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Authors: Mike Shepherd

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BOOK: Redoubtable
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9

Two
hours later, Kris led her Marines out from the Annam plantation in a convoy of twenty-six trucks. First and second platoons took up only the first six. The last dozen or so were empty, ready to provide mobility to the yet unlanded third and fourth platoons. It was the other six trucks that left Kris with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

In them rode over a hundred volunteers from the Annam farm, armed with their scroungings from the noon battlefield.

Few of them had ever fired a shot. Even fewer knew how to hit what they aimed at. Worst, Kris doubted any of them knew a thing about taking orders.

But every one of them wanted blood.

And if Kris ignored them, they swore they would follow her into her next fight and do God only knew what kind of harm to themselves.

And to Kris’s professionals.

Kris took Jack aside. “First time I took a bunch of half-trained sailors into a firefight, lots of them had never fired a shot. Most forgot to take the safeties off their weapons. See if some of your Marines could teach this bunch of idiots the basics and maybe scare them into good sense.”

Jack assigned a half dozen Marine sergeants to introduce the locals to the functioning of machine pistols, rifles, and pistols, with special emphasis on which end gets aimed at the other side. They made sure to explain clearly to the uninitiated the workings of the safety system of their weapons.

There was no ammunition to spare for practice shots, but at least the locals now knew about a sight picture and the safety.

Sadly, few saw the error of their ways and dropped out.

Mr. Annam wished them all well and sent them forth with a blessing. As a practicing Buddhist, he could not bring himself to join them.

Kris had been taught early by her politician father to smile nicely at any blessing that came her way. She did so now. But more so, she hoped the local’s blessing had some power to it. In the next hour or two, she would likely need all the good luck she could beg, steal, or borrow.

Kris was not worried about her Marines. Her job was to get them to a place where they could do their job. She would do her part, and they would take care of their end of the bargain.

The volunteers were a question mark Kris did not need.

She’d been there several times when hardly trained, lightly armed enthusiasts went into a fight. She knew the bloody mess that usually ended up in.

She’d seen it again just that noon.

Now a small rabble pulled up the rear of Kris’s column. With any luck, the fight would be over before the volunteers found out it was happening and figured out how to get out of their trucks.

For now, Kris concentrated on what lay ahead of her.

Chief Beni and Penny stood on either side of her as she held on to the cab of the truck she rode in. A canvas cover protected her from the sun . . . a bit, and from any overhead observation . . . a very little bit.

“Chief, talk to me.”

“So far, I have nothing to report,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got scouts out there hunting for any kind of noise that Jackie’s eyeballs might make, but we’re getting nothing. I don’t think the woman knows boo about eyes in the sky or search bots.”

“Nelly tells me there’s nothing on the radio frequencies.”

“Nelly’s right about that,” the chief said. “So far, this Jackie is deaf, dumb, and blind. I kind of like her that way.”

“Don’t assume that just because she’s not using any of your high tech,” Penny said, “that she’s as blind as you think. Once we get into the city, anyone looking out a window could make a call and turn us in. No, correction, there will be folks just waiting to let her know where we are and what we’re doing.”

“Is Penny right about that?” Kris asked.

“She’s got a point,” the chief allowed.

“We can close down the phone system,” Nelly offered.

“I’ve got Da Vinci working on spitting out a bot to do just that,” the chief was quick to add.

“I’ve already got a bot in the air,” Nelly said.

Around the house, while Kris was growing up, there had never been a really serious case of sibling rivalry. Not really. Well, maybe a bit, but nothing like Nelly and the chief.

“Both of you, hold your horses,” Kris said, then turned to Penny. “Am I wrong, or wouldn’t it be better if we took down the phone system just as we rolled into town. I’d prefer that this Jackie character didn’t know she had a problem until she was up to her neck in it.”

“That’s the way I’d do it,” Penny agreed.

“Okay, you two send out your bots, let them hook into the local net, but don’t shut it down until I say so.”

“Aye, aye” and “Yes, Kris” answered her.

“Ah, do you want it totally closed down?” the chief asked, “or would you like to just block all traffic relating to us.”

That raised Kris’s eyebrows. “Could you do that?”

“Da Vinci could monitor all calls,” Nelly quickly said. “He could hold up all of them for a few seconds while he listens in. Those that don’t relate to us, he could let go through. Those that do, he blocks. Or maybe answers himself.”

“You sure this isn’t getting too fancy?” Kris asked.

“More like too smart by half as my auntie used to say,” Penny added.

“We can do it,” Nelly insisted. “I can have some of the kids work with Da Vinci to make sure everything gets covered. We can make this happen.”

“You two work it out,” Kris said dubiously. She glanced at Penny.

The intel lieutenant was gnawing her lip. “Things are still quiet at the stadium,” she said. Then she frowned. “We got developments on Tranquility Road.”

“Give me your view,” Kris said. Her stomach rebelled at what she saw.

Jackie
Jackson stood on the balcony and liked what she saw. The lawn, a lovely green without a single weed, was usually patrolled by dogs. Big ones with loud barks and nice sharp teeth. The first couple of heads on the gate spikes had been fools who tried to slip in late at night and failed to get past the dogs.

They’d begged Jackie to cut their throats before they died. The heads went on spikes. The dogs got the rest.

Jackie’s family had worked for four generations for Greenfeld State Security. Great-grandfather had complained that these young Peterwalds were soft until the day he died. Grandfather and Dad told stories of the good old days when people on the street went out of their way to avoid looking a black shirt in the eyes.

Jackie got stuck working for lightweight Henry the twelfth. The guy had no backbone and no taste for blood. Until he turned on his own. Until he shot his own black shirts.

Peterwald had no respect for loyalty. None at all.

Jackie hotfooted it out of St. Pete with her best and most loyal troopers. And guns. Plenty of guns and explosives.

She’d realized the way the wind was blowing right after General Boyng failed to persuade Peterwald that he was more valuable to him alive than dead. Others had stayed to protest their loyalty. To point to years of service to the state.

Most of those fools were dead, as well they deserved to be.

Here, Jackie was making her own world. If Peterwald came calling, she’d turn it over to him from her very own hands. He’d know exactly what she was worth to him.

And if he didn’t bother coming to call? If he failed in his mad purge of his most loyal subordinates? Well, Jackie had friends there, too. They’d be glad to have her present them a world ready for the riding.

A commotion down on the lawn distracted Jackie from her thoughts. A hostage had broken loose from the chains that held her in place as live cover for Jackie’s machine-gun emplacements.

A dog handler quickly slipped the leash from his beast’s neck.

The dog was beautiful to watch. It was on the fleeing woman in four mighty bounds. First, it knocked her down. Then it ripped her throat out in one fluid motion.

The woman’s dying scream ended in a gurgle.

Which was more than could be said for the other hostages. Yells and bellyaching swept around the lawn as if it would do anything for the dead woman.

Jackie drew an automatic from the holster at her hip and fired one shot in the air. Other than a few sniffles from the kids, that got her the quiet she wanted.

“As you can see,” Jackie said loud enough for all to hear, “you cannot run away from your service to me. When you are told, stand up and keep your mouths shut. If you do as you are told, you may live. Defy me, and the dogs will eat you.”

“Your Terribleness,” one of the guard leaders called to her from below. She really liked that title. It let everyone know exactly where they stood before her.

“Yes, Sergeant.” She knew this one. He’d been a fresh-caught private back on St. Pete. He’d earned his sergeant’s stripes by catching one of the first assassins to come over the fence.

“Some of the hostages are digging up the lawn, trying to make foxholes or something. Should we shoot those who do?”

Now that he mentioned it, there were messy dents in the grass. Of course, where her guards had dug machine-gun nests, there were really big holes in her turf.

She had liked the look of her lovely lawn. The thought of killing anyone who messed it up worse than Jackie needed was tempting.

Still, there was no telling when that Longknife woman would show up . . . and it was possible that if she killed too many hostages, she might not be able to replace them in time.

She shook her head. “Just make sure they know. When we tell them to stand, anyone who doesn’t will be shot.”

“Are you at any risk of running out of hostages?” Captain Belou asked from where he stood inside the door, looking out.

“I’ve got rifles on every roof for the next three blocks. Machine pistols at every window. And where there are two or three of my henchmen, I’ve got five or six hostages in front of them. There are plenty more if I need them. You were on the ships that brought a lot of them here, weren’t you?”

“A couple. I’d still be on one if you hadn’t promised me my own ship, chasing down loot for you and your friends.”

“Yes,” Jackie said, turning back to the captain and marching for her desk. There wasn’t much on it. She hated to let things pile up unfinished. She was very good at finishing matters.

She picked up the printout on the Wardhaven Scout Ship
Wasp
that she’d made from
Jane’s All the Worlds’ Warships
. “It seems that our helpless merchant ship had claws.”

“And a Longknife to boot.”

“Yes, there is that matter. A Longknife that some news reports say is reluctant to kill.”

“She killed five thousand passengers on that liner without so much as a blink,” the captain pointed out, not at all reluctant to argue with Jackie.

Jackie could develop a taste for that in a man . . . provided it was in small quantities. A spice used sparingly. “Other stories say she was brokenhearted at the slaughter. I wonder which reporter got the story right.”

The captain shrugged—and glanced out the window. “I guess we’ll know pretty soon.”

“Yes, I will,” Jackie said. “Meanwhile, there’s the matter of getting you a ship.”

“None is available at the moment.”

“I’m not so sure the
Wasp
is beyond our reach,” Jackie said. “I understand that the shuttles that landed at the Annam plantation sucked water weeds into their intake valves.”

“I hadn’t heard.”

“Few have, but I have my eyes everywhere,” Jackie said with a smile designed to curdle blood, milk, or anything else she aimed it at.

The captain took a step back. “So, you want me to work for my ship.”

“I like it when a man knows what I want from him without all those messy explanations.” She changed her smile . . . to something a cobra might permit itself.

“What do you have in mind, Your Terribleness?”

“You can catch more flies with honey. And I bet you can catch more shuttles if you turn on a landing beacon for them.”

10


That
dog just keeps gnawing on that woman,” Kris said, her stomach in free fall. “She’s dead.”

“I hope so,” Penny said. “They’re letting the dog eat her.”

Kris and Penny watched a picture that their computers directed to their eyes. The chief looked at them, eyes wide with questions . . . but he did not ask his computer to give him the video feed that was so upsetting the two officers.

It took Kris most of a minute to recover. “Jack,” she finally said.

“Yes, Commander.”

“This Jackie is a very bad actor. She’s staking out hostages on the lawn of her mansion. One tried to run, and she set a dog on her.”

“Nasty gal, huh?” Jack said.

“No saving graces at all,” Kris answered.

“So she’s set to hide behind human walls,” Jack said slowly. “Does this change your orders, Your Highness?”

“No. This is barbarity. Nobody should have to suffer this, not when there are troopers around to do something about it. But it does mean we’ll have to work a lot harder to take down this witch. Chief, Nelly, would you please back search any sky-eye feed you have of the buildings around Tranquility Road. I need to know which buildings had hostages marched into them.”

“We’re on it,” both said.

The air was split by a sonic boom, soon followed by a second, third, and fourth. “The landing boats are on final approach,” Kris said.

“And our local warlord has to know it’s showtime,” Jack added.

“But to know the show is on and not know where it’s at must be maddening for a control freak like Jackie,” Kris said. It certainly would be maddening for her.

Kris turned to look at those who shared her truck. A sniper team, a rifle team, and a corporal with four privates whom Jack had detailed to slow Kris down. She’d have to take care of that.

They were coming upon the outskirts of Lander’s Rest. Ahead was a burned-out group of stores with a large parking lot. Just the place for Kris to take care of a few small problems.

“Driver, pull the convoy off the road over there.”

He turned right into the parking lot.

“You four,” she said, pointing at her guards, “follow me.”

The four followed Kris, with the corporal right behind them, as Kris dismounted the truck and headed back down the convoy line.

By the time she got to the fourth truck, Jack was already waiting for her. “What are you up to now, Princess?” he asked, eyeing those following her.

“I want to send the last dozen trucks around the outskirts of town so they can connect with third and fourth platoons and give them some mobility.”

“Yes, I know,” Jack said. “What does that have to do with your guards?”

“Four privates, four groups of three trucks. Who better to see that they get there?”

“I could assign four other privates,” Jack said, whispering to keep this conversation private.

“Yes, but everyone else has a job,” Kris whispered right back.

“Kris, those four have a job. Keeping you not dead.” Exasperation had free rein in Jack’s voice though he still kept it low. Around them, Marines were struggling to pay attention to anything but them.

“Jack, I have a sniper team, a rifle team, and the corporal here. I don’t need more. They’ll only get in my way. Slow me down.”

“Anything that slows you down sounds like a great idea to me. And a full-time job. Kris, after the last bomb, I thought we’d have fewer of these talks.”

“So did I,” Kris admitted. “I was wrong, and so are you. We’ve got a very nasty warlord to kill or capture. I kind of like the idea of killing her. Do you really think we can spare people to hold my hand? How’s your assault on that soccer stadium coming?”

“Not so good. It’s got a lot of parking lot around it and not much cover. Damn it, woman, you’re changing the topic.”

“I’m focusing on the topic at hand.” Kris quickly covered the distance to the six trucks full of local volunteers. “Are any of you soccer fans? Football,” she corrected. “Been to the football stadium?”

“I have,” came from several.

“I’ve played there twice and worked a summer for the groundskeeper,” a young woman said, dropping gracefully from her truck.

“Jack here needs to save the people being held prisoner there before the gunmen can mow them down. You two need to talk.”

Kris took the woman’s hand and passed her along to Jack, all the time wishing she wasn’t so beautiful, well-endowed, and athletic. Like most, her clothing was thin and worn.
Ah, the things I do for humanity,
Kris thought, hoping she wasn’t setting herself up for another bridesmaid’s dress.

Jack threw Kris an angry scowl before putting his head together with the woman.

Kris had other things on her mind. She spotted one of the fellows who sounded a bit too vengeful. “You, and the guy next to you. Come with me.”

Kris culled an even dozen out of the volunteers and got them moving with her to the last dozen trucks.

“Each of you, pick a truck. You’re riding shotgun for it.”

“What’s that?” came from several of them.

“These trucks need to connect with the Marine platoons I’m dropping on the other side of town to stop Jackie and her thugs from making a run for the hills. They may not all drop where we want them. You make sure they have a ride if they need to move. You make sure these trucks aren’t stolen out from under you.”

Kris turned to the four Marines. “Each of you, pick three trucks. It’s your responsibility to see that they get to the other platoons. Stay on the outskirts of town. Go around trouble. You are not to look for a fight. Run if you have to, but make sure the colonel gets at least six of these trucks. Any questions?”

There were none.

“Check in regularly with me or the colonel. You’ve got the radio access. Good luck.”

With an OOH-rah, the four nonplus privates went looking for their first commands, and Kris headed back to the lead truck.

When she passed Jack, he was deep in conversation with the gal with the very short cutoffs and the near-nonexistent tank top. With a familiar and very sad sigh, Kris concentrated on the challenge at hand.

She ordered the twelve trucks for the colonel to break off at the next cross street. Two groups went right; the other two trios went left. At the next major cross street, it was time to detach Jack. She went straight ahead, he turned left.

“Princess Kris, this is Colonel Cortez,”

“Yes, Colonel,” Kris answered.

“We’re about to jump, but something interesting has developed. The spaceport is now squawking. Someone in the tower has even authorized the four of us to land.”

“Interesting,” Kris said.

“I thought you might find it so.”

“Once you depart for your place of business, who will be left in the longboats?”

“Command Master Chief L. J. Mong had originally planned on landing the Navy support teams at the Annam plantation. Given a choice, he’d prefer the airport.”

“He might have to fight for it,” Kris pointed out.

“From the grin on his face, I think he’s hoping for just that eventuality,” the colonel answered.

So, it boiled down to a simple question. Had someone set a snare for a rabbit out at the airport? What would be the outcome if they found an angry bear in their bunny trap instead?

“Tell the chief he has my permission to use his discretion. If he thinks the port can be captured and turned to good use, go for it. If a closer observation shows the port is too much to bite off, give it a pass. I’ll send an eye so he can take a good look before he leaps.”

I’M ALREADY DOING IT, Nelly told Kris.

“Looks like fun,” the colonel said. “You got trucks moving my way?”

“Four sets of three by four different routes. You shouldn’t have to walk.”

“Godspeed, Commander.”

“And Godspeed to you, Colonel.”

Kris turned back to concentrate on her own problem, Tranquility Road. Maybe it was about time to start messing with Jackie Jackson’s telephone.

Jackie
Jackson answered the phone on the first ring. “Yes,” she snapped.

There was a noticeable pause before Captain Belou said, “We’ve got the airport up and working. Some of the employees were hiding out in the hangars with their families. We’ve got them working for us. I’ve made contact with the incoming shuttles. They say they’ll be glad to land here.”

“They tell you what they’re carrying?”

“Boxes of famine biscuits, or so they say.”

“If they’re not carrying Marines, I’m a virgin who’s never killed before.”

“If they’re not carrying biscuits, I and my crew will be blending back in with the locals. We can’t fight Marines.”

“Don’t fight them. Just send them into town and call me. I’m ready for them.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I have things to do. This port is in lousy shape.”

“We’ll make it nice for you when you bring back your first load of confiscated goods.” Jackie grinned happily at the thought and hung up.

So, where were the Marines who were supposed to be driving up from that plantation south of town? She’d offered rewards for anyone who reported them. She should be hearing something!

Her phone rang. She answered “Yes.”

There was a long pause. She hated calls that did that. St. Pete’s system regularly did it. Some people hinted darkly that State Security was responsible.

Jackie
was
State Security and knew better. It was just an overworked phone system. Her boss had told her so.

Kaskatos’s phone system had worked the first time, every time.

Until today.

Now the receiver went dead. She hung up the phone and stared at it. It rang again.

And again it buzzed for a few seconds before clicking and going dead.

She’d no sooner clicked it off than it rang again and repeated the whole procedure.

Jackie was about to throw the phone against the wall when she thought better, clicked it off, and speed dialed the stadium.

Richard quickly answered the phone. “Yes.”

“Are you having problems with the phone?” she snapped.

“No,” he answered. He was a simple man. Give him an order, and he did it. If he said his phone was working, it was.

“Have you had any calls in the last few minutes?”

“None.”

“Call me back,” Jackie said, and hung up.

A few seconds later, her phone rang. “Yes.”

There was a brief pause, then Richard said, “You asked me to call.”

“Yes. Have you seen anything of the gunmen we heard about from the south?”

“Nothing, Your Terribleness. I have rocket launchers on the upper levels of the stadium. There are miles and miles of parking lot. If anyone tries to drive across that asphalt, we will barbecue them.”

“I would expect nothing less from you, Richard. Hold the stadium. You may start killing the sheep as soon as you are attacked. I’ll teach them to cross me.”

“It will be done,” he said, and hung up.

A moment later, Jackie’s phone rang again. When it started to buzz rather than talk, she hurled it out the window.

“Damn phones. There’s no one I really wanted to talk to.”

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