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Chapter Ten

"Where's Kuramochi now?"

"Just about to cross over into the Mall, Ma'am."

Serafina Palacios nodded in satisfaction, then looked back at the general situation map.

The pressure on her own perimeter had started to ease. She was glad of that. The first couple of times it had been threatened, her dug-in Marines had been able to drive the rioters back by firing over their heads and into the ground in front of them, without inflicting casualties. After that, the pressure behind the ones in front had changed the context. There'd been so many bodies pushing them forward that they'd had nowhere to go but onward, straight at her outer line. She doubted that they'd wanted to do anything of the sort, but that hadn't changed what they were doing or the fact that most of them were armed and worked up to a killing frenzy. When they'd begun shooting at her Marines, she'd had no option but to order her people to return fire.

Which was why there were now well over two hundred and fifty bodies sprawled outside her forward positions. At least the battalion's corpsmen, assisted by the spaceport rescue teams, had been able to bring in the wounded. Captain Hudson, the battalion's doctor, along with his medics and the dozen or so civilian doctors inside the spaceport, had done all they could, but from reports, it sounded as if they were probably going to lose at least a half-dozen more in the end.

Still, it looked as if the riot, or insurrection, or whatever this thing actually was, had decided the spaceport was best left alone. The mob was amusing itself burning down a goodly percentage of the rest of Zhikotse and hunting down "Empie collaborators," instead. Most of the "collaborators" were nothing of the sort, of course-merely people whose relative affluence, or accent, or clothes had singled them out as one of the "oppressors of the poor." Most of the real "oppressors" had possessed the resources to get out of the riot's path, but mobs had never been noted for the clarity of their logic.

What happened to some of those poor devils was enough to turn Palacios' stomach, and after fifteen-plus years in the Imperial Marines, it was no longer a stomach which turned all that easily. But there wasn't a lot she could do about it. She simply didn't have the manpower. Any quixotic rescue attempts she might have mounted into a city the size of Zhikotse would have been absorbed the way a sponge absorbed water, and that was that.

Now, if it had simply been a matter of killing all the rioters, that would have been different.

Unfortunately-or, perhaps, fortunately, depending upon how one chose to look at it (and at the moment, Serafina Palacios was definitely in two minds about it)-standing imperial policy, as she'd explained to Jongdomba, called for the minimization of collateral damage and incidental civilian casualties, even in a situation like this one. Simply killing the people who'd surrounded the Mall would have been a relatively straightforward proposition. It might have taken a while, but she could have lifted the siege of the Presidential Mansion any time she chose to, if she'd been willing to turn Lieutenant Ryan loose. It might have used up a substantial percentage of her mortar ammunition, but she could have done it, especially if she'd sent in one of her companies behind the barrage to sweep up the bits and pieces. These poor pathetic rioters had no idea how truly lethal her Wasps could be, and she hoped they'd never find out. Although Brigadier Jongdomba had made it perfectly clear that he thought she should be showing the mob exactly that.

And if I have to, in the end, I will, she thought grimly. But only if I have to. We need to contain the situation, not create an atrocity that produces martyrs in job lots for the next version of the GLF to come along. Aubert's right about that. She smiled without much humor. So instead of killing people who've taken up arms against my Emperor-and their own locally elected government-I'm putting my people's lives at risk in order to hold civilian casualties down. And doesn't that just suck?

She snorted as she realized she'd been deliberately dwelling on just about anything she could think of in order to avoid what she really ought to be doing.

"Tom, what's the latest from Brigadier Jongdomba?" she asked after a moment.

"We're still in contact, Ma'am," Lieutenant Bradwell replied. "The Brigadier says his perimeter is being driven steadily back, though. He's reiterating his request for immediate relief."

Palacios nodded, although "request" was a pale choice of noun for what Jongdomba was actually doing. He'd gone over her head to Governor Aubert over an hour ago, demanding in the name of the planetary government that Palacios march to his support in strength, crushing any rioters she encountered en route. He'd also insisted that if she didn't comply with his "request," the planetary government would complain directly to the Ministry of Out-World Affairs that Palacios and Aubert had chosen to set the safety of off-world investment in the spaceport area above protecting the duly elected planetary government.

The subtext was clear enough; he not only wanted the Mall held, he wanted the "insurgency" smashed so completely, with such a high body count, that Gyangtse's underclass would never dare to raise its hand against its betters again. The sudden explosion of violence had obviously terrified him, all the more because he'd been so confident he and his fellow oligarchs were the absolute rulers of all they surveyed. The fact that most of this day's bloody violence sprang not from the GLF's separatist ambitions but from the festering, long-standing, and fully justified resentment of the politically excluded underclass wasn't something he was prepared to face, and from where Palacios stood, it seemed obvious he was losing his grip … assuming he hadn't already lost it. He was sounding less and less rational, as if what was happening was so unacceptable that he was retreating into a fantasy world where he could somehow fix it all by a simple act of will.

Or by putting someone else in charge of Gyangtse's local government, perhaps.

Whatever he might be thinking (or not thinking, as the case might be), he'd made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of evacuating the Mall. Or, for that matter, apparently of allowing the planetary government's members to evacuate, either. Which only lent added point to Palacios' growing suspicion of his ultimate motives, since he'd apparently managed to get almost everyone else out of his perimeter. According to Lieutenant Beregovoi's latest estimates, only the senior members of the planetary government were still in the Presidential Mansion; every junior official, clerical worker, and janitor appeared to have miraculously managed to escape before the rioters closed in. Palacios found it rather remarkable that it had been possible for a junior secretary to escape, but not for the Planetary President to do the same thing.

In effect, she knew, Jongdomba was holding his own government hostage, using the safety of its senior members as a bargaining chip to force her to do as he wished. Unfortunately for him, however, the previous political calculus of Gyangtse no longer obtained. Jongdomba's "good friend" Governor Aubert had informed the brigadier (who had announced that he now spoke for President Shangup and the rest of the government, as well) that all that could be done was already being done, that Major Palacios enjoyed his total confidence and support, and that Jongdomba's veiled threats wouldn't change any of that.

Palacios had been patched in as a silent auditor of that particular conversation, and she'd been just a little bit surprised by the fierceness of the satisfaction she'd felt as she listened.

"Connect me with the Brigadier," she said now.

"Yes, Ma'am."

Palacios turned her attention back to the map table. Jongdomba's com connection was voice-only, and she waited until a voice spoke in her mastoid implant.

"Jongdomba," it said. Without the self-identification, she would have found it difficult to recognize that harsh, strain-flattened voice as the bombastically confident militia commander's.

"Brigadier," she said crisply, "this is Major Palacios."

"With yet another excuse for not relieving us?" Jongdomba grated, and Palacios folded her hands behind her and gripped them tightly together.

"No, Brigadier," she replied calmly. "I'm comming to inform you that the second platoon of my Bravo Company is about to make contact with you."

"It is?" Palacios could almost see Jongdomba sitting up straighter. "That's excellent news! I know exactly where to put it until the rest of the relief force gets here!"

"Brigadier, I don't believe you fully understand the situation," the major said. "Second Platoon isn't there to reinforce your present positions; it's there to help extricate the President and the Delegates from the Mall and get them to safety here at the spaceport enclave."

"That's preposterous! You can't possibly be serious! Unless you want us to find ourselves putting down something like this every few years, it's imperative that we hold the Mall and teach this traitorous rabble the consequences of daring to -"

"Brigadier Jongdomba," Palacios' voice was flatter, "the protection of the political status quo is not my job. The maintenance of that status quo-or its necessary modification-is that of the planetary government of Gyangtze. The protection of that planetary government's real estate and official structures is the responsibility of the Gyantzese police establishment and the planetary militia. The protection of the Imperial Governor and his person, office, and staff, and of the authority of the Empire on Gyangtze and in this star system, is the responsibility of His Majesty's Marines and Fleet. In addition, however, the Empire does recognize the responsibility of His Majesty's armed forces to protect the lives and persons of the members of local planetary governments upon imperial planets. I am prepared to extend that protection, but I can best protect those persons here, inside my perimeter. I do not, as I've already repeatedly informed you , have the personnel to simultaneously protect the city's essential public services, hold the spaceport, and cover an objective as extensive as the Mall."

"Well, that's too damned bad!" Jongdomba snapped. "You and I both know you've got plenty of uncommitted combat power. You're simply unwilling to use it. And don't tell me about 'limiting civilian casualties' again! We're looking at a damned civil war if we don't crush these bastards right now, and you're refusing to do it."

"Whether you approve of it or not, Brigadier, my standing orders from the Minister of War and the Ministry of Out-World Affairs are quite clear. Maintenance of civil order is the primary responsibility of the local authorities. Imperial forces are to be employed for that purpose only as a last resort, and the limitation of casualties takes precedence over every other consideration except the preservation of human life and the protection of the persons of the local government's members. Which," Palacios repeated pointedly, "I can best do here at the spaceport, Sir."

"The preservation of the local government includes the protection of that government's offices and essential records," Jongdomba shot back. "A government is more than the individuals who happen to hold office at any given moment, and you know it. Your refusal to acknowledge that fact and your attendant responsibilities is unacceptable to the planetary government of Gyangtse, Major Palacios!"

"Then you have a problem, Brigadier," Palacios said coolly. "I'm not under your orders, Sir. In fact, my orders require me merely to 'cooperate' with the planetary authorities. I am cooperating by offering to provide for the physical safety of your government and its members. In my opinion, that is the maximum I can do without finding myself in dereliction of my other responsibilities. You may, of course, choose not to accompany Second Platoon when it returns to the spaceport. That's your option. But those are Lieutenant Kuramochi's orders, and they will be carried out. Are we clear on that, Brigadier?"

There was a moment of fulminating silence, and then, abruptly, the connection was terminated.

My, that didn't go too well, did it? Palacios thought, and looked at her com officer.

"Get me Kuramochi."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Kuramochi," a voice said almost instantly, and Palacios heard the crackle of small arms in the background.

"Chiyeko, this is Major Palacios. What's your estimate to contact with the militia's forward positions?"

"Five minutes, max, Ma'am."

"Well, be advised that that contingency you and I discussed vis-а-vis Brigadier Jongdomba may well be in effect."

"Understood, Ma'am." Kuramochi's voice was flatter than it had been, and Palacios smiled without any humor whatsoever.

"Sorry to drop it on you, Lieutenant," she said. "Just remember, you're covered by my orders to you. You do what you have to do; I'll worry about the repercussions afterward."

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get it done."

"Never doubted it, Chiyeko. Palacios, clear."

* * * | In Fury Born | * * *