Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 02

* * *

“Confirm impact, Ma’am,” Missile Tech 1/c George Chasnikov reported. “Looks like it drifted fifteen or twenty meters to planetary west of the designated coords, though.” He shook his head. “That was sloppy.”

“Was the problem at their end, or ours?” Lieutenant Commander Sharon Tanner had the watch. She also happened to be SLNS Hoplite’s tactical officer, and she punched up the post-strike report on her own display as she spoke. “I’m not real crazy about ‘sloppy’ when we’re talking about KEWs, Chaz.”

“Me neither, Ma’am,” Chasnikov agreed sourly. “Reason I brought it up, actually.” He shook his head, tapping a query into his console. “I hate those damned things,” he added in a mutter Tanner knew was deliberately just loud enough for her to hear.

She let it pass. Chasnikov was an experienced, highly valued member of her department, a lifer who would stay in SLN uniform until the day he died, and every TAC officer he ever served under would be lucky to have him. That bought him a little extra slack from someone like Sharon Tanner.

Not that he didn’t have a point, she thought bitterly, reflecting on all the things Hoplite and her small squadron had been called upon to do over the past few weeks. Compared to some of those, expending a single kinetic energy weapon on what had probably been a ghost target was small beer.

“Their end, it looks like, Ma’am,” Chasnikov said after a moment. “It didn’t miss the designated coordinates; it missed the amended coordinates. They sent us a correction, but it was too late to update the targeting queue.”

“And did they happen to tell us what it was they wanted us to kill this time? Or if we got it?”

“No, Ma’am. Just the coordinates. Could’ve been one of their own battalions, for all I know. And no strike assessment, so far.” And there won’t be one, either…as usual, his expression added silently.

“I see.” Tanner rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then shrugged. “Write it up, Chaz. Be sure to make it clear we followed our checklist on the launch. I’ll pass it along to Commander Diadoro. I’m sure he and the Skipper will…reemphasize to Groundside that little hiccups when you’re targeting KEWs can have major consequences. And emphasize that they didn’t give us a clear target description, either. We can’t go around wasting the taxpayers’ KEWs without at least knowing what we’re shooting at.””

And I hope Captain Venelli uses that little memo to rip someone a new asshole, she added silently. Chaz is right, we’ve done too damned much of this kind of shit. I don’t think there’s anything left down there that’s genuinely worth a KEW, and anything that discourages those bloodthirsty bastards from raining them down on some poor damned idiot with a pulse rifle schlepping through the shrubbery all by himself will be worth it.

There were many things Sharon Tanner had done in her Frontier Fleet career of which she was proud; this wasn’t one of them.

* * *

Back in the shattered ruins which had once been a village named Glen mo Chrìdhe, the sound of rain was overlaid by the heavier patter of falling debris. It lasted for several seconds, sparks bouncing and rolling through the wet as some of the still-burning wreckage struck, and then things were still once more. The crater was dozens of meters across, deep enough to swallow an air lorry…and more than enough to devour the cellar into which the thirteen-year-old boy had just darted with the food he’d been able to scavenge for his younger sister.

* * *

“They got Tammas.” Erin MacFadzean’s voice was flat, worn and eroded by exhaustion and gradually swelling despair. She looked across the dingy basement room at Megan MacLean and her expression was bitter. “Fergus just reported in.”

“Where?” MacLean asked, rubbing her weary eyes and clenching her soul against the pain of yet another loss.

“Rothes,” MacFadzean replied. “The Uppies stopped the lorry on its way into Mackessack.”

“Is he alive?” MacLean lowered her hands, looking across at the other woman.

“Fergus doesn’t know. He says there was a lot of shooting, and it sounds like he was lucky to get away alive himself.”

“I see.”

MacLean laid her hands flat on the table in front of her, looking down at their backs for a moment, then inhaled deeply. It shamed her to admit it, but she hoped Tammas MacPhee hadn’t been taken alive, and wasn’t that a hell of a thing to be thinking about a friend she’d known for thirty T-years?

“See if we can get in touch with Tad Ogilvy,” she said after a moment. “Tell him Tammas is…gone. He’s in charge of whatever we’ve got left outside the capital now.”

“On it,” MacFadzean acknowledged and quietly left the room.

As the door closed behind her, MacLean allowed her shoulders to sag with the weariness she tried not to let anyone else see. Not that she was fooling anyone…or that everyone else wasn’t just as exhausted as she was. But she had to go on playing her part to the bitter end. At least it wouldn’t be too much longer now, she thought harshly.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She’d organized the Loomis Liberation League as a legal political party seven years ago, during one of the Prosperity Party’s infrequent bouts of façade democracy. She hadn’t really expected to accomplish anything — this was Halkirk, after all — but she’d wanted MacMinn and MacCrimmon to know there were at least some people still willing to stand up on their hind legs and voice their opposition. The LLL’s candidates had actually won in two of the capital city’s boroughs, giving it a whopping four tenths of a percent of the seats in the Parliament, which had made it the most powerful of the opposition parties. It probably wouldn’t have won those races if the Prosperity Party hadn’t been putting on a show for the Core World news crew doing a documentary on the silver oak logging camps, of course, but two seats were still two seats.