In other news, both Marines and The Cost of Victory are now available in print as well.
The Cost of Victory
Tangled Vine Inn
Atlantia – Epsilon Indi II
Sarah Linden rolled over, pulling the covers up to her chin with a shiver. Her arm reached out, feeling the empty space in the bed next to her. She looked groggily at the disheveled blankets and the crumpled, sweat-soaked pillow laying on the floor. Her eyes focused slowly in the faint predawn light, and it was a few seconds before she realized he was gone. The door was half open and the cool morning breeze was coming in off the ocean. No wonder it’s so cold in here, she thought.
She slid slowly out of bed, grasping for the silk robe draped over the chair. The room was large, maybe six meters by ten, stylishly furnished in a slightly nautical theme. There was a large hearth at the far end of the room, a few barely glowing embers all that remained of the roaring fire from the night before. Tying the belt on her robe, she walked toward the door and out onto the balcony.
Erik Cain was standing along the edge, hands on the railing, looking out over the ocean below. His eyes were fixed, watching the waves ripple in at the base of the low cliff just below the balcony. He didn’t notice her walking up behind him, and he jumped slightly when she put her hand gently on his back. His skin was cold and clammy, covered with a thin sheen of sweat despite the chilly dawn air. She could feel the tension begin to slip away just a bit; her touch usually relaxed him, at least a little.
He turned his head and gave her a little smile. “Did I wake you?” His hair was a tangled mess and she stifled a small laugh as she reached up and neatened it just a bit.
“No, I’m used to you thrashing around by now.” She stood next to him, moving her hand softly across his back. “I woke up and saw you were up.” She looked out over the ocean. The sun was just starting to rise, a hazy yellow semicircle coming up over the sea, the soft light dancing off rippling waves. “But I thought I might be able to lure you back to bed.”
He smiled again. “You know very well you can.” He reached out and took her hand in his, but he didn’t move, still standing along the rail, staring out over the gentle surf. Erik Cain had his share of demons keeping him up at night. He’d seen terrible things as a child; indeed, as an angry teenager he’d performed some fairly reprehensible deeds himself. His rage against the government and the criminals who’d murdered his family was justified, but taking it out on the innocents compelled to live their meager existences in the hellish slums wasn’t. He was sorry for much of what he’d done back then, though he’d more or less made a tentative peace with it.
Cain had fought in many battles, and he’d commanded thousands of Marines. His troops had been in the thick of some of the bloodiest combats of the war, and many of his men and women had died following his orders, a burden Cain continually struggled to bear. The ghosts kept him up nights for sure, but that wasn’t what was bothering him now. It was the future he was worried about.
The war had been over for three years, and Cain had held a series of boring, out of the way posts ever since. Things were not all well in the Corps, and he was troubled. He mistrusted Alliance Gov with an intensity bordering on paranoia, and now he felt something fundamental had changed in the century-long relationship between the Marines and the Earth authorities. The Corps had always occupied a unique place in the overall structure of the Alliance. It had no military role on Earth; its sole purpose was to defend Alliance colonies outside the solar system. As such, it was answerable both to the colonies themselves and the government back on Earth. When the Corps was small and the colonies few, this worked just fine. But now there were many Alliance colonies – more than ever since the war was won – and the Corps was the dominant military force in occupied space.
There was growing tension between Alliance Gov and the colonies, and the Corps was caught in the middle. Many Marines had come to think of themselves as the military force of the colony worlds, which, in many ways, they were. But that characterization became problematic when conflict between the colonies and Alliance Gov became a realistic probability. Cain doubted that most Marine officers would obey an order to attack Alliance colonists, but would they engage other Federal forces to protect those same colonists? He didn’t know, and he suspected that most Marine commanders prayed to avoid such a choice.
The government was also unsure of the answer, and it had been picking away at the provisions of the Marine Charter, the original document that authorized the modern Corps and defined its rights and obligations. The assignment of political officers, initially instituted late in the war as a temporary program, was one way the authorities were trying to assert greater control over what the politicians perceived as a dangerously independent Marine Corps. The political officers, universally unpopular in the Corps, were made a permanent part of the Marine organizational structure after the Treaty of Mars was signed. Cain had protested, along with most of the serving officers, but to no avail. For generations, Marine commandants had resisted the encroachments of Alliance Gov into the privileges granted the Corps in the Charter, but General Samuels had done little since he’d moved into the top command two years before.
Cain had known the Corps would demobilize once the war was over, but he was shocked at how it had been done. I Corps had been broken up, many of its veterans pushed into retirement, the rest scattered around, dispersed to petty garrisons on the Rim. Cain’s own special action teams, a great success by any measure, were disbanded, the program discontinued. General Holm himself had fought to keep the teams together, but he’d been overruled by Samuels.
Erik realized with a start that he had drifted deep into thought. Sarah was standing next to him, silent, the side of her face pressed against his shoulder. She was used to him drifting off this way, and she usually just let him work quietly through whatever was on his mind. He loved her completely; she was the only person who’d ever made him feel completely at ease, even if such moments were rare. In a life filled first with pain and the fight to survive, and later with duty and the weight of guilt and responsibility, she was the one purely good thing that had ever happened to him. It’s not fair to her, he thought sadly. I don’t think I will ever know true peace. She deserves better than to share my nightmares.
Sarah Linden had her own recollections from a hellish past, no less painful than Erik’s. Abused and victimized by a powerful politician when she was a child, she too had found salvation in the Corps. As a surgeon, she mourned every patient she lost, but most of the Marines who found their way to her survived – Erik couldn’t make the same boast. In fifteen years of war he’d been in more than his share of the conflict’s bloody meatgrinders, and thousands had died following his orders. He’d always expected the survivors to hate him, but they loved him instead, which only made it harder.
Sarah had been the senior medical officer for I Corps during the hellish fighting on Carson’s World. Cut off from fleet support and driven into the planet’s deep caverns by enemy shelling, she’d put together a makeshift field hospital and worked wonders in caring for the corps’ shattered soldiers.
Low on supplies and overwhelmed by sheer numbers of casualties, her people managed to pull through over 95% of those who made it to their care alive. Horribly wounded men and women, many tangled in the twisted wreckage of their armor, poured into the field hospital in quantities she couldn’t have imagined. Strung out on stims, operating with robotic efficiency, her team worked non-stop for days. As long as the wounded kept coming in, her people kept working. And on Carson’s World, the wounded kept coming.
Her field hospital management techniques were so innovative and effective, she was asked to head a training program for new mobile medical units. She and Erik took six months’ leave together, after which she reported to Armstrong to take up her new post, a job that came with a promotion to colonel.
When Erik reported back he found there was very little duty available. General Holm had gotten his brigadier’s stars confirmed as promised, despite considerable blowback on the issue. Cain was a great combat leader and one of the heroes of the Corps, but he’d proven to be singularly incapable of playing political games. His political officer had filed a stack of complaints against him, not surprising since Cain had come close to standing the fool in front of a firing squad. But in this strange post-war world, things were different in the Corps, and despite Holm’s steadfast support, Erik Cain was definitely out of favor.
He’d spent the first year after leave bouncing from one administrative posting to another, bored out of his mind. Finally, he managed to secure the assignment to command Armstrong’s garrison. It was a major’s posting, a colonel’s at best – not the job an ambitious young general would normally accept. But there was a shortage of assignments and a surplus of officers, and Erik really didn’t care anyway. He was disgusted with the way things were going, and the last thing he was thinking about was career advancement. Besides, there was one perk to the job that couldn’t be matched. His office was less than a kilometer away from Sarah’s. The six month’s they had spent on leave were the best of his life, and he was tired of the endless separations and stolen moments.
He spent 18 months organizing and reorganizing the battalion and a half charged with defending Armstrong and its massive Marine hospital. It was a backwater posting, and the troops, somewhat accustomed to lethargic supervision, found Cain’s drive and attention to detail to be quite a shock. There was some grumbling at first, but the unit came to accept, and eventually love, its aggressive new commander. By the time Cain left Armstrong, the garrison there was drilled up to the standards of any assault unit in the Corps, and they had the pride to match.
After their postings on Armstrong ended, the two of them took extended leaves and went back to Atlantia, where they’d spent most of their post-war sojourn. The planet was an unspoiled paradise, beautiful rugged coastlines running along pristine seas and endless forests winding between sunswept meadows. Erik had found himself drawn to the ocean, and the crashing waves were one of the few things that relaxed him. He’d been born on the coast, in New York City, but Earth’s oceans had long been polluted, choked with garbage and poisoned with the fallout of war. From childhood all he remembered of the sea was the faint reek and the sludgy residue that clung to the shorelines and the rotting piers. But Atlantia’s ocean called out to him, a natural reminder that life could be something more than the perversion most of Earth’s people endured.
The Marines had saved him, pulling him from the executioner’s grasp and giving him a chance at a life with meaning. He never forgot his debt, and he tried to repay it with his devotion to his troops. Now he was seriously considering retiring from the Corps, something he couldn’t have imagined a few years before. Cain had always felt a duty to his men and women, but they were all gone now, retired themselves or scattered throughout occupied space in other assignments. The Corps was changing, and he didn’t know how to stop it.
By any measure, Erik Cain had done his duty and given his all for the Marine Corps he loved. But he still couldn’t quite bring himself to leave. Sarah would retire as well if he did, he was sure of that, and the two of them could find someplace, maybe even Atlantia, to settle down. To live in peace for the first time in their lives. He realized that was what he wanted more than anything, but it was just somehow…wrong. Something felt unfinished, as though it wasn’t yet his time to leave duty behind.
He pulled his arm in tightly, drawing Sarah in closer to him. “Sorry, my mind has been wandering.” His voice was soft and affectionate, but she could hear the tension in it.
She leaned in and kissed him. “I know, love.” She looked up at him and smiled. “Everything will be ok. You’ll do what you have to; you always have.”
He smiled and scooped her up into his arms. “Right now let’s see about going back to bed.” He walked through the doorway, turning to the side so he could fit though carrying Sarah. He was just about the lay her on the bed when the door buzzer sounded.
“Who is it?” His request was actually to the room’s AI, not to whoever was at the door.
“It is the concierge, sir.” The room AI had a pleasing rustic voice, perfectly matching the overall feel of the Inn. “He has a delivery for you.”
Erik laid Sarah gently on the bed and walked toward the door. “Open.” The door slid aside, revealing a moderately tall man, wearing a perfectly tailored hotel uniform.
“Pardon the interruption, General Cain.” He had a slight accent, which had puzzled Erik the first time they’d visited the planet, until he realized it was common to the native Atlanteans, particularly those from the planet’s northern hemisphere. “It was delivered early this morning, and it is marked urgent.” He held out a small metal canister, with a keypad and readout on one end. “I thought we should get it to you immediately.”
“Thank you.” Erik reached out and took it. The concierge bowed his head slightly, a local affectation, and turned to walk away. Erik walked back into the room, the AI closing the door behind him.
“What is it?” Sarah was looking over from the bed.
There was a small data chip attached to the locked canister. “I don’t know yet.” He walked over to the night table, plugging the chip into his ‘pad. A small note appeared on the screen. “My God, it’s from Will Thompson.”
“Will Thompson. He was in my squad when I first came up. We served together for almost three years. He was my sergant during Achilles, but he took a hit early on. That’s how I ended up running the squad.” He paused, thinking to himself. “I haven’t seen him in years.” Another pause. “We tried to stay in touch after he retired, but you know how tough it is to get messages back and forth on campaign.” Cain felt a twinge of guilt…he was pretty sure he’d been the one to drop the ball on answering Will’s last few letters.
“Does it say what is in the canister?” She was craning her neck to get a better look. She considered getting up and walking over, but the room was still cold, and she decided to stay in bed and pull the covers over her.
“No.” Erik paused, reading the rest of the note. “It just says, ‘remember where we used to play cards?” He looked over at her, a puzzled expression on his face.
Sarah laughed softly. “What is it, a riddle of some kind?”
“I guess.” He sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the canister. “We played cards on the Guadalcanal, in the engineering crew’s wardroom most of the time.”
“Was there something specific about that room?”
He looked at her then back to the canister. Suddenly he remembered. “The cabins on the Guadalcanal were numbered. They had long numbers, six digits. We used to joke about why a ship so small needed so many digits on each hatch.” He looked at the keypad. “What the hell was that number?” He closed his eyes, thinking, trying to remember. He turned the canister over and began punching numbers…3, 7, 0, 4, 8. “What was that last number?” He looked down at the small screen on the canister. Finally, he hit 9.
There was a small clicking sound and the canister projected a holographic image. It was Will Thompson, a little older but otherwise just as Erik remembered. “Hello, Erik. Or should I call you general?” The image flashed a wicked grin. “I always knew you’d figure out what you were doing someday.” His smiled broadened, but just for a moment, his good cheer quickly fading to a concerned grimace. “Seriously, though, I’m sending you this because you are a general, because I trust you.” Sarah slid across the bed next to Erik, putting her arm on his shoulder.
The Thompson image moved uncomfortably, shifting weight from one leg to the other. “Erik, I know how you feel about Alliance Gov, too, and that’s another reason I sent this to you. Things are much worse on the colonies than you probably think…at least the major worlds like Columbia and Arcadia.” He paused to let that sink in. “A lot of it has been gradual and covert…they probably don’t even know we know about all of it. They’ve been monitoring all communications sent via the interstellar net, and they’ve been brining in a lot of armed personnel…some kind of Federal police force.”
Cain stared at the image intently. Sarah could feel his body tense. Erik hated Alliance Gov with a barely controlled passion. He’d been expecting something like this for years, and it was beginning to look as if he’d been right all along.
“People are getting arrested, Erik…disappearing. They’re confiscating weapons, even long-ranged communications devices. I got this canister out through a…ah…friend…who does a little smuggling. Another day or two and I doubt I could have gotten it through. ”He paused, a pained look taking over his face. “It’s going to come to violence soon, Erik. They’re not leaving us any choice.” The image stared straight at Cain. “I don’t know what you can do, but the Corps needs to know what is going on. There’s a lot of misinformation going around. If we have to fight, we’ll fight. But please God, I don’t want to see Marines dropping here to start shooting at us. The Academy is riddled with spies, I’m sure of that. There have been more personnel changes there in the last year than in the other ten I’ve lived here. Something is going on, and it’s not good.”
There was a long pause, the image standing there silent. “Erik, be careful. I don’t know what is going on, but it’s probably worse than either of us knows about.” He smiled, letting his frown fade for a moment. “Take care, my friend.” The image flickered and disappeared.
The room was silent for a minute. Finally Sarah asked, “What are you going to do?”
He turned to face her, his eyes ablaze. “I’m going to Arcadia. Today.”