I’m not quite sold on the title, to be honest. I want something more Marine-themed, but ‘The March Up/ (which has some meaning for me) is far too close to ‘March Upcountry.’
Jasmine stayed low as she slipped towards the house, watching carefully for terrorist spotters posted outside the building. It was easily large enough to hold a small army of terrorists, but intelligence said that there were only ten inside the building – although she knew better than to take that for granted. They’d locked and barred the doors, she noted as she came closer, but they hadn’t realised that someone could simply climb up the walls. Compared to the assault course on the Slaughterhouse, the walls would be easy to climb.
She climbed up a drainpipe and launched herself through an open window, landing lightly on a wooden floor that threatened to creak alarmingly. There was no one in the room, but as she listened carefully she could hear the sound of whimpering coming from further down the corridor. Clutching her stunner in one hand and her pistol in the other, Jasmine slipped out of the room and headed down towards where the hostages were being held. Two terrorists stood on guard, just inside the room. Neither of them had any warning of her presence.
Jasmine stunned them both, then glanced at the hostages. There were five of them, half of the total number of terrorist prisoners – although she knew better than to take that for granted either. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had been reported as free when they were actually held by the terrorists, or vice versa. Jasmine checked them quickly, winked reassuringly and then headed down the corridor. There was no time to undo their handcuffs and get them out of the building. God alone knew what the other terrorists would do if they realised that their prisoners were being freed.
She turned a corner and came face-to-face with another terrorist. He gaped at her as Jasmine lifted her stunner and sent him crashing to the floor, but the sound alerted the other terrorists and they shouted out in alarm. Jasmine threw caution to the winds and hurled herself down the stairwell, using the stunner to lay down covering fire. Unlike a conventional weapon, it could be used indefinitely, without having to take proper aim. She might just get lucky and stun a few more terrorists.
A shot cracked over her head from where two more terrorists had taken up position. The diagrams of the house she’d memorised before the operation had begun told her that they’d taken up a strong position, inside a room with only one entrance, but it also meant that they were effectively trapped. She could wait outside and snipe at them when they came out, rather than risking herself charging into the room … if they hadn’t had a hostage. The feminine gasp of pain from inside the room sent chills down her spine. She had no doubt that they intended to use the hostage as a bargaining chip.
She unhooked a stun grenade from her belt and tossed it into the room, sending the detonation command as soon as it passed through the open door. There was a flash of blue-white light – her close-cropped hair stood on end for a long second – and then there were a series of thuds as bodies hit the ground. Jasmine stepped forward, keeping low, and peered into the room. The terrorists, thankfully, were both stunned, along with their hostage. Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief, then zapped them both again with her stunner. Stun grenades were notoriously unreliable when it came to calculating just how long the victim would remain stunned.
Leaving the two terrorists and their hostage, she slipped further down the corridor, watching and listening carefully for signs of the remaining terrorists. Logically, she knew, they should be either trying to escape or preparing for a final stand. Intelligence hadn’t suggested that the terrorists had a bomb large enough to bring the building down on top of them and their hostages, but she knew that it was a possibility. Avalon was not kind to captured terrorists.
She stepped into the next room and saw a body on the ground. A brief check revealed that it was one of the hostages, her throat cut by her captors. Jasmine gritted her teeth and moved on the next room. Inside, two of the terrorists were menacing three other hostages, who were cuffed to chairs and utterly helpless. A third terrorist was working desperately on an improvised bomb. Jasmine stunned him first, then blasted down both of the other terrorists. Clearly, they hadn’t expected to have to detonate the bomb so quickly.
Not total fanatics then, she thought, as she slipped into the next room – and jumped back, sharply. The final two terrorists opened fire, bullets crashing through the plaster walls and bouncing around everywhere. Jasmine felt something thud into her back as she knocked the hostages down to the ground – her body armour took the impact, although she knew that it would ache for hours afterwards – and then unhooked a second grenade. Moments later, silence fell.
She inched into the room … and ducked as a shot almost took off her head. One of the terrorists had had the presence of mind to jump undercover when he saw the stun grenade, shielding himself from the worst of the blast. She’d made a mistake, Jasmine realised, then pushed the thought aside. There was no time for second-guessing herself. Instead, she threw herself towards the terrorist and crashed right into him. He let out a grunt and tried to fight, but Jasmine had been through the toughest training course in the galaxy and then sparred with Marines bigger and tougher than herself. She snapped his neck with ease.
“All known terrorists eliminated,” she reported, as she walked into the room beyond. The final hostages were there, their faces fearful. “Operation complete.”
The hostages slumped in their chairs. Jasmine shook her head in mild disbelief, remembering the first time she’d encountered training dummies at the Slaughterhouse. They were so terrifyingly realistic that she’d honestly believed that she’d accidentally shot a little girl – and the Drill Instructor’s scathing demands to know why little Tiffany had deserved to die had convinced her that she would be on the next shuttle back to her homeworld. As it was, going through everything they’d done wrong had been quite bad enough.
“Good work,” Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson said, as she stepped into the shooting house. “One hostage lost; two more injured … but overall, a good rescue.”
Jasmine scowled, inwardly. The Terran Marine Corps recognised that hostage situations could turn messy very quickly – and that the hostages could be killed even if everyone did everything right – but she’d been determined to rescue all of the hostages. Next time, they might be real. The Crackers had never taken hostages; the bandits had been fond of the tactic. And Admiral Singh had used hostages to keep her crews under control.
“The Colonel is waiting outside,” the Command Sergeant added. “I suggest that you report to him now.”
It wasn’t a suggestion, Jasmine knew. Technically, she outranked Gwendolyn, but the NCOs were the backbone of the Marine Corps, often possessing far more experience than the officers who commanded them. She’d been taught to always listen to them if she wanted to succeed as a Lieutenant, let alone Captain.
Outside, the sun was shining down over Castle Rock. Jasmine’s eyes adjusted automatically to the glare as she looked around for Colonel Stalker. Her commanding officer – she wasn’t quite sure how many hats he wore at the moment – was waiting at the edge of the field, watching the repair crews with a cynical eye. They would be resetting the Shooting House for the next set of soldiers who needed to test themselves.
Jasmine stopped in front of the Colonel and inclined her head. Technically, the Shooting House was classed as a war zone, where saluting superior officers ran the risk of marking them out for enemy snipers. The Colonel nodded back and motioned for her to walk beside him until they were out of earshot of everyone else. His presence … Jasmine honestly wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. The last time he’d sought her out, rather than summoning her to his office, had been when he’d offered her promotion.
“You did well,” he said, shortly. “How are you feeling otherwise?”
“Much better,” Jasmine assured him. “No more nightmares or anything else.”
The Colonel gave her a long considering look, then nodded. Jasmine had been taken prisoner on Corinthian and tortured by Admiral Singh’s underlings. Such experiences left scars; Jasmine hadn’t been entirely surprised when she’d been relieved of duty and ordered to report back to Avalon for recuperation. Her body could be repaired quickly, but her mind was far more vulnerable. The stresses of being tortured could cause mental problems in the future.
“I broke out,” Jasmine said, defensively. “That did help.”
“I didn’t doubt it,” the Colonel said. “And you appear to have returned to form remarkably well.”
Jasmine nodded. If the Colonel – or his Command Sergeant – had any doubts about her mental stability she would never be allowed to return to the Shooting House, let alone active service. As it was, she could look forward to returning to 1st Platoon, perhaps after a few months spent with Joe Buckley on Castle Rock. There was still a desperate shortage of drill sergeants, particularly female instructors.
“Tell me,” the Colonel added. “Where do you see your career going?”
Jasmine took a moment to consider. Before they’d been exiled to Avalon, she’d assumed that she would eventually either climb up through the ranks or move sideways and eventually become an NCO. Her stint as CO of 1st Company had whetted her appetite for more responsibility and higher command, but there were few higher command slots in the company. Stalker’s Stalkers was alone … and, no matter how desperately she tried to convince herself otherwise, they were unlikely ever to link up with the rest of the Marine Corps.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, finally. Command of the Stalkers was vested in Colonel Stalker and it was unlikely that he would step aside for her. Besides, with the company fragmented, overall command would be more paperwork than action. “1st Platoon?”
“You never quite forget your first command,” the Colonel said. “Sadly, I’m afraid that I cannot send you back to 1st Platoon, not now.”
Jasmine felt a twinge of disappointment, although she had expected as much. Blake Coleman had taken over command of the platoon and couldn’t be relieved, unless he screwed up badly enough to warrant an immediate return to the ranks. She couldn’t ask him to step down for her – and she knew that the Colonel wouldn’t allow her to return as a simple Rifleman. It would be difficult for both Blake and herself to handle.
“There is, however, a different unit that requires a commanding officer,” the Colonel added. “Have you been following the news about Governor Brown?”
“Yes,” Jasmine said, slowly. “Are we going to wage war on him too?”
“I hope not,” the Colonel said. He smiled, thinly. “The Governor seems to be a great deal more approachable than Admiral Singh, but there will be considerable negotiations before his state has formal relations with the Commonwealth. Or possibly a long period of scouting each other out before we go to war. Point is – the Governor and ourselves will be holding talks on a planet called Lakshmibai. Ideally, we should agree on a fixed border, trade terms and suchlike.”
“I see,” Jasmine said.
“Lakshmibai is almost worthless, practically speaking,” the Colonel added. “The only place of interest on the planet’s surface is a garrison put in by the Imperial Army, before the Army withdrew from the sector, leaving it in the hands of a small reserve team. Governor Brown has graciously agreed to let us stake a claim to the garrison first, probably on the assumption that there is nothing truly valuable there.”
Jasmine nodded in agreement. The Imperial Army’s garrisons might have been crammed with supplies that would have been very useful during the first year on Avalon, but there was unlikely to be anything there that was worth the effort of hauling it through interstellar space now. Governor Brown’s willingness to let the Commonwealth have first pick of whatever was there was nothing more than a show.
“I’ll be going, as will the Professor,” the Colonel said. “1st Platoon will be providing close-protection, but there will also be two full regiments of Knights, who will be securing the garrison and providing whatever additional support we need.”
“Two whole regiments?” Jasmine asked.
“They need practice in deploying across interstellar distances,” the Colonel admitted. “I had to relieve an officer for fudging the requirements only two weeks ago.”
Jasmine had heard the rumours. Exercises were supposed to be as realistic as possible, but it wasn’t unknown for officers to cheat, either deliberately or through simple oversight. In this case, an officer had pre-placed supplies in a position where his troops could access them while on deployment, something that wouldn’t be possible during actual operations. The Imperial Army had been far more imaginative when it came to fiddling with the results, while the Civil Guard had rarely bothered to hold exercises. Their commanders had simply certified their units as mission-capable and prayed that they would move on before they were called to take them into combat.
It wasn’t easy to deploy across interstellar distances, Jasmine had to admit. The Imperial Army had relied upon a vast fleet of transport starships when it didn’t have prepositioned supplies to draw on. Marines, on the other hand, had to fight with what they brought. Large-scale operations rapidly became logistical nightmares, particularly if the fighting lasted longer than the bureaucrats had predicted. Jasmine had heard of operations that had ground to a halt because the stockpiles of arms and ammunition ran critically low.
“I want you to take overall command of those regiments,” the Colonel explained. “Command of a much larger force than a platoon should provide an interesting challenge.”
Jasmine nodded, feeling a flicker of excitement. Command of 1st Platoon had been a challenge, but she’d known every one of her Marines personally. Command of two regiments would be far tougher, even if she wouldn’t be expected to lead the charge personally. It would be one hell of an experience.
“Yes, sir,” she said. “How many of them have combat experience?”
“About a third of the force served during the Insurgency or took part in bandit-hunting operations afterwards,” the Colonel said. “Some of the older officers were drawn from the Civil Guard, but have proved themselves. The remainder are largely unstained by blood.”
Unprepared, Jasmine thought. There was no way to know for sure how someone would react in combat until they were actually tested – and by then it could be too late. But that had always been the way. Even the Slaughterhouse, for all the effort put into making it as realistic as possible, had never quite managed to overcome that problem.
“I want to leave within two weeks, in order to meet our counterparts without causing delays,” the Colonel added. He reached into his pocket and produced a datachip, which he passed to Jasmine with a flourish. “Your official orders, a briefing on the planet and an outline of the terms for the negotiations. I suggest you study them all carefully.”
Jasmine took the chip and pocketed it. “Thank you, sir,” she said. As if she would have done anything else. “I won’t let you down.”
“Good,” the Colonel said. “Take the evening off, then report to MacArthur Base tomorrow morning. Your command staff will be coming back from leave; they’ve already been briefed on the planned operation. You’ll have two days to sort out the logistics and suchlike before the troops return from their own leaves. Do you have any requests?”
Jasmine hesitated. Marine tradition said that an officer should ask for whatever he or she felt he needed to complete the mission. But there were limits.
“Joe’s been growing bored running training,” she said, finally. She’d met her former subordinate for a drink every so often while she’d been recuperating on Castle Rock. “Can I take him as my Sergeant?”
“He doesn’t have any more experience than you with large troop formations,” the Colonel pointed out. “But he will be well-known to the soldiers who trained under him.”
He considered briefly, then nodded. “Very well,” he agreed. “You can take Joe Buckley with you. Anyone else?”
Jasmine shook her head, silently. She didn’t know that many soldiers outside the Marines – and she knew that she wouldn’t be allowed to claim more of them for herself. There just weren’t enough Marines to go around. Maybe Sergeant Hampton … if he returned from Greenway in time to join her. But if she sent a message, it wouldn’t reach him before they departed. She would just have to rely on the officers assigned to the regiments.
“You’ll have a couple of officers from the Knights to assist you,” the Colonel said. “And don’t be afraid to ask for others if you need them. There may not be time for proper drills before we leave.”
“Two weeks,” Jasmine said, quietly. Military operations for large units could take a very long time to plan. Two weeks was barely long enough to get organised, let alone carry out a full-scale exercise. “We’re going to be doing a great deal of paper exercises.”
The Colonel nodded, regretfully. “You’ll have to cope with it,” he said, flatly. “And good luck.”
He smiled. “Go take the evening off,” he ordered. “And let me know if your two regiments can make the scheduled departure date without problems.”
“Yes, sir,” Jasmine said.
In at the deep end, she thought, remembering what her Drill Instructors had used to say. Sink or swim.
But she couldn’t help feeling cheerful as she headed back towards the helipad, where there was a regular transport service between Castle Rock and Camelot. It would be a challenge, it would help her career … and she was going back on active service. She almost couldn’t wait to begin.