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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN No Sae Bad . . . Fer a Shellhead

The vertol's cockpit was less impressive than a flag bridge, and he might become dead very quickly if he stumbled over a guerrilla SAM team, but it was worth it to get away from HQ. Or, Admiral Lantu amended wryly as the craft turned for another sweep, it had been so far. He knew it worried Fraymak, but he refused to be a mere paper-pusher. Besides, flying an occasional mission gave him at least the illusion of commanding his own fate.

Unlike many Fleet officers, Lantu was an experienced vertol pilot, and he habitually took the copilot's station. Now he leaned to the side, pressing his cranial carapace against the bulged canopy to peer back along the fuselage. A pair of auto-cannon thrust from the troop doors, and there were rocket pods under the wings, but the vertol's sensor array was their real weapon. It probed the dense forest below with thermal, electronic, and magnetic detectors, its laser designators ready to paint targets for their escorting attack aircraft, not that Lantu expected to find any. The guerrillas knew what they were doing, and it was the Satan-Khan's own task to get any reading through these damnable trees, especially once they split back up into small groups. But at least his sensors forced them to break up and stay broken up . . . he hoped.

It was a frustrating problem. How did he know if he was winning? Body counts were one way, but the guerrillas seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of recruits, thanks to Colonel Huark and the late archbishop. The lower incidence of attacks might have been a good sign, if their larger assault parties weren't gaining in firepower what they lost in frequency and proving a nastier handful for any reaction teams that managed to catch them.

Lantu sighed. The jihad's initial force structure had badly underestimated the need for ground troops, and replacing the Fleet's climbing losses took precedence over increases in planetary forces. And it seemed New Hebrides, for all its spiritual importance, had been demoted in priority as the general situation worsened. Replacements slightly outpaced losses-Fraymak's command was essentially an understrength division now-but there were never enough troops, for the colonel's comments about fish in muddy water had been accurate in more than one sense.

Pattern analysis convinced Lantu the guerrillas' active cadres were small, and prisoner interrogations seemed to confirm that, but without more troops, he couldn't expand the occupation zones, and beyond the OZs they simply vanished into the sparse general population. Even within them, they were hard to spot, and Fraymak couldn't put checkpoints everywhere. Nor, despite Huark's suggestions, could he provide sufficient guards to confine all the locals in holding camps. Moreover, he had to feed these people-and his own-somehow, and the agricultural and aquacultural infrastructure was too spread out for centralized labor forces.

He knew he was hurting them, but how much? Certainly not enough to stop them; the destruction of the New Perth Warden post which had sparked this search and destroy mission proved that. But at least there'd been only two more raids on civilian housing, and that was sufficient improvement for Manak to continue his more lenient re-education policies.

Lantu sat back, eyes skimming the treetops, and chuckled mirthlessly. Here he was, hunting guerrillas in the hope of killing a few of them in order to justify not killing their fellows in the Inquisition's camps! Holy Terra-if, as he was coming to doubt, there was a Holy Terra-must have a warped sense of humor.



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