mounts at last. More had turned up since their first disastrous strafing attack, but after the additional losses they'd also taken, there were only four left within the reach of Alicia's sensors. Three of those had arrived after Chu was killed, and Alicia took a hard, grim pleasure from the thought that the people who'd murdered her corporal had almost certainly been among those who'd been shot down.

The four survivors were orbiting at extreme range now, obviously keeping their distance and closing in only for occasional overflights. Given how hard it was to track Cadre battle armor even under the best of circumstances, it was no wonder their feel for exactly where Alicia's people were had become fuzzy.

"We can't go around them," she said quietly to Tannis over their private com link.

"Sarge, I don't know as we've got a lot of choice," Tannis replied, equally quietly, studying the same tactical data. She was accustomed to serving as Alicia's sounding board, as a wing was supposed to do. "We're awfully beat up," she continued, "and we're running low on ammo. We could probably work around them, to the east."

She dropped the dotted line of a possible altnerative route onto Alicia's HUD, and Alicia nodded. Tannis's projection swept well to the east, around the end of the line the blocking positions had drawn across the mountain saddle. Unfortunately … .

"There's no time," she said. "They must've used air lorries, or something like that, to lift these people in-probably from the positions back by the LZ-to wait here for us, and if we try to work our way around them, we end up with even worse terrain between us and Green Haven. It'd take us even longer to get there, even if nothing else went wrong. And it would go wrong, Tannis. That damned air-cav may be keeping its distance, but it sure as hell knows roughly where we are, or these people wouldn't be here. So if we try to work around them, they'll probably spot us. And if they do, the extra time we'll spend trying to get through the terrain to the east will give them plenty of time to lift these people out of here again and drop them somewhere else in front of us."

"But if we punch into them head-on, we solve their problem for them," Tannis countered. "They want us to engage them, Sarge. That's why they're here."

"Granted." Alicia studied the tactical data in silence for a few more seconds, but she knew Tannis had a point.

The enemy's commander obviously knew that taking the Cadre on, even when they had heavy weapons and the Cadre didn't, was a good way to get hurt. But it was equally obvious that the enemy had an enormous numerical advantage, although Alicia still couldn't imagine how they'd managed to get all of these people down here. And their commander equally clearly wanted nothing more than to force Alicia's people to engage them on the FALA's terms. The terrorists weren't interested in fighting on Alicia's terms; they wanted to force her to come to them when they had both the numerical advantage and the advantage of prepared positions.

"You know," she continued to Tannis after a moment, "looking at their positions here, it strikes me that they've obviously got a better feel for strategy than for tactics."

"I know that tone, Sarge," Tannis said. She was standing with her back to Alicia, keeping wary watch around their position, but Alicia could see the single raised eyebrow as clearly as if they'd been standing face-to-face. She'd seen it literally scores of time over the past eighteen months, and her mouth quirked as she smiled fondly at her friend's back.

"Their problem," she explained, "is that whoever picked out their positions had the strategic sense to find a choke point from her maps and send somebody out to block it. But the way they went about blocking it after they got here has a few tiny drawbacks. Look here."

She manipulated the terrain overlay on Tannis' HUD, and Tannis gave a sudden, tuneless whistle.

"My, that was careless of them, wasn't it?" she said.

"That's one way to put it," Alicia agreed, gazing at the HUD's contour lines herself. Then she switched channels.

"Mauser-One, Winchester-One. Move your people to this point -" she dropped a location icon into Celestine Hillman's HUD "-and meet me there. Lion-Alpha-Three," she continued, "move your people up to this point."

She dropped yet another icon into the HUD, and waited until acknowledgments came back from Hillman and Hennessey. Then she slapped Andersson on his armored shoulder.

"Good work, Erik," she told him. "Now stay here and keep an eye on them until we're ready."

"You got it, Sarge," he replied, and she went bounding back along the column towards Hillman.

* * * | In Fury Born | * * *