Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The First Imperium - Chapter 1

Ok, I started off with the prologue...now here's the first chapter.  Remember, this is advanced copy, and it has not been through the final edit yet.  It's just for those who want a little taste before the book is out. 


Chapter 1


Parade Grounds

Camp Basilone

Armstrong - Gamma Pavonis II


“I will send you back to whatever stinking craphole we pulled you from.”  General Erik Cain stood before the ragged group of recruits, a disgusted scowl on his face.  “I shit you not, people.”  Cain wore slate gray fatigues, slightly rumpled as usual, with two small platinum stars on each collar.

“There is no place in the Marine Corps for sorry ass effort like that.  If that’s the best you can manage, just tell me now so I don’t have to waste my fucking time.”  Cain had to fight the urge to smile.  The recruits did look a little ragged, but they weren’t as bad as all that.  If he’d been through the physical training they had all morning, he doubted he’d have looked any better.  But his little performance was part of the training, and the mere sight of an officer of Cain’s rank and reputation was enough to scare the living shit out of the raw inductees.  Just the way he wanted.  He remembered back…a lifetime ago…when a Marine general first scared the hell out of him.  General Strummer had addressed Cain’s recruit class, and he’d assured them all he wouldn’t hesitate to ship them back where the Corps had found them.  For Cain that had been death row.

He looked out over the exhausted recruits, but his mind drifted.  General Strummer was dead now, gone like so many of Erik’s friends and comrades.  A lifetime of war carries a heavy cost, and Cain and his brethren had paid their full measure.  Strummer wasn’t killed in action like the others, though; he’d died under mysterious circumstances in his own headquarters.  The entire episode had never been explained to Cain’s satisfaction, but he was sure Alliance Intelligence had done the deed.  Strummer had been the favorite to become Commandant of the Corps, but after his death Rafael Samuels got the job instead…and became the greatest traitor in the history of the Marines.  Cain and his comrades were still rebuilding, fixing the damage Samuel’s schemes had caused.

“I want you all to listen to me, and listen good.”  Cain couldn’t put his finger on exactly when he’d turned into such a hardass, but he was pretty sure what had done it.  It was the losses, the dead friends.  They had died for something, and he’d be damned if he was going to let anyone into his Corps unless they made the grade in every way.  He owed that to all the ghosts who visited him at night.

“The Corps is offering you a home, a place to belong, and a legion of brothers and sisters at your back.”  Cain hated to admit it to himself, but he was enjoying tormenting the terrified recruits, at least a little.  Most of them were troublesome sorts, and as they stood before him in their imperfect ranks, Cain knew that few of them had many redeeming qualities, at least at the moment.  They were raw material, bits of human detritus in whom the Marine recruiters had seen some small spark of potential.  Realizing that hidden promise, becoming someone worthwhile…that was a long way off for this rookie class.  “But if you want all of that you have to earn it.”  He paused, looking out over the silent newbs.  “And I promise you now, if you don’t give 110% all the time…if you slack off even for a second…you will never be a Marine in my Corps.”

He turned abruptly and walked away without another word, listening with amusement as the major started to harangue the recruits, taking up where he had left off.  Erik walked across the wet field, mud spattering all over his boots and the bottoms of his pants.  Camp Basilone was still under construction, and there were temporary roads and modular structures everywhere.  What a mess, he thought.  One of these days this place was actually going to be finished, paved roads and all.  He knew that intellectually, but it seemed a distant dream as he made his way through the muck and past the construction equipment. 

Cain walked up to a metal door leading into a large, interconnected series of portable buildings.  He placed his palm on the small scanner next to the entryway, and an instant later the door slid open.  “Identity confirmed, General Cain.”  The security AI’s voice wasn’t nasty, exactly, but it wasn’t exactly welcoming either.

“If it isn’t old blood and guts Cain.”  Jax’s deep voice was immediately identifiable.  “When did you turn into such a hardass jackboot?”  Jax had a little trouble finishing his sentence before he started laughing.  He and Cain went way back, and he couldn’t resist a little mild ribbing.

Erik realized they’d been watching him on the monitors…not just Jax, but General Holm and Colonel Teller too.  “I didn’t realize I had an audience.”  Cain was mildly grouchy.  He didn’t really enjoy training assignments – he was a combat Marine through and through.  But right now, job one was rebuilding the Corps.  The old training program had been compromised by General Samuels’ treachery, and they’d had to purge many of the new recruits and retrain others to replace them.  Making matters worse, late in the rebellion the Directorate’s new powered infantry units attacked a number of garrisons.  The Marines won every fight, despite being seriously outnumbered in most of them, but the losses had been heavy, especially in veteran personnel.

Samuels had been the Commandant, but he’d sold out to Alliance Intelligence and conspired to bring down the Corps…and he’d almost succeeded.  It had been a well over a year since Generals Holm and Cain had rallied the loyal remnants of the Corps, but they were still rebuilding, trying to bring the Marines back to their former level of readiness and combat effectiveness.  They weren’t there yet.

“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”  General Holm wasn’t laughing like Jax, but he had a broad smile on his face.  “After all, who’s going to teach the recruits how to wear their rumpled, mud-spattered uniforms as well as you?”  The new Commandant of the Corps, Elias Holm wore a perfectly tailored and spotless set of duty fatigues, with five platinum stars gleaming on each collar.  His smile widened as his eyes panned over Cain’s disheveled appearance.  “I’m afraid we’ll never be able to put you on the recruiting poster, Erik.”  He glanced over at Jax, who was trying – unsuccessfully – to control his laughter.  “But, God…please promise me you won’t try to teach them to salute.”  Cain’s salutes were notoriously sloppy.  It was generally considered by his friends and comrades to be some subconscious resistance to authority that twenty years in the Corps had still not stamped out.

“I’m very happy I could amuse you all.”  Cain smiled, though he managed to look annoyed as well.  “You know, when we said we were going to rebuild the Corps, I don’t think I realized what a shitload of work it would be.  Why am I not on a beach somewhere?  I was on Atlantia enjoying the ocean air when it all hit the fan.”

After the Alliance’s colonies rebelled and won partial independence, the Marine Charter was revised and reaffirmed.  The Corps was now answerable to a joint Alliance-Colonial commission, and all key Marine installations had been moved off of Earth.  Camp Basilone had replaced Camp Puller as the main training facility.  But the massive Puller complex had been built over decades and sprawled across miles of Texas prairie.  Ideally, the switch would have been made gradually over a period of years.  But in the wake of the Samuels affair, there was too much concern over security, and the Corps decided the entire training program had to be moved immediately.  They were struggling to keep things on track, but construction lagged well behind their needs, and Basilone had more the look of a temporary encampment than a permanent facility.

Holm finally let out a small laugh.  “I’m sorry if we’re taxing your precious constitution, but we’re actually starting to make some good progress here.” He glanced over at Cain.  “We’re still not pushing through the numbers of recruits I’d like, but I’ll put the current training regimen up against anything they did at Puller.”

Erik walked over to the coffee dispenser and filled a cup.  He’d never been much of a coffee drinker, but he’d developed a taste for it over the last couple years…at least if it had enough sugar in it.  Cain was a hardcore Marine veteran, but he also had a bit of a sweet tooth.  “I agree, sir.”  He looked over his shoulder at the monitors displaying the recruits, who were still getting an earful from Major Simms.  “But we’re going to be understrength for years.  There’s just no way to catch up quickly.  Not with the length and complexity of our training program.”  They’d been compelled to dismiss most of the classes that had been in process at Camp Puller.  They’d lost a lot of good people along with the bad, but the camp had been heavy infiltrated by Alliance Intelligence, mostly on Samuel’s watch, and it just wasn’t possible to unwind it all.

“It’s worse than you think, Erik.”  Jax walked over to the conference table and slid out one of the chairs.  “I just finished an analysis of optimum personnel levels compared with force availability.  We’re either going to have to leave a lot of places totally ungarrisoned, or we’re going to be weak everywhere.”

The garrisons had lost heavily fighting off the Directorate surprise attacks, and the complete shutoff of new recruits had really created a shortage of manpower.  Holm had tried to address it by luring back recently retired Marines to active service, but the results had been well below expectations.  Response rates were strong; most of those who were able returned to the service.  But it turned out that most veterans who had settled on colony worlds served in the respective rebel armies, and a lot of them had been killed or seriously wounded.  On worlds like Arcadia and Columbia, where the combat was intense, rebel losses in the war had easily topped 50% of those engaged...and the ex-Marines had usually been in the thick of the fighting.

“We’re going to leave a lot of places uncovered.”  Holm walked over to the table and dropped into one of the sleek metal chairs, motioning for the others to do the same.  “I don’t like it, but I think it’s more important to deploy a few combat-ready mobile forces strong enough to accomplish something.  If it came to any kind of serious hostilities, a bunch of tiny garrisons would just get mopped up anyway.”

“I agree, sir.”  One of the wheels on Cain’s chair was jammed, and it made a loud screeching sound as he pulled it back.  He kicked it, and the wheel came unstuck.  “What’s the point of parceling out our strength and creating a bunch of forces that are all too weak to hold out anyway?  At least if we’re concentrated, we can respond to any situations that arise.”  He knew it wasn’t that simple.  It sounded clinical and logical in a planning session, but they were talking about potentially allowing thousands of their people to be occupied, perhaps for years before they could liberate them.  On paper it was strategy and tactics, but in reality it was human suffering and death.  Cain had seen it before, when they’d finally liberated the systems the enemy had taken early in the war.  He’d seen things then he would never forget…no matter how hard he tried.  But still, they had no real choice. 

Holm leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “I’m glad to hear you say that, Erik, because I just reactivated 1st Division, and I want you to command it.”  He paused for a few seconds, enjoying Cain’s shocked expression.  “I convinced Cate Gilson to come out of retirement.  She’ll be here in a few weeks, and I’m going to have her take over the training program.”

“Sir, General Gilson is senior to me.”  Cain had always been a little uncomfortable about the rapidity of his rise through the ranks.  Deep down inside him there was still a bit of that green private, fresh from Camp Puller and scared out of his wits.  The past 20 years in many ways seemed a surreal blur.  “Are you sure she shouldn’t command 1st Division?”

“I’m sure.”  Holm spoke seriously, his voice a model of professionalism.  He was very fond of Cain, whom he thought of almost like a son.  But that had nothing to do with his decision here, and he didn’t want to give the impression that it did.  “You’re the best combat commander I’ve got, Erik, and that’s the bottom line.”

Cain was still uncomfortable, as he usually was when praised, but he nodded his assent.  “Thank you, sir.  I’ll do my best.”  He paused, but when no one else spoke he continued.  “Who else do you have earmarked for 1st Division, sir?”

Holm’s eyes panned across the table.  “Well, I was thinking of Jax as your exec.”  He had to suppress a smile when he saw the expression on the giant Marine’s face.  Jax was another fighter who bristled at pushing papers and wiping recruits’ noses.  Darius Jax would follow whatever orders he was given, but in his heart he wanted to be in the line with the combat Marines.  “If that’s agreeable to both of you.”  Holm really had to force down a smile.  With all the shitstorms these two had been in together, he couldn’t think of a better pairing in the whole Corps.

“I’d be happy to watch out for General Cain here, sir.”  Jax had a big smile on his face.  “At least I won’t have to worry about him shooting a political officer this time.”  Before the rebellions, the Alliance government had assigned special officers as watchdogs for the Marine command personnel.  The policy was widely disliked throughout the Corps but, as far as anyone knew, Erik Cain was the only one who’d actually come close to shooting his political officer.

Cain looked across the table at Holm.  “Thank you, sir.  I’m sure General Jax and I can whip the division into shape.”

“You’ll only be able to field two brigades at first.”  Holm’s voice was starting to show a little of his frustration at the current shortages.  “I just don’t have any more manpower to give you now.”  He paused as his eyes shifted to James Teller, who’d been sitting quietly, as the junior officer in the room often did.  “You’re probably going to have to put two colonels in charge of the brigades.  I was thinking about James here for one.”

James Teller had served under Cain for years, and he’d been an officer in the special action teams Erik set up during the war.  Erik looked at Holm.  “That will be just fine, sir.”  Then, turning to face Teller:  “Welcome to 1st Division, James.  Or should I say back to 1st Division, since we’re all just going home, really.” 

“Thank you, sir.”  Teller was facing Cain, but then his eyes moved to Holm.  “And you too, General Holm.  I appreciate the chance.”  Teller was a decorated Marine veteran with a long list of battle honors, but he’d been a captain until a couple years earlier.  He was a little overwhelmed when Cain and Holm gave him his eagles, but now he was moving into a brigadier’s posting.  A brigade command was one hell of a jump from running a company, which had been his most recent combat posting.  But after everything that had happened with General Samuels and the rebellions, Holm’s primary concern was putting people he absolutely trusted into the important commands.  He hated to think that way about the Corps, but he had no choice.  That was Samuels’ legacy.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead, and it’s going to be quite a while before we can get the Corps back to its old strength and effectiveness.”  Holm spoke decisively but soothingly.  All his people, even the veterans, were a still a little shaken by recent events.  They were seasoned combat Marines, but with the rebellions and the situation with Samuels, they’d had to deal with a level of confusion and ambiguity about loyalties that hadn’t existed before.  “If it helps at all, Admiral Garret is having an even tougher time with the navy.”  Garret had been compelled to hunt down and destroy almost half of his wartime hulls after they’d been appropriated by a new Directorate naval force.  The fleet was down to barely a third of its former strength and struggling hard to meet its responsibilities.

“As I said, it’s going to be a while before we have our old Corps back but, fortunately, it’s likely we will have that time.  The Confederation Agreement is flawed; there is no doubt of that.  But neither Alliance Gov nor the colonies are in a position to resume hostilities, especially with the Martians guaranteeing the peace.”  Holm leaned back in his chair, stretching his aching back the best he could manage while seated.  A lifetime of war wounds left their mark despite the best medical care available, and Elias Holm suffered from his share of chronic pain.

“The Superpowers are still rebuilding from the Third Frontier War.  The Caliphate, in particular, was very badly hurt.  No one is looking for a new fight, at least not for some years.”  Holm grinned as he looked across the table.  “It finally looks like we’ll get a protracted peace.”  His smile broadened as he spoke.  “Yes, for once it looks like we’ll have a good long time before we have to take the field again.”