The sequel to The Empire’s Corps…
It should not be surprising that involuntary settlers from Earth often ended up as either slaves or bandits. The lucky ones endured education that taught them more about their rights than about their responsibilities – or about vital living skills – while the unlucky ones grew up in the undercity, little more than feral animals. Put bluntly, the Empire lost the ability to socialise its children.
Indeed, by the time I was exiled from Earth, almost all of the Empire’s military and much of its civil service were reporting massive recruiting shortfalls. The educated students they needed simply didn’t exist.
– Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).
“It’s quiet,” Rifleman Blake Coleman said, over the communications link. “Too quiet.”
“Shut up,” Lieutenant Jasmine Yamane said, lightly. “We are meant to be quiet.”
She smiled inwardly as they crept closer to the bandit camp, hidden in the Badlands. The bandit leader had been smart – his camp was very well hidden – but he’d reckoned without the Marines. No one would deny that the Badlands were damn near impassable in places, yet they weren’t as bad as the Slaughterhouse. Jasmine and her comrades had all graduated from the harshest training camp in the Empire.
The geologists had yet to come up with a good explanation for why the Badlands existed. They were a tangled nightmare of forests, river and lava pools, as well as enough minerals to confuse sensors hunting for targets. There were even places where lava bubbled up from the planet’s underground. The best guess was that the badlands had been the site of an asteroid impact thousands of years before the planet had been settled; the alternative was a botched terraforming project, which was unlikely. There had been no need to improve Avalon when the planet had been settled, not when it was already perfect for human habitation.
“There,” Joe Buckley said. He inclined his head towards an outcropping that looked like a tuff of land. The bandits hadn’t done a bad job of disguising their lookout; it would have been almost invisible if the Marines hadn’t been looking for it. “You see the guy behind it?”
“Yeah,” Jasmine answered, studying the position. The bandits wouldn’t have based themselves in a place with only one exit; stupid bandits wouldn’t have lasted long, even before the Marines had arrived on Avalon. “I’ll deal with him. You stay here and watch my back.”
She crawled forward, trusting in her camouflage to keep her from being spotted. Up close, it was obvious that the bandits had put some thought into their position; anyone sitting in the lookout should have been able to spot oncoming enemies from a distance. Or they would have been able to see them, if they’d cleared away the foliage. But that would have betrayed them to the orbiting satellites used by the Marines. Quite a few bandit camps had been eliminated since the Battle of Camelot because their occupants had made careless mistakes.
The bandit sitting in the lookout didn’t look very competent, but Jasmine checked around carefully anyway before she closed in for the kill. Appearances could be deceiving, as Jasmine herself demonstrated; very few people would have realised that she was a Marine if they saw her out of uniform, or armour. Up close, there was a faint stench surrounding the lookout, suggesting that the bandits didn’t give a shit about basic hygiene. Jasmine wasn’t too surprised. Unlike the Crackers, who had been offered amnesty after the Battle of Camelot, the bandits had no long-term political objective. They just wanted to have fun. Jasmine pushed her irritation aside as she rose silently to her feet and moved forward. The bandit didn’t even realise she was there until she’d cut his throat.
“Got him,” she subvocalised into her implant. There had been no time for a battlefield interrogation – and the bandit would have been hanged if she’d dragged him back to Camelot. “I’m going onwards to the camp.”
The bandits had built their camp in the middle of the forest, half-hidden in a hollow that would make it harder for orbital observation to pick up on their activities. Jasmine studied it as they crept closer and scowled; the bandits had clearly kidnapped at least one person who actually knew how to build basic huts out of wood and clay. They were rare skills on Earth, which had long since become an entire planet of city-blocks, but quite common on newly-settled worlds. Wood was simply too efficient a building material to ignore.
“I have eyes on hostages,” Blake said, suddenly. Jasmine scowled. If the bandits had been alone, she would have called in an airstrike and then cleaned up the mess. “At least five, all young girls. And they’re limping”
Jasmine muttered a curse under her breath. The bandits raided the local farms regularly, carrying off food, drink, weapons and women. It wasn’t uncommon for them to cripple the girls, just to make sure that they couldn’t run away after they’d been dumped in the camp; one camp they’d destroyed had had two girls who’d had their legs amputated by their masters. The girls she could see didn’t look as if they’d been treated that badly, but they had broken expressions on their faces that made Jasmine wince. They’d had the fire beaten out of them ever since they’d been kidnapped and trapped in a living nightmare.
“Those sick fuckers,” Joe breathed. He cleared his throat. “Orders, Lieutenant?”
Jasmine pushed her anger to one side, activating her communicator. “Bring up the rest of the platoon,” she ordered. “And then prepare to engage.”
She scanned the camp quickly as the remainder of 1st Platoon closed in on the bandit camp, considering options. If they’d been wearing heavy armour, she would have been sorely tempted just to stand up and walk into the enemy camp, secure in the knowledge that they didn’t have any weapons that could touch them. But instead they only wore light armour – and she didn’t want to risk causing harm to the prisoners. If they ordered the bandits to surrender and the bandits started firing instead, the prisoners might be caught up in the crossfire. And they would open fire. They knew better than to expect mercy from the new government. Why not fight?
Jasmine smiled, humourlessly. Everything had seemed simpler when she’d been a mere Rifleman.
“Sound off,” she muttered, as the platoon got into firing position. She listened briefly to the responses, confirming that her ten subordinates were all in position. “And engage on my command.”
There was a shout from the bandit camp. They’d seen something, perhaps one of the Marines as they crawled into position. Jasmine didn’t hesitate; she barked the command to open fire as she squeezed the trigger of her own rifle. The bandit she’d targeted, shot through the head, collapsed in a crumpled heap on the ground. Jasmine was already searching for new targets as the Marines wiped out every bandit in sight. The hostages were clinging to each other, panicking.
Jasmine keyed her mike as the Marines inched forward. “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND,” she ordered, praying that the hostages would obey. A handful of bandits were trying to fight back, or flee westwards away from the Marines. “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN.”
One muddy hut seemed to be held by at least four bandits, who were shooting wildly towards where they thought the Marines were. It hadn’t been designed as a blockhouse, Jasmine noted absently, but it would suffice, as long as the Marines kept the gloves on. She used hand signals to order Blake and Joe towards it, while the other Marines provided covering fire to force the bandits to keep their heads down. Blake used a shaped charge to smash in the wooden door, while Joe charged in, weapon at the ready.
“Two down,” Blake reported. “Two others surrendered.”
Jasmine nodded. “Secure them,” she ordered, as she rose to her feet and headed down into the bandit camp. “And secure the hostages as well.”
The girls might have been pretty once, but that had been before they’d spent several months in a bandit camp, where they’d spent the days cooking and cleaning and the nights being raped by their captors. Jasmine’s heart went out to them, yet she knew better than to trust them; people did odd things when they were held captive for so long and it was possible that the women had actually fallen in love with their rapists. The human mind was good at twisting itself and inventing excuses to make suffering bearable.
She switched channels as the handful of prisoners were dragged out, searched and then secured, left to wait on the ground while the Marines searched the remainder of the camp. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing particularly interesting about the camp, nor was there a large stash of weapons. The Civil Guard had lost several consignments of weapons before the Marines had arrived, some of which remained unaccounted for, but the mystery wouldn’t be solved today. Jasmine, who shared the general feeling that some of the Crackers had hidden the weapons in case the provisional government turned out to be a trick of some kind, was privately relieved. The bandits could have been more than a nuisance if they’d had some heavy weapons.
“Bring in the helicopters,” she ordered. The bandits hadn’t been fool enough to build their camp right next to a clearing, but they’d spotted a potential LZ not too far away. Jasmine had had it checked out before they’d started sneaking up on the camp. If someone needed emergency transport back to the medical clinic on Castle Rock, they would need an LZ. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The former hostages were being helped to their feet by the Marines. They looked badly shocked, even though they were being rescued. Jasmine couldn’t blame them; the Marines looked intimidating as hell – and they’d secured the girls with plastic ties, just in case. The Marines would have to carry the girls to the LZ, she realised; they’d never be able to walk that far without assistance. Jasmine was used to horror – she’d seen too much of man’s inhumanity to man even in her relatively short career – but it never failed to sicken her. How could anyone do that to their fellows?
They wanted slaves and sex objects, she thought, answering her own question. The really sickening part was that the bandits had been amateurs. Some members of the former Planetary Council of Avalon had been truly sadistic little shits, raping children and other helpless victims. And she’d seen much worse in the Empire, back during the nightmare that had enveloped Han, or in the Undercity on Earth.
Blake buzzed her. “The WARCAT team wishes permission to approach,” he said. “And the Knights wish to take over the scene.”
Jasmine had to smile. The Knights – the newly-raised Army of Avalon – weren’t as well-trained as the Marines, but they were learning fast as the former Civil Guardsmen were integrated into their ranks. Captain – no, Colonel – Stalker had decided, as Avalon was no longer part of the Empire, to merge the two, knowing that the Civil Guard had a poor reputation. Jasmine had a feeling that the Colonel had some other plan for his Marines, even though a good third of the company had been parcelled out to help the locals. Who knew what they could do once they got the tech base set up?
“Tell them they’re welcome,” she said, finally. They had asked for a joint attack on the bandit camp, but Jasmine had vetoed it, pointing out that slipping eleven men close to the camp would be hard enough. Colonel Stalker hadn’t overruled her – but then, that wasn’t the Marine way. She was the officer on the spot, charged with accomplishing her mission. Success – or failure – would be her responsibility. “Let the WARCAT team take samples from the prisoners before we get them back to Camelot.”
“Understood,” Blake said. “You think they’re going to be hung that quickly?”
Jasmine rolled her eyes as she started to walk to where the prisoners were being mustered. The new government hated bandits, for plenty of very good reasons. Every single bandit who was caught alive was either hung, or sent to work in a very isolated prison camp. It discouraged surrenders, she knew, but she found it hard to blame the new government. They’d suffered too much when the bandits had been allowed to run rampant over the countryside.
“Probably,” she said. High overhead, she heard the sound of helicopters. They were nosier than Marine Corps Raptors, but they’d been produced on Avalon, allowing them to save their handful of remaining Raptors. There would be no replacements until their tech base was developed properly. “Prepare the prisoners for their walk.”
The WARCAT team acted with practiced efficiency, taking blood samples from the prisoners and uploading them to the planetary datanet for comparison to the records. It seemed a little pointless, but Jasmine had learned long ago that there was no such thing as useless information. Knowing who the bandits were might be useful in the future, or allow them to identify gang members who hadn’t been killed or captured during the raid. It also gave them time for the medics to check the girls, verify that none of them were in immediate danger and check their identities too. Their families, if they were still alive, would be very relieved.
“All done,” the medic reported, finally. “You can carry them safely.”
Jasmine detailed seven Marines to carry the girls, with the remaining five to take point and watch for other bandits, and then led the way back into the badlands. It never struck her until after an operation that the badlands were really quite beautiful, if one liked untamed wildernesses. She reminded herself sharply that they were still in bandit country, that they might be attacked at any moment, even though cold logic told her that it was unlikely. The bandits were rarely brave enough to attack Marines. They preferred targets that couldn’t fire back.
“If I’m carrying the girl,” Blake asked, as they walked away from the remains of the camp, “does that mean I have to marry her?”
Joe snickered. “I would have thought you’d learned your lesson by now,” he said. “Women are Bad News.”
“Not all of them,” Blake said. “They didn’t actually kill me.”
Jasmine rolled her eyes. Blake had missed the Battle of Camelot because the Crackers had managed to kidnap him two weeks prior to the fighting. One of their female operatives had seduced him, then drugged him, and then somehow transported him out of the city to a hidey-hole where he’d been hidden until after the battle. Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson, the company’s senior NCO, had been incredibly scathing about the whole affair, pointing out that Blake had shown very bad judgement. Jasmine was his junior, by seniority alone, but she’d been promoted over his head. At least Blake didn’t seem to bear a grudge.
But then, Lieutenant wasn’t a permanent rank in the Terran Marine Corps. If she fucked up, Jasmine knew, she could be returned to the ranks without any formalities. Ideally, every Rifleman would have a chance at holding the rank for a few months, just to see who would make a good Captain. On Avalon, with only a relative handful of Marines, it wasn’t possible to rotate ranks as often as it was on other planets. They’d already started to bend the rules by integrating Auxiliaries into their ranks.
“That makes you damn lucky,” Joe said. “Were you borrowing my lucky red shirt?”
“I was too sexy to kill,” Blake countered, quickly. “That’s why they couldn’t kill me.”
The other Marines started to chuckle, rather sarcastically. Blake had been lucky; it was rare for a Marine prisoner to be left alive for long. Marines had been treated to make it impossible to torture them for information and their implants could be tracked, given time, by their allies. Most kidnappers would have killed their prisoner and then vanished.”
“Quiet,” Jasmine ordered, as they approached the LZ. “2nd Platoon is waiting.”
Three helicopters were sitting in the clearing, with two more orbiting overhead, weapons at the ready. Few bandits would dare to tangle with an attack helicopter, but 2nd Platoon was patrolling around the edge of the LZ, just in case. Precautions, her instructors had hammered into her head time and time again, cost very little, certainly less than a helicopter. There was a brief exchange of signals before they stepped into the LZ itself, confirming their identity, and passed the girls over to the first transport helicopter. Twenty minutes later, they were up in the air, heading back to Camelot and Castle Rock. And debriefing.
Jasmine removed her helmet and ran her hands through her dark hair, cropped close to her skull. Debriefing wasn’t going to be fun; being a Lieutenant carried extra responsibilities and few rewards, apart from the credit – and the blame. The rank was supposed to be paid more than a Rifleman, but payment these days was a little skewed. Imperial Credits were worthless on Avalon now and the replacement banking system was still struggling to establish itself. There were places where they used bartering instead of money.
“You’ll be fine,” Blake assured her. He’d deduced her train of thought, easily. She was hardly the first new Lieutenant to face her commanding officer after an operation. “And then we can go drinking.”
“I would have thought you’d learned your lesson about that too,” Jasmine said, dryly. The first few months they’d spent on Avalon had included a number of bar fights, before many of the former street gangsters had been either inducted into the Knights or sent to work on the farms. “Besides, I don’t feel like drinking right now.”
She looked down at Camelot as the tiny city came into view. From high overhead, it looked to be thriving – and indeed, there had been any number of improvements since the former Council had been defeated. The damage caused by the Battle of Camelot had been repaired, apart from the ruins of the former Government House, which had been left as a monument to the war. It was easy to forget that the Empire had withdrawn from the sector, abandoning them…
…And that they were completely on their own.
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