Sir Arthur Keita twitched upright in his comfortable chair as the tick-clipped, husky contralto spoke.
"Winchester-One, Skycap," he said quickly. "Go."
"We've got that eyeball of the objective for you, Uncle Arthur," the voice said. "It doesn't look especially good. They've got air-defense plasma cannon-they look like Marine Mark Eighteens-positioned around the central facility, with HVW launchers to back them up. They've also got a hundred and eighty-I say again, one-eight-zero-more infantry dug in around the base of the hill. We've gotten a remote inside the objective, and they've got all of the hostages in a single location covered by calliopes and infantry support cannon. We have a hard count of thirty-three hostiles inside the building, including weapons crews, but only three in battle armor. I've confirmed active air-defense radar and lidar, and they have a radar fence around the building itself at ground level. They do not-I repeat, do not-have a fence around the base of the hill. Some of their infantry seems to be moving around a good bit, and I'd guess they figured their own people would keep triggering alarms if they covered the hill itself."
Keita's expression had tightened further with every word, and he rubbed his face wearily at the end of Alicia's summary.
"Winchester-One," he said when she paused. "Alley. The FALA's been in contact with us. They say they'll kill half the hostages if we try to land Marines from Ctesiphon-and all of them if it looks like we might manage to actually get the Wasps down through their defenses. And," his jaw tightened, but he made himself continue levelly, "they say they won't let us withdraw you. They want to finish you off, make a clean sweep. Although," he admitted bleakly, "I think they might actually be happier in some ways if we tried to extract you anyway and all the hostages were killed."
"That's about how I'd already read the situation, Uncle Arthur," Alicia said calmly. "But none of us down here are inclined to let these people get away with it."
Keita's eyebrows rose, but she continued steadily before he could speak.
"I think we can get into the objective," she told him. "I believe we can take out the air defense positions and hold the main facility until you get the Wasps down to relieve us."
Keita turned to stare at Wadislaw Watts. The Marine intelligence specialist stared back at him in obvious disbelief, and Keita shook his head sharply.
"Alley," he said, "I'm sorry, but I don't think you can do it."
"Then you're wrong, Uncle Arthur," she replied flatly. "My people can do it. We will do it."
"They don't know we're here," she continued, overriding his protest. "If they did, they'd sure as hell be doing something about it. We've got good cover and concealment up to within less than three hundred meters of their outer infantry positions on the north side of the hill. I've got three plasma guns left, and there are three anti-air sites. We move most of our people in as close as we can get on the north side. Then the plasma gunners take out the air defenses to clear the way for the Wasps. While they do that, the rest of us break through their outer ring position, charge the building, cut our way through the outer wall-it's only prefab plastic-with our vibro blades, and take out the interior terrorists before they know we're coming. Then all we have to do is hold the central building until the Wasps get there."
Keita closed his eyes and clenched his fists so tightly that they hurt, then shook his head again, hard.
"Alley, that's a suicide mission," he said, and his powerful voice was frayed ever so slightly about the edge. "You're low on ammo, you'd have to cover-what? five hundred meters? six?-to reach the building. And even assuming you managed that, and managed to take out the inside guards, there'd still be almost two hundred people in battle armor coming in behind you. People who wouldn't give a good goddamn how many of the hostages they kill."
"Uncle Arthur, they're going to kill all of them-or most of them-anyway," Alicia said even more flatly. "That may not be their game plan, but it's what's going to happen, and you know it as well as I do. They can't talk their way out of this one whatever they do, and when they start to figure that out, they're going to get desperate and begin killing people to try to force concessions you xan't give them. And when they do that, you're going to have to come in anyway. And when that happens, everyone dies. This way we can get at least some of them-most of them, I believe-out alive."
"But we don't have to do it right now," Keita said almost desperately. "If they don't know where you are, you can break off, evade. Maybe we can get a resupply drop to you without them realizing it. For God's sake, Alley, at least let us get more ammunition to you first!"
"We do have to do it now," she replied. "Right now. They don't know we're here at the moment, but they're still looking for us. Eventually, they'll find us. And even if that weren't true, even if we could withdraw, resupply, we'd never get this close again without being spotted on the way in. It's now or never, Uncle Arthur, and we've lost too many of our people to settle for never. Charlie Company is going in. Now, are you going to support us with a Marine drop, or not?"