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CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Stewards of Holy Terra

"Your presence honors us, First Admiral."

Colonel Fraymak's respect actually seemed genuine, Lantu thought. Perhaps it was. Despite his disgrace, the Ministry of Truth had labeled his last campaign a resounding triumph, though it hadn't occurred to him the Church might lie to its own warriors. He toyed with the notion of telling Fraymak the truth, then pushed the thought aside. It would only undercut his own authority, and he disliked his own strange, base temptation to shake the colonel's faith.

"Thank you, Colonel," he said, "but our work is cut out for us. Have you caught up with the terrorists who killed Archbishop Tanuk?"

"Ah, no, First Admiral." Fraymak looked out the window of Lantu's new and luxurious-very luxurious-office, and frowned. "In fact," he continued unhappily, "I don't expect to, sir."

"No?" Lantu rocked back in his chair and stroked his cranial carapace. It took a certain courage to make that sort of admission to a superior who'd been on-planet barely three hours. "Why not, Colonel?"

"Sir," the colonel focused his eyes above Lantu's head like a first-year cadet, "I have one reinforced infantry brigade, supported by one light armored regiment and two vertol battalions. That's not enough to garrison the re-education camps and organize reaction teams on a planetary scale."

"Why should you have to garrison the camps?" Lantu asked in some surprise. "They're the responsibility of the Inquisition and Wardens."

"The archbishop . . . requested"-Lantu noted Fraymak's careful phrasing-"that I assist the Wardens, sir." His suddenly lowered eyes met Lantu's. "That was right after the New Selkirk inmates massacred the Warden guard force and escaped en masse."

"I see." Lantu stroked his carapace even more thoughtfully. No one had reported that little fiasco to Thebes. "So basically we're just chasing around behind the infidels after they hit us?"

"Unfortunately, that's a fair way to put it, sir."

"How many terrorist groups are we talking about, Colonel?"

"We're not certain. None of the New Hebridans still awaiting re-education ever see anything, of course, but our best estimate is between seven and fifteen major groups. There are at least three here on Aberdeen, two on Scotia, and one each on Hibernia and New Gael. So far, there are none on the islands, but even with confiscated transport, I can't move troops around quickly enough to cover all four continents."

Lantu ran the tip of a letter-opener over the map on his desk, hiding a wince at the contour lines of the continental interiors. No wonder the colonel had problems. "And they hit targets near the mountains, then pop back into them and laugh at you, right?"

"Yes, sir." Fraymak made no effort to hide his relief at Lantu's understanding tone, but he shifted uncomfortably for a moment before he continued. "And, sir, with all due respect to the archbishop and Father Shamar, I don't really believe we should consider them 'terrorists.' "

"No?"

"No, sir. They hit mainly military targets, sir, and they've got excellent tactics. They're short on heavy weapons, but that actually lets them move faster and through rougher terrain. By now, about half their weapons are captured equipment. Every time I stick a squad or a platoon out on its own to cover the Wardens, I might as well be handing that many weapons over to them," he ended bitterly.

"I understand, Colonel, but we're here to support the Church, not vice-versa." The colonel nodded, and Lantu dropped his letter-opener. "Have we considered moving our installations out of reach from the mountains?"

"We can't, sir. The continental coastal strips are barely two hundred kilometers wide and heavily forested, and these trees are incredible; a mature 'banner oak' stands over ninety meters, with foliage too dense for thermal scan penetration. The guerrillas don't have any heavy equipment, so there aren't any electronic emissions and magnetic detectors are virtually useless. Small parties just filter through the trees, link-up, hit their targets, then disappear again. It's like trying to spot fish in muddy water, sir."

Lantu understood the colonel's frustrated professionalism perfectly. The late archbishop had scattered his troopers in penny-packets, and the terrorists-guerrillas, he corrected himself, mindful of the colonel's point-held the initiative. All Fraymak could do was react after he was hit.

"I assume they have bases. Can't we even locate them?"

"Warden Colonel Huark raised that same point, sir," Fraymak said tonelessly. "The answer is no. These mountains are riddled with caves and deep valleys. Without more scan sats, I can't even cover the valleys adequately, much less spot them through thirty or forty meters of rock."

"Colonel Huark raised the point?" Lantu was surprised. The Warden colonel hadn't impressed him when he greeted his shuttle.

"Yes, sir," Fraymak said even more tonelessly. "I believe he intended to call in nuclear strikes on them."

Now that I can believe. It's just the sort of idiocy a Warden would come up with. I'm surprised he hasn't suggested a saturation bombardment of the entire continental interior! Lantu started to say as much, then stopped. It would only be another attempt to shake Fraymak's faith. Besides, the colonel's expression made him half-afraid Huark had suggested just that.

"I think," he said instead, "that we have the resources-properly used-to kill this fly with a slightly smaller sledgehammer, Colonel."

"Yes, sir!" The colonel's profound relief made Lantu smile.

"All right. I think we'll begin by informing Colonel Huark that camp security is his responsibility. Pull in your men and organize battalion-sized reaction forces, then work out a deployment grid that gives us optimum response time to all our own installations."

"Yes, sir." The colonel paused, manifestly struggling with himself, then took the plunge. "Uh, sir, while I agree whole-heartedly with your orders, I think I should point out that we're going to get hit hard, at least initially."

"Why?"

"The Wardens aren't-well, they aren't very good at security, sir, and the guerrillas really hate them. Especially the extermination squads."

"The what squads?" Lantu asked very quietly, and Fraymak swallowed.

"The extermination squads, sir. They're special units."

"So I gather. But what, exactly, do they do, Colonel?"

"They're in charge of reprisals, sir," Fraymak said uncomfortably.

"Reprisals." The single word came out with glacial coldness.

"Yes, sir. Counter-reprisals, really." Lantu crooked his fingers, inviting the colonel to continue. "The guerrillas make a point of hitting installations near the camps with the highest execution totals. They . . . don't leave much behind when they do. So Warden Colonel Huark and Father Shamar organized the extermination squads. Whenever we get hit, they pick out hostages or a village that hasn't been brought in for re-education yet and they, well, they exterminate them, sir."

Lantu closed his eyes, and his own words about supporting the Church were bitter on his tongue. How could something like that serve Holy Terra? He sat very still for a moment before he opened his eyes. "Well, Colonel Fraymak, you're under my orders, not Colonel Huark's, and we'll do this my way. Adjust your deployment to cover dependent and civilian housing, but the extermination squads are just going to have to look after themselves."

"Yes, sir." The colonel's gaze met his with grim satisfaction before he executed a snappy salute and withdrew.

Lantu watched the door close and shook his head. Extermination squads. Sweet Terra, no wonder this planet was a shambles!

Not until much later did he realize Fraymak hadn't used the word "infidel" once.



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