Read starfist firestorm epub format

Authors: David Sherman; Dan Cragg

starfist firestorm

Contents

TITLE PAGE

DEDICATION

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

EPILOGUE

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

ALSO BY DAVID SHERMAN AND DAN CRAGG

COPYRIGHT

For Tom Carhart
Soldier, scholar, friend

PROLOGUE

Commandant of the Marine Corps Anders Aguinaldo listened intently as Lieutenant General Burbage Weinstock, his chief of staff, delivered the morning briefing on the status of Marine FISTs on deployment.

“Are any army units also headed to Ravenette?” Aguinaldo asked when Weinstock said 29th FIST was en route to Ravenette and 17th FIST was about to embark for deployment on the same campaign.

“They’ll be joining the Army’s 54th Infantry and 87th Heavy Infantry Divisions to form the 10th Corps.”

“Who’s commanding 10th Corps?”

Weinstock thumbed his notepad, then shook his head. “Admiral Porter hasn’t decided yet.”

Aguinaldo’s eyes lit up for a moment, then he asked, “Any unofficial word from Sturgeon at 34th FIST?”

Weinstock bit down a grimace. “Only more of the same. General Billie refuses to listen to any advice from a Marine.” He shook his head. “It seems Billie is even ignoring his own deputy commander, Lieutenant General Cazombi. Cazombi would have made a good Marine.”

Aguinaldo nodded, he too had a high opinion of Cazombi. “What is Godalgonz doing these days?”

“Mostly hanging around, trying to keep out of the way while keeping up with what everybody else is doing.” Weinstock shrugged. “What else can a lieutenant general without a job do?”

“Try to keep out of the way while he’s trying to keep up.” Aguinaldo stood. “Do you have anything else for me?”

“No, sir, that does it for current deployments.”

“Very good. I’m going to see the chairman, I might have a job for Godalgonz. Have someone inform the chairman that I’m on my way.”

A landcar was waiting for the commandant when he exited HQMC.

         

At the Heptigon, Commandant Aguinaldo was ushered directly into the office of Admiral Joseph K. C. B. Porter, Chairman of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Porter was standing at the side of his desk, looking as if he were waiting patiently for Aguinaldo’s arrival. His evident patience, though, was merely a mask for the nervousness he felt. It wasn’t every day that the Commandant of the Marine Corps paid a visit to the Chairman of the Combined Chiefs. When he did, the visit usually meant a headache for the chairman.

“Andy, welcome!” Porter said, stepping forward and extending his hands to grip Aguinaldo’s right hand in a hearty shake. He needed to use both hands to disguise their tremble.

“Thank you, Admiral. Good to see you.” Aguinaldo didn’t grip Porter’s right hand firmly enough to steady it, allowing him to feel the tremble. He hid a smile; he was going to get what he wanted.

“Have a seat, Andy,” Porter said, steering the Marine to an intimate seating group—two comfortable chairs at a round-topped table in front of a large window. “Cognac? Colombian coffee? Cigar? I have some Davidoffs.”

“The coffee sounds good. Black. And thank you; I’ll indulge myself as long as you have Davidoffs.”

By the time the two men were seated, a steward was rolling a service trolley into the office. The steward deftly unloaded the cart onto the table: a fine silver coffee set and a pair of fine china coffee mugs—one with the emblem of the Confederation Navy emblazoned on its side, the other with the Eagle, Globe, and Starstream of the Confederation Marine Corps. He placed a humidor near Porter’s right hand and a silver ashtray midway between the two men.

“Thank you, I’ll pour,” Porter told the steward as soon as everything was laid out. He waited for the porter to withdraw before pouring the coffee and opening the humidor.

The two men took a moment to savor a sip of the coffee and go through the ritual of clipping and lighting their cigars. Then Porter decided to bite the bullet and get it over with.

“What problem are you bringing me today, Andy?”

Aguinaldo shook his head. “No problem, Admiral,” he said. “I’m bringing you a
solution
to a problem.”

Porter leaned back and gave Aguinaldo a look of mild disbelief. “A
solution
to a problem?”

“You’re sending two army divisions and two of my FISTs to Ravenette,” Aguinaldo said. “They’ve been provisionally designated the 10th Corps. I don’t believe the army has a spare lieutenant general to send as the corps’ commander. Am I right?”

“Well, I do have someone in mind for the job.”

Aguinaldo nodded. “I’m sure you do, Admiral. And I’m equally sure that the three-star you have in mind is already filling a vital function on the staff of the Combined Chiefs.”

Porter blinked. “Who’s been talking?”

Aguinaldo shook his head. “Nobody’s said anything—at least not to me or any of my top people. All I’ve heard is that you’re about to make an announcement. There are no names attached to what I heard. But when I look at who’s locally available, every one of them is serving in a vital function.”

Porter looked at him quizzically for a moment, then leaned forward and tapped the ash off his cigar into the sterling ashtray. “I know what you’re going to say, Andy,” he said in a conspiratorial tone. “But it won’t wash, the army won’t stand for it.”

“Sure the army will. The 10th Corps is provisional, so give it an acting commander.” A smile fleetingly cracked Aguinaldo’s face.

“And you have just the man for the job.”

“Indeed I do.” This time Aguinaldo’s smile was less fleeting. “You have a need for a lieutenant general, I’ve got one without a billet to slot him into. Make him Acting CG, 10th Provisional Corps. The army will complain, but they won’t go after your head as long as they believe the appointment is temporary, just to oversee the transit.”

Porter leaned back and eyed Aguinaldo. The Marine had a valid argument; while the army would strenuously object to a Marine commanding a corps that was mostly army, they wouldn’t fight a transitional appointment too strongly. Besides, he felt he owed Aguinaldo. “You know, Andy, I do believe you’re right. I’ll have the orders drawn up immediately, appointing Kyr Godalgonz as Acting Commanding General, 10th Provisional Corps. Jason can stand the corps down when it reaches Ravenette and reassign its elements.” He cocked his head. “Hmm. He’ll have three FISTs and a Marine lieutenant general. He can designate them as a Marine amphibious expeditionary force.” He smiled at the commandant. “Well, Andy, it seems that you
did
come to see me with a solution to a problem.” His smile widened to a grin. “And solved a problem of your own as well, I suspect.”

“As the admiral says.”

“Take that with you,” Porter said when Aguinaldo reached to put his cigar in the ashtray. “Take a couple more.” He picked up the humidor and opened it before extending it to the Marine.

“Thank you very much, sir,” the commandant said, taking three Davidoffs.

The two men rose and shook hands.

Aguinaldo held his own grin until he was back inside his landcar for the return to HQMC. He certainly had solved a problem of his own.

Newly promoted Lieutenant General Kyr Godalgonz had followed two highly successful tours as a FIST commander with a promotion to major general and tours on the staffs of 1st and 5th Fleet Marines, then one at Headquarters, Marine Corps. For which exemplary service he was rewarded with promotion to the three-silver-nova rank. However, HQMC didn’t have a three-nova billet immediately available. Now the problem of what to do with an excess lieutenant general was solved.

As was another problem.

General Jason Billie—commander of the Confederation forces on and around Ravenette—had a chestful of medals, but the majority of them were “attaboys,” medals given not for heroism under fire, but for job performance in support positions. To Marines, any outstanding job performance that didn’t involve serious risk to life or limb was simply doing one’s job—the Marines didn’t award attaboys. Furthermore, Billie hadn’t earned any of his campaign medals by getting anywhere near the pointy end of a campaign. Ravenette was his first combat command. As sometimes happens when career staff officers attain high rank and receive their first combat command, Billie refused to listen to advice from his more experienced subordinate unit commanders. Even though Billie felt comfortable ignoring his own division commanders and a Marine brigadier, Aguinaldo didn’t think he’d have the guts to shrug off a Marine lieutenant general. Particularly not one who had nearly as many medals as Billie did—every one of which was a decoration for heroism under fire, or a campaign medal earned at the tip of the spear.

He got out his comm and called Lieutenant General Burbage Weinstock. “Please inform Lieutenant General Godalgonz that the commandant requests the pleasure of his company at his earliest convenience. You be there too.”

         

Even to a lieutenant general, “the commandant requests the pleasure of your company at your earliest convenience” means “drop whatever you’re doing and see me
now
.” So Lieutenant General Kyr Godalgonz was waiting with Lieutenant General Burbage Weinstock when Commandant Aguinaldo returned to his office.

         

Lieutenant General Kyr Godalgonz was tall and lean and graying at the temples; he looked exactly like what a trid director would want for the role of a heroic Marine lieutenant general in a war epic.

Commandant Aguinaldo got to the point before he reached his desk. “Kyr, how soon can you be ready to ship out?”

“Sir?” Godalgonz asked, taken by surprise. The question was too broad for a simple answer, so he gave the extremes. “If I’m shipping out for a permanent change of station, a week will be more than enough. My wife’s been through almost as many as I have; she can handle most of it. If it’s for a deployment, two hours.”

“It’s for a deployment. Admiral Porter is having orders cut now assigning you as Acting Commanding General, 10th Provisional Corps, which is en route to Ravenette.”

For an instant, it was as though Godalgonz had been struck by a bolt of lightning—assignment to a corps command wasn’t something he’d ever considered, not even remotely. But he recovered fast. “I can have my wife grab my mount-out bags and meet me.”

Aguinaldo chuckled. “No need to do that,” he said. “The orders haven’t arrived here yet. Take your wife out to dinner tonight, then have some private time with her. You’ll probably leave tomorrow. Now sit, please, both of you.” He led them to a small cluster of chairs away from the windows.

“All right, Kyr. You’ll have the Army’s 54th Infantry and 87th Heavy Infantry Divisions, along with 17th and 29th FISTs. They’re all en route now, except for 17th FIST, which you will rendezvouz with at its first jump. General Jason Billie is in command of the Confederation forces on Ravenette. I know you weren’t here very long before he shipped out, but did you ever meet him?”

“No, sir, I never had the pleasure.”

Aguinaldo and Weinstock exchanged a look.

“Jason Billie is a kwangduk’s ass,” Weinstock said when Aguinaldo nodded for him to speak. “I know, that’s a strong term to use to describe a brother officer, but Billie isn’t exactly a brother to us. I mean aside from being Army, and not Marine. To begin with, he’s a career staff officer.” Weinstock smiled at the expression that washed over Godalgonz’s face at that bit of news; the Marines had career staff officers, but it was impossible for a Marine to reach flag rank without extensive combat-command experience.

“Ravenette’s his first combat command?”

“Exactly. All of his subordinate commanders, including his deputy commander, have experience. But the only one Billie seems willing to listen to is his chief of staff—another career staffer.”

Aguinaldo picked it up. “That’s why I went to the chairman and got you assigned to this corps command. Billie won’t be able to shrug you off as easily as he does army two-stars and Marine brigadiers.”

“But it’s acting CG of a provisional corps,” Godalgonz said. “What’s to stop him from standing the corps down and eliminating the corps commander billet?”

Aguinaldo gave Godalgonz a wolfish smile. “A Marine lieutenant general.”

For his part, Lieutenant General Godalgonz was delighted with the assignment. Seven years earlier, when he had been promoted to major general, he assumed he’d never again be in command of Marines in the field, the reason many Marine brigadiers declined promotion to two-nova rank; major generals got field command only on the rare occasions when two or more FISTs were on deployment together. Despite Aguinaldo’s briefing about General Billie, Godalgonz looked forward to meeting the army commander—and to being a corps commander under him. And if he could get 34th FIST moved to his corps, he’d have Brigadier Theodosius Sturgeon as one of his subordinate commanders. Sturgeon was the only active Marine to have commanded a corps in combat.

Delighted? Lieutenant General Godalgonz was thrilled.

         

Newly promoted Lieutenant General Kyr Godalgonz, Confederation Marine Corps, arrived on Ravenette with the 10th Provisional Corps much earlier than General Jason Billie, Supreme Commander, Confederation Armed Forces, Ravenette, had anticipated. General Billie was not pleased. As much as he appreciated getting two additional divisions, two more Marine FISTs would only get in the way. And he suspected that a Marine lieutenant general would be a far greater pain in his nether end than that damn Cazombi, his deputy commander.

CHAPTER ONE

Marines strive to have everything shipshape, the Marines of 34th FIST no less than other Marines. Shipshape can mean spit-and-polish, everything as clean and neat and shiny as humanly possible—and then some. These are Marines we’re talking about, after all. In a deeper sense, shipshape means having one’s body and mind in peak condition, and all of one’s gear, equipment, and—most important—weapons in the best possible condition. Getting himself and all his equipment—most important, his weapons—shipshape in all regards is one of the most important things a Marine can do to increase his odds of winning and surviving his next firefight.

Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team had been on Ravenette for close to half a year, standard, running hither and yon to plug holes in the porous Confederation Army defensive line, living in vermin-infested bunkers that had been thoroughly trashed by the soldiers who’d inhabited them before the army had moved to less severely infested bunkers. They’d just fought off a division-size assault, a battle they’d won only because the Confederation Army’s 27th Division—in contravention of orders from General Jason Billie—had turned its artillery onto the flank of the secessionist soldiers just as they were about to overrun the Marines’ positions.

No, 34th FIST wasn’t shipshape, it was…


Shit
-shape!” Sergeant Tim Kerr shouted as he barged into the bunker occupied by second squad’s second fire team. “This whole damn squad is in
shit-shape
!”

Corporal Rachman “Rock” Claypoole, second fire team leader, spun about to yell back at Kerr, but froze with his face twisted in anger and his mouth open. He froze because he remembered that Kerr was no longer
Corporal
Kerr—another fire team leader just like him, although a good deal more senior and experienced—but
Sergeant
Kerr, his squad leader. Even though the squad leader was a good deal lower in rank than Ensign Charlie Bass, the platoon commander, when a squad leader was in the kind of mood Kerr looked to be in, he wasn’t much junior to God.

Claypoole shut his mouth with an audible
clack
of teeth and untwisted his face, stifling his anger. He stood a little more erect and looked about the bunker. The room had been crudely gouged out of the coral-like wall of the escarpment that rose above the beach on the north side of the Bataan Peninsula, and its walls roughly smoothed; at least the worst of the protrusions had been knocked off. That was all the finishing the engineers had had time to do when they were preparing the defensive positions for the war now being fought here on Ravenette. Any protrusions they’d left had been replaced by gouges and pits, the result of fire from the attacking Coalition division that had nearly overrun the Marines.

One good thing about the gouges and pits was that they’d replaced much of the crud the Marines hadn’t been able to scour off the walls when they took over the bunkers from the army. A bad thing was the resulting stony debris scattered about. Not to mention the expended munitions that littered the floor.

When Kerr barged in and roared his displeasure, Lance Corporal Jack “Wolfman” MacIlargie jumped as though he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, then just gawped at his squad leader, uncertain of what was coming next—he’d never seen Corporal Kerr so angry. He guessed that an extra ration of anger was issued to new sergeants.

Lance Corporal Dave “Hammer” Schultz had been leaning on the embrasure, looking out over Pohick Bay—just because the Marines, with help from the 27th Division, had defeated a reinforced division didn’t mean the Coalition wouldn’t order another assault. When he heard Kerr, he casually glanced over his shoulder at the squad leader, then just as casually turned back to his vigil and spat a thick stream of saliva onto the glasis that led from the beach to the escarpment. After the battle, the glasis had been carpeted with bodies, parts of bodies, and unidentifiable bits and chunks of gore, all of which had since been removed for mass burial. The detritus knocked from the face of the escarpment still lay on the glasis. Schultz rolled his shoulders. His back hurt from the wound he’d received weeks earlier when a metal facing-sheet from a trench fell on him while the Marines were beating off a major assault.

Kerr’s fury really wasn’t at the condition of his squad’s bunkers, rather it was a mechanism to distract him from his anguish over casualties. He’d become squad leader only because the previous squad leader, Sergeant Linsman, had been killed a few weeks earlier. He was in anguish about that, and about having had one man in each of his three fire teams wounded on the operation—so far. For that matter, he’d been wounded himself. Right, five of the ten Marines in his squad were already casualties, and as far as he could tell there was no end to the campaign in sight. That kind of thinking could lead to despair. Kerr didn’t want to despair, so he turned his emotions to fury, and took it out on his men.

Besides, if his men were uncertain about him, and they kept busy making their bunkers shipshape, they’d be less likely to dwell on the things that had
him
so upset.

“Look at this sty!” Kerr shrieked, kicking at the rubble strewn on the floor. “I want this bunker shipshape when I come back.” He glared at the three Marines of second fire team in order—he even glared at Schultz’s turned back. “And I want you and your weapons and gear clean and ready to stand inspection on my return.” One more glare and he spun and left the bunker as suddenly as he’d stormed in.

After a lengthy moment of silence, MacIlargie murmured, “What crawled up his ass and died?”

“Wants us too busy to think,” Schultz rumbled.

Claypoole stopped staring at the bunker entrance where Kerr had vanished and slowly turned toward Schultz. “Uh, too busy to think about what?” he asked.

“Half casualties.”

Claypoole mulled that for a moment, wondering what might constitute a “half casualty.” Then it clicked; half of the squad had been casualties so far in the defense of the Bataan Peninsula. “Right,” he said. Damn good idea. Let’s get busy cleaning up this shithole.” He grabbed a push broom from a corner and tossed it to MacIlargie. “Start sweeping up, Wolfman.”

MacIlargie deftly caught the broom, but instead of sweeping the floor, he cocked his head in thought. “Rock,” he said slowly, “we barely have enough water to drink. How are we supposed to get ourselves and our gear clean enough to stand inspection?”

Claypoole gave MacIlargie a that’s-a-dumb-question-but-I-don’t-expect-anything-better-from-you look and said, “We’re Marines. When we don’t have what we need to accomplish a mission, we improvise. When we don’t have what we need to improvise, we simulate.”

MacIlargie blinked a few times. He understood improvising, but “How do we simulate cleaning ourselves and our gear?”

“Fake it,” Schultz grumbled.

MacIlargie quickly glanced toward the big, taciturn Marine, then started pushing the broom. After a couple of minutes he looked at Claypoole and said, “I could use some help here, you know. Why don’t you do something?”

“I am doing something,” Claypoole retorted. “I’m the fire team leader. I’m supervising. You missed some shit over there.” He pointed at a patch of floor that MacIlargie had just swept.

“Supervising, yeah sure, supervising,” MacIlargie grumbled. He didn’t look at Schultz, still looking out over Pohick Bay. A few minutes later, though, all three Marines were working together to clean out their bunker.

         

First squad hadn’t suffered quite as badly as second squad; four wounded and none killed. And, unlike second squad, two of its fire team leaders were both senior and experienced enough to be in line to be slotted into squad leader billets—should one become vacant. As a matter of fact, Sergeant Lupo “Rabbit” Ratliff, the first squad leader, believed that if 34th FIST had not been quarantined, and if its Marines had been rotated out to other units like everybody else in the Confederation Marine Corps, Corporal “Dorny” Dornhofer, his first fire team leader, would long since have been promoted to sergeant and made a squad leader. But it wasn’t Ratliff’s place to question the decisions of higher-higher, not even when he believed higher-higher was clearly in the wrong.

No, Sergeant Ratliff had more immediate concerns than howcome-forwhy nobody was moving on to other duty stations. Word had filtered down that a Marine lieutenant general was on his way to Bataan to take over combat operations from General Billie. Of course, that word was scuttlebutt, and probably as accurate as the idea that Ensign Charlie Bass was the secret love child of Confederation President Cynthia Chang-Sturdevant. Not that Ratliff thought a Marine lieutenant general wasn’t on his way, but the idea that an army general commanding a major operation would give up combat operations command to a Marine was just too absurd to consider. Sure, sure, a Marine had relieved the army combat commander on Diamunde. But in that case, the overall commander was a navy admiral, and
he
had removed the doggie and replaced him with the Marine. Here, the doggie was the overall commander and the admiral was subordinate to him. So there was no way—short of all the army generals getting killed—that a Marine would get command.

The straight scoop—and Ratliff knew it was straight because he’d gotten it directly from Charlie Bass, who had been in the squad leaders’ meeting that had just broken up—was that a Marine lieutenant general
was
on his way. Bass didn’t know what the three-nova’s function would be once he delivered the two divisions and two FISTs he was bringing. If it came to the worst, he’d be an inspector general.

Nobody ever wanted to stand an IG inspection, especially not in the middle of a shooting war. But, dammit, Charlie Bass thought third platoon should be as ready for one as it could be. So Ratliff called his fire team leaders together and told them to get their bunkers ready to stand a round of inspections. “I don’t
care
that you don’t have the shit you need to get your bunkers properly cleaned,” he said when they objected. “Do what you can with what you’ve got!”

When he dismissed his fire team leaders, he went in search of the other squad leaders.

“How’d your people react when you told them to get ready for an IG?” Ratliff asked Sergeant Kerr when he found him.

Kerr gave him a blank look. “What IG?”

Ratliff returned the look. “The IG Ensign Bass told us about.”

“He did?”

“I had a feeling you weren’t listening during the squad leaders’ meeting,” Ratliff said, shaking his head. “What’s the problem?”

Kerr looked into nowhere in particular. “No problem. I was, I was thinking about casualties, that’s all.” He hung his head.

“Look at me, Tim.” Ratliff put a hand on Kerr’s shoulder and drew him close. “Come on, lift your head and look at me.” When Kerr’s head stayed down, Ratliff squeezed his shoulder and gave it a shake. Kerr slowly raised his head and looked into Ratliff’s eyes from a distance of just centimeters. Ratliff shifted his grip to the back of Kerr’s neck and pulled until their foreheads touched.

“Listen to me, Tim,” Ratliff said softly. “I know you feel like shit because of how you got your job. So what? Most of our fire team leaders got their jobs the same way—someone above them got killed or too badly injured to come back. We’re Marines and that’s life for us.”

“B-but I, I…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You were almost killed on Wanderjahr and it took a long time for you to make it back to where you could be returned to duty. And then you had to deal with your own mortality. You’ve done a pretty good job of it, you didn’t let it get in the way of doing your job when you were a fire team leader. Now you’ve got more lives to be concerned about. That comes with the big bucks. You’re a good Marine, you were an outstanding fire team leader. Now be the outstanding squad leader you can be.”

Before Kerr could respond, Sergeant Kelly, the gun squad leader, boomed out “What’s this, kissy-face between squad leaders?”

“Up your ass with a railroad tie, Kelly!” Ratliff boomed back.

“Nah, Rabbit’s trying to teach me squad leader’s contact telepathy,” Kerr said.

“Squad leader contact telepathy? Never heard of it.”

“That’s because you’re a gun squad leader,” Ratliff snorted. “Gun squad leaders don’t have enough brains for anybody to read their minds.”

“So what do you think of that IG happy horseshit?” Kelly asked in a more normal voice when he reached the other squad leaders.

“Happy horseshit about says it,” Kerr replied.

Ratliff nodded at him sharply, glad to see Kerr was coming out of the funk he’d been in. “Whatever’s going to happen, it won’t be like the IG we missed by coming here in the first place.” The Inspector General of the Marine Corps was at Camp Major Pete Ellis, home of 34th FIST, when the orders for the deployment arrived and the inspection was canceled.

“Better not be,” Kelly muttered. “Ain’t a man jack in the FIST could pass a fire team leader’s inspection right now, much less a proper IG.”

“Damn straight!”

“So what are we going to do about it?”

“Improvise.”

“And what we can’t improvise, simulate.”

CHAPTER TWO

Heb Cawman, former Chairman of the Coalition Committee on the Conduct of the War, sat inside his comfortable cell in the brig of the CNSS
Kiowa
, twiddling his thumbs and humming an old folk song popular among the farmers of Ruspina, his home world, where he sincerely wished he were. But he would be willing to settle, instead, for a bottle of Old Snort bourbon.

“Sittin’ by the roadside, on a summer’s day. Chattin’ wif muh messmates, passin’ time away,” he sang quietly. The cell had no bars and was more like an efficiency apartment than a detention facility. It measured about four meters by ten. The door to the companionway that ran down the row of cells was always open, but the prisoners couldn’t go through it because a strong detention field blocked the way. Guards carried electronic devices that neutralized the field so they could come and go, but unless a prisoner had access to one of the things and knew the codes, he was stuck in his cell. Besides, even if he could’ve gotten out, what could a man like Cawman do aboard a navy starship except get himself put right back in the brig?

A hatch hissed open down the companionway, out of Cawman’s sight, and he sat up. As far as he knew, he was the only prisoner in the brig and visitors, even a guard bringing him something, broke the monotony. Since he was under constant video and sensor surveillance, he often amused himself by making ugly faces and passing gas—weak substitutes for even casual human contact.

“Mr. Cawman?” A woman dressed in a navy officer’s uniform, but without badges of rank, came into view on the other side of the field. She filled her uniform in a most delightful manner. She was petite, with a very pale complexion, and she looked to be no more than twenty. Actually, she was in her forties, a highly trained intelligence officer who’d been at the business of prisoner interrogation for more than fifteen years.

“The one ’n’ only, Missy.” Cawman stood up and grinned. He bowed deeply to bid her enter.

“My name is Fatimah, Mr. Cawman, and I have some questions to ask you.” She passed through the field and Cawman graciously offered her the only chair in the cell; he sat on the bed. Smiling, she sat down and popped open a case that she placed on her lap. Her knees were kept primly together.

“You gonna hook me up to that thing ’n’ turn on the juice?” Cawman nodded at the case. He could not see what was inside.

“Oh, Mr. Cawman,” Fatimah said, and laughed, “you know the Confederation, as well as your own government, is a signatory to the Richmond Convention on Treatment of Prisoners of War and Other Detainees! Torture, threats, intimidation—they’re illegal! Even you, Mr. Cawman, a noncombatant taken on the field of battle, are to be afforded every courtesy and treated humanely. While we’re together, Mr. Cawman, I want you to consider me in the same light you would, say, your niece, not a nasty old interrogator.” She smiled broadly, revealing perfect teeth.

Cawman grinned, revealing the dirty stumps of the few teeth that remained in his mouth. “Niece is fine but third cousin’d be better.” He leered. “Missy, I was snatched by your Marine pirates ’n’ drug up here against my will! I want to file a protest!” He continued to grin. “Hey, you got any other names besides Fatimah?”

Fatimah only smiled and said, “Of course, Mr. Cawman, I will help you file your protest as well as help you file any other complaints you may have about the way you are being treated here. Do you feel like answering a few questions now, Mr. Cawman?”

“I’ll letcha know,” and he gestured at the case on Fatimah’s knees, indicating she should proceed.

“I’m going to record your remarks, Mr. Cawman. I’ll stop recording anytime you like. Is that all right with you, Mr. Cawman?”

“Sure.”

“First, do you have any complaints?” She smiled again.

Cawman noted that her eyes were brown. Her auburn hair was cut short, conforming to the contours of her head. Her tiny nose tilted upwards slightly.
She’s looking mighty good
, he thought. “Naw,” Cawman answered. “Them Marines, they was pretty rough at first, but what the hell, I been roughed up even worse in some o’ the best bars back home.” He laughed and slapped his knee.

“Mr. Cawman, you were the Chairman of the Coalition’s Committee on the Conduct of the War. Is that true?” Cawman nodded and Fatimah smiled. “Can you tell me what your duties were on that committee?”

Cawman shrugged. “Hell, Missy, my only duty was to be a big pain in Gen’ral Davis Lyons’s behind! The folks back home wanted to believe we was keepin’ the ol’ boy’s nose in the manure, so to speak, so we harassed ’im without really interferin’ too much with the way he ran his army. He ran it pretty durn good too, I’d say! He even put some of the boys in the hoosegow!”

Fatimah smiled. “I heard about that. It doesn’t seem to me, sir, that your government was, er, well, very well organized.”

“It weren’t. Mostly we sat around throwin’ spitballs at each other ’n’ drinking Old Snort to kill the boredom. Ol’ Preston Summers, the president, ’n’ Gen’ral Lyons, they actually run the war. The rest of us, the senate, jist rubber-stamped their decisions.”

Fatimah was silent for a moment. “Mr. Cawman, I have the impression there’s a lot you’re not telling me. Now, we have to be honest with each other here.” She leaned forward, eyes locking with Cawman’s. “What happens to you depends on how cooperative you are with us.”

“Are you intimidatin’ me, Missy?” Cawman grinned.

Fatimah smiled. “I have the authority to restrict some of your privileges, sir, if you give me a hard time.” She shrugged. “Cut down on your smokes, for instance, turn off your closed-circuit vid system for another.”

“Well, yer smokes is much inferior to what I’m used to, and those vids are for kids, so go ahead, cut ’em off.” Cawman leaned back and put his arms behind his head. This girl, he could see, was a pushover.

Fatimah smiled. “I have some Davidoffs here and a bottle of Old Snort and they’re yours if you promise you’ll try to get along with me.”

“Holy Martin Luther in hell!” Cawman yelled, sitting upright. “Where do I sign?”

“Let’s talk first, all right? You were a senator and the chairman of an important committee, sir, so we think you are a high government official of the Coalition. That makes you a very important prisoner. Moreover, you are a high-ranking member of a government that is in rebellion against the Confederation of Human Worlds, and your forces have mounted an unprovoked attack against one of our garrisons. That makes you subject to charges of high treason and you know what that could mean.”

“Miss Fatimah, let me straighten you out here. First, I am well aware of the legal niceties involved in any definition of war. Who attacked whom first, who provoked that attack—that is open to question. Eventually you’ll have to try me on charges of treason; no way you can shove me under a rock somewhere, so I’ll make lots of noise. Second, in my person you have a mere functionary of the Coalition government. Yes, I voted for the war, along with several hundred other people, but we thought at the time that we had been provoked by your forces, that our citizens had been fired on and killed by them. Third”—

So
, Fatimah thought,
the old windbag can speak Standard English when he wants to. Is his country hick persona just an act?

—“I am not really as important as you think. Other people are more important in what transpired on Ravenette and in the Coalition government than I ever was. I had nothing to do with the attack on Fort Seymour, when all those demonstrators were cut down. No. What you have in me is a nobody.” There was a noticeable tinge of bitterness in the way he said that.

Attack on Fort Seymour
, Fatimah thought.
What a curious phrasing
. She also inferred from his remarks that Cawman was not happy with his role in the Coalition’s government. Was there something here she could exploit? Cawman’s vanity? “Mr. Cawman, where is President Preston Summers now?”

“Ah, Missy,” Cawman drawled, shifting his position on the bed, glancing downward at the deck before he spoke, “I cain’t rightly say.”

Fatimah knew he was lying. His body language expressed surprise and nervousness at the question and glancing downward like that indicated to her he was gathering his thoughts before he responded.

“But you must’ve had a contingency plan, in case Gilbert’s Corners came under attack, or the battlefront shifted and required the government’s evacuation.”

“Um, no, no, actually, we didn’t,” he said, looking away sharply as he spoke.

Fatimah smiled to herself but kept her pose of youthful innocence. Oh, yes, he was lying. “Well, there’s no one there now, Mr. Cawman. Certainly Mr. Summers is no longer there. Where do you suppose he went?”

Cawman thought that question over for a few moments. He despised Preston Summers, his airs, his highfalutin music, his reputation, everything about the man. Why should he care what became of him? The war was lost anyway, and it was far better that Summers go on trial than Heb Cawman. On the other hand, dammit, Heb Cawman was no sniveling coward who’d betray a man just for a bottle of whiskey and a good smoke. Nosiree! “Well, I’ll tell ya this, Missy, ol’ Preston, he’s gonna soon be far away and deep in the ground, where you cain’t get at him, but that’s all I kin say.”

Fatimah decided it was time to conclude the interview. “Mr. Cawman, you have been a great help to me and I appreciate your cooperative spirit. I’ll see that my superiors know about that, and it will certainly count in your favor. Meanwhile”—she withdrew a bottle of Old Snort and a Davidoff from her case and handed them to Cawman—“I think your help deserves a reward.” She smiled broadly.

“Holy hasenpfeffer hallelujah!” Cawman exclaimed, twisting the cap off the bottle. “When I get outta here I’m gonna marry you, lil’ girl!” He toasted her and took a long swig from the bottle. Fatimah smiled.

         

“Do you have anything for General Cazombi, Ruth?” Admiral Hoi asked.

Ensign Ruth O’Reilly, also known as Fatimah, smiled. “Yes, sir, I do. I’m pretty sure about two bits of intelligence I got from this Cawman creature. One, what’s left of the Coalition government is planning to be evacuated to a mountain retreat, someplace where there are caves. I think it is most likely in the Cumbers, sir, precisely where I’d expect General Lyons would choose his fallback position if our breakout from Bataan is successful and we divide his army.”

“So that’d mean he’d be fighting his war on two fronts, Billie in front and his own politicians in the rear.”

“Yessir.” She glanced up at the vid screen. Heb Cawman lay on his bunk, a half-finished bottle of bourbon in one hand, a Davidoff between his teeth, keeping time with his free hand to some ludicrous tune he was humming. “I’ll confirm that in the next interview, sir, which I shall commence in about fifteen minutes.”

Admiral Hoi arched his eyebrows in surprise. “Hell, Ruth, he’ll be so drunk by then he won’t even be able to talk!”

Ruth smiled. “Actually, no, sir. That ‘whiskey’ wouldn’t get a kwangduk drunk. He’s just experiencing euphoria at the thought he’s drinking the real stuff. He’s been sober for so long now just the whiff of alcohol is all he needs to get high.”

The admiral laughed. “Well, I hope that cigar is a fake too. Seems a shame to waste a perfectly good Davidoff on a man like that.”

“Sorry, sir, the cigar is genuine. Sir, the second thing. You know we’ve suspected all along that the massacre at Fort Seymour was a setup, that secessionist elements in the Coalition wanted an incident to justify an attack on the fort and an ordinance of secession. Well, I sense that Cawman knows something about that. It’s just something in the way he mentioned the attack on Fort Seymour while emphasizing that he had no responsibility for it. I know that’s a lot to conclude from what was just a nuance, but I have pretty good instincts and I believe I’m onto something here.”

“If that’s true, Ruth, we want to get our hands on the responsible parties. Can you get Cawman to talk?”

“Yes, sir. Within the next hour I’ll have the truth out of him.”

“How’re you gonna do that?” Admiral Hoi was genuinely perplexed at Ensign O’Reilly’s confidence.

“Sir, I’m going to use the oldest trick in the book. I’m going to tell Cawman that another prisoner has put the finger on him. Even now guards are ‘dragging’ one of our men into the brig. Cawman can’t see him, but he’ll hear a lot of shouting and cursing. I’ll simply walk down to his cell and tell him the jig’s up, that he was identified as the mastermind, ‘So if you don’t want to hang, give up the others.’ Believe me, this guy’s a pushover. I’ll have names within the hour. Or I’ll have whatever it is he knows—and he knows something.”

Admiral Hoi shook his head in wonder. “Well, go get him, then.” He chuckled.

CHAPTER THREE

“Company L, now hear this,” Captain Lewis Conorado said into his helmet’s all-hands circuit. “By platoons, assemble in your platoon assembly areas. Bring all weapons and field gear. I say again, assemble in your platoon assembly areas. Bring all weapons and field gear.”

“Oh shit!” Lance Corporal Isadore “Izzy” Godenov, on radio watch, exclaimed. “We’re moving out.”

“Moving out to where?” asked his fire team leader, Corporal Joe Dean.

“How do I know?” Godenov retorted. “All I know is the Skipper just came on the horn with orders to assemble at the platoon areas, and bring weapons and field gear.”

Dean grimaced and strode the few steps to the entrance of the bunker, grabbing his blaster as he went. He leaned out and looked up and down the corridor that ran behind the defensive positions. “Looks like you got it right, Izzy,” he said as he pushed back in and went to his field gear. “I saw some other members of the platoon heading for the assembly area. Now
move
it—I don’t want to have to explain to Ensign Bass why first squad’s third fire team was the last to show up.” Working by feel, he grabbed and donned his gear. Loaded up, he checked his men, Godenov and PFC John Three McGinty. It felt like they had everything; he had to check by feel because their gear was as chameleoned as their uniforms and he couldn’t see any of it in the dim light inside the bunker. “Let’s go.” He led the way, carrying his helmet in his hand so people could see him. Along the way he rolled up his sleeves to increase his visibility. Godenov and McGinty followed suit.

Third fire team, first squad, wasn’t the last to reach the platoon assembly area; basically, the Marines reached it in order relative to the distance they had to travel. All of them had their helmets and gloves off, most also had their sleeves rolled up.

Ensign Charlie Bass and Staff Sergeant Wang Hyakowa were waiting for the platoon. Ration cartons and water containers were at Hyakowa’s side. The platoon formed up, facing the platoon commander and platoon sergeant. The Marines didn’t stand at attention, but their postures were tense in anticipation of learning the reason for the assembly. They didn’t have to wait long.

“The Supreme Commander,” Bass said with a peculiar emphasis on the title, “has decided to mount a breakout. He wants to break through the Coalition lines facing us, and he wants the break to be in the center of the enemy line—the strongest part of the line. Three guesses who gets to be the point of the spear, and the first two don’t count.” He paused to let groans and curses ripple through the platoon, then continued, “That’s right. Thirty-fourth FIST’s air, and all the artillery will pound the enemy lines before we advance.” He checked the time. “If you listen carefully, you should be able to hear the barrage starting right about now.” The Marines didn’t have to listen carefully; the barrage was heavy and not all that far away—some of the artillery pieces firing were on the ridge top directly above them.

“The battalion will advance in a column of companies on line. The ‘honor’ of being the lead company falls on Company L. Third platoon will have the left flank.” Bass looked at Lance Corporal Schultz. “Don’t worry, Hammer, second squad gets the left of the platoon.”

Schultz always wanted to be in the most dangerous position when the Marines moved, whether that position was the point or an exposed flank. He wasn’t suicidal, he just believed he was the most alert Marine in whatever unit he was in, the most able to spot danger before the enemy had time to react, the most able to hurt the enemy first. He believed that improved his chances of survival in a firefight and saved the lives of other Marines.

“Staff Sergeant Hyakowa has a day’s rations and water for everybody. Squad leaders, move your people to him in good order, and make sure every one of your Marines has a full ration of food and water. Do it, first squad, second, guns.” Bass stepped out of the way as Sergeant Ratliff led his men to Hyakowa and oversaw their supplying. The Marines had their food and water and were back in formation in less than fifteen minutes.

“The Brigadier,” Bass said when they were ready, “has arranged for transportation to take us to our jumping-off point.” He stopped talking and looked over the disembodied heads and arms standing in three ranks in front of him, then roared out, “’TOON, ’ten-
hut
!” The Marines snapped to attention, and there was a brief clatter of blaster butts clanking to the deck next to the Marines’ right feet.

Bass marched toward Ratliff, with Hyakowa a step to his left and rear. Briskly, with the certainty that came from years of standing and conducting inspections, he went from one Marine to the next and checked each of them. Every one had everything he was supposed to, and the weapons he examined were in proper working order. When he finished with PFC Emilio Delagarza, the assistant gunner in second gun team, the last man in the formation, he returned to his front and center position. He looked pointedly at the three squad leaders and said, “It’s nice to see that the squad leaders conducted their own inspections before their squads got here.” The squad leaders, still at attention, neither looked at him nor changed expression.

“At ease,” Bass ordered. “We don’t have anything else to do before our transportation arrives. So you may as well fall out, but don’t leave the area.” He looked toward the overhead as the thunder of the artillery barrage stopped. “That’s odd,” he murmured. “The barrage was supposed to last two hours. It’s only been”—he looked at Hyakowa.

“About half an hour,” the platoon sergeant said.

“It wasn’t supposed to stop until after we jumped off.”

Hyakowa looked at him blandly, but didn’t say anything. If Charlie Bass didn’t know what was going on, Wang Hyakowa certainly didn’t.

A new sound pierced the air, the scream of Essays nearing the end of the powered dive from orbit. A combat assault landing! Bass looked at the overhead again, as though he could see through the ridge above to the sky. Had the Coalition somehow come up with Essays to make its own assault into the defenses of the Bataan Peninsula? Or had the reinforcements—and the rumored Marine lieutenant general—arrived earlier than expected? He looked at Hyakowa and shrugged. For now, he’d wait patiently. But there was a limit to Charlie Bass’s patience.

         

Charlie Bass engaged in small talk with Hyakowa for a few minutes, then called the squad leaders up and reviewed known enemy emplacements and tactics with them for a time. Then he got up from where he’d been sitting on the floor of the tunnel and began pacing. After almost an hour of decreasing patience, he put on his helmet to call Captain Conorado. But a call from the company commander was already coming in on the command circuit.

“Three Actual,” Bass said into the circuit, informing Conorado he was there. First platoon’s Ensign Antoni had already reported, and Lieutenant Rokmonov of the assault platoon sounded off right after Bass. Ensign Molina of second platoon was the last platoon commander on the circuit.

“Don’t ask for details,” Conorado said when all four platoon commanders were on, “because I don’t have any. The only word I have, and I stress
only
word, is ‘Stand down.’ That came direct from Commander van Winkle. He said that was all he knew. I’ll let you know what’s up the minute I have any information to impart. Six Actual out.”

Bass was left with the nearly inaudible hum of a radio on standby in his ears. Slowly, he lifted his helmet and looked around the platoon area.

“Third herd,” he called out, “gather ’round and listen up.” In a moment the Marines were standing in front of him, but in a group rather than a formation. “Don’t ask, I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” he said to the the faces looking at him for information or instructions. “All I know is, the battalion has been ordered to stand down. So go back to your bunkers. I’ll let you know when I know more.”

Questions began pelting him.

“Ensign Bass, is the war over?”

“Has the breakout been postponed?”

“Did the army decide to use its own troops for the spearpoint?”

“Did that lieutenant general show up, was that what the Essays were?”

“Is the Marine general in command now?”

“I said don’t ask!”
Bass roared. “
I don’t know!
Now get back to your damn bunkers.” He turned to Hyakowa with an expression of feigned disbelief.

For his part, Hyakowa held back the grin that was trying to split his face. “You knew they were going to ask, no matter what you said about not knowing anything else.” He looked at the backs of the heads of the Marines returning to their bunkers, then back at Bass. “Now that they’re gone, you can give me the rest of the word.”

“Not you too, Wang!” Bass said in a tone of shocked disbelief.

Hyakowa could no longer restrain himself and burst out with a belly laugh.

         

“Corporal Dean, what do you think is happening?” PFC John Three McGinty asked his fire team leader on the way back to their bunker.

Dean shook his head. “All I know for sure is, the ritual sacrifice of a Marine FIST has been called off—at least for now.”

McGinty swallowed. “What do you mean, ritual sacrifice?”

Lance Corporal Godenov snorted and asked, “Can I hit him?”

“No, you can’t hit him. That’s
my
job.” Dean reached out and smacked Godenov on the back of his head.

“Hey, what’d you hit
me
for?” Godenov squawked, rubbing the back of his head.

“For not knowing that only the fire team leader gets to smack the new guy upside the head for asking dumb questions.” Dean smacked the back of McGinty’s head. “All right,” he said before McGinty could object, “now that the head smacking is done with, I’ll answer your dumb question.

“General Billie wants a frontal assault to break through the middle of the Coalition lines. He knows that whoever goes first will get chewed up, maybe totally wiped out. He also knows his soldiers can’t do it, so he wants us to go and get killed to weaken the enemy line enough for his soldiers to finish the job.
That’s
what I meant by ritual sacrifice. Understand?”

“He couldn’t want that!” McGinty gasped.

Dean smacked him upside his head again. “Billie’s a doggie. Doggies don’t like Marines. Billie
particularly
doesn’t like Marines. You better believe he’d want to get us wiped out.”

Corporal Doyle was visibly shaking when he and his men reached their bunker. PFC Lasha Summers had seen his fire team leader like that before, and he understood that it didn’t necessarily mean anything. Nonetheless, he found it unnerving, so he went directly to the bunker’s aperture and stared out over Pohick Bay rather than glance at the corporal, who looked like he was about to throw up, or loose his sphincter, or do something else unpleasant and probably malodorous.

PFC Lary Smedley, on the other hand, was entirely too new to third platoon and Corporal Doyle to know anything other than that his fire team leader looked frightened enough to shit himself, which put him in an similar frame of mind and digestive distress.

Fortunately for the state of Smedley’s intestinal urges, Sergeant Kerr had noticed Doyle’s trembling while on his way back to the squad’s section, and followed third fire team to its bunker entrance where he caught Doyle’s eye. Kerr crooked a finger at Doyle, and backed into the corridor.

“Y-Yes, Sergeant K-Kerr,” Doyle stammered when he joined the squad leader.

“Let’s keep this quiet, just between you and me,” Kerr said quietly, almost a whisper.

Doyle nodded rapidly and sucked on his lower lip.

“You’ve got two new men,” Kerr said. “This is Summers’s first deployment, and Smedley joined us in the middle of it. You’ve got the new men because I know how good you are with them, how good a teacher you are. Do you understand that?”

Doyle nodded again, and found his voice. “Y-Yes, I know you th-think I’m good with the n-new men.”

Kerr shook his head. “I don’t think, I
know
. I’ve seen you with them. But right now you’re scaring them.”

Doyle blinked. “Sc-Scaring them?”