Degrees of Guilt
Part Seven -- by Becky Ratliff
See Disclaimer in Part One
McQueen and Lucas had the stragglers who had escaped into the woods to deal with before they could come to Moore and Avery's assistance, but that didn't take too long. The Chigs' armor made it nearly impossible for them to move with any kind of stealth.
Moore climbed up into a crevice and held as still as she could, the jagged rock bit into her palms as she watched the chigs pass below her. Twelve of them left. She waited a while longer to make sure it wasn't thirteen or fourteen, then dropped down. She pulled the pin of a grenade and rolled it down the tunnel after the chigs, then turned tail and ran like hell back the way she'd come. She almost got herself shot by Kenny when she came hauling ass up the tunnel, McQueen knocked his rifle aside at the last second. None of them had time to get upset about that little misadventure, because that was when the grenade went off.
The explosive itself might or might not have done for a few of the chigs, but it didn't matter. The mountain groaned, then there was a sharp crack of breaking stone and then another. McQueen and Moore dragged Lucas down with them as a low rolling boom sounded, and a blast of air heavy with dust boiled up the tunnel and out into the open air.
After a time, everything settled. Cautiously, they headed down there to check out the situation.
A sheet of rock a meter thick in places had dropped down out of the ceiling as neat as could be, most of the chigs had been crushed under it. They got into a brief firefight with the few who remained.
McQueen said, "Good work, Moore."
"Thank you, sir."
Further down in the tunnels, Avery heard the rock fall, and his eyes widened in shock. He had a mental image of Nita trapped in a rock slide, and hesitated, torn between his concern for her and his duty to warn the rest about the chigs. He didn't want to think about Nita maybe hurt and captured by the chigs, he knew what they did to wounded prisoners. In the end, he didn't have a choice, but he looked back more than once as he hurried onward.
Vansen was talking to Elder Elisha when John Waite arrived with news of the chigs. They alerted the colonists of the danger, and people scrambled for their weapons. A lookout reported that a major force of the chigs was coming up the main entrance.
Avery came running up to tell what had happened up at the Crow's Nest. Vansen demanded, "Where's McQueen?"
"He took those kids down to the next tunnel, he didn't want them coming through that bad section again --"
Vansen said, "You and John put a squad together and find out what the hell's going on up there. I don't want a bunch of them coming up on our six while we're taking care of the ones in the main entrance! Lisa, you're with me."
The fiercest fighting took place in the galleries on the lower levels. Vansen kept the defenders falling back, luring the chigs deeper into the caverns. She outlined her plan to the big rancher named Timothy, who'd had the run-in with Elder Elisha over the marriage he had arranged for his son. He was now leading the colonists in the defense of the cave. "I'm going to take some people downstream along that secondary passage, we'll come up behind them just this side of the Sanctuary. We ought to have most of them trapped between us that way. I want you to position your people up on those ledges and keep the chigs pinned in the tunnel until we can close the pincers."
He nodded, understanding her strategy. Letting the chigs past them here would be allowing them to get to the camp, so the colonists were determined to stop them here.
Vansen had Gordy Crae and Richard Pennman with her, as well as Yamauchi and three of the Salemites. Except for a little good-natured bitching from Pennman about the cold water, no one said anything as they made the difficult descent through the stream in the dark. Vansen nearly screamed from the old terror when she once almost lost her footing and got pulled on downstream by the current. She felt like choking at the thought of being swept under that icy water into the blackness. She caught herself along the side of the tunnel and kept going.
Avery caught up with McQueen near the rope ladder, he nearly yelled when he saw Nita in one piece but he controlled that impulse. He outlined what was going on, and they got down to the camp as quickly as they could.
The older people were herding the children into a couple of side corridors, while a few stayed behind to fight a delaying action in case the chigs got this far. They could hear distant firing echoing along the stream.
A few chigs threw something large and heavy into the water, it turned out to be an inflatable boat. A canopy popped up, they wasted no time scrambling inside and the defenders found out the canopy was bullet-proof. The colonists couldn't do anything to stop them from sailing down-river.
McQueen saw the craft's searchlight approaching and heard the ricochets bouncing off the top of the chig boat. Timothy said, "The only way to take them out is going to be drop a grenade over the side -- do you have one that I can use?"
McQueen gave him one and called up to the nearest colonist, "Pass it down -- Timothy's in the water, aim high!"
Stray shots stopped hitting the water as the word went down the line. The big rancher stayed low in the water until he got near the boat, then climbed half aboard and poked the grenade through a gun slit. One of the chigs fired a shot that spun him back, away from the boat into the black depths. An instant later the grenade went off, igniting the craft's fuel tank.
Vansen and her patrol came upon the chigs' rear guard by surprise, a firefight broke out. Her hands were so cold from the water that it was an effort to close her fingers around her rifle's grip. She could hear shooting from the river.
Lisa cried out and grabbed her leg, Vansen moved up to cover her -- just as a chig popped up around a rock with his gun pointed right at her. Lisa was going to take him, but Vansen could see the injured Marine wasn't going to be fast enough. Ty, I love you -- !
There was a shattering explosion of sound and light, but no pain, and she wondered why it didn't hurt. Then she saw the chig falling over and turned around, to stare into Danny Wolfe's grinning face. "Let me off the hook for Vesta now, sweetheart?" He asked irreverently.
She laughed, and she was surprised that it didn't come out as nervous laughter. "Sure thing, Danny, I'll let bygones be bygones." She knelt to get pressure on Yamauchi's wound, Danny and most of the patrol went by.
O'Donnell offered, "I'll take care of her."
Yamauchi nodded. "I'll be okay now, ma'am."
Vansen gave her a thumbs-up and then caught up with the rest. It wasn't a couple of mikes until they were making things real difficult for the chigs caught on the riverbank.
After that, it was more or less over, except for some mopping-up. They ended up chasing some of the chigs all the way back through the Sanctuary and out along the stream, from there they could see the town on the hilltop.
It was in flames. The colonists watched in grief as the church blazed for a moment, then collapsed in on itself. It was a silent group that went back into the cave.
Besides Yamauchi, several of the colonists had been injured. John Waite had gotten himself burned pretty badly by a near miss. There were eighteen dead that they knew of, including Timothy and the two men who had been guarding the main entrance. McQueen, Vansen and Wolfe met near the medical shack and went back to the 5-8's camp to figure out their next move. They were joined there shortly by the Salemite elders.
Elder Joshua said, "We can't stay here, they know we're in here now! There'll be more."
McQueen replied, "There's no way we can take this many people out of here overland without being spotted. You say these caverns extend for several kilometers?"
Elder Elisha said, "Yes, there's a narrow passageway that connects with another cavern system, it eventually goes all the way to the sea."
One of the little fellows that Vanessa had put on radio watch stuck his head in and hesitated. McQueen asked, "What is it?"
"I -- uh -- there was a lot of weird stuff on that one channel. The one Sister Vanessa said was a secure channel. I don't know what it means but I recorded some of it. I think it's important. My brother's listening in case there's any more." The boy held out the recorder and McQueen hit the play button. He and Vansen shared a disbelieving smile as they listened to the coded transmissions. Vansen said, "That's got to be the _Princess Bea_ and the _George Washington_ preparing to rendezvous with the _Sara_! There's nothing else it could be! It looks like the cavalry is coming over the hill!"
Wolfe wasn't smiling. He said, "Yeah, only we're at Little Big Horn," he replied. He told them what the recon team had found at the chig base. "Those guns could wipe out the fleet."
McQueen said, "Not if we take out that gun."
Danny objected, "There's no way we have enough people to do that."
Elisha put his hand on Danny's shoulder. " 'Who knoweth whether thou art come unto the kingdom for such a time as this?' I've always believed that God had a purpose for bringing us here to New Jerusalem. Now He reveals that purpose to us. The chigs attacked us without provocation, killed many of our brothers and sisters, and injured many more. But now God will give us the victory!"
Joshua said, "Elisha, I don't doubt God. But I don't see how He could intend for a hundred and fifty of us, armed with nothing more than shotguns and hunting rifles, to take on that chig army!"
McQueen leaned forward. "Begging your pardon, Elder Joshua, but I'm sure it's the same way He meant for three hundred of the children of Israel to take on the Midianite army."
Vansen and Wolfe stared at him in confusion. Hepzibah and Elisha exchanged a knowing look. Comprehension slowly flooded across Joshua's face, and he grinned. " 'The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!' "
Wolfe demanded, "TC, what the hell you talking about?"
McQueen said, "The Israelites were being invaded by a people called the Midianites. They were outnumbered, but a force of three hundred Israelite soldiers created a diversion and panicked the Midianite army into thinking they were a much larger army. The Midianites routed, and the Israelites were able to wipe them out as they retreated.
Now I don't expect the chigs to panic and run for it, but if we can make them think a large force is attacking the airfield, they'll concentrate their forces at that end of the complex to repel the attack. That should allow a team to get in and blow one of those cooling pumps."
Hepzibah said, "It should also keep them too busy to hunt our children. If we collapse the tunnel behind them, they should be able to continue on to the sea caves. With God's blessing, the chigs won't have time to look for them before the fleet arrives."
Vansen asked, "How long do you think we can hold air superiority over the area? Ten ... fifteen mikes, maybe, if we can take out those fighters on the ground?"
McQueen nodded. "If they follow the pattern of surface-to-space emplacements that we saw on Ixion, it should take that long for reinforcements to get here from the next nearest base. We don't want to be in the area that long, though. The objective is to hit them hard, eliminate the target, and get out. We should be back over the ridge in no less than five mikes. Our only two advantages here are going to be surprise and confusion, we have to make the most of them.
As soon as the gun blows, our fighters need to get upstairs and rendezvous with the fleet. They have to be warned of the danger, that they can only approach this sector of the planet until more of the plasma cannons are taken out."
She nodded once, understanding her part of the mission. The Hammerheads would come in first, destroy the chig craft on the ground, then engage and destroy the base's patrol squadron. Then she would have to get them safely out of the gravity well. Once the chig fighters were out of the picture, the ground troops and the covert team would begin their operation, but that part of it was up to Ty. "Without the ISSCVs to slow us down, I don't see a problem," she replied confidently.
McQueen told the Salemite elders, "Talk to your people. Set aside a guard to evacuate the non-combatants out of the people who volunteer to fight. I'd prefer that you used the younger teenagers and anyone else who can't keep up on those slopes above the chig base. Then I'll need to know how many you've got and how well they can shoot."
Danny said, "You don't got to worry about that, TC, I've been poppin' cans with some of these fine folks. I wouldn't say they've got a poor shot in the bunch, and a lot of them could qualify as experts tomorrow if you dropped them on a firing range and gave them an M-590. They'd laugh at it, though, they call anything less than five or six hundred meters short range."
"What would they call long range?"
"Traded bulls-eyes with a good twenty or thirty of them all afternoon one time at 1000 meters."
McQueen nodded. The ability to shoot straight was a survival skill for these people, they depended on hunting for a lot of their meat and they had to be able to defend themselves from wild animals. He suspected that the poorer shots would be the ones who preferred the shotguns, which might not be as impressive, but got the job done with a great deal of reliability. Something hit with both barrels from a twelve-gauge rarely got up to bother you again. "All right. I'll need to know how well supplied you are with ammunition, too."
Elder Elisha said, "We'll speak to the congregation now."
Danny said, "Richie already said he'd set the charge for you, if you don't have someone who can do it. He used to work for a construction company."
"Okay, he's with me on that." McQueen had been thinking he would need Moore to back him up for that, but if Pennman knew his way around explosives and he was willing to volunteer for a dangerous assignment, that was all to the good. McQueen was heading up that operation himself, because when things started going wrong with the original plan, he had the best chance of being able to get the explosive into place. West had piloted the transport, which worked out fine because McQueen wanted him to command one unit of the diversionary force. Wolfe would take another, and Mark Miller the third unit. Yamauchi was out of action, but she'd co-piloted the ISSCV in, so they weren't down a pilot.
As for the Wolfe Pack, Bad John was wounded too badly to be any help. Danny sent O'Donnell to help guard the kids, he knew if they all got wiped out he could depend on Waite and O'Donnell to keep the chigs away from those kids by whatever means necessary. Gordy Crae was going with Danny. McQueen saw no reason to second-guess any of that.
Two hours later, sixty volunteers gathered in the wide clearing near the dock. They'd had more volunteers than that, but McQueen had decided that trying to get more than twenty untrained people on and off an ISSCV in a hurry would turn into a three-ring circus. They weren't going to have time to screw around when it came time to pull out, once the fight started backup from the next nearest chig LZ would be on the way. He'd picked the ones who'd had some military experience during the AI or the CC wars, there were ten vets who'd actually seen some action and they were going to be the NCOs. That worked out pretty well, two teams each for Mark, Danny and Nathan. Other than that, the volunteers had been chosen on basis of their marksmanship, and their familiarity with weapons that were accurate at the ranges involved.
Actually, the tactics they had to use were probably going to work to their advantage, if things went anywhere nearly according to plan. The chigs were used to an enemy that preferred close combat with the relatively short-range weapons. They weren't used to fighting snipers at that kind of range.
McQueen saw callused, workworn hands holding newly cleaned and polished rifles. The frontiersmen who had gone down to New Orleans with Andy Jackson had probably looked a lot like these people, dressed in homespun and leather. During the AI war, he'd seen an Alabama farmer kill three or four AIs with a pitchfork once. That man had the same flinty look in his eyes. These were people who would rather be tending their crops and working at their crafts, but they'd been backed to the wall and now they were fighting for their families and their way of life. Live or die, they believed they'd already won because they were doing God's will. McQueen thought the chigs were about to learn a costly lesson about that.
After the Salemites held a short prayer service, McQueen outlined the tactics they would use. "We'll fly in low to the ground, under their sensor net, and hang back on the transports until the 5-8 takes out the chig fighters. Then we'll move in. If you run across their scouts on the ground, take them out fast, don't give them time to report anything. Once you get over the ridge, space yourselves out widely. Find several good vantage points in your area. Shoot and move. The more places you shoot from, the more of you the chigs will think there are. Your sectors are marked on this picture, make sure you pick your first target in your own area. I want them watching the fight upstairs when they start dropping like flies. They're not just going to stand there, but if they don't know you're there before you open up on them, you ought to be able to get at least a couple shots off before they know what's happening. After that, they'll be moving up, and you want to concentrate most of your fire on the area up by the airstrip. When you get the order to move out, don't hang around to kill just one more chig, get yourself back to the transport! You won't believe how fast things are going to happen once it starts. Those transports have got to be clear of the area before reinforcements can get there! An ISSCV anywhere near the ground is no match for a chig squadron in the air.
If anyone does miss the boat, get over the ridge as fast as you can go, then find somewhere to hole up. As soon as the 58th catches up with the fleet, there'll be an army on its way in to secure that area and that whole valley will be a live-fire zone. You won't want to be anywhere near it, trust me. Get clear, hide out, and wait for the fireworks to stop."
Shane asked quietly, "Ty, can you do this? Your back--"
"I don't intend to be in there long enough to get in any hand-to-hand fights, Shane, we won't have time for anything like that anyway. I can do what I have to -- set the charge and get the hell out."
"You keep your mind on what you're doing, don't waste time worrying about me. Once that plasma cannon goes, I want you on your way upstairs before company arrives."
"Yes, sir," she said -- with a very un-Marinelike twinkle in her eye. She would worry about him every second until they were safely reunited, just as he would about her ... but they would also push that to the back of their minds and do their jobs. The last few months had given them plenty of practice at that skill.
Christy and Gloria were going with the wounded. Christy saw Cooper and ran over to him. "Are you going?"
"Yeah, we've got to move. Are you all set?"
She nodded. "We can transport everyone who's hurt too badly to walk. We're good to go as soon as we get the word. Cooper--" She blinked a few times, then her expression turned determined. "Give 'em hell."
He grinned. "They'll never know what hit 'em." The two young people kissed hard, then they took off in separate directions to get to their stations. When Cooper caught up with the rest of the 'Cards, he still had a grin on his face.
<End Part Seven>
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